Theory is simply part of the daily struggle to live with dignity. Dignity means the struggle to emancipate doing and
liberate that which exists in the form of being denied. Theoretically, this means fighting through criticism for the
recovery of doing. This is what Marx means by science.
Criticism is an assault on identity. The scream against the way things are becomes a why? Why is there so much
inequality in the world? Why are there so many people unemployed when there are so many others who are
overworked? Why is there so much hunger in a world where there is so much plenty? Why are there so many
children living on the streets?
We attack the world with all the stubborn curiosity of a three-year-old, with the difference perhaps that our ‘why’s’
are informed by rage. Our why asks for a reason. Our why holds that which exists up to the judgment of reason.
Why do so many children live on the streets? Why is there so much violence? Our why moves against that which is
and asks it to justify itself. Initially, at least, our why attacks identity and asks why that which is has come to be.
‘Initially, at least’, because soon our why’s come up against the same problem that confronts anyone who tries to
satisfy the curiosity of a three-year-old: the problem of infinite regress.
The problem of infinite regress lies at the heart of identitarian thought. The problem is inherent in identity. In a world
composed of particular identities, what is it that allows us to conceptualise those identities? The answer lies, we
saw, in classification, the grouping of particular identities into classes. The problem is that the classificatory
concepts remain arbitrary unless they in turn can be validated by a third-order discourse and that in turn by a
fourth-order discourse, and so on, so that there is a potentially infinite regress of theoretical foundation (cf. Gunn
It is ironic that identitarian thought, founded as it is on the common sense view that of course x is x (as sure as
eggs is eggs), is unable to provide itself with a firm foundation. Time and time again, attempts to show that a
system of classification can have a rational basis have come up against the impossibility of providing such firm
foundations. The search for a rational foundation for identitarian thought leads inevitably to an irrational Given, a
thing-in-itself (Kant) that cannot be explained, a 'hidden hand' (Smith) behind the functioning of the economy, a
space that is 'dark and void' (Fichte). The attempt, promoted by Hilbert at the beginning of the twentieth century, to
prove that mathematics is a coherent non-contradictory system, was shown by Gödel to be incapable of fulfilment.
The result, of course, is that identitarian thought has preferred, on the whole, not to worry about the rationality of its
own foundation, devoting itself instead to improving the 'exactness' of its own fragmented disciplines. 'And the fact
that these sciences are 'exact' is due precisely to this circumstance. Their underlying material base is permitted to
dwell inviolate and undisturbed in its irrationality ('non-createdness', 'givenness') so that it becomes possible to
operate with unproblematic, rational categories in the resulting methodically purified world. These categories are
then applied not to the real material substratum (even that of the particular science) but to an 'intelligible' subject
matter.' (Lukács 1971, p. 120)
This is the problem uncovered by our ‘why’. In the face of our why, identity always tries to limit the damage, to
recuperate, to turn the interrogation to its advantage, to enclose the attack within an identitarian framework. We are
all familiar with this. A persistent ‘why are there so many children living on the streets?’ is likely to come up
eventually against the answer of ‘private property’, given with the understanding that private property is immutable;
or possibly, against the answer that ‘God made it that way’, with the understanding that God is who is; or possibly
against the simplest, most direct answer: ‘that’s the way things are’, or ‘what is, is necessary’.
Often we accept those limits. We accept that the struggle implicit in our ‘why’ has limits. We struggle for better
conditions within the university, but we do not question the existence of the institution. We struggle for better
housing but do not necessarily question the existence of private property which is so fundamental in shaping
housing conditions. Our struggle takes place within an accepted framework of that's-the-way-things-are. We know
that this framework limits or partially invalidates anything we might achieve, but we accept it in the interests of
obtaining concrete results. We accept the bounds of identity and, contradictorily, reinforce them in so doing.
But supposing we do not accept the limits? Supposing we persist with our why in the true manner of the stubborn
three-year-old? A solution to infinite regress can come only when being is re-converted into doing. To say that God
made it so, is not a true transition from being to doing because God is confined immutably and eternally within
being: ‘I am who am’. The only answer that can take us out of the circle of identity is one that points to a creator
who is not unchangeable, a creator that creates herself in the process of creation. That answer is a horrific one, but
the only basis for hope: there are so many children living in the street, because we humans have made it so. We
are the only creators, the only gods. Guilty gods, negated gods, damaged, schizophrenic gods, but above all selfchanging gods. And that answer turns the whole world upside down. Our doing becomes the pivot of all
Marx deals very quickly with this initial movement of why, the movement of critical analysis, of trying to go behind
appearances, in the opening pages of Capital. Starting from the commodity and its contradictory character as
useful article (use value) and object produced for exchange (exchange value), he discovers that behind this
contradiction lies the two-fold character of labour as useful or concrete labour (which creates use value) and
abstract labour (which produces value, which appears as exchange value in exchange). ‘This two-fold nature of the
labour contained in commodities … is the pivot on which a clear comprehension of Political Economy turns.’ (1965,
p. 41) The being of the commodity is quickly brought back to doing and its existence as concrete and abstract
labour. The commodity is so because we have made it so. The pivot is human doing and the way in which it is
But then our why takes a turn. If we are the only creators, why are we so powerless? If we are so powerful, why do
these things that are our products take on an independent life and dominate us? Why do we produce our own
enslavement? Why (‘for God’s sake’, we are tempted to say, only there is no god, only ourselves) did we make
society in such a way that millions of children are forced to live on the streets?
