In this introduction to his 2001 book, Marx Lesen, German author Robert Kurz sets forth brief summaries of his concepts of "non-simultaneity", "catch-up modernization", the "exoteric" and "esoteric" Marx, and the importance of understanding the role of "fetishism" in modern capitalism.
Reading Marx in the 21st century — Robert Kurz
He was declared dead but is more alive than ever. As an activist and critical theorist, Karl Marx has already been left for dead more than once, but he always managed to escape historical and theoretical oblivion. This is due to one reason: Marxist theory can only rest in peace together with its object, which is the capitalist mode of production. This social system, “objectively” so cynical, overflowing with so much insolent behavior towards human beings, producing together with an obscene and insipid wealth a comparable mass of poverty, its dynamic characterized by a blind rage to prepare such incredible catastrophes, that its mere survival inevitably brings about the resurgence of themes and ideas of radical critique. For its part, the essential point of this critique consists of the critical theory of that same Marx who, almost 150 years ago, already analyzed the destructive logic of the capitalist accumulation process in its fundamentals, which analysis has not been superseded to this day. Just like any theory that overcomes the obsolescence of the spirit of its time, the Marxist oeuvre also necessarily undergoes a periodic reassessment that discovers new facets and rejects old interpretations. And not only old interpretations are discarded, but even elements of the theory itself which are bound to another era. Every theoretician always thinks more about what he himself knows, and one could not seriously call something a theory which is free of contradictions. Thus, not only individual books have their destinies, but so do great theories. Between a theory and those who are exposed to it, both supporters and opponents, a relation of tension always develops in which the internal contradiction of the theory is manifested, and only from that moment can knowledge be generated.
Marx and the recent postmodern disdain for “Grand Theory”
Instead of confronting the problem of the historical course of social theory at the end of the 20th century, so-called postmodern thought is only interested in silencing the dialectic-in-formation of theory, its reception and its critique. And it is precisely Marxist theory which is no longer investigated in terms of its contents, or analyzed in its historical conditions, or much less corrected, but suffers an a priori rejection of the legitimacy of its pretense to “grand theory”. This false modesty, which is not seen as such but is simply suppressed, concerning the great totality of the capitalist forms of socialization descends to an inferior level of social-theoretical reflection. The ostrich-politics of a thought so reduced and disarmed spontaneously underestimates the importance of the fact that it is not possible to draw a line between the problematic of what are called grand theories and grand concepts, on the one hand, and their real social object, on the other. The pretense of wanting to embrace the totality is overwhelmingly provoked by social reality. In its actual existence, the negative totality of capitalism does not cease its operations simply because it is conceptually ignored and because we no longer want to look in its direction: “the totality does not forget us”, as literary theorist Terry Eagleton so aptly put it.
The postmodern critique of grand theory, gratefully assimilated by many ex-Marxists as a supposedly ameliorative form of thought, does not have to yield to an affirmative and apologetic way of thinking in the traditional sense, but rather gives way to the despair of a social critique which is confused and shocked in the face of a task beyond its present capabilities. It involves an evasion which can only have a provisional character: in the end, critical thought will be implacably led back to the obstacle which it must overcome. And that obstacle is very hard to confront, above all because the Marxist thought practiced to this day is also obliged to leap over its own shadow. One can exchange that somewhat strange metaphor for another: Marxism has a corpse hidden in its cellar which cannot remain there much longer. The contradiction between Marxist theory and its reception through the old workers movement, as well as and as much as the contradictions within Marxist theory itself registered at the end of the 20th century, became so mature that one could not conceive of any reactivation or re-actualization of that theory within the molds in which it has been cast to this day.
After the century of the workers movement
In the past, whenever Marx was prematurely pronounced dead, and he arose safe and sound from his tomb, such resurrections occurred during an epoch which could be called “the century of the workers movement”. It now seems clear that this history has concluded. In a way, its motives, its theoretical reflections and its models of social action became false. They lost their force of attraction, life drained from them, and they present themselves to us as if they were specimens under glass. This Marxism is nothing but a boring museum piece. But having made that declaration, it is still not clear why this is so. The hasty flight of its old followers carries with it something of hypocrisy, while the precipitate triumphalism of its old opponents smacks of naiveté. With the misunderstood end of an epoch which has yet to be properly examined, the problems which matured during the course of this history have not disappeared; to the contrary, they have been dramatically exacerbated, in new and still unrecognized ways. One almost gets the impression that this epoch just past had hardly been the phase of metamorphosis or the incubation period of a great crisis which is qualitatively novel for taking place in the heart of world society, and whose nature can also only be approached, from the theoretical point of view, with equally grand concepts, and from the practical point of view, with a social transformation of an equally radical stamp. In the face of the current situation, the religion professed by a democratic and market economy “pragmatism”, which reigns everywhere and mixes up all the possible props of a mobile stage set, is as effective as trying to fight AIDS using some folk medicine, or trying to contain the explosion of a nuclear reactor by using fire-hoses wielded by local volunteers.
The fact that the central concept of this charlatan’s philosophy which mixes science, politics and management (the magic ritual formula of “modernization”) should seem as empty, as dead and as archaic as the great concepts of the workers movement, is deceiving. The end of critique also means the end of reflection, and in the negligent and unreflective postmodern capitalism, the mantra of “modernization” assumes the significance of vain idolatry. The concept of modernization became just as implausible as the concepts of the “workers point of view” or the “class struggle”. This loss of meaning common to both parties also applies to a common being and a common historical place shared by the old Marxism and the capitalist world. It is the secret mutual identity of the bloody adversaries who always see the surface while the immanent conflict only survives because the common system of relations is breaking up. Furthermore, as an integral circumstance of modernization, Marxism cannot be dead, and capitalism alive and wanting to imperturbably continue this same modernization ad infinitum. It is, instead, perhaps only a matter of a semblance of life in an intermediate realm or of the presence of zombies without any real life animating their bodies.
The technological reductionism of that concept of modernization disconnected from any and all contents of a social, social-analytic and critical-economic nature and origin points in the same direction. If access to the internet and biotechnology is all there is to it, then at bottom this means nothing, since the natural sciences and technology cannot exist by themselves or produce an isolated progress. They are only effective within the context of social and socio-economic development which overcomes previous stages. A modernization of a merely technological nature, which no longer wants to question the status quo of the social order and admits to having reached the end of the metamorphosis of social forms by means of the market economy and democracy disqualifies itself from the start.
These reflections are already an indication of how one can classify the end of the Marxism of the workers movement. If the new world crisis of the 21st century, which is slowly showing its contours, consists in that the common basis of the current history of modernization is becoming obsolete, this also means that the Marxism of the political and trade union left, together with their theoretical reflection, could only successfully mobilize within capitalist forms. Their critique of capitalism did not therefore refer to the logical and historical totality of this mode of production, but only to determinate stages of development which had already been experienced or were to be overcome. In this sense, in its century the Marxist movement of the working class was by no means the gravedigger of capitalism (in accordance with the celebrated Marxist metaphor) but represented to the contrary the internal propulsive disturbance, the vital engine and true form of the “development aid technician” of capitalist socialization. Thus, the “not yet” Marxism in the sense employed by the philosopher Ernst Bloch in no way referred, against the intention of the latter, to emancipation from capitalism, from its repressive forms and its basic pretensions, but rather to positive recognition within capitalism and in favor of progress for modernization within the capitalist cocoon. The “not yet” characterized the internal schism of capitalism; it did not yet signify a vision beyond the latter, which was only to be visualized within its historical limits.
