Banaji on Reconstructing Historical Materialism

“What I‘d like to do in this paper is raise the general issue of how we can develop historical materialism in more powerful ways than Marxists have tried to do since the sixties. The general issue is addressed by raising three specific questions. First, how should Marxists periodize capitalism? Second, is there a consistent materialist characterization of ̳Asiatic‘ regimes, since Marx‘s Asiatic mode of production clearly doesn‘t work as one? And third, why have Marxists had so little to say about the deployment of labour? By deployment of labour I mean not the general ways of controlling and exploiting labour that Marx himself would repeatedly refer to in categories such as ̳slavery‘, ̳serfdom‘ and so on, but the organization and control of the labour-process in concrete settings , as in Carlo Poni‘s fine monograph on the struggle between landowners and sharecroppers over methods of ploughing that increased the intensity of labour1 or Hans-Günther Mertens‘ discussion of the organization of Mexican estates.” Read the rest here.

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The German World-Market Debate

Nachtwey and Brin’s excellent discussion of the German World-Market Debate, a very important issue for the current interest in state theory.

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Lefebvre and Sohn-Rethel.

It has occurred to me that there are a number of interesting parallels, and possible points of productive synthesis, between Henri Lefebvre and Alfred Sohn-Rethel.

In the first place, it is interesting to note that Lefebvre and Sohn-Rethel both conceived of projects in their youths, in the 1920s and 1930s, that they took up, reformulated and revised for the remainder of their lives. Moreover, these respective projects — the critique of everyday life and intellectual and manual labour — can both be said to conceive of capitalist society as characterized by a number of divisions. Finally, each thinker can also be said to have attempted to substantiate and embody these divisions in the realm of lived experience on the basis of theories of abstraction. This raises the question if Lefebvre’s notion of ‘concrete abstraction’, which focused on how abstraction was embodied in the lived experience of everyday life, and Sohn-Rethel’s idea of real abstraction, which focused on how conceptual abstraction was derived from the former in addition to the separation of head and hand, might be brought together; possibly providing Lefebvre with a more rigorous account of conceptuality and Sohn-Rethel with the dimensions of how conceptuality and division exist in everyday life.

These similarities also raise the possibilities of more technical comparisons of how they conceived of their theories of abstraction on a Marxian basis as well as looking at their respective Marxist uses of Heidegger.


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Milios on Althusser’s anti-Hegelianism

In the same article Milios also offers the following intriguing periodisation as a way to circumvent the tricky issue of reconciling the anti-Hegelianism of Althusserian and the Hegelianism of Value-Form Theory:

Althusser became increasingly sceptical about the problematic of the value-form, considering that Marx was seeking a Hegelian-style point of departure in the simpler concept, though this could even lead him to quasi-anthropological misinterpretations (fetishism as reification of man, see also Milios-Dimoulis 2006). The intensely polemical character of many of Althusser’s interventions played a contributing role in this (“bending the stick in the opposite direction”). So he repeatedly appeared as fierce critic of Hegel’s philosophy, and he repeatedly argued that it had little to do with Marx’s philosophical theses.

What is very impressive, though, with Althusser’s anti-Hegelianism, is that most contemporary versions of Marxism that share with him the same persistence on the necessity to theoretically distinguish Marx’s concept of value from the classical one belong to what could be called “Hegelian Marxism”![1] These are mostly value-form theorists, who commence from a Hegelian philosophical problematique.

This (phenomenal) paradox is probably “resolved” if one considers that there may be “many Hegels”, in a similar way to the fact that there exist many versions of Marxian theory.[2] Althusser’s “anti-Hegelianism should be seen as the outcome ofa particular theoretical conjuncture with which Althusser took issue. He was required to respond to the categorization of Marxism as a historicist variant of the Hegelian philosophy, a tendency particularly strong in the post-war French philosophical scene, which in general attributed greater significance to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind as a “philosophy of history”, and rather less to the Logic and the endeavour to develop a semantic tool of greater complexity.

