Rethinking Marx (in a Post-Marxist World) (1)

Moishe Postone

The University of Chicago

for Charles Camic (ed.), Reclaiming the Sociological Classics

[First presented at the Theory Miniconference, "Reclaiming the Arguments of the Founders,"

90th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association,

Washington, D.C., August 19 1995.]



Sociology arose as the theory of modern, capitalist society and has been the one discipline in the social sciences that retains its relation to the problem of society as a whole. (2) It does so, one could add, to the degree it maintains an ongoing dialogue with and appropriation of classic social theories.

If social theory's task is to elucidate the basic nature of our society and the character of its historical development, classic social theory can be characterized as theory that still has something to say to us (Habermas, [1981] 1984, p. xl) -- theory sufficiently rich and complex that rereading and reworking it can help illuminate the general features of our social universe. Such theory, which becomes particularly important during periods of fundamental structural change, is central to our ongoing attempts to formulate an adequate understanding of our world; it should not be relegated to the prehistory of sociology. Although the question of the possible relevance of such theory for contemporary issues can certainly be posed, it must be posed on an analytic level different from that of much current research agendas, for classic theory interrogates the basic social framework that the latter tend to presuppose.

Such a fundamental interrogation of our social and historical context is especially important today. The epochal transformations of advanced industrialized societies and of the global order in the past two decades have significantly changed the nature of our world. This period has been characterized by the rollback of welfare states in the capitalist West and the collapse or fundamental metamorphosis of bureaucratic party-states in the communist East -- more generally, by the weakening of national states as economically sovereign entities -- and the apparently triumphant reemergence of unregulated market capitalism. It has also seen changes in the structure of social labor domestically and internationally, the decline of classical labor movements, the rise of new social movements, the resurgence of democratic as well as nationalist movements, and the growing importance of global means of communications and international financial networks.

Because these changes have included the dramatic collapse and final dissolution of the Soviet Union and of European Communism, they have been interpreted as marking the historical end of Marxism and, more generally, of the theoretical relevance of Marx's social theory. Nevertheless, precisely because recent historical transformations have reasserted the central importance for social theory of the problematics of historical dynamics and large-scale structural changes, a renewed encounter with Marx's critical theory of modernity could, in my view, contribute importantly to the process of coming to terms theoretically with our social universe. This is not only because, as Daniel Bell has pointed out, any serious consideration of social transformation must come to terms with Marx's powerful theory of historical development, (Bell, 1973, pp. 55-56) but also because the past two decades can be viewed a marking the end of a period of the state-centered organization of social and economic life whose beginnings can be located in World War I and the Russian Revolution -- a period characterized by the effective primacy of the political over the economic -- and the manifest reemergence of the social centrality of quasi-automatic economic processes. That is, recent historical transformations suggest the importance of a renewed theoretical concern with capitalism.

They also, however, suggest that if a critical theory of capitalism is to be adequate to the contemporary world, it must differ in important and basic ways from traditional Marxist critiques of capitalism. And I would argue that Marx's mature social theory provides the point of departure for precisely such a reconceptualized critical theory of capitalism. I shall outline aspects of a reinterpretation of Marx's mature social theory that reconceptualizes his analysis of the basic nature of capitalism -- its social relations, forms of domination, and historical dynamic -- in ways that break fundamentally with traditional Marxist approaches. This reinterpretation could help illuminate the essential structuring elements and overarching historical dynamic of contemporary advanced industrial society while providing a basic critique of traditional Marxism and recasting the relation of Marxian theory to other major currents of social theory.


The interpretation I shall outline grows out of recent scholarship on Marx, but also tries to shift fundamentally the terms with which capitalism is conceptualized. Following a thirty-year period in which readings of Marx and Marxian theory were regimented by Stalinist orthodoxy, on the one hand, and reductionistically understood and rejected as "communist ideology" in western capitalist countries, on the other, the process of de-Stalinization, the ebbing of the first wave of the Cold War, and the reemergence of radical movements in the 1960s led to renewed interest in Marx's works -- especially in manuscripts that were unknown to classical Marxism -- such as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the Grundrisse (Bottomore, 1983, pp. 103-141). This helped generate a great deal of new scholarship on Marx and promoted the theoretical appropriation of western Marxist thinkers -- many of whom had been marginalized in both East and West -- such as Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno. (3) At the same time, major new works were being written by theorists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Lefebvre, Louis Althusser, Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, and Alfred Schmidt. (4)

This intense revival of Marxian theory and scholarship took a variety of theoretical paths, some overlapping, others strongly divergent -- including "humanistic" readings of Marx that focused on his theory of alienation and emphasized human practice and subjectivity, (5) works emphasizing the Hegelian dimensions of Marx's thought, (6) the Frankfurt School's explorations of the historical relation of psyche and society and the transformations of culture in 20th century capitalism, (7) and structuralism's critique of the concept of the subject. (8) (For many commentators, such as Tom Bottomore and Alvin Gouldner, the revival and further development of Marxian thought in the 1960s and 1970s can best be described in terms of an underlying opposition between Critical Theory and structuralist Marxism. (9)

Yet, in spite of this efflorescence of Marxian theory, the understanding of Marx that continued to predominate in American sociology did not, for the most part fully appropriate this new work and its implications and, instead, tended to assimilate concepts discussed in that work (such as "alienation") to older interpretive frameworks. (10)

Moreover, although several important attempts have been undertaken in the recent past to rethink Marx's social theory in fundamental ways, (11) much of the new discourse on Marx, in spite of its remarkable sophistication, ultimately also has remained bound within the limits of traditional Marxism's understanding of capitalism. These limits have weakened and undermined the theoretical power of the recent turn to Marx.

By "traditional Marxism" I do not mean a specific historical tendency in Marxism, such as orthodox Second International Marxism, for example, but, more generally, all analyses that understand capitalism -- its basic social relations -- essentially in terms of class relations structured by a market economy and private ownership and control of the means of production, and grasps its relations of domination primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation. Within this general interpretive framework, capitalism is characterized by a historical dynamic (driven by class conflict, capitalist competition, or technological development) (12) which gives rise to a growing structural contradiction between that society's basic social relations (interpreted as private property and the market) and the forces of production (interpreted as the industrial mode of producing). (13) When capitalism's contradiction is grasped in such terms, its possible historical overcoming is understood -- implicitly or explicitly -- in terms of collective ownership of the means of production and economic planning in an industrialized context -- that is, in terms of a just and consciously regulated mode of distribution that is adequate to industrial production. The latter, in turn, is not the object of critical analysis; it is viewed as a technical process, which is used by capitalists for their particularistic ends, but is intrinsically independent of capitalism and could be used for the benefit of all members of society. (14)

This structural contradiction of capitalism is expressed, on another level, as a class opposition between the capitalist class, which owns and controls production, and the proletariat, which creates the wealth of society with its labor. (15) This opposition is one between particular and universal interests, and is historical: whereas the capitalist class is the dominant class of the present order, the working class is rooted in industrial production and, hence, in the historical foundations of a new, socialist order.

