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Notes on some ideas in Open Marxism

Updated: May 18, 2023

For a while now I’ve been trying to focus my reading time on writers associated with Open Marxism. (Just now I don’t want to get into who exactly counts as ‘open marxism’ or the history of the term so if anyone reads this take the associations as loose, not a hard and fast ‘this person says they’re an Open Marxist’.) So I read some more Simon Clarke then read around in work by his students and students of his student Peter Burnham, and some more writing by Werner Bonefeld (Bonefeld’s got a new book out now that’s very good by the way) and early work by John Holloway. I’m especially keen right now on work in the mold of Clarke’s book Keynesianism, Monetarism, and the Crisis of the State and of students of Burnham’s who work via archival sources, as this is work closest to what I’m familiar with doing myself and I can imagine doing some similar work.

My notes here are a little vague in that there’s sort of a composite written for me to think with so they shouldn’t be attributed to anyone in particular and none of this is to say that everyone in and around Open Marxism agrees. They’re people conducting inquiry in a similar spirit, with a shared set of concepts, theories, and reference points. (I’d like to say “we’re” as I consider myself an open marxist really but I feel like I’m still playing catch up on the ideas and on what do with them in the kinds of historical inquiry I’m interested in doing - part of the point of writing these notes is to facilitate that catch up and the eventual shift from “they’re” to “we’re,” so to speak.)

There are two or three key points that sort of inflect each other. One is that the division between economic and political is a hallmark of capitalist societies such that both the economy and the state are components of capitalism. This means the state in capitalist society is a specifically capitalist state, it’s not just a state that happens to be in a capitalist context. Likewise for other elements of society - capitalist society’s elements are conditioned by the totality of which they are elements such that the elements have a capitalism-ness to them, being both inflections of and contributions to the reproduction of capitalist social relations. Another key point widely emphasized is that capitalism is crisis prone, and, capitalism being a set of social relations rather than just an economy, crises are not economic alone.

Generally Open Marxists tend to emphasize capitalism being a class society as well, and to treat class as a relationship that is troubled, in the sense of tension-laden, conflictual, dynamic. Really of capitalist society has those qualities. I find elements of Open Marxism a little vague on class in ways I find frustrating sometimes, I think unfairly, because really there are different concepts behind the term ‘class’ related to different degrees of analytical abstraction. Open Marxism has important innovations in theory which are fairly abstract and a lot of what gets called class analysis and a lot of other work that’s done using the term class is more concrete in a way that to me is more satisfying, but that’s a taste preference, not an actual argument. I actually think Open Marxism’s conceptual framework has a lot to recommend it to labor historians and further the framework precisely by its abstraction recommends labor history (as a lot of things just require more concrete analysis), it’s just a matter of getting the theory and empirical inquiry to harmonize.

I said a moment ago that capitalism is dynamic. Class struggle is one source of dynamism, as is capitalism’s tendency to crisis (and crisis and class struggle closely relate, in some respects are hard to distinguish). I think there’s something of a conceptual ambiguity, or at least a terminological or grammatical one, on this. Sometimes there’s talk of capitalism as going into crisis or capitalism as being unstable. This is very reasonable but I think it’s important to note what the instability is and is not. Human life in capitalist society tends to be unpredictable and unstable (and nonhuman life too, for that matter) but that’s different from saying capitalism’s grip on society or society’s existence in capitalist form is unstable. If anything, the instability of life for denizens of capitalist society is a source of systemic stability - capitalism’s instability is capitalism’s stability. At one point Marx uses a metaphor of gravity causing a house to fall down, that’s a gravity-induced instability in human life, in that context gravity acts as a force producing important kinds of instability in the lives of the people subject to gravity but gravity is not itself unstable or self-undermining. This is not to say capitalism is natural, it’s a system that arose contingently in history and will one day end, but it’s not a self-ending system via crises: it’s not a self-undermining system.

Some Open Marxists allude to elements of this via treating crisis as a way in which capitalism reproduces itself. I think that’s correct, important, insightful, and sometimes paired with ambiguous and potentially misleading phrasing like ‘capitalism in crisis’ or ‘crisis of capitalism’ when I’d prefer to say ‘crisis in capitalist society’ as distinct from ‘crisis of capitalist society.’ The latter only comes from the working class creating revolutionary openings for itself. Those openings are generally made less likely by crises, not moreso, all things being equal (though all things are decidedly not equal since we’re talking about relatively open-ended contingent processes of conflict and struggle), because crisis disorganizes and makes people’s needs especially acute and the immediately available means of meeting needs tend to be system-compatible, and sometimes give the system something of a jumpstart in the sense of conflict being turned into an engine for driving capitalist development forward.

