Social Domination in Marx

I’m working on a chapter on the concept of domination in Marx. It’s something I have thought about for quite a long time. More importantly, I continue to find it interesting and develop new perspectives on the topic. Some years ago, when I was still working on my phd, I would have approached the topic by honing in on the texts and developing an approach that is different than the other approaches. (come to think of it, I actually did that in my thesis). Now i’m more interesting in further developing what I find to be the most interesting approach to Marx’s theory of domination, which conceives of it as a theory of social domination. Yet the approach i’m taking doesn’t just build on Postone by saying he focused on impersonal domination, but what about the persons in impersonal domination? Rather it differs from Postone etc. It does not focus on reconstructing the critique of political economy but in thinking about how the critique of political economy consists in a critical theory of society and which prevalent traditional theories such a critique might be aimed at. The chapter does this by detourning the famous Lenin quote that paraphrased Kautsky (and Engels). Rather than seeing Marx as the completion of German Idealism, English Political Economy, and French Socialism, I interpret him as a critic and his critique of political economy as comprising a critique of their notions of modern society realizing, by demonstrating that is realizes unfreedom. Hence the critique of political economy as a critical social theory of domination. Undoubtedly a lot to focus on, but what I think is an illuminating perspective that adds to important work.

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A Guide to Value-Form Theory

It’s winter in the middle of a global pandemic. You have time on your hands and you like to read. Maybe you’ve stumbled across Heinrich twitter and want to know what the hell is going on? Maybe you’ve read Michael Heinrich’s Introduction to all 3 volumes of Capital or you listen to (and patronize) Reel Abstractions, but you still want to read more value-form theory (at least until Science of Value comes out?)

This blog post will introduce you to other important contributions and contributors to value-form theory. I have tried my best to include free links to all of the readings. If the reading does not have a link, you may be able to find it somewhere else for free online. I am also happy to take suggestions for what to add. I wrote this quick and off the top of my head. 

What’s the Deal with Value form theory?

Value-form theory is a clumsy way of designating a way that people from all over the world, from the early 20th century until today, have interpreted and expanded on Capital. Although one of the hallmarks of value-form theory is to distinguish its interpretation of Capital from the standard interpretation, this does not mean that people working in value-form theory have similar theoretical social or political orientations. Some are Althusserians, some are influenced by Adorno and Horkheimer, some are Trots, some are Maoists, some are left communists, some are communizers, some were elected to representative governments, and indeed some probably have little to no political commitments at all (although I can’t think of any).

Overviews of Value-Form Theory

There are a number of useful overviews of these approaches to value-form theory and how they distinguish themselves from other interpretations of Marx.

Sean O’Brien, Marx After Growth

Anders Ramsay, Marx? Which Marx?

Ingo Elbe, Between Marx, Marxism and Marxisms

Further reading: Jan Hoff, Marx Worldwide. 

Schools and Thinkers

Riccardo Bellofiore and Tomasso Redolfi Riva, The Neue Marx Lekture Putting the Critique of Political Economy Back into the Critical Theory of Society 

Frank Engster on Wertkritik

Chris O’Kane, Moishe Postone’s New Reading of Marx 

Christos Memos, Open Marxism

Further reading: Friedrich Harry Pitts, New Ways of Reading Marx. 

Since I have written this post for those who are familiar with Heinrich, in the rest of the post I will focus on readings or talks that overlap with Heinrich’s approach: Althusserian Marxism, Frankfurt School Critical Theory, Open Marxism, Communization, and the marxological work of figures who were affiliated with the International Symposium on Marxist Theory

Classic Texts

II Rubin, Marx’s Theory of Value

Lucio Colletti, Bernstein and The Marxism of the Second International

Alfred Schmidt, On The Concept of Knowledge in The Critique of Political Economy

Hans-Georg Backhaus, On the Dialectics of the Value-Form, Thesis Elven, volume 1, issue 1.

Helmut Reichelt, “Why Did Marx Conceal His Dialectical Method?” in Open Marxism Volume 3.

