Open Marxism 4: Foreword and Introduction

Open Marxism 4

Open Marxism 4: Against a Closing World, was released in 2020. The collection follows Open Marxism 1 and 2, released together in 1992 and Open Marxism 3, released in 1995.

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

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on October 18, 2023


Werner Bonefeld

The previous three volumes of Open Marxism were published between 1992 and 1995. What a time that was! The Soviet Empire had collapsed, and with great fanfare capitalism was duly celebrated as not only victorious but also as the epitome of civilisation that had now been confirmed as history’s end – as if history maintains a class of dispossessed producers of surplus value in the service of vast wealth. ‘History’ does not pursue its own ends and it does not assert itself in the interests of bourgeois civilisation, morality and profitability. ‘History’ does not make society. Nor does it take sides. History as it actually unfolded was no history in any meaningful sense. It does not unfold. It is rather that, in the pursuit of their own interests, definite human beings make history, just as they make society. What eventually unfolded is what endures in the present. History was truly made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. About this there is no doubt.

Amidst the fanfare, the debt crisis of the 1980s had started to move from the global South to the global North, from the crash of 1987 via the third global recession in less than 20 years in the early 1990s to the various currency crises, including those of the British Pound and the Mexican Peso in 1992 and 1994 respectively. The Peso crisis coincided with the uprising of the Zapatistas in 1994. Then there was the emergence of China as a world power, founded on a labour economy that combined, and continues to combine, authoritarian government with the provision of cheap labour and disciplined labour relations. It was the time of the first Gulf War, the mere posturing of deadly might in search of a global enemy that was needed to secure the domestic containment of the ‘querulous rabble’, as Hegel put it when he remarked on how a successful war can check domestic unrest and consolidate the power of the state at home.

Since the early 1990s, with the passing into oblivion of the Soviet Empire, the entire edifice of Marxism-Leninism has crumbled. It had served as the official doctrine and the source of legitimation for state socialism and its various derivative ideologies that found expression in Gramscian or Althusserian Eurocommunism or in the manifold sectarian organisations that proclaimed their allegiance to Trotsky, Lenin’s military commander and suppressor of the Kronstadt uprising of 1921, and bearer of an anti-Stalinist Lenin. Although these traditions continue to force themselves onto the critique of political economy, their history has come to an end. They no longer provide the ideological foundation for what is now yesterday’s idea of the forward march of state socialism. To be sure, some still believe in the revolutionary party as a means of socialist transformation. Yet, in reality, the party is no more – it had in fact been a mirage for a long time. It died in Spain during the Civil War and during the show trails in Stalinist Russia, and its morbid foundation perished finally in either 1953 or 1956, or indeed 1968. Like Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France is just a ghost of yesterday. Neither is a Chávez or a Maduro, or indeed an Ortega – and that is a relief. Both Corbyn and Mélenchon seek political power for the sake of justice in an unjust world. Instead of the critique of political economy, the endeavour now is to moralise, and lament by way of political philosophy conceptions of well-being.

In distinction, the Open Marxism volumes did not argue for justice in an unjust world by means of Leninist forms of state socialist planning of a labour economy or of social democratic reforms of a capitalist labour economy through progressive schemes of taxation and just ideas for redistribution. Nor did they argue in favour of hegemonic strategies for the achievement of political power on behalf of the many. They did not endorse the state as the institution of institutions. Rather, they understood that the production and realisation of surplus value is the purpose of capital and that the state is the political form of that purpose. The contributors to those volumes also understood that world market competition compels each nation state to achieve competitive labour markets, which are the condition for achieving a measure of social integration. The politics of competitiveness, sound money, fiscal prudence, enhanced labour productivity, belong to a system of wealth that sustains the welfare of workers on the condition that their labour yields a profit. In this system of wealth, the profitability of labour is a means not only of avoiding bankruptcy. It is also a means of sustaining the employment of labour, allowing workers to maintain access to the means of subsistence through wage income.

