In memory of Robert Kurz (1943-2012) - Claus Peter Ortlieb

In memory of Robert Kurz (1943-2012) - Claus Peter Ortlieb

A brief review of the impact of the life and work of Robert Kurz by one of his colleagues, including excerpts from eulogies delivered on the occasion of Kurz’s death and a long excerpt from Kurz’s “Introduction” to his last, posthumously published book, Money without Value. General Outlines for the Transformation of the Critique of Political Economy.

In Memory of Robert Kurz (1943-2012) – Claus Peter Ortlieb

Robert Kurz died on July 18, 2012, at the age of 68. There is every reason to believe that the influence of his life’s work will continue to be felt long after his death, both with regard to his writings (see the appended list of his most important texts [not included in this English translation – American translator’s note]) as well as the direct impact Robert Kurz had on the people who knew him, which is quite evident in many obituaries. This influence was essentially the result of having become acquainted with his knowledge and convictions that were not susceptible to corruption or instrumentalization, as Daniel Späth says:

“As long as I have known him I have never seen him use his distinguished theoretical position in favor of tactical power interests nor did he ever consider critique to be the arena for the satisfaction of personal inclinations; arrogance and egocentrism were profoundly alien to him. That such accusations should occasionally be raised against him by some of his former colleagues must, to this extent, be attributed to the desire to shift onto the personal plane objective differences of content and their necessarily vehement forms of decision. For, as polemical as his texts and books may be, what emanates from his refined spirit and his convincing inexorability is a dispute over contents and over their transformation into a radical critique, rather than the need for self-promotion by means of mere denunciation. And for all the violent confrontations that Robert Kurz conducted and had to conduct in and with the left, when he could at times be very nasty with his pen, he never lost the hope that the left would someday free itself of its bourgeois residues, in order to finally pursue the project of an ‘emancipatory anti-modernity’.”

It was the unity of a person and his work and, consonant with that unity, the absence of any quest for power or personal vanity, that explain the impact that Robert had on his field of activity and on the projects in which he participated, but he also made some enemies, as Heribert Böttcher points out in the eulogy he delivered at Robert’s funeral:

“The challenge of human suffering never caused Robert to become a moralist, but made him think. This led him to an analysis that allowed him to recognize what it was that constituted what was wrong about the historical situation of capitalism: the valorization of value as an irrational end-in-itself, and—as he learned from Roswitha—the dissociation of the activities that contribute to the reproduction of life. Value and dissociation constitute the abstract rule of an automatic subject that condemns people to impotence and apathy. It is important to distinguish between that which is understood categorically as the essence of capitalism in the formal context of value and dissociation, abstract labor, the State, the subject, etc., and that which can be described as the manifestations of that essence. Changes on the outer surface of these manifestations do not affect the formal context nor do they affect, consequently, abstract domination. With this recognition, however, the roads leading to easy solutions and consolations are closed. The flight into the immediacy that is as jaded and as simplistic as political activism or into volunteering in the campaigns of the social movements is forestalled. It does not make any sense to invoke good labor against alienated labor, the State against the market, the subject against the object. One pole is not the solution for the other, but part of the problem that must be solved.

“A moralistic and activist response to the challenge of people’s suffering under capitalism might seem to be concrete. Actually, however, this response is abstract in a bad sense, because it abstracts from the objective mediation that makes people suffer palpably. To insist on the objective mediation of the suffering of human beings in capitalism and therefore on the indispensability of theory is so lucid that it might lead us to qualify such a person as Lucifer. The bearer of light is transformed into Satan. He who sheds the light of knowledge on a system that functions blindly suffers rejection, defamation and hostility on the part of those who cling to the reassuring pretense of familiar categories and strategies of action, and who thus fail to abandon the illusory and irrational ideas of abolishing capitalism within capitalism.

“It is not by chance that Robert’s thought was also always received with ignorance and hostility, sarcasm and ridicule, as well as accusations that he was isolated from practice and suffered from a failure to communicate. Robert, however, insisted on seeking the truth of what needed to be recognized. He resisted—to borrow the words of Adorno—‘the all but universal compulsion to confuse the communication of knowledge with knowledge itself, and to rate it higher, if possible….’. He insisted that ‘direct communication to everyone is not a criterion of truth’.

