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.