There is a fate far worse than being an exploited worker, and that is to be an unexploitable worker. If labour power cannot be traded, what else can be sold to make a living and achieve a connection to the means of subsistence? First, the producers of surplus value, dispossessed sellers of labour power, are free to struggle to make ends meet. Their struggle belongs to the conceptuality of capitalist wealth – that is, money that yields more money. In this conception of wealth, the satisfaction of human needs is a mere sideshow. What counts is the time of money. What counts therefore is the valorisation of value through the extraction of surplus value. There is no time to spare. Time is money. And then suddenly society finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence to the class that works for its supper. Second, the understanding of the mysterious character of an equivalent exchange between unequal values, of money that yields more money, lies in the concept of surplus value. There is the purchase of labour power, and then the consumption of labour that produces a total value that is greater than the value of labour power. The equivalent exchange relations are thus founded on the class relationship between the buyers of labour power and the producers of surplus value. This social relationship, which entails a history of suffering, vanishes in its economic appearance as an exchange between one quantity of money and another.

Contrary to a whole history of Marxist thought, class struggle is not something positive. Rather, it suffuses the capitalist social relations and drives them forward. Class struggle does not follow some abstract idea. Nor does it express some ontologically privileged position of the working class, according to which it is the driving force of historical progress as the traditions of state socialism saw it. Rather, it is a struggle for access to the means of subsistence. It is a struggle to make ends meet and a struggle for human significance, for life-time, and for human warmth and for affection. There is no doubt that the demand for a politics of justice recognises the suffering of the dispossessed. Political commitment towards the betterment of the conditions of the working class is absolutely necessary – it civilises society’s treatment of its workers. Nevertheless, the critique of class society does not find its positive resolution in the achievement of fair and just exchange relations between the sellers of labour power and the consumers of labour. What is a fair wage? Is it not the old dodge of the charitable alternative to the employer from hell, who nevertheless also pays his labourers with the monetised surplus value he previously extracted from them? The critique of class society finds its positive resolution only in a society in which the progress of the ‘muck of ages’ has come to an end.

The Open Marxism volumes of the 1990s saw themselves as a contribution to the attempt at freeing the critique of the capitalist labour economy from the dogmatic embrace of the bright-side view that it is an irrationally organised labour economy. In this view, state socialism is superior to capitalism because it was assumed to be a rationally organised labour economy, based on conscious planning by public authority. The anticapitalism of central economic planning – or, in today’s flat enunciation of Negri and Hardt’s term the multitude, the politics for the many – is entirely abstract in its critique of labour economy. In fact, it presents the theology of anticapitalism – one that looks on the bright side in the belief that progress will be made upon the taking of government by the party of labour. Anticapitalist theology does not grasp capitalist society. It mystifies it. What is capitalist wealth, what belongs to its concept, how is it produced and what is its dynamic, what holds sway in its concept and what therefore is its conceptuality? Only a reified consciousness can declare that it is in possession of the requisite knowledge and technical expertise for regulating capitalism in the interests of the class that works. The Open Marxism volumes sought to reassert the critique of capitalist social relations as a critique of political economy, of both labour economy and the principle of political power – at least that was the critical intention.

The earlier volumes were also an intervention to free Marx from the ‘perverters of historical materialism’, as Adorno had characterised the doctrinal Marxists in Negative Dialectics. For this to happen, looking on the bright side is not an option. Rather, it entails an attempt at thinking in and through the conceptuality of capitalist wealth, which asserts itself as an independent subject behind the backs of acting social individuals that nevertheless, and critically so, endow it with a consciousness and a will through their social practice. In the absence of such an attempt at understanding the conceptuality of real economic abstractions, the struggle of the working class, which belongs to the concept of capital and sustains its progress, will not be understood. Instead, it will either be romanticised as alienated labour in revolt or viewed, with moralising righteousness, as an electoral resource.

The said purpose of the attempt at freeing Marx from the orthodox ritualization of the labour economy was not in any case novel. In fact, it could look back onto a distinguished history that included the council communism of, for example, Pannekoek, Gorter and Mattick; the work of Karl Korsch; the critical theory of Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and Marcuse; the Yugoslav Praxis Group; Axelos’s open Marxism; the Situationist International; the critical Marxist tradition in Latin America associated with Bolivar Echeverría, Sánchez Vázquez, Schwarz and Arantes; the state derivation debate of, amongst others, Gerstenberger, Blanke, Neußüss, and von Braunmühl; the neue Marx Lektüre of, amongst others, Backhaus, Reichelt and Schmidt; the autonomous Marxism of, amongst others, Dalla Costa, Federici, Caffentzis, Tronti, Negri, Cleaver and Bologna; and, in the context of the British-based Conference of Socialist Economists from which it emerged, the works of especially Simon Clarke and John Holloway about value, class and state. Clarke’s critique of structuralist Marxism, especially the works of Lévi-Strauss, Althusser and Poulantzas, and his contributions to state theory and value-form analysis, were fundamental in the immediate context of the early 1990s.

