What is the relationship of class struggle to the laws of motion of capital? What was Marx’s method in Capital? What implications do these things have politically? These questions really form the centerpiece of Giacomo Marramao’s essay “Theory of Crisis and the Problem of Constitution”2. Marramao specifically addresses these questions through a discussion of crisis and the problem of constitution, laying out on one side the opposition to a notion of economic crisis/catastrophe/breakdown vis-a-vis the views of Raniero Panzieri, Karl Korsch and Anton Pannekoek, and on the other side, the defense of a notion of crisis/catastrophe/breakdown as inherent to capital vis-a-vis the views of Rosa Luxemburg, Henryk Grossman and Paul Mattick. This can also be posed as the difference between the notion that crisis is caused by the subjective element ('proletarian autonomy') or the class struggle versus the idea that capital produces it own barriers and therefore its own crisis.3
Marramao takes issue with Panzieri’s claim that the theory of crisis developed in the Second International goes hand in hand with a fatalistic, gradualistic transition to socialism through the objective development of the productive forces. Marramao makes clear what is at stake:
…we are interested in showing how, at the beginning of the 1960s in Italy, an argument common to a large part of the European left in the 1920s and 1930s was proposed by a militant opposition within the labor movement: that revolutionary action should not attempt to insert itself into the presumed weaknesses and “internal contradictions” of the system, but should activate only the autonomous will, the modern “insubordination” of the working class-its exclusive organizability.
In other words, for Marramao, nothing less than the role of revolutionaries and the process of the constitution of the proletariat as a revolutionary force is at stake. The debates in the 1920’s and ‘30’s represented the last prior serious attempt to grapple with these issues in what seemed to be a situation ripe with revolutionary potential, especially in Germany and in light of the ongoing social crisis in Europe that began in 1917 and ended in Spain in 1939.
The debate had its roots in fact in the argument over the objective necessity of crisis, the possibility or not of overcoming such a crisis and the nature of the transition to socialism. Marramao takes issue with Korsch’s critique of both sides as “passive and non-commital conceptions because they limit themselves to reflecting on the elapsed stages of the real movement.” (Section 3) Marramao critiques Korsch by claiming that he
avoids the complex problem of the “method of exposition” when, in his urgency to work out an economic analysis able to provide a “practical theory of revolution” supported by an “activist-materialist attitude,” he reads the dialectical method of presentation of the mature Marx as a mere allegory meant to rouse the proletariat’s will and revolutionary spirit.
Marramao claims that Korsch is unable to differentiate between Luxemburg and Kautsky, since Luxemburg
never conceived of the model she described in the Accumulation of Capital as a pure and simple “reflection” of historical and empirical evolution of the capitalist mode of production. Rather, against Kautsky, she always refused to attribute the character of fetishistic objectivity to economic laws.
There are several immediate problems with Marramao’s work. Firstly, Marramao, like Luxemburg, conflates the theory of crisis, the theory that capital is necessarily crisis-ridden, that crisis is an inevitable part of capital, with the theory of collapse. He uses the two terms interchangably. This conflation serves to protect the theory of collapse from critique by allowing Marramao to argue that anyone who disagrees with the automatic breakdown or collapse of capital disagrees with the idea that capital necessarily generates crises.
his point of view has been critiqued from several different points. Pannekoek, contrary to Marramao, correctly critiqued this perspective, defended by Luxemburg first in her famous conclusion that the question of all questions was “socialism or barbarism”. In other words, when the collapse of capitalism comes, will capital be replaced by the victorious proletariat or will the world slide into chaos? This is the classical statement of a theory of decadence, not merely a theory of crisis, and this is what, at bottom, all theories of collapse are. Simon Clarke took up this same critique in his discussion of Marx’s Theory of Crisis, where he argued that while crises are indeed inevitable under capital, collapse is not. Nor is there any specific mechanism in isolation that one could take as the source of all economic crises. Clarke effectively pokes holes in pretty much every specific theory of crisis from the point of view that all of the different moments of contradiction they fixate on can in fact be the well-spring of any given crisis.
Aufheben has the most recent critique of this decadence theory in their critique of theories of decadence in issues 2–4 of their journal. They specifically address Grossman, whom Marramao seems intent on defending in principle and I will allow them to speak for themselves:
Trotskyism as a tradition thus betrays its claim to represent what was positive in the revolutionary wave of 1917–21. The importance of the left and council communists is that in their genuine emphasis on proletarian self-emancipation we can identify an important truth of that period against the Leninist representation. However in the wake of the defeat of the proletariat and in their isolation from its struggle, the small groups of left communists began to increasingly base their position on the objective analysis that capitalism was decadent. However there was development. In particular Henryk Grossman offered a meticulously worked out theory of collapse as an alternative to Luxemburg’s. Instead of basing the theory of collapse on the exhaustion of non-capitalist markets he founded the theory on the falling rate of profit. Since then, nearly all orthodox marxist theories of crisis have been based on the falling rate of profit. In his theory, which he argues is Marx’s, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall leads to a fall in the relative mass of profit which is finally too small to continue accumulation. In Grossman’s account capitalist collapse is a purely economic process, inevitable even if the working class remains a mere cog in capital’s development. Grossman tries to pre-empt criticism:
Because I deliberately confine myself to describing only the economic presuppositions of the breakdown of capitalism in this study, let me dispel any suspicion of “pure economism” from the start. It is unnecessary to waste paper over the connection between economics and politics; that there is a connection is obvious. However, while Marxists have written extensively on the political revolution, they have neglected to deal theoretically with the economic aspect of the question and have failed to appreciate the true content of Marx’s theory of breakdown. My sole concern here is to fill in this gap in the marxist tradition. [p. 33]
For the objectivist marxist the connection is obvious, the economic and the political are separate, previous writings on the political are adequate and just need backing up with an economic case. The position of the follower of Grossman is thus: 1) We have an understanding of economics that shows capitalism is declining, heading inexorably towards breakdown. 2) This shows the necessity of a political revolution to introduce a new economic order. The theory of politics has an external relation to the economic understanding of capitalism. Orthodox theories of capitalist crisis accept the reduction of working class activity to an activity of capital. The only action against capital is a political attack on the system which is seen to happen only when the system breaks down. Grossman’s theory represents one of the most comprehensive attempts to declare Marx’s Capital a complete economics providing the blueprint of capitalist collapse. He insists that “economic Marxism, as it has been bequeathed to us, is neither a fragment nor a torso, but represents in the main a fully elaborated system, that is, one without flaws.” This insistence on seeing Marx’s Capital as being a complete work providing the proof of capitalism’s decay and collapse is an essential feature of the worldview of the objectivist marxists. It means that the connection between politics and economics is obviously an external one. This is wrong; the connection is internal but to grasp this requires the recognition that Capital is incomplete and that the completion of its project requires an understanding of the political economy of the working class not just that of capital. But Grossman has categorically denied the possibility of this by his insistence that Capital is essentially a complete work.
