In one sentence what is Marxism

Marxist theoretical work in crisis


The economic but also political and ideological crises and transformations of the capitalist social formations have brought Marxist approaches into a fundamental crisis. This records their ideas about the necessity, desirability and possibility of social transformation and about the social actors fighting for them and their forms of practice. It makes a fundamental reformulation of essential epistemological and socio-theoretical assumptions necessary. The contribution argues that the crisis of Marxism must begin with a self-reflective examination of the production conditions of Marxist theoretical work. The recognition of the incompleteness and incompleteness of Marxist social criticism as well as their formation in conflict represent a central form in order to avoid being involved again in authoritarian forms of politics and the legitimation of rule. The comprehensive character of the crisis tendencies in capitalist social formations and the associated multiplication of the areas of social conflict further requires the overcoming of a monistic reading of their dynamics. Understanding capitalist social formations as a relationship between relationships is necessary in order to be able to grasp connections between different social structures and social relations of power and domination. In addition, the ability of capitalist social formations to change, which has become visible in the crisis, requires a dynamization of the Marxist concept of reproduction. This is necessary because, in knowledge-based capitalism, the dynamization of the relative production of surplus value focuses on the subject's ability to change and adapt and their ability to work. Only against the background of such reformulations of Marxist theoretical work can the diversity of the emancipation perspectives that are becoming visible in the current social conflicts come into view.


The economic as well as political and ideological crises and transformations of capitalist social formations have created a crisis for Marxist approaches. This affects their assumption about the necessity, desirability and possibility of social transformation, but also about the actors fighting them out and their activities. Thus, a far reaching reformulation of its fundamental epistemological and theoretical assumptions is necessary. This argues that the crisis of Marxism demands a self-reflective engagement with conditions of Marxist contribution theoretical work. The acknowledgment of the fundamental openness and incompleteness of Marxist social critique as well as its contested production is indispensable to avoid authoritarian forms of politics and to be implicated into the legitimation of domination again. The encompassing character of the crisis tendencies of capitalist social formations and the multiplication of fields of conflict demands to overcome a monistic interpretation of social dynamics. To conceptualize capitalist social formations as relation of relations is an indispensable precondition for the analysis of the connections between different social structures and relations of power and dominance. Furthermore, the ability of capitalist social formations to change, which has been shown by the recent crises and transformations, demands a fundamental dynamization of the Marxist concept of reproduction. The dynamization of relative surplus production in knowledge based capitalism moves the adaptability of the subjects and their capacity to the work center stage. Only against this background can the plurality of perspectives for emancipation and social struggles come into view for Marxist theoretical work.


The crisis of financial market capitalism since 2008, the resulting sovereign debt crisis and the dominance of austerity strategies for dealing with it have resulted in a series of fundamental analyzes (Lapavitsas 2013; Altvater 2010; Jessop 2015) that have shown the relevance of Marxist science for the critical understanding of the present . These studies developed important analyzes of the crisis in financial market capitalism, but also of the social effects of crisis management and the resulting social struggles, and made them visible as the central dimension of multiple crisis processes in society (Demirović et al. 2011; Jessop 2012). The claim of Marxist-oriented science goes beyond the ability to adequately analyze the developments in societies in which the capitalist mode of productionFootnote 1 prevails, out. Rather, it is also about conveying the scientific criticism of capitalist social formations with certain subjects (i.e. the “working class”) and their forms of practice aimed at changing them. But there is still a gap between this self-image of Marxist-oriented science and the political reality in the multiple crisis of capitalist social formations. This can be seen not only in the high level of approval for austerity political strategies of crisis management in large parts of the population, but also in the fact that “protest” against the outlined developments in the upswing of right-wing populist movements and parties is expressed. The unity of theory and practice much invoked in the history of Marxism therefore remains torn.

In the first phase of the financial market crisis and the subsequent government measures to stabilize the economy, hopes were voiced (Altvater et al. 2010) that the much-touted hegemony of neoliberalism had now entered a crisis and that there would be room for alternatives. There were also social struggles and the formation of social movements against the implementation of austerity programs in many countries (for example in southern Europe). Recently, there has also been a surprising electoral mobilization by left-wing parties and politicians (Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn).

