History and politics: an interview

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 27, 2013

Asad Haider: You write within a Marx­ist frame­work, but often focus on clas­si­cal polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, prior to or out­side of the Marx­ist tra­di­tion. What’s the rel­e­vance of this kind of study?

Gopal Bal­akr­ish­nan: I would say that just as we clearly see that Marx’s eco­nomic think­ing arises out of a cri­tique of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, and that in turn was made pos­si­ble by a prior cri­tique of ide­al­ist phi­los­o­phy, we also have to see the prob­lems of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics that Marx is address­ing as a crit­i­cal engage­ment with the past his­tory of polit­i­cal thought. There are spe­cific cat­e­gory prob­lems, as well as inter­twined his­tor­i­cal sub­ject mat­ter in an engage­ment with that side of Marx, and Marx’s own engage­ment with this lin­eage of thinkers – Hegel as a legal and polit­i­cal thinker, clearly, but Hegel’s thought as a cul­mi­na­tion of a tra­di­tion of legal and polit­i­cal think­ing going back to Aris­to­tle. That’s some­thing which has been under­scored by oth­ers in the Marx­ist tra­di­tion, you could think of Althusser and Col­letti, who also had works which were explic­itly about the polit­i­cal writ­ers before Marx, who in some way intro­duce or delin­eate the prob­lems of pol­i­tics and his­tory that Marx will sub­se­quently take up in his accounts of the class strug­gles and civil wars of the times that he was liv­ing in.

I want to ask about two polit­i­cal thinkers, and what we can learn from them. The first is Carl Schmitt, the sub­ject of your first book, The Enemy.

Well, you know, it’s not always obvi­ous to peo­ple why it’s nec­es­sary to read fig­ures like Schmitt, a fig­ure who was com­pro­mised by his inti­mate asso­ci­a­tions with fas­cism and National Social­ism. So this is an ini­tial obsta­cle to a crit­i­cal engage­ment – it was even for me. Schmitt, from the other side of the polit­i­cal spec­trum, was approach­ing the prob­lems of the forms of pol­i­tics that arose in a period of the his­tor­i­cal and struc­tural cri­sis of the state-form, man­i­fest­ing itself in the inde­ter­mi­nacy around the basic cat­e­gories and con­cep­tual dis­tinc­tions that orga­nized legal and polit­i­cal think­ing from an ear­lier period. His bench­mark is the period of clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism, so the con­cepts and cat­e­gory dis­tinc­tions that orga­nized legal and polit­i­cal think­ing for clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism and before are enter­ing into cri­sis in this new era, in which the oppo­si­tion of state and soci­ety, the fun­da­men­tal sep­a­ra­tion of the eco­nomic from the polit­i­cal – which is of course one of the ways Marx under­stands what’s spe­cific to mod­ern bour­geois or cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety – is under threat. Schmitt is address­ing the same prob­lem as Marx, except he’s doing it in a period when the fur­ther devel­op­ment of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, medi­ated by the inter­state sys­tem into a pat­tern of com­bined an uneven devel­op­ment, and fur­ther medi­ated by rev­o­lu­tion­ary and coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary rup­tures, is bring­ing about a recon­nec­tion of these pre­vi­ously sep­a­rated spheres or domains of the polit­i­cal and the eco­nomic. The actual sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism is recon­nect­ing them in var­i­ous ways, although main­tain­ing fun­da­men­tally the sep­a­ra­tion inso­far as we’re still speak­ing of cap­i­tal­ism. So I think in that sense Schmitt is deal­ing with a prob­lem – indi­rectly, some­times, but some­times directly – a deep prob­lem that arose in Marx’s own thinking.

Now Marx, even though he posited this sep­a­ra­tion of the polit­i­cal from the eco­nomic, did not on that basis attempt to elab­o­rate on con­crete forms of mod­ern state­hood and their poten­tial his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions within later phases of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. While he iden­ti­fied the social rela­tions behind the long-term dynamic of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, he devel­oped a more rudi­men­tary account of the basic struc­ture of the state that arises from this sep­a­ra­tion. His accounts of class strug­gles and civil wars of the 19th cen­tury present some gen­eral out­lines of the mod­ern bour­geois state, but not much as far as the­o­riz­ing its con­crete ten­den­cies of devel­op­ment. Unlike cap­i­tal, the state is a very sim­ple cat­e­gory in Marx’s writ­ings. There isn’t really a sys­tem­atic his­tor­i­cal cri­tique of the polit­i­cal order that arises from this con­sti­tu­tive sep­a­ra­tion of the polit­i­cal from the eco­nomic, or of con­tem­po­rary rela­tion between state and the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism, although he has much to say about how this played out in the period of the for­ma­tion of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. In the early works, when he’s engag­ing with Hegel’s Phi­los­o­phy of Right, he addresses the spe­cific delin­eated forms of the Euro­pean state aris­ing out of this process of sep­a­ra­tion, but its of course still in a rudi­men­tary philo­soph­i­cal form.

