In 1965 Louis Althusser opened his famous paean For Marx with a withering reflection on French theoretical culture at the time. He bemoaned the fact that ‘we have spent the best part of our time in agitation when we would have been better employed in the defence of our right and duty to know’.[i] The result of which was ‘the stubborn, profound absence of any theoretical culture’; whereas, he claimed, ‘Marxism should not be simply a political doctrine, a ‘method’ of analysis and action, but also, over and above the rest, the theoretical domain of fundamental investigation’.[ii] For this task Althusser saw as indispensable the role of intellectuals committed to necessary theoretical work.
Of course, nowadays an opposite problem appears to present itself: the apparent aloofness of ‘ivory tower’ Marxist intellectuals, cosseted by a conference circuit of stimulating debate allaying the, in any case long lost, angst about the severing of theory from practice. It is in this context that an either/or situation appears to logically follow: either resign oneself to scholasticism; or, engage in the rush of unreflective activism, valorising every flight to the barricades. But in reality the two choices operate symbiotically. The studious academic can patronise the spirit of the hyperactive activist, whilst drawing back from engaged criticism (lest he or she be dragged into actual politics, or possibly dent the heroic will of those ‘daring to act’). Conversely, the activist declines to criticise the academic, seeing them as part of the theoretical/ideological wing of the struggle, happy with the current status quo of mutual non-interference.
The inadequacy of this cold peace between theoreticians and activists is both exemplified and problematised by the question of abstraction, which is not merely a register of theoretical depth, but moreover an intrinsically political question itself. Alberto Toscano’s recent book, Fanaticism, convincingly links the embrace of abstraction—and fear thereof—to the difference between universal, emancipatory politics and liberal-conservative politics. Toscano traces the connection back to the Edmund Burke, who in his denunciations of the French revolution condemned the ‘tyranny of the politics of theory’, and ‘the ‘monstrous fiction’ that they could be handled like mathematical theorems or geometrical objects.’[iii] Thereafter, the conservative criticism of Republican, and later Marxist politics, became obsessed by uncovering the will to power of scheming, abstraction obsessed intellectuals attempting to guide the masses’ spontaneous subjectivity to their own, pretentiously altruistic, ends.
Where abstraction links into the present debate is in regard to the foregoing discussion of the autonomy of Marxist intellectual work. Andrew Kliman’s recent talk in London on ‘What has to be done to transcend capitalism’—co-sponsored by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative and The Commune—was greeted with a degree of mixed opinion regarding precisely the abstraction of the theoretical project he was proposing. Without claiming to do justice to Kliman’s talk, the discussion centred on his claim that Marxist politics has been too focused on the political transition to communism, where, on the contrary, not enough thought has been given to the underlying economic basis of value production under capitalism. Most provocatively, he demarked the difference between the political and economic via reference to the distinction between the quantitative and qualitative in Hegel’s Science of Logic. So although the Marxist political theorem of the withering away of the state is based on a gradualist, quantitative transition, the change in the mode of production cannot operate according to the same logic, and must, of necessity, constitute an incommensurable shift; in other words, an event dividing capitalist value production from communist production. The upshot is that since the political is emergent upon the economic, attempts to politically force transition to communism, in lieu of fundamentally refiguring the economic base away from value production, explains the growth, rather than the withering away of, the state in 20th century socialist countries.
During the talk Kliman refused to be drawn away from this emphasis on theorising the shift away from value production by discussion of imperialism, the need for a ‘green economy’, and suchlike diversions, giving the whiff of a faintly Platonic air to his project. Some attendants recoiled at the suggestion of the need for abstract, theoretical work, subtracted from really existing struggles. Yet, in Kliman’s defence, one needs to understand his grand career project of rescuing Marx’s labour theory of value to put his call in context.
In Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital” Kliman shows how Marx’s labour theory of value has been undermined by successive generations of economists as internally inconsistent. Whilst delving into the arcane debates underwriting the question of Capital’s inconsistency is beyond our scope here, the significant point is that like the conservative critique of political abstraction, many of the critics of the labour theory of value have rested on condemning its ‘metaphysical’ concept. Even Marxian thinkers in attempting to rescue the theory have implicitly acknowledged the critique by refiguring it in physicalist terms. The resistance to the abstract concept at the core I think operates on a number of levels. It is not just that the labour theory of value implies, somewhat horrifically, in a precise, scientific sense, that the entire capitalist system is based on exploitation; but, moreover, the sheer absence of intuitiveness to its concepts of ‘abstract labour’, ‘totality’, and ‘socially necessary labour time’ indicates an irreducibly intellectual compartment for understanding the economic base. In contrast to the ‘folk political’ demand to see actual exploitation, actual oppression, or to see the real accounting of profit and production[iv]—to see, touch, and hear their object of study—Marxist ‘economism’ seems to demand a level of abstract thinking, which suggests the separation of the intellectual and the masses.
By implication, accepting Marx’s labour theory of value has profound political consequences. It undermines a Marxist political subjectivity based on simply cheering on ‘movements from below’, and equally discredits the disavowal of vanguardism (or a least, in its most totalising sense). The responsibility of the intellectual becomes exactly to engage in the abstract, intellectual work as their responsibility in engaging with the real movement. Like Slavoj Žižek’s call for us to repeat Lenin’s pre-revolutionary gesture of studying Hegel’s Science of Logic, Kliman’s project, much as Althusser’s earlier remarks, treat speculation as the highest calling. Whether many are willing to stomach the political consequences of this division of labour is another question.
[i] Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, Verso, 2005, p. 23
[ii] Ibid., p. 26
[iii] Alberto Toscano, Fanaticism, Verso, 2010, p. xiii
[iv] See Nitzan and Bichler, Capital as Power: A study of Order and Creorder, Routledge, 2009