The Historicity of Abstractions (Gray, 2012)

by cominsitu


by Nick Gray (originally written for SIC Journal in 2012, but never published) PDF

The Historicity of Abstractions: Are the categories ‘use-value’, ‘concrete labour’ and ‘labour as such’ transhistorically operative? [1]

Only totalising theory can interrogate the status of abstractions sufficiently vigorously”[2]

– Richard Gunn


At stake in this enquiry are: our conception of labour[3], of revolution, and social mediation in communism.

In this essay the Marxian categories of concrete labour, use-value, and indeed the category of “labour as such” are interrogated with respect to their historicity. I first briefly state what I take to be the traditional interpretation, and then consider the question from the angle of value-form theory, which establishes the historicity of abstract labour and the form-determination of the capitalist production process. Subsequently I consider the ramifications for the status of the categories of use-value and concrete labour of a critical analysis of the process of (real) hypostatisation within capitalist relations of commodity production and exchange. This is followed by an exegesis of Marx’s 1857 Introduction with regard to the historicity of the two types of abstraction in operation there: general and determinate abstractions. I then close by counterposing two radically opposed conceptions of the post-capitalist status of labour exemplified by Chris Arthur (circa 1978) and Moishe Postone, and argue that the dissolution of capitalist social relations implies that of the categories “concrete labour”, “use-value” and “labour as such”.

The Traditional Interpretation

Traditional interpretations of Marx would answer the question in the title of this article in the affirmative. Marx himself seems quite unequivocal on the matter – here is Marx in the section on “The Dual Character of the Labour Embodied In Commodities” in Chapter 1 of the first volume of his magnum opus:

Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.[4]

Use-values are, simply, useful things: “The usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value”[5]. The duality intrinsic to the commodity-form consists in the product of labour, qua commodity (i.e. produced for exchange), being simultaneously a use-value, and possessing exchange-value. This duality corresponds to the “dual character of the labour embodied in commodities”[6], which is expressed by Marx as follows:

On the one hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power, in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract, human labour that it forms the value of commodities. On the other hand, all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power in a particular form and with a definite aim, and it is in this quality of being concrete, useful labour that it produces use-values.[7]

In commodity production, labour is simultaneously value-positing qua abstract, homogeneous labour and productive of use-values qua concrete, heterogeneous labour. The specifically capitalist process of production is conceived by Marx as the unity of the labour process and the valorisation process[8].

Value-Form Theory, The Form-Determination Of Labour And The Historicity Of Abstract Labour

The question now becomes the following: what is the historical extension of the categories ‘use-value’ and ‘concrete labour’ on the one hand, and ‘value’ and ‘abstract labour’ on the other? As Diane Elson has pointed out: “it is generally accepted that concrete labour is a category pertinent to all epochs; but the same is not accepted of abstract labour.”[9] Here she refers to thinkers that we might group together under the heading of ‘value form theorists’, such as I.I. Rubin and Chris Arthur, for whom the process of ‘real’ or ‘practical’ abstraction in the exchange of commodities is what posits abstract labour. For these thinkers, the category of abstract labour, unlike that of concrete labour, is historically specific to that society in which the production of commodities for exchange is prevalent – i.e. it only becomes operative as a category in the capitalist mode of production, which is based on generalised commodity production. Contrary to these theorists, Elson defends a notion of abstract labour as transhistorical: “Labour always has its abstract and concrete, its social and private aspects (….) Marx concludes that in capitalist society the abstract aspect is dominant”[10]. Elson concludes that “the objectification of the concrete aspect of labour is universal, but the objectification of the abstract aspect of labour is not: it is specific to capitalist social relations”[11]. It could be that Elson means by this that labour always has an ideal abstract aspect, i.e. in the mind of anyone reflecting on the activities ranged under the conceptual category “labour”, but that this abstraction takes on an objective character within the value-relation.

Rubin, for his part, sets out to demonstrate the historical specificity of abstract labour. He distinguishes three concepts of “equal labour”, only one of which is abstract labour: 1) “physiologically equal labour” 2) “socially equated labour” and 3) “abstract labour” or “abstract universal labour”[12]. Physiologically equal or homogeneous labour is for Rubin transhistorical; presumably the basis for this claim is Marx’s assertion that

however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, it is a physiological fact that they are functions of the human organism, and that each such function, whatever may be its nature or its form, is essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles and sense organs.[13]

This physiological equality of labour forms one of the preconditions for the social division of labour; Rubin argues that socially equated labour is “characteristic for all systems with the social division of labour”, that is to say for commodity production as well as for a “socialist community”[14]. However, according to Rubin, this latter category of socially equated labour is not to be conflated with the abstract universal labour which characterises, and is specific to, commodity production.[15] Arthur similarly conceives of abstract labour as being abolished in practice in socialism, which is founded on “concretely universal” social labour[16]. On this view, concretely universal social labour, as mediation between humans and between humans and nature, is itself unmediated (or is only mediated by the conscious co-operation and regulation of social individuals); in capitalist society, by contrast, social labour, i.e., the totality of individual concrete labours, is posited as abstract universal by capitalist relations of production and exchange; the mediation of the value form between concrete labours, and its autonomisation with respect to them, maintains the separation between particulars, and between particulars and universal characteristic of capitalist social relations.

