Tag Archives: Marxism


Overdetermination is a concept I recall being introduced to during my undergraduate course on Marxism as part of Louis Althusser‘s “structuralist” approach. It’s not something that I ever really felt I had a grip on. Althusser’s writing feels very much in the French philosophical tradition, and isn’t helped by being read in translation.

My university notes about overdetermination say that Althusser is making the point that there is no simple deterministic relationship between “base and superstructure“. The superstructure both determines and is determined by the economic base, each part shaping and being shaped by the whole. The autonomy of the superstructure is not absolute however, and the economic base is still determinant in the final analysis.

In his monumental work on Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski is dismissive of the concept:

“The upshot is simply that particular cultural phenomena are generally due to a variety of circumstances, including the history of the aspect of life they belong to and the present state of social relations. We are not told what is so ‘scientific’ about this obvious truth, why it is a revolutionary discovery of Marxism, or how it helps us to account for any particular fact, let along predict the future.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1176)

My reaction to Laclau & Mouffe’s analysis in “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy” is similar to Kolakowski’s damning verdict. They analyse overdetermination in the context of their construction of a theory of hegemony, building on the work of Gramsci as well as Althusser.

Laclau & Mouffe deny a determining role for the economy and therefore also class in the structure of society . Instead they theorize society as broken down into a wide range of different interests and actors not determined or even strongly influenced by any economic relationships. In this analysis more important than class is the complex intermeshing of ‘elements’ or ‘moments’ which are ‘articulated’ together each influencing and influenced the others. In other words these elements are ‘overdetermined’. In Laclau & Mouffe’s words there are

“a multiplicity of antagonisms whose effects, converging and overdetermined, are registered within the framework of what we have called the ‘democratic revolution’.”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.152)

This covers what might otherwise be considered various separate struggles operating almost in conflict with traditional working class campaigning such as feminism or anti-racism. Again in Laclau & Mouffe’s words:

“Once the conception of the working class as a ‘universal class’ is rejected, it becomes possible to recognise the plurality of the antagonisms which take place in the field of what is arbitrarily grouped under the label of ‘workers struggles'”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.151)

This “overdetermination of some entities by others, and the relegation of any form of paradigmatic fixity to the ultimate horizon of theory” (Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.91) means that while it is not possible to assume that the working class will on their own create a revolution, it is possible to stitch together progressive blocs as part of unified progressive struggle.

Wading through the complicated language, what I think this means in more practical terms is that society is complex and different groups within it interact in ways which are not solely dictated by economic relationships. Any effective progressive strategy must be aware of this, building alliances, and developing shared goals. It cannot simply wait for the tide of history to deliver a working class revolution. Laclau & Mouffe contrast this with the simplified view of orthodox Marxism.

To the extent though that Marx presented a simplified view of society as divided into just two classes, it is clear that this is an abstraction from a more complicated reality to allow him to develop his theory of the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. When he comes to apply this theory to the analysis of real situations (in for example “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” or “The Civil War in France”) his writing reflects the more complex world.

After reading Laclau & Mouffe I do now feel that I have a better grip on what the concept of ‘overdetermination’ might mean, however as Kolakowski suggested that concept doesn’t seem particularly useful. It appears to indicate what is an obvious truth, that society is complex, but in Laclau & Mouffe it is used to support the removal from left strategy of the struggle by economically exploited classes. It is then unclear what common ground should be used to underpin the hegemony which they believe holds together the coalitions that they suggest as the way forward for progressive politics.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (W W Norton & Company, London, 2008)


Review: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

The main challenge with this book is wading through the opaque philosophical style in which it is written. Laclau & Mouffe do however make some interesting points.

At it’s core the book seems to be a rejection of a mechanical and deterministic versions of Marxism. The emphasis is on the development of the concept of ‘hegemony’, and the first part of the book traces its use through thinkers from Luxemburg to Lenin to Gramsci. Laclau and Mouffe seek to develop the concept further into something which can be used to underpin a modern approach to politics.

