Conference Report: Marx’s Capital After 150 Years

by Leigh Denholm

Frontier | Autumn Number | Vol. 50, No.12-15, Sep 24 – Oct 21, 2017

From May 24th to 26th, 2017, the Marx Collegium of York University hosted an international conference marking the 150th anniversary of the first English-language publication of Karl Marx’s seminal Capital, Volume 1. Tirelessly organized by Prof Marcello Musto (York University, Canada) and entitled “Marx’s Capital After 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism”, the conference gathered together 27 presenters from 23 universities spread across 8 countries. With 29 presentations across 9 sessions, the following report will focus primarily on four common themes which were recurrent throughout the conference, with only a portion of the presentations discussed here in the interests of brevity and thematization.

The three days of the conference were well contextualized from the opening session, in which Musto, Michael Kraetke (Lancaster University, UK), Tomash Dabrowski (Northwestern University, USA), Babak Amini (London School of Economics, UK), Paula Rauhala (University of Tampere, Finland), Kohei Saito (Osaka City University, Japan), and Seongjing Jeong (Gyeonsang National University, South Korea) held a roundtable discussion on the dissemination and reception of Capital around the world. Attendees were thus oriented from the outset to consider the far-reaching international scope of Marx’s masterwork and its continuing applicability in a wide variety of contexts.

Expropriation of the Expropriators
Perhaps the most surprising of the themes discussed was the reoccurrence of Marx’s concept in the closing section of Volume I, that “the expropriators are expropriated”: surprising in that the concept was used to be distinctly different yet equally fruitful ends. Kevin B Anderson (UC-Santa Barbara. USA) noted it in two of his five discussed ‘notions of revolution’ in Capital Volume I, holding it as a dialectical conclusion of class struggle, wherein the proletariat ascends to free themselves from their former exploitation. In a similar but discrete manner, John Bellamy Foster (University of Oregon, USA) found in the phrase a call to action, a prescriptive that the working class must endeavour to turn the tables on their former abusers, yet in light of the current ecological crisis facing humanity, this outcome is not determined or guaranteed.

Most explicitly, Etienne Balibar (Université Paris-Nanterre, France) leveraged the passage as part of his discussion of some of the problems raised, but not settled, by Marx’s masterwork. Balibar helpfully traced the roots of this particular turn of phrase, making a convincing argument that the precise language used here was a purposeful allusion to both the literature of the French Revolution which so fascinated Marx, and to the prophetic vocabulary of the Book of Isaiah. Noting this lineage, Balibar argued that, while still rooted in the dialectical ‘negation of the negation’, Marx may well have been describing the situation which the bourgeoisie create for themselves, a monster which inevitably turns upon its masters. Reinforcing this perspective, he noted that while this outcome would seem to be the ultimate limit of the capitalist system, Marx does not conclude Volume I here, but instead proceeds to discuss the phenomenon of colonization. Rejecting more common arguments that this organizational method was either a reflection of plans to imminently publish Volumes 2 and 3 or an attempt to evade censorship, Balibar instead suggested that this sequencing was an intentional expression of the inability to reach a firm conclusion; in such a reading, we find Marx suggesting a possible conclusion, but immediately noting another possible outcome, underlining the contingent and unknown nature of what was to come.

Marx’s Late-Life Research
Several presenters discussed the seemingly peculiar course of research Marx pursued in his later life. While Marx’s scientific and mathematical investigations have sometimes been regarding as mere disorganized diversions of an inherently curious mind, these presenters instead suggested that in fact the opposite was the case.

Robert Jessop (Lancaster University, UK) raised the notion of Marx as a polymath, using the framework of Engels’ remarks on Feuerbach having lived through three major scientific discoveries (thermodynamics, the theory of evolution, and the discovery of the cell) to introduce an investigation of the influence of German cell theory on Marx’s formulation of commodities. If I may be permitted a sweeping paraphrase, the cutting edge of German biology was—at the time suggesting that cells, in particular stem cells, were elementary units which led independent lives, yet were influenced by their material contexts, born of previously existing cells, and at the same time were able to change into myriad forms. From this description we can clearly see the similarity to Marx’s discussion of the commodity form, and Jessop reminds us that considering commodities in the light of this allusion allows us a fresh perspective on the centrality of material conditions in particular times and places to the evolution of the commodity form (what Jessop deems “Spatio-Temporal Fixes”.)

Foster likewise noted the biological investigations of Marx’s twilight years, finding in them evidence for Marx’s ecological perspective. Foster argued that Marx’s repeated use of ‘metabolism’ in a literal rather than metaphorical sense shows us that he was purposefully seeking out connected information and a corresponding rooted analysis of the vast and complex interconnected life-system of the world. In this way, then, we are reminded that Marx was not, and cannot be, confined to strict disciplinary limits of economics, political science, or even to the social sciences as a whole; rather, he saw and sought to analyze the implications of the capitalist system for the whole of life on this planet, a global perspective which would be further addressed by the presentations of Seonging Jeong and Immanuel Wallerstein.

The purposeful and acutely relevant nature of Marx’s late-life research was likewise noted by Michael Kraetke (Lancaster University, UK), who connected these seeming diversions to what he argued was Marx’s recognition of the incomplete nature of his analysis, and thus his work in Capital, as we shall see in the next section.

The Unfinished Nature of Capital
Many presenters of course addressed one of the most lingering problems of any serious study of Capital ; that of its unfinished or incomplete nature. While all agreed that such a circumstance by no means invalidates the analysis contained therein, an intriguing refrain was also offered : that the purported ‘incompleteness’ of Capital is in fact one of its strengths.

