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Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 brill.nl/hima
One Symptom of Originality: Race and the
Management of Labour in the History of the
and David Roediger
Barnard College, Columbia University
University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
In the labour-history of the US, the systematised management of workers is widely understood as
emerging in the decades after the Civil War, as industrial production and technological innovation
changed the pace, nature and organisation of work. Tough modern management is seen as
predating the contributions of Frederick Taylor, the technique of so-called ‘scientiﬁc management’
is emphasised as the particularly crucial managerial innovation to emerge from the US, preﬁguring
and setting the stage for Fordism. Tis article argues that the management of labour in the US has
roots in the particularities of a society which racialised its labour-systems – slave and free – and
thus made ‘racial knowledge’ central to managerial knowledge. Rather than transcending the
limits of racial knowledge, the authors argue that scientiﬁc management relied on experts to know
and develop ‘the races’ not only for the purpose of accumulating capital but also for the organisation
of modern production through the ﬁrst decades of the twentieth century. Such ‘knowledge’
became central to the export of managerial and engineering knowledge from the US to the
Taylorism, race-management, scientiﬁc management, industrial slavery, immigration, settler-
colonialism, class, Fordism
John R. Commons, the liberal reformer who founded academic labour-history
in the US, and Ernest Riebe, the militant cartoonist of the Industrial Workers
of the World (IWW), doubtless had little in common politically. Commons
supported American Federation of Labor-style unionism, worrying when its
limited social goals strayed beyond collective bargaining. Riebe oﬀered to
IWW-publications the adventures of Mr. Block, the clueless, conformist
anti-hero whose suﬀerings reﬂected workers’ misplaced faith in the beneﬁcence
4 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
of capitalists, politicians and the police. Still, Riebe and Commons shared an
understanding of the relationships between race and the management of
labour, one that seemed crystal-clear to them as early twentieth-century
observers of American workplaces, but that is often lost upon historians
today. In 1907, Commons’s Races and Immigrants in America argued, well
after Frederick Winslow Taylor had marketed scientiﬁc management, that
US-management had shown just one ‘symptom of originality’, namely ‘playing
one race against the other’. Six years later, Louisiana lumberjacks struggling
for a union would laugh bitterly over a Mr. Block comic wonderfully named
‘He Meets Others’. In the strip, a well-dressed manager circulates from one
racialised group of workers to another – Anglo-Saxon, Irish, German, Italian,
Chinese, Polish and Black. Drawn to resemble Mr. Block, these various others
are played oﬀ against one another by the manager. Te boss threatens and
cajoles them to compete by appealing to masculinity, fears of joblessness, and
racial and national divisions. Te management-by-race of various European
groups exists along a continuum shared by Black and Asian workers but, Riebe
shows, the threat of joblessness is coupled with threats of total exclusion where
workers of colour are concerned. By the last frame, the manager is reclining
peacefully, successful in getting the various workers to work frantically while
swapping racial slurs.
Managers, so central to the racial functioning of the workplace in the
narratives oﬀered by Commons and Riebe, appear too episodically in accounts
of the history of white supremacy and class in US history. If we take seriously
Marx’s observation that capital necessarily implies the capitalist himself, formed
into a ‘personality’ opposing and extracting labour, serious study of how
race-thinking informed the capitalist personalities embodied in diﬀerent levels
of management must be carried out. Managers, we argue, were never outside of
the US racial system and, in many ways, created that system. Further, the degree
to which factory-management understood itself as possessing racial knowledge
links it to, rather than distinguishes it from, the management of work under
slavery. For us, the separation of slavery from the mainstream of both labour-
and economic history leads to impoverished accounts that suppose there was
no sustained literature on the management of labour until the 1880s. Yet the
outpouring of antebellum-studies on managing slaves, and even on managing
1. Commons 1907 p. 150. Nyland 1996, pp. 985–1016 provides an account of Commons’s
relationship to scientiﬁc management and to Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, around
the issues of trade-unionism and restriction of output. See also Ramstad and Starkey 1995,
pp. 1–75. Te cartoon is included in Riebe, 1984 edition, unpaginated. For the context of the
cartoon, see Roediger 1994, pp. 143–5 and Cohen 2007, pp. 35–58. Research assistance from
Martin Smith was indispensable in completing this article. Some passages of this article appeared
initially in David Roediger’s popularly styled How Race Survived US History, 2008.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 5
6 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
slaves ‘scientiﬁcally’, reveals how deeply entwined racial and managerial
knowledge had already become. However underexplored, the links between
race and management are profound. Commons’s striking connection of the
cutting-edge of management with the bloody history of race contrasts sharply
with the bloodless eﬃ ciency of stop-watches and assembly-lines that dominate
our thinking, and that often focused the hopes of progressive reformers like
Commons himself, who, in a more kind-to-Taylor moment, himself called
scientiﬁc management ‘the most productive invention in the history of modern
Marxists have both participated in and challenged the failure to see the
ways race shaped and reﬂected the managerial personality, which functioned
in the workplace as the daily representative of capital. Marx himself, of
course, far transcended the racial determinisms of his time, seeing social
diﬀerences, and not biology, as fundamentally producing racial divisions.
Riebe’s cartoon exempliﬁes this contribution from the Marxist tradition.
Moreover, Marx generated sharp insights into the role of racial slavery
in stultifying class-consciousness within the white US working class and of
anti-Irish animus in dividing British workers. Te best accounts of the origins
of white supremacy, of the relations of the slave-trade and slavery to capitalist
development, and of race and labour in Reconstruction after the Civil War,
come from the Marxist tradition.
Within the industrial history of the US, the
uneven but signiﬁcant Marxist inﬂuence on labour-history has helped make
available management’s role in structuring the history of race and class in the
US. At the same time, however, Marx’s classic descriptions of the working day
and the labour-process tended not to discuss racial division. Within labour-
history, the work most systematically examining the managerial use of race to
divide workers is on the deep and border South in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth century. When such division is foregrounded, the emphasis is
on the role of race in the undermining of political unity and of trade-union
solidarity, especially during strikes. While these regional and thematic
emphases treat important issues, they tend to miss the role of race-management
in the daily extraction of production.
Te two most inﬂuential studies of the
2. On dating of the origins of management, see Nelson 1996, p. 50. Compare Breeden 1980,
p. 44 and passim for ‘scientiﬁcally’; and Aufhauser 1973, pp. 811–24. Commons on scientiﬁc
management is as quoted in Haber 1964, p. 148. For Marx and the capitalist personality, see
Marx 2000, p. 118.
3. Lawrence 1976; Esch and Roediger 2006 pp. 6–10; Marx 1870; Rawick 1973; James
1970, pp. 119–64; Rodney 1981; Du Bois 1988. For an important radical account of the
disappearance of US slavery from the history of management, see Cooke 2003, pp. 1895–918.
4. Among the best such works within labour-history are Saxton 1975 and M-K Jung 2006.
On the new South, see the acute work of Kelly 2001; Jaynes 1986; Arnesen 2002, pp. 5–83; and
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 7
innovations and peculiarities of US management by Marxists, follow Marx’s
own writings on the labour-market and the labour-process, in paying scant
attention to racial divisions. In the classic Marxist works on management, race
is either little present, as in the case of Harry Braverman’s important work, or
transcended deﬁnitively by capital, as in that of Antonio Gramsci. Even the
provocative and neglected sections on management in C.L.R. James’s American
Civilization are silent regarding race.
A searching critique that builds on Marxism while seeking to transcend the
tendency of Marxist scholars to divorce labour from the speciﬁcally racialised
bodies and histories of those performing it, marks the opening chapter
of Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts. Lowe shows the stakes involved in a theoretical
challenge to abstractions practised in the name of materialism and even, at
times, of inter-racialism. She powerfully demonstrates why Marxism is
indispensable for us and why too much Marxist scholarship has been slow to
apprehend the ‘speciﬁc history of the US’ where race, capital and class are
concerned. Lowe argues that Marxism has too often stopped at allowing for
‘race-making’ processes like the slave-trade and the seizing of native lands only
in an early period of primitive accumulation, though race-making continued
to matter greatly in the history of capitalism. She insists that, in the world’s
most developed capitalist nation, the connection of race and exploitation
persisted and ramiﬁed, driving the accumulation of capital and shaping
subsequent strategies of rule. ‘In the history of the US’, Lowe writes, ‘capital
has maximised its proﬁts not through rendering labor abstract but precisely
through the social productions of diﬀerence . . . marked by race, nation,
geographical origins, and gender’. It will not do, of course, to simply turn
things over and make management all about race. But Commons was right
that race hovered over and permeated the processes through which US labour
was chosen and bossed. ‘Race-management’ came into being long before
scientiﬁc management, and the two for a time coexisted as complementary
rather than alternative strategies for extracting production.
If anything, Commons’s formulation underplays the broad connections
between racial knowledge and management. While racial competition
functioned as one important moment and motive in linking management and
race, the idea of a hierarchically-understood process of ‘racial development’
Trotter 1990. Other debts to labour-history, and particularly to the work of David Montgomery,
will appear in the notes below.
5. Marx 1906, pp. 185–330; Braverman 1975 and Gramcsi 1971, pp. 279–318. Compare
James 1993, pp. 173–9 and pp. 181–5.
6. Lowe 1996, pp. 27 and 28 (‘rendering labor abstract’). See also Brodkin 2000, pp. 238–56
and pp. 239–40.
8 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
undergirded slavery, settler-expansion and industrial capitalist growth,
making the ability to manage other races a distinctly ‘white’ contribution to
Tis article thus oﬀers modest suggestions for how the project of
considering such a large and understudied topic might be undertaken. We
begin with the relationships of settler-colonialism and especially slavery to the
management of work. A second section details the ways in which late
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imperialism sent into the world not
only capital and soldiers but also American mining-engineers and other
managers whose claims to expertise turned on their supposed knowledge of
race and racial development and their experience with exploiting racial
divisions among workers. Finally, we return to Commons and to Taylor,
considering how race-management and scientiﬁc management coexisted well
into the twentieth century domestically. In all sections, we deploy the term
‘race-management’ in a manner focused on the workplace and the extraction
of production, though we recognise that race also was inextricably and
compellingly connected to the management of resistance and of sexuality.
While allowing ourselves a few sidelong glances to such connections, we opt
for the narrower deﬁnition in the interest of focus in what is already a long and
full article. Even within this narrower focus, race-management is a complex
term, at some moments simply involving competition among races and, at
others, involving claims to know the ﬁtness of certain peoples for certain jobs
and to develop ‘lower’ races by slotting them into, and disciplining them
through, certain types of labour.
Settlement, slavery, and the white managerial impulse
In connecting management and race, Commons betrayed long-standing, even
foundational, US traditions. As members of both a white-settler and a
slaveholding society, Americans developed a sense of themselves as ‘white’ by
casting their race as uniquely ﬁt to manage land and labour, and by judging
how other races might come and go in the service of that project. Te
dispossession of Indians, and the ‘changes in the land’ that it entailed and
celebrated, found much justiﬁcation in the supposed inability of indigenous
people to ‘husband’, or manage, the resources at their command.
American management-decisions centred on what sort (and quickly on what
‘race’) of coerced labour was most economical, skilled, durable, eﬃ cient and
7. Harris 1993, pp. 1709–95. Te best Marxist account remains Rawick 1972, pp. 125–60.
8. See Williams 1990.
9. Cronon 1983.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 9
tractable. After a period in which Indian slavery seemed a possibility, the last
century of the colonial period featured cycles of favouring white indentured
servants or African slaves. Management-by-ethnicity led slave-traders and
owners to attempt to discern Africans’ putative propensities to survive and to
resist, making such matters measurable and marketable according to the ‘tribe’
of those imported. Likewise in the fur-trade, management was deﬁned in
terms of judging the abilities and fostering the willingness of speciﬁc Indian
tribes and individuals to organise and defend the gathering and transport of
vast quantities of furs.
It was clearly in the nineteenth century when ‘race-management’ became
formalised into the modern practices and discourses that Commons had in
mind. Te factory and plantation coexisted as the most spectacular sites for
management of labour in the Americas with, if anything, the latter providing
models for the former. As Robin Blackburn has written, ‘[b]y gathering the
workers under one roof, and subordinating them to one discipline, the new
industrial employers were . . . adapting the plantation model’.
‘overseer’, naming the manager responsible for superintending and speeding
up the labour of slaves, and ‘supervisor’, naming the manager performing
these same roles in industry, have the same literal meaning. Similarly, the word
‘factories’ had named the West-African staging areas gathering labouring
bodies for the slave-trade, and then for the production of cotton, making
possible the textile ‘factories’ of England and of New England. More broadly,
as Karen Brodkin has memorably written, ‘although race was initially invented
to justify a brutal regime of slave labor . . . race making [became] a key process
by which the US continues to organize and understand labor and national
Antebellum US politics, as well as economics, turned on the relative merits
of free versus slave-labour. Such discussions easily devolved into considerations
of the (dis)abilities of African-American labour, in the ﬁelds and especially in
manufacturing, as against those of ‘white’ labour, or of the ‘Irish race’. Far
from simply arraying the industrial North versus the agrarian South, the
debates on these matters saw capitalists in the two regions study and debate
not only the relative merits of slavery and free labour but also the productivity
of ‘black’ versus ‘white’ workers. In the 1850s, 20% of all manufacturing
capital was invested in the South and the slaveholders most inclined toward
pro-slavery Southern nationalism often led the highly-theorised and quantiﬁed
charge for more such investments. A Lowell weaver imported to oversee
10. Littleﬁeld and Knack 1996; Morrison 2008, p. 52 and Morris 1993.
11. Blackburn 1998, p. 565.
12. Rodney 1981; Brodkin 2000, p. 245.
10 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
production in a Carolina mill, for example, reported that ‘there is full as much
work done by the blacks’, who also were supposedly ‘much more attentive to
the looms’ than Northern white workers. In 1812, one Virginia iron-works
reckoned slave-workers ‘ten times’ better than free ones. When white skilled
workers protested to the federal government over their replacement by slaves
in the Norfolk Dry Dock in 1830, management’s response showed how
thoroughly diﬀerence could be quantiﬁed and how readily the distinction
between slave and free shaded oﬀ into that between Black and white. Stones
‘hammered by White Men’ cost precisely $4.05 more than those ‘hammered
by blacks’ in one sample. Ironmasters similarly calculated and reached similar
conclusions, despite worries that slaves perhaps wasted more pig-iron and
charcoal in the production-process. Even as the Civil War raged, the Richmond
Examiner found time for disquisitions on race-management, broaching the
possibility that the South could rectify its mistake in employing black labour
too overwhelmingly in agriculture. It argued that a refurbished system of
bondage based on an ‘elaborate . . . subdivision of labor’, could respond to
both the ‘advanced intelligence’ and the ‘thievish propensities’ of African
slaves, and therefore constituted the key to ‘the management of the race’.
Calculations leading to the replacement of free Black workers in service
and seaports in the North by desperately poor Irish immigrants hinged on
the extent to which such desperation made the Irish willing to underbid
African-Americans in terms of wages. But the transition from one group to the
other, and the threat that other reversals could occur, also featured broad
discussions of whether the African or the Irish ‘race’ was more tractable
and eﬃ cient. When, for example, the wealthy New Yorker and hater of
Irish-Americans, George Templeton Strong, maintained that the Irish had
‘prehensile paws’, not hands, his judgement came in the context of extracting
labour from immigrant workers at his home and quickly led to comparisons:
‘Southern Cuﬀee seems of a higher social grade than Northern Paddy’.
antebellum replacement of white American-born ‘helps’ in domestic labour
with ‘servants’ of the Irish ‘race’ likewise involved scrutiny and comparison, as
did the turn from native-born to Irish women in Northern textile-mills.
Te potential for the so-called development of Africans as workers and as a
race was a central preoccupation of slaveholders, as a voluminous proslavery
13. Starobin 1971, pp. 11–14; Bezis-Selfa 1999, p. 679; Rockman 2001, pp. 33–4;
Upham-Bornstein, 2007, p. 65; for the iron-industry, see Dew 1994, esp. p. 107; Unsigned,
Scientiﬁc American 1863, p. 386, contains the Richmond quotation in an unsigned-note.
14. Ignatiev 1998; Roediger 1991; and Starobin 1971 pp. 82–99 and Strong 1952, pp. 342,
15. Dublin 1981; Cain 2007, pp. 64–83; Genovese 1974, p. 24.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 11
managerial literature made clear. In the major journals, published work
focused at least as frequently on the ‘management of [N]egroes’ as on the
‘management of slaves’. When the titles of the articles referred to slaves,
practical issues like housing-rations, supervision, discipline, and diet bulked
large. When the subject was proclaimed to be managing ‘[N]egroes’, broad
pronouncements on racial-diﬀerence more consistently appeared as part of the
calculus of how to run an eﬃ cient, productive plantation or farm. But the
diﬀerences were far from absolute, as business-knowledge and racial knowledge
were thoroughly mixed and the major plantation-management journals often
took the ‘makeup’ of Africans into account. At its most bizarre extreme,
masters imagined a serendipitous ‘innate’ characteristic of Africans that utterly
deﬂected abolitionist charges regarding the mistreatment of slaves. Tey were
a people, so this theory argued, ‘whose ethnical element, like the mule, restrict
the limits of arbitrary power over [them]’. Tus, the Southern Cultivator praised
the new owner of a failing plantation for one day shooting many sickly
livestock to demonstrate his ruthlessness to the watching workers, while
promising to kill 150 underperforming slaves the next day. Te master then
staged a contrived consultation with an overseer who ‘persuaded’ him to spare
the slaves, agreeing to let them live for an eighteen-month probationary
period. Te Southern Cultivator assured its readers that such a feigned stay of
execution to produce ‘a new spirit of industry’ among the slaves did not
constitute brutality, since ‘the Creator seems to have planted in the negro an
innate principle of protection against the abuse of arbitrary power’.
Te assumption that a race, as well as a group of individuals, was being
managed sometimes shaped the very ways that productivity was organised and
measured among slaves. Te crude distinction between ‘full hands’ and ‘half
hands’ by Louisiana masters suggests some attempt to balance individual and
group-productivity, though in parts of the South the ideal was to manage
individual slaves in a quantiﬁable system of tasks. In any case, the formation
of workers into a gang that, as many planter-managers boasted, ‘could be
driven’ was explicitly seen in racial terms. ‘You could never depend on white
men’, the refrain went, ‘and you couldn’t drive them any; they wouldn’t stand
16. Cartwright 1858, pp. 46–7 and p. 52 (‘like the mule’); Cartwright 1851a, pp. 186–7.
(Note that De Bow’s Review slightly changed titles over the years but we cite all as DR below.)
Compare Collins 1854a, pp. 205–6; Agricola 1855, p. 713; Collins 1854b, pp. 421–3 (‘innate
principle of protection’); Goodloe 1860a pp. 130–1, 1860b, pp. 279–80 and 1860c, p. 305;
Guerry 1860, pp. 176–7; Collins 1862, pp. 154–7; Hurricane 1860, pp. 276–7; Towns 1851
pp. 87–8; Arkansas River 1860, pp. 304–55; Calhoun 1855, pp. 713–9; Pitts 1860, pp. 276–7;
A Tennesseean 1853, p. 302; Small Farmer 1851, pp. 369–72. See Unsigned 1858b, p. 346 for
enthusing over the threat of mass-murder.
12 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
Walter Johnson’s history of the slave-market in Louisiana has shown
that race-management reached even into the understanding of the value of
so-called mixed-race slaves. Lighter-skinned women, for reasons situated at
the intersection of European standards of beauty and the practice of sexual
exploitation by masters, were more highly priced than darker-skinned ‘African’
women. But, among slaves who were men, a light skin generally decreased
value, as managerial ‘common sense’ dictated that mixed-race slaves could
withstand hot and backbreaking labour in sugar-production less well, and
that they were more likely to be unmanageable workers prone to running
away. Johnson provides accounts of the role of a very sophisticated and
modern paternalism designed to produce unmarked slaves who could be
traded more lucratively on the market than those whose scars provided
evidence of resistance, who faced moments of force centring more on sale than
the lash, and who were encouraged to appeal to the master to avoid such sale.
Such a view connects paternalism, race-management and race-development
profoundly. It reminds us that such management always policed resistance as
well as productivity, but that the two were never unconnected.
celebrated ‘scientiﬁc’ proslavery-thought to emerge from the Deep South came
squarely out of the imperatives of management and for the justiﬁcation of the
system in the face of abolitionist attacks. On the latter score, the idea that
Southern masters ‘knew’, and therefore could develop, ‘the Negro’, loomed
large. In describing his own system of management and what he did for slaves,
one planter-expert wrote of acting on the conviction ‘that man is as much
duty bound to improve and cultivate his fellow-men as he is to cultivate and
improve the ground . . . ’.
Te physician, slaveholder and University of Louisiana professor Dr Samuel
Cartwright spoke as a manager of Black labour in famously identifying two
major African pathologies while writing in the Southern regional, agricultural
and management-journal De Bow’s Review in 1851. Te ﬁrst condition, the
‘disease causing negroes to run away’, was termed drapetomania by Cartwright,
who called the second dysaesthesia Aethiopica, an illness whose ‘diagnostic’
was an ineﬃ cient, seemingly ‘half-asleep’ performance on the job. Tese
symptoms and their cures – ‘preventively . . . whipping the devil’ out of
17. Rose, ed. 1999, pp. 337–44; Breeden 1980, pp. 69–74. See also Genovese 1974 p. 61,
310, 361 and 371; Berlin 2004, p. 132, 149, 178 and 212; Reidy 1993, pp. 140–1 and Miller
1993, pp. 164–5. On race and driving, see Fogel and Engerman, 1988, pp. 204–5, including the
quotation; Olmsted 1856, pp. 204–6 and Olmsted 1996, pp. 153, 452. See also Smith 1997,
pp. 133–50 for dramas eventuating when masters attempted to use clock-time to impose work
discipline on slaves holding to ‘African’ conceptions of time.
18. Johnson 1999, pp. 142–62 and passim.
19. Unsigned 1858a, p. 235.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 13
potential drapetomaniacs, and avoiding any possibility of ‘negro liberty’ to
ward oﬀ dysaesthesia – make it impossible for us to take Cartwright’s ‘science’
seriously, but antebellum-experts suﬀered few such qualms. His contradictory
combination of emphases on the status of the conditions he invented as
individual maladies, if socially produced, and as parts of a complex of inherited
‘racial’ inferiorities, capture a pattern running through race-management. At
bottom, the enterprise hinged on both a ﬁrm sense of biologically-determined
white supremacy and on the malleability that made managing of improvements
among the inferior possible. He argued, supposedly on the basis of both
biblical and scientiﬁc authority, that Africans literally possessed an inherited
racial ‘instinct’, housed in the feet and knees, to genuﬂect before whites.
Without productive management, the loss of this instinct produced disease
and disaster. Also conveniently ‘innate’ were a ‘love to act as body servant’, a
tendency to ‘glory in a close, hot atmosphere, and an ‘ethnological peculiarity’
ensuring that ‘any deserved punishment, inﬂicted with a switch, cowhide or
whip, puts them into a good humor’. Cartwright slid from seeing the
conditions he described as curable, preventable ‘diseases’, aﬄ icting only a
minority of slaves, to suggesting a more constitutional and obdurate problem
by terming the maladies ‘peculiarities of the negro’. Cartwright thus made
management the cure for ‘negro peculiarities’. He insisted that ‘[t]he seat of
negro consumption is not in the lungs, stomach, liver, or any organ of the
body, but in the mind’, and suggested mismanagement or ‘bad government’
on the part of the master as its cause. Cartwright chided Northern scientists
for being blind to matters so clear to masters and overseers who were in daily
contact with slaves. He claimed that free Blacks in the North displayed
dysaesthesic symptoms almost universally, but that their ‘masterless’ status
made both diagnosis and cure impossible outside the South.
Such connections between racism and managerial knowledge, as W.E.B.
Du Bois long ago observed, had an impact on the development of
white-supremacist thought far beyond the South. To the ‘watching world’, a
racism designed to supervise what Du Bois called ‘slave industry’ seemed ‘the
carefully thought-out result of experience and reason’. In other, and even more
unlikely, areas as well, the seminal, bizarre intellectual work of Professor
Cartwright betrayed notions born of race-management. His tortured forays
into theology developed the minority proslavery racist position that Africans
were a pre-Adamic separate race who proﬁted by enslavement under superior
Caucasians, because Cartwright read plantation-management back into the
Bible’s earliest pages, reinterpreting Ham not as the father of Cush but instead
20. Cartwright undated, pp. 6, 9 and 14. On consumption see Cartwright 1851b, p. 212 and
Cartwright 1851c, pp. 331–5; see also Cartwright 1861, pp. 648–59.
14 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
their ‘head man’, the ‘manager, or overseer of the nacash [Negro] race’. Tus
the Bible, Cartwright wrote in 1860, ‘tells us certain facts about negroes which
none but the best informed planters and overseers know at the present day’.
Similarly, Cartwright premised his scholarship squarely on the needs of
managers of slaves for racial knowledge. Tose lacking such ethnological
knowledge, he maintained, ‘have great trouble in managing [N]egroes’. He
continued, ‘[i]f [the] ethnology [of the slaves] were better understood, their
value would be greatly increased . . .’.
Cartwright’s work is widely cited as foundational in scientiﬁc racism, but its
place as a central text in the history of American management should be more
widely acknowledged. Indeed, his simple treatment for the slow-working
‘hebetude’ accompanying dysaesthesia Aethiopica was to make slaves work
harder, therefore sending more oxygen to their brains. Management compelled
Africans to work, to ‘inhale vital air’, and thus to be transformed from the
‘bipedum nequissimus or arrant rascal that he was supposed to be’ to a healthy
‘good negro that can handle hoe or plow’. Tus transformed and driven, the
slave could produce eﬀectively, accomplishing ‘about a third less than what
the white man voluntarily imposes on himself ’ and not rebelling as whites
‘naturally’ would. Such an oxygenating prescription (it turned out that the
lungs accounted for much of the problem) and pseudo-quantiﬁed, racial
ratio-making science of work, captured much of the sense, nonsense and
circularity of race-managements to come.
Te white Southern practice of claiming racial knowledge in order to
manage, while emerging in slavery, quite outlived emancipation. Te boom in
railroad-construction in the postbellum South saw the notorious Civil War
general and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader, Nathan Bedford Forrest, calling on
his prewar expertise in managing and trading slaves to assemble and discipline
a labour-force laying track. Forrest typiﬁed a layer of leaders combining
race-management and political violence. In the early 1870s, federal action
against Klan violence in the Piedmont discovered a pattern of railway-contractors,
who had worked for the Confederacy as construction-engineers, doubling
as KKK terrorists. Te notorious postwar convict lease-system featured
race-speciﬁc targeting of Black workers, typically managed in gangs and under
the lash, all in accordance with theories inherited from slave-management
practices and ideas regarding how Africans best produced and developed. At
21. Du Bois 1988, p. 39. Cartwright’s views on race and the Bible are laid out in Cartwright
1860, p. 131 and pp. 129–36; see also Cartwright undated, pp. 6–14 and Fredrickson 1987, pp.
22. On his use of work as a cure and on his managerial impulses for ethnology, see Cartwright
1851c, pp. 333–5 and passim.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 15
one mine worked by convict-labour, the leather strap for whipping those not
keeping pace was called the ‘negro regulator’. It was not the convict, but ‘the
negro’, who was seen by state oﬃ cials as unable to ‘get along’ without the
In the New South’s ‘free world’, race-management also persisted and ramiﬁed,
as the work of Brian Kelly and others makes clear. In a revealing 1901 article in
the Cleveland-based iron-and-steel journal Te Foundry, an observer revisited
Southern stove-works he had observed sixteen years earlier. Te visitor initially
found that the slavery-era practice of using African-American craft-workers
produced a postwar work-force of moulders centrally including skilled, and
prized, Black workers. In one factory, a manager rhapsodised regarding the
unique racial ﬁt of ‘the negro’ and moulding, which he saw as requiring the
worker to be ‘an artist’ rather than ‘a mechanic’. On this romantic-racialist
view, the same knack that made the African ‘pick up music’ made his
craft-work as a moulder intuitive, delicate and deft. On the return to the same
plant at the turn of the century, the observer found a diﬀerent manager reﬂecting
the heritage of another strain in slave-management, and the ripening logic of
Jim Crow. Tis manager found Black moulders to be thieving (a ‘race trait’),
‘unsteady’, destructive of equipment, and unable to judge ‘the proper heat at
which to pour’. His ideal factory would ‘not have [had] a nigger about the place
at any price’. Characteristically, he produced numbers to make the case: the
Black moulder was paid only 4% less but supposedly produced 10% to 15%
less. To the manager’s chagrin, African-American moulders persisted in the
foundry. As he explained, ‘[t]his is an open shop, and some of our people think
it is good policy to keep enough negroes to show that we could ﬁll up with
them’ if unionisation threatened. Indeed, from day-to-day, even the manager
advocating a colour-bar saw the attractions of ‘playing one race against the
other’. He concluded: ‘If a white man gets cocky, it does seem good to ask how
he would like to see a nigger get his job’.
Exporting and transnationalising race-management
In the 1850s, a decade when calls to reopen the African slave-trade became
insistent and Irish-American labour unprecedentedly important, the world
23. On Forrest and the KKK in the Piedmont, see Ashdown and Gaudill 2006, pp. 62–3 and
Nelson 1999, pp. 135–7. On convict-leasing, see Lichtenstein 1996, p. 134 (for the quoted
material). See also pp. 52, 184 and Mancini 1996, pp. 40–1; and Blackmon 2008, pp. 55,
24. Inspector 1901, pp. 17–18. Tanks go to Zach Sell for this source. See also, for example,
Kelly 2001, pp. 123–209.
16 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
labour-market enlivened debates on race-management. By then, as Moon-Ho
Jung demonstrates, the ‘coolie trade’ from Asia to the Caribbean and elsewhere
already framed discussions of slavery and labour, and the ways workers might
be pitted against each other, in the US. During Reconstruction, pro-‘coolie’
planters and supporters, betraying what Jung calls an ‘unyielding fascination
with race’, saw importation of Chinese labour as a way to break ‘Sambo’ from
the sense that he was ‘master of the southern situation’. One newspaper
editorialised that most planters sought Chinese labour because they believed it
to be ‘more easily managed, and do better work, although much slower’. Te
writer praised racial competition as much as the virtues of any race, promising
that the entry of 100,000 Chinese workers would ‘make the negro a much
more reliable labourer’. Bedford Forrest, as white supremacist and manager,
alternated between proclaiming African labour the world’s best, and therefore
seeking new importations of African guestworkers, and encouraging schemes
to import Chinese labour, in both cases to compete with existing local labour-
supplies, including Black convict-labour.
Race-management also opened
the West, with competition between gangs in the historic 1860s construction
of the transcontinental-railroad frankly structured as a contest, sometimes
spilling over into violence, of Irish versus Chinese gangs on unspeakably
dangerous jobs. Te relatively cheap labour, and the vulnerability, of the
former group, inﬂuenced even how the road was engineered, with inexpensive,
imperilled labour substituting for wooden support-structures. As with racialised
gang-labour elsewhere, the whole gang was paid a sum, with management in
one instance declaring that because Chinese were indistinguishable from each
other, individual wage-payments would have opened possibilities of the same
worker drawing double pay.
Race was ultimately central to both industrial management at home and
to imperial expansion, continentally and overseas. After the 1848 Treaty of
Guadalupe Hildalgo added much of Mexico to the US, one US editor summed
up what Ron Takaki has called the ‘metaphysics of Mexican-hating’ within a
white managerial ethos: ‘Te nation that makes no outward progress . . . that
cherishes not its resources – such a nation will burn out [and] become the prey
of the more adventurous enemy’.
Te old argument that the ‘English-speaking
race’ speciﬁcally embodied wise management continued to play its part in
25. M-H Jung 2006, pp. 202–3 (‘unyielding fascination’); Unsigned 1860, pp. 729–38
(‘more easily managed’). Compare Cohen 1984 p. 53. Ashdown and Gaudill 2006, pp. 61–4;
Mancini 1996, p. 73 and pp. 133–4.
26. Ambrose 2000, p. 153, 327 and passim; White 1985, pp. 266–7. See Stromquist 2006,
pp. 623–48 for provocative observations on the aﬃ nities on railroad-construction in the US
West and in colonial countries.
27. Takaki 2000, p. 161.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 17
empire-building. In 1896, Andrew Carnegie, commenting on British actions
in Venezuela, would acknowledge the ‘dubious’ ways that indigenous land
had been seized, but concluded nonetheless that ‘upon the whole the
management of the land acquired by our race has been for the higher interests
of humanity’. Further, it was ‘well that the Maori should fade away, and
give way to the intelligent, industrious citizen, a member of our race’.
Well before the 1898 push for a formal overseas US empire, a striking number
of former slaveowning or slavetrading Southerners found work by claiming
expertise in the capture and management of Paciﬁc Islander forced-labour
being brought into Fiji and Queensland.
In large measure, the cohabitation of race-management and management-
science matured in US managerial discourse outside the country before it
became so highly elaborated in factories at home. Arguably the greatest US
export in the quarter of a century after 1890 was the mining engineer, and,
with him US capital-goods, technically well-trained, such engineers replaced
European experts in Asian, Mexican, South-American, Australian and African
mines partly because they could proclaim a knowledge gained at the intersection
of race and management. Such engineers often gained experience in western
US mines where varying decisions regarding which ‘races’ – the term
then marked diﬀerences of European nationality as well as broad ‘colour’
divisions – could live in the ‘white man’s camp’ were central to management.
In Columbia University’s ambitious 1950s project interviewing mining
engineers with far-ﬂung careers, Ira Joralemon was one interviewee who
learned race- (and gender-) management in the Southwest and took it into
wider worlds. In Arizona’s Ajo mine, he recalled, ‘a lot of Papago Indians’ did
the dangerous and hard work of sinking the pit. Quickly, Swedes from
Minnesota, typed as ‘jackpine savages’ when they mined in proximity to
Indians in that state, joined the ranks of the mine’s drill-men. Te Swedes,
according to Joralemon’s useful-to-management observations, were so tough
that the ‘squaw men’ around Ajo, who lived with their families out in the
desert, called the new drillers ‘the savages’. Biographies of mining engineers
sometimes took the form of western adventure stories writ transnationally.
Trained at top schools in a frankly élitist way, eschewing hands-on
shop-based curricula, and reﬂecting the explicit inﬂuence of social Darwinism,
28. Carnegie 1896, p. 133.
29. Horne 2006.
30. Spence 1970, p. 165–87 and 278–317; Calvert 1967, p. 211. Marks and Trapido 1979,
p. 61; Huginnie 1994; Roediger 2005, pp. 74–5. Carlisle 1959; See also Vick 2002, p. 342; See
Nkosi 1987, p. 69 on training in mines in the western US. For a vivid example of larger patterns,
with important and precocious South-African ties, see the biography of John Hays Hammond
in Cyclopaedia of American Biography 1915, pp. 56–61 and 249–50.
18 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
men like Joralemen claimed to know how to boss ‘native’ and racially-divided
labour worldwide. South-African mines saw the most spectacular inﬂux of
US management, which ran fully half of new gold-mines there by 1895,
William Honnold being among the most powerful of the Yankee engineers.
Holding that ‘some employers are unqualiﬁed or temperamentally unﬁt to
manage crude labour’, he argued in 1908 that ‘to recall American experience’
with the ‘eﬃ ciency of negroes’ could clarify much in South-African mines.
(He nevertheless resisted proposals to bring actual African-American miners
to South-African mines with the judgement that ‘American niggers . . . would
be the very worst thing that could be introduced’.) US western mines also
produced James Hennen Jennings, who helped produce South-African studies
of what racial lessons could be learned from mining in Venezuela, where he
had also worked.
US export of engineering expertise, leavened by putative
racial knowledge, was far from being conﬁned to mining. Te celebrated ‘Test
Course’ used in the training of engineers at General Electric (GE) could boast,
according to a 1919 survey, that its graduates had ‘scattered over the four
quarters of the globe, doing their share in the fascinating work of electrifying
China, harnessing the waterfalls in India . . . . substituting electricity for steam
or hand labor in the mines of Alaska and South Africa, building railways in
Australia and refrigerating plants in the Philippine Islands’. Much given to
emphasising a racial mix were chief engineers constructing the Panama Canal,
who scoured the earth for cheap labour, paying on two tracks, the far-less
favoured one in silver and the more beneﬁcent one in gold. Crosscut by skill
and citizenship, the system was increasingly shaped by race after 1905,
becoming, as Julie Greene’s ﬁne history observes, ‘more emphatically – but
never exclusively – a racial hierarchy’.
Te central ﬁgure in the cult of the US mining engineer, though more
well-remembered for other crimes, was the future US president Herbert
Hoover. Hoover was eﬀectively press-agented as the nation’s ‘highest-salaried
man’ for his work as a transnational engineer whose most spectacular
adventure-capitalist exploits brought ideas of eﬃ ciency to Africa, China and
isolated areas of Australia. He might just as easily deserve the simpler title of
‘race-manager’. In Australia, he thought that the ‘saucy independence’ and
‘loaﬁng proclivities’ of local white miners required a counterweight. Hoover
31. Honnold as quoted in Higginson 2007, pp. 10, 15. On Jennings, see Nkosi 1987, pp.
69–74 and 75. On social Darwinism and competing theories of engineering education, see
Brittain and McMath Jr. 1997, p. 177.
32. Te survey is quoted in Noble 1979, p. 172, which is also acute on management and
nationality, at pp. 57–8. See Adams, Jr. 1966, p. 228 for the line (quoted by Noble at 57) of
immigration and ‘developing management techniques’. On the canal, see Greene 2009, p. 64
and pp. 37–158.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 19
ranked groups of indigenous Australians eagerly, but called all of them ‘niggers’,
and judged even ‘superior’ ones as having ‘too little intelligence to work very
much’. He therefore pitted the ‘races’ against each other by importing crews of
Italian immigrants and keeping them ‘in reserve’ in order to ‘hold the property’
against the possibility of a general strike. In the context of an inquiry into the
use of Italian labour, Hoover’s associate gave the fuller logic of the choice.
Italians, he reckoned, were more ‘servile’, ‘peaceable’ and productive. Hoover
himself put the advantage in productivity of Italian labour at a ratio of 26:15
on one work-gang, but the real beneﬁt lay in the racial competition itself.
Management would be ‘in a mess if they had all aliens or all British’. It was
‘mixed labour’ that provided the real payoﬀs.
An eager producer of reports judging the relative eﬃ ciency of African,
Chinese and white miners on the Rand in South Africa, Hoover was
accustomed to calculating productivity by weighing ‘coloured shifts’ and
‘coloured wages’ against the white. His own most extensive pretences of
calculations on race and management often involved Chinese workers.
Hoover, who once extravagantly wrote that he had strongly supported the
restriction of ‘Asiatic immigration’ to the US ever since he could ‘think and
talk’, did not let borders keep him from making his early career as an engineer
in North China. He continually commented on race and productivity there,
at times spinning the data rosily to attract investment and at others gloomily
to explain why dramatic gains in eﬃ ciency had not been made under his
watch. In an early prominent appearance before an international congress of
engineers in London in 1902, for example, he wrote of ‘mulish’ Chinese
miners and their ‘capacity for thieving’. However, he cheerily concluded,
money could be saved on timbers supporting mines, because tragedies only
had to be compensated at thirty dollars per death, given what he perversely
saw as ‘the disregard for human life’ among the Chinese.
Hoover mixed impressions and calculations regarding the Chinese worker,
always dissembling knowledge, even if seldom consistent. Tus Chinese
‘thieving’ was epidemic, but at other junctures judged as no worse than the
world’s norm. Hoover could credit charges that Chinese cultural baggage
regarding mining fatally interfered with operations and then turn on a dime
to oﬀer the more plausible view that to dwell on ‘superstition’ among the
Chinese was a ‘great mistake’. He once held that the ‘the Chinese mine as fast
as anyone if they believe that there is anything in it for them. Te main reason
33. Spence, 1970, p. 278; Nash 1983, pp. 72–3 and 330–3; Wilson 1975, pp. 33–7; Hoover
34. See, for example, Unsigned 1903 and Unsigned 1907, pp. 161–65; Hoover 1909, pp.
161–5; ‘Hoover 1924; Hoover 1902, pp. 419 and 426–7.
20 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
for the riots against our mines and miners was the Chinese dislike of seeing
foreigners make capital out of their soil’.
Te ratios of race and productivity
that Hoover fabricated for international conferences similarly varied wildly.
In 1900, he supposed that Chinese in mining produced a ﬁfth of that of
white workers, since for the former group ‘to work, in the sense of Western
miners, is an unheard-of exaction’. Two years later, the Chinese worker had
‘no equal’ in the world for crude labour, though an accompanying chart
counted him only a quarter as productive as the ‘American’ in such work, for
a twelfth of the pay. For miners, the newly calculated ratio was 1:8.
he published Principles of Mining in 1909, Hoover produced a chart on South-
African mines, amalgamating data on African and Chinese workers there, but
also purportedly reﬂecting data from the Chinese in China. Ratios abounded.
He concluded that, in simple tasks like shovelling, ‘one white man equals from
two to three of the coloured races’. In more highly skilled work, ‘the average
ratio is . . . one to seven, or . . . even eleven’. Hoover’s memoirs explained
the productivity-diﬀerences in racial terms, though all of his writings oﬀer the
possibility, common in progressive (and speciﬁcally managerial) thought, that
enduring cultural habits mattered as much as biology when it comes to racial
diﬀerences. ‘Our inventions and machinery came out of our racial instincts
and qualities’, he held. ‘Our people learn easily how to make them work
eﬃ ciently’. Te Chinese, ‘a less mechanical-minded people than the European-
descended races . . . require many times more men to operate our intricate
Hoover thus sometimes departed substantially from the editorial view of
the inﬂuential Engineering and Mining Journal, which maintained that ‘mine
operators ﬁnd it economical to make the best of whatever native labour may
be available’, training it up to ‘American or European’ standards, rather than
dealing with sickly, entitled, imported white miners. However, he never argued
that non-white labour must be barred from unskilled work, only that wages,
opportunities, expectations and conditions of competition be adjusted by
knowledgeable race-managers with the ability to calculate advantages of racial
choices. In South Africa, he closely associated with Honnold, with John
Higginson’s wonderful account terming the pair ‘formidable enemies of South
Africa’s black and white workers’. Indeed, for all of his doubts as to their
eﬃ ciency, Hoover played an active role with the Chinese Engineering and
35. See Hoover 1902, Hoover 1900, and Hoover undated for the defence of Chinese
36. Compare the Hoover 1900 and Hoover 1902 and note the comment appended to the
1902 paper at p. 427.
37. Hoover 1951, pp. 69–71 and Hoover 1909, pp. 161–5.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 21
Mining Company in recruiting over 60,000 indentured Chinese to work
South-African mines, after the costs of possible Cypriot, Hungarian and Italian
labour-forces had been assayed. At a time when African miners were massively
withdrawing their labour from jobs in which wages had decreased and the
danger of accidents was rising, and when organised, skilled white miners
commanded great social power in the industry, the Chinese seemed to oﬀer
great opportunities to play races oﬀ against each other. Te particular task of
sinking ever-deeper mines rested on new technologies for the recovery of less
rich ore, but it also hinged on ‘concealing death’, and on hiding, especially,
management’s role in producing it. Chinese and African miners were made to
perilously drill into hanging walls in insuﬃ ciently-supported shafts. Tey
were regularly blamed for the resulting cave-ins.
When employing non-white labour, Hoover also indulged in paternal
fantasies of generalised racial uplift. He balanced racial competition with what
was called ‘race development’ by the early twentieth century. Such alternating
currents of race-management and race-development helped give rise to a
thoroughly modern US imperialism. Tat the ﬂagship journal of modern US
empire, Foreign Aﬀairs, evolved from the tellingly-titled Journal of Race
Development suggests that few architects of US empire did their work outside
a racial framework. Perhaps the ﬁrm that most practised race-management
in part via race-development, home and away, was that emblem of US
management, the Ford Motor Company. Hoover’s approach was mirrored by
that of Ford, whose managers set immigrant ‘races’ against each other even as
company-paid social workers could claim to develop ‘the race’ as a whole
through education in Americanism and intrusive home visits from company
African-American workers at Ford outnumbered those in
all other auto-factories combined, yet rather than suggesting a lack of
concern with race in its plants, Ford’s hiring of African Americans reveals a
sophisticated – if contradictory – approach to management via race; once it,
in turn, exported, adapted and trumpeted in theorising management and race
in its operations in Brazil and South Africa, for example.
38. Rickard 1905, p. 388 reprints material from the Journal; Higginson 2007, pp. 16 and
12–26. See also Nkosi 1987, p. 76.
39. Wilson 1992, pp. 32–3; Hoover 1951, p. 71; on Ford, see Meyer III 1981, pp. 156–92.
See also Esch 2002, pp. 76–9.
40. Blatt 2004, pp. 691–708 and Bender 2006, p. 210. Te publication became the Journal
of International Relations in 1919 and Foreign Aﬀairs three years after that. On Ford and Hoover,
see Lewis 1987, p. 222.
22 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
Scientiﬁc management, racist science, and the studied unstudiedness of
Te ways in which race-management coexisted with scientiﬁc management at
home deserve our attention as the clearest examples of how fully compatible
with the innovations of industrial capitalism were the atavisms of race. Te
brutalities of racism seem to intersect only obliquely with the cold science
of management that Frederick Winslow Taylor is credited with inventing
in the late nineteenth-century US. Yet Commons was able to maintain
otherwise, in part because Taylor’s ideas existed alongside crude practices of
race-management. Indeed, even the famous example that Taylor himself used
to educate the public regarding his system’s ability to create ‘high-priced men’
by selecting them studiously and regimenting their motions scientiﬁcally
suggests an overlap between managerial science and race-management. In the
example, even as he insisted that the key to eﬀective management was to
remake individuals, Taylor chose ‘Schmidt’ as the exemplar of a new regimen
for labour. In moving an abandoned stock of pig-iron suddenly made valuable
by the Spanish-American-Cuban-Philippines War, Taylor urged an almost
fourfold increase in productivity and made Schmidt the human face, and
pseudonym, for such an advance. Te model worker’s name was actually the
less stereotypically German ‘Noll’, and the switch reﬂected a penchant for
ethnic typing that elsewhere had Taylor discoursing on the ‘Patrick’ type for
Irish-American workers. In the famous pig-iron example, Taylor adjusted
rhetoric and practice with ‘racial’ attributes in mind. After ﬁrst experimenting
with ‘large, powerful Hungarians’ to eﬀect the speed-up, Taylor turned to a
‘racial’ image of doggedness rather than brute force. Te name Schmidt, and
Taylor’s description, emphasised that the workers’ agreement to submit to the
new system, and his ability to produce, ﬂowed in part from his membership
of the German ‘race’. Schmidt embodied the strength, persistence, and love of
savings thought by Taylor to be peculiarly concentrated in the Pennsylvania
Dutch, as Germans in the area were called.
In other ways, too, Taylor engaged race as he revolutionised management.
In replying to the socialist-novelist Upton Sinclair’s critique of his celebrated
‘Te Principles of Scientiﬁc Management’ article in 1911, Taylor cast matters
globally in a way that suggested familiarity with Hoover’s articles, and ratios,
on transnational engineering: ‘the one element more than any other which
diﬀerentiates civilised from uncivilised countries . . . is that the average man in
one is ﬁve or six times as productive as [in] the other’. More incredibly still,
41. Taylor 1967, pp. 41–7; Kanigel 1997, p. 319 on ‘Hungarians’ and 316–22; Haber 1964,
p. 23, n. 12 on ‘Patrick’.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 23
Taylor’s use of race-management found its way (well, almost) into the
classic work of African-American sociology of the early twentieth century,
W.E.B. Du Bois Te Philadelphia Negro. Du Bois mentions Midvale Steel,
ground-zero for the development of Taylor’s managerial techniques, as one
rare Philadelphia industrial workplaces in which African Americans could
work in large numbers at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century.
Du Bois credited a manager ‘whom many dubbed a crank’, for the opportunities
at Midvale. Te sociologist E. Digby Baltzell identiﬁed that crank as Taylor
decades later. Te social historians Walter Licht and Jacqueline Jones later
added their own brief accounts, emphasising that Taylor’s hatred of ethnic
solidarity and of on-the-job drinking at Midvale had led him to introduce
African-American workers into gangs across the plant, hoping to undermine
unity within work-gangs. Apparently, even as Midvale workers called him a
‘nigger driver’ for his speeding up of work, Taylor integrated the labour-force
signiﬁcantly. Subsequent managers segregated Midvale, with Black workers
remaining but conﬁned to certain departments.
Taylor’s racial logic in the Schmidt example, and his use of Black workers
at Midvale, did not run through the whole of his writing. It is true that,
despite his abolitionist upbringing, he occasionally professed a belief in
Black inferiority and that he was capable of glorying that when ‘American’
labourers moved up to operate machines, ‘the dirt handling is done by
Italians and Hungarians’.
But, more frequently, his desire to uproot the
arbitrary power of foremen placed Taylor among those management-experts
whose formal system left the least room for day-to-day uses of stormy racial
competition to extract production. Like Hoover, he increasingly marketed
his management-style as based on scientiﬁc expertise in manipulating
processes and not racialised bodies.
But, more broadly, the race-thinking
that informed Taylor’s presentation of his new system by introducing listeners
and readers to Schmidt did comport somewhat with larger patterns that
saw race-management survive, and even expand, in the early years of the
era of scientiﬁc management. In short, and tellingly, race was much
discussed, but seldom systematically investigated, in the higher reaches of
management-theory, even as race-management was practised daily by foremen
42. Du Bois 1967, pp. 129–31 and xxxvii–xxxviii. Taylor 1911; on drinking and ethnicity see
Taylor 1914. On Midvale, Du Bois and Taylor, see Jones 1998, pp. 108–9 and Licht 2000, pp.
46–7. On ‘nigger driver’ see Taylor as extracted in Copley 1969, pp. 1, 163.
43. Haber 1964 p. 23, n. 12 including the quotation. Kanigel 1997, pp. 35–44 treats Taylor’s
abolitionist upbringing and adult suspicion of antislavery-motives.
44. For a particularly vivid example of Taylor undermining foremen’s day-to-day control over
individual workers see Taylor 1907, in which he valorises having an individual worker ‘taught’
by eight diﬀerent foremen.
24 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
with little recourse to theory. As David Montgomery has written of the period
in which scientiﬁc management ﬂowered, ‘all managers seem[ed] to agree’
with International Harvesters’ H.A. Worman, who held that ‘each race has
aptitude for certain kinds of work’; though Montgomery, slyly – and as
we shall see, weightily – adds that they could disagree utterly about ‘which
race was best for what’. Montgomery further observed that the trend toward
personnel-management as a complement to Taylorism speciﬁcally ‘extended
the purview of scientiﬁc management from the factory itself to the surrounding
community’, a development that ‘ﬂowed directly from the concern with
recruiting from speciﬁc ethnic groups’.
Montgomery was right about the ubiquity and durability of race-management
and its haphazardness regarding which races performed best in what jobs.
Race was said to matter enormously in slotting workers into jobs, but the
evidence on this decisive managerial decision was fully oﬀ-hand, describing
rather than studying practices. In 1915, an iron-industry journal went so far
as to challenge the adequacy of the very term ‘common labour’ on the grounds
that ‘such labour is racial’. It continued, ‘Immigrants of some races turn chieﬂy
to agriculture, some to the vending of fruit, others to the making of clothing,
and others seek the coke works, blast furnaces and steel mills’. At rare times,
management-literature speciﬁed which races should be slotted into jobs. Te
psychologist Eliott Frost declared race and nationality to be the centrepieces of
personnel management, and added this seat-of-the-pants science:
Te Jew, for instance, demands an arrangement in which he can bargain. He is
continually thinking of how much he is receiving for his labour . . . Te Italians’
highly emotional nature lends itself readily to directions by the organisers. It is
the testimony of the executives that he cannot be trusted without reservations,
and that he is apt to be sullen and moody. Te German workman is of placid
disposition, loves detail, [and] is particularly eﬀective on precision work. Te Pole
and Croat usually do the dirty work.
Te elaborate chart, ranking three-dozen immigrant ‘races’ according to their
ﬁtness for three-dozen job-types and conditions, posted at Pittsburgh Central
Tube in 1925, assembled a much more impressive number of opinions, but
only opinions, systematising a huge factory and the peoples in it in upwards
of a thousand multicoloured squares.
Again, judgements were crude, gathering up managerial prejudices and
practices. Italians, according to the Pittsburgh chart, allegedly excelled with
pick and shovel but could not handle serving as helpers for engineers.
45. Montgomery 1987, pp. 242–3. See also Jacoby 2003, pp. 148–50.
46. Unsigned 1915, p. 91; Williams 1917, p. 64; Frost 1920, pp. 21–2.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 25
26 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
Armenians ranked ‘good’ in none of the 22 job categories listed and rose to
‘fair’ only once: wheelbarrow. ‘Americans, White’ could do any job fairly
well and excelled in most. Jews supposedly did not ﬁt well into any industrial
jobs. Portuguese workers were rated as ‘poor’ in seven of eight ‘atmospheric
conditions’ and joined Mexicans in lacking the capacity to work on the
night-shift, or the day one. Greeks and West Indians rose beyond ‘fair’ only in
surviving heat and humidity, according to the Pittsburgh chart.
