Capitalist History, Capitalist Structure: On Integrating Historical Material and Theoretical Structure (Part Two) — Bo Harvey

[This is the second of two posts by Bo Harvey. See the first here.]


Richard Westra is a contemporary scholar who has confronted the division between, on the one hand, structure and validity and, on the other, history and origin as it pertains to the question of periodizing the history of capitalism. In his Periodizing Capitalism and Capitalist Extinction, he describes a binary between what he describes as ‘essentialist’ and ‘ideal-type’ historical periodisations of capitalism.[1]

The first, ‘essentialist’ approach, identifies capitalism as being driven by a specific inner logic or dynamic across its historical phases.[2] The merit of these approaches, for Westra, is that they seek to ground their analysis of capitalist development on a theoretical constant at the level of its economic structure despite capitalism itself changing across its major stages and phases. This theoretical constant is both historically specific, but also functions like a natural law.[3]

He compares this to an ‘ideal-type’ approach—which found increasing popularity in the latter half of the twentieth century—that forgoes explanations of capitalist transition as being always still bound to some theoretical constant or set of ’laws of motion’, and instead, periodises capitalism based on what Westra calls ‘systematizations of empirical history.’[4] Such systematisations consist of a ‘stylised facts’ or ‘ideal-type’ analysis that arranges historical periods based on varying institutional, economic or political trends.[5]

For Westra, this second camp has had the damaging effect of leaving the task of periodising capitalism unsure of what is even supposed to be periodised, as there is no theoretical constant or abstract structure drawn upon or even debated that defines capitalism qua capitalism. Writing the history of capitalism has therefore been often left, for Westra, ‘at the mercy of ad hoc constructions of stylized facts based upon this or that salient feature of the age’.[6] It lacks, in other words, a definitive theoretical structure which defines capitalism vis à vis other modes of production. Much like Wood, Westra notes how non-Marxist and even some Marxist accounts tend to either forgo a definition of capitalism at the level of its unique economic structure or characterise capitalism via reference to something already immanent to previous economic relations—like markets.

Although he sides with the ‘essentialist’ approach, Westra identifies flaws with this perspective as well, such as the legacy of formalism that boxes in historical difference and agency by seeing History as a procession of natural (i.e., timeless) laws—the same orthodoxy identified by Banaji. He also identifies an ongoing lack of clarity over what this theoretical constant or ‘laws of motion’ unique to capitalism even are.[7] Interpretations here often depend on various readings and interpretations of Capital, often with supporting evidence offered from elsewhere in Marx’s writing.[8] This is frequently a ‘Marxological’ debate that occurs largely within Marxism in a way that, with its accompanying jargon and veneer of tedious scholasticism, comes off as some combination of rhetorically threatening and inscrutable to outsiders and self-understood insiders.

Indeed, when it comes to what Westra terms the ‘essentialist’ approaches that occur withinMarxism, other factors are relevant here—such as the effect of the institutionalisation of Marxism (or lack thereof) in Anglo-American universities, and the various ideological armours that have and continue to mediate its reception; as well as the way in which Marx’s thought and its conceptual architecture—much less the text Capital—are difficult to slot into the silos of specific disciplines. 


In his confrontation with the division encountered by both Marxist and non-Marxist critics in their respective periodisations, Westra finds that the lack of abstract-theoretical reflection across numerous fields (political science, economics, history, and political economy) on how to apprehend capitalism in its most pure and general economic form has made it particularly difficult to articulate the historical determinacy of the economic forms composing various ‘mixes’ at different historical periods—or even in the present. This goes for both ‘mixed’ modes of production (i.e. feudal societies with capitalist characteristics or vice versa) but also ‘mixed’ economies (i.e. socialist economic forms internal to capitalist economies or vice versa).[9]

