Deprovincializing Marx: On Harry Harootunian’s Reading of Marx

Sophie Taeu­ber-Arp, Cer­cles et bar­res (1934)

Return­ing to Marx today means deprovin­cial­iz­ing Marx. For far too long, West­ern Marx­ism has remained trapped in a his­tori­cist vision cen­tered on the idea of ​​uni­ver­sal his­to­ry and a uni­lin­ear, homo­ge­neous, and emp­ty his­tor­i­cal time. Accord­ing to this con­cep­tion, cap­i­tal­ist moder­ni­ty is con­sid­ered the last phase of a series of his­tor­i­cal stages, first tra­vers­ing West­ern Europe and then imposed on the rest of the world. In this con­cep­tion of his­to­ry, time is spa­tial­ized in such a way that the qual­i­ta­tive dif­fer­ences between his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ries can be traced to quan­ti­ta­tive dif­fer­ences, and there­fore to delays with respect to the tip of the his­tor­i­cal-time vec­tor rep­re­sent­ed by West­ern-Euro­pean cap­i­tal­ism. Non-Euro­pean coun­tries may thus be defined as back­ward, pre-cap­i­tal­ist, and pre-mod­ern; for them there is noth­ing left to do but to accel­er­ate the race towards cap­i­tal­ism and recov­er the his­tor­i­cal stages lost along the course of uni­ver­sal his­to­ry in as short a time as pos­si­ble. Accord­ing to this phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry, the more West­ern cap­i­tal­ism beats the rhythm of devel­op­ment, the more entire regions of the world are brand­ed as back­ward and a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of modes of pro­duc­tion may be regard­ed as resid­ual.

As Wal­ter Ben­jamin point­ed out in his “The­ses on the Phi­los­o­phy of His­to­ry,” this is a con­cep­tion of his­to­ry shared by both social democ­ra­cy and West­ern colo­nial­ism. For both, there is a sin­gle his­tor­i­cal path that leads to the devel­op­ment of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion or, in the Marx­ist vari­ant, to social­ism – but only after hav­ing passed through the cap­i­tal­ist stage.

The work of Har­ry Harootun­ian, specif­i­cal­ly his dis­cus­sion of Marx, has the aim of think­ing about cap­i­tal­ism his­tor­i­cal­ly. This is pos­si­ble only by aban­don­ing the Euro­cen­tric phi­los­o­phy of uni­ver­sal his­to­ry and pay­ing atten­tion to how cap­i­tal­ism is con­fig­ured when it encoun­ters dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal times. Harootun­ian announces this task in the sub­ti­tle of his book: Marx After Marx: His­to­ry and Time in the Expan­sion of Cap­i­tal­ism. It may be use­ful to start from the sub­ti­tle because from here we under­stand that what is at stake are the con­cepts of his­to­ry and time in the process of cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion, mean­ing in the ongo­ing process of orig­i­nary, prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion.

One of the main mer­its of Harootunian’s reflec­tion on Marx is that it empha­sizes the con­cept of for­mal sub­sump­tion, a con­cept only appar­ent­ly abstract and often defined by Marx­ist lit­er­a­ture in terms of his­tor­i­cal stages of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. Harootun­ian, instead, looks at for­mal sub­sump­tion as a form, not just by going back through the works of Marx, but from a world per­spec­tive which includes Lenin and Rosa Lux­em­burg, Gram­sci and Mar­iátegui, Uno Kōzō and oth­er piv­otal the­o­rists who were not just the­o­rists, but polit­i­cal mil­i­tants as well. This clar­i­fi­ca­tion must be made because Harootunian’s book is not just a refined his­tor­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal fres­co, but also a text that has a pre­cise polit­i­cal grip on the present. 

