In three succinct, overlapping discussions of the state of the Marxist tradition, Göran Therborn interweaves a remarkable number of theoretical and political indicators.footnote1 His declared aim and prevailing tone are modest: in the first section, to distil from a set of ‘unpretentious notes’ a working panorama of the global social space in which left ideas operate today; in the second, to re-situate Marxism against its twentieth-century backgrounds and legacies; and in the third, to place its prospects within a broad spectrum of ‘recent radical thought’. The result is a generous and useful overview, peppered throughout by suggestive insights.

While the bulk of From Marxism to Post-Marxism? is concerned with the fate of ideas, Therborn begins by attempting to ‘map the social space of Left–Right politics’ from the 1960s to the present. He opens with an assessment of the fortunes of three major forces shaping that space: states, markets and what he terms ‘social patternings’. Counter-intuitively, he argues that the most successful state forms in recent decades have been the European welfare states and Asian export-led models, even as markets have come to the fore, with private capital propelling the reversal of a long-term trend towards the socialization of productive forces. In socio-cultural terms, Therborn identifies a marked ‘decline of deference’, raising the prospect of novel individual and collective forms of rebellion; these pose ‘new questions of priorities, alliances and compromises’ for the left. Therborn then provides a brief inventory of left successes and defeats, ranging from the discrediting of racism and the rise of feminism on one hand to the rendez-vous manqué between the rebels of 1968 and workers’ movements, and the implosion of Communism, on the other. Turning to the geopolitical context, he notes the three principal systemic novelties of the new century: the absence of any state counterpart to the major capitalist powers; intimations of an approaching end to North Atlantic dominance; and the de-territorialized ‘war on terror’ launched by Bush and Blair in 2001. Therborn follows this with brief sketches of the main tendencies at work in each of the world’s zones, and concludes his opening survey by suggesting that the erosion of deference, persistence of critical cultures and the world’s economic tilt towards East Asia may offer room for manoeuvre to a left that remains on the defensive. At the same time, the diminishing importance of class demands ‘novel conceptions of societal transformation’—and thus a ‘trans-socialist’ perspective.

The second and third chapters undertake an ambitious survey and interim assessment of Marxism in the twentieth century and radical social theory more generally since 2000. Therborn’s geographical range is mainly North Atlantic, covering Western Europe and the United States, but with extensions into East Asia, Latin America and Africa, and his procedural aim is to grasp his conceptual objects historically, as elements of the cultural and political complexes in which they form and re-form. More specifically, he aims to relate the varying diffusion and colouration of Marxism, in particular, to four ‘routes towards modernity’, of which the type-sites are Europe, where internal class struggles were the dominant; the Americas, with their history of colonization and mass migration; Sub-Saharan Africa, where modern colonialism reached its extreme; and East Asia, where Japan pioneered the course of ‘reactive modernization’. The main concern of the second chapter is Marxism as critical theory, and its centrepiece is a vivid, sometimes moving reconstruction of Critical Theory so named, of the character and destiny of Frankfurt School Marxism. The guiding thread of the chapter is a refusal of the commonplace opposition between ‘critical’ and ‘scientific’ or ‘orthodox’ tendencies in Marxism, in which, Therborn insists, science and critique were from the start indissolubly bound.

More precisely, he argues, Marxism has been a ‘triangulation’ of a kind, whose three poles are historical social science, critical philosophy and—the dominant in the ensemble—socialist politics. The overwhelming reversals of the late twentieth century have broken that triangle, he says, and it is doubtful whether it can be repaired, at least in any of its familiar forms. Chapter Three distinguishes four major modes of political thought on the left in the past thirty years: post-socialism, non-Marxist social democracy, post-Marxism and neo-Marxism, and traces the main tendencies at work in them. Here, he tabulates seven ‘modes of response’ in left thought to the crisis of Marxism and the emergence of fresh oppositional instincts: the ‘theological turn’ taken by Debray and Eagleton, among others (less fittingly, Badiou is included here); a strong revival of interest in utopia and the future of capitalism as a system (Jameson, Wright, Harvey, Arrighi, Wallerstein); further ‘displacements of class’, not least because the very category is thought by many Southern writers to be subterraneously Eurocentric (Balibar, Laclau and Mouffe); desertion of the state as the primary theoretical unit of political analysis, challenged by notions of globalism from below, cosmopolitanism and radical democracy (Offe, Beck); steadily developing theorizations by feminists and others of psycho-sexual propensities and relations (Butler, Oakley, Moi); the promise of network concepts and modes of organization (Castells, Hardt and Negri); and new styles of political economy trading upon both pre-Marxist and post-Marxist ideas (Altvater, Brenner, Glyn, Arrighi). Across these thematic points of departure, Therborn appears to have his own considered opinions. But he chooses receptively to list rather than to judge them. For what they collectively signal—along with the various slots in the repertoire of positions which he sees as responding to these challenges—is the striking creativity of left thinking, and even a new ‘radical élan’. If such a situation should not trigger a sense of revolutionary expectation in the old mould, it certainly vindicates a ‘defiant humility’.