This understanding is tied to a determinate reading of the basic categories of Marx's critique of political economy. His category of value, for example, has generally been interpreted as an attempt to show that social wealth is always and everywhere created by human labor and that, in capitalism, labor underlies the quasi-automatic, market-mediated mode of distribution. His theory of surplus-value, according to such views, seeks to demonstrate the existence of exploitation by showing that the surplus product is created by labor alone and, in capitalism, is appropriated by the capitalist class. Within this general framework, then, Marx's labor theory of value is first and foremost a theory of prices and profits; his categories are categories of the market and class exploitation. (16)

At the heart of this theory is a transhistorical -- and commonsensical -- understanding of labor as an activity mediating humans and nature that transforms matter in a goal-directed manner and is a condition of social life. Labor, so understood, is posited as the source of wealth in all societies and as that which underlies processes of social constitution; it constitutes what is universal and truly social (Mészáros,1970, pp. 79-90; Avineri, 1968, pp. 76-77). In capitalism, however, labor is hindered by particularistic and fragmenting relations from becoming fully realized. Emancipation, then, is realized in a social form where transhistorical "labor," freed from the fetters of the market and private property, has openly emerged as the regulating principle of society. (This notion, of course, is bound to that of socialist revolution as the "self-realization" of the proletariat.)

Within the basic framework of what I have termed "traditional Marxism," there have been a broad range of very different theoretical, methodological, and political approaches. Nevertheless, to the extent they all rest on the basic assumptions regarding labor and the essential characteristics of capitalism and of socialism outlined above, they remain bound within the framework of traditional Marxism. This has also been the case with both dominant strands of recent Marx interpretations -- structuralism and Critical Theory. Althusser, for example, formulated an epistemologically sophisticated and trenchant critique of the "idealism of labor" -- the traditional notion that labor is the source of all wealth -- and the related conception of people as subjects. Instead he introduced the notion of social relations as structures that are irreducible to anthropological intersubjectivity. Nevertheless, his focus on the question of the surplus in terms of exploitation, as well as on the physical "material" dimension of production, are related to what ultimately is a traditional understanding of capitalism (Althusser and Balibar, [1968] 1970, pp. 145-154, 165-182).

And although various economic, political, social, historical, and cultural analyses which have been generated within the traditional framework have been very powerful and insightful, the limitations of the framework itself have long been discernible in the face of historical developments such as the rise of state-interventionist capitalism and "actually existing socialism." They have become increasingly evident with the growing importance of scientific knowledge and advanced technology in the process of production, growing criticisms of technological progress and growth, and the increased importance of non-class-based social identities. Indeed classic social theorists such as Weber and Durkheim had already argued at the turn of the century that a critical theory of capitalism -- understood in terms of property relations -- is too narrow to grasp fundamental features of modern society.

It is against this historical background that one can best understand the trajectory of the other major recent strand of Marxian analysis, Critical Theory. Although that cluster of approaches has frequently been interpreted as being concerned with the so-called "superstructure" (state and culture) in order to explain why workers had not made the revolution (Wiley, 1987, pp. 8-11), I shall briefly consider that theoretical strand in other terms -- as an attempt to reconceptualize a critical theory of capitalism adequate to the twentieth century that sought to get beyond traditional Marxism's limitations, but retained some of its basic presuppositions.

Responding to large-scale historical changes in the twentieth century as well as to critiques like those of Weber and Durkheim, a number of theorists within the broader Marxist tradition -- notably Georg Lukács as well as members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory -- attempted to develop a critical social theory that would overcome the limitations of the traditional paradigm and be more adequate to those historical developments. These theorists proceeded on the basis of a sophisticated understanding of Marx's theory, which they did not take to be one of production and class structure alone, much less an economics. Instead they treated it as a critical analysis of the cultural forms as well as the social structures of capitalist society, one that also sought to grasp the relationship of theory to society in a self-reflexive manner. That is, they viewed that theory as one that attempts to analyze its own social context -- capitalist society -- in a way that reflexively accounts for the possibility of its own standpoint. (This reflexive attempt to ground socially the possibility of theoretical critique is, at the same time, an attempt to ground the possibility of oppositional and transformative social action.)

On the basis of their complex understandings of Marx's theory, these thinkers sought to respond to the historical transformation of capitalism from a market-centered form to a bureaucratic, state-centered form by reconceptualizing capitalism. Yet, as a result of some of their theoretical assumptions, Lukács as well as members of the Frankfurt School were not able to fully realize their theoretical aims of developing an analysis of capitalism adequate to the twentieth century. On the one hand, they recognized the inadequacies of a critical theory of modernity that defined capitalism solely in nineteenth century terms -- that is, in terms of the market and private ownership of the means of production. On the other hand, they remained bound to some of the assumptions of that very sort of theory.

This can be seen clearly in the case of Lukács's History and Class Consciousness, written in the early 1920's, in which he sought to reconceptualize capitalism by synthesizing Marx and Weber (Lukács, [1923] 1971, pp. 83-222). He adopted Weber's characterization of modern society in terms of a historical process of rationalization, and attempted to embed that analysis within the framework of Marx's analysis of the commodity form as the basic structuring principle of capitalist society. By grounding the process of rationalization in this manner, Lukács sought to show that what Weber described as the "iron cage" of modern life is not a necessary concomitant of any form of modern society, but a function of capitalism -- and, hence, could be transformed. At the same time, the conception of capitalism implied by his analysis is much broader than that of a system of exploitation based on private property and the market; it implies that the latter are not ultimately the central features of capitalism.

Yet Lukács's attempt to conceptualize post-liberal capitalism was deeply inconsistent. When he addressed the question of the possible overcoming of capitalism, he had recourse to the notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary Subject of history. This idea, however, only makes sense if capitalism is defined essentially in terms of private ownership of the means of production, and if labor is considered to be the standpoint of the critique. Although, then, Lukács recognized that capitalism could not be defined in traditional terms if its critique were to remain adequate as a critique of modernity, he undermined his own historical insight by continuing to regard the standpoint of the critique in precisely those traditional terms, that is in terms of the proletariat and, relatedly, a social totality constituted by labor.

The approaches developed by members of the Frankfurt School can also be understood in terms of a tension between the recognition that traditional Marxism is inadequate as a theory of twentieth century capitalism, and the retention of some of its basic presuppositions regarding labor. For example, in the face of historical developments such as the triumph of National Socialism, the victory of Stalinism, and the general increase of state control in the West, Max Horkheimer came to the conclusion in the 1930s that what earlier had characterized capitalism -- the market and private property -- no longer were its essential organizing principles (Horkheimer, [1940] 1978, pp. 95-117). Yet he did not, on the basis of this insight, proceed to reconceptualize the social relations that fundamentally characterize capitalism. Instead, retaining the traditional conception of those relations and of the contradiction of capitalism (as one between labor, on the one hand, and the market and private property, on the other), Horkheimer argued that the structural contradiction of capitalism had been overcome; society was now directly constituted by labor. Far from signifying emancipation, however, this development had led to an even greater degree of unfreedom in the form of a new technocratic form of domination.

