Capital as subject and the existence of labor

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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.”

Anyway, enjoy Bonefeld’s essay.


John Holloway emphasizes the negative force of Marxism. This force entails the invocation of “critique” as a destructive power and the understanding of social existence as a mode of existence of human practice. However, within radical thought, there are sharp divisions as to the “status” of human practice. Is human practice a productive power, or is it merely attendant upon structural constraints and laws, or, finally, is it merely a cogwheel within a much broader system? What, indeed, does it mean to speak about human practice at all? What constitutes the relation between “human practice” and the “perverted and disenchanted world” of capitalism?1

According to the contemporary criticism associated with critical realism, “structures and social entities are often reproduced as unintended effects of individual actions.”2 In other words, humans may be producers, but the product of their labors has not necessarily the anticipated result. Are structures constraining or is the “individual” in the dark? According to Lovering, human action is not a self-determining action but, rather, either subordinate to structural relations, or incapable of applying itself with reason. Do structures prestructure human actions, determine the outcome and define the success of individual action? Or are human beings conditioned by forces outside their control? It seems that, for Lovering, structures are extramundane entities: we are born into them and they reproduce themselves, in modified form, through individual actions. The notion that structures reproduce through human activity seems bizarre. And yet, that seems to be Lovering’s critical realist position.

Another recent contribution which seeks to trace out the constraints placed upon human practice by extrahuman forces has been made by Bob Jessop. In distinction to Lovering, Jessop’s approach emphasizes subjective criteria, [183] rather than objective structural criteria which constraint human practice. For Jessop, the all important subject is capital.3 Social reality is seen as a result of the interaction between multiple social interests and causes. This interaction is constrained by the “subjectivity” of capital which imposes upon human practice its own distinctive logical and/or natural requirements.4 Jessop explains the subordination of human practice to the subjectivity of capital in terms of the autonomy of the “value meta-form.” This meta-form is conceived as a thing which provides the framework within which human practice unfolds. We will return to Jessop’s approach briefly at a later stage of the argument. What is important at this stage is that approaches represented by both Lovering and Jessop depend on the notion of capital (or structures) as constituted things. This means that capital is presupposed as an existing entity. The question of what capital “is” is no longer raised. Consequently, capital is identified as an historically active subject. This, however, would imply that the question of how capital is produced has been replaced by the question of how capital produces. Like Lovering, Jessop sees Marxism as a scientific, objective theory. While capital is conceived of as the subject, human practice is determined according to capital’s own definition of social reproduction. And since capital is presupposed as the subject, labor can only express itself within the terms of capital. Human practice lies solely within the subjectivity of capital: all labor appears thus by its nature as wage-labor.

According to Marx, the main theoretical shortcoming of political economy is that it conceptualizes social existence on the basis of constituted forms.5 This means that political economy accepts the historical existence of particular phenomena and seeks to establish causal connections amongst them. Marx’s critique of political economy is that it presupposes what it intends to show, namely, it presupposes “capital.” Political economy does not ask why social labor is represented by the value of its product. Rather, it seeks to define this value by presupposing exchange relations, that is, by presupposing the circuit of social capital. Political economy works with untheorized presuppositions. That is, the forms of capital are taken for granted as historically achieved forms which are no longer at issue in historical development. They control human action rather than existing in and through human practice. In short, these forms are understood to exist outside human practice and endowed with self-constituting capacities. Consequently, capital is defined as “something” which produces capital.

The concepts of political economy are abstractions which relate to the fetishized forms of existence of capitalist society. As Marx puts it,

it is damned difficult for Messrs. the economists to make the theoretical transition from the self-preservation of value in capital to its [184] multiplications; and this is in its fundamental character, not only as an accident or result. See, e.g. Storch, how he brings this fundamental character in with an adverb, “properly.” Admittedly, the economists try to introduce this into the relation of capital as an essential aspect, but if this is not done in the brutal form of defining capital as that which brings profit, where the increase of capital itself is already posited as a special economic form, profit, then it happens only surreptitiously… Driven to the effect that nobody would employ his capital without drawing a gain from it amounts either to the absurdity that the good capitalists will remain capitalist even without employing their capital; or to a very banal form of saying that gainful investment is inherent in the concept of capital. Very well. In that case it would just have to be demonstrated.6

Approaches, bourgeois or not, which are predicated on capital as a constituted form are caught in a vicious circularity of thought: they presuppose what they set out to define. They supply a scientific reinterpretation of the objective conditions of existence. These conditions are always, and necessarily so, those which lie solely within capital itself. This is because capital is presupposed not only as the dominant factor but, also, as the determining and historically active production relation. Human practice, rather than being at the center of the theoretical approach, appears merely as an observable fact in the empirical world. Politically, the abandonment of the human subject leads to an accommodation to “objective conditions,” that is, it leads to affirmative and apologetic accounts of a “perverted” existence. Horkheimer7 makes this point when he condemns theory for which “subject and object are kept strictly apart… If we think of the object of theory in separation from the theory, we fall into quietism or conformism.” The dualist conception of subject and object, of theory and being, belongs to what Horkheimer describes as traditional theory.

This article argues that Marx’s critique of political economy supplies a critique of capital as a mode of existence of labor. We will look at Marx’s notion of “capital” as an autonomous subject and will assess this notion by emphasizing “labor” as a constituting power. It will be argued that labor exists against itself in the form of the perverted world of capitalism.

From capital to labor?

Horkheimer’s remark that “human beings produce, through their own labor, a reality which increasingly enslaves them,” is of key importance for the issues raised in this paper.8 On first sight, the sentence provides a paradox. On the one hand, human beings are the subject of the sentence. They are active and [185] creative. They produce their own reality. They are the essence of the sentence. On the other hand, they are merely the object of reality, an enslaving reality. Human beings are reduced to a faceless “them,” to an appendix of a reality which stands above them, and which merely develops through human action. How do we understand human activity: subject and, as such, essence of reality; or merely the object of reality. In other words, is human practice merely an innocent bystander of a reality which determines social relations; or is human practice a productive power? Horkheimer’s remark has a critical meaning: how can one understand the circumstance that human practice presents itself in seemingly extra-human forms? In other words, why is it that human practice has not only produced, but that it also exists against itself in perverted forms? Horkheimer inquires into the constitution of social existence. In distinction to his totalizing thought, the two “sides” of his “paradox” establish the focus for structuralist and subjectivist versions of Marxism. Structuralist approaches see society as an “organism” which develops according to its own immanent laws. Human practice is seen merely as an aspect of this organism. Social conflict is seen as a means of balancing a society and thus as a structure-reproducing entity. In this view, structures are endowed with subjective properties.9 They decide, determine and “select.” On the other hand, subjectivist approaches depend upon the notion of a creative, non-alienated, and self-determining subject which stands in opposition to the demands emanating from the capitalist system. In other words, the “subject” is seen as an authentic and creative being which stands outside, and is constantly forced to participate in, the capitalist project. The primacy of human practice is raised in neither case because the human practice is either compelled to reproduce “structures” or it exists outside its own social world. In other words, the critical question of why does this content (human existence) take this form (capitalist social relations) is pushed to the side and replaced by a question which already presupposes that “capital” is something: either a producer of itself or a “powerful object” which cajoles the authentic subject into serving the capitalist cause.

Human practice and capital as a constituted form

With regards to an analysis which raises the question of how capital produces itself and regulates its own reproduction, the focus is on political economy’s “constituted forms.” Human practice is regarded as a mere element which supports and reproduces these forms in changing empirical circumstances. Thus, the human being is referred to as a human factor, a factor of production, or as a bearer of certain functions and interests, etc. In short the human being becomes a “somebody” compelled to operate within the framework of [186] established forms which exist beyond the reach of human activity and which define and contain the scope of human practice. Within the dualism of object and subject, the object is the active element whereas the subject is the passive spectator and/or victim of selective structures. This view of human practice is very much expressed by Lovering. As he puts it,

individuals enter into a world which is not of their choosing, and once there they act in ways which partly reproduce, partly transform the structure of that world. But their understanding and ability to control these structural effects are severely limited.10

For Lovering, at best, the social individual is political economy’s private individual born into a world which does not belong to it. Lovering’s suppression of the social subject from society not only reinforces the view of structures as extrahuman entities but, also, contributes to the attack on reason in contemporary radical thought. Lovering seems to accept that structures are founded outside the human realm and are thus transcendental entities. As Agnoli put it in his comment on contemporary radical thought: “because of an affective feeling of discontent, the attack on reason leads to cheerful leaps into the spiritual, the mush of the soul.”11 Where do structures come from, how have they been generated and what constitutes them? Should it indeed be the case that structures are transcendental “entities,” any search for their constitution is an inquiry either into prehistorical times or into invisible, occult spaces. Structures are there and humans are born into them and fate decides the consequences of action in a world of transcendental reason. Structures thus become sacrosanct entities which impinge upon human practice, reproduce through human practice but stand above human existence. The essence of existence is no longer the human being but rather a transcendental world of structures, a world beyond comprehension and a world which impinges upon social relations through invisible principles. The condemned human being is, in fact, a “nobody.” As in the methodological individualism of rational choice Marxism associated with Elster,12 subjects operate and calculate rationally and individually within a framework of unrecognized rules which they seek to transform but which they only manage to reinforce and affirm through strategic conduct designed to maximize their fortunes. For Elster, at least, occultism does not provide the answer to our problem. According to him, the answer lies in the transformative power of greed.

The emphasis on constituted forms affirms a form of thinking in which humanity is seen as a resource rather than a purpose. Human practice is defined by, and derived from, constituted forms: the human subject becomes not only a mere servant of an incomprehensible reality, it also becomes a [187] resource for the reproduction of invisible principles. The treatment of human practice as attendant upon “essential,” however transcendental, structures presupposes a social world which is founded upon rules and laws and regulations which preclude self-determination on the part of the social individual. The standpoint of constituted forms entails an inversion of the relation between object and subject: systemic properties become a subjective power and the human being transforms into the executor of the demands emanating from the “system.” Structures apply themselves through human contact. Humanity thus becomes a resource for structural reproduction. Thus, structuralism’s emphasis on humanity as a bearer, or agent, of commands emanating from structures.

