Open Marxism 2: Theory and Practice

open marxism 2

Open Marxism 2: Theory and Practice was released with volume 1 in 1992. The introduction to volume 2 is included below along with the full PDF.

For a fuller overview of Open Marxism, see the introduction to volume 1 here.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on February 6, 2011

This volume contains the following articles:

  • Introduction - Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn, Kosmas Psychopedis
  • Against Historical Materialism: Marxism as First-Order Discourse - Richard Gunn
  • Historical Materialist Science, Crisis and Commitment - Joseph Fracchia and Cheyney Ryan
  • Interpretation of the Class Situation Today: Methodological Aspects - Antonio Negri
  • The Inversion of Class Perspective in Marxian Theory: From Valorisation to Self-Valorisation - Harry Cleaver
  • Crisis, Fetishism, Class Composition - John Holloway

Edited by Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn and Kosmas Psychopedis, 1992.


The present volume continues where our first left off: we turn from the notion of dialectics and history to the notion of the unity of theory and practice. Theory and practice cannot be separated from the open Marxist debate on history and dialectics; both presuppose and are the result of each other. Such was implied in our introduction to Volume One where we outlined the notion of an open Marxism. In the present introduction we take the ‘definition’ of open Marxism for granted and launch directly into addressing the issue of theory and practice within the open Marxist debate. The aim of the volume is to elucidate the relationship between theory and practice and to explore some of the issues to which it gives rise. These issues include the epistemological foundations of Marxist theory (Gunn/Fracchia and Ryan), class and self-determination (Cleaver/Negri) and fetishism and class composition (Holloway). None of our contributors would be likely to agree with each other on the precise understanding of the unity of theory and practice, nor for that matter on the relation between structure and struggle upon which the notion of the unity of theory and practice turns. However, a common concern of our contributors is their rejection of an understanding of practice as merely attendant upon the unfolding of structural or deterministic ‘laws’. This common concern might be summed up in terms of an understanding of class as the constitutive power of history and of commitment as a requirement for taking social responsibility.

In our introduction to the first volume we emphasised that open Marxism entails the openness of categories themselves. The openness of categories — an openness on to practice — obtains as a reflexive critique of ideologies and social phenomena, which, for their part, exist as moments of historically asserted forms of class struggle. Open Marxism’s starting point is the class antagonism between capital and labour. An understanding of the ‘primacy of class’ implies a constant change on the part of social ‘reality’ and a constant change in the form of the class struggle. In turn, the understanding of social reality as constantly moving implies the incompleteness of categories as the social development appears in various forms and within changing empirical circumstances. Instead of the theoretical certainty of a Marxism of dogmatic closure, open Marxism reclaims the incompleteness of the process of thinking and readopts the unpredictability of the ‘legitimation of chance’1 i.e. the unpredictability of the movement of class struggle. Following upon the contributions in Volume One, the understanding of social objectivity as alienated subjectivity entails an internal relation, rather than an external dualism, between structure and struggle.

The separation between structure and struggle entails a deterministic conceptualisation of capital in that capital becomes a structure of inescapable lines of development, subordinating social practice to pre-determined ‘laws’. On the other hand, understanding capital as a social relation implies that there are no inescapable lines of development. Alleged ‘lines of development’ are the fetished forms of the capital-labour relation itself, i.e. of class struggle. Open Marxism insists on the antagonistic nature of social existence. This being so, the Marxist understanding of a unity of theory and practice entails not the theoretical suppression of class struggle, but the invocation of class struggle as the movement of the contradiction in which capital, itself, consists.

All of this carries with it pungent implications for the way in which Marxism approaches the issue of ‘class’. If there were to be a dualism between structure and struggle, then nothing less than a one-sided abstraction of capital would obtain. Such abstraction, in turn, assumes that the logic of capital is the key to the emergence and development of the working class. Determinist Marxism and capital-logic Marxism have marched together, whether in Leninist-revolutionary or in reformist or in post-fordist guise. Capital sets the questions, and it is up to the working class to propose whatever answers it sees fit.

