Marx in Germany

Stumbled across the following article in Socialism and Democracy by Jan Hoff whilst adding Heinrich to zotero via google scholar, its sorta like one of the scene reports people used to write. I wonder how current it is.


In 2008–09 the student organisation of Die Linke (The Left), the Sozialistisch-Demokratischer Studierendenverband (SDS – Socialist Democratic Students League) launched a nationwide campaign for starting Capital reading-groups. In recent years there were some media reports that sales of Capital vol. I surged because of the current economic crisis, rising from several hundred in 2007 to a few thousand in 2008. This comes on top of a long tradition of high-quality research in Germany on Marx’s critique of political economy.
The theoretical underpinnings of recent German Marx-research have been closely examined by Ingo Elbe,1 and have been put in the context of global Marx-research by Jan Hoff.2 A core topic of the German debate on Capital is value theory, especially an interpretation called monetäre Werttheorie (monetary theory of value). Many German Marx researchers agree that Marx’s theory of value can be understood as a critique of pre-monetary theories of value. Accordingly, they assume that there is a necessary and specific interconnection between Marx’s concept of value, his definition of abstract labor, and his theory of money. Examples of the monetäre Werttheorie-reading of Marx can be traced back to the 1970s, but this interpretation also prevails in more recent studies.3 Among the younger generation of scholars, this understanding of the Marxian theory of value is hardly contested.
The various interpretations of Marx’s theory of value that were launched by researchers like Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt in the 1960s and 1970s or by Michael Heinrich in the 1990s form the starting point for the younger scholars’ approach to Marx. The link between the categories of value, commodity, and money is relevant to the interpretation of Marx’s theory of commodity money. During the 1990s, Heinrich had put forward a critical view of Marx’s theory of money as a commodity. Ingo Stützle, a disciple of Heinrich, has more recently drawn attention to this problem.4 According to Stützle, Marx clearly views money as a commodity in his critique of political economy. Marx states in Capital: “We have seen that the money-form is merely the reflection thrown upon one single commodity by the relations between all the other commodities. That money is a commodity is therefore only a discovery for those who proceed from its finished shape to analyse it afterwards. The process of exchange gives to the commodity which it has converted into money not its value but its specific value-form.”5 The monetäre Werttheorie-reading of the relation between value and money is supported by Stützle, who argues that Marx’s theory of commodity money clashes with the empirical reality of present-day capitalism, on the grounds that with the imposition of the Bretton Woods system and its fixed exchange-rates, money ceased to be a commodity. Stützle finally pleads for a deeper understanding of Marx’s method in order to cope with these problems. The discussion on the problem of commodity money was afterwards again taken up in a book by Dieter Wolf, Stephan Krüger, and Ansgar Knolle-Grothusen, who defend Marx’s theory of commodity money against Heinrich and Stützle.6
An important aspect of the German debate (in both its Western and its Eastern versions) has been the close philological examination of the Marxian texts. In this context, the MEGA2 (the second edition of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe [complete writings]) is of special relevance, as it includes Marx’s excerpts, notes, and marginal notes, which enable us to reconstruct the complete development of his political economy. For instance, the current German debate on value theory takes into account not only the theoretical distinctions between the different versions of chapter one of Capital I, but also a text called Ergänzungen und Veränderungen zum ersten Band des “Kapital” (Supplements and revisions to the first volume of Capital).7 Marx wrote this text in 1871–72 as a basis for the reworking of his value theory (and especially his value-form analysis) for the second German edition of Capital. This essential Marxian text can be read as an insightful and self-clarifying commentary on his own theory of value. It was first published in German in 1987 and is still not translated into English.
Publication of the Marx-Engels Werke (MEW) edition has also been resumed, at least partly due to the recent growth of interest in Marx and Marxism. Moreover, some single editions of Marx’s writings have also sold well. The most important journals of Marx studies in Germany, Beiträge zur Marx-Engels-Forschung: Neue Folge and Marx-Engels-Jahrbuch, serve as discussion forums mainly for MEGA2-related research. The articles in both journals encompass such topics as the Marx-Engels-relation, the category of “capital in general,” the theory of the falling rate of profit, the “beginning” of Marx’s dialectical presentation, and Marx’s reception of his sources.
The most recent trend of Marx research in Germany focuses on the reception of Marx’s theory since the 1960s. Ingo Elbe8 explains how Marx was referred to in West German debates on the critique of political economy (especially regarding Marx’s value theory and his conception of the object), on state theory, and on the theory of revolution. According to Elbe, three major tendencies can be distinguished in the reception and discussion of Marx’s theory. First is “traditional” Marxism, which Elbe specifically criticizes. This trend turned Marx’s thought into a Weltanschauung and a theory of the evolution of nature and society. A second trend, Western Marxism, originated with Lukács and Korsch in the 1920s. Western Marxism is characterized by Elbe as a critical-revolutionary theory of social praxis. The third trend is the West German “neue Marx-Lektüre” (new reading of Marx) that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and which is still predominant today among West German Marx scholars. According to Elbe, this trend is characterized by the questions it raises regarding Marx’s critique of political economy. It turns to Marx’s theory of economic forms, his theory of fetishism and mystification. It therefore focuses on Marx’s theory of the forms that represent abstract labor and on those critical dimensions of Marx’s thought that point to epistemological questions. It takes Marx’s method of exposition into account, and examines how the various economic forms are interconnected within the totality of economic categories. This new reading of Marx identifies his approach as a distinctive and unique theory differing in its method, object, and epistemology both from pre-Marxian classical political economy and from “modern” post-Marxian economics.
