Capital as subject and the existence of labor

kupka-egalite-4 kupka-fraternite-4

Werner Bonefeld
Open Marxism
Volume 3, 1995

Editorial note

Been reading furiously through the Theories of Surplus Value and the 1863 manuscripts on the relation of “subject” and “object” in Marx’s later writings. My hunch is that Postone is right in his reversal of Lukács, who had the proletariat as the simultaneous subject-object of History. For Postone, it’s capital that is the simultaneous subject-object of History. The thing is, they’re both right. And I’m not saying this just so as not to pick a side, though I think ultimately it’s Lukács who gets the better of Postone (at the precise moment the latter seems to have the upper hand).

Living labor or variable capital — i.e., the proletariat as the embodiment of wage-labor — is the subjective factor in production. Dead labor or constant capital — i.e., the bourgeoisie, or rather the means of production they own, as the embodiment of capital — is the objective factor in production. Early in Capital, Marx identifies the vitality of labor-power as “the subjective factor of the labor process,” and goes on to state that “the same elements of capital which, from the perspective of the labor process, can be distinguished respectively as the objective and subjective factors, as means of production and labor-power, can be distinguished from the perspective of the valorization process as constant and variable capital.”

 However, under capitalism these roles appear reversed: the products rule over their producers. Consider a couple passages from the 1863 manuscripts. First,

Objectified, past labor… becomes the sovereign of living, present labor. The relation of subject and object is inverted. If already in the presupposition the objective conditions for the realization of the worker’s labor capacity and therefore for actual labor appear to the worker as alien, independent powers, which relate to living labor rather as the conditions of their own preservation and increase — the tool, the material [of labor] and the means of subsistence only giving themselves up to labor in order to absorb more of it — this inversion is still more pronounced in the result. In both directions, therefore, the objective conditions of labor are the result of labor itself, they are its own objectification, and it is its own objectification, labor itself as its result, that confronts labor as an alien power, as an independent power; while labor confronts the latter again and again in the same objectlessness, as mere labor capacity.

[Die vergegenständlichte, vergangene Arbeit wird so zum Herrscher über die lebendige, gegenwärtige Arbeit. Das Verhältnis von Subjekt und Objekt wird verkehrt. Wenn in der Voraussetzung schon dem Arbeiter die gegenständlichen Bedingungen zur Verwirklichung seines Arbeitsvermögens und daher zur wirklichen Arbeit als fremde, selbständige Mächte gegenüber erscheinen, die sich vielmehr zur lebendigen Arbeit als die Bedingungen ihrer eignen Erhaltung und Vermehrung verhalten — Werkzeug, Material, Lebensmittel, die sich nur an die Arbeit hingeben, um in sich selbst mehr Arbeit einzusaugen —, so erscheint dieselbe Verkehrung noch mehr im Resultat. Die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit sind selbst Produkte der Arbeit und, soweit sie von der Seite des Tauschwerts betrachtet werden, nichts als Arbeitszeit in gegenständlicher Form. Nach beiden Seiten hin sind also die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit Resultat der Arbeit selbst, ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, und es ist diese ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, sie selbst als ihr Resultat, die ihr als fremde Macht, als selbständige Macht, gegenübertritt und der gegenüber sie immer wieder in derselben Gegenstandslosigkeit, als bloßes Arbeitsvermögen, gegenübertritt.]


Since the economists identify past labor with capital — past labor being understood in this case not only in the sense of concrete labor embodied in the product, but also in the sense of social labor, materialized labor time — it is understandable that they, the Pindars of capital, emphasize the objective elements of production and overestimate their importance as against the subjective element, living, immediate labor. For them, labor only becomes efficacious when it becomes capital and confronts itself, the passive element confronting its active counterpart. The producer is therefore controlled by the product, the subject by the object, labor which is being embodied by labor embodied in an object, etc. In all these conceptions, past labor appears not merely as an objective factor of living labor, subsumed by it, but vice versa; not as an element of the power of living labor, but as a power over this labor.

[Da die Ökonomen die vergangene Arbeit mit dem Kapital identifizieren — vergangene Arbeit hier sowohl im Sinne der konkreten, in den Produkten realisierten Arbeit, als im Sinne der gesellschaftlichen Arbeit, materialisierter Arbeitszeit — , so versteht sich bei ihnen, als den Pindaren des Kapitals, daß sie die gegenständlichen Elemente der Produktion geltend machen und ihre Bedeutung überschätzen gegenüber dem subjektiven Element, der lebendigen, unmittelbaren Arbeit. Die Arbeit wird ihnen erst adäquat, sobald sie Kapital wird, sich selbst gegenübertritt, das Passivum der Arbeit ihrem Aktivum. Das Produkt ist daher bestimmend über den Produzenten, der Gegenstand über das Subjekt, die realisierte Arbeit über die sich realisierende etc. In allen diesen Auffassungen tritt die vergangene Arbeit nicht auf als bloß gegenständliches Moment der lebendigen und von ihr subsumierten, sondern umgekehrt; nicht als ein Machtelement der lebendigen Arbeit, sondern als Macht über diese Arbeit.]