The key point is that society is not structured in monolithic economic classes whose existence determines how ‘superstructural’ elements are constructed. On one level this seems sensible. It is common sense that political action is built on coalitions, and that any successful revolution will be the same.

That an economic ‘base’ does not mechanically determine a social ‘superstructure’ is surely obvious and I think Laclau and Mouffe are wrong however not to see this already in Marx. There is a divide between his theoretical work, in which her operates at a high level of abstraction to make the underlying ‘laws of motion’ clear. Conversely in his political work such as “The Civil War in France” and “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Marx uses his theory for more practical analysis. In theory, Marx presents society as containing just two classes to simplify the analysis. In practice he understands that it is more complicated than that.

In fact, developing this theory of hegemony leads the authors to remove the class based element from their analysis almost completely. And that doesn’t seem correct either. They make what seems to me to be a theoretical justification for the ‘third way’ approach and identity politics. What they propose is that people fit into society through a range of different and often conflicting identities which are not determined by economic class, and that this complexity is growing in modern capitalism. The role then of progressive politics – in the absence of an apriori class conflict which has been removed from the analysis – is to stitch together “coalitions of the willing”. In pursuit of what goal, if the liberation of the oppressed class cannot be the goal, it is not clear.

I say ‘seems to’ though because the mode or expression is very challenging indeed. I’m sure this seems reasonable to the authors but it does not help with deciphering what it is the they are trying to say.

In short, this is a book with a lot of value in thinking about what sort of progressive alliances are likely to be necessary if the left is to be successful under modern capitalist conditions. But hamstrung by removing the theoretical underpinning provided by Marx and the analysis of how the ‘laws of motion’ of the economy interact with society to constrain what it is possible to achieve. In the absence of this underpinning it becomes unclear what the goal of progressive politics is, and ends up being a justification for the ‘third way’ approach of Clinton and Blair.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)

Rosa Luxemburg and the Communist Manifesto

After reading Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Accumulation of Capital”, included in Verso’s second volume of her complete works I wrote a post covering her analysis that accumulation could only proceed on the basis of there being sufficient space outside the global capitalist system for it to expand into.

I recently re-read Marx’s and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (thanks to my wife, who gave me the best possible Christmas present for a radical). This was written in 1848, that is before Marx began his economic work. It is interesting therefore that Marx and Engels also point out in the Manifesto the importance of the non-capitalist economies to the growth of capitalism itself.

For example this comment on the importance of the discovery of America on the initially explosive growth of capitalism:

“Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce… This development has, in its turn, reacted back on the extension of industry.”

(Marx and Engels 2010, p. 22)

Marx and Engels seem to have a similar mindset to Luxemburg in her analysis that capitalism needs to grow into the space outside itself in order to expand.

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.”

(Marx and Engels 2010, p. 25)

Along with the points Luxemburg makes about capitalism drawing even those parts of the globe that are not part of the capitalist world into its orbit.

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”

(Marx and Engels 2010, p. 25)

“The bourgeoisie… draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation… It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst… it creates a world after its own image.”

(Marx and Engels 2010, p. 26)

As I wrote in my earlier post I don’t think that this is the end of the story, that their are other important factors both supporting and driving the expansion of capital. But it is interesting to see support for Luxemburg’s analysis in this earlier work of Marx and Engels.

Luxemburg, Rosa The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg Volume II (Verso, London, 2016)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich The Communist Manifesto (Vintage, London, 2010)

Review: The Meaning of Marxism

This is not a terrible book. But it is a limited one. As a basic introduction to a lot of the basic concepts in Marxism it has some merit. D’Amato sweeps across the range of Marxism from the economy to exploitation to the state to the revolutionary party, covering each at a basic introductory level. What then is the problem?

