Open Marxism - Werner Bonefeld

Common Sense issue 1 cover

Common Sense was the Journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) published from May 1987 – December of 1999. It was a “journal of a wholly new type.. a non-university based theoretical journal ignoring all problems, all commerce, all professional boundaries, all academic establishments, all editorial anxieties.” Common Sense included many writings from Open Marxists like Werner Bonefeld, John Holloway, Richard Gunn and others.

Here in the first issue, Werner Bonefeld describes what Open Marxism is.

The term comes from a debate in 1980 between Johannes Agnoli and Ernest Mandel (available only in German) where Agnoli argues against the closed categories or forms of Orthodox Marxism.

A later and more complete introduction to Open Marxism is here.

The full issue and entire archive of Common Sense is available at:

There is also a collection of articles from Common Sense called Revolutionary Writing: Common Sense Essays in Post-Political Politics available here.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on October 5, 2023

OPEN MARXISM. - Werner Bonefeld

What is Marxism? Is there anything existing which could be regarded as the truthful identification of Marxism? Was Marx himself a Marxist, a notion he strongly rejected?

Is Marxism a system of answers, analyses, academical records and party politics?

Regarding the last decades of marxist discussion, it seems more than obvious that Marxism was/is identified with structuralism: Althusserian over and superdetermination and Poulantzarian sociologism. Class struggle was/is identified as a dysfunctionality of structures, whose essence was truth-the truthful identification of politics in itself as a matter of academical analysis light years away from the question: On which side are you standing?.

Thus, the crisis of structuralism is necessarily regarded as the crisis of Marxism (Althusser).

In this paper I argue that, conversely to structuralist presupposition, the crisis of structuralist Marxism shows the strength of Marxism. It bears the chance to recognise once more the force of history, which was somehow veiled in previous marxist discussion: class struggle.

Marxism is a revolutionary theory, which inherently unites theory and practice. The politics of Marxism thus consist necessarily of the unity of critique and destruction, denunciation and decomposition, demystification and destabilisation. This mutual interplay of critique and destruction emphasises the revolutionary project of social emancipation: the abolishing of all forms of oppression, political power and exploitation. It thus aims to substitute for bourgeois society in all its ramifications “an association, which will exclude classes and their antagonism” (Marx a). With reference to Bloch, this association names the future goal of nonalienated existence whose final word is 'homeland'. Homeland inherently excludes political power, since political power “is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society” (Marx b).

Marx explicitly insists on the structurally given crisis-ridden transformation of the historical forms of capitalist relations, by which an ever changing pattern of social composition within capitalist society and the conditions of struggle are constituted. The permanent decomposition and recomposition of the 'enchanted and perverted world' (Marx) of bourgeois society is thus inherent within capitalism, due to the presence of labour within capital.

The permanent and dynamic effort of capital to restructure its control over labour is the precondition of the stability of the capitalist system and vice versa. As for labour, it is the action of destabilisation of capital, which immediately leads to the action of destruction (see Negri, 1979). The historical form within which the transformation of this antagonism is promoted is crisis.

Referring back to Marx, it is possible to work out an history of the inventions which are made solely for the reason of 'supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class' (Marx c). The whole story about the so-called historical obstacles to the increase of the productive forces and the crisis-ridden transformation of these relations promotes a profound theoretically illuminated account of the changes within capitalism. Thus, the 'state, as the concentrated and organised force of society' (Marx d). is developed by defending property, freedom and equality against social unrest. It is precisely this freedom of resistance which is as productive for the development of the forms of state power as strikes are for the invention of machinery (see Marx e). The process of decomposition and recomposition appears to be a historically changing form of primitive accumulation, by which capital permanently transforms the social preconditions of control (see Negt/Kluge 1981).

Despite these general characteristics, the state, the bourgeois society, the historical pattern of capitalist relations never did, don't and never will exist. Although it should be a commonplace that “it is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers ... which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political forms of the relations of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of state”. But, as Marx continues, “this does not prevent the same economic basis - the same from the standpoint of its main conditions - due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc., from showing infinite variations and graduations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances” (Marx f).

Within the context of persisting national development patterns, the permanent revolution of the relations of production alters the capital relations, profoundly, towards a 'higher state of social production' (Marx) and thus reproduction, although the basic pattern remains: the capitalist relation of necessary and surplus labour.

Considering this structurally given permanence of change, the marxist concepts have to be open to the changes in the composition of the social relations which occur during the process of transformation. This is ever more obvious, since it is marxism that analyses the permanent decomposition and recomposition of bourgeois society as a structurally given mediation of its social antagonism and thus as a means of its existence. Further, marxism's concepts have to be dynamically open in order to add to the critique of political economy new social phenomena which for their part inevitably relate to the historically asserted forms of struggle.

