Antagonism and Negative Critique: An Interview

Composition VII (Wassily Kandinsky, 1913)
Composition VII (Wassily Kandinsky, 1913)

Viewpoint: Much of your work addresses the contribution of “Neue Marx-Lektüre,” the “new reading of Marx” which returned to the interpretation of Capital in the light of the philosophical challenge of the Frankfurt School, and the political challenge of the 1960s and 1970s student movement. Can you tell us about the political significance of this tradition?

Werner Bonefeld: For me the “new reading of Marx” was fundamental as an attempt at critical reconstruction of the revolutionary significance of Marx’s critique of political economy. What really does “critique” mean? Critique of what and for which purpose? The “new reading of Marx” taught me that it means a critique of economic categories, and that this critique entailed an attempt at deciphering economic categories as the objectified forms of definite social relations. Economic relations are socially constituted, and the critique of political economy amounted therefore to a destructive critique of the relations of economic objectivity. They constitute an objective illusion of social relations. We are governed by the movement of coins and what expresses itself in this movement is not some economic objectivity. Rather, definite social relations assert themselves in the movement of coins. Social relations vanish in their appearance, and this appearance is real – as a manifestation of definite social relations. 

What was your own personal experience with the new reading of Marx? 

I taught at the University of Frankfurt in the early 1990, and in this context got to know Hans-Georg Backhaus very well. When I went to Frankfurt I stayed with him and slept on his couch. I met Helmut Reichelt in 1992 at a conference organised by, amongst others, Jean Marie Vincent, Antonio Negri and I. Backhaus was there too, and so was Johannes Agnoli.

It is striking to look at your bibliographies, or the table of contents of the Open Marxism collections you co-edited, and find Backhaus and Reichelt next to Negri, Sergio Bologna, and so on. Sometimes the analysis of the “value-form” is presented as the irreconcilable opposite of operaismo, with its emphasis on class struggle. What accounts for their juxtaposition in your work?

The motivation for the Open Marxism volumes originated from a deeply felt dissatisfaction with the prevailing Marxist orthodoxy. The title was taken from Johannes Agnoli’s stance in a book that he published with Mandel: Open Marxism: A Debate about Dogma, Orthodoxy and the Heresy of Reality. The “new reading of Marx” provides for a critique of political economy which is entirely anti-ontological, immanent to its own context, and subversive in its critical intension. It rejects the orthodox “standpoint of labor” and instead, understands that both the laborer and the capitalist are personifications of capitalist economic categories. Adorno’s insight that capitalist society reproduces itself not despite but by virtue of the class antagonism is fundamental, both as a critique of socialism as an economy of labor, and of the critique of capitalism as a class society. In both respects, the critique is entirely negative.

Agnoli introduced me to the idea of a negative critique, as opposed to a constructive critique. Horkheimer called the political practice of the latter sort of critique a “conformist rebellion,” one which one which seeks to overcome the capitalist economy of labor by a socialist economy of labor. However, in the hands of the “new reading of Marx” the political dimension of, say, Horkheimer’s point, was by and large absent. Its critique sought a critical reconstruction of Marx without conceptualizing Adorno’s insight that the total movement of society is antagonistic from the outset (Negative Dialectics). That is, the “new reading of Marx” deciphered the value form as a form of social relations but did not enquire about the character of these relations.

This is where the tradition of Italian operaismo finds its place. At its crudest, Tronti’s notion that instead of analyzing capitalism from the standpoint of capital, it needs to be analyzed from the standpoint of the worker in struggle, plays on the old orthodox idea according to which the science of socialism is a science from the standpoint of labor. It derives socialism from capitalism, rejecting the idea that the time of socialism is distinct from the time of capitalism. The one is the time of the society of the free and equal, the other is the time of money. At its best, the notion highlights the insight that the understanding of capitalism has to do with the conditions and struggles of the working class, that is, the class that works. To be a productive laborer is not a privileged position, as scientific socialism says. Antagonism entails struggle, and society reproduces itself by means of struggle – for access to the means of subsistence, against the reduction of life time to the labor time of surplus value. At its best operaismo is the approach of this insight.

It would be wrong for operaismo to say that struggle is good because of itself. Struggle belongs to the perverted world. The resolution to class struggle is the classless society. In the misery of our time, we therefore find the positive only in negation, and it is this insight on which the best aspects of operaismo and the best of the new reading of Marx come together in their critical intent.

An initiating practice for operaismo was workers’ inquiry, the subject of this issue of Viewpoint. Is there a potential theoretical connection between the analysis of the conditions of labor and the analysis of the value-form?

On the face of it, they do not seem to connect. The value-form analysis deals with the negative objectivity of exchange abstractions, and the critique of the labor process deals with the struggle over the imposition of work. Nevertheless, there cannot be an exchange abstraction without the production of wealth, and the specificity of the exchange abstraction is not founded on exchange. It is founded on the selling and buying of labor-power, that is, the class relationship between the owner of the means of production, which are the means of social subsistence, and the free laborer. In fact, and as Adorno argued, the objective illusion of the exchange abstraction is not founded on the socially valid objectivity of the fetishism of commodities. Rather, he argues, it is founded on the concept of surplus value. That is, the exchange equivalence between two unequal values presupposes the concept of surplus value extraction, and therewith the capitalist labor process as a process in which necessary labor time is posited for the sake of surplus labor time.

You mentioned Johannes Agnoli, whose work on the form of the bourgeois state had a considerable influence in Europe (including on Negri). How is his analysis of the state related to the critique of political economy?

Political economy is not economics. For Adam Smith, political economy is a branch of the science of the statesman and legislator. The invisible hand has no independent reality. Nor has any other economic category. Like the invisible hand, economy is a political practice. Economy is political economy, that is to say, society doubles itself up into society and state, and the state is therefore the political form of bourgeois society.  Its purpose is not negotiable. It is a capitalist state. This much is clear from Marx’s notion that the state is the concentrated force of society. The depoliticized exchange relationships between the buyer and seller of labor power; better: the buyer of labor power and the producer of surplus value, entails the political state as the force of depoliticization. The analysis of the state is thus not related to the economy, as if economy and state are two distinct forms of organization. Rather, the purpose of capital is to achieve the valorization of value, and the state is the political form of that purpose.

Some of your recent articles have addressed the subject of “primitive accumulation,” and the ongoing social constitution of capitalist social relations. It seems to us that this dynamic of social constitution also provides a way of bridging between the “economic” and the “political” emphases in Marxist theory. What for you are the theoretical stakes of primitive accumulation?

I agree with the “new reading of Marx” that Marxian economics is fundamentally Ricardian in its scope and conception. I have been working on the concept of primitive accumulation since the 1980s. Fundamentally,  capitalist class relations comprise historically branded social relations of production, and they do not shed their branding in the course of capitalist development. Rather, capitalist development is founded on the reproduction of definite social relations, which comprises the perpetuation of the doubly free worker – this, as Marx calls it, sine qua non of capitalist society. Capitalist accumulation is founded on the circumstance that a whole class of people is cut off from the means of production. The means of production are the means of the social metabolism with nature. Once the laborer has been divorced from her means of production, she turns into a proletarian who is “the slave of other individuals who have made themselves the owners of the means of human existence” – so argues Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. The problem of communism is not the class struggle – which is capitalist reality. The problem of communism is how to end the (pre-)history of class struggle, for the sake not of freed proletarians, who, too, are a capitalist reality, but for the sake of a classless society.

Author of the article

is a Professor of Politics at the University of York.