Open Marxism 3: Emancipating Marx

open marx 3

Open Marxism 3: Emancipating Marx was released in 1995. The introduction to volume 3 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: Emancipating Marx - Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn, John Holloway, Kosmas Psychopedis
  • Capitalism and Reproduction - Mariarosa Dalla Costa
  • Emancipating Explanation - Kosmas Psychopedis
  • Why did Marx Conceal his Dialectical Method? - Helmut Reichelt
  • Hegel's Philosophy of Right and Marx's Critique: A Reassessment - Robert Fine
  • The Dialectics of Rights: Transitions and Emancipatory Claims in Marxian Tradition - Manolis Angelidis
  • The Complicity of Posthistory - Adrian Wilding
  • From Scream of Refusal to Scream of Power: The Centrality of Work - John Holloway
  • Capital as Subject and the Existence of labour - Werner Bonefeld

Edited by Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn, John Holloway and Kosmas Psychopedis, 1995.

Introduction: Emancipating Marx

The present volume continues the themes developed in the first two volumes of Open Marxism (Pluto Press, 1992). The title of this volume, Emancipating Marx, is intended to be understood in a double sense, integrating the two main concerns of the Open Marxism project. The first concern is the emancipation of Marx (and Marxism) from the sociological and economic heritage which has grown up around it under the banner of 'scientific Marxism', the detrimental effect of which was discussed in our introduction to Volume I of Open Marxism. The emancipation of Marx implies at the same time the understanding of Marx (and Marxism) as emancipating: hence the second sense of the title and the second concern of the project. We regard (open) Marxism as the site of a self-reflection which clears the way towards a defetishised and emancipated social world. Only if we work to clear the massive deadweight of positivist and scientistic/economistic strata can Marxism emerge again as a constitutive moment in that project of emancipation which is its heartland and its home.

Emancipating Marx continues the issues addressed in our first two volumes through a critical analysis of Marxism's false friends and through an emphasis on the emancipatory perspective of Marxism's thought.

The Open Marxism project does not aim to reconstruct Marx's thought, in the sense of presenting an interpretation which masquerades as the sole 'correct' one. Such an approach would not be helpful, for it would presuppose the possibility of a uniform and finished interpretation of Marx's work. Instead we wish to reconstruct the pertinent theses of his work with a view to freeing them from the ballast of their dogmatic presentation.

Central to our approach is an emphatic endorsement of Marx's notion of a unity between theory and practice.2 In the tradition of Marxist 'orthodoxy', the dialectical unity of theory and practice is taken as referring to a ‘field of application’: that is, the practical significance of theory is understood in terms of it being a scientific guide to political practice. This understanding of the relationship between theory and practice is highly misleading. Social practice is construed as something which exits outside the theoretical ‘realm’ and, conversely, theory is understood as something which exists outside the ‘realm’ of practice. There obtains thus a dualism between ‘thought’ and ‘social practice’, between ‘philosophy’ and the ‘human world’. Just as in bourgeois theory, ‘theory’ is transformed into an epistemology which can be applied, from the outside, to a social world which remains external to — and which is at the mercy of — theoretical judgments. The dualist conception of the relationship between theory and practice not only presupposes the social validity of theoretical concepts, but also assumes that the application of these concepts supplies an understanding of a social world. Theory's capacity for supplying judgments on a social world derives from theory's own reified logical and epistemological approach. In other words, the dualism between theory and practice makes theory a reified ‘thing’ at the same time as the social world is perceived as a ‘thing’ of ‘objective’ inquiry. Value-judgments about the good and the nasty are excluded and deemed ‘unscientific’ and replaced by a value-neutral explanation of events, which merely serves to endorse the ‘positive’ as the only criterion of scientific work. Positivism and the relativism which is its obverse side only acknowledges formal contradictions, at best.

Within the orthodox tradition of Marxism, the dualism between theory and practice obtains in the form of a distinction between the logic of capital, on the one hand, and social practice, on the other. The contradictions of capitalism are seen as existing independently of social practice; they are conceived of as objective laws of capital. The development of these contradictions define the framework within which social practice develops. In this case, the specific contribution of Marxism to the comprehension of our social world is understood as the analysis of the objective conditions of social practice.

Modern versions of orthodox Marxism no longer even claim to be concerned with revolutionary transformation. In effect, they staked everything on the existence of a (communist or social democratic) revolutionary party. In the absence of such a party, therefore, revolutionary social change had to be postponed sine diem; and the concepts of the orthodox tradition, deprived of all revolutionary impetus, became transformed into the tenets of just another ‘school’ of social theory. With the abandonment of all revolutionary perspective, Marxist theory becomes just a more sophisticated theory of capitalist reproduction (or ‘regulation’). The only political perspective is then a ‘leftist!’ refashioning of the real world of capitalism: the acceptance of existing realities in order to articulate a viable hegemonic project and ensure its popular appeal so as to reform the institutions of social administration in a fair and just way.3 In sum, the political implications of orthodox Marxism, and its modern variants, are that Marxism has to refrain from the scholarly work of negation4 in favour of supplying sociological knowledge concerning the reformist opportunities already inscribed in objective development.