Capitalism’s internal non-simultaneity
The perspective of the “non-simultaneity” inherent in the formation of the modern social system can be depicted on various levels. Thus, the still-young capitalist mode of production in the 19th century during Karl Marx’s lifetime (1818-1883) was in a certain way non-simultaneous in relation to itself. On the one hand, this mode of production had already developed its internal logic to such a point that it had become visible in its basic aspects and thus abstractly recognizable; on the other hand, specifically capitalist forms still found themselves mixed in a compound manner with precapitalist relations in distinct phases of decadence whose transformation was far from being concluded. If even the theoretical consciousness of this society in a state of fermentation and continuous change came to confuse each stage of the process of transformation with “capitalism as such”, then one should also expect that practical consciousness, inevitably immersed in everyday needs, would be obliged to view capitalism in the light of its direct social manifestations, which were still impregnated, however, with the impurities of pre-modern residues in various forms. Just as capitalism seemed like the correct name for each still unconcluded stage of development, above all in the view of the ruling interests of each epoch and of the apologists for those interests (note that the patriarchal authorities and the capitalist classes of the early 19th century, for example, would hardly recognize themselves in the figures of the current capitalists of the dot.com variety imposed by globalization), so it was necessary for the progressive forces liberated from each one of these stages to repudiate that state of affairs by assuming the name of a critique of capitalism as a counterweight, although it was truly just a question of continuing capitalism’s own development.
For this reason, the concept of modernization was not as one-dimensional as it is today, since it was burdened with the task of carrying out a kind of inter-capitalist critique (one could even say: a still-unconcluded progressive internal self-critique of capitalism). This made yet more sense when it was a question of an apparently easily-defined class struggle. On the one side, the capitalist subjects themselves of the 18th and 19th centuries, still equipped with pre-modern models of thought and behavior, tended to treat the wage workers they exploited with paternalism and seigniorial airs, as personal dependents, although, in the case of “free wage labor”, obedient to its form, it was a matter of contracts between equals. On the other side, the wage workers and their organizations, who in the first place were oppressed by the State, demanded precisely such contractual relations on a level legal playing field, in opposition to the dominating and manifestly personal character of the capital relation which did not yet correspond to its logical concept. In all, and for exactly that motive, the class struggle became the engine of the history of the imposition of capitalism, and the critique of capitalism directed against the personal proprietor-capitalists only really amounted to the pure logic of capitalism itself, that is, to the logic of a system of strict formal equality of abstract individuals, who appear as atoms of a process which becomes autonomous and turns against them.
Beyond the modes of paternalistic and personal rule and the interstices of corporative social relations, there were, nonetheless, other factors of internal non-simultaneity, such as, for example, those pre-modern cultural models which under their various aspects appeared to be obstacles to the dynamic and abstract time introduced by factory management, to the day of abstract labor, to the mass of unified political-economic rules, to the normalization of everyday life and its affairs, to the functionalist reduction of aesthetics, etc. Independent of both the class struggle and the immanent critique of capitalism linked to the former, the systemic context of capitalism was still not sufficiently mature, above all if one takes into account that even in the most developed capitalist countries (with England in the lead) the capitalist mode of production had not yet integrally spread to all branches of production, and the social spheres which found themselves outside of direct entrepreneurial production (State, family, cultural life, extra-economic corporations, etc.) were not properly adapted to capitalist necessities nor were they continually being restructured in accordance with the image of capitalist rationality.
The workers movement during the “catch-up” modernization” of the 19th century
Under another aspect, the non-simultaneity of capitalist development also manifested itself as an external non-simultaneity. In that epoch, a great part of the planet was not yet subjected to the logic of this mode of production, not even under the superficial colonialist form. A considerable number of colonial annexations took place during the 19th century, but even in the countries and regions of the world which had already been conquered, the structures of social reproduction were evidently not as penetrated by capitalism as were the respective metropolises. Maintained as reserves of raw materials and considered as marginal markets, they were only partially included in the capitalist process, just as life in the great hinterland, dominated politically and militarily only formally, was still largely rooted in pre-capitalist forms.
There had been, meanwhile, an accentuated disparity of development within Europe itself. Although capitalism could already look back upon a long preliminary history, at the end of the 18th century only England, which presented an embryonic industrialization, could have been called a modern capitalist country, in comparison with which development on the continent was still relatively backward. Within continental Europe, the western part (especially France and Holland) was far ahead of the central and eastern regions. In Germany, not even the basic conditions for the formation of a homogeneous national economy and of the corresponding national state had yet developed. In this manner, in Europe and the circle of those countries which had already begun to be called vaguely capitalist, the 19th century essentially fell under the sign of a “struggle for land”. In the competition between England and France, this first compensatory modernization ended up creating a true paradigm which vigorously marked the development of Germany and Italy. In Asia, Japan also joined the group, while on the other side of the Atlantic the U.S.A. also began to undergo a sudden change, in the search for an autonomous focus of capitalist industrial development.
It was only by way of this catch-up modernization, which took place in the second half of the 19th century, that a relatively small number of countries came to comprise that contradictory global center which eventually would dominate the capitalist world in alternating configurations determined by devastating world wars. The organization set up after the Second World War in the form of the exclusive club of the OECD, which soon began to hold periodic global conferences under the name of the “G-7”, and appears as a triad formed by the European Union, the United States and Japan, is still represented by the same central complex of States and national economies which was the result of the “position reached in the race” by the Anglo-Saxons and western Europeans and of the subsequent catch-up modernization undertaken by Germany, Italy and Japan in the 19th century.
It was inevitable that, together with this fundamental internal non-simultaneity, an external national-state and national-economic non-simultaneity came to determine the immanent anti-capitalism of the old workers movement. Wherever there had been, under one aspect or another, a certain developmental backwardness in relation to other nations, this was positively taken up as a problem; and wherever the disparities were especially great, this identification assumed a well-developed character. In Germany, the Marxist social democracy and the trade unions figured among the most vehement opponents of national unification. But despite the fact that national unification was, in the last analysis, realized “from above” by the imperial prime minister Bismarck within the context of an anachronistic empire, one could say that German social democracy maintained a quite obscure bourgeois patriotism. Amidst the prevailing conditions of competition established by the degree of catch-up modernization attained in the 19th century, all the workers parties ended up assuming the national-economic and national-state point of view of “their” country, a kind of orientation which, as is well-known, brought the “fraternal” national workers movements together to meet one another on the battlefields of the First World War. Under the influence of catch-up modernization, this turn towards the position of national-economic competition within external non-simultaneity was intimately related, as a logical necessity, to the vanguard role assumed by the workers movement vis-à-vis the internal non-simultaneity of the capitalist system. In other words: in reality, social opposition inside, and nationalist conformism towards the outside, were not as antagonistic as they might have appeared at first sight.