He was obliged to treat theoretical humanism as an idealistic deviation par excellence within Marxism, which meant a head-on clash with all theories of reification (Verdinglichung, Versachlichung, Vergegenständlichung). He attempted to confront the economism of the official communist movement, expressed above all through support for unlimited development of – by their nature “positive”– productive forces. This involved placing emphasis on class struggle and the conflict-ridden character of capitalist production and necessarily referring less to the effects of the market as a mechanism for socializing individual private undertakings or to value as a specific social form.

This circumspection of Althusser as regards value-form explains also his tendency to overlook the contradictory character of the texts of the “mature” Marx as well, something which also afflicts the significant concept of symptomatic (“symptomale”) reading, since Althusser tended to think that a reading of this kind could extract a relatively unified theoretical nucleus.

However, as we have argued in the previous section of this text, there are contradictions within this “nucleus” itself, which means that for the clarification and further development of Marxist theory a “symptomatic reading” has to be applied also to the texts of the mature Marx (in order, first of all, to distinguish between the two different theoretical discourses to be found in them and to adopt a stance on these discourses).

The fact that we can trace and explain these contradictions in Althusser’s work as related to his approach to the theory of value should not translate into rejection of the need for a reading of the work of Marx deriving from the Althusserian programme. Despite the fact that we stress what we consider to be Althusser’s weak points in reading the first Chapters of Vol. 1 of Capital and more specifically the value-form, we do not abandon the main theses of the Althusserian approach: the constancy to a relationist approach to class power, the critique of philosophical humanism, essentialism, historicism, economism, and especially the thesis about Marx’s breach with Classical Political Economy.


[1]I am referring to the works of Chris Arthur (2002), Patrick Murray (2000), Geert Reuten (2000), Michael Williams (1988) and others. As Arthur (2002, p. 1) writes: “a new tendency […] has emerged in recent years, which is variously labeled ‘the New Dialectic’, ‘New Hegeliam Marxism’ or ‘Systematic Dialectic’”.

[2]See on this issue Lapatsioras 2006.


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Althusserian Theory as Form-Analytic Social Theory

John Milios’s Capital after Louis Althusser. Focusing on Value-Form Analysis can be seen to provide an illuminating discussion of how elements of Althusserian social theory can extend a value-theoretic reading of Capital into a form-analytic social theory. Although Milios rightly notes that Althusser’s provided an ‘ambiguous’ ‘approach to value theory’ he also identifies the ‘theoretical potential’ in the following aspects of Althusser’s approach:

the predicative and categorical manner in which Althusser declares Marx’s rupture with Political Economy, as well as the basic parameters of his analysis, i.e. his approach to materialist dialectics, the epistemological break, the eccentric conception of social totality, the primacy of class struggle, the relative autonomy and interpenetration of the various practices, point to the theoretical potential implicit in the comprehension of Marx’s monetary theory of value, a key-issue of which is the insistence on the significance of the concept of value-form.

As he spells out in more detail, the importance of Althusser’s reading thus consists in the following:

Althusser theoretical programme founded the thesis of Marx’s critical breach with classical political economy on the following grounds:

a) It has defended the originality of the Marxist oeuvre, which cannot be assimilated to any other philosophical tradition, insisting that it should not be read through any borrowed philosophical prism (theoretical humanism, historical dialectics). In this context Althusser’s analysis emphasizes three elements:

- theoretical anti-humanism (rejecting every form of essentialism),

- anti-historicism (distinction between history as a process and theoretical disquisitions on history),

- the existence of contradictions in Marx’s writings, especially stressing Marx’s “epistemological break” after 1845.

b) It has introduced the distinction between a materialist dialectical conception of social contradictions and other schemata derived from the “philosophy of history”, including certain Marxist interpretations of the work of Hegel.

c) It has defended an original conception of social totality incorporating both political power and ideological relations as central structural determinants of the capitalist mode of production and through the key concept of over-determination it has sought to raise the question of a non-metaphysical and non-teleological theory of determination.

d) It has drawn a dividing line between the terms under which historical social forms or elements and interpenetrating social practices make their appearance and the synchronic dimension of reproduction of a mode of production as a structured social totality.

e) It has insisted on the analytic priority of class struggle and the priority of productive relations over productive forces.

f) It has offered an analysis of ideological representations not as forms of false or mystified consciousness but as socially necessary forms of social misrecognition that are reproduced in practices.