This, however, indicated, according to Horkheimer, that labor (which he continued to conceptualize in traditional, transhistorical terms) could not be considered the basis of emancipation but, rather, should be grasped as the source of technocratic domination. Capitalist society, in his analysis, no longer possessed a structural contradiction; it had become one-dimensional -- a society governed by instrumental rationality without any possibility of fundamental critique and transformation.

Because Horkheimer retained some of traditional Marxism's basic presuppositions, such as its understanding of labor and of capitalism's basic contradiction, his attempt to overcome its limits was problematic. Not having elaborated an alternative conception of capitalism's basic social relations, he could not really justify his continued characterization of modern society as capitalist, given his claim that the market and private property had been effectively abolished. Moreover, the thesis of the one-dimensional character of post-liberal capitalism posed additional theoretical problems. The notion of social contradiction had been central to the idea of a self-reflexive critique. It allowed the theory to ground itself in its context and yet take critical distance from that context. Having claimed that capitalism's contradiction had been overcome, Horkheimer's analysis could no longer give an account of its own standpoint and, hence, lost its reflexive character (Postone, 1993, pp. 84-120).

The best-known recent attempt to get beyond the problems encountered by Lukács and the Frankfurt School in grappling with post-liberal capitalism is that of Jürgen Habermas (Habermas, [1968] 1970, [1968] 1971, [1981] 1984, [1981] 1987). Responding to the dilemmas entailed by Horkheimer's analysis, Habermas has attempted to reformulate the basis of Critical Theory, arguing that modern society is not constituted by labor alone, but by communicative action as well, that each of these constituting principles has its own independent logic, and that it is the social sphere constituted by communicative action that allows for the possibility of social critique.

Habermas's approach succeeds in recovering Critical Theory's reflexive dimension, but it does so in a manner that is based on the same traditional understanding of labor and, as a result, gives rise to a new set of theoretical difficulties. Although I cannot elaborate here, let me simply state that Habermas's analysis of modern economic, social and cultural forms is fundamentally underspecified, and lacks a great deal of the power of earlier Frankfurt School approaches to grasp twentieth century culture and society. Moreover (and this is crucial for our considerations) Habermas's approach no longer adequately grounds and delineates the historical dynamic of capitalist society -- one of the central objects of Marx's analysis. Instead, Habermas develops a transhistorical evolutionary theory of human development (Postone, 1990, pp. 170-176).

The issue of the historical dynamic of capitalist society and large-scale structural change has also posed problems for other recent attempts to formulate an overarching social theory of twentieth century society. For example, whereas members of the Frankfurt School responded to the transformations of the first half of the twentieth century by attempting to formulate a theory of post-liberal capitalism, Daniel Bell extended the arguments of Weber, Durkheim, and, later, Raymond Aron, in the early 1970s, arguing that the concept of "capitalism" (which Bell understood in traditional Marxist terms) no longer grasped important aspects of modern society. He claimed that the historical experience of the twentieth century had shown that "capitalism" and "socialism" do not refer to fundamentally different forms of social life and, hence, to different historical epochs, but to different forms of organization of the same underlying mode of social life, namely, industrial society (which, according to Bell was in the process of developing in the direction of a "post-industrial" society) (Bell, 1973).

However well-taken Bell's critique of a theory of modernity centered on the market and private property may be, his own approach also is problematic. It is bound implicitly to a conception of historical development as technologically driven, and does not provide a social explanation for the historically dynamic character of modern society. Bell's conception of historical development is essentially linear and presupposes effective state control of the economy. It, therefore, cannot address the non-linear character of important social and economic developments in advanced industrialized countries in the past twenty years -- such as the decline of the interventionist state's power to control the economy since the early 1970s, the tendency for increasing income differentiation, the stagnation in real income for large portions of the working population and/or the growth in structural unemployment.

These developments call into question important aspects of Bell's theory of post-industrial society. More generally, they have rendered anachronistic the idea, widespread in the postwar era, that the rise of the interventionist state had signified the end of any quasi-autonomous dynamic of capitalist society.

The overt reemergence of such a dynamic suggests the continued need for a theory of capitalism. Nevertheless, such a theory must be able to respond to the insights of the Frankfurt School theorists as well as Aron and Bell that the market and private ownership cannot be regarded as the centrally defining features of modern society. Such a theory, in other words, must be based on a conception of capitalism that does not grasp that society's most fundamental social relations in terms of class relations structured by private ownership of the means of production and the market.

I would like to outline a reinterpretation of Marx's mature works -- especially Capital -- that provides the basis for such a reconceptualized theory of capitalism (Postone, 1993). I chose Marx's mature theory as my point of departure because, in my view, it provides the best foundation for a rigorous analysis of the dynamic processes that underlie the overarching historical development of the modern world. At the same time, my intention was to develop analytic categories expressing an understanding of the basic structuring principles of capitalist society essentially different from that of traditional Marxism, while also overcoming the familiar theoretical dichotomies of structure and action, meaning and material life. I tried to show that these categories could serve as the foundation for a rigorous and self-reflexive critical theory of capitalism as a theory of modernity, encompassing both contemporary advanced western industrial societies as well as what had been called "actually existing socialism." Such a theory could prove to be a fruitful point of departure for an analysis of the large-scale transformations of the past two decades.


Let me begin by describing a major shift that occurred in Marx's thought in the course of writing the Grundrisse (Marx, [1857-58] 1973) a preparatory manuscript for Capital. Marx began the Grundrisse with a consideration of transhistorical, indeterminate categories such as "production" and "consumption" (Marx, [1857-58] 1973, pp. 83ff). However, he was not satisfied with this point of departure. Towards the very end of the manuscript, Marx proposed a new beginning, which he then retained for his subsequent texts. (17) That new beginning was the category of the commodity. (18) In his later works, Marx's analysis is not of commodities as they may exist in many societies, nor is it of a hypothetical pre-capitalist stage of "simple commodity production." Rather, his analysis is of the commodity as it exists in capitalist society. Marx now analyzed the commodity not merely as an object, but as the historically specific, most fundamental form of social relations that characterize that society (Marx, [1863-66]1976d, pp. 949-951)

This move from a transhistorical to a historically specific point of departure indicated a significant shift in Marx's thinking. It implied that the categories of the theory are historically specific. Moreover, given Marx's assumption that thought is socially embedded, his turn to a notion of the historical specificity of the categories of capitalist society, that is, of his own historical context, implicitly entailed a turn to a notion of the historical specificity of his own theory.

This implied the necessity for a different sort of social critique. Its standpoint could not be located transhistorically or transcendentally, but had to be located as an immanent dimension of the social object of the investigation. No theory -- including that of Marx -- has, within this conceptual framework, absolute, transhistorical validity. An important task of the theory now was reflexive: it had to render plausible its own standpoint by means of the same categories with which it analyzed its historical context.

A second major implication of Marx's turn to the historical specificity of his categories was that transhistorical notions, such as that of a dialectical logic underlying human history now became historically relativized. In disputing their transhistorical validity, however, Marx did not claim that such notions were never valid. Instead, he restricted their validity to the capitalist social formation, while showing how that which is historically specific to capitalism, could be taken to be transhistorical. On this basis Marx proceeded to critically analyze theories that project onto history or society in general, categories that, according to him, are valid only for the capitalist epoch. This critique also holds implicitly for Marx's own earlier writings with their transhistorical projections, such as the notion that class struggle has been at the heart of all of history, for example, or the notion of an intrinsic logic to all of history or, of course, the notion that labor is the major constituting element of social life.