The title Open Marxism derived from the work of Johannes Agnoli, a Professor of the Critique of Politics at the Free University of Berlin. His contribution to the heterodox Marxist tradition focused the critique of political economy as a subversive critique of the economic categories, the philosophical concepts, the moral values and the political institutions, including the form of the state, of bourgeois society. The direct link between the title of the Open Marxism volumes and Agnoli is the title of a book that he published with Ernest Mandel in 1980: Offener Marxismus: Ein Gespräch über Dogmen, Orthodoxie & die Häresie der Realität (Open Marxism: A Discussion about Doctrines, Orthodoxy & the Heresy of Reality). The choice of the Open Marxism title was not about paying homage to Johannes Agnoli as the foremost subversive thinker of his time. It was programmatic.

The much too long delayed publication of this fourth volume of Open Marxism does not require contextualisation. Nothing is as it was and everything is just the same. We live in a time of terror and we live in a time of war. The so-called elite has become a racket, which it in fact had been all along. Antisemitism is back en vogue as both the socialism of fools and as the expression of thoughtless resentment and nationalist paranoia. Racism is as pervasive as it always was – as enemy within and without. Gender has become liberal. Feminism no longer disintegrates society as it once promised. The so-called clash of civilisations is unrelenting in its inexorable attack on the promise of freedom. Even the talk about socialism in one country has made a comeback without a sense of purpose – first because there can be none, second because there is none, and third because there never was one. The political blowback of the crisis of 2008 has been intense and relentless: Austerity. Precariat. Profitability. Rate of growth. Price competitiveness. What is so different from the early 1990s, however, is that capitalism as a term of critical inquiry has vanished; it has disappeared from contemporary analysis. The Zeitgeist identifies neoliberalism as the object of critique. As a consequence, the past no longer comes alive in the critique of contemporary conditions. Instead, it appears as a counterfoil of imagined civility to today’s much-criticised neoliberal world. The critique of neoliberalism conjures up a time in which money did not yield more money but was rather put to work for growth and jobs. Illusion dominates reality. The spectre of society without memory is truly frightening.

While the first three volumes of Open Marxism sought to free Marx from the dogmatic perverters of historical materialism, it seems to me that the purpose of this fourth volume is to bring back centre-stage the critique of capitalism, in part to re-establish in a (self-)critical and open manner what the neoliberal Zeitgeist disavows, and in part also to think afresh of what it means to say no. On the one hand, there is the preponderance of the object – society as a real abstraction that manifests itself behind the backs of the acting social subjects – and, on the other hand, there is the spontaneity of society as subject – a subject of its own objective dialectics of the forces and relations of production, but a subject nevertheless.

Hope is the true idealism in a world that asserts itself behind the backs of the acting subjects, mere personifications of the economic categories. What is the objective truth of the economic thing? The given world of economic compulsion requires the active intervention of the thinking subject for its comprehension, in order to release the truth which it contains. For Adorno, the most eloquent elements of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, its truth content, are the ‘wounds which the conflict in the theory leaves behind’ (Adorno 1965: 84). The promise of utopia lies in the ‘breaks’ (Brüche) in its logic and in the gaps in its systematic unity. These cracks, as Holloway refers to them in Crack Capitalism (2010), disclose the ‘traces’ (Bloch) of utopia already experienced in the present. Only in these ‘traces’ is there ‘hope of ever coming across genuine and just reality’ (Adorno 1973: 325). Idealism is the true realism – to the science of economic objectivity, the glimpse of what could be appears as a mere metaphysical distraction.

