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Anti-Essentialist Marxism and Radical Institutionalism: Introduction to the Symposium

Author(s): George DeMartino

Source: Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 797-800
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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Vol. X II No. 4 December 1999


Anti-Essentialist Marxism and Radical Institutionalism:

Introduction to the Symposium

George DeMantino

The following three papers were prepared initially for a panel titled "Common
Ground? Anti-Essentialist Marxism and Radical Institutionalism," which was held at
the 1998 annual meetings of the Association for Institutionalist Thought in Denver
The title of the panel conveyed its chief purpose, which was to promote a dialogue
among some of those committed to institutionalist and Marxist thought about the n
ture of their respective projects. In the event, the panel achieved its objective-an
it is my hope that the publication of these papers in this journal will continue this
important and provocative conversation. The papers address different but overlap-
ping aspects of the connections between anti-essentialist Marxism and radical insti-
tutionalism. My goal in this brief introduction is to provide a bit of background
about this kind of Marxism, as it is likely to be unknown to many institutionalists.
First, let me emphasize that the dialogue between Marxists and institutionalists
is by no means a new one. For some time, those in the Marxist and institutionalist
camps have talked a fair bit about each other, and not always in flattering terms.
But, occasionally, they have even talked with each other. While the monologues
have tended to identify and emphasize the inter-paradigmatic differences, the dia-
logues have occasionally explored commonalities-theoretical, ethical, and political.
In recent years, for instance, Bill Dugger and Howard Sherman have written to-
gether for this journal [1994] on the affinities among these two traditions and on the
ways in which the two might benefit from cross-pollination. This symposium may
be thought of as the next installment in a continuing dialogue that Dugger and Sher-
man have helped to frame in very productive ways.

The author is Associate Professor of Intematonal Economics, University of Denver.


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798 George DeMartino

These papers are intended to make a specific contribution to that exchange-to

focus the discussion on a particular branch of Marxism that has not been a party to
the conversation. As is widely known but sometimes overlooked by those outside
the Marxian tradition, what we call Marxism comprises a broad family of distinct
theoretical approaches, some of which share precious little with each other. There
are official Marxism, orthodox Marxism, feminist Marxism, Hegelian Marxism,
analytical Marxism, ecological Marxism, and many others. And then there is the
kind of Marxism that is the subject of this exchange, anti-essentialist, or what is
sometimes referred to as postmodern Marxism.
This latter Marxism has a complicated history that I will not explore here [see
Resnick and Wolff 1987]. I will say that it is among the more recent arrivals within
the Marxian tradition. It traces its roots to several important twentieth-century con-
tributors to Marxian theory including (among others) Karl Korsch, Antonio Gram-
sci, Georg Lukacs, Dominique Lecourt, Etienne Balibar, and especially Louis
Althusser; but it is also indebted to the work of non-Marxian post-structuralists such
as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. This kind of Marxism was originally de-
veloped by members of the economics department of the University of Massachu-
setts, including, in particular, Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff and their many
students, but it is now represented in many disciplines and at many universities
around the world. Advocates of anti-essentialist Marxism have published the journal
Rethinking Marxism for the past 10 years. Indeed, the two "Marxist" contributors to
this symposium (Rob Garnett and Steve Cullenberg) are members of the editorial
board of that journal. Like the other contesting approaches within Marxism, anti-es-
sentialist Marxism takes many central Marxian concepts (like class and contradic-
tion) very seriously and views them as invaluable tools for undertaking social
analysis. But it has substantially reworked these concepts and has given them mean-
ings that are rather different from what many associate with the Marxian tradition.
As the following papers reveal, it also breaks with many other Marxian perspectives
by virtue of its novel method, and it is in these differences that this unorthodox
Marxism most closely approaches institutionalist theory.
What, then, are the salient features of this sort of Marxism? First, anti-essential-
ist Marxism has little use for the severe ontological reductionism that has been asso-
ciated with the Marxian tradition. By this I mean that it refuses to view social,
cultural, political, or even economic events as mere epiphenomena of class relations
or capital accumulation. Class is but one of the infinity of processes operating in the
world; it is neither prior to nor more fundamental than these others in shaping social
outcomes. Instead, all social processes (including class) are engaged in a process of
mutual constitution; a process that this kind of Marxism calls "overdetermination."
This is a rather complicated concept, but it is elucidated clearly in the papers that
follow. As a consequence of its ontological anti-reductionism, this kind of Marxism
is deeply anti-economic determinist. This implies that it is skeptical about the infa-