Nevertheless, more than a decade after the outbreak of the financial market crisis, it is still evident that hopes for a break with the dominance of neoliberalism were at least naive. In view of the implementation of “permanent austerity” (Jessop 2016), which is sometimes analyzed as a radicalization of neoliberal crisis management, and the upswing of right-wing populist movements in many countries, including and especially in the global north, one must therefore speak of a continued crisis of Marxism in my opinion. With this assessment I am not concerned with the assertion of a new crisis in Marxism in order to attract discourse-political attention in the scientific field. Rather, I would like to work out to what extent the current developments are embedded in a longer process of critical problematization of Marxist-oriented theory formation and science.

The diagnosis of a crisis in Marxism is not new, but rather describes the “state of Marxism” (Demirovic et al. 2015) and its developments since the second half of the 1970s (Haug 2010; Krätke 1996; Kouvélakis 2008). The Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (1978) already saw the emergence of the crisis of Marxism at this timeFootnote 2 diagnosed.

When classifying the current manifestations of the crisis of Marxism in a longer-term historical process, however, it must not be overlooked that Althusser's diagnosis was not intended as a prognosis of a specific development in capitalist social formations. Rather, it took place in a particular historical economic cycle and was therefore in a certain sense paradoxical. He claimed that the crisis of Marxism broke out in a phase that began with the rise of social struggles and the emergence of new social movements after 1968, an upsurge in critical thinking in universities (Demirović 2015) and the growth of left parties and the anchoring of social reform governments in a number of countries (especially) in the global north.

If one looks at Althusser's diagnosis from the perspective of a long-term crisis process, two aspects become recognizable, which ultimately point beyond the immediate historical context. The Althussian crisis diagnosis referred to the problems of Marxist theoretical work and its relationship to the reality of real socialist regimes and, from today's perspective, anticipated their inability to overcome their dictatorial foundations.Footnote 3 In addition, in the historical economic situation outlined, its apparently paradoxical content consisted in the unspoken prognosis that the problems of Marxist-oriented theoretical work and science and the political practices based on them were capable of emancipating the transformation of capitalist social formations - that is, of what is often evoked as a revolution became - would undermine.

With the time lag of four decades, it becomes clear that Althusser's “paradoxical intervention”, without this being intended, was connected with long-term processes of crisis and transformation of capitalist social formations. These have also captured the scientific, epistemological and political foundations of the traditional Marxist-oriented theoretical work and science and problematized them in their historical specifics - Wolfgang Fritz Haug spoke of “Fordist Marxism” (Haug 1996) in this regard. Therefore, it seems to me necessary to address the ongoing crisis of Marxism, which is not just a current one, but is historically embedded in the context of the crisis tendencies and changes (at least) in the societies of the global north (Hirsch 2005; Dörre 2009; Arrighi and Moore 2001; Aglietta (2000 [1979]); Hardt and Negri 2000; Sum and Jessop 2015) since the 1970s, also called the crisis of FordismFootnote 4 is designated to provide.

In order to be able to discuss the crisis of Marxism in the context of the crisis and transformation of capitalist social formations after Fordism, I would like to work out three dimensions of the problematization of Marxist theoretical work in the first step (Section 2). These concern the question of the necessarily self-reflective nature of any confrontation with the crisis of Marxism as well as its embedding in economic as well as political and ideological dynamics of change in capitalist social formations. In a second analysis step (Section 3) I would like to discuss the problems raised with a view to the production conditions of Marxist theoretical work as an open and controversial process and exemplary theoretical consequences that result from problematizing the theoretical and epistemological foundations of Marxist theoretical work on selected problems analyze.

Problems in the crisis of Marxism

The transformations of capitalist social formations encompass far-reaching and contested changes in capitalist production relations on a global level since the 1970s, which are linked to the introduction of new technologies as well as production and work processes. These cannot be separated from the implementation of neoliberal and neoconservative government projects and the associated reconfiguration of the relationship between the economy and its state / political regulations. The fundamental reorganization of the social division of labor and inequalities in the context of educational expansion, feminization of the world of work and changes in family structures as well as migration processes, which were further driven by the political and economic changes outlined, also makes it clear that the transformation processes have captured the capitalist social formations in their entirety . The financialization tendencies of accumulation and its crisis since 2008 as well as the dominance of austerity-oriented forms of their processing and the upswing of right-wing populist movements represent current manifestations of the ongoing transformation crisis against this background (Streeck 2013).