If, however, many of Marx's earlier notions regarding history, society and labor had been projections, and actually were valid only for capitalist society, he now had to uncover the grounds for their validity in the specific characteristics of that society. Marx sought to do so by locating what he regarded as the most fundamental form of social relations that characterizes capitalist society and, on that basis, carefully constructing a series of integrated categories with which he sought to explain the underlying workings of that society. That fundamental form, as I already have mentioned, is the commodity. Marx took the term "commodity" and used it to designate a historically specific form of social relations, one constituted as a structured form of social practice that, at the same time, is a structuring principle of the actions, world views and dispositions of people. As a category of practice, it is a form both of social subjectivity and objectivity. In some respects, it occupies a similar place in Marx's analysis of modernity that kinship might in an anthropologist's analysis of another form of society.

What characterizes the commodity form of social relations, as analyzed by Marx, is that it is constituted by labor, it exists in objectified form and it has a dualistic character.

In order to elucidate this description, Marx's conception of the historical specificity of labor in capitalism must be clarified. According to his analysis of the commodity, labor does indeed constitute the fundamental social relations of capitalism. Yet, being historically specific, that constituting function cannot be understood to be an attribute of labor per se, as it exists in all societies. Indeed, one of Marx's major criticisms of Ricardo was that he had not grasped the historical specificity of value and of the labor that constitutes it (Marx, [1861-63] 1968, p. 164; [1859] 1970, p. 60)

What, then, is the historical specificity of labor in capitalism? Marx maintains that labor in capitalism has a "double character:" it is both "concrete labor" and "abstract labor" (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp.131-139). "Concrete labor" refers to the fact that some form of what we consider laboring activity mediates the interactions of humans with nature in all societies. "Abstract labor," I argue, signifies that, in capitalism, labor also has a unique social function: it mediates a new form of social interdependence.

Let me elaborate: In a society in which the commodity is the basic structuring category of the whole, labor and its products are not socially distributed by traditional ties, norms, or overt relations of power and domination -- that is, by manifest social relations -- as is the case in other societies. Instead, labor itself replaces those relations by serving as a kind of quasi-objective means by which the products of others are acquired. That is to say, a new form of interdependence comes into being where no-one consumes what they produce, but where, nevertheless, one's own labor or labor-products function as the necessary means of obtaining the products of others. In serving as such a means, labor and its products in effect preempt that function on the part of manifest social relations. Instead of being defined, distributed and accorded significance by manifest social relations, as is the case in other societies, labor in capitalism is defined, distributed and accorded significance by structures (commodity, capital) that are constituted by labor itself. That is, labor in capitalism constitutes a form of social relations which has an impersonal, apparently non-social, quasi-objective character and which embeds, transforms and, to some degree, undermines and supersedes traditional social ties and relations of power.

In Marx's mature works, then, the notion of the centrality of labor to social life is not a transhistorical proposition. It does not refer to the fact that material production is always a precondition of social life. Nor should it be taken as meaning that material production is the most essential dimension of social life in general, of even of capitalism in particular. Rather, it refers to the historically specific constitution by labor in capitalism of the social relations that fundamentally characterize that society. In other words, Marx analyzes labor in capitalism as constituting a historically determinate form of social mediation which is the ultimate social ground of the basic features of modernity -- in particular, its overarching historical dynamic. Rather than positing the social primacy of material production, Marx's mature theory seeks to show the primacy in capitalism of a form of social mediation (constituted by "abstract labor") that molds both the process of material production ("concrete labor") and consumption.

Labor in capitalism, then, is not only labor as we transhistorically and commonsensically understand it, according to Marx, but is a historically specific socially-mediating activity. Hence its products -- commodity, capital -- are both concrete labor products and objectified forms of social mediation. According to this analysis, the social relations that most basically characterize capitalist society are very different from the qualitatively specific, overt social relations -- such as kinship relations or relations of personal or direct domination -- which characterize non-capitalist societies. Although the latter kind of social relations continue to exist in capitalism, what ultimately structures that society is a new, underlying level of social relations that is constituted by labor. Those relations have a peculiar quasi-objective, formal character and are dualistic -- they are characterized by the opposition of an abstract, general, homogeneous dimension and a concrete, particular, material dimension, both of which appear to be "natural," rather than social, and condition social conceptions of natural reality.

The abstract character of the social mediation underlying capitalism is also expressed in the form of wealth dominant in that society. As we have seen, Marx's "labor theory of value" frequently has been misunderstood as a labor theory of wealth, that is, as a theory that seeks to explain the workings of the market and prove the existence of exploitation by arguing that labor, at all times and in all places, is the only social source of wealth. Marx's analysis, however, is not one of wealth in general, any more than it is one of labor in general. He analyzed value as a historically specific form of wealth which is bound to the historically unique role of labor in capitalism; as a form of wealth, it is also a form of social mediation. Marx explicitly distinguished value from material wealth and related these two distinct forms of wealth to the duality of labor in capitalism. Material wealth is measured by the quantity of products produced and is a function of a number of factors such as knowledge, social organization, and natural conditions, in addition to labor. Value is constituted by human labor-time expenditure alone, according to Marx, and is the dominant form of wealth in capitalism (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp.136-137; [1857-58]1973, pp. 704-705). Whereas material wealth, when it is the dominant form of wealth, is mediated by overt social relations, value is a self-mediating form of wealth.

Far from arguing that value is a transhistorical form of wealth, Marx sought to explain central features of capitalism by arguing that it is uniquely based on value. His categories are intended to grasp a historically specific form of social domination and a unique immanent dynamic -- not simply to ground equilibrium prices and demonstrate the structural centrality of exploitation. (19) According to Marx's analysis, the ultimate goal of production in capitalism is not the goods produced but value, or, more precisely, surplus value. As a form of wealth, however, value -- the objectification of labor functioning as a quasi-objective means of acquiring goods it has not produced -- is independent of the physical characteristics of the commodities in which it is embodied. Hence, it is a purely quantitative form of wealth. Within this framework, production in capitalism necessarily is quantitatively oriented -- toward ever-increasing amounts of (surplus) value. As production for (surplus) value, production in capitalism is no longer a means to a substantive end, but a moment in a never-ending chain. It is production for the sake of production (Marx, [1867] 1976a, p. 742).

Marx's theory of value provides the basis for an analysis of capital as a socially constituted form of mediation and wealth whose primary characteristic is a tendency toward its limitless expansion. A crucially important aspect of this attempt to specify and ground the dynamic of modern society is its emphasis on temporality. Just as value, within this framework, is not related to the physical characteristics of the products, its measure is not immediately identical with the mass of goods produced ("material wealth"). Rather, as an abstract form of wealth, value is based on an abstract measure -- socially average, or necessary, labor-time expenditure.

