‘Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy’ reviewed by Nick Gray

and (eds)
Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy

Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009. 288pp., £50 hb
ISBN 9780230222373

Reviewed by Nick Gray

About the reviewer

Nick Gray is studying for a DPhil on Marx’s theory of reification at the University of Sussex …


Whether or not the papers delivered to the Marx and Philosophy Society, and published in Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy, were actually in dialogue with each other (and a good number of them were), they can be read as if they were. This reading is one of fascinating theoretical convergences and occasional glaring divergences (one might even say outright theoretical hostilities).

Although thematics are many and much ground is covered in the book, a unifying rubric which suggests itself is the Marxian critique of capitalist social forms, particularly abstract social forms – i.e. perverted or displaced forms of social relations. This rubric permits a confrontation of positions offered by many of the contributors on the question of the relation of Marx’s critical project to the philosophical tradition or traditions.

Marx’s critique of political economy is a critique of social forms – i.e. of fetish-forms, practically abstract forms and economic categories as real abstractions. Value is centrally situated among these categories. The chapters by McIvor, Chitty, Arthur, Murray, Roberts, Postone, Fine and Daremas all have, in their differing ways, a particular focus on the status of these abstract forms, referred to by both Postone and Fine as abstract forms of domination. In capitalist society, abstraction goes all the way down (to the commodity-form) and all the way up (to capital and, beyond, to the state). Fine and Daremas both focus on Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State and on the separation between the spheres of political state and civil society which constitutes the state as a practically abstract form.

The chapter by McIvor sets up very nicely the problematic of Marx’s relation to the philosophical tradition, so perhaps it is appropriate to let him set the terms of the debate between the various contributors. This debate can be characterised very schematically as a debate between a ‘progressive Marxism’ on the one hand and a ‘negative Marxism’ on the other (N.B. the labels are proposed by this reviewer and would not necessarily be endorsed by the authors themselves). For McIvor, the Marxian critique of capitalist social forms can be inscribed within the project of philosophical modernism; in this way the Marxian project is construed as a particular spin on and development of themes inherited from German Idealism: freedom and autonomy, the critique of reflection or transcendence, and the “sociality of normativity” (or the “immanent sociality of reason”). According to McIvor,

[C]ommunism recommends itself to Marx as the most thoroughgoing possible achievement of this Kantian ideal of free and self-conscious collective self-legislation – the final ‘working out’ of the metaphysical politics’ of social self-determination that Pippin identifies at the heart of the Idealist enterprise (48).

McIvor’s position is further elucidated in an earlier version of the paper, ‘Marx and German Philosophy Revisited’ (McIvor 2006a), and a related paper entitled ‘Marx’s Modernism: Outline of a Defence’ (McIvor 2006b).

Joining McIvor in the progressive Marxist camp, I would suggest, are McCarney, Daremas, Chitty and Sayers. Meikle and Collier are special cases. In the opposing camp of negative Marxism I place Murray, Arthur, Roberts, Postone and possibly Fine.

Let me deal with the special cases first. Meikle’s Marx is something of an anti-modernist or a critic of modernity from a radical Hellenist perspective, one who is able to draw on Aristotelianism and his Scholastic education to criticise normatively the abstractions of economic thought.

Collier doesn’t fit easily with the progressives either. He argues that in some ways the Marxian project has more in common with conservatism, in its organic approach to society, than with liberalism which tends to promote abstract ideals from a normative, Archimedian standpoint.

Of the progressives, McCarney also focuses on Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State, and defends the immanence in the (social) world of the Hegelian Idea against Marx’s various accusations of transcendence and acosmism. McCarney argues though that the Marxian critique actually highlights that Hegel betrays his own non-accommodationist logic, according to which ‘the success of spirit in emancipating itself from nature is the ultimate determinant of progress in history’, by failing to reject institutions whose ‘secret’ is ‘zoology’ – i.e. hereditary monarchy (33). Interestingly, this theme of non-accommodation and dynamic process is later reprised by Grant in his exposition of Althusser’s ambivalence towards Hegelian dialectic.