Get­ting back to Schmitt: there are of course seri­ous lim­its to his think­ing, to the extent that he only approached these prob­lems through the medi­a­tion of his con­cep­tion of the state in the tra­di­tion of con­sti­tu­tional law and its premises, so his under­stand­ing of the trans­for­ma­tions of cap­i­tal­ism in this period are approached through this medi­a­tion. But what he has to say about the cri­sis of the legal forms of state­hood, pri­vate prop­erty, and war is inter­est­ing in its own right, and often goes well beyond what Marx­ists at the time wrote on these mat­ters. The Weimar Repub­lic was, after all, the epi­cen­ter of a larger his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of an intense inter­war struc­tural cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism and the inter-state sys­tem within which it had evolved. The Weimar state-form, and the con­sti­tu­tional con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing it, was a stag­ing ground for the larger the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions around the char­ac­ter of the period, in terms of the fun­da­men­tal trans­for­ma­tions in the rela­tion­ship of the state to cap­i­tal­ism, of the polit­i­cal to the eco­nomic, that should be of inter­est to any Marx­ist. Of course, many of his stu­dents were Marx­ists, and he was often able to appro­pri­ate ideas from oth­ers across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. This is appar­ent from the very begin­ning of the Weimar Repub­lic, when he wrote on the con­cept of the dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat within a wider intel­lec­tual his­tory of emer­gency pow­ers and states of excep­tion, all the way to its end when he addressed the prob­lem of the com­pat­i­bil­ity of the cri­sis man­age­ment of post-laissez-faire cap­i­tal­ism with exist­ing forms of democracy.

The sec­ond thinker is Machi­avelli. Both Gram­sci and Althusser wrote about Machi­avelli, and you returned to some of this mate­r­ial in Antag­o­nis­tics.

I would say that one of the ways to think about the sig­nif­i­cance of Machi­avelli is the con­text in which think­ing about the present through a read­ing of Machi­avelli emerged, from the 19th cen­tury to the inter­war period, and per­haps closer to the present con­text as well. If you think about it that way, you can see that there are a num­ber of episodes in the story of the recep­tion with Machi­avelli. In the early 19th cen­tury you have Fichte and Hegel respond­ing to the cri­sis of the Ger­man state, and try­ing to think about the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity of the recon­sti­tu­tion of a national state, by look­ing at Machiavelli’s writ­ings on the prob­lem of Ital­ian national unity. They saw Machi­avelli as address­ing the prob­lem of the con­di­tions of the gen­e­sis of a state, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of what appeared as cat­a­strophic defeat in the form of for­eign occu­pa­tion. So that’s their his­tor­i­cal link to Machiavelli’s situation.

Keep­ing that in mind, the renewed inter­est in Machi­avelli dur­ing the inter­war period, and this is man­i­fested by writ­ings on him across the polit­i­cal spec­trum – you men­tioned Gram­sci, there’s also Leo Strauss, Wyn­d­ham Lewis, Ray­mond Aron, and many oth­ers. Gram­sci, whether he was deal­ing with the prob­lem of rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal strat­egy in the West, the rise of Fas­cism or even the onset of Amer­i­can hege­mony, raised Machi­avel­lian ques­tions about the nexus between the foun­da­tion of new states and the con­di­tions of their per­pet­u­a­tion. This is the prob­lem that Machi­avelli is deal­ing with in the Dis­courses, the need for an inter­lude or found­ing episode of ter­ror to estab­lish a new state, and the mode by which that ori­gin can be super­seded through the estab­lish­ment of polit­i­cal forms that are capa­ble of per­pet­u­at­ing them­selves on the basis of the mul­ti­tude, the not yet fully inde­pen­dent pop­u­lar foun­da­tion of the new order. So, these episodes of read­ing Machi­avelli are all about the ori­gins and foun­da­tions of new orders, as expe­ri­enced in the after­math of defeat.

So we’re see­ing the res­o­nance of these themes across his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. Crises in state-forms, and crises which are truly global, with cat­a­strophic defeats, sit­u­a­tions in which the shape of a new order can’t be clearly seen. We’re now expe­ri­enc­ing what seems to be an inter­minable eco­nomic cri­sis; how do these clas­si­cal themes play into under­stand­ing the cur­rent period?

The abil­ity of some of these older lega­cies of thought to address the present was called into ques­tion by the resta­bi­liza­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem in the post­war period. For that rea­son those who have remained inter­ested in those older lega­cies of rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal thought, think­ing about a pol­i­tics that could bring them back, have found it dif­fi­cult to find its points of appli­ca­tion to the world of cap­i­tal that arose in the post­war West­ern sec­tor. There were a vari­ety of attempts to keep alive, in some way, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal change, but often this took the form of try­ing to look for other agen­cies out­side the work­ing class, and other sites of strug­gle. For a very a long period of time we’ve expe­ri­enced the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism which is in some respects no longer capa­ble of con­tin­u­ing and repro­duc­ing the suc­cesses of the post­war period.