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Anti-Essentialist Marxism and Radical Institutionalism 799

mous "laws of motion" that have played such an important role in Marxian social
and economic analyses. It also implies a firm rejection of a stages or teleological ac-
count of history. Instead, it gravitates toward a path dependence model of historical
change and toward a style of explanatory narrative that emphasizes the particulari-
ties of the conjuncture within which an event occurs.
On the normative plane, anti-essentialists join other Marxists in decrying class
exploitation. They do not like it, to be sure, but they see this kind of injustice as no
more worthy of our political attention than other forms of oppression. Unlike some
Marxian approaches that treat gender-, racial-, or status-based oppression as subor-
dinate to (or consequences of) class oppression, this kind of Marxism refuses to
treat class oppression as more determinative or reprehensible than these others. This
kind of Marxism demands that we explore the linkages among them, absent a priori
judgments about which oppression comes first. As a consequence, this kind of
Marxism is taken by some of its proponents to provide a better basis for political
and theoretical alliances between Marxism and those concerned about forms of op-
pression other than class. It is not surprising, then, that many anti-essentialist Marx-
ists certainly think of themselves as being as much feminist as Marxist.
From the foregoing, we can rightfully infer that anti-essentialist Marxism has a
complicated (perhaps even an uneasy) relationship to the labor theory of value.
Though this approach employs the Marxian notion of surplus value, and though it
also indicts capitalism on the basis of its uncompensated extraction of surplus from
labor, it does not view the labor theory of value as a positive theory of price forma-
tion (exchange) or a normative theory of distribution. Anti-essentialist value theory
refuses to reduce price or exchange to embodied labor time or to derive fair distri-
butions of the social wealth strictly from labor performance. But then, we might in-
quire, just what is left of the labor theory of value-just what purpose does it serve?
Garnett's paper on value theory provides some insight into this matter. But it is
more than fair to say that the labor theory of value occasions a good bit of contro-
versy within the anti-essentialist camp. Some continue to find it invaluable, others
fmd it merely useful, while others find it entirely deficient as an analytical frame-
work for undertaking social analysis.
This kind of Marxism also takes issue with the epistemological claims that rou-
tinely appear elsewhere in the Marxian tradition. Anti-essentialist Marxism refuses
the conceptual architecture that structures and supports traditional epistemologies.
Not least, this kind of Marxism refuses the subject-object binary, arguing instead
that the human thinker is always embedded in and constructed by the world that she
or he attempts to describe in theory. Like many post-positivists, including some
feminists, post-modernists, and pragmatists, these Marxists therefore claim that the-
ory does not simply and passively map the external world in concepts; instead, these
concepts actually contribute to the construction of the extra-theoretical world. Theo-
ries are therefore not approximations to or reflections of the world, and they are not

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800 George DeMartino

to be judged by their degrees of verisimilitude or truthfulness. Rather, theories are

active interventions in the world with immediate and concrete effects, and they are
to be judged by their usefulness, achievements, reasonableness, and other conse-
quences and attributes.
To sum up, and speaking far more loosely than the rigorous papers that follow,
this kind of Marxism is marked by an ontology that is anti-reductionist; a normative
code that is radically egalitarian but pluralist; and an epistemology and methodology
that are consequentialist and, in a word, institutionalist.
I suspect these attributes are very different from what many institutionalists asso-
ciate with the Marxian tradition. In this, they are by no means alone. Many Marx-
ists claim that this kind of Marxism is no Marxism at all, but is instead post- or
even anti-Marxist. But anti-essentialist Marxists are not deterred by this criticism.
Rather than expend their efforts on the task of shoring up the barriers that separate
paradigms, they have turned increasingly outward to examine and learn from other
traditions in the social sciences and humanities. And as the following papers reveal,
they have recently begun to probe the institutionalist tradition for signs of shared
A personal word: I have myself been trained in this Marxian tradition and have
come to institutionalism indirectly through engagement in theoretical and policy de-
bates about global economic integration. I have been struck by the apparent affini-
ties between this kind of Marxism and many institutionalist contributions to these
debates. As a consequence, I began to wonder whether these apparent affinities
could stand up under closer inspection. I first thought about pursuing this matter
systematically myself. But then it occurred to me I just might be able to persuade
some gifted scholars in both camps to present papers on the topic, and that I might
be able to free-ride on their combined labors. The result is the following papers.
Rob Garnett and Steve Cullenberg provide a Marxian perspective on the affinities
between this branch of Marxism and institutionalism, while Bill Waller contributes
an institutionalist view. Speaking for all participants, it is our hope that this will be
but the first in a series of conversations among the partisans of these two important


Dugger, William M., and Howard J. Sherman. "Comparison of Marxism and Institutionalism." Journal
of Economic Issues 28, no. 1 (March 1994): 101-127.
Resnick, Stephen A., and Richard D. Wolff. Kowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political
Economy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

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