Capital is the actual, albeit unconscious, form of society’s self-objectifying subjectivity, while the proletariat is rather its potential form. Only by becoming conscious of its position within the totality of production (in other words, by attaining class consciousness in the Lukácsean sense) can the subjectivity of the latter be actualized. Wage labor and capital are, after all, only two sides of the same value-relation, constitutive of yet antithetical to one another. Inverting this inverted relationship — expropriating the expropriators, negating the negation — humanity masters its own social organization and finally sets itself off from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Marx’s famous dictum that “the emancipation of the workers [object] must be the task of the workers themselves [subject]” captures precisely this image of the proletariat as subject and object of social emancipation. Yet this “historic mission” does not mean affirming the class essence of workers. Socialist revolution will not result in universal proletarianization; capitalism has already accomplished this. “Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class.”

Postone is of course understandably wary of the “notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary Subject, in the sense of a social agent that both constitutes history and realizes itself in socialism.” He writes: “Far from entailing the realization of the proletariat, overcoming capitalism involves the material abolition of proletarian labor.” But Lukács wholeheartedly agreed with this assessment:

Subjectively, i.e. for the class consciousness of the proletariat, the dialectical relationship between immediate interests and objective impact on the whole of society is located in the consciousness of the proletariat itself. It does not work itself out as a purely objective process quite apart from all (imputed) consciousness — as was the case with all classes hitherto. Thus the revolutionary victory of the proletariat does not imply, as with former classes, the immediate realization of the socially given existence of the class, but, as the young Marx clearly saw and defined, its self-annihilation.

Qua embodied negativity, as the negative condition of class society and the promise of its dissolution, “affirmation” of the proletariat can only mean abolishing the present state of affairs. This is what Engels meant when he remarked that “communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, capital is nothing other than the alienated agency of unrealized humanity. The proletariat does not presently represent the material human community in nuce, but it alone is capable of realizing it. By taking command over the accumulated instruments of production, it finally makes possible the advent of a truly human history. Lukács confirms this:

The “realm of freedom,” the end of the “prehistory of mankind” means precisely that the power of the objectified, reified relations between men begins to revert to man. The closer this process comes to its goal the more urgent it becomes for the proletariat to understand its own historical mission and the more vigorously and directly proletarian class consciousness will determine each of its actions. For the blind power of the forces at work will only advance “automatically” to their goal of self-annihilation as long as that goal is not within reach. When the moment of transition to the “realm of freedom” arrives this will become apparent just because the blind forces really will hurtle blindly towards the abyss, and only the conscious will of the proletariat will be able to save mankind from the impending catastrophe.

Werner Bonefeld addresses some of these same issues in the essay appended below, albeit in a somewhat different manner than I do here. He’s addressing Bob Jessop, rather than Postone, whose work he engages with elsewhere. Bonefeld makes many similar points, although as a rule he tends to denigrate “class consciousness.” I take this to be symptomatic of his anti-Leninism, but otherwise agree with his position.

To be sure, he’s right that “[i]n Marx’s work there is hardly any reference to ‘class consciousness’… Marx was not interested in the psychology of the working class.” Nevertheless, though the word Klassenbewußtsein does not appear in Marx’s work, its rudiments can be made out in numerous places. E.g., the Manifesto, where it is written that “the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

(As far as I can tell, Kautsky coined the “class consciousness,” indicated by Engels’ 1891 comment: “Instead of ‘class-conscious,’ which in our circles is an easily understood abbreviation, I would say the following to facilitate universal understanding and translation into foreign languages: ‘with workers conscious of their class position,’ or something like it.”)

Personally, I think the issue of proletarian consciousness, what Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution called “the subjective factor in the socialist transformation,” is indispensable. “The stronger [the] contradiction [within production] becomes,” wrote Lenin in 1899, “the more developed become the objective conditions for this transformation, as well as the subjective conditions [объективные условия этого превращения, так и субъективные условия], the workers’ consciousness of this contradiction [сознание противоречия работниками].”