During the 1990s Michael Heinrich published a major study of Marx’s relation to classical political economy.9 He argued that Marx had underestimated the theoretical gap between himself and the classics, because Marx did not recognize that his critique of political economy was located on a different “theoretical field,” which went beyond the classics not only in its theoretical insights but also in its underlying premises. Astonishingly, Heinrich’s thesis on Marx’s relation to the classics was either neglected (by most of his colleagues) or instantly accepted as an axiom (by his disciples), but has never been put to the serious and intensive discussion it deserves.
Another book by Heinrich10 seeks to introduce the critique of political economy to young readers. It is written from the standpoint of the “neue Marx-Lektüre.” Like Elbe and others, Heinrich sharply distinguishes Marx’s theory from the traditionalist “Weltanschauungs-Marxism.” A more recent monograph by Heinrich11 comments on the beginning of Capital I, focusing on the paradoxical character of Marx’s 1867 value-form analysis and drawing on the self-clarification manuscript mentioned above.
Another new reading of Marx, especially of Capital I, has been put forward by the philosopher Christian Iber.12 Despite his role as one of Germany’s best-known Hegel experts, Iber does not interpret Capital from the standpoint of the Hegelmarxismus (Hegelian Marxism) manifested in the works of Hans-Jürgen Krahl and others. For Iber, the Marxian project consists of the critique of the whole field of political economy. The theoretical background he shares with Heinrich and many other German researchers is shaped by the idea of a fundamental distinction between Marx and Marxism – between viewing Marx as a scientist and philosopher and viewing him as founder of the Marxist Weltanschauung.
Helmut Reichelt, who belonged to the first generation of the “neue Marx-Lektüre” (a product of the student revolt of the 1960s), was a disciple of Horkheimer and Adorno. In a recent book13 he has summarized his research of the last decades. In his view, the initial aim of the “neue Marx-Lektüre” was to reconstruct Marxian method. The main topic of Reichelt’s more recent work was the problem of the specific “objectivity” of value, which has to be considered in the light of a peculiar theory of “validity.”
Other authors have also contributed to the interpretation of the Marxian critique of political economy. Dieter Wolf, who is highly critical of Reichelt’s theory of “validity,” has examined the problem of contradiction within dialectics.14 Nadja Rakowitz has criticized Engels’ reading of the beginning of Capital (as has Christopher Arthur in the English-speaking debate),15 and Gerhard Stapelfeldt has underlined the differences between Marx and the classical political economists.16 Both Wolfgang Fritz Haug17 and Michael Berger18 have offered introductions to Capital. Sven Ellmers’ book represents a new interpretation of Marx’s theory of class.19
Some young Marx interpreters address political questions in a rather indirect way – by pointing to Marx’s critique of certain forms of socialist theory and practice. In a recent monograph, Hendrik Wallat points out that Marx aimed at criticizing certain anti-individualist traits of 19th-century socialism.20 The author of the critique of political economy rejected both Etatism and Anarchism. Finally, Marx criticized the (unconscious) “socialist” perpetuation of certain forms and principles attached to bourgeois society. So Wallat also addresses some features of a socialist society according to Marx, even though he avoids focusing primarily on present-day political movements.
The Berlin historian Wolfgang Wippermann has recently studied the history of Marxist thought.21 Wippermann puts forward the idea of Karl Marx’s “four lives.” Marx’s first life was his actual lifetime, which was mainly shaped by his intensive work on Capital and by his activity as a political revolutionary. After his death in 1883 his ideas continued to exist as a kind of “second life,” because they were taken up and partly modified by the working-class movement of both the Second and the Third Internationals. This development is seen by Wippermann in a specifically critical light, i.e. as a deformation of Marx’s original theory. However, Marx also led a “third life” within the theoretical approaches of “dissident” Marxist theorists like Korsch, Lukács, and Gramsci. In Wippermann’s opinion, the more recent renaissance of Marx’s theories could represent a “fourth life,” because Marx deserves to be read again in the present – not only as an economist, but also as a philosopher and a historian. Wippermann stresses the role of Marx’s ideas within the recent discussions on globalization, but he also points to the relevance of Marx’s views on topics such as Bonapartism, “Asiatic Despotism,” or critique of religion.
All in all it is clear that the recent German debate on Marx (and especially on Marx’s Capital) has both strengths and weaknesses. However, it might be inappropriate to speak of a “Marx renaissance,” inasmuch as Marx’s writings have always been studied seriously. Within this tradition of German Marx research, the younger scholars offer a perspective for the future. I hope that German discussions on Marx will be more thoroughly incorporated in the international Marx debate.