The point of Open Marxism is to interpret the preponderance of society as economic object – not to reject it abstractly and wilfully. Rather, the point of interpretation is to disclose its truth content. Only society as subject has the capacity for deciphering and for refusing to accept the logic that holds sway in the economic object. Non-conformity is the signature of society as subject. However, this does not mean that the truth content lies in the universality of the human being as the hidden secret of the economic world, as Backhaus (2005) suggests. The point is rather to enter into society as economic object, to think in and through it, in order to establish its social nature – ‘to develop from the actual, given relations of life the forms in which these have been apotheosized’ (Marx 1990: 484, fn. 4). The primacy of interpretation is not a substitute for praxis but a preventative against a false praxis and thus a precondition for change.

Let me conclude with reference to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics because it contains the memory of Auschwitz. Adorno reformulates Kant’s categorical imperative into the principle ‘to arrange one’s thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen’ (1990: 365). Society as object does nothing. It does not maim, kill and gas. ‘It is man, rather, the real, living man who does all that’, and, in so doing, bestows society as object with a deadly will (paraphrasing Marx, as cited in Negative Dialectics). Finally, and however debased as personifications of real economic abstractions, ‘there would be nothing without individuals and their spontaneities’ (Adorno 1990: 304). Hope dies last.

Werner Bonefeld
26 March 2019

Adorno, T. W. (1965) Noten zur Literatur, Vol. 3, Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Adorno, T. W. (1973) ‘Die Aktualität der Philosophie’, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 1, Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Adorno, T. W. (1990) Negative Dialectics, London: Routledge.
Backhaus, H. (2005) ‘Some Aspects of Marx’s Concept of Critique in the Context of his Economic-Philosophical Theory’, in W. Bonefeld and K. Psychopedis (eds), Human Dignity: Social Autonomy and the Critique of Capitalism, Aldershot: Ashgate.
Holloway, J. (2010) Crack Capitalism, London: Pluto Press.
Marx, K. (1990) Capital, Vol. 1, London: Penguin.

Introduction: Open Marxism
Against a Closing World

Ana Cecilia Dinerstein, Alfonso García Vela,
Edith González and John Holloway

We write against a closing of the world. Walls are going up around us. The wall on the USA border with Mexico, the walls that UK Brexiteers would build, the walls being constructed by left and right nationalisms all over the world: walls of exclusion, of borders, often walls of hatred, walls of pain. Intellectually and academically too, walls are going up around us. In the universities (where the four of us work), the walls of academic correctness are growing bigger: the pressures of competition, insecurity and the precarity of academic work, combined with quality assurance committees, lists of indexed journals and quantitative criteria of assessment, make it harder, especially for students and young academics, to write what they want to write. To say what they want to say. The disciplines of the social sciences are becoming just that: disciplines. While resistance struggles continue and expand outside academic walls, critical thought is being squeezed out of the universities, reframed in innocuous forms or simply sidelined. Gradually, often without us noticing it, critical terms become taboo. They become ‘durty words’ (Brunetta and O’Shea 2018). Increasingly, these durty words begin to be whispered, until they fall out of use altogether. ‘Revolution’ is the most obvious one, but also ‘class struggle’, and ‘capital’ too. The more atrocious the barbarity of patriarchal and colonial capitalism becomes, the less we can name it.

Radical thought has not come to an end though. Not at all. The critique of capital exists. But it survives mainly in the shadow of the criticism of the forms of expression of capital: authoritarianism, neoliberalism, the financialisation of the economy, policy failure, the crisis of representative democracy, etc. We write against the closure of the world, then, because we see a danger in some of the present struggles today: that we only demand regulation, job creation, distributive justice, transparent democracy, etc. In our view, these criticisms and demands are necessary and important but they are incomplete without a critique of capital (see González, in this volume). With the intensification of the fetishisation of social relations, emancipation looks like a ghost that everyone laughs at. Talking about emancipation becomes simply absurd. The idea of a ‘society where “the development of each is the condition for the development of all”’ (see Gunn and Wilding, in this volume) seems meaningless. In recent years, and particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, capital has become simultaneously more abstract and more aggressive. Neo-fascism, war, xenophobia, feminicide, racism, ecocide, and repression against all resistances around the world – you name it – signal a world enclosed by walls. This is now a world ‘without a Front’ (Bloch cited by Amsler 2016: 26). Instead of ‘being the place of becoming of “the world, of world process”’ (Bloch cited by Amsler 2016: 26), a world without a front is a world where hope is constantly diminished, misinterpreted as fantasy or optimism, or dismissed for building castles in the air when we need to discuss the ‘urgency’ of today’s world crisis (see Dinerstein, in this volume). Is there no way out? The institutional left offers an alternative: ‘Vote for us’. But is this institutional hope a real alternative? Or it is a way to save capitalism from itself? (Holloway, Nasioka and Doulos 2019). The alternative offered by institutional hope is a short-term promise of ‘controlling’ capitalists and producing a capitalism with a human face, for the many. But how? When trying to answer this simple question, institutional hope collapses against the walls of a reality where the frenetic logic of capital and the command of money over life prevails. For us, as Bonefeld suggests in his Foreword to this volume, ‘looking on the bright side is not an option’.