“To stand firm in the face of enmity and hostility is above all possible for people who are oriented towards private contemplation—contemplation understood as a persistent and obdurate attempt to go beyond the basis of existing relations, as an expression of the indomitable will of theoretical knowledge, that is, of knowledge that is oriented towards the totality. This is not undertaken to serve the zeal for the private accumulation of knowledge, but to bring knowledge to others or, in the language of mysticism, contemplata aliis tradere, to bring to others that which is contemplated. In the interest of knowledge and of humanity we can only hope that the knowledge that Robert bequeathed to us and to the public can be apprehended and further developed and will obtain the recognition that he was so often denied in his lifetime. We hope that there is still time for Robert’s thought to bear fruit, in order to forestall what he described as a catastrophe that is on the way to becoming a reality.”

From its very beginnings, Robert’s theoretical work defined the exigency of recognition of theory as the autonomous and constitutive moment of social emancipation. As he said in 1988 in the Manifest Auf der Suche nach dem verlorenen sozialistischen Ziel [In Search of the Lost Socialist Goal]:

“But on paper these avalanches of theoretical production never successfully captured and made recognizable the melody of the forms of capitalist socialization, in order to bring them into the foreground. Theory actually never obtained its rights, because it was never recognized as a moment with its own weight in the movement of social emancipation. The left, faced with today’s circumstances, only hums the various melodies of its own songs, declarations of intentions and political hocus-pocus in theory degraded into a mere INSTRUMENT. Revolutionary science lost its pride and its claws, because it was systematically demoted by the left as a whole to the Cinderella status of political platforms and a-scientific and pre-scientific forms of social life that it had to serve as the maidservant of legitimation. Since it never went beyond a means for political social goals, which themselves remained beyond the scope of critical reflection, revolutionary theory had to perish. The left’s understanding of theory, despite all its declarations of its socialist and communist intentions, remains, in the final analysis, a positivist bourgeois understanding. The subjective political goals are themselves always presupposed for theory, instead of being deduced from theory. This methodological declawing operation in the understanding of theory and the false immediacy of political will thus bore the hallmark of bourgeois immanence, even before the left had unveiled its most recent example of red-black-and-green citizenship.”

The question of the relation between theory and praxis is revealed, in the development of the project of the critique of dissociation and of value, as the main source and constantly smoldering hotbed of misunderstandings and enmities, even in the obituaries, in which Robert Kurz is accused of being “isolated from practice” and of “closing himself off in a higher and higher theoretical ivory tower”. In his text, Grau is des Lebens Goldner Baum und Grun die Theorie [Grey Is the Golden Tree of Life, and Green is Theory] he responds to these accusations. This is how he concludes his response:

“A truly arrogant presumption on the part of theoretical reflection would be the pretense to only wanting to ‘derive’ the abolition of capitalism, because this would itself mean a retreat into the objectivity of structuralist theory; everything ‘derivative’ is per se the prisoner of the camp of capitalist immanence. Conversely, the same thing is true of an ‘existential’ intentionality with a basis in the theory of action and indifferent to the real fetishist objectivization. The intentionality of transcendence, to the contrary, has to confront precisely the false ruling objectivity; and this is only possible to the extent that theoretical reflection, as such, is resolutely practiced in a continuous way, even beyond its own starting point. For that reason, what is needed is a conscious distance of critical theory from all existing practice.

“The illusory attempt to dispel this distance comes from two directions. On the one hand, it comes from the ‘activists’ of praxis itself, who express their dissatisfaction with the ‘caloric value’ of theory for its actions and seemingly self-evident accomplishments. In this case, these ‘activists’ are frequently not the direct bearers of social resistance on the fronts of the crisis of negative socialization, but rather political activists, members of leftist ‘circles’, etc., that only have an external relation to social struggles, or that only simulate social struggles. They fail with regard to their possible activity of mediation, by simply acting like the organizers that Adorno mentions. On the other hand, however, the false pretension to praxis also comes from theoretical elaboration itself, when its bearers do not maintain the proper distance and become anxious to merge with existing forms of praxis that are easily mystified. In both cases, critical theory truly becomes superfluous, or it is transformed into a mere ‘homily’, a kind of edifying literature for the operations of an activism that, at bottom, could also be disseminated without it, with its action alone legitimized, so that its practitioners can feel comfortable in their narrow-mindedness. Critical theory can even become the target of the enmity of these states of consciousness; as Marx said in his Introduction to the First Edition of Capital, the motto of the great Florentine also applied to him: Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti!