The why, which initially tries to go behind the appearance of things and discover their origin, now tries to
recompose those appearances and see how their origin (human doing) gives rise to its own negation. Criticism
acquires a double movement: an analytical movement and a genetic movement, a movement of going behind
appearances and a movement of tracing the origin or genesis of the phenomenon criticised.
The idea that understanding involves genetic criticism does not begin with Marx. Philosophers from the time of
Hobbes have argued that understanding involves tracing the process of construction of a phenomenon, and it is
basic to the development of mathematics that a proof is 'constructed'. The eighteenth century philosopher
Giambattista Vico formulated the link between understanding and making with particular force when he made his
central principle the idea that verum et factum convertuntur: the true and the made are interchangeable, so that we
can only know for certain that which we have created. An object of knowledge can only be fully known to the extent
that it is the creation of the knowing subject. The link between knowledge and creation is central for Hegel, for
whom the subject-object of knowledge-creation is the movement of absolute spirit, but it is with Marx that the verum
- factum principle acquires full critical force.
Knowledge, in this view, is the re-appropriation of the object by the subject, the recuperation of power-to. The object confronts us as something separate from us, something out there. The process of knowing is, therefore, critical: we deny the out-thereness of the object and seek to show how we, the subject, have created it. We see money, for example, and it confronts us as an external force: in order to understand it, we criticise its externality and try to show how money is in reality our own product. This type of criticism does not necessarily involve denunciation, but it goes much deeper. It questions the very existence of the object as object. It shakes objectivity to its foundations. Criticism in this sense is the stirring of anti-power, the beginnings of the reunification of subject and object.
For Marx, criticism in this sense is central to his whole approach. In his early Introduction to the Contribution to the
Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law, he makes the point clearly: 'The basis of irreligious criticism is this: Man
makes religion, religion does not make man' (1975, p. 175; emphasis in original). Criticism of religion is not criticism
of its ill-doings or evil effects, but of its very existence as religion. It is a criticism that emanates from the exclusive
subjectivity of humanity. The point of criticism is to recuperate the lost subjectivity, to recover that which is denied.
In religion, God presents himself not as our creation but as an independent subject who has created us (as object).
The aim of criticism is to reverse the subjectivity, to restore subjectivity to where it should be, saying 'we are the
subject, it is we who created God'. The subjectivity of God is then revealed as the self-estrangement of human
subjectivity. Criticism is an act of bringing subject and object together, the assertion of the centrality of human
creativity. 'The criticism of religion disillusions man to make him think and act and shape his reality like a man who
has been disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he will revolve round himself and therefore round his true
sun. Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve round himself'
(1975, p. 176). The purpose of criticism is to restore humans to our proper place as our own true sun. For the
young Marx, it is essential to move on from the 'holy form' of self-estrangement 'to unmask self-estrangement in its
unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the
criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the the criticism of politics.' (1975, p. 176; emphasis in the
Marx remained true to the project he set himself. For him, 'science' is not correct, objective knowledge, but rather the movement of criticism, and hence the movement of anti-power. Criticism tries not just to get behind a
phenomenon and analyse it, but above all to see how it has been constructed. "It seems to be correct to begin with
the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is
the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves
false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These
classes, in turn, are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour,
capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is
nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this
would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination,
move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner
abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced
until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich
totality of many determinations and relations.... The latter is obviously the scientifically correct method. The
concrete is concrete because it is the unity of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the
process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it
is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and
conception. Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the
second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought... But this is by
no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being" (Marx 1973, pp. 100-101; my emphasis). The
‘simplest determinations’ can only be understood as doing (or the two-fold existence of labour): this is surely the
pivot, the turning point which gives meaning to the retracing of the journey.
The same point is made repeatedly in Capital, as, for example, in a concise remark in a footnote in which Marx
starts from the critique of technology and moves on to the critique of religion: "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 celestialised forms of those relations. The latter method is the only
materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one" (Marx 1965, pp. 372-373).
