Internationalizing Marx: An Interview with Jan Hoff

This interview was conducted by Vincent Chanson and Frédéric Monferrand, philosophers from Nanterre, France, and originally published in the French-language web journal Période.


Vincent Chanson and Frédéric Monferrand: Your book Marx global. Zur Entwicklung des internationalen Marx-Diskurses seit 1965 (Berlin 2009) offers a very exhaustive and ambitious mapping of debates in Marxist political economy since 1965. Could you summarize the main goals of the book? Why must the interpretations of Marx be examined with regard to their geographical, social, and political context?

Jan Hoff: Marx global addresses a specific context that is typical for Germany. There is still a considerable amount of research that primarily focuses on Marx and his critique of political economy as an object of study. At the moment we have three German journals that are devoted not to Marxism in general, like Actuel Marx, for example, but exclusively to “Marx studies” – or, as Maximilien Rubel would have it, to “Marxology.” Many people in Germany still read Capital and participate in debates about methodological questions, value theory, theory of crisis, etc.

In the West Germany, after World War II, this interest in Marx originated with the student movement of the 1960s, when a new awareness of the relevancy of methodological research on Capital emerged. Roman Rosdolsky’s work was crucial in this context. However, the reverse side of the flourishing German debate was a self-centered “provincialism,” which has even increased over the last decades, especially since the 1980s.

Most Germans interested in Marx’s critique of political economy barely take into account the debates that took place in foreign languages. People like Jacques Bidet, Enrique Dussel, Kozo Uno, etc. are usually neither read nor mentioned in the German debate. Even the recent English-language literature on Marx – I am thinking especially of the debates on “systematic dialectics,” value-form theory, and the Hegel-Marx-relation – is rather neglected in Germany.

Writing Marx global was a counterreaction to this lacuna. I wrote the book with the German audience in mind, with the hope that the German debate would profit from closer links to and a deeper knowledge of the discussions outside of our country. “One nation can and should learn from others,” Marx famously wrote in the Preface to Capital, Volume 1. This should also apply to the debates on his own theory.

Therefore the ultimate aim of the book was to contribute to a true “internationalization” of the debates on Marx’s theory of value and money, about his method and the structure of his work, about crucial categories like “capital in general,” and about his specific understanding of his object.

Some chapters of your book deal with Japanese, South-Asian, and South-American readings of Marx. What can be theoretically as well as politically and strategically gained from such a shift away from Western-centered interpretations of the critique of political economy?

Japan is an astonishing example, maybe the most impressive case worldwide. Serious study on Marx’s Capital started to develop after World War I, around the time when the first complete translation of the three volumes was launched (1920-24). Within a few years, the reception of the critique of political economy grew massively. Despite the fact that Marxism was officially suppressed and many influential Marxist intellectuals like Fukumoto (in 1928), Kawakami (in 1933) and others were arrested for political reasons, hundreds of thousands of copies of Capital were sold. In 1945, with the liberation of Japanese Marxism from state repression, there was another wave of dissemination.

Compare that to West Germany: during the post-War period, at a time when only a handful of Marxists were allowed to teach at the very fringes of West German universities, the systematic study of Capital was “mainstream” in Japan and occupied a strong place at the very centre of the Japanese academia. The various “heterodox” schools of thought that developed in the 1950s-70s – Uno-school, Civil-Society-school, Hiromatsu-school – still exist today.

The Latin American debate seems to be “closer” from a West European viewpoint, and it shares significant similarities. In the 1960s-70s various streams of Marxist thought competed for hegemony, with the question of “pro” or “contra” Althusser usually at the centre of the discussion. The most impressive project in Latin American Marx studies was probably Enrique Dussel’s systematic reading (published in three volumes from 1985-90) of the various “drafts” of Marx’s main work (from Grundrisse via the comprehensive manuscript of 1861-63 finally to Capital). The present debate on Marx in Latin America is very lively, with Brazil one of the most important countries. The recent Brazilian reception of Marx profited from the fact that the first Portuguese-language edition of Grundrisse was published in 2011.

It is a necessary insight that the discussion on the critique of political economy cannot be successfully pursued in a Eurocentric way. In my book I tried to show that the non-European countries offer a large number of elaborated contributions to the discussion of Marx’s theory that must not be ignored by participants in the European debates.

Is Perry Anderson’s definition of “Western Marxism” still relevant in this perspective? Or do we need a new type of theoretical topography?

The term “Western Marxism,” popularized by Perry Anderson, seems to be rather problematic. Indeed Anderson’s own definition is quite vague. The major problem I see is that a geographic category is mixed with criteria primarily related to its contents. This makes it very difficult to maintain the term. Let’s take a brief look at some cases where problems would arise if we stuck to this term.

Georg Lukacs and Karl Korsch are usually regarded as being among the “fathers” of Western Marxism, but both German-language theorists were also quite influential (via Kazuo Fukumoto) during the period Marxism was introduced to Japan. However, would it be useful to include a certain current of Japanese Marxism of the 1920s in the term “Western Marxism”?

