A note on the meaning of critique

Kapital and its subtitle: A note on the meaning of critique

Bonefeld, Werner

WITHIN the context of the csE, political economy is of central importance. Surveying the debate on especially value theory, it seems however that little has been made of the subtitle of Capital, critique of political economy. Arthur’s (2001) recent contribution is an exception. His article focuses on ‘form’ and his argument shows a close resemblance with the work that has developed under the heading `Open Marxism’. This heading derived from a book by Agnoli and Mandel (1980) where the two protagonists debate the meaning of ‘critique’ and, connected with it, whether Marxist economics is a contradiction in terms. Mandel argued that it is not and Agnoli argued that Marx primarily negated the world of capital. Economics is what Marx called the relationship of the things between themselves.The critique of social forms, in this view, amounts to a critique of economic categories and it does so by revealing the human content that these forms render invisible at the same time as which the existence of capital rests in its entirety on human social practice. Marcuse (1988: 151) makes this point succinctly when he argues that `the constitution of the world occurs behind the backs of the individuals; yet it is their work’.

Marx argued untiringly that labour is the substance of value and this is seen to entail that `labour becomes productive only by producing its opposite’, i.e. capital (Marx, 1973: 305). Further, and connected with this, Marx frequently refers to the forms of capital as `sensuous-supersensuous things’, `crazy objects’, `perverted forms’, `theological quirks’, `obscure things’ and so on. These formulations are decisively ‘uneconomic’ and would suggest that his critique of political economy, rather than offering an alternative economic theory, amounts in fact to a theory of social constitution. From this perspective, the core ‘problematic’ of Marx’s critique, then, is: how is it possible to understand the circumstance that human social practice is constitutive practice at the same time as human beings appear to be ruled by already existing abstractions. What, then, is to be understood by ‘critique’?

Within the field of Marxist economics, critique is usually understood in terms of Marxism as an alternative economic theory that is superior to classical political economy which either failed to provide a coherent economic account or offered contradictory and inconsistent explanations of economic categories and their relationship to each other. According to Mohun (1994: 214-15), Marxist economics has to answer three questions: 1) `Why is value labour-time, and what sort of labour-time is it’, 2) `what is money, and why is it the form of value?’; 3) `How do amounts of labour-time become represented as sums of money, and what is the meaning of this representation?” The critical question of Marxist economics is whether Marx’s work successfully integrates the neo-classical concern with the form of value in exchange (price) with the Ricardian emphasis on the objective content of labour in production (embodied labour as value). Marxist economics seems to suggest that Marx’s work provides a successful integration of form and content, transcending the shortcomings of classical political economy and establishing it as a most sophisticated economic theory. Marx’s labour theory of value is thus seen to be a `macroeconomic’ one that can be applied to examine contemporary capitalism (Mohun, 1994: 228).

Backhaus (1986) has argued that economic theory amounts to an uncritical acceptance of economic categories. It presupposes ‘labour’ and ‘capital’ as constituted economic things or factors. Mohun’s questions are important.Yet, they reduce Marx’s question, `why does this content assume that form’ (Marx, 1962: 95),2 to `why labour is represented by the value of its product and labour-time by the magnitude of that value’ (Marx, 1983: 85). In short, they presuppose what needs to be explained. The notion that `value is labourtime’ presupposes that labour is divorced from its conditions and, more pronounced, a social form of human reproduction where the conditions of labour confront labour as an alien, `commanding personification’ in the form of capital (Marx, 1973: 453). Hence Backhaus’ insistence that Marx’s critique is a critique of `unreflected presuppositions’ (Backhaus, 1997: 305) and he argues that the constituted economic forms can be deciphered on a human basis (ibid.: 325). In contrast to the affirmation of economic categories in Marxist economics, Backhaus argues that the significance of Marx’s critique is its critique of the fetishism of economic categories, including the fetish form wage labour (Marx, 1966: ch.48).