The exoteric and the esoteric Marx
The genesis of Marxist theory was situated in this field of tension between the internal and the external non-simultaneity of 19th century capitalism. Marx, himself a bourgeois liberal dissident, could not but have carried this tension with him. Examined superficially, Marx’s activities reflect the double contradiction, both internal and external, of the capitalism of his epoch. In the first place, Marx (along with Friedrich Engels) was the most outstanding figure of the social switching of sides forwarded by the vanguard intellectuals who, by criticizing the structurally backward government forms then in existence, ceased to be, and above all in continental Europe, moderately oppositional bourgeois liberals in order to join with the proletarian opposition of the workers movement which began at that time. Obviously, if the character of this movement is understood as an immanent motor of the development of capitalism itself, then this change of sides was in no way as extraordinary and transcendental for History as it has always been depicted by Marxist hagiography. Unlike the self-consciousness of the agents involved, the simple change of class perspective remained in the molds of capitalist logic, and was marked above all by disappointment in the face of the scanty vanguard spirit evinced by the empirical capitalist class, which was too conservative and too attached to the status quo of the epoch.
The resulting basic form of dissident thought consisted in the idea of transferring, in a sense, the “tasks of the bourgeoisie” which were being realized very slowly and without great enthusiasm by the “owning class” of ascendant capitalism, to the young workers movement, tasks which had simply been abandoned and were connected to a great extent with further capitalist development (development of civil legal relations, homogenization of social space, modernization of family and cultural structures, etc.), a theme which always found a place in Marx’s thought. In this sense, theory only had to make conscious that which, independently of it, had already been established within capitalism as the essential impulse of the workers movement by way of its struggle for recognition. To the degree that Marxist theory provided a scientific expression for this impulse, it was able to become the theoretical-social voice or scientific representative of the workers movement in its role as such an internal motor for capitalist development.
This role for Marxist theory was even reinforced by the fact that Marx, being German, wrote from the perspective of a specifically German capitalist “underdevelopment”. Already, in the preface to the first edition of Capital, he wrote: “We are tormented, like the rest of continental western Europe, not only by the development of capitalist production, but also by its lack. Together with modern calamities, we are oppressed by a series of inherited ones, which originate in the inertia of the surviving antiquated modes of production, with their retinue of anachronistic social and political relations. We suffer not only on account of the living, but also on account of the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! ...” With these words, the power of the dissident Marx’s attachment to the liberal concept of progress and to the scheme of historical development of Hegelian philosophy becomes clear, which would be transferred to the history of economic modes of production only on the basis of a purely historical version or, as he came to state himself, one whose image he would correct. From this point of view, capitalism was historically a compact mass and, in order to really abolish it, it was first necessary to introduce it as a historically necessary mode of production, in the name of the development of the productive forces; it then had to be smothered with love and affection, promoting its further development and, in a way, approximating its concept. It was simply not possible to be rid of it, as Marx stated in his preface, since it was a matter of tendencies “which impose themselves with iron necessity”: “The most industrially developed country proves to be hardly developed at all if one compares it to its future.”
In his positive theoretical, and, in a way, philosophical-historical reference to both the internal and external non-simultaneity of 19th century capitalism, Marx could be read as a sensible theoretician of modernization and, for exactly that reason, as the “chief-theoretician” of the modern workers movement. In this reinterpretation, we rediscover the well-known Marx of the “class struggle”, of “economic interest”, of “the workers point of view”, of “historical materialism”, etc. If Marxist theory allows itself to be absorbed by all this it will distinguish itself from other theories of modernization only by its given social emphasis, its specific terminology and its theoretical-historical grounding. In this light, the program of a merely immanent critique of capitalism aimed at the various stages of non-simultaneity would now be exhausted, and in this way Marx would be liquidated.
In this context, it is not merely a matter of classifications of thought (theoretical, scientific), but of real categories of social reproduction and of the social ways of life which come to emerge in theory as concepts (in the economic sciences of the bourgeois type, for example). For this reason, the subtitle of Marx’s Capital, “A Critique of Political Economy”, allows for two interpretations: on the one hand, as a critique of the objective and real relations, existing prior to or independent of any theory, considered in their elemental socioeconomic referential frameworks; on the other hand, as a critique of the forms of thought and of consciousness linked to and resulting from the former, originating as much from “common sense” as from ideology and science.
It is easy enough to describe the basic capitalist categories, but it is quite difficult to subject them to a fundamental critique. The abstract concepts of “labor”, economic “value”, the social representation of products as “commodities”, the general form of money, intervention by way of “markets”, the gathering together of these markets into “national economies” with particular monetary units (currencies), “labor markets” as prerequisites for a vast economy of commodities, currencies and markets, the State as “abstract State”, the form of the abstract general “law” (juridical codification) for all personal and social relations and as the form of social subjectivity, the State’s purest and totally-developed form, “democracy”, the irrational and culturally symbolic disguise of the national-economic-state coherence—all these elementary categories of modern capitalist socialization, developed by blind historical processes, were otherwise imposed upon human beings by the respective champions and jailors of power in a process of catechization, habituation and internalization over the span of several centuries, which resulted in the fact that these categories have very quickly come to appear as practically insuperable anthropological constants, making them immune to all critique.
The successful selling of the context of the capitalist social form, which had never existed before, as a natural law of human coexistence which had always existed, was undoubtedly a great achievement of bourgeois Enlightenment philosophy and of the economic theory linked with it and put into practice at the turn of the 19th century. As it came to be said, these truly eternal categories had only been incorrectly and incompletely employed in the past because the necessary understanding had been lacking (the reason proffered by the Enlightenment). But fortunately, after having achieved this understanding, the history of errors had come to an end and humanity could then march towards a glorious future, obedient to the principles of society par excellence (that is, of capitalism) which had always existed and reigned supreme.
With a great deal of insight and subtlety, Hegel modified this hypothesis, redefining pre-modern social conditions, which still appeared to the partisans of the Enlightenment as errors and mistakes, and establishing an equivalent number of “necessary stages of development” which in their entirety certainly only had the meaning of pointing to the marvelous modern era as the culminating and final point of human development. The fact that Hegel had considered this final stage as already having been fully attained in the Prussian constitutional monarchy is clear proof that he, too, confused the Modern Age or capitalism (he did not call it by these names, but conferred upon it more tender denominations, such as Weltgeist, for example), as the goal of history, with the real situation of his not yet fully matured era.
In this way the circumstance arose whereby modern philosophy in general and the economic sciences in particular (and, later, other autonomous academic disciplines as well, like sociology, political science, etc.) projected upon the whole history of humanity the totally new context of capitalist society as the presumably natural principle of coexistence and administration. Even today, despite all the critiques which have been formulated in relation to this ahistorical and generalized vision, it is taken for a certitude, at least in the economic sciences, that the first tool grasped by the hand of prehistoric man was already capital and fetched a price on a market formed by subjects of exchange. It cannot be denied that Marx remained attached to Hegel from the historical-philosophical point of view, but he was enormously amused by these horrifying anachronisms of the economic sciences and not only explicitly or implicitly “historicized” the modern capitalist categories, but also defined them as forms of a profoundly irrational and destructive form which was in the last analysis corroding society.