Redefin­ing the con­cept of for­mal sub­sump­tion as form has very sig­nif­i­cant impli­ca­tions. Start­ing with Marx, we know that the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion does not cre­ate its own con­di­tions of exis­tence and repro­duc­tion ex nihi­lo, but meets pre-exist­ing rela­tion­ships of pro­duc­tion, prop­er­ty and pol­i­tics, which are re-con­fig­ured dif­fer­ent­ly. Indeed, accord­ing to Marx, cap­i­tal­ism encoun­ters pre-exist­ing forms of pro­duc­tion and it “encoun­ters them as antecedents, but not as antecedents estab­lished by itself, not as forms of its own life process.”1 This encounter of dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral tra­jec­to­ries gives rise to a “het­ero­ge­neous mix rather than the destruc­tion of one made by anoth­er.”2 This is the lens through which Harootun­ian looks back on Marx after Marx. Cap­i­tal sub­sumes and recon­fig­ures pre-exist­ing forms of pro­duc­tion in a new frame­work, and the result is a “het­ero­ge­neous mix” of tem­po­ral­i­ties and forms of life and pro­duc­tion. From this per­spec­tive, sub­sump­tion as form does not belong to a spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal stage but, more gen­er­al­ly, it char­ac­ter­izes the strug­gle between the tem­po­ral­i­ty of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties. In oth­er words, for­mal sub­sump­tion does not con­sti­tute a his­tor­i­cal stage that pre­cedes real sub­sump­tion, but it denotes how the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion finds and sub­sumes exist­ing forms with­out cre­at­ing a homo­ge­neous world. Indeed, the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion requires and uti­lizes hier­ar­chies and dif­fer­ences, which it con­fig­ures in terms of tem­po­ral­i­ties. The expan­sion of cap­i­tal and its con­stant attempt to sub­sume dif­fer­ent forms of pro­duc­tion into the glob­al mar­ket gen­er­ates a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of tem­po­ral fric­tions, asyn­chronies and anachro­nisms that, on the one hand, cap­i­tal uses to its own advan­tage, and, on the oth­er hand, give rise to a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of con­flict­ing ele­ments and pos­si­bil­i­ties for the re-ori­en­ta­tion of the tra­jec­to­ries of moder­ni­ty.

Piv­ot­ing on the con­cept of sub­sump­tion as form, Harootun­ian not only urges us to aban­don the stage-the­o­ry of modes of pro­duc­tion, but also to recon­sid­er the con­cepts of time and his­to­ry that lie at its foun­da­tion. It is appro­pri­ate to draw atten­tion to the impli­ca­tions of this his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal approach.

In gen­er­al terms, it aban­dons the (Euro­cen­tric) idea of a nec­es­sary his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry that, through the nec­es­sary stage of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal, runs from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism and, final­ly, to … social­ism. Ques­tion­ing this uni­lin­ear vision of his­tor­i­cal time means think­ing about how var­i­ous modes of pro­duc­tion can be com­bined, but with­out any asser­tions – typ­i­cal of the phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry – about the sup­posed resid­ual nature or back­ward­ness of non-cap­i­tal­ist forms of pro­duc­tion.

Harootun­ian inves­ti­gates the com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent modes of pro­duc­tion start­ing from con­crete his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tions: Italy through the lens of Gram­sci, Latin Amer­i­ca with Mar­iàtegui, and Japan with Uno Kōzō. The lat­ter observed that the fail­ure of cap­i­tal­ism to devel­op from the dis­so­lu­tion of feu­dal­ism meant that Japan did not have to go through the cat­a­stroph­ic phase of so-called prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion the way it had tak­en place in Eng­land 300 years ear­li­er. In oth­er words, the com­bi­na­tion of mul­ti­ple forms and ways of pro­duc­ing allowed – and still allows – for diver­gent tra­jec­to­ries com­pared to that tak­en by Eng­land.

Mak­ing his­to­ry in a glob­al age requires a dif­fer­ent his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal par­a­digm. It is from this stand­point that one can reread Marx. If until the 1860s Marx was inclined to think about the tra­jec­to­ry of each coun­try in terms of uni­ver­sal his­to­ry, and there­fore to see the tran­si­tion to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion as a nec­es­sary stage in the progress towards social­ism, in his dia­logue with the Russ­ian Pop­ulists he began to recon­sid­er his own posi­tions. His reply to a let­ter from Vera Zasulich is famous. In 1881 she wrote to Marx:

Nowa­days, we often hear it said that the rur­al com­mune is an archa­ic form con­demned to per­ish by his­to­ry, sci­en­tif­ic social­ism and, in short, every­thing above debate. Those who preach such a view call them­selves your dis­ci­ples par excel­lence: “Marxists”…So you will under­stand, Cit­i­zen, how inter­est­ed we are in Your opin­ion. You would be doing us a very great favor if you were to set forth your ideas on the pos­si­ble fate of our rur­al com­mune, and on the the­o­ry that it is his­tor­i­cal­ly nec­es­sary for every coun­try in the world to pass through all the phas­es of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion.3