How does Marxist economics deal with Marx’s critique of fetishism?4 Mohun (1979) provides the succinct answer: He argues that the root of the problem of appearance rests in the fetishism of the commodity form and that an account of commodity fetishism is crucial to an account of the structure and development of ideological systems.Therefore, following Mohun, a Marxist theory of ideology is necessary to establish the differences between knowledge and ideology, and the relations between the two. This task, he argues, comprises the classical task of epistemology. Leaving aside Marx’s answer to the classical task of epistemology-`the separation between in-itself and for-itself, the substance of the subject, is abstract mysticism’ (Marx, 1981: 265)Mohun’s argument implies that there is a Marxist economic science, a Marxist theory of ideology, and in addition one might add, a Marxist theory of the state, a Marxist theory of society, a Marxist theory of history etc.. How many Marxist theories of this and that are required to cope ‘marxistically’ with all the forms of social life?

The proliferation of Marxist theories of this and that denies that Marx provided a critique of political economy. His work is often seen to contain many theories whose specific points of reference are specific to distinct `social structures’ each of which is assumed to exist `on its own’ and to relate to other structures in an external ways In distinction to such views, it is worthwhile to recall Marx’s insight that theoretical mysteries find their rational explanation in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice (cf. Marx, 1975: 5). Marx charges that critical thought has to establish the `inner connexion’ (Marx, 1983: 28) between phenomena. In short, `it is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence’ (Marx 1973: 489). According to Marx, this separation is constituted by the `conditions of labour’ which confront workers `as alien property, as an independent, alien force. This implies that these conditions of labour confront them as capital’ (Marx, 1972: 271). Marx called the `relationships among the things themselves’ (Marx, 1976: 145) the `form of value’. This form is the focus of Marx’s critique of fetishism where `all productive power of labour is projected as powers of capital, the same as all forms of value are projected as forms of money’ (Marx, 1962: 634). All these projections and fetish-like forms hide the circumstance that they are `the product of a social relation, not the product of a mere thing’ (Marx, 1966: 391).

According to Marx, critique has to demonstrate `ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for Man the root is Man himself’ (Marx, 1975b: 182) and `Man is the highest being for Man’ [Mensch] (ibid.). This, then, leads to his demand that all relations `in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being’ have to be overthrown (ibid.). The standard of critique is the human being, her dignity and possibilities. Critique, then, has to return the world of things to the human being herself by showing that the forms of capital are constituted by and subsist through the social practice of `active humanity’ (Marx, 1973: 489). Their conceptualisation as forms of social relations does not entail Man [Mensch] as an `abstract individual’ but as a member of a definite form of society (Marx, 1975: 5). Marx’s critique of the constituted forms of capital seeks to bring to the fore their social foundation, that is the human basis of their existence. The foundation of human existence can only be Man herself.

These quotations from Marx’s earlier work are usually seen to carry little weight, especially for those who argue through Althussserian analytical lenses. Marx is said to have matured as a result of his serious study of political economy, leaving behind his youthful idealism and espousing instead a mature critique of bourgeois economics.This view accepts, rightly, that Marx was a highly intelligent scholar and it is for this reason that his mature work has indeed to be studied carefully. When he then argues that critique has to return the relations amongst the things themselves, the constituted forms of the economic categories, to `relations between humans’ (Marx, 1972: 147) and that the critique of the fetishism of the commodity form entails its deciphering on a `human basis’ (cf. Marx, 1962: ios), this would indeed require serious attention. Further, he is adamant that his critique of political economy entails a `general critique of the entire system of economic categories’ (Marx, 1976: 250; and Marx, 1975c: 96).6 Might this not mean that Marxist economics affirms those same economic categories which Marx criticised as deceitful and perverted?7 The economists, as Marx 0972: 274) argued, `do not conceive of capital as a relation’ and provide justifications for the `capitalist form, in which the relationship of labour to the conditions of labour is turned upside-down, so that it is not the worker who makes use of the conditions of labour, but the conditions of labour which make use of the worker’ (ibid: 276). Might it therefore not follow that the economic interpretation of Marx’s critique of political economy reduces human relations to economic categories, frustrating Marx’s programme of reducing [zuruckfuhren] economic categories to human social relations?