But this radical critique is actually found mixed and hybridized with the analysis of the internal and external non-simultaneity of capitalism and that representation of the working class which depicts the latter as simply striving for recognition “within” capitalism, so that Marx continuously oscillates, in part due to his manner of expression and also in part due to the structure of his argument, between a fundamental categorical critique on the one hand, and a “positivist” (and, as such, easily understandable) presentation on the other hand, even to the point of contradicting himself with regard to many of his central concepts and arguments. In this sense, then, it is necessary to speak of a “double Marx”, and to rigorously do so precisely in regard to this relation of categorical transcendence and positivist immanence present in the formation of his theory. We are thus presented with an “exoteric” Marx (directed towards the outside, easy to understand) and an “esoteric” Marx (who thinks categorically, and who is not very accessible). The exoteric Marx is the one who is positively inclined towards the immanent development of capitalism, while the esoteric Marx is the one who is turning towards the categorical critique of capitalism.
Marx and the workers movement: a marriage of convenience
Meanwhile, for Marx himself as well as those within the workers movement who had been exposed to his works, it was not possible to separate these two so interwoven factors. Although Marx had quickly recognized politics as a merely extrinsic and abstract form of sociability dependent upon the exploitation process of capital, he believed that the workers movement, precisely by way of the political struggle (linked with the State), could be thrust by means of the representation of merely immanent interests in the direction of that still diffuse and categorical critique which would transcend capitalistically constituted consciousness, a critique whose realization he himself occasionally came to qualify as a “dream”, a “towering goal” or the achievement of a “vast consciousness”.
For their part, the workers movement and its political representatives, almost all honest people, had almost no idea what to do with that categorical critique in either its explicit or implicit form. Quite hypocritically, when faced with the problem they preferred to appeal to the excuse that it was a matter of a theoretical discourse which was very hard to understand, assuming a deliberately humble position before the “great thinker”, but only in order to subtly mobilize the common sense of the wage worker against that “nebulous theory” and its useless and impractical “philosophizers”. Against this background, these supposedly incomprehensible Marxian theses concerning the radical critique of capitalist forms appeared, even to people who had previously shown a great deal of interest in them, to be a kind of “Hegelian swagger” and even a “philosophical trifle”. In reality, the ontological-abstract and theoretical-cognitive reasoning of this modern philosophy, which seemed so distant from praxis, ended up concealing with its terminological finery any reflection on the capitalist forms of thought which are simultaneously the social forms of praxis.
While Marx, against his better judgment, wanted to recognize the political form of the workers movement which had transcended the daily struggle for merely trade union interests as the vehicle for a radical critique of that form (and thus, paradoxically, also of the political form itself), this political form became for the workers movement, conversely, the vehicle which would enable it to prudently avoid the categorical critique of that form, a critique which, as far as it went, had only been contemplated with sidelong glances and had provoked fear, as well as enabling it to conquer recognition (successfully, as it turned out) within capitalism as the subject of labor and within the labor markets. In this way, a reciprocal illusion was produced, and Marx became not only the scientific representative of the workers movement in his exoteric capacity, but also simultaneously incarnated, in his esoteric capacity, the restless theoretician, protesting and infuriated, eternally discontented, and “father know-it-all”, preacher of sermons which remained on a secondary plane, transforming him into a faithful reflection of its own internal contradiction in relation to the historical movement of the working class towards the interior of capitalism, instead of away from it.
The inevitable tension derived from this extremely differentiated relation caused the antinomy of the theory to quickly become its canonization and dogmatization, as normally occurs when a legitimizing world-view contains a blind spot which cannot be thematically addressed. It is true that Marx came to ironically observe that he was not a “Marxist”, but this did not help him at all. The transformation of this theoretical contradiction into the ideology of an “ism”, as well as its becoming anathema, was the only possible way to adapt its theory to a way of presenting it that would allow it to meet the needs of the workers movement. Becoming an ideology did to Marx what it does to all thinkers who are non-simultaneous with their own time, but at the same time ahead of it: only thus was he, as the exoteric Marx, elevated to the status of dogma in order to be, in the status of esoteric Marx, degraded and given a kick in the ass. And this was done most vehemently by the “Marxist” ideologues of the party and the erudite academics, from Karl Kautsky to Oskar Negt. Perhaps there has been no other modern thinker for whom the following quip of the Polish aphorist Stanislaw Jerzy Lec is more appropriate: “They stoned him by building a monument to him”.
Marxism and the catch-up modernization of the 20th century
This stoning of the esoteric Marx continued after his death for more than a century. The “short” 20th century, delimited by the historical dates of 1914 and 1989, did not see the advance of the categorical critique in Marxist theory or the consequent new quality of social reflection, but on the contrary witnessed the repeated ascent and in the end the fall of the exoteric Marx of modernization and positive immanence, amidst a new stage of historical non-simultaneity within capitalism. The 20th century did not come to represent, despite both world wars and the world economic crisis (1929-1933), the century of the maturation of the crisis and transformation of capitalism, but essentially represented the epoch of a second wave of “catch-up modernization”. Only then do the vast regions of the capitalist periphery enter world history.
This second catch-up modernization was divided into two interwoven tendencies: on the one side, the rise of State Socialism (vulgarly, state capitalism) in the East, which utilized the world system thesis, and on the other side, the movement for national liberation in the colonial countries of the southern hemisphere, whose decolonization and independence as nation-states could only be concluded at the end of the century (definitively with the return of Hong Kong to China). The “big bang” of this history of the 20th century was the great October Revolution which took place in Russia at the end of the First World War, followed by the Chinese Revolution in the course of the Second World War, as well as the great anticolonial wars of liberation (Algeria, Vietnam, South Africa) unleashed in the postwar decades.
It cannot be denied that the exoteric Marx, whose immanent theory of modernization was already fading to some extent within the western social democratic movement and was mixed with interchangeable stage scenery from the bourgeois positive sciences, experienced his second childhood in the second historical wave of catch-up modernization. In order to enter the global horizon of capitalism, the peripheral regions could hardly follow their own limited cultural traditions. They lacked, furthermore, a universal western theory as legitimizing background, which at the same time, as a theory of universal legitimization oriented towards capitalist world history, historically took on the character of opposition, in order to be able to be instrumentalized in the competition between the periphery occupied with its own catch-up modernization, and the already-established capitalist centers.
The exoteric Marx was consequently taken up again by theoreticians like Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, and was adapted to the necessities of the new “struggle for territory” in the capitalist periphery. These necessities differed from those of the western workers movement in so far as it was not only a question of bestowing recognition upon persons who depended upon a wage in an already-established capitalism; it was, rather, a question of the implantation—in a catch-up capacity—of the capitalist social categories themselves, and truly far beyond the exigencies of that similar process of catch-up modernization which took place in Germany, Italy and Japan in the 19th century. This is so because, in the first place, the backwardness in the degree of capitalist socialization was much greater, if it is compared with the discrepancies which prevailed in that younger Europe; in the second place, because the “struggle for territory” had to be carried out on a much more demanding scale and amidst a much higher level of world capital development; and third, because it could only succeed within a precarious competition against a dominant circle of a now global nature, formed by highly developed and heavily armed central powers.
