Let us begin with an axiomatic assertion: the strategic insolvency of the Indian communist left in all its various strains and stripes is an outcome of the subsumed Leninist form of its political practice. Insofar as effects go, this coopted Leninist form of political practice has, ironically enough, put these so-called communist left groups on the same page as the non-Leninist and/or post-Marxist communitarian leftists, and the radical democrats of this country. It has ensured the various parties, organisations and groupuscules that comprise the Indian communist left – together with their non-Leninist and/or post-Marxist allies-in-practice – do no more than indulge in spectacular display of empty optimism and vulgar romanticism that, for all practical purposes, make for a politics of system-reinforcing reformism.
We, at Radical Notes, have been trying to develop a critique of such politics in order to articulate a conception of revolutionary generalisation that is quite distinct from what such Leninism has to offer. It is also arguably more plausible with regard to our own conjuncture. In developing this critique vis-à-vis various concrete instances of such political practices and programmatic statements in the Leninist form, we have also sought to pose a modality of militant political practice that is meant to instance our conception of revolutionary generalisation. This modality of practice is distinct from that of the so-called communist left organisations – to say nothing of the practices of non-Leninists, post-Marxists, and anti-Marxist radical democrats.
The theoretical basis of this endeavour of ours, admittedly nascent, is the approach Marx elaborates while developing his critique of political economy, particularly in Capital. In that context, we find in Moishe Postone’s “reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory” an indispensable and kindered theoretical resource. Postone’s principal contribution lies in his having demonstrated that Marx’s critique of political economy is not, contrary to what different types of “traditional Marxism” would have us believe, a critique of capital from the standpoint of labour. Rather, such a critique of capital is, as Postone rigorously contends, a critique of labour itself as it exists in capital as a historically determinate mode and form of production and socialisation respectively.
Postone, through his attentive reading of Marx’s Capital, has shown how the traditional Marxist approach of critique of capital from the standpoint of labour serves to merely alter the form of distribution of value in order to democratise such distribution. It can, he contends, do nothing to unravel and overcome the mode of production of value that founds this form of distribution, which is essentially inegalitarian and undemocratic. Political practices informed and underpinned by “traditional Marxism”, in fact, enable capital qua the mode of production of value to reproduce itself through its expansion. Therefore, only those political practices that are orientated by critique of capital as critique of labour can overcome and negate capital as the mode of production of value.
On this point Postone’s argument resonates with our own critique of Leninism of the communist left in India. In our bid to develop this critique we have discerned the theoretical approach implicit in such Leninist practice, whether their various practitioners explicitly acknowledge it or not, to be that of critique of capital from the standpoint of labour.
Critique of capital from the standpoint of labour; or critique of labour?
In this essay, one hopes to offer a glimpse of how this cardinal theoretical insight of Marx’s critique of political economy enables us to grasp such Leninism as basically restorative, if not outright reactionary. More importantly, one hopes to demonstrate how our conception of a different form of revolutionary subjectivity — and, concomitantly, a different modality of militant political practice – is derived from this insight, particularly as it obtains in the conceptually central first chapter (‘Commodity’) of Capital, Volume I.
What is the implication of our insistence, together with Postone, that a truly radical critique of capital can only be a critique of labour in the specificity of its historical existence in capitalism? Postone writes (2003, pp.4-5):
“My reading of Marx’s critical theory focuses on his conception of labor to social life, which is generally considered to lie at the core of his theory. I argue that the meaning of the category of labor in his mature works is different from what traditionally has been assumed: it is historically specific rather than transhistorical. In Marx’s mature critique, the notion that labor constitutes the social world and is the source of all wealth does not refer to society in general, but to capitalist, or modern society alone. Moreover, and this is crucial, Marx’s analysis does not refer to labor as it is generally and transhistorically conceived—a goal-directed social activity that mediates between humans and nature, creating specific products in order to satisfy determinate human needs—but to a peculiar role that labor plays in capitalist society alone. …the historically specific character of this labor is intrinsically related to the form of social interdependence characteristic of capitalist society. It constitutes a historically specific, quasi-objective form of social mediation that, within the framework of Marx’s analysis, serves as the ultimate social ground of modernity’s basic features.”
Labour as it exists in capital has a historically specific character that distinguishes it from forms of labour in societies before capital came into being. This historical specificity of labour, Marx demonstrates in Capital, is characterised by the specific mode in which it is organised, mobilised and functionalised as labour. This historically determinate mode of functionalising labour is characterised by the creation of private or individuated labouring subjects that so exist only to be concomitantly socialised through the exchange of the products of their respective labour. Such socialisation, therefore, rests on the presupposition of value or human labour in the abstract as the qualitative equalisation of different qualities. Marx writes (1986, pp. 77-78):
“As a general rule, articles of utility become commodities only because they are products of the labour of private individuals or groups of individuals who carry on their work independently of each other…. In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between the products, and indirectly, through them, between the producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things.”
Marx’s insistence here is that exchange, which necessarily presupposes valorisation in order to be its expression, is the only form of socialisation possible when private and individuated labouring subjects are in play. He, however, completes the dialectic between relations of production (relations between different labouring subjects) and relations of exchange (relations between different products produced by different labouring subjects) when he clearly indicates how exchange-mediated socialisation presuppose the existence of individuated or atomised labouring subjects. While explicating “the riddle presented by money” by way of explicating “the riddle presented by commodities”, Marx writes (1986, p.96):
“In the form of society now under consideration, the behaviour of men in the social process of production is purely atomic. Hence their relations to each other in production assume a material character independent of their control and conscious individual action. These facts manifest themselves at first by products as a general rule taking the form of commodity.”
