“There is a tendency to fetishize the fetish”: An Interview with Karl Reitter

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Editorial Introduction

This interview with Karl Reitter, originally published in Junge Welt, presents aspects of his critique of the German “new reading of Marx” (Neue Marx-Lektüre), which is beginning to be more widely translated into English. The interview marks the publication in March of a collection in German, edited by Reitter, called Karl Marx: Philosopher of Liberation or Theorist of Capital? Towards a Critique of the “New Reading of Marx” (Vienna: Mandelbaum, 2015).

Viewpoint has attempted to contribute to the wider reception of the “new reading of Marx” in English, publishing, among other things, a translation of Ingo Elbe’s broad overview of the various “readings of Marx.” The translation of the writings of Michael Heinrich, including the popular handbook Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (New York: Monthly Review, 2013), is an important event, and forthcoming translations of his more scholarly writings, along with the original and seminal contributions of Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, will have a vital impact not only on the Anglophone reception of Marxist theory, but also the proliferation of further research on the various European “returns to Marx” that were nourished by the New Left. We consider the new reading of Marx to have made an essential contribution in subjecting Marx’s writings to rigorous conceptual scrutiny, uncovering the logical relation between categories that can be obscured by the incomplete character of Marx’s work and an often mystificatory hermeneutic tradition. Its critique of what it calls the “substantialist” theory of value, closely tied to the historicist interpretation of value categories and the “naturalistic-deterministic” philosophy canonized by the official Communist parties, converges with parallel critiques advanced in France and Italy. For this reason, pace Reitter, we consider Heinrich’s openness towards Louis Althusser to be a high point in the cross-fertilization of European Marxisms.

Nevertheless, the caliber of scholarship represented by the new reading of Marx, along with its sheer explanatory power, has sometimes led English readers to imagine that we can now close the book on the Marxist tradition. This would be a mistake. Not only is there considerable debate among German-speaking Marxists about the interpretation of the categories themselves, as Reitter’s interview attests. There are also deep and important gaps within the new reading of Marx, reflected by the title of the book edited by Reitter: the problem of liberation and the struggle to achieve it, to which Marx devoted countless pages and his entire political life. Of course, this is not only a question of philosophy: Marx’s insights are derived from investigations of the history of working-class formation, state power, and forms of resistance in the plantation, the city street, and the factory.

We have to add to Reitter’s points that the bête noire of the new reading, varyingly called “traditional Marxism” or “worldview Marxism” – the flawed conception of Marxism that supposedly dominated the entire history of the workers’ movement – cannot be so readily dismissed. Some contemporary critics seem to argue that because the historical workers’ movement was dominated by an incorrect reading of Marx’s critique of political economy, it has nothing to offer us now.

In fact, now that we are free from the dogmatic and repressive atmosphere of institutional Communism, it may be the ideal time to revisit the political theory of the workers’ movement – and this has indeed been at the core of the Viewpoint project. Just as Marx’s own philosophical and methodological declarations did not always accurately reflect the innovation which can be understood from his theoretical practice – a point the new reading has ably demonstrated, from its inception, with reference to value categories – the theorists of the workers’ movement generated new insights not always explicable in terms of the problematic of official party doctrine. As we recover the vital insights into capitalist development and its crises that Marx’s value categories can bring us, so too can a new reading of the workers’ movement and its theoretical heterogeneity form the foundation for theoretical reflection on class struggle today. While Reitter’s interview is not concerned with all of the foregoing points, his insistence that Capital is not principally a text about the “autonomous” subject of capital, but the specific social relations that underlie capitalism and their constitutive struggles, provides an important challenge. Class struggle, in this reading, is not simply additive to theories of value or crisis; it indicates the historical movement which opens up to the possibility of liberation, a movement which is irreducible to any determinism.

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Interview

Reinhard Jellen: What is the core idea of Karl Marx?