The category of socially necessary labor time is not merely descriptive, but expresses a general temporal norm resulting from the actions of the producers to which they must conform. Such temporal norms exert an abstract form of compulsion which is intrinsic to capitalism's form of mediation and wealth. In other words, the goal of production in capitalism confronts the producers as an external necessity. It is not given by social tradition or by overt social coercion, nor is it decided upon consciously. Rather, the goal presents itself as beyond human control. The sort of abstract domination constituted by labor in capitalism is the domination of time.

The form of mediation constitutive of capitalism, then, gives rise to a new form of social domination -- one that subjects people to impersonal, increasingly rationalized structural imperatives and constraints (Marx, [1857-58]1973, p. 164). This form of self-generated structural domination is the social and historical elaboration in Marx's mature works of the concept of alienation developed in his early works. It applies to capitalists as well as workers, in spite of their great differences in power and wealth.

The abstract form of domination analyzed by Marx in Capital cannot, then, be grasped adequately in terms of class domination or, more generally, in terms of the concrete domination of social groupings or of institutional agencies of the state and/or the economy. It has no determinate locus (20) and, although constituted by specific forms of social practice, appears not to be social at all. The structure is such that one's own needs, rather than the threat of force or of other social sanctions, appear to be the source of such "necessity".

In Marx's terms, out of a pre-capitalist context characterized by relations of personal dependence, a new one emerged characterized by individual personal freedom within a social framework of "objective dependence" (Marx, [1857-58] 1973, p. 158). Both terms of the classical modern antinomic opposition -- the freely self-determining individual and society as an extrinsic sphere of objective necessity -- are, according to Marx's analysis, historically constituted with the rise and spread of the commodity-determined form of social relations.

Within the framework of this interpretation, then, the most basic social relations of capitalism are not relations of class exploitation and domination alone. The Marxian analysis includes this dimension, of course, but goes beyond it. It is not only concerned with how the distribution of goods and, ultimately, of power is effected, but also seeks to grasp the very nature of the social mediation that structures modernity. Marx sought to show in Capital that the forms of social mediation expressed by categories such as the commodity and capital develop into a sort of objective system, which increasingly determines the goals and means of much human activity. That is to say, Marx attempted to analyze capitalism as a quasi-objective social system and, at the same time, to ground that system in structured forms of social practice. (21)

The form of domination I have begun describing is not static; as we have seen, it generates an intrinsic dynamic underlying modern society. Further determinations of that dynamic can be outlined by considering some implications of the temporal determination of value.

Value's temporal dimension implies a determinate relationship between productivity and value, which can only be briefly mentioned here. Because value is a function of socially necessary labor time alone, increased productivity results only in short-term increases in value. Once increases in productivity become socially general, however, they redetermine socially average (or necessary) labor time; the amount of value produced per unit time then falls back to its original "base level" (Marx, [1867] 1976a, p. 129). This means that higher levels of productivity, once they become socially general, are structurally reconstituted as the new "base level" of productivity. They generate greater amounts of material wealth, but not higher levels of value per unit time. By the same token -- and this is crucial -- higher socially general levels of productivity do not diminish the socially general necessity for labor time expenditure (which would be the case if material wealth were the dominant form of wealth); instead that necessity is constantly reconstituted. In a system based on value, there is a drive for ever-increasing levels of productivity, yet direct human labor time expenditure remains necessary to the system as a whole. This pattern promotes still further increases in productivity.

This results in a very complex, non-linear historical dynamic. On the one hand, this dynamic is characterized by ongoing transformations of the technical processes of labor, of the social and detail division of labor and, more generally, of social life -- of the nature, structure and interrelations of social classes and other groupings, the nature of production, transportation, circulation, patterns of living, the form of the family, and so on. On the other hand, this historical dynamic entails the ongoing reconstitution of its own fundamental condition as an unchanging feature of social life -- namely that social mediation ultimately is effected by labor and, hence, that living labor remains integral to the process of production (considered in terms of society as a whole), regardless of the level of productivity.

This analysis provides a point of departure for understanding why the course of capitalist development has not been linear, why the enormous increases in productivity generated by capitalism have led neither to ever-higher general levels of affluence, nor to a fundamental restructuring of social labor entailing significant general reductions in working time. History in capitalism, within this framework, is neither a simple story of progress (technical or otherwise) nor one of regression and decline. Rather, capitalism is a society that is in constant flux and, yet, constantly reconstitutes its underlying identity (whereby that identity, it should be noted, is grasped in terms of the quasi-objective and dynamic social form constituted by labor as a historically specific mediating activity, rather than in terms of private property or the market). This dynamic both generates the possibility of another organization of social life and, yet, hinders that possibility from being realized.

Such an understanding of capitalism's complex dynamic allows for a critical, social (rather than technological) analysis of the trajectory of growth and the structure of production in modern society. We have seen that a system based on value gives rise to an ongoing drive towards increased productivity. Marx's analysis of the category of surplus-value specifies this further. What is important about Marx's key concept of surplus-value is not only, as traditional interpretations would have it, that it purportedly shows that the surplus is produced by the working class -- but that it shows that the relevant surplus in capitalist society is one of value, rather than of material wealth. Marx's analysis of this form of the surplus indicates that, the higher the socially general level of productivity already is, the more productivity must be still further increased in order to generate a determinate increase in surplus value (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp. 657-658). In other words, the expansion of surplus value required by capital tends to generate accelerating rates of increase in productivity and, hence, in the masses of goods produced and raw materials consumed. Yet, the ever-increasing amounts of material wealth produced do not represent correspondingly high levels of social wealth in the form of value. This analysis suggests that a perplexing feature of modern capitalism -- the absence of general prosperity in the midst of material plenty -- is not only a matter of unequal distribution, but is a function of the value form of wealth at the heart of capitalism.

Another consequence implied by this dynamic pattern, which generates increases in material wealth greater than those in surplus value, is the accelerating destruction of the natural environment. The problem of economic growth in capitalism, within this framework, is not only that it is crisis-ridden, as has frequently been emphasized by traditional Marxist approaches; the form of growth itself is problematic. The trajectory of growth would be different, according to this approach, if the ultimate goal of production were increased quantities of goods rather than of surplus value. The trajectory of expansion in capitalism, in other words, should not be equated with "economic growth" per se. It is a determinate trajectory, one that generates an increasing tension between ecological considerations and the imperatives of value as a form of wealth and social mediation.

The distinction between material wealth and value, then, allows for an approach that can address the negative ecological consequences of modern industrial production within the framework of a critical theory of capitalism. Moreover, it is able to point beyond the opposition between runaway growth as a condition of social wealth, and austerity as a condition of an ecologically sound organization of social life, by grounding this opposition in a historically specific form of mediation and wealth.

The relationship between value and productivity I have begun to outline also provides the basis for a critical analysis of the structure of social labor and the nature of production in capitalism. Marx, in his mature works, did not treat the industrial process of production as a technical process that, although increasingly socialized, is used by private capitalists for their own ends. Rather, he analyzed that process as molded by capital and hence, as intrinsically capitalist (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp. 492ff). According to his analysis, the value form of wealth induces both ever-increasing levels of productivity and the structural retention of direct human labor in production, despite the great increases in productivity. The result is increasingly large-scale, technologically-advanced production, coupled with the increasing fragmentation of much individual labor.