According to Marx, each ‘form’, even the most simple form like, for example, the commodity, `is already an inversion and causes relations between people to appear as attributes of things’ (Marx, 1972: 508) or, more emphatically, each form is a `perverted form’ (Marx, 1962: 90). Marxist economics does not ask why the content, human social existence, assumes the form of capital. As a consequence, Marx’s insight that capital is `the form assumed by the conditions of labour’ (Marx, 1972: 492), of labour that is `object-less free labour’ (Marx,1973: 507) under the `command of capital’ (ibid.: 508), would have to appear, especially since the recent transformation of Marxist economics into heterodox economics, almost as a falsification of Marx’s work.8

Marx’s programme is subversive:9 it thinks the world upside down, deriving human social relations not from presupposed structures but, rather, deriving these from real human relations in an attempt to bring to the fore what is hidden behind the objective appearance of things. As Marx saw it, `it is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of these relations. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore, the only scientific one. The weak points of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality’ (Marx, 1983: 352, fn. 8). In short, Marx derives the `celestial forms’ from social relations and thus inverts the reality of social existence as it appears in order to bring to the fore the `actual relations of life’ that the world of things renders invisible.

The critique of political economy has to show the genesis of economic forms and therewith the constitutive social practice that exists through them in the mode of being denied. After all, as Marx argued, primitive accumulation is the `foundation of capitalist reproduction’ (Marx, 1983: 585) and `forms the conception [Begrift] of capital’ (Marx,1966: 246). In contrast to Marx’s insistence on the `genetic development of constituted social forms’ (cf. Marx,1976: 491),10 economic thought `starts from them as given premises’ (Marx, 1972: 500). The espousal of constituted forms that the derivation of social relations from hypothized economic structures entails, transforms thought into the `ideology of reificationthe actual mask of death’ (Adorno, 1975: 60). There is, however, no reification without human content and that is, the reality in which the social individual moves day in and day out has no invariant character, that is, something which exists independently from it. The critique of political economy amounts, then, to the conceptualisation of the human social praxis in and through perverted forms (begriffene Praxis) (cf. Schmidt, 1974: 207).” Marx’s critique of capital has, then, to show the human content, however perverted and debased, that subsists, suffuses and contradicts the constituted forms of capital. This human content obtains in the mode of being denied: `the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves’ (Marx, 1983: 79). It is for this reason that Marx insists on demystification: Neither ‘nations’ nor ‘history’ nor capital have made war. `History does nothing, does not “possess vast wealth”, does not “fight battles”! It is Man, rather, the real, living Man who does all that, who does possess and fight, it is not “history” that uses Man as a means to pursue its ends, as if it were a person apart. History is nothing but the activity of Man pursuing its ends’ (Marx and Engels, i98o: 98). Demystification aims to reveal the social constitution of the relations between things to show their human content. Capital, he argues, is a definite social relationship and that means that `human beings produce, through their own labour, a reality which increasingly enslaves them’ (Horkheimer, 1992: 229). In short, `the fetishism of commodities has its origin.. in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them’ (Marx, 1983: 77).

In sum, Marx critique is not an economic critique of bourgeois economics nor does it entail some sort of abstract negation of capital. It entails, rather, a determinate abstraction [bestimmende Abstraktion], an abstraction which determines the forms of capital as perverted forms of human relations.12 Marx’s critique is intransigent towards any reification and fetishism, to any notion that the relations between the things, the perverted forms of capital, embody extra-human properties or that labour is a mere macroeconomic factor. The world of things is a world in and through which human social practice exists in the mode of being denied. His critique of fetishism seeks to uncover that which stands denied and to bring it to the fore as the content of the things themselves, and that is human social productive practice. Marx’s critique of political economy is a `critique of the system of economic categories as “the distorted form in which the real inversion is expressed”‘ (Backhaus, 1997: 20, quoting Marx, 1972: 453). It is thus a matter of deciphering the appearance [Schein] of independence that economic categories posits and then of abolishing it practically from the world allowing human beings to enter into relationship with one another, not as personifications of economic categories, but as social individuals (Reichelt, 2000: 105).

