The Subject. Philosophical Foundations. Andy Blunden 2005/6
In December 1841, the newly-appointed Prussian Minister for Culture summoned Friedrich Schelling to Berlin to “expunge the dragon’s seed of Hegelian pantheism” from the minds of Prussian youth. The young Frederick Engels wrote in his notebook:
“Ask anybody in Berlin today on what field the battle for dominion over German public opinion in politics and religion, that is, over Germany itself, is being fought, and if he has any idea of the power of the mind over the world he will reply that this battlefield is the University, in particular Lecture Hall No. 6, where Schelling is giving his lectures on the Philosophy of Revelation. For at the moment all the separate oppositions which contend with Hegel’s philosophy for this dominion are obscured, blurred and pushed into the background by the one opposition of Schelling; ...
“An imposing, colourful audience has assembled to witness the battle. At the front the notables of the University, the leading lights of science, men everyone of whom has created a trend of his own; for them the seats nearest to the rostrum have been reserved, and behind them, jumbled together as chance brought them to the hall, representatives of all walks of life, nations, and religious beliefs. In the midst of high-spirited youths there sits here and there a grey-bearded staff officer and next to him perhaps, quite unembarrassed, a volunteer who in any other society would not know what to do for reverence towards such a high-ranking superior. Old doctors and ecclesiastics, the jubilee of whose matriculation can soon be celebrated feel the long-forgotten student haunting their minds again and are back in college. Judaism and Islam want to see what Christian revelation is all about: German, French, English, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, modern Greek and Turkish, one can hear them all spoken together, – then the signal for silence sounds and Schelling mounts the rostrum ...” [Frederick Engels, December 1841]
Also in the audience were the anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, and Søren Kierkegaard, the precursor of Existentialism. According to Engels, Schelling’s proposition was that Hegel had confused ‘essence’ and ‘existence’, and what was required was a return to a philosophy of existence and ‘positive philosophy’. Kierkegaard ridiculed Hegel for ‘reconstructing’ history in retrospect, and Auguste Comte had already launched ‘Positivism’ which aimed to supplant all philosophy and religion with positive science. Engels swore ‘to shield the great man’s grave from abuse’, while Bakunin also proclaimed for the ‘negativists’ against the positivists.
During the decade since Hegel’s death in 1831, Auguste Blanqui had led the first Communist uprisings in Paris, and the Chartists had marched on London in the name of Socialism. Within a few years, in 1848, the Old Order in Europe would be rocked by social movements of an entirely new kind. Philosophy would never be the same again either. People could no longer believe in a World Spirit and Hegel’s all-encompassing system; all the main philosophical currents of the next century sprung out of this juncture, and what they all shared in common was, in one way or another, the need to put the sensuous experience of real human beings back at the centre of things.
One of the stars of the assault on Hegelianism was Ludwig Feuerbach, a Young Hegelian who had burst onto the scene earlier in 1841 with his Essence of Christianity. Karl Marx had been working on his own critique of Hegel through the esoteric medium of his doctoral dissertation on the ancient Greek natural philosophy, and he was immediately won over to Feuerbach’s position.
Feuerbach said that in order to make sense of Hegel you had to reverse the position of subject and predicate. Marx tested this idea out in his reading of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in 1843, commenting:
“The important thing is that Hegel at all times makes the Idea the subject and makes the proper and actual subject, like ‘political sentiment’, the predicate. But the development proceeds at all times on the side of the predicate.” [Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843]
Marx soon broke with Feuerbach, but he had settled with this question of Spirit, or History or Nature or any such abstraction occupying the position of the subject of history. In the Holy Family, written November 1844, he wrote:
“History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth,” it “wages no battles.” It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” [The Holy Family, Chapter 6]
Thereafter, Marx did not waste a lot of ink on this question, for Marx this question was settled by 1843-44.
Hegel had long ago observed that the essence of humanity was labour, that is, that it was through labour that the human species had created itself in the first place, and human beings continued to create and recreate themselves in a labour process. But Hegel had missed the significance of the fact that, so long as labour was carried out under the dominion of capital, then the worker’s labour was alienated as the property of another person; consequently, instead of being a means for human self-creation and liberation, labour was the process of enslavement of the labourer. The more productive was the labourer, the smaller would be her share of the social product.