This analysis provides the beginnings of a structural explanation for a central paradox of production in capitalism. On the one hand, capital's drive for ongoing increases in productivity gives rise to a productive apparatus of considerable technological sophistication that renders the production of material wealth essentially independent of direct human labor time expenditure. This, in turn, opens the possibility of large-scale socially-general reductions in labor time and fundamental changes in the nature and social organization of labor. Yet these possibilities are not realized in capitalism (Marx, [1857-58] 1973, pp. 704ff). Although there is a growing shift away from manual labor, the development of technologically sophisticated production does not liberate most people from fragmented and repetitive labor. Similarly, labor time is not reduced on a socially general level, but is distributed unequally, even increasing for many. The actual structure of labor and organization of production, then, cannot be understood adequately in technological terms alone; the development of production in capitalism must be understood in social terms as well. It, like consumption, is molded by the social mediations expressed by the categories of commodity and capital.

Considered in terms of the structure of wage-labor, another dimension of this paradox of production is that a growing gap arises between labor-time inputs and material outputs. Hence, wages and salaries increasingly become a form of socially-general distribution that retains the form of appearance of remuneration for labor-time expenditure. Yet, according to Marx's analysis of capitalism's dynamic (as entailing the ongoing structural reconstitution of the necessity of the value-form), labor-time inputs remain structurally essential to capitalism.

Marx's analysis of the dialectic of value and material wealth, then, implicitly argues that both a runaway form of economic growth as well as the proletarian-based form of industrial production are molded by the commodity form, and suggests that both the form of growth and of production could be different in a society in which material wealth had replaced value as the dominant form of wealth. Capitalism itself gives rise to the possibility of such a society, of a different structuring of work, a different form of growth, and a different form of complex global interdependence; at the same time, however, it structurally undermines the realization of those possibilities.

According to this interpretation, then, Marx's theory does not posit a linear developmental schema which points beyond the existing structure and organization of labor (as do theories of postindustrial society); nor, however, does it treat industrial production and the proletariat as the bases for a future society (as do many traditional Marxist approaches). Rather, it allows for an attempt that does justice to the increasing importance of science and technology and elucidates the historical possibility of a new postindustrial and post-proletarian organization of labor while, at the same time, analyzing the discrepancies between the actual form of capitalist development and the possibilities it generates.

The structural contradiction of capitalism, according to this interpretation, is not one, then, between distribution (the market, private property) and production, but one that emerges as a contradiction between existing forms of growth and production, and what could be the case if social relations no longer were mediated in a quasi-objective fashion by labor and if people, therefore, had a greater degree of control over the organization and direction of social life.

Marx's mature theory of history, according to this interpretation, cannot be read out of his earlier works, such as The German Ideology or The Communist Manifesto, but is an implicit dimension of his exposition in Capital. We have seen that, according to the approach I have begun to outline, the dialectical interactions of the two dimensions of labor and of wealth in capitalism give rise to a complex directional dynamic which, although constituted socially, is quasi-independent of its constituting individuals. It has the properties of an intrinsic historical logic. In other words, Marx's mature theory did not hypostatize history as a sort of force moving all human societies; it no longer presupposed that a directional dynamic of history in general exists. It did, however, characterize modern society in terms of an ongoing directional dynamic and sought to explain that historical dynamic with reference to the dual character of the social forms expressed by the categories of the commodity and capital.

By grounding the contradictory character of the social formation in those dualistic forms, Marx implied that structurally-based social contradiction is specific to capitalism. The notion that reality or social relations in general are essentially contradictory and dialectical appears, in light of this analysis, to be one that can only be assumed metaphysically, not explained. Marx's analysis now implicitly dispensed with evolutionary conceptions of history, (22) suggesting that any theory that posits an intrinsic developmental logic to history as such, whether dialectical or evolutionary, projects what is the case for capitalism onto history in general.


Having outlined some aspects of my reinterpretation of Marx's analysis of capitalism, I would like to turn briefly to a preliminary consideration of its implications for the question of the relationship between social labor and social meaning in Marx's theory. Most discussions of this issue conceptualize the problem as one of the relation between labor, understood transhistorically, and forms of thought. This is the assumption underlying the common idea that, for Marx, material production constitutes the fundamental "base" of society, whereas ideas are part of the more epiphenomenal "superstructure, (23) or, relatedly, that beliefs, for Marx, are determined by material interests (Collins, 1994, pp. 65-70). This was also Habermas' assumption when he argued in Knowledge and Human Interests that an analysis based upon labor (which he, like the later Horkheimer, related, as an epistemological category, to instrumental knowledge) must be supplemented by one based on a theory of interaction, in order to recover the notion of a social grounding for non-instrumental forms of meaning and, hence, for the possibility of critical consciousness (Habermas, [1968] 1971, pp. 25-63).

However, as I have been arguing, Marx's mature theory of social constitution is not one of labor per se, but of labor acting as a socially mediating activity in capitalism. This interpretation transforms the terms of the problem of the relationship between labor and thought. The relationship he delineates is not one between concrete labor and thought, but one between labor-mediated social relations and thought. Marx's analysis suggests that what in other societies may very well be structured differently -- production and interaction, to use Habermas' earlier terminology -- are, on a deep level, conflated in capitalism; they are similarly mediated by labor. At the same time, he maintained that the specificity of the forms of thought (or, more broadly, of subjectivity) characteristic of modern society can be understood with reference to those forms of mediation. That is, inasmuch as Marx analyzed social life and production with reference to a structured form of everyday mediation, and did not define production in concrete "material" terms alone, his approach did not dichotomize subject and object, culture and social life. The categories of his mature critique, in other words, were intended to be determinations of social subjectivity and objectivity at once. They represent an attempt to get beyond a subject-object dualism, an attempt to grasp socially aspects of modern views of nature, society, and history, with reference to historically specific forms of social mediation constituted by determinate forms of social practice.

This approach entails a very different theory of knowledge than that implied by the well-known base-superstructure model, where thought is a mere reflection of a material base. It also is not a functionalist approach -- either in the sense of explaining ideas because they are functional for capitalist society or for the capitalist class. What is noteworthy about Marx's, frequently implicit, attempts at a social-historical theory of knowledge in Capital is that he did not deal with modes of thought essentially and ultimately in terms of social position and social interest, including class position and class interest. Instead he attempted first to ground categorially the overarching, historically specific modes of thought within which differentiation according to classes then takes place. Those modes of thought may benefit a class; they are not, however, necessarily the expressions of that class.

