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Between Marx, Marxism, and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory

Ingo Elbe October 21, 2013

The objective of the following observations is to offer a rough overview of central ways
of reading Marx’s theory. These are to be presented – by means of a few selected topics –
as Marxisms that can be relatively clearly delimited from one another, and the history of­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 1/34
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their reception and in uence will be evaluated with regard to the common-sense under-
standing of “Marxist theory.”

A distinction will be made between the hitherto predominant interpretation of Marx,

primarily associated with political parties (traditional Marxism, Marxism in the singular,
if you will), and the dissident, critical forms of reception of Marx (Marxisms in the plu-
ral), with their respective claims of a “return to Marx.” The rst interpretation is under-
stood as a product and process of a restricted reading of Marx, in part emerging from the
“exoteric” layer of Marx’s work, which updates traditional paradigms in political econo-
my, the theory of history, and philosophy. Systematized and elevated to a doctrine by
Engels, Kautsky, et al, it succumbs to the mysti cations of the capitalist mode of pro-
duction and culminates in the apologetic science of Marxism-Leninism. The other two
interpretations, speci cally Western Marxism as well as the German neue Marx-Lektüre
(“new reading of Marx”), usually explore the “esoteric” content of Marx’s critique and
analysis of society, often consummated outside of institutionalized, cumulative research
programs, by isolated actors in the style of an “underground Marxism.”

In order to characterize both ways of reading, some strongly truncated theses, limited to
a few aspects, must suf ce. In particular the ambitious proposition, rst formulated by
Karl Korsch, of an “application of the materialist conception of history to the materialist
conception of history itself” – one that goes beyond the mere presentation of intellectu-
al history, towards an immanent theoretical critique that critically considers the connec-
tion between historical forms of praxis and theoretical formations of Marxism – cannot
be carried out here. In addition, a consideration of those readings which are critical of
Marx or Marxism can also be disregarded here, insofar as their picture of Marx usually
corresponds to that of traditional Marxism.

I therefore begin with the hegemonic interpretative model of traditional Marxism, and
only at the end of my presentation will I conclude with a few positive determinations of
what I regard as the fundamental systematic intention of Marx’s work. I do this primari-
ly because a differentiated reading of Marx’s work can only be gained in the course of the
learning processes of Western Marxism and the neue Marx-Lektüre.

I. Marxism­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 2/34
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The term “Marxism” was probably rst used in the year 1879 by the German Social
Democrat Franz Mehring to characterize Marx’s theory, and established itself at the end
of the 1880s as a discursive weapon used by both critics and defenders of “Marx’s teach-
ings.” The birth of a “Marxist school,” however, is unanimously dated back to the publi-
cation of Anti-Dühring by Friedrich Engels in the year 1878, and the subsequent recep-
tion of this work by Karl Kautsky, Eduard Berstein, et al. Engels’ writings – even if the
terms “Marxism” or “dialectical materialism,” the self-applied labels of traditional read-
ings, do not yet appear in them – supplied entire generations of readers, Marxists as well
as anti-Marxists, with the interpretative model through which Marx’s work was per-
ceived. In particular, the review of Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Econ-
omy (1859), the late work Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philoso-
phy (1886), and the supplement to Volume III of Capital (1894/95), achieved an in uence
that can hardly be underestimated. Above all, however, it was Anti-Dühring that was to
be stylized as the textbook of Marxist theory as well as a positive depiction of a “Marxist
worldview”: for Kautsky, “there is no other book that has contributed so much to the
understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is greater. But it was rst through Anti-
Dühring that we learned to correctly read and understand Capital.” And for Lenin, it is
one of the “handbooks of every class-conscious worker.”1

At the same time, a general characteristic of the history of “Marxism” is consummated:

the initiators of the theoretical corpus regard it as “unnecessary […] to themselves make
an appearance as eponyms […] the eponyms are not the real speakers” (Georges Labica).
In many respects, Marxism is Engels’ work and for that reason actually an Engelsism. In
what follows I will name only three points which an ideologized and restricted reception
of Marx could draw upon.

I.1 The Ontological-Determinist Tendency

Scienti c socialism was conceived of as an ontological system, a “science of the big pic-
ture.” The materialist dialectic functions here as a “general law of development of
nature, society, and thought,”2 while nature serves for Engels as a “proof of dialectics.”3
Engels already undertakes a false analogy between historical-social processes and natu-
ral phenomena by the mere fact that in his elucidation of the main features of the­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 3/34
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dialectic, reference to subject and object is missing. “Negation of the negation” or the
“transformation of quantity into quality” are identi ed in the changes in the physical
state of water or in the development of a grain of barley. Against a static point of view,
dialectic is supposed to demonstrate the “becoming,” the “transitory character” of all
existence,4 and is bound to traditional dichotomies of the philosophy of consciousness,
such as the so-called “great basic question of all philosophy “as to which component of
the relationship between “thinking and being” has primacy.5 The dialectic is split into
“two sets of laws,” into the dialectic of “the external world” and the dialectic of “human
thought,” whereby the latter is understood to be merely a passive mental image of the
former.6 Engels constricts – even distorts – the three elementary praxis-philosophical
motifs of Marx, which he had partially still advocated in his earlier writings:

1. The recognition that not only the object, but also the observation of the object is historically
and practically mediated,7 not external to the history of the mode of production. Against this,
Engels emphasizes that “the materialist outlook on nature means nothing more than the sim-
ple conception of nature just as it is, without alien addition.”8 The naive realism of the theory
of re ection systematized by Lenin9 and others – which falls prey to the rei ed appearance of
immediacy of that which is socially mediated, the fetishism of an in-itself of that which exists
only via a historically determined framework of human activity – already obtains its founda-
tion in Engels’ writings.10 As “things refer to consciousness and consciousness refers to
things,”11 the concepts of praxis and the subjective mediation of the object, as well as ideology-
critical considerations, have hardly any place in this paradigm.
2. The concept of Naturwüchsigkeit (“the state of being naturally derived”), which Engels had
used in The German Ideology in a negative sense, is now turned into a positive concept. The
sublation of speci c social laws resting upon the unconsciousness of social actors is no longer
postulated; rather, Engels postulates the conscious application of “the general laws of motion
[…] of the external world.”12
3. If Marx writes in the Theses on Feuerbach that “all mysteries which lead theory to mysticism
nd their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice,”13
Engels reduces praxis to the experimental activity of the natural sciences.14 Admittedly,
ambivalences and praxis-philosophical motifs can also be found in the writings of the late
Engels, which were largely blotted out by the epigones. Nonetheless, Engels, bundling together
the scientism of his epoch, paves the way for a mechanistic and fatalistic conception of histori-
cal materialism by shifting the accent from a theory of social praxis to one of a contemplative,
re ection-theory doctrine of development.

The vulgar evolutionism of nineteenth-century European Social Democracy is a nearly

ubiquitous phenomenon.15 For that reason, it is not just for Kautsky, Bernstein, and­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 4/34
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Bebel that the deterministic concept of development and the revolutionary metaphysic
of a providential mission of the proletariat16 occupy a central place in Marxist doctrine.
Accordingly, humanity is subordinated to a “scienti cally veri able” automatism of lib-
eration. That which presents itself in the modern scienti c garb of a fetishism of laws is
ultimately nothing other than a historical metaphysic with a socialist signature17: pre-
cisely the inversion of subject and object that Marx had criticized. A process consum-
mated behind the back of social actors is attributed a morally quali ed aim.18 Ultimately,
in the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democratic Party, this revolutionary passivi-
ty19 is codi ed at an of cial level as consistent Marxism: the task of the party is to
remain braced for an event that will “necessarily” happen even without intervention,
“not to make the revolution, but rather to take advantage of it.”20 The ontological orien-
tation and the encyclopaedic character of Engels’ deliberations also feed the tendency to
interpret scienti c socialism as a comprehensive proletarian worldview. Ultimately,
Lenin will present the “Marxist doctrine” as “omnipotent,” a “comprehensive and har-
monious” doctrine that “provides men with an integral world outlook.”21 Correspond-
ingly, the negative concept of ideology is neutralized into a category for the determinate
being of consciousness in general.

