‘Marx after Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism’ reviewed by Kaveh Boveiri

Marx after Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism

Columbia University Press, New York, 2015, 312 pp., $25/£19 pb.
ISBN 9780231174817

Reviewed by Kaveh Boveiri

About the reviewer

Kaveh Boveiri’s research focuses on Hegelian and Marxist philosophy. He has taught in the …


Harry Harootunian’s Marx after Marx is quite an earnest effort to address Marx’s ‘scattered thoughts’ regarding the transformation of capitalism, and to consider how these thoughts were modified, refuted, and developed by thinkers after Marx.

In a sense, the book is a threefold extended commentary and, at least, a partial refutation of Marx’s claims in Capital. According to Harootunian: i) the laws of social development do not possess the ‘iron necessity’ that Marx attributed to them in the preface to the first edition of Capital; ii) the prevalence of the capitalist mode of production, which Marx refers to in the opening paragraph of Capital, is neither monolithic nor finalised; iii) a necessary and homogenous path, from ‘a non commodity society to capitalism, the dream of orthodox Marxists’ (29), is a myth; hence, the notion of ‘de te fabula narratur’ (This is your tale narrated) that can also be found in the first preface to Capital does not bear scrutiny. In order to elaborate on the coexistence of the constantly changing incommensurable social elements and the inevitable ‘fractured heterogeneity’ and incompleteness of real subsumption in existing capitalism, the book highlights the importance of the formal subsumtion of capital. Following the well-known Gramscian dictum that ‘all history is contemporary, that is, political’ (160), the book also refutes the historical stagism, or linear development, that was endorsed by the Second International. In Hegelian terminology, one might say that the book argues against the universal in favour of the singular.

Following Benjamin’s refutation of a unique linear progression from the past to the present, the introductory chapter, titled ‘Deprovincializing Marx’, restates the need to disinfect historical materialism by avoiding any reading that generalies the case of England, and which views the latter as a template that will be followed by all other countries, regardless of their spatiotemporal characteristics, cultural repertoire, etc. Hence, the book rejects the ‘normal’ causal unilinear relationship between past and present.

The first chapter, ‘Marx, Time, History’, is the most complicated chapter, both in terms of its content, and due to the way this content is presented. For instance, in just four pages (21–25), and to clarify the notion of time from a non-western Marxist viewpoint, Harootunian juxtaposes references, quotations, and paraphrases from more than a dozen thinkers, of which Fernand Braudel, Reinhart Koselleck, Watsuji Testurō, Jacques Rancière and Gilles Deleuze are but a handful. This makes assessment of their contribution to Marx’s views about ‘time’ impossible. From Marx’s emphasis on the formal subsumption (and creation of absolute surplus value) as the general form of every capitalist process of production, Harootunian infers the necessity of beginning with this starting point, namely, formal subsumption, instead of the finalised commodity. Formal subsumption, as ‘the first moment when the ‘capitalist intervenes in the process’ of production’ (63), not only constitutes ‘the sign of capitalists’ contingent development’ (59), but also makes an incomplete re-contextualisation and synchronisation of the previous modes of production possible; moreover, it incorporates and naturalises them and their residues as moments of an eternal present following the logic of capitalist production. Being the general form in external immediacy to its content also enables it to synthesise ‘past and present in any and all presents’ (58). The past, then, is not a pile of events that play no active role in the present, but is reconfigured and reinvented by the existing mode of production in the present. History, therefore, is neither subjugated by the past, nor driven by a desire coming from future, but ‘dominated by constant struggles in the present’ (45).

