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Werner Bonefeld

The previous three volumes of Open Marxism were published between 1992 and 1995. What

a time that was! The Soviet Empire had collapsed, and capitalism was duly celebrated with

great fanfare as not only victorious but also as the epitome of civilisation that had now been

confirmed as history’s end – as if history maintains in the service of vast wealth a class of

dispossessed producers of surplus value. History does not use pursue its own ends and it does

not assert itself in the interests of bourgeois civilisation, morality and profitability. History

does not make society. Nor does it take sides. It is rather that society makes history. And

society is nothing other than the social individuals pursuing their own ends in their class

divided social relations. History was truly made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. About this

there is no doubt.

Amidst the fanfare, the debtor crisis of the 1980s had started to move from the global South

to the global North, from the crash of 1987 via the third global recession in less than 20 years

in the early 1990s to the various currency crises, including those of the British Pound and the

Mexican Peso in 1992 and 1994 respectively. The Peso crisis coincided with the uprising of

the Zapatistas in 1994. Then there was the emergence of China as a world power, founded

on a labour economy that combines authoritarian government with the provision of cheap

labour and disciplined labour relations. And it was the time also of the first Gulf war, mere

posturing of might in search for a global enemy that was needed to secure the domestic

containment of the querulous rabble, as Hegel put it when remarking on how a successful

war can check the domestic unrest and consolidate the power of the state at home.

Since the early 1990s, with the passing into oblivion of the Soviet Empire, the entire edifice

of Marxism-Leninism has tumbled also. It had served as the official doctrine and source for

legitimation of state socialism and its various derivative ideologies that found expression in

either Gramscian or Althusserian Eurocommunism or in the manifold sectarian organisations

that proclaimed their allegiance to Trotsky, Lenin’s military commander and suppressor of the

Kronstadt uprising of 1921. Although these traditions continue to force themselves onto the

critique of political economy, their history has come to an end. They no longer provide the

ideological foundation to what is now yesterday’s idea of the forward march of socialism. To

be sure, some still believe in the revolutionary party as an end in itself. Yet, in reality the party

is no more – it had in fact been gone a long time before. It died in Spain during the civil war

and during the show-trails in Stalinist Russia and its morbid foundation perished finally in

either 1953 or 1956, or indeed 1968. Like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in

France is just a ghost of yesterday. Neither is a Chavez or a Maduro, or indeed an Ortega - and

that is a relief. In fact, both, Corbyn and Mélenchon, seek political power for the sake of justice

in an unjust world. Instead of the critique of political economy, the endeavour now is to

moralise and lament by way of political philosophy conceptions of well-being.

In distinction, the Open Marxism volumes did not argue for justice in an unjust world by

means of state socialist planning of labour economy, and progressive schemes of taxation and

just ideas for redistribution. Nor did they argue in favour of hegemonic strategies for the

achievement of political power on behalf of the many. They did not endorse the state as the

institution of institutions. Rather, they understood that profit is the purpose of capital and

that the state is the political form of that purpose. They understood also that world market

competition compels each nation state to achieve competitive labour markets, which are the

condition for achieving a measure of social integration. The politics of competitiveness, sound

money, fiscal prudence, enhanced labour productivity, belong to a system of wealth that

sustains the welfare of workers on the condition that their labour yields a profit. In this system

of wealth, the profitability of labour is a means not only of avoiding bankruptcy; it is also a

means of sustaining the employment of labour. Protectionism is a measure of defence within

free trade – and in relationship to labour markets, it amounts also to an anti-immigrant policy

of exclusion and racialization, of the national us and the ‘othered’ them, citizens from


The profitable exploitation of labour is the condition for the sustained employment of

workers. It allows workers to maintain access to the means of subsistence through wage

income. It is the case also that there is a fate far worth than being an exploited worker and

that is, to be an unexploitable worker. If labour power cannot be traded, what else can be

sold to make a living and achieve a connection to the means of subsistence? That is, first of

all, the producers of surplus value, dispossessed sellers of labour power, are free to struggle

to make ends meet. Their struggle belongs to the conceptuality of capitalist wealth – that is,

money that yields more money. In this conception of wealth the satisfaction of human needs

is a mere sideshow. What counts is the time of money. What counts therefore is the

valorisation of value through the extraction of surplus value. There is no time to spare. Time

is money. And then suddenly society finds itself put back into a state of momentary

barbarism; it appears as if famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of

every means of subsistence to the class that works for its supper. And second, the

understanding of the mysterious character of an equivalence exchange between unequal

values, of money that yields more money, lies in the concept of surplus value. There is trade

in labour power, and then there is the consumption of labour that produces a total value that

is greater then the value of labour power. The equivalence exchange relations are thus

founded on the class relationship between the buyers of labour power and the producers of

surplus value. This social relationship, which entails a history of suffering, vanishes in its

economic appearance as an exchange between one quantity of money and another.

Contrary to a whole history of Marxist thought, class struggle is not something positive.

Rather, it belongs to the capitalist social relations, and drives them forward. Class struggle

does not follow some abstract idea. Nor does it express some ontologically privileged position

of the working class, according to which it is the driving force of historical progress as the

traditions of state socialism saw it. Rather it is struggle for access to the means of subsistence.

It is a struggle to make ends meet. The notion that this struggle manifests a socialist

commitment because of itself, is really just an abstract idea. There is no doubt also that the

demand for a politics of justice recognises the suffering of the dispossessed. Political

commitment towards the betterment of the conditions of the working class is absolutely

necessary – it civilises society’s treatment of its workers. Nevertheless, the critique of class

society does not find its positive resolution in the achievement of fair and just exchange

relations between the sellers of labour power and the consumers of labour. What is a fair

wage? Is it not the old dodge of the charitable alternative to the employer from hell, who

nevertheless also pays his labourers with the monetised surplus value he previously extracted

from them? The critique of class society finds its positive resolution only in a society in which

the progress of the ‘muck of ages’ has come to an end.