All of these developments, which undoubtedly constitute a theoretical regression, ulti-

mately culminate in the theory of “Marxism-Leninism” conceived of by Abram Deborin
and Josef Stalin. If for Lenin, Marxism constitutes – despite all emphasis upon the polit-
ical – a “profound doctrine of development”22 that calls attention to breaks and leaps in
nature and society, in the case of Marxism-Leninism the naturalist-objectivist current is
elevated to a state doctrine. The central argumentative gure will be: what is valid for
nature must also be valid for history. Or: nature makes leaps, therefore so does history.
Political praxis is thus understood as the consummation of historical laws. This impres-
sive logic is perfected in Stalin’s work “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” – for
decades an authoritative work in the Marxist theory of the Eastern Bloc. Historical mate-
rialism stands for the “application” and “extension” of ontological principles to society,
which implies an epistemological essentialism (a theory of re ection, which in the form
of Dialectical Materialism conceives of “being” and “thinking” independent of the con-
cept of praxis) and a sociological naturalism (a developmental logic – to be “consciously­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 5/34
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applied” or “accelerated” by the party as the highest technocratic instance23 – existing

independent of human agency).24

I.2 The Historicist Interpretation of the Form-Genetic Method

If Lenin’s statement that “none of the Marxists for the past half century have under-
stood Marx” – a dictum that in this case however also applies to Lenin himself – has any
validity, then it is certainly with regard to the interpretation of the critique of political
economy. Even 100 years after the publication of the rst volume of Capital, Engels’
commentary was widely regarded as the sole legitimate and adequate assessment of
Marx’s critique of economy. No reading in the Marxist tradition was as uncontroversial
as the one casually developed by Engels in texts such as the review of Marx’s Contribu-
tion to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) or the supplement to Volume III of Capi-
tal (1894). Here, considerably more explicitly than in the objectivist conception of his-
torical materialism, Marxism is Engelsism.

Against the background of his conception of re ection, Engels interprets the rst chap-
ter of Capital as a simultaneously logical and historical presentation of “simple com-
modity production” developing toward the relations of capitalist wage labor, “only
stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurrences.”25 The term “logical”
in this context basically means nothing more than “simpli ed.” The method of presenta-
tion, the sequence of categories (commodity, the elementary, expanded, and general
forms of value, money, capital) in the critique of political economy is accordingly “sim-
ply the re ection, in abstract and theoretically consistent form, of the historical
course.”26 The examination of the genesis of the money form is understood as the
description of “an actual event which really took place at some time or other” and not as
“an abstract mental process that takes place solely in our mind.”27 In no other passage of
his work does Engels so drastically reduce historical materialism to a vulgar empiricism
and historicism, as is made evident by his associative chain “materialism – empirically
veri able facts – real process” vs. “idealism – abstract thought process – purely abstract

With the “logical-historical” method, Engels provides a catchphrase that will be recited
and stressed ad nauseam in the Marxist orthodoxy. Karl Kautsky, in his enormously­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 6/34
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in uential presentations, understood Capital to be an “essentially historical work”28:

“Marx was charged with recognizing capital to be a historical category and to prove its
emergence in history, rather than mentally constructing it.”29 Rudolf Hilferding also
claims that “in accordance with the dialectic method, conceptual evolution runs parallel
throughout with historical evolution.”30 Both Marxism-Leninism31 and Western Marx-
ism32 follow Hilferding in this assessment. But if the critique of political economy is
interpreted as historiography, then consequentially the categories at the beginning must
correspond directly to empirical objects, for example a dubious pre-capitalist commodity
not determined by price,33 and the analysis of the form of value must begin with the
depiction of a coincidental, moneyless interaction of two commodity owners – with
Engels’ so-called “simple production of commodities,”34 an economic epoch he dates
from 6000 BC to the 15th century AD. According to this conception, Marx’s law of val-
ue35 operates at times in this epoch in a pure form “unadulterated” by the category of
price, which Engels illustrates with the feigned example of a moneyless “exchange”
between medieval peasants and artisans.

Here we are dealing with a transparent social interrelationship between immediate pro-
ducers who are at the same time the owners of their means of production, in which one
producer labors under the watchful eye of the other, and therefore “the peasant of the
Middle Ages knew fairly accurately the labor-time required for the manufacture of the
articles obtained by him in barter.”36 Under the conditions of this “natural exchange”, it
is not some normative criterion that is for him “the only suitable measure for the quan-
titative determination of the values to be exchanged,”37 but rather the abstraction of a
labor-time consciously and directly measured by the actors. Neither the peasant nor the
artisan is so stupid as to exchange unequal quantities of labor38: “No other exchange is
possible in the whole period of peasant natural economy than that in which the
exchanged quantities of commodities tend to be measured more and more according to
the amounts of labor embodied in them.”39 According to Engels, the value of a commod-
ity is determined consciously by the labor, measured in time, of individual producers. In
this theory of value, money does not play a constitutive role. On the one hand, it is an
expedient and lubricant to trade that is external to value, but on the other it serves to
obscure the substance of value: suddenly, instead of exchanging according to hours of
labor, at some point exchange is conducted by means of cows and then pieces of gold.­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 7/34
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The question of how this notion of every commodity being its own labor-money40 can be
reconciled with the conditions of private production based upon the division of labor is
not posed by Engels. Engels – as will be elaborated by the neue Marx-Lektüre – practices
exactly what Marx criticizes in the case of the classical economists, above all Adam
Smith: a projection onto the past of the illusory notion of appropriation through one’s
own labor, which in fact only exists in capitalism; neglect of the necessary connection
between value and form of value41; a transformation of the “objective equalization” of
unequal acts of labor consummated by the objective social relationship itself into a
merely subjective consideration of social actors.42

Up until the 1960s, Engels’ theorems continued to be passed on undisputed. Along with
his formula (once again taken from Hegel) of freedom being the insight into necessity,
and the drawing of parallels between natural laws and social processes, they gave suste-
nance to a social-technological “concept of emancipation,” according to the following
premise: social necessity (above all the law of value), which operates anarchically and
uncontrolled in capitalism, will be, by means of Marxism as a science of the objective
laws of nature and society, managed and applied according to a plan. Not the disappear-
ance of capitalist form-determinations, but rather their alternative use characterizes
this “socialism of adjectives” (this term comes from Robert Kurz) and “socialist political
economy.”43 There is a signi cant disproportion between, on the one hand, the empha-
sis upon the “historical,” and on the other, the absence of a historically speci c and
socio-theoretically re ected concept of economic objectivity. This is made evident by
the irrelevance of the concept of social form in the discussions of traditional Marxism, in
which it is at most is considered to be s a category for ideal or marginal circumstances,
but not a constitutive characteristic of Marx’s scienti c revolution.44