Diane Elson (ed) Value: The Representation of Labor in Capitalism

Reading Capital

Heinrich’s introduction to Capital is a great overview of a value-theoretic interpretation of the Critique of Political Economy. The two following guides complemented Heinrich’s interpretation. I also found them helpful as guides to reading Capital.

Simon Clarke’s Guide to all Three Volumes of Capital

Polylux Marx – A Capital Workbook

Interpreting Capital and the critique of political economy

There are also a number of important interpretations of Capital as a Critique of Political Economy in the value form tradition that opposes itself to 

Moishe Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination

John Milios et al. Karl Marx and the Classics

Chris Arthur, The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital

Larsen (ed.) Marxism and the Critique of Value

Patrick Murray, The Mismeasure of Wealth

Paul Mattick Jr, Theory as Critique

Werner Bonefeld, Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy

Debating the critique of political Economy

As Heinrich’s argument about the ambivalence of the critique of political economics indicates, there are many different interpretations of the approach of the critique of political economy and the core categories. This has led to debates between value-theorists and between value-theorists and traditional Marxists.

See Simon Mohun (ed) Debates in Value Theory for debates between value theorists and other Marxists on the this issue

See the several edited collections from the ISMT for debates on these issues between value-form theorists. (such as Bellofiore and Taylor, The Constitution of Capital)

I would also recommend the following on topics that are central to value-form theory:


Werner Bonefeld, Kapital and its Subtitle: a Note on the Meaning of Critique

John Holloway, Read Capital: The First Sentence, Historical Materialism vol 23:issue 11.

Social Form 

Diane Elson, The Value Theory of Labor


Simon Clarke (available here)

Riccardo Bellofiore, The Multiple Meanings of Marx’s Value Theory

Abstract Labor

Werner Bonefeld, Abstract Labor and Laboring

Riccardo Bellofiore, The Adventures of Vergesellschaftung


Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis


Beverly Best, Distilling a Value Theory of Ideology from Volume 3 of Capital, Historical Materialism, 23:1

Expanding on capital

As Heinrich also points out, Marx did not finish the critique of political economy. A number of thinkers have provided their own value-theoretical critics of disciplinary thinking that parallels Marx’s critique of the discipline of Political economy. 

Economics and Sociology

Simon Clarke, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology

Chris O’Kane, Capital, The State and Economic Policy

Jack Copley & Alexis Moraitis, Beyond the Mutual Constitution of States and Markets: On the Governance of Alienation, New Political Economy


Joshua Clover and Christopher Nealon, Literary and Economic Value, Oxford Research Encyclopedias.

Political Science

Tony Smith, Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism

Werner Bonefeld, Capitalist State: Illusion and Critique

A number of other thinkers have developed value-theoretical accounts of areas of capitalist society that Marx did not include in his unfinished critique.  


A. Stoner, A. Melathopoulos, Freedom in the Anthropocene: Twentieth Century Helplesness in the Face of Climate Change.

Labor and Class

Dinerstein and Neary (ed) The Labor Debate: An Investigation into the Theory and Reality of Capitalist Work

Real Abstraction

Alfred Sohn Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labor

Christian Lotz, The Capitalist Schema

Brenna Bhandar and Alberto Toscano, Race, Real Estate and Real Abstraction

Olivia et al. (ed). Marx and Contemporary Critical Theory: The Philosophy of Real Abstraction


Milios et al. A Political Economy of Contemporary Capitalism: Demystifying Finance

Beverly Best, Political Economy Through The Looking Glass: Imagining Six Impossible Things About Finance Before Breakfast, Historical Materialism, 25(3)

Ilias Alami, Money Power and Financial Capital in Emerging Markets: Facing the Liquidity Tsunami

The Law

Evgeny Pashukanis, The General Theory of Law and Marxism

The State

Holloway and Picciotto (ed). The state and Capital: a Marxist Debate

Simon Clarke (ed.)  The State Debate 

Suzanne De Brunhoff, The State and Economic Policy

Geert Reuten, The Unity of the Capitalist Economy and The State.