In this context, Marxist theory suffered a new deformation and reduction. The esoteric aspects of the categorical critique did not even arise, being philosophical reflections outside of reality and distant from practical exigencies; they almost totally disappeared from the discussion, lost halfway down the road between Lenin and the theoreticians of national liberation. Although its connection to a workers movement had been formally maintained, this was practically reduced to relatively small groups and trade union organizations within a still-fragile state of industrialization. The Marxist parties of the periphery became bureaucratic machines for the “catch-up valorization” of societies which still had not been permeated by the capitalist economic form. These representatives of the internal disturbance of capitalism, or of its further development, were not only oriented towards the Legal State or the Social State, as were their western counterparts; they also undertook, in an abstract-pansocial sense (and even in a relatively conscious manner with Lenin), to “do the bourgeoisie’s job”, because the social strata of the bourgeoisie in the peripheral countries was simply too weak for this task. For this reason, these peripheral Marxisms were characterized by a more intense identification with their respective nations than western Marxism (in the former colonies, the nation was generally a late and totally artificial invention).
The paradoxical character of this Marxism of ideological legitimization which is found in the second catch-up modernization went far beyond that of the western workers parties, since it was actually a matter of an amalgam explicable only upon the basis of the special historical context of an “anticapitalist developmental capitalism” or “direct State Capitalism” which, within the field of tension of an especially extreme external non-simultaneity, also had to express the contradiction of Marxist theory in an especially extreme form.
Essentially, this second reception of the exoteric Marx appeared and took place in a more profoundly radical way than the first, but not because it had mobilized the hidden categorical critique of capitalism and cleared the way to the roots of that historical relation, but because it was more exposed to a greater burden of inter-capitalist non-simultaneity. As State bureaucracies, the Marxist workers parties not only had to assume the tasks of the bourgeoisie more emphatically than their western predecessors; they were compelled, paradoxically, to actually engender a working class as the human material for the exploitation process for the first time on a vast social scale! If this hard core version of exoteric Marxism appeared to be radical, it was in reality less a matter of a theoretical and practical radical quality of the critique than it was of a forced competitive militancy in inter-capitalist self-affirmation against the western centers, which thus zealously sought a corresponding martial representation, of a cultural-symbolic kind, and ended up producing, under the sign of the revolutionary wars and wars of independence of the 20th century, the stylized Kalashnikov above the insignias of labor, especially the hammer and sickle.
This merely relative difference, rather than leading to the overcoming of the problematic thus brought about with the means offered by the Marxist theory of modernization, led, among those receptive to Marx, to the great schism of the world Marxist movement. This schism, at first sight conditioned by the apparent contrast between the radical nature of the East and South and the moderate reformism of the West, only reflected the different degrees of non-simultaneity and the inconclusive nature of capitalist penetration in the periphery. Recapitulating: in the oldest strata of the western road of development, the question turned around simple recognition within the already-established modern State, while in the newest strata of the regions of the East and the South, it was a question of conquering state power, towards the end of installing a modern state machine responsible for State Capitalist industrialization. It is quite well understood that the form of radicalization of Marxist theory linked to this phenomenon (centered on the question of State power) could only mobilize an ideological minority in the western centers; communism (as the sign of the new modernizing impulse of State Capitalism) remained a mere troublesome child in the West, a kind of auxiliary battalion of the Soviet Union, and was thus unable to overcome the status of a footnote on the page of history, insofar as it managed to maintain its true power of irradiation in the vast regions of the world’s periphery. On the other side of the balance sheet, western social democracy, satiated due to its diversified participation in the administration of human beings and terrorized by the crude forms of developmentalist dictatorship engendered by the Marxism of the periphery, slowly but completely abandoned its Marxism, its legitimization and its programs mutating after the Second World War, and ultimately threw itself into the arms of a dull Keynesian theory of the Social State, minus the rhetoric of class struggle and revolution. In the final accounting, the exoteric Marx had become the exclusive property of the historically backward.
The recycling of Marxism in the Cold War
The only way to explain the fate of Marxist theory in the 20th century is by deciphering the external contrasts in the context of a global intercapitalist repudiation, within which the world-historical movement of capitalism began for the first time, not only in accordance with its logic but also empirically, to appear as world capital, in accordance with the capitalist essence, in the form of destructive competition and great catastrophes on an unprecedented scale. Within this evolution, various waves of development were superimposed on each other, whose combined influence created global systems and relations of competition whose stability was only provisional. The “century of the (western) workers movement” (approximately 1848 to 1945) overlapped with the “century of the revolutions of national development” (1918 to 1989) and with the struggle for capitalist rule on a world scale within the center, which was definitively resolved in 1945 with the beginning of the “Pax Americana”.
After the Second World War, this whole process was manifested by the conjuncture formed by the “three worlds”, which especially marked the second half of the 20th century: the “First World” of the old capitalist center, henceforth under the contested hegemony of the U.S.; the “Second World”, represented by the State Communism of the East, or State Capitalism, under the leadership of the Soviet Union; and lastly the “Third World”, composed of very diverse tendencies of post-colonial movements for national liberation and developmentalist dictatorships in the Southern hemisphere of the planet. West and East, the First and Second Worlds, faced off in the Cold War, as this conflict of systems was called, while the Third World was partly organized in the group of what was known as the non-aligned countries (with a clear tendency towards State Socialism) and partly became the scene of “proxy wars” for both contending blocs.
Marxist theory, which in its remodeled exoteric form sent shock waves through this whole epoch from the periphery, ended up being so completely disfigured by both sides that it became unrecognizable. If, in the beginning, when the young Soviet Union was still intellectually and culturally linked to the humanistic politics and history of the West (transmitted by emigrant socialists during the Czarist regime), it still seemed to maintain the emancipatory pathos of the “new man” and of the “new era” so overflowing with utopias, the modernizing character of the State Capitalism incorporated by the Soviet regime and by all the developmentalist dictatorships which came after it quickly rose to the forefront, figuring as a central point not of the social emancipation of the human being but of his transformation into the raw material for his participation in the world market, supervised by the State. It could thus hardly be surprising that immediately thereafter not only did the forms of money, labor and market of the bureaucratic State appear, characteristics of the capitalist point of departure, but also the usual criminal acts of modernization, once the ideological smoke of the revolutions dissipated.
At this point the West, intimidated by its entrenched antagonist, represented by the historically backward, chose Marx and his theory as the image of the negative representation of the whole Evil Empire, while the countries of the eastern bloc of State Capitalism gilded them as the legitimizing icons of a hope long hidden by the dictatorial-developmentalist regimes. In its bedazzlement the West did not want to recognize in this “Marxist East” (and the partly “Marxist South”) the image of its own past, even when the East tried to imitate, after the 1970s, to the point of ridiculousness, not only capitalist categories, but also the capitalist lifestyle and consumption patterns on a relatively inferior level, under the mantle of the State bureaucracy.