Marxism is an insolent word. But to retain its insolence, it must constantly be reinvented. It must spit against the horrors of capitalism but, to do that, it must also reject the closed dogmas of its own tradition. The notion of open Marxism has been outlined in the introduction to Open Marxism 1 (Bonefeld et al. 1992a). The term appeared for the first time in 1980, in the publication of a debate between Johannes Agnoli and Ernst Mandel about Marx’s critique of political economy titled Offener Marxismus. Offener Marxismus became a project of opening up the categories of Marxist thought, and more (see Bonefeld’s Foreword). Open Marxism was set up as a new form of understanding the categories developed by Marx, especially in Capital, not as predetermined laws but as conceptualisations of class struggle(s). Against the old dichotomy of class struggle and laws of capitalist development, open Marxism challenged Marxists, radical intellectuals and activists to explore money, capital, the state, the law, and so on, as forms of struggle from above and, therefore, open to resistance and rebellion. A key aspect of open Marxism is then to negate both capitalist society as well as the dogmatic closure of its categories. The focus is on critique, a critique that investigates the internal contradictions of capital which assert themselves as both theory and struggle. As the editors of Open Marxism 1 stated in their introduction, ‘critique is open in as much as it involves a reciprocal interrelation between the categories of theory [which interrogates practice] and of practice [which constitutes the framework for critique]’ (Bonefeld et al. 1992a: xi).

The open Marxists’ critique has had a substantial impact on the rethinking of Marxism in the twenty-first century, especially but not exclusively in Europe and Latin America, and several books have emerged from the approach,1 which has generated many reviews, debates and criticisms. These range from general evaluations of the open Marxist interpretations of Marx’s theory, theory of the state, global capital and class struggle, critical theory, social form and human praxis.2

This volume continues the work initiated by open Marxism in the 1990s. Its aims are no different from the previous three volumes: to (re)think how to break the descent into barbarism; to break capital by venturing through a theoretical exploration to free the critique of capitalist labour economy from economic dogmas (see Bonefeld’s Foreword); to open up to the movement of struggle and to understand itself as part of that movement. That, for us, is the project of open Marxism, and is why we are presenting this collection of essays as the fourth volume of Open Marxism. We regard Marxism as an emancipatory theory, a theory of struggle, rather than as an objective analysis of capitalist domination. As John Holloway highlights elsewhere, ‘to speak of struggle is to speak of the openness of social development; to think of Marxism as a theory of struggle is to think of Marxist categories as open categories, categories which conceptualise the openness of society’ (1993: 76). To Marx, ‘[t]he critique of social forms ... amounts to a critique of economic categories on a human basis and it does so by returning the constituted forms of the economic categories to “relations between humans”’ (Bonefeld in Bieler et al. 2006: 178). We endorse what the editors of Open Marxism 2 two expressed in their introduction:

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 insists on the antagonistic nature of social existence. This being so, the Marxist understanding of a unity of theory and praxis 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. (Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis 1992b: xi and xii)

Openness means openness of categories, of debates, of our hearts, of spaces for critique, of fronts of political possibility (Amsler 2016; Dinerstein, in this volume).

This fourth volume of Open Marxism gives fresh impetus to the intertwining of theoretical discussion and radical, anticapitalist practice with a selection of authors that we consciously sought to include: not only the established names associated with open Marxism but also a new wave or second generation of open Marxists. The fact that this new generation includes a high proportion of women and Latin Americans says much about the way that rebellion and rebellious thought have been moving in recent years. Our aim is that open Marxism should be open to the changing flows of struggle, although it must be admitted that the reference lists of the various chapters remain heavily dominated by white men.