The outlined processes of crisis and transformation in capitalist social formations have, in my opinion, the traditional analysis horizons and critical strategies of Marxist approaches, which focused on the (predominantly male) working class and its (assumed) interests formed in Fordist heavy industry. B. conceived the developments of capitalism from the perspective of an increasing deepening of its contradictions,Footnote 5 and thus the resulting ideas of political dynamics (revolutionary overcoming of capitalism) are historically obsolete. This gives rise to the following problems for the renewal of Marxist theoretical work.

  1. a.

    If one tries to analyze the developments of the crisis of Marxism from a longer-term perspective, it becomes clear that these cannot be separated from the transformations of the capitalist social formations since the 1970s and the resulting challenges of its reformulation and updating. The lasting significance of Althusser's paradoxical intervention, which stemmed from its immediate historical context, therefore lies in its emphasis on the necessary self-reflective content of the problematization of the scientific, epistemological and political foundations of Marxist-oriented theoretical work in the context of social crises and transformations.

    The self-reflective core of Althusser's (1978) crisis diagnosis, which in my opinion is still valid today, existed first in the statement that the connection claimed by Marxist theories between the critical analysis of capitalist social formations and certain social actors (such as trade unions, socialist / communist parties, the “proletariat”) and the claim to an emancipatory change in society has been torn. This made it clear that there was an increasing gap between Marxist-oriented scientific debates and the concrete and complex social conflicts and movements.

    The second Althusser located the problem, which did not disappear even after the collapse of real socialism, in the question of the extent to which Marxism, as a specific practice of transformative social analysis and criticism, could again be "included" (ibid., P. 57) in violence and authoritarianism ( Demirović 2008), which are exercised in his name and with the legitimation to bring about a general improvement in life for the future. Precisely because Marxist-oriented theoretical work is not limited to the (critical) analysis of society, but claims to relate to the social debates about its change and the actors striving for it, the question arises as to whether their fundamental analysis and criticism strategies are so Can reformulate / construct that they oppose a domination-like appropriation. This affects the production conditions of Marxist theory and the theoretical relationships constituted by them and their relationships to the social disputes in the social formations at central points.

  2. b.

    The second dimension concerns the ability of capitalist social formations to change, which is surprising for (at least some) Marxist approaches, and their ability to overcome social crises, which has manifested itself in a very specific way since the 1970s and counteracted the assumption that their contradictions were deepened in order to overcome them . At the latest with the establishment of neoliberal and neoconservative government projects at the beginning of the 1980s, which flagged the fundamental transformation of the relations of production and the accumulation processes as well as the associated (Keynesian) welfare states, Marxist-oriented analyzes were faced with the problem, no longer those assumed as inevitable Having to explain the crisis and overcoming of capitalism, but rather its transformation and renewal.

    The crisis-ridden transformations of the capitalist mode of production since the 1970s therefore had to be seen as a phase of radical innovations in the productive forces (information and communication technologies, biotechnology, etc.) (Atzmüller 2014, p. 41 ff .; Perez 2012; Freeman and Soete 1997), far-reaching transformations of accumulation processes (transition to financial market capitalism, globalization) (Altvater and Mahnkopf 1996; Lapavitsas 2013) as well as forced valorization processes of non-capitalized areas of society on a global level (land grabbing) (Dörre 2013).

    It turned out to be an essential aspect of the replacement of the Fordist development models that the upheaval in the productive forces, especially in the capitalist centers of the global north, also recorded the labor capacity of the commodity labor power in a specific way (Dörre et al. 2012). The (permanent) adjustment and recomposition of labor capacity in the context of an asserting human capital-centered regulation of wage relations is becoming the subject of changed and specific government technologies, as has been made visible in the debates on the knowledge-based economy (Jessop 2003, 2016).

  3. c.

    Thirdly, the transformations outlined cannot be separated from the changes at the level of political and ideological socialization processes that were based on the implementation of neoliberal and neoconservative hegemony projects. In recent decades, these have proven to be able to interpret social developments and crises from a perspective aimed at dynamising accumulation and to develop extremely flexible but thoroughly coherent political programs from this, to work on the former, to promote and change capitalist social formations to receive electoral support in all (including proletarian) social classes.