The standpoint of constituted forms entails an understanding of “capital” as an “automatic subject,” a subject which merely develops through class struggle. This characterization of capital is often employed by Marxists to defend the primacy of the capital relation over the class relation. The former is said to include the relation between different forms of capital, such as money, productive and commodity capital, and the self-contradictory nature of this relation, including “its” logic and laws.13 Fundamentally, the capital relation is the relationship between capital and capital. Its movement is “governed” by the law of competition.14 On the other hand, the class relation comprises the relation between capital and labor. This relation is seen as an antagonistic relation which asserts itself in the form of class struggle. The notion of the primacy of the capital relation means, at best, that the self-contradictory constitution of “capital” provokes class conflict and that this conflict ruptures capitalist reproduction and so produces “crisis.” In this view, the contradictory character of the capitalist exploitation of labor is understood in terms of a contradiction internal to “capital,” the development of the contradictions being determined by the class struggle.15

At worst, the notion means that class conflict is merely a factor in the continuing reproduction of capitalism. The proponents of this view, such as Jessop,16 argue that capital stands above class relations, develops through class struggle but is not at issue in that struggle; capital is seen as something which subsists through its own logic. Class struggle is expelled from the analysis in so far as a proper understanding of the concrete, empirical, conditions of class struggle needs to be based on a specification of the capitalist framework within which class struggle obtains and unfolds. This emphasis on the primacy of the capital relation focuses on the objective lines of capitalist development. Structures are the only subject recognized by this approach. Class struggle is treated as a derivative of structural development. The dynamic of capitalist development is located in capital itself. Contradiction is seen as internal to capital, and capitalist development is a result of these contradictions. A [188] scientific inquiry has, consequently, to focus on the issue of how capital produces. Such an approach to social existence is founded on the presupposition that “capital” is an active and self-constituting thing. In other words, the approach presupposes that capital is the automatic subject whose relation to itself establishes the objective framework within which the class relations subsist. The practical consequences are formidable. The association of Marxism with negation and the struggle for a world without antagonism is replaced by a scientific inquiry into the foundation of capital’s self-constitution with a view to understanding capital’s “natural” requirements. The political implications are clear. As in traditional theory,17 theoreticians stand above the class struggle and offer their knowledge about the way in which (the unrecognized conditions of) structural development might be influenced by able and willing politicians so as to achieve a better world for all those “victimized by structural selection.” Thus a scientific Marxism, a Marxism without value-judgments. In other words, the approach just criticized construes Marxism as a constructive, objective theory. Such a positive Marxism denies reason its “historic role of, at any given time, provoking insubordination and destroying horrors.”18

Marxism as an impartial, positive, theory has a long tradition. In this tradition, it is alleged that Marxism has, because of its scientific method, a privileged access to the laws of motion of society. Thus, according to Korsch, Hilferding invoked the “‘insuperable reluctance of the ruling class to accept the results of Marxism’ and therefore to take the ‘trouble’ to study such a ‘complicated system’.”19 In other words, an approach predicated on the primacy of the capital relation over the class relation tends to invoke the notion that Marxism is a much superior science than bourgeois economics. It demands that Marxism’s objective understanding of the secret laws which govern the anarchy of capitalist production be applied to a world in need of rational explanation and organization. In sum, Marxism is seen as a scientific guide for a much improved organization of capitalist society, rather than as a critique of exploitative relations.

Human practice and capital “is” produced

Horkheimer’s notion that “human beings produce, through their own labor, a reality which increasingly enslaves them,” can also be interpreted as an invitation to focus on “labor” as the essence of social existence. Human activity would be seen as a constituting power. Rather than emphasizing how capital produces, the emphasis would fall on how capital “is” produced. The forms of social existence would be seen as a product of human practice, of human [189] labor. Rather than highlighting the formal rules of a “system” — the objective conditions of reality — the emphasis falls on the notion of “subjectivity.”

However, this emphasis begs the following question. Can one differentiate between, on the one side, “subjectivity,” and the way in which it exists, on the other? If, with Horkheimer, human beings produce, through their subjective power, a reality which enslaves them, then this subjective power can not exist outside the forms which it produces: it cannot be an innocent bystander to its own “perversion.” This is Marx’s argument in his early writings. Alienated labor, in his argument, is the “cause,” rather than the “consequence,” of private property and the abolition of private property presupposes the abolition of alienated labor.20 The relationship between subjectivity and objectivity cannot be regarded as an external one. To argue that it is would presuppose what the argument set out to deny, namely that human activity is not the only social power which creates. This is because, in an external relation between subject and object, the notion of “subjectivity” would mean that there is a “power” which stands outside the “subjective realm.” The standpoint of “subjectivity” sans phrase presupposes not only that there is a constituting subject which is external to its perverted world. It presupposes also that the perverted world exists qua its own, as yet unknown and undefined, constitutive power.

Capital and labor do not oppose each other simpliciter. Capital is the product of labor’s alienated existence, an existence in which the producer is enslaved in and through an apparently extrahuman power, the power of capital. Marx’s critique of political economy shows the dependence of capital upon labor. Living labor is the substance of value and exploitation the means of not only producing value but also of extorting surplus value. Capital exists only in and through labor. This does not mean that capital is merely using exploitation as a means of escaping “its de facto subordination to the class of worker-producers.”21 Such a formulation destroys the insight which is entailed in the notion that capital is produced. This is because capital is conceived as a powerful, although limited, subject in its own right. This focus on labor presupposes what it wants to deny, namely the notion of capital as a powerful subject. The Marxian idea that alienated labor is the “cause” of private property is turned on its head: capital produces alienated labor. Approaches predicated on the notion of labor’s autonomy from capital tend to divide social existence into distinct spheres of, on the one hand, a machine-like logic of capital and the transcendental power of social practice, on the other. The subjectivist endorsement of social practice can amount only to a romantic invocation of the revolutionary subject’s immediacy. Merely invoking labor’s revolutionary immediacy tends to externalize structure from subject, so leading to a voluntarist conception which is the other side of determinism’s [190] coin. Capital remains construed in terms of a logic which lies solely within itself and whose inconsistencies, alone, provide points of purchase for revolutionary practice. The capital-labor relation is understood merely in terms of a repressive systemic logic counterposed to subjective forces in a dualist and external way.22

If labor is made the innocent starting point for the analysis of a dreadful content — exploitation — capital can only appear as a thing which has, indeed, its own constitutive power and logic. Labor is seen as a self-determining power at the same time as which capital is a self-constituting power: capital’s capacity to undermine, contain, exploit and dehumanize something which, alone, is supposed to be constituting and generating, makes capital the supreme subject.23 As a consequence, labor is conceived as external to its own mode of existence. The understanding of capitalist reproduction requires thus the understanding of capital’s “bewitching power” (Negri), or “self-constituting power” (Arthur).24 Thus, Horkheimer’s emphasis that object and subject are separate-in-unity, each existing in and through the other without being identical with each other, remains untheorized to the extent that capital and labor are juxtaposed, and confront each other as together, different social powers. Theory is forced to swap between them, leaving the notion of “constituting power” at the mercy of decisionism. This is a far cry from the Marxian contention that “theoretical mysteries… find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”25

Capital as subject and constituted forms

According to Marx, bourgeois theory feels at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations. It theorizes constituted forms and relations which “seem the more self-evident the more their internal relationships are concealed… although they are understandable to the popular mind.” While it seems self-evident, to use Marx’s examples in the quoted passage, that rent is the income from land, interest the income from capital and wage the income from labor, these relations are, however, “three impossible combinations,” 26 although they present the “religion of everyday life.” Thus the need for what Marx calls, “science”: “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.”27 Marx emphasizes that “each, even the most simple element, such as, for example, the commodity, is already an inversion,”28 that is, it is a “perverted form.”29 The human content subsists in and through commodities in a mode of being denied. In other words, human relations take the form of relations between the products, or between things. The notion of capital as “something” which [191] relates to itself, that is, a thing which has the capacity to self-valorization, comprises, for Marx, the fetishism of capitalist production. According to this argument, the fetish character of capitalist production achieves its most completed form when capital is seen as a “relation of the thing to itself.30

The “capital-relation” comprises different forms of capital, such as productive capital, commodity capital, and money capital.31 The circuit of money capital is the most striking one as capital exists in its most universal form of abstract wealth and as capital appears directly as the source of its own increase: M… M’. The relation of capital to itself is most clearly manifest in the formula of capital-interest “with its occult quality of making a value unequal to itself. Interest bearing capital is, for Marx, the “most fetish-like form of capital,” a form in which capital is reduced to a “meaningless condensation.”32 In other words, an acceptance of the capital-relation as the focus of the critique of political economy repeats in thought the fetishization of social relations as if they were “the action of objects.”33 The “subjectivization” of the object and the “objectivization” of human relations as relations between things are mutually dependent expressions of a perverted world in which humanity exists as a resource rather than as a purpose. And yet, this is the condition of human practice in capitalist society. Human relations exist — contradictorily — in the mode of private, abstract, individuals in a social context. The personification of the relations between things appears as an historically given condition of human existence.

In sum, the actions of the object seem to create a framework which stands above class relations and within which class struggle unfolds.34 Were one to take this “appearance” at face value, the class struggle would become an objective mechanism which merely mediates the reproduction of the capital relation. A contemporary elaboration of this view can be found in the debate on the post-Fordist state.35 This debate is founded on the notion that class struggle unfolds within the objective framework established by the capital relation. For example, in Jessop’s approach, class conflict “does not as such create the totality nor does it give rise to [capitalism’s] dynamic trajectory.” This is because the “conceptual identity of classes is given by the capital relation itself rather than being constrained by classes which shape the capital relation.”36 Thus, the capital relation stands above class relations. It is thus only logical that he insists that “capital is the subject” and thus the übergreifendes Subjekt?37 In other words, Jessop conceives of capital as “essence,” leaving the social relations themselves in the “real” world of changing empirical circumstances.38 For him the antagonism of classes arises only in the real world of multiple determinations. As a consequence, the concept of class-relations dissolves into the pluralist notion of interest groups, each of which relates to emergent structural ensembles in its own way. The Marxist notion of class [192] antagonism is thus destroyed in favor of a sociological conception of empirically observable modalities of a multitude of social conflicts. These conflicts are firmly located within the framework established by the capital-subject.