As noted above, Kraetke argued that Marx’s diverse studies were a reflection of his discomfort with some the inconsistencies and ambiguities found within the published editions. These studies, and the problems which they sought to address, serve today to humanize Marx’s research project, revealing areas of particular struggle and thereby highlighting crucial areas for further work in the contemporary field.

Amplifying this perspective, Balibar also suggested that the unfinished nature of Capital was not merely a product of unfortunate mortality, but that Marx in fact had run into “several incompatible conclusions”; however, this perspective does not render the project valueless, but on the contrary allows us to frame Capital as “problematiz[ing]” a crucial roadmap for potential avenues of research and resistance.

The Continuing Controversy of Class
Several presenters engaged with the enduring debate regarding definitions of class. Silvia Federici (Hofstrata University, USA) criticized what she deemed Marx’s preoccupation with paid industrial work to the neglect of domestic and colonial labour, and noted the contemporary importance of addressing forms of reproductive labour, largely ignored by Marx in Capital, which are not directly tied to commodities such as emotional care and sex. As a result, Federici called for a more holistic conception of class which would reflect such labour.

Himani Bannerji (York University, Canada) likewise took on the masculine conception of the working class, which she finds to be rooted in an implicit division between the economic and biological/cultural in much discussion of Marx; however, she argued that Marx’s analysis can actually aid us in resolving this antinomy. While she noted instances of Marx succumbing to the binary conception he sought to critique, she holds that we are today situated to follow his project through and reunite this division in a truly revolutionary moment.

In light of these discussions, Richard Wolff (The New School, USA) offered a potential resolution in his discussion of competing conceptions of class. In his presentation, Wolff noted how the two most common conceptions of class revolve around either the distribution of property/wealth or power, two criteria which are distinctly not synonymous; in contrast, he suggested that one of Marx’s most important contributions in Capital was a conception of class defined by the production and allocation of surplus. In this definition, the two competing conceptions are united (as surplus both creates wealth/private property, and the allocation thereof is the capitalist expression of power.) In Wolff’s view, this surplus definition of class not only offers an explanation for the failures of 20th century socialism, but also provides a framework to analyze the inequalities of unwaged work in general and household labour in particular. Indeed, the urgency of developing a class analysis that, can adequately address waged, precarious, and un-waged work simultaneously was attested to elsewhere in presentations by Gary Teeple (Simon Fraser University, Canada) and Alfonso Maurizio lacono (University of Pisa, Italy.)

Lastly, I would be remiss not to note Immanuel Wallerstein’s captivating career-spanning closing presentation, a powerful reminder of the power of Capital to form the foundation of contemporary theory and the importance of grappling with the transnational phenomenon of capitalism as a world system itself. This presentation was contextually aided by Seongjing Jeong (Gyeonsang National University, South Korea) who earlier that morning offered a compelling argument as to the centrality of the world system to Marx’s programme, and a reminder of the considerable foresight with which he theorized the global economy.

In all, the diverse and insightful presentations highlighted a variety of voices and perspectives from around the globe, underlining the enduring relevance of Marx’s project as a whole, and Capital in particular. Continued debates around the most accurate and effective manner with which to apply Marx’s conceptions of class and the labour theory of value to the immense increase in financialization and precarity in the 21st century, critical evaluations of the deficiencies which linger in both theories and practices, and timely discussions of the immediate need for action to avert ecological collapse – all evidenced a living, breathing, legacy which continues to evolve and discover itself anew. Further, audience participation through keen questions within the sessions and enthusiastic conversation in the halls marked the conference as a powerful instance of collaboration and rejuvenation as scholars, students, and activists convened to mark this significant anniversary and strive for a better future, together.

Papers Covered in this Report:
Anderson, Kevin B. “Five Explicit and Implicit Notions of Revolution in Capital I, as Seen from a Multilinear, Peripheral Angle.” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University. Canada. May 24-26, 2017.
Balibar, Etienne. “The Expropriators Are Expropriated.” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University, Canada, May 24-26, 2017.
Bannerji, Himani. “An Incomplete Revolution: Reflections on Socializing a Socialist Revolution.” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism. York University, Canada, May 24-26, 2017.
Federicia, Silvia. “Revolution Begins at Home: Rethinking Marx, Reproduction and the Class Struggle.” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University, Canada, May 24-26, 2017.
Foster, John Bellamy. “Marx’s Capital and the Earth: An Ecological Critique of Political Economy”. Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University, Canada, May 24-26, 2017.
Iacono, Alfonso Maurizio. “The Ambivalence of Cooperation”. Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University, Canada. May 24-26, 2017.
Jeong, Seongjin. “Marx on Globalization.'” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University, Canada, May 24-26, 2017.
Jessop, Robert. “Marx on the Economic Cell Form of Capital.” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University, Canada, May 24-26, 2017.
Kraetke, Michael. “Why and in What Respects Marx’s Capital Remained Incomplete.” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University, Canada, May 24-26, 2017.
Teeple, Gary. “Marx On Wages.” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University, Canada, May 24-26, 2017.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. “The Contemporary Relevance of Marx.” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism. York University. Canada, May 24-26, 2017.
Wolff, Richard. “Marx’s New and Different Concept of Class.” Paper presented at Marx’s Capital after 150 Years : Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, York University, Canada. .May 24-26, 2017.

Leigh Denholm received his MA in Sociology from York University in 2017, and is a member of the Marx Collegium at York. His primary research interest is the influence of the philosophy of praxis on social, political, and religious movements, in particular Marxism and the Catholic Church.


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