Within this tradition, ‘class’ is construed in sociological terms. Debates on the score of whether the proletariat is to be identified with the manual working class, on the score of whether the manual working class still counts as the majority of workers, and on attempts to identify a ‘new working class’ or a ‘new petty bourgeoisie’2 all take as their basic problematic the question: to which class can this or that individual be assigned? More recent versions of the same problematic have foregrounded the notion of ‘contradictory’ class relations,3 but this renders the problematic more complex without challenging its basic features. The notion of classes as pigeonholes or ‘locations’ to which the sociologist must assign individuals ultimately invokes static and struggle-disconnected structures. Current fordist/post-fordist debates about the class significance of work at computer terminals or in the service industries are to the same effect. These are quantitative conceptions of class, presupposing that the political significance of class can be established by counting heads. The alternative qualitative conception of class, which addresses it not as matter of grouping individuals but as a contradictory and antagonistic social relation, has hitherto been a somewhat marginalised tradition of Marxist thought.

This latter tradition has always insisted that social phenomena have to be seen as forms assumed by class struggle, as forms in and against which social conflict obtains. Capital, it suggests, is a social relation of an antagonistic kind. Capital is therefore always in a position of having to recompose itself by reintegrating the working class into the capital-relation. The conceptual foundation for this approach is the circumstance that the relation between capital and labour is asymmetrical: capital depends upon labour, for its valorisation, but labour for its part in no way depends, necessarily, on capital’s rule. The political foundation for such an approach is to be discovered in the history of class struggle — frequently ignored or marginalised, even by Marxist theoreticians — over the extraction of surplus labour which has occurred ever since capitalism, as a reified social ‘system’, got into gear.

The question of ‘form’, understood as ‘mode of existence’, was discussed in Volume One: the question addressed in the present volume is that of the implications for class and the unity of theory and practice of this understanding of ‘form’.

Open Marxism urges both the opening of concepts on to practice, whose capacity for renewal and innovation always surprises us, and the mediating of that practice through categories of a critical and self-critical kind. Thereby it transcends the dichotomy: theory or practice. The notion that theory and practice form a unity is as old as Marxism itself; however, traditional schools of Marxism — and these include the dialectical materialist Marxism-Leninism of the Stalin years as well as the ‘structuralism’ of more recent decades — have tended to see the theorist as standing outside of society and as reflecting, externally, upon it. Within such conceptual frameworks, the unity of theory and practice can amount only to the application of theory to practice. Structuralism and voluntarism are dichotomous, though conjoint, outcomes of such an approach. Structuralism and voluntarism are complementary inasmuch as they are the result of the separation between allegedly abstract laws and subjectivity. Open Marxism moves beyond such a dichotomy by acknowledging theory to obtain in and of practice and by acknowledging practice (that is, human or social practice) to occur only in some reflectively considered, or unreflectively assumed, set of terms. Theory can be no less concrete than practice, and practice can be no less abstract than theory. We do not have two movements dualistically counter-posed but a single theoretico-practical class movement which, to be sure, contains differences and diversity within itself.

A single theoretico-practical class movement of this kind entails the practical reflexivity of theory and the theoretical reflexivity of practice as different moments of the same totalisation. If there were to be, as structuralist approaches urge, a disunity of subjectivity and objectivity, then there could be no question of an internal relation between social phenomena or of, what is the same thing, social moments subsisting as one another’s mode of existence (or ‘form’). Hence, form-analysis and the unity of theory and practice imply one another. The internal relation between theory and practice, or between subjectivity and objectivity, connotes the theoretical difficulties, and failures, of structuralist approaches: first of all capital is seen by such approaches as a logical construct, moving within a particular set of objective laws, whereas, secondly, any historical analysis renders necessary the reintroduction of subjective aspects. Hence, the apparently opposed terms ‘structuralism’ and ‘voluntarism’ stand related to one another in a complementary way.

The interlinked themes of form-analysis and the unity of theory and practice introduce us, directly, on to the terrain of critique. Precisely the dualistic separations of a fetished world — the separations of subject from object, of struggle from structures, of theory from practice and of one ‘region’ of society from another — are to be called in question rather than being inscribed, in taken-for-granted fashion, as the principles of social thought. Conversely, critique implies form-analysis and the thesis of the unity of theory and practice. It does so because only if social forms (including theory’s own form) are understood as internally related modes of existence can the fetishism of discrete ‘regions’ and ‘entities’ and ‘facts’ and ‘ideologies’ be called to account.