Te contradictory conclusions of managers regarding race also underline
Montgomery’s point in that constant and even passionate (if glancing)
attention to race in the management-literature did not require close empirical
investigation of race and productivity. Te Immigration Commission report
of 1911 posited virtual unanimity among employers on the judgement that
Southern Italians were ‘the most ineﬃ cient of races’. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh
Steel management placed Italians in the most eﬃ cient third, above Canadians,
of all ‘racial’ groups shortly thereafter. Nor did the fact that one steel-manager
might prefer ‘two Negroes’ to ‘three Macedonians’, while most ranked the
‘alien white races’ above African-Americans in making ratios of productivity,
provoke any urgent desire to systematically settle the issue. Not only the basic
question of who was white, but even that of who was black, remained
unanswered by managers otherwise ﬁxated on race. ‘Te black races cannot
do the work in three days that a white man can do in one’, an Iron Range
mine-superintendent told a government-investigator, using the former term
to connote Montenegrins, Serbs, South Italians, Greeks and Croats. When
rankings were hazarded, they reﬂected collections of existing prejudices of
managers, not investigation of production. Tus, a 1911 article placed the
‘races’ in ‘about the following order: Slovaks, Poles, Magyars, Croatians,
Italians’, ranked according to ‘preferences of the employers’.
Even the most noteworthy eﬀorts to provide social-science and economic
justiﬁcations for employing more African-American workers in industry
showed how the anecdotal stood in for data and how post-hoc reasoning
combined with wishful thinking in writings on race directed to managers.
Te best compilation of pro-Black-worker managerial opinion, a 1927 article
by the eminent African-American sociologist Charles Johnson, remained
suﬃ ciently wedded to gathering managerial opinions that Johnson ultimately
acknowledged the limits set on his work as an instrument of reform. Te
litany of favourable opinions Johnson found among at least some managers
47. Bodnar, Simon and Weber 1983, p. 240 reprints the chart.
48. Roediger 2005, pp. 75–7; for the Iron Range, United States Industrial Commission
1911, pp. 339–41, with thanks to Tomas Mackaman; Lauck 1911, p. 899; For Commons’s
blithe ranking of European immigrants see Commons 1905, pp. 332–3.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 27
of Blacks was useful: ‘loyalty’, ‘they follow instructions’, ‘can stand heat’, ‘can
do hard work’, ‘possess physical strength’ and ‘are trustworthy’. But the litany
carried its own limits. Black workers were, Johnson wrote,
wanted for rough work because they are husky and cheerful, and ﬁtting
satisfactorily into this, it follows in reasoning that in the division of work they are
best ﬁtted for rough work, and frequently are held to it by a carefully reasoned
process. Teir success in one ﬁeld thus limits prospects for advancement into
Dwight Tompson Farnam’s long, hands-on 1918 Industrial Management
article, ‘Negroes as a Source of Industrial Labor’, saw a leading supervising
engineer develop some new evidence beyond managerial common sense,
but he was as trapped as Johnson by his assumptions. While Johnson entered
the terrain of managerial opinion to push for racial justice, Farnam stressed
proﬁt. He made the case that the supply of Black labour doubled that of
immigrant-labour and urged that it be ‘properly allocated’. Te context of
wartime labour-shortages and the stirrings of immigrant labour-rebellions
made Farnam’s article well-timed. Farnam moved, perhaps more than any
other expert, towards an empirical framework to investigate race and labour.
He generated a plethora of graphs, and avoided naked white supremacy by
describing the ‘inherited’ diﬀerences of African Americans as based on climate
in Africa and thus subject to gradual amelioration given proper white
managerial leadership. Still, the article compiled rather than investigated
managerial white-lore regarding race on the job and echoed racist assumptions.
Describing the Great Migration to the North for war-work as ‘trainloads
of negro mammies, pickaninnies [with their] . . . pathetic paraphernalia of
mysterious bundles and protesting household pets’, Farnam compared Black
and immigrant-workers at every turn – their relative progress toward literacy,
their rates of incarceration and their reputations among foremen.
Farnam also developed a fanciful history and natural history of Africa as
one ‘country’, without ‘letters, art or science’, with venomous snakes and
diseases preventing herding everywhere, and above all with ‘luxuriant’ food
there for the picking. Such misinformation became an explanation for the
absence of any ‘feverish desire to work’ among those more than a century
removed from Africa. What plenty could not establish in blunting a work-
ethic was accounted for by the ‘humid heat [that is] depressing and exhausting’,
with Farnam believing that all of West Africa somehow lay below the equator.
49. Johnson 1926, p. 408. Tanks to Zach Sell for directing us to Johnson’s article.
50. Farnam 1918, pp. 123–9.
28 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
Tus, as a sub-heading from Farnam put it, ‘THE NEGRO IS DIFFERENT’
as a subject of management – childlike and needing a boss to ‘think for’ him
or her. Te article reprised literature on slave-management, pronouncing on
the whole ‘negro race’ and urging the individual selection of loyal and
exemplary Black workers. Te foreman was described much as an overseer,
needing a combination of ‘absolute ﬁrmness’ and an ability to see the African
American workers ‘antics at ﬁrst with assumed toleration’. Such talents were
themselves racialised. Te Irish, with their ‘cheeriness coupled with an
occasional terrifying outburst of authority . . . ma[d]e good negro bosses’. One
anecdote suggested that an Irish foreman could extract as much production
from ‘an engine room full of negroes’ as from one ‘full of German square-
heads’. Te ‘New Englander who has no patience with any except those thrifty
souls who work unwatched from a strong sense of duty, has no business trying
to handle [N]egroes’.
Farnam wisely kept his articles’ ill-described charts at
some distance from his textual explanations of their contents. Four of the nine
charts purport to quantify ‘[N]egro’ productivity under various types of
foremen. Charts had a sample size of one; thus one foremen studied was Irish,
lending the most slender support to Farnam’s thesis on nationality and
Tus, purportedly scientiﬁc connections of race and productivity remained
very crude. Tis crudeness turns out to be vital for understanding how
race-management worked. Solid studies of immigrant-workers surveyed their
conditions oﬀ the job: readers in 1921 learned, for example, that only one
Greek male immigrant in ﬁve and one Spanish immigrant in seven brought
family members to the US; the study also tabulated their naturalisation-rates.
Te weightiest research on productivity and race tended to be assembled by
investigators writing in the government journal Monthly Labor Review, and
often focused on demonstrating the falsity of negative stereotypes regarding
Black workers. Tis data seems to have made scant impact against such
stereotypes, while the repetition of anti-Black and xenophobic folklore took
scholars to great academic heights. When the towering ﬁgure in American
sociology, E.A. Ross, urged slotting the Slavic ‘race’ into ﬁlthy jobs because
they were ‘immune’ to dirt, he oﬀered a stereotype, not a study. Likewise with
Commons’s assessment that ‘Te Negro . . . works three days and loafs three
[while the] Chinaman, Italian, or Jewish immigrant works six days and saves
the wages of three’. Such chatter left on-the-ground race-management, mostly
carried out by foremen, free to proceed unchecked. When the sociologist
51. Ibid. See also Taylor 1922, pp. 375–402; Garth 1920, pp. 235–44 and Garth 1921, pp.
52. Ibid. See also Jones 2005.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 29
Jerome Davis researched his extraordinary 1922 study Te Russian Immigrant,
he had to drop plans for a questionnaire regarding Russian immigrant-workers
as one personnel-department after another reported utter lack of basic
statistical information on how many Russian immigrants they employed and
an inability to distinguish them from Jews, Poles, Finns, and others often
listed as ‘Russian’. Tis lack of data coexisted with both a high tide in
pronouncing racial judgements on workers and a professed desire to limit the
hiring of Russians as potential Bolsheviks.
Some experts criticised this pattern. As early as 1913, Hugo Münsterberg’s
classic Psychology and Industrial Eﬃ ciency identiﬁed the discontinuity between
precise studies of workers’ motions and seat-of-the-pants assumptions on ‘race’
and productivity. Münsterberg set out to assess how far scientiﬁc management
had gone, and could go, and staked out a place for ‘scientiﬁc psychology’ as
congruent with the ‘revolutionary’, but incomplete, innovations of Taylor.
Race initially seemed to Münsterberg to present little diﬃ culty in achieving
such a synthesis. ‘If a man applies for a position’, he wrote, ‘he is considered
[for] the totality of his qualities, and at ﬁrst nobody cares whether the particular
feature is inherited or acquired, whether it is an individual chance variation
or . . . common . . . to all members of a certain nationality or race’. Crude
reliance on ‘race’ in the search for the ‘best possible man’ for the job would be
checked because, even when the ‘combination of mental traits’ required
occurred in speciﬁc races, ‘psychical qualities may vary strongly in the midst of
But, later, Münsterberg acknowledged that the search for the best
man for the job did indeed often devolve into unexamined racial assumptions.
Tat management at the plant-level cared about race was not necessarily bad,
in his view; that they cared so unscientiﬁcally was what was troubling. At
one factory with ‘twenty diﬀerent nationalities’, the employment-oﬃ ce might
declare the Italians best for one job, the Irish for another and the Hungarians
for a third. At the next factory, he added, completely diﬀerent conclusions
would be reached. In one workplace, managerial race-lore had the ‘hasty and
careless’ Italians and Greeks as undesirable in risky jobs, which went to the
Irish. In the next, it was the Irish who allegedly courted danger. Münsterberg
himself was no critic of race-thinking – he tended to credit the stereotype of
carelessness as applying to Italians, Greeks and Irishmen. But he abhorred the
53. Reid 1921, p. 31; Burlingame 1917, pp. 385–92; Unsigned 1924, pp. 41–4; Unsigned
1921, pp. 853–8; Unsigned 1925, pp. 10–13 and Unsigned 1926, pp. 48–51; Ross as quoted in
Lieberson 1980, p. 25; Roediger 2005, p. 54. Commons 1904b, pp. 18 and 13–22; Ramstad
and Starkey, 1995 pp. 16–17 and 63–4.; on Russians, see Davis 1922, pp. 23–5.
54. Münsterberg 1913, pp. 50, 27–8 and 69. On the origins of industrial psychology, see
Baritz 1965, pp. 21–41.
30 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
lack of system in studying race and management. ‘American industrial centers’,
he argued, oﬀered ‘extremely favorable conditions for the comparative
study of nationality’, but the opportunity was not being seized. ‘Much more
thorough statistical inquiries’ were needed to ground ‘race psychological
Münsterberg was joined in this lament by practically all of the
small number of writers attempting to study race, management, and labour.
Farnam noted in 1918 that ‘[t]he racial tendencies of diﬀerent classes of
labour have so far been insuﬃ ciently studied in America’. A year later, the
industrial psychologist Eliott Frost likewise thought that he was starting
anew in developing an ‘analysis of racial psychology’ for industrial education
and management. As one early 1920s management-handbook phrased
Montgomery’s point on race and personnel-management, the task of
employment-managers was to ‘follow internal migrations of diﬀerent races
and nationalities . . . movements of [N]egroes and Spanish-Americans’, and to
hire the ‘type of worker most desirable for [the] task: American or foreign,
white or black’. Management-literature remained close-mouthed on how to
Te ﬁt among the immigrants’ attributes, their potential for race-development,
and the needs of industry, was at other junctures more rapturously described,
in often fanciful ways that hard data comparing immigrant ‘races’ would have
almost certainly undermined. Te management- and industry-journal Iron
Age linked immigrants from eastern and southern Europe not only to the
ability to withstand heat, but to an ‘attraction’ to ‘hot and heavy work’ – in
contrast to the Northern-European ‘aversion’ to such conditions. Mexicans,
according to a 1930 account in Nation’s Business, ‘are fond of outdoor life
[and] easily enter a nomadic mode of living’, making them ‘natural’ farm-
workers. Other serendipities that management-publications posited included
Slavs having a ‘temperamental tendency toward being easily managed’,
toward being anti-union, and toward preferring ‘the lowest wage scale’ to
any extra eﬀort. At least that was the story until Slavic-American militancy
in the post-World War One strikes strained such assumptions.
English School’s graduation-ceremony paraded evidence of the easy path to
race-development imagined, alongside nativist fears, in the hopeful moments
before World War One and the strike-wave that followed changed matters.
Te ceremony saw immigrant-workers in ‘shabby rags’ walk down a gangplank
55. Munsterberg, 1913, pp. 129–31.
56. Farnam 1918, p. 128; Frost 1920; Alford 1924, pp. 1462–3, ﬁrst familiar to us through,
57. Unsigned 1923, p. 163; Minich 1913, p. 6. See also Bridge 1903, p. 81; De Laittre 1930,
p. 44ﬀ.; compare Unsigned 1930, pp. 73–4; Colcord 1930, pp. 32–4 and 170–1.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 31
connected to the image of an ocean-liner and into a huge cauldron. Te script
labelled them with the racial slur ‘hunkie’ as they entered the cauldron to ’see
what the melting pot will do for them’. After teachers from the school ladled,
graduates emerged, in ‘neat suits’, as Americans.
At its almost providential extremes, even after the race-based immigration-
restrictions of 1924, faith in immigrant race-development by American
workplaces was one factor obviating any need for close investigation of
immigrants in production. Tus, in a 1930 article, the steel-industry became
‘Te Beast Tat Nurtures Children’. Te ‘fabrication of metal’, it argued,
pushed up successive waves of Irishmen, ‘dark Sicilians’, and Slavic ‘hunkies’,
both ‘spiritually’ and ‘materially’, quickly freeing them from hard mill-work,
so that even Slavs were supposedly gone from the plants by the time the
article was written, all of them ‘foremen or assistant superintendents’, or
self-employed. On this fanciful view, which reminds us how thoroughly
race-development coexisted with ‘playing one race against the other’, it was
time for the ‘uplifting forces of steel’ to work its magic upon ‘the last of the
steel immigrants – southern [N]egroes and Mexicans’. In steel, management’s
institution of what Katherine Stone calls ‘minutely graded job ladders’, enabled
experts to point to acquisition of skills – albeit skills easily learned in a few
weeks – to make a case for the racial development of new white immigrants.
One industry-leader connected the rise of the semi-skilled machine-tender
to the development of white-independence, using the language of an older
labour-system. Writing in Iron Age, the rubber-manufacturing executive
Charles R. Flint held that ‘[t]he American wage earner is raised to the dignity
of an overseer, not over degraded humanity, but over a more reliable and
eﬀective slave – machinery’. Since African Americans, immigrants of colour
and Jews were often excluded from working with machines, their slavishness
Race mattered, but largely unreﬂectively, in postwar management-theory.
Ordway Tead, the coauthor in 1920 of the ﬁrst textbook in the new ﬁeld
of personnel-management, introduced his Instincts in Industry with the
remark that ‘diﬀerences in race, climate and civilization . . . may so modify
human organisms as to cause radical diﬀerences in what is the substance of
our . . . human nature’. Tead wrote of ‘employers who have a deﬁnite policy of
hiring several diﬀerent nationalities in one department of a factory in order
58. On Ford English School, see Graﬀ 1991, p. 98 and (for the quote) 99. For ‘hunkie’ (or
‘hunky’), see Roediger 2005, pp. 37–45. On the melting-pot and Ford see Esch 2004.
59. Warne and Commons 1905, p. 346. Compare Pittenger 2003, p. 153. On steel, see Stone
1975, p. 49. Flint is quoted in Rosenow 2008, p. 26; on occupational colour-bars and machinery
see 1994, pp. 154 and 162–3.
32 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
that workers may be less able to communicate eﬀectively and therefore less
able to cause trouble’. For Tead, that deliberate divisiveness focused, as in
the Mr Block cartoon, on keeping out unions. But he oﬀered neither an
investigation of how or whether such a strategy worked, nor of his contention
that the Southern- and Eastern-European immigrants commonly exhibited
an ‘instinct’ to be submissive. In 1920, when the Social Science Research
Council (SSRC) ‘mapped the ﬁeld of industrial relations’, enumerating
well over a hundred disciplines poised to contribute to the new ﬁeld, it set
for anthropologists the task of investigating ‘inherited racial characteristics’
capable of ‘eﬀecting work’, oﬀering the ‘alleged laziness of the negro’ as an
example. But the SSRC avoided the problem of – to use Montgomery’s
phrasing – ‘which race was best for what’.
Tus, even as much as we describe the outlines of a literature on race- and
industrial management, we are still left with the need to describe – and
ultimately to explain – the empirical gaps in such a literature. After the
start of immigration-restriction, more social scientists joined Münsterberg in
ridiculing the lack of system regarding the productivity of various ‘races’. Tey
saw such imprecision as the irrational underside of an avowedly rational-
industrial society. As the old opportunities to manage by race and nationality
gave way in the face of the World War and the immigration-restriction
legislation of 1921 and 1924, retaining immigrant-workers came to be seen as
more critical than dividing them. Commons’s remark that ’when immigration
suddenly stops we see a human being in those who are here and begin to
ask them what they want’ overstated the change grossly. Even so, the postwar
race-riots in industrial districts reminded industry that managing racial
competition could be a tricky business. Te competition depicted in the ﬁnal
panel of the Mr. Block cartoon that began this paper has to stop short of
destructive conﬂict. What Chad Pearson has written of as the open-shop
Worcester, Massachusetts model gained sway. Tere, and well beyond, engineers,
open-shoppers, and Americanisers were chieﬂy interested in reducing
workplace-discord and overseeing ‘friendly, spirited workplaces’.
was far from simply abjured. To the extent that the unevenly-developing trend
toward personnel-management identiﬁed the problem of labour-turnover
with what Sanford Jacoby calls ‘the foremen’s hire and ﬁre approach’, it did
undermine the most potent, material way in which the races were set against
each other in daily managerial practice. However, since Jacoby adds that ‘the
60. Tead 1918 (‘diﬀerences’), pp. 13, 89–90 (‘deﬁnite policy’) and 143; the ‘map’ is reproduced
in Kaufman 1993, pp. 14–17 (all other quoted passages).
61. Baritz 1965, p. 13; Jacoby 2003, pp. 149, 154 and 148–55; Roediger 2005, pp. 76 and
216–20; Commons 1920, p. xix.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 33
vast majority’ of workplaces retained the ‘foremen’s drive system’ throughout
the 1920s, and since the ‘tight labor markets’ lasted only ﬁve years after 1924,
the extent and pace of change prior to the coming of industrial unionism
should not be exaggerated.
Te decline of immigration certainly did open further space for questioning
race-management’s basis in science and considering its contours and staying-
power in a post-1924 labour-market. By 1926, questions of race and management
were already being cast by the pioneering personnel-management textbook as
likely to devolve in future into a focus on African-American and Mexican
workers. Commenting on the 1920s and 30s, the management-experts Herman
Feldman and T.J. Woofter rued the fact that manufacturers, so scrupulously
careful in choosing raw materials, ‘rely on hearsay and rumor as to the grades
of labor hired’. Everett C. Hughes and Helen M. Hughes observed that
oﬀ-the-cuﬀ opinions on racial diﬀerence so pervaded managerial choices and
language, while hard data comparing racial performance remained so rare, that
it was worth questioning whether ‘modern society is really guided by the
impersonal concepts . . . of eﬃ ciency in choosing . . . its labor force’. Taylor
had written: ‘Under scientiﬁc management arbitrary power . . . ceases; and
every single subject . . . becomes the question for scientiﬁc investigation’. Where
race was concerned, post-1924 experts rightly observed, such a shift did not
Te Schmidt and Hoover examples, with Montgomery’s commentary
and the broader evidence before us, show that scientiﬁc management and
race-management coexisted because they were not so utterly diﬀerent after all.
Scientiﬁc management, like Hoover’s race-management in the mines, was, as
Bernard Doray wrote, a ‘science’ that could not escape ‘bear[ing] the scars of
the social violence that characterised the society that gave birth to it’. Replete
with pro-management assumptions, it selectively drew on folk-knowledge and
crude observations of existing work-patterns in ways mercilessly unearthed
in Harry Braverman’s dissection of Taylor’s methods. Scientiﬁc management
was broadly compatible with that other great scar-bearing, scar-causing science
of the early twentieth century – the elaboration of racial hierarchies.
attempts like those of Woofter and Feldman to cast race-management as the
exception to the general rationality of industry underlined the staying-power
of supposedly unscientiﬁc systems. Critics vacillated between ridiculing
62. Jacoby 2003, pp. 154 and 148–55; Pearson 2004, pp. 26 and 9–36.
63. For the textbook, see Tead and Metcalf 1926, p. 48; Hughes and Hughes 1952, p. 67;
Woofter Jr. 1933, p. 144; Bendix 2001, pp. 273, 278; Nyland 1996, p. 986; Nelson 1996,
64. Doray 1988, pp. 83–4 (‘scars’) and Braverman 1975, pp. 104–23.
34 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
race-management and calling for making its race-based distinctions more
systematic. Te roots of race-management, as detailed above, go some distance
toward explaining its impressive durability. But to emphasise only such history
leaves us in danger of seeing management by race as residual, even pre-modern,
and therefore at odds with the rational logic of capitalism. Rather, it remained
central to such logic.
Te staying-power of what has been called the ‘foreman’s’ empire’ in the
face of scientiﬁc management might be considered as a triumph of one
form of capitalist rationality intimately linked to deploying the irrationalities
of race in order to manage labour. It is in this speciﬁc realm that Commons’s
remarks again become critical. As early as 1904, Commons heard from an
employment-agent at Swift and Company that the ‘playing’ of races against
each other had been ‘systematised’ in his factory, which rotated favoured
‘racial’ groups week-by-week. Commons worried that such ‘competition
of races’, especially when it included workers from the ‘non-industrial’
Negro race and too many immigrants from the ‘backwards, shiftless and
unintelligent races’ of Southern and Eastern Europe, would cause catastrophe.
But he recognised that competition extracted productivity and exerted a
downward pressure on wages. Commons regarded these same packinghouses
as also among the most eﬃ cient workplaces where labour-processes were
concerned. Even ‘the animal was laid oﬀ and surveyed like a map’, he wrote.
Systems of modern management and race-management coexisted cheek by
jowl in the most advanced factories.
Such a system of racial competition rested not on the ﬁxing of a scientiﬁc
chart of hierarchy, but on the production of a series of contradictory, volatile,
hierarchical managerial opinions. Te sociologist Niles Carpenter found
immigrant-workers thinking that lower management’s racial prejudices and
slights often weighed heaviest on them, and Feldman’s research suggested that
they were exactly right. Farnam likewise identiﬁed the foreman as the key
ﬁgure on whose personality, racial knowledge, prejudices, style and nationality
all attempts to thus open the workplace turned. In his credentials at the outset
of the article, Farnam’s early experience as a foreman is duly noted. Since
foremen tended to retain the ability to hire and ﬁre in the 1920s, in the
face of challenges from personnel managers, great weight lay behind their
prejudices, which could keep racialised workers productively on edge. Indeed,
65. Nelson 1996, p. 35 (‘foremen’s empire’); Commons and Others 1918–35, Volume 3: xxv
and 322–33, 328; Ramstad and Starkey 1995, pp. 16–18, quote Commons on the ‘competition
of races’ and possible ‘catastrophe’. See also Commons 1904b, pp. 533–43 and Commons,1904a
(‘physical exertion’), pp. 19 and 17–22; Baron 1971. For the last Commons-quote, and on the
labour-process in packing, see Barrett 1983, pp. 106 and 105–9; see also Halpern 1997, pp. 23–4.
E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43 35
on the rare occasions when the racial knowledge possessed by foremen was
directly questioned by management-experts, the framing of the issue was
around the fear that the races were being too much pitted against each other,
with the fear, especially after the wave of racial terror during and after World
War One, that lower management would appear ‘unsympathetic’ and foster
racial hatreds and riots.
Management long deployed the irrationalities of race
in a calculating manner. Sometimes it did so by ﬁxing categories and hierarchies,
but, more often, by leaving races not ﬁxed in set and studied rankings and
thus permanently in competition and ﬂux, at lower management’s whim. A
brutally logical system kept immigrants’ positions in play, and in the case of
African Americans often kept them out of jobs via colour-bars and judging
their ﬁtness as a reserve-army of labour. Historians have long known that
Taylorism and other revolutionary changes in management-theory often
supplemented, rather than supplanted, the ‘drive system’ tactics in which
lower management bullied and threatened workers.
But we have too often
forgotten Commons’s suggestion that the hurrying and pushing could be
chronically inﬂected by playing races oﬀ against each other.
Te great revolutionary optimism that Riebe exhibited in the ‘Mr Block’
cartoon beginning this essay hinged on trusting that eﬀective organisation
could overcome management’s divisive racial games. But his comic-strip also
showed the formidable extent to which race-thinking powerfully contributed
to management, both by creating competition for jobs and thereby lowering
wages, and also by setting workers against each other every hour they were
on the job. When the Irish worker responded to the boss by aﬃ rming, ‘I can
lick the whole bunch and I can make them work too’, he showed at once the
ways in which race-management encouraged labourers to bring their cultural
diﬀerences and stereotypes to work; the extent to which employers’ appeals to
race often overlapped with appeals to masculinity; and the desire of some
immigrant-workers to ascend into the lower ranks of race-management.
Race-management’s powerful appeals dragged workers towards narrow ‘caste
and craft unionism’, which united union-members as whites and as ‘citizens’,
but less frequently challenged race-thinking. Far from reducing labour to
abstract and raceless inputs into the labour-process, capital and management
helped to reproduce racial diﬀerences over long stretches of US history, and to
divide workers in ways that compromised labour’s eﬀorts to address race- or
class-inequalities. Finally, when so much of US production is again – in some
66. Feldman 1931, p. 147; Carpenter 1970, pp. 118–30; Farnam 1918, pp. 123, 125, and
127–8; Rindge, Jr. 1917, pp. 511–12; Kaufman 1993, p. 15, 17 and Tead and Metcalf 1926
67. See Horowitz 1997, pp. 24–5, 66 and Halpern 1997, pp. 41–2 and 88–90.
36 E. Esch, D. Roediger / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 3–43
ways still – predicated on ‘playing one race against the other’ in order to extract
production in degrading and dangerous jobs, ranging from meatpacking to
hotel- and restaurant-labour, from sex-work to picking fruits and vegetables,
and from sweatshops to supplying the US army, this is a past very much
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© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/146544609X12537556703115
Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 brill.nl/hima
Historical Temporalities of Capital:
An Anti-Historicist Perspective
University of Padua
Marx’s rethinking of the combination between absolute surplus-value and relative surplus-value
during the 1860s is very important in order to reconsider the co-presence of diﬀerent forms of
historical temporality and exploitation. Postmodernism presents a picture of a plurality of
historical times in which the old lies beside the modern and the sweatshop beside the high-tech
factory. Because it fails to provide an explanation of the relation between these forms,
postmodernism produces a false image of an ‘ahistorical’ present. In this article I want to show
how the combination of diﬀerentials of surplus-value works and why a representation of a
plurality of historical temporalities synchronised by the temporality of socially-necessary labour
is the most adequate image to comprehend it. Te theoretical task is to show how the mature
categorial structure of Capital not only does not need an historicist philosophy of history, but is
in fact incompatible with it.
historicism, time, historical temporalities, diﬀerentials of surplus-value, accumulation,
Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much
as the notion that it was moving with the current
Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History
If we are to comprehend what today goes by the name of globalisation, this
will certainly include overcoming the distinction between the First, Second
and Tird Worlds. Tese levels reciprocally interpenetrate, giving rise to the
co-existence, in a striking spatial proximity, of high technological levels and
absolute forms of extortion of surplus-value. It would be an error to consider
these forms of exploitation today as residual, or regressions to the nineteenth
century. Rather, they must be understood as the forms most adequate to the
1. Benjamin 1999, p. 250.
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 45
current complex of capitalist relations of production. Te inadequacy of a whole
manner of reasoning in terms of ‘tendency’ and ‘residue’ is now so obvious
that one cannot disagree with the severe judgement of Chakrabarty when he
aﬃ rms that to speak of a ‘survival of an earlier mode of production’ means to
reason with ‘stagist and elitist conceptions of history’ and, polemicising against
theories of ‘uneven development’, maintains that it is historicist to consider
‘Marx’s distinction between “formal” and “real” subsumption of labour [. . .]
as a question of historical transition’.
But the same critique is also valid for a
part of one of the most intelligent theoretical and political traditions of
European Marxism: operaismo [workerism].
Tis tradition, having begun
from the perspective of the political centrality of the mass-worker [operaio
massa], went on to consider industrial labour as secondary and residual
because, as Negri writes today, we live ‘in a society characterised ever more
strongly by the hegemony of immaterial labour’,
because the ‘cognitariat has
become the fundamental productive force that makes the system work’.
Before undertaking any theoretical reﬂection it is necessary to ask: To which
fragment of the planet do these analyses refer? And why are material labour and
the most brutal forms of extortion of absolute surplus-value not residual in four-
ﬁfths of the planet?
We certainly do not lack information regarding the global
phenomenology of labour.
Te problem concerns the lack of rigour in the
categories adopted in order to apprehend and intervene in the social relations. Te
problems seem to arise with the ‘workerist gesture’ of pursuing the subject of
antagonism in an historical process whose tendency is derived from observation of
a small corner of the world. Beginning from this, a geschichtsphilosophisch rhythm
is then ascribed to the rest of the planet.
As Walter Benjamin teaches, we have to
put on trial both the idea of progress and the idea of a capitalist development that
is supposed to carry even the contradictions to the highest level. His critique of
historicism was ﬁrst of all a critique of the idea of progress and of the modern
philosophical concept of history. If we want to think politics diﬀerently, we have
to learn to think history diﬀerently.
In order avoid surrendering to those historicist equations according to which
the industrial working class today would stand in the same relation to immaterial
labour as the peasants did to the industrial working class in the nineteenth century,
2. Chakrabarty 2000, pp. 12–14 and p. 261, n. 37.
3. See Wright 2002 and the Afterword of the Italian edition of the same book: Belloﬁore and
4. ‘Introduzione alla nuova edizione’, in Negri 1998, p. 8.
5. Negri 2008, p. 183.
6. See Sacchetto and Tomba 2008 and Silver 2003.
7. Compare Tomba 2007a.
46 M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65
it is necessary to re-descend into the hidden abodes of production. It is necessary
to follow the chains of valorisation that, through delocalisation, not only exit from
the factory but also cross national frontiers, and thus also the salary-diﬀerentials
from which capital proﬁts.
If we need to re-read Marx, it is not in order to put him underneath the
depoliticising glass-case of an ossiﬁed philology. We need, like never before, to
think the unthought of Marx. Te weak points, the faults in Marx’s theory, should
not be covered over with the same plaster that was once used to erect busts in the
squares of Eastern Europe. It is within the faultlines that we need to rethink Marx
today, opening them up as much as possible. It is necessary to re-examine the
conceptual structure that makes it possible for us to comprehend contemporary
capitalist forms of exploitation, to retrace Marx’s movement from the abstract to
the concrete. It is not a case of giving merely an objective representation of the
processes currently underway. We have to understand the subjective insurgencies
that disarticulate the process, because the political task is to re-articulate them on
In the famous ‘Preface’ of 1859, Marx delineated the progressive process of
universal history according to deﬁnite stages, starting with the Asiatic mode of
production, through the ancient, the feudal to the bourgeois. Te latter was
deﬁned as ‘the ﬁnal antagonistic form of the process of production’. Te theoretical
task today is to show how the mature categorial structure of Capital not only does
not need this philosophy of history, but is incompatible with it.
In the debates
over the Asiatic mode of production and with the Russian populists,
understood that there are no predetermined stages of capitalist development.
In a letter from the end of 1877 to the editorial board of Otecestvennye Zapiski,
he wrote that his argument on the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe cannot
be transformed ‘into a historical-philosophical theory of predetermined universal
development of the destiny of all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in
which they ﬁnd themselves’. It is not possible to understand historical phenomena
‘with the passe-partout of a philosophy of history, whose supreme virtue is to be
Marx arrived at this theoretical result by making an idea of the
development of the forces of production interact with the concrete responses of
history; that is to say, the histories of the struggles that, interacting with the
atemporal historicity of capital, co-determine its history.
with Maxim Kovalevskij on forms of collective property of the land in Russia,
8. See Tomba 2008.
9. On the centre-periphery problem see Dussel 1990, Chapter Seven, and Shanin 1983.
10. See the ‘Letter from Marx to Editor of the Otyecestvenniye Zapisky (End of November
1877)’ in Marx 1989a, p. 201.
11. On the plurality of historical times in Marx, see Bensaïd 1996.
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 47
Marx began to think about the possibility of the transition to communism without
going through the hell of the capitalist mode of production. It was a transition
that was neither immediate nor conceivable ‘in a single country’. In the preface to
the Russian edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx wondered if the
Russian obshchina could pass into the form of common ownership of the land or
whether, instead, it would need ﬁrst to ‘pass through the same process of dissolution
that constitutes the historical evolution of the West’. Marx’s answer was that
‘if the Russian revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the
West, so that both complement each other reciprocally, the current Russian
common ownership of land could serves as a starting point for a communist
1. What is the beginning of Capital ?
If, in the ﬁrst place, use-value is an object, its utility, or its being a means
for the satisfaction of needs, is something characteristic of every epoch. A
commodity is a use-value, but at the same time it is also the bearer [Träger] of
value, that is, it is produced not for its utility, nor to satisfy speciﬁc needs, but
to be sold. It can satisfy needs only because it must be sold. Tis domination
by the abstraction of value over the concrete is what deﬁnes the capitalist
mode of production as such. Te deconcretisation of use-value, an indeﬁnite
distortion of the sphere of needs, and the liquefaction of social relations are
not degenerate phenomena to be contrasted with more authentic relations,
and to the return to a life at once more austere, less complex, and less gratuitous.
Rather, they express a denaturalisation of needs in which new innovative
opportunities for liberation become possible. If the critique of modernity
is not able to deal with this productive ambivalence, it remains simply
Starting with the Konkretum of the commodity,
Marx demonstrates that the
condition of its being a use-value is to be simultaneously something intangible, an
expression and phenomenal form of the intangible. Te incipit of Capital is not
innocent: this asymmetry becomes explosive in relation to the speciﬁc commodity
of labour-power, in which use-value and its subjectivity come to aﬀect the
relationship between the labour-process and the valorisation-process no longer
in terms of a subsumption of the former by the latter, but as opposition. Te
categorial exposition that follows that incipit, from labour abstracted to value and
12. Marx and Engels 1989, p. 425.
13. Marx 1989b, p. 538.
48 M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65
from socially-necessary labour to exchange-value, is forged in the ﬁre of that
Te hasty liquidation of the notion of value in some tendencies of contemporary
Marxism has not helped our understanding of Marx’s rethinking of this conceptual
structure during the years in which he wrote Capital. For Marx, the notion of
‘value’ constituted a problem. It was for this reason that he continually returned
to it. It has been noted that it is only at the end of the 1857/58 Manuscript of the
Grundrisse, in a section immediately cut short on ‘value’, that Marx informs us of
the need to begin the exposition with the commodity.
Tis is a realisation
that will be coherently maintained in all subsequent expositions, from A Critique
of Political Economy through to the various editions of Capital. Te problem
troubles him not only during the preparation of Capital, but also later, forcing
him to revise the diﬀerent editions and to intervene in the French translation.
A discerning Marxian philology provides us today with an enormous quantity of
material for comprehending the meaning of this work in progress.
It is probably
useful not so much to seek some solution of Marx’s to the question of value, but
rather to retrace Marx’s gesture; that is, to pose once again the problem from
within the question of value.
Before his reﬂections in the 1860s, Marx had not yet cleared up some important
categorial distinctions relative to abstract labour and value.
Continuing to reﬂect
on the value-form, Marx ever more forcefully emphasises both the social nature of
the relation of value, and its historically determinate character.
First, that which should be noted straight away: the general or abstract character
of labour is, in the production of commodities, its social [gesellschaftlich] character,
because it is the character of the equality [Gleichheit] of the labours incorporated
in the diﬀerent products of labour. Tis determinate form of social labour [Diese
bestimmte Form der gesellschaftlichen Arbeit] distinguishes commodity production
from other modes of production.
Te abstract character of labour refers to the social character of the labour of
production of commodities, which is characterised as a speciﬁcally capitalist
form of production and distinct from any other mode of production whose
end is the production of use-value. Marx is looking for a distinctive element,
14. ‘Te ﬁrst category in which bourgeois wealth presents itself is that of the commodity’:
Marx 1984, p. 767; Marx 1973, p. 881.
15. See, for example, Belloﬁore and Fineschi 2009.
16. In the Grundrisse, Marx had not only not yet cleared up the terminological distinction
between the two characters of labour that produce commodities, but also had not yet clariﬁed
the important notion of ‘socially-necessary labour’: compare Hecker 1987, in particular on the
reﬂections in the 1850s on pp. 149–50.
17. Marx 1987, pp. 28–9.
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 49
capable of indicating what transforms ordinary products into commodities. It
is the very nature of exchange that changes in the capitalist mode of production.
Te fetishism of the commodity derives from this. Since commodities are
exchangeable, it is necessary to determine a common substance that permits
them to be equivalents. Two diﬀerent commodities are exchangeable because
they have something in common, because they are things made of ‘an identical
social substance human labour’.
Value is delineated in the Marxian
understanding of it as the form of the exchangeability of commodities: since
it is called upon to explain exchange, and therefore is a condition of its
possibility, it cannot derive from exchange.
Tis passage is fully intelligible when reading the seventh chapter (‘Te Labour
Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value’) as simultaneously
presupposed by and the result of that which precedes it.
Due to his ‘will to a
system’, Marx developed abstract labour and value before the process of
valorisation. Tis order has generated the illusion of being able to historicise
simple commodity-production, distinguishing it from capitalist production in the
A reading of this type gives rise to a metahistorical theory of value.
At the same time, it develops diachronically conceptual determinations that
should, instead, be understood synchronically. Tis view has generated, as we will
soon see, the misunderstanding of the paradigm in two stages and the extension
of the commodity-form to non-capitalist modes of production. Instead, the
commodity exists only in a speciﬁcally capitalist constellation of the mode and
relations of production: ‘What I proceed from is the simplest social form in which
the product of labour presents itself in contemporary society, and this is the
Tis acquisition allows us to understand the constitutive categories
of capital as entirely operative from the origin of the capitalist mode of production.
Tat means that, when we speak of capital, it is necessary to assume the entire
conceptual constellation as given.
Te epochal character of capitalism consists in this indiﬀerence with respect to
use-values, an indiﬀerence that Marx analyses through the category of value and
the concept of valorisation. In order to demarcate the break with a whole continent
of thought extraneous to the relations of capitalist production, Marx, starting
18. Marx 1989c, p. 58; Marx 1990a, p. 138.
19. Cf. Belloﬁore 2004, pp. 170–210; Finelli 2005, pp. 211–23.
20. It was Engels who linked the category of ‘simple mercantile production’ to the part on the
commodity in Capital, thus giving an historicist interpretation of capitalist development;
compare Hecker 1997, p. 122: ‘Engels’s explanation of simple commodity production as feudal
production represents the attempt of the historicisation of social relations’.
21. Marx 1989b, p. 544.
50 M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65
from the ‘Appendix [Anhang]’ to the edition of 1867,
calls Aristotle into
question. Te problem regards that which renders one commodity ‘immediately
exchangeable [unmittelbar austuaschbar]’ with another: this common element is,
for Marx, the ‘undiﬀerentiated human labour’, that is ‘like all other commodity-
producing labour, it is . . . labour in its directly social form’.
Aristotle was able to
grasp that there can be no exchange without equivalence, and that there cannot
be equivalence without commensurability.
Aristotle understands that two
commodities cannot be referable to another commensurable quantity if not for
the presence of an essential equivalence, but he stopped when faced with this
common essence, and he tells us that things that are so heterogeneous cannot be
commensurable. Te concept that Aristotle lacked, Marx emphasises, was that of
‘equal human labour’, that could not be put forward because ‘Greek society was
founded on the labour of slaves, hence had as its natural basis the inequality of men
and of their labour-powers’.
Aristotle could not identify the ‘secret of the expression
of value’; he could think of the existence of a common substance that rendered
commensurable diﬀerent objects, but he could not think the concept of value. In
fact, writes Marx, the
secret of the expression of value, namely the equality [Gleichheit] and equivalence
of all kinds of labour because and in so far as they are human labour in general,
could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality [Begriﬀ der
menschlichen Gleichheit] had already acquired the permanence of a ﬁxed popular
Tis clariﬁcation, added by Marx in the Anhang and then brought up again
in successive editions, allows him ﬁnally to demonstrate the transition of
the commodity-form into value in terms of a historical discontinuity. Te
intelligibility of value, an impossibility in Aristotle, becomes possible only
when the concept of equality possesses the tenacité d’un préjugé populaire, as we
read in the French edition edited by Marx. It is evident that, discussing this
historical determinacy pulled out of the cannon-ﬁre of the American Civil
Marx intended to explain categorial abstractions by their concrete
historical content: the class-struggle. Here begins the other science of Marx: the
22. Marx 1983, pp. 626–49. In the subsequent German editions of Capital the ‘Appendix’ of
1867 became part of the ﬁrst chapter.
23. Marx 1989c, p. 73; Marx 1990a, p. 150.
24. Aristotle 1984, pp. 1788–9 (1133b).
25. Marx 1989c p. 74; Marx 1990a, p. 152.
27. See Marx 1985a, pp. 419–20.
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 51
political economy of the working class.
Political economy ‘can remain a science
only so long as the class-struggle is latent or manifests itself only in isolated and
It is a question not only of extension, but of the
perspective from which to observe the capital/labour relation. Tis new
perspective is the class-struggle. Equality as a popular prejudice does not fall
from the sky, but is the result of concrete struggles, in which the oppressed
classes have shattered to pieces the old authoritative hierarchical relations and
social rankings that were claimed to be founded in nature. Tis process of
dissolution is carried out by concrete practices of liberation of the serfs, who
re-enter contractually into work relations as formally free workers, waged
labourers who sell their labour-power to the capitalist. In other modes of
production, such as the ‘patriarchal family’ or in the ancient ‘Asiatic community’,
the product of labour is not a commodity, but possesses instead a ‘determinate
social character’ that derives from its being produced for consumption in that
In the production of commodities, the social form of
labour is instead indiﬀerence: commodities behave towards one another as
equals [Ihresgleichen], as ‘expenditures of human labour-power’. Te indiﬀerent
sociality of abstract labour destroys the previous community-relations and the
multiplicity of the diﬀerences between the particular spheres of society,
producing a new, radical diﬀerence: that between capital and waged labour.
And it is within this diﬀerence and starting from it that the previous diﬀerences
are re-invented and re-articulated as diﬀerences of ethnicity, race and culture,
forms suitable for concealing and combating the diﬀerence of class.
When Marx poses the notion of equality as a popular prejudice as the condition
of possibility for deciphering the notions of value and abstract labour, he is putting
in a categorial context a historical determinacy that is not only a sign of the
particularity of modern society, but forces us to think of the category of capital as
radically traversed by class-antagonism.
2. Te permanence of original accumulation
In his analyses of the ‘so-called primitive accumulation [sogenannte ursprüngliche
Akkumulation]’, Marx attempts to highlight the speciﬁc function of state-
violence [Staatsgewalt] in the temporally and geographically determined
historical process of production of the separation of the producer from the
means of production. It occurs in the genetic process of wage-labour.
28. Marx 1985b, pp. 5–13.
29. Marx 1989c, p. 20; Marx 1990a, p. 17.
30. Marx 1987, pp. 29 and 44.
52 M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65
the ﬁrst and the second editions of the ﬁrst volume of Capital, Marx intervenes
in order to tone down some emphases on Entwicklungsgeschichte: the ‘succession
of historical processes [Reihe historischer Prozesse]’ is replaced by the analysis of
the English case,
where the transition to the capitalist mode of production is
investigated by directing attention to the ‘violent levers [ gewaltsame Hebeln]’
that made it possible. It was Staatsgewalt that forced the dissolution of the
Tese pages should be read contemporaneously with those of the chapter
dedicated to machines and large-scale industry. Here, Marx illustrates the barrack-
régime of large-scale industry and the production, alongside that of the production
of all new commodities, also of new forms of non-civilisation that threaten the
lives of the workers.
Tus large-scale industry, by its very nature, necessitates variations of labour,
ﬂuidity of functions, and mobility of the worker in all directions. But on the other
hand, in its capitalist form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossiﬁed
particularities. We have seen how this absolute contradiction does away with all
repose, all ﬁxity and all security as far as the worker’s life-situation is concerned;
how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch
from his hands his means of subsistence and, by suppressing his specialized
function, to make him superﬂuous. We have seen, too, how this contradiction
bursts forth without restraint in the ceaseless human sacriﬁces required from the
working class, in the reckless squandering of labour-powers, and in the devastating
eﬀects of social anarchy. Tis is the negative side. But . . .
If all that is the negative aspect, the ‘but [aber]’ foreshadows something
positive. It is not a dialectical inversion. It is, instead, the co-presence of
antagonistic forces within the real situation. Tat ‘but’ does not indicate the
point of inversion, but the incipit of the second voice of the fugue:
But if, at present, variation of labour imposes itself after the manner of an
overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law
that meets with obstacles everywhere, large-scale industry, through its very
catastrophes, makes the recognition of variation of labour and hence of the ﬁtness
of the worker for the maximum number of diﬀerent kinds of labour into a
question of life and death. . . . Te partially developed individual, who is merely
the bearer of one specialized social function, must be replaced by the totally
developed individual, for whom the diﬀerent social functions are diﬀerent modes
of activity he takes up in turn. One aspect of this transformation . . . is the
establishment of technical and agricultural schools. . . . Tough the Factory Act,
31. Marx 1983, p. 581; Marx 1989c, p. 751; Marx 1990a, p. 884.
32. Marx 1989c, p. 751; Marx 1990a, p. 883.
33. Marx 1989c, p. 511; Marx 1990a, p. 618.
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 53
that ﬁrst and meagre concession wrung from capital, is limited to combining
elementary education with work in the factory, there can be no doubt that when
the working-class comes into power, as inevitably it must, technical instruction,
both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working-class
Te factory-laws did not fall from the sky, they were not the concession of a
paternalist state, but were one of the conquests of the working class on the
concrete terrain of the class-struggle. Analogous is the discourse on obligatory
instruction, which tries to extract children from the dulling and physical
catastrophe derived from the factory-work that takes up their entire day. Using
those half-processed works of the Reports of the factory-inspectors, Marx
describes the young workers of the London typography-workshops as ‘utter
savages and very extraordinary creatures’; when they become ‘too old for such
child’s work, that is about 17 at the latest, they are discharged from the printing
establishments. Tey become recruits of crime. Several attempts to procure
them employment elsewhere, were rendered of no avail by their ignorance and
brutality, and by their mental and bodily degradation’.
describe these conditions of labour, and Marx does not add any comment.
What Marx accomplishes is the montage of these materials, making them
become an integral part of critical theory. Marx’s technique of montage still
needs to be studied. However, many new philologists of Marx prefer to
continue to seek assonances with Hegel’s Science of Logic. Assembling those
reports so as to make them become theoretical material, Marx instead develops
a conception of critique that is not moral indignation in the face of brutalisation;
rather, he shows the intrinsic noxiousness of capitalistic production.
In the conﬂictual dynamics that led to the factory-laws, the state presents its
relative autonomy. It is not simply an instrument in the hands of the dominant
class. Te state is in the service of the dominant class to the extent that it is on one
side in the struggle against the class-struggle, to the extent that its function is that
of neutralising conﬂict; but, precisely in the undertaking of its role, it plays a
relatively autonomous role. Te dynamic of conﬂict and of forces in the ﬁeld of
struggle can lead the state to enact a legislation that limits the autocracy of capital
in the factory and its destructive nature within and outside the factory. It can also,
in order to protect the children of the proletarians, proclaim the rights of children
against the abuse of paternal authority when they try to reduce their own children
to machines for pumping out a weekly wage.
Tus undermining the authority of
34. Marx 1989c, pp. 511–12; Marx 1990a, p. 619.
35. Marx 1989c, p. 509; Marx 1990a, p. 615.
36. Marx 1989c, p. 513; Marx 1990a, p. 619.
54 M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65
the pater familias, the state works at the destruction of the traditional and
patriarchal form of the family; in doing this, the state does not do anything other
than explicate its own nature: what Jacob Burckhardt calls the systematisation of
Disrupting the paragraph on the factory-laws and placing it alongside the pages
on so-called primitive accumulation, we will see the attention with which Marx
follows the state-interventions in relation to the class-struggle and the dissolution
of social forms:
If the general extension of factory legislation to all trades for the purpose of
protecting the working-class both in mind and body has become inevitable, on
the other hand, as we have already pointed out, that extension hastens on the
general conversion of numerous isolated small industries into a few combined
industries carried on upon a large scale; it therefore accelerates the concentration
of capital and the exclusive predominance of the factory system. It destroys both
the ancient and the transitional forms, behind which the dominion of capital is
still in part concealed, and replaces them by the direct and open sway of capital;
but thereby it also generalises the direct opposition to this sway.
If the interventions of public Gewalt, from the sixteenth century onwards, had
favoured the formation of an army of wage-workers and contributed to the
destruction of forms of authority based upon the estates, Marx seeks to
comprehend the ambivalence of the state-interventions regarding the factory-
laws. Tese interventions in defence of the conditions and demands of the
workers also produce a concentration of capital. In this process, forms of
production and authority are dissolved so that the antagonism of class assumes
a more openly capitalist form. Tese tendencies are contradictory because they
are the precipitate of the class-struggle. Materialist historiography has the task
of showing the possibility of a new social formation within the revolutionising
elements of the old society.
State-violence itself is understood as an ambivalent
process: where it destroys forms, it opens new possibilities. It is in this sense
that Marx deﬁnes violence [Gewalt] as ‘the midwife of every old society,
pregnant with a new society’.
Tis aﬃ rmation of Marx’s, so scandalous that
it needed to be exorcised as a violent philosophy of history or as an apology for
violence tout court, refers instead to the power of the state [Staatsmacht]. Tis
concentrated and organised violence has acted as an economic power
[ökonomische Potenz] that contributed to the transformation of the feudal
system into the capitalist mode of production. Tis intervention was not
37. Marx 1989c, pp. 525–6; Marx 1990a, p. 635.
38. Marx 1989c, p. 526; Marx 1990a, p. 635.
39. Marx 1989c, p. 779; Marx 1990a, p. 916.
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 55
linked to the bourgeois domination of the state, but was implicit in the
monopoly of violence that characterised the modern state and its relative
autonomy. Putting this chapter in tension with the chapter on large-scale
industry, we can see how the role of Staatsgewalt continues to work within
social and political forms. Factory-laws and obligatory schooling are two faces
of a change in the social relations. Here, for Marx, there was the possibility of
a new political initiative on the part of the working class. Primitive accumulation
and large-scale industry do not represent the beginning and the end of an
historical process; both are traversed by state-violence that, even today,
regulates them as co-present elements in the contemporaneity of diverse forms
According to these considerations we must speak of permanence of primitive
accumulation. Te English word ‘primitive’ is a bad translation of the German
‘ursprünglich’. Te Marxian ‘original accumulation’ is not merely an episode of
the proto-history of the capitalistic form. Tis does not mean that the accumulation
is an ancient moment of capitalism’s history; rather, ‘accumulation’ is the
continuous driving-power of capitalism. Accumulation is the combination of
diﬀerent and relative independent moments: violence of the state; production of
proletarians and formally free labour; colonisation; slavery; dissolution of ancient
forms of auctoritas; enclosures; separation between producers and means of
production; and disciplining of the wage-workers.
Te peculiarity of accumulation is a sort of extra-economic intervention which
solders together the terrorism of the separation between means of production and
with the extra-economic violence of the state in order to increase
the absolute exploitation of living labour both in intensity and extension. For
this reason, the ‘so-called primitive accumulation [sogenannte ursprüngliche
Akklumulation]’ is not primitive;
it is not an historical moment of the birth of
capitalistic production; rather, it accompanies the whole history of this mode of
Without these histories of extra-economic violence, colonisation and modern
slavery, without their synchronisation through the state, the capitalist mode of
production would not have existed. Te ‘great slaughter of the innocents’, as Marx
calls the sogenannte ursprüngliche Akklumulation, is a combination of the ‘colonial
system, public debts, heavy taxes, protection, commercial wars, &c.’. Marx
analyses the systematic combination of these elements in England, because this
speciﬁc combination was actually in force only there. For this reason, the genesis
40. Compare De Angelis 2007.
41. Bonefeld 2001; Bonefeld 2008..
42. Marx takes the term from Smith, who spoke of ‘previous accumulation’. Compare Smith
1994, p. 300.
56 M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65
of capitalism in Western Europe could not be transformed ‘into a historical-
philosophical theory of universal development, predetermined by fate, for all
peoples . . .’.
Original [ursprünglich] accumulation begins always again through extra-
economic violence, which heightens the process of accumulation. It is ‘original’ or
because it is the basic element that always re-initiates the temporal
counter of capitalistic modernity. To understand the permanence of original
accumulation now, we need a kind of ‘historiography of the present’ that would
allow us to understand the current combination of diﬀerent temporalities in the
attempt to synchronise them through the intervention of extra-economic violence.
I use the English word synchronisation to translate the Nazi term Gleichschaltung,
which means, roughly, ‘switching on to the same track’. Te capitalist mode of
production, its origin and its permanence, is the encounter and combination of
diﬀerent temporalities that make this possible. Tey require nevertheless their
synchronisation through extra-economic violence, in order to produce diﬀerentials
of surplus-values, and to be synchronised to the world-rhythm of socially-necessary
labour. Neither the combination of these temporalities nor their connection to
each other is indiﬀerent, because the temporality of socially-necessary labour and
the action of the extra-economic violence synchronise them. Tere is thus a very
important diﬀerence between the former temporalities and the dominant
temporality of socially-necessary labour. Capitalist modernity holds to this
violence, whose continuum includes both fascism and liberal democracy.