In conclusion, economic thought is consumed by the perverted forms of capital (see Reichelt, 1970. Marx had nothing positive to say about these forms and he criticised them as forms of essential relations. As Marx (1975b:182) was acutely aware, there can be nothing more essential in society than the human being. If essence is conceived as something other than the human being, then society transforms into a humanless world (entmenschte Welt), a world of economic objectivity. However, Marx’s determinate critique is a science of human relations only insofar as it is also a science of the inhumanity of her existence (cf. Adorno, 1993: 141). As Marx saw it, `to be a productive labourer is not a piece of luck, but a misfortune (1983: 447). Any affirmative theory of the constituted forms of capital has, with necessity, to presuppose perverted and that is, inhuman conditions. In short, critique is charged with providing enlightenment as to the social constitution of the world of things. As Marx (1966: 817) argued, all science `would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided’. Marx’s critique of fetishism, then, provides a critique of ‘value’ in terms of its human content, that is, as a perverted form through which social relations subsist contradictorily as relations between things (Backhaus, 1997; Holloway, 1992). In other words, in capitalism, the social character of human social practice has to be realised in and through the categories of political economy. These categories are adequate insofar as they posit the constituted existence of perverted social relations. However, to presuppose the constituted forms of capital, including especially the form of money, as the basis of critical inquiry amounts to the theoretical embrace of the “`most nonsensical, most unintelligible form[s]”‘ that posit “`pure madness” (refine Verrucktheit)’ (Backhaus,1992:62, quoting Marx, 1974:928).

In sum, the significance of Marx’s critique of political economy is that it shows the condition which render necessary the existence of capitalist forms. Following Marcuse (1979: 260), the critique of the predominant form of labour entails at the same time the prerequisite for its abolition. Marx’s critique is both negative and positive: it shows the negative human condition in the light of its positive suspension [Aufhebung]. In other words, Marx’s critique deciphers the appearance [Schein] of independence that the capitalist forms posits, leaving the respectful forms of bourgeois purposeful activity naked by showing what it really is: a `pumping machine of surplus value’ (Marx, 1966: 822). Yet, as such a pumping machine, it remains a form of human social relations (ibid., ch.48). For the human beings to enter into relationship with one another, not as personifications ruled by their self-imposed and reproduced abstractions, but as social individuals, as human dignities who are in control of their social conditions, the economic `mastery of capital over man’ has to be abolished so that Man’s social reproduction is `controlled by him’ (cf. Marx, 1983: 85). Full-employment makes sense in a society where labour is no longer the measure of all things. In other words, full employment makes sense in a society where humanity exists not as an exploitable resource but as a purpose.The truth, then, of Marx’s critique of political economy does not rest in its macro-economic interpretation and application; rather it is realised in its negation (Marcuse, 1979: 242).


1. The only reference to Marxist economics is to Mohun’s contribution because it provides a clear and most sophisticated account.

2. All quotations from Marx (1962, 1976, 1981), Marx and Engels (1980), Adorno (1975), Horkheimer (1992) and Backhaus (1997) have been translated by the author.

3. The English edition of Kapital omits the first part of the quotation. 4. This part draws on Rooke (1998).

5. See, for example, the treatment of the state as an autonomous entity. For critique see the collection of articles published in Clarke (1991).

6. The English quotation of Marx (1976), which substitutes ‘critique’ with ‘criticism’, can be found in Marx (1972, p. 254). See also the Preface of 1859, in MEW 13, p. 10.

7. In the German edition of Kapital, Marx uses the phrase verruckte Form (Marx, 1962, p. 90). In the English edition this is translated as `absurd form’ (Marx, 1983, p. 80).The translation is ‘absurd’. In German, ‘verriickt’ has two meanings: verruckt (mad) and verruckt (displaced).Thus, the notion of `perverted forms’ means that they are both mad and displaced. In other words, they are perverted forms of human social practice, in which `subject and object do not statically oppose each other, but rather are caught up in an ongoing process of the inversion of subjectivity into objectivity, and vice versa’ (Backhaus, 1992,p.60).The essay refers to ‘perverted’ in this double sense.

8. On this see Eldred (1984).

9. The following draws on Bonefeld (2000).

10.The frustrating English translation can be found in Marx (1976, P.500).

11. On this see Bonefeld (1995).

12. According to Marx (1973, p.90) ‘determination is negation’ and that is, it negates the self-identity or appearance of independence of economic forms as things in-themselves.


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Werner Bonefeld teaches at the Department of Politics, University of York

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