In the capitalist mode of production, then, it is the generalised exchange of commodities which gives labour its abstract form, or posits labour as abstract labour.  For Rubin, this abstract form is opposed to concrete labour, which is “labour in its useful activity, … labour which creates products which are necessary for the satisfaction of human needs. Labour viewed from this material, technical side represents concrete labour”[17]. Now, I suggest that there is a difference between Rubin’s approach and that of Arthur in relation to the subsumption of labour under the value form. In Rubin’s reconstruction of the Marxian dialectic, he proceeds from the most simple and abstract category, abstract labour, to the progressively more concrete and complex forms: value; exchange value and money (having previously proceeded analytically in the opposite direction). In this “genetic method”, abstract labour precedes value[18]. Later in the essay, Rubin draws on Hegel’s conception of the relation between form and content, whereby, according to Rubin, Hegel considers, in opposition to Kant, that “content does not represent something to which form attaches from the outside; rather, the content itself in its development gives birth to this form, which was contained within this content in concealed form. The form arises necessarily from the content itself.”[19] Rubin thus asserts that “the form of value also must arise of necessity from the substance of value, and consequently we must view abstract labour as the substance of value in all the fullness of its social features which are characteristic for commodity production.”[20] This conception of abstract labour, as substance of value, giving rise to the form of value, seems to be at odds with the conception of the form-determination of (abstract) labour by value, which is taken to be a premise of value-form theory, as the following extract from The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital shows:

In value-form theory it is the development of the forms of exchange that is seen as the prime determinant of the capitalist economy rather than the content regulated by it; thus some theorists postpone consideration of the labour theory of value until the value form itself has been fully developed.[21]

Value-form theory is for Arthur primarily predicated on exchange forms, and “should not be in too much of a hurry to address the content … we must first study the development of the value form and only address the labour content when the dialectic of the forms requires us to do so.”[22]

If, then, we jump ahead in the dialectic, to the point where the fully developed form of value posits abstract labour as its substance, we see how the value form, as capital, overgrasps, or subsumes under itself, the material process of production:

Value as presence overlaps (übergreifen: an important term in Marx) constellationally (…) what is outside exchange, subsuming it, ‘formally’ and then ‘really’, to the self-production of value.[23]

What is outside exchange is the immediate production process, i.e. the concrete labour process. This over-reaching or over-grasping by value-in-process achieves the over-arching unity of the processes of production and exchange[24]. It is in this sense that we can talk of the form-determination of labour by value, where “production for exchange is form-determined by exchange”[25], or of what Elson suggestively terms the “value theory of labour”. Adopting such a theory would place the emphasis on the explication of the concrete practice of labour as determined by, and assimilated or subordinated to, value-production, rather than being primarily concerned with explicating value in terms of (abstract) labour.[26] Of course the dialectical relations can be read in this latter direction, as does Rubin; the thrust of Arthur’s variant of value-form theory, however, is to assign to the value form a logical priority over the content which is determined by this form[27].

Now we are in a position to return to the question of the historical extension of the categories ‘use-value’ and ‘concrete labour’; by the above argument we have an intimation that in the capitalist social form, the concrete labour process is itself form-determined by self-valorising value. We saw earlier that the production process was simultaneously the valorisation process of capital; if capital grounds itself in the logical priority of the valorisation process over the concrete labour process, this opens up the possibility that the historical extension of the category “concrete labour” (and its correlate, “use-value”) is co-determinate with that of the (fully developed) value form, and the abstract labour that it posits as its substance. To put it another way, the categories ‘concrete labour’, ‘labour as such’ and ‘use-value’ are themselves abstractions which are constituted in relation to ‘abstract labour’ and ‘value’; even more succinctly: capital and labour are reciprocally constituted as categories.