As a matter of fact, only in this mode of functionalising labour through creation of individuated or atomic labouring subjects is qualitative equalisation of different qualities achieved. More precisely, valorisation — which is reduction of different useful and concrete labours into human labour in the abstract – is what socialises those differences by rendering them quantitatively comparable, and thus exchangeable, with one another. Hence, this mode of constituting and functionalising labour through individuation or atomisation of labouring subjects – which are socialisable only through the mediation of exchange of their products – is the actuality of valorisation. Thence the importance of Marx’s inference (1986, p. 77):
“The Fetishism of commodities has its origin…in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.”
The impersonal power of capital: Value versus value-form, or how the juridical masks the economic
Clearly, fetishism of commodities, which is naturalisation of the abstraction of qualitatively different products in their concrete materiality into qualitatively equal things, is an inescapable outcome of the socio-historically specific character of labour that comes into being through the mode of individuation of labouring subjects. It ought to be clarified here that this historically determinate mode of existence and functioning of labour amounts to the abstraction of qualitatively different useful concrete labours into qualitatively equalisable human labour. This abstraction of concrete labour logically precedes the abstraction of qualitatively different products (use-values) into mutually commensurable commodities. In other words, human labour in the abstract is the substance of capital qua modernity as a historically determinate form of socialisation. Postone observes (2003, p.6)
“…Marx’s theory proposes that what uniquely characterizes capitalism is precisely that its basic social relations are constituted by labor and, hence, ultimately are of a fundamentally different sort than those that characterize noncapitalist societies. Though his critical analysis of capitalism does include a critique of exploitation, social inequality, and class domination, it goes beyond this: it seeks to elucidate the very fabric of social relations in modern society, and the abstract form of social domination intrinsic to them, by means of a theory that grounds their social constitution in determinate, structured forms of practice.”
What is this “abstract form of social domination”? One of the clearest demonstrations of the same is arguably found in Marx’s explication of the money-form. He writes (1986, p.93):
“The act of exchange gives to the commodity converted into money, not its value, but its specific value-form. By confounding these two distinct things some writers have been led to hold that the value of gold and silver is imaginary.”
What will at a given moment function as the money-form – or the formal embodiment of value qua universal equivalence – is a matter of historical convention decided through interpersonal consent at that particular moment. But that does not, therefore, mean value qua universal equivalence, and the necessity of its formal embodiment, are contingent on universal consent of mankind achieved through interpersonal intercourse among free human subjects. Rather, value as congelation of human labour in the abstract — which is the substance of qualitative equivalence of different qualities – is an impersonal and abstract power that necessitates the search, through mutual consent of free human/personal subjects, the historically conventional form of embodiment of itself as universal equivalence.
But ideological folly is the lifeblood of capital. Let us belabour the point a bit more to get a better grip on what that folly is. It is about different historically conventional kinds of money-form concealing the fact that the impersonal power of universal equivalence is their condition of necessity precisely by virtue of being its expressions. What really happens is this: the historically particular type of the general form of value — universal equivalence in its most adequate form – passes off for the logic of that form. In other words, the logic, which is value qua universal equivalence, is confounded with its particular form. As a result, the logic of the money-form is grasped as a function of interpersonal consent that actually does no more than historically institute the type of the money-form, or general form of value, which is an impersonal necessity. Marx writes (1986, p.95):
“What appears to happen is, not that gold becomes money, in consequence of all other commodities expressing their values in it, but, on the contrary, that all other commodities universally express their values in gold, because it is money. The intermediate steps of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind.”
At a more general level of juridical relations, Marx demonstrates a slightly different variation of the same dialectic: personal freedom concealing the necessity of the impersonal and the abstract precisely in expressing it. He writes (1986, p.88):
“In order that…objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another, as persons whose will resides in those objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and part with his own, except by means of an act done by mutual consent. They must, therefore, mutually recognise in each other the rights of private proprietors. The juridical relation, which thus expresses itself in a contract, whether such contract be part of a developed legal system or not, is a relation between two wills, and is but the reflex of the real economic relation between the two. It is this economic relation that determines the subject-matter comprised in each such juridical act.” (Emphasis added.)
Juridical terms – or terms of contract — are decided through conscious deliberation among persons or personified subjects. But the logic of juridicality that necessitates such interpersonal intercourse for setting up and/or modifying the terms of contract, or juridical relations, is the determinate mode of constitution of labour through its subjective individuation.
In other words, the terms of contract or juridicality can be set, and changed, through mutual consent of conscious human/humanised subjects precisely because the logic of juridicality is an inescapable necessity due to the historically determinate mode of existence of individuated labouring subjects. Clearly, the contractual – or juridical – relation between free human wills is meant to be the operationalisation of exchange of commodities. That, in turn, is necessitated by the historically determinate mode of existence of individuated labour.
In such circumstances, self-legislating subjects continuing as themselves by way of repeatedly realising their personal/personified freedoms through changing the juridical terms of their mutual relations, amounts to the reconstitution of that impersonal and abstract iron-cage. It would, therefore, not be inaccurate to insist that modernity as the intercourse of free-willed, self-legislating human/humanised subjects is the ideological form of capital. The abstract and impersonal domination of the historically determinate mode of subjectively individuated labour is accomplished by free human subjects precisely because the latter express that impersonal necessity in the form of freedom of personal/human subjects.