The concept of experience is at, the heart of the issue of emancipation. Experience, as used here, is quite different from, and opposed to, empiricist notions of experience. Empiricism construes experience as involving passivity, and endorsement of any status quo. By contrast, experience is here understood as constitution and negation and their unity:5 opposition and resistance against inhuman conditions which are the reality of capitalist relations of exploitation — slavery, genocide, dehumanisation of the social individual (especially women), the destruction of the environment, etc. This ‘list’, rather than being a sociological summary of a field of conflict-study and moral outcry, denotes a space of practice, opposition and resistance. As practical and negative, experience is inseparable from capitalist domination. It is the conscious attempt to theorise this experience, and to understand itself as part of this experience, that distinguishes emancipatory theory (open Marxism) from other approaches. Whereas structuralist or scientistic approaches deny or suppress experience (in the name of ‘objectivity’), emancipatory theory takes experience as its starting point and its substance. (This is not to fan into spontaneism, for spontaneism takes experience in its untheorised immediacy, forgetting that experience is shaped by, and shapes, the forms of the social world through which it exists). Furthermore, emancipatory theory implies the rejection of ‘economics’ since economics is constructed upon the supposition of constituted forms, that is, forms of social relations which are seen as finished, closed entities. Political theory — economic theory's complementary form — is likewise to be rejected, for it too is constructed on the presupposed formation of social relations; its project is that of constructing political norms and political institutions on the basis of proprietorial and individualistic rights. A theory which seeks to emancipate necessarily rejects explanations that entertain themselves with a scientistic ordering of concepts in so far as the starting point of such explanations is the disqualification of the experience of resistance-to-dehumanisation.

Marxism is an emancipatory theory and, as such, must always criticise not only a perverted social existence but, and at the same time, the perversion through which it itself exists. For Marxism, there is a need to be critical about the pre-conditions of critical theory itself. Theory which is, or has become, uncritical of itself becomes, necessarily, part of the fetishistic world and of its crisis.

The crisis of theory takes different forms. One of these is the dogmatic teleology of history, according to which the objective laws of capitalism will automatically lead on from capitalist necessity to socialist freedom. Another form is the romantic endorsement of the emancipatory subject which is seen as existing as unmediated human creativity, standing in a relation of direct confrontation with the capitalist world. In both cases, the revolutionary subject is seen as being external to its own perverted world.

These manifestations of a crisis of theory are characterised by the failure to mediate their practical concerns with the social form through which these concerns exist and which this practice sets out to transform. In contrast to an unmediated conception which ascribes objectivity to historical development, and against an equally unmediated notion of the subjectivity of historical practice, Marxism's continued self-reflection upon itself goes forward through the concept of mediation and the method of dialectics. Dialectical theory confronts existing social and theoretical forms with a comprehensive conception of content, materiality and humanity. These forms subsist in a reified and self-contradictory way.6 Thus, the contradictory integration between form and content underlies the possibility of critique and supplies materiality to the transcendence of existing forms. Social transcendence and social reproduction obtains as a unity (a self-contradictory unity) of unity and difference.

This dialectical tension between reproduction and transcendence cannot be addressed in scientistic terms, because it questions the separation between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ upon which scientism is founded. Dialectical theory presupposes value-judgments which negate the existing perversions of social existence in favour of a human world of autonomy, cooperation and social solidarity. These value-judgments both inform and are informed by our understanding of the experience of opposition and of resistance alike.

In the past, emancipatory theory has been reluctant to address directly the problems of 'values' as a constitutive element of dialectics, and has sought to hide behind the scientistic versions of Marxism. Values were derived from a social objectivity which, allegedly, was value-free and value-neutral. We wish to challenge this conception and propose a reassessment of this issue. It is of fundamental importance that the reconstruction of an emancipatory theory should not be drawn into the rejection of values as irrational. A Marxist theory which deems values to be irrational is treading the same path as bourgeois theory since Max Weber.

As in the previous volumes, the idea of Open Marxism is to mark out an area for discussion, rather than to lay down any theoretical or political line. This volume explores a number of thematic issues which are raised in each contribution in different form and with a different emphasis. These issues are: values and explanation, dialectics and history, theory and practice, as well as experience and emancipation. Our introduction has sought to indicate the coherence, and also the political and theoretical urgency, which underlie a thematising of these issues in an open way.