Real Hypostasis: The Abstract Universal In A Material World

The dialectic between the value-relation and the two moments of abstract and concrete labour can be further illuminated if we turn to consider the appendix to the first edition of the first volume of Capital entitled “The Value Form” (Die Wertform)[28], where Marx considers the hypostasis (or process of hypostatisation) that occurs through the relation of commodity exchange:

Within the value relation and the expression of value contained in it the abstract universal is not a property of the concrete, the sensuous-actual; on the contrary, the sensuous-actual is a mere hypostasis or determinate form of realization of the abstract universal. Tailor’s work, which is to be found for example in the equivalent coat, does not have, within the expression of the value of cloth, the universal property of also being human labour. It is the other way round. Its essence is being human labour, and being tailor’s work is a hypostasis or determinate form of realization of that essence.[29]

Marx continues:

This quid pro quo is inevitable, because the labour represented in the product of labour is only value creating in so far as it is undifferentiated human labour; so that the labour objectified in the value of one product is in no way distinguished from the labour objectified in another product.[30]

The value-relation, then, is characterised by an “inversion”, whereby the “sensuous-concrete only figures as a hypostasis of the abstract-universal, rather than the abstract-universal as a property of the concrete”. As Lucio Colletti points out in his commentary on this passage[31], this inversion mirrors exactly the inversion Marx ascribes to Hegel’s philosophy in the Postface to the 1873 edition of Capital:

For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the Idea’, is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought.[32]

Colletti observes that the “mystification” in Hegel’s philosophy reflects a mystification in reality itself, at the heart of the process of real abstraction in the exchange of commodities.  Colletti argues that this inverted, real relationship between abstract-universal and sensuous-concrete establishes the abstract universal, i.e. abstract labour, as the subject, while the “real subject”, concrete labour, is reduced to the predicate. In this way we can say that concrete labour is really predicated on abstract labour. In capitalist social relations concrete labours appear (really) as the hypostasis of abstract labour; capitalist production proceeds on this basis. Concrete labour, as hypostatised abstraction, is the reified mode of existence of abstract labour. It follows that, in this inverted world: a) the abstract precedes the concrete; b) abstract labour has logical priority over concrete labour; and c) that, equally, in a theoretical grasping of these relations, the category of concrete labour is predicated on that of abstract labour. We might say that capital, as self-valorising value, posits the particular concrete labours as instantiations of its own abstract essence, much in the way that “substance generates its own accidents” in Hegel’s Logic[33]. It might be argued that this process of real mystification which characterises capitalist social relations can be deciphered to reveal concrete labour, or labour as such, as constitutive subject, as proposed by Werner Bonefeld, John Holloway and Richard Gunn, theorists associated with Open Marxism[34]. This is also the sense of Colletti’s identification of concrete labour as the “real subject” of these mystified, inverted relations. However I contend that the category of concrete labour, and that of labour itself, are themselves constituted by the generalisation of the exchange relation and the form-determination of social practice by the value form – i.e. through the imposition of the capitalist mode of production as generalised production for exchange oriented to the augmentation of exchange-value. In this systematic sense, capital and labour qua categories are mutually constitutive.

If the argument up to now is sound, the possibility is opened up that the categories of concrete labour, and labour as such, predicated as they are on those of abstract labour and value, are (historically) co-extensive with these latter. As we have seen above, however, this does not appear to be Marx’s view. We should now turn our attention to an important draft text where Marx explicitly discusses these themes: the “1857 Introduction”[35].

Determinate And General Abstractions In The 1857 Introduction: The Historicity Of Concepts

The historical status of abstractions in Marx’s thought is one of the principal themes of the 1857 Introduction, where he, in criticising the methods and abstractions of the political economists, elaborates on what he sees as the “correct scientific method”[36]. This complex and nuanced discussion, which, of course is in note form and has the discursive quality of an argument being worked out in situ, has been the object of much discussion and exegetical work in the literature. I will consider here the varying interpretations of Derek Sayer and Patrick Murray, on the one hand, and Richard Gunn on the other. Marx begins by criticising the economists’ “Robinsonades”, in which the bourgeois individual is projected back into history, and posited “not as historic result but as history’s point of departure”[37]. Marx’s target here is the “eternalization of historic relations of production” by economists such as Mill, who present production

as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded.[38]

Marx grants that the abstract premise with which the economists begin, i.e. production in general, is a “rational abstraction” in so far as it “fixes the common element and thus saves us repetition”[39]. This general category can be justified, Marx argues, in order to facilitate the process of differentiating those elements which are not general and common (i.e. those which are historically specific), from the “determinations valid for production as such”[40]. Some determinations, we are told, belong to all epochs: “no production will be thinkable without them”[41]. The unity of these general and historically specific determinations “arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature”[42]. So far this sounds like a pretty ringing endorsement of the universal category of “production as such”.  However Marx immediately equivocates: “If there is no production in general, then there is no general production.”[43] Marx concludes this section by summarising:

There are characteristics which all stages of production have in common, and which are established as general ones by the mind; but the so-called general preconditions of all production are nothing more than these abstract moments with which no real historical stage can be grasped.[44]

Murray terms this conceptual abstraction “general abstraction”[45]; in Gunn’s terminology it corresponds to “empiricist abstraction” (a category which has as further subdivisions “deductivist abstraction” – abstraction ‘into’, and “inductivist abstraction” – abstraction ‘from’)[46].