Marx says as much about modernity – the Enlightenment to be precise — while demonstrating how the logic of money, which is the most adequate general form of value, is confounded with a particular kind of that general form fixed through mutual consent of personal/human subjects. He writes (1990, pp.185-186):
“The fact that money can, in certain functions, be replaced by mere symbols of itself, gave rise to another mistaken notion, that it is itself a mere symbol, since, as value, it is only the material shell of the human labour expended on it. But if it is declared that the social characteristics assumed by material objects, or the material characteristics assumed by the social determinations of labour on the basis of a definite mode of production, are mere symbols, then it is also declared, at the same time, that these characteristics are the arbitrary product of human reflection. This was the kind of explanation favoured by the eighteenth century: in this way the Enlightenment endeavoured, at least temporarily, to remove the appearance of strangeness from the mysterious shapes assumed by human relations whose origins they were unable to decipher.” (Emphasis added.)
Marx’s exposition in Capital reveals this abstract character of domination even further. He demonstrates how the historically determinate mode of mobilising labour through its subjective individuation – and the forms of practice structured by such a mode – has exploitation, or extraction of surplus-value, as its inseparable dimension. The socialisation of those individuated labouring subjects through exchange of products (commodities) created by them implies the partitioning of the total labour time that has gone into the production of a particular commodity into that which is consumed by the producer himself for his own social reproduction, and that which is alienated in exchange in the form of a surplus of the commodity in question. What we see here is exploitation as an integral dimension of an impersonal structure of abstract and quasi-objective socialisation, insofar as that structure is constitutive of alienation of surplus labour time and socially necessary labour time. Marx underscores this quasi-objective nature of capital when he writes (1986, pp.78-79):
“…when we bring the products of our labour into relations with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary: whenever by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it. Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.”
The short point of all this elaboration is that capital as a fact of exploitation cannot be got rid of unless capital as the historically determinate mode of mobilising labour through constitution of individuated labouring subjects is abolished. In the latter’s negation, which is abolition of labour in its historical specificity, lies the former’s disappearance. Marx writes (1986, p.84):
“The life-process of society, which is based on the process of production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan….”
So, unless politics is an endeavour to abolish the historically determinate mode of mobilising labour by way of putting in place a plan that seeks to realise free association of direct producers, there can be no decisive break with capital. Only a plan that seeks to realise free association of direct producers will, in replacing and thus abolishing the historically determinate mode of atomised labouring subjects, tend to preclude socialisation through the mediation of exchange of products produced by such labour.
All other kinds of political exertions that seek to expand personal freedoms only reproduce the logic of juridical relations by expanding its ambit. Such exertions concomitantly reproduce, through expansion, the historically determinate mode of existence of atomised labouring subjects that impersonally necessitates the logic of juridical relations and the subjectivity of free personhood. In other words, such political manoeuvres, in seeking to expand the freedom of personal/personified subjects, reproduce the mode of distribution of value by seeking to democratise such distribution.
As a result, such politics, in tending to purportedly increase the freedom of personal subjects, serves to perpetuate and expand the historically determinate mode of existence and functioning of individuated labouring subjects, and thus reproduces the mode of production of value that necessitates the question of its distribution among various personal/personified subjects. Clearly, politics that seeks to expand the freedoms of personal/personified subjects is no more than a quest for increasing democracy within the horizon of impersonal and abstract domination that, therefore, renders such democracy, and its expansion, foundationally and constitutively undemocratic.
This does not, however, mean the experience of (relative) lack of freedom in a particular juridical relation is a figment of the imagination, and the struggle against that lack pointless. The point is, instead, to grasp such lack of freedom in terms of the necessity of the juridical logic of interpersonal relations that is impersonally imposed by the historically specific mode of existence of individuated labouring subjects. Only then will struggles against such lack of freedom be able to envisage themselves, not as exertions to change the juridical terms of interpersonal relations, but as tactically instantiated strategic manoeuvres to abolish the logic of juridical relations constitutive of personal/personified subjects. In other words, such struggles need to envisage themselves in a manner that seeks the abolition of the historically specific mode of existence of individuated labour that impersonally necessitates the logic of juridicalised relations.
The theory implicit in a politics that seeks to expand the freedoms of personal/personified subjects by merely changing the juridical terms of relations among those subjects is, quite evidently, critique of capital from the standpoint of labour. It is not the actuality of critique of capital as critique of labour in its historically specific existence within capitalism.
“Traditional Marxism”: subjective individuation and the folly of classical political economy
This is the salience of Marx’s critical theory. Failure to grasp this leads to the error of “traditional Marxism”: grasping and deploying Marx’s critique of political economy as a critique of capital from the standpoint of labour. Political practices that have implicit in them this theoretical approach make for, if at all, a politics of continuous democratisation of distribution of value. However, what such politics actually yields is continuous recomposition of juridical and exchange relations by way of repeatedly changing their contractual terms. This, as we have seen above, preserves the mode of production of value by reproducing it through expansion and intensification (expansion as intensification) of its subsumptive remit.
Marx quite clearly anticipates this problem of “traditional Marxism” when he writes (1986, p.80):
“The determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is…a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities. Its discovery, while removing all appearance of mere accidentality from the determination of the magnitude of the values of products, yet in no way alters the mode in which that determination takes place.”
Such “discovery”, or knowledge, of value as the secret of the determination of its magnitude by labour-time – a secret that is hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative value-forms of commodities — is doubtless a theoretical critique of value. But to the extent it is not a critique of value in terms of the historically determinate mode of subjective individuation of labour – precisely that which makes possible the individuated subject that discovers this secret – it is a mystified critique of value. It is, therefore, unsuccessful as a total critique of capital.