The problem Marx set himself therefore was not a general philosophical puzzle, but a more specific one, though philosophy was certainly part of the problem. Agency lay at the centre of Marx’s concerns, though he was little inclined to such philosophical phraseology.
Marx affirmed his commitment to understanding human beings as agents in their own history in the very well-known paragraphs in the German Ideology:
“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.
“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. ...
“Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.” [German Ideology, Chapter 1A, §2. 1845]
Throughout his life, Marx continued to regard the purposeful, creative activity of individual human beings, at work, in politics or in the arts, as the ‘substance’ of his philosophy (insofar as Marx could be said to ‘have’ a philosophy at all). It is surely stating the obvious to say that human individuals can only be subjects in their own lives by participation in collective forms of activity, but also, a person is only a subject of their social action to the extent that such collective activities express their own will. Marx can therefore appropriate a generalised conception of Hegel’s State, but without resort to the idea of people as ‘the unconscious tools of the world mind at work within them’, [Philosophy of Right, §344] insofar as people indeed participate as knowing agents in social action. The problem remains how to understand that domain of unfreedom, where ‘social law’ acts on human beings as a quasi-natural, extramundane force, despite the fact that, as Marx proves, ‘social law’ is nothing other than humanity’s own powers raised up against it.
At the middle of the nineteenth century, there remained three great puzzles, the solutions for two of which were to be provided over the next half century. The first was how to explain the obviously-teleological character of the world of living things, if the world was the result of a natural process rather than of intelligent design. In Kant’s words:
‘And we can say boldly it is absurd for men ... to hope that another Newton will arise in the future, who shall make comprehensible by us the production of a blade of grass according to natural laws which no design has ordered.’ [Critique of Judgment §75]
Charles Darwin solved this puzzle in 1859 with his formulation of the idea of natural selection. The second was how it was possible to derive the laws of Euclidean Geometry by Reason only, independently of experience whereas the laws and properties of the material world ought to be knowable only through experience. In Kant’s words:
‘Geometry is a science which determines the properties of space synthetically, and yet a priori. What, then, must be our representation of space, in order that such a cognition of it may be possible? It must be originally intuition, for from a mere conception, no propositions can be deduced which go out beyond the conception, and yet this happens in geometry.’ [Critique of Pure Reason, I.1 §§3]
Einstein solved this puzzle in 1905 with his formulation of operational definitions of distance and elapsed time. The third great puzzle, which remains with us to this day, is how human freedom and natural necessity can co-exist unless there is just one Mind. This was the puzzle that Marx set himself, and his first step was to define it, not as a problem of philosophy, but as a practical problem.
Marx was not a philosopher, and he did not leave behind him a doctrine or system, and certainly not a definition of ‘the subject’, but a somewhat chaotic body of writing – the many volumes of his notes on political economy, the one and only completed volume of Das Kapital, the Communist Manifesto and other agitational and polemical material, and a record of practical work which succeeded in taking some real practical steps in the solution of the problem of human freedom and agency.
I will review Marx’s contribution to our understanding of the subject under four headings; firstly a brief review of Marx’s historical writings, and what he has to say of subjects of history in these works; then a survey of references to agency, subjectivity, and related topics in Capital, in relation to some claims about Marx’s ideas on agency which I believe are mistaken; a summary of what Marx’s work in the International Workingmen’s Association (1864-1872) tells us about subjectivity; and finally a note on Marx’s investigations into the commodity relation. To some extent I want to dispel misconceptions, as well as take note of what Marx actually contributed.
The main claims I want to deal with is that Marx believed that the working class is ‘the subject of history’, that Marx believed that capitalist society contained only two ‘main’ classes, that Marx recognised classes and only classes as agents in history, and that Marx was some kind of proto-structuralist and denied agency in history altogether (‘the inevitability of communism’ etc.).
In the first instance, Marx never made any statement about the working class being ‘the subject of history’; it is just not the kind of thing he said, anywhere. At best, it could be claimed as a conclusion which could be reasonably drawn from what he did say. But this cannot be sustained.
Very early on, Marx made it abundantly clear that he had no time for abstractions as subjects of history; and unless and until the working class constitutes itself as a social subject (like a State such as Hegel envisaged in the Philosophy of Right, perhaps) then ‘the working class’ is just such an abstraction. It is also abundantly clear that a multiplicity of subjects are actors on the stage of history, and the idea of there being just the subject of history is a pipe-dream, even looking into the future.
