In a recent BBC online poll for finding the greatest thinker of the Millenium, Karl Marx came first. That Marx beat Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking among other leaders in their fields amounts to a big statement of Marx’s relevance in the new millenium. The relevance of the results is magnified when we consider that neo-liberal capitalism has established itself as the dominant economic ideology today. With many leading economists of our time, including Thomas Friedman, Joseph Heath (and to a lesser extent Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz) not being critical of the capitalist ideology, the poll results give away the public pulse on this important issue. It is reasonable to assume that public sentiment and government economic policies (usually informed by contemporary economists noted above) are pulling in opposite directions. And the tensions created by these opposing tendencies are already giving rise to widespread social unrest, as shown by the emergence of the global solidarity movement and the World Social Forum. (Frankel,1997, p.58) In this context, it makes for an interesting exercise to understand contemporary interpretations, revisions and adaptations of Marxism, which have come to be termed variously as neo-Marxism and post-Marxism.
Some of the leading figures in the neo-Marxist movement are Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Max Weber, Karl Korsch and others. To a lesser extent French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Frankfurt School founders Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno contributed to the broader understanding of traditional Marxist theories. One of the driving forces for neo-Marxist and post-Marxist thought is the perceived inadequacies of conventional Marxist ideology in explaining and providing solutions to common politico-economic problems. For example, in the century and a half that has passed since Marx’s original theoretical formulation, only a few violence-ridden revolutions have taken place – a fact that belies Marx’s prophecies on communist revolutions. The establishment of socialist regimes at the end of such revolutions too have not lasted for long (barring the case of China). Even politically overhauling events such as the two world wars have not spurred the implementation of communist ideology in a meaningful manner. While the erstwhile Soviet Union was nominally a communist state, in reality it was a brutal dictatorship not hesitant to crack the whip on its own masses. In the case of China, which is considered the last bastion for Marxist ideology, inequities between the elite and the masses has widened multi-fold since the country joined the neo-liberal bandwagon. (Frankel,1997, p.63) It is no surprise then, that traditional Marxism continues to be scrutinized and analysed for possible chinks in its ideological composition. This is the rationale for the emergence of neo-Marxist and post-Marxist ideologies of the last century, which is continuing even today. While neo-Marxist ideologies that have emerged in the twentieth century can be said to refine and reconfigure aspects of traditional Marxism, post-Marxism goes a step further and radically redefines its theoretical foundations.
Intellectuals like Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukacs and Karl Korsch are identified as the first wave of neo-marxist theorists, who have made immense contributions to the Marxist discourse. Antonio Gramsci was born in 1891, into a poor Italian family. Having seen his father’s financial struggles first-hand, as well as suffering due to his chronic bad health, it was natural for Gramsci to gravitate toward Marxist ideology. Despite not having a strong formal education, the self-educated Gramsci soon gained a reputation for his insightful scholarship and revolutionary thoughts. At a very young age he became the leader of the Communist Party of Italy. But the prospects for both his own personal security and the survival of his party were threatened by the rise of Fascism under Benito Mussolini. (Mclellan, 2007, p.11)
Inspired by Marxist ideology at a very young age, Gramsci’s lifetime work involved identifying drawbacks in traditional Marxist thought and offering new solutions for old problems. One of his chief contributions was the notion of ‘hegemony’, which can be defined as the ideological co-option of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Gramsci was the first to identify that physical force is no longer the primary instrument of coercion and subordination of the proletariat. To the contrary it is the ideological conversion of the minds of the working class into believing the bourgeoisie propaganda. It should be remembered that under traditional Marxist framework, it was state power, as expressed by the police and bureaucracy which was the primary instrument of working class subordination. Gramsci correctly identified and expressed how this no longer holds true. Indeed, while Marx recognized the role of police in maintaining economic order, it was neo-Marxists such as Gramsci and Weber who explained new manifestations of power. (Mclellan, 2007, p.142) Gramsci notes in his Prison Notebooks that hegemony is a condition “in which the supremacy of a social group is achieved not only by physical force (which Gramsci called “domination” or “command”) but also through consensual submission of the very people who were dominated (a phenomenon that Gramsci variously called “leadership,” “direction,” or “hegemony”).” (Litowitz, 2000. p. 515) He goes on to say that there are two axes of domination: