"Re-engagement with Marx" since the 1960s

Angela Davis (Mitte) betritt die Royce Hall an der UCLA für ihre erste Philosophie-Vorlesung, Oktober 1969
Angela Davis (Mitte) betritt die Royce Hall an der UCLA für ihre erste Philosophie-Vorlesung, Oktober 1969 Foto: GeorgeLouis, Wikipedia

The "re-engagements of Marx" that occurred after the Second World War, mainly (though not only) in the West, are associated with the societal decampment and rupture of the late  1960s – student movements, civil rights struggles, the "New Left." "1968" was followed by the "red decade" of the 1970s, which ended, at least in the history of the German Federal Republic, with the "German Autumn." Since the rupture associated with the signum of 1968, there has not been a comparable sea change within post-Marx theory and debate. Rather, later debates and theoretical developments represent continuations and offshoots of the re-engagements of the 1960s.

"Re-engagement with Marx," initially referred to by the general term "neo-Marxism," occurred mainly in the industrialised countries of the West, but also within the niches of real existing socialism. Indeed, the re-engagement with Marx was ultimately a worldwide phenomenon. On the one hand, it distanced itself from the way Marx was engaged with both in the real socialist states and in the socialist, communist and social democratic parties and organisations of the West; on the other hand, it was also a return to Marx's texts.

The debates conducted within Western and heterodox Marxism had, as it were, paved the way to this return. It was mainly Capital and texts associated with it, such as the Grundrisse and the Theories of Surplus Value, that were now read anew and reinterpreted. But the re-engagement with Marx by no means exhausted itself in returning to an "authentic" Marx; nor did it limit itself to mere re-readings of his work. The re-engagement with Marx was instead characterised by a search for new social, political and cultural forms, and for new forms of knowledge acquisition and education. This, in turn, had practical consequences not least for those circles who were driving the re-engagement with Marx forward: from self-organisation in reading and project groups to the reform of traditional communist, socialist and social democratic forms of representation and the development of new forms of organisation beyond the left's party and movement traditions.

In brief, both thematic renewal within the field of Marxism and the new forms of engaging with Marx occurred in the context of what is generally described as the "New Left" or the "New Social Movements." Engagement with Marx was not so much motivated by purely academic concerns. The driving force behind it was, rather, a need for new social, political and cultural practices and a need to bring Marx up to date, relating Marx-based critique to post-war society, then in the process of consolidating itself, as well as to the development of mass and pop culture and changing gender relations, but also to real existing socialism, natural relations, ecology and so on.

It was with this re-engagement with Marx, at the latest, that there began a period of pluralisation, multiplication and fragmentation. In the course of this development, veritable readings have emerged, i.e. relatively distinct methods of appropriating Marx, and in particular Capital. For instance, there have emerged structuralist, post-structuralist and deconstructivist readings; workerist, post-workerist and biopolitical readings; readings based on the theory of value and the analysis of form, on the philosophy of praxis and on Gramsci – to name only the best known. These readings are strongly informed by the politico-social and intellectual context of their countries of origin, which is often evident in them to this day.

One current within this re-engagement with Marx is now described as "post-Marxism." While it is occasionally associated with the final collapse of real existing socialism in 1989, it already began to emerge during the 1970s and has been strongly influenced by French philosophy. This current is associated with the writings of, among others, Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, Félix Guattari, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Slavoj Žižek.

Since the final collapse of real existing socialism in 1989, the Marx-based critique of society has come to address new issues: the politics of neoliberalism and the economics of finance capitalism, so-called globalisation, new wars, new technologies and media, ecology and climate change, etc. In contrast to the 1960s and 1970s, however, the debate on Marx is no longer embedded in a worldwide situation of decampment and rupture. While the debate was originally conducted at universities, engagement with Marx now occurs only within certain niches, often wholly outside the academy and classical political organisations, sometimes even in the form of isolated individual efforts. A growing internationalisation of the debate on Marx is, however, also evident.

West German Re-Engagement with Marx

The re-emergence of Marx-based critique in the West Germany of the 1960s is associated with many names. These names refer less to protagonists of specific readings of Marx in the narrow sense than to persons who prepared the ground for a new engagement with Marx and a renewal of "critique following Marx."