For Jessop, the class character of social subjects is defined through their relation to the value form. The key to deciphering the structural framework of class antagonism is the concept of surplus-value.39 It is the dominance of the value form in a system of generalized commodity production which is seen as determining the conceptual identity of classes, the nature of class relations, the forms of class struggle and the totalizing dynamic of class struggle and competition within the capitalist mode of production. For Jessop, the value form is better understood as a meta-form. The value meta-form is seen as standing above class relations as it describes the structural framework within which different forms of value — such as productive, money and commodity capital — compete with each other. Their competition unfolds within the circuit of capital whose structure is abstractly defined by the value meta-form. Within the circuit of capital we find, according to Jessop, different logics of capital. These logics connote different accumulation strategies of competing capital fractions. The value meta-form does not fully determine the course of accumulation but only the institutional logic, and directional dynamic of capitalism, in itself indeterminate. It needs thus to be overdetermined by an “economic class struggle in which the balance of class forces is molded by many factors beyond the value form itself .40 As indicated by Clarke, Jessop understands the value form not as a process in and through which “social relations appear in the form of relations between things, but as a thing-like structure which determines social relations.”41 The value meta-form defines the coherence of the capitalist mode of production, a coherence which is achieved, in practice, through the contingent forces of social conflict in the real world. The value meta-form is seen merely as constraining, externally, the room for maneuver of different capital logics. The conception of the value form as a value meta-form is tautological. This is because the determination of the value meta-form in the real world of contesting social forces presupposes the practical existence of the value meta-form, and vice versa. In Jessop’s approach, the value meta-form is seen as external to its social determination.

Jessop’s approach expresses in formal terms the experience of everyday life: social labor’s life activity seems to reproduce a capitalist system-rationality which imposes itself upon the original producers behind their backs. Jessop’s approach takes the perversion of everyday life as its starting point. Rather than raising the question why social relations exist in and through forms of commodified fragmentation, this fragmentation is presupposed and social relations are made attendant upon the laws of commodity production. Capitalist [193] reproduction is social reproduction in inverted form: private production in a social context. The social character of private production is not a matter of the conscious decision of society, since the latter exists only in the inverted form of private fragmentation (commodity production). Therefore, the social existence of private production confronts individual producers as an external and independent thing, which, as argued by Marx, is their condition of existing as private individuals in a social context.42 In other words, the social character of labor exists, contradictorily, in and through the categories of political economy. The economic categories, such as, for example, value, productivity and profit, can not be interpreted in a way distinct from their historical existence. Marx’s acceptance of these categories does not entail their recognition as elements which are historically active. Rather, the recognition proceeds through (a destructive)43 critique.

Marx’s critique is not satisfied with an analysis of the operation of exchange relations. Rather, it seeks to understand the social constitution of exchange relations and that is of the social constitution of value. The act of exchange does not explain the generation of the “thing” that is being exchanged, nor does it explain why the individual producers exist in the way they do. Political economy is an attempt to understand exchange relations and, from within exchange relations, the relations of production. Thus, the labor theory of value is perceived as a theory of private and individual labor embodied in the products of labor. “Embodied labor” is conceived as a regulator of “value.” The secret of the social constitution of “value” remained unresolved because “value” was merely conceived as a “thing” rather than a social relation. And yet, the “movement of value” manifests itself as an “automatic” movement, “acting with the force of an elemental natural process.” The movement of value appears as the movement of an “independent thing”44 and so as the movement of an historically active subject which stands above and “structures” social relations. However, “value” is this independent thing only if looked at merely in terms of its formal mode of movement. The social character of labor “does not show itself except in the act of exchange.”45 Human practice subsists in and through the world of commodities as if it were an object of the “impersonal” relationships between the things themselves. There is, however, no “form” without “content.”46 To argue that form exists without content is to say that “form” is external to its own social determination. Like the notion of constituted forms, the notion of “value” as “form” without “content” espouses the religion of bourgeois society: commodity fetishism.

In sum, approaches which focus on constituted forms can only describe what is already presupposed: private individuals operate within the framework of objective social rules whose rationality “structures” their life. Approaches which seek to understand human practice as something which can be derived [194] from “the action of objects”47 reformulate in a reductionist way Smith’s principle of the “invisible hand.” Social reality is governed by something which we know is there but which we can neither see nor comprehend. Our scientific search for the last and most refined source of “truth” was unsuccessful and had to be abandoned. We are governed by something invisible and this something is a principle, that is, it is a determining factor of our existence. However, we do know that this all-important principle operates with an iron fist: those unaware of its operation will feel the principle’s cold and dispassionate “hand.” We “exist” thus according to something which transcends our understanding and is beyond our comprehension. In other words, social existence is a fate rather than a conscious social act, and not only a fate, but also governed by chance. The notion that human practice is governed by an invisible principle says that the human beings have not succeeded in secularizing their worldly affairs and that they are ill-equipped to comprehend the constitution of their social existence and so to organize themselves according to reason. There is no foundation for reason in a world governed by rules which emanate from the womb of an invisible principle.

Approaches, Marxist or not, which proclaim in favor of in visible principles, be it in the form of teleological conceptions of history or by declaring capital as a subject, see human practice as something which can only follow the predetermined and “inevitable lines of tendency and direction established by the real world.”48 In other words, contemporary attempts at providing a positive and constructive Marxist science participate, alongside traditional theory, in the search for the last and most refined criteria of truth: the inevitable and the invisible. From this perspective, we can only contemplate “society” due to our empirical knowledge provided by experience. “Society” remains at the mercy of inevitable lines of development which merely appears to the human mind as a chance development [Fundsache].49 In other words, social existence is presupposed as something without human content; the social individual is replaced by the “value-thing” which governs in and through the application of its own laws [Eigengesetzlichkeit]. Thus, both Jessop’s “value meta-form” and the vulgar understanding of Smith’s “invisible hand” depend upon a conception of society as “something” beyond reason and beyond labor’s transformative power. As was mentioned above, structures are the only subjects recognized by approaches which are predicated on the notion of constituted forms. The rules of human existence are seen to emanate from somewhere outside the human realm, a “somewhere” which has its own laws and ways to kill. Traditional theory’s acceptance of a world governed by hypothetical judgment — judgments on the practical meaning of invisible and inevitable principles — amounts to an infinite regress of metatheories because what needs to be defined is presupposed as something beyond definition.50 The [195] attempt to find “truth” in eternity or invisible spaces has always been the characteristic of traditional theory, that is, of a theory which resists an understanding of our social world as a world made by humans and a world dependent upon human transformative power.51

Marx’s critique: An analysis of exchange relations?

In political economy, the category of labor is seen in isolation from its social existence: Marx’s labor theory of value is not a theory which proclaims that embodied labor is the regulator of the value of the product.52 Rather, for Marx, the value of the product is constituted by socially necessary labor-time. Marx’s critique is not an alternative economic theory of exchange but a theory of the constitution of value. As Reichelt puts it,

one has to put the idea of constitution into the context of value as a permanently moving form of existence. If one fails to do so, value can only be identified as static, or as an historical automatically active subject.53

The constitution, or substance, of value is labor. However, labor is not itself value. Rather “human labor-power in motion, or human labor creates value.”54 The labor process is the “appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society.”55 Thus, labor is not the only source of material wealth. However, it is the only source of value and thus the resource through which capital subsists.

The notion that labor is the substance of value and that this substance exists in and through a relationship between things means that the capital relation can only exist in and through the class relation. The exploitation of labor has to be realized in the sphere of exchange where the social constitution of value exists in the mode of being denied.56 Thus the notion of capital as an “automatic subject”57 — the social individual exists against itself in the mode of an abstract individual whose social existence manifests itself through the movement of value. The understanding of the circuit of the different forms of capital, such as productive, commodity and money capital, shows us the general movement of value from one form to another. In this general movement “all the different kinds of private labor… are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them.”58 Thus, the relationship between the various branches of the social division of labor appears not as a social relation between individuals but as a relation between the things themselves. Social relations appear attendant upon laws which seem to be internal to capital. Capital appears to be in relation with itself, a relation [196] whose common basis is the Valorization of value.”59 However, the understanding of capital as a thing which relates to itself as a value creating value contains the “fetishism of capital.”60 Within the relationship of capital to itself, the constitution of value and thus capital, is lost out of sight. Labor, “in its simple capacity as purposive productive activity,” appears as a factor of capital rather than as “value-creating.” Capital appears thus as a thing which exists independently from its “substance, its essence.”61 And yet, that is precisely the condition, even necessary condition,62 of a capitalist form of social reproduction.63 Capital thus becomes a very mystic being since all of labor’s social productive forces appear to be due to capital, rather than labor as such, and seem to issue from the womb of capital itself.64 The perversion of labor exists; it is a real perversion. However, and importantly, capital is self-valorizing only insofar as it is a “perennial pumping-machine of surplus labor for the capitalist”65 and, consequently, for as long as labor is contained in the social form of a value creating commodity: wage labor.