3. World-market: temporalisation of global space
Te categories of the capitalist mode of production do not unfold in diachronic
succession, but present themselves as a unitary constellation within which
each concept, as a monad, is enclosed. Commodities are exchanged with the
growth of a labour-time indiﬀerent to the qualitative character of labour itself
and of the objective basis of that labour. What is really exchanged is de-skilled
indiﬀerent to the use-value of the object and ontologised in
value, which is the telos of the process of valorisation. Te time really employed
in the production of a given commodity counts only in relation to the abstract
time, de-skilled, that is needed for labour of an average social intensity to
produce that commodity. Only the capitalist mode of production uncovers
43. Compare Marx 1989a, p. 201.
44. Te term was suggested to me by Ferruccio Gambino during discussions of the Marx-
seminar in Padua.
45. Tomba 2009.
46. Compare Krahl 1984, p. 31–3.
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 57
this absolute equality that makes labour something universally common:
abstract labour. It is this character of labour that means that a commodity ‘no
longer stands in a social relation with merely one other kind of commodity,
but with the whole world of commodities as well’.
De-skilled time, time that
is objectiﬁed in commodities, manifests itself as quantitative time. It is time
that has broken its relationship with nature. Capital has not only suppressed
the classic prohibition of night-work, altering the ‘natural’ rhythms of the day
and night, but, as a means of increasing the productiveness of labour with
respect to the social average, it has also overcome the natural limit of the
twenty-four hour day. For the ﬁrst time in human history, it is possible to have
working days of thirty or more hours (of socially-necessary labour) within the
‘natural’ limits of twenty-four hours. Te reﬂections on time and historiography
brought forth in late modernity will be read as expressions and attempts to
metabolise this anthropological mutation. Tis modiﬁcation in temporality is
intertwined with the discontinuity of the class-conﬂict. Te textile-workers of
the fourteenth century who either silenced or stole the Werkglocke that signalled
the start and end of the working day already sought to disconnect that
Te crucial question concerns not the de-skilling of time itself but rather its
measure: this derives from the productive power of socially-necessary labour,
which represents the quantitatively determined expression of abstract labour. It is
important to understand exchange-value not as the objectiﬁcation of labour
immediately spent in the production of a determinate commodity, but as an
expression of the quantity of social labour objectiﬁed in the commodity: ‘that
which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of
labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production’.
It is in Capital that we ﬁnd the highest level of conceptual determination of
socially-necessary labour, and it is this determination that needs to be assumed in
order to test Marx’s entire theoretical ediﬁce. What we need to be clear about,
and which also contains a moment of real diﬃ culty, is that the labour objectiﬁed
in the exchange-value of a commodity does not correspond to the quantity of
labour immediately spent in its production. Instead, it is the fruit of a mediation
with socially allocated labour. In this sense, the expression ‘individual value
[individueller Wert]’ is a contradiction in terms: not only because, as Marx
emphasises in the Randglossen of 1881–2 (the dates are important in this case),
exchange-value in the singular does not exist,
but because it presupposes a value
determined quantitatively by labour individually employed in the production of
47. Marx 1989c, p. 77; Marx 1990a, p. 155.
48. Marx 1989c, p. 54; Marx 1990a, p. 129.
49. Marx 1989b, p. 533: ‘exchange-value, without at least two of them, does not exist’.
58 M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65
this commodity, and not by social labour. Tis, however, is not a deﬁnite size
ﬁxed once and for all. Rather, it is variable and its variability retroacts on the
determination of the quantity of social labour contained in a commodity. If the
general conditions inside which a certain quantity of commodities are produced
change, then – Marx aﬃ rms – a reverse eﬀect [Rückwirkung] takes place.
possible that a determinate quantity of labour-time already objectiﬁed in a
commodity changes due to a change in the social productivity of labour, which
retroacts on the exchange-value of the commodity itself.
Tis important Marxian understanding is possible only within a constellation
that is clear on the social character of the labour that valorises value:
Te value of a commodity is certainly determined by the quantity of labour
contained in it, but this quantity is itself socially [gesellschaftlich] determined. If
the amount of labour-time socially necessary for the production of any commodity
alters . . . this reacts back on all the old commodities of the same type, because . . .
their value at any given time is measured by the labour socially necessary to
produce them, i.e., by the labour necessary under the social conditions existing at
In other words: the changes in the productive force of socially-necessary labour
react back on the commodities already produced, causing a change in the
labour-time objectiﬁed in them.
If Capital represents the high-point of categorial elaboration, it is here that we
must ﬁnd the most mature consequences of this way of understanding social
labour and exchange-value. As we have already seen,
Te real value of a commodity, however, is not its individual, but its social value;
that is to say, its value is not measured by the labour-time that the article costs the
producer in each individual case, but by the labour-time socially required for its
Terefore, if the value of a commodity depends upon the labour-time
objectiﬁed in it, it should be kept in mind that this labour-time is not that
eﬀectively employed for the production of a given use-object, but can be either
greater or smaller than it. Te generic human labour-time objectiﬁed in the
substance of value must be adjusted to the time that social labour would need
50. Compare Marx 1990b, p. 75.
52. I agree with Geert Reuten, who writes that ‘the notion of “socially necessary labour-time”
is associated with this notion of productive force and that, in this context, “productive force”
must be taken as average’. Compare Reuten 2004, pp. 117–45.
53. Marx 1989c, p. 336; Marx 1990a, p. 434.
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 59
to carry out that same job. Surplus-value is not a quantiﬁable amount within the
accounting of a single ﬁrm.
Considering the case of production through machines, it was only after
clarifying to himself the nature of exchange-value that Marx was able to show that
the machine produces neither value nor surplus-value.
Nevertheless, the machines
make possible the production of surplus-value in two ways: ﬁrst, indirectly,
through the devalorisation of labour-power following the expulsion of workers
replaced by machines; second, extra surplus-value, through exploiting the sporadic
introduction of machines. Te latter circumstance is that which allows the
exploitation of labour of a greater productive power than the social average, so
that the individual labour objectiﬁed in this commodity is less than the quantity
of socially average labour.
As we know by now, only the latter determines
It can happen that an hour of work of high productive force corresponds to two
hours of social labour, in situations where the society as a whole still does not use
technological innovation. Tis exchange, where one is equal to two, violates only
the intellectual principles of whomever holds to primary-school mathematics; the
value of commodities in general, and therefore also of those produced with
technological innovation, is its social value – that is, the quantity of socially-
necessary labour objectiﬁed in it. Tis phenomenon imposes itself violently in the
world-market, where an increase in the productive power of labour through the
introduction of a new machine allows the capitalist who uses the technological
innovation, by selling the commodity at its value, to appropriate social surplus-
value, and therefore exchanges one hour of labour for two: ‘Hence the capitalist
who applies the improved method of production appropriates and devotes to
surplus labour a greater portion [Extramehrwert] of the working day that the other
capitalists in the same business’.
Beyond numbers, the Extramehrwert that is
appropriated by the capitalist corresponds to the quantity of social surplus-value
that she can withdraw from the society to the extent that she is an extractor of
In the comparison between labours of diﬀerent intensity and productive force,
there occurs a transfer of value from production-spheres in which the productivity
of labour is lower relative to those in which capital exploits labour at a productivity
that is higher than the social average. If exchange-value and surplus-value are
determined by the quantity of socially-necessary labour objectiﬁed in a commodity,
it is clear that the labour individually performed in the production of a given
commodity will have to be placed in relation to socially-necessary labour. Extra
54. Marx 1989c, p. 429; Marx 1990a, p. 530.
56. Marx 1989c, p. 336; Marx 1990a, p. 436.
60 M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65
surplus-value can be obtained only if the introduction of the innovation of
machinery remains sporadic; that is, only if the productive force of socially-
necessary labour remains inferior to that of the labour strengthened by the new
machine. If the productive force of the labour strengthened by machinery becomes
universally dominant – that is, becomes the productive force of socially-necessary
labour – then the advantage gained by the capitalist through the introduction of
new machinery vanishes. When technological innovation becomes widespread,
the growing productive force of labour obtained through its employment becomes
As machinery comes into general use in a particular branch of production, the
social value of the machine’s product sinks down to its individual value, and the
following law asserts itself: surplus-value does not arise from the labour-power
that has been replaced by the machinery, but from the labour-power actually
employed in working with the machinery.
Te capitalist can no longer gain social surplus-value though her growing
productive force. What remains to her is the most ruthless and excessive
prolongation of the working day. Analogously, ‘if the intensity of labour were to
increase simultaneously and equally in every branch of industry, then the new
and higher degree of intensity would become the normal social degree of
intensity, and would therefore cease to count as an extensive magnitude’.
Te economic and extra-economic violence of capital works to ensure that
these diﬀerentials are produced, maintained and reproduced on a global scale. In
this way a greater number of hours of labour concretely performed pass through
the hands of the capitalist, who utilises a greater productive power of labour
without violating the law of equivalence. Te diﬀerence between capitalists who
exploit labour of diﬀerent productivity is therefore necessary so that it will be
possible to extract relative surplus-value from the advantage that springs from
technological innovation. Tis can be seen not only on a worldwide scale, where
capital is continually in search of masses of absolute surplus-value, but also within
the Western metropolises, and even within the same corporation, broken up into
apparently independent productive segments in competition with each other.
Capital needs to create geographical areas or productive sectors where it can
produce an enormous quantity of absolute surplus-value. Te primary violence of
the accumulation must be repeated ever anew. It accompanies the whole history
of capital as a basso continuo. George Caﬀentzis is not overstating the matter when
he says that ‘“new enclosures” in the countryside must accompany the rise of
57. Marx 1989c, p. 429; Marx 1990a, p. 530.
58. Marx 1989c, p. 548; Marx 1990a, pp. 661–2.
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 61
“automatic processes” in industry, the computer requires the sweatshop, and the
cyborg’s existence is premised on the slave’.
In addition to this, we can recall
the economic and political function of the borders in order to set the price of the
migrant-force of labour and to deﬁne ethnic divisions of labour.
Te immediate repercussion of a technological innovation is a prolonging of
labour-time wherever the innovation is not yet employed: ‘One of the ﬁrst
consequences of the introduction of new machinery, before it has become
dominant in its branch of production, is the prolongation of the labour-time of
the labourers who continue to work with the old and unimproved means of
Te introduction of a new machine generates an increase in relative
surplus-value, an increase that, in order to be realised, must be sustained by a
proportional increase in the extraction of absolute surplus-value, where workers’
resistance is lower, or by exploiting the national diﬀerences in wages.
Tis means that the introduction of new machinery is not a pre-determined
route in the history of all countries; rather, on the contrary, diﬀerent capitals in
head-to-head competition with each other in the world-market must seek-out or
create geographical areas with diﬀerent labour-powers having diﬀerent wages and
If the reciprocal implication of the various forms of surplus-
value are grasped, then it is only out of faith in some progressive and Eurocentric
philosophy of history that it is possible to consider some forms of production as
‘backward’, and wage-labour, extended to the whole world, as residual.
It was an error to read the development of capital in evolutionist terms:
politically, this view has coincided with that of ‘progress’. Tus, not only is any
society denied the possibility of leaping over the ‘natural phases’ of its development,
but forms of exploitation are laid out diachronically, when they are, instead,
entirely complementary. Tis is the case of absolute and relative surplus-value,
that is, of the extortion of surplus-value by means of a lengthening of the working
day and the strengthening of labour through the introduction of machines. Te
transition from formal subsumption to real subsumption, from the extortion of
absolute surplus-value to relative surplus-value, is not marked according to a
paradigm of stages in which the ﬁrst gives way to the second.
Te transition from
the third part (‘Te Production of Absolute Surplus-Value’) to the fourth (‘Te
Production of Relative Surplus-Value’) is marked by the ﬁnal lines of Chapter
Ten, wherein the workers, ‘as a class’, succeed in establishing a state-law on the
59. Compare Caﬀentzis 1998.
60. Marx 1990b, p. 323.
61. Interesting in this respect is the argument of Marini 1991, pp. 8–10.
62. Tis ‘historicising’ formulation is found in the writings of Negri from the 1970s to Hardt
and Negri 2000, pp. 254–5: ‘At a certain point, as capitalist expansion reaches its limit, the
processes of formal subsumption can no longer play the central role’.
62 M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65
duration of the working day. If in fact ‘the creation of a normal working-day is . . .
the product of a protracted civil war, more or less concealed, between the capitalist
class and the working class’,
capital responds to the war with an augmentation of
the productive force of labour by means of machines. ‘Progress’ is measured by
this intensiﬁcation of exploitation. For this reason, it is unrealistic, even when not
in bad faith, to prophesise the liberation of labour by means of machines within
capitalist relations of production, when the use-value of labour remains intrinsically
capitalist. Innovation is a response to the insurgency of living labour. Tis means
that capital introduces new machinery because it is compelled to, both by the
unruliness of the workers and the physiological limit reached in the exploitation
Absolute and relative surplus-value are not to be thought synchronically in an
Relative surplus-value is such only in relation to
absolute surplus-value: relative surplus-value not only does not replace absolute
surplus-value, but necessitates, for its own realisation, an increase of the quantity
of socially-produced absolute surplus-value. Te use of machines in production
allows the exploitation of labour with a greater productive power with respect to
the social average of exploitation, and it is precisely this diﬀerential quota that
constitutes relative surplus-value. Tis gap must necessarily be covered by a
production of absolute surplus-value, which thus, far from being an archaic form
of capitalist exploitation or a residue of the nineteenth century, is the form of
extortion of surplus-value most adequate to our times.
Formal subsumption is the basis of capitalist production as the production of
surplus-value in a process whose end is the production of commodities for the
market; real subsumption presents itself instead as a speciﬁcally capitalist form
because it does not allow the previous social relations to remain, but rather
revolutionises the technical processes of production and the formation of social
groups [gesellschaftliche Gruppierungen].
To these two forms should also be added
a third form, rarely studied: that of the hybrid or intermediate forms [Zwitterformen]
Marx speaks of them for the ﬁrst time in Capital. Tey are
forms in which surplus-labour is extracted by means of direct coercion [direkter
Zwang], without there being formal subsumption of labour to capital. Marx
observes how these forms can indeed be understood as forms of transition, but can
also be reproduced in the background of large-scale industry. Te hybrid-forms,
63. Marx 1989c, p. 316; Marx 1990a, p. 412.
64. I take this concept from Bloch 1985. About the topic of the temporalisation of space,
compare Harvey 1989.
65. Marx 1989c, p. 533; Marx 1990a, p. 645.
66. Marx 1989c, p. 533; Marx 1990a, p. 645. An exception is the work of Murray, who
recalled my attention to hybrid-subsumption: Murray 2004, pp. 243–73; Murray 2000,
M. Tomba / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 44–65 63
though they are not formally subsumed to capital, and though labour is not given
in the form of wage-labour, fall under the command of capital. Tis allows us to
comprehend the contemporaneity of apparently anachronistic forms like slavery,
which are not mere residues of past epochs
but rather forms that, though with
an altered physiognomy, are produced and reproduced in the background of the
current capitalist mode of production. Te exploitation of child-labour in Asian
countries and working hours of up to eighteen a day
are not cases of capitalist
underdevelopment, but, rather, express the current levels of production of social
Slave-labour was not backward or residual with respect to European capitalist
development, but was, rather, increased precisely by that development. It was a
form of labour absolutely adequate and complementary to the most developed
capitalist production of the metropoles. Te time of labour of the slaves was and
is marked by global industry.
Te crack of the whip of the slave-driver, then just
as now, is synchronised with the rhythm of the world-market.
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Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 brill.nl/hima
Te Rate of Proﬁt and the Problem of Stagnant
Investment: A Structural Analysis of Barriers to
Accumulation and the Spectre of Protracted Crisis*
American Federation of Teachers
Tis paper situates the subprime crisis in the context of the performance of the American
economy over the last twenty-ﬁve years. Te restructuring of the US economy is brieﬂy
reviewed, followed by an examination of some of the contradictions of the neoliberal model.
Particular emphasis is placed on understanding the reasons behind stagnant investment, and
how the US ﬁnance-led accumulation-régime has become dependent upon, and threatened
by, credit-creation delinked from the ﬁnancing of ﬁxed-capital formation. I argue that while
the defeat of the remnants of the New-Deal/Civil-Rights liberal-democratic coalition has
provided the political context for the bold re-assertion of the prerogatives of capitalist owners,
the neoliberal model has not provided a path out of problems of stagnation and growing debt-
dependency that presently plague the US (and global) economy. Further, I argue that evidence
suggests that the post-1982 restoration of proﬁtability that underpinned the relative
improvement of US economic performance has peaked, and that compelling historical and
theoretical reasons exist to expect that the proﬁt-rate will decline in the coming decade. Tis
will introduce additional stresses on the current debt-structure of the US economy, triggering
a period of prolonged crisis and economic dislocation. Te conclusion is that the US economy
faces the spectre of a protracted crisis associated with the reassertion of the falling rate of
ﬁnancial crisis, subprime crisis, Marxist theory of the proﬁt rate, long waves, ﬁnancialisation
* Te author would like to thank anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on an
earlier version of this paper. Te views expressed here are those of the author, and do not reﬂect
the positions of the American Federation of Teachers.
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 67
Tis essay situates the recent ﬁnancial crisis in a review of the performance
of the American economy over the last twenty-ﬁve years. Factors governing
movements in the rate of proﬁt are reviewed, followed by an examination of
some of the contradictions of the US neoliberal model that developed over
the 1982–2006 period. Particular emphasis is placed on understanding how
the ﬁnance-led accumulation-régime is both dependent upon, and
potentially threatened by, the enormous growth of debt that has characterised
the developmental trajectory of US capitalism over the last three decades.
Te assessment oﬀered is mixed. It is impossible to deny that the years
since 1982 have seen signiﬁcant improvement in US economic performance
along a range of key indicators. Productivity-growth has been restored to
levels approaching those of the Golden Age of the post-WWII period.
Technological innovation and new product-applications have re-established
US leadership – or at very least parity – with other major capitalist economies
in cutting-edge industrial sectors such as computing and information-
technology. Te vast network of US multinationals continues to provide the
structural underpinnings of the dollar’s role as the world’s pre-eminent
international reserve-currency, and Wall Street still reigns supreme in the
world of international ﬁnance. Domestically, US capital today presides over
a largely quiescent and demobilised working class. Union-density is at its
lowest rate in over seventy years, and few restrictions exist upon capital’s
ability to hire and ﬁre workers at will. America’s ﬂexible labour-markets are
the envy of many European business-leaders, and are regularly touted,
however incorrectly, as the reason for higher rates of US productivity-growth
over the last decade. Nor has the massive US trade-deﬁcit as yet induced a
crisis in the dollar, due to the sheer size of the American economy and the
role of the US household as global consumer of last resort. Most signiﬁcantly,
the US proﬁt-rate underwent a steady and signiﬁcant improvement that
began in 1982 and continued unabated through 1997. Tis indicates that
US capital was able to partially overcome the supply-side barriers to
proﬁtability that undermined the coherence of the Keynesian-Fordist
At the same time, the improvement in proﬁtability has not translated into
a corollary increase in the level of private investment-demand. In the absence
of the restoration of a higher rate of accumulation, insuring an adequate rate
of growth of eﬀective demand has become dependent on borrowing by the
governmental and household sectors to ﬁnance current consumption. As a
result, debt-obligations have risen at a rate that far exceeds the growth of real
68 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
income or the rate of accumulation. Tis was the source of the structural
vulnerability that erupted in the subprime crisis. Te short-to-medium term
fate of the US and global economy is bound to the ability of the monetary
authorities to engineer a partial unwinding of over-leveraged investment-
positions and ‘controlled’ destruction of ﬁnancial claims. Over the longer
term, I argue that rate of proﬁt is the critical variable regulating system-
performance. Reduced to its essentials, the argument is that the ability to
manage the crisis depends upon maintaining a stable or rising rate of return
on tangible capital-investments. Te problem is that the favourable proﬁt-
rate conjuncture of the last two decades is unlikely to persist. Te conclusion
is that there are reasonable grounds to suppose that the US economy is on the
precipice of a protracted crisis taking the form of ﬁnancial-asset deﬂation (in
real terms) and, over the longer term, a reassertion of a falling rate of proﬁt
and spiralling inﬂation. Falling proﬁtability will, in turn, require a prolonged
period of debt and equity-deﬂation to correct the structural imbalances that
have built up over the course of the prior proﬁt-rate upswing, with an
uncertain long-term outcome.
Te paper is organised as follows. In the ﬁrst section, I review historical
data on movements in the rate of proﬁt since 1947 to place the post-1982
recovery in some historical perspective. I discuss and subject to critique the
work of Robert Brenner in order to situate and distinguish the analysis that
follows. Te proﬁt-rate is decomposed and its various determining factors
are analysed to isolate various causal eﬀects that explain periods of falling and
rising proﬁtability in the post-WWII period. I then turn to a discussion of
some of the internal contradictions of this debt-fuelled régime. Te paper
concludes with some comments on the future of neoliberalism and why I
believe a renewed period of crisis is inevitable given US capitalism’s current
Explaining the proﬁt recovery
Figure 1 shows the rate of proﬁt in the US economy over the period 1947–
2007. Following standard practice, the rate is calculated by subtracting total
wages and salary-compensation from net national income and then dividing
the diﬀerence by the net capital-stock valued at replacement-cost. Between
1947 and 1959 the proﬁt-rate shows evidence of a slight downward trend.
Proﬁtability then boomed between 1960 and 1966, driven in part by US entry
into the Vietnam War in what would prove to be the ﬁnal hurrah of the
Keynesian-Fordist era. In 1967, the rate of proﬁt entered a period of decline
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 69
that, by the early 1980s, had plunged the US and global economy into
their deepest economic recession since the Great Depression. Contrary to
expectations, however, the contraction of 1980–2 marked a turning point in
the fortunes of US capital. Te proﬁt-rate rose sharply between 1982 and
1986, and would continue to improve through 1995. Te proﬁt-rate fell
between 1996 and 2000, largely due to a rise in the wage-share of national
income brought about by low rates of unemployment during the dot.com
boom. Tis decline has been reversed in the years since, although there is
evidence of a renewed reassertion of a downward trend. I will return to this
point at some length below.
Much recent debate over the causes of the proﬁtability-crisis and the
subsequent performance of the US economy in the post-1979 period has been
framed by the publication of Robert Brenner’s 1998 book-length essay ‘Te
Economics of Global Turbulence’ in the New Left Review.
spurred a welcome renewal of interest in the macro-dynamics of accumulation
and crisis amongst radical political economists, despite the signiﬁcant theoretical
and empirical problems with his account. Given the extensive response his work
1. Brenner 1998.
Source: National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.5, Table 6.3; Net Fixed
Assets, Table 4.1
Figure 1. US rate of proﬁt, 1997–2007
70 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
has received, I will here summarise Brenner’s account to draw out the contrast
with the approach developed below that, despite some superﬁcial points of
overlap, is founded on diﬀerent methodical and theoretical presuppositions.
Reduced to its essentials, Brenner’s argument is that the decline in the
rate of proﬁt that began in 1967 was the result of the entry of newer, lower-
cost producers that placed a downward pressure on prices and hence the
proﬁts of established ﬁrms – particularly those in the core-industries of the
US Fordist economy. As Europe and Japan recovered from WWII and began
to rebuild their productive base, US producers in particular found themselves
competing against lower-cost and, in many cases, more technologically
eﬃ cient competitors. Because these new entrants into the global
manufacturing markets set output-prices at levels that would allow them to
realise the prevailing average rate of proﬁt, this lowered the proﬁt-margins
of older, less eﬃ cient ﬁrms. However, rather than shutting down these
costlier, less technologically eﬃ cient plants, US ﬁrms and older producers in
Europe kept existing plants in operation. Brenner suggests several reasons
for this refusal to exit from existing branches of production in which ﬁrms
had large capital-investments – the development of sector-speciﬁc
technological expertise, the formation of extensive networks of business-
relations and customer-contacts that could not be transferred to new
branches of production, the accumulation of ‘goodwill’ and reputation, and
the fact that ﬁrms had already recovered the value of older stocks through
depreciation. Tis last factor is highly signiﬁcant in Brenner’s account. It
meant that, even as prices fell, producers that had already depreciated the
value of ﬁxed stocks could continue to realise at least the average rate of
proﬁt on their circulating variable and constant capital. For all these reasons,
older capitals refused to readily withdraw from existing branches of
production. Te result was a condition of ‘too much entry and not enough
exit’ resulting in overcompetition and overcapacity that placed a sustained
downward pressure on prices and proﬁts.
Te proﬁtability-crisis is thus explained as the result of excessive
competition and a failure of the market to eﬀectively co-ordinate and
orchestrate suﬃ cient exit from overinvested sectors leading to a fall in the
rate of proﬁt. Lower rates of proﬁt in turn discouraged new investment. Tis
lowered the rate of productivity-growth and placed additional pressures on
ﬁrms’ proﬁt-margins. Te eventual result was a generalised crisis characterised
by plummeting investment, rising unemployment, and pervasive overcapacity
and overproduction throughout the productive circuit.
In subsequent writings, Brenner has sought (unsuccessfully in my view)
to reconcile his 1998 account of the fall in the (global) rate of proﬁt with the
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 71
apparent paradox of the post-1982 recovery in the proﬁt-rate that co-exists
with a declining trend in the rate of net investment. Without making any
overt declaration to this eﬀect, Brenner essentially shifts from a supply-side
approach to a demand-based explanation rooted in an insuﬃ cient level of
eﬀective demand. In various contributions, Brenner locates the origins of
persistent stagnation in ﬁscal monetary policies that have failed to provide
suﬃ cient economic stimulus, wage-repression leading to a chronic problem
of insuﬃ cient growth of demand, and still ongoing problems of overcapacity
in global manufacturing that acts as a barrier to investment – although this
latter relationship is never fully explained, but apparently is due to the
persistence of insuﬃ cient exit that continues to result in overinvestment.
Brenner’s work has undergone extensive critique.
As such, I will not here
rehearse the full litany of ﬂaws pointed out by his critics but will conﬁne
myself to issues most relevant to distinguishing his account from the analysis
that follows. For one, Brenner asserts that lower-cost entrants set prices at
levels that will earn them the prevailing average rate of proﬁt. Tis is a curious
assertion, given that the entire motive driving cost-reducing technological
innovation is to allow those deploying the new production-methods to
achieve a higher rate of proﬁt by undercutting their less eﬃ cient rivals. To
motivate his argument, Brenner must impose the assumption that innovating
ﬁrms set prices at levels that realise the prevailing average proﬁt-rate. At no
point does Brenner demonstrate that this assumption corresponds to the
actual pricing behaviour of ﬁrms. More problematic still, as Zacharias has
shown, technological change along lines indicated by Benner can just as
easily cause the proﬁt-rate to rise. It all depends on the level at which
innovating ﬁrms set prices.
Further, if Brenner was correct in his assumptions regarding the pricing
practices of ﬁrms, it is easy to show that, for a given rate of cost-reducing
technological change, the rate of proﬁt would converge over time to a
constant level, and that the faster the rate of cost-reducing technical change,
the lower would be the proﬁt-rate towards which the system eventually
converges. Brenner’s analytical frame thus encounters problems in explaining
how periods of accelerated technical change – such as what occurred after
the Volcker shock of the early 1980s – can correspond to a rising proﬁt-rate.
2. Brenner 2000, 2001, 2004.
3. Of particular note, see Shaikh 1999; Duménil and Levy 2002b; Fine, Lapavitas, and
Milonakis 1999; Freeman 1999; and Zacharias 2002.
4. Zacharias 2002. If ﬁrms lower prices, these will reduce the cost of inputs; hence the eﬀect
on the overall aggregate rate of proﬁt is unclear.
72 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
Tis explains the highly ad hoc and non-systemic character of Brenner’s
subsequent accounts of the post-1982 period.
Second, there are signiﬁcant problems with the timing in Brenner’s linking
of intensiﬁed international competition to downward pressure on prices
and proﬁts. As Brenner notes, increased international pressure to expand
markets, by placing pressure on output prices, should lead to either a fall in
prices or, at the very least, should cause the rate of annual inﬂation to decline
(deﬂation). Tis follows directly from Brenner’s assertion that the entry of
lower-cost producers will undercut the pricing power of established ﬁrms
and impose a downward pressure on proﬁts via falling prices. Te problem
is that the decline in the proﬁt-rate after 1967 is correlated with a higher,
not lower, inﬂation-rate. Te only way the phenomenon of higher inﬂation
can be reconciled with Brenner’s formulation is by reference to external
non-endogenous ‘shocks’ such as the OPEC oil-price embargo and
excessively lax ﬁscal and monetary policy that increased nominal demand
faster than the growth of real output. While oil-prices where certainly a
factor in higher inﬂation, empirical research suggests that less than 15 per
cent of the rise in prices observed in the 1970s can be directly attributed to
the OPEC embargo. Nor does the timing of the downturn in the proﬁt-rate
(1965–7) correspond to the point at which international competition in
manufacturing began to ramp up, as most of the major inroads into US
markets by foreign ﬁrms occurred after 1970. Taken in tandem, problems
concerning timing and the inability to explain the inﬂationary form assumed
by the crisis raise serious questions about the validity of an approach that
explains falling proﬁt-rates as an outcome of a competition-induced fall in
prices. Interestingly, none of Brenner’s critics have made much of this point,
which seems critical to me: namely, that the crisis did not manifest itself in
the form a deﬂationary spiral, but, rather, took the form of price-wage
Tird, Brenner’s ‘horizontalist’ account, that explains falling proﬁtability
as the outcome of excessive competition, cannot oﬀer a compelling
explanation of why the rate of decline was ubiquitous across all economic
sectors, not just in manufacturing or sectors directly exposed for intensiﬁed
international competition. Brenner himself acknowledges the problem,
particularly in the case of non-manufacturing ﬁrms and services. Given that
these ﬁrms did not experience intensiﬁed international price- and proﬁt-
5. Tis is not a peripheral issue. Any account of the crisis must be able to account for both
the underlying origins of the fall in the rate of proﬁt, and the phenomenal form through which
this decline is manifest. Why falling proﬁts corresponded with a rise in the inﬂation rate is a
central fact that any account of the 1967–82 crisis must explain.
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 73
competition, and given the presumed fall in prices of manufactured goods
relative to services, this would imply that the proﬁt-rate in these sectors
would be rising. To get around this problem, and reconcile his manufacturing-
centred account with the generalised nature of the fall in the proﬁt-rate,
Brenner ends up surreptitiously re-introducing the very wage-squeeze
argument that he had previously gone to great lengths to debunk – for
example, by claiming that wages rose faster than prices in many non-
manufacturing sectors, thus placing a wage-induced squeeze on proﬁts.
Problems are compounded by empirical work by Duménil and Lévy that
has shown that, once certain extremely capital-intensive sectors are excluded
from the calculation (mining, utilities, and heavy transportation), the
decline of the rate of proﬁt in the manufacturing and non-manufacturing
sectors is roughly equivalent.
Tis undermines Brenner’s claim that
overcapacity and excess-competition (due to insuﬃ cient exit) is at the root
of the fall in the proﬁt-rate.
Finally, Brenner’s reliance on overcompetition and lack of capital-exit
cannot readily explain persistent stagnation in the rate of net investment.
Once older capitals were retired following the wave of industrial shakeouts
that occurred in the years 1982–5, pressures on prices and proﬁts due to
excess-competition and overproduction should have worked their way
through the industrial system. Hence, the problem of overcapacity and
stagnation should be a transitory phenomenon in Brenner’s framework.
Yet, as I show below, and as Brenner himself notes, declining rates of net
investment have persisted despite the post-1982 recovery in the proﬁt-rate.
Given his inability to reconcile persistent investment-stagnation with his
account of the crisis of the 1965–82 period, Brenner’s subsequent writings
treat the lack of adequate investment-outlets as a problem of insuﬃ cient
levels of eﬀective demand. As such, his post-1998 contributions veer
towards a left-Keynesian position that ascribes sub-par investment and
growth to the mismatch between the growth of wages relative to the increase
6. Shaikh 1999.
7. Duménil and Lévy 2002b.
8. Much of Brenner’s problem seems to derive from his inability to see that one cannot
explain movements in the proﬁt-rate through the pricing behaviour of individual ﬁrms. Price-
formation is governed, over the long term, by underlying factors such as the output/capital ratio
and the proﬁt-share that regulate the aggregate rate of proﬁt. Pricing practices of ﬁrms will reﬂect
movements of these underlying determinants of the proﬁt-rate, and hence cannot be used to
develop a coherent account of the determinants of longer-term changes in the rate of proﬁt. In
part, Brenner’s problem on this count derives from the undercurrent of methodological
individualism that pervades his account, as that leads him to seek to derive the proﬁt-rate as the
aggregated outcome of a multitude of uncoordinated individual decisions.
74 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
in worker-output. Recourse to lack of eﬀective demand due to inadequate
growth of wages involves an explicit repudiation of his prior theoretical
framework according to which changes in the rate of proﬁt govern the rate
of net investment. Te sum result is a highly eclectic and increasingly
incoherent account that must continually introduce a host of contingent
and transitory factors to explain the problem of stagnant investment. Tis
is not surprising, given that Brenner’s prior framework, already deeply
ﬂawed to begin with, cannot oﬀer any compelling explanation or account
of why investment has failed to respond to the improvement in the rate of
proﬁt. In the end, we are left with a highly ad hoc and empiricist treatment
of the post-1982 period that lacks any rigorous or unifying theoretical
basis. Providing a more theoretical coherent account of the apparent
contradiction between the post-1982 recovery of the proﬁt-rate concurrent
with a long-term decline in the rate of net investment is one of the chief
objectives of this paper.
In the following section, I decompose the rate of proﬁt calculated from
the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) into some of its
component factors in order to isolate various forces at work that explain
observed movements in the price-rate of proﬁt. Te method utilised has
signiﬁcant overlap with prior work by Wolﬀ, Duménil and Lévy, and
While the results of this section are generally congruent with these
prior analyses, there are some diﬀerences in the relative emphasis placed on
various forces operating on proﬁtability, particularly movements in the
output-to-capital ratio and the timing of changes in the proﬁt-share.
Where I part company with these prior analyses is in my treatment of the
factors governing longer-term changes in the rate of investment. Drawing on
one strand in the work of the ‘monopoly-capital school’, I argue that the
maturation of the US – and global – industrial system has imposed barriers to
accumulation that appear to have largely oﬀset any stimulus due to the
improvement in the proﬁt-rate. Barriers to investment have been exacerbated
by a phenomenon of ‘disaccumulation’ occurring within the productive
circuit, due to an improvement in the output-to-capital ratio that has allowed
ﬁrms to meet output-targets with a lower rate of net investment. I further
argue that barriers to a renewal of a higher rate of accumulation and growth
have been compounded by the increased appropriation of surplus-value
9. Wolﬀ 1992 and 2002; Duménil and Lévy 2002a, 2002b and 2004; Moseley 1997 and
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 75
(proﬁts) by the owners of ﬁnancial assets that has siphoned oﬀ funds that
would otherwise be available for productive investment.
Te sum result has been a situation where in higher proﬁt-rates co-exist
with a persistent underaccumulation of capital within the productive circuit.
Tis has required that other means be found to guarantee the expansion of
the market, primarily through a phenomenal expansion of household- and
public-sector debt. While this has provided a provisional means of
overcoming problems of stagnant investment, the ﬂight into the future
evidenced in expansion of credit has insurmountable limits. I conclude with
a discussion of the conditions that have facilitated the Federal Reserve’s
ability to underwrite speculative credit, and the conditions under which this
form of systemic management will no longer serve to overcome problems of
Analysis of the proﬁt-rate
Te proﬁt-rate can be decomposed into the product of the ratio of proﬁts to
the total national product and the ratio of total output to the net capital-stock
Proﬁt-rate = [(proﬁts)/(GDP)]*[(GDP)/(Capital-stock)]
Te rate of proﬁt rises when either the output-to-capital ratio or the proﬁt-
share of national income rises, holding the other factor constant. Figure 2
graphs movements in the output/capital ratio and the proﬁt-rate over the
years 1947–2006. Changes in the rate of proﬁt are highly correlated with
changes in output per unit of net capital-investment, measured at current
replacement-cost. Both the output/capital ratio and the rate of proﬁt rise
during the boom of 1960–6, and then begin a long and precipitous fall. Te
turning point occurs in 1982, following the worst recession in the US since
the Great Depression. Te output-to-capital ratio rises sharply from 1982–
5, and continues to improve, albeit at a slower annual rate, until 1995. Te
output/capital ratio then ﬂattens out, before entering what appears to be a
period of renewed decline beginning in 2003.
We can decompose the nominal output/capital ratio into a ‘real’ and price-
component. Figure 3 shows the real output-to-capital ratio derived by deﬂating
both output and the current cost of the net capital-stock by price-indexes for
GDP and capital-goods (the PPI), respectively. What is particularly striking is
not only that the ratio of real output per unit of real capital-investment shows
76 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
evidence of a steady long-term secular decline, but the sheer magnitude of the
decline, falling from a peak of 1.64 in 1965 to 0.81 in 2006. Tis implies that,
in real terms, the capital-stock is only half as productive today as it was forty
Figure 4 plots the ratio of the price index for GDP (the GDP deﬂator) to
the price-index for producer-goods (the PPI deﬂator). Te ratio rises rapidly
between 1982 and 1985, followed by another increase between 1993 and
2003. When this ratio is rising, the values (measured in socially-necessary
labour-time), hence the prices of capital-goods are falling relative to the values,
hence the prices of the goods and services that compose ﬁnal output. Given
that capital-stocks are composed of manufactured goods, and ﬁnal output is
10. One must treat these numbers with some caution. While NIPA chain-weighted price-
deﬂation attempts to provide a means for rigorously accounting for technical change, it is not
clear we can compare ‘real’ output to capital-measures over an extended period of time due to
fundamental qualitative change in the composition of both the means of production and output.
Let me here note that the decline in the real output-to-capital ratio has coincided with a marked
shift in the composition of the capital-stock. Te ratio of the stock of capital accumulated in
ﬁnancial and real-estate trading activities has risen relative to the capital invested in manufacturing,
transportation, and utilities. As I will argue below, this pattern is congruent with the decline
observed in Figure 3, as capital invested in FIRE is non-productive in both Marxian (value) and
real terms – protestations to the contrary, bond-traders and real-estate agents do not themselves
produce any ‘real’ output, but are primarily engaged in the speculative reshuﬄ ing of ownership-
claims over both real and ﬁctitious capital-assets.
Figure 2. Rate of proﬁt and output/capital ratio
Source: National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.5, Table 6.3; Net Fixed
Assets, Table 4.1
Rate of Proﬁt
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 77
Figure 3. Real output/capital ratio, 1947–2007
Source: National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.5, Table 1.1.9, Table 5.3.4;
Net Fixed Assets, Table 4.1
Figure 4. Ratio of (GDP deﬂator) / (PPI deﬂator), 1947–2007
Source: National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.5, Table 6.3; Net Fixed
Assets, Table 4.1
78 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
composed of a mix of goods and services, a rise in this ratio indicates
that productivity-gains in manufacturing exceed those of services, and,
secondarily, that productivity-gains by manufacturing ﬁrms in Department I
likely exceed those in Department II.
What Figures 3 and 4 show is that the rise in the nominal output-to-
capital ratio is entirely due to the cheapening of the prices of capital-goods
relative to the price composite of goods and services that enter directly into
GDP. Given that movements in the output/capital ratio tends to dominate
movements in the rate of proﬁt, it follows that the most signiﬁcant factor
underlying the improvement in proﬁtability since 1982 is the decline in the
prices of capital-goods relative to the prices of all capital- and consumer-
goods that compose the gross domestic product.
Te other principal factor that enters into the determination of the proﬁt-
rate is the proﬁt-share, or the share of the total value-product appropriated in
the form of proﬁts (retained proﬁts, interest, and dividends). Following
standard practice, I calculate the proﬁt-share by subtracting the total annual
wage- and salary-compensation paid to employees from the estimate of the
Figure 5. Proﬁt-share, 1947–2007
Source: National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.5, Table 7.5, Table 6.3
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 79
GDP reported in the National Income and Product Accounts.
shows the proﬁt-share over the years 1947–2006.
Between 1947 and 1971, we observe a pattern of (uneven) decline that is
particularly pronounced between 1947–52 and then again during the boom
of 1965–71. Te proﬁt-share then undergoes a secular rise continuing through
1995. Te high-tech/dot.com boom of 1996–2000 drove down unemployment
and temporarily eroded capitalists’ income-share. Tis decline was reversed in
2001, with the proﬁt-share recovering to levels approaching the peak reached
at the beginning of the 1990s high-tech boom.
Variations in the proﬁt-share will reﬂect relative changes in real wages and
real output per hour of labour-time expended. If real wages rise faster than
output per hour, the proﬁt-share falls. Conversely, if output per unit of
labour-input exceeds the increase in real wages, the proﬁt-share rises.
Figure 6 shows real wages and real output per worker over the 1947–2006
period with each series normalised to one for the year 1948 to facilitate
comparison. In periods during which the proﬁt-share falls real-wage growth
exceeds the growth of productivity (for example, in 1966–71 and 1995–2000
the slope of the incline in the former exceeds that of the latter), and vice-versa
when the proﬁt-share is rising.
Te rise in the proﬁt-share since 1971 is indicative of several longer-term
trends that have fundamentally recomposed the relative balance of class-power
in favour of capitalist owners. For one, structural unemployment began to rise
in 1969 and continued to rise for over a decade thereafter due to the
combination of slower accumulation and increased mechanisation. Tis
weakened the position of organised labour and broke the link established
under Fordism between increases in labour-productivity and the growth of
real wages for workers in the manufacturing core. Second, the rise in the
proﬁt-share after 1971 reﬂects an ongoing recomposition of labour-markets
and employment-relations that was occurring along a variety of dimensions.
Key aspects of this structural recomposition include the following: declining
rates of unionisation; the growing absorption of labour into lower-wage
11. Tis ratio functions as a crude but useful proxy for what Marx termed the rate of
exploitation, or the total share of new value created by (abstract) labour in excess of the value
advanced in the form of wages. Te rate of surplus-value is calculated by dividing unpaid by paid
labour-time. Realised proﬁts that can be calculated from the NIPA are the diﬀerence between
total national income and the total outlay of wage- and salary-expenditure. Te latter includes
what Marx termed unproductive labour – for example, work that may perform a necessary
function in the reproduction of the capital-ratio yet that does not constitute a direct source of
new value and surplus-value. Tis would include, for instance, workers employed in advertising,
sales, and ﬁnance.
80 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
service- and retail-sectors; the individualisation of the wage-contract in a
manner that favours employers (with the exception of some groups of highly
skilled workers who have been able to command higher wages); the prevalence
of disguised unemployment in the form of a reduction in labour-force
participation (particularly amongst African-American males); unreported
joblessness and involuntary part-time employment; reductions in the real
value of the federal minimum-wage; worries over impending job-loss due to
the eﬀects of corporate restructuring and layoﬀs; the rise of contract-and
contingent employment; the inﬂux of cheap immigrant-labour that has driven
down wages in many service-sectors; the greater threat of capital-mobility that
serves as a weapon through which to discipline labour; the growing exposure
of US manufacturing workers to lower-cost foreign competitors (via Wal-
Mart); and the growth of household-debt that has served as a mechanism for
inculcating acceptance of free-market values within the working class. All
these processes were underway to varying degrees at the time when Volcker
took over as Chair of the Federal Reserve. Te often-noted eﬀects of the
‘Volcker shock’ that ﬁgure prominently in many accounts of neoliberalism
must be interpreted within this context.
Volcker’s decisions to jack unemployment to record post-WWII levels
amounted to a brutal hit upon an already weakened US working class. Similar
considerations apply to Reagan’s summary ﬁring of the striking federal PATCO
12. See Harvey 2005; Panitch and Gindin 2005.
Figure 6. Labour-productivity and real wage, 1948–2007, all workers
Source: National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.5, Table 6.9, Table 5.3.4
and 5.2.5, Table 6.3
real output per hour
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 81
workers in 1981 and his stacking of the National Labor Relation board with
anti-labour appointments. What was decisive about the Volcker-Reagan era is
that it marked the watershed moment in the ideological consolidation of a
political-economic régime predicated upon an ethos of market-fundamentalism
and the construction of a new class-alliance between certain highly-skilled
sectors of the white-collar salariat and corporate management. It was not,
however, the decisive turning point in boosting the proﬁt-share, which had
been ongoing during the previous ten years.
To sum up, movements in the output-to-capital ratio dominated the
behaviour of the rate of proﬁt between 1965–96.
While the fall in the proﬁt-
share was a signiﬁcant factor contributing to the initial downturn in 1965, the
rise in the proﬁt-share after 1971 proved insuﬃ cient to reverse the decline in
the rate of proﬁt brought about – and sustained – by the decline in the output/
capital ratio. Te onset and duration of the crisis of the Keynesian-Fordist
régime cannot be primarily attributed to the rising power of organised labour
or a major shift in the relative balance of class-power. On the contrary, the
duration and extent of the crisis is largely explained by the fall in the output/
Tis trend reversed itself following the sharp contraction of the 1980–2
period. Falling proﬁt-rates and Volcker’s decision to jack interest-rates to
record-levels plunged the US and global economy into its deepest recession
since the Great Depression. Te crisis had a salutary eﬀect on the rate of proﬁt.
Te sharp contraction in domestic demand and the sky-rocketing price of the
dollar undermined the competitive position of large portions of US capital.
Plant-closures destroyed massive sums of capital-value amongst ﬁrms no
longer able to conﬁrm to new international cost-standards imposed by more
eﬃ cient foreign producers. Tis purged the US manufacturing base of its
older, less technologically-advanced ﬁxed capital. Te defeat imposed on US
labour was decisive in clearing the path for the accelerated restructuring of
ﬁrms’ ﬁxed capital and the introduction of labour-process transformations
associated with lean production. As new methods and labour-process
innovations were disseminated, productivity-growth in manufacturing rose.
Firms that survived the shakeout of the 1979–85 period began to recapitalise
their ﬁxed stock through ‘rationalising’ forms of investment that sought to
economise on both capital and labour.
Te sharp upturn in labour-productivity in the capital-goods sector reduced
the prices of capital-stocks relative to the prices of ﬁnal output. Te combination of
the rise in the proﬁt-share and the decline in the relative price of capital-goods
13. Tis analysis is congruent with historical studies by Duménil and Lévy that have argued
that the output/capital ratio is the primary factor governing movements in the proﬁt-rate.
Duménil and Lévy 1993.
82 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
in tandem laid the basis for the post-1982 recovery in the proﬁt-rate. Te
crisis and post-1982 recovery aﬃ rms one of Marx’s central contentions, namely
that crisis is both the expression of the maturation of capitalism’s internal
contradictions and the means through which barriers to proﬁtability are
Some contradictions of the neoliberal régime
One of the puzzles of the performance of the US economy over the last several
decades is the failure of the improvement in proﬁtability to translate into a
higher rate of net investment. When we inspect the rate of net accumulation
shown in Figure 7, calculated by dividing net investment (gross investment
minus depreciation-charges) by the total net private non-residential stock, we
observe a declining trend over the period from 1967–2006 that is overlaid by
a pattern of cyclical oscillation. Tis co-existence of a higher rate of proﬁt and
a downward trend in the rate of net investment is surprising and appears to
Marxian theory, as well as neoclassical economics, predicts that higher rates
of expected proﬁts should trigger a higher rate of investment. Tis is so for the
straightforward reason that ﬁrms will ﬁnance the acquisition of new
technologies if doing so promises to cut per-unit costs and thereby improve
Figure 7. Rate of net investment, 1947–2007
Source: National Income and Product Accounts, Table 5.2.5, Net Fixed Assets, Table 4.1
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 83
their competitive position. Techniques that achieve major reduction in per-
unit costs should, therefore, stimulate an upsurge in new investment as ﬁrms
rush to capture technological rents and above-average proﬁts accruing to those
capitals that succeed in being the ﬁrst to bring these new methods into
operation. It follows that a steady stream of cost-reducing innovations should
be correlated with a sustained upturn in the rate of accumulation.
Tree factors explain the breakdown of the expected proﬁt-investment
relation. In the most general sense, the delinking of the rate of investment
from the proﬁt-rate reﬂects the fact that, in a mature industrial economy such
as the US (this is also true for most of Europe and Japan), a diminishing share
of investment is tied to the development of entirely new industrial sectors,
including services. Once such a stage of maturity is reached, the prior stimulus
to accumulation provided by the impetus to develop and build up the basic
branches of industry is progressively exhausted. A point is eventually reached
wherein investment in a growing number of sectors occurs primarily to replace
worn-out or technologically obsolete stocks funded out of capital-consumption
allowances. Te result is a tendency for the system to drift towards a lower rate
of investment absent the appearance of major capital-absorbing technological
innovations that drive recapitalisation of existing branches of industry and
spur the emergence of entirely new industrial sectors. For all the hype
surrounding the ‘New Economy’, the evidence suggests that the digital
revolution has failed to provide a stimulus to accumulation on a scale
comparable to that provided by the railroad and the auto.
Tis stagnationist tendency that overlays the entire neoliberal period has
been exacerbated by the fact that the rise in the output/capital ratio has allowed
capitalists to be able to meet output-targets with a smaller proportionate
amount of net investment. Te basic logic can be illustrated with a simple
example. Suppose that ﬁrms expect market-demand in a given line of industry
to grow at a rate of 3 per cent per annum. If capital is becoming more eﬃ cient
in money-terms – for example, if a higher level of output can be achieved from
each additional unit of new investment – this means that ﬁrms will increase
planned investment at a slower rate, say at a rate of 2 per cent per annum, than
the expected rate of growth of market-demand (both measured in monetary
terms). In other words, the rise in the nominal output/capital ratio means that
capitalists as a whole can meet any expected rate of growth of market-demand
with a proportionately smaller outlay on new plants and equipment.
14. Te claim that industrial maturity will act as a drag on the rate of net accumulation has a
long pedigree in neo-Marxist theory dating back to the seminal work of Michal Kalecki 1954
and as developed in the subsequent writings of authors such as Steindl 1952 and Baran and
84 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
In sectors characterised by advanced maturity, where demand can be met
with existing capacity, new investment may well occur at levels below
replacement-value. In this case, investment-expenditures do not even manage
to absorb capital-consumption allowances. Tis highlights the paradox of
rising ‘capital-productivity’ in the current neoliberal context. Te rise in
productivity, rather than serving as a stimulus to invest, can just as easily place
a downward pressure on accumulation as ﬁrms ﬁnd they can do more with
Te result is that a growing portion of funds recovered through
amortisation are released back into active circulation, where they are used
either for speculative purposes or disposed of through an increase in capitalists’
Tis brings us to a third factor exerting a depressive eﬀect on the rate of
accumulation, namely the rising share of total proﬁts paid out to ﬁnancial
owners in the form of dividends and interest. As seen in Figure 8, interest
and dividends rose as a share of total proﬁts from an average of 47 per cent
the years 1970–8 to 68 per cent for the period 1979–2003. Te major jump
in rentier income-share occurred between 1978 and 1982, as rising interest-
rates and structural shifts in the relative power welded by ﬁnancial markets
over productive enterprise eﬀected a massive reallocation of proﬁt from
production to ﬁnance. Over time, the structure of rentier-income has changed
from primarily loan-based interest-income to greater weighting of equity-
Te interest-share, while showing signiﬁcant variation over
the course of the business-cycle, shifts to a higher overall level in the 1980s,
followed by a decline in the years since 1991, albeit with a major spike during
the 2001 recession. Conversely, net dividends have tended to rise as a share
of booked proﬁts over the entire period between 1979 and 2002, and appear
to have remained at high levels in all years since, except for 2005.
15. To avoid potential confusion, note that this investment-depressing eﬀect has been due
entirely to the shift in relative prices that has reduced the value (hence the relative price) of the
elements composing the ﬁxed stock of productive capital relative to the aggregated value of the
gross output of ﬁnal goods and services. Tis point needs to be borne in mind when discussing
the question of the rate of accumulation, which refers to a monetary, as opposed to a use-value
phenomenon. Capitalists accumulate things as vehicles for the accumulation of value; if value
(hence relative price) is falling, a greater mass of use-values purchased can be associated with a
smaller sum of value. Hence, use-values may be augmented at a higher rate while the rate of
augmentation of capital value is falling.
16. Tis argument is one of the core propositions of the monopoly-capitalist theory found in
the work of Steindl 1952, pp. 107–55; Baran and Sweezy 1966, pp. 52–78; Sweezy and Magdoﬀ
1987; Foster 1989; and Haveli and Lucarelli 2002.
17. Note also that the relative share of rentier-income, particularly in the form of interest-
payments, shows a pronounced cyclical eﬀect. Tis is because debt payments on long-term debt
obligations are ﬁxed in nominal terms, and thus rise/fall as a share of total proﬁts in response to
a cyclical decline/increase in the monetary rate of proﬁt.
18. Te reader might note that the net interest- and dividend-share exceeds 100% of NFC
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 85
Tis reallocation of proﬁts from production to ﬁnance marks the reassertion
of the power and prerogatives of capitalist owners – in particular, that sector
of the capitalist class that controls the origination and allocation of credit and
ﬁnance. Beginning in the late 1970s, and then exploding with the ascension
of Volcker-Reagan, a market for corporate control developed in the form of
leveraged buy-out operations and private-equity acquisitions. Entire enterprises
were transformed into objects of speculation. Buyout-specialists and private-
equity ﬁrms found ways to load up on debt, buy out existing shareholders, and
take the company private. A ruthless round of cost-cutting would follow. Te
restructured ﬁrms could then be re-sold on the public-equity market at a
handsome proﬁt or, alternatively, held as a privately-owned proprietary
Private-equity ﬁrms and buyout-specialists have used this process to leverage
higher returns on their paid-in equity-investments. At the same time, this
process has had an impact on decisions regarding capital-allocation and ﬁrms’
proﬁts at several points. Tis indicates that ﬁnancial payments are ‘cannibalising’ the productive
sector through a process of productive disinvestment. Tis would conﬁrm the overall account
presented in this article. However, some caution must be exercised in evaluating the exact levels
shown in the National Income and Product Accounts, given certain accounting complexities
that factor into how the proﬁts of NFCs are actually recorded. What is most important for our
present purposes is the overall trend.