Partly it is that D’Amato’s treatment is quite dogmatic. He discusses Marxism as a fairly monolithic source of truth without acknowledging debate or variation other than to condemn Stalin and Mao as dictatorial and not true Marxists. But Marxism is not a monolithic entity, certainly not anymore. It’s use in the modern world must surely be as an analytical toolkit to prompt debate and the exploration of alternatives to the neoliberal capitalism. This requires the sort of argument that doesn’t form any part of this book. On top of this, D’Amato’s own (undeclared) viewpoint is sectarian Trotskyist, a fairly specific clique within modern socialism.

It doesn’t feel like D’Amato engages with modern uses of Marx’s analysis at all. He doesn’t mention such thinkers as David Harvey or Wolfgang Streeck, both of whom make intelligent use of Marxist thinking to break down modern society and economy. Jodi Dean is mentioned only to attack her as not adhering to the true nature of socialism. Yet these writers (and I’m sure others that D’Amato doesn’t mention) are all critically engaged with Marx and Marxist thought.

In fact this book feels like a simple restatement of a revealed truth. D’Amato quotes Marx and Trotsky extensively, and often follows this up with an assertion that whatever point is being made remains relevant to the modern world, without attempting to actually apply the analysis to the changed world. And it is important to remember that the capitalist world has changed since Marx was alive and we cannot simply treat his work as truth. It is telling that D’Amato quotes the Communist Manifesto extensively, written before Marx began his economic work and while it has value doesn’t reflect the depth of his later work.

It does not feel like D’Amato is trying to reconstruct a modern left progressive movement that can take on the world of capitalism. He is simply reasserting the world view of Trotsky in the 1930’s and D’Amato’s belief that it remains relevant to today.

Finally the bibliography is limited and strongly slanted towards Trotsky and with very few recommendations of modern writers. While it does reference Capital, it doesn’t really provide a guide to getting further into Marx’s analysis (for example D’Amato doesn’t reference key works by Harvey, Michael Heinrich, or Ben Fine that can help ease the difficulty of getting to grips with Marx’s economics).

In short this is a limited book. It does have value, it is written in clear language and covers a wide range of subjects. It is by no means a definitive introduction to the basics of Marxism.

D’Amato, Paul The Meaning of Marxism (Haymarket, Chicago, 2014).

Rosa Luxemburg and Marx’s Reproduction Schema

One of Rosa Luxemburg‘s most important works is The Accumulation of Capital, written in 1913 and included in translation in the second volume of her complete works published by Verso.

Here Luxemburg unpicks in detail the reproduction schemas described by Marx in Volume 2 of Capital. Marx defines two different basic formulae. Under simple reproduction, the economy remains the same size from year to year, with just sufficient productive activity taking place to replace what is consumed. Of course this exists only in theory. Capitalism is driven by the need to continuously expand, so simple reproduction serves only to demonstrate the basic approach to the problem.

This method abstracts the economy into two basic sections. One part which produces just means of production, commodities supporting the production process. A second part which produces means of consumption, commodities which will be consumed by society. The two sections clearly need to work in close lock step. Sufficient means of production must be created to support continuing production. Sufficient means of consumption must be produced to support the population. Marx goes into mathematical detail (which I won’t duplicate here) to demonstrate how this interaction must work for the economy to function.

In reality though, capitalism is driven by expanded reproduction, or ‘accumulation’. Here a portion of surplus value is used to increase the output of the economy year on year. Marx again shows how this might work mathematically, but somehow it is never quite convincing.

This brings us to the key criticism made by Luxemburg. For the economy to expand in this way then there must be demand for the increased output of both means of production and consumption goods. Marx’s expanded reproduction schema shows production increasing. But where does the increased demand come from? An economy operating at a particular capacity simply ought not to generate the demand (backed by the ability to pay) over and above that needed for simple reproduction. Marx demonstrates mathematically how the growth of an economy should progress, but not the process by which this expansion can actually happen.