Marx then moves on to discuss the category of “labour”:

Labour seems a quite simple category. The conception of labour in this general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labour’ is as modern a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction.[47]

At first sight this this seems an ambiguous, even paradoxical formulation. It seems that it is only the economic conception of abstract labour which is modern, and that some other non-economic conception of labour as such is transhistorical. Marx elaborates by describing Adam Smith’s great leap forward in conceiving of the “abstract universality of wealth-creating activity”, by “throwing out every limiting specification”[48] of this activity:

It might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers.

Marx remarks opaquely:

This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone.”[49]

I believe what Marx is attempting to convey here, is that the simple abstraction “labour”, as discovered by Smith, has a dual extension: it is transhistorical in so far as it groups together all those human practices across the ages in which “human beings – in whatever form of society – play the role of producers”. But the same simple abstraction is historically determinate in so far as individuals are indifferent towards specific labours, a posited presupposition of wage-labour and the specifically capitalist social division of labour. Marx emphasises that, in its historically determinate aspect, the simple abstraction “labour” is not a mere “mental product”. 

The ambiguity of Marx’s formulation is explicable, then, by the fact that the same simple category of “labour” or “labour as such” has two referents: it is both general, transhistorical abstraction and historically specific, determinate abstraction.

Marx continues:

 Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour’, ‘labour as such’, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category of the most modern society.[50]

Marx’s argument, then, is that the abstraction “labour” is valid across epochs, i.e. it has as its historical extension different epochs, whereas in the capitalist mode of production labour is practically abstract. The contrast is between a (mental or theoretical) abstraction encompassing different species/modes of labour in different historical epochs, and the (practical) abstraction from different concrete labours in on the basis of generalised commodity exchange the epoch of capitalist production:

This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.[51]

Thus some of the ambiguity in Marx’s account here can be attributed to an equivocation on the status of abstractions and categories. Sometimes these appear as mental products, those generated by the theorist (we might term these nominal abstractions); at other times they have a real, practical, or ontological character (these might be called real abstractions). This distinction – i.e. whether abstractions and categories pertain to thought or to (social) being, is a crucial one to keep in mind when assessing their historicity, as we shall see.

Gunn interprets the 1857 Introduction as an explicit, although qualified and at times contradictory, renunciation by Marx of “empiricist abstraction” in favour of an approach based on “determinate abstraction”, which is defined as “abstraction in and through which phenomena obtain, unlike empiricist abstraction which is abstraction from the phenomena concerned”[52] For Gunn, such an approach typifies the “practical reflexivity” of Marxian theory. Marx is explicitly interrogating the validity and the provenance of the categories of political economy, at the same time as he is interrogating his own categories.

This reading can be contrasted with that of Murray and Sayer, who both consider that Marx retains general abstraction alongside determinate abstraction so as to be able to isolate the differentiae specificae of the capitalist mode of production; he does this in order to put himself in a position to attack his principal target: bourgeois social relations and their eternalisation and naturalisation by the political economists.

As we have seen, the political economists proceed from a starting-point of “production in general”. When Marx states that there is no “production in general”, and no “general production”, I take it that he means this in the same sense that there is no animal existing alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits and all other actual animals[53]. As Marx remarks towards the beginning of the 1857 Introduction: “all production is appropriation on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society”[54], a thesis which Murray describes as “the seminal idea of historical materialism”[55]. Murray continues: “The ‘illusion of the economic’ is the notion that there is production in general, and that there is a generic ‘economy’, as opposed to this or that historically specific mode of production.”[56]

We can see, then, through Marx and the interpretations of him by Murray, Gunn and Sayer, that these general abstractions “(general) production”, “labour (as such)”, etc., have a considerably attenuated status. We have seen that they are “abstract moments with which no real historical stage can be grasped”[57]. But this is consistent with their status as transhistorical generalisations. And, as Sayer emphasises, these abstract, transhistorical categories are the very ones being interrogated in this enquiry:

those senses in which the abstraction ‘labour’ does genuinely apprehend ‘an immeasurably ancient relation valid in all forms of society’ are grasped in the transhistorical concept of useful or concrete labour: labour which yields use-values, products which satisfy human needs of one sort or another”[58]

At the end of his discussion of these themes in the 1857 Introduction, Marx enumerates a five-part proposed sequential ordering of his exposition of the critique of political economy. Marx begins as follows:

The order obviously has to be (1) the general, abstract determinants which obtain in more or less all forms of society, but in the above-explained sense. (2) The categories which make up the inner structure of bourgeois society and on which the fundamental classes rest. Capital, wage labour, landed property…[59]

Marx retains the general abstractions, then, but places the caveat “in the above explained sense”.  I would argue that the sense referred to is the sense in which the abstract categories are themselves a product of historic relations, and possess their full, practical validity only for and within these relations. This, then, is a heavily qualified sense, in which these abstractions, if extrapolated to earlier social formations, only apply in an attenuated fashion and only retrospectively, and do not have full validity, or practical truth etc.[60]

Moreover, Marx anticipates that the epoch in which these abstractions do have practical truth is historically finite; that is to say, the communist revolution is to sweep away the value form and with it the practical abstraction intrinsic to the exchange relation. The question posed in this way now becomes: what is the status of transhistorical abstractions whose determinate counterparts have been stripped of any practical determinacy (i.e. they no longer exist)?