I.3 The Critique of the Content of the State

Engels’ theoretical statements concerning the state in The Origin of the Family, Ludwig
Feuerbach, Anti-Dühring, and his critique of the Erfurt draft program of the SPD from
1891, constitute the source of the traditional Marxist conception of the state. In Ludwig
Feuerbach, Engels states that the fact that all needs in class societies are articulated
through the will of the state is “the formal aspect of the matter – the one which is self-­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 8/34
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evident.”45 The main question of a materialist theory of the state, however, is “what is
the content of this merely formal will – of the individual as well as of the state – and
whence is this content derived? Why is just this willed and not something else?”46 The
result of this purely content-based question concerning the will of the state is for Engels
the recognition “that in modern history the will of the state is, on the whole, determined
by the changing needs of civil society, by the supremacy of this or that class, in the last
resort, by the development of the productive forces and relations of exchange.”47 Fur-
thermore, in his deliberations in The Origin of the Family Engels works with universal-
historical categories onto which modern designations like “public authority” are project-
ed, and constantly assumes “direct relations of domination, immediate forms of class
rule”48 in order to explain “the” state, which is consequentially understood as a mere
instrument of the ruling class. From this content- xated and universal-historical way of
considering the state, it can be deduced that Engels loses sight of the actually interest-
ing question, namely as to why the class content in capitalism takes on the speci c form
of public authority.49 The personal de nition of class rule extracted from pre-capitalist
social formations ultimately leads to reducing the anonymous form of class rule institu-
tionalized in the state to a mere ideological illusion, which, in the manner of the theory
of priestly deception, is interpreted as a product of state tactics of deception. Engels in
any case attempts to make the class character of the state plausible by referring to “plain
corruption of of cials” and “an alliance between the government and the stock
exchange.”50 Nonetheless, in Engels’ work there still exists, despite the predominance of
the instrumentalist/content- xated perspective, an unmediated coexistence between
the determination of the state as the “state of the capitalists” and of the state as “ideal
total capitalist.”51 The last de nition conceives of the state “not as a tool of the bour-
geoisie […] but rather as an entity of bourgeois society,”52 and an “organisation that
bourgeois society takes on in order to support the general external conditions of the
capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of
individual capitalists.”53 But the speci c formal aspect of modern statehood is not yet
explained by this reference to functional mechanisms. Engels also paved the way for the
theory of state-monopoly capitalism.54 In the Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic
Program of 1891 he writes: “I am familiar with capitalist production as a social form, or
an economic phase; capitalist private production being a phenomenon which in one­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 9/34
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form or another is encountered in that phase. What is capitalist private production? Pro-
duction by separate entrepreneurs, which is increasingly becoming an exception. Capi-
talist production by joint-stock companies is no longer private production but produc-
tion on behalf of many associated people. And when we pass on from joint-stock compa-
nies to trusts, which dominate and monopolise whole branches of industry, this puts an
end not only to private production but also to planlessness.”55 Finally, in Anti-Dühring
Engels writes of the state as real total capitalist: “The more productive forces it takes
over into its possession, the more it actually becomes a real aggregate capitalist, the
more citizens it exploits.” Here Engels reveals a limited understanding of private pro-
duction, and a tendency to equate state planning and monopoly power with direct
socialization,56 reinforced by his construction of the fundamental contradiction and his
tendency to identify the division of labor within a factory and the division of labor in
society. Engels does note that “the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or
into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive
forces,”57 but nonetheless sees an immediate transition to socialism setting in as a
result, whereas the concepts of monopoly and state intervention remain “economically
completely undetermined.”58 Engels thus suggests that the workers’ movement merely
has to take over the forms of corporate bookkeeping in joint-stock companies and the
comprehensive planning by monopolies developed in capitalism. For Engels, the bour-
geoisie has already become obsolete through the separation of ownership and manage-
ment functions.59 The “transformation of the great establishments for production and
distribution into joint-stock companies and state property” demonstrates, according to
Engels, “how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose”, i.e. for managing “mod-
ern productive forces”: “All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by
salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing
dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different
capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At rst the capitalist mode of production
forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it
reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately
into those of the industrial reserve army.”60

Reviewing this history of reception (only roughly outlined here), one could claim that
Marxism in the form presented here was a rumor about Marx’s theory, a rumor that was­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 10/34
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gratefully taken up by most critics of “Marx” and merely supplemented with a minus
sign. In fact such an assertion – as accurate as it may be overall – makes things too easy,
in that it disregards certain deviations from the dominant doctrine that also understood
themselves to be Marxisms, while also regarding the above misinterpretations as com-
pletely external to Marx’s own theory, thus excluding the possibility of any inconsisten-
cies or theoretical-ideological ambiguities in Marx’s work. To clarify this question, a
glance at the differentiated reading of Marx’s texts worked out in the so-called “recon-
struction debates” will be useful.

In this respect, traditional Marxism should be understood here as an elaboration, sys-

tematization, and assumption of dominance of the ideological content of Marx’s work –
within the framework of a reception by Engels and his epigones. Practical in uence was
almost exclusively allotted to these restricted and ideologized interpretations of Marx’s
theory, as historical determinism or proletarian political economy.

II. Western Marxism

The formation of a Western Marxism61 arises from the crisis of the socialist workers’
movement in the wake of the First World War (the collapse of the Second International
as a result of the policy of defense of the fatherland, the defeat of revolutions in Central
and Southern Europe, the emergence of fascist forces, etc.). Here it is Georg Lukács’ and
Karl Korsch’s texts published in 1923 which assume a paradigmatic character. Above all
Lukács is considered the rst Marxist theorist who at the level of social theory and
methodology called into question the hitherto self-evident assumption of the complete
identity of Marx’s and Engels’ theories. At the center of his critique stood Engels’
neglect of the subject-object dialectic as well as his concept of a dialectic of nature, to
which the fatalism of Second International Marxism was oriented. Against this ontolo-
gization of historical materialism into a contemplative worldview, Lukács, like Western
Marxism as a whole, understands Marx’s approach to be a critical revolutionary theory
of social praxis. Against the scientistic talk of “objective laws of development” of social
progress, Lukács posits the critique of ideology of rei ed consciousness, deciphering the
capitalist mode of production as a historically speci c form of social praxis ossi ed into
a “second nature,” and emphasizing revolution as a critical act of practical subjectivity.­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 11/34
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Self-descriptions such as “philosophy of praxis” (Gramsci) or “critical theory of society”

(Horkheimer) therefore do not constitute code words or conceptual equivalents for of -
cial party doctrine, but rather emphasize a learning process from which “arises a critical,
action-oriented current of thought of Marxist heritage.”62 Although Western Marxism at
rst positively adopted the activist impulses of the October Revolution, its leading rep-
resentatives would quickly come to reject the doctrine of Leninism, above all its contin-
uation of a naturalistic social theory and its false universalization of the experience of
the Russian Revolution. Georg Lukács’ critique of Bukharin’s “Theory of Historical Mate-
rialism” serves as an example of the former. In his critique, Lukács charges that
Bukharin’s theory, with its concepts of the primacy of the development of the forces of
production and the seamless application of the methods of natural science to the study
of society, is fetishistic and obliterates the “qualitative difference” between the two sub-
ject areas of natural and social sciences, thus acquiring “the accent of a false ‘objectivity’
and mistaking the core idea of Marx’s method, namely the ascription of “all economic
phenomena to the social relationships of human beings to one another.”63

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci provided the exemplary critique of the xation of rev-
olutionary strategy upon the model of the October Revolution. Initially, he had greeted
the October Revolution as a “revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital,”64 that is to say as a
refutation of the allegedly proven impossibility of socialist revolution in industrially
backwards countries. In an almost religious manner, he cited the voluntaristic “socialist
annunciation” as a source of a collective socialist “popular will” against a class con-
sciousness mechanically derived from the economy and the level of its forces of produc-
tion. Later, Gramsci would confront the Marxism of the Third International with his the-
ory of hegemony, which rejects the “war of maneuver” of a frontal attack upon the
repressive state apparatus as being a useless revolutionary strategy for modern Western
capitalist societies. According to Gramsci, within these social formations “civil society”
is composed of a labyrinthine structure of apparatuses in which patterns of thought and
behavior are generated which exhibit an inertia that cannot be shaken by grandiose
political deeds. The Russian revolutionary model is also condemned to failure in the
West because the belief in the universal nature of experience of the Bolsheviks with a
centralist-despotic Tsarism leads to a disregard for the relevance of ideological socializa-
tion by means of the apparatuses of civil society, and their effect: subjection in the form­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 12/34
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of autonomous agency. However, both Lukács and Gramsci remain loyal to the “exclu-
sively proletarian” conception of revolution to the extent that the former, despite his
re ections upon rei ed consciousness, still attributes an epistemological privilege to the
proletariat guaranteed by its economic position, while Gramsci’s strategically motivated
theory of civil society is xated upon the room for maneuver of the working class.