The second chapter, ‘Marxism’s Eastward Migration’, re-emphasises the need for digging into the present, a vertical search, instead of a chronological approach in which the events follow one after another as on a line. It does this by referring to Lenin and Luxemburg where they discuss the singular issues in Russia and Poland. In this way, it shows how they, along with Lukács and Trotsky, constituted a different scenario concerning formal subsumption and even bypass capitalism. It depicts meticulously how Lenin fought against taking Russian capitalism to be an unnaturalness, and demonstrated the possibility of the fusion of elements of precapitalism and capitalism towards the ‘establishment of industrial capitalism’ (81). Through doing so, Lenin defended the Marxist view of seeing capital as a social relation between people, regardless of the level of the development of the industry, and distanced himself from ‘hopeless pedants’ (84) by acknowledging the possibility of a fusion of the myriad of elements, and the complex co-presence of the past and present. The credit that Harootunian gives to Lenin is not, however, limited to this: Lenin is also said to have extended ‘the scope of formal subsumption to include areas outside the economic [labour and production] domain’ (85).

One shortcoming of Lenin’s standpoint was that he took capitalism to be in its final stage of realisation. This is the point where Lenin and Luxemburg diverge. The latter’s view is also different from Marx, as she saw that ‘capitalism’s necessity to realize expanded accumulation required relying on diverse forms of colonized societies that reflected organization of rural communalism – the world of noncapitalism’ (94). Through introducing real subsumption, this ‘methodological fiction’ (99), Marx dissociated his theory from the reality of the social life under capitalism, and what is outside capitalism. The prevalence of capitalism, according to Luxemburg, is not complete even in Europe, let alone worldwide. Since Marx fails to see this, he also fails to consider the role of superfluous workers, the ‘victims of the ceaseless transition from noncapitalist to capitalist conditions’ (108). Luxemburg, on the other hand, introduces an opening ‘to the colonial regions of world, the south, semicolonies, and latecomers on the industrial periphery’ (116). Luxemburg also pinpoints another shortcoming in Marx’s views: that of reducing society to two opposing agents, capitalists and workers, and hence leaving no room for ‘third persons’; this makes the realization of ‘the surplus value that should be capitalized impossible’ (98).  

Chapter three, ‘Opening to the Global South’, mainly portrays Gramsci’s and José Carlos Mariátegui’s attempts to answer questions of local concern without relying upon rigid universalising narratives. Such questions stem from the unevenness that delineates Italy and Peru. Their goal was political: the fusion of the uneven capital-laden and the noncapital elements. In Gramsci’s case, recognition and explication of, among others, the disparity of the rural South and the industrial North of Italy makes ‘unevenness’ the central theme of Southern Question. This enables Gramsci to critically analyse the coeval presence of the remnants of the distant past in the multilayered present of Italy. Following this, Gramsci recognises the need to shift the focal register of Marx’s formal subsumption from economic to political and beyond. This is reflected in Gramsci’s proposal ‘for creating a mass bloc in which peasants would be subsumed to proletarian leadership’ (127). ‘Passive revolution’, or ‘revolution/restoration’, was a hybrid aimed at the transformation of the economic structure in a reformist manner to achieve a planned economy. In this, Gramsci saw no difference between its political program and its economic goals.

José Carlos Mariátegui, on the other hand, sees in Luxemburg’s ‘Socialism or Barbarism’, which he reformulates as ‘capitalism or socialism’, the problem of the epoch. But, according to him, in the case of Latin America in general, and Peru in particular, this can lead to a socialist revolution, historically, because the Incas are ‘the most advanced primitive communist organization that history records’ (139). Enriched with this past of the ‘Inca rural society’ Marxism, over and above the dominant ‘historical materialism’ reading, is able to incorporate the unevenness found in Peru, and to bring about such a revolution.

The fourth chapter, ‘Theorizing Late Development and the Persistence of Feudal Remnants’, depicts how three thinkers in China and Japan adopted a creative reworking of formal subsumption to overcome the inability of the Asiatic Mode of Production to elucidate the situation of these countries in the interwar period.

Wang Yanan’s theorisation has several merits: it shows how the semifeudal and semicolonial remnants were related to a bourgeois function to target the exploitation of profits and how Marx’s unique English-like model was not generalised. Once transposed to the case of China, this model misrepresents its history through eliminating its temporal unevenness.