Marx hes­i­tat­ed before answer­ing. We have four dif­fer­ent drafts of his reply, demon­strat­ing how cru­cial this issue was to Marx him­self. In his final let­ter to Zasulich, Marx wrote that the analy­sis of Cap­i­tal “pro­vides no rea­sons either for or against the vital­i­ty of the Russ­ian com­mune. But the spe­cial study I have made of it […] has con­vinced me that the com­mune is the ful­crum for social regen­er­a­tion in Rus­sia.”4 In the first draft of the let­ter, Marx wrote that Rus­sia is not con­strained to pass through the “the fatal dis­so­lu­tion of the Russ­ian peas­ants’ com­mune,”5 which could instead become “an ele­ment of col­lec­tive pro­duc­tion on a nation­wide scale.”6 With this, Marx showed him­self to be much clos­er to the Russ­ian pop­ulists than to the Marx­ists. Vera Zasulich copied out the let­ter and sent it to the “father of Russ­ian Marx­ism” Plekhanov, who decid­ed not only to ignore it but to hide it and deny its exis­tence when David Ryazanov, the cura­tor of the Marx-Engels Archiv, in 1911 found the draft of Marx’s response and asked both Plekhanov and Zasulich for clar­i­fi­ca­tions. Both denied hav­ing seen the let­ter.

A his­tori­cist Marx­ism was tak­ing shape in the name of MAЯX. This is the spelling, evok­ing the let­ter “Я” of the Cyril­lic alpha­bet, in the title of Harootunian’s book: Marx After MAЯX. A func­tion­al Marx for Russ­ian Marx­ism in the con­tro­ver­sy with the pop­ulists. Some­times even a Marx against Marx. Hence the impor­tance of Harootunian’s work, and the impor­tance of start­ing from Marx after MAЯX.

For us today, it is not about tak­ing a posi­tion in favor of the pop­ulists or the Marx­ists. It is about re-read­ing that debate and that polit­i­cal con­fronta­tion in light of today’s prob­lems, of the expan­sion of cap­i­tal­ism and the simul­ta­ne­ous encounter/collision with pre-exist­ing eco­nom­ic forms. Harootun­ian observes that in the con­tro­ver­sy with the pop­ulists, Lenin “was less con­cerned with the his­tor­i­cal­ly tem­po­ral con­se­quences of these com­bi­na­tions of pre- and pro­to-cap­i­tal­ist pro­ce­dures and cap­i­tal­ism than in demon­strat­ing how the com­bi­na­tion worked to facil­i­tate the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism in the coun­try­side.”7 Fol­low­ing Plekhanov, Lenin was con­vinced of the inevitable progress of cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia and his “faith in capitalism’s even­tu­al vic­to­ry was actu­al­ly found­ed on the deep­er con­vic­tion in the nec­es­sary tri­umph of social­ism.”8 This belief was based on the uni­lin­ear con­cep­tion of his­to­ry, accord­ing to which the col­li­sion between dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral lay­ers did not lead to any alter­na­tive road oth­er than that of cap­i­tal­ist avenue.

In his cri­tique of the pop­ulists, Lenin made fun of the pop­ulist idea of “dif­fer­ent paths for the father­land.”9 He main­tained that “the path has already been cho­sen” and it was the cap­i­tal­ist path already trod by Eng­land. It was only a mat­ter of devel­op­ing large-scale cap­i­tal­ism and its antag­o­nisms, where­as “to dream of dif­fer­ent paths means to be a naive roman­ti­cist.”10 A few years lat­er, in The Devel­op­ment of Cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia (1899), mak­ing a very selec­tive use of sta­tis­tics, read and inter­pret­ed in the light of an inevitable his­tor­i­cal trend, Lenin wrote that cap­i­tal­ism had already cre­at­ed “large-scale agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion” in Rus­sia and praised the pro­gres­sive “destruc­tive work” of agri­cul­tur­al cap­i­tal­ism, which was destroy­ing all the “obso­lete insti­tu­tions” that pro­voked a “tremen­dous delay in social devel­op­ment as a whole.”11 The ques­tion that aris­es is how to read the co-pres­ence of dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties.

For his­tori­cist Marx­ism, trained at the school of MAЯX, the Russ­ian com­mune, like any oth­er “archa­ic” form of pro­duc­tion, con­sti­tutes a “tremen­dous delay in social devel­op­ment,” an obsta­cle to brush away. For this con­cep­tion, his­tor­i­cal time runs along the pre­de­ter­mined tracks of uni­ver­sal his­to­ry. It is as if we were wait­ing in a sub­way sta­tion, and upon hear­ing the announce­ment of a delay in our train, we imag­ine how many sta­tions away our train is.