Why does Marx insist that this is the only scientific method? That it is theoretically more demanding is clear, but
why does this matter? And how are we to understand the genetic connection? The remark on the critique of religion
suggests an answer. The reference to discovering ‘by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion’ is
a reference to Feuerbach and his argument that belief in the existence of a god is an expression of human selfalienation, that human self-alienation, in other words, is the ‘earthly core’ of religion. The second part of Marx's
sentence, on developing ‘from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations’
refers to Marx's own criticism of Feuerbach, to the effect that self-alienation must be understood not in an abstract,
but in a practical (and therefore historical) sense. Feuerbach is correct in pointing out that god is a human creation
(and not vice versa), but the process of creation has to be understood practically, sensually. The concept of 'god'
has to be understood as the product of human thought, and this thought, in turn, is not an individual a-historical act,
but an aspect of social practice in certain historical conditions.
The criticism of Feuerbach has important political implications. Religion presents humans as objects, as beings
created by God, the sole creator, the genesis of all things, the source of all power, the only Subject. Feuerbach's
criticism of religion puts humans in the centre of the world, but Feuerbach's human is trapped in a timeless selfalienation. Humans are at once deified and rendered powerless. Once the production of god is understood as a
social, historical human practice, however, then humans are no longer trapped in a timeless vacuum of
powerlessness: it becomes possible to think of a time of non-alienation, of different socio-historical conditions in
which humans would no longer produce god, would no longer produce their own objectification.
Marx’s critique of the political economists follows the same pattern as his critique of Feuerbach. In Capital, his
attention has moved to a much more powerful god than the god of religion, namely Money (value). Money, in
everyday thought, proclaims itself as ruler of the world, as the sole source of power. Ricardo (taking the place of
Feuerbach) has shown that that is not so: he has discovered 'by analysis' that the 'earthly core of the misty
creations' of economics (the religion of money) is human labour, as the substance of value. However, Ricardo
treats value in the same way as Feuerbach treats god: as a timeless, a-historical feature of the human condition.
‘Political economy has indeed analysed, however incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what
lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its
product and labour-time by the magnitude of that value. These formulae, which bear it stamped upon them in
unmistakeable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery
over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulae appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a selfevident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself.’ (1965, pp. 80-81) The result is that Ricardo, like
Feuerbach, puts humans at the centre of the world, but leaves humanity entrapped in a timeless, unchanging
vacuum of powerlessness. It is only by tracing the production of value and money by social, historical human
practice that the critique of the Power of Money (and powerlessness of humans) becomes a theory of human antipower, of the anti-power of human practice.
Genetic criticism is crucial, therefore, to the understanding of existing phenomena as historically specific, and
therefore changeable, forms of social relations. In a footnote to the passage on political economy just quoted, Marx
says: ‘Even Adam Smith and Ricardo, the best representatives of the school, treat the form of value as a thing of
no importance, as having no connexion with the inherent nature of commodities. The reason for this is not solely
because their attention is entirely absorbed in the analysis of the magnitude of value. It lies deeper. The value-form
of the product is not only the most abstract, but is also the most universal form, taken by the product in bourgeois
production, and stamps the production as a particular species of social production, and thereby gives it its special
historical character. If then we treat this mode of production as one eternally fixed by Nature for every state of
society, we necessarily overlook that which is the diferentia specifica of the value-form, and consequently of the
commodity-form, and of its further developments, money-form, capital-form, &c.’ (1965, p. 81) It is genetic criticism
that opens up the question of form, that helps us to understand that our power-to exists in the form of being denied,
that points us towards the all-important question of the force and reality of that which exists in the form of being
These examples make it clear that the genetic method is not just a question of applying a superior logic. Marx's
method is sometimes described as based on the logical 'derivation' of categories (money from value, capital from
money, etc). This is correct, but in so far as the derivation, or the genetic link, is understood in purely logical terms,
then the core of Marx's approach is misunderstood.. The claim that Marx's method is scientific is not a claim that its
logic is superior, or that it is more rigorous, but that it follows in thought (and therefore consciously takes part in) the
movement of the process of doing. Genesis can only be understood as human genesis, as human power-to. Marx’s
method is above all politically important.
Criticism, understood as an analytical and genetic movement, is the movement of defetishisation, the theoretical
voice of the scream. Criticism is both destructive and regenerative. It is destructive because it is directed
relentlessly against everything that is. It destroys is-ness itself. No identitarian statement, no claim (whether ‘left’,
‘right’ or ‘centre’) that something is something, can be immune from the destructive force of criticism. However,
criticism is not solely destructive: the destruction of being is at the same time the recuperation of doing, the
restoration of human power-to. In so far as criticism destroys that which denies, it is also the emancipation of that
which is denied. Criticism is emancipatory to the extent to which it is destructive.
The recuperation of doing is, of course, just a theoretical recuperation. The being which we criticise, the objectivity
which we criticise, is not a mere illusion, it is a real illusion. There is a real separation of doing and done, of subject
and object. The objects which we create really do stand over against us as something alien, as things that are.
