‘Marx’s Capital, Method and Revolutionary Subjectivity’ reviewed by Paul Elias

Marx’s Capital, Method and Revolutionary Subjectivity

Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2016. 350pp., €126,00 / $163.00 hb
ISBN ISBN 9789004306479

Reviewed by Paul Elias

About the reviewer

Paul Elias holds a PhD from the Social and Political Thought program at York University, To …


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


  1. Sounds like an interesting book, and I strongly disagree with the reviewer’s claim that Marx “was trying to vocalize the real needs of the already revolutionary proletariat”. The already existing proletariat was neither revolutionary — hence the need for Marx’s intervention — nor was it much of a proletariat — it was a disunited mass of isolated proletarians.

  2. Interesting review. Having read some of Starosta’s other work, the reviewers critical assessment rings true.

    If the review is over-enthusiastic in talking about Marx addressing an “already revolutionary proletariat”, Marx never put forward the ridiculous claim that either revolutionary self-activity or the self-consciousness brought about through the self-activity of the proletariat were brought in from the outside by intellectuals. Firstly, that would imply that intellectuals have some magical access to revolutionary consciousness through sheer intellectual force. Secondly, that would imply that theory leads practice rather than illuminates it; the former is (Lenin and Kautsky’s) idealism, while the latter is materialism.

    That disunited mass of proletarians themselves formed the International Working Men’s Association and invited Marx, who had specifically chosen to absent himself from organized political activity until it came up from the working class itself. The “professional revolutionaries” of the Left have not called into being or organized anything other than their own self-infatuation and self-delusion for a very long time.

    Finally, “proletariat” in Marx’s works is not “the working class” as a sociological category, a sorting mechanism or repository allowing us to categorize individuals, but the class in struggle, the class coming to be for-itself, and thus becoming self-conscious through its self-activity. It is the negation of wage-labor, the threat of its abolition. This is why Marx says in Value- Price and Profit that the unions should have put forward a different call: “Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!”” the proletariat is the negation of the working class as a class of capital, and it is not in the power of intellectuals, no matter how vain they may be and certain of their superior consciousness, to bring any such thing about.

  3. While I agree that it is ridiculous to claim that Marx thought that the revolutionary self-consciousness of the proletariat must be “brought in from outside by intellectuals”, it is equally ridiculous to attribute such claim to Starosta’s book (or to his other work for that matter, at least not to the one I’m familiar with). At no point does the book put forward the idea that “theory” (allegedly the “exclusive” attribute of “intellectuals”), “leads” an abstractly separate practice (incarnated by workers who passively follow an enlightened vanguard?). Even a cursory glance at the table of contents shows that there is a subsection entitled “Revolutionary Subjectivity as Consciously Self-Organised Subjectivity”. That already suffices to raise serious doubts about the supposed “Leninism” that the reviewer finds in Starosta’s book (but which nonetheless “rings true” to someone who admits to not having read the book). And a quick look at those pages (302-304) in the concluding chapter that brings together the ideas systematically unfolded throughout whole book, shows that they actually develop an explicit materialist critique of Leninism and more specifically of the idea that “theory” is an attribute monopolised by “Marxist intellectuals” leading unconscious workers to revolution. In fact, the very category of “Marxist intellectuals” as a separate entity from the working class is completely alien to the approach put forward in the book, and as far as I can remember the term itself does not even appear, although it might but in scare quotes, when critically paraphrasing the Leninist conventional wisdom. The only thing vaguely approaching such nonsense is the reference to “the partial organ of the collective labourer that is nowadays responsible for the production of the critical scientific knowledge of capitalist social forms (i.e. communist intellectual labourers)”. By definition, an organ of the collective worker is not external to the working class but an internal part of it, so it is quite simply impossible that “intellectuals” bring revolutionary consciousness into the proletariat “from outside”. Be that as it may, that is not the main problematic point of the review or the comment endorsing it. Even more inaccurate is the idea that the book claims that the objective potentiality to abolish the wage system is grounded in the “power of intellectuals derived from their superior consciousness”. Unless I missed something, if there is one clear idea that I got from the book is that the ground of revolutionary consciousness lies in the transformations of the materiality of the production process brought about in an alienated form by capital and, therefore, in the material transformations of the productive subjectivity of the collective labourer. There is no “magic” involved in this explanation of the determinations underlying revolutionary consciousness but a material process. What is more, the book explicitly states that “revolutionary consciousness” must “become an attribute borne by each member of the self-abolishing proletariat as a whole, regardless of the particular form of productive subjectivity (…) with which they enter the revolutionary process” and unfolds the material conditions under which that will become possible. So not only no magical access by “intellectuals”, but, again, no privilege of any partial organ of the collective labourer.

  4. Chris Wright has written;
    >Secondly, that would imply that theory >leads practice rather than illuminates it; >the former is (Lenin and Kautsky’s) >idealism, while the latter is materialism.

    Wright’s formulation is almost correct but not quite.
    It is clearly erroneous to say that theory merely illuminates practice.
    While it is true that we gain our social knowledge from social practice, theory is not passive.
    Having gained some knowledge from social practice, we humans then theorize the knowledge in some way. Inasmuch as the theory is correct, it directs our subsequent social practice. So, theory is not simply a passive illuminator of our social practice, it is also a necessary guide to subsequent practical actions.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. I’d just like to point out that I do not think it is fair to say that Starosta is purporting a Leninist view in his book (and thus it was not ‘the reviewer’ who made that claim, although I recognize that I wrote ‘Marxist intellectuals’ instead of ‘communist intellectuals’, as Starosta did, which might have paved the way for this). His position is more nuanced. In fact, if I remember correctly, he explicitly denounces this conventional Leninist-vanguardist view.

    Nevertheless, his reading is such that he ends up with an inconsistent position–at least insofar as it is supposed to be true to Marx’s–about the relationship between revolutionary theory and practice, and it is one that gestures more toward a kind of intellectual vanguardism than is present in Marx’s view of the self-emancipation of working people through self-transformative revolutionary practice. On the one hand, Starosta justifiably maintains that the revolutionary subjectivity of the working class entails revolutionary consciousness, and yet, on the other hand, they remain alienated to an extent that they need guidance from those who (like Marx, according to Starosta) are able to ‘discover’ the ‘necessity’ of their revolutionary action in its ‘totality’.

    In The Manifesto, for example, Marx and Engels maintained that “The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.” Marx was bringing this movement to consciousness in such a way that presupposed the development of a form of subjectivity capable of recognizing the ‘necessity’ of revolutionary action as such, i.e., as necessary. This places certain limits on the way we conceive of the relevance of ‘communist intellectual labourers’ who, unlike the rest of us working class people, spend their time engaging in ‘dialectical research’.

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