But lat­ter-day Marx, the Marx to reread after MAЯX, had real­ized that per­haps the train is not late, but in meet­ing with the “archa­ic,” it can be rerout­ed in anoth­er direc­tion. For this rea­son, Marx not­ed, “we should not, then, be too fright­ened by the word ‘archa­ic’.”12 In order to elu­ci­date the simul­ta­ne­ous pres­ence of sev­er­al lay­ers of time, Marx recurred to a geo­log­i­cal metaphor, accord­ing to which a series of lay­ers from var­i­ous ages are super­im­posed on each oth­er. This pro­gres­sion, wrote Harootun­ian, appears “more ver­ti­cal than hor­i­zon­tal­ly lin­ear and resem­bled more the fig­ure of a palimpsest.”13 The encounter of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion with pre-exist­ing forms gives rise to a “het­ero­ge­neous mix” of forms of pro­duc­tion, which are recon­fig­ured and sub­sumed in a new frame­work, but they also pro­voke fric­tions among dif­fer­ent lay­ers. From these fric­tions, dif­fer­ent out­comes can arise. “For archaism,” writes Harootun­ian, “when self-con­scious­ly yoked to cap­i­tal­ism, as in Ger­many, Italy, and Japan dur­ing the 1930s, played a role rever­sal to become the ‘fright­ful’ foun­da­tion for fas­cist cul­tur­al ide­ol­o­gy, as both Ernst Bloch and Tosa­ka Jun observed.”14 Harootunian’s work leaves open this field of inves­ti­ga­tion and polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion: he shows how cap­i­tal incor­po­rates pre-exist­ing forms of life and prac­tices, and he leaves open the field for inquir­ing about the forms of con­flict that the fric­tion between tem­po­ral­i­ties can gen­er­ate.

The col­li­sion between dif­fer­ing tem­po­ral­i­ties is not solved by tak­ing a stand for the ten­den­cy of the dom­i­nant tem­po­ral­i­ty of cap­i­tal­ist expan­sion or for the roman­tic-archa­ic one. The lat­ter per­spec­tive is often empha­sized by fas­cist regimes. The issue lies in the ten­sion between tem­po­ral­i­ties, where anachro­nisms can dis­turb the homo­ge­neous lin­ear time of cap­i­tal­ism and the nation-state, and can ori­ent the tra­jec­to­ry of polit­i­cal moder­ni­ty in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion. To come back to the train metaphor, these anachro­nisms con­sti­tute pos­si­bil­i­ties for derail­ing the train in anoth­er direc­tion. How­ev­er, this pos­si­bil­i­ty is always the mat­ter of a polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion, nev­er a guar­an­tee.


  1. Karl Marx, The­o­ries of Sur­plus Val­ue (Amherst, NY.: Prometheus, 2000), 468. 

  2. Har­ry Harootun­ian, Marx After Marx: His­to­ry and Time in the Expan­sion of Cap­i­tal­ism (New York: Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015), 206. 

  3. Vera Zasulich to Karl Marx, Feb­ru­ary 16, 1881. in Teodor Shanin (ed.), Late Marx­ism and the Russ­ian Road: Marx and the Periph­eries of Cap­i­tal­ism (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 1983), 98-99. 

  4. Marx, in Shanin, Late Marx­ism, 124. 

  5. Ibid., 121. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Harootun­ian, Marx After Marx, 88. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. V.I. Lenin, “What the ‘Friends of the Peo­ple’ Are and How They Fight the Social-Democ­rats” (1894), Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Pub­lish­ers, 1977), 330-1. 

  10. Lenin, “The Eco­nom­ic Con­tent of Nar­o­dism and the Crit­i­cism of it in Mr. Struve’s Book” (1895), Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 1, 361-79. 

  11. Lenin, The Devel­op­ment of Cap­i­tal­ism in Rus­sia (1899), in Col­lect­ed Works, Vol. 3, 314-25. 

  12. Marx, in Shanin, Late Marx­ism, 107. 

  13. Harootun­ian, Marx After Marx, 54. 

  14. Ibid., 55. 

Author of the article

is currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, and in the fall will be a faculty member in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz. He has taught Political Theory at the University of Padova (Italy). His research interests include Marxism, critical theory (especially the first generation of the Frankfurt School), and modern and contemporary political thought. His books include Krise und Kritik bei Bruno Bauer. Kategorien des Politischen im nachhegelschen Denken (2005); La vera politica. Kant e Benjamin: la possibilità della giustizia (2006); Marx’s Temporalities (2013); and Attraverso la piccolo porta. Quattro studi su Walter Benjamin (2017). Presently, he is working on a book titled Insurgent Universality.