In the seven years since the onset of the most significant financial crisis in seventy-five years, there has been much renewed interest in the economic writings of Karl Marx. Study groups and reading groups abound, with autodidacts turning into pamphleteers. In fact, a burgeoning culture of reading Marx economically is beginning to take shape today, some three decades after the crushing defeats of the mass parties of the left, for which Marxism was once a guiding ideology. Marxist intellectual historian, Lana Turner contributor, and New Left Review editorial board member Gopal Balakrishnan has taken up a renewed study of Marx in this period and the results are just now coming into print. His magisterial reconstruction of the intellectual trajectory of the young Marx appeared in two recent installments in New Left Review, and a new book is in the works on the systematic unity of Marx’s later economic writings. In coming years the intellectual legacy of Marxism looks to be a hotly contested field of struggle. The ground-clearing work Balakrishnan is doing in this regard may change the way that legacy is understood—both as historical inquiry and political strategic outlook.
David: Let’s start by talking about the way in which your current project is making a distinction between an early and a late Marx in a manner that’s different from Althusser’s well-known conception of an epistemological break.
Gopal: Althusser’s conception of a break between an early and a late Marx was heavily informed by the philosophical preoccupations of his own time involving a relationship to what was called socialist humanism, or humanism generally. Much of the larger contention around the early Marx was a by-product of de-Stalinization, the demotion of Engels-influenced Dialectical Materialism by western Communist Parties. This crisis of ideological orientation opened up the space for a specifically philosophical discourse on the composition and periodization of the Marx-Engels canon. Although perpetuated by academic subcultures, this polemical context is now very remote. Many of these writings have a far ranging scope but their preoccupation with philosophical genealogies - Spinoza, Hegel, Feuerbach - did not lead to an adequate periodization of Marx’s work, or for that matter, an understanding of the problematic of any of the relevant periods.
Certainly, the break in the problematic from the early to the late period is a development of considerable philosophical significance. 227But Althusser never specified the epicenter of these distinct intellectual formations. The claim that some momentous shift took place is merely signaled by the presence or absence of certain terms, as if words like essence or alienation were transparent indicators of a framework of assumption. My thesis is that the object of the early Marx is different from the object of the Marx of Capital and it is upon this basis that an adequate periodization arises. The object of critique and analysis for the early Marx is an inherited concept called bourgeois society. The object of the later Marx was an invented, newly conceived object called the capitalist mode of production. This new concept of the capitalist mode of production involved a shift in Marx’s relation to political economy and what was meant by a critique of political economy.
My version of an early and a late Marx can be traced to the account that Robert Brenner presents of two stories of the origins of capitalism in Marx. There’s an earlier account in which bourgeois society arose out of the spread of commerce from its modest medieval beginnings. In his later work Marx develops another conception - that of the agrarian origins of capitalism unfolding through structural changes in the English countryside, involving the separation of direct producers from their means of subsistence. That separation from subsistence launches a pattern of socio-economic development that distinguishes England from the larger persistence of the socio-economic old regime on the continent. I expand that distinction between Marx’s earlier and later conception of a transition out of feudalism - two different accounts of primitive accumulation - to two different conceptions of the nature of capital, and their respective laws of accumulation. While the early Marx’s “grave digging” conception had a determinate political corollary, no corresponding theorization of the political arose from Marx’s later conception.
The early Marx was a remorselessly systematic thinker who drew out the conceptual implications of the most advanced forms of bourgeois thought, whether in Ricardo or Hegel. Ricardo is saying the working class will never be able to experience a rise in real wages under these conditions and things could go from bad to worse. Marx is drawing out the implications of that, pushing them to their ultimate limits with his political conclusions. There’s a systematic character to the early Marx in terms of the conjunction of politics, economics, and philosophy. Although he makes a huge conceptual breakthrough to a new understanding of the socio-economic process, there is no corresponding shift to a new understanding of the state or politics. The philosophical implications of the later conception of capitalism are only fitfully developed. There is no systematic integration of these different dimensions in the way that there is in the early Marx.
