Reviewed by Paul Elias
Guido Starosta’s book is a welcome addition to academic Marxist literature. While the title is true to its essential focus, revolutionary subjectivity is the main object of Starosta’s interest. “This book,” he tells us, “aims at the development of a materialist inquiry into the social and historical determinations of revolutionary subjectivity” (4). Revolutionary subjectivity is an integral component of Marx’s social theory, and yet as Starosta points out, “not many works have actually put the problematic of revolutionary subjectivity at the center of the critique of political economy” (2). Certainly none have done this to the extent that he has. His book presents the labyrinth of theoretical knots that envelop this aspect of Marx’s work with hitherto unseen clarity, even if it is often because of the precise way in which he remains tangled up in them. It is unlikely that this book will be easily accessible for readers who are unfamiliar with Marx’s thought, and at times it seems written in a way that presupposes a very specialized audience.
Starosta’s inquiry into Marx’s thought has a relatively wide scope. For example, key topics include: Marx’s method, which Starosta claims developed through a critical appropriation of Hegel’s speculative dialectical method, i.e., the “method of immanent self-development of the life of the subject matter” (95); the ‘raison d’être’ of capitalism “in the history of the development of the powers of the human species” (239); the nature of humanity (as a productive subject); and, of course, his conception of revolutionary subjectivity as alienated subjectivity.
In the first part of the book Starosta focuses on a “critical reading of Marx’s early writings from the perspective of his later works,” with most attention given to the “methodological limitations” of the 1844 Paris Manuscripts (5). Starosta claims that in these manuscripts Marx followed Hegel’s lead and grounded “the necessity of alienation in a very abstract and general dialectic” of history which “lacks any concrete specificity regarding the form” of revolutionary practice that will overthrow capitalism (40-41). We can, however, “find Marx’s first attempt at a materialistic perspective on the determinations of the revolutionary subjectivity of the working class” in this period of his thought (46). It is here that Starosta makes the “admittedly controversial claim” that, already in 1844 “and for the rest of his lifetime,” Marx’s “materialist dialectical science entailed the transcendence of all philosophy” (52). This is arguably a failed attempt to find a basis in Marx’s writings for the worn out mantra that “philosophy” remains “trapped within abstract thought” and “indifferent” to “practice” (14).
Also in this period, Starosta locates Marx’s “discovery” of “the specific definition of the human being” as “productive subjectivity” (24). We have to ask whether this is a sufficient account of Marx’s anthropology in the Paris Manuscripts, however, because while he does make this claim in these writings he also indicates that animals produce as well. Our distinguishing characteristic, for Marx, is the fact that we are a ‘universal’ and therefore free being. Starosta brings up the concept of ‘universality’ later in the book but fails to comprehensively present how Marx integrated it into his ‘mature’ theory. Arguably, he precluded this from the outset by rejecting the idea that Marx critically reworked Hegel’s theory of the “self-development of Spirit through alienation and its overcoming” (7). This, however, does not stop him from making significant claims about the “scientific” character of “productive consciousness” (256).
Starosta’s assertion that Marx critically appropriated the “speculative” aspect of Hegel’s method is arguably one of the most important claims made in the book, and it has the potential to bring fresh air to the debates on Marx’s method (61). His treatment of this is deficient, however, insofar as he provides no substantial discussion of the broader ontological framework associated with ‘speculative’ thought and its implications for the rest of Marx’s critique of political economy.
In the third chapter Starosta explores the “essential ramifications” of Marx’s recovery of the dialectical method from Hegel through an exploration of his criticism of Proudhon, which also serves to highlight the limits of Marx’s earlier method. He rightly criticizes the idea of the “dialectic” as “a general formalistic methodology to be taken ready-made from Hegel’s Science of Logic,” which is evident in Proudhon and the “systematic dialectics” trend in Marxist scholarship (7, 96). Throughout the book he emphasizes the “crucial distinction” between the stages of “analysis” and “synthesis” in Marx’s method, though this discussion would have greatly benefited from a comparison with Hegel’s approach to it in his Logic (123).