The Open Marxism volumes of the 1990s saw themselves as a contribution to the attempt at

freeing the critique of capitalist labour economy from the dogmatic embrace of the bright

side view that capitalist economy is an irrationally organised labour economy. In this view

socialism is superior to capitalism because it is a rationally organised labour economy through

conscious planning by public authority. The anti-capitalism of central economic planning, or,

in today’s flat enunciation of Negri’s and Hardt’s term of the multitude, the politics for the

many is entirely abstract in its critique of labour economy. In fact, it presents the theology of

anti-capitalism – one that looks on the bright side in the belief that progress will be made

upon the taking of government by the party of labour. What is capitalist wealth, what belongs

to its concept, and what is its dynamic, and what therefore holds sway in its concept? Only a

reified consciousness can declare that it is in possession of the requisite knowledge and

technical expertise and know-how for regulating capitalism in the interests of the class that

works for both, the expansion of social wealth in the form of capital and for its supper. The

Open Marxism volumes sought to reassert the critique of the capitalist social relations as a

critique of political economy, of both labour economy and the principle of political power, at

least that was the critical intension.

The critical purpose of the Open Marxism volumes was to free Marx from the ‘perverters of

historical materialism’, as Adorno had characterised the doctrinal Marxists in Negative

Dialectics. For this to happen, looking on the bright side is not an option. Rather, it entails an

attempt at thinking in and through the logic social wealth, its production and circulation, that

holds sway in capitalist political economy. In the absence of such an attempt, the sheer unrest

of life that belongs to the concept of capital and sustains its progress will not be understood.

Instead, it will either be romanticised as alienated species being or viewed, with moralising

righteousness, as an electoral resource.

The said purpose of the attempt at freeing Marx from orthodox ritualization was not in any

case novel. In fact, it could look back onto a distinguished history that included the council

communism of for example Pannekoek, Gorter and Mattick, the work of Karl Korsch, the

critical theory of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, the Yugoslav Praxis Group, Axelos’s open

marxism, the Situationist International, the critical Marxist tradition in Latin America

associated with Echeverría, Sánchez Vázquez, Schwarz, and Arantes, the state derivation

debate of amongst others Gerstenberger, Blanke, Neußüss, and von Braunmühl, the neue

Marx Lektüre of amongst others Backhaus, Reichelt and Schmidt, the autonomous Marxism

of amongst others Dalla Costa, Federici, Tronti, Negri, Cleaver, and Bologna, and in the

context of the British-based Conference of Socialist Economists from which it emerged, the

works of especially Simon Clarke and John Holloway about value, class, and state. Simon

Clarke’s critique of structuralist Marxism, especially the works of Levi-Strauss, Althusser and

Poulantzas, and his contributions to state theory and value form analysis were fundamental

in the immediate context of the early 1990s.

The title Open Marxism derived from the work of Johannes Agnoli, a Professor of the Critique

of Politics at the Free University of Berlin. His contribution to the heterodox Marxist tradition

focused the critique of political economy as a subversive critique of the economic categories,

the philosophical concepts, the moral values and the political institutions, including the form

of the state, of bourgeois society. The direct link between the title of the Open Marxism

volumes and Agnoli is the title of a book that he published with Ernest Mandel in 1980:

Offener Marxismus: Ein Gespräch über Dogmen, Orthodoxie & die Häresie der Realität (Open

Marxism: A Discussion about Doctrines, Orthodoxy & the Heresy of Reality). The choice of the

Open Marxism title was not about paying homage to Johannes Agnoli as the foremost

subversive thinker of his time. It was programmatic.

The much too long delayed publication of this forth volume of Open Marxism does not require

contextualisation. Nothing is as it was and everything is just the same. We live in a time of

terror and we live in a time of war. The so-called elite has become a racket. Antisemitism is

back en vogue as both the socialism of fools and as the expression of thoughtless resentment

and nationalist paranoia. Racism is as pervasive as it always was – as enemy within and

without. The so-called clash of civilisation is unrelenting in its inexorable attack on the

promise of freedom. Even the talk about socialism in one country has made a comeback

without sense of purpose – first because there can be none, and second because there is

none. The political blow back of the crisis of 2008 has been intense and relentless Austerity.

Precariat. Profitability. Rate of growth. Price competitiveness. What is so different however

from the early 1990s is that capitalism as a term of critical inquiry has vanished; it is has

disappeared from contemporary analysis. The Zeitgeist recognises neoliberalism as the object

of critique. As a consequence, the past no longer comes alive in the critique of contemporary

conditions. Instead, it appears as a counterfoil of imagined civility to today’s much-criticised

neoliberal world. The critique of neoliberalism conjures up a time in which money did not

yield more money but was rather put to work for growth and jobs. Illusion dominates reality.

The spectre of society without memory is truly frightening.

While the first three volumes sought to free Marx from the dogmatic perverters of historical

materialism, it seems to me that the purpose of the forth volume is to bring back centre stage

the critique of capitalism, in parts to re-establish in a (self-) critical and open manner what

the neoliberal Zeitgeist disavows, and in parts also to think afresh of what it means to say no.

On the one hand there is the preponderance of the object – society as a real abstraction that

manifests itself behind the backs of the acting subjects – and on the other hand there is the

spontaneity of the subject. Hope dies last.


March 26, 2019