In all the projects in which Robert Kurz participated with his writings he always promoted the development of theory—which he largely took for granted as understood—beyond the existing state of the debate. This is also the case in his last book, Geld ohne Wert [Money without Value], completed shortly before and published shortly after his death. The invocations included in that book are summarized in the subtitle, General Outlines for the Transformation of the Critique of Political Economy. In this book Robert has left us a legacy whose assimilation will engage our attention for a long time.

Throughout the book, Robert Kurz confronts the “New Reading of Marx” (M. Heinrich, among others) and “The New Orthodoxy” (W. F. Haug, among others), both of which he regards as “being equally distant from Marx”. In the Introduction to his book he explains why:

“In contrast with these works, it must be decided whether there will be a transformation in Marx’s theory in the sense of driving the theoretical revolution forward, or else creating a new kind of revisionism. At the heart of this process we necessarily encounter the fundamental categories of the critique of political economy and its status. There are at least five complexes of questions that must be addressed and clarified in this respect, and the present attempt can only set forth a preliminary delimitation of the terrain in order to provide a summary of the main outlines of the inevitable theoretical conflict.

“The first complex of questions involves the question of knowing to what extent Marx’s categories do not represent merely theoretical categories or a merely hypothetical ‘model’, but are instead real categories or, according to Marx, ‘objective forms of existence’, to which correspond ‘objective forms of thought’. In accordance with this latter conception, however, the difference between the real historical relation and its own theoretical reflection still is not entirely erased. It is the case that in theory the status of the categories must be something other than in reality. Hence the famous ‘problem of exposition’ in the sequential development of Marx’s theory, which has been highlighted by the ‘New Reading of Marx’, but which has by no means been adequately resolved.

“The second complex refers to the historicity of the categories in a dual sense. On the one hand, this is due to their status in pre-modern or pre-capitalist history. Should they be understood as hybrid or even trans-historical formations, at least for the so-called higher cultures approximately since the Neolithic revolution, or should they be applicable in the strict sense only to capitalism? What is the crucial difference, and how can the primordial historical constitution of capital be translated into categories? On the other hand the status of the categories within the internal history of capitalism must be determined. Does this involve forms of existence that are in themselves dynamic that can only always play the same role in theoretical abstraction, or are they in themselves static, so that they are only confronted by a history of external and merely empirical events? The answer to this question will determine not only whether or not we know if a definitive exposition of ‘capital in general’ is at all possible, but also whether there is an immanent historical limit to the valorization of capital (crisis theory).

“The third complex involves the relation between the categories and the capitalist totality or the ‘global process’ (Marx) of capital which is only addressed in the third volume of Marx’s principal work. Here, the question of the status of the categories refers to the relation between the particular and the social generality. Can the categories of the critique of political economy be conceptually represented in the particular commodity and in the individual capital, or must they be perceived from the perspective of the categories of the totality which, as such, are only applicable to the whole and must appear to be erroneous from the perspective of the individual economic subjects and their actions? This also implies that Marx’s concept of ‘individual value’ is erroneous and is due merely to his ‘problem of exposition’, in which implicitly and contrary to his intentions he manifests the ‘methodological individualism’ of bourgeois social science, obstructing the pursuit of the theoretical revolution.

“The fourth complex reflects the status of the categories in the relation between essence and appearance. Is it true that in the case of the categories of the critique of political economy what is being addressed are the determinations of the essence of a ‘transcendental apriorism’ that cannot be manifested as such in a direct form, but which still constitutes social reality, or can the capitalist phenomena be understood in the categories directly and exist independently? As real transcendent categories they cannot be empirical, and if they are understood as empirical they do not need a transcendent definition. In the first case, theory and empirical knowledge cannot be based on each other and phenomena must first of all be deciphered; in the second case, essence and appearance, and with them also theory and empirical knowledge, coincide in a direct way, or the categories themselves are directly empirical. In that case, the only things that exist, truly speaking, are phenomena, on the one hand, and their ‘scientific’ observation, on the other.

“The fifth complex constitutes in a way the conclusion of total categorical understanding. Is the status of the categories of the critique of political economy positive or negative? In this context, ‘positive’ must be understood in the sense of a neutral external objectivity with which a subject of knowledge is confronted. This is the fundamental constellation of the world of science that excludes the concept of critique and, with it, indeed, also the subtitle of Marx’s Capital. In this case, critique must be supplanted by an equally external ethics. From this perspective, the categories are not only mere models of thought (as is implied by the first complex of questions), but are also related to an unquestionable objectivity whose ‘laws’ must only be identified and addressed instrumentally. If, on the other hand, the status of the categories is negative, that is, they only take place in the modus of the critique of the object itself that must be destroyed and whose ‘laws’ must be abolished.”