While at this point Marramao concerns himself with showing that Luxemburg is not Grossman and vice versa, we can both agree with and immediately move beyond this point. Grossman attempts an analysis of crisis from within the relations of production, not at the level of realization. However, Marramao is intent to claim that Grossman rescues Luxemburg’s “political application” (Section 4). What specifically is this political application? All we hear is that this discussion re-established the connection “between the theory of the crash and revolutionary subjectivity.” (Section 4)
The second point of crisis is in Section 5, where Marramao, following Mattick, defends Grossman’s method of critique. Marramao writes,
The method by which the critique of political economy proceeds is not aimed at the historical and empirical description of real processes, but at the abstract isolation of certain fundamental moments, in order to define the unity of the laws of movement of capitalist society. “For Grossmann, too,” notes Mattick, “there are no purely economic problems. Yet, that does not prevent him, in his analysis of the law of accumulation, from methodologically limiting himself to the definition of purely economic presuppositions and thus to theoretically reach an objective limit of the system. The theoretical understanding whereby the capitalist system must necessarily collapse because of its internal contradictions does not imply at all that the real collapse is an automatic process, independent of men.
This essential point however remains unexamined, except in so far as Marramao correctly points out the deficiency of Pannekoek's alternate conception, failing to establish as it does an internal relationship between subject and object. This cannot be allowed to obscure the dubiousness of the method employed by Grossman and defended explicitly by Mattick, what would later be called the “method of successive approximations.”4
The method of successive approximations is critiqued by C.J. Arthur in his essay “Dialectical Development versus Linear Logic”,
Because of the lack of familiarity with dialectic of thinkers since Marx, it is not surprising that other methods have been employed. And what better method than the kind that had proved so successful in Newtonian science? Methodologically sensitive Marxists such as Grossman and Sweezey put forward the method of “successive approximations.” This depends on the notion that in order to exhibit value in its pure form a number of simplifying assumptions may be made. After this simplification of the forms, a model of value relationships may be outlined in which the law of value would be perspicuous.
This is a perfectly respectable scientific procedure: but it works only if it really is true that the reality concerned can be grasped by a linear logic such that nothing essential is changed when the more complex model is built on the basis of the simple one.
The immediate problem is where to start, what level of abstraction to begin with as the most simple. Which assumptions should be made? If I understand Marramao and Grossman correctly, the answer is contained in the following quote,
Marxist theory of collapse is … a necessary supposition for the comprehension of the Marxist theory of the crisis and it is intimately connected to it. The solution to both problems is in the Marxist law of accumulation, which constitutes the central idea of Capital and is in turn founded on the law of value. (Section 4)
In this quote, however, it is worth noting that Grossman does, if Marramao does not, understand that the theory of collapse and the theory of crisis are not the same thing. Rather, Grossman sees the theory of collapse as the 'necessary presupposition' of the theory of crisis, which for Grossman is solved in the “law of accumulation”, itself founded upon the law of value. I have not seen this point adequately defended anywhere and Marramao does not even seem conscious that a notion is developed which is central to Grossman’s point and upon which his theory must rise or fall. For Grossman, the theory of crisis rests upon a theory of the ultimate collapse of capital.
So we do indeed have a theory of decadence in Grossman, but at the same time attempted through a rigorous reading of the law of value. But what is this law of value? I am in agreement with both Grossman and Marramao that any notion of crisis is indeed grounded in Marx’s critique of value, ut as we will see, Marramao and Grossman throw out the qualitative element in this critique, of value as not merely a law, but as a form. In this, Grossman and Marramao represent a significant step backwards from Grossman’s contemporary I. I. Rubin, who first argued that rather than a 'labor theory of value', what Marx actually had was a value theory of labor: why does labor take this form under these historical conditions?
Methodologically Grossman moves in exactly the opposite direction from Marx's work in Volume 2 of Capital. Grossman, pace Mattick, wants to show how capitalism must collapse, but Marx was interested in showing how capital could in fact reproduce itself in and through its contradictions and crises. Maybe this is why Clarke refers to “Grossman’s (1929) idiosyncratic 'shortage of surplus value' theory of overaccumulation, based on a bizarre representation of Marx's reproduction schemas.” (p. 67, Marx's Theory of Crisis, 1994.)
Following Grossman, Marramao attributes to Pannekoek an economism-voluntarism and associates this with the reformist theoreticians like Hilferding and Braunthal. What is most intriguing in this statement is Marramao's seeming obliviousness to the fact that this movement of economism-voluntarism or what we could also call objectivism-voluntarism, is to be found in Lenin and the Bolsheviks as early as the turn of the century. Not only that, Luxemburg herself adopted a theory of decadence alongside a political passivism that displayed itself in 1918–19 in democratism and an educationalist attitude towards the class struggle.5 Both sides in fact represented certain limits within Social Democracy, and both held to a notion of decadence, to which Grossman also holds.
In relation to the development of class consciousness, Marramao goes with Grossman and Mattick, even as he understands there is a problem in their approach. In Section 5 therefore he goes along with revolutionary class consciousness as developing through the inevitable collapse of capital, in the objective conditions of capitalist development and crisis. With Mattick as with Grossman, it seems that it is the collapse of capital that gives rise to consciousness. As Aufheben noted in their above article, this approach does not accidentally make itself felt in periods of defeat or retreat where there is the tendency to wish a good kick in the asses of the masses to get them going. Such was certainly the case in the late 1920's and early 1930’s, with fascism victorious in Italy and Poland, the working class defeated in Germany, Italy, Hungary, Britain, and China, depression breaking out, Stalinism overtaking the Comintern, fascism rearing up in Germany, etc.