What is more the expanded reproduction schema ignores the tension between the drive to produce more and more surplus value (and therefore commodities to be consumed for their value to be realised by the individual capitalist) and capitalism’s need to curtail the capacity for consumption of the majority of the population. The schema as described by Marx implies that accumulation can continue smoothly and indefinitely in mathematical progression. This does not match the lived experience of capitalism with it’s booms and busts. The absence of a smooth growth trajectory is a fundamental part of the system. In other words there must be a flaw in Marx’s analysis.

Marx assumes throughout that the economy in question is a fully self contained capitalist one with only two classes – capitalists and workers – and this is where Luxemburg identifies the critical point. Capital has since the beginning existed in a world which includes significant elements operating in non-capitalist ways, whether it is left over peasants and handicraft workers in the same country or colonies and developing countries overseas. Throughout it’s history capitalism has not been the closed system that Marx assumes in the reproduction schema.

Luxemburg gives two reasons why this is important. First the existence of a market outside capitalism itself creates the safety valve that is missing in the schema. This is where the demand comes from that allows the system to move beyond simple reproduction, allowing surplus value to be turned into capital and reinvested in expanding production.

“the surplus value that is to be capitalized and the corresponding part of the capitalist mass of products cannot possibly be realized within the capitalist sphere, and must therefore at all costs find purchasers outside this sphere, in social strata and formations not engaged in capitalist production.”

(Luxemburg 2016 p. 259)

The progressive growth in production also implies a growth in the workforce and allowing the world outside capitalism to be included in the theory makes clear where these additional workers come from – that is the ranks of peasants and others who are progressively brought into the world of waged work.

“It must be able to draw on other social reservoirs of labor-power not previously under the command of capital, which are added to the wage proletariat as required.”

(Luxemburg 2016 p. 260)

This is an aggressive and destructive process. Marx discusses “primitive accumulation” as something that kick starts the beginning of capitalism. Luxemburg asserts that in fact this continues all around us. In her time it was the growth of colonies and imperialism. In ours we might see it in the extension of commodity exchange to areas of life not previously touched by capitalism such as childcare.

“the accumulation of capital as a historical process, in all its relations, is contingent upon noncapitalist social strata and forms.”

(Luxemburg 2016 p. 263)

Luxemburg explicitly states then that when capital is no longer able to expand outwards into the non-capitalist world, when the whole globe is fully incorporated into capitalism, that the system will no longer be tenable and must collapse.

“Yet the more violently, forcefully, and thoroughly imperialism brings about the decline of noncapitalist civilisations, the more rapidly in removes the very basis for hte accumulation of capital. As much as imperialism is a historical method to prolong the existence of capital, objectively it is at the same time the surest way to bring this existence to the swiftest conclusion.”

(Luxemburg 2016, p.325)

Although there is much that is valuable in Luxemburg’s thinking, I think there are two basic problems.

First that the century of capitalism since Luxemburg wrote this has shown it’s ability to find new spaces for exploitation. To the extent that her analysis is correct, it does not imply the approach of the ultimate crisis of capitalism that she is seeking to demonstrate. It simply confirms the system’s dynamic nature, its ability to find new outlets and opportunities for primitive accumulation. Nothing from the last hundred years suggests there is any inherent limit to this.

Second and more significantly I think that Luxemburg misses Marx’s point. David Harvey points out that the expanded reproduction schema is constructed in such precise terms that it is hard to believe that Marx is not trying to point out that securing such a smooth path to accumulation is highly unlikely. Marx’s schema demonstrates the expanded reproduction is mathematically possible. But think about all the different processes that have to align in order for this to work: wages we must be suppressed to maintain profits, but sufficient to support realisation; the relation between producing means of production and means of consumption which must be just right to avoid overproduction as a result of disproportionality.

Obviously the schemas are totally unrealistic, and Marx has cooked the figures to fit his case. But are the schemas so unrealistic as to reveal nothing about the nature of the stresses, strains and contradictions, as well as the dynamic capacities, of a capitalist mode of production? If not, what are the schemas intended for?