Daremas is another who focuses on the young Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and upholds Marx’s radical democratism: a genuine democracy overcomes political democracy itself,

to annul the separation between political state and civil society by eliminating both simultaneously and ‘elevating’ the essence divided between political and private existence to its true identity as non-fragmented communal social existence of humanity (91).

Such a theme is taken up by Chitty, who traces the young Marx’s philosophical anthropology to its roots in Aristotle, Rousseau, Fichte, and Hegel: the true human community or Gemeinwesen (community, communal being, communal essence) is the realisation of species-being. This is the Marxian spin on the question of how humans can realise their essential rationality, universality and freedom. Species-being, which by 1844 and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts has transmuted into social labour and mutual production, is realised, but in alienated fashion in capital – one might say ‘in the mode of being denied’, to follow Werner Bonefeld and Richard Gunn (Bonefeld, Gunn and Psychopedis 1992a; 1992b). Capital which realises this essential human universality abstractly, or realises the human essence but in the form of abstract universality, is a necessary stage to its true realisation, as concrete universality, in communism. Chitty’s Marxist philosophical anthropology, Daremas’ Marxist radical democratism and McIvor’s Marxist philosophical modernism have them closely allied in the camp of progressive Marxism.

If we turn now to the opposing camp, we see a different emphasis on the Marx-Hegel relation, particularly with regard to the Hegelian Geist. As I have intimated, Chitty’s account suggests that the Hegelian Spirit – the ‘I that is We, We that is I’, ‘substance as Subject’, the ‘universal community of mutual recognition’ – is the precursor for the Marxian conception of species-being (124-5). Now Murray, Arthur, Roberts and Postone put a different spin on things. These contributors all pick up on Marx’s exposition of the dialectic of capital in the first volume of Capital. As self-valorising value, capital becomes the dominant or ‘overarching subject [übergreifendes Subjekt]’ of the process of commodity exchange; it becomes an ‘automatic subject’. Marx argues that

value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus-value is its own movement, its valorization is therefore self-valorization [Selbstverwertung] (Marx 1976, 255).

Marx then remarks that in this process, value presents itself as a ‘self-moving substance which passes through a movement of its own’ (Marx 1976, 256). Capital as ‘self-moving substance’, ‘substance as Subject’: all the contributors I have recruited to the camp of negative Marxism (although they might protest that they have been press-ganged) pick up on the Geist-like qualities of capital. For these contributors, then, the Marx-Hegel relation takes on a different, more negative hue. Whereas for the progressive Marxists, the Marxian critical project might be understood as the realisation of the Hegelian one, both with and against Hegel, so to say, for the negative Marxists the Hegelian totalising subject is precisely the problem, and that which has to be abolished.

Murray presents Marx’s Capital as a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; this, incidentally, puts him at odds with Fine, who believes like McCarney that Marx’s critique of Hegel in the Critique is in some respect misdirected; Fine argues that there is an instructive homology between Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and that the two works should be read alongside each other rather than in opposition. Fine reads Hegel critically as concerned with the pathologies of the system of right – personification, subjectivism and the fetishism of the subject; these are ideal forms of modernity which parallel the material forms criticised by Marx in his critique of political economy: value, exchange value, money, capital, profit, rent and interest.

For Murray, however, not only is Hegel the philosopher of reconciliation (this also places Murray against McCarney), he is the ‘philosopher of capital’. Murray explains that the ‘of’ in ‘philosopher of capital’ in this case ‘means that Hegel was unwittingly expressing in his logic of the concept – and more particularly of the idea – the logic of capital’s subsumption of nature and humanity’ (186).

Arthur develops these themes briefly here, and at length in his book The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital and in an essay entitled ‘From the Critique of Hegel to the Critique of Capital’ in The Hegel-Marx Connection (Arthur 2002; 2000). The universe of capital is one dominated by a negative version of the Hegelian Idea, which in subsuming labour under itself returns to itself as ‘Spirit’. In this hellish dialectic, in this negative mirror-image of the Hegelian world, rather than the whole being the true, the whole is false. A distinctly Adornian theme, then. This is a totalising falsehood which is effective, actual and therefore true. The world is dominated by self-moving real abstractions.