Figure 8. Net dividend and interest as share of NFC booked proﬁts, 1960–2007
Source: National Income and Product Acounts, Table 7.10, Table 7.11, Table 6.16
86 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
‘propensity to invest’. Internal cash-ﬂows have increasingly been siphoned oﬀ
through debt-repayments, as opposed to being utilised to ﬁnance tangible
investments in new plants and equipment. Surpluses remaining after debt-
servicing are then returned to private owners or distributed through dividend-
payments to equity-holders. Lacking proﬁtable investment-outlets in the
productive sectors, these funds are funnelled back into the capital-markets
where they are deployed for largely speculative purposes.
Te post-1980 development of a ‘market for corporate control’ and increased
shareholder-activism similarly transformed the environment within which
top-tier management presently operate. CEOs have been transformed into
rentier-capitalists by having their compensation tied to stock-options and
dividend-payments. Te rapacious scrutiny by the capital-markets for
undervalued corporate assets has compelled them to manage their ﬁrms and
distribute proﬁts with a constant eye towards warding oﬀ the spectre of
shareholder-revolt and leveraged buyouts. Under such circumstances,
management is far more inclined to dispose of ﬁnancial surpluses through
increases in quarterly dividend-payouts – stock-buybacks that artiﬁcially
inﬂate stock-prices – or by ﬁnancing mergers and acquisitions that create
paper capital-gains without any actual augmentation of the value of the
underlying tangible capital from which equity-valuations are (in principle)
Meeting rentiers’ rapacious demands for higher dividend-payments
and capital-gains requires that ﬁrms try to squeeze more output from their
existing stock. To the extent that ﬁrms can meet production- and output-
targets with a lower per-unit rate of net investment, ﬁnancial surpluses that
might otherwise have been dedicated to expanding plants and equipment are
siphoned oﬀ in the form of dividend-payments. Tis exacerbates problems of
19. Financialisation has eﬀected a growing ‘rentierisation’ of top management by tying CEO
compensation to the performance of a company’s share-price through stock-options. Tis results
in the creation of incentive-structures that directly tie CEO compensation to short-term stock-
price and added incentives if ﬁrms exceed certain performance benchmarks. Stock-options and
other forms of equity-linked compensation-packages have created powerful incentives for CEOs
to manage enterprises in view of maximising short-term stock-performance, and have been used
to resolve the principal-agent problem inherent in the system of joint-stock ownership by
eﬀectively fusing the incentives of wealthy shareholders (owners) and top management.
20. For various accounts, see Lazonick and O’Sullivan 2000; Duménil and Lévy 2002; Crotty
2003; and Kalecki 1954, pp. 145–161. Orhangazi 2008 presents econometric evidence regarding
the eﬀect of ﬁnancialisation on the capital-expenditures by non-ﬁnancial corporations that
conﬁrms claims regarding the depressive eﬀect of higher payments to rentiers on the long-term
allocation of proﬁts to ﬁxed investment.
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 87
Tis combination of factors explains the neoliberal paradox of robust and
rising proﬁts co-existing with subpar investment. Te result is that sustaining
the ability to convert the surplus-product into realised monetary proﬁts has
become increasingly dependent on the growing indebtedness of the US
government and, particularly over the last decade, on the growth in the debt-
encumbrance of the working class. It can be shown within a Marxian-Kaleckian
model of the capital-circuit that the greater the diﬀerence between the rate of
proﬁt (rising since 1982) and the rate of accumulation (falling over the same
period), the greater the rate of growth of household- and government-debt
that is required in order for ﬁrms to convert their imposed mark-ups into
It can further be shown that the total amount of ﬁrms’
retained proﬁts is equal to the amount of debt-ﬁnanced household- and
government-expenditure, adjusted for leakages due to the trade-deﬁcit.
Because these retained proﬁts are not oﬀset by an equivalent amount of debt-
ﬁnanced capital-investment, ﬁrms are not required to allocate these proﬁts to
retire short-term bank-credits used to ﬁnance their initial investment. Te
result is that the growth of government- and household- debt-ﬁnanced
consumption necessary to sustain demand and realise proﬁts creates a massive
pool of ‘unattached’ proﬁts that are distributed either to capitalist households
via higher dividend-payments or placed directly into the capital-markets.
Retained proﬁts are in this manner recycled back into the ﬁnancial markets
where they are transformed via purchases of yield-bearing ﬁnancial assets
(securities) into claims on future wages and proﬁts. Te circuit of securitised
credit is, in this sense, ‘self-ﬁnanced’.
Te recycling of this massive pool of distributed proﬁts back through the
secondary capital-markets introduces a long-term inﬂationary bias into asset-
prices. Higher asset-prices in turn lie at the core of how the ‘crisis’ of insuﬃ cient
real investment has been deferred over recent decades. Particularly during the
last decade, growth has become dependent on the so-called ‘wealth-eﬀect’.
Tis refers to a dynamic whereby rising asset-prices lead households to feel
more secure about their economic prospects. Buttressed by higher portfolio-
values and rising home-prices, households decide to reduce their rate of saving
21. See Rochon 1999; Seccareccia 1996.
22. Te relation between debt-ﬁnanced expenditure and realised proﬁts originates in the
work of Michal Kalecki, who demonstrated how capitalist’s actually-realised collective proﬁts
were exactly equivalent to their own outlays on consumption and investment. Either capitalists’
consumption out of proﬁts, or debt-ﬁnanced investment generates revenue on the income side
of the aggregated balance-sheet of the private sector for which there is no oﬀsetting factor-cost.
Similarly, when working-class households go into debt to ﬁnance consumption, this generates a
ﬂow of sales-revenue for which there is no oﬀsetting cost and hence enters into the total global
proﬁts (surplus-value) realised by the capitalist class. See Kalecki 1954, pp. 45–69.
88 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
and increase their issue IOUs to boost consumption-spending. Trough the
process described above, this debt-funded expenditure leads to the formation
of proﬁts distributed to capitalist households that are subsequently recycled
back into the ﬁnancial markets. Tis dynamic of debt-ﬁnanced consumption
is what essentially drove proﬁt-formation during the dot.com boom and the
Monetary interventions of the Federal Reserve over recent decades,
particularly during the Greenspan years, have been driven by the need to
manage the contradictions internal to a system in which growth and proﬁt-
creation has become inextricably tied to credit-fuelled asset-bubbles and
borrowing secured against appreciating property- and equity-collateral.
Interest-rate reductions allow indebted yet functional solvent entities to re-
ﬁnance their existing liabilities. Tis reduces the share of current income
absorbed by payments of principal and interest, raising the manageable debt-
to-income ratio of already over-leveraged ﬁnancial ﬁrms and households.
Lower interest-rates, in turn, induce an inﬂationary dynamic into asset-prices,
both through increasing viable debt-loads and by increasing the rate at which
future income-streams are ‘capitalised’ into the current prices paid for ﬁnancial
assets on the secondary market. Te subsequent emergence of ﬁnancial excess
and asset-overvaluation could be partially slowed and deﬂated by raising
interest-rates. Because proﬁts were generally robust, higher interest-rates did
not impose excessive strains on private non-ﬁnancial corporations. Once the
requisite – albeit partial – purging of the prior period’s excess was complete,
the Federal Reserve would again lower interest-rates. Tis created the basis for
the next credit-fuelled rise in asset-prices leading to higher levels of consumption
Te ability of the Federal Reserve to use aggressive interest-rate reductions
to avert a potentially destabilising meltdown of asset-prices without having to
worry about triggering excessive inﬂation reﬂects the favourable proﬁt-inﬂation
trade-oﬀ that has prevailed over the last two decades. Although this point is
often overlooked in discussions of neoliberalism, it is essential to understanding
both the capacity – and the limits – of the Federal Reserve’s ability to manage
23. By some estimates, over the course of the boom of 1996–2000, each dollar-increase in
share-values gave rise to a corresponding increase in consumption-expenditure of between 5 and
15 cent. Similarly, the boost to housing prices provided by the sequence of interest-rate reductions
implemented by the Federal Reserve between 2001–5 was critical in supporting higher levels of
consumer-demand and averting a deep and prolonged recession following the collapse of the
dot.com boom. For insightful analyses of the contradictions of this ﬁnance-led régime of
accumulation, see O’Hara 2001 and 2002.
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 89
In an economic system dominated by large oligopolistic corporations, there
will typically be an inverse correlation between changes in the rate of proﬁt
and inﬂation. Oligopolistic ﬁrms set prices at levels such that, for a ‘normal’
level of capacity-utilisation, total revenues will cover total per-unit costs plus
administrative overheads plus debt-servicing costs, with a net proﬁt-margin
‘left over’ that may be used for internally funded investment or distributed
When proﬁt-rates are stable or rising, ﬁrms can
meet their retained earning targets at (more or less) constant prices. Conversely,
when proﬁt-rates are falling, ﬁrms may seek to increase their mark-ups and
may be forced to increase borrowing, often on an involuntary basis, to acquire
suﬃ cient funds to cover ongoing investment-projects. Hence, periods of
strong (and rising) proﬁtability will typically be associated with lower rates of
inﬂation and a decline in ﬁrms’ debt-to-equity ratio. Conversely, when
proﬁtability is falling, both price- and debt-to-equity ratios tend to rise.
Te favourable proﬁt-inﬂation trade-oﬀ since the mid-1980s allowed the
Federal Reserve ample latitude in setting the price of credit and pumping
massive amounts of liquidity into the system as needed without having to
worry about igniting a price-wage inﬂationary dynamic. Monetary policy was
elevated to an increasingly prominent role in the management of the historically
anomalous combination of a higher rate of proﬁt and stagnant investment,
overlaid by a massive expansion of the debt-loads of households and
government. Interest-rate adjustments were the means through which the
Federal Reserve sought to permanently defer the point of ultimate settlement.
24. See Lipietz 1985, pp. 107–33; Lee 1998; and Godfrey and Lavoie 2007. Arguing that
large corporations administer prices does not imply that ﬁrms can set prices at any desired level.
Te actual mark-up on per-unit costs will vary with the level of concentration, the homogeneity
of the product, the degree of inter-ﬁrm competition, and the rate at which technological leaders
are achieving reductions in per-unit costs. Where some left analysts err is in assuming that the
restoration of international competition has caused ﬁrms to lose any eﬀective control over the
determination of prices. In my view, this claim is vastly overstated. Te majority of oligopolistic
sectors are not characterised by falling prices or frequent pricing wars. Sectors with some variant
of ‘mark-up’ or ‘full-cost’ pricing include almost all major capital-goods producers: aerospace; all
private military contractors; private hospitals; the pharmaceutical industry; medical equipment;
medical services; the hospitality industry; ‘big box’ retail; the fast-food industry; most media
products; commercial construction; apparel and textiles; and ﬁnancial and producer-services.
Exceptions are manufacturing sectors exposed to foreign competition. However, if GM no
longer determines prices, then Toyota (or some global corporation) does. In doing so, Toyota
imposes a mark-up on costs, or some variant of full-cost pricing.
25. Empirical support is seen in the correlation between proﬁt-rates and inﬂation over the
entire post-WWII period, and the inverse movement of proﬁt-rates, ﬁrms’ debt-to-equity ratio,
and the share of interest-payments as a percentage of net proﬁts.
90 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
Evidence suggests that the Federal Reserve’s ability to use interest-rate
reductions to re-ﬂate asset-prices and underwrite counter-cyclical credit-
creation contributed to the reduction in the volatility of the real business-cycle
over the 1982–2006 period. As seen in Figure 9, the decline in average per
annum growth-rates in each decade since the 1960–9 boom co-exists with a
pattern of dampened cyclical ﬂuctuations.
Te subprime crisis and beyond
Tese considerations allow us to place the present crisis in a larger perspective.
Every time the Federal Reserve succeeded in deferring the point of ﬁnal
settlement, the result was to generate a further expansion of ﬁnancial liabilities
far in excess of the rate at which capital was being accumulated within the
productive circuit. As history reminds us, every ﬁnancial-boom-turned-bubble
eventually crashes once the expansion of credit runs too far in advance of the
underlying growth of proﬁts and wages.
Crisis is, in this sense, a perfectly
normal and recurrent aspect of the accumulation-process. As noted by Marx
26. I will not here review the dynamics that generated the current crisis in any detail. For
various accounts see Blackburn 2008 and Beitel 2008.
Figure 9. Percentage change in GDP, 1950–2007
Source: National Income and Product Accounts, Table 1.1.1
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 91
throughout his voluminous writings on economics, crises are required to
periodically destroy overvalued ‘ﬁctitious capital’ whose prices no longer
conform to the underlying rates of return on productive investments.
Crisis simultaneously purges technologically obsolete capital from the
productive circuits. Te salutatory eﬀect – for capital as a whole – is to rid the
system of excess (for example, non-redeemable) debt-overhang and to
annihilate sub-par capitals that no longer conform to prevailing technological
standards. Tis process of debt-deﬂation and destruction of technologically-
obsolete capital is the necessary precursor to the restoration of a higher rate of
proﬁt. Tis is, in turn, a necessary – albeit not suﬃ cient – condition for the
restoration of a higher rate of accumulation.
Te anomaly of the subprime crisis is that both the origins of the initial
distress and the initial phase of asset-destruction were almost entirely conﬁned
within the household- and ﬁnancial sector. By contrast, the non-ﬁnancial
corporate sector entered the crisis with a relatively low debt-to-equity ratio as
compared to prior decades and high returns on ﬁxed capital (Figure 1). As a
result, the immediate problem confronting managers of the US system is not
how to engineer a massive destruction of technologically-obsolete productive
capital, as was the case in 1979, but how to sustain the monetisation of proﬁts
in the wake of the collapse of the housing bubble. Te solution, in one sense,
is quite obvious. To the extent that the immediate impacts of the crisis were
located primarily in the sphere of the realisation of value, the remedy is to
reﬂate the real economy, hence proﬁts, through a massive increase in
government-deﬁcit expenditure to oﬀset proﬁt-destruction tied to the credit-
contraction transpiring in the household-sector.
We should not conclude, however, that a robust dose of Keynesian ﬁscal
stimulus – tax-cuts and increased deﬁcit-spending by the federal government –
can provide a longer-term solution to the problem of the secular decline in the
rate of net investment and reset the economy back on a self-sustaining growth-
path. Deﬁcit-spending can, at best, provide a temporary means for deferring a
realisation-crisis by allowing ﬁrms to continue to convert their imposed mark-
ups into realised money-proﬁts. However, deﬁcit-expenditure is far less eﬀective
as a longer-term counter-measure for oﬀsetting a renewed decline in the rate of
proﬁt. Here is where the Keynesian stimulus-measures reveal their limits. Te
question, therefore, is whether we are at a turning-point in the proﬁt-rate cycle.
Or whether, on the contrary, neoliberalism and the digital revolution have
annulled the falling rate of proﬁt as a ‘law of motion’ governing the evolutionary
trajectory of capital.
I believe the evidence suggests that the system is at a turning point in the
longer-period oscillation in the proﬁt-rate. For one, the output/capital ratio
began falling in 2003. Te ﬂattening of the relative-price ratio (Figure 4)
92 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
suggests that the ability of manufacturing ﬁrms (capital-goods producers in
particular) to realise higher productivity-gains from ‘post-Fordist’ practices is
If so, this suspends the primary factor counter-acting the fall in
the rate of proﬁt brought about by the decline in the (real) output/capital
ratio. Faced with falling proﬁts, capitalists will respond (as always) by
increasing their substitution of ﬁxed capital for living labour. Tis will reduce
the labour-to-capital ratio. If the fall is not oﬀset by a suﬃ cient increase
in real output per worker-hour, this will lower the real output-to-capital
ratio. In order to avoid a decline in the monetary measure of the output/
capital ratio, the value, hence the prices, of capital-goods must fall at a
suﬃ cient rate relative to the value, hence the prices, of aggregate output.
While productivity-growth in manufacturing remains higher than in services,
the ﬂattening of the relative-price ratio suggests that this diﬀerential rate is
declining. If the trend continues, this will impose a sharp downward pressure
on the proﬁt-rate.
Second, after rising at an impressive clip between 1996 and 2003,
productivity-growth appears to be slowing. Full explication of factors
impacting productivity-growth is beyond the scope of this paper. For now
let me simply note that the overall pattern observed in Figure 6 shows
evidence of a long-term cyclical pattern that cannot be explained as an eﬀect
of cyclical oscillations in the business-cycle. Te rate of growth increases at
a (more or less) constant rate between 1947–70, 1982–6, and 1996–2004.
By contrast, productivity rises, but at a slower rate during the slowdown of
1971–80, the years 1987–92, and in the years since 2004.
Any secular decline in the rate of productivity-growth will impose limits
on the ability to oﬀset the fall in the output-to-capital ratio by recourse to
relative surplus-value – i.e. by reducing the portion of the working day
required to reproduce the value equivalent of workers’ money-wages. Tis
will compel ﬁrms to attempt to increase the rate of exploitation through the
extraction of surplus-value in its absolute form – for example, by reducing
wages, increasing labour-intensity, and extracting longer working hours
without a corresponding increase in pay. Te problem is that even in the
US, minimum-wage laws and last-ditch social safety-nets provide some
minimal ﬂoor below which living standards cannot fall. Furthermore,
maintaining the loyalties of salaried cadre charged with oversight of the day-
to-day operations of the corporate apparatus requires the redistribution of a
27. Post-Fordist methods include just-in-time inventory-management, dissemination of
Japanese-style managerial techniques to wring slack out of the assembly-line, acceleration of the
product-cycle through the rational organisation of knowledge creation, and more eﬃ cient
systems of large-scale transport to reduce turnover-time.
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 93
signiﬁcant share of the social surplus to this administrative-managerial stratum.
Social limits thus exist on the ability to impose a suﬃ cient intensiﬁcation of
the rate of surplus-value in absolute form to oﬀset the decline in the output/
capital ratio. In combination with the productivity-slowdown, the result
will be the imposition of barriers to achieving a suﬃ cient increase in the rate
of surplus-value to oﬀset the decline in the output/capital ratio. If recent
trends are in fact indicative of a structural shift in productivity-growth, this
indicates that US capitalism may be poised at the edge of the precipice of
the next great secular downturn in the proﬁt-rate.
To these factors must be added the looming spectre of ‘peak oil’. While
much dispute remains over the exact state of the global oil-supply, what is
certain is that, at some point in the next ﬁve to ﬁfteen years, we will probably
witness the end of abundant access to cheap, readily available fossil-fuels.
Tis will lead to increases in the costs of energy and raw materials. Rising
input-costs will place additional pressure on proﬁts, triggering inﬂation as
ﬁrms impose higher mark-ups in an attempt to protect their (nominal)
proﬁts. Te result will be the return of cost-push inﬂation. Over the longer
term (twenty-ﬁve years and out), the outcome is far less certain. However, it
is not a far-fetched scenario to surmise that the exhaustion of cheap fossil-
fuels will require either a signiﬁcant reduction in aggregate consumption,
marking the end of an economic régime predicated on unlimited growth
and accumulation; or some technological ‘ﬁx’ that at present is nowhere on
the historical horizon.
Falling proﬁt-rates and resurgent cost-push inﬂation will put the Federal
Reserve (and the other major Central Banks) between a rock and a hard place.
In the short term, the ongoing unwinding of over-leveraged positions in what
have proved to be badly placed bets on non-redeemable mortgage-debt will
continue to have an impact on liquidity-conditions in the inter-bank capital-
market and cause major lenders to ration credit.
For some, this has raised
28. Work in Marxist ecology has been slow to recognise the realities of impending exhaustion
of cheap sources of fossil-fuel. Te argument regarding ‘peak oil’ is well established and was
powerfully conﬁrmed in the case of the post-1972 decline in production in the contiguous US,
as predicted by Hubbert in the late 1950s. Te question is not whether world oil-production will
eventually hit a peak, but how soon, and how the capitalist system will adjust. For accounts of
the peak-oil phenomenon, see Hubbert 1957; Goodstein 2004; Deﬀeyes 2001; and Campbell
and Laherrere 1998.
29. Te subprime crisis unleashed a powerful set of self-reinforcing dynamics that has plunged
the US into a potentially protracted recession. Falling housing prices lead to negative net equity
for households that increases incentives to default. As foreclosures rise, lenders freeze new lines
of credit. Banks dump repossessed houses on the secondary markets, and prices plummet. Falling
prices create even stronger incentives to default on loans, many of which have reset at higher
94 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
concerns over the emergence of deﬂationary pressures, with a fall in demand
putting downward pressure on prices. Such a deﬂationary scenario could
easily engender a self-reinforcing downward spiral, as the fall in prices would
increase the real debt-to-income ratio leading to a greater share of proﬁts and
wages being dedicated to debt-repayments. Defaults would increase and
credit would contract, leading to a further shrinking of demand and prices,
and so on, in a self-sustaining deﬂationary dynamic. Tis would plunge the
US and the global system into a prolonged and potentially catastrophic
deﬂationary spiral leading to a massive destruction of both real and ﬁnancial
While such an outcome is possible, I believe a more likely medium-to-
long-term scenario is a return of ‘stagﬂation’ as rising costs and falling proﬁts
lead ﬁrms to increase their mark-ups on costs in a desperate attempt to
defend their accustomed rate of proﬁts. Te return to a stagﬂationary
environment will leave the Federal Reserve with limited options. If the
Federal Reserve accommodates rising prices by supplying reserves as needed
to allow banks to monetise the demanded proﬁts of ﬁrms, this would induce
an inﬂationary devaluation of ﬁnancial assets. While this is certainly a far less
painful way to deal with the looming spectre of massive debt-repudiation
than deﬂation, ﬁnance-capitalists would ﬁercely resist such action. Conversely,
if the Federal Reserve attempts to control inﬂation by increasing interest-
rates, this threatens to induce further debt- and equity-deﬂation. Hence,
there will be no obvious course of action open to the Federal Reserve to
address the problem of stagﬂation. Nor is it clear that imposing a sharp
increase in interest-rates to control inﬂation and impose a massive capital-
devalorisation would prove an attractive option. In 1979, the total mass of
outstanding ﬁnancial obligations relative to GDP was nowhere near its
current level. No one knows how this highly complex and interlocking
system of ﬁnancial obligations built up over the last several decades would
perform under the stress of higher interest-rates. Given the sheer magnitude
of the outstanding debt, if faltering proﬁt-rates and resource-constraints
place sustained cost-push pressure on prices, controlling inﬂationary pressures
through the ‘Volcker option’ could induce a potentially catastrophic
rates and now impose growing strains on household budgets. Te result is a massive write-down
of overvalued housing assets and loss of wealth in the household-sector that will have long-term
negative eﬀect on (leveraged) consumption.
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 95
Conclusion: neoliberalism’s limits and the end of the present régime
Te preceding analysis allows us to identify some of the insurmountable
contradictions, hence the ultimate limits, of this ﬁnance-dependent growth-
dynamic. Sustaining the growth of credit, and hence the expansion of
rentiers’ claims on present and future labour, requires periodic Federal
Reserve intervention to avert a debt-deﬂation once credit-creation runs too
far in advance of real accumulation. However, because chronic under-
investment limits the ability of the system to pump value and surplus-value
out of living labour at the rate required to insure eventual settlement, this
leaves the Central Bank with no choice other than to attempt to permanently
defer the point of ﬁnal payment. If proﬁt-rates are stable, the long fallout
from the subprime crisis can be probably ‘managed’ through a controlled
destruction of overvalued ﬁnancial assets combined with ﬁscal deﬁcits that
will put some ﬂoor under aggregate demand and continue to allow NFCs to
continue to monetise their demanded proﬁts. Te result is that the system
will avert a total collapse, while remaining mired in slow growth, stagnant
investment and higher levels of structural unemployment.
Te problem with the long-term perpetuation of this scenario of ‘managed’
deﬂation of ﬁnancial assets is that the favourable proﬁt-rate conjuncture is
unlikely to persist. While radical economists have not as yet developed a
broadly shared consensus concerning why the rate of proﬁt declines, we know
that long-term movements of the rate of proﬁt follow a cyclical pattern of
rising and then falling proﬁtability closely tied to movements in the output/
capital ratio. Historical research is unequivocal in this regard: every study of
the longer-term secular movement of the proﬁt-rate has conﬁrmed that the
capitalist system, in the course of its evolutionary development, passes
through periods of rising and falling proﬁtability, with each phase lasting two
to three decades.
Tere are no theoretical reasons to suppose that neoliberalism has
suspended this law of motion. Any prolonged decline in the output/capital
ratio will require an intensiﬁcation of the rate of exploitation to oﬀset the
eﬀect on the rate of proﬁt. Te problem, as argued above, is that any
slowdown in the rate of growth of labour-productivity will impose limits on
capitalist’s ability to boost the extraction of surplus-value in its relative form.
Nor will recourse to surplus-value in its absolute form (for example, via
wage-reductions) provide a viable long-term solution given the massive
30. Duménil and Lévy 1993; Freeman 1999; Mandel 1975, pp. 108–46.
96 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
indebtedness of the US working class, as this would worsen and prolong the
current ﬁnancial crisis.
Viewed from the vantage-point of a longer-term historical perspective,
therefore, it does not appear that the neoliberal régime can guarantee either
the necessary rate of accumulation or an indeﬁnite increase in the rate of
exploitation suﬃ cient to prevent the return of a phase of generalised crisis
and the advent of a prolonged phase of debt- and equity-deﬂation. Tis
implies that ﬁnanciers will have to accept lower returns on investments and
a long-term reversal of their prior capital-gains. It is unlikely that ﬁnance-
capital will accept such an outcome without a protracted struggle to divest this
sector of the income and power acquired in the post-Volcker period. Tis is
why it is diﬃ cult – indeed impossible – to predict exactly how events will
unfold. What we do know, however, is that the next major system-wide
proﬁtability-crisis, if it does in fact transpire, will occur in a historical context
for which no real precedent exists. In contrast to the conditions that existed
at the cusp of the last major downturn in the proﬁt-rate in the late 1960s, the
present conjuncture is characterised by a thirty-year build-up of non-
productive debt. If rising energy-prices and falling rates of proﬁt trigger higher
inﬂation, and if the Federal Reserve attempts to assert control over prices by
jacking up interest-rates, this would trigger a protracted asset-deﬂation, with
knock-on eﬀects transmitting the fall in asset-prices via negative wealth-eﬀects
into lower rates of debt-ﬁnanced consumption. Te stage is then set for a
prolonged contraction. Tis reminds us, once again, that however much the
dazzling world of contemporary high ﬁnance makes it appear otherwise, the
productive appropriation of labour remains the basis out of which higher
rentier income-shares and capital-gains growth must ultimately be maintained.
Capital cannot escape its dependence on labour, and no amount of ﬁnancial
engineering can suspend this inner relation.
Faced with a renewed phase of falling proﬁtability, capitalist class-instincts
will inevitably lead them to intensify their assault on labour and the
remaining institutions of the welfare-state. Tis is why the imposition of a
more overtly authoritarian solution to the unfolding of a protracted crisis
cannot be ruled out. Te period ahead therefore poses enormous challenges
and may, at the same time, provide a renewed opening for forces on the
Left. Despite the current absence of mass-based struggle in the US, the fact
remains that crisis always involves some degree of rupture in the established
order. If we are correct in presuming that the longer-term cyclical pattern in
the rate of proﬁt has not been suspended, then the inevitable return of a
renewed phase of faltering proﬁtability will once again place the question of
alternatives to capitalist society, or at the very least to its neoliberal variant,
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 97
back on the historical horizon. To seize this potential opening, it is incumbent
upon the Left to develop real alternatives that can provide answers to the
hardships the impending phase of intensiﬁed crisis will inevitably inﬂict
upon vast sectors of the US (and global) working class.
98 K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100
Note on Data Used from National Income and Product Accounts
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): NIPA, Table 1.1.5, Line 1
Total Wages and Salaries (W): NIPA, Table 6.3, A, B, C, Line 1
Capital-consumption allowance (dK): NIPA, Table 7.5, Line 1
Net private non-residential stock (K): Fixed Asset Tables, Table 4.1, Line 1
GDP deﬂator (gdp): NIPA, Table 1.1.9, Line 1
Producer Price-Index (ppi): NIPA, Table 5.3.4, Line 2
Total Hours worked, all employees (L): NIPA, Table 6.9 B, C, and D, Line 1
Net investment (I): NIPA, Table 5.2.5, Line 12
Percent change in GDP (dGDP/GDP): NIPA, Table 1.1.1, Line 1
Net Interest: NIPA, Table 7.11, Lines 7 and 29
Net Dividends: NIPA, Table 7.10, Lines 4 and 9
Figure 1: Rate of proﬁt = (GDP – W – dK)/K
Figure 2: Output/Capital ratio = GDP/K
Figure 3: Real Capital/Real Output ratio = (GDP/gdp)/(K/ppi)
Figure 4: Relative-price ratio = gdp/ppi
Figure 5: Proﬁt-share = (GDP – W – dK)/(GDP – dK)
Figure 6: Real wage and real output per worker
Real wage = (W/gdp)/L
Real output = (GDP/gdp)/L
Figure 7: rate of net investment = I/K
Figure 8: Interest and dividend-share = (net dividends of NFCs + net interest of NFCs)/
(Proﬁts of NFC)
Figure 9: Change in GDP = dGDP/GDP
K. Beitel / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 66–100 99
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© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/146544609X12537556703197
Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119 brill.nl/hima
Archaeologies of the Future:
Jameson’s Utopia or Orwell’s Dystopia?
Tis paper begins with the proposition that Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005)
is the most important theoretical contribution to utopian and science-ﬁction studies since Darko
Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979). It argues that Jameson’s derivation of ‘anti-anti-
Utopianism’ from Sartrean anti-anti-communism will provide ‘the party of Utopia’ with as good
a slogan as it is likely to ﬁnd in the foreseeable future. It takes issue with Jameson over two key
issues: his overwhelming concentration on American science-ﬁction, which seems strangely
parochial in such a distinguished comparativist; and his understanding of Orwell’s Nineteen
Eighty-Four as an ‘anti-Utopia’ rather than a dystopia. Te paper argues that, for Nineteen Eighty-
Four, as for any other science-ﬁction novel, the key question is that identiﬁed by Jameson: not
‘did it get the future right?’, but rather ‘did it suﬃ ciently shock its own present as to force a
meditation on the impossible?’. It concludes that Jameson fails to understand how this process
works for dystopia as well as utopia, for barbarism as well as socialism.
Jameson, Orwell, utopia, dystopia, science-ﬁction
Terry Eagleton has described Fredric Jameson as ‘one of the world’s most eminent
cultural theorists’ and ‘a peerless literary critic in the classical sense of the term’.
Jameson himself once characterised his work more modestly as a ‘vocation to
explain and to popularize the Marxist intellectual tradition’.
But his Marxism
owes far more to Adorno and the young Lukács than to Engels and one of its
distinctive features has been an enduring fascination with utopia. Indeed, the
category of the utopian is fundamental to Jameson’s own method. In Te
Political Unconscious, the most inﬂuential of his works of literary criticism – and
also, perhaps, the most theoretically original – he developed a systematic outline
1. Eagleton 2006, p. 26.
2. Jameson 1988, p. xxvi.
102 A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119
of a neo-Lukácsian ‘totalising’ critical method capable of subsuming other
apparently incompatible critical methods, by ‘at once canceling and preserving
Against more conventionally Marxian understandings of art as ideology,
Jameson argued for a ‘double hermeneutic’, which would simultaneously
embrace both the negative hermeneutic of ideology-critique and the positive
one of a utopian ‘non-instrumental conception of culture’. For Jameson, all art,
indeed all class-consciousness, can be understood as at once both ideological
and utopian: ‘the ideological would be grasped as somehow at one with the
Utopian’, he wrote, ‘and the Utopian at one with the ideological’.
reappears at another level, moreover, in his work on utopia as a speciﬁc literary
and philosophical genre. In a 1982 essay written for the journal Science Fiction
Studies, he famously deﬁned the problem of ‘Progress v. Utopia’ through the
question ‘Can We Imagine the Future?’.
Jameson has worried away at this and
related matters for more than thirty years and the long anticipated end-result is
his Archaeologies of the Future: Te Desire Called Utopia and Other Science
From metamorphosis to archaeology
Jameson’s Archaeologies is the most important theoretical contribution to
utopian and science-ﬁction studies since 1979, when Darko Suvin’s
Metamorphoses of Science Fiction transformed the latter from a ‘fan’ enthusiasm
into a scholarly sub-discipline.
It is dedicated to Suvin amongst others of
Jameson’s ‘comrades in the party of Utopia’.
Like Suvin’s Metamorphoses, its
approach is Western-Marxist, more speciﬁcally Blochian, in theoretical
inspiration; its disciplinary orientation primarily towards comparative
literature and what we might term ‘critical cultural studies’. Like Suvin’s
Metamorphoses, it treats utopia as science-ﬁction (henceforth SF). Indeed,
Jameson cites with approval Suvin’s still controversial description of utopia as
‘the socio-political sub-genre of Science Fiction’ on no fewer than ﬁve
Like Suvin’s Metamorphoses, it is also a defence of the continuing
political relevance of utopia and SF. Indeed, Jameson’s derivation of ‘anti-anti-
3. Jameson 1981, p. 10.
4. Jameson 1981, p. 286.
5. Jameson, 1982. Te essay is reprinted in Jameson 2005, pp. 281–95.
6. London: Verso, 2005.
7. ‘More than any other study . . . Metamorphoses is the signiﬁcant forerunner of all the major
examinations of the genre’. Hollinger 1999, p. 233.
8. Jameson 2005, p. vi.
9. Suvin 1979, p. 61; Jameson 2005, pp. xiv, 57, 393, 410, 414–15.
A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119 103
Utopianism’ from Sartrean ‘anti-anti-communism’ will no doubt provide the
party of utopia with as good a slogan as it will ﬁnd for the foreseeable future.
Te terms of this derivation are interesting, nonetheless: Sartre, Jameson
recalls, had invented this ‘ingenious political slogan’ so as ‘to ﬁnd his way
between a ﬂawed communism and an even more unacceptable anti-
Te inference is clear: utopia may be ﬂawed, but anti-
utopianism is even less acceptable.
Moreover, the reference is to communism and anti-communism, utopianism
and anti-utopianism, movements rather than texts. For, where Suvin’s
Metamorphoses was essentially a post-formalist analysis of the poetics of a
literary genre, Jameson’s Archaeologies attempts to situate this level of analysis
in relation to what he terms, after Bloch, the wider ‘Utopian impulse’.
Archaeologies comprises two relatively discrete parts: the second entitled ‘As Far
as Tought Can Reach’, containing twelve separate essays, all but one of which
have been previously published, the oldest as early as 1973, the latest as recent
and the ﬁrst a more or less continuous, more or less previously
unpublished, thirteen-chapter argument entitled ‘Te Desire Called Utopia’.
Tere is much to admire in the reprinted essays on (mainly) American SF,
especially those on Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick (whom Jameson famously
dubbed the ‘Shakespeare of Science Fiction’),
William Gibson and Kim
Stanley Robinson (whose thesis on Dick Jameson famously supervised).
the new material is in the book’s ﬁrst part and it is this that most clearly
commands our attention. Eagleton once described Jameson’s Hegelian
Marxism, a little uncharitably, as part ‘Californian supermarket of the mind’,
part ‘unrepentant bricoleur, reaching for a Machereyan spanner here or a
Greimasian screwdriver there’.
For better and for worse, the same method
and style informs Archaeologies. It exhibits the same strenuous ‘mastering’
Eagleton once judged ‘too eirenic, easygoing and all-encompassing’ for
Jameson’s ‘own political good’.
Tere is the same commitment to Aufhebung,
10. Jameson 2005, p. xvi.
11. Jameson 2005, pp. 2–3. Jameson and others (compare Fitting 2006, p. 42) attribute a
much more formal status to the distinction between ‘Program’ and ‘Impulse’ than I can ﬁnd in
Bloch. Nonetheless, it is clear from the overall structure of the whole argument that Bloch is at
least as interested in utopian impulses as in utopian texts (see Bloch 1995).
12. Jameson 2005, pp. 237–416. See Jameson 1973, Jameson 2003a. Te new essay is ‘History
and Salvation in P.K. Dick’. Jameson 2005, pp. 363–83.
13. Jameson 2005, pp. 1–233. An earlier version of the third chapter was published as Jameson
14. Jameson 2005, p. 345.
15. Robinson 1984.
16. Eagleton 1986, pp. 70–1.
17. Eagleton 1986, p. 71.
104 A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119
the same scholarly erudition, the same elaboration and resolution through
incorporation of formalist taxonomic binaries, even the same repeated
invocation of Greimas’s semiotic rectangle (though Macherey is much less in
Te taxonomy proceeds by way of double focus on the utopian form and
the utopian wish,
to the slightly diﬀerent distinction between the utopian
programme, which is ‘systemic’, and the utopian impulse, ‘obscure yet
omnipresent’, which surfaces across a wide range of human activities.
at one level, simply a reworking of Bloch. In Jameson’s hands, however, it
generates a distinctly odd classiﬁcation of the utopian text alongside the
intentional community, revolutionary practice, space, and the city as ‘program’,
but the texts of political and social theory alongside political reformism, the
individual building, the body, time, and the collectivity as ‘impulse’.
implication seems to be that More’s Utopia is programmatic, but Bernstein’s
Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie
mere impulse – an improbably over-politicised distinction if ever there was
Tereafter, we proceed through a classiﬁcation of utopian enclaves, a
reading of Utopia itself in relation to the genres of travel narrative and satire,
and a more than passing nod to Marx in the chapter on ‘utopian science’ and
‘utopian ideology’. Chapter Five, on ‘Te Great Schism’ between SF and
fantasy, rehearses the Suvinian aversion to the latter. Suvin now apparently has
doubts on this score himself,
but Jameson at least still keeps the cognitive-
rationalist faith: ‘the invocation of magic by modern fantasy . . .’, he writes, ‘is
condemned by its form to retrace the history of magic’s decay and fall, its
disappearance from the disenchanted world of prose, of capitalism and modern
Te implication seems to be that only a Tolkienesque reactionary
could have written Perdido Street Station, Te Scar and Iron Council – an
improbably under-politicised observation if ever there was one.
One could easily continue with similar such criticisms, indeed one could
even elaborate them into a critique of what Jameson ironically describes as his
‘perversely formalist approach’.
And yet, whenever he turns his attention to
writers he admires – Le Guin, Dick, Stapledon (an interestingly unfashionable
18. Jameson 2005, p. 1.
19. Jameson 2005, p. 3.
20. Jameson 2005, p. 4,
21. See More 2001, Bernstein 1961.
22. See Suvin 2000.
23. Jameson 2005, p. 71.
24. Teir author, China Miéville, is a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party and co-editor of
25. Jameson 2005, p. 85.
A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119 105
choice, this), Lem, even Asimov – we can see how right Hayden White was to
describe Jameson as ‘the best socially-oriented critic of our time’.
Jameson could describe Stapledon as ‘the Fourier of SF just as he is the Dante
Alighieri of Utopias’?; or describe the conclusion to Asimov’s Nightfall as
having ‘the literal force of the word aesthetic – in Greek designating perception
Quite apart from these particular judgements, however, the book’s
more general thesis advances a powerfully political case for the continuing
importance of SF and utopia. Te argument is broached in the ‘Introduction’,
where Jameson insists that:
What is crippling is . . . the universal belief . . . that the historic alternatives to
capitalism have been proven unviable and impossible, and that no other socio-
economic system is conceivable, let alone practically available.
Te value of the utopian form, he continues, thus consists precisely in its
capacity as ‘a representational meditation on radical diﬀerence, radical
otherness, and . . . the systematic nature of the social totality’.
Tis is a
wonderfully precise thesis, which tells us most of what we need to know about
the politics of the genre. Systematically followed through, it would surely also
have led Jameson to more positive readings of (at least some) fantasy and, as
we shall see, (at least some) dystopia, than those on oﬀer in Archaeologies.
Te argument is resumed in the superb last chapter of the book’s ﬁrst part,
where Jameson writes that utopia as a form provides ‘the answer to the universal
ideological conviction that no alternative is possible’. It does so, he elaborates,
‘by forcing us to think the break itself . . . not by oﬀering a more traditional
picture of what things would be like after the break’. Hence, the memorable
conclusion that utopia is ‘a meditation on the impossible, on the unrealizable
in its own right’.
Here, however, the argument is linked to a distinctly non-
Marxist, but nonetheless not thereby mistaken, argument for the peculiar
contemporary relevance of utopia. Ever since Marx and Engels, scientiﬁc
socialism has asserted its superiority over utopian socialism on the grounds
that it knows, scientiﬁcally and theoretically, how to achieve what utopians
can only imagine in fantasy. Jameson, however, picks up on an observation of
the ageing Lukács that, by the 1960s, this had already ceased to be so. Te
erstwhile weaknesses of utopianism, its inability to provide an adequate
account of either agency or transition thus ‘becomes a strength’, Jameson
26. Or so it says on the back cover of my copy of Te Political Unconscious.
27. Jameson 2005, pp. 124, 94.
28. Jameson 2005, p. xii.
29. Jameson 2005, p. 232.
106 A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119
writes, ‘in a situation in which neither . . . seems currently to oﬀer candidates
for solution’. In the early twenty-ﬁrst century, then, and for much the same
reasons as before 1848, utopia ‘better expresses our relationship to a genuinely
political future than any current program of action’.
Surveying the scattered
rubble of the Second, Tird and Fourth Internationals, it is diﬃ cult to disagree.
Which is why ‘anti-utopianism’ thus becomes the other of Jameson’s text,
‘anti-anti-utopianism’ its slogan.
Historicising science-ﬁction: America and its others
At the pretextual level, Jameson is surely right to deﬁne himself against anti-
utopianism: confronted by a capitalism as hubristic as at any time in history,
we do surely ‘need to develop an anxiety about losing the future . . . analogous
to Orwell’s anxiety about the loss of the past’. Te book’s ﬁrst part ﬁnally
closes with a moving invocation of Marge Piercy’s Mattapoisett utopians
travelling back in time ‘to enlist the present in their struggle to exist’.
Elsewhere, Jameson has used Piercy’s time-travellers to even greater rhetorical
eﬀect, writing that: ‘utopias are non-ﬁctional, even though they are non-
existent. Utopias in fact come to us as barely audible messages from a future
that may never come into being’.
It is as good a line as any in Archaeologies
and somehow seems to belong there. But Jameson’s juxtaposition of Orwell
and Piercy also serves to remind us that his anti-anti-utopianism is textual as
well as pretextual and that it is both informed by and in turn informs a clear
preference for the utopian SF of his own time and place – American since the
‘New Wave’ – as against the tradition of early-mid twentieth-century European
dystopian writing. Te vantage-point from which Jameson writes is unavoidably
that of an American ‘sixties’ radical set adrift in postmodern late capitalism.
And this inner sympathy with Piercy and Le Guin, Robinson and Dick,
provides the book with some of its real strength. But, to reverse Jameson’s own
reversal of Benjamin, the eﬀectively utopian is also, at the same time, necessarily
and this is as likely to be true of anti-anti-utopianism as of
Tere are two issues here: ﬁrst, Jameson’s overwhelming concentration on
American SF, which seems strangely parochial in such a distinguished
comparativist; and second, his aversion to dystopia, which sets him at odds
30. Jameson 2005, p. 232.
31. Jameson 2005, p. 233. See Piercy 1976, pp. 197–8.
32. Jameson 2004, p. 54.
33. Jameson 1981, p. 286.
A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119 107
with what many would regard as a tradition of central signiﬁcance to SF. Te
American-centredness is apparent in much of Jameson’s detail. So feminist SF
is represented by Le Guin, Russ and Piercy, but not the equally distinguished
Canadian, Margaret Atwood; fantasy and magic by Le Guin, but not the
English China Miéville, whose New Crobuzon novels represent a serious
theoretical challenge to Jameson; cyberpunk by Gibson and Sterling, but not
the Australian Greg Egan; contemporary utopianism by Kim Stanley
Robinson’s Mars trilogy, but not its Scottish equivalent, Iain M. Banks’s
Culture novels; there is no mention at all of Karel Čapek, the greatest of Czech
SF writers; nor of Fritz Lang, the Austrian ﬁlm director, whose Metropolis
eﬀectively founded SF cinema; nor Michel Houellebecq, the leading
contemporary French exponent of dystopian SF; whilst Dick warrants three
chapters, his equally proliﬁc and equally inﬂuential English counterpart, J.G.
Ballard, rates merely a few pages. It is also true, however, of the schematic
history of SF underpinning these details, which proceeds through six
‘stages’ (space opera, science, sociology, subjectivity, speculative ﬁction and
cyberpunk), the ﬁrst represented paradigmatically by Jules Verne, the others
by Americans (Gernsbach [sic.], Pohl and Kornbluth, Dick, Delany and,
Tis does real injustice to Verne, whose work was far more
seriously ‘scientiﬁc’ than Jameson suggests – as Gernsback himself famously
Tat aside, it also seems an oddly old-fashioned way of
thinking about the genre.
Borrowing from Franco Moretti’s ‘world-systems’ approach to comparative
we might tell this story much more productively as one in which: a
genre is conceived in England and France at the very core of the nineteenth-
century world literary system (Shelley initially, but above all Verne and Wells);
it continues in both literary economies throughout the twentieth and into the
twenty-ﬁrst century (through Huxley, Orwell, Lewis, Wyndham, Hoyle,
Clarke, Moorcock, Ballard, Banks, Macleod and Miéville in Britain, Rosny,
Anatole France, Renard, Spitz, Boulle, Merle, Walther, Brussolo, Arnaud,
Dantec and Houellebecq in France); its frontiers expand to include the Weimar
Republic (Gail, von Harbou and Lang, von Hanstein), early Soviet Russia
(Belyaev, Bogdanov, Bulgakov, Mayakovsky, Platonov, Alexei Tolstoy, Zamyatin)
and inter-war Czechoslovakia (Karel Čapek, Troska); exported to Japan in the
post-Second World War period (Abé, Hoshi, Komatsu, Murakami), it also
ﬂourished in Communist Poland (Fialkowski, Lem, Wisniewski-Snerg) and
more signiﬁcantly in late-Communist Russia (Altov, Bilenkin, Bulychev,
34. Jameson 2005, p. 93.
35. Clute and Nicholls 1993, p. 311.
36. Moretti 1998, 2005.
108 A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119
Emtsev and Parnov, the Strugatski brothers, Tarkovsky). Tere is an American
story, of course, but this comes later and only becomes central and eventually
near-hegemonic, from the inter-war period (Gernsback, Campbell, Asimov,
Heinlein and ‘the pulps’) through the New Wave (Delany, Dick, Ellison,
Spinrad, Tiptree, Zelazny) and on to the present (Gibson, Sterling and post-
cyberpunk; Le Guin, Russ, Piercy and feminism; Kim Stanley Robinson and
the new humanism). Moreover, this eventual American hegemony extends
from print to ﬁlm (Whale, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg, Scott, Cameron, Burton
and Verhoeven) and television (Roddenberry, Straczynski, Carter and Whedon).
Te late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pattern exactly replicates
the general Anglo-French literary hegemony Moretti sketched in his Atlas of
the European Novel. Just as the earlier decades had been dominated, both in
terms of sales and translations, by the historical novels of Scott and Dumas, so
were the later by Verne’s voyages extraordinaires and Wells’s ‘scientiﬁc romances’.
Te later geographical trajectory is less predictable. Csicsery-Ronay has argued
it is best understood as a correlate of imperialism.
But Moretti’s own approach
suggests a more plausible explanation, namely that ‘peripheral’ literatures can
in fact be ‘sustained’ by ‘historical backwardness’, that new geographical spaces
can produce new ﬁctional spaces.
Tus, what each of the non-Anglo-French
SF ‘nations’ have in common – Poland and Czechoslovakia as much as the
USSR and the Weimar Republic – is their semi-peripheral status in relation
to the cultural core of the world system. And this is also true of the United
States: American ‘backwardness’ eventually produced a paradigm-shift in this
marginal sub-form, which later generalised itself across the entire ﬁeld of
popular culture, from novel to ﬁlm to television, so as to become the nearest
we now have to a ‘postmodern epic’.
Anti-utopia and dystopia
At the speciﬁcally textual level, Jameson’s anti-anti-utopianism requires him to
counterpose ‘anti-Utopia’ to ‘Utopia’, rather than – as has become increasingly
common in utopian and SF studies – ‘dystopia’ to ‘eutopia’.
37. Csicsery-Ronay 2003.
38. Moretti 1998, pp. 195–7.
39. Lyman Tower Sargent famously deﬁned the ‘utopia (eutopia, dystopia, or utopian satire)’ as
‘a species of prose ﬁction that describes in some detail a non-existent society located in time and
space’. Sargent 1976, p. 275. Whilst the terminology is slightly diﬀerent – utopia for Sargent’s
eutopia – it is clear that Raymond Williams also insisted on the formal symmetry between ‘utopia’
and ‘dystopia’, as on that between other cognate forms, such as paradise and hell. Williams 1980,
A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119 109
argues that there are two main kinds of loosely ‘dystopian’ text: the ‘critical
dystopia’, which functions by way of a warning, through an ‘if this goes on’
principle; and the anti-utopia proper, which springs from a quite diﬀerent
conviction that human nature is so inherently corrupt it could never be
salvaged by any ‘heightened consciousness of the impending dangers’.
Jameson borrows the term ‘critical dystopia’ from Tom Moylan
Moylan, he argues that this form is essentially utopian in intent and import
and thus a kind of ‘negative cousin’ of utopia.
Only the second variant, the
anti-utopia, is a true antonym of utopia, a systemic and textual equivalent to
the anti-utopian impulse in politics, ‘informed by a central passion to denounce
and to warn against Utopian programs’.
Tere are other examples of what
Jameson terms the ‘classic Cold War dystopia’, from ‘horror ﬁlms to respectable
literary and philosophical achievements’, but the key instance, he argues,
which establishes several of the form’s ‘symptomatic and paradoxical features’,
is Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Jameson has some interesting observations on ‘the elegiac sense of the loss
of the past’ and ‘the uncertainty of memory’ in Orwell’s dystopia. He is less
convincing on the supposed inconsistency between Oceania’s advanced
surveillance-technologies and the novel’s insistence that science cannot
function under totalitarianism: as Jameson must know, science is by no means
coextensive with technology. And he is surely mistaken to read Orwell’s
‘linguistic anxieties’ as a ‘critique of the dialectic’ – Derridean deconstruction
would have far more plausible, if anachronistic, pretensions to be ‘the original
double-speak, in which any utterance can have two diametrically opposed
meanings’ – but right to describe these as evidence of ‘a convergence theory
in which Stalinism and Anglosaxon commercialism and empiricism are sent
oﬀ back to back’.
He is right, too, to insist that the novel should not ‘be
reduced – via pop-psychological notions of sublimation – to the mere
disguised expression of other impulses such as those of sexuality (or even
But these are essentially secondary matters, tangential to Jameson’s central
analysis, which proceeds by distinguishing three levels at work in Orwell: an
‘articulation of the history of Stalinism’, which the novelist had ‘observed and
40. Jameson 2005, p. 198.
41. Moylan 2000, pp. 198–9.
42. Jameson 2005, p. 198.
43. Jameson 2005, p. 199.
44. Jameson 2005, p. 200.
46. Jameson 2005, p. 201.
110 A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119
experienced empirically’; a supposed ‘historical universalization’ of this
experience into a vision of human nature as ‘an insatiable and lucid hunger for
power’; and the conversion of this ‘conjuncture’ into ‘a life-passion’. Tis
passion, Jameson insists, has ‘become the face of anti-Utopianism in our own
Comparing Orwell’s ‘Cold War public’ to that for eighteenth-century
‘gothic nightmares of imprisonment and . . . evil monks or nuns’, Jameson
concludes that these two ‘dystopian awakenings’ can each be considered
‘collective responses of the bourgeoisie’:
the ﬁrst in its struggle against feudal absolutism and arbitrary tyranny, the second
in its reaction to the possibility of a workers’ state. Tis terror clearly overrides
that other collective impulse which is the Utopian one, which, however, as
irrepressible as the libido, continues to ﬁnd its secret investments in what seems
most fundamentally to rebuke and deny it: thus the projected oppressors, whether
of clerical or party-bureaucratic nature, are fantasized as collectivities which
distantly reproduce a Utopian structure, the diﬀerence being that I am included
in the latter but excluded from the former. But at this point, the dynamic has
become that of group behavior, with its cultural envy and its accompanying
identity politics and racisms.
What are we to make of this latter sentence? Te conjuncture of identity-
politics and racism is hardly self-evident; in any case, they are each almost
entirely absent from Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Orwell himself was famously
hostile to both. Jameson must have a point, but it is not clear what exactly it
might be. Te import of the preceding sentences is brutally apparent, however:
Orwell’s anti-Stalinism is essentially ‘bourgeois’ in character and prompted by
hostility to the very idea of a workers’ state. It may best be understood, Jameson
continues, as ‘a dispirited reaction to postwar Labor Britain’ or ‘a depressive
symptom of revolutionary discouragement’.