It seems to me that these aspects are drawn on in Milios’s work in which he formulates Althusserian form-analytic accounts of  Imperialism and financialisation.

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The Simple Form of Value

From Karl Marx and the Classics, p. 25:

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 9.04.37 PM


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Bonefeld on Clarke

Bonefeld makes the following important comments in his review article on The State Debate, which  both contextualize and put forward important criticisms of Clarke’s theory:

‘within the context of the CSE debate on the state, the emphasis on class struggle developed in response to the German state derivation debate. This debate was seen as downplaying ‘class struggle’ and as permitting a structuralist and functionalist conceptualisation of the state.’115


the protagonists of the class struggle approach never resolved the fundamental conceptual problem inherent in their approach to the state. If the problem of the German debate was its downplaying of the class struggle, does the emphasis on the class struggle overcome the problem inherent in the German debate? In other words, is the emphasis on class struggle sufficient for establishing the internal relation between structure and struggle, an internal relation which was so much sought after by those advocating the notion of the primacy of class struggle 116


It seems to me that the distinctive CSE approach to the state did not overcome the dualist conception of the relation between structure and struggle. This externality as between structure and struggle obtains in the conceptualisation of the ‘state’ as an object of class struggle and not as a mode of existence of labour in capitalism. The danger inherent in an approach centred on the primacy of class struggle is that class antagonism is understood as a relation between two opposing armies whose internal relationship remains unexplored.116

As I think Bonefeld rightly points out, Clarke’s contribution as well as the essay i posted yesterday, do the best job of bringing class back into the state debate. Yet Bonefeld also does highlights what was bugging me about the otherwise spot on Clarke paper I posted yesterday:

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’ (ibid.). As a consequence, Clarke does not understand the basic contradiction of the capitalist mode of production as the constitutive power of labour existing against itself in the reified form of capital. Rather, the basic contradiction of capital is understood to be capital itself.’ 117


Clarke tends to integrate structure and struggle on the basis of a dualism between a determinist conception of ‘capital’ and a voluntarist conception of class struggle. While the constitution of capitalist power is seen in terms of a contradiction internal to capital, the development of this contradiction is seen as one of class struggle. According to Clarke, the state exists because of the class struggle, and the class struggle exists because of the internal contradictions of capital. This understanding of cause (internal contradictions of capital) and effect (class struggle) and result (the state), is not sufficient to conceptualise the internal relation between structure and struggle. Clarke’s understanding of the primacy of the class struggle is based on a distinction between structure and struggle—each of which is supposed to render its contrasting term coherent. The state is seen as escaping determinism because it is the constant object of class struggle and class struggle is seen as escaping voluntarism because it is qualified by capital being in contradiction with itself Is it not possible to suggest that Clarke’s attempt to conceptualise the internal relation between structure and struggle is sustained through a tautological movement of thought?

Critically assessing the notion of the primacy of class struggle does not imply its rejection simpliciter. Capital is class struggle. However, capitalist society is not a formless thing. The understanding of class antagonism as the essential social relation implies that the starting point is the social constitution and the historical movement of labour. Such an understanding entails that the so-called laws of capitalist development cannot be conceived of as laws internal to capital and hence as external to labour but, rather, as a movement of contradiction constitutive of, and constituted by, the mode of existence of labour in capitalism. The contradictory character of capitalist social relations are not constituted on the basis of ‘capital’, but in and through capital’s dependence upon labour. The conceptualisation of labour as the constitutive power of social existence is of fundamental importance for understanding the self-contradictory mode of existence of the form of the state.119



The contradictory constitution of capital needs to be conceptualised in terms of the constitutive power of labour. The contradictory existence of the state needs to be seen as being constituted by the mode of existence of labour in capitalism, the development of this contradiction needs to be seen as one of class struggle .120





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