‘Time in Marx: The Categories of Time in Marx’s Capital’ reviewed by Pete Green

Reviewed by Pete Green

About the reviewer

Pete Green is an Independent Researcher and UCU Retired Member. …


Time in Marx was originally published in France in 1994 in a series edited by the late Daniel Bensaïd with the title Rearguard Seasonals. It now appears in the Historical Materialism book series in what reads as an excellent lucid translation (by Christakis Georgiou) of a sometimes difficult text, along with a new short Introduction by the author.

Bensaïd himself provided a brief distinctively stylised ‘Postface’ to the original which called on readers to “Join the rearguard that does not surrender”, words which have a particular resonance as I write this review of a book by a Greek Marxist. The Postface is also the source of one of the quotes on the back jacket:

With time as his starting point, Stavros Tombazos sheds light on the general intelligibility of Capital and the originality of its own logic … A frequent critique directed at Marx is that he remains tributary of the determinist epistemology of his time. This work draws attention to an opposite tendency of his thought, ready to welcome the contemporary developments of fuzzy logic, chaos theory, the unity between chance and necessity. (xx)

That extract perhaps says more about the preoccupations of Bensaïd at the time of writing than it does about a book in which fuzzy logic and chaos theory are not only absent but arguably at odds with the resolutely Hegelian stance on dialectics of Tombazos. It is true that, in the rather brief chapters on Periodical and Structural Crises which conclude the book, he rejects any notion of ‘invariable economic laws’ with respect to the ability of capitalism to recover from the ‘various structural crises’. Such crises he suggests are ‘violent moments of confrontation between antagonistic forces. They open up various possibilities, among which is that of a new peace between the “subjective side” and the “objective side” of capital.’ (300)

Tombazos is also willing to stress the problematic character of Marx’s chapter in the first volume of Capital on ‘The historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation’ with its notoriously deterministic statement that ‘capitalist production begets with the inexorability of a natural process its own negation, This is the negation of the negation.’ This he suggests is a ‘careless metaphor’ but also a sign that Marx shared ‘the excessive optimism of his time’ (287-8).

Yet there is a tension which remains unresolved between these critical comments and the authors own insistence that Marx ‘s dialectic in Capital remained thoroughly Hegelian and in particular reliant on the threefold syllogisms to be found in the ‘Doctrine of the Notion’ sections of Hegel’s Science of Logic. This argument is clearly the central thesis of the book as a whole and in the Introduction to the English edition Tombazos recalls the context of the original. Writing in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he rejected the dominant variant of French Marxism which under the influence of Althusser (although in this book it is Bidet who is the more explicit target) sought to ‘free Marx from his Hegelian legacy’. The science of Capital he suggests, using a phrase of Marx’s, was a ‘German science’, a science that demands above all that ‘Hegelian dialectics be treated with the respect that it deserves’ (xv).

Partly this is a matter of insisting on the importance of such concepts as fetishism, alienation, and reification to the intelligibility of capitalist social relations. However, Tombazos in what one might term a ‘deep Hegelian reading’ of Marx is unusual because, unlike so many others who have ventured onto this terrain in recent decades, he is dismissive of the question of Marx’s method. Commenting on four possible methodological positions he maintains with good reason that only the simple thesis that the movement of Capital is a movement from the abstract to the concrete is correct. Other attempts to interpret the three volumes of Capital as a movement from the general to the particular, or from essence to appearance, or even to map a correspondence to the three moments of Being, Essence and the Notion, all fail. However, he considers that the last of these gets closer to the truth as the determinations of ‘both ‘essence’ and ‘being’ are present but integrated with and subjected to the language of the Notion from the very first part of Volume One. In the Conclusion he defends his approach with an insistence that ‘method cannot be declared. It can be implemented. Method is not a theory either in Marx or in Hegel, but is rather the practice of theory, so that the idea of the method results from what preceded it.’ (310)

That at least sounds consistently Hegelian although it also enables him to evade important questions about the ordering of Marx’s categories and the structure of the three volumes of Capital, and the incompleteness of Marx’s project.

Tombazos is also distinctive in his insistence that all attempts to prove Marx’s Hegelianism on the basis of the doctrine of essence are ‘wrong from the very outset’(73). He defends this thesis from an unusual angle, relying in the first instance on the analysis in the Grundrisse of the process of simple circulation (C-M-C) and the difference involved in the process M-C-M, from which Marx will derive the circuit of capital. He expends a lot of theoretical effort on how Marx derives this contrast from the moments of ‘chemism’ and ‘teleology’ respectively in the doctrine of the Notion. Despite the obscurities in Hegel this is illuminating and confirms the degree to which as a text the Grundrisse is indebted, as Marx wrote to Engels, to a rereading of Hegels’ Logic whilst he was working on the manuscript. Yet Tombazos does not adequately address the question of how and why the structure of the three volumes of Capital is very different from that of the earlier Grundrisse. For him the difference is simply a matter of Marx moving away from an overreliance on Hegelian language.