As a result, such knowledge in its immediate and direct translation into practice will not result in a radical break with capital. That is because it will not alter the mode in which the magnitude of value is determined by labour-time. In fact, practice in such a form will actually reproduce that mode by expanding the remit of the form of distribution of value the former necessitates. The translation of this knowledge into practice in an immediate and directly correspondent manner would imply the subject of such practice is the unproblematised individuated subject of knowledge. That, in turn, would mean the subject through its practice of overcoming value as the essence, qua labour-time, of relative value-forms, instantiates its individuated mode of existence.
Not surprisingly, such subjective practices of overcoming the rule of value, by way of overcoming it in its phenomenal expressions – which hide it precisely in expressing it as the universal denomination of its different magnitudes – reproduce value and its rule. For, when such subjectively individuated practices seek to overcome the rule of value they perpetuate their specific mode of existence, which is the mode of determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time. In other words, such practices are instantiations of the actuality of the rule of value qua congelation of human labour in the abstract.
If we attend carefully to Marx’s exposition in Capital, we shall see how this folly of “traditional Marxism” – critique of capital from the standpoint of labour – is nothing but the theoretical folly of classical political economy registered as so-called anti-capitalist political practice. Marx writes (1986, pp.84-85):
“Political Economy has indeed analysed, however, incompletely, value and its magnitude, and has discovered what lies beneath these forms. But it has never once asked the question why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour-time by the magnitude of that value. These formulae, which bear it stamped upon them in unmistakable letters that they belong to a state of society, in which the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him, such formulae appear to the bourgeois intellect to be as much a self-evident necessity imposed by Nature as productive labour itself….”
What would have happened if classical political economists had asked this question? In addition to coming up with the crucial conception of value — which Ricardo, for example, articulates when he reveals that commodity qua exchangeable-value is embodied human labour, which is its essence –, they would have also grasped how this is necessitated by a specific mode of subjective individuation of labour that is historically instituted. Marx writes (1986, p.85):
“It is one of the chief failings of classical political economy that it has never succeeded, by means of analysis of commodities and in particular, of their value, in discovering that form under which value becomes exchange-value. Even Adam Smith and Ricardo, the best representatives of the school, treat the form of value as a thing of no importance, as having no connexion with the inherent nature of commodities…. The value-form of the product of labour is not only the most abstract, but is also the most universal form, taken by the product in bourgeois production, and stamps that production as a particular species of social production, and thereby gives it its special historical character. If then we treat this mode of production as one eternally fixed by Nature for every state of society, we necessarily overlook that which is the differentia specifica of the value-form, and consequently of the commodity-form, and of its further developments, money-form, capital-form, & c….” (Emphasis added.)
The “inherent nature of commodities” that necessitates the specificity of the “form under which value becomes exchange-value” is the historically determinate mode of production. It is the mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation. It is this historically determinate mode of production that ensures both labour and its products acquire a “two-fold character” – concrete labour and human labour in the abstract, and use-value and exchange-value respectively.
It is important, therefore, to attend carefully to the historical peculiarity of the value-form – the form under which value becomes exchange-value – as the embodiment of the two-fold nature of social labour and its products. This is crucial because only that will reveal the historical specificity of labour in capitalism. That is, it will reveal the historically determinate mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation.
That Ricardo, according to Marx (1986. p.84), paid “so little attention to the two-fold character of the labour which has a two-fold embodiment” is because he did not grasp the mode of determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time in spite of having grasped value qua labour-time as the secret hidden by its expression, which is the form of the commodity. That, if one is faithful to Marx’s exposition in Capital, ought to be discerned, and designated, as the vulgar economic element in Ricardo, and other classical political economists.
Science as knowledge, praxis as science
This folly of classical political economy – and by extension “traditional Marxism” – becomes even more evident when Marx criticises the “vulgar economists” for the absurdity of their “Trinity Formula”: capital—interest, land—rent and labour—wages. He finds the formula to be absurd, vulgar and unscientific because it affirms the naturalisation of immediate appearances of the abstraction of use-values that is wrought by the historically determinate mode of functionalising labour through subjective individuation. Marx writes (1986, p.817):
“Vulgar economy actually does no more than interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations. It should not astonish us, then, that vulgar economy feels particularly at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations in which these prima facie absurd and perfect contradictions appear and that these relations seem the more self-evident the more their internal relationships are concealed from it…. But all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided….” (Emphasis added.)
This indicates for Marx a radical critique of capital must necessarily be a critique of the human subjective form (and its individuated mode) of consciousness – whether such consciousness be the experience of immediate appearances (as in vulgar economy) or knowledge qua discovery of the hidden essence of such appearances (as in classical political economy).
One tends to read this criticism of the so-called Trinity Formula as Marx’s anticipation of the objection that there is an unresolved problem of transformation of value into price in his theory of critique of political economy. What is it about Marx’s theorising that prompts this mistaken objection? For the purposes of our discussion it should, for now, suffice to come up with one example from Capital, Volume III, to indicate what prompts such a charge. Marx, after a considered and rigorous explication of cost-price, value, profit and surplus-value, writes (1986, p.37):
“The fundamental law of capitalist competition, which political economy had not hitherto grasped, the law which regulates the general rate of profit and the so-called prices of production determined by it, rests…on this difference between the value and the cost-price of commodities, and on the resulting possibility of selling a commodity at a profit under its value.”
Postone’s critical engagement with Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk’s objection that there is a transformation problem in Marx is, in this context, illuminating. He writes (2003, pp.133-134):
“In Capital Marx tries to solve this problem by showing that those phenomena (such as prices, profits and rents) that contradict the validity of what he had postulated as the fundamental determinations of the social formation (value and capital) are actually expressions of these determinations—to show, in other words, that the former both express and veil the latter. In this sense, the relation between what the categories of value and price grasp is presented by Marx as a relation between an essence and its form of appearance. One peculiarity of capitalist society, which makes its analysis so difficult, is that this society has an essence, objectified as value, which is veiled by its form of appearance.”