This approach to critique allows us to see what is wrong with various allegedly critical schools of contemporary thought. The case of structuralism has already been discussed: it premises itself upon a distinction between regions of social existence (e.g. ‘the economic’ and ‘the political’), thereby inscribing as a methodological principle the fetishism which criticism contends against. A related case is that of ‘Critical Realism’, which (cf. Psychopedis in Volume One) employs Kantian transcendental argument in such a way as to consolidate rather than criticise the phenomena it explores.4 The ‘Rational Choice’ or ‘Analytical’ Marxism of the 1980s, similarly, takes for granted a conception of bourgeois individuality and a politics/economics separation á la structuralism.5 Two further schools of thought which characterise themselves as critical share similar deficiencies. Post-modernism declares against ‘teleological’ conceptions of history but places itself at the mercy of, precisely, history by declaring virtually all historical analysis to be of a teleological sort.6 It draws its own historical teeth. Philosophy of science, which, like post-modernism, has always stood opposed to historical teleologies,7 has in recent years abutted on to history8 but remains equivocal as between philosophical and merely historical accounts.

What is lacking in all of these approaches is that they fail to deepen critique into a theory-practice unity. They advertise theorising which is either merely theory of practice (as in structuralism) or merely theory which is in practice (e.g. post-modernism). At most, as in the Critical Realism version of philosophy of science, they see theory and practice as causally (and, therefore, still externally) linked. What lies beyond their horizons is a conception of theory as in and of practice, i.e. which is analytical and critical and social-scientific and philosophical all in the same movement and in the same breath. Only a practically reflexive critique can achieve this. Or, in other words, critique can be achieved only in the light of the category of form. Form, once freed from the grip of structuralism and empiricism which understands it merely in terms of the different species something or other can take, signals the mode(s) of existence of the contradictory movement in which social existence consists. Critique moves within its object and, at the same time, is a moment of its object. Thus, critique implies a unity of theory and practice which permits a demystification of ‘structures’, ‘empirical facts’ and ‘ideologies’ as fetished forms assumed by social relations. The forms assumed by social relations are the object of critique which, itself, is an open process: there is no externality to the form(s) assumed by social relations. On the same score, critique is essentially practical as it theorises the form-giving fire of social relations. Critique implies form-analysis and vice-versa. ‘All social relations are essentially practical’ (Marx).

Richard Gunn, whose recent strongly debated critique of Critical Realism maps out a fresh approach to questions of Marxist methodology, seeks to renew the tradition of a theory/practice-based Marxism stemming from, amongst others, Lukács and to deploy the insights of such a tradition against historical materialist thought in both its old-style and its new-style versions. Gunn’s conception of the unity of theory and higher-order metatheory criticises versions of ‘Marxism’ which distinguish between structure and subjectivity. His contention is that once we attempt a theory of history and society we sever, at source, the unity of theory and practice which Marx projects.

Joseph Fracchia, whose recent work on Marxism and philosophy reconstructs the conception of critique, and Cheyney Ryan, who has published on the themes of equality and exploitation, pick up on the question of the unity of theory and practice by developing an argument the context for which is twofold: post-modern thought and contemporary developments in philosophy of science. Their intriguing contention is that the work of Thomas Kuhn can help us to overcome not only the deficiencies of post-modernism, but also the separation of theory from practice inherent in philosophy-of-science style of thought. Their reformulation of Kuhn allows them to bring the practical category of ‘commitment’ on to centre-stage. Theoretical commitment and practical openness go hand in hand.