One of the more explicit indications in Capital of this approach to a social-historical theory of knowledge is in the famous section on the so-called fetish of commodities, where Marx speaks of the object-like relations among people in capitalism (Marx, [1867] 1976a, pp. 163-177). Unfortunately those passages frequently have been taken to be no more than a criticism of the creeping commercialism of all aspects of social life. Marx's notion of the fetish however, is an aspect of his theory of knowledge that seeks to make plausible aspects of modern thought – for example, the rise of the concept of Reason as a category of totality, or the view of nature as objective, homogeneous and rational – with reference to the peculiar objective character of the underlying forms of social mediation that constitute capitalist society. This approach -- given the complexity of Marx's categories and the fact that they are historically dynamic and contradictory -- allows for a historical theory of forms of subjectivity, one very different from approaches that leave the nature of thought indeterminate while examining its social function. (24) It differs both from Bourdieu's theory of social misrecognition, which ultimately is functionalist, and which cannot intrinsically relate that which is purportedly misrecognized and the form of misrecognition itself (Bourdieu, [1972] 1977, pp.159-197), and from Althusser's conception of ideology, which is transhistorical, predicated on Engels's base/superstructure model, and which does not allow the critical theorist to reflexively ground the possibility of the critique of ideology. (25)

The "material" of Marx's mature materialist theory, then, is social. Meaning is not analyzed as an epiphenomenal reflex of a physical, material base. Neither, of course, is it idealistically treated as a completely self-grounded, autonomous sphere. Rather, the structure of meaning is treated as an immanent aspect of the structure of social mediation. It is because labor in capitalism is not only a productive activity, according to Marx, but is also socially mediating, that it is indeed constitutive of meaning. In general, within the framework of my proposed reinterpretation, the Marxian theory is not one of the material conditions of life alone but is, rather, a self-reflexive critical social theory of a historically specific, constituted intersection of culture and society, meaning and material life.


The reinterpretation of Marx's theory I have outlined constitutes a basic break with, and critique of, more traditional interpretations. As we have seen, such interpretations grasp capitalism in terms of class relations structured by the market and private property, its form of domination primarily in terms of class domination and exploitation, and the critique of capitalism as a normative and historical critique from the standpoint of labor and production (understood transhistorically in terms of the interactions of humans with material nature). I have argued that such a common, transhistorical understanding of labor does not underlie Marx's critique, that his theory is not concerned with the production of social wealth in general, and that his understanding of the essential social relations and form of domination characteristic of capitalism must be rethought. That is to say, I have sought to show that, whereas most traditional interpretations remain within the bounds of the problems posed by classical political economy, Marx changed the terms of those problems.

According to the reinterpretation I have outlined, Marx's analysis of labor in capitalism is historically specific; it seeks to elucidate a peculiar quasi-objective form of social mediation and wealth (value) that, as a form of domination, structures the process of production in capitalism and generates a historically unique dynamic. Hence, labor and the process of production are not separable from, and opposed to, the social relations of capitalism, but constitute their very core. Marx's theory, then, extends far beyond the traditional critique of the bourgeois relations of distribution (the market and private property); it is not simply a critique of exploitation and the unequal distribution of wealth and power. Rather, it grasps modern industrial society itself as capitalist, and critically analyzes capitalism primarily in terms of abstract structures of domination, increasing fragmentation of individual labor and individual existence, and a blind runaway developmental logic. It treats the working class as the basic element of capitalism rather than as the embodiment of its negation, and implicitly conceptualizes socialism -- not in terms of the realization of labor and of industrial production -- but in terms of the possible abolition of the proletariat and of the organization of production based on proletarian labor, as well as of the dynamic system of abstract compulsions constituted by labor as a socially mediating activity.

This reinterpretation of Marx's theory thus implies a fundamental rethinking of the nature of capitalism and of its possible historical transformation. By shifting the focus of the critique away from an exclusive concern with the market and private property, it provides the basis for a critical theory of post-liberal society as capitalist and also could provide the basis for a critical theory of the so-called "actually-existing socialist" countries as alternative (and failed) forms of capital accumulation, rather than as social modes that represented the historical negation of capital, in however imperfect a form.

Although the logically abstract level of analysis outlined here does not immediately address the issue of the specific factors underlying the structural transformations of the past twenty years, it can provide a framework within which those transformations can be grounded socially and understood historically. It provides the basis for an understanding of the non-linear developmental dynamic of modern society that could incorporate many important insights of postindustrial theory while also elucidating the constraints intrinsic to that dynamic and, hence, the gap between the actual organization of social life and the way it could be organized -- especially given the increasing importance of science and technology.

By developing a non-linear account of capitalism's pattern of historical development, this reconceptualization allows for a systematic elucidation of features of modern society that can seem anomalous with in the framework of linear development theories: notable are the continued production of poverty in the midst of plenty, the apparently paradoxical effects of labor-saving and time-saving technology on the organization of social labor and social time, and the degree to which important aspects of modern life are shaped by abstract and impersonal forces despite the growing ability of people to control their social and natural environments.

Inasmuch as it seeks to ground socially, and is critical of, the abstract, quasi-objective social relations, and the nature of production, work, and the imperatives of growth in capitalism, this interpretation could also begin to address a range of contemporary concerns, dissatisfactions and aspirations in a way that could provide a fruitful point of departure for a consideration of the new social movements of recent decades and the sorts of historically constituted world views they embody and express.

Finally, this approach also has implication for the question of the social preconditions of democracy, inasmuch as it analyzes not only the inequalities of real social power that are inimical to democratic politics, but also reveals as socially constituted -- and hence as legitimate objects of political debates -- the systemic constraints imposed by capital's global dynamic on democratic self-determination.

By fundamentally rethinking the significance of value theory and reconceptualizing the nature of capitalism, this interpretation changes the terms of discourse between critical theories of capitalism and other sorts of social theory. It implicitly suggests that an adequate theory of modernity should be a self-reflexive theory capable of overcoming the theoretical dichotomies of culture and material life, structure and action, while grounding socially the overarching non-linear directional dynamic of the modern world, its form of economic growth, and the nature and trajectory of its production process. That is, such a theory must be capable of providing a social account of the paradoxical features of modernity outlined above.

In addressing these issues, the interpretation I have presented seeks to contribute to the discourse of contemporary social theory and, relatedly, to our understanding of the far-reaching transformations of our social universe.


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(1) I would like to thank Nicole Jarnagin Deqtvaal for her invaluable critical feedback.

(2) This formulation is Jürgen Habermas's. See Habermas, [1981] 1984, p. 5.

(3) See Lukács, [1923] 1971; Korsch, [1923] 1971; Gramsci, [1929-35] 1972; Adorno and Horkheimer, [1944] 1972.

(4) See, for example, Sartre, [1960-85] 1982-1991; Lefebvre, [1939] 1968; Althusser, [1965] 1970; Althusser and Balibar, [1968] 1970; Adorno, [1966] 1973; Marcuse, 1964a; Habermas, [1963] 1973a; Habermas, [1968] 1971; Schmidt, [1962] 1971.

(5) See, for example, Mészáros, 1970; Ollman, 1976.

(6) See, for example, Hyppolite, [1965]1969; Avineri, 1968.

(7) See, for example, Marcuse, 1955; Adorno and Horkheimer, [1944] 1972.

(8) See Althusser, [1965] 1970.