An ade­quate under­stand­ing of the so-called period of neolib­er­al­ism involves under­stand­ing these dif­fer­ent lev­els, some of which seemed to indi­cate that the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem was reach­ing new heights, as the entire world was incor­po­rated into it, while other lev­els of its evo­lu­tion exhib­ited char­ac­ter­is­tics which sug­gested that the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic prob­lems of the 1970s, in terms of a slow­down in the growth of income, were never really super­seded. What I sug­gest in my piece “Spec­u­la­tions on the Sta­tion­ary State” is that these con­junc­tural prob­lems car­ried over from the 1970s are con­verg­ing with the struc­tural lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism itself, which make it less real­is­tic to assume that this renewal process is going to hap­pen.

It was often thought, until recently, that the last thirty years, after the post­war “Golden Age,” were the great­est period of cap­i­tal­ism ever. Devel­op­ing a com­pre­hen­sive objec­tive account of what hap­pened in this period has been dif­fi­cult, since there are so many dif­fer­ent lev­els at which what hap­pened unfolded. There’s been a long term period of struc­tural trans­for­ma­tions and adjust­ments with so many new char­ac­ter­is­tics intro­duced into the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, it would seem at least ini­tially para­dox­i­cal that this has not in some way bro­ken forth into a new period of accu­mu­la­tion. So in order to address that prob­lem, its now impor­tant to recon­sider some the­o­riza­tions of longer-term lim­its of cap­i­tal­ism. I didn’t really go into the var­i­ous Marx­ist ver­sions of that, which I would do more of now, but I think that the core of it arises out of the Bren­ner account and some unre­solved prob­lems and ques­tions in that account regard­ing the long term, draw­ing the polit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal prob­lems out.

Let’s talk about Robert Brenner’s analy­sis of what he calls the long down­turn, which started in the 1970s. His account is con­tro­ver­sial for a num­ber of rea­sons, includ­ing among Marx­ists. He doesn’t make use of the Marx­ian ter­mi­nol­ogy of value, and doesn’t explic­itly refer to Marx’s texts on eco­nomic crisis.

It’s nei­ther framed in terms of Marx’s own char­ac­ter­is­tic ter­mi­nol­ogy, nor is it framed as a gen­eral the­ory of cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis. Though some gen­eral prin­ci­ples might come out of it, Bren­ner doesn’t advance this as an expla­na­tion of the inter­war eco­nomic cri­sis, the so-called Great Depres­sion, nor of the cri­sis of the last decades of the 19th cen­tury. So although there’s a gen­eral char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the social prop­erty rela­tions of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, and there’s an account of some of the long-term dynam­ics and trends, every par­tic­u­lar phase of accu­mu­la­tion is a his­tor­i­cal topic unto itself, call­ing into ques­tion the idea of Marx’s eco­nomic thought as a cri­sis the­ory. That’s good, in my view.

As a sec­ondary issue, on Brenner’s rela­tion to Marx, despite the ter­mi­no­log­i­cal dis­tance, I think actu­ally the account that Bren­ner pro­vides gives a con­crete mean­ing to var­i­ous con­cepts that are the foun­da­tion of Marx’s own account of the value form. I think that there’s still some­thing more to be said on this sub­ject, since Bren­ner him­self doesn’t use the ter­mi­nol­ogy and more or less frames his own account of cap­i­tal­ism and of its accu­mu­la­tion process in terms of a cost-price the­ory, explic­itly avoid­ing the prob­lem­atic that Marx opened up with his under­stand­ing of the social rela­tions which give rise to pro­duc­tion in a value form, that there’s a sig­nif­i­cant dimen­sion of what Marx was try­ing to get at in his the­ory of cap­i­tal­ism that is not brought into sharp relief in Brenner’s account.

You’re actu­ally in the midst of research­ing and writ­ing a book on Marx, focus­ing on Marx’s eco­nomic writ­ings. One of the major prob­lems for the entire his­tory of what was called West­ern Marx­ism was that Marx never actu­ally wrote what his method was in works like Cap­i­tal.

From begin­ning to end, Marx’s own the­ory arises out of a crit­i­cal analy­sis of the cat­e­gory prob­lems that arose within clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, that it was unable to solve. Marx’s own account of “the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion” takes the form of a solu­tion to these prob­lems, from the mys­tery of why the value of com­modi­ties must appear in a mon­e­tary form to why the social rela­tions of pro­duc­tion appear in the form of sep­a­rate fac­tors of pro­duc­tion con­tribut­ing to the value of the com­mod­ity, with each appear­ing as a sep­a­rate source of rev­enue to their owner. One of the premises of my work on Marx’s eco­nomic thought is that we have gen­er­ally lost sight of the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic prob­lems that Marx was address­ing, that came out of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy. These were in part still liv­ing prob­lems at the time that Marx was work­ing through them, but even dur­ing the course of Marx’s own writ­ings on these top­ics, from the late 1850s to the early 1870s, this tra­di­tion of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, and the liv­ing his­tor­i­cal con­tent of the prob­lems it was address­ing, began to fall out of view, became in some way occluded, so I would argue there’s a kind of opac­ity to the fun­da­men­tal under­ly­ing prob­lems of Marx’s eco­nomic thought. The mean­ings of many of the terms he’s using, and more seri­ously the sys­tem­atic char­ac­ter of his eco­nomic thought, are not appar­ent. Of course, there have always been dog­matic under­stand­ings of the sys­tem­atic char­ac­ter of Marx’s writ­ings, but putting those aside, inter­pre­ta­tions of his the­ory of cap­i­tal­ism have always been medi­ated by the ini­tial attempts to make sense of it, which took shape in the after­math of the decline of the intel­lec­tual tra­di­tions out of which Marx him­self for­mu­lated his cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy. These ini­tial attempts estab­lished the points of entry, top­ics and prob­lems that have dom­i­nated much of the com­men­tary since.