The contributions to this volume were inspired by the broad idea of ‘open Marxism against a closing world’, but the authors were left free to decide how to contribute to it. This editorial decision responds to the aim to discover and present to the reader some of the open Marxists’ theoretical developments and political concerns of the past two decades. We have grouped the eleven chapters that follow around three main subjects: open Marxism and critical theory (Part I; global capital, the nation state and the capitalist crisis (Part II; and democracy, revolution and emancipation (Part III).

In past decades, there has been a renewed interest from journalists, academics and activists in exploring the meaning and the authority of Marx’s work today. Yet, as Hudis and Anderson highlight in their introduction to Dunayevskaya’s Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx, ‘one surprising feature of much of the current return to Marx … is the relative silence on Hegel and the dialectic’ (2002: xv). In the opening essay of this collection, Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding return to Hegel to recover the revolutionary notion of ‘mutual recognition’ as theorised by Marx and – before him – Hegel. Gunn and Wilding argue that the recuperation of the notion of mutual recognition is one of the ways to renew an ‘open’ Marxism in the twentieth century. For them, recognition can become a unifying theoretical and uniting principle of the Left. By exploring Marx’s discussion of the term against the setting of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the authors underline the common revolutionary impulse of both Marx and Hegel, and how they uncover the contradictory forms which recognition takes on in a world of domination and institutional alienation.

One of the central concerns of open Marxism has been, and still is, Marx’s notion of the unity between theory and praxis. Following Bonefeld et al., Marxist orthodoxy takes this unity as ‘referring to the “field of application” ... and is reflected in the separation between the logic of capital, on the one hand, and social practice, in the other’ (Bonefeld et al. 1995: 2). The next four contributions by Ana Cecilia Dinerstein, Alfonso García Vela, Mario Schäbel and Frederick Harry Pitts speak to this problematic in different ways, addressing the contributions of Theodor W. Adorno, Ernst Bloch, open Marxism and the New Reading of Marx (NRM) to the theorisation of the relation between object(ivity) and subject(ivity) in our understanding of radical change. In Chapter 2, Ana C. Dinerstein re-evaluates the place of the theoretical in today’s praxis. By pointing to the sphere of social reproduction as the ‘site’ of both new forms of class struggle and the renewal of critical theory, Dinerstein argues that critical theory today should be based on Bloch’s philosophy of hope. Despite the critical theorist’s fear of the positivisation of social struggles, Dinerstein argues that the fight against barbarism is not only possible but already exists in the form of struggles for alternative forms of life. In a context of the crisis of social reproduction, these struggles should not be regarded as positive: they are critical affirmations that affirm life as a form of negating a totality of destruction in a ‘contradictory’ manner (see Gunn 1994). To her, while Adorno’s negative dialectics (Adorno 1995) remarkably prevents dialectical closure of the capitalist totality from taking place theoretically, negative dialectics cannot open onto a ‘world with Front’ in practice. And this is what is needed today.

Alfonso García Vela opens his chapter with the assertion that open Marxism does enable us to overcome the positive conceptualisation of dialectics, totality and emancipation typical of orthodox Marxism, with practical relevance for anticapitalist struggles. However, referring mainly to John Holloway’s work, he claims that open Marxism has not yet solved the problem of the separation between subject and object, between structure and struggle. He points to what he calls the open Marxist’s ‘subjectivist’ position, which conceives of the object only as a mode of existence of the subject. This, argues García Vela, can be regarded as a voluntarist perspective on emancipation. According to the author, this contrasts with Adorno’s primacy of the object which contests the subjectivism of modern thought and therefore opens the possibility of rethinking the dichotomy between structure and struggle beyond subjectivism, without relapsing into the objectivist position represented by structuralism. Also, for García Vela, the transformation of the world requires the self-reflection of critical thought, because critical thought is not separated from capitalist society but emanates from it. An important aspect of Adorno’s negative dialectics is that it calls to the self-reflection of thinking. So, if the critical theory of open Marxism wants to contribute to changing the world it must undertake self-reflection. Otherwise, it runs the risk of its reification.