While I have made some comments on Grossman, my focus has been Marramao's use of Grossman. There are ways in which, if Marramao is correct, Grossman is in fact attempting to link value, crisis, relations of production, and the proper degree of mediation between the movement of capital and class struggle. The discussion in Section 7 is especially prescient. Clearly, Marramao challenges the idea that Grossman and Mattick are per se 'closed' or whether or not they simply assume closure for the purposes of a certain analysis. And it is admirable of Grossman to attempt to show how the antagonism between capital and labor presents itself only in a mediate fashion vis-a-vis the separation of use-value and exchange-value, the contradiction between means of production and relations of production, etc. The critique of “workers’ autonomy” and of the need to abolish the commodity and wage are all well taken.
One of the more novel moments in the essay is in footnote 39, where Marramao relates some discussion of an article that challenged Grossman for mistaking what Marx is doing. The comments and Grossman's response are both instructive and yet too short. To me it seems that Grossman wants his cake and to eat it too. On the one hand
The method by which the critique of political economy proceeds is not aimed at the historical and empirical description of real processes, but at the abstract isolation of certain fundamental moments, in order to define the unity of the laws of movement of capitalist society.
On the other hand,
To Marx – assures the critic – it is not important to explain the capitalist reality (as I claim). The same critic proposes, besides, to furnish a 'theory' of crises. But what significance does the theory have unless one proposes not only to describe the data, but to understand it in its functional connections and thus to explain it? (Cf. Marx, op.cit., p. 99.)
Can we in fact have it both ways? Is there a splitting here or simply an operation at different levels?
Regarding Grossman’s methodological claims, I have several different objections, or rather I agree with several different objections. The first objection, and the core of the rest, is made by Erik Empson in his article “The Social Form of Value and Measure”, where he uses Rubin's work to critique Negri and Grossman as implicitly taking the same stance. I admit I find this a novel turn as Marramao is intent on showing that it is Panzieri and Pannekoek and Korsch who are on the same side, while implicitly Empson suggests otherwise. He writes the following pertinent points in his essay,
The a-historical character of the scientific exposition of Das Kapital, is testimony to the debt owed by Marx to the conclusions of his pre-cursors. Matteo following Negri sees this science as an incumberence or limited in regard to the real developments. The “simplifying assumptions” of the science – what Henryk Grossman was to unfairly hypostatise as the very basis of Marx's method – mainly found in Volume 1, perform a disservice to the posited content of Das Kapital, that is the appreciation of capitalist system as the total synthesis of both production and circulation, the conclusion aimed at in the incomplete Volume 3. Althusser is a friend of this point of view, infamously recommending in an introduction to a French edition that readers of Kapital ignore the first section of the work.
In so far as the abstract starting point of Kapital has led to so many confusions; take for instance the idea of 'simple commodity production' as both historical and logical premise of capital – these views are justified. But as for the immeasurability of value, they also introduce a confusion and a misrepresentation. Marx as Rubin argues, was concerned not so much to:
seek a practical standard of value which would make possible the equalization of the products of labor on the market. This equalization takes place in reality every day of the process of market exchange. In this process, spontaneously, a standard of value is worked out, namely money, which is indispensable for this equalization.” (Rubin, pp. 125)
What follows in Rubin’s argument is pertinent to Negri’s criticism of Marx. Negri looks at Marx's project through the distorted lens of Marxism, wherein overridingly Marx's theory of value is understood as positing that labour time is the practical means of the measure of value. Rubin on the other hand understands that because Marx was concerned with the social form of value, that his emphasis was really on demonstrating that labour power is the substance of value. The argument is theoretical, or ontological: the point is not a practical standard of value of labour, but to demonstrate how 'in a commodity economy the equalization of labor is carried out through the equalization of the products of labour”.
Rubin introduces material from Theories of Surplus Value, a text which incidentally qualifies for treatment by the standards of aleatory materialism due to the absence of a strict phenomenological and dialectical schema of exposition, where Marx treats the theory of value, not as an external pre-established criterion of measure, but as the “Immanent standard” and “substance” of value.
What Rubin introduces us to here, is a possible misinterpretation of 'measure' as being a quantitative consideration, a simple matter of addition and calculation. However, in the Hegelian dialectic, measure is understood rather as “qualitative quantum”. In 'measure' Hegel finds an immediate identity between quantity and quality. Something 'lurks behind' quantitative changes, which makes measure an antinomy. The example Hegel uses in the shorter logic, is the ancient Greek problem of whether the addition of a single grain makes a heap of wheat – at what point does a quantitative change equal a qualitative change. There is for Hegel a necessary qualitative aspect of measure, we might say it has an ontological relevance. In ratios, which are relative kinds of measure (quantitative ratio), “quantity seemed an external character not identical with Being, to which it is quite immaterial”. The contradiction of quantity then, is that it is an “alterable, which in spite of alterations still remains the same”. The resolution of this contradiction is not just a return to quality, “as if that were the true and quantity the false notion”, but “an advance to the unity and truth of both, to qualitative quantity, or measure.” (cf Hegel encyclopedia Logic §105–§111 – end of the first subdivision of logic). Hence though this unity produces the immeasurable, this is a relative form and “measureless” is also a measure. And then the gem: “Measure is implicitly essence.”
This treatment of value and labor in fact goes beyond Korsch, Pannekoek, Grossman, Mattick and Panzieri. Grossman and Mattick's single biggest error is in taking an essentially economistic stance on a social question. For that reason, Pannekoek may not in fact be able to provide an adequate alternative formulation, but at the same time neither does the counter-critique leveled by Grossman and Mattick actually address the fullness of Pannekoek's criticism. Grossman in essence fails to understand what Marx is doing in Capital. However, Pannekoek is not able to formulate exactly what is wrong with Grossman's position. He points out correctly the problem that economic crises are not the same as the collapse of capitalism, but he attempts to refute Grossman's formulas instead of his misreading of the content of Marx's analysis. Panzieri and those like and following him, from Castoriadias to Zerowork and later Harry Cleaver and Antonio Negri, also fail to surpass Grossman, though they are able to point out his deficiencies. Only Rubin, at the time, really achieves something close to an adequate critique.
