Capital-centric Marxism and Negative-Dialectics-centric Critical Theory: Value-Form Theory as critical social theory

Value-form theory is often criticized for its obsession with Marxological philology or for its theological attempt to logically-derive all of society from Capital. In some instances the two might even overlap. This is not the case with all value-form theory however. Indeed, I think the case can be made that the type of value-form theory developed by the one of the pioneers of the New German Reading of Marx, Hans-Georg Backhaus, is concerned with developing a type of critical social theory that unities a Capital-centric Marxism and a Negative-Dialectics-centric Critical Theory. This can shown in outline from the following excerpts from ‘Between Philosophy and Science: Marxian Social Economy as Critical Theory’ where Backhaus make the case that both of these texts present critical dialectical social theories with a number of parallels:

Hithero only Adorno has methodologically adumbrated the problems which this questions opens up, above all in his essay on ‘Sociology and Empirical Research’ and in the ‘World Spirit and Natural History chapter of his Negative Dialectics. In my estimation, four central thoughts can be drawn out which centre around this issue: (1) Adorno is to my knowledge the only author to have thematised what Marx terms the ‘objective illusion’ of economic categories; (2) In Adorno’s portrayal of the ‘ether’ of society, the subjective-objective character of the categories is first of all related to the Hegelian concept of spirit, and the traditional subject-object dialectic; (3) Adorno’s idea of ‘concepts … which the object has of itself’ as that ‘ which the object itself wants to be’, (4) the conception of ‘objective irrationality’. There is perhaps a fifth central thought of equal relevance to the philosophical-economic problematic, which cannot be broached here: the dynamic character of social-economic categories.

None of these five major themes were addressed by what is known as the 3rd German Dispute on Method, the ‘Positivismussreit’, which lasted so many years… The failure to address these issues is symptomatic of the taboo upon the problems of the constitution of social economy which Adorno raised with respect to Marx;

‘To say that there is something conceptual about social reality is not tantamount to being an idealist. It means there there is something which holds sway in the thing itself … the act of exchange implies the reduction of … goods… to something abstract, not to something in any way material in the traditional sense of this world….Exchange value, which unlike use-value is merely something thought, reigns  over…need…illusion reings over reality…..At the same time this illusion is what is most real….it is something conceptual the logic of  which is quite different from that of the natural sciences, where any particular elements can be reduced to their common features.’

Abstract value, which for Adorno is the central structure of ‘false’ or ‘negative objectivity’, is thus on the one hand subjective – ‘something merely thought’ – and on the other hand objective – that is ‘which is most real’, ‘conceptuality that holds way in the thing itself’ – ‘reality [is] in itself abstract’. Value is ‘material’, objective and yet also illusion, that is, subjective, it is a product of social consciousness and not an Urphenomenon.’ (Backhaus pp. 87-8)

Earlier in the essay Backhaus has provided a fantastic diagram that accounts for the points of similarity between his interpretation of the late Marx and the late Adorno’s critical dialectical social theory:

 Society as Object                                                       Society as Subject

“objectivity,” “objectivity of value,” “second nature,” disregard for individuals, ‘behind the back of individuals” Human being in relation to its ‘first nature’ and other people Subject in the narrow sense (consciousness.)
            O‘deranged forms,’ ‘madness,’ ‘things outside of the human being,’ ‘abstract,’ ‘spiritual,’ ‘immaterial,’ ‘apriori,’ ‘ideal,’ or ‘supersensible’ ‘world of exchange value’ ‘volume of value’ ‘movments of values’: objective illusions.” Commodities”



“relations between things.”

          S1Things of human being



use values


metal, paper

means of production

‘relations between people’

‘relations of production

           S2Act of ‘displacement,’ ‘projection,” “mediation’

  1. the economic categories are mirrored in consciousness in a very inverted way (categories as inversions and fetishes)
  2. Non-economic contents of conciousness (ideology)

Categories, Forces Laws                                                           Actions

 Relations of Production as Base (dual positing)     Contents of consciousness

                                                                                                      as superstructure.


|____“The same and not the same”: “unity and difference of subject and object.”______________|                                                                                                           

The essay concludes with yet another point of similarity, but this one is a problem. ‘The unresolved methodological problems which bear upon the traditional subject-object relation are legion’. For Backhaus, this ‘points to the most serious flaw in Marx’s work. He is right to call for the development of an ‘objective concept’ of value, for a ‘totality of moments’, and for a universal characterisation of value. But the work he handed over to us falls short of this goal and remains a fragment’. The same can be said of Adorno’s work, which Backhaus does not criticise here, but which Reichelt describes as essentially unable to address the genesis of ‘reification’ in his introduction to Backhaus’ ‘On the Dialectics of the Value-Form’.

Reichelt’s introduction also point to where value-form theory, philology and reconstruction come in. He notes that Backhaus and he were ‘preoccupied with problems of capital-analysis…relatively early’.  But since the Frankfurt Theorists or the Frankfurt Theory built ‘explicitly’ on ‘Capital-analysis’ could not provide answers to these problems they ‘decided to think through these questions themselves.’

This returns us to the excerpt from ‘On the Dialectic of the Value-Form’ I posted yesterday, which from this perspective might also be seen as the centrepiece of Backhaus’s pioneering attempt to reconstruct Marx’s presentation of the value-form:

            The value-form analysis is significant in a three-fold respect: it is the point of confluence of sociology and economic theory; it inaugurates Marx’s critique of ideology and a specific theory of money which founds the primacy of the sphere of production vis-à-vis the sphere of circulation and thus of the relations of production vis-à-vis the ‘superstructure’


Such a reconstruction can thus be seen as attempting to provide a cohesive method that can unfold these three-fold areas Backhaus mentions, and by extension solve the methodological problems of the late Marx and the late Adorno, substantiating the above points of unity. Value-form theory and Marxological philology thus serve quite an important purpose for Backhaus. Although he would later concede that simply reconstructing Marx was ‘naïve’, even in the later essay he still seems to holds that the possibility of (re)constructing a suitable method depends on a ‘satisfactory resolution of the problem of the universal character of value.’ While the roadblocks leading to such a theory are also ‘legion’, I reckon that such a project – and indeed any further work that draws on Backhaus, Open Marxism or value-form theory to continue the development of a critical social theory uniting Capital-centric Marxism and Negative-Dialectics-centric Critical Theory—  are the way forward.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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