The Marxian revolution is entailed in the critique of value as a fetishistic concept which seems to possess extrahuman powers. The critique of political economy shows “value” as a social relation, as a mode of existence of labor in capitalism. The critique of fetishism supplies an understanding of “value” in terms of its human content, that is, as a perverted form through which social relations subsist in a contradictory way.66 The critique of economic categories shows that economic relations are, in fact, perversions of social relations. These relations do not simply cease to exist. Rather, they exist, contradictorily, in the perverted form of economic categories. In other words, in capitalism, the social character of labor has to be realized in and through the categories of political economy. These categories are adequate in so far as they are formal expressions of perverted social relations. In other words, they are the categories of a perverted and enchanted world. Thus, one cannot see the capital relation as primary and the class relation as secondary. This is because the category of labor is present in the category of capital. The idea of “capital” as something which is “self-constituting” only reinforces the fetishism of a capitalist world which sees labor only as a wage-earning commodity. “Capital presupposes labor as wage-labor.’67 In capitalism, human practice exists, against itself, in the form of an alienated subject. This means that the practical-critical activity of labor exists against itself as itself in the form of the fetishized world of capitalism. The constitutive power of social labor exists — as itself — contradictorily. It exists in a mode of being denied. Thus,

subject and object do not statically oppose each other, but rather are caught up in an “ongoing process” of the “inversion of subjectivity into objectivity, and vice versa.”68


Capital as subject

What meaning can be given to Marx’s characterization of capital as an “automatic subject”? The conception of capital as an “automatic subject” emphasizes the achievements and shortcomings of political economy. Political economy conceptualized constituted forms and thus does not raise the question of why “labor” exists in the mode of wage labor and why “labor” is, apparently, represented by the “subjectivity of capital.” Marx’s critique of fetishism says that, in capitalism, human relations exist in and through relations between things. His use of the notion of capital as an automatic subject signals his acceptance of the subject championed by political economy. However, this acceptance goes hand-in-hand with its destructive critique that shows the vicious circularity of thought which the notion of capital as an automatic subject entails. Thus he challenges the notion of capital as a self-valorizing subject, he undermines the idea of society as something which exists outside the social individual, and he accepts that capitalist society is a perverted form of existence. For Marx the social individual in capitalism has no existence outside perverted forms. These forms are those in and through which human relations subsist in capitalist society. However, this view already throws a spanner into the works of political economy because the economic categories, including the notion of capital as an automatic subject, are not only recognized by Marx as social categories but also criticized as perverted forms of social practice. In other words, Marx’s treatment of capital as a subject accepts the “everyday religion” of this society and recognizes that the mysteries of this religion lie in the social relations of production.

Marx’s critique of political economy is not a subjective or objective theory of exchange relations. It is an attempt to understand the social constitution of “ value; in all its elementary and meaningless manifestations. As Backhaus indicates, Marx’s use of the above characterization of capital makes “explicit what he [Marx] already found in the works of the great economics.”69 Further, the concept shows the shortcomings of political economy’s mistaken identification of capital with itself: the attempt to explain how one capital can have more value than it had when it started to exchange itself with itself. Capital is an autonomous subject because it appears “as a relation to itself, a relation in which, as the original sum of value, is distinguished from a new value which it generated.”70 Marx called the relationship between the things themselves the “form of value.” This form belongs to a society “in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him.”71 However, the form of value is only the determinate form of a determining content: “labor is value creating.”72 Although labor transmits old value and [198] creates new value, “this natural power of labor takes the appearance of an intrinsic property of capital,”73 Thus, “capital is not a thing, but rather a definite social production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of society, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social character”74 Capital cannot autonomize itself from labor and, yet, capital exists as an automatic subject with seemingly self-valorizing potentials. The crisis-ridden autonomization of capital from its substance is a mode of existence of capital. The potential for autonomization presents itself in the circuit of money capital: M… M’. In this circuit “capital” manifests itself in its most elementary form: labor as the substance of value manifests itself only in money. It is in and through money that the particular individual concrete labor asserts itself as social, abstract, labor. “That is to say it is the medium in which concrete labor becomes abstract labor. In a word it is money that is the form of existence of abstract labor.’75 At the same time as it manifests the incarnation of abstract labor, money is the most meaningless form of capital because it manifests itself as a mere thing and so negated its own content.76 Thus Marx called interest-bearing capital, capital par excellence and as such an “obscure thing” [Dunkelding].77 Hence the fetishism of capital “as a value-creating value” 78 All productive forces of “social labor take the appearance of inherent properties of capital, and as the constant appropriation of surplus labor by the capitalists, [the natural power of labor] takes that of a constant self-expansion of capital.”79 As was reported above, every category of political economy is treated by Marx as an inversion of human existence, and as such a perversion. Capital forms the dominant category because it is the determining production relation of a perverted society.80 Labor’s purposive productive power means nothing for as long as it does not express itself as value: “it is value… that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.” At the same time, this hieroglyphic is the social form of labor in capitalism: “the specific social character of private labor carried on independently… assumes in the product the form of value.”81 The social character of labor does not rest with the conscious decision of the community but rather with the social action of a relation between things. Hence Marx’s emphasis on the importance of the value-form. This form is

not only the most abstract, but also the most universal form, taken by the product in bourgeois production and stamps that production as a particular species of social production, and thereby gives it its special historical character.82

In the form of value, labor exists in the mode of being denied.

For Marx, social antagonism can by itself have no existence. Antagonistic relations exist in and through forms, the mode of motion of class antagonism. Form is seen here as the modus vivendi of antagonistic relations and, as such, form is “generally the way in which contradictions are reconciled.”83 The term “mediation’84 is of vital importance here since it connotes the mode of existence of a dynamic relation of antagonism which allows antagonistic relations to “exist side by side.” The existence of social antagonism in forms “does not sweep away’85 the character of antagonistic relations; rather, these forms are the mode of existence of the class antagonism between capital and labor. Labor is present in the concept of capital. They are mutually dependent and inseparable elements of the social process of production in bourgeois society. At the same time, however, they are mutually exclusive, antagonistic extremes — poles of the same expression. They are poles of the same expression because capitalist reproduction is a form of social reproduction which human beings have given themselves. The constitutive power of labor exists qua contradiction in the value-form. This view permits an understanding of capital as a form of social command in which labor assumes an existence as an alien being. This existence does not “derive” from capital but from labor’s alienation from itself. The critique of fetishism comprises an understanding of the social practice of labor as existing in a form in which the presupposition of social existence (labor’s exchange with nature) is seemingly eliminated.

As reported above, Marx’s theory of value is, foremost, a theory of “social constitution.” This is because it looks at the “genesis” of the perversion of labor’s purposeful activity. In other words, Marx’s theory is concerned with the “human origin” of the perverted forms. Thus, the critique of political economy is based on the notion “that human beings confront their own generic forces, that is their ‘collective forces’ or ‘social forces’ as an autonomous, alien being.”86 The critique of fetishism shows that it is the “peculiar social character of labor that produces” the commodity fetishism.87 The notion of the “genesis” of social forms emphasizes labor as a constitutive social practice. The notion of “constitution” says that the relationship between the things themselves is a historical presupposition because the foundation of this relationship is the historical struggle which led to the separation of the mass of the population from the means of production and subsistence during the process of primitive accumulation. This separation had to be accomplished historically before labor’s productive power could exist in the form of a laboring commodity.

Capitalist exploitation rests on the social conflict which produced the alienation of labor in “fantastic forms.”88 The historical result of class struggle is constitutive of capitalism. However, the historical presupposition [200] of labor’s alienation is also the premise upon which the exploitation of labor rests. Capital’s exploitation of labor is a result of class struggle, a class struggle which is not only the presupposition of capital’s existence as the dominant production relation, but also the premise of its continued existence. “The exchange of labor for labor — seemingly the condition of the worker’s property — rests on the foundation of the worker’s propertylessness.”89 In other words, capitalist social relations presuppose primitive accumulation, which has to be reproduced continuously in order for these relations to exist. The social practice which led to the separation of labor from the means of production cannot be seen as an historical act which was once accomplished and which is simply presupposed in terms of capital as a constituted form. Rather this separation, and thus the social conflict which generated it, lies at the heart of the capitalist exploitation of labor.90 The constitutive power of social practice is thus the presupposition of capital’s existence as well as its continuous premise. The subordination of social reproduction to capitalist reproduction means the continuous alienation of labor from the means of production and thus the constitution of social practice in the form of the perverted form of capital. From the standpoint of accomplished capitalism, the latter serves not as historical result but as conceptual and historical presupposition. This presupposition attains generality in inverted form: it would be wrong to let the conceptualization of “forms” follow one another,

in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. This sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in the mode of bourgeois society, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to historical development.91

Thus, Marx’s “abstractions” seek an understanding of the constitution and movement of a perverted world. As indicated by Backhaus, Marx’s “abstractions” are existing abstractions.92 The notion of social existence, or social objectivity, can be comprehended, as argued by Backhaus, only when objectivity is seen as an existing abstraction — an abstraction which exists in practice [daseiende Abstraktion]. The notion of a “really existing” abstraction points towards an understanding of a social world which develops from the actual social processes to the social forms in which they exist. Thus the existence of labor within the concept of capital is a historical result of primitive accumulation and inverts into the historical and conceptual presupposition of the social reality of capitalism’s perverted world. Capital cannot produce itself. It depends upon the integration of labor’s productive power into the capital relation as a value creating commodity. The constitutive existence of the social labor of the social individual exists in the form [201] of a perverted social practice. Were one to conceptualize constituted forms, labor’s constitutive practice would remain at the mercy of “capital” as the subject. In other words, labor’s existence would merely be conceptualized as a commodity. The understanding of labor as a constituting social practice makes it clear that it is impossible for capital to be the automatic subject championed by political economy. Capital has no logic independent of labor’s social practice. As indicated by Schmidt, Marx’s work is foremost characterized by the primacy of “practice.” The reality in which the social individual moves day in and day out has no invariant character, that is, something which exists independently from it. Thus the critique of political economy amounts to a conceptualized praxis [begriffene Praxis],93 that is, a theoretical understanding oft he totality of human action which constitutes, suffuses and contradicts the perverted world of capitalism.

Social relations are practical relations. This notion implies a quite different starting point from that taken by those who advocate the notion of “capital” as a self-relation. The starting point is the social constitution of the historical movement of labor.94 The historical development of labor holds the key to the history of society. While in every society human beings play the role of producers, the simplest category labor, transforms in capitalist society into a mystifying character because the material elements of wealth transform from products of labor into properties of commodities and still more pronouncedly they transform the production relation itself into a thing.95 The productive power of social labor exists not only in and through the “perverted” form of value, it is also the producer of this form. Private property is the mode of existence of alienated labor. The “objective,” or factual, existence of “capital” can thus not be taken as a conceptual starting point, as in those approaches mentioned above. This is because that which asserts itself to the economic mind as objectivity,” or “objective logic” or “objective being” is, in Marx, understood as alienated subjectivity (as specified by Backhaus).96 Any conceptualization of “capital” which focuses on its seeming formal logic disregards the distinctiveness of Marx’s theory and tends to espouse, instead, the reified world of capitalism as the object and purpose of theory. Were one to focus, as Jessop does, merely on the notion of capital as an automatic subject, the contradictory character of capital would not be theorized. Instead theory would merely dwell on the formal contradiction presented by an allegedly extra-human power. The danger of treating capital merely in terms of its formal existence — as an automatic subject — is that “value” becomes an historically active subject without social substance. The contradictory constitution of “capital” would not be conceived of in terms of the social antagonism between capital and labor but rather in terms of capital itself. Consequently, the contradictory constitution of capitalism would merely be seen as a formal contradiction constituted at the level of invisible forces.