With the attempt at a social-psychological exploration of the drive/structural founda-

tions of the reproduction of an “irrational society,” above all in the form of authoritarian
and antisemitic attitudes, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, after Max
Horkheimer’s assumption of its directorship in 1931, achieved a level of re ection that
other representatives and currents of Western Marxism could not match,65 and which
gives up on the reassuring support of an imagined class consciousness of the proletariat.
Finally, the empirical class consciousness of the proletariat as the only existing class
consciousness is subjected to analysis, while the “irrational,” emotional dimensions of
social praxis ignored by other theorists, such as the social dimensions of the libidinal,
are considered. This theoretical insight into the uncompromising nature of critical theo-
ry is at the same time an admission of the historical process of an increasing rift
between emancipatory theory and the perspective of revolutionary praxis. With the
propagation of socialism in one country, the Bolshevization of the Western Communist
Parties, and the establishment of Marxism-Leninism as the of cial ideology of the Third
International after the mid-1920s, there begins the characteristic isolation of the repre-
sentatives of Western Marxism: this current is left with neither political in uence nor
(with the possible exception of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research) the institu-
tional foundations for a normal scholarly praxis. The general characteristics of this
Marxist formation – its sense for the Hegelian legacy and the critical-humanist potential
of Marx’s theory, the incorporation of contemporary “bourgeois” approaches to eluci-
date the great crisis of the workers movement, the orientation towards methodology, the
sensitization to social-psychological and cultural phenomena in connection with the
question concerning the reasons for the failure of revolution in “the West”66  –provides
the framework for a new type of restricted exegesis of Marx. This is essentially charac-
terized by the neglect of problems of politics and state theory, a selective reception of
Marx’s theory of value, and the predominance of a “silent orthodoxy” concerning the
critique of political economy. Although the rst to understand the character of capitalist­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 13/34
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rule the way Marx did – anonymous, objectively mediated, and having a life of its own –
the “founding document” of Western Marxism, Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness,
avoids a reconstruction of Marx’s theory of capitalism. Instead of an analysis of Marx’s
dialectic of the form of value up to the form of capital, which in the theory of real sub-
sumption offers an explanation of the connection – so decisive for Lukács – between
commodi cation and the alienated structure of the labor process, one nds merely an
analogizing combination of a value theory reduced to the “quantifying” value-form (due
to an orientation towards Simmel’s cultural critique of money) and a diagnosis, oriented
towards Max Weber, of the formal-rational tendency of the objecti cation of the labor
process and modern law. Until the mid-1960s it seems that no Western Marxists extend-
ed their debate with traditional interpretations of Marx into the realm of value theory.
Some positions go even further than this silent orthodoxy, and – without having seri-
ously engaged with the critique of political economy – contrast the “humanist cultural
critic Marx” with the “economist Marx” or even regard a “Marxism” without a critique of
political economy as being possible.67

III. The “Neue Marx-Lektüre”

It was rst within the framework of the “neue Marx-Lektüre” (“New Reading of Marx”),
which emerged in the mid-1960s, that problems of state theory and economic theory
once again played a role outside of Marxism-Leninism. This new wave of reception of
Marx’s theory was also more or less situated outside of Stalinism and Social Democracy.
Alongside the new reading in West European countries, there were isolated rudiments of
a “new reading of Marx” occurring in Eastern Europe.68 Its genesis in West Germany
coincided with phenomena such as the student movement, the rst jolts to belief in a
perpetual and politically manageable post-war prosperity, the breaking up of the anti-
communist consensus in the course of the Vietnam War, etc., yet remained, despite its
radical emancipatory claims, con ned largely to academia. Here, we distinguish between
this “new reading of Marx” in a broader sense69, and one more narrowly de ned.70
Whereas the former was an international phenomenon, the latter was con ned primarily
to West Germany. If the former still remained predominantly trapped within Engelsian
dogma with regard to the critique of political economy, the latter foregrounded the revi-
sion of previous historicist or empiricist interpretations of Marx’s form analysis. In­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 14/34
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terms of content, a threefold abandonment of central topoi of traditional Marxism was

consummated in the main threads of the debate, themselves contradictory and in no
way shared by all participants: a move away from a substantialist theory of value71;
abandonment of manipulative-instrumental conceptions of the state72; and a move
away from labor movement-centric interpretations of the critique of political economy,
or interpretations based on a “labor-ontological” revolutionary theory (or even upon
revolutionary theory as such).73 This new reading articulates its theoretical efforts in the
form of a reconstruction of Marx’s theory.

With regard to the critique of economy, a crystallization of central questions and

research tasks occurred within the framework of the 1967 colloquium “100 Jahre ‘Kapi-
tal.’”74 A reinterpretation of Marx’s critique was envisioned from the methodological
perspective of social theory: the question as to the original object of Capital (economic
form-determination), the particularity of scienti c presentation (the dialectic of the
forms of value), as well as the connection between the three volumes (“capital in general
– many capitals”) are posed anew, as distinct from quantitative approaches, and with a
particular emphasis upon the signi cance of the Grundrisse. Within the eld of the con-
ict between “critical” and “structural” Marxisms, transitional moments of ight from
existing methodological traditions arise, oblique to the classical points of con ict75:
both structuralist anti-historicism as well as Hegelian gures of thought (“progressive-
regressive method,” “return to the foundation”) play an important role in this.

Initially with a lot of “ifs and buts”76, and on some points remaining within the channels
of traditional Marxism, the New Reading of Marx acquired more clearly de ned contours
over the course of the 1970s.

Traditional readings of Marx’s theory

Classical Assumption of the Marxism of the 2nd Marx = Engels (uni ed paradigm, coherent argu-
and 3rd Internationals mentation, closed “worldview”)

Levels of the critical-reconstructive reading

Level 1: e.g. Backhaus (Materialien parts 1 Engels → exoteric vs.

and 2) Marx → esoteric­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 15/34
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Level 2: e.g. Althusser (Reading Capital); A. Marx → exoteric meta-discourse vs.

Schmidt; Backhaus (Materialien) Marx → esoteric real analysis

Level 3: e.g. Backhaus (Materialien parts 3 and Marx → exoteric/esoteric meta-discourse

4); Heinrich (Science of Value) Marx → exoteric/esoteric real analysis

Against the classical myth of the complete equality between the paradigms of Marx and
Engels, with regard to both historical materialism and the critique of political economy,
Engels’ commentaries were criticized as largely inadequate to Marx’s work and remain-
ing at a purely “exoteric” level that perpetuated traditional paradigms. Thus, in 1974
Hans-Georg Backhaus emphasized with regard to value theory that the critique was
aimed “at an interpretative premise which until recently was considered one of the few
uncontested elements of the Marxist literature, and which structured the reception of
Marx’s value theory without being challenged: the misinterpretation, touched off by
Engels, of the rst three chapters of Capital as a value and money theory of what Engels
called ‘simple commodity production.’”77 Backhaus assumes that “proceeding from this
fundamental error, Marxist value theory necessarily inhibited the reception of Marx’s
value theory.”78 If therefore at this level an initial distinction is made between a Marxist
theory and Marx’s theory, a problematization of Marx’s meta-theoretical self-under-
standing also occurs early on. Louis Althusser had already af rmed, with the aid of a
“symptomatic” reading directed against a subject-centric intentionalist hermeneutic,
that Marx’s work represents a scienti c revolution in the theoretical praxis of the analy-
sis of capitalism, which at the meta-theoretical level is superimposed upon by a dis-
course inadequate to this problematic. Althusser de nes the tasks of a reconstruction as
the removal of the inadequate meta-discourse and the transformation of its dominant
metaphors, which he reads as symptoms for the absence of an adequate self-re ection of
the real procedure of the analysis of capital, into concepts.79 As distinct from Althusser
and his dualist conception of the relationship between the real object and the object of
knowledge80, this issue is usually formulated in the reconstruction debate within the
theoretical framework of a Marxian critique of ideology: Marx distinguishes between
“esoteric” and “exoteric” levels in the works of classical political economy. If the former
contains insights into the social context of mediation of the bourgeois mode of produc-
tion, the latter is content with an unmediated description and systematization of the
objective forms of thought of the everyday consciousness of social actors, remaining­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 16/34
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trapped in the rei ed illusion of the immediacy of phenomena which are in fact socially
mediated. So the “exoteric” argumentation cannot be traced back psychologically to
subjective de ciencies or even conscious attempts at deception on the part of theorists.
It results from a determinate form of thought which is the systematic and initially invol-
untary product of the forms of social intercourse of the capitalist mode of production.
The reconstruction debate would now apply the esoteric/exoteric distinction to Marx’s
work itself.