In the 18th Brumaire, Marx summed up his view like this:
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages [weltgeschichtlichen Tatsachen und Personen] appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. ...
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.” [18th Brumaire, Chapter I]
The statement that people make their own history, but under conditions transmitted from the past, is about as clear a statement of human agency in history as one could ask for. At the same time, Marx points to how people draw the images and ideas they use to make history from the past as well. This idea makes it clear that there is a distinction between, on the one hand, people’s image of themselves and their intentions, and on the other hand, their actual role and the real outcome of their actions, but this is far from any kind of determinism or a denial of the subject’s agency. Marx goes on to liken this process to someone who is learning a new language but “expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.” There is a collective learning process involved.
So, people make history but the ideas and images they need to mobilise and change society can only be fashioned in the very process of making such changes.
Also, in the above quotation and in the pages that follow, we see how Marx freely uses images and what could be called ‘anthroposemiotics’ – human figures, either mythic or historical, collective or individual, are used as signs representing ideas, visions, policies, fears and hopes. The historical figures of the past (including those of mythology) make up a cast of characters, and the ‘personages’ who act on the stage of history clothe themselves in the costumes provided by these characters. Marx’s writing reflects how he sees history – full of belief and emotion, dreams and nightmares, daring and stupidity – the full range of spiritual experiences known to literature. There is nothing of the ‘rational pursuit of economic interests’, let alone ‘economic determinism’, in how he sees historical battles as they are played out.
And who are the actors in this drama? In the 18th Brumaire, we see literally dozens of classes and class-fractions: – finance capital, industrial capital, the Orleanists, the Legitimists, the lumpen proletariat, the peasantry, the shopkeepers, the army, the proletariat, and more; and dozens of ‘parties’ characterised not by an economic location, but by political program: – the Montagne, the Party of Order, the Decembrists, the Blanquists, the party of the National, etc., etc.; as well as groups characterised only by their spirit and fortitude or lack thereof. Few individuals are mentioned, except insofar as they personify social actors. The ‘weltgeschichtlichen Personen’ acting out Marx’s drama are not so much the world-historic heroes which Hegel saw as bearers of the Weltgeist, but all kinds of social subjects. There is no doubt that Marx gives special weight to economic location and the interests connected with that location, and that is hardly something unique to Marx. His characters are social subjects who are connected to social classes, and social classes in various stages of self-development from ‘in itself’, lacking self-consciousness, to highly self-conscious class actors.
For instance, this is what Marx has to say about the French peasantry of the time:
“Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.” [Holy Family, Chapter 7]
And here is a comment he makes on the position of the proletariat on the eve of the June Insurrection in Paris:
“May 15  had no other result but that of removing Blanqui and his comrades – that is, the real leaders of the proletarian party – from the public stage for the entire duration of the cycle we are considering. ... On the side of the Paris proletariat stood none but itself. More than three thousand insurgents were butchered after the victory, and fifteen thousand were deported without trial. With this defeat the proletariat passes into the background on the revolutionary stage. It attempts to press forward again on every occasion, as soon as the movement appears to make a fresh start, but with ever decreased expenditure of strength and always slighter results. As soon as one of the social strata above it gets into revolutionary ferment, the proletariat enters into an alliance with it and so shares all the defeats that the different parties suffer, one after another. But these subsequent blows become the weaker, the greater the surface of society over which they are distributed. The more important leaders of the proletariat in the Assembly and in the press successively fall victim to the courts, and ever more equivocal figures come to head it. In part it throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks and workers’ associations, hence into a movement in which it renounces the revolutionizing of the old world by means of the latter’s own great, combined resources, and seeks, rather, to achieve its salvation behind society’s back, in private fashion, within its limited conditions of existence, and hence necessarily suffers shipwreck.” [Holy Family, Chapter 1]
And more generally on class consciousness:
“The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it.” [German Ideology, Chapter 1D]
So it is clear that for Marx, the common conditions of existence (as for example for the small-holding peasants) provide only a weak, ‘in-itself’ class consciousness; collective political struggle, of which the Parisian workers were veterans, gives class consciousness, but still formed from the material available at hand, and expressed in the only way it can be, in terms of corporate knowledge, common activity and experience, forms of association, programs, political parties and leaders. (By ‘class consciousness’ I mean a social class constituted as a ‘social subject’.)