The ‘semi-feudal’ thesis, for example, sees ‘unfree’ labour as being fundamentally incompatible not only with capitalism but also with advanced productive forces, skilled labour, and associated with suboptimal increases in economic efficiency.[10] It has therefore traditionally been used by Marxists to describe a wide variety of contexts in the Third (or indeed, ‘developing’) World which are simultaneously ‘precapitalist’ insofar as the form of labour exploitation is ‘peasant’ or consisting of forms of ‘unfree labor,’ but is also integrated within a system of global capitalism and therefore ‘semi’ capitalist (and therefore also ‘semi-feudal’).[11] The problem here is fairly straightforward—insofar as a mode of production is defined primarily via reference to a correlate form of labour exploitation,[12] unevenness in actually existing forms of the latter will require similar unevenness or partiality in characterizing modes of production.[13] For Brass, ‘the concept of semi-feudalism represents a notion of ‘in-between’-ness which is synonymous with ‘transition’, each occupying a similarly ill-defined and theoretical space between what for Marxism are two well-defined systems’[14]. The two systems here are of course capitalism and feudalism.

The question of how hitherto ‘well-defined’ they both are however is precisely the relevant issue. At this purely abstract-theoretical level, the extent to which Marx’s analysis of the economic dynamics of capitalist production is distinct from the assumptions internal to both contemporary economics and classical political economy cannot be overstated. The idea for example that economic production faces an absolute limit in market demand runs from Adam Smith (‘consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production,’ a maxim which he understood to be ‘so self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove’[15]) to Keynes (‘consumption—to repeat the obvious—is the sole end of all economic activity’[16]). But it even extends to figures inside the Marxist tradition—such as Rosa Luxemburg, who argued that stimuli to capitalist accumulation necessarily arise via ‘third party’ sources of demand outside the capitalist system (in particular, from existing pre-capitalist forms of production and new markets discovered through imperialist exploitation).[17]

In his classic History and Structure, Alfred Schmidt went so far as to argue that ‘the mature Marx placed the history of capital on scientific grounds by proceeding on an abstract-theoretical rather than a historiographic level’.[18] The importance of the abstract-theoretical is implicit even in the order of presentation of Marx’s Capital, where the analysis of capitalism’s historical preconditions in the section on ‘primitive accumulation’ is located at the end of Vol I. The reader must have some sense of the ‘closed systematic structure’ before historical preconditions will make any sense at all. This is almost so banal as to be a truism—having extensive descriptions of trees won’t tell you how you got lost in the woods, much less what woods you’re even in.[19]       

Indeed, for Banaji, the paradox with which I began part I – that non-Marxist historiography has found itself tasked with writing the history of Capitalism despite not having a theory of capitalism – is not simply due to the intellectual-historical fallout that followed Pokrovsky’s compulsory rejection of ‘merchant capitalism,’ but has to do with a strictly methodological question about the relationship between the logical (‘capitalism as such’) and the historical (‘capitalism in reality’). Specifically, conceptual confusion is found among both Marxists and non-Marxists regarding Marx’s method, for whom the study of capital ‘in its ideal average’ differs from the study of the history of capitalist development. At the root of the conflict between Pokrovsky and Stalin over the ‘productivity’ of merchant capital is therefore not simply ideology and political interest, but methodology.

This conflict is really a confusion between logical and historical genesis—between the derivation of certain categories of conceptual determination at the level of Marx’s ‘dialectical presentation’ and arguments about historical origin; mistaking Marx’s analysis of capitalism at the level of its ‘ideal average’ in Capital for instances of historical description.[20] A paradigmatic example is the frequent confusion between Marx’s logical derivation of money as the necessary mode of appearance of exchange value and the idea that Marx understood money to have arisen out of or have its historical origin as some innovation on barter.

While it may have been sensible for Marx to start Capital with the commodity because it is the most basic ‘value form’ of capital, the way Marx waits to introduce labour at a later stage in the presentation has a tendency to make it appear to readers as if the substance of value is simply revealed in the relationship between two commodities; i.e., is reducible to being derived from the simple act of the exchange of equivalents, and thus somehow that money arises historically out of barter as some kind of innovation.

Indeed, if ones take Marx’s own methodological reduction of merchant capital to ‘buying cheap and selling dear’—that is, M–M’ as well as profit earned via circulation (as opposed to the circuit of ‘industrial capital’ M–C–M’, or profit earned in production) for historical description, it can be easy to see how the view that merchant capital functioned purely as an intermediary might seem representative of Marx’s own.

