‘Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion and Negative Reason’ reviewed by Josh Robinson

Reviewed by Josh Robinson

About the reviewer

Josh Robinson is a lecturer in English Literature and Critical and Cultural Theory at the School of …


A disclaimer, of sorts: this review of Werner Bonefeld’s compelling and persuasively argued account of the tasks with which critical theory is faced today, and of the failure of the larger part of Marxist theory to date adequately to address those tasks, is written from the perspective of one convinced by its conclusions in advance of my having read it. I foreground this declaration in part because one of the questions which permeates my interest in the book pertains to the relative scarcity of its reception so far—it reflects, that is, my bewilderment as to why this (itself hardly timely) review is one of so few to have appeared in print or online so far. I am aware of reviews by Chris Wright (2014), Liam Conway (2014) and John P. Merrick (2014). A search on Google Scholar reveals a single further citation, in fact the book’s listing in the ‘Publications Received’ section of Contemporary Sociology 43:5 (September 2014); it is also listed on the ‘Books for Review’ page of the Historical Materialism website, set in bold to denote a work ‘of particular interest to the journal’. The evaluative comments made in the reviews published so far have, give or take the odd quibble or the occasional dose of apparent damnation by faint praise, been overwhelmingly positive: one reviewer lauds Bonefeld’s ‘intertwining of precisely aimed critiques and novel critical expositions that challenge not just traditional Marxism, but much of the heterodox work alleging to renew Marxian thought’ and suggests that it may ‘be exactly the kind of book we need’ (Wright (2014), while another recognizes that it ‘provides devastating critiques of both capitalism and some of its Marxist critics’ and hails it as ‘a must read for any person who considers themselves Marxist or anti-capitalist’ (Conway 2014).

The book represents what is perhaps the most sustained and comprehensive exposition of the critique of political economy from its at times incipient formulation within Marx’s oeuvre. This critique is distinguished from classical, or—to use Bonefeld’s preferred designation, echoing the terminology of Adorno and Horkheimer in particular—traditional political economy, a body of thought which is succinctly and helpfully defined as those ways of thinking about political economy that brush aside the question of the messy ‘human social reality of its subject matter as a “metaphysical” distraction that gets in the way of economic analyses’ (21). This ‘metaphysical baggage’ is in Bonefeld’s terms ‘the human-social content of economic categories, which economics posits but cannot accept without calling itself into question as a science of purely economic matter’ (26). The economic nature of homo economicus is abstracted out of this human-social content and context. Economic theory, that is, is predicated on the ignorance of the content of its own presuppositions: it is ‘the theory of society unaware of itself’ (21).

Bonefeld’s critique takes issue with this ignorance. ‘For the critique of political economy, economic nature is not the essence of economics. The essence of economics is society, and society is the social individual in her social relations’ (27). The intellectual lineage of this attempt to rethink the conclusions of political economy from the perspective of what is excluded from its premises can be traced back, via the Frankfurt School, to Marx’s own writings. But Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy cannot adequately be characterized as an intervention into a Marxological debate as to the correct interpretation of the foundational documents of Marxism, nor as an attempt to reconstruct a complete Marxian critical theory of society on the basis of the approaches and incipient investigations formulated and developed, however incompletely, within Marx’s work. Indeed, summarizing the manifold achievements of Bonefeld’s book is not by any means a straightforward task.

For it represents—but cannot be reduced to—what is perhaps the most comprehensive English-language reception so far of the new reading of Marx that developed out of the legacy of the Frankfurt School (and of Adorno in particular) in the wake of investigations by Hemult Reichelt and Hans-Georg Backhaus in particular. Indeed, it carries out this reception almost incidentally. Bonefeld sets out this new reading, according to which economics is understood as ‘the formula of an inverted world’ (6). He is attentive both to its achievements—that it ‘introduced a Marxism stripped off [sic] dogmatic certainties and naturalistic conceptions of society’ and ‘brought to the fore a Marx who subverts the economic object as a seemingly natural thing’ (41)—and to what he considers its major deficiency—that it ‘did not fully reveal what it had unchained, in particular it kept at arms’ [sic] length the political form of capitalist society, that is, the state, and in particular the class antagonism and the class struggle, which is the dynamic force of a negative world’ (6-7). The new reading rightly takes issue with the instrumentalization of class and labour as positive and natural categories. Its weakness, however, for Bonefeld is that rather than expounding these fundamental categories the new reading ‘focused on the value form to establish the living reality of the capitalist exchange relations, in which the difference between two distinct commodities becomes commensurable in the form of an equivalent exchange, in which commodities express their exchange value in the form of money’ (41-2). In doing so it treats capitalism, whether implicitly or explicitly, as a conceptually logical system, and thus ‘remains spellbound to the logic of things’ (95).