    The transformations of the capitalist social formations driven under neoliberal dominance therefore turned out to be a "passive revolution" (Gramsci 1991), since certain moments of popular protest against the Fordist welfare state (e.g. with regard to bureaucratic control mechanisms) and other, patronizing social structures from the neoliberal government projects and could become the engine of social change (Boltanski and Chiapello 2006). By partially including moments of social protest after 1968, neoliberal hegemony projects succeeded in articulating the upheaval of social hierarchies in recent decades with the social crisis tendencies in various social fields (gender relations, migration, sexuality, etc.) that cross class relations and to be denounced as negative effects of the social and political developments since 1968 (Hall 1986; Demirović 2018). In the outlined dynamics of the “passive” revolutionization of capitalist social formations, the relationship between the newly formed social forces and the traditional political and ideological institutional structure was changed. Populist moments of political mobilization became an essential dimension of the crisis-ridden transformation of capitalist social formations, which cannot be limited to right-wing populist movements and parties, but refer to fundamental changes in political processes and the state (Bruff 2013; Davidson and Saull 2017).

Theory work against the crisis of Marxism

On the self-reflexivity of Marxist-oriented theoretical work in times of crisis

The self-critical reflection on the problems of Marxist theoretical work is particularly necessary in societal crises and transformation processes and the resulting difficulties in adequately grasping them, since in the Marxist debates such tendencies were repeatedly reacted to with strategies of dogmatization. The dogmatic self-immunization of their scientific and theoretical assumptions not only makes the critical analysis of social transformation processes impossible, but also allows Marxist ideas of social change to degenerate into formulaic invocations, so that they are less and less able to justify political action. Against this background, can three Identify preconditions for the renewal of Marxist theoretical work.

First Althusser had already stated that the crisis of Marxist-oriented theory formation cannot be answered by uncovering what was originally assumed to be the "purity" and "completeness" of the theory (Althusser 1978, p. 62), which is deformed and deformed by certain forms of theory and practice has been distorted. Secondly It can be assumed that Marxist-oriented theoretical and scientific practice develops in conflict and conflict - that is, in a "scuffle" (Marx 1961b) - precisely because it is incomplete and incomplete. Theoretical dispute is a form of social criticism. Third the renewal of critical social theory (s) must start from the "difficulties, contradictions and gaps" (Althusser 1978, p. 62) of its theoretical and scientific foundations. It is not a matter of asymptotically introducing Marxist-oriented science to a more complete analysis and criticism of capitalist social formations. Rather, the “difficulties, contradictions and gaps” have to be identified and analyzed again and again in consideration of the changes in the respective social formations.

Against the background of these considerations, it should be emphasized that every new reading of the Marxist theory corpus must reflect its historical (and geographical) situationality. Specific reading and reformulation strategies are always developed in dealing with specific social problems and against the background of contemporary debates and cannot be understood as a pure rediscovery of theory. Answering the crisis of Marxist theoretical work with the reconstruction of an assumed actual and original content of Marxian thought therefore runs the risk of constituting an authoritarian theoretical relationship in which, in the truest sense of the word, the (new) Grail guardian of pure teaching about the manner of appropriation and application of theory feel called to judge and thus make critical discussions impossible.

A central answer to these problems in the debates based on Marx is therefore to include the historically (and regionally) specific formation of Marxist approaches and related transformative practices in their incompleteness and incompleteness in the theoretical work (Laclau and Mouffe 1991; Jessop 1990 ). Precisely because Marxist theoretical work is related to processes of social change, its concrete formulation attempts and analyzes cannot claim to fully grasp the totality of society. Rather, the plurality of possible perspectives is a constitutive feature of Marxist-oriented theoretical work. It is therefore necessary not to narrow it down through its theoretical closure (see also: Laclau and Mouffe 1991), but to keep it open and articulated with other approaches and insights .

These provisions also have consequences for the Marxist-oriented understanding of forms of practice that change society and of the subjects fighting for them. These can no longer be used exclusively for certain actors (the Proletariat), forms of organization (the Party) or strategies (the Revolution). Rather, the perspective opens up on a multitude of forms of practice, social movements and subjects that change society (Hirsch 1990; Laclau and Mouffe 1991; Hardt and Negri 2000, 2004; Demirović 2011) (see below).

