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The strange case of the missing “Revolutionary Subject”


In his dissertation, “Marx’s concept of the transcendence of value production” Peter Hudis levels an interesting criticism at Moishe Postone:

“Since Postone thinks that capital is the subject of modern society, and not the workers or other forces of liberation, he is led to argue that the alternative to capital will ultimately emerge not from the development of human agents like the proletariat but rather from capital itself.”

The criticism is based on Postone’s interpretation of Marx’s argument, in the words of Hudis, that

“Capital takes on a life of its own because the subjectivity of workers is subsumed by abstract labor.”

The problem of “The Revolutionary Subject” is a big one for Marxists academics because they just can’t figure out who the fuck is actually making this damn social revolution. And without being able to identify a subject, it is rather difficult to figure out to whom communists should be speaking.

Here’s the problem:

For most of human history labor was performed in discreet units of individual work and only became social through exchange of commodities. The peasant or small holder was the core element of this system of production. At the other end of the social transformation through which we are now passing, the peasant is replaced by the social laborer, who is not really an individual at all but the collective engagement in productive activity of billions of individuals scattered around the globe in a singular act of production. Between these two modes of production is a period of transition — a revolutionization of the mode of production from the first mode to the second.

Apparently and really, no one is in charge of this process — no one is in control of it, it is running on autopilot — and this is the problem posed by the missing subject. The criticism Hudis levels at Postone is that Postone suggests capital is in control as a blind force transforming the mode of production. Hudis may have a point: the objection to Postone’s interpretation is that capital is only the conditions of labor and, since it is only the conditions of labor, cannot itself really be the subject. Postone is merely saying no one is in charge. Hudis accuses Postone of ignoring his own argument that production must be given priority over exchange in this process. If we focus on production and not circulation, this shift would redirect our attention to who is actually doing all the work, and who is simply getting fat on profits created by this work.

But Hudis’ argument is not as innocent as it appears: Simply put, Hudis has an agenda: he wants to reserve the role of subject for the working class and the “proletarian class struggle” — which is much the same as Marxists have described it for more than a century. The problem is that this requires that the workers are in some sense aware that the historical process underway is the transformation of the mode of production from individual isolated units of production to a single global act of social production. But the fact is that this entire process has so far unfolded without a conscious agent guiding it.

Even the Fascist state, once it assumed the function of manager of the national capital, never did so to complete this transformation. It assumed the function of manager of the total national capital to increase the mass of profits. The Soviet state, perhaps, was superior to the Fascist state in this regards because it explicitly set out to transform the mode of production.

The problem still remains, however, that, in the words of Marx, this process, communism, is not the aim of mankind. Neither the working class nor the capitalist class has the transformation of the mode of production as its own goal. The capitalist is only interested in maximizing the production of surplus value, profits. The working class is only interested in what Lenin and Kautsky called a commercial transaction — the sale of their labor power. The relation between the two classes and their mutually antagonistic goals fuels the process, but nowhere directs or manages it.

In this sense, I think Postone wins on points: it is the relation, capital, that appears to be the subject of the social revolution. This thinking, however, might have to go to the judges because it might involve the Fallacy of Exclusion. How so? Postone’s argument is simple:

A. There is a process of transformation going on; B. Neither of the parties to the transformation aim to produce the transformation; C. The transformation must, therefore, be doing it itself — it must be its own cause.

There is at least an argument that something is missing here — some piece of information that is necessary to establish what actually is taking place. What might this be? Well, Marx has this other interesting thing to say about communism in the German Ideology:

“Its organisation is, therefore, essentially economic, the material production of the conditions of this unity”.

I think the missing piece in this fallacy is the idea that the process of transformation is one of individual labor into social labor, but no one really gives a fuck about that. In this light Marx’s argument that communism is not the aim of mankind means — well — that communism is not the aim of mankind. No one gives a hoot about it. Nobody gives a fuck about how the checkout counter at Wal-Mart — which is what communism is all about — is organized, because, frankly, they have a life and more important things to think about.

People undertake the transformation of labor not because the transformation of labor is their aim, but to do something else: live. I think this recognition should allow us to put social emancipation on a true, human, footing and counterpose it to the existing system: Our aim is to maximize life and human social relations not the production of values; communism is not our aim, it is only the necessary economic basis for our vision of society.

