Open Marxism

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Philip Clayton:

" As Prof. Zhihe Wang writes:

- Unlike orthodox Marxism or dogmatic Marxism, Chinese Marxism is an open Marxism which changes form according to the current situation. From Mao Zedong’s thought and Deng’s theory to Jiang’s “three represents theory” and Hu’s “Scientific Outlook on Development,” all point to such an open orientation.

Numerous publications on constructive postmodernism in China have already shown how deeply process thought connects with the ancient philosophical traditions of China. (In this respect, postmodern thought contrasts strongly with modernism, which usually defines itself in opposition to the traditions that precede it.) Organic Marxism is a form of process thinking; both affirm that reality is an open, evolving process. Each time categories of thought are embedded in a new context—be it a new culture, historical period, region, or political movement—they sprout and grow in new ways. Consequently, open process thinkers do not expect Marxism to be a static thing but to evolve continually, just as human social systems are constantly evolving."


How OM differs from the New Reading of Marx, regarding value-form theory

Frederick Harry Pitts:

"This OM critique of the NRM provides the theoretical resources to extend the insights of the latter onto the terrain of social reproduction (see Dalla Costa 1995) and the class antagonism by bringing into clearer focus the specificity of the concrete social relations the value-form mediates. Open Marxism works with the same understanding of value as the NRM and intertwines with its Anglophone reception along shared lines of attachment to Frankfurt School critical theory. Open Marxism, for instance in the work of Werner Bonefeld (2014) and John Holloway (2010), describes how abstract labour stems, practically and historically, from antagonistic social relations of production. OM suggests how processes of abstraction, totalisation and socialisation connect with antagonistic relations of domination and resistance. For OM, the dialectical method of Marx’s Capital does not counterpose the appearance of value and the reality of labour, or that of social form and social relations. Rather, it suggests that the one is contained within the other – a negative dialectical relationship introduced with critical reference to the NRM tradition most clearly in the recent work of Bonefeld (2016a, 2016b), inspired by Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1990). In this respect, the analysis of an abstract social relation arbitrated in exchange is able to open out upon its material undergirding in lived experience and human practice.

Here, ‘[d]omination in capitalism … is rooted in quasi-objective structures of compulsion constituted by determinate modes of practice, expressed by the categories of commodity and capital’ (Postone and Brennan 2009: 316). By dialectically rooting the study of the value-form in the realities of everyday human life, lived experience and practical activity, the OM thus breaks with traditional Marxist accounts inasmuch as the latter purport to‘ penetrate’ appearances in order to better grasp reality, for which the dive into the ‘hidden abode of production’ represents the most famous touchstone, and a recurring justification for approaches geared solely around the extrapolation of general laws of capitalism from the labour process and productive relations alone. As a ‘category of social mediation’ (Heinrich 2007), value represents a ‘non-empirical reality’ (Dinerstein 2014) seemingly hard to grasp in such programmes of research or, indeed, struggle. The problem consists in the fact that, as Heinrich puts it, ‘the basic notions of Capital like value and surplus value are non-empirical notions’ not exhausted in the appearances they assume (Heinrich and Wei 2012: 717). They are non-empirical in that, when we say value is a category of social mediation, we mean that a ‘mediation’, in this instance, constitutes the relation between things via another ‘intermediate’ thing, in the same way, as in Gunn’s apt simile, ‘a rope linking two climbers is constitutive of the relation in which they stand’ (1987: 57). Value, as such a mediation, is the mode of existence of that which it mediates – in other words, its form , which takes an appearance in the monetary exchange of commodities (1987:58). Hence, though non-empirical, it takes on an apparent form. This appearance, contrary to the way Marxist concepts of ‘false consciousness’ have tended to think it, is not a ‘false’ overlaying of reality, but itself expresses its essence in a mediated way. This follows Hegel circumnavigation of the dualism between essence and appearance. As Hegel writes, ‘essence must appear’ (cited in Gunn 1987: 58). Appearance is the ‘existence’ of essence. And, as Heinrich (forthcoming) suggests, it is precisely those ‘non-empirical concepts’ – of value and so on – ‘that first make possible an understanding of that which appears empirically’, rooted as they are in human practice and lived experience. The dualism between appearance and reality is undermined where, for instance, Marx writes that ‘material relations between persons and social relations between things’ appear precisely ‘as what they are’ (1976: 166). Appearance, on this standard, is the mediation of those relations (Gunn 1987: 59). The objective appearances assumed by capitalist social relations contain within them the essence of their antagonistic constitution in human practice. And this, for Gunn, opens up the possibility of capturing these antagonisms as ‘matters of experience’ (1987: 59). It is thus possible to move through form to grasp content.

As Heinrich suggests, in ‘[u]nderstanding the specific forms of society, we can understand the typical action of individuals; but starting with the action of individuals we will not understand the forms.Or we take them for granted, we don’t see that such forms have to be explained ’ (Heinrich and Wei 2012: 716). This captures the assault on ‘ticket-thinking’ launched by the NRM, and, by extension, OM, through which the social element at the core of economic categories is unpicked. But it also highlights a tension within the wider NRM tradition addressed by significant thinkers in that tradition including Backhaus and, from an OM perspective, Bonefeld. Heinrich proposes that, from the abstract social form of value, we can logically derive the actions of individuals without any necessary recourse to their study. This suggests that we can infer from the social form the social relations that constitute it. However, as Backhaus contends, ‘[t]he analysis of the logical structure of the value- form is not to be separated from the analysis of its historical, social content’ (1980:107). Bonefeld, too, in a more recent contribution foundational to the contemporary shape of OM (2014), takes on the NRM ’s tendency to talk of value as if it unfolds of its own accord, without the antagonistic social basis that makes it historically and continuingly possible, by which one class must be dispossessed of any independent individual or collective means to reproduce the conditions of living without the sale of the one commodity they have at their disposal: labour power. Whilst it might seem, then, that social reproduction and class relations are left out of the NRM’s abstract-labour-oriented perspective on value – one in which more traditional concepts like exploitation seldom get a mention – they are, in the hands of open Marxists, made very much present. History, wrote Adorno, ‘is the history of class struggles’ (2003: 93).He suggests so only insofar as the class antagonism is constitutive of capitalist society, and what went before capitalism is not history, but prehistory (Marx 1970: 22).It is in this same sense that Marx and Engels begin the first section of the Communist Manifesto with the immortal words: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles ’ (1977: 222).