The two sides go back and forth without quite ever seeing that the objectivist and subjectivist positions are merely two poles on a continuum. So, while Harry Cleaver, in his essay “Karl Marx: Economist or Revolutionary?” can lay forth the following essentially correct critique,
Luxemburg’s book was followed by arguments by Nikolai Bukharin, Otto Bauer, Henryk Grossman, and others. All of these authors approached the reproduction schemes in the same manner as Luxemburg: as a basis for their reasoning about crisis, and as economists studying conditions of equilibrium. In modern terms they were reading Marx’s reproduction schemes as a two- or sometimes a three-sector growth model. Luxemburg, like the others, was studying stability conditions. Many years later, after Leontief’s adaptation of those schemes had been incorporated into macroeconomic modeling, we would find capitalist planners doing something similar with multisectoral growth models. But where Luxemburg and these other Marxists were content with the observation that the model would (or would not) automatically generate contradictions and therefore that crisis was (or was not) inevitable under capitalism, the planners would use the model to help them figure out what adjustments could be made so that accumulation could proceed smoothly.
At first glance one might say it was a stroke of genius to figure out this way of using Marx’s schemes for the analysis of crisis. Were not these Marxists extending Marx?
Marx had developed the reproduction schemes during his work on the Grundrisse. He did so within the context of examining some of the factors that could lead to the breakdown of accumulation. He was led to them through his examination of capital’s problems of reproducing its social totality. As Mario Tronti has shown in his book Operai e Capitale (1966), the reproduction schemes constitute one approach to the examination of “social” capital, where social capital includes not merely the sum of the individual capitals but also the production and reproduction of the working class and therefore the struggles of that reproduction. This view of the schemes sees them not as schemata of purely interindustrial flows but as one approach to a political totality.
This is absent in an economic reading of part 3 of volume 2. Luxemburg and the others deal with “reproduction” the way contemporary growth theorists do – in a very narrow and fetishistic “economic” way that leaves social and political relations out of account and reduces Marx’ s problem to one of abstract quantitative proportionality.
The result? I submit that this part of her analysis of crisis provides little of use to the working class other than a formal argument about the inevitability of imperialism.
he can simultaneously miss the point that you cannot just lump Grossman and Mattick with Luxemburg, just because Grossman and Mattick share with Luxemburg the idea of the inevitability of the collapse of capital and the conflation of such a thing with the inevitability of crises in capital. Cleaver also mistakenly refers to the “political totality”, but such a phraseology would have been foreign to Marx. Rubin is more correct in formulating Marx's addressing of simply 'the totality.' The “political” of Cleaver is connected to his essentially immediatist analysis, in which Capital is a book immediately about class struggle, without recognizing the mediations and levels of analysis to which a Grossman and a Mattick attend. Grossman wrote a quite excellent two part article that highlights his richness compared to Luxemburg theoretically, his attentiveness to dialectic and to the fact that Marx is not doing the work of political economy, originally reprinted in English in Capital & Class nos. 2 and 3.6 This analysis is sophisticated and hardly can be ignored, though in English we have merely one abridged translation of his masterpiece and Mattick's work, which pretty much put forward Grossman's analysis.
This work has its own strengths, to which Marramao and also Ron Rothbart attest in their articles. Rothbart notes in fact that the only real limit of Mattick's work, and by extension Grossman's essential thesis,
As “objective” as this sort of analysis appears, in that it is developed in abstraction from class struggle, nevertheless it leaves room for the “subjective” in that it shows how the basis of relative class harmony must break down and aims to put into question the capital relation itself. It abstracts from class struggle in order to show that the crisis of profitability, the context in which the struggle develops, is inherent in the development of the capital-relation. There are limits to organizing production and thus, indirectly, all social life, by means of the capital-relation, by means of wage-labor. Such a system results in a multi-faceted degradation of work and life, including at times serious decline in many people's material well-being.
However, even if this objective approach holds up theoretically, its limits must be recognized. Capitalism, as it develops (and decays), transforms the labor-process and life in general, and, as a result, the character and forms of revolt change also. Strategy and organization are historically specific. The belief in or proof of capitalism's inability to surmount its internal contradictions at best sets the- stage for understanding the specific character of the present crisis, the specific character of present struggles and the relation between the two. If the crisis offers “the possibility of a transformation of the class struggle within the society into a struggle for another form of society”, it remains to be shown how this possibility can become a reality. What we need to do is 1) show how the intensified struggle over the rate of exploitation can actually become, or is in the process of becoming, a revolutionary struggle overflowing the bounds of the capital relation, how it can turn into a struggle against wage-labor, and 2) participate in this transformation.
Rothbart's article is in fact a kind of mirror of Marramao's piece, except it targets Cornelious Castoriadas, the journal Zerowork (with which Harry Cleaver was associated) and the work of Suitcliffe and Glynn, all of whom were arguing that the class struggle is directly responsible for crises and that there was no innate tendency to crises in capital. The critique is in fact quite persuasive, but the last two paragraphs that sum up the point indicate already several crucial problems which by extension seem to apply to Marramao as well.
Capital does not abstract from class struggle. Rather, it abstracts into the class struggle. You cannot directly explain the manifestation of a strike by the separation of use-value and exchange-value, nor concrete from abstract labor nor social from private labor, but these abstractions form the content of the class antagonism as historically specific forms of social relations. Class struggle is present in Capital, but not in its phenomenal form, which would be exactly the kind of immediatism of which Grossman and Mattick accuse the subjectivist tendency in Marxism. At the same time, as Richard Gunn might point out, Marx is not in the habit of abstracting from, but of abstracting into because he is looking at the whole field of rich, densely layered mutual determinations. Marx is not doing what Grossman, according to Mattick, does: following a method of successive approximations, in which one starts with a number of simplifying assumptions, around which one may then form a coherent model of value relations. As C.J. Arthur aptly points out, commenting on just this point in Grossman and others,
This is a perfectly respectable scientific procedure; but it works only if it really is true that the reality concerned can be grasped by a linear logic such that nothing essential is changed when the more complex model is built on the basis of the simple one. For example it is clear that no one has ever seen a body moving in a straight line at the same speed forever, because the forces Newton abstracted from in formulating his law of rectilinear motion are always present. Yet the law continues to hold in the more complex case, as one of a concatenation of circumstances combine to give rise to the phenomena observed.
This process does exactly what Gunn criticizes, correctly, as the movement from the 'general concept' to the 'special case', or from a genus to a species.7 In the case of Grossman and Mattick, it also involves the above-mentioned treatment of quantity as just that, as mere quantity, rather than in its interconnection to quality and to form.