The contributions to this volume thus approach the issue of 'emancipating Marx' from different angles. In the opening essay of the collection, Mariarosa Dalla Costa focuses on the critique of contemporary capitalist development and argues vividly that the depredations of capitalist development (the escalating violence of so-called 'primitive accumulation ') make it unsustainable as a form of society. Particular attention is paid to the doubly antagonistic position of women, as unwaged workers in a waged society. She demands an alternative version of social development, where the social individual defends existing wage levels and welfare rights and, at the same time, reclaims the resources — and the happiness — which capital has expropriated in the past and present.

The three contributions by Fine, Angelidis and Reichelt all try to develop the Critical aspect of Marxism by going back to the texts of Hegel and Marx. Robert Fine's argument is centred on Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Against the traditional schools of interpretation associated with Colletti, Marcuse and Lowith, Fine emphasises the emancipatory and critical character of this work and shows the relevance of this understanding of Hegel for the development of an open Marxism. Manolis Angelidis analyses Marx's treatment of legal forms and norms, focusing in particular on the very early Marx. Angelidis argues that the analysis of rights relates to the cooperative character of the labour process and the manner in which this process is denied by the social form of capitalist society. The article by Helmut Reichelt also goes back to the very early Marx, namely to his doctoral thesis on Democritus and Epicurus. By tracing the ambiguities of Marx on the question of consciousness of the philosopher as theorising subject (and therefore his own consciousness), from the doctoral thesis to the later work, Reichelt seeks to establish the nature of Marx's dialectic and especially to understand why Marx did not supply an explicit account of his own conception of dialectics and of the dialectical exposition of categories.

The papers by Wilding and Psychopedis address the critique of the social sciences. Adrian Wilding's discussion of the ‘posthistorical’ analysis linked with postmodernism and the end of history debate leads him back to a consideration of Marx's concept of historical time and to the analysis of the genesis of homogeneous, abstract labour time, which, he argues, is the basis of the concepts of causality and predictability constructed by both the natural and the social sciences. Kosmas Psychopedis addresses the shortcomings of scientistic and relativist types of explanation in the social sciences. He takes the concepts of indeterminacy and contingency used by such theories and turns them back against the theories by showing their critical content. Against the background of a discussion of the Enlightenment understanding of causality and explanation, he assesses the crisis of the theory of explanation in the social sciences, focusing especially on Weber and on post-Keynesian thought.

The last two papers, by Holloway and Bonefeld, are concerned with overcoming the dualist separation between objectivity and subjectivity. John Holloway argues that the orthodox tradition is fatally weakened as a theory of struggle by a dualistic separation between the ‘objective’ (the movement of capital) and the ‘subjective’ (struggle). For him the only possible way in which this dualism can be overcome is genetically, by understanding the subject as producing the object. Werner Bonefeld also focuses on the issue of human practice, and particularly on the way in which practice is conceptualised in structuralist and autonomist approaches. He proposes to go beyond the dualist separation between objectivity and subjectivity and explores this issue by reference to the work of Max Horkheimer and the goal of a society where humans exist not as a resource but as a purpose.

All the contributions are attempts to colour a picture, to put together a jigsaw which is still in the making, to create a territory which has yet to be explored. The task is clear and desperately urgent: to open a theoretical tradition which has tended to become closed and dogmatic, a tradition which, despite all its tragic history, remains the most powerful tradition of negative thinking that exists.

  • 1We wish to thank Peter Burnham for his advice and criticism.
  • 2 We have explored this issue in our introduction to volume II of Open Marxism. See also the contributions by R. Gunn; H. Cleaver; J. Fracchia and Ch. Ryan; and J. Holloway in volume II.
  • 3See, for example, the Regulation Approach associated with Aglietta (A Theory of Capitalist Regulation, Verso, London, 1979) and the debate on Post-Fordism (Hirsch, 'Fordism and Post-Fordism' and Jessop, 'Polar Bears and Class Struggle'; both published in W. Bonefeld and J. Holloway (eds.), Post-Fordism and Social Form, Macmillan, London, 1991). Stuart Hall's (Road to Renewal, Verso, London, 1988) demand that the Left should learn from 'Thatcherism' is symptomatic.
  • 4Scholarly work is seen here, following Agnoli, as negation of all alienated social relations. See Agnoli, 'Destruction as the Determination of the Scholar in Miserable Times', Common Sense, no. 12, Edinburgh, 1992.
  • 5Hegel makes the same point: 'Inasmuch as the new true object issues from it, this dialectical movement which consciousness exercises on itself and which affects both its knowledge and its object, is precisely what is called experience' (G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977).
  • 6On this issue see Bonefeld's contribution to volume I of Open Marxism and Gunn's 'Against Historical Materialism' in volume II.