Labour, The Concrete Universal?

In a 1978 essay, Chris Arthur maintains that the abstract universality inhering in capitalist social relations can be replaced, via the socialist plan, by a unity-in-difference of “concretely universal social labour”; Arthur argues that “social labour may be considered concretely universal when the unity-in-difference of individual labours is sustained by the practical truth of the universality of labour as a productive force divisible, according to social need, qualitatively and quantitatively.”[61] In this socialist economy, then, the concrete, composite whole is made up of individual labours, which mediate between individuals and their needs. A conception of concrete (universal) labour certainly persists in this economy, and indeed it is at the heart of it, revitalised – in this republic of labour, social relations between producers are mediated by the plan; banished, supposedly, are the thing-like relations between persons and social relations between things characteristic of the commodity-, money- and capital-fetishes in the capitalist economy.[62]

Postone’s critique of labour

Let us contrast this view with the reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory elaborated by Moishe Postone[63]. Briefly, Postone argues that:

in capitalism, labor itself constitutes a social mediation … ; because labor mediates itself, it both constitutes a social structure that replaces systems of overt social relations and accords its social character to itself. This reflexive moment determines the specific nature of labor’s self-mediated social character as well as of the social relations structured by this social mediation.[64]

Postone postulates that with the supersession of capitalist social relations, labour would no longer have this central, mediating function:

It is conceivable that in another society, where production and social relations are not constituted as a totalizing sphere of social objectivity by a single structuring principle, the notion of a single form of constituting practice would have to be modified and the relationship between forms of consciousness and forms of social being would have to be grasped differently.[65]  

Postone criticises the notion that labour is “the regulatory principle of human society which is veiled in capitalism and which, in socialism, will emerge openly as the causal principle of human life”[66]. Postone concedes elsewhere that labour has a social character in all social formations[67], but he seeks to decentralise labour’s function as socially mediating or constituting practice in post-capitalist society, and also attributes this view to Marx.

Postone argues that, in capitalist society, the category of concrete labour, or even labour per se, along with that of ‘use-value’ emerges as a result of the socially mediating function of abstract labour and the commodity form:

The constitution of the duality of the concrete and the abstract by the commodity form of social relations entails the constitution of two different sorts of generality. I have outlined the nature of the abstract general dimension, which is rooted in labor’s function as a socially mediating activity: all forms of labor and labor products are rendered equivalent. This social function of labor, however, also establishes another form of commonality among the particular sorts of labor and labor products – it entails their de facto classification as labor and labor products.[68]

Postone then elaborates how this de facto classification operates:

Because any particular sort of labor can function as abstract labor and any labor product can serve as a commodity, activities and products that, in other societies, might not be classified as similar are classified in capitalism as similar, as varieties of (concrete) labour or as particular use values. In other words, the abstract generality historically constituted by abstract labor also establishes ‘concrete labor’ and ‘use value’ as general categories..[69]

By being brought into relation with each other in the process of exchange, individual private activities are made social, they are commensurated – and they are simultaneously constituted as members of a genus, as particulars of the universal: (social) labour. ‘Concrete labour’, on this view, then, is itself an abstraction, and a historically determinate one, as indeed is the category ‘use value’; both categories are the correlates of the categories ‘abstract labour’ and ‘value’ which are generated by capitalist commodity relations. As such both pairs of categories emerge, and perish, with the capitalist social form. My earlier analysis of the form-determination of the capitalist production process on the one hand, and of the process of hypostatisation operating through the value-relation on the other, is suggestive of an internal and necessary relation in each of these pairs of categories: abstract and concrete labour; value and use-value. As such this analysis could go some way towards supporting Postone’s position.[70] I would, however, contest Postone’s assertion that his view is shared by Marx, and would suggest that, on this argument, it is rather that Marx (and the vast majority of his interpreters) project the categories of concrete labour (and labour per se) and use-value back on to previous social formations, and indeed, forward on to communism. In so doing, they eternalise and naturalise these categories.[71]