At this point, it would perhaps be best to get the truth from, as it were, the horse’s mouth. The failure to grasp this veiling of value by price leads to a serious theoretical error. Marx’s vituperative assertion ensures his exposition has not a trace of ambiguity on that count. He writes (1986, p. 39):
“The thoughtless conception that the cost-price of a commodity constitutes its actual value, and that surplus-value springs from selling the product above its value, so that commodities would be sold at their value if their selling price were to equal their cost-price, i.e., if it were to equal the price of the consumed means of production plus wages, has been heralded to the world as a newly discovered secret of socialism by Proudhon with his customary quasi-scientific chicanery.”
In that context, the rest of Postone’s argument on this point becomes extremely pertinent (2003, pp.134-135):
“The divergence of prices from value should, then, be understood as integral to, rather than as a logical contradiction within, Marx’s analysis: his intention is not to formulate a price theory but to show how value induces a level of appearance that disguises it. In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx derives empirical categories such as cost price and profit from the categories of value and surplus value, and shows how the former appear to contradict the latter. Thus, in Volume 1, for example, he maintains that surplus value is created by labour alone; in Volume 3, however, he shows the specificity of value as a form of wealth, and the specificity of the labour that constitutes it, are veiled.”
Following Postone on this point, we need to realise that Marx does not merely critique the vulgar economists’ assertion that price in its empiricality is a denial of its essence — which is value qua labour-time. He also critiques classical political economists for contending that value, which they have discovered as the essence of price hidden by it, is approximated by the latter. Postone writes (2003, pp.135-136):
“…Marx also seeks to indicate that theories of political economy as well as everyday ‘ordinary consciousness’ remains bound to the level of appearances, that the objects of investigation of political economy are the mystified forms of appearance of value and capital.”
We can, therefore, claim that for Marx there is, in the final analysis, not really much of a difference between price being grasped as its own empirical knowledge and thus as the denial of value (a la the vulgar economists); and price being grasped as the knowledge of appearance of value, which is therefore grasped as the hidden essence of price (as in classical political economy). That is, of course, as long as the latter does not explicitly reveal how the mode of constitution of labour through its subjective individuation, which is the actuality of value and its rule, is precisely that which effectuates this dialectical relation of essence and appearance.
Such a revelation would, however, amount to displacing the ground of scientificity from knowledge or knowing, as a structure and form, to praxis. When classical political economy grasps price as that which hides its essence qua value in being its expression, it indicates the determinate mode of functionalising labour through subjective individuation as the necessary condition of this value-price dialectic. This means the knowing subject as the instantiation of its individuated mode of existence is precisely the source of the hiddenness of value qua essence that it discovers under the empirically given price as the former’s appearance.
Insofar as value is the logic that renders price the empiric that conceals value by virtue of being its expression, the knowledge of this dialectical logic by way of discovering in price the hidden ness of its essence qua value is science as critique of price qua critique of value. But in classical political economy this science rests on knowledge and its individuated subject. It is, therefore, not a critique of the mode of subjective individuation of labour as the integral condition of the value-price dialectic. Hence, such a critique of value is incomplete and mystified. As a theory of value, it reveals the limit of its own scientificity. It is this limit of the scienificity of classical political economy that Marx demonstrates by way of its immanent critique in order to have that scientificity reconstruct itself by being displaced on to the ground of praxis. Jindrich Zeleny’s contention is, in this context, extremely pertinent (1980, p. 187):
“…the beginnings of the ontopraxeological supersession of traditional philosophy, as sketched in the Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology, presuppose a critical perspective on political economy and a grasp of the connection between bourgeois forms of individual and social life – and metaphysics.”
Marx’s critique of political economy, we have already seen, demonstrates that capital is fundamentally the historically determinate mode of constitution of labour through its subjective individuation. This ensures such labour is socialisable only through the mediation of exchange of the products produced by such labour, which presupposes value as the abstract substance of universal qualitative equivalence. In that sense, “a critical perspective on political economy” implies “a grasp of the connection between bourgeois forms of individual and social life – and metaphysics”. And to the extent praxis is conceived by Marx, while articulating his critique of Feurbach’s “contemplative materialism”, as practice qua its own immanent theory of abolition of the mode of subjective individuation that structures it as practice by compelling it to forget, as it were, its own immanence, it presupposes critique of political economy.
Hence Zeleny (1980, p. 187):
“…the critique of bourgeois political economy…made possible for Marx a deep, critical view of Hegelian philosophy as completion of traditional metaphysics and a break with the whole of traditional ‘ideological’ philosophy (in particular, Young Hegelians and Feurbachian anthropology).”
Clearly, the problem of limited scientificity of classical political economy is, in another register, also the problem of Hegel’s dialectic. Here we ought to underscore the fact that it is the same symmetrically inverted relationship between classical political economy and “traditional Marxism” – something we have sought to indicate above – that exists between Hegel’s dialectic and Feurbach’s dialectical anthropology. We will attempt to demonstrate that here in order to show how “traditional Marxism” as a politics of critique of capital from the standpoint of labour, is nothing but Feurbachian dialectical anthropology at work. Dialectical anthropology in practice amounts to social democratic progressivism. At best, and in its most radicalised form, it yields no more than the militant reformist politics of seizure of state-power, which often tends to get programmatically codified as the be-all and end-all of revolutionism.