David: In Philosophy of Right Hegel had already developed a concept of bourgeois society separated from the state. He gave a certain kind of order of determination for the state and bourgeois society. So how did Marx invert Hegel in this sense?
Gopal: Philosophy of Right presents a novel conceptualization of a differentiation of the state from a civil society grounded in the laws of private property and exchange relations, the laws of political economy as he understood them. So that is the point of departure for the early Marx’s understanding of the historical era they were living through - this duality of state and civil society.
Hegel wanted to clamp down the residually old regime form of statehood upon civil society, thwarting its potential to generate polarizations of wealth and chronic economic instability. The objective of inversion is to think through the unleashed process brought to the forefront by this operation. Untethered individualism gave rise to a class structure based on money and a pattern of class struggles unfolding in a representative political sphere mediating the relation between the separated spheres of state and civil society.
The static categories of political economy (rent, profit, and wages, and the corresponding classes of landlords, capitalists, and workers) had to be decoded as the living characters of this epic class struggle. This whole political motion was driven by a “grave digging” dynamic of accumulation that resulted from the constitutive division of the state from bourgeois or civil society. Marx lived at a time of property franchise, and so the class struggle unfolded in a parliamentary sphere that over the course of this struggle widened out to become a space in which the class struggle was fought out to its conclusion. The early Marx was a theorist of the class struggles of the early parliamentary era, with its transparent property franchise. Marx foresaw the transformation of parliament into a revolutionary constituent assembly where the class struggle would be pushed to its conclusion - the abolition of private property, and with it the state itself. Before the defeats of the revolutions of 1848 the crisis of the old regime was thought to presage democratic revolution, and then communism. From the 1850s that French Revolution-inspired dynamic no longer seems to be in play in Western and Central Europe, although Russia would later be another matter.
Marx criticized the Hegelian system as a kind of halfway house along this path to human emancipation. So in that respect the “humanist” idea is there across all phases of his work, it’s just not thought to be something that needs to be philosophically articulated and spelled out in the later writings. A commitment to emancipation - abolitionism - is the common denominator to all forms of radical, revolutionary politics. The dependence of a politics of emancipation on some philosophical concept of human nature is always very tenuous.
Anyway, the early Marx, far from seeing labor as the expression of human essence, equated labor with “alienated labor.” The latter is an indispensable concept, pointing to the separation of producers from their means of subsistence, a separation that constitutes their dependency on exchange. The capital-wage labor separation develops on this basis. Unlike the Marx of Capital, a younger Marx foresaw its eventual abolition. Many left-communists today identify with the conception of the abolition of labor itself, but without realizing that there’s much more explicit theoretical support for that idea in the so-callled Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts than in Capital. This just shows that any of the reasons for preferring one to the other are not always based on an adequate understanding of the distinction between them.
Something about the difference between bourgeois society and the capitalist mode of production needs further specification. Hegel understood bourgeois society in terms of the juridical framework of public and private property, and in a conception of the social order as consisting of free and equal owners of property who are in their rights to alienate what they own. The capitalist mode of production as a socio-economic order, by contrast, could not be grasped primarily as the Hegelian system had understood it, as based on the juridical forms of private property that make exchange relations possible, i.e. private property and contract. In the Hegelian system the juridical concepts or forms contain within themselves a developmental logic. In Marx’s later conception, these juridical forms of private property and contract have been relegated to the status of mere preconditions of a larger socio-economic logic, which can’t be explained in terms of them.
