In both the popular press and the scholarly media we hear a lot about the crisis of Marxism, even of its death. Frequently the collapse of regimes ruled by Communist parties is equated with the collapse of Marxism as a social theory. However, while there is unquestionably a historical linkage between Marxism and capital-c Communism, they are not interchangeable. Marxism is a tradition of social theory, albeit a social theory that has been deeply embedded in efforts to change the world. What is more, it is a tradition of social theory within which it is possible to do social science—that is, identify real causal mechanisms and understand their consequences. Capital-c Communism, on the other hand, is a particular form of social organization, characterized by the eradication or marginalization of private ownership of productive resources and high levels of centralization of political and economic power under the control of relatively authoritarian political apparatuses, the party and the state. Such parties and states used Marxism as a legitimating ideology, but neither the collapse of those regimes, nor their failure to live up to the normative ideals of Marxism are, in and of themselves, proofs of the bankruptcy of Marxism as a tradition of social-scientific practice.

Indeed, there is a great irony in the claim that the demise of Communist regimes based on command economies implies the demise of Marxism. The core ideas of classical Marxism as developed in the late nineteenth century would lead one to predict that attempts at revolutionary ruptures with capitalism in backward, nonindustrialized countries would ultimately fail to accomplish their positive objectives. Orthodox historical materialism insisted that socialism only becomes possible when capitalism has exhausted its capacity for development of the forces of production—when it is a fetter on the future development of society’s productive capacity.footnote1 All Marxists, including Lenin, believed this prior to the Russian Revolution. The anomaly from the point of view of classical Marxism, therefore, is not that the state bureaucratic command economies have failed and are in a process of transition to capitalism, but that they survived for as long as they did. This reflects a basic silence in classical Marxism: it contains no theory of the temporal scale of its predictions. But the important point in the immediate context is that the collapse of Communist states is not a refutation of Marxism; it is at most a refutation of Leninist voluntarism, of the belief that by revolutionary will and organizational commitment it is possible to build socialism on inadequate material foundations.

Though strictly speaking the collapse of Communist regimes does not imply a refutation of Marxism as a social theory, the events of the late 1980s have nevertheless helped to accelerate a growing sense of self-doubt and confusion on the part of many radical intellectuals about the viability and future utility of Marxism. I continue to believe that Marxism remains a vital tradition within which to produce emancipatory social science, but I also feel that in order for Marxism to continue to play this role it must be reconstructed in various ways. In the rest of this paper I want to sketch briefly the basic contours of this reconstruction focusing especially on the problem of class analysis.

Before discussing the project of reconstruction itself, it is first necessary to map out the central contours of what it is that is being reconstructed—that is, what is ‘Marxism’? The answer to this question, of course, can become an exercise in stupid doctrinal scholasticism: what is a true Marxist versus a phony Marxist. The Marxist tradition is littered with the debris of battles over this kind of question. My intention here is not to define a set of beliefs which one must hold in order to be properly counted as a ‘Marxist’, but rather to map out the basic coordinates of the Marxist tradition as a way of giving focus to the task of reconstruction.

To do this I think it is useful to see the Marxist tradition as being built around three conceptual nodes.footnote2 These I will call Marxism as class analysis, footnote3 Marxism as a theory of historical trajectory and Marxism as an emancipatory normative theory. These three nodes are illustrated in Figure 1. Let me briefly define each of these and their interconnections, and then indicate what I see to be the central tasks of reconstruction within them.

The contrast between Marxism as class analysis and Marxism as a theory of history can be clarified by the use of an analogy from medicine. Consider the following two disciplines: endocrinology and oncology. Endocrinology is what might be called an ‘independent-variable discipline’. If you are an endocrinologist you are allowed to study a vast array of problems—sexuality, personality, growth, disease processes, etc.—so long as you explore the relationship between the endocrine system and those explananda. Endocrinology is disciplined on its explanatory variables—those of the hormone system—but promiscuous on its dependent variables. Furthermore, in endocrinology it is not an embarrassment to discover that for some problems under investigation hormones turn out not to be very important. It is an advance in our knowledge of endocrinology to know what hormones do not explain as well as to know what they do. Oncology, in contrast, is a ‘dependent-variable discipline’. As an oncologist you can study any conceivable cause of cancer—toxins, genetics, viruses, even psychological states. Oncology is disciplined on its dependent variable but promiscuous on its independent variables. And in oncology it is not an embarrassment to discover that certain potential causes of cancer turn out to be not very important.

In these terms, Marxism as class analysis is like endocrinology—it is independent-variable Marxism—and Marxism as a theory of history is like oncology—dependent-variable Marxism. As class analysts Marxists can study virtually anything. You can do a class analysis of religion, war, poverty, taste, crime. As in endocrinology, it should not be an embarrassment to discover that class is not very important for certain problems—this, too, is an advance in our knowledge about class. For example, in a recent study on the relationship between class and the sexual division of labour in the home in the United States and Sweden, in spite of valiant efforts on my part to show that class was important, I concluded that the class composition of the household had very little to do with the distribution of housework between husbands and wives in either country. Yuppie husbands and working-class husbands did equally little work. The resulting paper ‘The Noneffects of Class on the Gender Division of Labor in the Home’footnote4 is, I hope, a contribution to class analysis by virtue of helping to clarify the limits of the explanatory reach of class.