Further, within the methodological framework of Capital, what Marx calls ‘industrial capital’ is indeed the form of capital dominant within the ‘ideal average’ precisely because the latter is the only form of capital—unlike merchant capital or interest-bearing capital—which has the capacity to produce all use values as value-objects in total and complete indifference to their functions as specific use-values. This is the historically specific aspect of industrial capital that renders other forms of capital ‘antediluvian.’[21]

It is industrial capital—not commercial or merchant capital alone—which has the unique capacity to subsume and commodify labour; where capital subsumes, in other words, the entire ‘metabolic’ relation of human beings to nature. At the level of theoretical structure therefore, according to Marx’s own analysis, it is industrial capital that is the paradigmatic form of capital internal to the ‘capitalist mode of production’. The mere transformation of economic relationships involved in production is insufficient for the sort of ‘capitalism’ referenced in this context if this transformation does not include the transformation of both the techniques used in production as well as the determination by capital of the products that are produced.[22]

Banaji therefore argues that the particular problem at the level of Marxist historiography has been to treat Marx’s abstract methodological rendering of the relationship between merchant or commercial and industrial capital not only as historical description, but as representative of a specific and necessary historical progression or development. For Banaji, ‘it made no sense to transplant Marx’s strictly methodological remarks in Capital about the relationship between commercial and industrial capital to a history of capitalism, since…it wouldn’t allow you to actually construct a history, since we didn’t have large-scale industry in most of those centuries—whatever your chronological boundaries, you’re not going to find large-scale industry in Marx’s sense in any of those periods’.[23]

Banaji’s solution is a ‘theoretical distinction’ between ‘capitalism in this more general sense, a sense which allows for the commercial capitalism of the twelfth and eighteenth centuries, and what Marx himself called the “capitalist mode of production”’.[24] For Banaji, this ‘capitalist mode of production’ is more accurately characterised by the kinds of massively vertically concentrated large-scale industrial firms that only arise on the historical scene after Marx’s death but for which he provided a model in industrial capital’s tendency to destroy merchant capital as it destroys its mediating function. ‘What was emerging in the late nineteenth century’, Banaji writes, ‘was an entirely new sort of capitalism, driven by modern industry but also bound up with more aggressive forms of expansion and unprecedented degrees of vertical integration in industries like tobacco, rubber, and oil, which dramatically reduced the dependence of manufacturers on merchant capital’.[25]

The classical example here for Banaji is not in the ‘British mercantile capitalism in the late Victorian decades’ (as it was for Marx) but rather, for example, French domination in Indochina and its unparalleled domination of Indochina’s economy or the vertically integrated managerial firms charted by Alfred Chandler, both which Marx died too early to see.[26] Only during this later period (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) does one find the kind of dominance of industrial capital that Marx himself described. It is this anticipatory function of Marx’s theoretical framework meanwhile that marks Capital as a genuine classic insofar it is both bound by its historical moment time—and therefore open to being historicised like any theory—but also functions beyond it.


Whether or not one finds this solution sufficient, the set of interconnected issues suggests three demands.

The first is for Marxists to engage more broadly with non-Marxist historiography. Instead of imputing theoretical models onto historical material, Marxists should attempt to reflect upon those received theoretical models considering a genuine engagement with this historiography. The second is for non-Marxists to engage seriously with the idea that a history of capitalism requires constructing the specificity of capitalism at the level of its structure; of its ‘ideal average.’ This might mean non-Marxists taking Marx’s Capital seriously not as simply a critique of capitalism, or as an alternative theory of capitalism, but rather as the theory that attempts to explain capitalism in its economic specificity as a historically unique form of economic production and social reproduction. This will however require Marxists to find creative ways to depict, for a general audience, the value-theoretical discourse internal to Capital, rather than simply posing it in open confrontation with the latter. This is a complicated process of conceptual translation that requires fluency with both Marxist and non-Marxist methodology and modes of discourse.