“From this brief summary we may already discern that the further development of Marx’s theoretical revolution is, in epistemological terms, fundamentally the critique of science and that it must repudiate the positivist understanding of capital that was still characteristic of the Marxism of the workers movement as a whole (and this applies to orthodoxy as well as revisionism), which has since been so happily reborn from its ashes in a postmodernist reformulation. An essential moment in this abolition of positivist thought is constituted by the radical critique of ‘methodological individualism’, not only as referred to above in the Third Complex, but as a moment embracing all the aspects of a new interpretation of the critique of political economy.”

The program thus formulated is carried out in Money without Value with respect to reality and to the concept of money. Money existed long before capitalism, for which reason the capitalist categories that are today manifested in money (abstract labor, value, commodity form) are hastily conceived as trans-historical, as if they had “always” existed. This is an error, because the role played by money in pre-capitalist relations, as “symbolic sacrificial objectivity”, a completely different role than the one it now performs, was not money in the current meaning of the word, and did not represent any value. Even in the development of bourgeois society, from the first dawning of the modern era up until fully developed industrial capitalism, the social function of money underwent various metamorphoses. From this we may correctly conclude that, once again, capitalism has an internal history and is not the eternal repetition of the same. Money without Value therefore possesses a dual importance: it describes not just the past, but also the future development of the self-devalorization of value and of the “historic crisis of money” that it manifests.

The book concludes with the dismal perspectives manifested by a “return of the archaic”, and opposes the widespread “return” “to the terrain of the capital fetish that is no longer capable of reproduction”:

“Anyone who still says with regard to the fetish of capital and its immanent ‘rationality’ that it was a positive step in the history of humanity (this is true of the idealists of exchange, as historical idiots of the ideology of the Enlightenment) must be designated under the conditions of the 21st century as a post-religious maniac, who is no less of a maniac than the pseudo-religious maniacs of our time. This rationality is by its very nature destroyed in its own historical consequences. This state of emergency of the paradoxical modern sacrificial relation that periodically arose in the past has now become the normal state for the majority of the population in world society at the beginning of the 21st century and is gradually penetrating the capitalist centers. Even on the left one can note an irrational identification with and panic concerning the fundamental sacrificial relation, because people are intellectually trained exclusively in the categories of this relation and repress the ‘other’ Marx of the radical critique of the system of ‘abstract wealth’.

“The flight towards the co-management of the crisis can only lead to complicity with human sacrifice, objectively and finally consummated with full consciousness; no longer in the form of a sacrifice of abstracted labor energy until the underlying human material is sucked dry and allowed to die, but instead, after this compulsion has become objectively obsolete, now merely in the form of ‘euthanasia’ for the masses who cannot be exploited in capitalist terms, which will be carried out amidst a breakdown of social values. After money has been transformed from the symbolic victim into the general objectivity of value in the system of ‘abstract labor’, now ‘money without value’ can regress to quasi-archaic relations on this devalorized and de-substantialized basis, which is no longer, however, subject to any kind of limited ritual, but ends up in a massacre and in a rudderless shipwreck of civilization. If the metamorphoses of money in its passage from human sacrifice to the symbolic object of substitution constitute a partial process of civilization on the unabolished basis of fetishistic relations, the fetish of capital will unleash a reified sacrificial movement that will result in a regression of all the civilizing elements of previous human history. The blood-stained Aztec priests were inoffensive and congenial compared to the bureaucrats of sacrifice to the fetish of global capital which has encountered its immanent historic limits.”

This depiction is obviously not the result of the unfolding of a process of natural law, as Robert Kurz never tires of pointing out: the fetish of capital is made by human beings and it can also be eliminated by them. Barbarism is not inevitable.

Claus Peter Ortlieb
November 2012

Originally published under the title, “Zur Erinnerung an Robert Kurz (1943-2012)” in EXIT! Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft, No. 10 (November 2012), ISBN 978-3-89502-346-0, 272 p., 13 Euros, Horlemann Verlag, Heynstr. 28, 13187 Berlin, Deutschland, Tel +49-(0)30 49 30 76 39, Email:

, Portuguese translation by Boaventura Antunes .

Translated from the Portuguese translation in October-November 2014.