Later still, he extrapolates from
Orwell in particular to the generalising conclusion that:
there is a systemic perspective for which it is obvious that whatever threatens the
system as such must be excluded: this is indeed the basic premise of all modern
anti-Utopias from Dostoyevsky to Orwell and beyond, namely that the system
develops its own instinct for self-preservation and learns ruthlessly to eliminate
anything menacing its continuing existence without regard for individual life.
47. Jameson 2005, p. 200.
48. Jameson 2005, pp. 201–2.
49. Jameson 2005, p. 202.
50. Jameson 2005, p. 205.
A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119 111
Te objection is immediate: surely, Jameson cannot mean all modern anti-
utopias? Zamyatin’s We? Čapek’s R.U.R.? Huxley’s Brave New World ? As we
have noted, he ignores Čapek, but Jameson has the other bases covered: in
Zamyatin, ‘it is not the personal and the political that are confused but rather
aesthetics and bureaucracy’; and if the novel is an anti-utopia, it is one ‘in
which the Utopian impulse is still at work, with whatever ambivalence’; in
Huxley, we ﬁnd ‘an aristocratic critique of the media and mass culture, rather
than of any Orwellian “totalitarianism”’.
It follows, then, that neither is an
anti-Utopia in Jameson’s sense.
Te danger should be obvious: that the category of anti-utopian text
becomes virtually coextensive with Nineteen Eighty-Four. At one point, Jameson
asks: ‘Can we separate anti-Utopianism in Orwell from anti-communism?’
We might equally ask: Can we separate anti-anti-utopianism in Jameson from
anti-anti-communism? Te answer seems in the negative, which is doubly
unfortunate if only because, as Jameson himself notes, ‘the history of the
communist adventure is not co-terminous with the history of socialism as
Orwell’s place in this latter history deserves far greater respect than
Jameson accords it. ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936’,
Orwell insisted in 1946, when he was already actively engaged in writing
Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘has been written, directly or indirectly, against
totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism’.
Tis question of Orwell’s
peculiar politics, a combination of anti-fascism, neo-Trotskyism and libertarian
socialism, cannot legitimately be dismissed, after Jameson’s fashion, as ‘mere
biographical aﬃ rmation’.
It might be excusable to argue thus if the politics
were merely personal or found no expression in the novel. But neither is true:
Orwell belonged to an important and continuing tradition of anti-Stalinist
leftism; and those politics clearly inform the text of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Te
problem arises essentially because Jameson treats both the politics and the
novel as products of the Cold-War 1950s, an oddly perverse move in a theorist
renowned for the injunction to ‘Always historicize!’
was published in June 1949 and its author was already dead by the end of
January 1950: both were necessarily products of the two decades that
preceded the Cold War, but not of the latter itself.
51. Jameson 2005, p. 202.
52. Jameson 2005, p. 201.
53. Jameson 2005, p. 21.
54. Orwell 1970a, p. 28.
55. Jameson 2005, p. 198.
56. Jameson 1981, p. 9.
112 A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119
Orwell and the Left
Jameson’s misreading of Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four is no minor matter:
it is, in fact, the central point of weakness in Archaeologies, from which we are
able to trace out and untangle the thread of most that is wrong with the book.
To justify this assertion will require me brieﬂy to elaborate, ﬁrstly, on Orwell’s
politics and, secondly, on his novel. Whatever we make of the particular
details, it is clear that Eric Blair the man and George Orwell the author were
moved to anti-imperialism by the experience of British rule in Burma, to
populist sympathy for the poor through living rough in Paris and London,
positive identiﬁcation with the working-class Left through reportage in the
industrial North of England, and support for revolutionary socialism by
ﬁghting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Tis is well-known
biographical material, easily garnished from the obvious Orwell texts, Burmese
Days, Down and Out in Paris and London, Te Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage
to Catalonia. No doubt, it has a strongly autobiographical element, but this is
more than mere biographical aﬃ rmation, for these are also what Jameson
would easily recognise elsewhere as intertexts. Indeed, the main source for
Orwell biographies – Bernard Crick’s for example – is in the writings, in the
texts. And it is the writing, whether considered biographical datum or
intertextual referent, that renders Jameson’s reading radically suspect.
Tere is no doubting Orwell’s anti-Stalinism, nor its origins in the experience
of the Spanish Revolution, but there is no evidence at all to suggest that it was
ever universalised into either a blanket-pessimism about human nature or a
life-passion. Reﬂecting on his Spanish experiences from wartime Britain,
Orwell concluded that:
one sees only the struggle of the gradually awakening common people against the
lords of property and their hired liars and bumsuckers. Te question is very
simple . . . Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not?
I myself believe . . . that the common man will win his ﬁght sooner or later, but I
want it to be sooner and not later . . . Tat was the real issue of the Spanish war,
and of the last war, and perhaps of other wars yet to come.
Tere is no universalised pessimism here, rather the very opposite, a belief
that, no matter how dire the current circumstances, the working-class cause
will eventually triumph. Yet this essay was written in 1943, when Orwell was
already at work on Animal Farm. Jameson himself suggests in parentheses that
the narrative force of Orwell’s fable springs from the same conviction about
the inevitably corrupting eﬀects of power on human nature which later
57. Orwell 1966a, p. 245.
A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119 113
inspired Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Tis is simply incompatible with the text of
Animal Farm itself – there is nothing corrupt about Boxer, surely? – and with
what we actually know to have be been Orwell’s self-declared beliefs at the
time of its composition. If universalised pessimism ever became a life-passion
for Orwell, then it was only very brieﬂy so, no more than in the last three years
before he died. And even that seems distinctly improbable, as we shall see
when we turn to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In Spain, Orwell had fought for the Partido Obrero de Uniﬁcación Marxista
(POUM), the United Marxist Workers’ Party, rather than the Communist-led
International Brigades. As the name suggests, it was an independent – that is,
non-Communist – Marxist organisation. It was also the Spanish sister party of
the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Britain, which had split from the
Labour Party in 1931. Troughout the 1930s, the ILP managed to combine a
signiﬁcant parliamentary representation, always substantially larger than the
Communists, a national organisation and membership, and a policy of
‘revolutionary’ socialism, suspicious of and increasingly hostile to both the
USSR and the local Communist Party. Te ILP was eﬀectively swept aside by
the Labour landslide in 1945, but it remained an important precursor for the
British New Left of the 1950s. In the concluding chapter to Te Road to Wigan
Pier, Orwell insists on the urgent necessity to:
bring an eﬀective Socialist party into existence. It will have to be a party with
genuinely revolutionary intentions, and it will have to be numerically strong
enough to act.
Clearly, such an eﬀective socialist party would be neither the Labour nor
Communist Party, dismissed in the same pages as respectively ‘backstairs-
crawlers’ and a ‘stupid cult of Russia’,
but rather an expanded version of the
political party he would eventually join in June 1938, the ILP.
Which explains why he fought for the POUM: he had ‘slight connexions,
with the ILP and was broadly sympathetic even before
going to Spain. By contrast, the vast majority of Communist and Labour
Party volunteers fought in the International Brigades. Tis broad sympathy
grew into close agreement, as he would later elaborate:
58. Jameson 2005, p. 198.
59. Orwell 1962, p. 202.
60. Orwell 1962, p. 190.
61. Orwell 1970b, p. 352.
114 A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119
I was with the I.L.P. contingent in Spain. I never pretended, then or since, to
agree in every detail with the policy the P.O.U.M. put forward and the I.L.P.
supported, but the general course of events has borne it out. Te things I saw in
Spain brought home to me the fatal danger of mere negative ‘anti-Fascism’. Once
I had grasped the essentials of the situation in Spain I realized that the I.L.P. was
the only British party I felt like joining – and also the only party I could join with
at least the certainty that I would never be led up the garden path in the name of
Orwell’s objections to Stalinism were clearly neither bourgeois nor predicated
on hostility to the idea of a workers’ state. Rather, he had been inspired to join
the ILP by the lived experience of working-class power in Catalonia: ‘It was
the ﬁrst time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the
saddle’, he wrote of his arrival in Barcelona.
Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers . . . Practically
everyone wore rough working-class clothes . . . Tere was much in it that I did not
understand . . . but I recognized it immediately as a state of aﬀairs worth ﬁghting
For Orwell to choose the POUM and Barcelona, as against the OGPU and
Moscow, was to opt for a workers’ state that might still have a future, as against
the counter-revolutionary terror that had already destroyed a previous one.
What, ﬁnally, of Nineteen Eighty-Four itself ? Clearly, it is not a dispirited
reaction to postwar Labour Britain: the very suggestion – Clement Attlee as
Big Brother – would be risible were it not seriously entertained in the United
States. Hence, Orwell’s own explanation to the American United Auto
Workers’ Union, written six months before his death, that his novel
is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of
which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralised
economy is liable and which have been partly realised in Communism and
62. Orwell 1970c, pp. 374–5.
63. Orwell 1966b, pp. 8–9.
64. Orwell 1970d, p. 564.
A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119 115
Te reference to fascism here is important: Ingsoc was designed to signify not
so much British Labourism as National Socialism, that is fascism (and also, as
it happens, Stalinist Communism).
To read the novel as a symptom of revolutionary discouragement might
remains plausible, however, especially given the Spanish Fascist victory in
1939, not reversed in 1945, even more especially so if we assume, as Jameson
does, that Nineteen Eighty-Four ends with:
But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was ﬁnished. He had
won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
immediately followed by:
But the novel actually continues, in my edition for over fourteen more pages,
until the conclusion to the Appendix on Newspeak: ‘It was chieﬂy in order to
allow time for the preliminary work of translation that the ﬁnal adoption of
Newspeak had been ﬁxed for so late a date as 2050’.
In content, these lines
add little, but their form is redolent with meaning. For, as Margaret Atwood
observes of the whole Appendix, it
is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past tense, which
can only mean that the regime has fallen, and that language and individuality
have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of 1984
Tis must be right: the Appendix is internal to the novel, neither an author’s
nor a scholarly editor’s account of how the ﬁction works, but rather a part of
the ﬁction, a ﬁctional commentary on ﬁctional events. And, although Atwood
fails to notice this, it is anticipated within the main body of the text, by a
footnote in the ﬁrst chapter, which assures us, again in standard English, in
the third person, in the past tense, that: ‘Newspeak was the oﬃ cial language
Atwood uses a similar device in Te Handmaid’s Tale, the ﬁrst of
her own dystopian SF novels, which concludes with an extract from the
proceedings of a ‘Symposium on Gileadean Studies’, written in some utopian
65. Orwell 1989, p. 311.
66. Orwell, 1989, p. 326.
67. Atwood 2005, p. 337.
68. Orwell 1989, p. 5n.
116 A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119
future set long after the collapse of the Republic of Gilead.
readily admits that Nineteen Eighty-Four provided her with a ‘direct model’ for
If she is to be believed, then both Orwell’s Appendix and her ‘Historical
Notes’ work as framing devices, by which to blunt the force of dystopian
inevitability so as to establish what Jameson would understand precisely as a
Tere are good reasons to take Atwood seriously, not least her own SF
novels. But I myself have pursued this matter further, by way of an analysis of
the ‘problem of ending’ in four intertexts to Nineteen Eighty-Four, with all of
which Orwell was himself familiar: Zamyatin’s We, in Cauvet-Duhamel’s
French translation as Nous autres; Huxley’s Brave New World; and Selver’s
British translation of Čapek’s R.U.R.
Insofar as dystopian ﬁctions do share a
utopian intent, then they typically confront the problem of how to represent
a naturalistically plausible danger suﬃ ciently terrible to be threatening, but
insuﬃ ciently so as to be demoralising. And this is precisely the problem faced
by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. We know he was much impressed by Nous
autres: in 1946, he wrote approvingly of it in his famous essay on Burnham; in
1948, he oﬀered to review a proposed English translation, which failed to
eventuate, for the Times Literary Supplement; in 1949, he urged it on Fred
Warburg, who had published Animal Farm and would shortly publish Nineteen
Eighty-Four. And we know Nous autres is organised into forty chapters, or
‘Notes’, the penultimate of which is entitled ‘LA FIN’. But it actually continues
for a further six pages after ‘LA FIN’,
just as the ﬁrst edition of Nineteen
Eighty-Four continues for a further fourteen after ‘THE END’.
Orwell’s familiarity with the other texts, especially Nous autres, it seems very
plausible that the Appendix on Newspeak was in fact a deliberate invention,
an experiment in relation to the genre of SF, designed to achieve the eﬀect
Atwood describes in her own work.
Tese are formal solutions to formal problems of a kind critical theorists
such as Jameson are peculiarly well-equipped to understand. Why, then,
should his analysis prove so thoroughly misconceived? Why should such a
distinguished literary critic ignore the entirety of the last fourteen pages of a
69. Atwood 1987, pp. 311–24.
70. Atwood 2005, p. 337.
71. Milner 2006.
72. Zamiatine 1929, pp. 227–32.
73. Orwell 1949, pp. 299–312.
74. Interestingly, there is no trace of the Appendix in what remains of Orwell’s manuscript.
Given its dilapidated state, this proves little. But it is suggestive of the possibility that the
Appendix was written last, as the real ‘END’ to the novel, the solution to a problem that had
become apparent only when the main text was more or less complete.
A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119 117
text? Te answer must be, in part, because Jameson is located in the United
States, rather than Western Europe, and his reading is therefore perhaps
unavoidably overdetermined by the novel’s American Cold-War reception.
But it is also, I fear, because – like the New Left Review in Britain, which often
publishes his essays – Jameson inherits from the Trotskyist Fourth International
a peculiar loyalty to a certain legacy of Stalinism. To cite the obvious example,
his reference to Stalinist Russia as a ‘workers’ state’ repeats a long-standing
Trotskyist formulation, which seems utterly perverse: Stalin’s Russia was in no
sense a workers’ state, but rather a primitive form of monopoly state-capitalism,
not so much ‘socialism’ as ‘barbarism’, to rework Luxemburg’s famous
It is also interesting to note that Jameson’s single most inﬂuential
work, Postmodernism, or Te Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, is famously
underwritten by the analysis of ‘late capitalism’ developed in the ﬁrst instance
by Ernest Mandel, the most distinguished of ‘orthodox-Trotskyist’ intellectuals
after Trotsky himself.
Tis is not to suggest that Orwell’s life, his politics and his dystopia remain
immune to criticism. But Raymond Williams showed far more insight than
Jameson, when he sought to situate Nineteen Eighty-Four in relation to Orwell’s
1946 essay on James Burnham. Like Burnham, Orwell had believed capitalism
ﬁnished; unlike Burnham he hoped to see it replaced by democratic socialism;
but like Burnham he acknowledged the strong possibility that a quasi-socialist
rhetoric would be used to legitimate ‘managerial revolution’ and bureaucratic
dictatorship. Burnham anticipated this prospect with some relish – witness his
involvement with the CIA – Orwell with much fear. Hence, the latter’s
insistence that ‘the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is
to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy’.
Tis was, for Williams,
Orwell’s crucial mistake: to have imagined capitalism already beaten and,
hence, the central issue as that between diﬀerent ‘socialisms’. As it turned out,
what Orwell most failed to anticipate, Williams concludes, is the ‘spectacular
capitalist boom’, which falsiﬁed ‘virtually every element of the speciﬁc
Tere is much truth in this judgement. But we all misread the
future, utopians as much as anyone. For Nineteen Eighty-Four, as for any other
SF novel, the key question remains that identiﬁed by Jameson: not ‘did it get
the future right?’, but rather ‘did it suﬃ ciently shock its own present as to
force a meditation on the impossible?’. What Jameson misses is that the
process works for dystopia as well as eutopia, for barbarism as well as socialism.
75. Luxemburg 1970, p. 327.
76. Jameson 1991, pp. 35–6; see Mandel 1975.
77. Orwell 1970e, p. 198.
78. Williams 1991, p. 117.
118 A. Milner / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 101–119
So this is more than a passing mistake about either Orwell or Nineteen Eighty-
Four: it is, rather, a crucial failure to theorise adequately one of the central
forms of contemporary science-ﬁction.
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—— 2005, ‘George Orwell: Some Personal Connections’, in Curious Pursuits: Occasional
Writing 1970–2005, London: Virago.
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Bloch, Ernst 1995 , Te Principle of Hope, Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
Clute, John and Peter Nicholls (eds.) 1993, Te Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, London: Orbit.
Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan 2003, ‘Science Fiction and Empire’, Science Fiction Studies, 90:
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Selected Essays 1975–1985, London: Verso.
—— 2006, ‘Making a Break’, London Review of Books, 28, 5.
Fitting, Peter 2006, ‘Fredric Jameson and Anti-Anti-Utopianism’, Arena Journal, II, 25/26:
Hollinger, Veronica 1999, ‘Contemporary Trends in Science Fiction Criticism, 1980–1999’,
Science Fiction Studies, 78: 232–62.
Jameson, Fredric, 1973, ‘Generic Discontinuities in Science Fiction: Brian Aldiss’ Starship’,
Science Fiction Studies, 2: 57–68.
—— 1981, Te Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, London: Methuen.
—— 1982, ‘Progress v. Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?’, Science Fiction Studies, 9, 2:
—— 1988, ‘Introduction’, in Te Ideologies of Teory: Essays 1971–1986; Volume 1: Situations of
Teory, London: Routledge.
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—— 2003a, ‘Fear and Loathing in Globalization’, New Left Review, II, 23: 105–14.
—— 2003b, ‘Morus: Te Generic Window’, New Literary History, 34, 3: 431–51.
—— 2004, ‘Te Politics of Utopia’, New Left Review, II, 25: 35–54.
—— 2005, Archaeologies of the Future: Te Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions,
Luxemburg, Rosa 1970 , ‘Te Junius Pamphlet: Te Crisis in the German Social
Democracy’, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, New York: Pathﬁnder Press.
Mandel, Ernest 1975 , Late Capitalism, London: New Left Books.
Milner, Andrew 2006, ‘Framing Catastrophe: Te Problem of Ending in Dystopian Fiction’,
Arena Journal, II, 25/26: 333–54.
More, Sir Tomas 2001 , Utopia, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Moretti, Franco 1998, Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900, London: Verso.
—— 2005, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, London: Verso.
Moylan, Tom 2000, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, Boulder:
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—— 1962 , Te Road to Wigan Pier, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
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—— 1966 , ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, in Homage to Catalonia and Looking
Back on the Spanish War, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
—— 1970a , ‘Why I Write’, in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: Volume 1. An Age
Like Tis, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
—— 1970b , ‘Notes on the Spanish Militias’, in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters:
Volume 1. An Age Like Tis, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Harmondsworth:
—— 1970c , ‘Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party’, in Collected Essays, Journalism
and Letters: Volume 1. An Age Like Tis, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Harmondsworth:
—— 1970d , ‘Letter to Francis A. Henson (extract)’, in Collected Essays, Journalism and
Letters of George Orwell, Volume 4. In Front of Your Nose, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian
Angus, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
—— 1970e , ‘James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution’, in Te Collected Essays,
Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 4. In Front of Your Nose, edited by Sonia
Orwell and Ian Angus, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
—— 1989 , Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Robinson, Kim Stanley 1984 , Te Novels of Philip K. Dick, Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Research Press.
Sargent, Lyman Tower 1976, ‘Temes in Utopian Fiction in English Before Wells’, Science
Fiction Studies, 10: 275–82.
Suvin, Darko 1979, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre,
New Haven: Yale University Press.
—— 2000, ‘Novum Is as Novum Does’, in Science Fiction, Critical Frontiers, edited by Karen
Sayer and John Moore, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
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—— 1980 , ‘Utopia and Science Fiction’, in Problems in Materialism and Culture, London:
New Left Books.
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© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/146544609X12537556703359
Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 brill.nl/hima
Louis Althusser, Warren Montag, Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism, William S. Lewis, Lanham, Maryland:
Lexington Books, 2005.
Althusser: Te Detour of Teory, Gregory Elliott, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden:
In the past few years there has been a renewed interest in the work of Louis Althusser, although,
in some cases, this interest has been one-sided, focusing mainly on his later writings on aleatory
materialism. Te three books reviewed in this article, however, oﬀer balanced and insightful
overviews of the totality of Althusser’s work, placing it in the wider context of Marxist political
and theoretical debates and stressing both its originality and strengths, but also its
Althusser, Marxist philosophy, ideology, Lewis, Montag, Elliott
Readings of Althusser
Over recent years the work of Louis Althusser has once again begun to attract attention,
especially since the posthumous publication of his unpublished texts.
theoretical interest has largely focused on previously unknown aspects of his theoretical
trajectory, such as his attempt to articulate an ‘aleatory materialism’, which has been
heralded as a salutary exodus from classical-Marxist materialism. Te ideological exhaustion
of neoliberalism, the postmodern attack on classical humanism, the continuing academic
interest in what has been labelled ‘French Teory’, and a political landscape characterised
by the re-emergence of political and theoretical radicalism, have also contributed to
this new interest in Althusser and have – partially at least – lifted the anathema that he
and most Marxists of his generation had received during the heyday of theoretical anti-
1. Althusser 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003, and 2006.
2. It is worth noting that in Greece there has been a continuing interest in Althusser and his
work. In the 1970s this interest was evident in inﬂuential left-wing journals such as Politis, but
122 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
One of the main tendencies of this work has been the attempt to present an image of an
‘other’ Althusser, especially since the later writings could readily be drawn upon for this
purpose. Te most notable such case was Toni Negri’s conceptualisation of an Althusserian
from an earlier ‘structuralist’ preoccupation with objective social tendencies towards
a more open confrontation with the potential creativity of the multitude, in the sense of a
‘search for an open subjectivity that would construct theory and struggle together’.
reading, a new image of Althusser emerges, one with much more in common with Negri’s
own preoccupation with the potentiality of the subjectivity of new forms of immaterial
labour than to the ‘classical’ communist strategy.
At the same time, one can also note the preoccupation with the later Althusser of the
group around the French journal Multitudes, where the rejection of classical Marxism and
of any attempt to produce a coherent dialectical theorisation of social reality goes hand in
hand with the search for a new ontology of constantly re-emerging encounters in an open
space of singular struggles and creative practices, without centre and consequently without
the need to rethink political organisation and strategy.
Te same attempt at presenting an ‘other’, post-communist Althusser, is evident in the
postmodernist reading of Althusser proposed by Callari and Ruccio (1996). Tis reading
presents Althusser’s work as marking a clear break with classical Marxism and modernism.
Modernist Marxism is presented as plagued by essentialism and teleology, with production
being understood as the causal centre of social reality and the proletariat as the historical
subject of social change. Callari and Ruccio think that there is the possibility of an ‘other’
Marxism, exempliﬁed in the work of Althusser, that counters these essentialist, systemicist
and teleological tendencies and oﬀers the possibility of thinking the heterogeneity,
complexity and multiplicity of social struggles and of rejecting classical Marxism’s premises
such as the primacy of the struggles in production or the determination-in-the-last-instance
by the economic. As a result, it is also obvious that this postmodern Althusser is also a
postcommunist one, refusing the basic tenets of communist politics, such as the political
centrality of the labour movement. But this reading also has epistemological consequences.
Althusser’s insistence on the possibility of treating Marxism as a science and as an attempt
to produce scientiﬁc explanations is duly discarded.
On the other hand, G.M. Goshgarian’s lengthy introductions to the English-language
collections of Althusser’s posthumously published works
oﬀer a much clearer view of
the political considerations behind Althusser’s interventions. For Goshgarian, Althusser’s
also in the fact that political tendencies in the Left such as B’ Panelladiki, the radical youth of the
Eurocommunist Communist Party of the Interior that broke away from it in 1978, were openly
Althusserian in their theoretical orientation. From the 1980s onwards this interest has been
evident especially in the reference to Althusser in inﬂuential Marxist journals such as Teseis
(directed by John Milios), but also in the publication of monographs on Althusser. On this, see
Fourtounis and Baltas 1994, Fourtounis 1998, Baltas 2002, and Sotiris 2004.
3. Negri 1993.
4. Negri 1996, p. 59.
5. Ichida and Matheron 2005; Matheron 2005; Moulier-Boutang 2005 .
6. ‘Of course, Althusser himself did not help matters by invoking such terms as science,
society eﬀect, structural causality, reproduction and so on – terms that allude to a sense of closure
for the objects and methods of Marxist discourse’ (Callari and Ruccio 1996, p. 35).
7. Goshgarian 2003; Goshgarian 2006.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 123
work, from the beginning, was intended not only as a left-wing criticism of Stalinism
but also as a left-wing correction of the political line of the Communist movement, this
political orientation being the main element of continuity in Althusser’s work. As a result,
Goshgarian’s introductions oﬀer us an image of Althusser as a communist thinker, contrary
to a tendency to depict him as either lamenting an irremediable and irreversible crisis of the
communist project or looking for new movements and subjectivities. Goshgarian has also
suggested that a closer reading of the totality of Althusser’s published and unpublished
works show that a preoccupation with an open conception of the ‘encounter’ of the
elements of the historical situation and an emphasis on the radical break with any form of
teleology is the common thread running through all of his writings, even from the time of
his small book on Montesquieu.
However, lacking among this renewed interest has been a consideration of the work of
Althusser in its totality, set against its historical, political and theoretical background. Tat
is exactly what makes the three books that are the focus of this article particularly interesting:
not only do they oﬀer comprehensive accounts of Althusser’s main positions, but they also
consider Althusser within the broader context of the evolution of Marxism, its debates and
its relation to questions of political strategy and tactics.
Rethinking Althusser on art, theory and practice
Warren Montag’s book is neither a typical monograph on Althusser nor a simple
introduction. Designed for a book-series that critically explores key-ﬁgures in literary
theory, it oﬀers a highly original reading of Althusser, one which insists on the importance
of Althusser’s work, contrary to traditional criticisms of Althusserian ‘structuralism’. It is for
this reason that he distances his approach not only from E.P. Tompson’s attack on
but also from Terry Eagleton’s initial attempt at an ‘Althusserian’ theory of
(one that Montag thinks was closer to Lévi-Strauss than to Althusser), from the
British Althusserianism of Hindess and Hirst,
from Jameson’s criticism of Althusser, and
even from commentators more sympathetic to Althusser such as Ted Benton.
wants to show that the work of Althusser – and Macherey, in what concerns literary theory
especially – is a far more complex and contradictory theoretical endeavour than has
previously been supposed, one that from the beginning included both the theorisation
of structures and the confrontation with the open and even aleatory character of
In line with the book-series’ stated purpose, Montag starts by reading Althusser’s works
on art and the theatre, especially since ‘Althusser’s most productive period coincided with
a new-found interest in contemporary painting and literature, particularly drama’ (p. 17).
8. Tompson 1978.
9. Eagleton 1976.
10. Hindess and Hirst 1977.
11. Benton 1984.
12. Montag refers explicitly to Balibar (1993) and his position that, even in For Marx, one
could discern the antagonism between a materialism of the structure and a materialism of the
124 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
Drawing upon not only Althusser’s published interventions in the 1960s but also his
correspondence with Franca Madonia,
he is able to situate Althusser’s growing interest in
non-realist art within the context of his more general theoretical tendency to think that
social structures are never directly present or visible but felt through their eﬀects and traces.
He also links Althusser’s rejection of classical realism to his theoretical anti-humanism, his
negation of a notion of human essence that is expressed in works of art, and his conception
of ideology. Consequently, he thinks that, ‘[f ]or Althusser the function of art was not so
much to make reality visible as to make visible the myths that govern without our knowledge
and consent, the way we think about and “live” this reality’ (p. 21).
In this direction, Montag oﬀers a very careful reading of Althusser’s interpretation of
Bertolazzi’s El Nost Milan. In particular, he draws attention to the way that Althusser insists
that the importance of the play lies in a ‘dialectic in the wings’,
making El Nost Milan not
a depiction of social reality but a ‘critique of the dominant form of consciousness’ (p. 25).
Montag also provides a reading of Althusser on Brecht. For Montag, Althusser sees in
Brecht’s plays a dissociated structure that oﬀers the possibility of a radical critique of
ideological consciousness and of any notion of a consciousness that would freely act based
upon a complete knowledge of the situation and the dilemmas it poses. Montag thinks that
Althusser’s writings on the theatre are an example of his more general preoccupation with
structures as ‘absent causes’ and of his thoroughgoing critique of the self-conscious subject
of theoretical humanism. Montag stresses the analogies between Althusser’s reference to
modern theatre’s ability to bring forward social complexity and conﬂictuality through
displacements and changes in the disposition of the plays and his descriptions of
Montag carefully presents the diﬃ culties Althusser faced in his attempts to delineate a
theory of the materiality of art, and turns to the introduction to Reading ‘Capital’ as his
most comprehensive eﬀort to think the very diﬃ culty of reading and to distance it from a
conception of a ‘reading that deciphers the signs that both express and conceal truth’
(p. 45). According to Montag, Althusser follows Spinoza in his refusal to treat the text of
the Scripture as the covering of a hidden meaning and in his choice ‘to take the Scripture
as it is, its gaps lacunae, inconsistencies and outright contradictions of doctrine and
narrative, as irreducible’ (p. 48). In the same way, Althusser thinks that Marx, in his reading
of Smith, turns his attention not to what Smith’s text fails to see, but to what it sees but is
unable to make explicit except in the form of absences and aporiae.
Montag then turns to another important intervention from Althusser’s circle of that
period, namely Pierre Macherey’s Teory of Literary Production.
For Montag, the importance
of Macherey’s text lies in its rejection of any normative approach of literary theory and his
insistence on the literary text being real and irreducible to something more real than itself.
Tis leads Macherey to a rejection of a classical notion of literary creation that has more to
do with a theological conception of truth as God’s will than with the materiality of the
literary text. For Montag, when Macherey replaces the notion of creation with that of
13. Althusser 1998.
14. Althusser 2005, p. 138.
15. Macherey 2006.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 125
literary production, he follows Spinoza and his insistence that ‘the method of interpreting
Scripture is the same with the method of in interpreting nature’ (p. 56). He also points out
that Macherey was far from simply proposing to do away with the centrality of the author,
in the sense proposed by formalist and structuralist theories:
As Macherey points out, although this approach to literature appears to dispense
with the very notion of the author, in fact, it simply displaces the problems posed
by the notion of the author to the level of the system as a whole. . . . Neither
formalism, nor structuralism can explain the emergence of the system nor how
out of the set of potential narratives, one rather than another is generated. (p. 58.)
In light of the above, it is obvious that, for Montag, Macherey’s text is proof that even ‘High
Althusserianism’ was far from being a simple structuralism. Te irreducibility of the literary
text means that multiple meanings exists within the text itself, in the form of ‘faults,
inconsistencies and contradictions . . . [that] are not signs of artistic failure but of the
historical necessity that made the work what it is and no another’ (p. 60); a position in line
with Althusser’s notion of symptomatic reading in Reading ‘Capital’.
Montag then proceeds to deal with Althusser’s notion of ideology. He notes that, from
the beginning, Althusser’s conception of ideology was diﬀerent from a traditional Marxist
one, not only because the opposition between ideology and science is not symmetrical to
the opposition between the false and the true, but also because the notion of ‘the imaginary’
that Althusser uses – a notion that has more to do with Spinoza than with Lacan – means
that ideology can be conceived as an ‘unconscious structure that determines both how
people think and how they will act’ (p. 63). Montag thinks that Althusser realised that
centring ideology on representation was inadequate and left open the question of the
materiality of ideology. Tat is why in ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ Althusser
gave a new meaning to both ‘representation’ and ‘the imaginary’, since now the ideological
projection of a free individual is considered at the same time a ﬁction (as an image of the
human condition) and the material reality of the everyday practices, institutions and
apparatuses that interpellate and produce human subjects as free individuals. Montag,
following recent writings by Macherey on this subject, thinks that that this conception
of the materiality of ideology oﬀers also the possibility of thinking the materiality of the
work of art not only in the moment of its production but also of its reproduction and
Te work itself is constantly reinscribed in other works, perpetually transformed
by its encounter with what it is not, not merely other literary texts, but discourses
of all kinds, and the practices and institutions in which these discourses are
embedded. (p. 68.)
Te second part of the book is a presentation of some key concepts of Althusser’s theoretical
framework and includes passages from texts by Althusser and Balibar on the same. Tese
include a concept of history demarcated from both Hegel and structuralism; Althusser’s
critique of humanism and of the idea of a human nature or human essence; the theory
of ideology; the replacement of creation with production by Macherey; the notion of
symptomatic reading; and the notion of philosophy as intervention.
126 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
Te third part of the book oﬀers some readings of classical literary texts. Te ﬁrst one
concerns Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Montag ﬁnds clear echoes of the rise of the
international-socialist movement that manage to intermingle with the narrative:
[A] voice murmurs over and through Heart of Darkness, interrupting it, preventing
it from closing upon itself in completion, opening it to other texts, other histories.
Te voice is not the whine of those pledging the ‘right of labor to live’; it is the
voice of the living power of labor, the power of cannibal crews, armed savages,
mutineers and the apocalyptic moment of the mass strike. (p. 101.)
Te second reading concerns Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Montag thinks that the diﬀerent and
contradictory stances depicted in the book, and the possibility of diﬀerent readings of the
book, reﬂect the social and ideological contradictions of that era and result in the particular
openness of the novel:
[F]ar from gathering itself into a coherent whole as it proceeds from beginning
to end, the text progresses through a dissociative movement the force of which
pulls it apart, separating from itself. Tis dissociation, however, is not the eﬀect
of some primal disorder or indeterminacy; it is historically determined by the
multiple and intersecting struggles of Defoe’s time: not simply the struggle of
citizen against state, but also the propertyless against the propertied, worker
against employer, slave against master. (p. 117.)
Finally, Montag turns to Althusser’s autobiographical Te Future Lasts a Long Time, carefully
avoiding both the danger of taking it at face-value – something exempliﬁed by the way he
presents Althusser’s obviously false references to his mediocrity – and the temptation of
seeking a psychological or biographical explanation of Althusser’s œuvre, opting instead to
treat Althusser’s autobiography as just another moment in ‘diverse series of texts, each itself
forced apart by the very power imparted to it’ (p. 131).
Montag draws some important conclusions concerning the ‘irreducible materiality of
works, the conﬂicts and contradictions proper to them’ (p. 135) and the always incomplete
and unﬁnished character of any work of art in its constant reappropriation. He also
concludes that the contradiction between a materialism of the structure and a materialism
of the conjuncture is constitutive of Althusser’s work and can be considered a ‘dialectical
motor of contradictions driving his thought forward without any possibility of a ﬁnal
resolution’ (p. 133), providing in this sense the very fecundity of his endeavour. But Montag
is also very careful to distinguish his approach form any attempt to present Althusser as
oscillating between modernism/rationalism and postmodernism/irrationalism. On the
contrary, he presents Althusser’s theoretical self-criticism as still centred upon the diﬃ culties
and open questions of scientiﬁc practices that try to contribute to ‘not only the knowledge
of the social world, but to its transformation’ (p. 135):
For if Althusser rejected any notion of a logic of scientiﬁc discovery or a a priori
method that would serve to guarantee the truth of a given scientiﬁc practice and
its ﬁndings, he never did so on the basis of another opposing a priori postulate,
i.e. that there can be no truth, no science, or that art exceeds our capacity to speak
or know it. On the contrary, he rejected these alternatives of transcendental reason
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 127
(high postmodernism is transcendentalism in an almost pure form) in favour of
the primacy of scientiﬁc practice over theory, speaking of the necessity of writing
a history of the sciences as it was, with its accidents and chance encounters, its
regressions as well as its advances. (p. 134.)
Tere is no doubt that Montag has produced a book that is both insightful and fascinating.
Contrary to a recent tendency to over-emphasise Althusser’s later writings as the canonical
texts of a new ‘open’ materialism of aleatory practices and encounters, Montag mainly
refers to Althusser’s ‘classical’ texts of the 1960s, treating them not as examples of structuralist
obsession but as eﬀorts to think the very complexity and conﬂictuality of social practices.
His proposal to re-read Althusser’s writings on art and the theatre as exempliﬁcations of the
inherently contradictory character of discursive practices embedded in social antagonism is
also fruitful. Equally important is his treatment of Althusser’s confrontation with a possible
materialist theory of reading, one that brings forward the always open, incomplete and
conﬂictual nature of every text and the constant eﬀectivity of social practices and class-
struggle. In this way, he oﬀers a welcome correction of the standard accusation that
Althusser in the early 1960s proposed a simplistic science/ideology dichotomy. Montag’s
treatment of Althusser’s theory of ideology is also important, stressing the importance of
the materiality of practices.
Montag’s treatment of Macherey’s Teory of Literary Production as a paradigmatic text of
the original Althusserian project, oﬀering it the place traditionally attributed to Balibar’s
much more structuralist intervention in Reading ‘Capital’,
is also of particular interest. I
think that Montag is right in his choice, especially since Macherey is not only concerned
with questions of literary theory, but also with the more general problems of a materialist
epistemology. Macherey’s refusal of empiricism in favour of a theory of knowledge as
criticism of structuralism
and humanist ideology, and emphasis on the
distinction between necessity and teleology
provide ample evidence of the importance of
Teory of Literary Production. And it is reading Althusser through Macherey (and vice
versa), and both through Spinoza, that also helps Montag restate the materiality of the
literary text as the irreducibility of the text to anything other than itself,
a useful correction
against all forms of dualism.
Te main criticisms that can be raised against Montag have to do with the limits of
his attempt to think Althusser through the questions concerning literature and artistic
16. Balibar 1990.
17. ‘Knowledge is not the discovery or reconstruction of a latent meaning, forgotten or
concealed. It is something newly raised up, an addition to the reality from which it begins.’
(Macherey 2006, p. 6.)
18. ‘[A] historical question (and we might call such a question a ‘structure’) not only implies
the possibility of change but is the incarnation and real inscription of this possibility. [. . .] Te
question of structure is not the delayed materialization, the late incarnation, of a pre-existing
meaning, it is the real condition of its very possibility.’ (Macherey 2006, p. 11.)
19. ‘Nor must we confuse necessity with fatality: the work is not the product of chance, but
does involve novelty, which is inscribed in its very letter. It is this mobility which makes the work
possible, and from which it emerges. Although it is not rigidly subordinated to a model, its
progress is not random but becomes an object of knowledge.’ (Macherey 2006, p. 56.)
20. On this, see Montag’s own comments (Montag 2005).
128 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
production. As a result, not enough emphasis is placed upon the political nature of
Althusser’s endeavour and his attempt to oﬀer a theoretical correction to the crisis of
communist strategy. Tis, for example, might have helped explain why Althusser had, at
the same time, to introduce a theory of knowledgeable social structures, as the prerequisite
of the scientiﬁc guidance of political choices in sharp contrast to the theoretical poverty of
the communist movement, and to insist on the singularity of conjunctures in order to
prevent the return to dogmatism.
Te second point of criticism has to do with Montag’s emphasis on the literary text as a
case-study of material production. Although he oﬀers valuable insights on what a materialist
approach might include – such as the irreducibility of the text, the conception of the text
as the product of multiple determinations, and the consideration of both its production
and reception as material practices – the problem is that not all of social reality can be
presented as a text or artefact. Tat is why the question of a materialist conception of
practice that would take into account the complex and open-to-the-future character of
social totality is still indispensable. Montag has partly tried to answer this question through
Spinoza’s theory of singularities, as the constant possibility of new encounters, eﬀects and
I think that a combination between structural causality and the constant
eﬀectivity of social antagonism (itself both ‘structural’ and ‘conjunctural’) can also oﬀer a
Te ﬁnal criticism relates to Montag’s treatment of Balibar’s insistence on a tension
between a materialism of the structure and a materialism of the conjuncture in Althusser.
Tree points have to be made here. Te ﬁrst is that the very notion of structure employed
by Althusser had less to do with him embracing structuralism and more with an attempt
towards a theorisation of the relational character of social reality (in the sense of the
ontological primacy of the relation over its elements) and of the tendency of social
forms and apparatuses to reproduce themselves, despite being transversed by social
antagonism – a crucial question for critical social theory. Te second is that not enough
attention is paid to the modalities of structural causality. I think that it oﬀers the possibility
of negating at the same time a mechanical, one-dimensional conception of structural
imperatives and an equally one-dimensional conception of a multitude of conjunctural
determinations. Te third is that the only way to avoid treating this tension as tragically
unresolved is to treat it as a dialectical contradiction inherent to Marxism as historical
materialism. Terefore, the question is not what side to choose but how to deal with it. And
it here that Althusser’s own self-critical conception of philosophy as intervention can be
most fruitful. If historical materialism can never be a closed, rigidiﬁed scientiﬁc system, but
is, instead, a constant struggle with the complexity and conﬂictuality of social reality that
necessarily leads to such tensions, then there is also a constant need for philosophical
interventions as (self-)corrections in the form of constantly ‘bending of the stick to the
21. Montag 2005, p. 189.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 129
Placing Althusser in the context of French Marxism
William Lewis’s book is not just a monograph on Althusser, but an attempt to situate
Althusser’s work within a wider historical, political and theoretical context – that of the
evolution of French Marxism and its relation to the history and politics of the French
Communist Party (PCF). It oﬀers an historical approach to Althusser ‘that allows his
thought to be treated not in isolation but as a philosophy of practice with a history’ (p. 17)
Tis double focus on philosophy and politics illuminates the complex and uneven ways
theory and political practice are interwoven. As Lewis notes:
By studying France’s tradition of attempts to understand and practice Marxist
Philosophy and speciﬁcally by looking at the French Communist Party as it
attempted to function in a Western democracy, one can observe the evolving
history of a mass movement motivated in part by the theory that it was the
vehicle of revolutionary political change. (p. 10.)
Lewis notes that originally, despite the evocation of ‘Bolshevisation’ by the PCF, Marxism
was not the only theoretical tradition in its ranks, and that elements of other, non-Marxist
French socialist traditions survived.
Many of those who rallied around the PCF after the
split at the Congress at Tours were more motivated by the radicalism of the Soviet Revolution
and the experience of World War I than by a theoretical acquaintance with the work of
Marx. Lewis notes the minimal number of Marx’s or Engels’s works published by the PCF
in the ﬁrst half of the 1920s and the simplicity of the PCF’s paedagogical pamphlets of that
period. Instead, the works of Plekhanov and Stalin are used as references for a conception
of Marxism as an economic determinism and of historical dialectics as proof of the
inevitability of communism.
Tis provides Lewis with the opportunity to discuss the more general problem of the
relation between class-position and epistemology. According to Lewis, despite the references
in the German Ideology to the epistemologically-privileged position of the proletariat, the
mature Marx does not seem to insist on such a position. On the contrary, he thinks that it
was mainly Engels in his later works who insisted that ‘true knowledge is dependent upon
class position’ (p. 61). And it is on the basis of such positions that, according to Lewis,
Lenin developed his theory of knowledge, later simpliﬁed by Stalin, according to which the
social division between the workers and the bourgeoisie is also the division between those
who are able to see social reality as it is and those ‘who cling to the illusion that history and
the world are the result of ideas’ (p. 61).
For Lewis, the necessity of collaborating with Socialists, Radicals and left-wing Catholics
during the 1930s, in the context of the Front Populaire strategy, led to a change of the PCF’s
rhetoric and the adoption of a more humanistic conception of communism. But, despite
this change in rhetoric, the canonical texts of this period were those written by Stalin.
According to Lewis, Stalin oﬀers a very ‘very schematic and truncated version of Marxist
philosophy’ (p. 73) that claimed to have grasped the laws of motion of both nature and
22. ‘Long after it was supposedly totally “Bolshevized”, French Communism retained
elements from its French Socialist antecedents; the ghosts of Proudhon and Fourier appear
alongside Saint-Simon’s in many of its policy positions, theoretical justiﬁcations and pedagogical
texts’’ (p. 25).
130 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
human society. Although the PCF found in Stalin’s texts the ‘algebra of revolution’ (p. 75),
the results were disastrous, since the Party deﬁned as theory the ‘the crude distinction
between true communist knowledge and faulty bourgeois knowledge, the ﬂawed philosophy
of science and of history that went along with this distinction and economism associated
with the crude infrastructure/superstructure relationships’ (p. 75).
Lewis distinguishes three schools of Marxism in French intellectual life by the end of the
1920s. Te ﬁrst was that of the Clarté group, with utopian and Sorelian overtones. Te
second was that of Le Cercle de la Russie Neuve, which focused on the Marxist philosophy
of science. Te third was that of the Philosophies group, and Lewis studies the group of
young intellectuals – among them Paul Nizan, Georges Politzer and Henri Lefebvre –
associated with the series of journals Philosophies, Esprit, La Revue Marxiste, and Avant-poste
and their theoretical itinerary from the criticism of French academic philosophy, to German
idealism and ﬁnally, through the discovery of Hegel, to Marxism. He pays particular
attention to Lefebvre’s 1938 Le Matérialisme dialectique, a highly original attempt to think
Marxism through the re-appropriation of Hegelian notions of ‘man’s self-alienation and
eventual reuniﬁcation through his activity’ (p. 102) and to overcome economic determinism
through the use of Hegelian dialectic, which, however, failed to establish an alternative to
the emerging Stalinist orthodoxy within the ranks of the PCF.
Lewis then proceeds to examine the three variations of French Marxism after 1945. Te
ﬁrst is the ‘oﬃ cial’ Marxism of the PCF, which, after the War, fully endorsed the Stalinist
distinction between bourgeois and proletarian science and used it as a legitimisation of
its politics and leadership, since the ‘ “historic role” of party leaders has made them the
possessors and the administrators of a science that understands the world in its truth’
(p. 126). Te second variation was Hegelian Marxism. Lewis notes the importance of
August Cornu’s treatment of Marx ‘as essentially a Left Hegelian’ (p. 129) and stresses the
importance of Lefebvre’s post-WWII Hegelian readings of Marxism as a theory of human
alienation with ‘almost no mention of the class struggle as the process that drives this
transformation’ (p. 133). Te third variation is existentialist Marxism, which was also
inﬂuenced by a certain reading of Hegel, especially that of the Phenomenology of Spirit by
Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite. Existentialist philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty
and Sartre ‘took the work of Kojève and Hyppolite on Hegel’s dialectic of consciousness
quite seriously’ (p. 138). But, contrary to the Marxist emphasis on consciousness as the
product of work and social structures, Sartre takes consciousness as ontologically given. It
was mainly Merleau-Ponty who rejected this ‘radical separation of the individual from
himself, from the world and from history’ (p. 142) and was the ﬁrst to approach Marxism
and communist politics, even to the extent of providing a complex apologia for the Moscow
trials of the 1930s; although, as Lewis notes, in the 1950s he became again critical of
traditional Marxist dialectic. In same period, Sartre became a political ally of the PCF,
without abandoning his initial emphasis on individual freedom and self-realisation.
Lewis thinks that all the initial responses of French Marxism to the revelations about
the Stalinist period after 1956 – the existentialist Marxists’ attempts to produce a
phenomenological Marxism, the re-emergence of Hegelian Marxism and the modest
attempts of orthodox Marxists to adapt themselves to the new situation – did not really
oﬀer an alternative and can be respectively characterised as ‘an interesting retreat, an
impotent miscegenation and a dead end’ (p. 158).
For Lewis, the only real alternative was the intervention of Louis Althusser. For Lewis,
Althusser’s project was primarily a political one: to change the political line of the Party
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 131
required a theoretical break with both humanist and Stalinist readings of Marx. Tat is why
Althusser insists on the break between the texts by the young Marx, grounded on a
conception of the human essence, and the texts of Marx’s maturity. Lewis also pays particular
attention to the importance of the notion of practice for Althusser; to the way he considers
science as a practice capable of producing new knowledge; to the sharp distinction he draws
between Hegelian dialectics and Marx’s conception of the dialectic; and to his conception
of social totality as contradictory, overdetermined, and unevenly developed. He also notes
the contradictions of Althusser’s notion of the ‘Teory of theoretical practice’, and he thinks
that this conception of philosophy ‘in no way provides an adequate response to the criticism
that Althusser’s description of science and philosophy are both excessively rationalist and
excessively conventionalist’ (p. 175).
Lewis’s judgement is that Althusser’s project was
successful in what concerns his diﬀerentiation of Marxism from the ‘economism/humanism
dyad’ (p. 178). He also stresses his conception of ideology and his critique of ideological
state-apparatuses, and praises Althusser for ‘attributing to Marx the founding of a science
and an epistemology based on the structural articulation of levels of practice (economic,
political, ideological and theoretical) that have no discernible relation one to the other’
For Lewis, the fact that Althusser did not produce the ‘real Marx’ that he claimed to
have been referring to does not diminish the importance and originality of this work. He
thinks that, in his self-criticism of his initial theoreticism, Althusser abandons neither his
conventionalism nor his epistemological realism, but oﬀers a diﬀerent deﬁnition for the
intervention of philosophy and its political character:
As ideology runs deep and because it guides and allows social practice and
aﬃ liation its critique by philosophy can be powerful politically. By marking out
parts of a discourse as correct and scientiﬁc from other parts that are incorrect
and ideological, philosophy gives ‘ammunition’ to that group of people whose
practices are guided by science and it erodes the ideological fortiﬁcations of those
guided by prejudice. (p. 195.)
Lewis thinks that this conception, which rejects classical notions of Marxist philosophy
as oﬀering formulae for revolution and human liberation, bringing it closer to cultural
critique, is capable of ‘reconﬁguring Marxist philosophy as a practice that is able to suggest,
given present realities, what events are possible’ (p. 198). Lewis suggests rethinking the
possibility of historical materialism as an understanding of social structures, avoiding at the
same time crude scientism and the postmodern negation of scientiﬁcity:
Tat the revolution and its end cannot be predicted and implemented according
to a philosophical understanding of the necessary economic determination of
history does not mean that Marx’s theory of economic determination, his ‘general
theory of history’, should be abandoned. Tis theory has much explanatory
power, albeit less than Marxist-Leninists believed it to have. (p. 206.)
Lewis’s primary achievement is that he presents Althusser’s texts as a response to the crisis
of French Marxism and as an eﬀort to intervene not just in theoretical debate but – in the
last instance – in the political orientation of the PCF. Te theoretical poverty of French
Marxism and the inadequacy of the various attempts to deal with this problem – ‘orthodox’,
132 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
Hegelian and existentialist – stress the originality of Althusser’s project, which emerges in
this reading as neither a neo-Stalinist turn, nor an exit from Marxism, but a quest for a
materialist reading of Marxism as a means for a left-wing response to the crisis of communist
strategy. Lewis’s treatment of the diﬀerent variants of French Marxism before Althusser is
critical but also respectful, exempliﬁed by the way he emphasises the originality and depth
of Lefebvre’s or Merleau-Ponty’s texts, at the same time bringing forward their inadequacy
to theorise social totality and their distance from Marx’s original formulations. What
emerges is a picture of French Marxism oscillating between the imposition of Stalinist
orthodoxy and the quest for an exodus from historical materialism. And Lewis is right to
present the post-WWII turn towards a more humanist reading of Marx as a retreat and an
inadequate answer to the limits of the Stalinist simpliﬁcation of Marxism into vulgar
Lewis’s assessment of Althusser is balanced and insightful, avoiding traditional criticisms
of ‘structuralism’ and treats Althusser’s theoretical anti-humanism and anti-economism as
an attempt to think through the complexity of social structures and the uneven and
overdetermined character of their contradictions. He does not avoid stressing the limits of
Althusser’s initial characterisation of philosophy as ‘Teory of theoretical practice’; he also
stresses the theoretical value of Althusser’s later redeﬁnition of philosophy as political
intervention in theory. He is also right to insist that although Althusser failed to produce
the ‘Real Marx’, he oﬀered an original approach to the development of historical materialism.
Te same goes for Lewis’s more general position on the continuing necessity of a materialist
practice of philosophy and his refusal to accept neither a view of Marxist philosophy as a
‘science of sciences’ nor a postmodern disavowal of scientiﬁcity.
On the other hand, I disagree with Lewis’s position that we can use Althusser’s work to
refute the epistemological primacy of the proletariat. What Althusser mainly refuted was
the bureaucratic voluntarism of Lysenkoism and, more generally, any conception of theory
and scientiﬁc research being governed by party-diktats. I agree with Lewis that we must
discard all simplistic notions of the Communist Party and its leadership as guarantors of
scientiﬁc objectivity. But I also think that we must follow Althusser’s positions in the 1970s
and insist that a certain degree of class-partiality is a prerequisite for the theorisation of
social reality as an open space of class-antagonism. Tis necessity of an internal position in
especially in scientiﬁc terrains that are, by deﬁnition, conﬂictual, does not
undermine the need for scientiﬁc standards but stresses the complex interplay of science,
ideology and class-struggle in the theorisation of the social. Tis conception of scientiﬁcity
as a political – in the last instance – stake remains a fruitful break from positivism, without
the historicist or messianic overtones of other conceptions of the epistemologically-
privileged position of the proletariat such as Lukács’s. And, although Lewis is right in his
sharp criticism of the Stalinist conception of science, I think that we should avoid thinking
in terms of a linear development form Lenin to Lysenko. Lenin – and we owe to Althusser
this reading of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism
– was, at the same time, stressing
the political importance of materialism and defending scientiﬁc knowledge, presenting
both political eﬀectivity and scientiﬁc objectivity as stakes in social antagonism. Tis was
23. See his insistence that Marxist theory was conceived ‘ “within and from within the
Worker’s Movement”’ (Althusser 1976, p. 265).
24. Althusser 1971.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 133
the point of Lenin’s provocative reference to a partisanship in philosophy,
nothing to do with the subsequent conception of ‘Marxist Teory’ as the justiﬁcation of
the Party’s leadership. Stalinist economism was mainly a right-wing turn exempliﬁed by
the naturalistic conception of the class-neutral and progressive character of the productive
forces, leading to the refusal to revolutionise productive relations and the labour-
process during the Stalinist period. In this sense, the proletarian-science/bourgeois-science
dichotomy and ‘Lysenkoism’ – despite the voluntarist rhetoric – were grounded on an
already accomplished right-wing theoretical turn.