A final observation; in the 18th Brumaire, Marx divides all the ‘cycles’ of activity into periods and sub-periods, in an effort to understand the dynamics at play in each case. This practice of ‘periodising’ history is characteristic of Marx. The victories and defeats, gains and losses, in each ‘cycle’ create the conditions upon which the next round can be fought. This is the finer detail of the idea of ‘making history under conditions transmitted from the past’. There is absolutely nothing of ‘laws of history’ or ‘inevitability’ or ‘progress’ in this view. It is people making their own history, together, with the ideological, spiritual and political means at their disposal.
Very broadly, Marx is dealing with the host of independent social subjects in action on the arena he is studying, just as Hegel conceived of States acting on a world stage; we do not have a unitary ‘society’, but rather a complex maelstrom of conflicting parties, each at some point in the process of political maturation, each with their own allegiances and enmities, and each with their own vision for the future.
Marx never wrote up his ideas on this topic in the form of a philosophical treatise, though he did write a number of historical studies, which serve to make his views on history clear enough. What he did spend a lot of time on – about 40 years in fact – was political economy, and many of the most important and original ideas Marx produced are to be found in Capital.
There are two issues which I want to look at in Capital: the question as to whether capital (or value) is a subject in capitalist society and if so, in what way, and what solution, if any, does Marx offer to the conundrum of how human freedom co-exists with the laws of political economy.
In Time, Labor, and social domination (1993), Moishe Postone sets out to elaborate the meaning of ‘immanent critique’. By ‘immanent critique’ I understand a critique of capitalist society which draws only on such propositions and concepts which are affirmed by the same principle which is under critique; in this way, the critique subjects capital to ‘its own logic’. Such a critique clearly has considerable strength, as against comparison of existing conditions with something else which ‘could be’, plucked from the writer’s own imagination.
Unfortunately, it is only such a critique which Postone is able to make himself, drawing upon capitalist conditions as they were in 1867 or as they ‘could be’, but never as they are in the writer’s own times.
In the course of his exposition, Postone credits Hegel with the following:
“adequate categories, according to Hegel, do not express the subjective forms of finite cognition and the appearance of things, as Kant would have it; they grasp, instead, the identity of subject and object as the structures of absolute knowing. The Absolute is the totality of the subjective-objective categories; it expresses itself and prevails in individual consciousness. Hegel’s notion of the identical subject-object is central to his attempt to solve the epistemological problem of the possible relation of subject and object, consciousness and reality, with a theory of the constitution of objectivity and subjectivity which would avoid the dilemma of having to know the cognitive faculty before knowing.” [p. 217]
Hegel posits the identity of subject and object, but not as something given at the outset, but rather as a ‘made adequacy’ which is the outcome of a process in which both the object and the subject are superseded. There is the Absolute and the Absolute; Hegel uses the idea of the Absolute as a concept which ‘totalises’ all relations from the standpoint of a subject at the various stages in the unfolding of Spirit. The history of philosophy is a succession of forms of the Absolute succeeding one another, as each turns out in the course of development, to be a Relative, as it is superseded by a new ‘Absolute’.
Capital is such a concept:
“It is as though light of a particular hue were cast upon everything, tingeing all other colours and modifying their specific features.” [Critique of Political Economy, Appendix 1, here referring to a branch of industry]
Hegel’s concept of the self-movement of spirit is very helpful in understanding capital, but it is vital to remember that neither Marx nor Hegel ever claimed that capital exhausts the relations in bourgeois society. The absolute is also relative.
Postone seems to presume that subject and object already coincide in the capitalist society under ‘critique’. On the contrary however, for Hegel, it was the non-correspondence between Concept and Intuition and between Subject and Object, which is the very driving force, expressing the unfolding of the World Spirit, which is the source of development. If one were to assume at the outset that subject and object were identical, then we have already reached the notorious ‘end of history’ and no critique is possible.
As outrageous as it is to credit Hegel with a really-existing ‘identical subject-object’ (i.e. Absolute Spirit itself), Postone then claims that Karl Marx shared this concept of capital as the Absolute incarnate.