(9) Their treatments of the opposition between these two theoretical approaches, however, are not fully adequate. Bottomore's characterization of it as one between Critical Theory's emphasis on cultural forms of domination and structuralism's attempt to establish the scientificity of Marx neither does justice to Critical Theory's notion of totality nor to Althusser's emphasis on ideology. (Bottomore,1983, pp. 126-129). On the other hand, Gouldner describes the opposition as one between objectivistic and subjectivistic approaches, identifies the Hegelian-Marxist tradition with the latter, and roots the opposition in an internal tension in Marx's work. (Gouldner, 1980). This, however, overlooks that the members of the Frankfurt School attempted to theoretically overcome the dichotomy between objectivism and subjectivism. They did so on the basis of a position similar to that expressed by Shlomo Avineri who strongly rejects the dichotomy Gouldner, among others, makes between a young, "humanistic" and "idealist" Marx and an older "determinist" and "materialist" Marx, and points out that, for Marx, objective circumstances themselves are an outcome of human agency. (Avineri, 1968, pp. 63-64).

(10) See for example Collins, 1994. It is telling that whereas theorists like Lukács and Avineri distinguish between Marx and Engels in order to highlight the differences between Marx's sophisticated analysis of capitalism and orthodox mainstream Marxism, Collins proceeds from the same distinction in order to affirm Engels's more "orthodox" positions (as contributing productively to the so-called conflict tradition), and dismisses the Grundrisse and Capital as works of technical economics rooted in Hegelian "mystification." (Collins, 1994, p. 118, ftnt 1). For an approach that does seek to appropriate more current work on Marx see Alexander 1982, pp. 11-74, 163-210, 328-370.

(11) See, for example, Harvey, 1982; Murray, 1988; Sayer, 1979; Sayer, 1987.

(12) G. A. Cohen, whose approach remains very much within the bounds of traditional Marxism, has cogently argued that, although class struggles and exploitation are important aspects of historical change, they themselves cannot explain an ongoing trajectory of historical development. Cohen's conception of an intrinsic historical dynamic, however, is transhistorical (whereas, as I shall argue, such a dynamic must be understood as a historically specific aspect of capitalism itself). He is unable to ground that dynamic in historically specific and, therefore, social terms and, instead, conceptualizes history in terms of the evolutionary development of technology. (Cohen, 1986a, pp. 12-22). The problem with most criticisms of such technological determinism, however, is that they usually seek to recover the theoretical possibility of social action with reference to class struggles or within the framework of methodological individualism, neither of which can explain what Cohen was seeking to elucidate, namely, a directional historical dynamic. (See, for example, Jon Elster's criticism of Cohen in Elster, 1986, pp. 202-220.) I shall argue that the historically specific dynamic of capitalism can be explained with reference to the peculiar forms of social mediation expressed by categories such as "commodity" and "capital" which cannot be reduced to class terms.

(13) This understanding of the forces and relations of production is central to the traditional reading of Marx's analysis of capitalism. It is one that is shared by theorists as disparate as Richard Flacks, Anthony Giddens, Ernest Mandel, and Neil Smelser. See Flacks, 1982, pp. 9-52; Giddens, 1995, pp. xii-xv; Mandel, 1978, pp. 14-15; Smelser, 1973, pp. vii-xxxviii.

(14) Harry Braverman broke decisively with positions affirming the process of production when he analyzed the labor process itself as structured by capitalism. Such an analysis implies that the traditional understanding of capitalism must be rethought, but Braverman did not pursue those implications further. See Braverman, 1974. I shall try to show that a very different reading of the nature of capitalism could provide the theoretical basis for Braverman's analysis of the labor process.

(15) It is the case that some analysts, such as Herb Gintis, have broadened the focus of the traditional critique of capitalism by emphasizing control over the producers rather than private property in describing capitalism (which would allow for a critique of what had been termed "actually existing socialist" societies). However, this approach is ultimately a variation of the traditional analysis. Its focus is on unequal distribution (of wealth and power) but not on the organization of labor and nature of production, and the ways they are structured and restructured (i.e. "controlled") by the historical dynamic of capitalism. A similar point could be made with regard to the attempts by Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick to focus on the issue of the appropriation of surplus labor in order to analyze the Soviet Union as a state-capitalist state structure. See Gintis, 1982, pp. 58-60; Resnick and Wolff, 1995, pp. 323-333.

(16) See, for example, Dobb, 1940,pp. 70-71; Cohen, 1988, pp. 209-238; Elster, 1985, p. 127; Gintis, 1982; Roemer, 1981, pp.158-159; Steedman, 1981, pp. 11-19; Meek, 1956; Sweezy, 1968, pp. 52-53.

Elster, Gintis, Roemer, and Steedman are critical of Marx's value theory because, they claim, equilibrium prices and profits can be explained without reference to such a theory. I will argue that the object of Marx's analysis was different from that assumed by such interpretations.

(17) Martin Nicolaus drew attention to this shift. See Nicolaus, 1973, pp. 35-37.

(18) Marx, [1857-58] 1973, p. 881; Marx, [1859] 1970, p. 27; Marx, [1867] 1976a, p. 125.

(19) In this general sense Althusser was right when he claimed that Marx took the categories of political economy and changed the terms of the problem; he used them to answer questions political economy never posed. (Althusser and Balibar, [1968] 1970, pp. 21-25.) Most discussions of Marx's theory of value, however, remain within the bounds of the question posed by political economy.

(20) This analysis of the form of domination associated with the commodity form provides a powerful point of departure for analyzing the pervasive and immanent form of power Michel Foucault described as characteristic of modern Western societies (Foucault, [1975] 1977).

(21) The interpretation of the Marxian theory which I have outlined can also be read as a sophisticated theory of the sort proposed by Pierre Bourdieu, as a theory of the mutually constituting relationship of social structure and everyday action and thought (Bourdieu, [1972] 1977, pp. 1-30, 87-95). What frequently has been interpreted only as an economic problem in Marx's work, namely the question of the relation of value to price, should, in my opinion, be considered as part of an attempt to formulate a theory of the relationship between deep social structure and the everyday actions of social actors who constitute that structure, although they may be unaware of its existence.

(22) It also dispenses with the (ultimately Hegelian) idea that human social life is based on an essential principle that comes into its own in the course of historical development (for example, transhistorical "labor" in traditional Marxism, or communicative action in Habermas's recent work.)

(23) For a critique of this orthodox conception, see Williams, 1977, pp.75-82.

(24) I have found this general approach to a non-functionalist social and historical theory of knowledge to be very helpful in attempting to understand the centrality of modern anti-Semitism to National Socialism in a manner that, in my view, makes better sense of those forms of thought than do theories of National Socialism as an ideology reflecting the interests of big capital, or even as a revolt against modernity. By making use of Marx's analysis of the fundamental social forms of capitalism and his concept of the fetish, I was able to describe a form of thought that was anti-capitalist in its impulse and yet affirmative with regard to industrial capital. On that basis I then sought to elucidate in social and historical terms the core of Nazi anti-Semitism, the conception of a tremendously powerful, mysterious, source of evil, and the identification of this evil with the Jews. In this way I attempted to provide a social explanation of the logic underlying a program of complete extermination (as opposed to mass murder). See Postone, 1986.

(25) Althusser, [1970] 1971, pp. 127-188. Dichotomizing social being and social consciousness, as Althusser does, reintroduces the problem of causal direction.