(Harvey 2013, p. 368)

In other words the schema is an analytical tool rather than a statement of categorical truth. Something which allows us to examine what mechanisms the system must possess for it to function, how they must mesh together, and more importantly where they might jar and clash. Luxemburg is therefore undoubtedly right to point out how difficult it is for expanding capital to realise itself in the market, and no doubt aggressively exploiting the remaining non-capitalist segments is part of how capitalism solves this. But so is debt, speculation, and the loss of value or destruction of individual capitals which guessed the market wrong. The system is fundamentally not stable. Marx’s toolbox can help us to understand where and how that instability appears and its impact.

Luxemburg, Rosa The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg Volume II: Economic Writings 2 (Verso, London, 2016)

Marx, Karl Capital A Critique of Political Economy Volume 2 (Penguin, London, 1992)

Harvey, David A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 2 (Verso, London, 2013)

Lukacs, Dialectics, & Monbiot

I’ve been reading Tactics and Ethics by Georg Lukacs (see my review elsewhere), and among a number of interesting short essays are reviews of the collected letters of both Ferdinand Lassalle and Moses Hess. Lukacs’ criticism of the theoretical positions of both these thinkers, in particular Hess, gives him a platform to discuss Hegel’s dialectics and their influence on the thought of Marx.

Lukacs’ fundamental point is that a dialectical approach to history is one that emphasises progress and change. Modern society is founded on what has come before, and has a trajectory towards what it is going to be. The current structure of society is just one moment in its progress from what was and into what will be. While Hegel may have been misguided in basing this progress on the development of the ‘world spirit’, his basic approach was correct in seeing society as a progress from the past to the future with the present as simply one point along the path.

It is this connection of the  current structure of society both to it’s past as the ground on which it stands and to it’s future as the point towards which it is developing which marks Hegel’s profound contribution. A similar point is made about Marx’s approach by Bertell Ollman’s Dance of the Dialectic in particular in the segment on studying history ‘backwards’ (Ollman, 2003). It is something which when written down seems so obvious that it needs no emphasis.

And yet it is this point which Lukacs describes Hess as missing, with his emphasis instead on moral judgement, on the ‘malevolence of a handful of privileged individuals’ (Lukacs, 2014 p.223) and the way things ‘ought’ to be. Hess separates theory from practice by describing a theory of what needs to change that is separated from society as it exists now.

This is a debate that continues to this day. A recent article by George Monbiot based on his latest book talks about building a vision of a future society around how humans ‘ought’ to be based on an assumed natural state if only society could see past capitalism. Monbiot misses entirely that any future society must stand securely on the foundations of where we are now rather than on a ‘return’ to some pure human nature before capitalism. Progress will only be made when it is based on changing society as it is.

Lukacs underlines the importance of a dialectical approach, one that joins theorising about how the world is to how it must be changed. One of Marx’s most important statements is and remains the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

Lukacs, Georg Tactics and Ethics (Verso, London, 2014)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Dance of the Dialectic notes #4

A fourth and final set of rough notes taken while reading “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman, following the first, second, and third chunks.

Step 5

Critical Realism in Light of Marx’s Process of Abstraction

Broadly a restatement of earlier parts of Ollman’s book, particularly the use of abstraction and a philosophy of internal relations, as it might be used to alter and enhance the work of “Critical Realism”, primarily the work of Roy Bhaskar.

Marx’s Dialectical Method is More Than a Mode of Exposition

This section takes issue with an analysis which considers dialectics to be solely Marx’s means of exposition, of expressing his analysis. Rather that dialectics used by Marx in a complex intellectual process – first using the process to analyse and gain insight, then  reconstruct that analysis in his own thought. Only then can Marx uses what is in fact a carefully calibrated subset to attempt to explain his analysis to others.

In fact, Marx’s internal analysis is more complex and nuanced than shown in his published works which were carefully written for a more general audience. Therefore the key works to understand what he “really thought” are the Paris Manuscripts and Grundisse.

Why Does the Emperor Need the Yakuza?

In the final chapter, Ollman uses some of this mechanism of analysis to assess the Japanese state as a practical demonstration.