Milios et al., Rethinking Imperialism

Tony Smith, Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism

Marcel Stoetzler, Critical Theory and the Critique of Anti-Imperialism

Reproductive labor

Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women

Kirstin Munro, Social Reproduction Theory, Social Reproduction, and Household Production. 


Roswitha Scholz, Patriarchy and Commodity Society

Endnotes, The Logic of Gender

Mark Fisher and Marina Vishmidt, Counter (Re)productive Labor

Amy D’eath, Gender and Social Reproduction Theory in The SAGE Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory

Zoe Sutherland and Marina Vishmidt, The Soft Disappointment of Prefiguration: a Critique of Social Reproduction Theories


Chris Chen, The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality

Hylton White, How is Capitalism Racial?


Werner Bonefeld, Critical Theory and the Critique of Antisemitism

Antisemitism and Transmisogyny

Joni Alizah Cohen, The Eradication of “Talmudic Abstractions”: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project

The Present Moment

Simon Clarke, Keynesianism, Monetarism and The Crisis of the State

Aaron Benanav and John Clegg, Crisis and Immiseration, Critical Theory Today. 

Moishe Postone, The Current Crisis and the Anachronism of Value

Fabian Arzuaga, Socially Necessary Superfluity: Adorno and Marx on the Crisis of Labor and the Individual

Chris O’Kane, Society Maintains Itself Despite the Catastrophes that May Eventuate

Riccardo Bellofiore, “Crisis Theory and the Great Recession: a Personal Journey, from Marx to Minsky” Research in Political Economy, 27

Heinrich and Kurz Debate

Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen &Dominique Routhier, Critical Theory as Radical Crisis Theory: Kurz, Krisis, and Exit! on Value Theory, the Crisis, and the Breakdown of Capitalism, Rethinking Marxism 31:2.


Endnotes, Communisation and Value-Form Theory

Werner Bonefeld and Sergio Tischler (ed) What is to Be Done? 

Holloway, Dinerstein, Bonefeld, For a Practice of Commoning


Fred Moseley, Money and Totality

James Furner, Marx on Capitalism: the Interaction-Recognition-Antinomy Thesis

William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno

Martin Hägglund, This Life

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The young and old Marx

Been going through Marx’s early manuscripts on political economy. Lord knows plenty has been written about the relationship between the young and old Marx. For whatever it’s worth I agree with Schmidt: you should read the young Marx from the perspective of the old Marx. For that reason, it’s not so much the estranged labor manuscript that is of interest to me, but when I find jottings, almost like epigrams, that distill the complex arguments he will later make in Capital. Today I (re)found the following that I think distill the angle on the critique of political economy and critical political economy I’m thinking through:

“Thus in a declining state of society — increasing misery of the worker; in an advancing state — misery with complications; and in a fully developed state of society — static misery.


Since, however, according to Smith, a society is not happy, of which the greater part suffers — yet even the wealthiest state of society leads to this suffering of the majority — and since the economic system (and in general a society based on private interest) leads to this wealthiest condition, it follows that the goal of the economic system is the unhappiness of society.”

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Indifference as critique

Now I’m wondering if Marx’s idea of “indifference” and “private interest as socially determined interest” in the Grundrisse has been discussed in regard to Smith’s idea of sympathy, Hegel’s idea of recognition, and/or Proudhon’s idea of mutualism?

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Critical Theory and The Poverty of Philosophy

The secondary literature that even addresses Horkheimer and Adorno’s relationship with Marx often claims that they disguised their use of Marx’s concepts, particularly following their emigration to the USA, by formulating opaque terms. I always thought this was pretty uncontroversial and figured this was the case with the term “antagonistic society.” (I can’t remember if this was claimed somewhere or if it was just my assumption)

But yesterday I read The Poverty of Philosophy and Marx uses the term antagonism repeatedly to refer to class, of course, but also to society. Granted I think Marx comes short of using the term antagonistic society. But it seems to me that Horkheimer’s phrasing isn’t that cloaked.