That being said, Marx’s own under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism has many char­ac­ter­is­tics of the par­tic­u­lar socio-historical world of 19th cen­tury Eng­lish cap­i­tal­ism embed­ded within it. Although it’s a gen­eral the­ory, and arises as a cri­tique of the fun­da­men­tal eco­nomic cat­e­gories of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, and the solu­tion of the fun­da­men­tal cat­e­gory prob­lems and with them obvi­ously the real under­ly­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of a cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy, with the work­ing through of the prob­lems and impasses of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, Marx arrived at a gen­eral the­ory, but this gen­eral the­ory is in some way con­joined to the spe­cific socio-historical con­text of the cap­i­tal­ism of his time. Not just of course the factory-industrial order that emerged in Eng­land, which is the locus clas­si­cus for the gen­eral the­ory, but also the var­i­ous regions of the larger world-system, from declin­ing Asi­atic empires to the still-intact world of Euro­pean feu­dal­ism in the East, in Rus­sia, in the period of its demise, the emer­gence of white set­tler states, the end of the large plan­ta­tion slavery-based economies. These con­di­tions are spe­cific to the clas­si­cal period of cap­i­tal­ism that Marx is the­o­riz­ing, and not all of them are in some uni­form way sub­sumed under one sin­gle form of cap­i­tal­ism. Many of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of his age of cap­i­tal­ism belong to another world: cap­i­tal­ist land­lordism based on agri­cul­tural rent, gold stan­dard money, and con­di­tions of work­ing class life that were uprooted with the advent of mod­ern med­i­cine and the wel­fare state – although, of course, this lat­ter devel­op­ment has only taken place in more advanced economies. So there’s a num­ber of ways in which Marx’s world is dis­con­tin­u­ous with our own, though the gen­eral the­ory allows us to make the bridge, to under­stand what in the sub­se­quent peri­ods of cap­i­tal­ism, although they break and depart with the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Marx’s own time, are nonethe­less intel­li­gi­ble in terms of the account that Marx does provide.

What you’re point­ing to is the fun­da­men­tal rela­tion between the log­i­cal expo­si­tion in Cap­i­tal and the his­tor­i­cal chap­ters, which are some­times seen as exist­ing in an entirely dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter.

There is a ten­dency to iso­late the value the­ory, or the “the­ory” part of Marx’s eco­nomic writ­ings from the his­tor­i­cal parts, to put it crudely. That has to do with pre­vail­ing con­cep­tions of what the­ory is. I’d like to demon­strate what kind of the­ory Marx is build­ing by pre­sent­ing it in a sys­tem­at­i­cally uni­fied, recon­structed form. Clearly, Marx does not mean by mean by the­ory, gen­er­al­iza­tions applied to some­thing called “his­tory.” But there is another sense of the term “the­ory” asso­ci­ated with Marx which is also not exactly the one Marx him­self had: so-called “Crit­i­cal The­ory.” Marx’s con­cep­tion of the­ory was not merely neg­a­tive in this sense, but aspired to be sci­en­tific and sys­tem­at­i­cally inte­grated with his­tor­i­cal con­tent, that is, with the artic­u­la­tion and solu­tion of real his­tor­i­cal problems.

Many of the attempts now to get to a new read­ing of Cap­i­tal set up as their adver­sary some­thing called “tra­di­tional” Marx­ism or “world­view” Marx­ism, which is con­nected to the polit­i­cal projects of the work­ers’ move­ment. Now, if we do a read­ing of the the­o­ret­i­cal texts that were pro­duced by the work­ers’ move­ment, we find a remark­able het­ero­gene­ity, of per­spec­tives, prob­lem­at­ics, ques­tions. How can we begin to reread this tra­di­tion as well?