The movement of May 1968 as an ephemeral outbreak of the exoteric Marx
Towards the end of the western economic miracle, that great postwar boom of Fordist industry with the auto industry as a central factor of production and consumption, the exoteric Marx once again experienced—truly after his historical epoch had already passed—an unexpected third childhood, this time in the form of the great western movement of students and youth, which was accompanied by similar phenomena in Eastern Europe (the Prague Spring) and the Third World. But this third childhood was just barely a breath of fresh air which lightly caressed the surface of society as a symbolic-cultural movement. The attempt to enrich this movement with the national-revolutionary pathos of the Third World and to once again take up, in a great strategic plan, the reception of the exoteric Marx as a global historical force faded considerably into a romantic-revolutionary pop culture. Only an insignificant minority tried to put this option into practice and was condemned to failure by its completely isolated and almost existentialist kamikaze actions (the Red Army Faction in the Federal Republic of Germany, for example).
At this point, Marxist theory was not being re-thought at the same level of development reached by capitalist social forms; to the contrary, it was re-imported in a very bleak conceptual form from the periphery, whose catch-up modernization, from the economic and structural point of view, was already in critical condition, although the theory itself still seemed to be enjoying its greatest revolutionary triumphs.
As for the capitalist metropolises, what remained as residues or leftovers of the old modernization function on the horizon of the understanding of the exoteric Marx was a counterrevolutionary impulse of the movement of May 1968 towards the unleashing of the last stage of postmodern capitalist individuality: the themes surrounding the critique of everyday culture, anti-authoritarianism, the “sexual revolution” and the other campaigns of the time, all of them still adorned with the Marxist vocabulary imposed by the youth and student movement, ended up being transformed on various planes of the management and marketing of the vanguard into a commercialization of private life and a new self-exploitation of labor power.
While the so-called new social movements, which from 1968 to the mid-1980s made various attempts to establish a counterculture, still saw themselves (or mistakenly saw themselves) as a fundamental social opposition, they had less and less recourse to the Marxist critique of political economy. It was evident that the potential of Marxist interpretations no longer sufficed for a progressive explication of reality. But if it did not turn to Marxist theory, analysis ended up lacking in critical depth, and the movements were losing their momentum, falling apart or dissolving within capitalism through the politics of lobbying and the subculture of isolated groups.
The great confusion after Marxism
With the extinction of that outbreak, the exoteric Marx could finally disappear forever. But due to the lack of historical and theoretical reflection concerning his importance, this exhaustion of the Marxist paradigm was interpreted as if the critique of capitalism had to be mothballed for having been a mere deceit. This superficial impression seemed to be dramatically confirmed when in 1989—ironically, at the exact moment celebrating the second centenary of the French Revolution—the fragile empire of Eastern European State Capitalism collapsed, almost without a fight, into the inferno of History. Real Socialism, which was so often invoked in the name of the exoteric Marx, simply lost its reality. And it did not stop there: still viewed from the typical Cold War perspective, this epochal rupture, as unusual as it was misunderstood, came to be proclaimed by all political and theoretical currents as a decisive victory for “the market economy and democracy”, a formula which still haunts us like a catchy tune, manufactured for sale to the patrons of the Kaufhaus des Westens.
At this point, from the historically short-range viewpoint of the Cold War, the Marxist counter-system, and with it the historical alternative to capitalism appears to have failed. And from the perspective of a left in frank and rapid dissolution, which only knows how to think in the immanent manner of the exoteric Marx, it had to bow its head in agreement with this evaluation. On the one side, great movements of retreat to a kind of “realism” adjusted to capitalism, with their grotesque subsequent careers, and on the other side, the sad and obstinate Marxist nostalgia of a disoriented minority, seemed to definitively seal the destiny of Marxist theory. Left completely out of consideration was the fact that there could still be another quite different interpretation of the developments and events in question, and this would truly be an interpretation within the horizon of that repressed esoteric Marx and of his categorical radical critique.
From this totally different perspective, of which even theoretical public opinion only reluctantly takes account, it was not the historical alternative which failed, but, on the contrary, the catch-up modernization of the periphery. If, from the perspective of the external (national) non-simultaneity of the 19th century, the “struggle for territory” could still approximately achieve its goals, after the first successes it ended up collapsing in the 20th century, despite enormous efforts. The reasons for this defeat reside in the stage of development of the capitalist world system itself: under the conditions of progressive integration made possible by world trade and the financial markets, the historically backward could only run out of steam, at the latest, with the third industrial revolution (microelectronics). Ultimately, they were no longer in any condition (except at the cost of a precarious external debt) to obtain the power of capital destined to this new technological armament of the total apparatus of production. Thus, they lost the competition on the world market and, in a chain reaction, the discrepancy between import and export prices (terms of trade) widened to the detriment of the latter, in such a way that they could no longer obtain enough money, and were at last obliged to capitulate as autonomous national economies.
Now, even the supporters of the market economy and democracy, as well as hard-line neoliberals, begin to clearly see that the current world crisis, provoked by successive national-economic collapses, can by no means be overcome by a simple change of political-ideological or institutional fields, departing the plane of the State and moving towards market competition, from relative protectionism towards the opening-up of the market, and from the failed one-party developmentalist dictatorship towards democratic parliamentarism. This crisis is much too profound. As was well-illustrated by the collapses suffered, and still not entirely overcome, by the “tigers” of Southeast Asia, with their apparently miraculous economies, it was not only the clearly socialist economies of the periphery which ran into their historical limits. It is increasingly obvious that western capitalism cannot integrate, into a world system unified under its exclusive protection, those historically backward countries which failed in their autonomous attempts to recover lost time and territory. Inter-capitalist non-simultaneity was not positively abolished, but only negatively abolished. Under the pressure of globally unified patterns of productivity and profitability, a great part of humanity today can no longer manage to exist within capitalist social forms. Even more: the world crisis unequivocally manifests itself within the capitalist nucleus-countries themselves as well, although for the time being this is still concealed by virtue of a new finance capitalism outside of reality, which can in its turn be interpreted as a phenomenon of crisis.
The more clearly these facts are broadcast to the four corners of the earth, the greater will be the confusion. For example: must the buried Marxist critique of capitalism be exhumed, in order to simply revitalize and repeat the now-forgotten concepts of class struggle and political economy, although these obviously form part of an already vanished epoch? Mainstream bourgeois science and public opinion justly resist reanimating a stuttering and superfluous debate. Apparently, there will no longer be any possibility of clearly expressing the obvious crisis phenomena and developing historical social alternatives (hence, in addition, the stubborn discourses, bordering on ignorance, of the “market economy without alternatives”). After 150 years only the exoteric Marx of a positive theory of modernization is present in the social consciousness, and social theory therefore suffers an extreme paralysis.
For the most part, the small remaining Marxist groupuscules are doing practically nothing to turn this state of affairs to their advantage. On the contrary, they exacerbate the paralysis and replay, whenever the past is revised, loudly and in a grossly presumptuous manner, the same movie featuring the wrecked paradigm of the exoteric Marx.
The insignias and watchwords of the catch-up developmentalist revolutions were already right off the shelf of old postmodernist trash. The “hammer and sickle” appears alongside religious and other kinds of symbols as an accessory stripped of its content which had already become historical, and investment funds and auto rental companies advertise their “revolutionary” commercial ideas by showing demented images of Lenin. But the Marxism which still indefatigably reflects upon the qualitative difference still locates it between the real de-realized socialism and the capitalist mode of production. And this happens despite the fact that their positive identity has been practically proven by the fact that this socialism has only failed according to capitalist criteria because those criteria were also its own.