Genetic criticism involves the recuperation of our lost subjectivity, the understanding that those alien objects are
the product of our own self-alienated subjectivity, but the objects do not cease to be alienated objects just because
of our criticism. Their objectivity is not the result of our lack of understanding but of the self-alienated process of
work which produced them. To say this is not at all to minimise the importance of theory, but to make the obvious
point that theory makes sense only if it is understood as part of the more general struggle for the real recuperation
In the context of this struggle, it is important to emphasise that the doing that is recovered is not an individual but a
social doing. In order to understand the genesis of phenomena, in order to understand the origin of fetishised
appearances, we are always brought back to social doing and the form in which it exists. Understanding the origin
of money, for example, is not a question of saying ‘x made it’, but seeing that money is generated by the
organisation of human doing as labour to produce commodities for a market. Money, like value, like the state, like
capital, are, as Marx points out, forms of social relations, but it is crucial to understand that social relations are
relations between doers, between active subjects. The doing that is recovered through genetic criticism is social
doing, what we have called the ‘social flow of doing’.
This social doing is not just something in the past, it is present substratum. That is all-important in understanding
the force of our scream. That which is denied, social doing, is not just the historical origin of the being which denies
that doing, it is its present inescapable substratum. The genetic critique of money (in chapter 1 of Capital) does not
just point to the historical origin of money: it reveals rather the continuous regeneration of money through the
existence of social doing as commodity producing labour. Money could not exist if doing did not exist as abstract
The understanding of fetishism as fetishisation makes it clear that genesis must be understood not just as historical
genesis but above all as present genesis. We do not ask simply 'how did value, money, state arise as forms of
social relations?' but rather 'how do value, money, state arise as forms of social relations? how are these forms
disrupted and re-created each day? how do we disrupt and recreate these forms each day?' Moving out from our
scream, we are confronted by a world that is fixed, a world of Is-ness. Criticism breaches that fixedness, first by
showing all phenomena to be forms, historical modes of existence of social relations, and now by showing that
these forms are highly volatile, highly unstable, constantly challenged, disrupted, re-formed, challenged again.
The doing that is revealed by genetic criticism, is not Pure Subjectivity. It is damaged subjectivity, the only kind we
know. Criticism seeks to understand social phenomena in terms of human creativity and the forms in which that
creativity exists. The man who makes religion is not a whole man. He is a sick, damaged, self-estranged man.
'Religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost
himself again.... Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit
of spiritless conditions'. (1973, p. 175) Similarly, in Capital, Marx does not derive all the categories of political
economy from human creativity but rather from the self-divided, self-antagonistic dual existence of human creativity
as abstract and concrete labour.
Genetic criticism points to the exclusive subjectivity of humanity. In that sense, it is a great chest-thumping cry of
power-to: 'it is we who create society, not God, not capital, not chance: therefore we can change it'. Our initial
scream of frustration here begins to become a scream of anti-power. On the other hand, if we create society in
such a way that it stands over against us as something alien, if we subjects create an objectivity that we do not
recognise as the expression of our own subjectivity, then it is because we ourselves are self-estranged, selfalienated, turned against ourselves.
There is a tendency, perhaps, for left-wing critics of capitalism, to adopt a moral high ground, to place ourselves
above society. Society is sick, but we are healthy. We know what is wrong with society, but society is so sick that
others do not see it. We are right, we have true consciousness: those who do not see that we are right are duped
by the sick society, enveloped in false consciousness. The scream of anger from which we started becomes so
easily a self-righteous denunciation of society, a moralistic elitism. Perhaps we should listen to the upholders of reality when they turn our scream against us and tell us that we are
sick, unreasonable, immature, schizophrenic. How can we possibly say that society is sick and that we are not?
What arrogance! And what nonsense! If society is sick, then of course we too are sick, since we cannot stand
outside society. Our cry is a cry against our own sickness which is the sickness of society, a cry against the
sickness of society which is our own sickness. Our cry is not just a cry against a society that is 'out there': it is
equally a cry against ourselves, for we are shaped by the out-there-ness of society, by the standing-over-againstus-ness of reality. It makes no sense for the subject to criticise the object in a holier-than-thou fashion when the
subject is (and is not) part of the object criticised and is in any case constituted by her separation (and nonseparation) from the object. Such holier-than-thou criticism assumes and therefore reinforces the separation of
subject and object which is the source of the sickness of both subject and object in the first place. It is better
therefore to assume from the beginning that criticism of society must also be criticism of ourselves, that struggle
against capitalism must be also struggle against the 'we' who are not only against but also in capitalism. To criticise
is to recognise that we are a divided self. To criticise society is to criticise our own complicity in the reproduction of
That realisation does not weaken our scream in any way. On the contrary, it intensifies it, makes it more urgent.