The final demand is for both non-Marxist and Marxist historians, economic historians, and economists to take seriously the philosophies not just of history but of temporality more generally that form the theoretical backdrop of accounts of capitalist change. One need not necessarily engage too closely with Hegel to do so, however broader consideration of conceptions of ‘development’ or ‘growth’ (much less the difference between qualitative vs. quantitative change at the level of History much less Nature) and the philosophies of history and theories of temporality that these disciplines have inherited from the 19th and 20th century is necessary to account for the conceptual conditions of possibility of contemporary theorisations.

Moishe Postone for example has argued that the retrospective projection of a specific temporality of linear development internal to capitalism to human history in general is itself specific to capitalism. ‘History, understood as an immanently driven directional dynamic, does exist, but not as a universal characteristic of human social life. Rather, it is a historically specific characteristic of capitalist society that can be, and has been, projected onto all human histories.’[27] In other words, the form of temporality that grounds the discipline of history imposes a form of empty homogenous time understood as a linear succession of the new onto collective forms of subjective time.

Reinhart Koselleck provides a similar theorization, although with reference to a broader process of modernity. ‘One can say that history itself was first revealed as a particular way of being [Seinweise] when interpreted as progressive and accelerated.’[28] According to Koselleck, the antinomic structure of the relation between structure and history or necessity and contingency is itself a product of a specific historical temporality. Even further, the subject position that experiences History as such, is itself historically unique.

These considerations should not however be limited to the question of temporality but also to space. In particular, the spatial units of analysis that have traditionally functioned to ground both Marxist and non-Marxist debates. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the initial ‘transition’ debate inaugurated first by Maurice Dobbs but then continued through the 1950s and into the ‘development decade’ of the 1960s occurred nearly simultaneously as a broader ‘modernisation’ debate among non-Marxist scholars interested in the question of the ‘transition’ from ‘traditional’ to modern societies (i.e., liberal capitalist democracies).[29] Both debates were marked by an ‘epistemological confluence’ insofar as both were concerned with the extension of an internal or domestic market, the development of which shared an overriding concern with the extension of an internal or domestic market, and the development of a ‘free’ labor market which would raise consumer demand for industrial products and provide local capitalists incentives to invest in productive capacity within the context of said internal market.[30]

Beneath both, in other words, was the nation-state as a basic and fundamental analytical unit. This ‘methodological nationalism’[31] was also an analytical starting point shared both by non-Marxists who saw nationally bounded developmental transitions as the condition of becoming ‘modern liberal democracies’ and Marxists who saw a nationally-bounded transition to capitalism as a condition of possibility for socialism. Indeed, throughout the 1950s and then into the 1960s then, both transition debates were often conducted by historians and/or political scientists with reference to case studies of transition within nationally bounded territories.[32] Both also shared an overriding emphasis on ‘economic productivity’. [33] The question of ‘unfree labor’ and its internality or externality to capitalism is particularly important here, for transitions from feudalism to capitalism within nationally or locally bounded contexts could be framed as incomplete (hence, ‘semi-feudal’) and therefore capitalistic economic development was justified as a step on the road to both capitalism and socialism, insofar as a ‘full’ transition to the former was a condition to the latter.[34]

When this ‘methodological nationalism’ is put into context – both with regard to non-Marxists, Marxists, and indeed the Keynesian soft-left (who argue that the transition to ‘socialism’ is a transition from a ‘bad’ to a ‘good’ capitalism, but where the latter is managed by a genuinely productive rather than rent-seeking bourgeoise, as influenced by policy design) – it appears however not simply as an analytical error per se, but rather as following from the political questions of development facing thinkers of the period.[35]

An irony however is that these debates took place precisely at a moment of unprecedented de-nationalization of capital markets in general, an incredible improvement in transportation and communications technology, as well as increases in the flexibility of transnational labor markets—a set of processes that more colloquially has fallen under the broader term of ‘globalization’.[36]