This openness of categories is very much insisted on by Marx. Capital is the 'general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity' (Marx g). Marx's concept of abstract and concrete is thus the methodological metaphor for the continuity of the discontinuous development of the concrete within the abstract and vice versa (see Marx Grundrisse).

In short, the politics of critique and destruction has to be reconsidered and has to be readjusted to the changing forms taken by political power within capitalism, to different forms of extracting surplus labour, to changing forms of obscuring exploitation and to the changing composition of capitalist relations themselves.

In this sense capitalist reality constitutes a permeant challenge for the marxist concept of politics. The dynamic decomposition and crisis-ridden recomposition of social relations and conditions adds new social phenomena to its existence throughout the history of capitalism. 'The heresy of reality' (see Agnoli in M/A 1980), thus implies the incompleteness of categories insofar as the basic pattern of the social structure appears in various forms and within changing empirical circumstances.

Open Marxism thus applies the concept of abstract and concrete mentioned above to the decomposing reality of the enchanted and perverted world of capitalism. It necessarily contains, and is founded on, the principle of doubt: instead of the certainty of the orthodox manner of making use of concepts, it reclaims the incompletness of the process of thinking, it readopts the unpredictability of the 'legitimacy of chance' (Marx) and it reconsiders the historically adequate policy of critique and destruction.

The principle of doubt is a prerequisite of the politics of Marxism as well as for its explicit historical target of 'homeland'. It is an explosive force which challenges the orthodox preservation of classical politics in a world of permanent change.

The orthodox explanation of the changes having taken place since the form of capitalist relation which Marx envisaged is partly concerned with the fear 'that empirical evidence might occur, that wasn't discussed by the classics' (Agnoli, in M/A 80). Instead, open Marxism regards the appearance of new empirical evidence as a necessary development which has to be analysed as a dynamic transformation of the concrete totality of the perverted world within the 'general illumination' of 'the all-determining power of capital' (Marx-Grundrisse). This should be common sense since capital is a dynamic relation of antagonism.

Open Marxism contrasts with a 'purely contemplative knowledge' (Bloch), adopted by dogmatism which relates the present to an isolated past and which entirely loses the connection with the process of history. It thus challenges the relevance of referring, with profound knowledge, to certain hitherto somehow hidden or minor interesting arguments of marxist classics, in order to analyse new forms of capitalism purely by quoting from their work. It challenges the exposition of a certain type of understanding of capitalism, which substitutes for the concrete application of a marxist analysis a recollection of quotes.

The principle of doubt inherently forms part of the concept of an open Marxism which reconsiders the open and contingent process of class struggle, its changing forms and conditions. It thus reconstitutes Marx's understanding of politics and undermines the certainty of orthodox Marxism which seems to possess a profound analysis of the course of transformation of society under the effect of class struggle while also sharing in the knowledge of its unpredictability. Hence - a matter of quoting.

Taking into account the changing forms of the presence of labour within capital, the project of marxist politics has to be reconsidered as continuously as the the decomposition of society itself takes place. Both the concept of an open Marxism and its principle of doubt promote the vitality of Marxism, corresponding to its object of critique and destruction, by avoiding pure contemplation and its inability to cope with the process of change.

Open Marxism analyses the continuous discontinuity of capitalist development, that is, the dialectic of the relation between abstract and concrete. By doing so it reflects on the reality of change within, or as a means of existence of, the abstract structure of capitalism. As such, open Marxism is densely interwoven with the process of past-present-future. Although it doesn't share the (arrogant) certainty of (and thus the complacent politics of conservation adopted by) dogmatism, it promotes the politics of Marxism through the 'militant optimism' (Bloch) whereby 'homeland' is to be achieved. Hence its practical strength.

The explosive force of the principle of doubt, which contributes to open Marxism, challenges the widely shared assumption of a crisis of Marxism. This reoccurring assumption seems to be fashionable in times of capitalist restructuring and offense. Despite Marxism's allegedly final exhaustion, it should be clear from what has been said so far, that Marxism is not in crisis as long as it provokes and produces crises of historically developed 'schools' or of Marxists themselves.

Metaphorically, Marxism is the theoretical concept of practice and the practical concept of theory which provokes crises of itself as a matter of its inherent strength and validity.

Marx a The Poverty of Philosophy, in Collected Works, Vol. I, p. 121

Marx b ibid.

Marx c Capital, Vol. I p. 411

Marx d Capital, Vol. I p. 703

Marx e Theorien über den Mehrwert, in MEW 26.1 p.363

Marx f Capital, Vol III p. 791-2

Marx g Grundrisse, p. 107.

Other Literature:

Bloch Das Prinzip Hoffnung, Frankf., Vol I.

M/A 80 Mandel/Agnoli, Offener Marxismus, Campus Frankfurt-New York 1980

Negt/Kluge 1981 Geschichte und Eigensinn, 2001 Verlag, Frankfurt 1981

Negri 1979 Sabotage, Trinkont Verlag, München 1979.