Thinking about this also made me realize that off the top of my head, Marx also makes at least 5 arguments here that you see in the young Horkheimer’s work:

  1. A critique of theories of progressive historical development culminating in the social harmony of bourgeois society (i.e. traditional theory)
  2. A critique of bourgeois or capitalist society as one of domination, compulsion and antagonism
  3. The characterization of class struggle as negative
  4. The critique of political power as “the official expression of antagonism in civil society.”
  5. Emancipation as the abolition of bourgeois society and the self-abolition of the proletariat.

I’m sure this is no coincidence and I wonder if someone has already discussed this somewhere? Otherwise, I will do some more digging on this question when I get to the book.

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Critique of Political Economy Youthquake

No doubt anyone who reads this blog already knows about the critique of political economy youthquake shaking the information super highway. But just in case you are somehow more out of touch than me, I thought I would hip you to a podcast and website that shows without a doubt the kids are not only alright, but they are better at thinking, talking, and writing about Marx and Critical Theory than many of the foremost scholars in these fields.

The podcast is Reel Abstractions

The website is A New Institute for Social Research.

Listen and read if you don’t already.

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Critical Political Economy and The Critique of Political Economy

The line of thinking about Marx’s critique I discussed in the last blog post has also got me thinking about the question of the relationship between the critique of political economy and critical political economy. This issue is rather polarizing in Marxist discourse. Many from what I would call traditional Marxism, but also the social sciences, argue that the critique of political economy is equivalent to a critical political economy. In this reading Capital provides the tools for critically understanding the trajectory of capitalist development. Others, in what I would call the critical theory tradition, argue that Capital is a critique of political economy and that critical political economy is foreign to Marx’s project. Finally, some argue for the necessity of combining the two in different ways. (Certainly there are important differences within these groups and some outliers, but this is a blog post and a piece of writing to help me think through this issue, it’s not meant to be authoritative).

I have found myself in all of these groups at different points. I certainly respect each of these approaches and work by people done in each of these areas. However, I think I am developing a new perspective on the issue that comes from reading and thinking about Clarke’s Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology and Adorno’s work. (This perspective certainly doesn’t match up with all of Marx’s work in the critique of political economy, but perhaps it’s a way of understanding Marx at his best. At the very least it’s a way of thinking about how I want to develop Marx’s insights.)

The nub of the issue is how political economy and critical political economy are conceptualized. As I imply above the differences of opinion between these groups are premised on a contemporary conception of political economy. However, Clarke lucidly points out that the classical political economists were more than this: political economy was a science that combined moral philosophy, sociology, political science and economics and claimed to decipher the natural laws of historical development that if followed correctly in all of these domains would lead to freedom and well-being, or at least avoid disaster and misery.

I think it is illuminating to read Marx’s critique of political economy and his critical political economy against this broader conception of political economy. The critique of political economy critiques the premises of political economy by demonstrating how the socio-natural laws of capitalist society are constituted and reproduced by historically specific capitalist social form. Critical political economy shows how at its best these socio-natural laws do not lead to freedom and well-being but disaster and misery. From this perspective, Critical political economy is not then a tool for understanding or predicting the trajectory of capitalist development, nor of developing policy proposals that will improve this trajectory, nor of arguing that these policy proposals cannot ameliorate capitalism’s inevitable collapse, but a means of arguing for the necessity of the emancipatory destruction of capitalist society.

I will develop this train of thought in my chapter on Adorno/Marx and Marxian Economics.

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Critical Theory and the Critique of Society

I should also mention that I edit a critical theory book series with Werner Bonefeld for Bloomsbury Academic Press.

“In a time marked by crises and the rise of right-wing authoritarian populism, Critical Theory and the Critique of Society intends to renew the critical theory of capitalist society exemplified by the Frankfurt School and critical Marxism’s critiques of social domination, authoritarianism, and social regression by expounding the development of such a notion of critical theory, from its founding thinkers, through its subterranean and parallel strands of development, to its contemporary formulations.”