The point of attention to these demands – of Marxist attention to non-Marxist historiography; of non-Marxist attention to the specificity of capitalism at the level of its ‘ideal average’; of non-Marxist and Marxist reflection upon theories of historical temporality and historical spatiality – is to not simply repeat the structure of these previous debates, but rather tread new theoretical ground. History itself might be irrational and contingent, but its analysis must be rational and therefore possess a subtending theoretical structure.[37] Without such attention, both Marxist and non-Marxist scholars risk remaining stuck repeatedly falling between what Banaji has referred to in another context as the ‘imposing skyscraper of immobilized dogma’ and ‘the granite pavement of a confused eclecticism’.[38]

Bo Harvey has studied at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP), Kingston University. He lives in New York City. Please note that early sections of this essay appeared as a review of Westra (2019) in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books.


[1] Richard Westra, Periodizing Capitalism and Capitalist Extinction (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).

[2] Westra, Periodizing Capitalism, 3

[3] The important qualification is that it functions like a natural law. It is not actually a natural law. ‘Laws of motion’ in this case stand in for whatever it is that effectively regulates capitalist social relations and appears in the form of regularity (‘theoretical constant’) despite all individual (political, biological, civilizational) determinations. At stake here is clarifying the function of concept ‘law’ (and its relation to related concepts like ‘norm,’ and ‘average’) in Marx. This is of course distinct from questions about ‘Marxian theories of law,’ and rather has to do with the complexity of the philosophical concept as it presents itself in Marx’s work. Beyond issues of translation, ‘it is not clear that all the “laws” Marx discusses conform to a single definition,’ writes Burkett in his “Marx’s Concept of an Economic Law of Motion” (383). John P. Burkett, ‘Marx’s Concept of an Economic Law of Motion’, History of Political Economy 32, no 2 (2000), 381–94.

[4] Westra, 4

[5] The general distrust of essentialism and determinism that followed the postmodern critique of grand narratives and the general historically constructivist approach of post-1970s theory is of course part of the story here.

[6] Westra, 4

[7] What is fundamentally at stake here methodologically I think is the question of what kind of concept the ‘law of value’ is. In strictly economic terms, there is a set of debates having to do with the way in which the law of value is understood to regulate price differentials. This takes place primarily among those who want to use Marx’s critique of political economy to fashion a distinctive alternative economic model. Any purely economic rendering however seems to leave out the extra-economic determinations of what the law of value is also understood to regulate—namely, the capital-labor relation. There is thus a general division within Marxian critical perspectives between, on the one hand, ‘political economy’ and its critique and, on the other, ‘critical social theory’.

[8] John P. Burkett, ‘Marx’s Concept of an Economic Law of Motion’, History of Political Economy 32, no 2 (2000), 381–94. For a critique of the ‘quest for general laws of capitalism’ see Darren Acemoglu and James A Robinson, ‘The Rise and Fall of General Laws of Capitalism’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 29, no 1 (2015), 3–28.

[9] Brass, Labour Regime Change, 79.

[10] In their overview of Marxist perspectives on modern slavery, Rioux et al describe, “a deep-seated divide within the reception of Marx’s writings between a neo-Smithian approach, according to which capitalism and unfree labour are incompatible, and what we argue is a more faithful Marxist tradition that views forced labour as one possible form of labour control and exploitation under capitalism” (714). See Sebastian Rioux, Geneve LeBaron, and Peter J. Verovsek, “Capitalism and unfree labor: a review of Marxist perspectives on modern slavery,” Review of International Political Economy, (27:3, 2020): 709-731. Adam Smith condemned slavery for being economically inefficient as compared to free waged labor, emphasizing the latter’s dual role both as producers and also consumers. This argument reappears not only within certain strands of Marxism but in the work of modernization theorists such as Walt Whitman Rostow. WW. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960).

[11] Particularly relevant are debates in the 1970s about the nature of the mode of production in India. For a summary of these debates see Alice Thorner, “Semi-Feudalism or Capitalism? Contemporary Debate on Classes and Modes of Production in India,” Economy and Political Weekly, (17:49, 1982): 1961-1968. Brass traces the origins of this debate more broadly to the success of the 1949 Chinese revolution. Tom Brass, “Rural labour in agrarian transitions: The semi-feudal thesis revisited,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, (32:4, 2002): 457.