Te main criticism that can be raised against Lewis has to do with his treatment of
Althusser’s epistemological positions and, more generally, his thinking on the theoretical
status of philosophy.
Lewis seems to suggest that Althusser’s earlier formulations in the
texts up to 1965 were burdened by a tension between conventionalism and scientiﬁc
realism. I do not think this is an accurate description, because it misses the importance of
Althusser’s deﬁnition and subsequent rejection of empiricism. Althusser chooses to deﬁne
as empiricist every epistemological position that considers knowledge to be an attribute
of reality itself, either as classiﬁcation of ‘surface’ raw data and sensory experiences or as
extraction of a hidden-beneath-the-surface kernel of truth. We can say that Althusser thinks
that both traditional empiricism and traditional realism represent variations of empiricism.
On the contrary, he presents as materialist the position that knowledge of the real is
something diﬀerent than the real itself, something that is not extracted, but produced. Tis
conception of knowledge as production, as a result of processes of transformation and
displacement, is what provides the originality of Althusser’s position. Althusser’s self-
criticism, then, has less to do with a hypothetical rejection of conventionalism, but with his
realisation that he had succumbed to the temptation to deﬁne a set of philosophical
guarantees of the ‘knowledge-eﬀect’. Te basis of his theoreticism is exactly his insistence of
the possibility of a science of sciences, which is, at the same time, the absolute limit of the
‘Teory of theoretical practices’.
And, in this sense, Althusser’s second deﬁnition of philosophy is not about a change in
epistemological positions, but more like a profound rethinking of the very nature of
philosophy itself. Althusser seems to suggest not only that scientiﬁc practice is transversed
by the class-struggle, but also that the eﬀects of this encounter between science and class-
struggle are philosophical. Philosophy emerges as a necessary result of the complex interplay
between science, ideology and class-struggle. What is more, the very notion of scientiﬁcity
emerges as the stake of theoretical – and, in the last instance, political – contradictions,
in the form of a balance of forces between ‘spontaneous philosophies’ and theoretical
ideologies. Tat is why philosophy cannot be described as something similar to Locke’s
midwife or as some form of assistance to the sciences – a position that brings us back to a
25. See his various references in Lenin 1972.
26. See Dominique Lecourt’s analysis of the technicist foundations of Lysenkoism and its role
as ideological justiﬁcation of Stalinist policies in Lecourt 1977.
27. For a criticism of Lewis’s epistemological positions, see Verikoukis 2007 and Verikoukis
28. And it is exactly the Introduction to Reading ‘Capital’, which chronologically is the last
text of the book that provides a depiction of this limit, because it falls short from oﬀering the
epistemological guarantees it initially promised.
134 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
traditional image of philosophy being able to help or oﬀer guarantees for the ‘extraction’
of truth. Philosophical considerations and conﬂicts (even in the form of spontaneous
materialist or idealist representations) are always already present in scientiﬁc practice and it
is in this plane that philosophy intervenes. Althusser, after his self-criticism, did not
abandon his conception of knowledge as production (despite his ‘ﬂirting’ with forms of
atomistic empiricism in some of the later writings). What he abandons is any notion of
guarantees of scientiﬁcity. As a result, a more open (and, in a way, more tragic) conception
of science emerges (in line with the evolution of Althusser’s conception of the communist
movement), one in which there is never a foundation of truth and scientiﬁcity, there is
always the possibility of error and deviation, and where philosophy can intervene only in
the form of constant (over)corrections.
A theoretical response to the crisis of the communist movement
Gregory Elliott’s book
remained for many years an important reference in the literature
on Althusser. Tis new edition also includes a postscript on Althusser’s posthumously-
published texts that broadens its scope and makes it perhaps the most comprehensive
monograph on Althusser available in English.
Although written by someone who is not
an ‘Althusserian’ and remains highly critical of aspects of Althusser’s positions, it nevertheless
acknowledges the importance of Althusser’s theoretical and political intervention and treats
it as a theoretical confrontation with the strategic crisis of European communism.
Elliott refuses traditional criticisms of Althusser’s ‘Stalinism’ and presents his work in
its historical and political context as an attempt at an anti-Stalinist reconstruction of
historical materialism. He thinks that two events were of particular importance: the
‘Twentieth Congress and its aftermath (1956–) and the Sino-Soviet split in the international
Communist movement (1960–)’ (p. 2). Althusser’s work represented the quest for a
Leninist alternative to both Stalinism and social democracy:
Te alternative to Stalinism and social democracy alike was a revival of Leninism.
Althusser’s Leninism may have been neo-Maoist, but Marxist/socialist humanism
was, in general, anti-Leninist. To adhere to its positions, Althusser believed, was
to wrench political practice from its orientation towards the class struggle and
consecrate in theory the practical abandonment of the revolutionary project.
Tis justiﬁes Althusser’s polemic against historicism and humanism in order to restore the
scientiﬁcity of Marxism, although Elliott thinks that Althusser is too schematic in his
attempt to assimilate diﬀerent thinkers ‘to a single problematic of historicism derived from
Hegel, reworked by Feuerbach and the young Marx, superseded in Capital ’ (p. 30). For
Elliott, Althusser tried to ﬁght the anti-naturalist, historicist trends within Marxism, and
their relativistic negation of the possibility of a scientiﬁc knowledge of social reality.
29. First published by Verso in 1987 and for a long time out of print.
30. Being broader in scope and more thorough in its coverage of Althusser’s work than
Callinicos’s Althusser’s Marxism (1976) and Benton’s Te Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 135
Althusser was not alone in this attack on theoretical humanism and historicism, and Elliott
stresses the parallel rise of structuralist trends in the social sciences, and also Lacan’s anti-
humanist reading of Freud.
Althusser’s more immediate target was what Elliott describes as the PCF’s ‘Stalinist de-
Stalinisation’ (p. 56), exempliﬁed by the work of Garaudy. Elliott provides a detailed and
coherent presentation of Althusser’s attempt to oﬀer an alternative conception of the
materialist dialectic, which refuted the Marxist tradition of viewing it as a development or
inversion of Hegel’s logic, a position shared by both ‘left-wing’ historicists and the Stalinist
orthodoxy. He avoids schematic rejections of Althusser’s theoretical anti-humanism and
anti-empiricism as ‘structuralism’ and stresses the originality of Althusser’s search for a
Marxist epistemology and for a non-historicist conception of social totalities and forms.
Te cornerstone of this attempt was to present Marx’s theoretical revolution as an
epistemological break which brought about a philosophical caesura and a novel conception
of materialist dialectics, which could be extracted by applying the relevant reading protocols
on the work of Marx, especially Capital. In this sense, ‘Marxist philosophy existed de jure
and was active de facto’ (p. 74); although, as Elliott notes, it was not clear what made
this (re)construction of Marx’s unwritten philosophy more accurate than other. Tis is
where the notion of a possible ‘Teory of theoretical practice’ enters and Althusser turns
toward Bachelardian epistemology and Spinoza, leading to an anti-empiricist epistemology
according to which ‘[k]nowledge was not vision but production, not abstraction (or
puriﬁcation) but appropriation’ (p. 81). Elliott is right to stress both the strengths and the
limits of Althusser’s epistemology, which entailed the same contradiction and ideological
illusion that Althusser attributed to classical – idealist – philosophy: a scientiﬁc philosophy
able to draw a line of demarcation between the scientiﬁc and the ideological. For Elliott,
Althusser tried to think the speciﬁcity of science using a combination of a conventionalist
insistence on the historical, social and theoretical character of scientiﬁc practice and a
materialist-realist insistence on the independent existence of objective reality. However, the
rebuttal of the empirical aspect of science and the conﬂation of ‘the empirical and the
empiricist’ (p. 93) led to an unresolved tension between the realism of Althusser’s Marxist
commitment and the relativism and rationalism of his non-Marxist references.
Elliott also stresses the lacunae of this reading, especially Althusser’s refusal to deal with
the Grundrisse, the most ‘Hegelian’ of Marx’s mature works. Elliott thinks that Althusser’s
reconstruction of historical materialism had the cost of alienating the emergence of
historical materialism as a novel science from its wider historical context (p. 123). Particular
attention is paid to Althusser’s new conception of the overdetermined contradiction; his
new topography of the social totality, which emphasised complexity and the lack of a
centre; the new conception of ‘structural causality’; and the refusal of a one-sided emphasis
on productive forces. Elliott underlines both the rather schematic character of Althusser’s
and Balibar’s texts in Reading ‘Capital’, but also the fact that, by insisting on the distinction
of mode of production and social formation and the coexistence of diﬀerent modes of
production, they broke new ground for historiography.
Elliott gives a broad picture of the political repercussions within the PCF created by
Althusser’s interventions, the repudiation of theoretical anti-humanism by the Party, the
reaction of the Maoist sympathisers of Althusser, and his own silence on these matters. For
Elliott, Althusser was indeed inﬂuenced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its ‘oriental
Zhdanovism propagated from Peking in reparation for his aristocratism of theory’ (p. 179).
136 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
It is this light of his ‘Maoist’ turn that Elliott judges Althusser’s redeﬁnition of philosophy
as in the last instance class-struggle in theory as a ‘substitution of “politicism” for
“theoreticism” ’ (p. 179). Elliott does not deny the merits of this new conception of
philosophy as an ‘underlabourer to the sciences’ (p. 186), but thinks that the negation of
any epistemological guarantee reinforces relativistic tendencies and can legitimise forms
of political manipulation of theory, reminiscent of classical Stalinist positions. Elliott is
also critical of Althusser’s ‘second phase’ tendency to view ‘historical materialism as the
theorisation of proletarian vision’ (p. 194), compromising its claims to scientiﬁcity. For
Elliott, Althusser’s new emphasis in the 1970s on the primacy of the class-struggle (and of
productive relations over productive forces) betrays the inﬂuence of Maoist voluntarism
upon him. Elliott oﬀers a detailed account of Althusser’s theory of ideology and the
ideological state-apparatuses. He thinks that Althusser failed to solve the questions that
ideology poses for Marxist theory, tending to inﬂate both the role of ideology and the
ability of the ruling class to dominate, since ‘little eﬃ cacy can be assigned the oppositional
ideologies’ (p. 211). His assessment of Althusser’s self-criticism is rather negative: ‘Employing
an increasingly hortatory rhetoric of the class struggle, he retreated from the highly
sophisticated and original versions of Marxist philosophy and historical materialism of
1962–5 into the schematic Marxism-Leninism of 1968–74’ (p. 222).
I think that Elliott’s reading of Althusser’s self-criticism underestimates the depth of
Althusser’s attempt to rethink the theoretical and political status of philosophy and the
fecundity of his deﬁnition of philosophy as, in the last instance, class-struggle in theory –
which, in my view, is an attempt to think at the same time both the limits and the
indispensability of philosophy as a theoretical practice. Redeﬁning philosophical
constructions as interventions rather than as scientiﬁc truths answers the unavoidable
contradictions of any philosophy that claims to be the ‘science of sciences’. Elliott also
underestimates the fact that, for Althusser, philosophical interventions always tend to ‘bend
the stick to the other side’ and have to be judged by their results in scientiﬁc and political
practices. In a way, philosophical interventions for Althusser always have to take the form
of painful and inherently excessive corrections, in the dialectic of constant self-criticism
that is the only way to counter the recurring eﬀects of the dominant ideology, especially
since historical materialism opens up a terrain which is by deﬁnition contradictory and
Elliott considers Althusser’s attempt to theorise Stalinism in his Reply to John Lewis as
theoretically ﬂawed. He thinks that Althusser failed to fully understand Stalinism, describing
it as economism and incorporating in his schema aspects of the Maoist endorsement of
Stalin. For Elliott, who seems closer to a classical-Trotskyist/Deutscherite position (see, for
example, his criticism of Bettelheim’s Class Struggle in the USSR), the notion of ‘socialism
in one country’ and not ‘economism’ must be considered the basic deviation of Stalinism
(p. 238). A point of criticism must be raised here. I think that economism remains a fruitful
concept. It refers to treating socialist construction as a technical process of expanding
productive forces; to the failure to realise that productive forces are not neutral but are
conditioned by the relations of production; and to the refusal to revolutionise social forms
and the organisation of social production and reproduction. Above all, it treats the
emergence of exploitative and repressive relations within the context of the dictatorship of
the proletariat as the outcome of a complex form of class-struggle, waged both at the
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 137
economic and the political and ideological level; and also one in which, in most cases, the
adoption of capitalist forms of labour-process and organisation of production does not take
the form of a conscious decision but that of a constant slippage towards what seems to be
‘technically viable’, in the end leading to an historically original form of ‘state-capitalism’.
Tis is a better way to theorise the mutation of ‘actually existing socialism’ than the classical
anticommunist view of the power-greedy Bolsheviks, the rather undialectical reference to a
socialist base with an oppressive superstructure, and the simple critique of violence. Also,
there is no doubt that there was a certain degree of mythologisation of China and Maoism.
But the Cultural Revolution served as the example of an uneven, contradictory and ﬁnally
defeated attempt for a left-wing self-criticism of ‘actually existing socialism’ that emphasised
the necessity of treating the productive process, education, science and culture as non-
neutral terrains of the class-struggle.
For Elliott, Althusser in his later theorisation of the ‘crisis of Marxism’ not only failed to
counter the anti-Marxist bias of French intellectuals in the late 1970s, but also projected his
own theoretical shortcomings into a ‘new theoretical scepticism’ (p. 267) that emphasised
the lacunae in Marxist theory which was depicted as a ‘very diﬀerent creature from the
omnipotent because true doctrine of high Althusserianism (p. 298). On the other hand,
Elliott refers approvingly to Althusser’s public interventions against PCF’s positions,
especially What Must Change in the Communist Party, a text characterised by open criticism
of the PCF’s right-wing turn and Stalinist legacy and by a left-wing turn towards the
‘Marxist tradition’s emphasis on working-class self-emancipation’ (p. 286). I think that
Elliott tends to underestimate the theoretical extent of Althusser’s left-wing criticism of
western Communism. It is true that he praises Althusser’s more openly political
interventions, but more emphasis is needed on the fact that all of Althusser’s theoretical
eﬀort was an attack and criticism of the economism and reformism of the Communist
movement, a fact reinforced by the availability of Althusser’s unpublished manuscripts
from the 1970s.
In his overall assessment of Althusser’s theoretical adventure, Elliott praises the originality
of Althusser’s 1962–5 interventions; his reading of Marx’s texts; his polemic against the
theoretical infatuation with the young Marx; his reconceptualisation of social structures
and totalities; his anti-teleological stance; and his emphasis on the ‘cognitive autonomy of
scientiﬁc theory’ (p. 306), noting the areas in which the Althusserian programme proved
theoretically fruitful. He is critical of Althusser’s theoreticism, the way his anti-humanism
denied the importance of human agency, and also of the failure of his self-criticism to oﬀer
an alternative despite the reference to the ‘deus ex machina of class struggle’ (p. 303).
In the postscript on the posthumously published texts, Elliott begins by a reading of
Althusser’s autobiography Te Future Lasts a Long Time, a reading which avoids the
mistake – made by many commentators – of taking Althusser at his word and considering
it an interpretative key for his other texts. He presents Althusser’s early texts from the late
31. At least in the sense theorised by Charles Bettelheim in his monumental Class Struggle in
the USSR (1976–8).
32. And this makes Alain Badiou‘s recent appraisals of the Cultural Revolution more than
welcome. See for example Badiou 2005.
33. On this, see Goshgarian 2006.
138 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
1940s that prove the early inﬂuence of Hegel upon him and his gradual distancing from
Catholicism. He also pays attention to Althusser’s unpublished texts from the 1960s which
show Althusser tentatively experimenting with a ‘general theory of discourse’, inﬂuenced
by Lacan, criticising Lévi-Strauss and ‘structuralism’, and insisting on theoretical anti-
It is interesting that, for Elliott, Sur la reproduction
– the big manuscript published only
in 1995 and from which Althusser extracted the famous 1969 text on ideology and the
ISAs – ‘adds nothing of enduring value’ (p. 352) to the texts Althusser himself had chosen
to publish. I think that this dismissal of the importance of Sur la reproduction is unjustiﬁed,
precisely because this text oﬀers a more complete image of Althusser’s thinking about
productive relations and social reproduction, as well as answers criticisms of Althusser’s
theory of ideology as ‘ahistorical’ or ‘functionalist’.
Reading Althusser’s later writings on ‘aleatory materialism’, Elliott stresses the open
questions they pose, both in terms of interpreting their radically anti-teleological stance
and of conﬁguring the relation of these texts to Althusser’s earlier formulations. For Elliott,
‘aleatory materialism’ can be seen as a continuation of Althusser’s eﬀort to reconstruct
historical materialism in its radical break with historical Marxist orthodoxy.
In other words, ‘aleatory materialism’, may be regarded as the continuation
by other means of Althusser’s abiding project from the 1960s onwards: the
deconstruction of historical Marxism – or the ideological orthodoxy of
Communism – and the reconstruction of historical materialism. And, in its anti-
ﬁnalist Althusserian rendition, historical materialism was all along (to extend his
own category) a theory of history as a process without an origin, a subject, a centre,
or goal(s). (p. 366.)
Tis reading, along with Elliott’s emphasis on the importance of Althusser’s texts from the
1960s, is a welcome deviation from the tendency to discard the main corpus of Althusser’s
work in the name of the ‘other’ Althusser of the texts on ‘aleatory materialism’.
Elliott’s ﬁnal assessment is that Althusser attempted both a radical critique of Stalinist
Marxism and a critique of the historicist and economist tendencies in historical Marxism
and their latent historical teleology; a critique that, despite its historical importance, was
limited by its internal contradictions:
i. its ‘antiempiricism’ . . . by an unstable compromise between rationalism and
conventionalism . . .
ii. its ‘anti-humanism’ by a paradoxically historicist dissolution of human nature
and repetition of the structure / agency dichotomy
iii. its ‘anti-historicism’ by its institution of a theory / history antinomy . . .
iv. and its ‘anti-economism’ by an elliptical resolution of the base superstructure
conundrum via the volatile category of ‘relative autonomy’. (p. 368.)
34. Althusser 1995.
35. See, for example, Negri 1993.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 139
On the whole, Elliott manages to avoid both the anathema of most polemics against
and the eulogy of texts on Althusser written within the ‘Althusserian’ tradition,
providing a criticism of Althusser that is both substantiated and well argued, focusing on
the actual contradictions of Althusser’s theoretical ediﬁce. Te Detour of Teory is still
indispensable reading for anyone trying to come in terms with Althusser as an important
yet contradictory moment in the history of Marxism.
What emerges from these readings is not just a richer view of Althusser’s work, but rather
a window onto an important part of the history and development of Marxism, its
contradictions, open debates and limits. Althusser did not just produce a set of theoretical
propositions to be judged independently of historical context. He intervened in a terrain
already deﬁned both by the history of Marxism, the diﬀerent theoretical and ideological
currents within the labour-movement, the evolution of the world communist movement
and the development of ‘actually existing socialism’. Althusser intervened at the time of a
condensation of contradictions, in which the advance of the popular masses went hand in
hand with theoretical poverty and strategic crisis. His answer, the initial attempt at a
theoretical rectiﬁcation that would necessarily lead to political rectiﬁcation, was schematic
and underestimated the complex dialectical interplay of theory and practice, of political
action and theoretical construction. However, it was not unjustiﬁed, since he managed to
redeﬁne the terrain of Marxist theoretical debate, provoking discussion and promoting
research in new areas. His self-criticism, despite its limitations and unavoidable
contradictions, is a testament to the uneven and contradictory nature of Marxism itself and
a confrontation with the peculiarity of philosophy as a theoretical practice without a proper
object, one which remains both necessary and unavoidable. His readiness to revise his
previous positions is evidence of his theoretical courage, and attests to the fact that, in
philosophy, ‘bending the stick to other side’ is the only possible intervention.
All three books can help us make a more general assessment of Althusser and
Althusserianism in general, in order to evaluate what remains viable today of this theoretical
trend. However critical one might be, there is no doubt that Althusser insisted on treating
historical materialism as a science or a scientiﬁc theory. He opened the discussion of a
possible Marxist epistemology by insisting on the priority of theoretical construction and
the drawing of a line of demarcation against all forms of empiricism. He foregrounded the
importance of Marx’s mature works, being one of the ﬁrst writers to stress the originality of
Marx’s theory of value. He articulated elements of a highly original materialist dialectic,
stressing the complex, uneven and overdetermined character of social formations, and
the relative autonomy of ideological and political relations. He re-opened up ideology as
a problem for Marxism, distinguishing it from ‘false-consciousness’ simpliﬁcations,
emphasising both the subject-formatting role of ideology and the role of state-apparatuses
in the reproduction of ideological forms. He tried hard to deﬁne the speciﬁcity of philosophy
as a theoretical practice and the interarticulation of philosophical theses and the class-
struggle, giving new meaning to the recurrence of the materialism/idealism dichotomy. He
36. See, for example, Tompson 1978; also Vincent et al. 1974.
140 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
redeﬁned materialism not as naturalism but as radical anti-teleology. He elevated self-
criticism to a philosophical (and, in the last instance, political) strategy. He emphasised the
importance of a certain class-partiality on the part of the oppressed as an epistemological
prerequisite of scientiﬁc objectivity in social science.
But there were also limits to this attempt: the theoreticist arrogance of his initial
conception of Marxist philosophy; a conception of social reproduction that bordered upon
systemic functionalism; an underestimation of social forms and a tendency to view class-
struggle as mainly open antagonism; a growing move from dialectics towards the aleatory
atomism of the encounter; the always open possibility of his conception of science turning
into either a rationalism or a relativistic constructivism; and, ﬁnally, his inability to integrate
his own self-criticism with his initial positions into a new theoretical synthesis, leading
sometimes to self-negation. But if the importance of a philosopher lies not only in his
achievements but also in his failures and shortcomings, as long as these highlight inherent
contradictions of social reality and social theorising, then a critical return to Althusser is
always necessary, and books like those written by Montag, Lewis and Elliott surely assist
A ﬁnal note concerns the actual position of Althusser’s work in contemporary debates. As
noted earlier, there has been a renewed interest in Althusser since the 1990s. However, one
cannot avoid noticing that this interest has been less pronounced than the one accorded to
other philosophers, such as Deleuze, Badiou, or Agamben, to mention only a few examples.
And one might also notice that a great part of this renewed interest in Althusser has had
more to do with his later writings on aleatory materialism than with the bulk of his work.
I think that the reason for this lies in the very complexity of Althusser’s work and his
insistence on the possibility of renewing the Marxist project. It is true that current radical
theorising focuses on forms of immanent materialism; on the eﬀectivity of social antagonism;
on a sharp distinction between liberalism and democracy; and on the possibility of events
as ruptures and historical singularities. Surely aspects of Althusser’s work resonate with
these questions. Tere are, however, other aspects of this work that are diﬀerent and which
represent Althusser’s ‘anomaly’, to use the term employed by Negri in connection with
Tese are: Althusser’s insistence on the possibility of treating historical materialism
and psychoanalysis as sciences aiming at the same time at both interpreting and changing
social (and psychic) reality; his insistence on some form of dialectics (in the form of the
necessarily contradictory character both of social reality and the knowledge process); and,
of course, his reference to the communist movement, in the sense both of the historicity of
the worker’s movement and the actuality of communism as ‘the real movement which
abolishes the existing state of aﬀairs’. To follow Althusser’s path means to go beyond simply
reconstructing a materialist conception of singular resistances and refusals. It means to face
the challenge of rearticulating the philosophical, theoretical and political prerequisites of a
renewed counter-hegemonic project of profound social change. And this is more necessary
today than ever.
Reviewed by Panagiotis Sotiris
University of the Aegean
37. Negri 1991.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142 141
Althusser, Louis 1971, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster, New
York: Monthly Review Books.
—— 1976, ‘Note sur les AIE’, in Althusser 1995.
—— 1993, Écrits sur la psychanalyse. Freud et Lacan, Paris: Stock/IMEC.
—— 1994, L’avenir dure longtemps, Paris: Stock/IMEC – Le livre de Poche.
—— 1995, Sur la reproduction, edited by J. Bidet, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
—— 1997, Te Spectre of Hegel. Early Writings, translated by G. M. Goshgarian, London:
—— 1998, Lettres à Franca, Paris: Stock / IMEC.
—— 1999, Machiavelli and Us, translated by Gregory Elliott, London: Verso.
—— 2003, Te Humanist Controversy, translated by G. M. Goshgarian, London: Verso.
—— 2005, For Marx, London: Verso
—— 2006, Philosophy of the Encounter. Later Writings 1978–1987, translated by G.M.
Goshgarian, London: Verso.
Althusser, Louis and Étienne Balibar 1990, Reading ‘Capital’, London: Verso.
Badiou, Alain 2005, ‘Te Cultural Revolution: Te Last Revolution?’, Positions, 13, 3: 481–
Balibar, Étienne 1990, ‘On the Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism’, in Althusser and
—— 1993, ‘L’objet d’Althusser’, in Lazarus (ed.) 1993.
Baltas, Aristides 2002, Gia tin epistimologia tou Louis Althusser: i epistimi istorias mias epistimis kai
i ﬁsiki os tropos paragogis (On Louis Althusser’s Epistemology: Te Science of History of a Science
and Physics as a Mode of Production), Athens: N\oo¸.
Baltas, Aristides and Giorgos Fourtounis 1994, O Louis Althusser kai to telos tou klassikou
marxismou (Louis Althusser and the End of Classical Marxism), Athens: Hoiítq¸.
Benton, Ted 1984, Te Rise and Fall of Structural Marxism, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Bettelheim, Charles 1976–8, Class Struggles in the USSR, 2 vols., translated by Brian Pearce, New
York: Monthly Review Press.
Callari, Antonio and David F. Ruccio 1996, ‘Introduction’, in Callari and Ruccio (eds.) 1996.
—— (eds.) 1996, Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Teory. Essays in the
Althusserian Tradition, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.
Callinicos, Alex 1976, Althusser’s Marxism, London: Pluto Press.
Eagleton, Terry 1976, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Teory, London: New
Fourtounis, Giorgos 1998, Louis Althusser: to anapodrasto mias adinatis theorias (Louis Althusser:
Te Inescapable Character of an Impossible Teory), Athens: EUvixo Mrtooþio Hoiutr¿vrío.
Goshagarian, Geoﬀrey 2003, ‘Introduction’, in Althusser 2003.
—— 2006, ‘Introduction’, in Althusser 2006.
Hindess, Barry, and Paul Hirst 1977, Mode of Production and Social Formation: An Auto-Critique
of Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production, London: Macmillan.
Ichida, Yoshihiko and François Matheron 2005, ‘Un, deux, trois, quatre, dix milles Althusser ?’,
Multitudes, 21: 167–77.
Lazarus, Sylvain (ed.) 1993, Politique et philosophie dans l’œuvre de Louis Althusser, Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France.
Lecourt, Dominique 1977, Proletarian Science?, London: New Left Books.
Lenin, Vladimir Illich 1972 , Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Peking: Foreign
Macherey, Pierre 2006, A Teory of Literary Production, London: Routledge Classics.
Matheron, François 2005, ‘“De problèmes qu’il faudra bien appeler d’un autre nom et peut-être
politique”. Althusser et l’insituabilité de la politique’, Multitudes, 22: 21–35.
142 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 121–142
Montag, Warren 2003, Louis Althusser, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
—— 2005, ‘Materiality, Singularity, Subject: Response to Callari, Smith, Hardt, and Parker’,
Rethinking Marxism, 17, 2: 185–90.
Moulier-Boutang, Yann 2005, ‘Le matérialisme comme politique aléatoire’, Multitudes, 21:
Negri, Antonio 1991, Te Savage Anomaly. Te Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
—— 1996, ‘Notes on the Evolution of the Tought of the Later Althusser’, in Callari and
Ruccio (eds.) 1996.
Negri, Toni 1993, ‘Pour Althusser: Notes sur l’évolution de la pensée du dernier Althusser’, in
Futur Antérieur : Sur Althusser, passages, available at: <http://multitudes.samizdat.net/Pour-
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(Communism and Philosophy. Te Teoretical Adventure of Louis Althusser), Athens: Eiiqvixo
Tompson, Edward P. 1978, Te Poverty of Teory & Other Essays, London: Merlin.
Verikoukis, Hristos 2007, ‘Book Review of Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism
by William S. Lewis’, New Proposal, 1, 1: 81–5.
—— 2009, ‘Knowledge versus “Knowledge”: Louis Althusser on the Autonomy of Science and
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Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156 143
Poulantzas lesen. Zur Aktualität marxistischer Staatstheorie, Edited by Lars Bretthauer,
Alexander Gallas, John Kannankulam and Ingo Stützle, Hamburg: VSA Verlag, 2006.
Tis review discusses a collection of papers on Nicos Poulantzas’s contribution to Marxist state-
theory and socialist strategy. Chapters are grouped into three subject-areas: theory and method;
globalisation; political strategy. Particular attention is paid to Poulantzas’s deﬁnition of the state
and methodology for investigating concrete state-forms. Poulantzas gives primacy to the balance
of forces between classes, which raises two questions: Should his approach be integrated with
theories which emphasise the formal aspects of the capitalist state? Can power-relations other
than those between classes be integrated into a Poulantzian framework?
Poulantzas’s work is also relevant to the study of globalisation and supranational actors. First,
his investigations of the internationalisation of capital and diﬀerent fractions of the bourgeoisie
help us analyse developments since the 1970s. Second, his theory of the state and its functions
provide a benchmark for assessing to which degree national states have been superseded by inter-/
supranational institutions such as the EU.
Regarding political strategy, the focus is on the path towards democratic socialism. Questions
raised concern primarily the right mixture of struggles inside and outside the institutions of
state-theory, form-analysis, class-struggles, Marxism and feminism, globalisation, European
integration, democratic socialism
Every social force or movement that stands in opposition to the capitalist status quo and
that cannot be put down violently will, at some point, have to reﬂect on its relationship to
the institutions of the capitalist state. Tis may not have been much of an issue in the
decade or so following the global rupture of 1989. Since then, however, left-wing and
socialist projects have made a comeback, be it the left-wing governments in Latin America
or the resurgence of oppositional movements and organisations in many other countries,
such as ATTAC or, in Germany, the new ‘Left Party’. Especially the latter’s frequently statist
orientations and occasional naïveté have brought the question of the state ﬁrmly back on to
the table and thus renewed interest in Poulantzas’s contributions to Marxist state-theory
and socialist strategy. His work seems particularly pertinent in the German context, where
oppositional movements have not only been confronted with the repressive power of the
state, but also with its power to integrate opposition. Te Green Party, which went from
posing fundamental alternatives to partnership in a coalition-government, is a case in point
and a warning to activists. It is these discussions that the editors of the volume under review
here want to draw together.
Moreover, because Poulantzas described the beginning of the end of Fordism, his
work can be useful in analysing the neoliberal restructuring of the capitalist state and
economy – and, one might argue, the restructuring that is likely to happen as a result of the
current crisis of neoliberal capitalism.
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/146544609X12537556703476
144 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156
Tese strongly political motivations notwithstanding, the focus of this volume
more academic and theoretically oriented contributions that try to encourage reading and
discussion of the primary texts by demonstrating the many ﬁelds of study in which
Poulantzas’s concepts and analyses might be fruitfully applied.
In this regard, the editors and contributors have done a good job. In what follows, I will
take up the main topics in the volume and discuss the various papers that deal with them.
I will also point to what I consider a crucial omission.
Questions of method and theory
Te strongly theory-oriented contributions that form the bulk of this volume deal with a
fairly broad range of topics, from the core issues of Marxist state-theory to Poulantzas’s
relation to Foucault and his early theories of the legal system. Tis section discusses the
Te form, function, and materiality of the state and law
It is striking that, among the contributors to this volume, there seems to exist a virtual
consensus that the central claim of Poulantzas’s State, Power, Socialism – namely, that the
state is ‘a relationship of forces, or more precisely the material condensation of such a relationship
among classes and class fractions’
– is his most inspiring theoretical thought and the one
that can and should be most strongly developed and transferred to other areas of critical
social science. Tis deﬁnition makes two key points: ﬁrstly, that the state is neither a more
or less rational subject standing above society and representing its general interest, nor
an instrument to be wielded by the bourgeoisie or any other social power, but a social
relationship between classes; secondly, that, at the same time, the state
is not reducible to the relationship of forces; it exhibits an opacity and resistance
of its own. To be sure, change in the class relationship of forces always aﬀects the
State; but it does not ﬁnd expression in the State in a direct and immediate
fashion. It adapts itself exactly to the materiality of the various state apparatuses,
only becoming crystallized in the State in a refracted form that varies according
to the apparatus. A change in power is never enough to transform the materiality
of the state apparatus.
A case in point, and a good place to start, is Sonja Buckel’s paper on ‘Te Juridical
Condensation of the Relations of Forces’, in which she argues that the idea may be fruitfully
applied to the theory of law, albeit with certain revisions and extensions. Tese would
include broadening one’s view so as also to take, among others, gender relations into
account, for ‘[g]ender relations are also constituted and reproduced by the state and law’
1. An English-language edition of the book is due to be published in winter 2009/10 by
Merlin Press, London.
2. Poulantzas 2000, p. 128.
3. Poulantzas 2000, pp. 130–1.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156 145
Poulantzas’s class-based analysis should also be more rigorously combined with
the so-called form-analytical approach of Evgeny Pashukanis and the German ‘state-
derivationists’ (p. 180). Tis, she claims, would yield a stronger theoretical account of the
capitalist state’s relative autonomy vis-à-vis social classes and the economy. In fact, the
potential of such a combination for an account of the crucial dimension of state-materiality
and -autonomy is discussed or hinted at in several chapters.
Te state-derivation school originated in West Germany in the 1970s. Whereas Poulantzas
based his analysis of the capitalist type of state mostly on the speciﬁc nature of class-relations
in the capitalist mode of production, the former tried to ‘derive’ the state from the logic of
capital as an ‘automatic subject’;
that is, by trying to extend Marx’s analysis of the value-
form towards a theory of the political sphere/the state. One of their main concerns was
to ‘logically’ demonstrate why the capitalist mode of production necessitates the existence
of an institutionally separate state that fulﬁls a number of necessary functions for
maintaining accumulation, such as ensuring contracts between legally free subjects. Te
determinations thus derived were called the ‘state-forms’ or, put diﬀerently, the state itself,
as an institutionally separate sphere, is a form. Te rule of law [Rechtsstaat] was another
of these forms.
Te state-derivationists successfully explained some generic features of the capitalist type
of state at a very high level of abstraction. But they neglected class-struggle and historical
speciﬁcity, committed the fallacy of functionalism (because they ignored the fact that ‘form
and assumed that the diﬀerentiation of the state was already
enough to guarantee its functionality for capital-accumulation. Nevertheless, in ‘Poulantzas
and Form-Analysis’, Joachim Hirsch and John Kannankulam argue that, because the state-
derivationists explained more stringently than Poulantzas the form of the state as necessarily
institutionally separate from the economy, they also laid the ground for a better
understanding of its relative autonomy. Poulantzas, on the other hand, was right about
emphasising the importance of class-struggles in creating hegemony and thus a relatively
uniﬁed state that would serve the need of continuing accumulation. Terefore, a
combination of the two approaches would best advance Marxist state-theory and enable it
to deal with the challenge of explaining the changes of the state and the international
system in globalisation (p. 80). While I would agree with this conclusion, Hirsch and
Kannankulam could have tried to give more concrete hints as to how such a combination
could help in dealing with these questions.
Te anti-functionalist critique of certain state-theoretical approaches is also taken up
in Lars Bretthauer’s contribution, ‘Materiality and Condensation in Nicos Poulantzas’, in
which the author stresses that Poulantzas focused on the contingency and the potential
failure of the state to secure the conditions of continuous accumulation. In Bretthauer’s
reading, Poulantzas not only opened up state-theory for the analysis of the ways in which
relatively stable and coherent political and economic arrangements are produced through
struggles as historical results; he also gave pride of place to the role of struggle on the most
4. All quotes from the volume under review are the reviewer’s translations.
5. Marx 1976, p. 255.
6. Te most sophisticated contribution to this debate is, in my opinion, Blanke et al. 1975.
It is still well worth reading.
7. Jessop 1990, p. 87.
146 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156
abstract level of state-theory, instead of just positing theoretically the existence of the
preconditions for continuous capital-accumulation in order to then examine how they
historically came about (pp. 88–9). In other words, political and economic struggles and
relations of forces are not theoretically subordinate to structures or the ‘capital-logic’. Tis
then requires the development of theoretical concepts for historically concrete analyses of
the state as a terrain of struggle over the reproduction of capitalist social relations. It is here
that Poulantzas’s treatment of the diﬀerent aspects of the materiality of the capitalist type of
state in State, Power, Socialism – such as the form of law or nationality – becomes useful and
can be developed further.
Bretthauer’s interpretation stands in opposition to the suggestion by Hirsch and
Kannankulam to integrate form-analysis with Poulantzas’s more class-based, more
historically sensitive approach. However, while I would agree with his claim that one should
start from the improbability of successful state-formation – that is, the formation of a state
that not only maintains internal unity and coherence but also fulﬁls necessary functions
vis-à-vis the process of accumulation and the maintenance of class-domination – I do not
see why this would preclude a highly abstract ‘derivation’ of a few very basic forms of the
capitalist type of state. Tis would not imply the functionalist assumption that state-forms
and state-interventions are always successful in maintaining and stabilising capitalist
accumulation. Tere can be analyses of ‘the formal correspondence between diﬀerent social
forms’, but one cannot conclude from them that actual correspondence necessarily emerges.
Moreover, this is important in order to have a clear idea of the speciﬁcally capitalist type
of state to start with. Otherwise, what one would analyse would just be the state in capitalist
society and how it secures the conditions of continuous capital-accumulation.
admittedly, presupposes that it is possible in principle to have a theory of the capitalist state
that is equally abstract and general as the theory of the capitalist economy, even though it
may just comprise a few basic features of the state-form, such as its institutional separation
from the economy. It could also be the case that the wide diversity of existing and historical
states in capitalist societies eﬀectively renders futile such an endeavour. It is a question that
Marx already posed in his Critique of the Gotha Programme:
. . . the ‘present-day state’ changes with a country’s frontier. It is diﬀerent in the
Prusso-German Empire from that in Switzerland, and diﬀerent in England from
what it is in the United States. ‘Te present-day state’ is therefore a ﬁction.
Nevertheless, the diﬀerent states of the diﬀerent civilised countries, in spite of
their motley diversity of form, all have this in common: that they are based on
modern bourgeois society, more or less capitalistically developed. Tey have,
therefore, also certain essential characteristics in common.
To my knowledge, this problem has not yet been satisfactorily resolved.
Te position that form-analysis and more historically sensitive analyses of political and
economic struggles in their relation to the state can and should be combined is also in line
with the more abstract argument put forward in Alexander Gallas’s contribution, ‘Reading
Capital with Poulantzas’, which is an interpretation of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy
8. Jessop 1990, pp. 354–5.
9. Jessop 2008.
10. Marx 1989, pp. 94–5.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156 147
inspired by Poulantzas rather than a paper on Poulantzas directly. Gallas draws a distinction
between form and struggle as explanatory principles, both of which, he claims, can be found
in Capital. Tey have to be seen as equally fundamental and not reducible to each other.
‘Form’ denotes the ‘historically speciﬁc shape of societies’ – such as the commodity-form
or the wage-form – while ‘struggle’ refers to ‘speciﬁc courses of action [Handlungsverläufe]’
(p. 102). He goes on to argue that, in State, Power, Socialism, both principles are treated as
equally constitutive of capitalism as a self-reproducing society because the forms constitute
a ‘ﬁeld’ of action that constrain but do not completely determine courses of actions
(p. 106). Tese can always ‘overﬂow’ the forms and thus stabilise or de-stabilise them. He
Te central message one can get from Poulantzas is that in the capitalist mode of
production as an ensemble of forms [Formzusammenhang] there is an inherent
tendency to reproduce itself, but it only becomes actualised if relations of forces
and, accordingly, the courses of struggles admit this. Moments of stability and
instability, therefore, exist side by side. (p. 108.)
Te case in point for Gallas is Marx’s famous description of the struggle over the length of
the working day that led to legal ﬁxing of maximum hours per day. Here, the wage-form
that labour-power assumes under capitalism did not determine the conditions of its use so
that a ﬁeld of struggle was opened up – which, in this case, led to a long-term stabilisation
of capitalist relations of production (pp. 113–17). Te point here is to demonstrate how
forms and struggles intersect in the real world of capitalist relations, but also to demonstrate
the necessity for combining form-analysis and historical research.
Tis, for Gallas, not only has theoretical but also political implications. He takes on two
recently inﬂuential Marxists, John Holloway and Moishe Postone, who, according to him,
both delivered reductionist accounts of the relations between form and struggle. Te
allegedly regards forms as mere eﬀects of struggle, thus denying them any causality
of their own; while, for Postone,
labour-struggles, even the most militant ones, have no
transformative potential precisely because of their nature as labour-struggles, that is, because
they are always caught up within the forms of capitalist society which they therefore only
reproduce but cannot transcend (pp. 103–5). Terefore Holloway falls into the trap of
voluntarism, while Postone attributes to capitalism a kind of super-stability.
Having talked now at length about form-analysis as a theoretical resource for getting to
grips with the materiality and autonomy of the state, I would like to take up another point
made almost in passing by Sonja Buckel. In the context of conceptualising the relative
autonomy of law, she also refers to the theory of autopoietic systems of Niklas Luhmann as
another theoretical resource to be used here (p. 180). Tis theory, which has not yet been
widely received in the English-speaking world, assumes that modern societies are primarily
characterised by the fact that they consist of functionally diﬀerentiated social subsystems
such as law, politics, economy, art, education and so on. Tese operate according to a basic
code that is unique to the system in question and which is always binary. For example, the
economic code is payment/non-payment; that of the science-system true/not true. On the
most abstract level, these codes constitute not only the unity, but also the autonomy of
11. Holloway 2002.
12. Postone 1993.
148 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156
functional systems by orienting all their operations towards either one side of the dichotomic
code. In other words: the code constitutes a horizon of meaning for everything that goes on
internally while relegating to the outside or ‘environment’ everything that does not assume
the form of one of the code-values; thus it also determines what is relevant to the system’s
operations. Truth is irrelevant in the economy; what matters is whether there is payment
Te theory of social systems is often perceived as contrary or even hostile to Marxism
(Luhmann himself often criticised and ridiculed it). However, a concern with the self-
referential closure of non-economic systems was already articulated by Marx, and, in
particular, by Engels after Marx’s death. He argued against economic reductionism by
fellow-Marxists, for which he took some responsibility, saying that he and Marx had had to
overemphasise the primacy of the economic.
In a number of letters, he recognised the
(relative) autonomy and eﬀectiveness of politics and ideology, that is, the ‘superstructure’ in
general. In 1886, for example, he wrote:
It is among professional politicians, theorists of public law and jurists of private law
that the connection with economic facts gets well and truly lost. Since in each
particular case the economic facts must assume the form of juristic motives in order
to receive legal sanction; and since, in so doing, consideration has, of course, to
be given to the whole legal system already in operation, the juristic form is, in
consequence, made everything and the economic content nothing. Public law and
private law are treated as independent spheres, each having its own independent
historical development, each being capable of, and needing a, systematic presentation
by the consistent elimination of all innate contradictions.
In other words: to become juristically relevant, aspects of the economic environment have
to be ‘translated’ into the language of law and made compatible with its processes, speciﬁcally
the need for logical coherence.
Tis leads us again to what is a core problem for all Marxist attempts at accounting for
the (relative) autonomy of non-economic spheres of social life: the lack of an understanding
of the speciﬁc materiality of non-economic practices. Tis is exactly the materiality
mentioned in the quote from Poulantzas at the beginning of this section; it is the reason
why changes in class-relations or the exigencies of accumulation do not ﬁnd a direct and
immediate expression in the state or, for that matter, in other non-economic institutional
orders. Of course, the Marxist tradition has done some very good work with regard to the
state and the political process, but it lacks a more general theory/approach. Luhmann
provides such a theory of the materiality of all social practices. To be sure, it is not one that
is ultimately satisfactory from a Marxist point of view, as it over-emphasises the disjunction
of society’s subsystems. But it is one from which a lot may be learned.
Poulantzas and feminist state-theory
A point made by Sonja Buckel is that state-theory needs to take gender-relations into
account as they too are constituted and reproduced by state and law. Tis is developed in
13. See, for example, Engels 1972.
14. Engels 1990, p. 393.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156 149
more detail in Jörg Nowak’s paper, ‘Poulantzas, gender-relations, and Feminist State-
Teory’, which is concerned with how the interaction/intersection of class- and gender-
relations can be analysed and what Poulantzas and feminist theory have to oﬀer in that
regard. Poulantzas touched on the importance of ‘the relations between men and women’
in State, Power, Socialism but, according to Nowak, in an ultimately superﬁcial way because
he failed to develop a theoretical concept of gender-relations on a par with his concept of
classes. Terefore, he was unable to analyse their intersection (pp. 140–2). On the other
hand, while feminists tend to be less ignorant towards Marxist scholarship than vice versa,
their state-theories also fail to treat class and gender equally, although interesting analyses
are produced (pp. 145–9). Tere remains important work to do because, as Nowak
In order to reduce the political and social divisions between those who depend,
directly or indirectly, on wage-labour, the struggle for gender-equality in
exploitation must be coupled with the overall struggle over the value of labour-
power as a commodity. However, this perspective will remain blocked unless the
gendering of the social division of labour is considered in connection with the
class-relations inscribed into it. (p. 151.)
Poulantzas and Foucault
Another recurring topic in this volume, albeit a less prominent one, is the relation between
the writings of Poulantzas and Foucault and how each could enrich the other. Tis seems
appropriate not only given the importance Foucault has achieved in critical social science
but also because, as Urs Lindner notes in his contribution to the volume, ‘State, Power
and Politics’, ‘Poulantzas’ State, Power, Socialism must not be regarded as just an attempt
at giving a systematic foundation to Marxist state theory, but also as a ﬁrst approach to
a Marxist appropriation of Foucault’ (p. 154). Lindner then describes some of the
commonalities and points of contact between the two thinkers, such as their focus on the
productivity of state-rule as opposed to theories that just see it as repressive or merely
prohibitive (pp. 158–62). Indeed, Poulantzas was inspired by Foucault’s analysis of
disciplinary apparatuses to include this aspect in State, Power, Socialism, whereas he had
neglected it in earlier works.
Ingo Stützle’s paper, ‘Te Order of Knowledge’, focuses on a speciﬁc area where insights
from Poulantzas and Foucault could be combined. He discusses the role that the state as
‘knowledge-apparatus’ plays in formulating a ‘general interest’ of capital; how it enables
itself, through the production and administration of knowledge, to act as the ‘ideal
personiﬁcation of the total national capital’.
It is easy to see that, in this perspective,
Foucault’s work, which emphasised the connection between (the production of ) knowledge
and the power exercised in state- (and other) apparatuses and institutions, such as prisons
or schools, is of major interest. Stützle’s approach is helpful because it allows for a more
material interpretation of Engels’s oft-cited but problematic expression. It is too easy, even
for Marxists, to have a metaphysical, Hegelian understanding in which the state possesses a
15. Poulantzas 2000, p. 43.
16. Engels 1987, p. 266. Tis is the English translation of the much more succinct German
term ‘ideeller Gesamtkapitalist’ used by Engels (1962, p. 260) to which Stützle refers (p. 188).
150 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156
privilege of rationality vis-à-vis individual members of society who are too immersed in
their immediate, day-to-day interests. If, indeed, the state is rationally superior, this is not
due to it standing outside or above society but the result of a wide variety of practices of
knowledge-production/gathering. An example of that is oﬃ cial statistics: ‘Trough abstract
knowledge that is reduced to numbers and ﬁgures, capitalist society and the social relations
constituting it appear manageable and governable’ (pp. 196–7). A special role is played by
economics as a ﬁeld of knowledge that, as a consequence of the institutional separation of
the political and economic sphere in capitalism, is not directly subjected to the state because
its object is the autonomous logic of a diﬀerentiated sphere of social life. Hence, it is not
simply ‘government knowledge’ – something that Foucault saw more clearly than Poulantzas
in his slightly state-centric view (p. 199). However, the state is implied in economics
because it has to take its ﬁndings into account and because, above all, it is the place where
the crucial discussions take place about the role of the state in successful capital-
accumulation: ‘Te discourse of political economy thus structures the ﬁeld of controversy
around the articulation of a general capitalist interest’ (p. 200).
Poulantzasian perspectives on globalisation, the European Union, and transnational
Another focus is on Poulantzas’s contribution to understanding processes that transcend
the territorial boundaries of the nation-state, namely economic globalisation and the
formation of transnational classes. He witnessed the beginning of the unravelling of the
Fordist mode of regulation and of globalisation, and he described certain aspects of it,
providing a basis to be elaborated on for the analysis of more contemporary phenomena.
In ‘Poulantzas’s Contribution to Class-Analysis and Social-Structure Analysis’ Max Koch
argues that his enquiries into the internationalisation of capital and the role of the state in
it can be used to counter exaggerated claims about the disappearance of the national state.
According to him, Poulantzas stressed the active role of the state in organising the
international division of labour instead of seeing it as just passively subjected to external
forces (p. 130). In ‘Territory and Historicity’, an interesting discussion of the analysis of the
capitalist formation of time and space in State, Power, Socialism, Markus Wissen argues that
Poulantzas demonstrated how the national state was implied in constituting a spatial matrix
that is compatible with the societal prerequisites of capitalist economic development. In
particular, it demarcates a territory of regulation in which one set of rules applies generally
(pp. 211–12). Because the capitalist mode of production and national spaces are so deeply
intertwined, claims that the national state is being marginalised or superseded by elements
of an inter- or transnational state become implausible. Tat does not mean that, for
Poulantzas, capitalism is inevitably tied to the nation-state. Rather, his analysis allows us to
ask precisely if and in what regard the role of the national state as an organiser of capitalist
space is taken over by institutions on sub- or supranational scales (pp. 218–20).
An area where such questions can be explored is the study of European integration.
If anything comes close to constituting (elements of ) supranational statehood it is the
European Union, with its dense network of regulation, the common market, its common
17. See Poulantzas 1974a and 1975.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156 151
currency and central bank (at least for 15 of 27 member-states), the European Court of
Justice, and institutions like the European Parliament and Commission. Whether Poulantzas
can contribute anything to the study of European integration is the topic of Hans-Jürgen
Bieling’s paper on ‘European Statehood’. Bieling ﬁrst discusses the approach of Panitch and
who assume that European capital and the integration-process remain subject to
American dominance, which therefore is the analytical vantage-point from which to
approach European integration. Here, they draw upon Poulantzas’s account of the
penetration of Western-European capital by US-capital in Classes in Contemporary
Capitalism. Teir view, Bieling argues, underestimates the momentum of the integration-
process and reduces it to a sub-division of US-imperialism (pp. 229–30). In his view,
integration, which has proceeded more rapidly since the 1980s through the Single European
Act and the treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam, and Nice, has reached a stage where there
are clear elements of European statehood as well as a nascent European civil society. Tis
European level of the capitalist state should be analysed as a site of a ‘material condensation
of relations of forces’ between classes. However, that does not mean that one could simply
transfer the conceptual tools that were used for analysing the nation-state to the European
level. Tere are too many important diﬀerences between them, such as the fact that the
latter does not have a big budget that it can deploy in the maintenance of social cohesion,
or that it only has a comparatively small and limited administrative apparatus (pp. 232–6).
Unfortunately, Bieling does not go further in explaining how those conceptual tools would
have to be modiﬁed to be applicable to the study of European integration and European
statehood. Important issues are raised by the tendency towards relativisation of the national
scale: What happens to condensation of class-forces and other functions of the state when
there is no clear political centre anymore? Poulantzas’s analyses were entirely focused on
the national state. Terefore, as Bob Jessop points out in ‘Te Capitalist Type of State and
Authoritarian Statism’, researchers have to take into account the multiplication of scales
and their interpenetration (p. 63).
A diﬀerent perspective is taken by Jens Wissel in ‘Te Transnationalisation of the
Bourgeoisie and the New Networks of Power’. Wissel focuses less on institutional
developments at a supranational level and more on processes of transnational class-
formation and how these aﬀect and are shaped by the national state. Like Panitch and
Gindin, he draws on Poulantzas’s analysis of the penetration of Western Europe by American
capital, but, contrary to them, he argues that today the penetration is mutual so that there
is no clear US-dominance any more. Instead, the mutual interlocking of capital has created
a transnational bourgeoisie that is not tied to a speciﬁc state or region any more but active in
all the major markets (pp. 244–5). Tese developments transcend the boundaries and
regulatory capacities of the national state(s), which therefore can no longer be the focus of
analysis: ‘A new power-bloc has emerged on the transnational level that organises itself
through ﬂexible and poly-centric networks’ (p. 246). However, these transnational power-
networks – organisations like the UN, WTO, and IMF, and think-tanks like the European
Round Table of Industrialists or the Trilateral Commission – do not replace the national
state as the primary site for the condensation of class-relations because they are much more
ﬂuid: ‘Tey lack comparable materiality and are therefore more immediately subject to the
conjunctures in the relation of forces’ (ibid.). Te national states do not disappear because
18. As exempliﬁed in Panitch and Gindin 2005.
152 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156
they play an important role in the organisation of the transnational power-bloc. But their
importance is diminished as they become just one nodal point, albeit a crucial one, in a
regulatory network (p. 249). However, the exact nature of the relation between the two
levels of regulation and condensation remains unclear. Wissel’s analysis implies that national
states remain the only sites of condensation because transnational networks lack the features
necessary to perform this function, namely a more rigid materiality into which not only the
interests of the ruling classes but also, to a certain degree, those of the dominated classes
can be inscribed. He could be accused of neglecting the emergence of regional levels of
condensation and statehood, at least in the European case. Taking this into account would
perhaps have modiﬁed his claim that the formation of a transnational power-bloc has led
to the emergence of an imperial
structure of more or less global reach that relativises
national imperialisms (pp. 250–2).