Among these writers, Harootunian’s judgement of Yamada Moritarō is quite critical. In his attempt to urge a nonexistent similarity between what Marx attributed to England in Japan, Yamada remains silent on several issues stemming from the realities of Japan, and overlooks how earlier forms played a role in the growth of capitalism in Japan whilst overemphasising its remnants of feudalism. This, perhaps, all stems from his misunderstanding of what Marx meant by ‘form’.

Uno Kōzō, Yamada’s contemporary, like the latter, saw, inter alia, the long-standing of agrarian villages in the development of capitalism in Japan and held that they should ‘assume the burden of several problems [in the countryside] together with the development of capitalism in the cities’ (191); nonetheless, for him this was mainly the result of the ‘moment of encounter’, not a ‘barrier to further development’. Furthermore, notwithstanding all the changes that society undergoes, the ‘only partially metabolized and modernized’ (194) remnants of the past leave their mark as a rampant habitus on the heterogeneous present. These remnants, which bore ‘coercive pressures’, were for Yamada more material and external, whereas for Uno, they were more psychological and internal.

Harootunian himself sees the Asiatic Mode of Production more a form and methodological device than an empirical historical content or reality. But if so, one may ask why this cannot be equally true about capitalism.

The fifth chapter ‘Colonial/Postcolonial’, which deals with the countries exploited by colonialism and mainly characterised by subsistence agriculture, sides with Claude Meillassoux’s viewpoint according to which the present restores ‘the prior production practices’ in Africa, in contradistinction with Samir Amin’s claim which sees ‘the abstracts and homogenizing binary of world systems capitalism (center) and localized periphery’ (201), because the former account brings back the agrarian question to the discussion.

After Africa, the chapter appraises the theories of three thinkers whose work is concentrated on India. Notwithstanding the importance of Jairus Banaji’s work and the fact that he ‘opened the path for a more productive discussion’ (212), he falls, mainly inadvertently, into stagism, which is the subject of his own criticism. This stems partly from self-contradiction, and partly from refusing Marx’s explanation of the laws of the development of capitalism.

The last two writers, Kalyan Sanyal and Dipesh Chakrabarty, share several points: ‘the formation of a timeless, spatial mode of production’ (225), an antipathy for historicism, and the reliance of capital on noncapitalism. Sanyal sees in postcolonialism an exceptional spatial expression excluding time and history. In doing this, however, he fails to see the ‘collision of different, multiple times’ (227). Chakrabarty’s study of the Jute mill workers in Bengal, on the other hand, is the result of wrongly transposing Marx’s view in Grundrisse regarding the initial moment that the worker sells his labour power onto the workers in Bengal, who work in ‘a capitalist factory organization, not a medieval artisanal guild’ (227). He also bypasses ‘the logic of formal subsumption’ (231), and seeing a completed stage of the commodity relation in India, and the rejection of the recognition of the ‘remnants’, makes him unable to overcome historicism in general. All this is perhaps the result of a failure to put Heidegger and Marx in dialogue; a failure that is perhaps inevitable, because the former derived temporality from the future, and the latter from the present; the former re-sacralised time as Being’s destiny towards death, whereas the latter secularised everyday time.

In the book’s Afterword, ‘World History and the Everyday’, Harootunian attacks Western Marxism for ignoring the irreducible cultural characteristics of societies, and for unintentionally following Max Weber’s ‘unique cultural configuration as a model of imitation’ (236). Once healed from this shortcoming, the different paths taken by uneven regions can lead to a ‘new present future’ which incorporates all the differentiated particularities. Inspired by Bloch, the book ends with a desire to form such a heterogeneous, polyphonic, and polyrhythmic unity. The multilinearity claim is thus underscored.

While the inferable claim of the book that a Marxian totality is different from a Hegelian ‘universalistic philosophy of history’ (20) (insofar as it is an open totality in contradistinction with a closed Hegelian totality) seems to be true, the prevalence of that totality – in this case, the capitalist mode of production – remains equally true. In different occasions, Harootunian evaluates other’s works as dialectical or undialectical. In a sense, his book follows a dialectic path through its emphasis on seeing the differences of different moments of capitalism as well as their similarities, less so in its overemphasis on the differences rather than similarities.  

7 December 2016

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