Finally, we should note that there are many ambivalences in Marx’s work, and many Marx-readings can and have been made. This hermeneutic aspect is itself socio-historically determinate. The Marx of the Critique of the Gotha Programme or the posthumously published third volume of Capital, with its positing of a “realm of necessity” and a “realm of freedom”, can be contrasted with the Marx of the Grundrisse, in which communism is postulated as the development and flourishing of the capacities of the individual as an end in themselves. However, whether the position advanced here represents a reading of Marx against Marx, or simply one which contradicts Marx, we can postulate that the abolition of value through communisation (i.e. through the measures which immediately produce communism) implies the dissolution of the category of labour per se as a distinct form of social activity.[72]

Nicholas Gray (a.k.a. Screamin’ Alice, November 2012)

Revisions, doubts, counterarguments

The text was obviously motivated by the urge to interrogate and undermine the foundations of orthodox/traditional Marxism, with its narrative of socialism/communism as the affirmation and liberation of labour. This was to be achieved by questioning the status of labour as an abstraction (and by arguing that it is historically posited as an abstraction by capital).

There is a point in the text where I begin to equivocate – footnote 71:

“Another way to make this point [that labour as such is eternalised and fetishised as a category by classical political economy and, arguably, by Marx and his epigones in the critique of political economy] would be to say that homo faber is just as much the mythical creation of a specific form of society as is homo oeconomicus. This is not to detract from the power of Marx’s analysis of historical “modes of production” (e.g. those based on “slave-labour” or the corvée), as the foundation for pre-capitalist class societies. The categories of production, surplus-production, labour and surplus-labour have a certain retrospective descriptive and analytical power in relation to previous social formations, even if this categorial framework is only itself constituted on the basis of the operation of practical abstractions in capitalist society. To use Marx’s analogy: “Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape” (Marx, Grundrisse, p. 105).

The objection which could be raised here is that if “the categories of production, surplus-production, labour and surplus-labour have a certain retrospective descriptive and analytical power in relation to previous social formations”, then these categories can be said to have something of an objective existence beyond mere nominal abstractions, even in the absence of the real abstraction (the value-form) which subsumes various concrete activities under itself as labour. These categories are not grafted (or projected) on to the history of pre-capitalist social formations in a merely arbitrary fashion by the theorist; rather, they have an objective basis in these social formations themselves.

What in fact is this objective basis? Can we speak of a logic of feudal production and a logic of slave production? To the extent that these societies are based on the extraction of a surplus, there is something of an analogous (pseudo-)‘systematicity’ to them: it might be argued that this is constitutive of an abstract category of labour. Wealth is concrete, not abstract in the corvée. Nonetheless, feudal forms of exploitation depend on the capacity of serfs etc. to perform surplus-labour (i.e. in excess of necessary labour). Even more clearly in the case of slave production, the slave is bought and sold for his/her capacity to perform labour services.

Each of these labour services tends to be one kind of production – e.g. working on cotton plantations. Nevertheless, a slave could be bought and sold to perform one kind of production in one context, and another kind elsewhere. This implies a kind of abstraction with regard to labour-capacities – i.e. the category of labour as such.

The argument in this case would still be that no concrete activity as such is intrinsically, of itself, labour – rather, concrete activities are determined as such socially and historically; in other words, the category of labour as such is socio-historically determined.

[More to come]

Nicholas Gray (a.k.a Screamin’ Alice)

See also


[1] It seemed opportune to dredge this essay up from my hard-drive and revise it as a partial response to Friends of the Classless Society, “On Communization and its Theorists” (forthcoming English translation of Freundinnen und Freunde der klassenlosen Gesellschaft, “Über die Kommunisierung und ihre Theoretiker”, Kosmoprolet #3, Nov. 2011, pp. 138-161), which itself is part of an ongoing critical exchange with Théorie Communiste.

[2] R. Gunn, “Against Historical Materialism: Marxism as a First-Order Discourse”, in W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn and K. Psychopedis eds., Open Marxism Volume 2 (London; Pluto, 1992)  p. 20.

[3] Labour has a chequered ontology in Marx’s theoretical development, which space doesn’t permit me to elucidate here (see M. Maidan, “Alienated Labour and Free Activity in Marx’s Thought”, Political Science 41:1, 1989, and C. J. Arthur, Dialectics of Labour (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986) Ch.1.  In this enquiry I will be concerned with the mature Marx’s conception of labour.

[4] K. Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1976), p. 133.

[5] Marx, Capital Vol. 1, p. 126.

[6] This and other similar formulations of Marx’s have given rise to much debate as to whether or not he held a substantialist or “embodied labour theory of value”. For a survey of debates on this and other points of contention within Marx interpretation in the West German context, see the first section of Ingo Elbe, Marx im Westen. Die Neue Marx-Lektüre in der Bundesrepublik seit 1965 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2010).

[7] Marx, Capital Vol. 1, p. 137.

[8] Marx, Capital Vol. 1, p. 304.

[9] D. Elson, “The Value Theory of Labour” in D. Elson ed. , Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism (London: CSE Books, 1979), p. 148.