The notion that capital is an automatic subject implies that a crisis of capital must be a constituent element of this same subject itself. Such a conception implies, as indeed it is argued in capital-logic approaches, that capital is in crisis with itself and that working-class struggle is merely a response, or reaction, to the way in which capital seeks to resolve its own crisis. Class struggle is merely seen as something which breaks into, and develops, the capital relation from the outside. As this paper has emphasized, capitalist society does not just develop through a class struggle. Rather, class struggle is a constitutive moment of the capital relation because of the existence of labor within the concept capital. The following critique of Clarke’s approach attempts to clarify this point.

Class struggle and capital as a power

According to Clarke, Marx offers, in Capital “an analysis of the self-reproduction of the capital relation, within which the social relations of capitalist reproduction are regulated, albeit in a contradictory and crisis-ridden fashion, by the operation of the market.”97 The capital relation seems to be seen as establishing the framework within which social relations are able to operate. As Clarke puts it, the “starting point for the analysis of class struggle has to be Marx’s analysis of the contradictions inherent in the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production, on the basis of which the class struggle develops.”98 Clarke does not raise the issue of the “constitution” of social existence and the constitution of categories. His focus falls on the relationship between the productive forces and the relations of production. He sees the fundamental contradiction of capital as one constituted by the constant tendency to develop the productive forces without regard to the limit of the market and the need to confine accumulation within the limits of its capitalist form. This contradiction underlies the “tendency to the global overaccumulation of capital, as the development of social production confronts the limits of its capitalist form as production for profit.”99 Clarke seems to propose that capital is in contradiction merely with itself, and that the class struggle is not only a consequence of this but, also, the means through which the contradiction develops. For him “the driving force of capitalist accumulation is the uneven development of the forces of production.”100 Capitalists respond to competitive pressure by a class struggle from above as they seek, amongst other things, to reduce “costs by lengthening the working day, forcing down wages, intensifying labor and, above all, by transforming methods of production.”101 Thus [203] the development of capitalism is determined by an endemic class struggle in so far as “pressure of competition leads to an intensification of the class struggle.”102 Clarke seems to treat the relation between capital and labor as a causal relation: capital constitutes the contradiction which develops through class struggle. The class relation is thus not constituted by labor’s existence in and against capital. Rather, the class relation “breaks into” the capital relation during periods of “capitalist” overaccumulation and crisis. Clarke appears to rearrange the internal relation between capital and its substance on the basis of a causal relation between capital, as the constitution of a contradictory world, and the class struggle, as the development of the contradiction. In sum, Clarke tends to differentiate between the movement of class antagonism and its constitution. While the movement is seen as one of class, the constitution of the class antagonism is one of capital. As a consequence, the contradictory character of capitalist reproduction tends to be understood in terms of a contradiction internal to “capital” supplemented by class struggle over the imposition of the limits of accumulation upon the working class.

Were Clarke right to suggest that the contradictions of capital are constituted by capital itself, the category of labor would be subordinated to these contradictions and confront them merely from the outside. This, it seems, is Clarke’s position: capital and the state are seen as a constant “object” of class struggle. Objectivity, in Clarke, does not take the form of subjectivity and vice versa because object and subject are not internally related but, rather, externally connected. Clarke dismisses “dialectics” by asserting that Marx “is talking about causal relationships, not the mish-mash of ‘mutual interpenetration’.”103 As a consequence, for Clarke, Marx’s method of abstraction is merely formal. Clarke characterizes Marx’s “abstractions” as “determinate abstractions” which “correspond not to ‘essential qualities’ embodied in things, but to determinate social processes.”104 In other words, Marx’s method of abstraction does not, according to Clarke, conceptualize the essential social relations and the forms through which they exist but, rather,

concrete generalizations, which describe the common feature of a multiplicity of particular relations, and are applicable to the extent that they are manifested in those particular relations.105

Clarke’s interpretation of Marx’s method of abstraction is rather surprising since Marx uses the same argument and almost the same formulation to identify and to criticize political economy’s method of abstraction. In other words, Clarke not only criticizes the method of abstraction of political economy but also, and at the same time, endorses it as Marx’s alternative to [204] political economy’s method of abstraction.106 Consequently, Clarke sees Marx’s critique of political economy as providing the

analytical foundation on which to develop comparative and historical analysis of the more concrete (and complex) particular forms in which capitalist social relations are expressed and develop.107

The analytical foundation is conceived of as the study of the general characteristics of the capital relation whereas the “historical concrete seems to be seen in terms of a field of application” open to the unpredictability of the class struggle. Thus, the formal character of Clarke’s “abstractions”: for him the abstract is not concrete and conversely, the concrete is not abstract, because the “abstract” is merely the summary of the most general characteristics of the capitalist mode of production. In other words, Clarke’s conception of “abstraction” ignores that, in Marx, the most simple category, labor, is also the most abstract category.108 darkens conception of “abstraction” lacks content because he construes capital as something which exists externally to the social substance which constitutes it.

Unlike the theoretical suppression of class struggle in the approach put forward by Jessop, Clarke’s emphasis on class struggle takes as its starting point the Marxian notion that all social relations arc essentially practical. In that emphasis lies an important difference from structure-centered approaches. Although Clarke does see class struggle as being primary, the difficulty in his approach is that he does not develop this notion to its radical conclusion. Marx’s critique of political economy is not understood as, a critique of a perverted social practice but, rather, as an analysis of the contradictory relationship of capital to itself. Clarke introduces the class struggle as an all-important factor for the development of capitalism. Although he stresses that the capital is always the object of the constant force of class, he does not supply a convincing conceptualization of the social constitution of the class struggle. Class struggle, rather than being seen as existing within the concept of capital, is merely conceived as a means through which the self-contradictory world of capital develops As this article has argued, the fundamental contradiction of capital is its dependence on labor. Capital cannot autonomist, itself from labor’s existence. It is the resource through which capital exists; The “power of capital” exists only in and through labor, this latter being the substance of value. Were one to deny labor’s constitutive existence within the concept of capital, one would be forced to define “capital” as a power which exists independently from its social»substance. In other words, one would conceive of capital not only as a self-constituting power but, also, as a thing, and thus as a constituted form. The conceptualization of constituted forms amounts to conceptualization of fetishized forms.


The understanding of “labor” as the constitutive existence within the concept of capital entails an understanding of social form in and through a class-divided human practice. The class relation does not just break into the capital relation from the “outside” during “a crisis of capital.” The capital relation does not stand above class relations. Rather it exists in and through class relations. Class struggle does not merely mediate the reproduction of the capital relation. Rather the class relation is constitutive of the capital relation. The capitalist exploitation of labor does not stand above class relation, but, rather, in and through class relations. In Marx’s critique of political economy, the class relation, and so the class struggle, has not to be introduced anew at the level of historical development because it is already inserted in the constitution of concepts and it already exists as the continuing historical precondition of social reality as a whole.

Marx’s critique of fetishism shows that the economic forms are not extrahuman forms. The critique of economic categories shows that these forms are the forms of a perverted human existence. This existence is the product of the social activity of labor in capitalism. However, perversion is and is not labor’s fate. The abolition of perverted forms goes forward as a self-determination through which the social individual recognizes that human beings are the producers of their own social world. The emancipation of “social labor” from its own alienation, that is, the abolition of alienated labor is the presupposition for the abolition of a society in which humanity is merely a resource. The abolition of private property presupposes the abolition of alienated labor. Alienated labor is not consequent upon the existence of private property, rather private property is a mode of existence of alienated labor. This opens up the notion that labor is more than just wage labor.109 Wage labor is not a presence in and against capital. The standpoint of capital and wage labor is the same.110 Labor is not just the producer of private property but, most importantly, a “living, form-giving fire.”111 In its simple capacity labor is purposive productive activity.112 It is this activity which exists against itself as a value-creating, abstract wealth-producing commodity (wage-labor). The weapon of critique shows that the world we inhabit is our world, rather than the world of the capital-subject; world created by human practice, dependent upon human practice and open to the form-given fire of human practice. Thus the Marxian notion that the emancipation of the working [206] class can only be the work of the working class itself. This emancipation cannot rely on the wage relation. The category of wage labor is already a perversion. However “real” this perversion, it only supplies an understanding of the movement of fetishized forms. It does not provide an understanding of the constitution of these forms. We found the constitution of social existence in the social labor of the social individual. The criticism of fetishism is negative and destructive. As Agnoli puts it, “Marx wanted neither to construct nor affirm. He wanted primarily to negate.”113 His critique of fetishism shows the absurdity of a world in which the human being exists in the form of personified conditions of production — the personification of things. The standpoint of critique shows the other side — the social constitution — of this strange, and murderous, personification. It shows human sensuous activity, an activity which exists against itself in the commodified form of wage labor. Thus the critique of capital amounts to a critique of “labor,” of individual, alienated labor, a labor whose social existence confronts the individual producers as an external and independent thing. The contradiction between, on the one hand, the capitalist determination of labor as wage labor, and labor’s critical activity and social productive force, on the other, supplies not only an idea of the contradictory constitution of our social world. It supplies also the idea of the “real movement” of this contradiction: communism.

