The strange case of the missing “Revolutionary Subject”

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the problem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Jehu Eaves
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I am a "marxist-in-recovery", which is to say, I am someone trying to recover for myself the essential humanist thought of Karl Marx. I understand his writings as a radical, critical, and determined opposition to all forms of social coercion and "laws" of society, including, but not limited to, Labor, Property and the State -- a decidedly negative critique of present society that offers no vision of what replaces it. My somewhat awkward musings on this can be found at I am also on Twitter @damn_jehu
JehuThe strange case of the missing “Revolutionary Subject”