As such, we can clearly object to what I think is Rothbart’s fair presentation of the matter, as is Marramao’s, on non-economic grounds, but on the grounds of the critique of political economy to which Grossman was vitally aware, but which it seems he could not wholly embrace, determined as he was to fid the causal mechanism of crises (a vain hope, in my opinion for a critique of capital interested in the rich, mutual determinations and therefore unlikely to seek a single originary cause or a causal model at all), proving the necessity of crises in capital and a theory of the collapse of capitalism. Therein lies another objection to Marramao (as well as to Ron Rothbart’s article.) Both in fact reproduce the limits of Grossman and Mattick's economics, and do not go much beyond. Their service lies primarily in giving attention to the strong critique of the subjectivist tendency in Marxism made by people like Mattick and Grossman.
Rothbart, and by extension the others, makes the mistake of seeing economic crises as the context in which class struggle takes place. This clearly involves the very separation of class struggle and laws of motion of capital that they critique in Pannekoek, Korsch, Castoriadas, et al. It is a wholly insufficient way of posing the question, as it places class struggle and the laws of motion of capital as external to each other and therefore as requiring some integration or relating, rather than as internally related, as a relation of form and content. This is of course in rejection of the immediatist positing of the unity of class struggle and capital's laws where class struggle is conceived not as inherent in the split relations of value, labor, sociality, etc. into antagonistic but intertwined forms of social relations, but at the level of the phenomenal manifestations of these splits.
By turns, one could deploy Rothbart’s conclusions, and by extension Marramao’s, as they tend in this direction, against the very heart of “Communism of Attack, Communism of Withdrawal” because it rejects, following Theorie Communiste, the very idea that
…the intensified struggle over the rate of exploitation can actually become, or is in the process of becoming, a revolutionary struggle overflowing the bounds of the capital relation, how it can turn into a struggle against wage-labor,
There is no notion of a break, of a non-continuity between labor as capital and labor against (and beyond) capital. In fact, for the conception in “Communism of Attack…”, there is no labor against, there is only being against labor. I think that Henrik has adequately critiqued this limitation, though there is indeed more to be said on certain aspects which Henrik did not address.8)
The problem with Grossman’s notion of accumulation is that it is essentially economistic and ignores the accumulation of capital as the extension of the capital–labor relation. As Geoff Hodgson stated in the 1970’s around the same time as Marramao’s piece,
The accumulation of capital, therefore, cannot be simply reduced to the accumulation of homogeneous embodied labour. This error has continually re-occurred in the Marxian tradition. It is not uncommon for Marxists to treat reproduction schemes as if they reflect money prices, or even the physical scale of production, whereas these schemes are in value terms only. In the historic debates that were generated by the publication of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital in 1913, Otto Bauer and others made the same error. Bauer ignored the problems uncovered by Luxemburg by concentrating exclusively on the accumulation of embodied labour values. Luxemburg on the other hand compounded this confusion by mistaking the accumulation of capital for the accumulation of money, and an increasing social product measured in price terms.
In fact accumulation involves all these aspects, but is not reducible to any one of them; capital accumulation is not just the accumulation of things, or the augmentation of single quantities. Fundamentally, the accumulation of capital is the reproduction of capitalist social relations on an extended scale. It involves the extension of these relations over all other subordinate modes of production, which become destroyed or subsumed by capitalism, and the intensification of these relations, when, for instance, the means of production become monopolized by fewer capitalists.
Not that Hodgson provides an adequate understanding. Hodgson is still committed to the idea that economic crises are the core revolutionary opportunities, but his emphasis on the reproduction of social relations is well put. In line with this notion of the accumulation of capital as the accumulation of capitalist social relations is Werner Bonefeld's article “Notes on Competition, Capitalist Crises, and Class”9 Bonefeld formulates the relation between class struggle and crisis as non-phenomenological. Where Hodgson follows Suitcliffe and Glynn in formulating a wage-squeeze theory of crisis, Bonefeld simply replies that such an approach fails to recognize that capital does not pay labor, but that labor produces the value of its own reproduction plus a surplus. As Bonefeld says, “…the supply-side argument that the crisis was caused by wage pressure does not recognize that the expression “price of labour” is just as irrational as a yellow logarithm.”10 Instead, Bonefeld shows how capital must confront labor, must exploit, in order to meet other capitals in the market, in competition. As such, the rotten conditions of daily life are not created by the “unplanned” or “chaotic” nature of capital, but by its need to exploit labor. No degree of regulation or planning will make capital acceptable, nor is the driving point of rebellion crises, which would simply be another way of saying that “chaos” or “unplanned events” are the real problem of capital.11 Bonefeld's full development of this logic is somewhat beyond the boundaries of this text, but it is sufficient to say that he poses that the drive to expand capital without limits drives the need to confront labor, to extend accumulation without limits. As such, rather than deriving from the falling rate of profit as such, crisis is the outcome of the over-accumulation of capital or as we might put it, the over-exploitation of labor.12 This lays the foundation for the importance of crisis to the critique of capital: “Capitalist crisis, then, asserts the presence of labour within the concept of capital.”13 In this way, Bonefeld can maintain the centrality of class struggle to crisis and still assert with complete confidence, as would Mattick or Grossman, that capital is itself the limit to capitalist reproduction. Following from this, capital poses the limit to the full development of our productive potential and at the same time make the full employment of human capacities impossible within this society, posing both labor within capital qua crises and as also pointing against and beyond capital. And still, in all of this, there is no notion of decadence nor of economic catastrophe, of capital collapsing of its own accord. In so far as the extension of exploitation leading to over-exploitation and crisis depends on extending the command over (more an more) alien labor, the social-political moment of the struggle, as struggle against the imposition of labor, is simultaneously posed in a way foreign to Grossman and Mattick. This command is not an economic question, but one of social power, of the state. As we will see at the end, when Marramao attempts to confront this problem of constitution, the fact that he has not understood the fundamentally non-economic, non-reductive approach to capital of Marx leads him into problems.