[12] One can imagine labor in the general sense grounding a broader account of human history. Labor in this general sense however cannot be the category that grounds capitalist sociality – and therefore, the ‘history of capitalism’ properly speaking – because labor in this sense is not unique to capitalism. Marx in fact changes his method between the Grundrisse (1857) and Capital Vol I (1863). Whereas in the former Marx begins with labor qua “material production” (‘individuals producing in society [laboring] – hence socially determined individual production – is, of course, the point of departure’ [17]) in the latter he begins with the simplest category specific to capitalist society—the commodity. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, (London: Penguin Books, 1973).

[13] For Banaji, the dominant orthodoxy within Marxism has been to reduce the concept of the relations of production to a set of questions about the dominant forms of exploitation. (Theory as History, 4). As Banaji puts it in his introductory essay to Theory as History, ‘not only are modes of production not reducible to forms of exploitation, but the historical forms of exploitation of labour (relations of production in the conventional sense) lies at a completely different level of abstraction from the numerous and specific ways in which labour is or can be deployed” (6). Insofar as the unity of capitalist production includes both production and circulation, and therefore not just production in a one-sided sense (for circulation is a condition of reproduction), Banaji is correct I think to ask a still relevant question; namely, ‘how do we integrate the expansion of monetary economy into a theory of modes of production?’ (Theory of History, 7) if indeed modes of production are determined by their form of labor exploitation. ‘The point here,’ Banaji writes, ‘is not just that relations of production include vastly more than the labour-process and the forms in which it is organized and controlled…but that labour itself, the exploitation of labour, breaks down into comparable dimensions of complexity’ (5). Banaji explores this idea of a complex ‘logic of deployment’ by capitalists more concretely in his essay “Historical Arguments for a ‘Logic of Deployment’ in ‘Precapitalist Agriculture.’ He provides a provocative set of historical arguments against the ‘discontinuity thesis:’ ‘the conception that the real or alleged differences between economic regimes and historical periods are in some sense…more fundamental to their historical interpretation than the factors which they share in common’ (Banaji, Theory as History, 104).

[14] Tom Brass, Labour Regime Change, 79.

[15] Simon Clarke, Marx, Marginalism, and Modern Sociology: From Adam Smith to Max Weber (London: MacMillan, 2016), 88.

[16] Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money and Essays in Persuasion, chapter 8.

[17] Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis, (London: Macmillan, 1994),53–58. A distinction should be drawn between discovering and creating new markets. The Luxembourgist approach has to do with the former rather than the later. Stalin’s idea of the ‘problem of markets’ – namely, that there are a finite number of them – for example is really an approach originally formulated by Luxembourg. The political implications of this are important because the idea of a necessary chronic rather than cyclical crisis follows from the position that there are a finite number of markets that capitalism is able to exhaust. Peter Osborne has argued that Marxist crisis theory is haunted by a disjunction between the general-historical character of the concept of crisis in its modern form as a structural crisis (which includes the notion of crisis as a condition of possibility of transition to a new mode of production) and the conjunctural and comparatively narrow focus of Marx’s own ‘theory of crisis’ as a theory primarily of periodic crises. Peter Osborne, “A Sudden Topicality,” Radical Philosophy 190 March/April 2010. If capitalist crises are always cyclical, how can a capitalist crisis lead to a transition to a new mode of production? To prove the inexhaustibility of markets would present a serious issue to the theory of a general or chronic crisis arcing over the entire history of capitalism. This is one reason why work such as Preobrazhensky’s The Decline of Capitalism (1931), written in the wake of stock market crash of 1929,was seen as so problematic by the Soviet regime. Preobrazhensky argued that ‘capitalists traditionally surmounted crisis not necessarily by discovering new markets but by creating new markets through the resumption of investments’ (Day, 249). See Richard Day, Leon Trotsky & The Politics of Economic Isolation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

[18] Alfred Schmidt, History and Structure: An Essay on Hegelian-Marxist and Structuralist Theories of History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1983), 34.