The class antagonism is the precondition of capitalist society, and the way the world is today cannot be explained except with reference to its blood-soaked social constitution. Indeed, it is in this focus on the ‘social constitution’ of the value-form in the class antagonism (Bonefeld 2014) that what Murray (2013: 129), quoting Rubin, calls the ‘qualitative sociological’ consequences of Marx’s value theory become most clear, and its complexion as something more than an economic theory is clarified. As Bellofiore and Riva write, ‘exchange is the synthetic principle that immanently determines the connection of every social fact’ (2015: 25). This, of course, opens out upon an expansive terrain of mediations –‘as modes of existence, or appearances ’ of the class relation, under capitalism, the capital-labour relation – including ‘the commodity-form, the value-form, the money-form, the wage-form, the state-form … and hence of the struggle in which that relation consists’ (Gunn 1987: 60; see also Gunn 1992, and Dinerstein and Pitts 2018). The focus on abstract labour points to social validation as a criterion of validity situated beyond production itself, as Adorno suggests, in ‘the form of the relations of production within which production takes place’ (2008: 118). In other words: in society at large. In the hands of OM, Marx’s critique of political economy offers a powerful theoretical tool with which to unpack the social core of economic relations. Its object is the systematic development of the specific form of wealth in capitalist society. The historical specificity of capitalism consists in the way that wealth, broadly defined, takes on the social form of value, expressed in money and represented in what Marx opens Capital by calling the ‘immense accumulation of commodities’ (1976; see also Holloway 2015 for a statement of the importance of the first sentence of Capital).

And this rests on the creation of a society of private property and wage labour through the continued and enforced dispossession of a majority of the world’s inhabitants of the independent individual and collective means necessary to reproduce their conditions of living outside of the wage relationship. In this sense what OM allows us to do is unpick the historical conditions whereby value and measure exert such a hold to begin with. Marx writes that ‘[a]s soon as men start to work for each other in any way, their labour also assumes a social form’ (1976, p. 164). This social form is value. For it to exist, certain social relations must be in place. As a system of commodity production, capitalist social relations of production have two main dimensions. Ownership of productive resources is dispersed among firms which confront each other as commodity producers in market competition. Under capitalism, labour power itself must become a commodity, and people must have no independent individual or collective ability to reproduce their means of living outside of the wage-money-commodity nexus. Dispossessed of the land and of any means of subsistence, formally free individuals are forced to sell their labour power to capitalists for a wage. Sold on the labour market, their labour power becomes itself a commodity (Marx 1976; Heinrich 2012). In open Marxist hands, Marx’s critique of bourgeois political economy clarifies that value must be understood by looking at the underlying relations of production, and not simply as emerging through exchange on the market. Value’s existence as a social form is rooted not only in the antagonism of the employment relationship, but in a wider situation of classed and constrained social reproduction and commodification that occupies the social sphere as a whole. The OM critique of the NRM thus grounds the totalising effect of commodity exchange in the act of dispossession of human beings of any independent individual or collective means to reproduce the conditions of life outside the wage- and commodity-form. Whereas some interpretations of Marx conceptualise primitive accumulation as a pre-capitalistic phenomenon belonging to the ‘prehistory’ of capitalist society (Heinrich 2012: 92), and others view it as a form of accumulation aimed at resolving capitalist crisis (Harvey 2003), the NRM is among those approaches that sees dispossession as foundational of capitalism in a continuing and constantly reproduced way (see also De Angelis 2004). For trade, exchange and money to be ‘transformed into capital, the prerequisites for capitalist production must exist’. That is, ‘the owners of the means of production and subsistence [must] meet the free labourer selling his [sic ] labour power’ (Bonefeld 2014: 78 quoting Marx 1976).Primitive accumulation through dispossession induces a state of abstract economic compulsion whereby one class comes to fundamentally depend, for its material existence, on selling its labour for a wage, leading to its domination and alienation, through an ever more completely mediated existence (Bonefeld 2014). Critically refashioned through an OM appreciation of the class antagonism, the NRM can thus be seen as casting Marx’s critique of political economy as ‘a theory of historically specific social mediation ’ and the misapprehended expression of its ‘surface forms’ in economic thought (Postone and Brennan 2009: 310; Backhaus1980). This means that, contrary to approaches that prioritise historical materialism as a kind of economic determinism, Marx’s critique of political economy is not an argument for the ‘primacy of the economic’, but rather concerns the ‘social production and reproduction of the life of society as a whole’ (Adorno 2000: 141). In this perspective, the critique of political economy captures what classical political economy cannot: that ‘human needs, labour and wealth always have specific social form and purpose’ (Murray 2013: 131). This does not reduce to productive activity alone. For Marx, Murray writes (2013:131), the historically specific forms of capitalist society‘ are pervasive and of great consequence ’, reaching ‘all the way down’ into how the things we need to live are produced and how we attain them. This analysis holds a radical potential for the opening out of Marxian value theory beyond labour and into its relationship with life as a whole, with the means by which we reproduce ourselves and others and, in so doing, society itself."