[10] Elson, “The Value Theory of Labour”, p. 149.

[11] Elson, “The Value Theory of Labour”, p. 150. Dieter Wolf makes a similar argument – cf. D. Wolf, Ware und Geld. Der dialektische Widerspruch im Kapital (Hamburg: VSA, 1984), p. 58 and p. 69.

[12] I.I. Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s System” in S. Mohun ed., Debates in Value Theory (Houndmills: Macmillan 1994), p. 43.

[13] Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, p. 164.

[14] Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value In Marx’s System”, p. 43.

[15] The question arises here (and in relation to transhistorical conceptions of abstract labour, such as those of Elson and Wolf, referred to above), as to how the process of “social equalisation of labour” is supposed to occur in practice in pre-capitalist social formations. It is clear that in capitalist society this process occurs through the operation of real abstraction in capitalist commodity exchange – or through the operation of the law of value, to put it another way, but in pre-capitalist social formations there is no analogous process, and neither is there an “Invisible Hand” to “allocate labour” across the various “branches of production”. It would seem that Elson, Wolf, Rubin et al. engage in anachronistic thinking in this regard.

[16] C. J. Arthur, “Labour: Marx’s Concrete Universal”, Inquiry 21:1, 1978, p.100.

[17] Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s System”, p.40.

[18] Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s System”, p. 38. We should note in this context that Rubin stresses the “reciprocal relation” or dialectical interpenetration of these categories. It would presumably be wrong to view the dialectic as merely “proceeding” in one direction.

[19] Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s System”, p. 69.

[20] Rubin, “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s System”, p. 69.

[21] C. J. Arthur, The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital (Leiden: Brill, 2004) p. 11.

[22] Arthur, The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital, p. 12.

[23] Arthur, The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital, p. 168.

[24] Unfortunately, as is so often the case with Hegelian and Marxian terminology (e.g. with Aufheben), English does not have an adequate translation for Übergreifen.

[25] Arthur, The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital, p. 13.

[26] This inversion in the conception of the relation between value and (abstract) labour has political implications. Broadly, we can say that the labour-theory of value corresponds to a traditional Marxist understanding, and to a historical epoch in which class politics is based on the affirmation of labour, whereas the value-theory of labour is a more critical and negative conception, arguably the theoretical reflection of a restructured class relation in which the possibility of proletarian autonomy is foreclosed, and the class’s self-relation in its relation to capital is necessarily more negative. See “Value-form theory and communisation”, Endnotes 2, for a discussion on these themes.  

[27] It can be said that such a priority is itself posited by the subsumption of the production process under capital. See “The Moving Contradiction”, Endnotes 2, April 2010, pp.106-128 for a more detailed treatment of this problem.

[28] The material in this appendix was subsequently reworked by Marx and incorporated into the rewritten version of Chapter 1 of the second edition.

[29] K. Marx, Value: Studies by Marx, trans. and ed. by A. Dragstedt, New Park Publications, London 1976.

[30] Marx, Value: Studies by Marx

[31] L. Colletti, “Introduction” to Marx, Early Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975) pp. 39-40.

[32] Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, p. 102.

[33] M. Inwood, A Hegel Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell 1992) p. 286.

[34] See for example W. Bonefeld “Human Practice and Perversion: beyond Autonomy and Structure” Common Sense, no 15,  1994, Edinburgh: pp. 43-52.

[35] K. Marx, Grundrisse, trans. M. Nicolaus (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1973).

[36] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 101.

[37] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 83.

[38] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 87.

[39] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 85.

[40] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 85.

[41] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 85.

[42] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 85.

[43] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 86.

[44] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 88.

[45] P. Murray, Marx’s Theory Of Scientific Knowledge (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1988) pp. 121-122.

[46] Gunn, “Against Historical Materialism”, p. 15.

[47] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 103. It would be interesting to investigate the veracity of Marx’s claim that the concept of “labour as such” is immeasurably old. For example, none of the Ancient Greek terms used by Aristotle (technê, poesis or praxis) maps neatly on to the concept of “labour” or “labour as such”. Such an enquiry would look into the etymology of the terms labour, lavoro, travail, etc.

[48] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 104.

[49] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 104.

[50] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 105.

[51] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 105.

[52] Gunn, “Against Historical Materialism”, p. 23.

[53] Marx employs this argument in the first edition of Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, in order to demonstrate the absurdity of the (really existing) universal equivalent in the value-relation. See Marx, Value: Studies by Marx, p. 27.

[54] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 87.

[55] P. Murray, “Things Fall Apart: Historical and Systematic Dialectics and the Critique of Political Economy” in R. Albritton and J. Simoulidis eds., New Dialectics and Political Economy (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2003) pp. 150-151.

[56] Murray, “Things Fall Apart” p. 151.