Ultimately, even in the critique of political economy and in historical materialism – that
is to say in the theoretical praxis regarded at the previous stage of reconstruction as an
intact “esoteric” layer – “exoteric” content and conceptual ambivalence “between scien-
ti c revolution and classical tradition”81 are manifest. The doctrine of the inviolability
of the presentation of the critique of political economy in Capital is nally discarded. In
place of the legend of a linear progression of knowledge on Marx’s part, there appeared
the recognition of a complex coexistence and interpenetration of progress and regres-
sion in the method of presentation and the state of research of Marx’s critique of econo-
my. Ultimately, the increased popularization of the presentation of the analysis of the
forms of value from the Grundrisse to the second edition of Capital was pointed out.
This popularization, to the extent that it increasingly concealed the form-genetic
method, offered points of reference to historicist and substantialist readings.82

IV. Learning Processes within Marxism

Since there is not enough space within the framework of this text to elucidate even
approximately the aspects of a scienti c revolution – internal learning processes, but
also regressions to traditional economic and historical-philosophical positions in Marx’s
work – I will attempt to brie y mention some of the points arrived at in the above-men-
tioned learning processes within Marxism.

Marx’s theory does not af rm some kind of automatic liberation; rather, it should be
understood as the theoretical instance of a body of work, mediated by analysis and cri-
tique, contributing to the liberation from the automatism of an irrational mode of
socialization. Marx’s assertion that he grasps the development of the capitalist mode of
production as “a process of natural history,”83 often cited by both Marxists and anti-­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 17/34
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Marxists as proof either of the highest scienti c status of Marx’s work or of unscienti c
prophecy, should be understood as a critical statement. “Nature” or “naturalness” are
negatively determined categories for a social system that, on the basis of its constitution
by the private division of labor, asserts itself with regard to social actors as a relentless
machine using up abstract labor, as a “destiny of value” beyond all collective and indi-
vidual control and yet reproducing itself by means of their activity.

Marx’s theory is “a uni ed critical judgment on previous history, to the effect that men
have allowed themselves to be degraded into objects of the blind and mechanical process
of its economic development.”84 While Marx does succumb to a historical optimism that
often tips over into a philosophy of history in the declamatory sections of his works, this
is fundamentally contradicted by his scienti c critique of philosophies of history and
political economy.85 But it is precisely from these cliches that the Marxism of the Second
and Third Internationals, as well as the more educated among those who disdain Marx,
paste together an abstruse system of iron historical necessities, up to and including a
“law of the sequence of social formations” which establishes the “general historically
necessary tendency of the progress of the human species.”86

The critique of political economy, which in the form of Marx’s late works “does not with-
stand comparison with the immanent claim of the programmatic declaration in The Ger-
man Ideology,”87 namely of presenting the capitalist mode of production in its totality,
can be presented as a process of four critiques: 1) the critique of bourgeois society and
its destructive “natural” forms of development, against the background of the real,
objective possibility it generates of its own emancipatory transcendence, 2) the critique
of the fetishized and backward everyday consciousness of social actors systematically
generated by these social relations, 3) the critique of the entire theoretical eld of politi-
cal economy88, which uncritically systematizes these common perceptions, and 4) the
critique of utopian social criticism, which either confronts the system of the capitalist
mode of production with a model of social liberation, or presumes to bring isolated eco-
nomic forms to bear against the system as a whole by means of reforms.89 The critique is
therefore not immanent in the sense that it would af rm the determinations of
exchange, bourgeois ideals, proletarian demands for rights, or industrial production
(which is subsumed to capital) against capitalism as a whole.­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 18/34
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The method of the critique of economy can be described as the “development” or

“analysis of forms.” It aims to grasp the speci c sociality of historically distinct modes of
production. Whereas “bourgeois” approaches conduct at best a science of the reproduc-
tion of society within speci c economic and political forms, a critique of political econo-
my must be conceived of as a science of these forms.90 Political economy operates at the
level of already constituted economic objects, takes them empirically as a given, or can
only justify their existence in a circular manner, without conceptually penetrating the
systematic process of their constitution. It succumbs to the self-mysti cation of the cap-
italist world of objects as a world of natural forms91, thus depriving humans of the abili-
ty to con gure and alter their fundamental structures.

In contrast, form-analysis develops these forms (such as value, money, capital, but also
law and the state) from the contradictory conditions of the social constitution of labor,
“clari es them, grasps their essence and necessity.”92 Form development is not to be
understood as the retracing of the historical development of the object, but rather the
conceptual deciphering of the immanent structural relationships of the capitalist mode
of production. It unscrambles the apparently independent, apparently objectively
grounded forms of social wealth and the political compulsion of the capitalist mode of
production as historically speci c and therefore – albeit in no way arbitrarily or in a
piecemeal manner – as changeable forms of praxis.

Traditional as well as Western Marxism had completely ignored the revolutionary scien-
ti c potential of Marx’s approach, his theory of the monetary constitution of value.
Above all, the neue Marx-Lektüre criticized the empiricist-historicist misinterpretation
of the method of presentation that started with Engels, and the “premonetary” interpre-
tation of the theory of value in Capital, but also ambivalences in Marx’s work itself and
the popularization of his method, which meant “forgoing a systematic elaboration of
fundamental ideas of value theory and methodology.”93 Engels and Traditional Marxism
interpreted different levels of abstraction of the presentation of the laws of the capitalist
mode of production in Capital as empirically coequal levels of a model of historically
distinct modes of production. Thus categories such as abstract labor, value, and the ele-
mentary form of value were reinterpreted in an empiricist way, and the connection
between commodity, money, and capital – considered essential by Marx – was trans-­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 19/34
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formed into a coincidence. Marxism thus operated on a methodological and value-theo-

retical terrain that Marx had criticized with regard to classical economics. However,
Marx’s critique of political economy is distinct from an alternative political economy in
primarily two respects: in the rst instance it is not the theory of surplus-value, but
rather the form theory of labor that distinguishes Marx from classical political economy.
Marx criticizes the way political economy unre ectively presupposes the form of “val-
ue,” never questioning its genesis, unable to grasp labor that takes the form of value as a
historically speci c social form (the question is not raised as to “why labour is repre-
sented by the value of its product”94). Political economy therefore operates fundamen-
tally within the eld of fetishistic forms. Moreover, Marx criticizes the premonetary
character of its value theory, since it “treat[s] the form of value as a thing of no impor-
tance, as having no connection with the inherent nature of commodities,”95 meaning it
does not distinguish between intrinsic and external measure of value as categories exist-
ing at two different levels of theoretical abstraction, and does not grasp the necessity of
the money-form for the exchange of commodities. Money is understood as a purely tech-
nical instrument which for reasons of convenience takes the place of exchange on the
basis of calculations of labor-time magnitudes. In Marx’s work, on the other hand, mon-
ey is developed as a necessary moment in the process of commodity exchange. Without a
general form of value, commodities cannot represent value for each other, and would be
reduced to the status of products. One must therefore proceed from the “equiprimor-
dial” constitution of abstract labor as a logically prior immanent measure of value, and
money as the external measure of value. In this sense, Marx speaks of the substance of
value as a result obtained in exchange which furthermore rst acquires an intertemporal
existence as capital. In contrast to the empiricism and ahistoricism of political economy,
Marx’s approach thus reveals itself to be a perception of essence in the sense of the
reconstruction of a structure and system of agency which is empirically not immediately
perceivable – by means of the elaboration of a non-empirical theoretical level which rst
makes possible the explanation of empirical forms of appearance, such as money. Marx
follows “a principle of the development of economic categories by distinguishing
between different levels of abstraction.”96 Categories such as abstract labor or value
therefore have no immediate empirical referents. The sequence of the categories of com-­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 20/34
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modity and money is not to be understood as a historical sequence of independently

existing circumstances, but rather as a conceptual analysis.