Currently, a new front of the retreat of the global left is outlined, in which the concepts of the exoteric Marx (“class struggle”, etc.) are linked up with elements of Keynesian economic doctrine (partial State interventions and social welfare accompaniments to capitalism, etc.). At the forefront of this tendency stands the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who categorically proclaims the “defense of Keynesian civilization” against the triumphant march of neoliberalism. Considering the majority of the ex-leftist “realists” who now blindly participate in all that capitalism requires, from the demand for low-wage sectors to NATO’s participation in wars, this proclamation, made with personal integrity by Bourdieu, calling for social and intellectual resistance, seems extremely alluring. But such an attitude of leftist opposition no longer possesses any historical autonomy, any substance or any social perspective.
Unlike the dogmatic necromancy of the last “believers” who live outside of reality, Bourdieu’s initiative can only appear non-dogmatic and novel for the following reason: it is an ideological combination of decrepit ancient contents which were at one time oppositional. In this circumstance, the reference to the exoteric Marx only appears, however, as a ritual evocation of the class struggle, remaining as auxiliary rhetoric, while for us, as far as the content is concerned, it is only a matter of an opaque Keynesian nostalgia. Thus, for example, the irremediably naïve demand for “political control of transnational financial markets” repeats the same model of the past epoch, i.e., the idea of state-political regulation and moderation of the not-yet-abolished real capitalist categories, in a world which has for a long time stopped insisting on this. The deficit spending of state-Keynesian regulation was devoured by the inflation of the 1970s and 1980s as national-state control was demolished by globalization. For this reason, this model no longer answers to any intercapitalist norm of reality. It remains an ideological reminiscence, and only this makes this strange mixed marriage between Marx and Keynesianism possible, a marriage which suffered the joke of the Marxism of the 1970s which itself hardly had any historical resonance. Actually, western Keynesianism failed just as much as the State Capitalism of the East in the second catch-up modernization.
Only because the system of coordination of development and of social consciousness suffered a dislocation, could this position, from the formal point of view, almost appear to be a new “left radicalism”. The left, however, united in this sense for what is only a rearguard action, in reality not only no longer presents itself with its proper Marxist name, but smells of the rags used and thrown away by the bourgeois economic sciences into the garbage can of history. The fact that we do not by any means find ourselves faced by a return of the exoteric Marx could also be deduced from the confirmation that Bourdieu’s perspective no longer refers to the future of a new feverishly debated capitalist developmentalist impulse, which would have to be, as in that May of long ago, presumably connected to “anticapitalism”; which in fact barely refers to the fading past of the capitalist postwar boom, to its Statist social norms and to the expansion of its public sector.
The categorical crisis and the taboo-zone of the modern era
Why is social consciousness so stubbornly closed to the spectrum of ideas that hold that the new world crisis of the 21st century could be a categorical crisis of capitalism? Why does the esoteric Marx, repressed and sequestered in a philosophical world or in a distant future without any importance for any and all practical critique, have such difficulties in asserting his rights? There is a series of reasons that can respond to these questions. And all of them have something to do with the dimension of this new crisis which can no longer be overcome by utilizing forms of action and of consciousness which have prevailed until now.
Since the horizon of internal capitalist development has dissipated, an emancipatory opposition can no longer be formulated within the categories of the modern system of commodity production. This also means that it is no longer possible to simply struggle against an easily definable external enemy (the “possessing class”, the “reactionary forces”, the “imperialism” of the established powers, etc.) and, furthermore, that the (capitalistically-constituted) forms of the subject and of action themselves are no longer suitable. This is as hard to understand as it is to bear.
It is evident that historical development has entered a taboo zone. Only on the surface was capitalism a process of demystification. In this society, at the peak of its development, (almost) everything is permitted, under the condition, of course, that it can be bought and sold. Even so, the apparent universal arbitrariness also finds itself limited by the completely un-arbitrary, even somewhat dogmatic, one-dimensional and compulsory forms of value, commodity, money and competition, upon which the economic-managerial form and substance of “labor” is based. This dictatorship of the social form, which among other things has already engulfed love, sports, religion, art, etc., tolerates no other gods.
But just as this taboo is not at all constructed by external postulates and prohibitions, being itself ordained by the modern form of the subject and of consciousness, and consequently being anchored all the more deeply than all the ancient taboo contexts, it also becomes much more difficult to make any progress against it. Whoever, for example, questions the system of making money as such can expect to be declared by common sense to be a psychiatric case. Like the last surviving dinosaurs of exoteric Marxism, whose representatives always react fearfully and defensively to the esoteric implications of their master, common sense considers such a pretension to be an “esotericism”, which, however, from its point of view, must simply signify irrationality, charlatanry, etc. The idea that capitalism itself could have propelled the forces of production beyond the limits of the “money-making” subjectivity of the modern human being can only run up against utter incredulity.
In order to open up a space for the discussion of Marx’s esoteric categorical critique of the capitalist mode of production, it is obviously necessary, in the first place, to overcome a preliminary stage, which is precisely that taboo zone of questions never asked and things never discussed, but which nonetheless exist. It is thus a question of the thematization of hitherto tacit prerequisites which were previously not subject to analysis. It was the fact that he was the first and only modern theoretician to “express in words” the tacit a priori of the system of commodity production which conferred the supposed “unintelligibility” and “unreal philosophical character” upon the esoteric Marx. On the other hand, the economic sciences, and along with them all the other fully developed social sciences (which have now definitively degenerated into simple auxiliary sciences, not to say auxiliary police, of the economic sciences), do not take the capitalist categories of labor, value, commodity, money, market, etc., as objects of study, but as the tacit prerequisites of their “scientific” rationality. The subject-form of commodity exchange, the transformation of labor power into money and money-capital into surplus-value (wealth) is not investigated according to their “what” or “why” but only as to their functional “how”, similar to the way natural scientists only analyze the “how” of so-called natural laws. The first obstacle to a categorical critique of capitalism therefore consists in withdrawing the tacitly obvious status from these categories and making them explicit and then, and only then, subjecting them to criticism.
Fetishism as tacit dimension and history’s great leap forward
In an abstract form, as a problem of method, cultural sociology has already fully developed the question of a possible critique of blind presuppositions. The transformation of a “tacit dimension” (Michael Polanyi) of the implicit into the expressly explicit by means of language, the thematization of what was previously unspeakable as a problem of communication in epochs of crisis and transition, became commonplace within historical-cultural analyses. But this problem is not for the most part thematized with a critical intention, but rather an affirmative one, for example in the reflection of systems theory (N. Luhman) as the constitution of a “backdrop of the obvious” which leads to the “reduction of complexity”. In this line of thought, the tacit a priori character of the capitalist categories arises as a kind of balm for life, and their fundamental crisis is by no means taken into account as a possibility.