Contra Kautsky, sixteen years later, Lenin thundered: “Not every revolutionary situation…gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the… objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls,’ if it is not toppled over.” Continue reading

Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov (1890 - 1986) checks over the plan for the Demarcation of Poland, while Nazi Foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop stands in the background with Joseph  Stalin (1879 - 1953).   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Сталин и Гитлер: возможно ли сравнение?


Much to my surprise, Sergey Adaschik has translated an essay I wrote about a month ago: “Revisionism revisited: Ernst Nolte and Domenico Losurdo on the age of extremes.” He contacted me a few days ago to let me know it had been posted and to make sure it was okay, which of course it is, though I might quibble somewhat with the title.  Stalin and Hitler can of course be compared. But under no circumstance should they be equated. Nor is it all that useful to lump them together under the heading of “totalitarianism,” which obscures more than clarifies the issue. What I aimed to do, rather, was to look for points of contact between various “revisionisms,” for or against. In any case, it’s very flattering that someone went to the trouble of translating it. Thanks, Sergey!

«Ревизионизм» — термин сравнительно недавно появившийся. Этимологически привязывается к 1903, когда приключился ревизионистский спор в рядах Немецкой социал-демократии. Смысл понятия с тех пор остаётся более-менее устойчивым: он указывает на стремление пересмотреть или представить заново некую важную доктрину или сложившийся консенсус. Однако, за свой недолгий срок ревизионизм сумел приобрести множество исторических референций. С учетом его сложившейся полисемичности следовало бы упорядочить различные концепты, которые он обозначает.

Недавний уход Эрнста Нольте в возрасте 93 лет (18 августа 2016) предоставляет уникальную возможность для такой рефлексии. Неоднозначно воспринимаемый историк стал всемирно известным, как минимум в определенных кругах, в середине 1980х когда происходил «спор историков» [Historikerstreit]. Начиная с выступления в Мюнхене в июне 1980, озаглавленного «Между Исторической легендой и Ревизионизмом?», Нольте стремился поместить нацистский геноцид в контекст мировой гражданской войны [Weltbürgerkrieg], длившейся с Октябрьской революции в 1917 до падения Берлина в мае 1945. Он видел в этом неудачную (но понятную) реакцию на ужасное насилие, запущенное большевиками в России:

Освенцим явился не столько результатом традиционного антисемитизма, и даже не еще одним прецедентом «геноцида». Он был реакцией страха уничтожения, возникшего в ходе Русской Революции. Хотя по факту он оказался более иррациональным, ужасным и отталкивающим, чем те основания к сингулярному действию, которые давал его предшественник, это не меняет того, что так называемое уничтожение евреев Третьим рейхом было реакцией или извращенной копией, а не первичным или самобытным актом.

Шестью годами позже в передовице, вызвавшей дискуссию, Нольте вновь ставит вопрос: «Не потому ли национал-социалисты или Гитлер совершили «азиатское» деяние, что они просто полагали себя потенциальными жертвами «азиатского» акта? Не предшествовал ли Архипелаг ГУЛАГ Освенциму?» Для Нольте «большевистское убийство целого класса было логически и фактически первым [prius] ‹расовым убийством› национал-социализма…». Однако, невзирая на эти предположительно смягчающие обстоятельства, Германия в одиночестве оказалась захвачена «прошлым, которое не проходит». Проворачивая лезвие, он добавляет: «разговор о виновности немцев легкомысленно упускает сходство с речами о ‹виновности евреев›, которые были главным доводом национал-социалистов». Вполне ожидаемо провокативные слова Нольте произвели шум, когда Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung засыпали гневными письмами.

Юрген Хабермас был среди тех, кто дал свой ответ летом 1986го. Это тут же придало вес дебатам. В то время Хабермас находился на пике своей силы, выступая как самый известный в стране интеллектуал. Как неоспоримый наследник Теодора Адорно, он представлял «второе поколение» критической теории Франкфуртской школы. Нольте был последователем Мартина Хайдеггера, «известного» философа наци, против которого неутомимо выступал Адорно, и призрак «научного куратора» маячил на заднем плане. Как угадывалось с самого начала, Хабермас обрушился против апологетического характера работы, «в которой Нольте, студент Хайдеггера, оглашает свою ‹философскую трактовку истории›». Даже заявления, умаляющие значимость предшественников, по умолчанию поддерживали их репутацию, как, например, когда Хабермас заявил, что «дело не в полемике Поппера против Адорно, не в академическом расхождении мнений, и не вопросах свободы от оценочных суждений [Wertfreiheit]. Дело скорее в публичном применении истории». Следуя этой логике, он через несколько страниц повторяет: «После 1945 … мы читаем Хайдеггера, Карла Шмитта и Ханса Фрайера, даже Эрнста Юнгера, совершенно иначе, чем до 1933го».