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  1. Chris Wright
    January 17, 2013 at 2:09 pm | #1

    Two questions:

    I’m still curious about how you treat the Soviet state as non-capitalist. At what point was the Soviet state trying to end capitalism? 1919? Didn’t they in fact take steps that could be seen as part and parcel of originary accumulation?

    Why “fascist” instead of “state capitalist”? Your notion of “fascist” seems awfully close to at least some usages of that, especially coming from CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya and maybe to Paul Mattick’s as well. Is it related to the above question of the class nature of the USSR?

    I don’t care if people don’t like it or feel it is hyperbolic, but rather I wonder if it does not muddy the waters conceptually and if it is in fact a bit less clear in that “state capitalism” entails a fusion of the state and capital in a way similar to what you intend.

    • January 18, 2013 at 10:26 pm | #2

      First, with regards to the Soviet Union. I simply am not sure and have devoted little time to studying the problem. I think it is certain the Soviet Union engaged in the production of surplus. But did this surplus take the form of a surplus value? My thinking on this is that the Soviet Union was not “capitalist” in the classical sense of that term. Rather, I argue the Soviet Union was itself a single all-encompassing capital. Calling it “capitalist’ leads to a whole series of questions that are mostly irrelevant to us in understanding it essential nature. A capital differs from “capitalist” in the same way the internal operation of capitalist firm differs from its external environment. There are no money relations internal to a capital, and the entire process of production is governed by a plan. This, I think, adequately describes the Soviet Union. I usually employ the term “company town” to describe the relation of the Soviet capital to the society at large.

      I think the real question is why people don’t refer to the Hitler regime as “state capitalist”. I find a surprising streak of accommodation with existing relations among those who object to the term. on the one hand, “state capitalism” is a neutral term for these people. On the other hand, the most absurd political positions (for instance, “critical” support for Obama and the Democrats) are justified on the basis that there is a “threat of fascism” on the right margin of political life. Another variation of this argument is found among those who raise the slogan, “Socialism or Barbarism”. What in fact does this mean in any relevant sense? The question, “socialism or barbarism” was settled in favor of barbarism in the 1930s. To continue to raise this silly slogan is entirely misleading.

      Let’s assume for a minute we are dealing with “state capitalism”. What does this mean? It means the state itself is the capitalist. This implies political relation are entirely fictitious — a mere facade behind which the state itself is the exploiter of labor power. On this assumption democracy amounts to a suggestion box placed outside the door of the human resource department, with all the impact we associate with that stupidity. By saying political relations are entirely fictitious, we do not mean these relations appear fictitious, they are really and actually fictitious.

      No one has ever argued fascism can be reformed — and this is why I use the term.

  2. Chris Wright
    January 19, 2013 at 12:15 am | #3

    Well, since the economy was still organized vis-a-vis money, wages, workers, exchange, and the separation of the producers from the means of producing in an entirely modern economy. The absence of a “free” market is not really the absence of generalized exchange relations;

    For my part, I recommend Paresh Chattopadhyay’s book on the USSR and his essays in general.

    Also, of the people I refer to who use the term state capitalism, they most certainly refer to fascism, the welfare state and the Soviet bloc in one general tendency. The ISO/British SWP notion is rather the weakest, and they are the biggest “state cap” apologists for the Democrats. For my part, I don’t see how, if consciousness is not relevant, why people voting or not for the Democrats is meaningful. It is a non-issue.

    Now, as to the complete validity of the term state capitalism, I agree with your general point, which is why I don’t use the term. I don’t think that the political is any more or less fictitious than value. However, aside from your last point, that no one has ever said that fascism can be reformed, within the confines of your analysis, it seems more precise.

    • January 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm | #4

      Since I don’t have the background to argue with you on the Soviet Union, I think i will let your comments pass as they stand. However, on the question of fascism I am not convinced. There is a lot of room for opportunism here as well as theoretical difficulties that must be addressed unless Nazi Germany and fascist Italy are forever to placed in a box by themselves — and not understood within the context of Marx’s theory.

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