On the whole, we have to agree that Grossman and Mattick have a fundamentally sound critique of Korsch and Pannekoek, and by extension Panzieri, Zerowork, Cleaver, autonomia, Cardan, the SI, etc., but that in tying this critique to a theory of collapse, they fall into a trap. The correct expression of the inevitability of crises is to at the same time recognize that no economic crisis becomes a social crisis and therein the possible collapse of capital of its own accord, unless the subject-less movement of capital is confronted by the barred subject, subject in the mode of being denied, forming into the negative subject, labor qua proletariat or labor against capital.
An adequate relation between capitalist crisis and revolution has to recognize that economic crisis itself is not necessarily a trigger. The 1848 revolutions, the Paris Commune, both Russian Revolutions and the 1918–1923 wave, Hungary 1956, East Germany and Poland in 1953, the events in Italy and France at the end of WWII, the Prague Spring, May-June 68 in Paris, the Hot Autumn, etc did not happen in conditions of economic crisis. In fact, only Spain 36-39, Portugal 74–75, Spain 75–76, Iran 1978, Poland 1980, Mexico 1994, Argentina 2002 happened during periods of crisis and the latter is debatable. In fact, economic crisis in the 1970's put an end to the social struggles of the 1960's and early 1970's, while in the Great Depression, social struggle was smothered by fascism and the situation in Germany remained one of defeat from 1923 on, but a defeat that had the risk of instability. So there appears to be no clear correlation between economic crises and social crises for capital. Ernest Mandel attempts to compensate for this by the theory of long waves, arguing that in a long upturn, revolution is less likely, while in a long downturn, it is more likely. However, this begs the question of the uprisings in the 1950's and 60's, unless Mandel plays with the figures and the downward wave begins in 1968, in which case it should have ended, among other internal problems (such as what is the dynamic of a long wave other than a technical, investment life-cycle of major new means of production as Mandel proposes, and therefore a long as well as short investment cycle, a cycle itself which again appears purely technically determined and from which class struggle is utterly absent.)
If we want to go beyond objectivism on one side and subjectivism on the other, we do indeed need to address the matters fore-grounded by Grossman and Marramao. Such issues have been central to different trends within Marxism in the last 30 years.14) It is even fitting that Marramao should end with a discussion of the state in relation to this, as well as the problem of constitution, but this will have to wait for another discussion. Marramao's notion of constitution is quite dissatisfying compared to the analysis developed by the Open Marxism milieu coming out of the 'State Debate' in Germany in the 1970s.
What is somewhat dissatisfying here is Marramao's attempt to link Grossman and Mattick with Lukács. Lukács in fact has a very different notion of crisis, one more closely to what I have enunciated here. It is not that capital is heading towards the one big crisis, towards a collapse or catastrophe, but that capital is in fact permanent crisis and constantly tending towards crisis because the laws of motion of capital express the structural solidification of the antagonistic, contradictory relation between labor and capital, of capital as the (alienated) mode of existence, the form and context, of human productive activity. This antagonism is not merely the external conflict between labor and capital, but is the constituting essence of the laws of motion of capital. This is where class struggle lies as contradiction, and the specific class struggles are only phenomenal expressions of that struggle, but no more so than capital's tendency to crises. This article is rich and reflective, but its commitment to a theory of decadence and serious problems of method condemn it reproduce, rather than critique, the problems contained in Grossman and Mattick.
Since this article has been presented in the context of the critique of democracy, the problem of organization and of the large 'polemical' essay “Communism of Attack, Communism of Withdrawal”, I feel it would be remiss of me to not address the connection, as I see it, between Grossman and Mattick's theory of catastrophe or 'objective collapse' of capitalism and the use of formal subsumption and real subsumption and 'really real subsumption' by Theorie Communiste.15 What I want to suggest is that a periodization which separates an ascendant phase or phases from a decadent phase cannot escape a linear logic and a binary theory in which progress and decadence are separated as antinomic states, or as fetishized categories which have a meaning outside of the context of bourgeois social relations.
As alternatives, we can either argue that capitalism was in fact never progressive, that there is nothing necessary about the existence of capital which makes possible communism, which is the position of autonomist Marxism1 or the dialectical approach suggested by Marx in the very structure of Capital16, in which capital is present at every moment, from the first page, and in which progressive and decadent are moments of each other in the totality of relations, such that,
The progressive and decadent aspects of capital have always been united. Capitalism has always involved a decadent negative process of the commodification of life by value. It has also involved the creation of the universal class in opposition, rich in needs and with the ultimate need for a new way of life beyond capital. (“Decadence: The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory?”, Part 3, Aufheben no. 2)
This latter approach is the one I have been suggesting is both correct and in contrast to both the objectivism of Marramao and Co. and the subjectivism which Marramao critiques. It involves both a very different reading of Capital and a very different approach to periodization. This includes a different treatment of the missing chapter of Capital, which I would suggest here is in fact not missing so much as it is turned into the “historical” chapters on the different stages of development of production, and therefore a different treatment of the matter altogether. Does this suggest that Marx in fact worked with and then dispensed the categories of formal and real subsumption? Possibly so. Their adequacy, however, is itself not dependent on whether or not Marx used them. I will address that at the end as a special case, of sorts, of the ascendant\decadent model and the catastrophism that is related to it, but which is not quite the same either.
Let me start by saying that catastrophism does not imply an ascendant phase of capital. If one never considered capital progressive, that does not deny that capital could collapse of its own accord. Catastrophism does not require a theory of decadence, at least theoretically. Theories of decadence do seem to require theories of catastrophe or collapse in the context of a view that rejects the transformation of society as the simple growing over of capitalism into something called 'communism' (or more likely 'socialism'. I do not want to commit the error of conflation I have pointed to in Marramao & Co.
However, it seems clear in the case of Marramao, Grossman, Mattick, Luxemburg and Rothbart, what they share in common is a notion of ascendant and decadent phases and that the notion of objective collapse is organically related to this decadence as the end-point towards which the system is travelling. Since the class struggle is not ultimately the ground of the laws of motion of capital, it is possible for Marramao & Co. to posit an external relation between the collapse of capital and revolution. This is the basis on which the conflation of economic crisis and social catastrophe takes place because they posit a crisis leading to collapse as the catastrophic “objective conditions” in which it is finally possible to overthrow capitalism, in which the subjective act, i.e. the revolution can happen, a position no different from Lenin.