I think there are a cou­ple of ques­tions there, some of which pre­sup­pose a par­tic­u­lar answer. I would say that, con­trary to my own incli­na­tions, inso­far as I’m sym­pa­thetic to some of the tra­di­tions of so-called “world­view Marx­ism,” there really isn’t much in Marx’s eco­nomic writ­ings to war­rant the idea that it had some imme­di­ate or direct rela­tion­ship to an under­stand­ing of the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity of the pur­suit of class strug­gles, or imme­di­ately ori­ented towards the prob­lems of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary praxis of the work­ing class. That was an attempt made at a later point, based in the fact that Marx’s writ­ings are not just eco­nomic, but also on the pol­i­tics and his­tory of his time, some of them part of a series of writ­ings on the great upheavals, the rev­o­lu­tions and coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tions from 1848 to 1871. So obvi­ously it was not sim­ply culled out of noth­ing, that so-called “world­view Marx­ists” would try to estab­lish the con­nec­tion. But aside from some dis­cus­sions of the work­ers’ move­ment in the form of the strug­gle to limit the work­day, and to estab­lish nor­mal con­di­tions of labor within the fac­tory sys­tem, and the sig­nif­i­cance of the suc­cess of that in induc­ing struc­tural changes within cap­i­tal­ism, as opposed to break­ing with it and over­throw­ing it, there isn’t really that much in the eco­nomic writ­ings which either explic­itly puts the class strug­gle at the cen­ter of the unfold­ing evo­lu­tion of these social rela­tions. There’s much more on the vio­lence of the class strug­gles that char­ac­ter­ized the period of the “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion” of cap­i­tal than on any sub­se­quent episodes of it. It’s not even clear whether the the­ory which he presents, and this is a trib­ute to his sci­en­tific integrity, really iden­ti­fies the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity for a work­ers’ move­ment, in the sense of a dynamic by which the work­ing class might develop out of the process of the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal into a force of eman­ci­pa­tion and recon­struc­tion. It’s not entirely clear that this is his under­stand­ing of what hap­pens to the work­ing class under capitalism.

Nev­er­the­less he described Cap­i­tal as a weapon in the hands of the work­ing class.

Sci­en­tific the­ory is a weapon, it’s ulti­mately ben­e­fi­cial to the work­ers and the down­trod­den of soci­ety because they have the most inter­est in under­stand­ing the world with­out illu­sions. It’s in that respect that I think it’s a weapon for the work­ing class, and it’s not really clear that it can be directly, in the form that Marx wrote it, turned into an instru­ment of the class strug­gle. But that’s not what Marx is try­ing to do, either. He’s try­ing to set up a frame­work for con­crete inves­ti­ga­tions of the evo­lu­tion of this form of soci­ety and the polit­i­cal and other forms of strug­gle that result from its under­ly­ing con­tra­dic­tions. The­ory – in some ways I think this is what Althusser was good at point­ing out – is not there for us, in the sense of some­thing which is imme­di­ately even mean­ing­ful for us, and the ques­tions that we’re ask­ing. It’s not meant to do that. It’s meant to maybe take us away from the ques­tions we’re ask­ing. So we can’t really think of the­ory in an instru­men­tal way, because of that rela­tion­ship, true the­o­ries don’t serve our pur­poses so eas­ily. But they bet­ter serve our pur­poses for all that, because they are ulti­mately about true things and a knowl­edge of them. In that sense I think you could say that the scientific-critical under­stand­ing of the­ory, as opposed to a polit­i­cal world­view under­stand­ing, is really what the clas­si­cal con­cep­tion ulti­mately sub­scribed to. Let me qual­ify that: I think that Gram­sci is maybe, in the after­math of defeat, more attuned to the way a scientific-critical under­stand­ing of his­tory and pol­i­tics leads to a cer­tain, let’s say, dis­abused rela­tion­ship to the imme­di­ate prospects of the con­di­tions of strug­gle for work­ing and sub­al­tern classes. It’s really a dif­fi­cult thing to sci­en­tif­i­cally and crit­i­cally explore these prob­lems. We pre­fer to have our ques­tions result in answers which are enabling to us in some way. There are totally good rea­sons we ask the­ory to do this for us. But it best served even that pur­pose when it did this indirectly.

Now, there are moments in Marx, even in Cap­i­tal, which describe a kind of inex­orable process of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment which will result in communism.

Where would you say that is?

The “His­tor­i­cal Ten­dency of Cap­i­tal­ist Accu­mu­la­tion,” in con­ti­nu­ity with ear­lier works.

I would dis­agree with that, I would say that there’s often a kind of pecu­liar dialec­ti­cal form to the way Marx estab­lishes the con­di­tions of the nega­tion of exist­ing con­di­tions. So although he very strik­ingly sug­gests the dialec­ti­cal form of the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism as a process of the expro­pri­a­tion of labor, which will in turn cap­size over into an expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors, that formal-dialectical struc­ture shouldn’t deceive us. I think this is where we might take a cue from some of the crit­i­cism of dialec­ti­cal thought that came out of cur­rents in the, let’s say, Althusser­ian tra­di­tion. The way the logic of devel­op­ment is under­stood as a way of fol­low­ing the logic of nega­tion, can lead to assump­tions about the course of his­tory which ulti­mately turn out to be dialec­ti­cal illu­sions. I’m not advo­cat­ing step­ping back away from the dialec­ti­cal devel­op­ment of laws and ten­den­cies. Much of what is great in Marx’s think­ing takes this form, and any ver­sion of Marx which strips that out of it, really strips out the guts of it. Briefly in the penul­ti­mate chap­ter of vol­ume 1 he speaks of this “expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors,” it seems as if this is cul­mi­na­tion of the analy­sis, at least in that vol­ume of the text. We might be tempted to see vol­ume 1 as cul­mi­nat­ing in this under­stand­ing of the expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors. Cap­i­tal is often read today as the story of the for­ma­tion of the work­ing class and, let’s call it, before the let­ter, “the mul­ti­tude.” The basic idea is that as we approach the final chap­ter of the expro­pri­a­tion of the mul­ti­tude, the con­di­tions are emerg­ing for a great rever­sal. This is the enabling ide­o­log­i­cal for­mula of the rad­i­cal left today. There is a ratio­nal core to this. Lib­er­als, social-democrats and rem­nant lega­cies of an older far-left often snicker at such illu­sions, but since they were com­pletely blind­sided by the con­tem­po­rary cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism, and failed to pre­dict it, and now offer only hind­sight and stick to what­ever it is they were say­ing before, they’re hardly cred­i­ble either.