“although Marx does posit the existence in capitalism of what Hegel identified as a historical Subject – that is, an identical subject-object – he identifies it as the form of alienated social relations expressed by the category of capital rather than as a human subject, whether individual or collective. He thereby shifts the problem of knowledge from the possible correlation between ‘objective reality’ and the perception and thoughts of the individual or supra-individual subject, to a consideration of the constitution of social forms.” [Postone 1993: p. 218 emphasis added]
The only instances in which Marx makes reference to the idea of ‘identical subject-object’ is by way of ridiculing Young Hegelian ‘critical critics’, as in:
“Just as Absolute Thought considers itself the whole of reality, so does Critical Criticism. That is why it sees no content outside itself and is therefore not the criticism of real objects existing outside the Critical subject; on the contrary, it makes the object, it is the Absolute Subject-Object.” [Holy Family, Chapter 7]
Surely it is abundantly clear that it is only human beings that Marx sees as subjects? Postone goes on to formulate the problem in the following terms:
“Overcoming alienation in this [Postone’s] view involves the abolition of the self-grounding, self-moving Subject (capital) and of the form of labor that constitutes and is constituted by structures of alienation; this would allow humanity to appropriate what had been constituted in alienated form. Overcoming the historical Subject would allow people, for the first time, to become the subjects of their own social practices.” [Postone 1993: p. 224.]
So according to Postone, capital is not only a subject, but a “self-grounding, self-moving” subject. Now there is a definite and important sense in which capitalism is both self-grounding and self-moving, but in what sense can we describe capital as a ‘subject’? Hegel was very familiar with the work of the political economists and praises them in the Philosophy of Right:
“Political economy is the science which starts from this view of needs and labour but then has the task of explaining mass-relationships and mass-movements in their complexity and their qualitative and quantitative character. This is one of the sciences which have arisen out of the conditions of the modern world. Its development affords the interesting spectacle (as in Smith, Say, and Ricardo) of thought working upon the endless mass of details which confront it at the outset and extracting therefrom the simple principles of the thing, the Understanding effective in the thing and directing it.” [Philosophy of Right, §189 Remark]
But he also locates political economy in the narrow confines of the ‘System of Needs’. The State is the relevant candidate for subject-object here, and there is nothing really mystical about the state as a subject. The idea of ‘exchange value’ as a subject is an absurdity in Hegel’s thinking; doubly so for Marx.
My friend Rob Lucas collected references from Volume 1 of Capital in which Marx talks of capital as if it were a subject. For example:
“in its blind and measureless drive, its insatiable appetite for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral but even the merely physical limits of the working day.” [Capital, p.375]
“...capital, as we said earlier, is at first indifferent towards the technical character of the labour process it seizes control of.” [Capital, p.358]
“Workers and factory inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered: ‘My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond.’” [Capital, p.399]
My physics teacher at school also told me that the hydrogen atom ‘needs’ two electrons, that systems ‘seek’ equilibrium and as an old civil engineer I know that the best way to find the weak point in structure is to imagine myself as the structure. We civilised human beings not only reify human powers as if they were natural forces, we also anthropomorphise natural process for the purpose of understanding them. It not only makes processes without a subject easier to comprehend if we imagine them to be the work of some subject with specific aims, it is also humorous! Marx is doing nothing more than this in these excerpts, except perhaps that we should add irony to his intentions.
Marx makes it clear that the ‘subject’ he is referring to is not the human owner of capital:
“As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labour. Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” – Capital, p.342
What is indubitable is that capital is a social relation, and in particular, a social process. At any given moment at any given place in social space, capital is not exhaustive; that is to say, consciousness and activity will also be determined by other relations which are nothing to do with capital.
Recent decades have demonstrated the tendency, anticipated in Marx’s aphorism that ‘all that is solid melts to air’, for the value relation to destroy the family and colonise the state and other elements of civil society, with an inherent tendency towards objective totalisation, that is to say, the subsumption of more and more relations within a single market, with everything exchangeable on the same dollar scale. But it is not yet a made totality. In fact, it is fair to say that if a moment ever came when capital subsumed all social relations, then the human species would become extinct, and all but the most rabidly neo-liberal of capitalist politicians and business leaders would agree with this prognosis. But that is another question. Nevertheless, capital is self-grounding and self-moving social relation, in that capital creates the preconditions for its own existence, and it is fair to say that capital and the relations determined by it, dominate the consciousness of all of us living under its regime, even our imagination. If we confine ourselves just to this system of relations, where, according to our assumption, consciousness is entirely determined by the relation of capital, then in what sense is capital a subject?
