The intention of Marxism is to provide a theoretical foundation for interpreting the world in order to change it. This is not an empty slogan. It has—or ought to have—a very precise meaning. It means that Marxism seeks a particular kind of knowledge, one which is uniquely capable of illuminating the principles of historical movement and, at least implicitly, the points at which political action can most effectively intervene. This is not to say that the object of Marxist theory is to discover a ‘scientific’ programme or technique of political action. Rather, the purpose is to provide a mode of analysis especially well equipped to explore the terrain on which political action must take place. It can, however, be argued that Marxism since Marx has often lost sight of his theoretical project and its quintessentially political character. In particular, this is so to the extent that Marxists have, in various forms, perpetuated the rigid conceptual separation of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ which has served bourgeois ideology so well ever since the classical economists discovered the ‘economy’ in the abstract and began emptying capitalism of its social and political content.footnote*
Since, however, these conceptual devices do reflect—albeit in a distorting mirror—an historical reality specific to capitalism, a real differentiation of the ‘economy’, an attempt to rescue them from bourgeois ideology and make them illuminate more than they obscure might begin by reexamining the historical conditions that made such conceptions possible and plausible. The purpose of this reexamination would not be to explain away the ‘fragmentation’ of social life in capitalism, but to understand precisely what it is in the historical nature of capitalism that appears as a differentiation of ‘spheres’—in particular, the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’. It may be possible to interpret this historical ‘fragmentation’ in such a way that the ‘fetishism’ of capitalist categories can be overcome, but without obscuring the historical realities they reflect.
The differentiation of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ is, of course, not simply a theoretical but a practical problem. There is perhaps no greater obstacle to socialist practice than the separation of economic and political struggles which has typified modern working class movements. If this obstacle were, as many revolutionary socialists have contemptuously suggested, merely the product of a misguided, ‘underdeveloped’, or ‘false’ consciousness on the part of the working class, it might be easier to overcome. The tenacity of working class ‘economism’, however, derives precisely from its correspondence to the realities of capitalism and the ways in which capitalist appropriation and exploitation actually do divide the arenas of economic and political action, and actually do transform certain essential political issues—struggles over domination and exploitation that historically have been inextricably bound up with political power—into distinctively ‘economic’ issues. This ‘structural’ separation may, indeed, be the most effective defense mechanism available to capital.
If, therefore, the object of Marxist theory is to shed light on the terrain of political action, it can neither ignore these historical realities nor ratify them by entrenching the separation of economics and politics that has served capitalism so well in theory and practice. Instead, it should explain precisely how and in what sense capitalism has driven a wedge between the economic and the political—how and in what sense essentially political issues like the disposition of powers to control production and appropriation, or the allocation of social labour and resources, have been cut off from the political arena and displaced to a separate ‘sphere’.
Karl Marx presented the world in its political aspect, not only in his explicitly political works but even in his most technical economic writings. His critique of political economy was, among other things,