Overview of the Marxisms

Important Theorists Central Reference Texts of Core Concept: Marx’s The-

Marx/Engels ory as…

Traditional [F. Engels], K. Kaut- Claim: Doctrine of the Closed, coherent proletari-
Marxism sky, E. Bernstein, materialist conception of an worldview and doctrine
[1878ff.] Lafargue, F. history as the center of the of the evolution of nature
Mehring, A. Bebel, G. collaborative works of Marx and history (“becoming
Plekhanov, etc.(= 1st and EngelsEngels: Anti- and passing away”)
Generation); V.I. Dühring, Ludwig Feuer-
Lenin, L. Trotsky, R. bach, “Review of A Contri-
Luxemburg, N. bution to the Critique of
Bukharin, M. Political Economy” (1859)
Adler, R. Hilferd- etc.Marx: Capital Vol. 1 –
ing (= 2nd Genera- Chapter 32, “Preface” to
tion) Critique (1859), Manifesto

Western G. Lukács, K. Korsch, Claim: Humanist early Critical-revolutionary the-

Marxism E. Bloch, H. Lefeb- work as interpretative ory of social praxis (“sub-
[1923ff.] vre, Frankfurt framework for the “scien- jective mediation of the
School, A. Gramsci, ti c” later worksMarx: object”)
K. Kosik, Yugoslav “Theses on Feuer-
Praxis-Group (G. bach,” 1844 Manuscripts,
Petrovic, P. Vranicki, The German Ideology
etc.), Budapest (M/E)
School (A. Heller, G.
Markus, etc.), L.
Ko er, J.-P. Sartre

neue Marx- [Predecessors: I.I. Claim: apprehending the Deciphering and Critique
Lek- Rubin, E. whole Marx, or later works of the Forms of capitalist
türe [1965ff.] Paschukanis] H.G. as interpretative frame- socialization by means of
Backhaus, H. work for the early logical-systematic method
Reichelt, D. Wolf, worksMarx: Grundris- of presentations (“form-
H.D. Kittsteiner, M. se, Capital Vol. I rst edi-­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 21/34
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Heinrich, SOST, Pro- tion, Urtext, “Results of the development and cri-

jekt Immediate Process of Pro- tique”)
Klassenanalyse/PEM, duction”
S. Breuer, State-
Debate (B. Blanke, D.
Läpple, MG, J.
Hirsch, W. Müller/
Ch. Neusüß, N. Kost-
ede, etc.)

– Translated by Alexander Locascio

Image thanks to f2b1610.

1. Karl Kautsky, quoted in Gareth Stedman Jones, “Engels und die Geschichte des
Marxismus,” in Klassen, Politik, Sprache. Für eine theorieorientierte
Sozialgeschichte (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot,1988), 234n; V.I. Lenin, “The
Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism.” All English quotations from
Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Kautsky taken from the versions available at 

2. Frederick Engels, “Dialectics” in Dialectics of Nature. 

3. Engels, “Introduction” in Anti-Dühring. 

4. Engels, “Hegel” in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy. 

5. Ibid. 

6. Engels, “Marx” in Ludwig Feuerbach. 

7. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach.” 

8. Engels, “Notes and Fragments” in Dialectics of Nature.­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 22/34
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9. Above all in Materialism and Empiriocriticism, stylized by Marxism-Leninism as the

classical textbook of dialectical materialism alongside Anti-Dühring. Here, Marxism
becomes an ideology in the strict Marxian sense: a systemization of the forms of
thought of a rei ed common sense. Concerning the political-pragamatical back-
ground of the text, usually disregarded in ML, see Johannes Busch-Weßlau, Der
Marxismus und die Legitimation politischer Macht (Frankfurt: Campus Verl, 1990),

10. Falko Schmieder points to the a priori role of the medium of photography as a foun-
dation of this naive realism in philosophy, as well as the fundamental commonalities
between Engels, Lenin, and Feuerbach; Ludwig Feuerbach und der Eingang der klas-
sischen Fotogra e. Zum Verhältnis von anthropologischem und Historischem Mate-
rialismus (Berlin: PHILO-Verlag, 2004), 213. 

11. Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Warenform und Denkform (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1978),114. 

12. Engels, “Marx” in Ludwig Feuerbach. 

13. Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach.” 

14. Engels, “Materialism” in Ludwig Feuerbach. 

15. For more on this, see the study of Hans-Josef Steinberg [1967], Sozialismus und
deutsche Sozialdemokratie. Zur Ideologie der Partei vor dem 1. Weltkrieg (Berlin-
Bonn: 1979), above all 45, 63. Approaches toward a social historical explanation are
offered by idem, 145-150; Dieter Groh, Negative Integration und revolutionärer
Attentismus. Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie am Vorabend des Ersten Weltkrieges
(Frankfurt: Ullstein Taschenbuchvlg, 1974), 58-63; Oskar Negt, “Marxismus als
Legitimationswissenschaft,” in N. Bucharin/A. Deborin – Kontroversen über dialek-
tischen und mechanistischen Materialismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974); Antonio
Gramsci, Philosophie der Praxis. Eine Auswahl (Frankfurt: S Fischer, 1967),1386. 

16. For a critique, see Alexandrine Mohl, Verelendung und Revolution. Oder: Das Elend
des Objektivismus. Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Marxrezeption in der deutschen
Sozialdemokratie (Frankfurt 1978); Rolf Peter Sieferle, Die Revolution in der Theorie­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 23/34
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von Karl Marx (Berlin: Ullstein, 1979); Ingo Elbe, “‘Umwälzungsmomente der alten
Gesellschaft’ – Aspekte der Revolutionstheorie und ihrer Kritik bei Marx,” 2002. 

17. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe point out the Darwinist-Hegelian character of
this conception: “Darwinism alone does not offer ‘guarantees for the future,’ since
natural selection does not operate in a direction predetermined from the beginning.
Only if a Hegelian type of teleology is added to Darwinism – which is totally incom-
patible with it – can an evolutionary process be presented as a guarantee of future
transitions”; Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (New York: Verso, 2001), 20. 

18. For more on this, in an instructive manner, see Heinz Dieter Kittsteiner, “Bewusst-
seinsbildung, Parteilichkeit, dialektischer und historischer Materialismus. Zu eini-
gen Kategorien der marxistisch-leninistischen Geschichtsmethodologie,” Interna-
tionale Wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbe-
wegung. Jg. 10, 1974. 

19. See Groh, Negative Integration, 36. 

20. Kautsky, quoted in Steinberg, Sozialismus und deutsche Sozialdemokratie, 61. See
also Ethics and the Materialist Conception Of History. According to Kautsky, the
prospects for freedom and humanity are not “mere expectations of conditions which
only ought to come, which we simply wish and will, but outlooks at conditions which
must come, which are necessary.” Kautsky defends himself against interpretations of
necessity “in the fatalist sense, that a higher power will present them to us of itself,”
but assumes an irresistible immanent historical-economic compulsion toward revo-
lution, whereby the immanent compulsive laws of capitalism and the formation of
the proletariat as a successful revolutionary subject play the same role: “unavoidable
in the sense, that the […] capitalists in their desire for pro t [!] revolutionize the
whole economic life, as it is also inevitable that the workers aim for shorter hours of
labor and higher wages, that they organize themselves, that they ght the capitalist
class and its state, as it is inevitable that they aim for the conquest of political power
and the overthrow of capitalist rule. Socialism is inevitable because the class strug-
gle and the victory of the proletariat is inevitable.”­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 24/34
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21. Lenin, “Three Sources.” 