Marxist theoretical work as an analysis of "many determinations"

The traditionally predominant criticism strategy of many Marxist-oriented approaches was based on the totality of capitalist social formations and their dynamics on a central contradiction, such as on the struggle between the social classes (working class vs. bourgeoisie) or on the assumed effects of the form of goods or the law of value on everyone social areas in order to open up possible transformation perspectives from there. Even if these relationships and dynamics are of central importance in capitalist social formations, Marxist approaches repeatedly run the risk of their relevance to association and social structures and dynamics a Dynamics, a To reduce the axis of power and domination that permeates all areas of society. These were then declared to be the key to a fundamental and action-relevant critique of social totality (Jessop 1990), while all other social processes were analyzed as either contingent and random or only discussed with a view to their (dys) functionality for the fundamental social conditions. Such a reading of Marxist theory doubled the Lukacsian problem in the scientific field, according to which a specific position in the relations of production (in Georg Lukacs that of the proletariat) reveals the social totality and thus the key to the transformation of society becomes visible. The analytical prioritization of a specific contradiction dimension therefore corresponded with specific ideas about the social actors and forms of action of social change.

These ideas have been massively problematized in the last few decades by a series of developments which, in my opinion, have contributed significantly to the crisis of Marxist theoretical work. So after 1968 there was a multiplication of social movements (feminism, anti-racist movements, ecological movement, etc.) and the social disputes and problems articulated with them. The multiplication of the social actors also corresponded with a multiplication of the social areas that became the medium and field of social struggles and no longer only comprised the factory or working conditions or the political organization in parties. In particular, the various areas of social reproduction, such as the gender division of labor in the family household and in care work (Aulenbacher and Dammayr 2014), but also the forms of “collective consumption” organized in the welfare state apparatus, became a field of social struggles. Therefore, the “big” (Boyer and Saillard 2002) or “organic” (Gramsci 1991) crisis of capitalist social formations since the 1970s not only encompassed the accumulation processes and production relations or their (welfare) state embedding. Rather, it also manifested itself in different, non-simultaneous and relatively autonomous crisis tendencies in other social areas and relationships. The dominance of neoliberalism cannot therefore be reduced to the economization and marketization of all areas of life.

In this context, as already indicated above, it is remarkable that especially neoliberal and neoconservative parties and movements succeeded in their political projects to restore the dynamics of capitalist accumulation processes with developments and crises in other areas of society (migration, changes in the gender division of labor, liberalization sexuality, etc.), which cannot be traced back to the class structures of capitalist social formations, and thus to promote fundamental transformations of the capitalist social formations as a whole. The outlined multiplication of the areas of social conflict and crises and the resulting demands on their critical analysis have made it necessary to finally overcome the outlined monistic readings of the dynamics of capitalist social formations. However, this does not mean a break with, but rather requires recourse to Marx. In his (few explicit) methodological considerations (1961a, 1961c), the latter had emphasized that the critical analysis must start from the diversity and complexity of concrete social formations, which are “a combination of many determinations” (Marx 1961a, p. 632).

The concrete is concrete because it is the combination of many determinations, that is, the unity of the manifold. In thinking it therefore appears as a process of synthesis, as a result, not as a starting point, although it is the real starting point and therefore also the starting point of intuition and representation. (Marx 1961a, p. 632)

If one follows these considerations, then the analysis of capitalist social formations cannot simply be developed from the perspective of a relationship that is assumed to be central (the capitalist relationship of production). Rather, concrete capitalist social formations must be understood as a relationship of relationships that mutually transform one another so that their relationships to one another are of central importance and represent a field of social disputes.

Overcoming theoretical monism is therefore an essential prerequisite for even thinking about how the analysis of capitalist relations of production can be conveyed with other social forms and axes of inequality, exploitation and domination, such as gender relations, racism or heteronormativity (Klinger 2007).

From this perspective, the dynamics and crises of capitalist social formations and their management can no longer be understood as the development and intensification of a central contradiction, a dominant dynamic, but rather appear as the concrete and complex interplay of different developments and processes and the associated social struggles. The various crises and the changes in capitalist social formations therefore do not represent a linear and teleological (i.e., for example, heading towards a final crisis) development process. Rather, they are the subject of various social disputes and conflicts, the results of which are contingent and open.

Of course, these considerations also raise problems for understanding social struggles and the social actors constituted by them. In my opinion, these have not yet been solved in a satisfactory manner. Rather, the debates about the upswing of right-wing populist mobilizations and their claim to present themselves as movements of the lower classes and to help the social question against the alleged allegations of feminism, anti-racism, etc. to restore its right, the question of the relationships between the different Relationships of exploitation and domination (e.g. class, gender and racist relationships) that constitute capitalist social formations are updated in a specific way.