A similar question could be raised regarding the Latin American discussion, for example concerning the reformulation of Marxism as a “philosophy of praxis” by the Mexican philosopher Adolfo Sanchez Vazquez in the 1960s. Should his approach be included in “Western Marxism” or not?

“Marxist humanism” is usually regarded as an integral part of the “Western Marxist” spectrum of thought (despite the anti-humanism of Althusser, who is also counted among the “Western Marxists” by Anderson), but what about the extensive Chinese discussion on “Marxist humanism” in the 1980s?

And what about those Eastern European approaches to Marx that were quite close to certain aspects of “Western Marxism,” for instance those within the Budapest school, the Praxis group, etc.?

In all these cases it becomes difficult to draw a clear line of demarcation between “Western” and “non-Western” Marxism(s) – at least when we consider important points of the theoretical contents of the various interpretations of Marx, and not just the question of geographical locus.

Would you say that, in retrospect, one could find some common ground among Althusserian, workerist, and Frankfurt School-related readings of the critique of political economy developed in France, Italy and Germany in the 1960s?

If one takes a closer look, I would hesitate to answer this question either with a clear “yes” or a clear “no.” But it is certainly possible to identify similarities, differences, and connections between these three currents.

It would be rather difficult to locate such a “common ground” in reference to Marx’s oeuvre, despite the fact that all three tendencies preferred (to different extents, however) the “mature” Marx over the “young” Marx. Operaismo and the partially Frankfurt school-related Neue Marx-Lektüre both emphasized Marxian texts like Grundrisse that were relatively “new” at that time. However, in France it was not Althusser but either ultra-leftists (Rubel, Camatte, Dangeville) or Trotskyists (the young J.-M. Vincent) who studied the Grundrisse first.

The political backgrounds of each of the three countries were too different to form a “common ground” in the political area: Althusser maintained his attachment to the French Communist Party, which continued to be a “mass party” for a long time; the early Neue Marx-Lektüre, on the other hand, was associated with the “non-authoritarian” wing of the student movement (represented by Krahl and others) and kept its distance towards the tiny and illegal Communist Party of Germany.

In terms of theory, one should keep in mind that Frankfurt school-related thinkers like Alfred Schmidt were quick to criticize Althusser when his thought was introduced to Germany. In comparison to other Western European nations (Great Britain, Spain), Althusser’s thought was less influential in Western Germany during the 1970s. However, both Althusser and the Neue Marx-Lektüre stress the relevance of an epistemological reading of Marx.

The most famous connection between Althusser and operaismo was probably Antonio Negri’s invitation to the Paris seminar that finally resulted in Marx oltre Marx in the late 1970s. Operaismo was also introduced to Western Germany, especially in the 1970s, but this concerned primarily the political discussion, and not so much the specialized debate on Marx.

Your book finishes with a discussion of Marxist crisis theories. What are the main divergences between the various models of crises theory in general, and between the various accounts of the contemporary crisis of the capitalist mode of production in particular? And could one interpret the contemporary revival of interest in “Value-Form Theory” as an attempt to reconstruct a unified, critical yet systematic, crisis theory?

There is, first of all, the classical “canon” of the various approaches to Marx’s theory of crisis that developed from the turn of the 20th century to the 1930s. This implies the different well-known interpretations competing with each other: underconsumptionist interpretations, disproportionality theory, overaccumulation theory, various theories of capitalist breakdown.

Secondly, since the 1960s-70s some new approaches to Marxist crisis theory have appeared: profit squeeze theory, “regulation school”-related approaches to crisis, attempts to combine aspects of Marx and Minsky. Japan follows its own course with an extensive debate on crisis theory from 1929 on (Kuruma, Uno/Itoh, Tomizuka).

However, I am quite skeptical concerning the usefulness of constructing a single, unified crisis theory of “systematic” character. Let us look at Marx himself.

I came to the conclusion that Marx was correct not to treat crisis as a separate topic in its own right, but as the reverse side of the enormous dynamic of capital accumulation, as the reverse side of capital’s drive to realize itself beyond its own limits. The crisis is nothing other than the very point of the cyclical accumulation process where the  “Selbstverwertung” [self-valorization] of value runs into its own limits. Marx’s Capital constitutes a complex architecture, a structured whole with different levels of abstraction. Crises can affect the accumulation process of capital on multiple levels. Accordingly, Marx did not leave behind a single, coherent chapter on crisis theory, but instead had to treat the question of crisis in many different contexts and on each single level of his architecture – starting with the theory of simple circulation through to his theory of credit in volume 3.

However, a value-form analytic reading of Marx is relevant for a Marxist theory of crisis. Marx’s theory of value and value-form is internally linked to his concept of money (this is why some German researchers speak of “monetäre Werttheorie” [monetary theory of value] in Marx), while the categories of money and credit are crucial for Marx’s theory of crisis. On the international level, there are some researchers who focus precisely on the close interconnection between these categories in order to reformulate Marx’s concept of crisis. One could name the South Korean scholar No-Wan Kwack as just one example in this context.

Author of the article

is a historian from Munich, Germany.