According to the critique of political economy, the concept of “social labor” is the most fundamental and simple category. All human activity in capitalism, including theoretical activity, is a moment of the class-divided mode of existence of social labor, of the social division of labor.114 Thus, the critique of political economy is not impartial It is, in contradistinction to traditional theory’s defense of the status quo, founded on an interest in the future. For Horkheimer, this means that philosophy’s search for the good and reasonable organization of life became Marx’s critique of political economy. Horkheimer thus vindicated philosophy’s negative and destructive role. He vindicated the right of the critique of political economy to announce the “end of philosophy”: philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized. Marxism’s critique of fetishism is negative and destructive. It throws into relief the question of humans as ends in themselves. At the same time, it shows that capitalism’s perverted and enchanted world is a form of human existence and dependent upon human practice. The constitution of the world occurs behind the backs of the individuals; yet it is their work.”115

Horkheimer characterized Marx’s critique of political economy as a “judgment on existence.” He saw philosophy as a destructive force which looks for the good and reasonable organization of life regardless of the threats posed by political power.116 While, according to Lovering’s critical realist account, the individual is confronted by impenetrable and transcendent [207] structures, Marx’s critique of political economy deals with, according to Horkheimer, the social individual as the producer of its entire life. In distinction to approaches predicated on the formal logic of the capital relation, critical theory argues, like Marx, that all social relations are essentially practical. Marx’s critique of political economy rejects the method of formal abstraction and abstract models of capitalism, which exclude history and describe an ideal world of perfect rationality. Against hypothetical judgments and the proliferation of formal knowledge, critical theory focuses on human conditions and troubles. Rather than, dealing with abstract aggregates or quantities of abstract wealth, the focus is on “the existence of Man and society,” and the transformation of this society.117 Hence, he characterizes the critique of political economy as a dialectical theory of society, a theory, which for him, unfolds a unique judgment on existence. In contradistinction to approaches which seek truth and eternal judgment on metatheoretical escape routes to nowhere, the critique of political economy understands that the solution of theoretical mysteries lies in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

This insight contains the secret of the Marxian revolution. Thus, the “abstractions” of the critique of political economy have nothing to do with abstract models or abstract generalizations which merely supply a summary of the general characteristics of constituted forms. They are existing abstractions. The judgment on existence is contained in the abstraction: the human and social content which exists in a mode of being denied. Thus “the absurdity of a mode of production on which bourgeois purposive-rationality, profitability, and respectability feed, was exposed It stood naked.”118 Marx’s critique vindicated the negative role of philosophy according to which humanity is not a resource but a purpose.


1 Cf. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1966, p. 830.
2 John Lovering, “Neither fundamentalism nor ‘New Realism’,” Capital & Class, № 42, 1990, p. 39. For a seminal critique of Critical Realism: Richard Gunn, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Capital & Class, № 37, 1989; and “Marxism, Metatheory, and Critique,” in Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway (eds.),
Post-Fordism and Social Form, Macmillan, London, 1991. See also Kevin Magill, “Against Critical Realism,” Capital & Class, № 54, 1994.
3 Bob Jessop, “Polar Bears and Class Struggle,” in Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway, Post-Fordism, p. 150.
4 Bob Jessop, “Regulation Theory in Retrospect and Prospect,” „Printed-Serie“ der ZiF-Forschungsgruppe „Staatsauf gaben“ 1, University of Bielefeld, Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung, Bielefeld, 1988. [208]
5 The following argument was encouraged by Helmut Reichelt, “Some Notes on Jacques Bidet’s Structuralist Interpretation of Marx’s Capital,” Common Sense, № 13; see also his contribution in this volume.
6 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973, pp. 270-271.
7 Cf. Max Horkheimer, „Traditionelle und kritische Theorie“, in Traditionelle und kritische Theorie, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt, 1992, p. 246. All quotes from Horkheimer as well as Marx, Theorien über den Mehrwert, vol. III, MEW 26.3, Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1976 and Das Kapital, vol. I, German edition, MEW 23, Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1979) are based on the German texts and have been translated by the author.
8 Max Horkheimer, „Traditionelle und kritische Theorie“, p. 229.
9 On this critique of structuralism see Alfred Schmidt, „Der Strukturalistische Angriff auf die Geschichte“, in Alfred Schmidt (ed.), Beiträge zur marxistischen Erkenntnistheorie, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1969.
10 John Lovering, “Neither fundamentalism nor ‘New Realism’,” p. 39.
11 Johannes Agnoli, “Destruction as the Determination of the Scholar in Miserable Times,” Common Sense, № 12, 1992, p. 44.
12 Cf. Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985, ch. 1.
13 In Jessop’s work, the capital relation is no longer treated as a “relation.” Rather, the various forms of capital are introduced as “autonomous” entities characterized by different interests founded on different “logics.” See Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy, Macmillan, London, 1985. For critique: R Gunn, “Marxism, Metatheory, and Critique” and Kosmas Psychopedis, “Crisis of Theory in the Contemporary Social Sciences,” in Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway, Post-Fordism, and Werner Bonefeld, “Crisis of Theory,” Capital & Class, № 50, 1993.
14 See for example Michel Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation, Verso, London, 1979. 15 See for example Simon Clarke, “State, Class, and the Reproduction-of Capital,” in Simon Clarke (ed.), The State Debate, Macmillan, London, 1991.
16 See Bob Jessop, “Polar Bears,” and his State Theory, Polity, Cambridge, 1990.
17 “Traditional theory” as discussed by Max Horkheimer, „Traditionelle und kritische Theorie“; see also his „Nachtrag“ in Max Horkheimer, Traditionelle und kritische Theorie.
18 Johannes Agnoli, “Destruction…,” p. 44.
19 Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, New Left Books, London, 1970, pp. 55-56.
20 See Arthur’s textual analysis of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts (Dialectics of Labor, Blackwell, Oxford, 1986).
21 Mario Tronti, “The Strategy of Refusal,” in Working Class Autonomy and Crisis, Red Notes-CSE, London, 1979, p. 10.
22 See Werner Bonefeld and Richard Gunn, «La constitution et sa signification: Réflexions sur l’épistémologie, la forme et la pratique sociale», Futur antérieur, № 8, Paris, 1991.
23 On this point see also Holloway’s contribution in this volume. [209]
24 Cf. Antonio Negri, “Interpretation of the Class Situation Today: Methodological Aspects,” in Open Marxism Volume II: Theory and Practice, Pluto Press, London, 1992 and C. Arthur, “Wide Open.” Radical Philosophy, vol. 64, 1993.
25 Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in Collected Works, vol. 5, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1975, p. 5. See Richard Gunn (“Practical Reflexivity in Marx,” Common Sense, № 1, 1987) for an interpretation of this point and its implications for theory.
26 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 817.
27 Ibid., p. 830.
28 Karl Marx, Theorien über den Mehrwert, p. 498.
29 Cf. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, vol. I, German edition, p. 90. In the German edition of Capital Marx uses the phrase „verrückt Formen“. In the English edition of Capital, the phrase is translated as “absurd forms” or “fantastic forms.” These are misleading translations. In Marx, „verrückt“ has twofold meanings: deranged [verrückt] and de-ranged [verrückt], mad and displaced. Thus, the notion of “perverted forms” means that these forms are both mad and displaced. The twofold meaning of perversion comprises the notion of an internal relationship between the abstract and the concrete. See Backhaus, “Between Philosophy and Science: Marxian Social Economy as Critical Theory,” in Open Marxism, vol. I, on the two-fold meaning of the term “perverted.”
30 Karl Marx, Theorien über den Mehrwert, p. 504.
31 On this: Karl Marx,, Capital, vol. II, penguin, Harmondsworth, 1978.
32 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, pp. 818, 391. In the German edition of Capital Marx characterizes “money” as, a begriffslose form. In the English edition of Capital, „begriffslos“ is translated as “meaningless.” This translation is misleading. The term „begriffslos“ connotes the notion of “losing its grip” and hence as “deprived of meaning.” This use of the term is much closer to the German term „begriffslos“. On this see Werner Bonefeld, “Money, Equality, and Exploitation,” in Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway (eds.), Global Capital, National State, and the Politics of Money, Macmillan, London, 1995.
33 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, English edition, p. 79.
34 Joachim Hirsch. “The State Apparatus and Social Reproduction: Elements of a Theory of the Bourgeois State,” in John Holloway and Sol Picciotto (eds.), State and Capital: A Marxist Debate, Edward Arnold, London, 1978) provides an analysis of this kind. For critique: John Holloway and Sol Picciotto, “Introduction,” in ibid.; John Holloway, “The Great Bear: Post-Fordism and Class Struggle,” in Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway, Post-Fordism; Werner Bonefeld, “Social Constitution and the Form of the Capitalist State,” in Open Marxism, vol. I; and Simon Clarke, “Introduction” to ibid., The State Debate.
35 On this debate see Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway (eds.), Post-Fordism.
36 Bob Jessop, “Polar Bears,” p. 154.
37 Ibid., p. 150.
38 For a similar critique of Jessop’s approach see Richard Gunn, “Against Historical Materialism,” in Open Marxism, vol. II, p. 39, fn. 20.
39 Bob Jessop, “Polar Bears,” p. 148. [210]
40 Bob Jessop, “State Forms, Social Basis, and Hegemonic Projects,” Kapitalistate, № 10/11, 1983, p. 90; reprinted in revised form in Simon Clarke, The State Debate.
41 Simon Clarke, “Introduction,” in Simon Clarke, The State Debate, p. 49, fn. 24.
42 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, German edition, Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1974, p. 909.
43 On “critique” see: Johannes Agnoli, „Von der kritischen Politologie zur Kritik der Politik“, in Agnoli, Die Transformation der Demokratie und andere Schriften zur Kritik der Politik, Ça ira Verlag, Freiburg, 1990; Johannes Agnoli, “Destruction…”; Max Horkheimer, „Traditionelle und kritische Theorie“; see also: “Introduction,” Open Marxism, vol. I.
44 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. II, p. 185.
45 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, pp. 77-78.
46 Cf. ibid., p. 83 and Capital, vol. III, p. 392.
47 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 79.
48 Cf. Stuart Hall, “Realignment for What?”, Marxism Today, December 1985.
49 This is one of the catchphrases used in the postfordist approach. See Bob Jessop, “Regulation Theory, Post-Fordism, and the State”; and Joachim Hirsch, “Fordism and Post-Fordism,” both published in Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway, Post-Fordism.
50 On this point see Richard Gunn, “Marxism and Philosophy”; “Marxism, Metatheory, and Critique”; and his “Against Historical Materialism.”
51 Cf. Max Horkheimer, „Zum Problem der Wahrheit“, in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften Band 3: Schriften 1931-1936, ed. Alfred Schmidt, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt, 1988.
52 The understanding of “labor” as individual labor, or as embodied labor, rather than characterizing Marx’s own approach, is at the center of Marx’s critique of political economy. For a recent elaboration of this point: Diethard Behrens, Gesellschaft und Erkenntnis, Ça ira Verlag, Freiburg, 1993.
53 Helmut Reichelt, “Some Notes…”, p. 74.
54 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 57.
55 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, English edition, p. 87.
56 Cf. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. II, chs. 1-4.
57 Cf. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 1 52.
58 Ibid., pp. 79-80.
59 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. II, p. 180.
60 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 829.
61 Ibid., pp. 825, 823, 829.
62 On the notion of “necessity” in Marx’s work: Max Horkheimer’s „Traditionelle und kritische Theorie“; see also Psychopedis in this volume.
63 Cf. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, ch. 1, section 4 and Capital, vol. III, ch. 48.
64 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 827.
65 Ibid., p. 822.
66 A similar argument is made by Kosmas Psychopedis, “Dialectical Theory: Problems of Reconstruction,” in Open Marxism, vol. I. His reconstruction of dialectical theory shows the contradictory integration of social presuppositions with capitalism’s fetishistic and destructive inversion of human relations to relations of “things.” See also Hans-Georg Backhaus, “Between Philosophy and Science,” in Open [211] Marxism, vol. I. This section is indebted to Hans-Georg Backhaus, „Zum Problem des Geldes als konstituents oder Apriori der ökonomischen Gegenständlichkeit“, Prokla, № 63, 1986.
67 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 824.
68 Hans-Georg Backhaus, “Between Philosophy and Science,” p. 60. Backhaus is quoting Leo Kofler.
69 Ibid., p. 71.
70 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 48.
71 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 85.
72 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 823.
73 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, pp. 568-9.
74 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 814.
75 Geoffrey Kay, “Why Labor is the Starting Point of Capital,” in Diane Elson (ed.), Value: The Representation of Labor in Capitalism, CSE-Books, London, 1979, p. 58.
76 Cf. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 392.
77 Karl Marx, Theorien über den Mehrwert, p. 447.
78 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 829.
79 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 569.
80 Cf. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 827.
81 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 79.
82 Ibid., p. 85, fn. 1.
83 Ibid., p. 106.
84 Cf. Richard Gunn, “Marxism and Mediation,” Common Sense, № 2, 1987; Kosmas Psychopedis, “Notes on Mediation-Analysis,” Common Sense, № 5, 1988; Werner Bonefeld; “Marxism and the Concept of Mediation,” Common Sense, № 2, 1987.
85 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 106.
86 Hans-Georg Backhaus, “Between Philosophy and Science,” p. 81.
87 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 77.
88 Cf. ibid., p. 80.
89 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, p. 515.
90 Cf. Werner Bonefeld, “Class Struggle and the Permanence of Primitive Accumulation,” Common Sense, № 6, 1988 and Dalla Costa’s contribution in this volume.
91 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, p. 107.
92 Hans-Georg Backhaus, „Zur Dialektik der Wertform“, in Alfred Schmidt, Beiträge.
93 Alfred Schmidt. „Praxis“, in Gesellschaft: Beiträge zur Marxschen Theorie 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1974, p. 207.
94 Cf. Kosmas Psychopedis, Geschichte und Methode, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/New York, 1984.
95 Cf. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 826.
96 Hans-Georg Backhaus, “Between Philosophy and Science.”
97 Simon Clarke, “State, Class, and the Reproduction of Capital,” p 188.
98 Ibid. p. 190.
99 Simon Clarke, “The Global Accumulation of Capital and the Periodization of the Capitalist State Form,” in Open Marxism, vol. I, p. 135. [212]
100 Simon Clarke, “State, Class, and the Reproduction of Capital,” p 139.
101 Simon Clarke, “The Global Accumulation of Capital and the Periodization of the Capitalist State Form,” p. 135.
102 Ibid.
103 Simon Clarke, Marx, Marginalism, & Modern Sociology, Macmillan, London, second ed., 1991, p. 68. Clarke refers to Marx’s 1844 manuscripts.
104 Ibid. p. 141. For an alternative conceptualization of determinate abstraction, see Kosmas Psychopedis, “Dialectical Theory: Problems of Reconstruction”; Werner Bonefeld, “Social Constitution and the Form of the Capitalist State”; Richard Gunn, “Against Historical Materialism.” See also Antonio Negri, Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse, Bergin & Garvey, Mass., 1984.
105 Simon Clarke, Marx, Marginalism, & Modern Sociology, p. 141, fn. 8.
106 Compare ibid, with Marx (Capital, vol. I, p. 352, fn. 2): “It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialized forms of these relations. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore, the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own specialty.”
107 Simon Clarke, Marx, Marginalism & Modern Sociology, pp. 141-142.
108 Cf. Richard Gunn, “Marxism and Philosophy,” and Kosmas Psychopedis, “Notes on Mediation-Analysis.”
109 Cf. Kosmas Psychopedis, “Dialectical Theory: Problems of Reconstruction.”
110 Cf. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, ch. 48.
111 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, p. 361.
112 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 825.
113 Johannes Agnoli, “Destruction…,” p. 45.
114 Cf. Max Horkheimer, „Nachtrag“.
115 Herbert Marcuse, “Philosophy and Critical Theory,” in Herbert Marcuse, Negations, Free Association Press, London, 1988, p. 151.
116 Max Horkheimer, „Traditionelle und kritische Theorie“ and „Nachtrag“.
117 Ibid.
118 Johannes Agnoli, “Destruction…”, pp. 45-46.