One of the keys to Starosta’s thesis that revolutionary subjectivity is alienated subjectivity is his claim that, following Postone, revolutionary subjectivity must be “socially grounded” in the “alienated historical dynamic of capital itself” (3). This leads him (in chapters 4-8) to a meticulously detailed exploration of particular components of Marx’s mature economic theory, predominantly in Capital, that pertain to this; e.g., commodity fetishism, the commodity form, the valorization of capital, and the real subsumption of labour to capital. He maintains that “it is precisely in the development of the ever-changing concrete forms of the real subsumption [of labour to capital] that the answer to the question about revolutionary subjectivity is found” (233).
His “reconstruction of Marx’s dialectical investigation of the determinations of the commodity form” leads to the bizarre conclusion that “whatever power we might have to radically transform the world must be a concrete form of the commodity itself” (190). As a result, our revolutionary practice necessarily “takes an alienated form in capitalism” (190). While there is arguably some truth to this latter claim, he makes a series of suggestions which indicate that he has not significantly resolved the paradox of human estrangement as present in Marx’s writings. For example, he claims that “through critical investigation of the value form we affirm our freedom because we come consciously to cognise our own determination as alienated social subjects” (191). One cannot help but imagine Marx and Engels standing on a corner in Manchester with a small table on which they have displayed numerous pamphlets on the value form.
Starosta claims that the “fundamental discovery of Marx’s critique of political economy” is the idea that “the total social capital becomes determined as the concrete subject of the movement of modern society” (197). It follows that the “class struggle” is “the concrete form of development of the antithetical social necessities generated by” the total social capital in “its process of valorization” (217). Working class political action is thereby determined as the centralization of the total social capital as the property of a world state (313). This is arguably a relapse into the one-sided objectivism that Starosta criticizes at multiple points in the book. Although he makes a commendable effort to avoid this objectivism, it comes up again in his idea of the raison d’être of capitalism as “the social form that transforms the productive powers of free but isolated individual labour into powers of directly and consciously organised social labour,” i.e., the “universal worker” (239, 260). An immediately discernable issue with this interpretation is that he conceives of “the production of a fully developed universal productive subjectivity” as the result of development in capitalism, whereas Marx claimed that this was only truly possible in an advanced form of communist society (289).
This brings us to Starosta’s frightening conception of “revolutionary subjectivity ‘proper,’” i.e., the idea of “alienated yet fully conscious revolutionary subjects” (309, 313). Thus, somewhat predictably, Starosta ends up making the suggestion that it is the task of Marxist intellectuals to discover “the form of political action that could mediate the immediate needs of workers” in a way that leads “the productive subjectivity of the global collective worker beyond its alienated capitalist form” (316). Indeed, throughout the book he presents the view that Marx’s method was used as a theoretical tool—“practical criticism”—to “shed light on the necessity of revolutionary action” (195). This is inconsistent with Marx’s approach which is arguably better represented by the idea that he was trying to vocalize the real needs of the already revolutionary proletariat. On Marx’s premises, these needs can only emerge as the workers’ struggle unfolds, and thus their recognition of the necessity of their revolutionary action is dependent on their actual experience of self-transformative revolutionary practice. This precludes the creation of a revolutionary guide to action, and insofar as the essential focus of Starosta’s book was revolutionary subjectivity and Marx’s method, this was its most significant shortcoming.
We are left asking why Starosta did not attempt to explore the ‘concrete determinations’ of human subjectivity in general, as conceived by Marx. On the whole, his endeavor would have greatly benefited from a more robust analysis of Marx’s philosophical anthropology, especially because of the significant implications for revolutionary subjectivity; e.g., Marx made greed a fundamental subjective determination of alienated socio-economic practice that simultaneously develops productive subjectivity. Additionally, Starosta’s emphasis on productive subjectivity is not comprehensive enough to account for the fact that Marx puts social relations at the forefront of his social theory. Marx was concerned with comprehending our struggle to live with each other in a way that enables all of us to experience freedom. Thus the social relations of communist society imply not just the development of productive subjectivity but also ethical/relational capacities. Starosta comments that “the immanent content of the communist revolution” has been thought of “as an ethical question,” but only from the perspective of morality (“moral theory,” “moral conscious,” “moral standard, “moral necessity,” etc.)—whereby revolutionary practice is “idealistically seen as ‘ethical’”—and he does not explore it as a feature of human subjectivity in general (38-9, 295-6).
22 September 2016