Вчитываясь в эти дебаты 30 лет спустя ощущаешь сомнение — в этом ли состоит основная проблема? Может ли событие стать частью истории без утраты своей сингулярности? Не «приземляет» ли его сам акт контекстуализации? Возможно ли одновременно «понимать и осуждать», как это выразил участник полемики  Христиан Мейер? Сравнивать два отдельных объекта значит соотносить их, если не подвергать релятивизации. Ханс Моммзен возразил аргументам Нольте и его сторонника Йоахима Феста, обосновывая тем, что они исподтишка стремятся «релятивизировать» нацизм через его сопоставление с большевизмом. С настоянием на сравнимости или «допустимости определенных сравнений» (по выражению Нольте) весь разговор о сингулярности стремительно рассеивается. Франсуа Фюре, историк-ревизионист Французской революции и неизменный поклонник своего немецкого коллеги, говорил, что одним из величайших достоинств Нольте был «решительный уход от запрета на помещение большевизма и нацизма в один мешок». Поль Рикёр заметил в работе Память, История, Забвение за год до своей смерти, что «массовое применение сравнений улаживает судьбу сингулярности или уникальности, поскольку только это позволяет опознать различия… Только с расширением критической полемики в этом направлении Нольте ожидает возможности для этого прошлого «пройти», как и всякому прочему и быть усвоенным». Continue reading


Demonology of the working class

One of the most common charges leveled at Marxists is that, for all their atheistic pretensions, they retain a quasi-religious faith in the revolutionary dispensation of working class dictatorship. “It’s become an almost compulsory figure of speech to refer to Marxism as a Church,” observed the French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1951. Barthes was reviewing a book by the surrealist author Roger Caillois, which had just been released, but if anything the use of this lazy metaphor has grown more frequent over time. Just a few years after Barthes’ review was published, the public intellectual Raymond Aron came out with a polemic cuttingly titled The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955). He’d lifted the title from a bon mot by the philosopher Simone Weil, who despite her youthful Bolshevism in the twenties had gone on to publicly debate Leon Trotsky during the thirties. Repeating this old anticommunist jibe, Aron quipped that “in Marxist eschatology, the proletariat is cast in the role of collective savior… that is, the class elected through suffering for the redemption of humanity.” Evidently, in Aron’s understanding, workers were held up as an object of mythic exaltation among the socialists.

To be sure, some of the language adopted by Marxists — e.g., heresies, dogma, sects, orthodoxy, schisms — is clearly borrowed from theological disputes. Furthermore, the recantations made by ex-communists at times seems to lend credence to this view. You need look no further than the famous 1949 essay collection The God that Failed for proof of this fact. Wolfgang Eckhardt’s newly-translated study of The First Socialist Schism (2016), on the split between Bakunin and Marx in the Workingmen’s International, is only the latest in a very long line of examples. André Gorz opened his Farewell to the Working Class (1980) with a chapter on “The Working Class According to Saint Marx,” riffing on the section of The German Ideology dedicated to a critique of “German socialism according to its prophets.” Gorz thus concluded that “orthodoxy, dogmatism, and religiosity are not accidental features of Marxism, since the philosophy of the proletariat is a religion.” More recently, the former Situationist TJ Clark confessed that his own Farewell to an Idea (1999) will likely be seen “as a vestige of early twentieth-century messianism.” Clark sardonically added that “if I can’t have the proletariat as my chosen people any longer, at least capitalism remains my Satan” (though he got this last part a bit mixed up, as we shall see).

Socialism, however, is not about worshiping but rather abolishing the worker. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, perhaps the two most prominent theorists of proletarian revolution during the nineteenth century, by no means deified the class they felt might lead to the socialization of humanity. In their first written collaboration, from 1845, the young firebrands maintained:

When socialist writers ascribe [a] world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all… because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. In the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, and even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete. The conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, and at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life, and cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation.