The theoretical passage from bourgeois society to the capitalist mode of pro-duction is grounded in a structural transformation that happened in the after-math of the defeats of the revolutions of 1848 - transitions to modern economic development outside of England. This incipient generalization of capitalism had far reaching political and geopolitical consequences, which Marx only in part was able to bring into theoretical focus. In my essay “The Abolitionist” (New Left Review 90, November-December 2014, and 91, January-February 2015), I cited Perry Anderson’s observations on the emergence of a new pattern of capitalist state formation breaking the mold of European political dynamics. Before the defeats of the revolutions of 1848, the crisis of the old regime was thought to presage democratic revolution, and then communism. Underlying that revolutionary sequence was a conception of capital accumulation based on the assumption that wages would never rise above the subsistence level. After all, this was what political economy itself preached, and Marx logically deduced revolutionary consequences. The Manifesto is an elaborate exercise in inversion along these lines: you accuse us of being the revolutionaries, but it is you, the bourgeoisie, that is making the old world of religion, family, and nationality dissolve into air.
The breakthrough to a new conception of capital and the logic of its accumulation entailed giving up the then prevalent idea of an iron law of wages. Marx’s later conception of capital made its accumulation dependent upon rising income and real economic development. But Marx was understandably reluctant to abandon the political corollary that seemed to go along with the iron law of wages. Socialists could point to what the economists themselves were saying and say, look, even these people are saying that unless we break with the existing order of things the working class will never improve its lot. That was a very strong political claim of the socialist movement and understandably Marx was not keen on emphasizing the longer-term possibilities of the rise of real wages within the capitalist system.
David: Let’s play out a little more the systemic nature of the capitalist mode of production. Marx begins Capital with the idea of a society whose basic feature is that it produces a mass of commodities. He proceeds to elaborate out of these elementary characteristics of a commodity-producing society a novel understanding of capitalism as a whole, even involving the history of the system, from its origins to its current form.
Gopal: Marx went back to Hegel because he was looking for a way to present the interrelationship of the various moments of a system. In Hegel, one of the distinctive features of the mode in which the system is articulated is its nexus of conceptual categories and historical exemplification. The purely formal interrelationships between definitions or concepts is interrupted by the dependence of these concepts upon historical presuppositions that always have to be shown so as to justify the articulation of a concept in its separation from the other moments of the system.
So terms like commodity, money, capital, labor - all of them have to be articulated as definitions in a system of interrelated definitions, and the whole theory is that system of interrelated definitions. But it also has to be the case that these concepts are shown in terms of their historical presuppositions. The system and its mode of demonstration seeks to show how the differentiation of the phenomena that constitute the capitalist mode of production is suggested by the ways in which these concepts themselves must be differentiated: the concept of money as a general equivalence out of the commodity form, of circulation out of a conception of a general equivalent, of the capital-labor relation out of a dynamic of circulation, the subsumption of labor under capital after we’ve established their separation in a law of accumulation that ensues from this subsumption, and then of course a demonstration of how capital was originally accumulated at the very end. There is a complex interrelationship between the order of demonstration of these concepts in their relationship to one another that suggests an account - it doesn’t present that account - of the historical processes that allow us to speak of these concepts and the manner in which they designate things in some rational ways distinct from one another and interrelated in reality as well. So the account that Marx presents of a systematic interrelationship of concepts is meant not just to evoke the structural logic of the capitalist mode of production but also to indicate the conditions of its genesis as well as its long-term evolution and pattern of development culminating in a structural outer limit.
The system implies, although he did not articulate this, a different conception of the historical. The conception of history and of structure implicit within Capital is different than the conception of history implied by those who want to dichotomize them in Marx’s theory.
David: What’s the political significance of this work you’re doing on Marx? How does it intersect and cut across the work you’ve done on the “stationary state” of contemporary global capitalism (“Speculation on the Stationary State,” New Left Review 59, September-October 2009)?
Gopal: My reflections on the contemporary political questions are conjectural. One of the things I tried to get across in my “stationary state” piece I think is in fact something I’ve incorporated in my Marx work. What I regard as the correct version of Marx’s theory tells us about the historical evolution of the capitalist system. The conclusions I presented in my piece on the stationary state are aligned with what I think follows from Marx’s general theorization of the capitalist system.