What matters to Tombazos is the relevance of Hegelian logic to capturing capital as a structured totality. This leads him in another distinctive but fruitful move to emphasise the significance of the process of circulation as ‘the first totality among the economic categories’ (quoting the Grundrisse at length – page 197 in the Penguin edition). The emphasis on value as process and on the ‘cyclical and organic movement of capital’ (120) is well done. The insistence on the importance of Volume 2 of Capital and on the fact that Marx was the first to conceive of the life of capital as the unity of the three circuits of productive, commercial and money capital (131) highlights a dimension woefully ignored by all those philosophers unable to move on from the rigours of the first part of Volume 1. Yet when Tombazos proceeds to rework Marx’s formulae for the circuits so they can fit into the threefold syllogism of Hegel’s Science of Logic (the universal, the particular and the singular) he adds nothing in my view to the earlier analysis.

 Time in Marx constitutes a significant and original contribution to the ongoing debate over the relationship between Hegel and Marx. Yet another recent collection of papers, from the same publishers (Moseley and Smith 2014), by exposing the diverse and contradictory views on this question from such dedicated students of Marx as Chris Arthur, Riccardo Bellofiore, Roberto Fineschi, Fred Moseley, Patrick Murray and Tony Smith, exemplifies the problem. That Marx was deeply influenced by Hegel and did not simply abandon the dialectical insights evident in the Grundrisse when he wrote Capital is true. That any of the multifarious attempts at a deep Hegelian reading of Marx’s texts can be considered definitive or essential to an understanding of Capital itself is much more questionable. On this at least I share the position of Callinicos (2014), in a book which I reviewed previously for this site, that Marx engaged in a systematic pillaging of Hegel but did not rely on the Hegelian syllogisms of the Science of Logic for the ordering of his categories.

 Fortunately, Tombazos himself usually avoids the excessive formalism into which even insightful authors such as Smith can be sucked when trying to interpret the whole of Marx’s three volumes in terms of Hegelian triads. Time in Marx is replete with interesting insights into many aspects of Marx’s work. Particularly worthy of note are his remarks on the non-equilibrium character of Marx’s value theory, his analysis of the determinations of socially-necessary labour-time, and a six page assessment of Marx on ground-rent which is a model of clarity. Most distinctively is a stress on capital as the unity of production and circulation, not simply the sum of the determinations belonging to the two spheres. In his introduction Tombazos writes that ‘the links that unite them are internal and organic, conceptual’ (5). The debt to dialectical thinking is evident but one doesn’t have to be a deep Hegelian to agree with those arguments.

But where one might ask is time in all this? Capital he suggests near the beginning is `a conceptual organisation of time. It is neither a thing nor a simple social relation, but a living rationality, an active Notion … the “abstraction in actu, as Marx writes on several occasions.’ (5)

Tombazos proceeds to a provocative summary of the relationship between logical and historical time in Marx to which he later devotes an extended discussion. The difficulty of the very first part of Capital is, he suggests, the simultaneous presence of both logical and historical discourse but the former is overwhelmingly dominant and the historical discourse is reduced to an auxiliary role. In this work , however, historical time as such disappears from the analysis almost completely until the penultimate chapter on structural crises. Marx’s own concern for such questions as the struggle over the length of the working day rates only the briefest of acknowledgements.

With respect to logical time, as he terms it, Tombazos proposes that Capital organises its categories temporally in different ways in each of the three volumes. In the first volume ‘the time of production’ is linear, homogeneous and measurable. In the second, the ‘time of circulation’ the determinations involve the circuits of capital and turnover time and are cyclical and repetitive. In the third which is the unity of the times of production and circulation we have what Tombazos distinctively calls the ‘organic time’ of capital. This is certainly suggestive – yet the category of organic time is raised only to fade from view in the final section as the author turns instead to a discussion of ‘the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’. This adds little to more orthodox accounts such as those of Ernest Mandel on whom the author relies heavily for his account of crisis theory.

The emphasis in the closing chapters on the significance of deep structural crises of capitalism as each having a distinctive and open-ended character is, however, of obvious relevance to the current conjuncture. The author is quite correct to insist that capitalism does not age ‘in a linear and progressive manner’, although I am not persuaded that Marx himself assumed that it would.

27 July 2015


  • Callinicos, Alex 2014 Deciphering Capital (London: Bookmarks)
  • Moseley, Fred and Smith, Tony (eds) 2014 Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Logic (Leiden: Brill)

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