Bonefeld goes beyond the new reading of Marx’s contention that the concepts of political economy pertain to the inverted economic world, and further contends that the concepts of the critique of political economy are themselves marked by the bloody history of violent oppression: ‘In distinction to the new reading, which holds that Marx’s critique entails a purely logical expression of the categories of political economy, these categories express historically stamped relations. The law of value contains the force of law-making violence within its concept—in its civilized form, it appears as the freedom of economic compulsion.’ (82) This excavation of the history of dispossession and violence that lies at the heart of the concept of value is one of the major accomplishments of the book, and is the point at which Bonefeld’s work is truest to the way in which Marx is taken up by the late Adorno, as he subjects the concepts of political economy to a rethinking analogous to the calling into question of the concepts of metaphysics in Negative Dialectics. Bonefeld’s investigation points towards the radical aim of an emancipatory society founded on the freely disposable time that is ‘the very content of life’, and therefore founded on the form of wealth posited by such a time, ‘a form of human wealth that is entirely at odds with the idea that time is money’ (137).

This timely reminder of the perspective of critical theory is complemented by a two-pronged investigation of the state, with significant implications for its theorization within Marxist theory. Bonefeld proceeds first by investigating the consequences of the arguments and theories that underlie Marx’s incipient writings on the world market and the state before turning to an argument developed by means of an immanent critique of ‘Hegel’s political philosophy, Smith’s political economy and finally the neoliberal theory of the state, particularly of German neoliberal thought, which establishes a coherent account of capitalist economy as a practice of government’ (166). Far from being a force that can be mobilized against the workings of the market, the state depends on that very market. The conceptuality of the world market ‘holds sway in and through the national states that form the inter-national state system, which comprises the relations of political competition and mutual dependency, rivalry and dependency, national assertion and imperial power, war and trade’ (152). For the critique of political economy Marx’s work ‘is intended as a critique of the relations of economic objectivity, which, if taken seriously, cuts down on the very economic base from which the state is said to arise’ (166). The state, therefore, ‘is best conceptualized as the political form of capitalist society’ (166), ‘the political state is the state of bourgeois society’ (185).

From this follows the critique not only of attempts to establish a non-capitalist economic system by means of state action, whether democratic or otherwise, but also of the manifestations of nationalism within anti-capitalist movements. What Hardt and Negri term a ‘“progressive” form of nationalism’ comes in for particular criticism, and is described as in fact ‘entirely regressive’ (197). And particular criticism is directed against the substitution of a critique of capitalism with a critique of the individual capitalist—a critique which, as Marx’s polemic against Proudhon argues, ‘manifests itself as a demand for a better capitalism, one that works in the interests of “the workers”’ (196). Such a critique ‘leaves the category of capital not only entirely untouched, it also elevates “capital” as a thing beyond critique’ (196). These combine in Bonefeld’s final chapter on anti-capitalism and antisemitism, which proceeds from the recognition that modern antisemitism ‘summons the idea of finance and speculators as merchants of greed and, counterpoised to this, espouses the idea of a national community based on some assumed linearity of ancestral traditions and associated costumes of imagined forms of national morality and integrity’ (200). He criticizes the tolerance for or even propagation of antisemitism in the name of anti-imperialist struggle expressed by figures including Perry Anderson, James Petras, Alex Callinicos and Judith Butler, objecting in particular to the ‘abandonment of thought’ of the latter two that consists in Butler’s argument ‘that anti-imperialist resistance is a good thing in itself’ (202) and Callinicos’s ‘ticket mentality that attaches labels to social things without further thought as to what these things may be’ (203). For Bonefeld, as for Adorno and Horkheimer, ‘antisemitism articulates a senseless, barbaric rejection of capitalism that makes anti-capitalism useful for capitalism’ (213).

The polemic directed against Butler and Callinicos represents a refreshing break from an argument that is frequently advanced rather drily, almost as if the prose of the earlier chapters were not imbued with a sense of the importance of what is being argued. Bonefeld’s argumentative procedures are at times synthetic, at times decisively evaluative. At some points he appeals to Marx, at others to his formulation of critical theory on the foundation of Marx’s writings, tracing a path from Marx’s work to the present (and indeed to the future)—without necessarily specifying the evaluative criteria according to which the correct paths are to be distinguished from the others. Occasionally positions are rehearsed at some length apparently for the sole purpose of arguing against them, without a compelling sense of why exactly the argument might matter. Despite the book’s clear signposting of its logical and systematically developed linear argumentative structure, the scope of its horizons and the variety of tasks it carries out means precisely what is at stake is not always entirely clear.