In Chapter 4, Frederick Harry Pitts highlights open Marxism’s critical contribution to value-form analysis. To be sure, orthodox economics cannot grasp the real problem of the expansion of ‘money as command’ (Cleaver 1996), because their ‘abstract abstractions’ try to ‘get rid of contradictions in definitions’ in such a way that economic categories do not explicate ‘the phenomenon from which the economic abstraction comes’ (Ilyenkov 2008: 243, 103). Open Marxists follow Marx in his critique of ‘abstract’ or ‘formal’ abstractions, and work with determinate abstractions insofar as they embody the contradictions of the real movement of struggle. As Gunn suggests, ‘if it is a “theory of” anything, Marxism is a theory of contradiction’ (1994: 53). ‘Without contradiction’, argues Bonefeld, ‘inhuman forces like Capital and Money, are naturalised and the economy becomes something superior, unmanageable, as existing above us, like God’ (2016: 235). Pitts’s assessment of open Marxism’s contribution to value-form analysis makes exactly this point: while for the NRM ‘the validity of economic categories such as labour and value does not hold in abstraction from society as whole’, for open Marxism value is a historical – contradictory – process based on class struggle. To Pitts, while both open Marxism and the NRM offer a ‘radically open and non-dogmatic unfinished project’, open Marxism should be valued for having restated the centrality of class struggle at the core of the NRM’s ‘monetary’ theory of value.

In Chapter 5, Mario Schäbel also discusses the work of the NRM, exploring its synergies with open Marxism. However, his focus is on the association of open Marxism with Adorno’s negative dialectics. Schäbel enquires whether open Marxists can be regarded as the successors of Adorno’s critical theory or not. His analysis suggests that open Marxism can only be considered an offspring of the Frankfurt School in connection to Herbert Marcuse’s subjective idealism rather than Adorno’s critical materialism, the latter having been embraced by scholars of the NRM. Unlike Pitts, Schäbel does not regard either open Marxism’s rejection of the primacy of the object over the subject, or its restatement of class struggle at the core of the analysis of capital and the value-form, as contributions that could ‘fix’ the NRM’s ‘objective’ analysis of capital. To Schäbel, open Marxism’s closeness to Marcuse’s critical theory, rather than Adorno’s, risks replacing ‘the dogmatic and one-sided materialism of orthodox Marxism with an equally dogmatic and one-sided idealism based on granting the subject absolute primacy in the context of the dialectical unity of subject and object’.

The next two chapters offer innovative critical approaches to two of the traditional concerns of open Marxism: global capital and the state, and the crisis of the accumulation of capital. In Chapter 6, Sagrario Anta Martínez joins those who have challenged the adequacy of Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation today (Dalla Costa 1995; Harvey 2005; Bonefeld 2008; De Angelis 2008), particularly when the context is the possibly terminal crisis of capital (see Ortlieb 2008; Kurz 2010). She suggests that as a ‘system of social organisation’ capitalism does not ensure the reproduction of the human life, but quite the opposite: it is destroying the sources of social reproduction, and therefore leading to a crisis of the latter (see Dinerstein, in this volume). Anta Martínez offers the term ‘terminary accumulation’, as opposed to primitive accumulation, to suggest that, in the current global situation, talk of primitive accumulation is simply anachronistic. With ‘terminary accumulation’ in mind, she then explores the antagonism between capital and life and the limits of the former as a form of social organisation. In Chapter 7, Rodrigo Pascual and Luciana Ghiotto examine the established idea in the discipline of International Political Economy (IPE) that the state possesses territorial foundations, while capital maintains itself as global, free and non-territorial. Their analysis – which connects open Marxism’s recent contributions to long-term debates about the relation between the state, multinational corporations and imperialism – demonstrates that the realist perspective in IPE embraces this partition, which is based on the analysis of the two moments in the process of accumulation of capital: production, which requires territoriality, and circulation, which does not. However, Pascual and Ghiotto challenge this separation and argue that territoriality and non-territoriality are not attributes of the state and capital respectively, but a result of class antagonism. Territoriality and globality imprint a tension in the domain of class exploitation, and this can only be resolved temporarily within the territorial contours of the State.