Form-Analytical and Value-Theoretical Readings of Marx (from the mid-1960s)

This branch of the "re-engagement with Marx" has emerged, in Germany, from a period known as the "reconstruction of the critique of political economy," which began in the mid-1960s. This period of reconstruction is a general characteristic of the "re-engagement with Marx" in the Federal Republic of Germany and, to some extent, in the GDR.

Marx Scholarship in German Democratic Republic (GDR)  (1949–1989)

The ubiquity of claims alleging that "Marx's teachings had been implemented" in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) might lead one to believe that Marxism was no more than the ruling ideology of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED). However, this would be to take too narrow a view.

Operaist and Social Revolutionary Readings of Marx (from the early 1960s)

Operaism (also Workerism) emerged from the theoretical efforts of political intellectuals in Italy during the early 1960s. These intellectuals hailed from Italy's socialist and communist parties, as well as from social science. Important forums of debate included the journals Quaderni Rossi and Classe operaia.

Post-Operaist Readings of Marx (from the 1970s)

As early as the beginning of the 1970s, there emerged from operaist a post-operaist reading of Marx that was strongly influenced by French philosophy, and in particular by poststructuralism and the works of Michel Foucault. Due in particular to Foucault's influence, this reading is sometimes described as a power- or biopolitical reading of Marx.

Structuralist Readings of Marx (from the mid-1960s)

Structuralism has influenced all major fields of the (human) sciences, including the Marx-based critique of society. While it is almost a distinguishing feature of structuralism that its protagonists refuse to be labelled as such, the works and debates associated with an influential circle of people around French philosopher Louis Althusser are referred to as "structural Marxism."

Poststructural and Deconstructivist Readings of Marx (from the 1970s)

Influenced by the philosophies of poststructuralism and deconstructivism, there developed, mainly in France, a deconstructivist reading of Marx. Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx is considered one of the key works.

Postcolonial Studies and Subaltern Studies

Poststructural and deconstructivist philosophy has influenced Postcolonial Studies and Subaltern Studies, both of which refer back to Marx. The origins of a postcolonial critique during the mid-20th century were still closely linked with the critique of colonialism and imperialism.

Cultural Studies and the Debate on Marx (from the 1960s)

Cultural Studies emerged in the English-speaking world during the 1960s. In line with their strongly interdisciplinary approach, they have drawn attention to the significance of relations that are not directly economic or political, and which are often overlooked or dismissed as "superstructural phenomena" in other variants of Marxism.

Political Marxism (from the 1970s)

Political Marxism developed mainly in the English-speaking world and has been influenced by Cultural Studies. It is characterised by a return to empirical and socio-historical research and in particular to the investigation of everyday culture, its actors and practices and class relations. Political Marxism has produced great analyses and studies, especially on the rise and assertion of capitalism – analyses and studies that often contradict common notions and assumptions, including Marxist ones.

Regulation Theory (from the 1970s)

Regulation theory developed during the 1970s, in the milieu of French economists and sociologists associated with economist Michel Aglietta. It has been influenced by Antonio Gramsci's reflections on the theory of hegemony, although it has also taken up cues provided by the structuralism of Louis Althusser and others, and by the methodology and the sociological and historiographical investigations of the Annales School.

World-Systems Theory (from the 1970s)

World-systems theory developed in the 1970s, emerging from the period's debate on Marx and from the historical theories of the Annales School; it was also a product of the critique of methods applied in the social sciences.

Analytical Marxism (late 1970s)

Analytical Marxism, also called "rational-choice Marxism," developed in the English-speaking world. The founding work is Gerald A. Cohen's book Marx's Theory of History, published in 1978.

Open Marxism

This current originated in the 1980s and 1990s. It was strengthened by an analysis of Italian operaism, the new German reading of Marx and Critical Theory, but also Zapatismo. It combines a form-theoretical reading of Marx' critique with emancipational-theoretical reference to social struggles.


As early as the 1980s, highly diverse authors were occasionally described as "post-Marxist" – including Hannah Arendt, Theodor W. Adorno and Jürgen Habermas. Today, the term usually refers to a theoretical current whose engagement with Marx has been strongly informed by poststructuralist and post-operaist readings.