Crisis and Change Today: Basic Questions of Marxist Sociology

Reviewed by Steven J.

Peter Knapp and Alan J. Spector, Crisis and Change Today: Basic Questions of Marxist Sociology, 2nd ed. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011)

Sociologists who read the first edition of Crisis and Change (1991) or used it in their courses will be pleased that this book is now available in a new edition. In the first edition Knapp and Spector demonstrated an unusual ability to illuminate Marxist concepts and insights, to critically assess important historical and contemporary debates among Marxists, and to show that Marxism provides penetrating analyses of crises and changes in today’s world. They accomplished all this while maintaining a consistent respect for their readers, as well as a comradely tone in their critical assessments of disputes among varieties of Marxism.

The first edition, comprised of sections on history, economics, politics, and philosophy, was unique in its scope and effectiveness. It engagingly made the case for the enduring value of Marxism as a guide to understanding and changing the world. I used the book for almost two decades in many courses, especially in the two-semester classical and contemporary theory sequence. The book, of course, did not produce miracles—Marxists do not believe in them—but it presented Marxism as reasonable and relevant, and it provided opportunities to discuss a range of vital issues. Over the years, many students said that Crisis and Change was their first and only meaningful exposure to Marxism, and that they would never again look at the world in the same way.

The second edition, Crisis and Change Today, retains the core structure and qualities of the earlier edition. At the same time, apart from updating to address subsequent crises – and more recent studies – the work conveys a more nuanced and circumspect approach, reflecting the dialectical necessity for both urgency and patience: the urgency of sharing core Marxist concepts at a time of global systemic crisis, and the patience that is required—given the collapse of earlier Marxist movements—to explain Marxism to new generations of students and workers and empower them to transform the world.

Crisis and Change Today, like the first edition, consists of four parts: They are (1) Base and Superstructure: Marx’s Theory of History, (2) Surplus Value: Marx’s Economics, (3) Class Struggle: Class, Party, and Political Theory, and (4) Applying Dialectics: Some Issues in the Philosophy of Science. (Revisions to Parts 1 and 4 are minor, reflecting the more settled character of Marxist work on history, philosophy, and scientific method; Parts 2 and 3, however, incorporate substantial updating.) At the end of each part of the book, the authors provide a summary consisting of six propositions. These twenty-four propositions are a comprehensive manifesto of a reaffirmed and updated 21st-century Marxism.

The authors challenge students on page 1 with this clear bold sentence: “The central idea of Marx’s sociology is that it is possible and desirable to eliminate classes and nation states.” Sections 3 and 4 in Part 1 pose two fundamental questions: Have states always existed? Have classes always existed? The discussion encourages students to reexamine their assumptions about states and classes, to think sociologically about qualitative changes in societies, and to think “outside the box” of highly constrained liberal and conservative alternatives. Toward the end of Part 1, they ask: What are the dynamics of the modern world, and what are its fundamental problems? In section 8 they describe modernization theory and Wallerstein’s world system critique and introduce the concept of imperialism. In section 9 they focus on explaining alienation, thereby emphasizing the humanistic character of Marxism and making it easier for readers to see that Marxism is not economic determinism.

The questions in Part 2 take the reader step by step through an analysis of capitalist economics. The authors pose questions about commodities, surplus value, super-exploitation, overproduction, unemployment, racism and sexism, social mobility, and economic depression. The discussion of super-exploitation examines how low wages affect the incomes of better-paid workers, laying the basis for subsequent discussions of how racism and sexism affect all sections of the working class. Later the authors ask, “Who benefits from racism and sexism?” In a thoughtful essay, they contrast Marxist analysis with liberal answers to this question.

Knapp and Spector have added extensive updated material in the latter sections of Part 2, bringing in discussion of the financial crisis and the economic recession that began in 2008. They weave this updated information seamlessly into their general discussion. They conclude Part 2 by addressing the important question, “Why has the United States been ‘number 1’?” At this midpoint in the book, the reader has traveled through the capitalist economic crisis and an introduction to the world of global imperialism and has been challenged to think about how it all affects the working class.

Part 3 is a comprehensive effort to engage with the political challenges of the 21st century. It begins with a penetrating discussion of the question, “What is the basis of a truly free society?” The authors then invite the reader to consider what political resources the capitalist class and the working class possess under capitalism. Midway through this part, they ask, “What is fascism?” They respond, “Fascism is the specific form of open terrorist rule by the state in the period of monopoly capitalism” (229). Their discussion of the nature and symptoms of fascism draws upon updated examples drawn from the US and all parts of the world today. It leads into a section focused on violence and social change.

The rest of Part 3 examines socialism and communism in the 20th century. The questions posed are: What is a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’? What are the main varieties of Marxism? Why did socialism collapse in the USSR and China? What does the collapse of socialist world powers mean for change? The discussion of varieties of Marxism is penetrating and well informed, fair and comradely. The analysis of why socialism collapsed in the USSR and China avoids clichéd factional polemics and offers a non-apologetic, hard-hitting Marxist explanation of socialism’s successes and failures. Today, when the history of communism has been buried under an avalanche of ignorance and propaganda, it is of no small significance to have a concise analysis and critique of that history that provides the basis for a qualified optimism about the future of Marxism and of humanity.

Part 4 is consistently stimulating. The introduction discusses whether dialectics is “a way of looking at the world” or “the way the world works.” The middle sections discuss whether social science is or should be “value-neutral,” and the nature of ideology. The authors present a critique of instances of “pseudo-neutrality” in textbooks. Like Marx, they suggest that most claims of neutrality are false, and that it is possible to be both objective and partisan on the side of the working class. For example, all beliefs about the causes of unemployment are ideological, in the sense of serving the interests of a particular social class. Yet ideological beliefs can be true or false, with false beliefs serving the interests of capitalists, while truthful explanations are ideologically of service to the workers.

Crisis and Change Today is possibly the best attempt by sociologists in recent decades to preserve and transmit the core of classic Marxism, and to make a contribution to humanity’s greatest need: equipping millions of people of younger generations with the knowledge, understanding, and commitment to organize and struggle for the end of global capitalism and the beginning of a worldwide egalitarian cooperative society.

Steven J. Rosenthal Retired professor of sociology Hampton University