[57] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 88.

[58] D. Sayer,  The Violence of Abstraction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987) p. 128.

[59] Marx, Grundrisse, p. 108.

[60] It might be argued, and it would be hard to deny, that these qualifications inhere in any historiographical practice.

[61] Arthur, “Labour: Marx’s Concrete Universal”, p. 100.

[62] Arthur’s later work is marked by a distinct change in emphasis – one might even say, tongue-in-cheek, that it represents an “epistemological break” in relation to his earlier work. This is how I characterised the shift in a recent review: “Arthur himself previously defined labour as ‘Marx’s concrete universal’ (Arthur 1978), which would unquestionably ally him (…) in the progressivist camp. I would suggest, however, that he has since defected to the negativist camp, where labour is less something to be affirmed for its emancipatory or universalising potential, and in fact even its positive status as value-creating is rejected in favour of a conception where value is constituted by the struggle of capital to pump out labour-services from proletarians [qua “socially necessary exploitation time”]. Arthur’s early work Dialectics of Labour articulates something like a Lukacsian standpoint (Arthur 1986). The shift from a Lukacsian view understood as a programme of the liberation of labour and the affirmation of the proletariat as universalising, totalising world-historical Subject, to a more negative view of the recalcitrant proletariat which threatens to negate the capitalist totality, is, I would argue, a reflection of the historical transformation in the class relation since the capitalist restructuring from the 1970s onwards.” See See also C.J. Arthur, The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

[63] M. Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination: a Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

[64] Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination, p. 151.

[65] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 221.

[66] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 221.

[67] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 150.

[68] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, pp. 152-153.

[69] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination, p. 152.

[70] There are several criticisms to be made of Postone, and indeed Robert Kurz, of Krisis/Exit!, insofar as both theorists tend to focus on (abstract) labour, rather than value, as the central social mediation in capitalist social relations. This represents a collapsing of levels of abstraction on their part, or a failure to distinguish between abstract labour as the substance of value, and the forms of value (commodities, money, capital) which properly speaking are the mediating forms of social relations. Value qua capital is the totalising social mediation in capitalist society rather than (abstract) labour. Secondly, neither Postone nor Kurz (and others in the Wertkritik tendency) theorise the class antagonistic character of these forms of social mediation, or grant that such class antagonism can produce the dissolution of these forms. Value is a relation of exploitation; abstract labour is posited as the substance of value by the subsumption of labour under capital, by the orientation of the production process to the self-expansion of capital. At a more determined, concrete level, the relation of exploitation – valorisation – proves to be self-undermining through the secular tendencies governing the accumulation of capital, which serve to undermine any “system-immanent” or “complicit” character of the class struggle of the proletariat, such that the relation of exploitation itself is put in question. Cf. Screamin’ Alice, “On the periodisation of the capitalist class-relation”, Sic 1, 2011 for a more fleshed out version of this argument.

[71] Another way to make this point would be to say that homo faber is just as much the mythical creation of a specific form of society as is homo oeconomicus. This is not to detract from the power of Marx’s analysis of historical “modes of production” (e.g. those based on “slave-labour” or the corvée), as the foundation for pre-capitalist class societies. The categories of production, surplus-production, labour and surplus-labour have a certain retrospective descriptive and analytical power in relation to previous social formations, even if this categorical framework is only itself constituted on the basis of the operation of practical abstractions in capitalist society. To use Marx’s analogy: “Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape” (Marx, Grundrisse, p. 105).

[72] Some of the arguments presented here have been anticipated by Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (St Louis: Telos Press, 1975), although Baudrillard’s critique is (symptomatically?) couched in terms of a problematic of semiotics, or the “critique of the political economy of the sign”. Nonetheless, Baudrillard presents Marx’s critique of political economy as remaining captive within the horizon of political economy. It would be instructive to compare in this regard Michael Heinrich’s thesis that Marx’s theoretical ambivalences and vacillations are explicable in terms of the incomplete scientific revolution that he performs with respect to political economy: Michael Heinrich, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert: Die Marxsche Kritik der politischen Ökonomie zwischen wissenschaftlicher Revolution und klassischer Tradition, 5th edition (Münster: Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2011). See also the thorough treatment of the question of the historicity of the various categories of labour by Roland Simon, “Pour en finir avec la critique du travail”, Théorie Communiste’s position that there will be no products, and no production, in communism – see for example Théorie Communiste, “Communism in the Present Tense”, in B. Noys ed., Communization and its Discontents, p. 55 (New York: Autonomedia, 2011) – can be similarly be interpreted as an argument that these are reified categories peculiar to the capitalist economy. Finally, in this context we can note that there is a certain parallel with the gender question here: the supposedly natural, eternal category (sex; labour as such) presumed to underlie the social category (gender; abstract labour) itself proves to be socially constituted.