Summing up, one can say that Poulantzas has a great deal to contribute to the study of
globalisation as a multi-faceted phenomenon, for he showed the many ways in which
national states have become involved in the regulation and organisation of capitalist
relations of production and capitalist societies. Tis not only serves as a corrective against
exaggerated claims of the demise of the national state, it also helps to formulate more
precise questions about globalisation and the relation of diﬀerent levels to one another, as
well as to the economy and class-struggles. Tis can, in turn, yield a more diﬀerentiated
answer to the question of the fate of the national state in globalisation.
Poulantzas was a political thinker who consistently put his academic work in the context
of strategic debates within and between Communist parties in Western Europe and the
debates of the Tird International. In the section of the volume devoted to matters of
political strategy, two papers address the question how his thoughts about ‘radical
transformation’ in State, Power, Socialism
can be adapted to a situation in which the
Communist parties and most other political organisations of the working class have ceased
to be relevant social forces
and in which radical movements are faced with the challenges
of globalising capitalism and politics.
Ulrich Brand and Miriam Heigl, in ‘“Inside” and “Outside”’, agree with Poulantzas’s
strategic principle that a movement that seeks ‘radical transformation’ cannot simply act
outside of the state and try to destroy it. Instead, a strategy would have to be pursued that
aims at shifting the relations of forces within the state and at transforming the materiality
of the state-apparatuses, its institutional forms and strategic selectivities, because changes in
19. Compare Hardt and Negri 2000.
20. Tere he refrained from talking about ‘revolution’; see the ﬁnal chapter entitled ‘Towards
a Democratic Socialism’.
21. Tis may seem exaggerated. One could object that, for example, the Italian Rifondazione
Comunista is still relevant. But the overall trend on the Left – in many Western countries at
least – is towards pluralisation and the displacement of the capital-labour contradiction from the
centre of political struggles. It remains to be seen whether the current economic crisis will lead
to major changes.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156 153
the relation of forces are not automatically translated into changes in its materiality.
However, they argue that, even though Poulantzas acknowledged the necessity of struggles
and movements outside or at a distance from the state, he was too state-centred and
underestimated the autonomous capacities for the mobilisation of forces outside of the
state, such as the new social movements. Tey especially criticise his assumption that these
movements would end up as neocorporatist interest-groups due to the particularity of their
political projects. Tey see this claim as a result of Poulantzas’s residual class-reductionism
and privileging of working-class struggles (pp. 277, 281). Referring to antiprivatisation-
struggles and the alterglobalisation-movement in general, they claim that a more pluralist
movement that also attempts to change the micro-level of everyday life outside of the state
is more promising.
While it is sensible to insist on the inevitable pluralism and heterogeneity of any non-
parochial social movement with a geographically wide reach, it should be pointed out that
this heterogeneity can create the problem of having merely rhetorical solidarity between
diﬀerent struggles without any kind of organic connection – the downside of the
carnivalesque plurality of the alterglobalisation-movement. Furthermore, stressing the need
of combining struggles within and at a distance from the state may indeed be valuable
advice for this movement, which has a statist wing – ATTAC, certain NGOs, and, insofar
as they participate in it, churches and trade-unions – as well as an autonomist wing.
However, Brand and Heigl do not deal with the practical problems of trying to maintain
such an alliance. Te Brazilian example of a governing party that emerged from the trade-
union movement and has now all but lost any connection with the social movements is a
case in point.
Alex Demirović’s contribution ‘Rule by the People?’ focuses on Poulantzas’s assessment
of representative democracy. Te Leninist tradition just saw it as another guise for bourgeois
political domination and therefore followed the strategy of dual power. Poulantzas’s
assessment is more ambivalent. While he saw the democratic republic as the normal form of
bourgeois rule – as opposed to exceptional states like fascism or military dictatorships
was at the same time one, but not the only, ﬁeld of a struggle for democratic socialism.
According to Demirović, Poulantzas followed Rosa Luxemburg in stressing ‘that the
institutions of representative democracy must be preserved as positive preconditions of
political liberties and democratic socialism’ (p. 301), instead of being smashed. On the
other hand, as Brand and Heigl also argue in their contribution, the ultimate aim is not
to preserve those institutions but to radically transform them in a democratising way.
In combination with democratic organisations and struggles at a distance from the state,
this should eventually lead to a withering away of the state. Finally, Demirović urges us
to reconsider Poulantzas’s thoughts on political strategy in light of the changes in statehood,
namely the relativisation of the national state as the sole level of condensation of relations
of forces, and to devise democratic strategies towards a radical transformation of
transnational state-apparatuses (pp. 304–5).
Tis is clearly an important point (made also by Brand and Heigl, p. 288). However, it
seems problematic to talk in the abstract about strategically using the institutions of
representative democracy. Not because, as Demirović acknowledges, the parliament is an
22. Poulantzas 2000, p. 260.
23. Compare Poulantzas 1974b, pp. 310–30.
154 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156
institution whose role and inﬂuence is determined diﬀerently in each concrete political
system and conjuncture – it may be really powerful in one situation or merely an ideological
façade in another (p. 297) – but because the question is also one of who is trying to get into
it. Not every left-wing movement or organisation can use the arena of parliamentary politics
equally well for its own ends; a network-based movement is very diﬀerent in that regard to
a traditional communist party. Demirović does not really reﬂect on the fact that the
traditional organisations of the labour-movement – which were still an unproblematic
point of reference for Poulantzas – have mostly ceased to exist as relevant political forces.
Brand and Heigl are more keenly aware of this.
Te ﬁnal contribution in this section, Peter Tomas’s ‘Conjuncture of the Integral
State?’, also deals with the question of ‘dual power’ and the diﬀerent sites for the political
struggle of the working class. Poulantzas had claimed that Antonio Gramsci’s distinction
between ‘war of movement’ and ‘war of position’ reproduced what is ultimately a reifying
distinction of two separate, external spheres of political power, in spite of his substantial
reﬁnement of the Leninist problematic.
According to this critique, Gramsci ultimately
failed to understand the way in which popular struggles are inscribed into the state,
eﬀectively viewing them as external to it. Tomas argues that this does not do justice to the
way Gramsci conceptualised the relation between civil society and political society in the
integral state. Far from juxtaposing them as two essentially unrelated spheres (which would
allow the proletariat to built up its power ‘outside’ of the state-apparatuses), they are rather
conceived of as distinct elements within the dialectical unity of the integral state (p. 318).
In this unity, civil society is the social basis; therefore the strategy of the war of movement
cannot be understood any more as simply laying siege to and slowly encircling the fortress
of the state. Instead, it is a struggle on the terrain of the state, even though it should
eventually transcend it (p. 322).
Tis reading leads to the conclusion that Gramsci’s ideas are much closer to Poulantzas’s
concept of the state as condensation of a relationship of forces than the latter would admit
(p. 314) – a conclusion that allows us to combine their ideas on political strategy.
Tere is one major omission in this volume: classes – particularly the working class;
and there is a minor one: a neglect of Poulantzas’s work on exceptional states. Te only
contribution that deals extensively with the latter topic is Tomas Sablowski’s ‘Crisis and
Statehood in Poulantzas’, which discusses Poulantzas’s analysis of fascism, albeit not with a
view to future research. Of course, analyses of fascism or military-dictatorships seem less
urgent anyway in a period when, at least in Europe, there are few political systems that are
not formally democratic; but where, on the other hand, ‘normal’ states become increasingly
authoritarian, as Poulantzas had predicted in the chapter on ‘authoritarian statism’ in State,
Power, Socialism (a point discussed in Jessop’s contribution). However, if Poulantzas’s
analyses of exceptional states from the past do not seem to be of interest to sociologists or
political scientists any more, it would still have been interesting to see what a Marxist
historian would make of them.
24. Poulantzas 2000, pp. 254–9.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156 155
What is really missing, however, is a thorough discussion of Poulantzas’s theory of classes
in capitalism with a view to its application and further development. Koch’s paper is
supposed to do that, but it remains pretty much an annotated summary of Poulantzas’s
writings about classes – although, as such, it is very good. And Wissel’s remarks about the
formation of a transnational bourgeoisie, interesting as they are, fall short of what is needed:
namely a more general account of classes in globalising capitalism that speciﬁcally focuses
on what is most clearly absent from the entire volume: the working classes. Tis, perhaps,
is not much of a surprise, given that not many Marxists nowadays still do class-theory.
Especially in Europe, a lot of attention is being paid to the ruling classes, to changing
relations between capital-fractions, the formation of a transnational bourgeoisie and so on,
while the opposite pole is more rarely analysed and/or left to post-Marxist concepts like the
‘multitude’. However, there is an ongoing Marxist discussion about class in general and the
working classes in particular.
So the failure of Poulantzas-scholars to engage with it raises
the question of whether Poulantzas has anything to contribute here. And, while this may
be a problem for Marxist theory more generally, it becomes particularly salient in the
context of discussing Poulantzas, given the centrality of the reference to classes and class-
struggle in his work. After all, it is not just general social power-relations that are being
condensated in the state, but class-relations in particular. (I do not hereby want to preclude
the possibility of extending this concept to other relations of domination, as has been
argued for by a number of contributions to this volume.) One would presume that major
changes in the composition of the working class and the disappearance or fundamental
change of its traditional organisations and power-bases have major eﬀects at the level of the
state. How then could those be understood?
Erik Olin Wright once wrote: ‘As an explanatory concept, class is relevant both to macro-
level analyses of social systems and micro-level analyses of individual lives. In both contexts,
class analysis asserts that the way people are linked to economically-relevant assets is
consequential in various ways.’
It seems that this micro-level, the sociological grounding
of political class-analysis, is about to get lost in Marxist state-theory. Tere is no a priori
explanatory privilege of class-relations when it comes to analysing forms and functions of
the state. If the cleavages and struggles in a society should happen to follow entirely diﬀerent
lines – ethnic ones for instance – then there is no reason why those should not be primary
Reviewed by Julian Müller
Blanke, Bernhard, Ulrich Jürgens and Hans Kastendiek 1975, ‘Das Verhältnis von Politik und
Ökonomie als Ansatzpunkt einer materialistischen Analyse des bürgerlichen Staates’, in Kritik
der Politischen Wissenschaft. Analysen von Politik und Ökonomie in der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft,
25. See, to give just one example, Camﬁeld 2004.
26. Wright 1996, p. 703.
156 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 143–156
edited by Berhard Blanke, Ulrich Jürgens and Hans Kastendiek, Frankfurt am Main:
Camﬁeld, David 2004, ‘Re-Orienting Class Analysis: Working Classes as Historical Formations’,
Science & Society, 68, 4: 421–46.
Engels, Friedrich 1962 [1894, Tird Edition], Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft,
in Marx/Engels-Werke, Volume 20, Berlin (East): Dietz Verlag.
—— 1972, ‘Letter to Joseph Bloch’ (21/09/1890) in Marx, Engels, Lenin on Historical
Materialism, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
—— 1987 [1894, Tird Edition], Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, in
Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 26, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
—— 1990 , Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, in Marx and
Engels Collected Works, Volume 26, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri 2000, Empire, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Holloway, John 2002, Change the World Without Taking Power, London: Pluto Press.
Jessop, Bob 1990, State Teory. Putting Capitalist States in their Place, Cambridge: Polity Press.
—— 2008, ‘Dialogue of the Deaf: Some Reﬂections on the Poulantzas-Miliband Debate’, in
Class, Power and the State in Capitalist Society: Essays on Ralph Miliband, edited by Clyde W.
Barrow, Peter Burnham and Paul Wetherly, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Marx, Karl 1976 , Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, London: Penguin
—— 1989 , Critique of the Gotha Programme, in Marx and Engels Collected Works,
Volume 24, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Panitch, Leo and Sam Gindin 2005, ‘Superintending Global Capital’, New Left Review, II, 35:
Postone, Moishe 1993, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical
Teory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Poulantzas, Nicos 1974a, ‘Internationalisation of Capitalist Relations and the Nation State’,
Economy and Society, 3, 2: 145–79.
—— 1974b , Fascism and Dictatorship: Te Tird International and the Problem of
Fascism, London: NLB.
—— 1975 , Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, London: NLB.
—— 2000 , State, Power, Socialism, London: Verso.
Wright, Erik Olin 1996, ‘Te Continuing Relevance of Class Analysis – Comments’, Teory and
Society, 25, 5: 693–716.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 157–163 157
Ends in Sight: Marx/Fukuyama/Hobsbawm/Anderson, Gregory Elliott, London: Pluto Press,
Gregory Elliott’s Ends in Sight (2008) argues that Marxism is no longer a ‘real movement’
grounded in the historical tendencies of the present, but has retreated into being a utopian idea.
Refusing to embrace anti-Marxism, Elliott controversially argues that such a position is the only
realistic one that can be held by the Left in the wake of the defeat of historical socialism. In
assessing this claim, this review-essay re-traces Elliott’s indebtedness to the work of Perry
Anderson, and notes the tension Elliott reproduces from Anderson between resignation to defeat
and a realism that would scan for new signs of resistance. Elliott’s closing embrace of a full-blown
pessimism is criticised as inconsistent with the necessity of some consolatory ‘illusions’ to any
radical political mobilisation. Te crucial question that Elliott raises concerns the motivational
power of Marxism as a political discourse, particularly once shorn of its grounding in the ‘tide of
history, Marxism, Perry Anderson, teleology, Gramsci
Te plural ‘ends’ of Gregory Elliott’s title ostensibly refers to the various forms of the ‘end-
of-history’ thesis canvassed at the close of the twentieth century by Francis Fukuyama, Eric
Hobsbawm, and Perry Anderson. However, there is really only one end in question here:
the end of socialism. Te large thesis of this brief, unfortunately overpriced, work is that we
have witnessed the end of any kind of systematic alternative to capitalism for the foreseeable
future. Elliott’s provocative contention is that communism can no longer claim to be a ‘real
movement’ grounded in the historical tendencies of capitalism, but, instead, has retreated
into being a utopian idea; Marxism has succumbed to Marx and Engels’s condemnation of
‘critical-utopian socialism’: at best oﬀering ‘valuable materials for the enlightenment of the
working class’, at worst merely painting ‘fantastic pictures of future society’.
Te charge of
utopianism is, of course, a common trope of anti-Marxism, both right and left. Elliott,
however, insists that, rather than abandoning Marxism tout court, or embracing a utopian
Marxism in the style of Bloch or Jameson, we must think Marxism in light of its historical
weakness and crisis. To summarise Elliott’s relation to Marx, we could give the more
idiomatic version of his repetition of Domenico Losurdo’s deﬁnition of his relation to
Marx: ‘can’t live with him, can’t live without him’ (p. xi).
Te adoption of such an ambivalent and pessimistic position might not appear obvious
from Elliott’s previous intellectual and political trajectory. He is probably best-known for
his work Althusser: Te Detour of Teory (originally published in 1987 and reissued in
2006), an intellectual biography characterised by a ﬁne balance of criticism and sympathy
towards its subject, especially considering the passions aroused by the Althusserian project,
not least in the UK. Elliott has also done continuing and highly-valuable work as a
translator, and rightly gained a reputation as an eloquent and acerbic commentator,
especially on the French intellectual scene.
He has always retained an independence of
1. Marx and Engels 2002.
2. See Elliott 2006b.
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/146544609X12537556703511
158 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 157–163
judgement, and a refusal of the usual see-sawing of enthusiasm followed by renunciation
that has often characterised UK left-intellectual engagement with continental Marxist
theory. He is, to return a judgement of Elliott’s from a review back to sender, ‘an author
mercifully free . . . of the phobias and philias about French intellectual life’.
Te clue to the origin of Ends in Sight, I think, lies in Elliott’s intellectual biography of
Perry Anderson, Perry Anderson: Te Merciless Laboratory of History,
to which it might
be regarded as a pendant. In the concluding balance-sheet of the biography, Elliott noted
Anderson’s loss of ‘conﬁdence in the theory of historical trajectory – cornerstone of
“scientiﬁc socialism” – of which he had been an indefatigable partisan.
Te result was not
the abandonment of Marxism by Anderson, but rather its displacement from expressing a
movement of social transformation to the explanation and criticism of the existing state of
aﬀairs, coupled to ‘a quasi-Pascalian wager’ on the future abolition of capitalism.
ﬁnished by expressing qualiﬁed admiration for Anderson’s ‘waiting game’. In a strange
moment of identiﬁcation between biographer and subject, Ends in Sight adopts the position
Elliott ascribed to Anderson wholesale.
Te eﬀect of this political identiﬁcation profoundly shapes Elliott’s work, but the
permeating inﬂuence does not stop there. Anderson is not merely one of the ﬁgures
discussed, but primus inter pares, as Anderson’s own earlier discussions of Fukuyama and
Hobsbawm guide Elliott’s work.
Tere is also a more nebulous stylistic link. Te oft-
remarked ‘Olympian tone’ of Anderson’s work, which has attracted so much ire from the
is given a sharper and more urgent edge in Elliott’s writing. A notable stylist in his
own right, Elliott combines the combative polemical edge of Anderson’s early work, which
he had commended in Perry Anderson: Te Merciless Laboratory of History,
with the serene
dismissiveness of Anderson’s more recent surveys of intellectual life. Te result, however, is
considerably more compressed than Anderson’s work; indeed, this whole book is probably
shorter than Anderson’s essay on Fukuyama. It consists of a series of proﬁles reworked from
articles and papers dating from 1995–2004, and this perhaps accounts for the occasional
repetitions and, more problematically, variations in tone and conclusions.
Te ﬁrst chapter, on Marx, is pivoted around the 150th anniversary of the Communist
Manifesto (in 1998), and more particularly the faith that text placed in an historical dialectic
that, although proceeding ‘by the bad side’, could ground the necessary emergence of the
revolutionary proletariat from the internal contradictions of capital. Elliott notes it was this
3. Elliott 2006b, p. 145.
4. Elliott 1998.
5. Elliott 1998, p. 241.
6. Elliott 1998, pp. 242–3.
7. Anderson 1992, pp. 279–375 and Anderson 2005 respectively.
8. See Linebaugh 1986.
9. Elliott contrasts the ‘habitual iconoclasm’ of Anderson’s earlier work with the ‘studied
prudence’ of his later work, concluding ‘the most innovative, original Anderson is the intransigent
freelance intellectual’; Elliott 1998, p. 109. Elliott’s Labourism and the English Genius (1993)
might be said to be his own exercise in mimicry of the iconoclasm of the early Anderson.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 157–163 159
faith that was essential to the workers’ movement of the twentieth century, and he refers to
Gramsci’s remarks on the providential ‘religion of the subaltern’ (p. 33). For Elliott, it is not
possible to simply dismiss or ignore this grounding faith and its mobilising power: ‘the
ideological formation that was historical Marxism – the oﬃ cial party Marxism of the
Second, Tird and Fourth Internationals alike – was no mere betrayal of [Marx’s] thought’
(p. 31). Elliott is keen to stress, against the attempts to recover a ‘pure’ or ‘true’ Marxism,
that historical teleology remains crucial to Marx (and Marxism). While the Marx of Capital
and the Grundrisse would considerably complicate the teleological model of history, not
least with his concept of the tendency, as would the critical Marxism of ﬁgures such as
Lukács and Althusser, without some historical grounding that can be given or identiﬁed,
communism risks being merely utopian. Te severing of the dialectic between capital and
its future gravediggers means, in short, that history is not on our side.
Te next two chapters, on Fukuyama and Hobsbawm, pursue this theme in a more
indirect fashion. In both cases, Elliott is concerned to identify the problem of the collapse
of systematic alternatives to liberal capitalism, which he regards, following Anderson,
the ‘rational kernel’ of Fukuyama’s thesis (pp. 55–9). Hobsbawm mitigates this conclusion
by a consoling insistence that the self-identiﬁed ‘Marxist’ régimes, and social democracy,
provided a civilising balance to untrammelled capitalism in the twentieth century. For
Elliott, such retrospective consolation neglects the internal contradictions of capitalism,
minimises the crimes of Stalinism, and, fatally, allows Hobsbawm to leave his ‘enlightenment
Marxism’ intact in spite of the depth of its defeat. And yet, for Elliott, the recognition of
the historical defeat and failure of actually-existing socialism and social democracy also
entails noting that this has not rebounded to the beneﬁt of alternative formulations of
socialism and communism. If we cannot console ourselves with the past record, neither can
we cheer ourselves up with future hopes; we might again rephrase Elliott’s relation to Marx:
‘couldn’t live with actually existing socialism, can’t live without it’.
Realism or resignation?
Again it appears that Elliott has adopted the same position he had previously analysed in
Anderson, this time of Deutscherite form.
Te Deutscherite position, named after the
great historian and biographer (notably of Trotsky) Isaac Deutscher, hoped for reform,
either from above or below, of the actually-existing socialist countries and a recognition
of their function as a bulwark – or, in the language of theology, katechon (‘restraining
force’) – against capitalism.
With the dashing of these hopes in 1989, the pessimistic
registration of historic defeat might appear as the only option (p. 107). Such a registration
is, however, avoided by Elliott through invoking Andersonian lucidity, the lynch-pin of the
whole work, and the subject of Chapter Four.
Te chapter pivots around Anderson’s editorial for the re-launch of the New Left Review
in 2000, ‘Renewals’, in which he argued that, in the face of the virtually uncontested
10. Anderson 1992.
11. ‘Deutscherism’ merits sixteen entries in the index of Elliott’s biography; Elliott 1998,
p. 324. For Anderson’s own discussion of Deutscher, see Anderson 1992, pp. 56–75.
12. See Davidson 2004 for a critical discussion.
160 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 157–163
consolidation of neoliberalism, the Left has tended to adopt one of two positions:
accommodation with the existing order, or the consolation of inﬂating the possibilities
In a footnote, Anderson courted a third option – resignation, ‘a lucid
recognition of the nature and triumph of the system, without either adaptation or self-
deception, but also without any belief in the chance of an alternative to it.’
disavowed notation of such an option in a footnote was enough to attract the usual charges
Despite his reputation for pessimism, Anderson’s own preference, at least as
regards the NLR, was for the adoption of a stance of ‘uncompromising realism’ that would
refuse both accommodation and the consolation of understating the power of capitalism.
Elliott sympathetically and convincingly reconstructs this realist position. Instead of
drawing on dubious compensations from the past à la Hobsbawm, or inﬂating contemporary
possibilities, Marxism can ﬁnd its place in the unremitting criticism of the present coupled
to a scanning for signs of resistance and refoundation.
Of course, one could dispute
whether Anderson meets this standard, and Elliott notes his high-handedness when it
comes to analysing instances of resistance; but this necessity to ground Marxism in the
conjunctural identiﬁcation of the tendencies of the present, negative and positive, certainly
oﬀers a promising model for left thinking.
Te diﬃ culty with Elliott’s reconstruction of realism, however, is how this sits with his
prefatory remarks, reiterated in the ﬁrst chapter, that socialism is condemned to ‘become
utopian once again’ (p. 25). Such a utopian positioning would seem to leave Marxism, as
Marx and Engels indicated, fatally detached from historical conditions, and hence incapable
of a ‘realism’ that could critically assess ‘reality’, as we (ideologically) ﬁnd it. Tis self-
undercutting of his own proﬀered realism is further undermined by the full-blown
pessimism of Elliott’s conclusion. Lambasting the limitations of the rebirth of resistance
against neoliberal capitalism signalled by the emergence of the ‘Il popolo di Seattle’, Elliott
can only conclude that no signiﬁcant resistance, comparable to historical socialism, is in
sight. Te result is that he is drawn irresistibly to embracing Anderson’s option of resignation,
in a gesture plus royaliste que le roi.
Tat said, the conclusion is probably the most consistently amusing part of this work,
dishing out brickbats with a mordant glee: Hardt and Negri are condemned for a ‘mutant
while Slavoj Žižek is described as the ‘artisan of a quasi-Tird Period
Marxism-Lacanism’. It would also be diﬃ cult to dispute Elliott’s verdict that we have yet to
see anything like a substantial enough institutional instantiation of the ‘movement of
movements’ that could rival historical socialism. One can share Elliott’s frustrations at the
bien-pensant platitudes of the radical Left, which risk verbally parlaying real defeats into the
13. Anderson 2000, pp. 13–14.
14. Anderson 2000, p. 13, n. 5.
15. For Gilbert Achcar (2000) the editorial embodied an ‘ultra-pessimism’, while, for Boris
Kagarlitsky (2000), in a more intemperate style, it was a sign of ‘unconditional capitulation’.
16. Anderson 2000, p. 14.
17. See Anderson 2007.
18. Earl Russell Browder, General Secretary of the Communist Party USA from 1934 to
1945, and known for his slogan ‘Americanism is Communism’. Elliott is mocking Hardt and
Negri’s philo-Americanism, and their faith that capitalism is already embryonic communism
simply waiting for the multitude to step into power.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 157–163 161
mirages of future victories. In fact, this might help explain the inconsistency of tone and
position noted above. Te bitterness of Elliott’s conclusion would then be the result of a
deliberate choice to ‘bend the stick’ to a deep pessimism as the means of correcting the
tendency to consolatory optimism on the contemporary Left. In true Maoist fashion, it
might then be possible to achieve the correct line between these two ‘deviations’ of the
uncompromising realism Elliott elsewhere seems to favour.
Tis may, however, amount to a refusal to take Elliott at his word. If so, then his
endorsement of resignation is deeply problematic, and not as coherent as he supposes.
What Elliott appears unable to countenance is Anderson’s suggestion that no one on the
Left is immune to consolation, nor can they be since political movements must motivate
their adherents during periods of defeat.
Following Anderson, we might suggest
consolation is a necessary ‘illusion’ for left politics, which precisely must balance itself
between a recognition of structural constraints and the recognition of the ability to change
those structures. Lacking that moment of change, resignation threatens to tip-over into
renegacy, and the puncturing of illusions into the ‘passing of an illusion’ (to echo François
Furet’s adieu to Marxism). Tis is all the more disappointing as Elliott’s careful extrication
of Anderson’s work from such charges promised a powerful re-orientation to a realism that
would not neglect the organisational, structural, and agential questions so often elided in
invocations of a socialist or communist future.
It might also appear that Elliott’s conﬁdent judgement that there is currently no end in
sight for capitalism is vitiated by the ﬁnancial crisis that emerged almost in parallel with
this work. And yet Elliott’s pessimism would still stand because, as he notes: ‘It would be a
false consolation (not to say a defective argument) to infer from the existence of capitalist
crisis some anti-capitalist resolution of it’ (p. 56). While there has been a general agreement
on the necessity for ‘ﬁnancial regime change’,
and concomitant shifts in political and
intellectual régimes, the nature and form of that change remain as yet undeﬁned. To quote
Elliott again: ‘Te cruces of an alternative – agency, organisation, strategy, goal – that could
command the loyalties and energies of the requisite untold millions await anything
approaching resolution’ (p. 111). It may be that capitalism as we knew it had ended, but
whether that truly signals its ‘ﬁnal ending’ (p. 127) is still very much in question. We can
choose to chide Elliott for the underestimation of the factor of class-struggle in these
‘internal contradictions’ of capital, but it would be diﬃ cult to refute his thesis regarding the
unlikeliness of the ‘resolution’ of such contradictions in a Marxist, communist, or even
social-democratic direction, without the material bases of alternative agency.
Te ending of Marxism
At issue in Elliott’s pessimism is his deliberate choice to conﬂate two ‘ends’: the end of
‘historical socialism’ with the end of Marxism as a scientiﬁcally- and historically-grounded
theory. Te collapse of the ﬁrst, which is beyond argument, would not seem to necessarily
cause the collapse of the second. Elliott’s blunt conﬂation, however, makes a more reﬁned
point: while he is at pains not to deny the ability of Marxism to analyse the irrationalities
19. Anderson 2000, p. 14.
20. Wade, 2008.
162 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 157–163
of capital, his emphasis falls on the seeming inability of this critique to ﬁnd material
grounding for its alternative socialist or communist vision, without which such visions
remain chimeras. In this sense, his diagnosis of Marxism almost exactly conforms to the
charge of ‘critical-utopianism’ levelled by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto. While Marxism
may oﬀer the most persuasive diagnosis of capitalism, as the rush to Marx in the current
it has been less persuasive in predicting the transition out of capitalism. If
the Communist Manifesto could provide ideological fodder for the bourgeois triumphalism
of the 1990s, then, no doubt, Capital and the Grundrisse could provide consolation for the
current crisis. Lacking the guarantees of scientiﬁc socialism, Marxism risks ‘melting into
air’. Elliott’s question to any refoundation or reformulation of Marxism is in what sense
would it oﬀer ‘a plausible socialist prescription to complement the diagnosis and prognosis
for capitalism’ (p. 124).
Underlying this question, and only implicitly sketched by Elliott, is the question of the
motivational power of Marxism as a political discourse: the broken link between Marxism
as science and Marxism as practice. Te paradox of historical socialism was that, although
its conﬁdence in the march of history may have been misplaced, it was this conﬁdence that
led to its material success. Gramsci noted that belief in mechanical determinism, belief that
‘the tide of history is working for me in the long term’, was a source of resistance in the face
His conclusion, however, was that this was a weak form of resistance, requiring
transformation into the sense of an active will. Te diﬃ culty Elliott appears to be indicating
is that the problematisation of such teleological and providential conceptions – and he
approvingly refers to Althusser for just such a problematisation (pp. 52–3) – causes a crisis
of faith in the eﬃ cacy of Marxism. Although, like Gramsci, Elliott dismisses such teleological
conceptions, he appears more doubtful about what might take their place. To remain in the
religious register, a Pascalian Marxism of the kind suggested by Anderson might, like
the Jansenism it borrows from,
be a Marxism for intellectual élites, unable to reach out to
the masses who demand something more than the emptiness of the wager.
What is omitted in Elliott’s retention of a classical and strict division between scientiﬁc
and utopian Marxism is the circularity of human practice, in which belief, no matter
how ‘false’, can make itself ‘true’. Te tension of Gramsci’s formulation of the ‘religion of
the subaltern’, reproduced by Elliott, lies in the way this motivating function is rooted
in social practice and retrospectively legitimated by its success. I would agree with Elliott’s
Althusserian injunction against ‘telling lies’, but we could also invoke the Nietzschean
commendation of the necessity of falsity to life. In the terms suggested by Anderson we
noted above, the necessity of consolation and inﬂated hopes to the success of any resistance
is obvious. Te problem of a supposedly fully-disabused realism, which lies behind the
critiques of Anderson, is that it can slide into a sanctioning of ‘things as they are’. It would
be fascinating to see Elliott explore this problem further.
It is the immense merit of Elliott’s work to point to this tension and to challenge the
current fashion for the emphasis on the utopian, conjunctural, and contingent. In posing
the question, however equivocally, of how we might historically ground the possibility of
socialism or communism in the absence of a faith in scientiﬁc socialism (or at least in its old
21. See Brown 2009.
22. Gramsci 1971, p. 336.
23. See Goldmann 1964, for a Marxist analysis of Jansenism and Pascal.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 157–163 163
teleological and providential form) Ends in Sight remains vital reading. Admirable in its
uncompromising critical verve, if not always consistent or convincing in its conclusions, at
its best Ends in Sight makes a powerful case for us to sharpen our thinking and to embrace
an uncompromising realism that remains true to the ﬂexibility of Marx’s own conjunctural
Reviewed by Benjamin Noys
Reader in English, University of Chichester
Achcar, Gilbert 2000, ‘Te “Historical Pessimism” of Perry Anderson’, International Socialism, 88,
available at: <http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj88/achcar.htm> (consulted 23 June 2009).
Anderson, Perry 1992, A Zone of Engagement, London: Verso.
—— 2000, ‘Renewals’, New Left Review, II, 1: 5–24.
—— 2005, ‘Te Vanquished Left: Eric Hobsbawm’ (2002), in Spectrum: From Right to Left in
the World of Ideas, London: Verso.
—— 2007, ‘Jottings on the Conjuncture’, New Left Review, II, 48: 5–37.
Brown, Ian 2009, ‘Te 18th Brumaire of Barack Obama’, Te Globe and Mail, available at:
article1179757/> (consulted 24 June 2009).
Davidson, Neil 2004, ‘Te Prophet, his Biographer and the Watchtower’, International Socialism,
104, available at: <http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj104/davidson.htm> (consulted
23 June 2009).
Elliott, Gregory 1993, Labourism and the English Genius: Te Strange Death of Labour England?,
—— 1998, Perry Anderson: Te Merciless Laboratory of History, Minneapolis: University of
—— 2006a, Althusser: Te Detour of Teory, Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.
—— 2006b, ‘Parisian Impostures’, New Left Review, II, 41: 139–45.
Goldmann, Lucien 1964, Te Hidden God: A Study of Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and
the Tragedies of Racine, translated by Philip Tody, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Gramsci, Antonio 1971, Selections from Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin
Hoare and Geoﬀrey Nowell Smith, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Kagarlitsky, Boris, 2000, ‘Te Suicide of the New Left Review’, International Socialism, 88,
available at: <http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj88/kagarlitsky.htm> (consulted 23 June
Linebaugh, Peter 1986, ‘In the Flight Path of Perry Anderson’, History Workshop Journal, 21:
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels 2002 , Te Communist Manifesto, London: Penguin.
Wade, Robert 2008, ‘Financial Regime Change?’, New Left Review, II, 53: 5–21.
164 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176
Proﬁntern: Die Rote Gewerkschaftsinternationale 1920–1937, Reiner Tosstorﬀ, Paderborn:
Ferdinand Schoeningh, 2004.
Reiner Tosstorﬀ’s book gives a detailed account of the history of the Red International of Labour
Unions (RILU), founded in 1921 as a body associated with the Communist International.
Whereas the Comintern organised the minority of workers belonging to revolutionary parties,
the trade-unions were the mass-organisation of the class. Tosstorﬀ traces the various organisational
problems that attended the founding of the RILU, and the splits, alliances, manoeuvres,
negotiations and compromises that characterised its early years. From 1924 onwards the RILU
rapidly became no more than an appendage of the Comintern, echoing the errors and betrayals
of the latter body. Te book contains a wealth of historical detail that makes it the standard work
on the question. It may also have contemporary relevance to the way in which Marxists relate to
the post-Seattle generation of anti-capitalists.
Communism, Communist International (Comintern), Alfred Rosmer, Red International of
Labour Unions, Reiner Tosstorﬀ, trade-unions, Lenin, Zinoviev, syndicalism, sectarianism, rank
and ﬁle, Lozovsky, IWW
Te collapse of Eastern-bloc Communism after 1989 was a major turning-point in the
historiography of the Communist International. On the one hand, the opening of the
Russian archives provided a mass of new information, making it possible to give solid
documentation for analyses that had previously been hypothetical or based on the testimony
of individuals. But, at the same time, the end of the Cold War took away the motivations
that had inspired so much that had been written on the subject. Now there were few
claimants to be the sole heirs of Lenin and the infallible line he and his comrades had
pursued. In the anti-Communist camp, priorities were also changing. Soon, the smart
money was on vilifying Islam as the ‘new totalitarianism’; raking over the ashes of the ‘old’
totalitarianism could be left to academic second-raters.
Te most honest histories of the Comintern had come from those within the tradition
of the Left Opposition. But, here too, there was a problem; such histories, especially
when inspired by that monstrous oxymoron ‘orthodox Trotskyism’, tended to excessive
defensiveness. Such defensiveness was understandable in a period when the far more
numerous Moscow-line Communists were urging their supporters to clear out ‘Hitler’s
But the quite valid insistence that the ﬁrst four or ﬁve years of the Comintern had
seen the development of an authentic revolutionary current tended to obscure the fact that,
from the very beginning, sections of the Comintern apparatus had favoured ultra-left or
bureaucratic and manipulative short-cuts.
Te origins of a sympathetic but critical account of the Comintern lie in the accounts of
some of those who played a role in the early years of the organisation but never made their
peace with either Stalinism or anti-Communism, notably the writings of Victor Serge and
1. Clear Out Hitler’s Agents was the title of a pamphlet by W. Wainwright published by the
British Communist Party in 1942.
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/146544609X12537556703557
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176 165
Alfred Rosmer’s Lenin’s Moscow.
Te work of Pierre Broué helped to open up a more
serious and critical approach to the Comintern’s tangled history.
Reiner Tosstorﬀ’s history of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU – also known
as the Proﬁntern) is a splendid example of what is now possible in writing the history of
Te RILU is little discussed today other than by specialists in the trade-
union history of speciﬁc countries. Founded in 1921, it was an attempt to establish a rival,
pro-Communist, alternative to the resolutely reformist International Federation of Trade
Unions (IFTU), known as the Amsterdam International. Te RILU aimed to seek aﬃ liation,
where possible, from national federations, but also from minorities within such federations.
It survived until 1937, but, for most of the later years, it was the loyal servant of its Kremlin
masters. In the ﬁrst couple of years, however, it was the focus of a lively confrontation
between diﬀerent traditions of trade-unionism, leading to a far-reaching debate on the
principles of revolutionary organisation.
Reiner Tosstorﬀ’s book will undoubtedly stand as the deﬁnitive study of the question for
very many years. Tosstorﬀ is uniquely qualiﬁed for the task. Not only does he have at his
command the several languages necessary to pursue the research, but he seems to have had
inexhaustible patience in working through the relevant archives. Tere is a wealth of detail
here, not only about the RILU itself, but about the development of trade-unionism in a
dozen or more diﬀerent countries, which will make this book indispensable to historians
of the labour-movement in the 1920s. Tosstorﬀ’s narrative not only covers the European
countries and the USA, but gives brief but signiﬁcant glimpses of developments in Latin
America, Australia and the Far East. Even a review as extensive and self-indulgent as
those permitted in Historical Materialism can only deal with a few aspects of this richly
documented book, which will serve not only as a narrative account but also as a reference
Why is the RILU relevant today? First and foremost, because its story gives us an insight
into a unique period of human history. Te ten years that followed the October Revolution
oﬀered unprecedented hope to working people and all the oppressed of the world. Of
course the horrors, famine and civil war were there from the outset. But the squalid
statisticians of anti-Communism, with their assorted black books, who count the corpses
but fail to see the dimension of hope, can have no comprehension of the struggles of the
period, no understanding of why people on both sides fought so bitterly to achieve or to
annihilate that hope. New generations will have to ﬁnd their own hope, but the history of
that remarkable decade is full of both inspiration and warning.
Te Comintern had organisations for peasants, students, women, sportspeople, and even
Esperantists and freethinkers.
But the RILU was not just one of a series. As E.H. Carr
pointed out, in the 1920s the RILU was ‘by far the most powerful and important of the
auxiliary organizations which gravitated round Comintern. It was, indeed, the only one
2. Serge 2001 and Rosmer 1987.
3. In particular Broué 1997; see also Cliﬀ 1979 for a positive but irreverent account of the
4. For an English summary of the thesis on which the book is based, see Tosstorﬀ 2000a. For
a translation of the section of Tosstorrf ’s thesis on the founding conference of the RILU,
corresponding to Chapter 4, Section 2 of the book (pp. 325–31) see Tosstorﬀ 2000b.
5. Carr 1964, pp. 937–86.
166 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176
which could claim some independence, and was more than a mere subsidiary organ.’
was a simple reason for this. Every participant in the heated debates of the period, from
the most bureaucratic Bolshevik to the most libertarian syndicalist, believed that ‘the
emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves’. Te trade-
unions were the mass organisation of that class. Revolutionary parties drew together the
emerging class ‘for itself ’, the conscious activists willing to unite around a programme for
social change. But they were, of necessity, a minority as long as the dominant ideas in
society were those of the ruling class. Te unions aimed to be the organisations of the class
‘in itself ’, to unite in defensive struggle all those from whom surplus-value was extracted.
And, without that majority of workers, no authentic revolution was possible.
Tere is a second reason why the RILU experience may be of signiﬁcance to socialists
today. Since the demonstrations at Seattle in 1999, there has been political confrontation
between those who still stand in the traditions of socialist organisation inherited from the
Marxist Left, and those who, disgusted by all that passes for politics in the modern world,
are seeking new forms of organisation. Often it proves diﬃ cult to establish a common
language for political debate or principles for united action. So it is interesting to note the
parallels with the Comintern, and especially the RILU, where the Bolsheviks and others
who had emerged from the Second International sought forms of cooperation with those
from the revolutionary-syndicalist tradition, whose embrace of direct action and rejection
of party-organisation derived from profound contempt for the corruption of mainstream-
politics in the period before 1914.
Tosstorﬀ is particularly sensitive to these issues. As he points out in his introduction, the
book is ‘onion-shaped’ (p. 18). Tough the RILU lasted until the mid-thirties, the vast
majority of the text is devoted to the complex manoeuvres which led up to the foundation
of the RILU and its ﬁrst couple of years. 589 pages out of a narrative 716 take the story up
to 1923. For, up until the defeat of the German Revolution, there was a genuine exchange
between diﬀerent traditions and diﬀerent experiences, and real attempts to compromise
and even to seek a new synthesis. From 1924 onwards, the RILU rapidly became no more
than an appendage of the Comintern, echoing the errors and betrayals of the latter body.
As Rosa Luxemburg put it, the ‘mistakes committed by a genuine revolutionary labour
movement are much more fruitful and worthwhile historically than the infallibility of the
very best Central Committee’.
Tosstorﬀ quite rightly chooses to focus on the strengths and
weaknesses of a living movement rather than on the incorrect decisions of a Stalinist Central
When Lenin at the Finland Station showed that he had learned from the achievements
of the workers’ soviets, and argued that socialist revolution was on the agenda immediately,
he was tearing up the maps drawn by socialists over the previous half-century in order to
embark onto uncharted waters. Old principles and old debates had become obsolete. To
survive, the revolution had to spread, and for that it needed allies. As the upheaval of war
had shown, the dividing line between friends and enemies followed a very diﬀerent course
than it had done ﬁve years earlier. Te speciﬁc roles to be played by parties, soviets and
unions were not predetermined; their mutual interaction would have to be settled by trial
6. Carr 1964, p. 938.
7. Cited in Cliﬀ 2001, p. 78.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176 167
What Tosstorﬀ shows, as he traces the process of development that led to the foundation
of the RILU, is that there was no clear strategy at the outset. Some, on the Left as well as
the Right, claim that Lenin developed a view of the relation between party and unions in
What Is to Be Done? and that this guided his strategy in later years.
Tere seems to be no
foundation for such a view. Lenin was a supremely ﬂexible thinker, who constantly revised
his views of organisation according to the objective demands of the situation.
In 1918, the Bolsheviks still hoped for cooperation with all Western-European unions,
of whatever political tendency (p. 59). As events developed, they had to rethink their
position. Tosstorﬀ endorses the view of Drachkovitch and Lazitch that in 1919 the
Bolshevik leaders’ estimate of events constantly leapt from one extreme to the other (p. 77).
As far as trade-unions were concerned, ‘through real contact with representatives of Western
unions with mass inﬂuence . . . all the plans that had hitherto been drawn up, and the line
that had been decided, became untenable’ (p. 72).
Tree organisational possibilities were considered – a Communist fraction within the
IFTU, an independent revolutionary trade-union International and a trade-union section
of the Comintern (pp. 137–8). Te idea that unions as well as parties should aﬃ liate
directly to the Comintern (since the Comintern rejected the separation between economic
and political struggle), favoured by Zinoviev, could claim the precedent of the First
International (p. 69). In fact, the evolution of trade-unionism over the previous ﬁfty years
made it unworkable in practice. Tere was no master-plan here, but a constant eﬀort to
improvise organisational solutions.
Likewise, Tosstorﬀ’s account shows that the Comintern, and indeed the Bolshevik Party
itself, was far from monolithic at this point. In the reports of the debates of this period,
Lenin and Trotsky often seem to stand head and shoulders above their comrades. Tis is not
to transform them into infallible teachers; they were quite capable of getting things wrong.
But their great virtue was that they realised the revolution was making history rather than
following historical laws, and that it was not possible to rely on formulae from the past.
Even if the Bolsheviks had wished to impose some master-plan on the international
movement, circumstances would have made it virtually impossible to do so. Tosstorﬀ draws
out the problems of communication in the early years of the Comintern. Travelling to
Russia was appallingly diﬃ cult and dangerous, while even the transmission of information
was fraught with risk. Messages sent by radio-telegraph could easily be intercepted by
enemies of the revolution. Te German Communist Party ﬁrst learned that the date of
the RILU conference had been changed from a report in the Austrian press (p. 295). Life
in Russia had little in common with the junketing and luxury hotels which characterise
trade-union international meetings in our own day. Te entire membership of the miners’
propaganda-committee were killed when taking a journey on an experimental train
Beneath the splits, alliances, manoeuvres, negotiations and compromises which Tosstorﬀ
traces in such detail, country by country, year by year, and often month by month, there
lies a basic conﬂict between two competing and contradictory forces. On the one hand
was the powerful centripetal force exercised by the Russian Revolution on a wide range
of socialists, syndicalists and anarchists coming from very diﬀerent traditions. One real
8. Compare Swain 1987, p. 58: ‘As every student of What is to be done? knows, Lenin did not
think much of trade unions.’
168 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176
revolution, whatever its defects, was worth a hundred programmes and utopias. Hence
the enormous initial fund of goodwill towards the Bolsheviks which provided the basis on
which the Comintern could be built. Many anarchists and syndicalists were willing to
minimise their diﬀerences with the Bolsheviks. Tus, in 1918, the paper of the Spanish
CNT declared: ‘Bolshevism is the name, but the idea is that of all revolutions: economic
freedom . . . Bolshevism represents the end of superstition, dogmas, slavery, tyranny and
crime’ (p. 99).
But that centripetal force was in constant battle with the equally powerful centrifugal
force of sectarianism. Activists were only too willing to show goodwill to those from
diﬀerent traditions, while clutching on to the belief that it was their own analysis, their own
scenario that would ultimately prevail. So, when it came down to it, they all too often
proved unwilling to surrender their organisational fetishes. Such conservatism was common
in both the Bolshevik and the syndicalist camps. Only a few were willing to follow Lenin
in jettisoning old formulae and trying to conceive new strategies for new situations.
Te roots of conservative sectarianism lay very deep in the experience of socialist
organisation. Tousands upon thousands of militants had committed themselves to the
struggle for a world without war and poverty, inequality and oppression. In order to pursue
that struggle, they had to confront the question of means, for without such means they
were condemned to mere utopian dreaming. But, all too easily, means substituted themselves
for ends, and they found themselves doggedly defending a strategic formulation or an
organisational shibboleth. Only a genuinely dialectical grasp of the interrelation of means
and ends could break down such sectarianism. Tosstorﬀ shows that the Comintern was
often held back by those with such a conservative mentality. Two striking examples are Paul
Levi and Zinoviev.
Tere have been recent attempts to reassess Levi’s reputation.
Undoubtedly he was a
perceptive political thinker, and his criticisms (though not the way he made them) of the
disastrous March Action were entirely justiﬁed. But he clearly lacked both the stamina and
the tact necessary to be a genuine workers’ leader. Tosstorﬀ traces his relation with the
syndicalists and ultra-lefts in Germany (pp. 115, 260). Undoubtedly, Levi was right on the
substantive issues; equally, he clearly failed to show the necessary patience to win over at
least a section of the ultra-left opposition. At the second Congress of the Comintern, when
the debate on the party was exploring the possibility of cooperation with the syndicalists,
Levi reverted to reliance on past models, arguing that the question of the party had already
been settled by the Second International.
In view of the catastrophic failure of the Second
9. One striking attempt to rethink the relation between Bolshevism and anarchism, giving
the latter a subsidiary but important role in compensating for the limits of Bolshevism, was
Victor Serge’s essay ‘Te Anarchists and the Experience of the Russian Revolution’ (p. 356). See
Serge 2001, pp. 129–60.
10. Fernbach 1999 commends Levi’s ‘principled antipathy to putschism’, and hence, by
implication his expulsion of the ‘syndicalists’ of the KAPD. It is fortunate that Fernbach did not
encounter Levi in 1969, when he was a member of the editorial committee of New Left Review
in its ‘red-bases’ phase. He would undoubtedly have faced summary expulsion. See also Broué
1997, pp. 220–43.
11. ‘It seems to me that clarifying the diﬀerences between communism on the one hand and
the anarchist views of the Spanish comrade on the other is quite out of line with the tasks of this
congress. . . . We get no closer to carrying out this task by focusing the discussion on a question
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176 169
International in 1914, it is surprising that he imagined such an argument would carry
Zinoviev’s role was even more pernicious. It is striking to this day that there exists no
adequate critical study of Zinoviev. For both Cold Warriors and Stalinists determined to
establish that Lenin led directly to Stalin, Zinoviev provides an unnecessary complication
in the narrative. Even Trotskyists are somewhat embarrassed because of their mentor’s
alliance and conﬂict with Zinoviev.
Like Levi, Zinoviev found security in the past; as an ‘old Bolshevik’, he believed that
Bolshevism had discovered the recipe for revolution, and that all the Communist parties of
the world needed was, in Rosmer’s phrase, ‘mechanical and slavish imitation of Russian
(It was against such nonsense that Lenin directed his last speech to the
Comintern in 1922.)
Zinoviev too invoked decisions of the Second International to
justify his view of the relationship between parties and unions (p. 53). For him, ‘the
International of producers’ associations must form a constituent part (section) of the Tird
Communist International’ (p. 91).
Te logic of this was to denounce the Amsterdam leaders as ‘the chief bulwark of
capitalism, whose days are numbered’ (p. 186). In particular, Zinoviev showed little or no
sense of united-front tactics. As Tosstorﬀ points out, such ‘verbally radical denunciation’
was ‘only comprehensible if there was a ﬁrm conviction that the International Federation
of Trade Unions was already on the point of collapse’ (p. 186) – which it patently was not.
Small wonder that someone like Rosmer, with a real feel for the Western labour movement,
resisted such crude triumphalism. While such diatribes undoubtedly reﬂected the anger felt
by Russians at the failure of their comrades in Western Europe to deliver the solidarity they
so desperately needed, they were scarcely likely to make an impact on rank-and-ﬁle workers.
Workers who were treated as if they were so stupid that they needed to be told that their
chosen leaders were scabs were unlikely to be won over.
By contrast, Lenin revealed a remarkable ﬂexibility, which could have been exemplary if
enough of his followers had had the imagination to build on it. Tosstorﬀ describes how, at
the Second Congress of the Comintern, attended by a signiﬁcant number of syndicalists,
Lenin declared that the Bolshevik idea of the party and syndicalist concept of the ‘organised
minority’ were in fact one and the same thing (p. 157).
When one merely reads the speech
in cold print it is easy to miss what a remarkable position Lenin was adopting. Diﬀerences
that had divided the movement over decades were swept aside as a matter of nothing but
words. It is as if an intransigent Marxist like Alex Callinicos, after years of bitter debate,
were suddenly to turn to Toni Negri and say: ‘All right, you call it the multitude, we call it
the working class. Same thing really.’
Te conservatism was not all on the Bolshevik side. Syndicalism had grown up before
1914 as a product of the deep distrust many workers felt towards the corruption and
opportunism of parliamentary politics. Emile Pouget quoted a worker as saying: ‘Politics,
that the majority of the western European working class settled decades ago.’ Riddell (ed.) 1991,
12. Rosmer 1987, p. 238.
13. Lenin 1966b, pp. 418–32.
14. Lenin 1966a, pp. 235–9.
15. Trotsky pursued a similar strategy, in particular towards the French syndicalists (p. 343).
170 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176
we don’t need it! So if you really must, go and do it in the shithouse!’
It is no more
reasonable to blame syndicalists for ultra-leftism than to blame feminists for the oppression
Yet many of even the best syndicalists were guilty of sectarianism (including Pierre
Monatte, who refused to become a member of the French Communist Party until May
1923, when he could have had an important inﬂuence if he had joined earlier). Tosstorﬀ
gives several examples of the sectarianism which characterised the positions of many of
the revolutionary syndicalists. Tus, the American IWW responded to the foundation of the
Comintern with the statement that ‘we have no reason to be excited by the invitation. Te
programme of the IWW was valid before the war, survived the war without the necessity
to alter even a single point, it is valid now and will with absolute necessity be the programme
of every revolutionary party’ (p. 107). Te self-satisﬁed tone denied any need to learn from
experience. Te idea that new problems needed new solutions was totally absent.
Te French syndicalists were particularly troublesome. Te Amiens Charter, adopted by
the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in 1906, had been intended to save French
trade-unionism from following the path of the British TUC, with its mechanical division
between the political and the economic struggle. It enjoined trade-unionists not to bring
their political ideas into the union. But, by 1921, it had become a fetish which the French
syndicalists were determined to defend in all circumstances. (Subsequent history was to
show that a mere document could not safeguard trade-union independence. After World
War II, the CGT had no organisational link with the Communist Party, but that did not
prevent the Communist Party from eﬀectively controlling it for decades.) And the inﬂuence
of the French extended not only to Germany and other European countries, but even to
Mexico and Argentina (p. 420).