Postone himself accepts that capital-as-subject does not possess self-consciousness:
“Whereas Hegel’s Subject is transhistorical and knowing, in Marx’s analysis it is historically determinate and blind... It has no ego... It does not possess self-consciousness. Subjectivity and the socio-historical Subject must be distinguished.” [Postone, 1993: p.77]
So, it would seem that there can be little more than a rhetorical play in Postone’s claim. For all the writers we have so far reviewed, subjects are living human beings, collectively and individually, possessing self-consciousness. Hegel introduced the idea of Spirit, an extramundane totalising subject, but it is abundantly clear that this concept of subject Marx rejected.
Even Hegel says:
Mind [Geist] is the nature of human beings en masse and their nature is therefore twofold: (i) at one extreme, explicit individuality of consciousness and will, and (ii) at the other extreme, universality which knows and wills what is substantive. [Philosophy of Right, §264, emphasis added]
The only sense in which capital is a subject (as opposed to a concept or a relation between subjects) is when we talk of capital in the sense of the capitalist class, that is, a collective of human subjects with self-consciousness who identify with and solidarise with each other in some way. It makes a nonsense of the idea of ‘subject’ to talk of subjects existing solely within the domain of the economy.
The idea of capital as an identical subject-object, poses the conception of ‘society’ as the subject, and the obliteration of any outside or any dissent, something that Postone wants to avoid. Postone sees the contradiction between labour and capital as an internal contradiction within capitalism, (and we must agree with him there), but the very existence of such a contradiction is inconsistent with the idea of capital as an ‘identical subject-object’. Postone’s claim is that since abolition of capitalism entails the abolition of the proletariat, therefore critique cannot adopt the standpoint of the actual working class, but only how things ‘could be’. But without an effective social agent to imagine how things ‘could be’, then what?
Indeed, the fact that in order to free itself, the proletariat must abolish itself and the conditions of its own existence as a class, is a very serious historical problem of subjectivity, that needs to be addressed. ‘Class consciousness’, includes a shared vision of ‘how the world ought to be’, the principle which constitutes the class as a subject, as well as an understanding of ‘who we are’, the conditions which constitute the class as a class. As Hegel explained at great length in the section on Subjectivity in the Logic, these moments of the Notion cannot be torn apart let alone abandoned. Subjects fighting, for example, for the end of a specific kind of discrimination have a tendency to go on fighting discrimination long after the discrimination has moderated, and those suffering no longer want to be identified as victims. Just like money, the principle or Universal of a subject takes on an existence of its own, and can even be separated from its conditions of existence, but only, in Hegel’s words: “in worthless honour, idle fame, etc.” [The Philosophy of Spirit, §436]
If I know the law of gravity and act accordingly, does that make gravity a subject? Clearly not, but the concept of gravity, and/or an intuition of gravity, may constitute an element of my subjectivity. The novelty with the ‘law of value’ discovered by the political economists, is that while the law of value appears to have the same force as the law of gravity, and in significant ways it does have such force, nevertheless, the law of value rests on no other ground than that of purposive human activity itself. Consequently, it does lie within the capacity of human beings to abolish the law of value to the extent that we can abolish the actuality or possibility of exchanging commodities on which it rests. This is something which is possible in relation to the law of gravity only figuratively, by the invention of hang-gliders and aeroplanes. The point is, what agency is capable of such a transformation of society and under what conditions?
The point about capitalist society which Hegel was in no position to understand is that it is riven by irreconcilable class antagonisms; there can be no lasting reconciliation of opposing classes in the State, as intended by Hegel; movements of what Hegel called the rabble did attain self-consciousness and set themselves the project not of incorporation in the state, but of its overthrow. Thus, within capitalist society these mutually hostile social subjects are ‘in a state of nature in relation to each other’ [Philosophy of Right, §333] as Hegel saw as the relation between states on the international arena.