The Marxist and socio-critical debates of the last few decades were therefore shaped by the question of taking the multiplication of modes of subjectification and the multiplication of social struggles and movements seriously in order to gain adequate ideas for the renewal of socio-political transformation perspectives. The analysis of the new social movements, the investigation of the diverse social struggles of the multitude, the articulation of various antagonisms in a hegemonic project of radical democracy, etc. therefore represent attempts to combine the diversity of emancipation perspectives and social struggles with the claim to a fundamental change in capitalist social formations (Hardt and Negri 2004; Aulenbacher 2013; Laclau and Mouffe 1991; Demirović 2011).

Reproduction through change

The ability of capitalism to change permanently and to deal with crises through the transformation of the relations of production and the social institutions articulated with them has made the contradictions of the Marxist understanding of the development of the capitalist mode of production visible. On the one hand, Marx and Engels had already presented the dynamics of capitalism in an impressive way in the communist manifesto.

All fixed, rusty conditions with their entourage of time-honored ideas and views are dissolved, all newly formed outdated [...]. Everything standing and standing evaporates, everything sacred is desecrated, and people are finally forced to look at their position in life and their mutual relationships with sober eyes. (Marx and Engels 1959, p. 465)

And in “Capital” too, Marx (1972, p. 511) worked out that the permanent revolutionization of the productive forces represents an essential basis for the expanded reproduction of capitalist relations of production. This had far-reaching consequences for the respective social formations, since it would nullify all “calm, stability, security of the living situation” (ibid.) Of the workers and their families.

On the other hand, the Marxian conceptualization of the reproduction of (capitalist) relations of production also suggests an understanding according to which they and the positions that constitute them are in unchanged Perpetuated in a wise manner and to a certain extent "conserved indefinitely" (Balibar 2015, p. 535). Reproduction appears as an automatic process without a subject (ibid., P. 538).

The capitalist production process, viewed in context, or as a reproduction process, therefore not only produces commodities, not only surplus value, it produces and reproduces the capital relation, on the one hand the capitalist, on the other hand the wage laborer. (Marx 1972, p. 604)

Whether and to what extent the "constant [...] flow of [their] renewal" (ibid., P. 591), to which Marx had referred in "Capital", also changes the relations of production and the agents that constitute them, was determined in Marxist analysis strategies, which, for example, aimed at the alleged deepening of social contradictions, therefore not sufficiently problematized.

A dynamization of the reproduction concept, which can make change visible as a form of movement in the reproduction of capitalist social formations, makes it possible, firstly, to analyze their change and crisis dynamics without embedding them in a teleological model of social developments. Rather, the question arises as to why capitalist social formations despite (or because of) their fundamental contradictions (Hirsch 2005; Aglietta 2000 [1979]) can stabilize historically distinguishable modalities of their reproduction through change and which institutions, social conditions or actors (Lipietz 1992, 1998 ) are included in the regulation of the capitalist production relations and accumulation processes or newly formed in social struggles.

The crisis-like replacement of the Fordist model of development and the transition to financial market capitalism can therefore be understood as the replacement of a historically specific mode of transformation of capitalist social formations and the conflictual implementation of new modes of social reproduction through change. For this reason, the capacity for innovation and adaptability of the capitalist economy and the associated disputes about the reorganization of the social institutional structure based on the exploitation processes have gained massively in importance for two to three decades. From a Marxist perspective, the accelerated innovation dynamics of capitalist economies presents itself as a specific form of movement of their contradictions, which lead to the social conditions that their carriers enter into and the positions and qualities that determine them being confronted with permanent needs for change.

In this context, therefore, a central shift becomes visible, which suggests that the current forms of revolutionizing the productive forces are based on a transformation of the so-called relative production of surplus valueFootnote 6as analyzed by Marx in Capital (1972). The Marxist debates of the twentieth century (for example: Braverman 1977) analyzed the developmental tendencies of capitalist wage labor resulting from the relative production of surplus value as the progressive devaluation and dequalification of the commodity labor, which should ensure the containment and control of (authentic) subjectivity. The transition to “knowledge-based” (Jessop 2003) capitalism in the countries of the global north has changed this in a fundamental way. It is not that capitalism prevents people from developing their abilities and skills is the focus under changed and changing conditions of accumulation, but rather that they are forced to do this permanently in the sense of economic dynamics through learning and other forms of work on themselves change and adapt. The crisis-ridden transformation of the mode of reproduction of capitalist social formations through the permanent revolutionization of the productive forces exposes the subjects and their labor capacity to permanent pressure to change. In these, not least, access to their subjectivity becomes a central element of crisis management (Atzmüller 2015). The ability to adapt, change and learn of the labor capacity transformed into human capital become the medium for implementing changed forms of crisis management. Marxist theory-building is therefore faced with the challenge of conceptualizing the changed practices of social subjectification in the context of far-reaching crisis processes and their processing in order to identify changes in social contradictions and areas of conflict and to be able to examine existing conflicts for their emancipatory content. The traditional ideas of alienated and devalued subjectivity, which in the Marxist-oriented understanding result from the capitalist production relations and the work processes constituted by them, and their liberation by a revolutionary avant-garde no longer apply, since the planning of one's own biography and the training, development and adaptation of the Skills to design and control one's own subjectivity have become a requirement and imposition for a growing number of workers.