Antonio Negri, who is known for his work on Marx and class and who has been a leading theorist within the autonomist Marxist tradition, rejects a sociology of class cast in terms of capitalist reproduction. Negri’s stress is on the power of labour as constitutive of social activity; this emphasis allows him to construe social development in terms of revolutionary constitution and rupture. In Negri’s view, communism as a constitutive power obtaining (already) within, and against, capital is the requisite category for any theory purporting to focus on issues of class. The possibility of a constitution of communism he discusses in terms of the category of ‘value’. Contrary to seeing value as an economistic ‘measure’, Negri stresses value’s qualitative and political dimension. Negri’s view of value is at the opposite pole from that favoured by Marxist ‘economics’ and ‘political science’ . Contrary to these views, Negri stresses the real and radical possibility of communist constituent power opened up at the present time.

Harry Cleaver, who has published extensively on the political dimension of Marx’s Capital and on the constitutive power of labour, works within the autonomist marxist tradition associated with Panzieri, Tronti and Negri. In his contribution he contends that ‘new social movements’ need to be understood in terms of class. He focuses on the self-determinating struggle against capitalist appropriation and destruction of social life. The categories of Marxism are discussed in terms of ‘inversion’, or double-sidedness. Crucially, the inverse side of valorisation is ‘disvalorisation’, i.e. loss of identity and the destruction of traditional values (in the plural) as a consequence of capital’s parasitic appropriation of creativity. Resistance to this appropriation involves ‘self-valorisation’ - that is, the emancipatory project of the working class.

John Holloway, who has published widely on the state and class practice, offers the category of ‘fetishism’ as allowing us to understand the internal relation between ‘value’ and class struggle. Social structures become fetished in the same movement as they are studied separately from the struggle in and through which they subsist. Theory becomes fetished in the same movement as it fails to recognise its inherence in a practical world, and practice as understood by such theory is construed in a fetished — a ‘structuralist’ — way. The critique of fetishism and the thesis of a unity of theory and practice, accordingly, walk hand in hand. Holloway’s critique of fetishism draws together the concerns of our two volumes, by urging that theories which take their object for granted, instead of asking why their content takes the form it does, reinforce the fetishism subsisting in practical life.

  • 1Cf. K. Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth, 1973), p. 109
  • 2On ‘new petty bourgeoisie’ see S. Clarke, ‘Marxism, Sociology and Poulantzas’s Theory of the State’, Capital & Class, no. 2 (1977); J. Holloway and S. Picciotto (eds) State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (London, 1978), Intro.
  • 3See E. O. Wright: ‘Class Boundaries in Advanced Capitalist Societies’, New Left Review no. 98 (London, 1976); Classes (London, 1985); ‘What is Middle about the Middle Class?’ , in J. Roemer (ed.), Analytical Marxism (Cambridge, 1986).
  • 4R. Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality (London, 1989); for critique see R. Gunn, ‘Reclaiming Experience’, Science as Culture, no. 11, (1991).
  • 5For the politics/economics separation see G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford, 1978); on individualism see J. Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge, 1985), ch. 1. Elster makes it clear that he defends individualism in a methodological sense. However, this defence of his procedure involves him in separating methodology from first-order social thought. The same separation is to be found in philosophy of science. The difficulty is that a theory/metatheory separation involves a theory/practice separation as well: see R. Gunn in this volume. Further on analytical/rational choice Marxism see Roemer (ed), Analytical Marxism (Cambridge 1986); A. Carling, ‘Rational Choice Marxism’, New Left Review, no. 160 (1986).
  • 6See J.F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester, 1984). Lyotard declares against ‘metanarratives’, such as teleological stories about the emergence of freedom or truth, and, in their place, argues for a plurality of ‘language games’ each of which entails a struggle for power. In effect he renews, in a fresh rhetorical guise, the pluralism of 1950s Anglo-Saxon political science. He replays the old theme of an ‘end of ideology’. The end of ideology becomes the end of history itself. Lyotard’s discussion, accordingly, remains ahistorical. Ahistorical analyses place themselves at the mercy of the history — indeed, of the metanarratives - they deplore.
  • 7 Cf. K. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (London, 1957); also his Conjectures and Refutations (London, 1963), ch. 16.
  • 8 The founding text of post-empiricist philosophy of science is T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962). Cf. P. Feyerabend, Against Method (London, 1975); R. J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Oxford, 1983); and the rehabilitation of pragmatism in R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Oxford, 1980).