So what goes into crisis is a specific set of capitals, economically, and a specific set of ways of ‘doing’ capitalism politically (the former is a version of the latter: “a specific set of capitals, economically” are themselves a set of ways of living out capitalist social relations, the production processes and class relationships being themselves political despite often treated as apolitical). Some capitals and some forms of institutionalizing capitalist social relations - specific aspects of labor law and workplace relationships, relationships between public and private, relationships between global and domestic, and a lot more - may be destroyed or otherwise transformed during and after a crisis. But that’s not capitalist society or capitalist social relations being destroyed or transformed at the level of their general capitalism-ness, rather the dynamism in specific institutionalization is simultaneously a kind of stasis insofar as capitalism remains, reproduces itself: capitalism changes to stay the same, its instability stabilizes it.

This thing on crisis as force for continuity (at one level of analytical abstraction) which is also change and dynamism (at another level of abstraction) is, I think, in Open Marxism and not something I’m reading in, but I could be mistaken and I think some Open Marxists could be clearer on this at the level of their prose.

I think there’s some ambiguity about class struggle in at least some Open Marxism, which is an issue as class struggle is a core concept of the tradition. I think the point is that capitalism is an antagonistic social relationship shot through with conflict. That said, sometimes there’s a suggestion this makes the system vulnerable, which while true is also often underdeveloped. There’s some kinds of conflict which is more like systemically ordinary friction, some which is a source of dynamism in the system’s development over time, and some that at least potentially points beyond capitalism. Knowing which is which is of course not always easy, but it remains the case that not all struggle against capitalism is anti-systemic (Werner Bonefeld’s new book is very good on this point). As such, it follows that class struggle is not always a source of instability *of* capitalism, rather than of instability *in* capitalism, as with crisis as well.

Finally (for the sake of this little blog post I mean), open marxism shares an emphasis on the importance of the state in capitalist society. More specifically, it shares the view that this state is not merely a state within a capitalist society but is a capitalist state, and is a constitutive element of capitalist society. In capitalist society production is carried out in units that are private in the sense of relatively disconnected from each other and which are specifically private property. The interaction and coordination that happens between productive units is mostly via exchange after production, which is prone to crises, and exerts a power over production (and over the proletariat) in important ways.

The state does a few things in relation to the above. It maintains the character of productive units and their elements as private, and maintains the condition of money as the medium of interaction. This means maintaining the power of markets and the condition of market dependency that drives people to exchange. The state also provides ways to resolve disputes which can become potentially disruptive if unresolved (both inter- and intra-class disputes, which interact in complex ways, and arguably are mutually constitutive). This is not to say the state can resolve all disputes but rather that addressing disputes is part of its remit, so to speak, under the larger umbrella of facilitating the ongoing repetition of capital’s circuits. The techniques and channels for doing so change historically in response to crisis and conflict. The state itself also relies on capital’s circuits for its own resources, buying good produced by private units to use in conducting a lot of its affairs, and the people who staff the state also buy from private units as well. The state is thus dependent on and subordinated to the larger patterns of crisis and conflict in capitalism, which in turn forces the state to act in ways that reinforce those larger patterns. That said, open marxists generally tend to hold that the state has some latitude in how it acts within the bounds set by those patterns, and there are serious stakes in people's lives over how things play out within those bounds. That there’s openness within those bounds is a lot of why ongoing inquiry is needed to understand state action - the theory doesn’t replace empirical investigation of concrete circumstances, it guides and enriches that investigation.

The state being an element of capitalism also means that state-based politics or political efforts that occur through state initiatives can at most produce some system-compatible freedoms, and there’s a low ceiling on what sorts of freedom and how much freedom can be had that way, with the most important political projects challenging the economic/political divide. Of course that’s easier said than done and I think open marxists are generally at their weakest on what this looks like in any concrete detail. To be fair, this limitation tracks onto actual social practice, it seems to me, and important breakthroughs on this for marxist writers will mostly require further practical breakthroughs in actual conflicts in the world.

Alright that’s enough for now, this gives me a bit more to think with/about and the whole point is writing to think, so mission accomplished! High five myself! I need to eventually go back through the readings I’ve been doing and take notes on specific texts so I don’t lose them. I’ve gotten undisciplined about writing up this kind of note, instead just underlining in the texts. That works well for guiding subsequent readings but I need to do another pass then to take notes on what I marked or I don’t really have thoughts (or certainly fewer) so much as I have proto-thoughts, raw material which could in the right conditions ferment into thoughts. I’ve not been doing enough to provide those conditions, mostly due to other obligations and resulting lack of time and energy. I’m afield from open marxism now (instead I’m exemplifying alientation, heh) so I’ll stop here.

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