There is a dimension of Marx’s Capital whose relevance is still not well appre-ciated, namely, that his conception of the capitalist mode of production is historical not just because it points to the fact that capitalism didn’t always exist (i.e., it had origins and therefore we can’t project its existence backward in time), but also because its internal dynamics push towards and ultimately evolve in a direction that has structural limits. The ones laid out by Marx - be it the declining rate of profit or the long-term undermining of wage employment - are fairly indeterminate. I’d like to give the account of the limits to capital a more specific shape. To put it briefly, capitalist accumulation ultimately depends upon a cost-cutting and output-increasing pattern of the development of the productive forces. This historical pattern arises from the tendency of the mass production of commodities. Capitalism encompasses a much broader range of sectors, and has always been locked into a pattern of combined and uneven development with peripheral social-formations, but its engine of reproduction is the technological dynamic at the heart of mass commodity production. Properly speaking, the object of Marx’s theory is the capitalist mode of the mass production of commodities. I argued that economic growth has slowed because this sector of the economy is diminishing relative to a service sector much of which cannot be subject to the same industrial revolutionary transformations that powered previous phases of capital accumulation.
David: Let’s follow that point a bit. Your work on contemporary capitalism is based in part on the well-known work of Robert Brenner. You’re now distinguishing your own account of contemporary capitalism from Brenner’s, which holds that there could still be some sort of shake out in the capitalist system which would relegate a lot of this low profitability of the manufacturing sector at a global level to the dust bin of history. You could have a resurgence a la creative destruction, development, and profitability, and growth could be restored again. Your view of a structural transformation of the capitalist system is distinct in some sense.
Gopal: My account of the structural impasse of the capitalist system relies on Brenner’s account of the long downturn originating in the 70s. But I attempt to add to it by identifying structural reasons why no new phases of accumulation will be forthcoming. When I first put forward the idea of the stationary state, it was just after the financial crisis and people were still of the view that in fact the capitalist system had been very dynamic; it had been growing over this whole period; it was just that the lion’s share of the growth was all going to the top because of globalization. But the steady rise of public and private debt over this period speaks to the slowing down of the growth of income. It’s hard to understand how it would have happened had income not stopped growing. Now, seven years down the line, the picture is changing about what was happening in that period. The view that there is this longer stagnation is now more widely accepted.
I think it is politically very important to underscore this because it suggests that the politics of merely struggling against austerity and cutbacks that a failing capitalist system is imposing upon society is not sufficient. In order to mount successful challenges and not just defend against this deterioration of conditions, social movements have to arise that from the ground up begin to confront and transform social relations, dismantle the apparatus of the state, and break through in various ways - this will unfold differently in different places - to new social orders.
The defensive struggles of anti-neoliberalism, although very important, will not succeed on their own terms as they presuppose a dynamic of further capitalist development that could enable such reforms. The large-scale mass politics that one can expect in this period will obviously assume in their initial phases a defensive struggle against a further deterioration of the situation. It is a fight-the-cuts approach, but it is not viable for getting out of this situation. There is no returning to a stable and more rational form of capitalism at the end of the road here. That’s the political upshot of what I’m trying to get across.
In a nutshell: the slow down of growth on a capitalist basis is compelling the rich to take an ever-larger share of this slower growing pie. This takes the form of a political redistribution of wealth upwards through cutting taxes and cuts to social services. This gutted, dysfunctional public system is then attacked as unaffordable and in need of further cuts - a vicious downward spiral. In the grip of this politico-ideological spiral, the failure of the capitalist system appears in the form of a failure of the very public system that supports it and bails it out periodically, at huge expense. I think an account of the present situation within the framework of the historical evolution of the capitalist system provided by Marx allows us to put the pieces of this situation together and open up political-strategic perspectives on what can be done to break out of the downward spiral that this predicament of the capitalist system has put us in.