Karl Reitter: In short, Marx was concerned with detecting the elements in social and economic development that make a liberated society possible. The most important aspect appears to me to be the development of the productive forces of labor. These are not limited to technology, the natural sciences, or communications structures. Productive forces are not things, but capacities of socialized human beings that materialize in things. It is precisely this perspective that Marx calls scientific.

RJ: What does this mean?

KR: It means recognizing moments of liberation in the dynamic of socio-historical development. In a few expressions, Marx gives in to a certain determinism, in which he postulates the supersession of capitalism as an objective law. Oftentimes, the critique of this determinism results in a repudiation of Marx’s core idea as well. Or, as we put it in the title of our book, a philosopher of liberation gets made into a theoretician who simply illustrates for us how capitalism functions. The so-called new reading of Marx plays a leading role to this end.

RJ: The authors of this tendency create a loose cohesion. What is their main assertion?

KR: That class struggle is meaningless and there is no immanent moment that disrupts society. All that remains is the “automatic subject” capital, which imposes guidelines for acting according to the logic of profit-maximization and the law of value on everyone, across all classes. The capitalist system is, according to this logic, supported by an impermeable, opaque coherence of masks and fetishes that, so it goes without saying, extends across all classes anew to hold people captive in ignorance and misapprehension. Only the theorists of the “new reading of Marx” shed some light onto this darkness, if I may add this with some irony.

RJ: Does this reading present the work of Marx presented in a one-sided, distorted, or falsified manner?

KR: In the very early writing “Critical Marginal Notes on the Article ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian,’” Marx distinguishes between two dimensions of the revolutionary process: on the one hand, he writes, political (state) power must be overthrown. On the other, social relations must be changed and transformed. This political dimension is particularly apparent in his writings on France, i.e., on the revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. The social dimension is discussed in Capital and its preparatory works.

RJ: How so?

KR: Marx distinguishes, as stated, immediate state power, which must be overthrown and replaced by a council democracy, from the social domination of capital. The latter, in turn, can only be overcome by a change of economic forms, meaning that labor may no longer take the form of wage labor, the means of production no longer the form of capital, and land no longer the form of private landownership. Marx’s investigations of the state and political power, which are independent and by no means derivable from his analysis of capital, are largely ignored in the “new reading of Marx.” Similarly, it is not interested in social domination in the pores of the daily life of labor. Here, an “automatic subject” is supposed to rule.

RJ: To what extent is the “new reading of Marx” indebted to Louis Althusser’s structuralism, and with what consequences?

KR: There is no persistent influence of Althusser in this kind of interpretation of Marx. Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, two important protagonists of this current, should be characterized as students of Theodor W. Adorno. With respect to Michael Heinrich, on the other hand, Althusser’s influence is clearly evident. This can be seen in the strange notion that an adequate understanding of capitalism should be developed solely on the basis of an “ideal average” of this mode of production. The historical changes of the relations of capital are thereby overlooked and dismissed as variations of the ever-same. Themes such as the transformation of Fordism into neoliberalism or the meaning of the financial crisis of 2008 and its consequences are relegated to an inconsequential status. The situation is similar with respect to the role of class struggle. As a phenomenon, it is not contested, but it is considered to have no significance with respect to an adequate understanding of capitalism. I regard it as absurd to think one could have a sufficient understanding of capitalism without its history.

RJ: What are the accusations of the representatives of the “new reading of Marx”?

KR: That he simply failed. Backhaus says Marx was never able to authentically delineate his theory of value. Heinrich writes one article after the other in which he claims that Marx left us with an unfinished project with huge gaps. Engels plays the role of the bad guy who botched the publication of volumes II and III of Capital and supposedly falsified the text. Such is Marx divulged to academic critique.

Generations of Marxists have been and still are able to decipher basic aspects of societal relations with the conceptual tools Marx left to us. In the current moment, we need to use these tools to understand, for instance, the changed significance of the financial sector. But, again, the protagonists of the so-called new reading of Marx rarely face this task, especially as these developments take place beyond the ominous ideal average.

RJ: What significance do the categories “class” and “class struggle” have in Capital?

KR: Class struggle immediately determines relevant economic magnitudes, contrary to the widespread misconception that magnitudes of value are all objectively determined by the law of value. Nothing could be more incorrect than this opinion: of course, the value of a commodity is determined by the law of value according to Marx, and the socially necessary labor-time asserts itself violently behind the actors’ backs as a “regulative law of nature.”1 The amount of surplus-value, on the other hand, is determined within certain limits – wages cannot sink to zero, labor time cannot be extended beyond a certain measure – exclusively by class struggle. This is plainly stated in Capital. The intensity of labor and the length of the working day are decided in class struggle. There is no objective law that, say, enforces four, six or even eight hours of surplus labor. “The nature of commodity exchange itself imposes no limit to the working day.”2 The length of surplus labor determines the magnitude of surplus-value, which in turn takes on the forms of profit, as interest, and rent. The amount of profit, in turn, regulates the speed of capital accumulation, etc. Profit is congealed class struggle in the material [dingliche] form of money.

The equalization of the rate of profit also has far-reaching consequences for the theorization of class: “We thus have a mathematically exact demonstration of why the capitalists, no matter how little love is lost among them in their mutual competition, are nevertheless united by a real freemasonry vis-a-vis the working class as a whole.”3 Of course, this “freemasonry” is also capable of and compelled to an accordant bourgeois class politics, which is the immediate result of economic processes and interests.

RJ: But the amount of interest is not immediately determined by class struggle…

KR: Right, but it is determined by political decisions about economics. There is no law for the amount of the interest rate, as Marx explicitly describes.4 This amount is determined by the expectations, hopes and fears of possessors of money and foremost by the political decisions of the heads of command of financial capital. It can fluctuate between zero and the average rate of profit. The interest rate, in turn, influences the fictitious value of landholdings, the yield of which is interpreted as interest, and in this manner it is calculated back to the value of pieces of land. Moreover, there are effects on the yield on shares, which tend to be above the average interest rate and below the average rate of profit.

RJ: What are the consequences?

KR: Economic magnitudes such as wage, surplus-value and thus profit, but also the interest rate and the economic magnitudes it influences, are in no way determined by anonymous market forces, but rather – and this is how Marx puts it – by social conflicts, on the one hand, and decisions in the world of finance, on the other. We can thus see: to categorize all aspects of economy with the catchword “strictly objective” is to veritably distort Marxian explanations. The “new reading of Marx,” however, suggests with its interpretation of Capital that the economic world be completely determined by the objective law of value; and to this world strictly free of class struggle, class struggle can be added – or not.

RJ: And what significance do the representatives of this perspective accord to class struggle?

KR: The answer is simple: none. For some aficionados of the “new reading of Marx,” phenomena of class struggle even obtain a problematic inclination: should resistance and class struggle unfold beyond their illuminated heights of knowledge, they threaten to tip into disastrous ressentiment, we are taught. For instance, whoever struggles “merely” for higher wages is not in a position to see through the structures and forms of capitalism.

RJ: Is capitalism, then, a personal or objective form of domination? Or both? Are the practical constraints of capitalism real or only ideological constructs?

KR: Every form of social domination is underpinned by conditions that it cannot arbitrarily manipulate. In this regard, it is banal to point out that objective constraints also exist for ruling classes. That the law of value also applies to them does not change anything about the character of social domination. The compulsion to sell labor-power, the compulsion to need to buy labor products as commodities appears as an objective, practical constraint, but it is owing to class relations and, therefore, can also be changed. Things [Sachen] do not rule, but human beings rule over human beings by means of things [Dinge], preferably by means of commodities, money, ownership and property: Marx therefore says that the relations of domination appear “disguised as social relations between things.”5 In addition, political power is exercised in the terms of the ruling classes. Forms of class rule such as legislation appear to be absent from the conceptual world of the “new reading of Marx.”

The events surrounding Greece are telling evidence that there is no so-called automatic subject prescribing a calculus for action to the ruling classes. The coercive demands of the “Troika” are, for the individual capitalist who must orient himself according to the constraints of the market, neither deducible nor understandable. Further, class rule is linked and interlaced with other forms of domination, and vice-versa. The representatives of the “new reading of Marx” have no perception for these connections.

RJ: How, then, are fetishisms and class relations mediated with one another?

KR: Fetish means to take something for something that it is not. An important form of fetishism is taking payment for labor-power to be payment for labor itself. Because the capital relation represents itself differently than it is, it produces misconceptions and suggests false connections. Thus, these phenomena secure capitalist rule. In the context of the “new reading of Marx,” however, there is a tendency to fetishize the fetish itself. The analysis of the commodity and commodity fetish gets conjured into a comprehensive ontology of societal being; some aspects of commodity analysis are taken for the whole. Since this analysis is primarily based on the first part of the first volume of Capital, in which classes, exploitation and class struggle are not yet discussed, but where Marx rather first investigates the surface of circulation, Gerhard Hanloser and I have coined the term circulation Marxism. The mindset within the new reading of Marx has a strong tendency in this direction.

RJ: Do these interpreters of Marx have any strengths?

KR: To be honest I cannot recognize any. Perhaps one could say to their credit that they formulate a serious interest in Marx and demand confrontation with his work. Given the displacement of Marxian thought from universities, this needs to be positively evaluated. However, the gesture with which the “new reading of Marx” presents itself goes against this turn to engagement with Marx. They tend to distance themselves from an “ML-Marxism” of the 60s, which practically nobody claims today. Building on this cheap polemic, other currents are vilified as workers’ movement Marxism, worldview Marxism, substantialism or simplistic [verkürzte] critique of capitalism. Ingo Elbe, a student of Michael Heinrich, commented on our edited volume saying that it held “denunciations” that “do not coincidentally remind him of the darkest times of the communist movement.” Obviously this is an allusion to the Moscow Trials of 1936-1938. Similarly absurd and upsetting is the constant assertion of the claim that the “new reading of Marx” is indebted to a meticulous philology of Marx, as Michael Heinrich suggests. As we show with numerous examples in our introduction, this is simply not true. Passages that do not fit the concept are simplified, ignored or imputed against Marx as mistakes and relapses into the thought of David Ricardo. I would like to read the following statement of Marx in a text by one of the representatives of the “new reading of Marx”: “Now the wage-labourer, just like the slave, must have a master, to make him work and govern him.”6

RJ: How can the popularity of the Neue Marx-Lektüre be explained?

KR: I see three aspects: first, their approach, advances the claim that there could be a Marx without class struggle or reference to communism. Without social or even revolutionary engagement, he can be read as a scholar. Second, mystifying the conclusions made by the groundbreaking philosopher and economist makes possible association with the academic and neo-Ricardian critique of Marx. And, third, the label Neue Marx-Lektüre, so carefully cultivated by its protagonists, makes the claim of being the most advanced current, which reads Marx according to the times.

– Translated by Kelly Mulvaney


  1. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 168. 

  2. Ibid., 344 

  3. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3, trans. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 300. 

  4. Ibid., 505-506. 

  5. Marx, op. cit. (1976), 170. 

  6. Marx, op. cit. (1981), 510. 

Author of the article

teaches philosophy and published the book Prozesse der Befreiung: Marx, Spinoza und die Bedingungen eines freien Gemeinwesens [Processes of Liberation: Marx, Spinoza and the Conditions of a Free Community] in 2011. This year he edited the volume Karl Marx. Philosoph der Befreiung oder Theoretiker des Kapitals? Zur Kritik der ›neuen Marx-Lektüre‹ [Karl Marx. Philosopher of Liberation or Theorist of Capital? A Critique of the “New Reading of Marx”].