2 thoughts on “Capital as subject and the existence of labor

  1. Ross, for what it’s worth:

    I have perused The Trotsky Reappraisal reading the whole of some essays and scanning some others. As we are informed by the Editor’s note in the Preface:

    “The editorial content of this book was prepared before the unsuccessful August 1991 coup and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”

    We are hearing here from, among others, six authors living in the Soviet Union and writing about previously forbidden material then under ever diminishing constraints during the time of Glasnost, although there is really little reference made to any new archival material or unexpected revelations therefrom – almost all quotes and their footnotes refer to writings long in print by the various proponents of Hegelianism and Marxism from Hegel, Marx and Engels themselves to Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Kautsky, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, et al. along with more contemporary chroniclers of these individuals and their philosophies and politics, such as Isaac Deutscher and a myriad of others, including the 19 or so contributors to the volume under discussion. There is even an interesting attempt at a Freudian style psychoanalysis of Trotsky’s feelings and actions by Philip Pomper in his contribution, Trotsky and Martov, pp. 166-176

    If I had more time and talent I might have written a contribution here worthy of inclusion in it. The views of those presently included range from support and/or criticism of everyone above involved in or analysing this great historical narrative.

    For me the most eye-opening essay was The Defence of terrorism: Trotsky and his major critics by George L. Kline, pp. 156-165. Notwithstanding the contemporary circle of individuals making up the various Trotskyist groupscules and many of our former comrades comprising an older cohort of Marxists, either organizationally active, lapsed or ‘defrocked’, would likely describe Mr. Kline (a professor of philosophy) as a petite bourgeoise Hegelian academic and Kautskyite (yes, he does bring up Kronstadt). Kline’s arguments, which I’ll précis below, particularly with respect to the communist future are given a framework by Trotsky’s own words in concluding his testament about six months prior to his assassination:

    “whatever the circumstances of my death, I shall die with unshaken faith in the communist future. This faith in man and his future gives me even now such power of resistance as cannot be given by any religion.”

    With this in mind, Kline lays out his thesis beginning with the first sentence:

    “This chapter explores the ideological and philosophical presuppositions of Trotsky’s defence of terrorism as a necessary (present) means for achieving the desired (future) end of socialism/communism: namely his quite Marxist-Leninist hatred and contempt for the historical present and his powerful orientation toward the historical future.” p. 156

    And in the second paragraph:

    “Those future existents – whether communities, cultures, practices or persons – are treated in the present as ends, entities which will in the remote future have, or acquire, the intrinsic value that is denied to present existents.”

    [Note to Erich: If I find the energy to bother, I’ll quote more from this essay if, once complete, I think this email is worthy of wider circulation. Since you have the book you can refer to this essay yourself.]

    In the “Revolution Betrayed” (downloaded here in PDF format by Ross Wolfe) in discussing “Nationality and Culture” at p. 180, Trotsky compares the Marxist historical future of humankind in a rapture of, well yes, Utopian optimism and then defends the terrorism of the dictatorship of the proletariat as only a reflection of past barbarism:

    “Spiritual creativeness demands freedom. The very purpose of communism is to subject nature to technique and technique to plan, and compel the raw material to give unstintingly everything to man that he needs. Far more than that, its highest goal is to free finally and once and for all the creative forces of mankind from all pressure, limitation and humiliating dependence. Personal relations, science and art will not know any externally imposed “plan”, nor even any shadow of compulsion. To what degree spiritual creativeness shall be individual or collective will depend entirely upon its creators.