Allies I: Classical political economy and Hegel
For now, however, let us turn to Hegel’s conception of the dialectic as the totalising movement of realisation of the self-knowing spirit. In Hegel, the dialectic is grasped as the movement of overcoming of that which is given in terms of the former’s realisation – i.e. movement constitutive of moments of overcoming of that which is historically given in order to produce new moments of givenness. Hegel grasps the dialectic in this manner because he thinks the movement of history as an individuated subject of knowledge – an individual subject caught up in that movement as an inhabitant of one of its constitutive historical moments. As a consequence, Hegel imputes his knowledge of the movement-as-realisation acquired by him as an individuated subject to the movement itself, thereby rendering the latter a self-conscious, egoistic subject of totalisation a la the spirit.
But precisely for that reason he is unable to grasp the fact that the subjectivity of practices constitutive of the movement-as-realisation is structured by the historically determinate mode of subjective individuation. That is, historical movement is a process of realisation not because it knows itself thus, but because this supposed self-knowledge or self-consciousness of the movement is the outcome of this movement being, in reality, a process of its own punctuated realisation. This reality of the form of the movement is necessitated by the historically determinate mode of subjective individuation that structures the practices constitutive of the movement in a manner that the latter is such a reality. Postone writes (2003, p.76):
“Marx, by suggesting that what Hegel sought to conceptualize with his concept of Geist should be understood in terms of the social relations expressed by the category of capital, implies that the social relations that characterize capitalism have a peculiar, dialectical, and historical character…. He also suggests that those relations constitute the social basis for Hegel’s conception itself…”
From this one ought to infer that capital is a totalising subject. But to the extent that capital, as a system of social relations constitutive of value as the abstract substance of universal equivalence, is generated, and re-generated spontaneously on account of the subjectivity of practices being structured by a historically determinate mode of individuation, it is a totalising subject that is ego-less and blind . Postone writes (2003, p.77):
“As the Subject, capital is a remarkable ‘subject.’ Whereas Hegel’s Subject is transhistorical and knowing, in Marx’s analysis it is historically determinate and blind. Capital, as a structure constituted by determinate forms of practice, may in turn be constitutive of forms of social practice and subjectivity; yet, as the Subject, it has no ego. It is self-reflexive and, as a social form, may induce self-consciousness, but unlike Hegel’s Geist it does not possess self-consciousness….”
Hegel’s error lies precisely in attributing consciousness and self-knowledge to this ego-less and blindly totalising historical subject. That, to reiterate what we have earlier observed, is because he imputes the knowledge of the movemental system – or the structured movement — he has acquired as an individuated subject to that system itself. As a result, he is unable to grasp how the individuated structuring of his knowing subjectivity is, as a subjectivity of practice, precisely that which spontaneously generates this totalising movemental system rendering it, thereby, a blindly toalising subject.
However, to the extent that capital as a system of social relations is a totalising subject, it does, indeed, incarnate the principle of abstraction, which is Hegel’s spirit, in value as the abstract substance of social mediation. The only difference between the two is while Hegel’s spirit is a self-conscious substance that is subject precisely through such self-knowledge, value as the constitutive substance of capital as a totalising subject has no such self-consciousness and is spontaneously generated on account of the historically specific mode of functionalising labour. Postone writes (2003, p.75):
“Marx…explicitly characterizes capital as the self-moving substance which is Subject. In so doing, Marx suggests that a historical Subject in the Hegelian sense does indeed exist in capitalism….”
But Marx understands that self-moving substance, which is, therefore, subject, differently from Hegel. Postone emphasises that when he writes (2003, p. 75):
“…Marx analyzes it in terms of the structure of social relations constituted by forms of objectifying practice and grasped by the category of capital (and, hence, value). His analysis suggests that the social relations that characterize capitalism are of a very peculiar sort—they possess the attributes that Hegel accorded the Geist. It is in this sense then, that a historical Subject as conceived by Hegel exists in capitalism.”
Be that as it may, the historical movement is, for Hegel, an unfolding process of its own realisation, and is thus totalising, precisely because it knows itself thus as the self-conscious spirit. This is the basis of his project of philosophy as the increasingly closer approximation of the self-knowing, self-realising spirit to its historical appearances. The latter in instancing the self-realisation of the former hide it by causing it to withdraw from its own realisation in those appearances. Let us, at this point, attend to the famous last lines of ‘Absolute Knowing’, the concluding chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1998, p.493):
“The goal, Absolute Knowing, or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit, has for its path the recollection of the Spirits as they are in themselves and as they accomplish the organization of their realm. Their preservation, regarded from the side of their free existence appearing from in the form of contingency, is History; but regarded from the side of their [philosophically] comprehended organization, it is the Science of Knowing in the sphere of appearance: the two together, comprehended History, form alike the inwardizing and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone….”
The Hegelian project of philosophy is, in other words, all about historical movement being moments of its own realisation so that it can, as the self-knowing spirit in its unfolding, realise itself fully as its own knowledge in a historical appearance that knows itself as its essence and thus concludes the process of unfolding by being transparently one with the essence. This transparent oneness of the historical appearance with its essence lies in the former being the embodiment of the latter as its own self-knowledge.
This is hardly any different from the project of classical political economy that discovers value qua labour-time as the hidden essence of value-form in order to grasp and demonstrate the latter as an approximation of the former.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Marx, should, on this count, also critique Hegel. Through this critique, Marx seeks to demonstrate that the abstraction of movement as a constant historical process of its own punctuated realisation, even as it must necessarily be intellectually grasped, is not itself the outcome of intellectual abstraction. He writes (1993, p.101):
“…Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind. But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being….”