We have published two books so far

Mathias Nilges, Right-Wing Culture in Contemporary Capitalism: Regression and Hope in a Time Without Future

Charles Prusik, Adorno and Neoliberalism: The Critique of Exchange Society.

And we have a number of excellent books forthcoming.

See here for more information.

Get in touch if you would like to propose a book for the series.

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Domination in Marx

So what I am going to say in this book chapter I am working on right now? Certainly, I have thought about the topic a lot and thought about different interpretations of the topic a lot. Yet the approach I decided to take has led to some new insights on something I have been thinking about for more than 10 years.

I think there are several reasons I developed these insights. In the first place, the chapter needs to be succinct. In the second place, I didn’t merely want to do a review essay comparing traditional Marxist conceptions of class domination to critical theoretical notions of impersonal domination. In the third place, I also wanted to make the point about the necessity of accounting for personal relationships in impersonal theories of domination. Finally, as point 3 and my discussion of my other writing projects in the previous blog post indicate, rather than thinking of the critical theory elements of the New Reading of Marx as correctives to Adorno, I now think it is imperative to bring them together.

Consequently, I decided an approach that would emphasize that Marx’s theory of social domination is a double-faceted critical theory of social domination that (1) criticizes his interlocutors – German idealism, English political economy, and French Socialism – theories that argue that the social relationships and institutions of modern society would (if adhered to) lead to freedom by showing (2) that the even at their best, the social relationships and institutions of modern society realize unfreedom and antagonism.

Now I know what you’re saying; this sounds like a book what about the part about being succinct?

Well, the plan initial plan was focus on Marx’s criticism of Hegel, Smith, and Proudhon and to then discuss his critical theory of social domination from that perspective. I had certainly read Hegel and Smith as well as stuff from the critical theory strand of the New Reading I would use. However, although I was familiar with the technical aspects of Marx’s criticisms of Proudhon, I hadn’t read him, it was Roberts’ Marx’s Inferno and a short passage in Clarke’s Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology that made me want to dive into Proudhon in this manner.

Even though Proudhon’s writing is tedious as hell (I doubt it’s just the translation) I’m glad I did. This is because Proudhon develops the sort of immanent critique often ascribed to Marx: a crude account of progressive historical development driven by overcoming contradictions which in modern society point to the moral and institutional means that will realize Smith’s and Proudhon’s ideals. As this indicates, as Roberts shows, the critique of political economy is also a critique of Proudhon. I can’t recall whether Roberts also makes this argument, nor do I know if someone else does (I will look into this next) but I also think it further illuminates that Marx’s critique of political economy is a critical theory of society, which contra Proudhon’s traditional theory, shows that the organization of modern society can only realize itself in domination, antagonism and misery.  

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Back in Crap (Times)

Whether or not neoliberalism is in crisis, whether or not we in the Anthropocene, whether or not we are in the coronacene, shit really sucks right now. Nevertheless, I have loads of writing commitments that I must complete over the next year. Since this blog helped me think through my thesis, I thought I would try to revive it to think through these linked writing projects.

I thought I would begin by providing a broad overview of these projects (I will save the specifics for future posts).

  1. Right now I am writing a chapter on domination in Marx.
  2. Then I am going to write three related chapters for a book – on economics, social reproduction, (co-authored) and crisis — that draws on and further develops Marx and Adorno.
  3. Then I am going to write a chapter critiquing Polanyi and neo-Polanyian state theory.
  4. Finally, once all the decks are cleared, I am going to write a book that develops my thesis. This book is long overdue, but after working my way through the proceeding material I will finally be ready to write it in a revised and expanded form. (You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that prepping 17 classes in 6 different disciplines in 6 years at 4 different institutions will not only get in the way of writing a book, but will also get you away from the material the book is focused on. Luckily, my situation has changed, but I need to re-immerse myself in the material and I think this is the best way to do it)
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