Arthur’s chapter in Karl Marx and Contemporary Philosophy is an instalment of his project of reconstructing the Marxian systematic dialectic of capital, a project informed by the homology between Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Logic. In this chapter, Arthur argues that capital has an ideality which imposes itself on the content of economic life, and that ‘value is a peculiar social form which arises out of the practice of exchange in such a manner that that value exists only when the dialectic of commodity relations results in money’ (159).

Capital as analogue of the Hegelian Idea, or as Spirit through its subsumption of the material world of production, is a theme touched on by Roberts, whose aim is to make the point in a way that even an analytical Marxist can understand. We would need to ask Veneziani, who bravely attempts to rescue something of the analytical Marxist project by introducing structural considerations and constraints into the question of rational agency in capitalist society, whether Roberts’ explanation has helped. Roberts argues:

Capital is self-valorising value, self-reproductive and ever-expansive. Value ‘thus appears as a self the incarnation of this self is the capitalist – the selfhood of value’. So ‘personified’ value ‘has become a will in its own right, being-for-itself, a conscious end in itself.

Roberts continues:

Analytically inclined Marxologists hate it when Marx starts talking like this. Capital sounds like Hegel’s Geist. It is a mysterious speculative construction that cannot be reduced to any set of lower-order mechanisms, a supra-individual intentional actor, a piece of providence in a godless universe – in short – nonsense (198).

Yes, it is a nonsense – and yet this is the nonsensical, ontologically inverted world that we live in, a world dominated by an alien, abstract logic. ‘Abstraction becomes both the substance and the subject of modernity’ claims Roberts, who goes on to describe the ‘coming into being of an abstract, spiritual subject, which we embody as its moments, but the logic of which we do not control’ (198-9).

Postone develops very similar arguments in his thoughtful and provocative critique of Lukács’ reification essay. Against Lukács’ identification of the proletariat as the identical subject-object of history, Postone counterposes the Marx-inspired notion of capital as historical Subject.

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. As a structure constituted by determinate forms of practice, capital, in turn, is constitutive of forms of social practice and subjectivity; as a self-reflexive social form it may induce self-consciousness. Subjectivity and the socio-historical Subject, in other words, must be distinguished in Marx’s analysis. (210)

At this point, as an aside, we could see Postone as being in a productive dialogue with Grant, who wrestles with the Althusserian process without a Subject, and proposes that it should be complemented by the more existentialist category of “subjects in process”. Interestingly, just while we are on this aside, there is an interesting convergence from opposite directions between the approaches taken by Grant and Veneziani, who offer the prospect of a reconciliation between the former mortal enemies of structuralism and analytical Marxism. Grant aims to accommodate some notions of subjective agency and experience within a revised structuralism, whereas Veneziani attempts to introduce social determination of individuals (‘endogenous preferences and beliefs’) into a revamped analytical Marxist approach (237).

But back to Postone, and capital as world-historical Subject. Postone draws the following political and philosophical conclusions from the identification of capital as the totalising historical Subject, and here I’ll let him be the mouthpiece for the negative Marxist camp:

The idea that capital, and not the proletariat or the species, is the total Subject clearly implies that, for Marx, 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 does not drive the totality forwards towards its full realization, but, rather, towards the possibility of its historical abolition (211).

Postone says later: ‘the call for the full realization of the Subject could only imply the full realization of an alienated social form’ (212). The Lukacsian position is an affirmative one from the standpoint of the totality. The Postonian position is a negative one against the totality. Postone’s critique might be construed as a critique of modernity and the modernist project per se. Certainly it is a critique of productivism, a critique of labour, of abstract labour as the structuring principle and the totalising social mediation dominating capitalist society. Incidentally we might interject here, on a technicality, that there is a little tension within the negative Marxist camp on the status of abstract labour and value as mediations. Arthur would argue that it is value rather than abstract labour which is the totalising social mediation: abstract labour is posited as the substance of value in the exchange of capitalistically produced commodities. Postone arguably has a tendency to collapse levels of mediation between the two.