The political conclusions that follow from this show the fundamental weaknesses belonging to both objectivist and subjectivist tendencies drawing on such an analysis of capital. Both tend to fall into fatalism, waiting for the collapse that makes revolutionary action possible, a stance which itself implies a purely external relationship between class struggle and catastrophe. The issue then is simply what is required to take the road of socialism instead of the road of barbarism when the collapse comes. Lenin answers with 'the Party', while Luxemburg answers with the spontaneous self-organization of the class, but in fact trapped within a peculiar democratism that would prove fatal in Germany in 1918–19. Councilism following Mattick would answer this question with a fetishizing of the council form, as if the formation of councils themselves instead of 'the party' were the solution. For Lenin, the party is the subject, not the class, while for councilism, the council form is made into a fetish and the slide into democratism. Whether or not one holds to both decadence and a theory of collapse also influences tendencies towards evolutionism, gradualism, immediatism, etc.
Decadence theories deny capital as a totality in time (ascendant versus decadent periods) and/or in space (formal subsumption/pre-capitalist nations, regions, etc. versus real subsumption/capitalist nations, regions, etc. e.g. Three Worlds thesis, North-South thesis, Center-Periphery thesis, etc.), resulting in the practical denial of the revolutionary essence of the proletariat. According to the split, during the ascendant phase revolution is impossible and the goals of the working class are reforms and the extension of capital over and against pre-capitalist social relations or, in the 20th century, against 'imperialism' and in defense of 'national liberation', which is integration into global capital.17 In this view, the extension of capital is in a certain period “progressive” and in the decadent period it is “regressive” or “reactionary”.
This position assumes that the revolution and communism are extensions or, better, 'realizations' Notions in the properly Hegelian sense of “freedom”, “equality”, “democracy”, “science”, “reason”, etc. posited by capital, but which capital can in fact only posit within a deforming capitalist shell. Communism will realize these Notions. In the ascendant phase, bourgeois society furthered these Notions, but in its decadent phase, it becomes an impediment to them, just as it becomes an impediment to the development of the means of production and tends towards an objective collapse. This way of posing the problem is not only idealism; it is not only exactly the hoary essentialism bourgeois theorists like Foucault, Derrida, etc. accuse it of; it is not only Hegelianism. This approach treats these categories a-historically by treating them as if they were transcendental ideals to be realized through “History” by the proletariat as agent of communism as the telos (Final Cause) of history, as opposed to communism as 'the real [read: actual – Chris] movement of the class'. In so arguing for a period of progress and a period of regress, decadence theories also reproduce the same claims for the inevitable moral, artistic, social decadence of the time as made by the religious and fascistic elements.
In considering the point of view of Theorie Communiste, I have maintained that their use of 'formal', 'real' and 'real: part 2'as a theory of decadence, exactly because they do not see it as “a succession of levels… in which all contradictions (the most basic of which is valorisation/devalorisation) appear in an increasingly exacerbated form each time.” (“Theses of Programmatic Orientation”) This is to say that what made the proletariat revolutionary in 1848 made it so in 1871, in 1917, in 1936, in 1968, and today. However the question could be asked as to whether or not TC holds to a view of the various kinds of subsumption as linear stages in a progression.
TC has maintained that revolution was not possible in the periods of formal and real subsumption: part 1 because it did not happen, because those revolutions failed. They claim that this determination could only be made after the fact. This raises several issues. It does seem to resolve the problem of revolutionaries having to analyze the possibility of revolution in any given period because we can only assume that revolution is always possible and this can only be proven to have been false after the fact. This approach also seems to relieve the problem of determining why any given revolution failed, since it becomes clear after the fact to say that it was impossible, and to then explain why structurally within the class relation revolution was impossible. Additionally, it relieves of us of having to talk about the failure of revolutions 'moralistically', as TC claims18 Gilles Dauve does in his essay “When Insurrections Die”.
I have to object to this on several grounds, however. First, it is fair to claim that TC's 'determination after the fact' falls prey to the critique that 'hindsight is 20/20.' Instead of actually providing an analysis of the failure of specific insurrections, it short-circuits analysis with an ex post facto throwing up of one's hands. This could be called 'fatalism after the fact.' Further, this seems like a weak version of determination, related to Althusser's 'determination in the last instance', itself a causal rather than dialectical understanding.19 In general, this analysis seems to beg the question. We could further object that for Marx formal subsumption is not a stage that goes away, but is itself subsumed into real subsumption, in the same fashion as Marx's discussion of so-called 'primitive accumulation', which from historical outcome becomes systemic predicate of all accumulation qua accumulation of capital as a social relation.20 Finally, we can object, following Gilles Dauve and Aufheben, that in attempting to approach the question as they do, Theorie Communiste is obliged to engage in some gymnastics with the historical record of class struggles. While this does not by itself invalidate a theory, combined with the other objections it presents a substantive problem.
I want to end with some comments on Marramao’s section 9, where he attempts to link his prior discussion of collapse to the problem of “constitution”. As opaque as it at first seems, this section is essential for he will here attempt to link or show the link between the theory of collapse and the constitution of both the state and classes, and therefore the place of the state in both crisis and revolution. In the first paragraph, he essentially argues that for whatever their limits, which are as stated above that they associate the formation of revolutionary class consciousness as a product of economic crisis and collapse, Grossman and Mattick “belong with the most advanced level of discussion” of their time, right up there with Lukács when it comes to the problem of the attainment of revolutionary class consciousness by the proletariat. The difficulty, the seeming obtuseness of this paragraph I think revolves around the fact that Marramao states this weakness, situates it as a very “advanced” formulation nonetheless and then walks away from it with no point of how it can be overcome within the limits of the Grossman–Mattick analysis. This is linked to a problem present in operaismo and in the work of Mattick and by implication Grossman: they never do effectively develop their critique of Leninism. In fact, operaismo is not even necessarily critical of Lenin or Leninism. While Grossman and Mattick are, there are clearly ways in which their objectivism and theoretical decadence maintain a connection to Leninism; this is openly so in the adoption of Mattick’s analyses by David Yaffe, who belonged to a particularly over-the-top Leninist sect. This problem also resides in Lukács, and so what Lukács, Grossman and Mattick share is not the highest level of attainment on this matter, but the same singular weakness.
Lukács attends to this problem with his theory of imputed consciousness because he explicitly defends Lenin and Lenin’s conception of the party. Grossman and Mattick are, to varying degrees, opposed to Lenin’s conceptions of revolution and consciousness, but do not deal with the problems posed by their theory of collapse. As such, they have no choice but to turn to a kind of classically spontaneist conception in which the catastrophic even is the event that brings consciousness.
