Academic journal article Capital & Class

From Reflection to Refraction: Opening Up Open Marxism (1)

Academic journal article Capital & Class

From Reflection to Refraction: Opening Up Open Marxism (1)

Article excerpt


While it is true to say that the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) rejects any one distinctive school of Marxism, it is equally true to say that in recent years a particular approach to Marxist theory has been developed within its remit. Even though this approach in no ways represents the main theoretical perspective of the CSE, it has nevertheless made a number of important interventions in debates about Marxist theory within the CSE. Collectively known as 'open Marxism', this approach rejects what is seen as a Marxist predilection to either reify the technical process of capital accumulation or to reify the moment of labour's struggle against the alienating world of capitalist power. Seeking instead to 'reveal the social form of labour in capitalist society' (Neary 1999: 177), open Marxists develop categories that comprehend why labour is compelled to assume alienated forms of existence under capitalism.

Open Marxists begin to address this problem by insisting that it is only through the alienated producing power of labour that the circuit of capital begins. If capital is to exploit the value of each commodity, therefore, it must also intrinsically exploit labour to ensure that the latter remains dispossessed of the means of production. This being the case, capital only exists in and through labour (Bonefeld, Brown and Burnham 1995). Therefore social forms of existence are not merely based upon a reified thing-like compulsion. Social forms are also inherently contradictory and open to change as labour asserts its own power in and against capitalist forms of alienation.

In this paper I wish to critically engage with the project of open Marxism. While I am sympathetic with their aims, I argue that open Marxists do not take their insights far enough. Indeed I shall suggest that there is, at present, a danger of reductionism implicit in their overall project based upon the theoretical reduction of discrete social forms of life to the main contradiction between capital and labour within the capitalist mode of production. Thus while open Marxists successfully detail how social forms reflect the contradiction between capital and labour, they do not at present demonstrate with equal insight how social forms also refract this contradiction in their own unique and qualitative way. Part of the reason for this failure lies in the relative theoretical weakness of the open Marxist project. This weakness is related, I believe, to a failure to open up the categories of Marxism to the idea of refraction. That is, open Marxists have yet to develop a set of categories which usefully allow us to explore the distinct ideological characteristics of social forms of life which, at first glance, seem to have nothing whatsoever in common with capital and labour. What does it mean to say, for example, that writing poetry can be analysed through the capital-labour relation? The paper proceeds as follows.

In the next section I briefly set out what is meant by the term 'open Marxism'. In the sections that follow I expand upon this initial definition by exploring the categories of 'abstraction', 'social form', 'crisis', 'regulation' and 'discourse' respectively. I argue that open Marxists tend either to reduce these categories to the dictates of the contradiction between capital and labour, or to treat them lightly (as is the case with discourse theory). I insist that a genuinely open approach to Marxist theory must seek to develop each category in a manner that can account for the refracted nature of social form (see also Joseph 1998 who argues along similar lines from a critical realist perspective). Thus my negative deconstruction of open Marxist categories will be complemented by my positive reconstruction of them. (2)

Open Marxism

Open Marxism refers primarily to an openness of the categories of Marxism. In a world in which the 'topsy-turvy' logic of capitalism dominates social relations through its contradictory and crisis-prone nature, then it is necessary to develop concepts and categories that can understand the precarious nature of these social relations and the forms they assume. …

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