The rift between the two camps has by this stage become a full-scale declaration of war. Social labour is identified as the basis of the totalising abstraction dominating individuals, whereas, it is the basis of human universality for at least some within the progressive Marxist camp, as we saw. Sayers, for example, in his critique of new-fangled conceptions of ‘immaterial labour’ and ‘biopolitical production’ in Hardt and Negri and others, promotes a Hegelian conception of labour in Marx as ‘intentional activity to produce a change in the material world’ and a ‘process of objectification through which labour is embodied and made material in an object’; and as ‘activity through which human beings give form to materials and thus realize themselves in the world’ (144-5). Arthur himself previously defined labour as ‘Marx’s concrete universal’ (Arthur 1978), which would unquestionably ally him with Sayers, Chitty et al. in the progressivist camp. I would suggest however that he has since defected to the negativist camp, where labour is less something to be affirmed for its emancipatory or universalising potential, and in fact even its positive status as value-creating is rejected in favour of a conception where value is constituted by the struggle of capital to pump out labour-services from proletarians. Arthur’s early work Dialectics of Labour articulates something like a Lukacsian standpoint (Arthur 1986). The shift from a Lukacsian view understood as a programme of the liberation of labour and the affirmation of the proletariat as universalising, totalising world-historical Subject, to a more negative view of the recalcitrant proletariat which threatens to negate the capitalist totality, is, I would argue, a reflection of the historical transformation in the class relation since the capitalist restructuring from the 1970s onwards.

When the dust has settled from this outbreak of hostilities, the reader is left with a number of questions. For example: how the does the abolition of the proletariat and the capitalist totality come about? Collier suggests that the answer lies inside rather than outside capitalist social reality: external, normative critiques are ineffectual (so doing, he starts a fight with Meikle). To the struggles themselves, then! That’s where the answer must lie. If we accept, as Collier’s argument suggests, that the revolutionary negation of capital is an immanently produced movement of supersession – the “real movement which abolishes existing conditions” – then the communist movement as this real movement develops immanently within the capitalist totality. If communism is the sublation of the totality of capitalist social relations, is it then the constitution of a new totality, a new social universe? Does it have a new structuring principle – the all-round development and flourishing of the capacities of the individual as an end in itself, perhaps? Or is communism precisely the abolition of the universal structuring principle, the universal mediation, as we have seen in the case of Postone?

Finally the theme of universalism and its potential critique brings me to the last two contributions in the book. Are feminist struggles subsumed within these problematics – or do they constitute a special case apart – a particularism? Both Carver and Howie pose the question of the complementarity and compatibility of feminism and Marxism, and both suggest that “living with the ex” might be possible – indeed the way forward (255).

(this paper was originally presented to the Historical Materialism Conference, London, 27 November 2009)

23 March 2010


  • Arthur, C. J. 1978 Labour: Marx's Concrete Universal Inquiry no. 21, pp. 87-104 .
  • Arthur, C. J. 1986 Dialectics of Labour: Marx and his Relation to Hegel (Oxford:Basil Blackwell).
  • Arthur, C. J. 2000 From the Critique of Hegel to the Critique of Capital The Hegel-Marx Connection, T. Burns and I. Fraser (Houndmills: MacMillan).
  • Arthur, C. J. 2002 The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital (Leiden: Brill).
  • Bonefeld, W., Gunn, R., Psychopedis, K. (eds.) 1992a Open Marxism vol. 1: Dialectics and History (London: Pluto Press).
  • Bonefeld, W., Gunn, R., Psychopedis, K. (eds.) 1992b Open Marxism- vol. 2: Theory and Practice (London: Pluto Press).
  • Marx, K. 1976 Capital vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
  • McIvor, M 2006a Marx and German Philosophy Revisited viewed 25th November 2009 http://www.marxandphilosophy.org.uk/pe.htm
  • McIvor, M 2006b Marx's Modernism: Outline of a Defence viewed 25th November 2009 http://www.ptext.cn/english/index_publish.php?id=1052

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