Te founding conference of the RILU was ﬁnally held in the summer of 1921, running
parallel with the latter part of the Tird Congress of the Comintern. Tosstorﬀ gives a
detailed account of the proceedings. It was less than an unqualiﬁed success. Tere was a
degree of triumphalism in the presentation of membership, with an exaggerated level of
support being claimed on the basis of inﬂated ﬁgures (p. 324). Te allocation of weighted
votes to diﬀerent national delegations was in some ways dubious (p. 316). Yet it is scarcely
possible to claim that the Congress was stage-managed. One of those present described the
scenes when the question of the Russian anarchists was raised:
Delegates stood on their chairs and sang the Internationale when Lozovsky tried
to speak. For several minutes the meeting hall was rather like the New York Stock
Exchange. Everybody was shouting, including the spectators, who left their seats
to invade the conference area.
Some reports say that troops were brought in to protect the platform from the delegates
Zinoviev, who should have played a leading role in the conference, pulled out at the last
moment, realising that his unpopularity with the syndicalists would mean that his presence
would do more harm than good (p. 326). As a result, Rosmer was left to play a double role,
both conciliating the syndicalists and defending the Comintern-line. Tus Rosmer believed
16. Dubief 1969, p. 70.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176 171
that the resolution calling for an organic link between parties and unions was ‘uselessly and
dangerously provocative’ but could not publicly oppose it (p. 329).
Te sensitive point at issue in the conference was the question of the constitutional
relationship between the Comintern and the RILU. Te syndicalists fought hard against
anything which might look like subordination of the trade-unions to a political organisation
(p. 331). In view of subsequent developments, their suspicions may appear only too
legitimate, yet often they seemed motivated by a formalism which had relatively little basis
in reality. After all, everyone knew that the RILU was in support of the Russian Revolution
and the Communist International; anyone who did not share that perspective would
scarcely have made the dangerous and diﬃ cult journey to Moscow.
Trotsky summed the whole thing up well in a letter to Rosmer in May 1922. Here, he
argued that the formal wording was of no great signiﬁcance:
Some comrades assure us with the greatest gravity that the failure of the party in
the trade-union movement can be explained by the mistake of the last conference
which established an organic link between the two Internationals. It would seem
that the mass of workers are up in arms because they have learnt that permanent
reciprocal representation has been established between the Comintern and the
RILU. In fact, this is great naïvety. Te masses who are attracted by the RILU are
not interested in such organisational subtleties. What attracts them is the ﬂag of
the proletarian revolution, of communism, of the Soviet Republic, of workers’
and peasants’ Russia. To imagine that a rank-and-ﬁle worker who prefers Moscow
to Amsterdam will be scared oﬀ because an exchange of representatives is
established between the two Internationals is to fail to distinguish the masses
from the trade-union bureaucracy.
He was undoubtedly right. Workers may join a political organisation because of its stated
aims, the conduct and rhetoric of its leaders, or the integrity and determination of its rank-
and-ﬁle members in workplace and local struggles. Rarely, if ever, do they study the rule-
book before joining.
However, to those in attendance, the constitutional issues were clearly of prime
importance. Te second conference in fact revised the constitutional position agreed at the
ﬁrst. Te preoccupation with such organisational matters seems to have prevented the
conferences ﬁnding enough time for adequate discussion of more concrete questions of
Tosstorﬀ also gives us an insight into the key individuals who helped to build the
RILU. Te shortage of reliable cadres was one of the most fundamental problems of the
and the RILU was no exception. Tosstorﬀ explains the ‘diﬃ culties in ﬁnding
suitable collaborators’ by the fact that ‘appropriate cadres were generally already working in
17. See Rosmer 1987, p. 329.
18. Trotsky 1977, p. 179.
19. As Koenen pointed out in his report to the Tird Comintern Congress: ‘. . . the young
communist parties . . . had many devoted members and the rank and ﬁle were impelled by deep
and sincere revolutionary feelings. However, the inadequate number of cadres and their
inexperience prevented them from making the best use of the forces at their disposal.’ Rosmer
1987, p. 154.
172 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176
other more important institutions which had been in existence longer’ (p. 438). A large
number of well-known ﬁgures make a brief appearance on these pages, showing how central
the RILU brieﬂy was to the Communist movement – Dimitrov, James P. Cannon, Gramsci,
Tresso, Larkin and Ho Chi Minh. Andreu Nin plays an important part in the story. But the
others had more important commitments which prevented them spending much time on
After the 1920 Comintern Congress, Alfred Rosmer was kept in Russia for seventeen
months in order to work on the founding of the RILU. Although he undoubtedly did an
invaluable job, his absence was keenly felt in France, where the Communist Party leadership
fell into the hands of careerist opportunists. Tosstorﬀ shows the role played by Rosmer in
the founding conference of the RILU, and the way in which he acted as an indispensable
bridge between syndicalists and Bolsheviks. Rosmer was a man of great perceptiveness and
unquestioned integrity, who knew how to lead but also how to learn and listen; little
surprise, then, that he did not last long in the Comintern once it began to degenerate.
Lozovsky, who had been a Bolshevik before 1905, and who became the ‘uncontested
leading ﬁgure’ (p. 350) of the RILU at its founding congress, was a diﬀerent type. He was
a genuine internationalist who had opposed World War I as a member of the Nashe Slovo
group in Paris, and, in the early years of the RILU, had showed authentic leadership-
He had experience of the international labour-movement, and a knowledge of
languages. Unlike many in the movement, he believed in punctuality (p. 315). But, unlike
Rosmer, he did not resist the bureaucratisation of the Comintern, and remained secretary-
general of the RILU throughout its existence, although it became no more than a pure
puppet-organisation for the Stalinist leadership of the Comintern. He survived the purges
of the 1930s, only to be shot in 1952 in Stalin’s very last, anti-Semitic purge.
Although Tosstorﬀ does document the later years of the RILU, there is relatively little of
interest. As he notes, after 1924, the RILU ‘ceased to embrace diﬀerent tendencies. From
now on only party members or Communist sympathisers belonged to it’ (p. 529). Its
conferences took on the ‘character of a mass performance rather than a place for the
discussion of the political line’ (p. 670).
Te British General Strike is only touched on lightly (p. 626). Te ‘Tird Period’ was just
as pernicious for the RILU as elsewhere; and when the ‘Popular Front’ replaced the ‘Tird
Period’, with a rapprochement with reformists and the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ on the
agenda, the RILU clearly no longer had any reason to exist.
Tis was, notably, the moment
20. In 1934, Marcel Martinet, a close associate of Rosmer and Monatte and a founder-
member of the French Communist Party, who had known Lozovsky during his time in Paris,
wrote of him: ‘He was not a person of the ﬁrst rank, and never became one. But to us, who were
among his comrades at that time, and knew him well, he provided a real lesson as to what the
force of the revolution can make of a human being, and at the same time showed the limits of
what it can do. In 1922 he came to France secretly and we had a very long discussion with him.
When he left us, one of us expressed our common opinion: we found that he had grown a
hundred yards taller, his thinking had become richer, deeper and more solid. At the time the
Russian revolution was in full force, and could allow the people who served it to grow. Later
on . . . later on Lozovsky again became the Dridzo [Lozovsky’s real name] that we knew, he had
again taken on the original form of Dridzo.’ (p. 721.) See also Rosmer 1987, p. 70.
21. As Russia ceased to be a ‘workers’ state’ in any meaningful sense of the term, new
contradictions emerged. Western Communists faced diﬃ culty in campaigning for a ban on
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176 173
of the reuniﬁcation of the French unions (pp. 685–6). But, while the creation of the RILU
had taken place amid open and heated debate, its demise merely required an instruction
from above. In fact, as Tosstorﬀ points out, the dissolution was ‘totally in breach of the
statutes’ (p. 704). But, since the RILU had long ago lost any political independence, the
survival of statutes from 1921 was utterly irrelevant.
Although the very existence of Tosstorﬀ’s book is an assertion of the historical signiﬁcance
of the RILU, he is not uncritical towards his subject. He makes a number of important
qualifying points about problems raised by the whole strategy of the RILU.
Firstly, he stresses the importance of timescale. In the early twenties, the Bolsheviks still
held to the perspective of spreading revolution, at least to the heartlands of Western Europe,
within a very few years. It was the failure of the German Revolution in 1923 that threw this
orientation into question. Obviously, in a situation of heightening revolutionary crisis, it
could reasonably be expected that large numbers of workers would change allegiance in a
relatively short space of time, as had happened, to some extent, with the formation of the
mass Communist parties in France, Germany and elsewhere in 1920–1. After the German
defeat, a much longer-term strategy towards the winning over of reformist workers was
Tosstorﬀ illustrates this with an account of the RILU’s rôle in the international crisis
which arose after the French army occupied the Ruhr in 1923. Tis produced a split in
the Amsterdam-leadership. Te IFTU secretary, Edo Fimmen, who had been an anti-
Communist, now supported the idea of coming to an understanding with the Russians, a
shift which cost him his job (pp. 535–46). If the revolutionary process in Germany had not
been blocked, the whole RILU strategy might have worked out diﬀerently.
Secondly, Tosstorﬀ claims that as the postwar revolutionary wave began to subside, and
the Comintern turned to the ‘United-Front’ tactic, ‘the RILU proved to be an important
organisational obstacle to its realisation’ (p. 14). In a sense, he is obviously right, yet the
contradiction was not so much in the intentions of the Comintern strategists as in the
objective reality which they confronted. Te Comintern was a new organisation, born of
the bankruptcy of the Second International and stimulated by the Russian Revolution; it
had to consolidate itself and its membership. Yet, at the same time, the majority of workers
remained under reformist inﬂuence. Te simultaneous pursuit of party-building and of
united-front activity, diﬃ cult and confusing as it may sometimes have seemed to the
membership, was the only possible way of dealing with the contradictory demands of the
situation and preserving some hope of seizing the revolutionary possibilities inherent in it.
For success, revolutionaries needed both unity and clarity – the clarity of a revolutionary
minority with a distinct programme, and the broadest possible unity in action. To achieve
this, it was necessary to understand that clarity does not mean sectarianism any more than
unity means abandonment of criticism.
Tirdly, Tosstorﬀ points to what Jack Tanner had described as the ‘illogicality’ (p. 164)
of the RILU-strategy. Te Comintern was strongly opposed to any splits within national
trade-union bodies. Indeed, as Lenin had written in Left-Wing Communism, revolutionaries
should ‘resort to various stratagems . . . evasions and subterfuges’ if necessary in order to
night-work in bakeries when such a policy was not properly implemented in the USSR (p. 632).
Te grotesque claims about the Stakhanovites aroused scepticism among skilled workers in the
West (p. 699).
174 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176
remain in the reformist unions. Yet, on the international level, the Comintern was setting
up an alternative trade-union centre, rather than trying to work within the Amsterdam
International. Again, the contradiction lay within the circumstances; the majority of
workers had obviously not been won away from reformism. National trade-unions were
ﬁghting bodies of the working class, and any split would be a serious defeat for workers; as
workers understood, the most reactionary and corrupt union is better than no union at all.
But an international body was, of necessity, an organ of propaganda rather than a direct
means of struggle; the Comintern needed some open and public manifestation of its trade-
Tony Cliﬀ and Donny Gluckstein, two historians committed to the overall strategy of
the Comintern, have argued that ‘the trouble with the whole concept of RILU was not
merely that it was ambiguous, but that it was fundamentally wrong’.
Tey blame this on
the fact that ‘its founders did not understand western trade unions’.
Tis is something of
an oversimpliﬁcation. If their criticisms of Zinoviev are amply justiﬁed, they are less valid
for other RILU-leaders; in particular, few people understood the labour-movement of
the day better than Alfred Rosmer (though, admittedly, Rosmer often failed to win his
arguments with the likes of Zinoviev).
Cliﬀ and Gluckstein are undoubtedly right to criticise the foolish triumphalism in the
RILU’s claims of membership. More signiﬁcantly, they point to an ambiguity at the heart
of the whole RILU-project:
Once set up, RILU could pursue two courses. It could recognise the period it was
in, and stand as an organisation of the militant rank and ﬁle looking to organise
the minority with advanced ideas or who were involved in struggle; or it could
pose as a conventional trade union body. It turned down the ﬁrst alternative. But
to achieve the second it would have to broaden its platform greatly and abandon
much of its politics . . .
As a result, they conclude that
Te original call for the conquest of the unions was absolutely correct. But the
way it was framed led to serious mistakes in judgement. RILU’s strategy depended
on the hope that, in the short term, unions could be conquered wholesale or
substantial sections split oﬀ. Tis excluded the possibility of building a rank-
and-ﬁle movement which could keep up a consistent challenge to the oﬃ cial
In claiming, with the beneﬁt of hindsight, that the RILU underestimated the deep roots of
the trade-union bureaucracy, Cliﬀ and Gluckstein were certainly right. Teir argument for
a rank-and-ﬁle strategy oﬀers food for thought. But perhaps their argument (developed in
a book centred on the British General Strike) suﬀers from an excessively Anglocentric point
22. Cliﬀ and Gluckstein 1986, p. 49.
23. Cliﬀ and Gluckstein 1986, p. 9.
24. Cliﬀ and Gluckstein 1986, pp. 50–1.
Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176 175
For the Comintern, the French syndicalists (and their disciples in many other
countries) were a more pressing strategic target.
So what is the ﬁnal verdict on the RILU? In his introduction (p. 13) Tosstorﬀ rejects the
conclusions of Geoﬀrey Swain, who declares that ‘the fate of the Proﬁntern will never be
more than a footnote in the history of the international labour movement – it never
amounted to much’. Swain claims, with some justice, that, after 1923, the RILU was
‘unnecessary’, and explained its survival by the fact that its dissolution would have meant
‘admitting, for the ﬁrst time, that Lenin had been wrong, not only in establishing the
Proﬁntern but also in his trade union policy from 1912–14’.
Swain’s implication is clearly
that the RILU should never have been founded in the ﬁrst place.
Yet Tosstorﬀ’s own conclusions are relatively modest. Te RILU did not live up to
early expectations: ‘the confrontation with syndicalism scarcely proved to be the great
breakthrough in the overall balance-sheet for Communism which it had appeared to be in
the mood of revolutionary change in 1918–19’ (p. 436). And he seems to concur with
Alfred Rosmer, perhaps better qualiﬁed to judge than anyone else, who wrote in 1924 that
‘the RILU was not a real International, for Internationals could not be made out of
minorities, organisations were needed. Now it had fulﬁlled its tasks and could not grow any
more’ (p. 613).
Tosstorﬀ’s ﬁnal judgement is as follows:
So all in all the RILU revealed itself to be an important and inﬂuential factor for
the international Communist movement above all in its ﬁrst phase, by enabling
Bolshevism to win over a current that was hitherto sceptical towards Marxist
social democracy, and in general by broadening its inﬂuence. But later, after the
consolidation of the Communist movement, it proved to be an obstacle, which
was also too bound up with revolutionary expectations and promises . . . In the
international trade-union movement it was an expression of the deep splits
produced by the First World War, but it was not able to contribute to overcoming
them. (p. 715.)
It is hard to point to any great success achieved by the RILU. But, if the RILU was a failure,
it was a part of the failure of the Comintern itself. Te Bolshevik Revolution was launched
with the expectation that, within a relatively few years, it could spread to the heart of
European capitalism. It was a desperate but not inherently implausible gamble.
In 1923, the RILU made its plans for spreading solidarity with the German Revolution
if it took place (p. 581). Te imminence of such a revolution had its impact throughout the
international working class, notably in the sharp swing to the left in the French Communist
Party (p. 527). A soviet Germany would have exercised a strong centripetal pull that might
have broken down much of the conservatism and sectarianism within the movement.
Without a German Revolution, the RILU had exhausted its reason for existence and its
survival was merely the sorry tale which Tosstorﬀ tells in his concluding chapters. Te
RILU failed because the Comintern failed, because the Russian Revolution failed. But that
failure was not inevitable. Human actions had their role to play, within the context of
25. Tere is no discussion of the RILU in Cliﬀ 1979.
26. Swain 1987, p. 73.
176 Review Articles / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 164–176
objective circumstances. Te RILU was an imaginative attempt to deal with the unique
problems of a unique conjuncture. As such, it repays study, and Tosstorﬀ’s narrative is a
valuable contribution to our understanding.
Te RILU leaves behind some tough questions, and it would be wrong to imagine that
there exists any simple ‘Leninist’ solution. Real life, as Tosstorﬀ’s complex and detailed
narrative demonstrates, is much more diﬃ cult to deal with than any simpliﬁed schema
abstracted from the history of the movement.
Reviewed by Ian Birchall
Broué, Pierre 1997, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste, Paris: Fayard.
Carr, Edward H. 1964, Socialism in One Country, Volume Tree, Part II, London: Macmillan.
Cliﬀ, Tony 1979, Lenin, Volume IV: Te Bolsheviks and World Revolution, London: Pluto.
—— 2001, International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition, London: Bookmarks.
Cliﬀ, Tony & Gluckstein, Donny 1986, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: Te General Strike of
1926, London: Bookmarks.
Dubief, Henri 1969, Le Syndicalisme révolutionnaire, Paris: Armand Colin.
Fernbach, David 1999, ‘Rosa Luxemburg’s Political Heir: An Appreciation of Paul Levi’, New
Left Review, I, 238: 3–25.
Lenin, Vladimir 1966a, Collected Works, Volume 31, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
—— 1966b, Collected Works, Volume 33, Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Riddell, John (ed.) 1991, Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!, Volume 2
(Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920), New York: Pathﬁnder.
Rosmer, Alfred 1987, Lenin’s Moscow, London: Bookmarks.
Serge, Victor 2001, Mémoires d’un révolutionnaire et autres écrits politiques, Paris: Robert
Swain, Geoﬀrey 1987, ‘Was the Proﬁntern Really Necessary?’, European History Quarterly, 17, 1:
Tosstorﬀ, Reiner 2000a, ‘“Moscow” or “Amsterdam”? Te Red International of Labour Unions,
1920/21–1937’, Communist History Network Newsletter, 8, July 2000.
—— 2000b, ‘Te Links between the Comintern and the RILU’, Revolutionary History, 7, 4:
Trotsky, Leon 1977, Le Mouvement communiste en France (1919–1939), Paris: Éditions de
27. Tanks to Donny Gluckstein, George Paizis and Andy Strouthous for helpful comments.
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/146544609X12562798328251
Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 177–185 brill.nl/hima
A: al-amal al-lā-māddī. – E: immaterial
labour. – F: travail immatériel. – R:
nematerial’nyij trud. – S: trabajo inmaterial. –
C: feiwuzhi de laodong
Te expression ‘immaterial labour’ was coined
by Henri Storch in the early nineteenth
century, following Jean-Baptiste Say and the
French ‘ideologues’. Tese economists were
concerned with defusing Adam Smith’s notion
that ‘the labour of some of the most respectable
orders in the society is [. . .] unproductive of
any value’ (1776, Bk.II, Ch.III, 265). Marx,
who devotes much space to this debate about,
and above all against, this thesis in Teories of
Surplus Value, cites Storch’s discussion of
‘immaterial labour’, but does not however
adopt the expression in his own vocabulary.
Marx’s concern is ‘the relation between
intellectual and material production’ on the
basis of an analysis of ‘the speciﬁc form of
material production’ and of the ‘organisation
[Gliederung] of society’ deriving from that
form (MECW 31, 182).
In the context of neoliberal discourse,
especially about the ‘new economy’ and talk
about the ‘dematerialisation of the economy’,
the expression ‘immaterial labour’ has had a
second life at the end of the twentieth century,
this time with a broad inﬂuence, radiating
even over the Left. Strictly speaking, it is a
non-concept [Unbegriﬀ ], with at most a
polemical function against sedimented notions
of labour from the iron-and-coal age of
industry or the Fordist formulation of the
opposition between ‘mental’ and ‘manual’
labour. ‘Of course it is nonsense to speak
of “immaterial labour”. Labour is always
material!’, says Antonio Negri (1996, 97).
Like other Italian ‘post-workerists’, Negri –
who does not seem to be aware of the history
of the concept and Marx’s rejection of
it – never tires of using ‘immaterial labour’ as
a collect-all concept for all post-Fordist
labour and for the interpellation of a
new revolutionary subject (i.e., the ‘mass
intellectuals’ as successors to the Fordist ‘mass
workers’). In this way, not only is the concept
of labour expanded beyond the boundaries of
formal social labour, but it is also stretched
out to include all possible intellectual,
communicative, and emotional aspects of
activity or dimensions of production – from
ﬁnancial speculation to giving birth to
children. Te expression functions here not as
an (epistemological or ontological) analytical
concept, but as a myth in the Sorelian sense,
aiming in a communist direction, as a political
slogan that aims at a new proletarian
identiﬁcation of the multiply divided working
people in ‘post-Fordism’, iridescently phrased
in order to oﬀer something to everyone.
From an epistemological viewpoint,
‘immaterial’ would only be the ‘interior’ of
consciousness, and not even the expression
thereof. Pure thought or imaginative activity
could be considered ‘immaterial labour’. But
that is not what is meant in ‘immaterial-
labour’ discourse. Even if the discourse is this
vulgar philosophy and even if its mobilisatory
intention (‘Immaterial workers of the world,
unite!’; Immaterial Workers 2000) is illusory,
it draws a certain amount of evidence from
the expansion of the computer as a ‘universal
or, rather, a central tool through which all
activities might pass’ (Hardt and Negri 2000,
292). It also draws upon the change in labour
and the division of labour eﬀected thereby,
including gender-relations. For this reason, it
is appropriate to call the use of ‘immaterial
Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism
178 W. F. Haug / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 177–185
labour’ a dialectic of appearance – which is also
more generally appropriate for the discourse of
the ‘“postindustrial”’ ‘“dematerialisation” of
money and possessions’, as it was called in a
review of Rifkin (Deckstein 2000).
Because the post-workerist vocabulary is
connected to Marx (even while ignoring his
critique of Storch’s ‘immaterial-labour’
concept) and, because, while appealing to
Marx in the name of ‘immaterial labour’, it
declares at the same time the redundancy of
his theory of value (Negri and Hardt 1994,
9ﬀ), it is necessary to study Marx’s vocabulary,
in which the expressions ‘material/immaterial’
have several meanings. In order to avoid
equivocations and to clarify Marx’s seldomly-
used expression ‘immaterial’, it is necessary to
explicate the range in which he uses the term
‘material’ as complementary.
1. Marx does not indeed adopt the expression
‘immaterial labour’, but he does occasionally
speak of ‘non-material production’ (e.g.,
MECW 34, 121–46); again almost verbatim
in Results of the Immediate Process of Production,
in Capital, Volume 1, 1047) in contrast to
‘immediately material production’ (MECW 4,
49) or simply ‘material production’ (Grundrisse,
81). He states, paraphrasing Say, that the
‘ideological etc. classes’ (MECW 31, 30)
produce ‘“immaterial” commodities’ (ibid.). It
could seem that the talk of ‘the process of
material production’ (Capital, Volume 1, 173)
or of the ‘material mode of production’ would
posit ‘immaterial’ as the complementary
opposite in these cases.
1.1 Marx mostly follows everyday speech
that uses ‘material’ in many ways, partly for
‘physical consistency [stoﬄ ich]’, ‘corporeal’,
then again for ‘ﬁnancial’, ‘economic’, ‘social’,
or simply ‘real’. Tus, in the German Ideology,
production is conceived as the ‘material’
‘fundamental form of this activity, on which
all other mental, political, religious etc.
[activity] depends’ (MECW 5, 75–81).
Regarding the wage-levels and living standards,
Marx can say: ‘the material situation of the
worker has improved, but at the cost of his
social situation’ (Wage Labour and Capital, 98;
Marx writes retrospectively that, as editor
of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842/3, he ‘ﬁrst
experienced the embarrassment of having to
speak of so-called material interests’ (MECW
29, 261; trans. modiﬁed). ‘Material’ means
here: pertaining to property or income. For
polite society, it was understood that the
façade that behaviour is guided by ideas or is
idealistic had to be kept up. One does not
speak of money; one has it. Te pseudonym
for abstract wealth was borrowed from the old
metaphysics, which ﬁrmly held ‘the opposition
between the material and the immaterial to be
insuperable’ (Hegel 1971a, 32) and which
named the material as the complementary
opposite of the ideal. One can observe in
Marx what Brecht means when he says that
the mode of speaking of the classical thinkers
often resembles shields that are dented from
their struggle with their opponents. Tis is
why he puts ‘so-called’ before ‘material
interests’. In interpreting Marx, one must
always begin with the recognition that he uses
the expression ‘material’ equivocally.
Te epistemologically inﬂuenced vocabulary,
on the other hand, can be observed where
Marx polemicises in the Holy Family against
transforming ‘real, objective chains that exist
outside of me into merely ideal, merely subjective
chains existing merely in me – thereby
transforming all external sensual struggles into
pure intellectual struggles, and accordingly
wanting ‘to abolish material estrangement
[Entfremdung] by purely inward spiritual
action’ (MECW 4, 82). In the ‘Postface’ to the
second edition of Capital, Volume 1, he states:
‘With me the reverse is true: the ideal is
nothing but the material world reﬂected in the
mind of man, and translated into forms of
thought’ (Capital, 102). Tis is abbreviated
because it leaps over the insight of the Teses
on Feuerbach about the practical embeddedness
of this transplanting and translation, eﬀacing
the diﬀerence from Feuerbach’s sensual
realism, which above all favoured the
corresponding misinterpretation in Soviet
Marxism since Plekhanov.
1.2 With his talk of the ‘immaterial’
commodities of the ‘ideological etc. classes’,
Marx critically connects to Adam Smith and
W. F. Haug / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 177–185 179
Henri Storch. For Smith, the issue is the value-
theoretical status of services in the context of
diﬀerentiating between productive and
unproductive labour. Here, ‘not material’
clearly means that the product is not a graspable
‘thing’ in the everyday sense of the term. In
Capital, Volume 1, Marx approaches the
concept of the commodity in terms of its kind
of being [Seinsart] in that he conceives it as
‘ﬁrst of all, an external object, a thing’ (126).
He does not subsume its property of satisfying
human needs under any such ontological
restriction. ‘Te nature of these needs, whether
they arise, for example, from the stomach or
the imagination, makes no diﬀerence’ (ibid.).
In a footnote, he lets Nicholas Barbon speak:
‘Desire [. . .] is the appetite of the mind’ (ibid.;
Barbon 1696, 2). Furthermore, ‘how the thing
[Sache] satisﬁes human need’ (ibid.; trans.
modiﬁed) should play no role.
In explicating the diﬀerentiation between
productive and unproductive labour adopted
by Smith, Marx separates the concept of the
productive from its relation to the ‘external
thing [Ding]’ und connects it to the social
relation in which a labour is performed. Te
concept thereby reveals its relativity or its
particularity [Standpunktbezogenheit]. Tat
which, from the standpoint of capital, is
productive because it forms surplus-value is
not necessarily so from the standpoint of the
preservation of life, and vice-versa. In
capitalism, therefore, he states emphatically, it
is not good fortune, but rather, ‘a misfortune’
‘to be a productive worker’ (Capital, 644).
Teachers and singers, according to his
examples, perform productive labour when
they teach or sing in a capital-relation. Nassau
William Senior’s involuntarily comical
sentence makes this explanation laughable:
‘According to Smith, the Hebrew lawgiver
[i.e. Moses] was an unproductive worker’
(Principes fondamentaux de l’econ. pol., Paris
1836, 198; cf. MECW 31, 184).
Te concept of value, moreover, becomes
‘dematerialised [entdinglicht]’ in that the
notion of value as a material [dinglich] attribute
is comprehended as a displaced [ver-rückte]
way of expressing a reiﬁed [verdinglichtes]
social relation within the framework of
production based on private division of labour
[ privat-arbeitsteiliger Produktion]. When Marx
characterises value as ‘something immaterial,
something indiﬀerent to its material [stoﬄ ich]
consistency’ (Grundrisse, 309), he does so in
his confrontation with Jean-Baptiste Say whose
discussion uses the English terms ‘matter’ and
‘immaterial’. If ‘immaterial’ means here
‘indiﬀerent to material consistency’, then the
concepts ‘material consistency [Stoﬀ ]’ and
‘material [stoﬄ ich]’ – in Aristotle’s metaphysics,
the complementarily subordinated counterpart
of ‘form’ and ‘formal’ – have the advantage, in
contrast to the concepts ‘matter [Materie]’ and
‘the material [das Materielle]’ in philosophical
terminology, of not being appropriated by an
epistemological framework. Marx reformulates
the Aristotelian opposition of form vs. matter
[Stoﬀ ] as that between social form-
determination and physical-material [physisch-
stoﬄ icher] constitution. Relations of production,
however, though they are ‘not-material [nicht-
stoﬄ ich]’, (but rather, social) are in no way
‘immaterial’ in the philosophical sense. Te
‘invisible threads’ that capital ‘pulls through’
the production-process are those of domination
[Herrschaft]. But they are not as invisible in
the factory – although, here too, they have, as
Brecht put it, ‘slipped into functionality
[Dreigroschenprozess]’ – as they are in the
product in which ‘capital, as a relationship
of form [Formbeziehung] seems to have
disappeared’. Tus, that which is non-physical
[unstoﬄ iches] like this form-relationship can
very well belong to the material in the
philosophical sense. Tis is true too of physical
relations [Verhältnisse und Beziehungen]:
gravitation is neither physical [stoﬄ ich] nor
visible, yet it is a fundamental condition of
all that is physical [Stoﬄ ichen]. Moreover,
there are visible energy-processes that are not
physical [stoﬄ ich], but material [materiell].
Lacking a more developed conceptual apparatus,
Hegel formulates the mode of being of light as
‘non-corporeal, indeed immaterial matter’
(Enzyklopädie II, W 9, 119), and he says of
sound that ‘as immaterial, it escapes’ (291); of
magnetism, however, he states that there is
‘nothing material that functions there, just
pure immaterial form’ (205).
180 W. F. Haug / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 177–185
1.3 In his confrontation with Smith’s
value-theoretical ordering of the activities of
the higher classes – which Marx categorised
as the ‘ideological orders [ideologischen
Stände]’ – Marx encounters Storch. In 1815,
Storch used his concept of ‘immaterial labour’
or ‘travail immatériel’ (Cours d’écon. pol. etc.,
1823, III, 218), to which he attached the
concept of the ‘biens internes’, or ‘inner goods’
(241; cf. MECW 31, 181), because he wanted,
contra Smith, to recognise those élites engaged
with such goods as ‘productive’. Storch’s
concept of ‘immaterial labour’ follows the
diction of Jean-Baptiste Say’s Traité d’économie
politique (1803) which re-baptises those
activities that Smith classiﬁed unproductive as
‘productifs des produits immatériels’ (1817, I,
120) – that is, he displaced the negating preﬁx
of ‘un-productive’ onto the material of the
produced goods. Comte Destutt de Tracy,
chief theorist of the ideologists, follows this in
turn. He begins by declaring that all labour is
productive, regardless of whether it produces
material or immaterial goods; then he
diﬀerentiates, again cutting across both kinds
of labour, between rapidly consumed and
long-lived goods: ‘a discovery is of eternal use
[. . .] but that of a ball, a concert, or a theatrical
performance is quickly over and immediately
disappears’ (Eléments d’idéologie, 1826, III,
In the lectures on political economy that he
held for Grand Duke Nicholas in 1815, and
that Say published in Paris, Henri Storch
baptises the labour that produces immaterial
goods as ‘immaterial labour’ and ascribes to it
the production of the ‘biens internes ou les
éléments de la civilisation’ as the prerequisite
for the production of national wealth (Cours
d’écon. pol. etc., III, 217). Smith’s mistake, he
argues, was ‘not to have diﬀerentiated
immaterial values and riches’ (218). ‘Terewith
the matter is really closed’, interjects Marx
(MECW 31, 181; trans. modiﬁed). Storch
was not even able ‘to formulate the task, let
alone solve it. [. . .] In order to recognise the
relation between mental and material
production, it is above all necessary to grasp
the latter not as itself a universal category, but
in its speciﬁc historical form’; otherwise it is
‘impossible to grasp that which is speciﬁc
about the mental production corresponding
to it, and about the interaction between the
two’ (MECW 31, 181; trans. modiﬁed).
By ‘immaterial labour’ (for which Marx
uses ‘mental production’), Storch means ‘all
the professional activities of the ruling class
that perform social functions as a business’. He
was, however unable to understand the
existence of these functions, and of the social
orders that perform them, in relation to ‘the
speciﬁc historical organisation of the relations
of production’; nor was he able to comprehend
‘the ideological components of the ruling
classes’ of the ‘free mental production of this
given social formation’ (MECW 31, 182f ).
Marx expressly agrees with Storch’s reproach
of Smith’s critics for not having diﬀerentiated
between ‘valeurs immatérielles’ and ‘richesses’,
and Marx translates it into his own language:
‘Tey insist that the production of intellectual
products or the production of services is
material production’ (183). Otherwise, Marx
judges Storch as not having gone beyond
‘general superﬁcial analogies and relationships
between mental and material wealth’. Marx
obviously considers Storch’s category of
‘immaterial labour’ unusable. He continues to
use the concept of ‘intellectual’ or ‘mental’
labour, which is concerned with mental
1.4 If one were to translate ‘immaterial
[immateriell]’ as ‘not-physical [nicht-stoﬄ ich]’,
then one could clarify what is problematic
about the expression ‘immaterial labour’
through the nonsensical concept ‘non-physical
labour’. Te notions spontaneously associated
with the diﬀerence between ‘mental’ or
‘intellectual’ vs. ‘corporeal’ labour – a
diﬀerence that the class-structure has turned
into an opposition – can be observed in a
comment by Ludwig Feuerbach: ‘Hans Sachs
was, indeed, a shoemaker as well as a poet. But
the shoes were the work of his hands, whereas
his poems were the work of his mind. As the
eﬀect is, so is the cause’ (1986, 22). However,
what Marx said in his well-known example of
the master-builder is true too for the
shoemaker, namely, that he put together the
shoe ‘in his head’ and with the help of his
W. F. Haug / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 177–185 181
learnt qualiﬁcations before he crafted it in
leather (Capital, Volume 1, 284). And vice
versa, Hans Sachs wrote his pieces on paper,
with his own hand, using pen and ink, as a
practical performance in space and time. Te
diﬀerence is thus relative in terms of the
physical side, and only the predominance,
cemented by class-position, of the one or the
other side raises it to an opposition.
Te most general deﬁnition of labour that
Marx gives is true for intellectual labour no
less than for those named by the reiﬁed term
‘manual labourers’: ‘on the one hand all labour
is an expenditure of human labour-power in
the physiological sense’, and on the other
hand, ‘in a particular form and with a deﬁnite
aim’ (Capital, Volume 1, 137). By labour-
power, Marx means ‘the aggregate [Inbegriﬀ ]
of those mental and physical capabilities
existing in the physical form, the living
personality, of a human being, capabilities
which he sets in motion whenever he produces
a use-value of any kind’ (270). What workers
employ are their ‘natural forces which belongs
to his own body, his arms, legs, head and
hands’, and at the end of the process ‘a result
emerges which had already being conceived by
the worker at the beginning, hence already
existed ideally’ (283–4). ‘Ideal’ means here: ‘in
the imagination’, as ‘plan’. Marx emphasises
that ‘a purposeful will that is expressed as
attention’, becomes all the more important
the less the worker ‘is attracted by the nature
of the work and the way in which it has to be
accomplished, and the less, therefore, he
enjoys it as the free play of his own physical
and mental powers’ (284; trans. modiﬁed).
Marx thus uses an integral concept of
labour that encompasses the ‘corporeal’ and
the ‘mental’ dimensions. In order to establish
the connection among various kinds of
labour – especially predominantly ‘mental’
and predominantly ‘corporeal’ – he coined the
concept of the ‘total worker [Gesamtarbeiter]’
to account for the transformation of the
product into one of a ‘combination of workers’,
‘each of whom stands at a diﬀerent distance
from the actual manipulation of the object of
labour’ (643). Tis is the key to the analysis of
all relations in which ‘the product ceases to be
the product of isolated direct labour, and the
combination of social activity appears, rather,
as the producer’ (Grundrisse, 709).
If one also considers that, in the wake of the
neoliberal expansion of the world-market that
was named ‘globalisation’ at the end of the
twentieth century, the ‘unit of measure’ of
value corresponding to the marché universel –
as the world-market is called in the translation
of Capital by Roy and Marx (MEGA II.7/
483) – is ‘the average unit of general labour’
(584), then important conceptual approaches
for further reﬂection under the conditions of
transnational, high-tech capitalism emerge.
2. Te ‘thoughtless enthusiasm’ that has been
ignited by digitalisation as the ‘new technology of
decorporealisation [Entkörperlichung]’ indicates
that the ‘New Immaterials’ have the wherewithal
to become the component capable of bearing the
‘aﬃ rmative culture’ of the twenty-ﬁrst century
(List 2001, 206). But even critical currents
have been inﬂuenced by it. Already in the
1960s, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger opined
that ‘immaterial exploitation’ of the subjects
by the ‘consciousness industry’ had superseded
the material exploitation of workers (cf. 1969,
7–17). A generation later, the Zapatista
Subcommandante Marcos describes the new
world-order that neoliberalism is striving for
as ‘planetary, permanent, immediate, and
immaterial’ (2000, 14) – but without any
In the ﬁrst speculative high phase of the
‘new economy’ at the turn of the twenty-ﬁrst
century, theories of the ‘immaterialisation
[Immaterialisierung]’ or ‘dephysicalisation
[Entstoﬄ ichung]’ of the economy were rampant.
‘Immaterial labour’ seemed to be ‘the new
dominant in the chain of value-creation’
(Möller 2000, 215). ‘In this new world
that trades in information and services, in
consciousness and experiences [Erlebenisse
und Erfahrungen], and in which the material
yields to the immaterial and commercialised
time becomes more important than the
appropriation of space, the conventional
conceptions of property relations and markets,
that have been the determinants of life in the
industrial age, are increasingly losing meaning’
182 W. F. Haug / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 177–185
(Rifkin 2000). Te ‘new design-science’,
explains one of the especially emphatic authors
who wants to base his analysis on Capital –
without noticing that he paraphrases the
commodity-aesthetic’s most general mode of
eﬀectivity (cf. Haug 1980, 51f ), – ‘must
deﬁne its task as marketing before the product.
Only then will it be mature enough for an
economy that appears increasingly “soft”
and immaterial’ (Bolz 1994, 74f ). Te crash
of the new market and especially 11 September
2001 and the reaction of the USA, whose
‘world war against terror’ veils the war for the
control of the oil-supplies (cf. Haug 2003,
199–276), have indeed muﬄ ed the aﬃ rmative
discourse that ‘the material yields before the
immaterial’ – though not the critical discourse
of the post-workerists.
2.1 Te Italian workerists, who in the last
decade of the ‘golden years’ of Fordism agitated
for a revolutionary politics to the left of the
Italian Communist Party and unions among
the ‘mass workers [Massenarbeitern]’ in
northern Italian industries, lost their mass
basis in the transition to automation (cf.
Wright 2000). When, about ten years later, at
the same time as the fall of the Berlin Wall,
many Italian universities were occupied by
students, former workerists identiﬁed in this
movement the new subject of social change.
Tis was the birth-hour of ‘post-workerism’. It
declared that students are ‘immaterial workers’
and then expanded this concept to include
ever more groups. Its representatives in Italy
are therefore called ‘the immaterialists
Negri sees in the movements of university-
and high-school students ‘the ﬁrst expressions
of the revolt of the “immaterial labour” ’ (1996,
82). But this is overly inclusive, overlooking
all diﬀerences and ﬁssures: ‘to an ever-greater
extent, labor in our societies is tending toward
immaterial labor’ (Negri and Hardt 1994,
10). Here, all labour is without hesitation
renamed as ‘immaterial labour’. But it is then
even more narrowly deﬁned: as ‘intellectual,
aﬀective-emotional and techno-scientiﬁc
activity’ and, in science-ﬁctional language, as
‘labor of the cyborg’ (ibid.). Finally: ‘Te
increasingly complex networks of laboring
cooperation, the integration of caring labor
across the spectrum of production, and the
computerisation of a wide range of laboring
processes characterise the contemporary
passage in the nature of labor’ (ibid.). With
the technical professions resulting from the
victory of the computer, commodity-aesthetic
realisation-functions are thrown together – for
Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘immaterial labour’ in its
real sense is this ‘audio-visual production,
advertisement, fashion, software-production,
photography, cultural activities and so on’
(1993, 68; cf. Negri, Lazzarato, Virno 1998,
57). Furthermore, all activities that have to do
with the production and handling of aﬀects
(Negri and Hardt, 2000, 293) are subsumed
under ‘immaterial labour’. In the more narrow
sense of ‘informationised [informatisierte]’
labour, everything that produces – in Say’s
(unstated) concept – ‘immaterial goods’
(which the authors mistake for digitalised
goods (306; for a critique thereof, Haug 2003,
97–115) qualiﬁes as ‘immaterial labour’. Ten
again, they mean services of all kinds among
which industrial labour is more or less thrown
in: ‘Te material labor of the production of
durable goods mixes with and tend towards
immaterial labor’ (Hardt and Negri 2000,
In order to belong to the category of
‘immaterial labour’, according to the post-
workerists, one must not be in a formal or
informal labour-relation. Tey justify this
abolition of boundaries with the Marxian
category of the ‘general intellect’ from the
Grundrisse (706). Te theoreticians of the
new economy consider the ‘scientiﬁc basing
[Wissensbasiertheit]’ of production (which
Marx diagnosed already at the threshold of
the nineteenth century) as the speciﬁc
characteristic of high-tech forces of production:
ﬁxed capital is no longer limited to its ‘material
mode of existence’ in the form of machinery
(Capital, Volume 1, 577) when ‘general social
knowledge has become a direct force of
production’ (Grundrisse, 706). Following the
path of the ‘socialist’ entrepreneur Robert
Owen, who in his Essays on the Formation of
W. F. Haug / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 177–185 183
the Human Character (1840, 31) reproaches
his own kind for investing in machines while
neglecting the ‘body and mind’ of people,
Marx reﬂects that ‘from the standpoint
of the direct production-process’, the ‘full
development of the individual’ can be seen as
the ‘production of ﬁxed capital ’, ‘this ﬁxed
capital being man himself ’, who becomes a
new subject in whose head resides the
accumulated knowledge of society’ (Grundrisse,
711–2). According to the sketch in the
Grundrisse, capital ‘calls to life all powers of
science and of nature, as of social combination
and of social intercourse, in order to make the
creation of wealth independent (relatively) of
the labour-time employed on it’ (706). From
these anticipatory observations, which they
hurriedly posit as a description of reality, the
post-workerists derive the universal status of
‘immaterial labour’. Whatever developed
social individuals do is, for them, always
already ‘immaterial labour’. Tereby, moreover,
the post-workerists can also deﬁne themselves
as ‘workers like the others’ (Negri 1996,
2.2 Negri justiﬁes the concept of ‘immaterial
labour’, whose theoretical senselessness he
concedes, with the argument ‘that in the
capitalist-dominated organisation of labour-
processes, it is no longer a matter of labour on
the basis of purely physical relations. Capitalist
predominance is based on an autonomy of
labour that is constituted outside of it’ (1996,
97). Here, he is thinking of ‘persons who work
for television, in the operations of information
processing, in advertisement, in fashion, i.e. in
the clothing industry, etc.’ (ibid.). Under post-
Fordist conditions, exploitation is ‘the
exploitation of social cooperation. And
aﬀected thereby is the “intellectual proletariat”
that needs this cooperation, and that makes it
even possible’ (101). Te thread of reality
underlying these rewritings is the notion,
developed by the automation-research of the
1970s, of the ‘chained emancipation’ of
workers under the conditions of automation:
their contradictory harnessing as ‘subaltern-
autonomous’ subjects and the tearing down of
the boundaries between labour and free time.
But post-workerist discourse arbitrarily helps
itself to these ﬁndings and nourishes the
illusion that they would apply to forms of
labour that are still externally determined.
Finally, Negri contaminates his description
of ‘immaterial labour’ with the ‘ghostly
objectivity [gespenstige Gegenständlichkeit] of
human labour-power without consideration
of the (concretely useful) form of its
expenditure’ that Marx presented while
introducing the concept of ‘abstract labour’ in
Capital, Volume 1 (150). He conjures up the
‘experience of a mobile, ﬂexible, computerised,
immaterialised and ghostly (spectral) labour’
that will be shared by all ‘as clear as the sun’, a
‘real illusion’ that no longer knows an outside
nor space and time. ‘Only a radical “Unheimlich”
remains in which we’re immersed’ (1999, 8f ).
Marx’s spectres are ‘no longer valid’ here;
Derrida (cf. 1994) should concern himself
rather with ‘the phenomenology of a new
productive reality’ (9). Here, the concept of
‘immaterial labour’ slides over into that of
abstract labour, and it is as though the
mysticism of the world of capital had
assimilated the discourse critical of it.
2.3 Te talk of ‘immaterial labour’ is
connected to the neo-liberal narrative of the
miracle of a general ‘dematerialisation of the
economy’ (for a critical perspective, cf. Haug
2003, 67–96). ‘Te economy of physical
production is dissolved by an immaterial
economy of information, dominated by
the fourth sector that, commensurate with
the demands of production in the global
cities, reorganises especially the ﬁnance and
communication services for businesses’ (Moulier
Boutang 1998, 13) Supposed characteristics
are: 1. the sources of wealth are displaced onto
conceptive activities; 2. value is added above
all through transactions (communication,
distribution); 3. no longer the ‘material’, but
instead the ‘immaterial activities [Aktiva]’ are
decisive: ‘knowledge, skills in dealing with
information, culture’ (13f ). Tis is often
presented as though ‘the “becoming-
immaterial” [Immaterial-Werden] of capital
investment (artiﬁcial intelligence, information-
technologies, education and information,
184 W. F. Haug / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 177–185
communication-procedures) were synonymous
with the intellectualising of labour’ (Vakaloulis
3. Te eclectic voluntarism of many post-
workerist texts has been criticised in many
ways. Frigga Haug has described their
‘Lorianism’ (Gramsci) that uses Marxian
concepts ‘like a wantonly thrown-together
toy’ as ‘drug thinking [Drogendenken]’ (204).
Enzo Modugno who, like Negri, emerged
from the workerists, replied to the thesis of the
epochal dominance of ‘immaterial labour’
with the counter-thesis that the ‘microelectric
nemesis’ is in the process of again taking away
from the ‘new labourers of total quality’ (1996,
21) their intellectual competence that initially
increased in the wake of computerisation (22):
the ‘general intellect’ has become a machine,
and intellectual labour has been subjected to a
progressive ‘mechanisation of the abstract
intellect’ (21) – ‘the intellectual labourer has
become an appendage of the great
Stuart Hall initiates his critique by
addressing the vulgar philosophical notion of
immateriality: if the growing signiﬁcance of
language is understood by the post-workerists
as the dominance of immateriality, he responds
with a reference to the materiality of language:
‘the word is today as “material” as the world.
Trough technology, design and styling, the
“aesthetic” has already penetrated the world of
modern production. Trough marketing,
layout and style, the “image” provides the
mode of representation and ﬁctional
narrativisation of the body on which so much
of modern consumption depends. Modern
culture is relentlessly material in its practices
and modes of production. And the material
world of commodities and technologies is
profoundly cultural’ (1996, 232). In a wholly
diﬀerent sense, Hall himself speaks of
‘immaterial labour’ when he notes that
everyone who ‘is into cultural studies seriously
as an intellectual practice, must feel, on their
pulse, its ephemerality, its insubstantiality,
how little it registers, how little we’ve been
able to change anything or get anybody to do
anything’ (272). In this sense, one might
characterise the practice of the ‘immaterialists’,
who have fashioned an essential element of
their symbolic capital out of the talk of
‘immaterial labour’, as itself ‘immaterial’. Te
‘intellectualisation’ of growing segments of
social labour that is driven forward by the
development of the high-tech mode of
production, as well as the breaks and lines of
conﬂicts on this ﬁeld, are more likely being
covered up by the imposition of the decisionist
category of ‘immaterial labour’ on them.
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Te State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning
& the New International, New York; H.M.
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the Philosophy of the Future, Indianapolis; S. Haii
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Empire, Cambridge, MA.; F. Hauc 2000,
‘Immaterielle Arbeit und Atuomatin’, in Argument
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Einhführung in die Warenäesthetik, Berlin/W; W.F.
Hauc 2003, High-Tech Kapitalismus. Analysen zu
Produktionsweise, Arbeit, Sexulität, Krieg und
Hegemonie, Hamburg; G.W.F. Hicii 1971a,
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M; Ixxariiiai Woixiis oi rui Woiio 2000,
‘Wozu soll ich dir schon raten?’, Politisches
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lavoro immateriale’, in: Riﬀ Raﬀ. Attraverso la
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‘Immaterielle Arbeit. Gesellschaftliche Tätigkeit
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der Verfügbarketi. Die Technik, das Subjekt und das
Lebendige, Vienna; Suncoxaxoaxri Maicos
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2000, ‘Le fascisme libéral’ in Le Monde
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Wolfgang Fritz Haug
Translated by Joseph Fracchia
Abstract labour, character-masks, class-society,
collective worker, commodity-aesthetic,
communication, division of labour, domination,
empire, epistemology, faux frais, Fordism, form,
gender-relations, general intellect, ghost, hacker,
high-tech mode of production, idea, ideologue,
immaterial, information, information-rent,
information-society, information-worker, inner/
outer, internet, labour in general, labour, needs,
mass-intellectuality, mass-worker, matter, mental/
corporeal labour, object, personiﬁcation, post-
Fordism, post-workerism, productive/unproductive
labour, relations, self-valorisation, value-form
abstrakte Arbeit, allgemeine Arbeit, Arbeit,
Arbeitsteilung, Bedürfnisse, Charaktermaske,
Erkenntnistheorie, faux frais, Fordismus, Form,
Gegenstand, geistige/ körperliche Arbeit, general
intellect, Gesamtarbeiter, Geschlechterverhältnisse,
Gespenst, Hacker, Herrschaft, hochtechnologische
Produktionsweise, Idee, Ideologe, immateriell,
Imperium, Information, Informationsarbeiter,
Informationsgesellschaft, Informationsrente, innen/
außen, Internet, Klassengesellschaft, Kommunikation,
Massenarbeiter, Massenintellektualität, Materie,
Operaismus, Personiﬁkation, Postfordismus,
Postoperaismus, produktive/ unproduktive Arbeit,
Selbstverwertung, sichtbar/ unsichtbar, Verhältnisse,
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/146544609X12596360852888
Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 187–188 brill.nl/hima
Notes on Contributors
Karl Beitel holds a PhD in sociology/political economy from the University of California,
Davis, and is currently conducting research for the American Federation of Teachers. His
research interests include theories of ﬁnance, Marxian crisis-theory, state-theory, and urban
and international political economy. Recent publications include ‘Te US, Iraq, and the
Future of Empire’, that appeared in Historical Materialism, 13, 3, 2005; a study of the
eﬀects of urban land use policy on housing aﬀordability in Urban Aﬀairs Review, 42, 5,
May 2007 titled ‘Did Overzealous Activists Destroy Housing Aﬀordability in San Francisco?
A Time-Series Test of the Eﬀects of Rezoning on Construction and Home Prices, 1967–
1998’; and ‘Te Subprime Debacle’, Monthly Review, 60, 1, May 2008.
Ian Birchall is a longstanding member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, author of Sartre
Against Stalinism (Berghahn 2004) and currently completing a biography of Tony Cliﬀ.
Elizabeth Esch is Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Barnard College-
Columbia University. She is in the process of ﬁnishing a manuscript for publication, Te
Color Line on the Assembly Line: Managing Race and Nation in the Ford Motor Company,
Wolfgang Fritz Haug was formerly Professor at the Freie Universität Berlin. He is the
founder (1959) and co-editor of the journal Das Argument, co-editor of the complete
critical edition of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks in German and editor of Das
historisch-kritische Wörterbuch des Marxismus. Among his numerous books are Kritik der
Warenästhetik (1971), Vorlesungen zur Einführung ins ‘Kapital’ (1974), Elemente einer
Teorie des Ideologischen (1993) and High-Tech-Kapitalismus (2003). In English translation:
Critique of Commodity Aesthetics (1986), and Commodity Aesthetics, Ideology & Culture
(1987). A translation of Philosophieren mit Brecht und Gramsci (1996) will be published in
the Historical Materialism Book Series in 2010.
Andrew Milner is Professor and Deputy Director of the Centre for Comparative Literature
and Cultural Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. His most recent
publications include Re-Imagining Cultural Studies (Sage, 2002), Contemporary Cultural
Teory (Routledge, 2002, co-authored with Jeﬀ Browitt), Literature, Culture and Society
(Routledge, 2005) and Postwar British Critical Tought (Sage, 2005, 4-volume edited
188 Notes on Contributors / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 187–188
Julian Müller is a PhD-candidate in sociology at Lancaster University. His research is on
the political economy of international accounting regulation.
Benjamin Noys is Reader in English at the University of Chichester. He is the author of
Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (Pluto 2000), Te Culture of Death (Berg 2005) and
Te Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Teory (Edinburgh University
Press, forthcoming 2010).
David R. Roediger is the Kendrick C. Babcock Professor of History at the University of
Illinois Urbana Champaign. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the history
of race and labour in the United States. His most recent book, How Race Survived U.S.
History, was published in 2008 by Verso.
Panagiotis Sotiris teaches social and political philosophy at the Department of Sociology,
University of the Aegean, Mytilene. He is the author of Communism and Philosophy. Te
Teoretical Adventure of Louis Althusser (in Greek). He has published articles on Marxist
philosophy, post-Marxist thinkers and modern imperialism.
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