This is the key thing to be understood in how Marx revised Hegel. Marx comments in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:
“This is a kind of mutual reconciliation society. It is as if a man stepped between two opponents, only to have one of them immediately step between the mediator and the other opponent. It is like the story of the man and wife who quarrelled and the doctor who wished to mediate between them, whereupon the wife soon had to step between the doctor and her husband, and then the husband between his wife and the doctor. ... this is a society pugnacious at heart but too afraid of bruises to ever really fight. ... It is remarkable that Hegel, who reduces this absurdity of mediation to its abstract logical, and hence pure and irreducible, expression, calls it at the same time the speculative mystery of logic, the rational relationship, the rational syllogism. Actual extremes cannot be mediated with each other precisely because they are actual extremes. But neither are they in need of mediation, because they are opposed in essence. They have nothing in common with one another; they neither need nor complement one another.” [Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right §5]
Hegel’s political program was for a reconciliation of antagonistic elements within the bourgeois state; Marx’s program was Communism and the overthrow of the state. Just as Hegel said that ‘The civilised nation is conscious that the rights of barbarians are unequal to its own and treats their autonomy as only a formality’, [Philosophy of Right, §351] Marx saw the same barbarous relations were the real relations between classes in capitalist society. So capitalist society was certainly no ‘identical subject-object’!
The epistemological issue here is that if society is riven by irreconcilable contradictions, then the subjects active in that society will internalise those contradictions in their own subjectivity. Subjectivity is therefore full of contradictions, contradictions which can only be resolved by the real supersession of the conflicts on Earth:
“Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular [weltliche] one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically.” [Theses on Feuerbach, §4]
The other issue, alluded to earlier, is that whereas Hegel rightly sees the objectification of Mind in the form of tools, means of production, words and culture generally, as a part of the process of development of human culture, he forgets that in capitalist society, once objectified, the labourer’s product becomes the property of a hostile class. Hegel does mention this issue in System of Ethical Life, but it disappears from his writing afterwards. He treats ‘society’ (i.e., the state) as if it were a single subjectivity, ‘in relation’ to itself as object, whose material culture is the objectification of a unitary labour process. In this view, the contradiction between subject and object still exists, and is in fact a motive force for social development. But for Marx, approaching this situation from the standpoint of labour (to use Postone’s phrase), the proletarian’s product is alienated and as a result, it stands against the worker as a hostile force, a rod she has constructed for her own back.
It follows therefore, if we follow Marx’s argument in the above Thesis on Feuerbach, that the resolution of this mental problem lies in the recovery of control over the alienated product.
“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” [Theses on Feuerbach, §8]
Like the social subjects Marx described in The 18th Brumaire, the social subjects engaged in this struggle will have to draw on the past for the images and ideas they use, but in doing so they fashion new images and ideas – a learning process; and surely a learning process differs significantly from the picture of historical actors who are unaware of the action of the world spirit acting behind their backs! For Marx, historical actors have to make sense of their own activity in order for it to be brought to consciousness, rather than discovering the pre-existing intention of an extramundane Spirit, as it is for Hegel.
So an historical actor is required for the overthrow of capitalism, and Marx looked to the working class, the actual working class, for this job. This does not make the working class ‘the’ subject of history, far less an ‘identical subject-object’, but at whatever stage of its historical and political development, disintegration or even incorporation into the capitalist state, it is possible to talk of the proletariat ‘in relation’, to use the young Hegel’s terminology, to a ‘class-subject’. Whether this program is adequate to the problems of the twenty-first century is another question.
Fortunately for posterity, in November 1864 one of Marx’s old communist friends hauled him away from his notebooks on political economy and introduced him to the newly-forming International Workingmen’s Association. Then began the practical work, without which Marx’s work on political economy may well have been forgotten long ago.
Marx seized the opportunity and worked might and main for the next eight years of his life to organise the working class as a subject. By 1872, the First International had gone as far as it could go, but ever since, capitalism has had to confront a radical subject which sought its overthrow. The changing form of that subject and its relation to the proletariat I have outlined in The Radical Subject, included here as an Appendix. The point is that Marx was true to his word, and worked to resolve the problem of the working class as a subject of history as a practical, and not a theoretical problem.
Finally, a review of Marx’s contribution to our understanding of subjectivity in modern society would not be complete without looking at his analysis of the commodity relation, begun in Comment on James Mill in 1843 and summed up in the brilliant first chapter of Capital. In his letter to Kugelmann of 28th December 1862, Marx announced that he had begun work on the sequel to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy but that the new book will be titled Capital. But Marx begins what is to be his definitive work on capital, not like the Grundrisse with ‘Production, Consumption, Distribution and Exchange’ or with Money, but with the Commodity. As he remarks in the famous Afterword to the Second German Edition, ‘the method of presentation must differ from the method of enquiry’. In beginning with the Commodity, Marx begins straight out with the Abstract Notion, the ‘germ’ of capital, ‘germ’ being the metaphor that Hegel frequently used for the Notion or Subject in his Logic. He shows how two different values, exchange-value and use value, are united in the commodity, and in section three traces the essential development of the division of labour and circulation of the products of labour through a series of contradictory forms culminating the universal commodity, money.