About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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9 Responses to Marx in Germany

  1. Yunus says:

    “He argued that Marx had underestimated the theoretical gap between himself and the classics, because Marx did not recognize that his critique of political economy was located on a different “theoretical field,” which went beyond the classics not only in its theoretical insights but also in its underlying premises. ”

    Is there any difference between this view and Althusser’s “epistemological break”?

    • HR says:

      Hi Yunus,

      I’m not an Althusser expert so please correct me if I am wrong. I would say that Heinrich and Althusser’s way of discussing Marx’s break with his contemporaries are similar, but I would also say the topic they are discussing is different.

      From what I understand Althusser argued for a break between Marx’s Hegelian humanism and his late scientific work. I’m not sure whether Althusser claims it was a conscious break or not, but in either case the issue has to do with the matter and the nature of Marx’s epistemology qua philospohy in Capital and his science of history.

      Heinrich differs with Althusser in several ways: in the first place he is focusing on the question of Marx’s theory of value and Marx’s relation to political economy, not philosophical epistemology or philosophies of history. In the second place he argues that Marx’s break with political economy was not total but that basic ambivalences remain (there’s a good vid discussing it here: As for the what Heinrich defines as the content of this new theory of value–Marx’s monetary theory of value–this is best described in Heinrich’s recently translated introduction to Capital.

      hope that helped. let me know if i was wrong of you need more clarification.

    • HR says:

      I should also that this article gives a better outline of similarities/differences with althusser than i did

  2. Yunus says:

    Thank you HR for your answer.
    In fact, as you just explained, Althusser, who considered the first 3 chapters of Capital as merely a residue of Hegelianism, could not speak about the same “break” as Heinrich:

    “A last trace of Hegelian influence, […] the theory of fetishism, […] the Hegelianism and evolutionism (evolutionism being a poor man’s Hegelianism) in which they are steeped have made ravages in the history of the Marxist Workers’ Movement. I note that Lenin did not give in to the influence of these Hegelian-evolutionist pages for a single moment, for otherwise he could not have fought the betrayal of the Second International, built up the Bolshevik Party, conquered State power at the head of the mass of the Russian people in order to install the dictatorship of the proletariat, or begun the construction of socialism.” — Preface to Capital Volume One.

    You probably read the criticism that Lefebvre had addressed to Althusser about this. It’s a pity that he did not bother to reply to him!

    • HR says:

      No Problem. I don’t know if I have read Lefebvre’s criticism. Could you tell me where it is? I would love to look into it since its probably something i could use i my thesis.


  3. Yunus says:

    All his articles on Althusser are published in his essay collection L’Idéologie structuraliste (1975), in french.

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