It seems to me the rea­son Marx places such an empha­sis on vio­lence, as you men­tioned before, in the chap­ters on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is to break from the idea – which is there in clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­omy, but can also be repeated in a mod­i­fied form in a Marx­ism which relies on a tran­shis­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of the forces of pro­duc­tion, the devel­op­ment of the forces of pro­duc­tion – the idea that the “social-property rela­tions” of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion are the real­iza­tion of some­thing nascent in the pre­vi­ous mode of pro­duc­tion, whereas he is describ­ing a process which isn’t a sim­ple real­iza­tion, but which involves dis­con­ti­nu­ity, and which engages every level of the social for­ma­tion. He empha­sizes the role of the state, the inter­ac­tion of var­i­ous ele­ments which don’t con­tain cap­i­tal­ism within them.

I’m not sure if you’re describ­ing Marx here, I think that his thoughts on the sub­ject of the emer­gence or tran­si­tion to some­thing like a “social” mode of pro­duc­tion, are scat­tered, as every­one knows, and really take the form of either this dialectical-overturning, or, more mod­estly, of a con­sid­er­a­tion of the way aspects of social repro­duc­tion which assume a par­tic­u­lar form because of cap­i­tal­ist social-property rela­tions would be sus­pended, given a social mode of pro­duc­tion. In this lat­ter vein his basic point is that what are assumed to be mate­r­ial neces­si­ties of pro­duc­tion are really only such because of these par­tic­u­lar social forms.

You’ve described the story of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion as the for­ma­tion of the work­ing class as a kind of ide­o­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive, with util­ity for the social moment. What would be a sci­en­tific analy­sis of the for­ma­tion of the pro­le­tariat? Not Marx’s?

Well, he explic­itly says in that chap­ter, that he is not going to look at the eco­nomic causes of the for­ma­tion of the pro­le­tariat, that he is just going to look at the role that vio­lence played in this process. That’s an explicit admis­sion that this is not really a the­o­riza­tion, or his­tor­i­cally grounded account of the whole process of the orig­i­nal accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal, but a counter-myth to the bour­geois story of enter­pris­ing Lock­ean fore­fa­thers scrap­ing together, out of their labors, sums which they are then able to use to employ those who were unable, or didn’t want to do that. That story is basi­cally an ide­o­log­i­cal account of why peo­ple today are divided into classes, and so Marx is coun­ter­ing it with another one unfold­ing within a dialec­ti­cal form, with this kind of reversal.

So he’s laps­ing out of sci­ence? Because you’ve described the sys­tem­atic­ity of this entire work.

I have said that there is a logico-historical sys­tem­atic­ity. I haven’t described it though.

Okay. But your char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the chap­ters on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion seems to sug­gest that they are not part of this.

I think that there’s a con­cep­tual devel­op­ment run­ning through­out Marx’s works, includ­ing the texts on prim­i­tive accumulation.

The­o­riza­tions of his­tory and pol­i­tics are always in some way con­nected to a con­crete his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, an existential-historical sit­u­a­tion. Every exam­ple we have of even the artic­u­la­tion of sweep­ing accounts of basic polit­i­cal forms, whether that’s done in a way that his­tori­cizes them or not, arose in that con­junc­ture and encounter with a par­tic­u­lar set­ting. That’s going back to Aristotle’s Pol­i­tics, and that’s cer­tainly true of early mod­ern polit­i­cal thought. It’s also true of Marx. So this dual­ity of the­ory and, let’s call it ide­ol­ogy, is inside of the­ory. The ques­tions we’re ask­ing of pol­i­tics and his­tory are ques­tions for us, not like when we’re ask­ing ques­tions about other kinds of objects, with the under­stand­ing and com­pre­hen­sion of non-human real­ity, the sep­a­ra­tion of what is and what is for us can in some way be made com­pletely, and that’s obvi­ously not true when we’re talk­ing about pol­i­tics and his­tory. So there is in some way this inter­nal mutual impli­ca­tion of the ide­o­log­i­cal and the the­o­ret­i­cal. The­ory takes the form of the dis­so­lu­tion and cri­tique of our ide­o­log­i­cally formed ques­tions. It doesn’t ever sever itself com­pletely from our ide­o­log­i­cally formed ques­tions. Ide­ol­ogy in the Althusser­ian sense is ris­ing out of social expe­ri­ence, right? The spon­ta­neous ways things appear, and even the­o­ries can become encrusted with ide­ol­ogy, and become a kind of obscu­ran­tist naivete. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it’s not the case that we have the­ory on the one hand and spon­ta­neous and direct social expe­ri­ence in its naive form on the other. That social expe­ri­ence is medi­ated by a whole gar­bled set of ter­mi­nolo­gies and half-formed ques­tions and prob­lems, which then it’s the busi­ness of crit­i­cal the­o­ret­i­cal under­stand­ing to break apart and to gen­er­ate tracks and paths for analy­sis and inves­ti­ga­tion. The­o­ries and prob­lems within any tra­di­tion can become ide­ol­o­gized. This is true of Marx­ism, this is true of every tra­di­tion. There’s a moment in which the­ory emerges in some liv­ing rela­tion to scientific-critical prob­lems and does so per­haps in some con­junc­tion with the polit­i­cal moment, and then there are moments when that is left behind, and we only have ossi­fied ter­mi­nolo­gies and poorly-understood ques­tions and problems.