This critique of Hegel by Marx lays bare the fact that Hegel conflates and confounds the intellectual abstraction, through which he, as an individuated knowing subject, grasps historical movement as a process of its punctuated realisation. It also reveals how the movement is really abstracted thus due to the historically specific mode of subjective individuation that structures practices constitutive of the movement.
In such circumstances, Marx’s critique of capital, insofar as it is a demonstration of how capital as a blindly totalising subject is necessitated, and re-necessitated, by the determinate mode of functionalising labour through its subjective individuation, is a critique of totalisation. In fact, the aforementioned demonstration by Marx reveals nothing else but the actuality of value qua labour-time, which as the abstract social substance of universal equivalence is the basis of totalisation. Postone writes (2003, p.79):
“Marx’s categorial determination of capital as the historical Subject, however, indicates that the totality has become the object of his critique. …social totality, in Marx’s analysis, is an essential feature of the capitalist formation and an expression of alienation. The capitalist social formation, according to Marx, is unique inasmuch as it is constituted by a qualitatively homogeneous social ‘substance’; hence, it exists as a social totality.”
Postone then draws from this an extremely crucial inference (2003, p.79):
“Marx’s assertion that capital…is the total Subject clearly implies that the historical negation of capitalism would not involve the realization, but the abolition, of the totality. It follows that the contradiction driving the unfolding of this totality also must be conceived very differently—it presumably drives the totality not toward its full realization but toward the possibility of its historical abolition. That is, the contradiction expresses the temporal finiteness of the totality by pointing beyond it.”
Dialectical anthropology and social democracy: A close kinship
However, it is precisely this that both Feurbach’s dialectical anthropology and social democratic progressivism fail to come to terms with. Feurbach’s anthropologised theory of the dialectic inverts Hegel’s spiritualist conception of the same. Against the latter’s theory of the dialectic as a self-knowing historical movement of realisation, the former’s conception of the dialectic is about grasping and envisioning the historical movement in terms of the constantly punctuated process of overcoming of that which is constantly realised in that punctuation. The result: Hegel’s conception of the dialectic as the historical movement of the self-knowing spirit is opposed by Feurbach’s (human) subjects whose practices are constitutive moments of the historical movement as an alternative totality of overcoming of the totality of realisation.
As a matter of fact, it is precisely on account of this inverted conception of the dialectic that Feurbach inevitably thinks the various subjective moments constitutive of the historical movement in terms of the totality of humanity as an identical subject-object overcoming that which is realised.
What we have, therefore, is the totality of Hegel’s self-knowing spirit and Feurbach’s alternative totality of humanity, as an alternatively self-enclosed subject-object, trying to surpass one another. Theoretically, this implies the triumph of the principle of totality – and the abstract substance of universal equivalence that totality presupposes –, regardless of whichever theory triumphs in practice. Practically, it amounts to even less: merely accelerating the reproduction of a given social totality, only in order to preserve it and its constitutive principle of universal equivalence.
This ensures the Feurbachian critique of Hegel’s spiritualised conception of the dialectic remains a mystified critique. Feurbach, in merely inverting the object of his critique, inhabits the same subjectively individuated structure of knowledge as Hegel. The only so-called difference between the two being that while the former construes that subjectivity, and its constitutive mode of individuation, as a form of knowledgeable practice; the latter grasps and envisions it primarily as a form of knowing or knowledge only to impute it to the movement as its self-consciousness. Clearly, the human subjective form – and its constitutive mode of individuation – operates as the unproblematised locus of knowledge and/or practice as much in Feurbachian/Left-Hegelian dialectical anthropology as in Hegel’s spiritualised dialectic.
This means the dialectical-anthropological critique of Hegel is, not unlike Hegel, unable to grasp the fact that the historical movement is structured as a process of realising itself in new moments of givenness by the historically determinate mode of subjective individuation. As a result, a practice that implies the theory of dialectical anthropology ends up envisioning itself as the overcoming of the totalising historical movement, even as the effect of such practice is continued perpetuation of historical movement as a structured process of totalisation. This is because practice as the moment of overcoming of that which is given is, in dialectical anthropology, already always orientated by contemplativeness. Marx’s critique of Feurbach’s “contemplative materialism”, which as that critique seeks to found the materiality of practice, clearly indicates that .
Hence, practices that imply the theory of dialectical anthropology are identical to practices of social-democratic progressivism. The politics of social democratic progressivism – the Bernsteinian movement is everything, the goal is nothing – is all about the continuous movement of overcoming given juridical terms, or the terms of distribution of value, in order to keep setting up new, supposedly more democratic, terms of juridicality or distribution . As a result, such a movement posits itself as an identical subject-object, quite similar to the Feurbachian human subject-object, as the totality of the process of overcoming value as realised and expressed in the different value-forms constitutive of the totalising process of valorisation. In this way, social-democratic progressivism – just like dialectical anthropology – seeks to practically articulate a critique of value through the individuated subjective form, whose constitutive mode is the actuality of production of value.
Not surprisingly, such a practical critique is constrained to envisage itself as a sequentially continuous process of overcoming value hidden by its various value-forms precisely because such a practice grasps the latter as approximations of the former. The democratisation of distribution of value, and the concomitant expanded reproduction of the mode of production of value that necessitates the form of distribution, is the effect.
In the case of avowed social democracy it would, however, be more accurate to state this critique conversely: social democracy as a political practice of continuous democratisation of the juridical terms of distribution and/or exchange posits itself as a sequentially continuous process of overcoming of value. In so doing it implies a theory that demonstrates the discovery of value qua labour-time as the hidden essence of value-forms, without, however, being able to grasp how value as the logic of this essence-appearance dialectic is actualised and necessitated by the historically specific mode of subjectively individuated labour. The theory of value implied by social-democratic progressivism is, we ought to say at the risk of being overly repetitive, that of classical political economy.