Therborn tells us early on that his commitment to the radical left has not been surrendered, and in a later presentation of what he sees as the current ‘repertoire’ of theoretical positions, expresses appreciation for the option flagged as most explicitly Marxist—‘Resilient Left’. But despite these solidaristic gestures, the book is in various ways thoroughly post-Marxist. This is signposted at the start in a rather light-hearted toast to Marx the thinker—exponent of emancipatory reason, founder of historical materialism, stimulating guide on the bumpy roads through modernity, he is expected to take his place alongside Plato, Confucius and Machiavelli; forever subject, like those greats, to continual savouring and redeployment. The salutation is honourable, but it is not exactly a Marxist way of establishing the value of a body of work. And Therborn says little about Marx’s defining commitment to revolutionary communism, the politician in him being quickly dismissed as ‘long dead’. In this opening sketch, then, Therborn already assumes his principal overarching contention. The triangle has been broken—‘in all likelihood, irremediably’. The very language of Marxist social transformation—whether in the tradition of the ‘October Revolution’, or further-left alternatives to that, or state-centred projects of ‘building socialism’—stands ‘exhausted’.

Therborn’s generic post-Marxism is not, however, the post-Marxism he names as another variant in the current repertoire. That brand features an assortment of authors, such as Laclau and Bauman, who are far less worried than Therborn about the ‘malaise’ afflicting radical thought in the wake of postmodernism and ‘sociocultural studies’, and indeed who would be highly suspicious of Therborn’s totalizing nostalgia for the days when Picasso and Einstein once identified, after a fashion, with the Marxist world-view. Moreover, in laying out his balance sheet of gains and losses, Therborn seems intent simply on telling it like it is, rather than following the retributive ex-Marxist directive to root the left’s practical ‘failures’ in some primeval essentialism lying at the heart of the Marxist framework. Thus, if specifically left movements have become ‘parties of testimony rather than of hope’, and if Marxist ideas have been ‘engulfed in deluge’, then this is largely explained by the force of militant neo-liberalism over a thirty-year period, representing ‘capital’s new push’. Perhaps, along with other unrepentant leftists, Therborn is just accepting as political facts the subsidence of the labour movement, the wrecking of older anti-colonial forces, the implosion of Soviet-style communism, and the perversion of the discourse of the progressive modern in the hands of the new managerialists. The challenge would therefore be stoically to wait, Marxist tools and commitment intact, for the wells of socialist motivation to fill again. In this sense, Therborn may not finally be a ‘resilient Marxist’, nor even a ‘neo-Marxist’, exemplified by the likes of Žižek, Hardt and Negri. Rather, whilst welcoming the considerable anti-capitalist thrust of the World Social Forum, the political and cultural energy coming from Latin America, and religiously inflected demands for social justice, his sense is that these developments are fundamentally post- rather than proto-Marxist, necessitating an intrinsically pluralistic image of progressive social theory as ‘a big house, with many doorways’.

That said, a Marxist address can still be listed for one of its main portals, on condition that Marxism is reconfigured as critical theory. In a book which touches only lightly on many of the important issues it raises, this proposition is Therborn’s most sustained argument, taking up his second chapter. The title—‘Twentieth-Century Marxism and the Dialectics of Modernity’—is significant, because another of the author’s post-Marxist tendencies is to endorse the widespread habit of bringing Marxist thought and practice under the master category of modernity. For example, he dubs—and in doing so tames—Marxism as ‘Her Modern Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’, thereby overturning a previous requirement for Marxists to correct academic sociology by consistently decoding modernity as capitalism. We might recall here that a stimulating version of the latter equation was provided in Therborn’s 1976 work Science, Class and Society. Yet Therborn here undoubtedly advances debates about modernity and postmodernity by subdividing the master category into four global socio-historical pathways: the European, New World, colonial and reactive modernization imposed from above. This move, while assisting his charting of left trajectories, helps rescue sociological analysis from a rather blatant Eurocentrism, yet also rightly registers a caution against the danger of relativistic moralism within anti-Eurocentric discourses of cultural difference. But by the same token, any earnest Althusserian insistence on a sharp epistemological break between historical materialism and sociology now looks somewhat ‘jejune’, to extend Therborn’s self-reprimanding comment on his youthful dismissal of Habermas. Altogether, ‘sociological Marxism’ and those who push that project forward—Burawoy, Wright—are to be encouraged.