The social as well as epistemological developments outlined have put political as well as theoretical and scientific ideas on the defensive, which try to scientifically analyze and justify the need, desirability and possibility of fundamental changes on the basis of a critique of society that is radical to the roots and in this sense their theoretical foundations and assumptions fundamentally shaken. The Marxist debate is therefore faced with the question of the extent to which the dynamics of change and the crisis-prone nature of its subject also make the knowledge-generating “adequacy” (Althusser et al. 2015) of its theoretical concepts and terms precarious.

As analyzed, this did not leave the socio-critical theoretical practice, which is to be understood as a central moment of change processes, untouched. The crisis-ridden transformation made traditional certainties about the connections between change and emancipation precarious, since now "contingency" (Demirović 2003) itself became the central form of movement in the reproduction of social power and domination. This also makes the status of socio-critical theory precarious, as it threatens to permanently lose its status as a systematic knowledge of reality and to disintegrate into a confusing diversity due to the dynamics of change and crisis in real social processes. The transformative capacity of critical and especially Marxist social theories runs the risk of being permanently overtaken. One may object that this is not a new problem, since it is an essential characteristic of capitalist social formations that they reproduce themselves through change and crises. However, this does not change the challenge that Marxist-oriented theoretical work under the current conditions must subject its conceptual and conceptual foundations to a thorough review and, if necessary, revision and further development.

Indeed, historical materialism is intrinsically a historical theory: its categories thus demand revision and development as new historical conditions and situations emerge. Revision is the very life of the Marxian dialectic, and the theory itself demands development, reconstruction, and even abandonment of obsolete or inadequate features as conditions emerge that put tenets of the original theory in question. (Kellner 1995, p. 34)


  1. 1.

    Karl Marx begins “Das Kapital” (1972) with the following sentence: “The wealth of societies in which capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an 'immense accumulation of goods' […]” (1972, p. 49). While this formulation emphasizes the central importance of the capitalist mode of production, it also suggests that the analysis of concrete social formations must encompass more than the mode of production that prevails in it. In the following I will use the more succinct formulation “capitalist social formation”, with which the historical specifics of concrete societies are made visible, as a contradicting and always precarious unit different social relations are to be understood and in which the capitalist production relations are of central but not determining importance (Jessop 1990).

  2. 2.

    Incidentally, this diagnosis and the ensuing debate cannot claim a unique selling point, as it is striking that at the same time Anthony Giddens was experiencing a crisis of the so-called “orthodox consensus” in the social sciences, which he considered the upswing more critical, not least Marxist, but also interpretative and traced back phenomenological approaches, stated (Giddens 1978).

  3. 3.

    But he was neither the first nor the only one (see the analyzes in: van der Linden 2009).

  4. 4.

    The term “Fordism” encompasses the nationally different forms of the socio-economic development model that dominated after 1945 and which fell into a fundamental crisis from the 1970s onwards.

  5. 5.

    Thus, in more orthodox Marxist approaches, capitalism of the second half of the 20th century was defined as monopoly capitalism. This term is based on certain tendencies of capitalist accumulation (concentration) analyzed by Marx in “Capital” and was intended to show the limits of capitalist development dynamics. The term “late capitalism”, as it was developed more in the context of the critical theory of Adorno (2006), indicated in a certain way that capitalism had passed the zenith of its developmental dynamics and that overcoming it had long been possible and necessary.

  6. 6.

    In the case of the relative production of surplus value, to put it simply, it is about increasing surplus value by increasing the productivity of workers by means of new technologies.


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