22. Lenin, Karl Marx: A Brief Biographical Sketch With an Exposition of Marxism. 

23. On the paradoxes of this combination of voluntarism and determinism, see Charles
Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). 

24. It is precisely Western Marxism that – against Marxism-Leninism – emphasizes the

non-ontological character of Marx’s materialism; see Max Horkheimer, “Traditional
and Critical Theory” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: Continuum,
1972), as well as Alfred Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx (New York: Verso,
2014). Stalin determines the components of Marx’s theory as follows: Dialectic: a
universal logic of development emphasizing discontinuity, which teaches that every-
thing can be conceived of as in a state of becoming and decaying; Materialism: a
contemplative ontology which teaches that consciousness is merely a re ection of a
nature existing independent and outside of consciousness; Historical Materialism:
the application of dialectical materialism to history; universal historical laws are
class struggle, the dialectic between forces of production and relations of produc-
tion, rooted in the primacy of the development of the forces of production (casua sui
concept of forces of production), and ultimately the law of progress of successive
social formations. 

25. Engels, “Karl Marx: Critique of Political Economy. Review by Frederick Engels.” 

26. Ibid. 

27. Ibid. 

28. Kautsky [1886], Karl Marx’ ökonomische Lehren. Gemeinverständlich dargestellt

und erläutert von Karl Kautsky, 21. (Berlin: 1922), viii. 

29. Kautsky, quoted in Rolf Hecker, “Einfache Warenproduktion,” 1997. 

30. Rudolf Hilferding, Böhm-Bawerk’s Criticism of Marx.­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 25/34
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31. M.M. Rosental [1955], Die dialektische Methode der politischen Ökonomie von Karl
Marx (Berlin: Dietz, 1973). 

32. See Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory (New York: Monthly Review Press:

33. “This makes clear, of course, why in the beginning of his rst book Marx proceeds
from the simple production of commodities as the historical premise, ultimately to
arrive from this basis to capital – why he proceeds from the simple commodity
instead of a logically and historically secondary form – from an already capitalisti-
cally modi ed commodity.” Engels, “Preface” in Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3. 

34. Ibid. This interpretation of the analysis of the form of value is also adopted by Kaut-
sky, in The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx. 

35. That is to say, the law of value discussed by Marx. See Engels’ “Supplement” to vol-
ume 3. 

36. Ibid 

37. Ibid. 

38. “Or is it believed that the peasant and the artisan were so stupid as to give up the
product of 10 hours’ labor of one person for that of a single hours’ labor of anoth-
er?”; and whoever does so learns “only through mistakes.” Ibid. 

39. Ibid. 

40. In contrast, see Marx’s critique of the notion of labor-money, or the notion of a pre-
monetary commodity exchange in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Econo-
my and in the Grundrisse. 

41. See footnote 33 in chapter one of Capital, Volume 1. 

42. For Marx’s view, see for example: “Adam Smith constantly confuses the determina-
tion of the value of commodities by the labour-time contained in them with the
determination of their value by the value of labour; he is often inconsistent in the­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 26/34
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details of his exposition and he mistakes the objective equalisation of unequal quan-
tities of labour forcibly brought about by the social process for the subjective equali-
ty of the labours of individuals”; A Contribution to the Critique of Political Econo-

43. According to Marxism-Leninism, “value functions as an instrument of the planned

administration of the socialist processes of production and reproduction, according
to the principles of bookkeeping and control of the mass of labor and of consump-
tion. Correspondingly, the relation of value is consciously implemented”; Wolfgang
Peter Eichhorn, “Wert” in G. Klaus and M. Buhr, ed. Philosophisches Wörterbuch,
Bd. 2 (West Berlin: DEB, 1985), 1291. Within this framework, socialism consists
“merely in the revolutionized way of calculating the same social determination of
the products of human labor as exists in the capitalist commodity economy,” as Ste-
fan Grigat critically notes; “Kritik und Utopie,” Weg und Ziel, 4 (1997): 20. Thus,
allegedly Marxian communism degenerates into a sort of Proudhonian system of
labor notes, as Diethard Behrens and Kornelia Hafner also observe: “all hitherto
existing conceptions of the transition to socialism resort to models of immediate
calculation of labor-value and utility”; “Auf der Suche nach dem wahren Sozialis-
mus. Von der Kritik des Proudhonismus über die russische Modernisierungsdiktatur
zum realsozialistischen Etikettenschwindel” in Anton Pannekoek, Marxistischer
Antileninismus (Freiburg, 1991), 226. See here also Michael Heinrich, Die Wis-
senschaft vom Wert. Die Marxsche Kritik der politischen Ökonomie zwischen wis-
senschaftlicher Revolution und klassischer Tradition (Münster: Westfälisches
Dampfboot, 1999), 385-392; and Kittsteiner, “Bewusstseinsbildung.” 

44. For example, Engels, “Marx” in Ludwig Feuerbach. 

45. Ibid. 

46. Ibid. 

47. Ibid, translation modi ed. 

48. Gert Schäfer, “Einige Probleme des Verhältnisses von ‘ökonomischer’ und ‘politis-
cher’ Herrschaft,” in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – Staatstheorie. Materialien zur­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 27/34
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Rekonstruktion der marxistischen Staatstheorie (Berlin: Ullstein, 1974). 

49. Compare Pashukanis, The General Theory of Law and Marxism: “why is the appara-
tus of state coercion created not as a private apparatus of the ruling class, but dis-
tinct from the latter in the form of an impersonal apparatus of public power distinct
from society?” 

50. Engels, “Barbarism and Civilization” in The Origin of the Family, Private Property,
and the State. No wonder, then, that Lenin refers af rmatively to this “explanation,”
with its theory of agents and in uence. 

51. Engels, Anti-Dühring. [Translator’s Note: The of cial translation of “ideeller

Gesamtkapitalist” in the Marx-Engels Collected Works renders this unsatisfactorily
as “the ideal personi cation of the total national capital,” when in fact “ideal total
capitalist” is more accurate.] 

52. Johannes Busch-Weßlau, Der Marxismus und die Legitimation politischer Macht,
Frankfurt, Campus-Verlag, 1990). 

53. Engels, Anti-Dühring. 

54. Hans Holger Paul, Marx, Engels und die Imperialismustheorie der 2. Internationale
(Hamburg, 1978). 

55. Engels, “A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891.” 

56. Schäfer, “Einige Probleme,” cxxxi.  

57. Engels, Anti-Dühring. 

58. Schäfer, “Einige Probleme,” cxxxiv. 

59. This old chestnut will later be presented by Wolfgang Pohrt and others as a deep
insight about “late capitalism.” 

60. Engels, Anti-Dühring.­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 28/34
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61. The term was probably rst used in a Leninist polemic against Lukács’ History and
Class Consciousness (see Rudolf Walther, “Marxismus” in O. Brunner, ed.,
Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in
Deutschland, Bd. 3, [Stuttgart: E. Klett, 1982], 968), but did not achieve greater sig-
ni cance, neither as a polemical formulation nor as a self-description by the theo-
rists commonly subsumed under the name (such as Lukács, Korsch, Bloch, the
Frankfurt School, Gramsci, Lefebvre, etc.). Here, I follow Perry Anderson’s usage of
the term in Considerations on Western Marxism (New York: Verso, 1987). As fruitful
as the concept of Western Marxism might be as a heuristic model, its limits must be
clearly shown; see the critique of Anderson by Wolfgang Fritz Haug, “Westlicher
Marxismus?” in Pluraler Marxismus, Bd. 2 (Hamburg: Argument, 1987) and Michael
Krätke, “Marxismus als Sozialwissenschaft” in Haug, Materialien zum Historisch-
kritischen Wörterbuch des Marxismus (Hamburg: Argument, 1996), 77. 

62. Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Philosophieren mit Brecht und Gramsci (Hamburg: Argument,
1996), 8. For a critique of the “code word thesis” with regard to Gramsci’s work, see
Haug, “Einleitung,” in Antonio Gramsci, Gefängnishefte 6. Philosophie der Praxis
(Hamburg: Argument, 1995), 1195-1209. 

63. Georg Lukács, “N. Bucharin: Theorie des historischen Materialismus (Rezension)” in
N. Bucharin/ A. Deborin: Kontroversen über dialektischen und mechanistischen
Materalismus, 289, 284. 

64. Antonio Gramsci, “The Revolution Against Capital.” 

65. A scienti c psychology cannot be found in the thought of most representatives of

Marxism, apart from positive references to Pavlov’s behaviorism. Psychoanalysis
was mostly rejected, if not demonized as “bourgeois-decadent”. Helmut Dahmer
offers a critical overview of such reactions in Libido und Gesellschaft. Studien über
Freud und die Freudsche Linke (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1982), 241-277; within the
framework of Western Marxism, it was primarily Lukács who distinguished himself
in the condemnation of Freud. Gramsci by his own admission “was not able to study
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66. As further characteristics of Western Marxism, Anderson names the recourse to pre-
Marxian philosophy in order to clarify the method of a critical social theory; the
incorporation of contemporary “bourgeois” theories: an esoteric writing style; a
rather pessimistic appraisal of historical development markedly divergent from the
triumphalist diction of classical Marxism and Marxism-Leninism; a preference for
problems of aesthetics. 

67. For example, Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man or Jürgen Habermas’ “Recon-
struction of Historical Materialism.” 

68. The rst attempts at a new reading of Marx already occurred in the 1920s, on the
part of the Soviet authors Isaak Illich Rubin and Evgeny Pashukanis. See I.I. Rubin,
Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, and Evgeny Pashukanis, The General Theory of
Law and Marxism. Their awareness of problems of aspects of Marx’s theory with
regard to value and legal theory was not even matched in a rudimentary way for a
long time, in the East or the West. Only with the debates since the end of the 1960s
did this change somewhat. 

69. As described by Heinrich “Kommentierte Literaturliste zur Kritik der politischen

Ökonomie,” in Elmar Altvater, Rolf Hecker, Michael Heinrich, Petra Schaper-Rinkel,
ed., Kapital. doc. Das Kapital (Bd. 1) von Karl Marx in Schaubildern und Kom-
mentaren (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 1999), 207; and Urs Jaeggi, “Einige
Bemerkungen zur Orthodoxie und zum Dogmatismus im Historischen Materialis-
mus,” in Axel Honneth, ed., Theorien des Historischen Materialismus (Frankfurt:
Suhrkamp, 1977), 146. It is also referred to under the label of “Neo-Marxism.” 

70. As de ned by Hans-Georg Backhaus, Dialektik der Wertform. Untersuchungen zur

Marxschen Ökonomiekritik (Freiburg; ça ira, 1997). See also Heinrich, “Kommen-
tierte Literaturliste,” 211. 

71. See Heinrich, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert, and Helmut Brentel, Soziale Form und
ökonomisches Objekt. Studien zum Gegenstands- und Methodenverständnis der Kri-
tik der politischen Ökonomie (Opladen: Westdeutscher, 1989).­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 30/34
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72. Concerning the so-called “state derivation debate,” see Norbert Kostede, “Die
neuere marxistische Diskussion über den bürgerlichen Staat. Einführung – Kritik –
Resultate,” Gesellschaft. Beiträge zur Marxschen Theorie (1976): 150-196; and Gerd
Rudel, Die Entwicklung der marxistischen Staatstheorie in der Bundesrepublik
(Frankfurt: Campus-Verlag, 1981). 

73. Stefan Breuer, Die Krise der Revolutionstheorie. Negative Vergesellschaftung und
Arbeitsmetaphysik bei Herbert Marcuse (Frankfurt: Syndikat, 1977); Mohl, “Verelen-
dung und Revolution”; Helmut König, Geist und Revolution. Studien zu Kant, Hegel
und Marx (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981); or the writings of the Krisis group. 

74. Alfred Schmidt and Walter Euchner, ed., Kritik der politischen Ökonomie heute. 100
Jahre “Kapital” (Frankfurt: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1968). 

75. The “critical Marxism” of the Sixties, of which Alfred Schmidt was the primary advo-
cate, emphasizes the negative and historically limited character and claim to validity
of a “materialism of second nature,” but tends to regard methodological individual-
ism as an adequate description of coming communist relations. The “scienti c”
Marxism of the Althusser school emphasizes, against individualistic theories of a
“constituting subject,” that actors are merely bearers of the relations of productions,
but on the basis of the tendency of its categories to assume universal-historical
character (Balibar’s combinatorics of levels, Althusser’s concepts of praxis and ideol-
ogy), elevates the independence of relations of production to a scienti c norm). 

76. Backhaus, Dialektik der Wertform, 11. 

77. Ibid., 69. 

78. Ibid. 

79. See Louis Althusser, “From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy” in Louis Althusser and
Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital. 

80. See Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital. The difference between the structuralist
and the critical-reconstructive reading is not limited to this point. Whereas the for-­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 31/34
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mer attempts to unmask Hegelianism as an inedaquate meta-discourse, for the lat-

ter, reference to Hegel on questions of methodology is often regarded as the royal
road to understanding Marx’s work. 

81. This is the subtitle of Heinrich’s book, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert: see Backhaus’
critique of his own theoretical premises in the rst two parts of his Materialien
(Backhaus, Dialektik der Wertform, 132n). 

82. For a critical perspective on some aspects of these theses, see Dieter Wolf, Ware und
Geld. Der dialektische Widerspruch im Kapital (Hamburg: VSA, 1958) (republished
in 2002 under the title Der dialektische Widerspruch im Kapital). Wolf also criticizes
tendencies within the neue Marx-Lektüre that identify Marx’s dialectical method
with logical contradictions, thus lending Marx and his method a patina of irrational-
ism; see his critique of Colletti and Göhler. Irrationalist positions are also found
today by representatives of the Krisis and Exit groups and the Initiative Sozialistis-
ches Forum Freiburg. 

83. Marx, “Preface to the First German Edition.” 

84. Schmidt, Concept of Nature, 41. 

85. On Marx’s critique of philosophies of history, see: Helmut Fleischer, Marxismus und
Geschichte, (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975); Kittsteiner, “Bewusstseinsbildung”;
Andreas Arndt, Karl Marx. Versuch über den Zusammenhang seiner Theorie
(Bochum: Germinal, 1985), 50-76; Rolf Hecker, Carl-Erich Vollgraf, Richard Sperl,
ed., Geschichte und materialistische Geschichtstheorie bei Marx (Hamburg: Argu-
ment, 1996). 

86. G. Stiehler, quoted by Jaeggi, “Einige Bemerkungen,” 153. For a “critique” of Marx
that tries to sell this as the authentic position of Marx, see the usual works by Karl

87. Helmut Reichelt [1970], Zur logischen Struktur des Kapitalbegriffs bei Karl Marx
(Freiburg: ça ira, 2001), 73.­marx­marxism­and­marxisms­ways­of­reading­marxs­theory/ 32/34
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88. See Heinrich, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert. 

89. On this see Brentel 1989, chapter 5. 

90. On this see Heinrich, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert, 380-384. 

91. In the complete form in the so-called “Trinity Formula” of the theory of the compo-
nents of value. For a critique of neoclassical economics, see Heinrich, Die Wis-
senschaft vom Wert, 62-85. 

92. Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” 

93. Jan Hoff, Kritik der klassischen politischen Ökonomie. Zur Rezeption der werttheo-
retischen Ansätze ökonomischer Klassiker durch Karl Marx (Köln: PappyRossa,

94. Marx, Capital, Volume 1. 

95. Ibid. 

96. Hoff, Kritik der klassischen politischen Ökonomie, 78. 

Ingo Elbe is a researcher at the University of Oldenburg.




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