I make these observations less to raise objections than as suggestions as to why Bonefeld’s study has received less attention than would seem to be due. My fear (and I would be delighted to be proven wrong) is that it will not convince anyone does not already subscribe to the conclusions that it justifies—not because its argument not convincing, but because of the theoretical context into which it intervenes. This is in part a reflection of a situation in which scholarly writing has ‘become alienated from the language of the laity and from the practice of lay reading’ (Guillory 2008, 9), exacerbated by the fact that had I not written this review, I would have been faced with the choice of spending £38 on a copy (a substantial sum of money even after the application of the 40% discount I receive as a Bloomsbury author) and waiting for the in no way inevitable appearance of a paperback. But it is also a function of a fragmented intellectual world characterized by an overwhelming repertoire of potential reading which we (and I very much include myself in this assessment) frequently approach by seeking out things which confirm rather than challenging entrenched positions. This is of course, in part a symptom of a world in which the conceptuality of the world market ‘holds sway in and through the national states that form the inter-national state system, which comprises the relations of political competition and mutual dependency, rivalry and dependency, national assertion and imperial power, war and trade’ (152). Bur recognizing this interconnection is a long way from charting the array of mechanisms according to which it functions, and further still from coming to know what has to be done in order to overcome them.

22 January 2015


  • Conway, Liam 2014 Review: Critical Theory and the critique of Political Economy Project of the Independent Socialist Network http://www.socialistproject.org/issues/november-2014/review-critical-theory-and-the-critique-of-political-economy
  • Guillory, John 2008 How Scholars Read ADE Bulletin 146 (Fall 2008), 8–17.
  • Merrick, John P. 2014 In Hell Everything Is Hellish Review 31 http://review31.co.uk/article/view/270/in-hell-everything-is-hellish
  • Wright, Chris 2014 The Difficult Theory of a Mad World Mute http://www.metamute.org/editorial/reviews/difficult-theory-mad-world


  1. My review of Bonefeld will appear in New Political Science later this year. It’s more critical (perhaps I should say “negative”) than Josh’s but still praises much of what’s in the book.

  2. I disagree with two aspects presented, at least in this review, by Bonefeld.[I have not myself read the book being reviewed.]
    The reviewer quotes Bonefeld as follows: ‘For the critique of political economy, economic nature is not the essence of economics. The essence of economics is society, and society is the social individual in her social relations’ (p27, in Bonefeld).
    The second sentence in this quote is exactly wrong in a most important way. The correct formulation should be something like;
    ‘The essence of economics is society, and society is the total, integrated mass of society, in which individual people are members of the society. Capitalist society, like all exploitative societies is comprised of at least, an exploited class and an exploited class. The exploited class expropriates the surplus labour of the exploited class.’
    My central point is simply that the focus must be on the entire population, the entire society, not on an ensemble of individuals.
    It is my considered view that the insight that Marx had that one must start the analysis from a consideration of the entire, integrated society is one of his most important contributions to the science of human society. I will add, that quite independently, Charles Darwin had the same major insight when he was analyzing biological evolution. In both cases, it is necessary to start the analysis from a consideration of the entire population in its historical context. These insights are a major advance in intellectual understanding in my view.
    I will add that of course human society is a natural, actual, real object of study. And is therefore in my mind accessible to scientific study. What Marx did primarily, was to discover and point out that the mechanical view of world that still predominates in all of science is very limited. It is necessary to broaden this limited conception of scientific study and to create new intellectuals boundaries for the study of human society. His insight that the starting point is the entire, integrated society was his first major contribution. But he also made a second contribution which I think is most under-appreciated. He did not dismiss causality, but he expanded our understanding of causality in two ways. Firstly, causality must embrace the entire context within which a process unfolds, not just some of the relevant contributions to the unfolding. Secondly, all causality is at heart a study of dynamically interacting processes, not interactions between discrete objects. Discrete objects clearly exist, but to understand their properties correctly, one must study them in their dynamically [historically if you prefer] relevant complete contexts.

  3. Happy to say that I’m slated to review the book for Historical Materialism and I have been for some time. Unfortunately, I have been delayed in finishing the review by a few of the factors that could be added to JR’s good discussion of reasons preventing a wider reception of the book: (1) teaching loads foisted on ‘early-career’ academics (2) the lack of importance that reviews are granted in comparison to peer-review articles, commissioned articles etc., which in general exacerbate the fragmented intellectual world so well described by discouraging and taking time away from proper scholarship.

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