[19] The more philosophically sophisticated version of this same point has been expressed by Adorno: ‘If we are to shun any form of concept that is not already saturated in facts and observations…this effectively and literally amounts to sabotaging insight and knowledge itself, for without such conceptual anticipation then anything such as the empirical domain, anything such as empirical research, is not conceivable at all’. Adorno, Philosophy and Sociology, 51.

[20] ‘Marx explicitly states that he is concerned neither with the history of capitalism nor with a specific historical phase of capitalism, but rather with a “theoretical” analysis of capitalism: examined are the essential determinants of capitalism, those elements which must remain the same regardless of all historical variations so that we may speak of “capitalism” as such. What is portrayed is therefore not a (historically or geographically) specific capitalism, but rather, as Marx says at the end of the third volume of Capital, “we are only out to present the internal organization of the capitalist mode of production, its ideal average, as it were”’. Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 31.  

[21] (Marx 1991: 728, Vol II).

[22] (Marx 1976: 283). The relevant specific distinction here is between ‘real’ vs. ‘formal’ subsumption. Simon Mohun, ‘Labour Process’ in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore (London: Blackwell, 1992), 297–301. ‘As first and foremost a social relation of production, Marx describes, in just a few scattered fragments, how capital subordinates—or ‘subsumes’—existing forms of production in order to configure them as capitalist valorisation processes, engines of profit for their owners. As Marx outlines, this can occur ‘formally’, simply through a transformation of the economic relationships involved in production (underpinned by the introduction of relations of exchange between buyers and sellers of labour-power). But subsumption under capital, Marx notes, can and does also occur in a deeper, ‘real’ form, which transforms the material composition of production (the techniques and technology of production as well as the products themselves)’. Andres Saenz de Sicilia, ‘Being, Becoming, Subsumption: The Kantian roots of a Marxist Problematic’, Radical Philosophy 212, Spring (2022), 35–47, 35.

[23] Banaji, Jairus. 2021. ‘Where is the working class? It’s all over the world today’, interview by Sheetal Chhabria and Andrew Lius. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

[24] Banaji, Theory as History, 358.

[25] Banaji, Commercial Capitalism, 124

[26] Alfred Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977), 1.

[27] ‘Moishe Postone, ‘Critique and Historical Transformation’, Historical Materialism 12,  no 3 (2004), 53–72, 55.

[28] Reinhart Koselleck, Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018): 96.

[29] Maurice Dobbs, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (London: Routledge, 1946); Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobbs, ‘The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism’, Science and Society 14, no 2(1950), 134–57.

[30] Tom Brass, Labour Regime Change, 93.

[31] On ‘methodological nationalism’ and the naturalization of the nation-state as an analytical unit across the social sciences cf. Andreas Wimmer & Nina Glick Schiller, “Methodological Nationalism, the Social Sciences, and the Study of Migration: An Essay in Historical Epistemology,” International Migration Review 37:3 (2003): 576-610. ‘Methodological nationalism is the naturalization of the nation-state by the social sciences. Scholars who share this intellectual orientation assume that countries are the natural units for comparative studies, equate society with the nation-state, and conflate national interests with the purposes of social science’ (576).  Rosa Luxembourg’s transnational analysis of capitalism as always already global should be seen as an anticipation of this kind of critique. The classic example within the Marxist tradition however, as noted by Brass, is Trotsky, “because his political objective involved world revolution [as opposed to revolution in one country] and his analytical focus was correspondingly on how capitalism operated and reproduced itself as a (world) system, Trotsky insisted that any meaningful examination of the latter process required an understanding of the way in which accumulation occurred both in advanced and in backward societies simultaneously, as part of the same systemic unity. In short, his argument was not about economic backwardness per se, as claimed, but rather about the contradictions generated by economic maturity, or how what happens in seemingly backward societies where apparently non-capitalist (=’feudal’ or ‘semi-feudal’) relations are supposedly dominant, is actually determined by the unrecognized presence there of advanced capitalist elements” (99).