For Althusser, I would argue, the really core char­ac­ter­is­tic of ide­ol­ogy is that it posits the trans­parency of social rela­tions. And this is guar­an­teed by an under­stand­ing of his­tory as a process with a sub­ject and a goal, which is the real­iza­tion of this trans­parency. The pri­mary exam­ple of this is the tele­ol­ogy of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional, and for him this is repeated in the human­ist, his­tori­cist the­o­ret­i­cal revolt against the cat­e­gories of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional. The way this maps out onto Marx’s works is, for exam­ple, that dialec­ti­cal account that you described in that chap­ter in Cap­i­tal, that would be the ide­o­log­i­cal moment, while prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is an attempt to break with that.

Cer­tainly within Marx’s work is the pos­si­bil­ity of devel­op­ing an ade­quate account of the actual prim­i­tive, or orig­i­nal accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal. There’s plenty of mate­r­ial in Marx which is about this process of the for­ma­tion of wealth in a new social form dur­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing period. That’s the real mate­r­ial on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion. Whether it’s wholly cor­rect is another matter.

So while I am sug­gest­ing, along with Althusser, that the chap­ter on the expro­pri­a­tion of the expro­pri­a­tors and the chap­ters on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion are in a ten­sion, because one describes a his­tor­i­cal dialec­tic with a goal, the other describes a process of rup­ture which is fig­ured in vio­lence, you’re sug­gest­ing that they’re part of the same ide­o­log­i­cal mold.

Like I said before, I’m not say­ing that Marx him­self was unable to break with this. I’m say­ing that he explic­itly says that in this chap­ter he is only look­ing at the polit­i­cal side, the role that vio­lence played in this process. That’s a pretty direct state­ment to the effect that this is not a com­pre­hen­sive account of the whole process. The process of social and his­tor­i­cal change, the emer­gence of a new mode of pro­duc­tion, can’t be explained ade­quately by a “force the­ory of his­tory.” Although Marx once referred to force as the mid­wife of such changes, Engels had to launch an attack on exag­ger­ated reac­tionary ver­sions of this view. By the late 19th cen­tury there’s an increas­ing wide­spread rejec­tion of the older peace­ful account of the ori­gins of civ­i­liza­tion, and Bis­mar­ck­ian blood and iron is replac­ing Lock­ean labor as the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy of the ori­gins of soci­ety. Marx­ism as a result devel­oped not just a cri­tique of the story of the peace­ful rise of civ­i­liza­tion that you get from the clas­sics, it also devel­ops as a cri­tique of the bour­geois reac­tionary accounts of blood and iron as the motor of his­tory, and in this respect Marx was a Marxist.

It never really suf­fices to say “it’s more com­pli­cated than that,” but social and his­tor­i­cal change is, to put it gen­er­ally, a multi-dimensional process. In some way Althusser tried to con­vey this with his under­stand­ing of the dis­con­ti­nu­ities between lev­els of a social total­ity, that they were not capa­ble of coher­ing into a sin­gle sub­ject, because they all had their own rel­a­tively autonomous ten­den­cies and his­to­ries. So in this sense there were his­tories, but there is no sub­ject from which one could speak of a his­tory. This was the point of con­tention with Sartre and Lukács. The for­ma­tion of his­tory was not an auto­matic and given process, it was a com­plex one in which the medi­ated and rel­a­tively autonomous social and his­tor­i­cal exis­tence could be given a uni­fy­ing account which would become the basis for a process of their sociopo­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. The idea of a sub­ject of his­tory, and I think Althusser came to this under­stand­ing later, is some­how implicit within our pol­i­tics of his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. One of the rea­sons why I think he’s wrestling with the prob­lem of the­ory and ide­ol­ogy later on, is that he real­izes that these are not sep­a­ra­ble things, in pre­cisely the man­ner in which this was thought to be pos­si­ble in the ear­lier writings.

