Review: Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism

Simon Birnbaum

Summary: The following review of Peter Hudis’s book Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013) appeared in the German leftist periodical Sopos, here in December 2015. Many thanks to Manuela Kölke for the English translation — Editors

Critiques of capitalism are often countered with the statement: but how is its alternative supposed to be better? To the various concerns that are put out there (as for example about abolishing private property), various answers are given. They begin with a “Bilderverbot” [prohibition of using images] to envision an alternative and often end with sophisticated programs that not seldom resemble “actually existing socialist” regimes.

Peter Hudis’s response in his interpretation of Marx’s “concept” of the alternative to capitalism is not entirely new. However, he manages to enrich the old Marxist discussion on the meaning and form of ideas about alternatives to capitalism with an outstanding contribution that contains a comprehensive analysis of Marx.

The starting point of this work is not a given for all critics of capitalism. Rather, for Hudis, working on a concept of an alternative is not only possible but also necessary. Normative judgments are an inevitable element of language itself. Moreover, Marx not only had a specific vision of the future, but his entire critique of capitalism is committed to it. Not least, Marx makes clear in the chapter on the fetishism of commodities in Das Kapital–written under the impact of the defeated Paris Commune–that the veil of commodity fetishism can only be lifted by critiquing it from the standpoint of the transcendence of capitalism.

As a further justification of this view, in his search for an alternative Hudis rejects voluntaristic experiments and turns explicitly against the post-operaism of Antonio Negri, who wants to leave the alternative solely to the spontaneity of the proletariat or the multitude. On the other hand, Hudis equally refuses the idea of a detailed program for the future in reference to Marx’s orientation toward freedom. Furthermore, he specifically opposes vanguardist concepts, since he distinguishes between necessarily spontaneous emerging class-consciousness and a revolutionary construction of theory [that ignores it]. Hudis does not deal with Theodor Adorno’s “Bilderverbot” in particular, but it is obvious that he doesn’t follow the strict version of the idea that our thinking is capitalistically formed to such an extent that any reflection on alternatives necessarily leads to a reproduction of existing conditions. This is because he assumes there is emancipatory potential in what exists from which an alternative can, in theory and practice, be developed.

The existing form from which a search for an alternative is supposed to emanate is for Hudis primarily Marx’s critique of value production. He understands the production of value as a specific expression of social relations, which materializes and reproduces themselves through the process of capital and the crucial transformation of concrete labor into abstract labor as measured in socially necessary labor time. Marx’s central concern in his analysis of capitalism is not the source of value but rather why social relations take on the form of value. Answering this question of why labor assumes this form becomes a key term of relevance for Hudis, through which the first contours of the alternative become present: the abolition of the domination of things over humans and of abstract labor over concrete labor. This however entails the establishment of directly social and free labor that is not associated with production for the sake of augmenting value. For Hudis, what is important is the substitution of the abstract and non-transparent nature of capitalist labor, based on the dominance of value and socially necessary labor time, with an alternative society of transparent social relations that satisfies individual needs. This radical transformation of labor thus also serves individual self-realization.

Here the mentioned normative considerations become apparent. Hudis speaks of Marx’s libertarian ideals, his anti-hegemonic pursuit of individual self-realization in free association as the “realm of freedom,” in which what prevails is the principle, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” In this regard, Hudis recognizes a strong continuity in Marx’s early and later work. Raya Dunayevskaya’s interpretation of Hegel’s concept of “absolute negativity” serves Hudis as an expression of the condition of the possibility for the act of social liberation. Despite an overpowering capitalist totality, she emphatically advocates for proletarian subjectivity–not as something external to capital, but rather as emerging from the contradictory capitalist totality in the dialectic between domination and resistance, object and subject, capital and workers. Thus, in her analysis what is essential is the distinction between labor power as the flesh of the worker and the flesh of capital.

This specific normativity and the idea of its continuity in Marx’s work, as well as the dialectic of liberation, are central elements of so-called Marxist-Humanism, to which Hudis is committed not only in this book, but throughout his engagement in Marxist-Humanist groups over the last several decades. He worked closely, until her death, with Dunayevskaya [who founded Marxist-Humanism in the U.S]. Marxist humanism, which Herbert Marcuse is often considered as having been affiliated with, is well known in the U.S. leftist political scene, as opposed to Europe.

Given the above, it becomes obvious that for Hudis any “actually existing socialism” is no alternative to capitalism at all. This is especially because Hudis does not consider the realization of value in the market and competition as the essential element of capitalism. In doing so he is thus an adherent to the thesis that [Soviet-type] societies were state-capitalist. He also does not leave Marx’s critique of “actually existing socialisms” unmentioned, which ironically refers to an anarchist named Proudhon: In the Grundrisse, Marx prophesied that Proudhon’s proposal that not the market but people’s banks define the average amount of time needed to produce a commodity would lead to bureaucracy and tyranny. Moreover, Hudis employs Marx’s Civil War in France to argue for a “revolution against the state” and for a critique of the state that is incompatible with “actually existing socialism.”