The third and final part of the book concerns democracy, revolution and emancipation. In Chapter 8, Katherina Nasioka traces the effects of the capitalist crisis since the 1970s, and the shifts that are observed in class struggle as a result of this ongoing crisis. She argues that the anticapitalist struggle today displays two mutually contradicting dynamics which reflect the intensity of the capitalist crisis and the sharpening of contradictions in the capital relation. On the one hand, the twentieth-century’s dominant form of political organisation of the working class, hegemonised by the labour movement and guided by the Leninist canon, is hard to assert in the present-day context. On the other hand, the contemporary struggles against capital, which are defensive in most cases, are often fought in the name of ‘we, the workers’, looking for class unity in those categories that have built the identity of the labour movement in the past, e.g. the nation, the state. Therefore, while organisation based on the working class is debilitated, the lack of class unity is challenging the prospect of revolution. Nasioka asks, then: how can new struggles be translated into a political prospect that goes against-and-beyond capitalist society? In Chapter 9, Sergio Tischler might provide a plausible response to Nasioka by bringing the case of the Zapatista movement (Chiapas, Mexico) into the discussion of revolution today.3 Tischler suggests that Zapatismo has not been a simple revolutionary movement of a local character, but has implied a shaking of contemporary revolutionary thought on such fundamental issues as the relationship between Marxism and the revolution today. Zapatismo offers a critique of the Leninist canon of revolution, that is, of the revolutionary subject conceived typically from the perspectives of vanguard and hegemony. The relevance of the Zapatistas’ autonomy lies in it being a practical criticism of the idea of the vertical and state-centric subject of the anticapitalist transformation. Through the images and practice of Zapatismo, a space and a political-conceptual process was opened that can lead to a re-conceptualisation of the anticapitalist struggle.

In Chapter 10, Edith González starts with a critical reflection on the place that democracy occupies in left thinking today. She is concerned about a shift that has taken place in that thinking from revolution to democracy, and the political consequences that this bears for any process of emancipation. González argues that democracy has become the central theme in both critical analyses of the past decade and in social movements and grassroots political discourse and practice. To be sure, Occupy Wall Street and social movements in Argentina have become symbols of resistance against capitalism. These movements have reinvented radical democracy by means of a new ‘horizontalism’ (Sitrin 2006; 2012). They are regarded as agents of the prefiguration of a new democracy (Brissette 2013; Teivainen 2016). But are these movements aware of the limits of the use of the concept of ‘democracy’ without a critique of capital? To González, the equality that democracy can promise in a capitalist society is, in fact, an abstraction of inequality. Therefore, the question is: ‘what is the power of the anticapitalist “democratic” struggle without a critique of capital?’ The concept of capital, argues John Holloway in the final chapter of the book, is crucial for understanding the present situation of the world. Here, Holloway engages with the categorisation of his open Marxist approach as being ‘subjectivist’ (see Schäbel and García Vela, in this volume). Using ‘the train’ as a metaphor for the inherently expansive and destructive nature of capital, Holloway claims that capital is not a pure object for the domination of the subject. Rather, capital ‘is a struggle’. It is clear that we have produced ‘the train’, he argues; that is, the train is a ‘social construct’, and it became ‘objectified’ as the dominant form of social relations ‘through bloody struggles’. Capital has its own rules. However, the problem starts when we ‘understand capital simply as a form of domination (as capital-logicians and New Readers of Marx tend to do)’. Holloway suggests that while the ‘primacy of the object’ characterises capital, it is precisely that which we must break. There is a dissonance in the relation between subject and object: ‘The presence of the object within the subject has been much emphasised, but what interests us more is the destructive force of the subject within the object, the presence of the subject in-against-and-beyond the object as its crisis.’

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  • 1Among them, Best, Bonefeld and O’Kane 2018; Bonefeld and Tischler 2002; Bonefeld, Holloway and Tischler 2005; Bonefeld 2014; Dinerstein and Neary 2002; Dinerstein 2015, 2016; Holloway 2002, 2010; Holloway, Matamoros and Tischler 2009; Bonefeld and Psychopedis 2005.
  • 2Bieler and Morton 2003; Bruff 2009; Dönmez and Sutton 2016; Tsolakis 2010; Grollios 2017; Kiciloff and Starosta 2011; Eden 2012; Dinerstein 2012, 2018; Susen 2012; several authors in Historical Materialism 13(4), 2005; several authors in Capital & Class 29(1), 2005; and several authors in Herramienta (2002) available at
  • 3On the Zapatista’s theoretical revolution see also Grosfoguel 2009; Khasnabish 2008; and Mignolo 2002, among others.