But when the problem was approached as an impulse of thematization in critical transitions, it was taken into account, even if only as an observation concerning distant epochs (i.e., for the philosopher Karl Jaspers with regard to the so-called “axial era” of the 5th century B.C., when a great impulse was given for the separation between the terrestrial and divine worlds together with a revolution in the social order), or as an investigation of the implicit obviousness in everyday life, which is expressed in words and questioned by the development of the social metastructure. This latter explication of the implicit background is only going to be affirmative in capitalism at the moment in which it fully coincides with it, which the philosopher Jürgen Habermas called the “colonization of the living world”. Since we have capitalism itself as the first and only social form of the blind dynamic, which permanently denies and questions the implicit obviousness in everyday life, of professional activity, of social coexistence, of culture, etc., from this obvious fact—by no means, however, in the sense of a social emancipation, but, on the contrary, as a total subjection of the human being to blind market processes. If the problem of the thematization of that which until now has not been the object of communication is to become fertile in an emancipatory way, then it will only be possible when the investigation of this thematization turns towards the “implicit axioms” of capitalism itself—that is, with the esoteric Marx, to bring the thematized indignation to bear upon the categorical social forms which only form the tacit background for the modern era.
The central concept of the esoteric Marx, which represents this critical thematization, and with it the emancipatory departure of modernity, is the concept of “fetishism”. From this concept, Marx shows that the seeming rationality of capitalist modernity only represents, in a way, the internal rationality of an absurd objectified system: a kind of secularized belief in things, which is manifested in the abstractions made palpable of the system of commodity production, of its crises, absurdities, and destructive results for the human being and nature. In the autonomization of the so-called economy, in the fetishism of labor, value and money oppose human beings and their own sociability as a foreign and external power.
What is scandalous is that this hideous, phantasmagorical and destructive autonomization of dead, economized things took the form of the axiomatic obvious. With his concept of fetishism, which also extends to the State, politics and democracy, the esoteric Marx produced what every great discoverer produces in human affairs: he transforms the apparently simple, the everyday, “silent dimension” of the obvious, into the strange, the inexplicable and the false.
The esoteric Marx, unlike his exoteric counterpart wedded to modernization, upon denying modernity its ruling position within history, did not, like the merely reactionary critics of the modern era, justify or idealize the relations of pre-modern agrarian societies, but on the contrary inserted the modern era into the context of a social history of the sufferings of humanity, a history yet to be abolished, inscribed on the horizon of a still-valid “not yet”.
When the classic Marx analyzes History as a totality, in the sense of the Hegelian concept, oriented towards materialism, development and progress, he does so with the concept of a “History of class struggles”: he only therefore projects the inter-capitalist development and imposition upon all History up to the present moment. It is only by means of the concept of fetishism employed by the esoteric Marx that it becomes possible to describe, at a higher level of abstraction, the whole mass of all social forms which had arisen until then, and not merely produced by retrospective projections of the modern era: as different as their relations were, there have never been self-conscious societies which were capable of freely deciding the employment of their possibilities; there have always been societies which were directed by fetishistic means of the most diverse varieties (rituals, personifications, religious traditions, etc.). From this perspective, one must speak of a “history of fetishistic relations”. In this sense, the modern system of commodity production with its irrationally autonomized economy only represents the latest form of social fetishism, blinded by its own dynamic.
The task thus set before us is to finally make the true dimension of the world crisis of the 21st century manifest. It is—in Marx’s own words, boldly stated—a matter not only of the end of capitalist history, but also of the problem of overcoming the history which has existed until now, ultimately comparable to the so-called Neolithic revolution or the revolution of the “axial era”. Not only did the era of the Cold War end, but so did the world history of modernization in general, and not only this specifically modern history, but the world history of fetishistic relations in general.
The hypothetical reduction of complexity by means of the capitalist social machine, which always represented ideology more than reality, is finally transformed into destruction. For this reason as well, the leap is great and full of terrors. But the relations of crisis, which are becoming recognizable through their continuous evolution, implacably demand: where there had been social unconsciousness (from the “invisible hand” of the cult of the ancestors to the “invisible hand” of the world capitalist market), social consciousness must arise. Instead of a blind medium, a decisive conscious social process will have to arise, organized by self-determining institutions (not established a priori), beyond the market and the State.
Illusory postmodern packaging as the last word of the modern era
Instead of finally taking the esoteric Marx’s postulates seriously in view of the world crisis and reaching a critical reflection beyond the already-exhausted paradigm of modernization, the disarmed social sciences try to deceive us concerning this task. Not only do they not want any other level of reflection, they try to assure that the old form of immanent reflection upon the history of the imposition of capitalism is extended beyond its expiration date. For this purpose the sociologist Ulrich Beck invented the term “reflexive modernization”. But this expression, which has seen much use and thoughtless repetition, is an empty and illusory husk, since the reflexivity postulated here does not refer, by any means, to a form of combating capitalism, but only to a pure phenomenology. In other words: assumed more blindly than ever in its capitalist context, society must behave “reflexively” only in relation to the diverse phenomena and consequences of its insane and destructive work.
The same lamentable character is offered by the proposed prescriptions which vary from “uncompensated civil labor” to “citizen-friendly administration”, etc. They do not attempt to attain a new form of society beyond the market and the State, but so-called “civil society”, which has actually been corrupted for a long time by the capitalist colonization of the living world, which, as a field for which the remediation services are responsible, must defeat the crisis which has installed itself in the pores and interstices which exist between the market and the State. This perspective seems as irremediably unrealistic as the pretense of resuscitating the social Keynesian State which is collapsing. Basically, its objective is to simply try to compensate for the suppression of social obligations by means of private alms and moral voluntarism without any critical sense.
It does not matter which way you turn: there is no way to avoid Marx, even if the “return to Marx” actually can only refer to the categorical radical critique of the fetishism of the modern era, a critique which is still being repressed to this day. Nor is there any reason to object to this esoteric Marx by, for example, raising the suspicion of an evil utopianism on his part. Exactly the opposite happened to the exoteric Marx of Modernization, who complacently accepted the utopians in the pantheon of his precursors. Utopia can always be read in the history of modernization as an appeal to the (ideological) capitalist ideal against an evil capitalist reality. Utopia is the infantile disorder of capitalism, not of communism.
For this reason, the esoteric Marx is also completely non-utopian and anti-utopian. In his case, it is not a question of an earthly paradise or of the construction of a new human being, but of the overcoming of the demands made by capitalism on the human being, of the ending of the social catastrophes produced by capitalism; neither more nor less. The fact that this will only be possible if the history of events to the present time as a history of fetishisms is overcome is not due to the arrogance of the critique, but to the arrogance of capitalism itself. Even after capitalism, there will still be sickness and death, envy and contemptible individuals. But there will no longer be the paradox of mass poverty produced by the abstract production of wealth; there will no longer be an autonomous system of fetishistic relations or dogmatic social forms. The goal is great, exactly because, measured against utopian exultation, it shows itself to be relatively modest, and promises nothing more than liberation from completely unnecessary sufferings.
Source: “This text constitutes the Introduction (pages 13 to 48) of Robert Kurz’s book, Marx Lesen (Frankfurt am Main, Eichborn, 2001). It was translated from the original German to Portuguese and published in the second issue of Critica Radical (Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil). Translated from Portuguese to Spanish by R.D.”
The Spanish translation on which this English version was based can be found at Archivo Chile, the website of the Centro de Estudios “Miguel Enriquez” (CEME):