    A transitional regime is a different thing. The dictatorship reflects the past barbarism and not the future culture. It necessarily lays down severe limitations upon all forms of activity, including spiritual creation. ”

    Here (from the Appendix entitled “Socialism in One Country”), Trotsky argues the case for the inevitability of world revolution which will follow in the wake of the global depression extant in the time of his writing by quoting from a document, but in the segment bolded by me he outlines a more pessimistic reality:

    Socialism must inevitably “surpass” capitalism in all spheres wrote the Left Opposition in a document illegally distributed in March 1927- “but at present the question is not of the relation of socialism to capitalism in general, but of the economic development of the Soviet Union in relation to Germany, England and the United States. What is to be understood by the phrase ‘minimal historic period’ ? A whole series of future five-year plans will leave us far from the level of the advanced countries of the West. What will be happening in the capitalist world during this time ? . . If you admit the possibility of its flourishing anew for a period of decades, then the talk of socialism in our backward country is pitiable tripe. Then it will be necessary to say that we were mistaken in our appraisal of the whole epoch as an epoch of capitalist decay. Then the Soviet Republic will prove to have been the second experiment in proletarian dictatorship since the Paris Commune, broader and more fruitful, but only an experiment …. Is there, however, any serious ground for such a decisive reconsideration of our whole epoch, and of the meaning of the October revolution as a link in an international revolution ? No ! … In finishing to a more or less complete extent their period of reconstruction [after the war] … the capitalist countries are reviving, and reviving in an incomparably sharper form, all the old pre-war contradictions, domestic and international. This is the basis of the proletarian revolution. It is a fact that we are building socialism. A greater fact, however, and not a less-since the whole in general is greater than the part-is the preparation of a European and world revolution. The part can conquer only together with the whole. . . . The European proletariat needs a far shorter period for its take-off to the seizure of power than we need to catch up technically with Europe and America …. We must, meanwhile, systematically narrow the distance separating our productivity of labor from that of the rest of the world. The more we advance, the less danger there is of possible intervention by low prices, and consequently by armies …. The higher we raise the standard of living of the workers and peasants, the more truly shall we hasten the proletarian revolution in Europe, the sooner WIll that revolution enrich us with world technique, and the more truly and genuinely will our socialist construction advance as a part of European and world construction.” This document, like the others, remained without answer – unless you consider expulsions from the party and arrests an answer to it. . pp. 297 & 298

    In that regard, here from Trotsky’s scathing polemic, “Dictatorship vs. Democracy (Terrorism and Communism), A Reply to Karl Kautsky” by Leon Trotsky, is Trotsky’s more realistic take on the state of the Third International in three European countries at the height of war communism in Soviet Russia (again,my emphasis). America is mentioned in passing in the quote immediately above, but not discussed in the quote below, written at a time before the United States’ full ascendance as a global economic and political power:

    “In Place of an Epilogue

    This book appears at the moment of the Second Congress of the Communist International. The revolutionary movement of the proletariat has made, during the months that have passed since the First Congress, a great step forward. The positions of the official, open social-patriots have everywhere been undermined. The ideas of Communism acquire an ever wider extension. Official dogmatized Kautskianism has been gradually compromised. Kautsky himself, within that “Independent” Party which he created, represents today a not very authoritative and a fairly ridiculous figure.

    None the less, the intellectual struggle in the ranks of the international working class is only now blazing up as it should. If, as we just said, dogmatized Kautskianism is breathing its last days, and the leaders of the intermediate Socialist parties are hastening to renounce it, still Kautskianism as a bourgeois attitude, as a tradition of passivity, as political cowardice, still plays an enormous part in the upper ranks of the working class organizations of the world, in no way excluding parties tending to the Third International, and even formally affiliating to it.

    The Independent Party in Germany, which has written on its banner the watchword of the dictatorship of the proletariat, tolerates in its ranks the Kautsky group, all the efforts of which are devoted theoretically to compromise and misrepresent the dictatorship of the proletariat in the shape of Its living expression —the Soviet regime. In conditions of civil war, such a form of co-habitation is conceivable only and to such an extent as far and as long as the dictatorship of the proletariat represents for the leaders of the “Independent” Social Democracy a noble aspiration, a vague protest against the open and disgraceful treachery of Noske, Ebert, Scheidemann and others, and—last but not least—a weapon of electoral and parliamentary demagogy. The vitality of vague Kautskianism is most clearly seen in the example of the French Longuetists. Jean Longuet himself has most sincerely convinced himself, and has for long been attempting to convince others, that he is marching in step with us, and that only Clemenceau’s censorship and the calumnies of our French friends Loriot, Monatte, Rosmer, and others hinder our comradeship in arms. Yet is it sufficient to make oneself acquainted with any parliamentary speech of Longuet’s to realize that the gulf separating him from us at the present moment is possibly still wider than at the first period of the imperialist war? The revolutionary problems now arising before the international proletariat have become more serious, more immediate, more gigantic,, more direct, more definite, than five or six years ago; and the politically reactionary character of the Longuetists, the parliamentary representatives of eternal passivity, has become more impressive than ever before, in spite of the fact that formally they have returned to the fold of parliamentary opposition.

    The Italian Party, which is within the Third International, is not at all free from Kautskianism. As far as the leaders are concerned, a very considerable part of them bear their internationalist honors only as a duty and as an imposition from below. In 1914-1915, the Italian Socialist Party found it infinitely more easy than did the other European parties to maintain an attitude of opposition to the war, both because Italy entered the war nine months later than other countries, and particularly because the international position of Italy created in it even a powerful bourgeois group (Giolitti- ans in the widest sense of the word) which remained to the very last moment hostile to Italian intervention in the war. These conditions allowed the Italian Socialist Party, without the fear of a very profound internal crisis to refuse war credits to the Government, and generally to remain outside the interventionist block. But by this very fact the process of internal cleansing of the party proved to be unquestionably delayed. Although an integral part of the Third International, the Italian Socialist Party to this very day can put up with Turati and his supporters in its ranks. This very powerful group—unfortunately we find it difficult to define to any extent of accuracy its numerical significance in the parliamentary group, in the press, in the party, and in the trade union organizations—represents a less pedantic, not so demagogic, more declamatory and lyrical, but none the less malignant opportunism — a, form of romantic Kautskianism. A passive attitude to the Kautskian, Longuetist, Turatist groups is usually cloaked by the argument that the time for revolutionary activity in the respective countries has not yet arrived. But such a formulation of the question is absolutely false. Nobody demands from Socialists striving for Communism that they should appoint a revolutionary outbreak for a definite week or month in the near future. What the Third International demands of its supporters is a recognition, not in words but in deeds, that civilized humanity has entered a revolutionary epoch; that all the capitalist countries are speeding towards colossal disturbances and an open class war; and that the task of the revolutionary representatives of the proletariat is to prepare for that inevitable and approaching war the necessary spiritual armory and buttress of organization. The internationalists who consider it possible at the present time to collaborate with Kautsky, Longuet and Turati, to appear side By side with them before the working masses, by that very act renounce in practice the work of preparing in ideas and organization for the revolutionary rising of the proletariat, independently of whether it comes a month or a year sooner or later. In order that the open rising of the proletarian masses should not fritter itself away in belated searches for paths and leadership, we must see to it to-day that wide circles of the proletariat should even now learn to grasp all the immensity of the tasks before them, and of their irreconcilability with all variations of Kautskianism and opportimism. A truly revolutionary, i.e,, a Communist wing, must set itself up in opposition, in face of the masses, to all the indecisive, half-hearted groups of doctrinaires, advocates, and panegyrists of passivity, strengthening its positions first of all spiritually and then in the sphere of organization—open, half-open, and purely conspirative. The moment of formal split with the open and disguised Kautskians, or the moment of their expulsion from the ranks of the working-class party, is, of course, to be determined by considerations of usefulness from the point of view of circumstances; but all the policy of real Communists must turn in that direction. That is why it seems to me that this book is still not out of date, to my great regret, if not as an author, at any rate as a Communist.

    June 17, 1920”
    pp. 188-191

    To return to Kline’s thesis, in the penultimate sentence above (bolded by me), Trotsky refers to “considerations of usefulness from the point of view of circumstances” when discussing the split from and expulsion of the Kautskians from the ranks of the working-class party. Replace “Kautskians” with the “left opposition” and can we not then honestly consider whether or not the polemical grounds for Stalin’s rise to power and the terrorism he carried out can be found in Trotsky’s own words – insofar as they were later directed by Stalin at the masses of a country and party exhausted by their revolutionary struggles with many of the best and brightest of the party cadre having fought and died while serving in the Red Army? And all this as cause and effect, effect and cause through the actions of the Comintern of the failure of further revolutions in the West as admitted by Trotsky himself in passages highlighted above, but which possibility he refused to fully entertain.

    There, I’ve said it, and now as a fully lapsed Trotskyist, I feel like Graham Greene’s whiskey priest banished to the periphery of Catholicism’s global outposts, spouting my pessimistic loss of faith, not in God (that happened long ago), but in Marx, Lenin and Trotsky’s (the other Trinity’s) promises for humanity’s future.

    Is it not odd that contemporary revolutionary socialists of the active and arm-chair variety still enjoy tracing the originator of the phrase “Socialism or Barbarism” without any ironic or even elegiac sense that “we” (the world’s masses) have lost that fight and the barbarians are at the gate. At best, even if some form of global civilization based on enlightenment principles survives into the next century, our relentless and rapacious plunder of the natural world will find us hoist on our own CO 2-laden petard. To repeat from the quote above from “The Revolution Betrayed”:

    “The very purpose of communism is to subject nature to technique and technique to plan, and compel the raw material to give unstintingly everything to man that he needs.”

    All the more delicious for this old cynic in that while it was indeed a fascinating discussion, it was initiated by dear old Ian Anguish (as John Wilson and I call him) and also published online at “” where Ian comes to a stirring defence of the much “maligned” Kautsky – although “raped” might be a better term for Kautsky’s treatment in Trotsky’s vicious polemic in the justification of terrorism by the proletarian dictatorship as the present means to a future end, a notion shared in respect of different ends by both Marxist-Leninists and, according to some Protestants, the Jesuits (although Trotsky comes to the defence of the Jesuits against this calumny in “Their Morals and Ours”).

    Failure of the anticipated revolutions in Europe and the unanticipated staying power of late capitalism produced the hideous offspring of contemporary realpolitik, the bastard children of Stalinism, Social Democracy and Finance Capitalism: 1. the resurgence of the most backward forms of religious beliefs in league with powerful nation states – e.g. Judaism in Israel and America’s pro-Zionist lobby, the Orthodox Church in Russia and Islamism in the Middle East – apparently an opiate still in much demand by the masses; 2. the plethora of so-called social democratic regimes throughout Europe, attempting to retain a few crumbs of imperial hegemony left on the table by the United States; and the weirdest monstrosity of all, the so-called Communist regime in China.

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