The correspondence of this idea to Hegel’s Logic has been noted by many writers, though most take the parallel too literally and take the ‘germ’ for the section with which Hegel begins his Logic, Being. In the reading I propose however, capital occupies the position of Subject and the development of capitalism corresponds to the process Hegel describes in the ‘Doctrine of the Notion’ in which the Idea corresponds to the resolution of the Subject-Object dialectic, the gradual subsumption of all social relations under the relation of exchange and the accumulation of capital.
But the ‘Subject as Concept’ described by Hegel in the Logic is not a Subject in the proper sense of the word; only at a completion of the process, were the relation of capital to subsume all other relations within it, would capital dominate social consciousness to the point of being a subject. As we have seen, such a process is untenable because, if for no other reason, it is inconsistent with the continued existence of human life on Earth. Other subjectivities are at work in human society, which restrain and oppose the work of capital.
Hegel never resolved this problem. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel says that the only solutions he sees to the growing inequality and social disintegration resulting from the accumulation of capital are (1) public works á là Keynes, (2) philanthropy or (3) export of surplus population to the colonies, but each of these solutions he finds to be defective. As Shlomo Avineri notes, this is the only instance of Hegel leaving an open end in his system. As early as System of Ethical Life, Hegel wrote:
“great wealth, which is similarly bound up with the deepest poverty (for in the separation between rich and poor labour on both sides is universal and objective) ... the unmitigated extreme of barbarism. ... The absolute bond of the people, namely ethical principle, has vanished, and the people is dissolved.
“The government has to work as hard as possible against this inequality and the destruction of private and public life wrought by it. It can do this directly in an external way by making high gain more difficult, and if it sacrifices one part of this class to mechanical and factory labour and abandons it to barbarism, it must keep the whole people without question in the life possible for it. But this happens most necessarily, or rather immediately, through the inner constitution of the class. ...
“The wealthy man is directly compelled to modify his relation of mastery, and even others’ distrust for it, by permitting a more general participation in it.” [System of Ethical Life, Chapter 3]
Insofar as Hegel had a solution, it was in the hope that the rich would restrain their own excesses of self-interest and individualism – a hope quite contrary to the usual ‘Hegelian’ reading of Capital.
The process set out by Hegel in the Logic was intended to describe the universal processes through which all concepts and systems of activity develop in society. Certainly, Marx found that it served the purpose of describing the development of capital out of the division of labour very well. But that does not make capital an identical subject-object.
But Marx did put his finger on the germ, the cell, the basic relation from which capitalism grows, – the commodity relation. The principle of fair exchange is in fact the basic and defining ethos of bourgeois society. The process of concretisation and development of capitalism is therefore the transformation of all relations into exchange relations. The process of colonisation of social life by capital is not so much indicated by the accumulation of larger and larger units of capital, or the growth of the rate of surplus value, but rather by this process of destruction of all social bonds, all forms of actual collaboration and their replacement by the weaker bonds of commodity exchange. Any study of subjectivity in modern society must begin from this basic premise first studied by Marx in 1843 and detailed in Capital.
The basic form of subjectivity of the capitalist class is not the State nor the commodity relation or value, (whatever that could mean) but the company. The company is the cell of bourgeois society, a true subject. The path of development of the capitalist subject is traced by the inter-relation between the commodity relation (including money in all its forms, and economic science generally), the company (in all its forms, including management practices, forms of ownership, etc.) and the State (including its regulatory apparatuses).
I will deal with this in later chapter. In Marx’s day, companies were still largely ‘family firms’, even when they swallowed up other ‘family firms’, and the issue of the form of subjectivity of the capitalist class had not shown itself.
A study of the subjectivity of the working class would involve the labour process itself, with its changing composition of the labour force and forms of activity, division of labour, etc., the basic forms of self-defence (unions, and other forms of labour organisation), ‘governments in waiting’, i.e., political parties resting on the working class, whether reformist or communist. I touch on these issues in the Chapter Two of For Ethical Politics on “The Radical Subject.”