‘Revolution’ in “traditional Marxism”: A proposal for alternative totalisation
What such social-democratic progressivism also implies – much like Feurbachian dialectical anthropology – is the conception of an alternative totality overcoming capital that the latter as an already given totality thwarts. It is precisely this theoretical implication that tends to be explicitly articulated by “traditional Marxism” in its envisioning of the practice of revolutionary politics. Against the evolutionism – even accelerated evolutionism – of social-democratic politics of continuous overcoming of value as phenomenally manifest by its various value-forms, the traditional Marxist conception of revolution is all about the emancipation of this alternative totality from the totality of capital in one fell stroke.
In other words, such a conception of politics envisages revolution as a practice to replace a given state-form — a particular formal embodiment of universal equivalence constitutive of a particular composition of social mediation — with another particular formal embodiment of universal equivalence. The latter being the identical subject-object of the proletariat as a state-form. In this traditional Marxist conception, revolutionary politics is, therefore, primarily about thinking strategy in terms of seizure of state-power. The assumption being that one will then democratise its operation – which is the quantitatively hierarchising social operation of the abstract substance of qualitative equalisation and mediation in its formal embodiment – in a manner that it withers away together with the abstract substance it embodies.
It is hardly about strategising in the here and now of everyday contradictions between capital and labour – or more pertinently, between different segments of social labour – of how to leap into communism as the real movement of free association of direct producers. This would be the process of self-abolition of labour in the specificity of its historical existence within capitalism as the latter’s source. It would, therefore, also concomitantly be the practice constitutive of the withering away of the state. At this point, Postone’s critique of Lukacs’ conception of the proletariat as materialisation of the Hegelian geist into an identical subject-object becomes particularly relevant. He writes (2003, p.73):
“His materialist appropriation of Hegel is such that he analyzes society as a totality, constituted by labor traditionally understood. This totality, according to Lukacs, is veiled by the fragmented and particularistic character of bourgeois social relations, and will be realized openly in socialism. The totality, then, provides the standpoint of his critical analysis of capitalist society. Relatedly, Lukacs identifies the proletariat in ‘materialized’ Hegelian terms as the identical subject-object of the historical process, as the historical Subject, constituting the social world and itself through its labor. By overthrowing the capitalist order, this historical Subject would realize itself.”
To think revolution in terms of the emancipation of an alternative totality – which is proletariat as an identical subject-object – from the totality of capital implies that the principle of totality, or, more pertinently, the rule of the abstract substance of universal equivalence, is not abolished. Rather, all that will happen in such a ‘revolution’, if at all it takes place, is, as we have observed above, one type of formal embodiment of that substance (proletariat as the totalising, humanised, and thus identical, subject-object as the general form of the substance of qualitative equalisation and social mediation) suddenly replacing another type of that general form (money-form, a particular type of state-form and so on). Such traditional Marxist revolutionism then is a more radicalised version of social democracy; not a break from it. This, therefore, also compels us to claim that such ‘revolutionism’ is politicism, which is the obverse of social-democratic economism it deigns to criticise and reject.
All said and done, such ‘revolutionism’ is basically about throwing capital, in one of its historical compositions, out of the front door only to bring it back in a discursively different form through the rear window. Our communist left organisations, thanks to their outdated Leninist conception of politics as party-building for capturing state-power, imply precisely this traditional Marxist conception of revolutionary politics. It does not matter that some among them uphold the party, instead of the proletariat, as the subjective form that will effectuate revolution by uniting various sections and segments of the struggling masses by way of mediating among them. Structurally speaking, these partyists, not unlike those who uphold the proletarian subject-object as revolutionary subjectivity, affirm the principle of mediation and alternative totalisation.
We would, however, do well to hold on to the proletariat as a term of revolutionary subjectivity, if only to load it with an entirely different conceptual valence. But before we make that theoretical move we need to see how this (Lukacsian) conception of the proletariat as an identical subject-object poses an additional set of problems for thinking revolutionary strategy in the south Asian context. South Asia, we know, is socio-economically characterised by an unusually large sector of labour practices and relations that are, in the immediacy of their historical appearances of custom-centric caste-, community- and gender-based labour, unproductive and/or suffer from various degrees of unwaged-ness or unfreedom.
The sociologisation the conception of the proletariat as an identical subject-object entails means only those social groups that are directly engaged in productive labour – labour that is immediately valorised in exchangeable commodities –, and which is also properly waged in the traditional Marxist sense, can comprise the proletariat as a political subjectivity for overcoming capitalism.
That has led some of our communist left groups to pose a stagiest, ‘democratic-revolutionary’ conception and practice of politics. These groups make a stagiest demarcation between labouring sites that are apparently unproductive, and which, therefore, constitute moments of democratic politics of recognition and subsumption by the realm of labour that is directly productive; and labouring sites that are immediately productive, and which politically constitute moments of overcoming such subsumption. These Leninists tend to think that politics has to be about bringing this so-called pre-modern outside within the pale of modernity qua capital so that one can then have the right conditions for forging the much-needed working-class unity to transcend and negate capitalism.
Such a conception of politics has, in practice, meant an endless deferral of the revolutionary politics of overcoming and abolishing capital. The so-called democratic-revolutionary process of subsumption of ‘unproductive’, and/or unwaged/unfree labour into the realm of productive labour goes on endlessly. Meanwhile, the politics of overcoming capital at the so-called proletarian sites has taken on the character of an