[32] ‘Any process of transition, and the way in which the agrarian question is or is not ‘resolved,’ accordingly takes place within a national framework: capitalist development, surplus extraction, and its transfer from agriculture to industry, are all said to occur within the confines of the same nation-state.’cf. Brass, Labour Regime Change in the Twenty-First Century: Unfreedom, Capitalism, and Primitive Accumulation, (Aakar Books, Delhi, 2016): 87.

[33] The relative amount of interest in the mid-20th century by non-Marxists in Marxist economics can be explained partly at least by this preoccupation with economic growth. This interest waned as the emphasis on development was increasingly displaced by postmodern critiques in the 1980s, more classical forms of Marxist materialism were subject to critiques by the ‘cultural turn,’ and the field of economics becoming more firmly subsumed by marginalism and neo-classicism and therefore less concerned with questions of ‘state capacity.’

[34] This significant disjunction between, on the one hand, the global character both of capital and class and, on the other, the fact that the nation-state was (and remains) the primary site of politics writ large (or, at the very least, economic policy), will continue to cause theoretical but also practical-political frustration among those concerned both with overthrowing capitalism (Marxists) or simply managing it (non-Marxists).

[35] The discussion circle – probably better formulated as an antinomy – which tends to arise between the ‘nationalist’ emphasis on the political takeover of the means of taxation and coercion at the level of the state and the ‘internationalist’ emphasis on building genuinely international, progressive, and/or working class alternative economic institutions is in this sense not so much ‘wrong’ as it simply a discursive reflection of an actually existing (perhaps aporetic) political conjuncture.

[36] This new form of temporality produced by the globalization of the social processes grounding the temporality of modernity is best grasped not simply as the spatial extension of the temporality of modernity (the logic of the new), the aforementioned ‘global modernity’, but by the term ‘contemporaneity’: that is, as a new, internally disjunctive global historical–temporal form, a totalizing (but not thereby ‘total’, since it is open to no more than a distributive unification), radically disjunctive, contemporaneity.’ See Peter Osborne, “The Postconceptual Condition,” Radical Philosophy,

[37] “History itself (if we accept for once this deeply ideological term) is irrational—at most, its analysis is rational” (55). See Reinhart Koselleck, “Historik and Hermeneutics,” in Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018). The phrase recurs (‘History in its entirety remains irrational; at best its analysis is rational)’ in reference to Stalingrad in a later essay in the same collection. See Reinhart Koselleck, “On the Meaning and Absurdity of History,” Sediments of Time, 183. The relevant relation here is between, on the one hand, analysis and, on the other, narration. ‘We are in need of narration if we are to visualize the aporetic, if we are ever to make it comprehensible, even if it can never be rationally understood or conceptualized….analysis and narration supplement each other in sharpening our power of judgement, and to make it possible for us to come to terms with absurdity.’ Koselleck here uses clear Kantian language and is in some sense simply transposing Kant’s epistemology to the level of historiography. Narration stands in for the faculty of the imagination and analysis stands in for the faculty of the understanding. Recall that in Kant’s classic tripartite epistemological division between intuition, imagination, and understanding, the function of the imagination is to present an object initially perceived via intuition to the faculty of understanding. A knowing subject uses the faculty of the understanding to then subsume that object under a concept—making what Kant calls a ‘determinative judgement’. This essay is in some sense extremely straightforward. It is just an argument for an increased emphasis on analysis – or what Kant would refer to as that which lies within the domain of the faculty of understanding– as opposed to a focus on merenarration, as if narration were sufficient to making something comprehensible. We are indeed, ‘in need of narration if we are to visualize the aporetic’—if we are to render History visible (i.e., aesthetic, in the Greek sense of αἴσθησις [aesthesis] – not necessarily artistic, but rather perceivable) – but visibility (or indeed, perceptive experience in general) is a necessary rather than sufficient condition for comprehension. Surely something to at least strive for, even in the most meagre Kantian sense.

[38] Jairus Banaji, “From the Commodity to Capital: Hegel’s Dialectic in Marx’s Capital,” in ed. Dianne Elson, Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism, (London: CSE Books, 1979): 40.