Some­times the cri­tique of “tra­di­tional” or “world­view” Marx­ism extends as far as the claim that cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment required a work­ers’ move­ment in order to com­plete itself. So the end of the work­ers’ move­ment was essen­tially inscribed in its ori­gins. To me it seems we’re back at what Althusser cheek­ily described as “poor man’s Hegelian­ism,” repro­duc­ing the Sec­ond International’s tele­ol­ogy in what claims to be a cri­tique of the very deep­est cat­e­gories of Sec­ond Inter­na­tional Marx­ism. The same struc­ture of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment is now applied to the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment itself.

If by this you mean the idea that we can under­stand his­tor­i­cal processes through gen­eral inter­re­la­tion­ships between cat­e­gories of analy­sis, this is truly to be avoided. This is some­thing that Marx him­self had things to say about. So the idea that one can, instead of actu­ally doing his­tor­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion in the mold that Marx does him­self, which he is in some sense cre­at­ing the foun­da­tion of, if one thinks that we can instead of that do a kind of under­stand­ing of the world-historical dynam­ics that arise out of the inter­nal rela­tion­ships between cat­e­gories, then that is not some­thing which fol­lows Marx. It might be that some things of intel­lec­tual inter­est arise out of this way of fram­ing things, I don’t want to say that there’s noth­ing to that, but it should never be con­ceived of as a sub­sti­tute for real his­tor­i­cal understanding.

The social rela­tions that Marx devel­ops out of an analy­sis of cat­e­gories and the cat­e­gory prob­lems of polit­i­cal econ­omy are always being devel­oped through real his­tor­i­cal con­tent. This real his­tor­i­cal con­tent takes the form of prob­lems that can­not be resolved by appre­hend­ing their con­cep­tual form. They don’t exist inde­pen­dently, the idea that there’s a kind of purely log­i­cal mode of the inter­con­nec­tion of these cat­e­gories to one another is sim­ply to have a mys­ti­fied and fetishis­tic con­cep­tion of what the­o­ret­i­cal cat­e­gories are.

I want to return to these two themes of polit­i­cal thought that you iden­ti­fied ear­lier. One was cri­sis, which we’ve dis­cussed. The other was defeat. The major defeat which frames our period is pre­cisely the defeat of the work­ers’ move­ment, across the end of the 1970s through the 1980s. As the ambiva­lence towards “tra­di­tional” Marx­ism demon­strates, this defeat poses con­sid­er­able prob­lems for peo­ple inter­ested in mass move­ments and polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion today.

On the one hand we seem to be in a period in which more and more peo­ple are com­ing around to the view that the eco­nomic prob­lems of the day speak to a deep struc­tural cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism. Even a few years ago when I wrote the piece on the sta­tion­ary state this wasn’t widely held to be the case, but it’s now increas­ingly accepted. On the other hand, as you point out, we’re con­fronted with the absence of any large-scale agen­cies of social and polit­i­cal change that might open up the ques­tion of a new social eco­nomic order beyond cap­i­tal­ism. The way the cri­sis has unfolded so far is pri­mar­ily to raise ques­tions about how to sus­tain and prop up the sta­tus quo, and even forms of oppo­si­tion to aus­ter­ity have not really been able to break out of a set of purely defen­sive demands, to roll back some of the dam­age of the finan­cial cri­sis and think about resta­bi­liz­ing the econ­omy by restor­ing a pre­vi­ously exist­ing level of eco­nomic equal­ity and job secu­rity, which is thought to be per­haps attain­able. Some peo­ple are draw­ing the con­clu­sion that the prob­lems are so deep that those kind of solu­tions aren’t going to work any­more, but the fun­da­men­tal struc­tural trans­for­ma­tions that would have to hap­pen for these prob­lems of unem­ploy­ment, declin­ing wages, and mass poverty around the world, to be over­come are so daunt­ing, that the fall­back posi­tion is under­stand­ably one or another of these forms of left-wing pop­ulism. I don’t have any prob­lem with that being the form that strug­gles assumes, it’s inevitable for that to be the case. But the rea­son the rea­son why this can­not ulti­mately suc­ceed even as a strat­egy of defense is because there’s no new track that cap­i­tal­ism seems to be able to go to. Var­i­ous types of left-wing reformism have been depen­dent on the abil­ity of cap­i­tal­ism to deliver employ­ment and ris­ing liv­ing stan­dards. So even though cap­i­tal­ism is in this deep and sys­temic cri­sis, the cri­sis is simul­ta­ne­ously man­i­fest­ing itself in under­min­ing the con­di­tions of social and polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion. That hasn’t just been a mat­ter of defeat of rev­o­lu­tion­ary chal­lenges to the sys­tem, but has also in this period taken the form of a roll­back of the reformist accom­plish­ments of the work­ing class within the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries, and else­where the var­i­ous mixed lega­cies of the attempt to pro­mote eco­nomic devel­op­ment in some vision of progress in more eco­nom­i­cally “back­wards” zones of the world-system. That’s the con­text in which we operate.

Gopal Balakrishnan is an editor at New Left Review, and the author of The Enemy and Antagonistics. He is a professor in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz.