“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”].