In fact, Hudis uses the terms socialism and communism interchangeably, which according to his reading is in conformity with Marx. However, he still assumes two phases of the emancipatory overcoming of capitalism. Hudis focuses more in detail on the first phase in his discussion of Marx’s guidelines in the Critique of the Gotha Program rather than on the second phase. This holds especially for the thesis that the first phase continues to require an exchange of equivalents–as opposed to the second. However, in contrast to many proponents of (actual) socialism, Hudis doesn’t consider this to be a continuation of value-production. He interprets Marx as suggesting that in the first phase of communism, a social average of labor time no longer serves as the measure of social relations. Instead, workers would be paid the equivalent of their individually spent actual hours of labor, with a possible factoring-in of the energy consumed in doing so. For this reason the social measure is not abstract and non-transparent, as it is in societies based on value production. The necessity of law that comes with holding to the principle of equivalence is warranted for Hudis through Marx’s use of the term “revolutionary dictatorship”–although he emphasizes that in Marx this has a very particular meaning: The proletariat is to take production and distribution into its own hands, not for the sake of creating another variety of statism, but to create genuine democracy based on self-organized cooperatives.

In effect, Hudis recognizes that with Marx’s Capital there is emancipatory potential in the capitalist forms of cooperatives, despite all the contradictions within them that Marx had identified. Moreover, the focus on those potentials helps to emphatically uphold an emphasis on resistance and proletarian subjectivity.

Hudis’ exegetic attention in handling a “great thinker” could be considered as working against a focus on certain political issues and their intelligible communication. However, the book is in no way a lengthy treatise from a Marxological ivory tower. Hudis manages, despite his exegesis, to introduce many political positions due to a continuous contestation of post-Marx Marxism. Moreover, he applies a typical Anglo-Saxon, non-academic and unobtrusive explication in a very readable style. His work is captivating with its comprehensible but stringent and consistent argumentation. It thus adds up to an excellent collection, systematization and critique of Marx’s statements on the alternative to capitalism.

Some proposals might nevertheless be worthy of mentioning. Recapitulating Hudis’s or Marx’s concept of the alternative in a nutshell, the second phase of socialism or communism seems to be much closer to a Bilderverbot than a detailed program. Toward the end of his book, however, Hudis calls for a further theoretical development of alternatives. Therefore it would have been useful to further discuss the concept of capitalist totality in line with a critique of forms of thought, ideology, as well as of Marxist-Humanism. This would make more apparent the conditions for the possibility of revolution and the alternative to capitalism–the dialectics of liberation. However, at the same time this could become the gateway for a presentation of Marxist-Humanism that goes beyond anthropologism and moralism, which is only implicitly found in the text. At the same time, it would be useful to engage in a debate with Adorno’s concept of the non-identical, those non-subsumable moments which cannot be fixed within a capitalist totality.

Another aspect worth amplifying is Hudis’ emphasis on normativity. It could be assumed that every critique that doesn’t intend to remain limited to immanence requires explicitly articulating goals, which Marx proposed in many of his early works. Clearly, the idea of a Marxist “scientific socialism,” insofar as it only aims to understand and not judge, is not really convincing anymore, particularly given the various critiques of positivism. However, given Hudis’s rejection of vanguardist concepts the relation between normativity, visions of the future, and revolutionary (class) consciousness remains unclear. Inspiration seems to be a key term for him, which is more apparent than it is described. Another further development would probably be a discussion of the revolutionary theories of the Council Communists and the Situationists.

Hudis’s work sheds light and eliminates misunderstandings of the interpretation of Marx’s discussion of the first phase of socialism/communism. His presupposition, following Marx, that an exchange of equivalents measured in individual working-time is in stark contrast to one that measures working-time on the basis of an abstract social average is particularly plausible. However, one remains wondering if Marx’s aforementioned critique of Proudhon also holds in regards to adherence to this equivalence principle, even though in a somewhat alleviated form. This refers to the leftist communist critique of the idea of “socialist commodity exchange” in general and its concerns over claims about the inevitability and permanence of the state.

A large part of Hudis’ work leaves one with the desire for immersing ourselves more into the history of past struggles and attempts to work out alternatives–and also their failures. But it is obvious that an extension of Hudis’ statements on this history would have gone beyond the scope of this work. Eventually his theoretical theses will have to be proven by history.


Translated by Manuela Kölke

Simon Birnbaum lives and works as lawyer in Berlin.


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