Expanding on this passage, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted on the terrestrial foundations of the Marxist hypothesis. “If [Marxism] accords a privilege to the proletariat, it does so because on the basis of the internal logic of its condition… apart from any messianic illusion,” he claimed in Humanism and Terror (1947). “Proletarians, ‘who are not gods,’ are the only ones in a position to realize humanity. Marxists discern a mission in the proletariat — not a providential, but an historical one — and this means that, if we take the proletariat’s role in the present social constellation, it moves toward the recognition of man by man…” Nevertheless, in the meantime workers are hardly godlike; indeed, they’re barely even human, if Marx and Engels are to be believed. As the former would later explain in Capital (1867), “manufacture proper not only subjects the previously independent worker to the discipline and command of capital, but converts the worker into a crippled monstrosity.” His description is reminiscent of the lyrics to that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song “Sixteen Tons,” written about a Kentucky coal miner in 1947: “Some people say a man is made outta’ mud / A poor man’s made outta’ muscle and blood / Muscle and blood and skin and bones / A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong / You load sixteen tons, what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

Over and above the image of the proletariat as divine redeemer, here emerges a picture of the proletariat as beyond redemption. Workers have sold their souls to the company store. Consider the following lines from Marx’s Capital on the topic of automation: “An organized system of machines, to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from an automatic center, is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, instead of the isolated machine, a vast mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power [dämonische Kraft], at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs.” Little wonder that the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga drew upon these words in elaborating his own “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil,” from 1951. Quoting Marx, who in turn was quoting Goethe, Bordiga explained how, “by incorporating living labor into capital’s lifeless objectivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labor in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if possessed by the devil’.” The dispossessed (which is, after all, just another word for “proletariat”) are thus demonically possessed by the alienated products of their labor. For Marx, this was all part of “the magic and necromancy [der Zauber und Spuk] that surrounds the products of labor on the basis of commodity production.”

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the Hungarian communist dissident turned born-again Marxist, is one of the only theorists in recent memory to have grasped the demonic character of the working class. In his brilliant 2006 essay “Telling the Truth About Class,” Tamás framed his view by contrasting it with that of the British cultural historian EP Thompson:

There is an angelic view of the exploited (that of Rousseau, Karl Polányi, E.P. Thompson) and there is a demonic, Marxian view. For Marx, the road to the end of capitalism (and beyond) leads through the completion of capitalism, a system of economic and intellectual growth, imagination, waste, anarchy, destruction, destitution. It is an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word, a “falling away of the veils” which reveals all the social mechanisms in their stark nakedness; capitalism helps us to know because it is unable to sustain illusions, especially naturalistic and religious illusions. It liberated subjects from their traditional rootedness (which was presented to them by the ancien régime as “natural”) to hurl them onto the labor market where their productive-creative essence reveals itself to be disposable, replaceable, dependent on demand — in other words, wholly alien to self-perception or “inner worth.” In capitalism, what human beings are, is contingent or stochastic; there is no way in which they are as such, in themselves. Their identity is limited by the permanent reevaluation of the market and by the transient historicity of everything, determined by — among other contingent factors — random developments in science and technology. What makes the whole thing demonic indeed is that in contradistinction to the external character, the incomprehensibility, of “fate,” “the stars,” participants in the capitalist economy are not born to that condition, they are placed in their respective positions by a series of choices and compulsions that are obviously manmade. To be born noble and ignoble is nobody’s fault, has no moral dimensions; but alienation appears self-inflicted.

Marx is the poet of that Faustian demonism: only capitalism reveals the social, and the final unmasking; the final apocalypse, the final revelation can be reached by wading through the murk of estrangement which, seen historically, is unique in its energy, in its diabolical force. Marx does not “oppose” capitalism ideologically; but Rousseau does. For Marx, it is history; for Rousseau, it is evil.

Here Tamás was somewhat unfair to Thompson — not to mention Rousseau — but his caricatured presentation served to throw their perspectives into sharper relief. Thompson may have been guilty, from time to time, of romanticizing the English working class, but he entertained no illusions as to the hellish conditions out of which it emerged. After all, it was Thompson who wrote of “the denizens of ‘Satan’s strongholds’ [inhabitants of proletarian neighborhoods in industrial cities], of the ‘harlots, publicans, and thieves’ whose souls the evangelists wrestled for in a state of civil war against the ale-houses.” Every religious doctrine of the age, stated Thompson, had to be “held up to a Satanic light and read backwards” so as to properly grasp their context. One popular Methodist refrain, which he noted in his Making of the English Working Class (1963), spoke of factories as follows: “There is a dreadful Hell, / And everlasting pains, / Where sinners must with devils dwell, / In darkness, fire, and chains.” Regarding “that monstrosity, the disposable working population held in reserve” (to quote Capital), Thompson echoed Marx’s military metaphor in describing “…an unsettling element in the formative working-class community, a seemingly inexhaustible flow of reinforcements to man the battlements.”

Continue reading