The second paragraph flows awkwardly from the first, even though the critique of Korsch is in fact quite apt. This paragraph interesting because it opines that Marx’s early writing on the state and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and the idea that the early writings do not yet reflect a reconsideration of the state from the point of view of the critique of political economy. Marx’s early articles could then be read, at least in this area, as split from his later writings on the state and indeed a textual case can be made that Marx’s critique of the state and his attitude towards political action is very different in 1843–44 from his post-1848 attitudes.21 More importantly, Marramao wants to assert a certain method of critique in relation to the state that reasserts its primacy in the social field and on the terrain of revolution. I think this clear in Marramao’s concluding paragraph, where he says that,
The State emerges from the representation of the overall process of social reproduction as the supreme expression of the reality of the abstraction and of its effective complex domination over society. As the last peak of the logical and historical process of socialization of capital, and thus if the real universalization of the domination of the abstract, the state emerges as the background to the critique of political economy; a regulating instance and, at the same time, a generalized expression of the crisis.
Marramao asserts in the paragraph prior to this that Marx adopts a different notion of abstraction in his later work than in his earlier work. However, this is not a tenable position if we follow Richard Gunn’s discussion of the development of Marx’s method in “Marxism and Philosophy”.22 This is another instance of Marramao leveling a sharp critique of Korsch, but making another error in asserting implicitly a break between the young Marx and the old Marx a la Althusser. Marramao is, after all, quite correct that the class struggle cannot be simplified, as Korsch (and Panzieri and operaismo and autonomia and Socialisme ou Barbarie, etc.) does, “in a series of empirically grounded actions set loose in different spatial-temporal locations, the multiplicity of which is never connected with the morphological context of the crisis: the unifying moment of the historical present.” I think we are correct in objecting however that Marramao’s crisis is economic and external to the class struggle. As much as Marramao seeks for the constitution of the state and class consciousness, he fails to grasp the problem of the constitution of capital, of the very categories of Capital. As with Grossman and Mattick, Marramao does not go far enough in his questioning of the problem of constitution and treats te categories of capital as still primarily economic, rather than as forms.
Marramao does target correctly the disjuncture in the subjectivist position between the constitution of classes and the state, from the critique of political economy. This is an excellent insight, but he does not take it far enough in realizing that the critique of political economy is also the foundation of the critique of the political and the critique of class, not merely of empirical state and classes. So when Marramao points out that Korsch can not grasp the “specificity” of the political dimension, he addresses what would become a core problem in this same time period in the so-called ‘State Debate’, which addressed this problem vis-à-vis the particularization of the state.23
In still treating the state as an object with functions, Marramao ends by seeing the state only in relation to the function of regulation and as the generalized expression of crisis. John Holloway, Werner Bonefeld and the Open Marxism group move further by treating the state as a form of the capital–labor relation, a mode of existence of capital. Unlike Marramao, who posts the state in relation to a function and therefore as an object with a possibly alternate function (although this is only implicit in Marramao and in conflict with his constituent tendencies) and as “a generalized expression of crisis”, the Open Marxist critique of the state posits the political itself as a separate sphere capable of being presented as an object as itself grounded in capital itself as split between exchange and production. It thereby reproduces the state as a higher concretization capital qua totality within Capital pace Arthur’s analysis.
What remains is the challenge to develop the constitution of the negation of capital and the forms this negation takes. It is here that the discussion of communisation must be developed further and holds promise. Its first step has been in rejecting councilist formalism without returning to Leninism and hopefully in exploring afresh the problems of party, class, state and revolution. Hopefully this discussion develops beyond the boundaries of a relatively “French” discussion into an international discussion translated into a multiplicity of languages and reaching beyond a relatively narrow milieu, as autonomia did and councilism before it.
Arthur, Christopher J., “Dialectical Development versus Linear Logic”, The New Dialectic and Marx's Capital, Brill, Leiden/Boston/Köln 2002
Aufheben, “Decadence: The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory? Part III”, Aufheben no. 4, Summer 1995
Bonefeld, Werner, “Notes on Competition, Capitalist Crises, and Class”, Historical Materialism no. 5, 1998
Clarke, Simon, Marx's Theory of Crisis, 1994
Cleaver, Harry “Karl Marx: Economist or Revolutionary?” <www.marxmyths.org>
Empson, Erik “The Social Form of Value and Measure” <www.generation-online.org/p/fprubinnegri.htm>
Graham, Dave(?), “On the Origins and Early Years of Working Class Revolutionary Politics: An Introduction to 'Left Communism' in Germany from 1914 to 1923”, July 1994
Grossman, Henryk, “Marx, Classical Political Economy and the Problem of Dynamics, Part I”, Capital & Class no. 2, Summer 1977
Grossman, Henryk, “Marx, Classical Political Economy and the Problem of Dynamics, Part II”, Capital & Class no. 3, Winter 1977–78
Gunn, Richard, “Marxism and Philosophy”, Capital & Class no. 37, Spring 1989
Gunn, Richard, “Against Historical Materialism”, Open Marxism, Vol. 2, 1992.
Hodgson, Geoff, “The Theory of the Falling Rate of Profit”, New Left Review no. 84, March–April 1974
Holloway, John and Piccioto, Sol, State and Capital: A Marxist Debate, 1979
Internationalist Communist Group, “The Revolutionary Movement in Germany, 1917–1923” <www.geocities.com/icgcikg/english/germany17.htm>
Marramao, Giacomo, “Theory of Crisis and the Problem of Constitution” Telos no. 26, 1975–75
Rothbart, Ron, “The Limits of Mattick's Economics” <www.geocities.com/cordobakaf/rothbart.html>
Theorie Communiste, “Normative History and the Communist Essence of the Proletariat” <www.theoriecommuniste.org/WhenInsurrectionsDie.html>
Monty Neill, “Rethinking Class Composition Analysis in Light of the Zapatistas”, Auroras of the Zapatistas, Midnight Notes, Autonomedia Press, 2001.
Bonefeld, Werner, “Human Practice and Perversion: Beyond Autonomy and Structure”, Common Sense no. 15. Reprinted in Revolutionary Writing: Common Sense Essays in Post-Political Politics, Autonomedia, 2003