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, intended to reveal the political face of the economy which had been obscured by bourgeois political economists. The fundamental secret of capitalist production disclosed by Marx—the secret that political economy systematically concealed, making it finally incapable of accounting for capitalist accumulation—concerns the social relation and the disposition of power that obtains between the worker and the capitalist to whom he sells his labour-power. This secret has a corollary: that the disposition of power between the individual capitalist and worker has as its condition the political configuration of society as a whole—the balance of class forces and the powers of the state which permit the expropriation of the direct producer, the maintenance of absolute private property for the capitalist, and his control over production and appropriation. In volume 1 of Capital Marx works his way from the commodity form through surplus value to the ‘secret of primitive accumulation’, disclosing at last that the ‘starting point’ of capitalist production ‘. . . is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production’,footnote1 a process of class struggle and bloody intervention by the state on behalf of the expropriating class. The very structure of the argument suggests that, for Marx, the ultimate secret of capitalist production is a political one. What distinguishes his analysis so radically from classical political economy is that it creates no sharp discontinuities between economic and political spheres; and he is able to trace the continuities because he treats the economy itself not as a network of disembodied forces but, like the political ‘sphere’, as a set of social relations.

This has not, however, been equally true of Marxism since Marx. In one form or another and in varying degrees, Marxists have generally adopted modes of analysis which, explicitly or implicitly, treat the economic ‘base’ and the legal, political, and ideological ‘superstructures’ which ‘reflect’ or ‘correspond’ to it as qualitatively different, more or less enclosed and ‘regionally’ separated spheres. This is most obviously true of orthodox base-superstructure theories. It is also true of their variants which speak of economic, political, and ideological ‘factors,’ ‘levels’ or ‘instances’, no matter how insistent they may be about the interaction of factors or instances, or about the remoteness of the ‘last instance’ in which the economic sphere finally determines the rest. Indeed, these formulations merely emphasize the spatial separation of spheres.

Other schools of Marxism have maintained the abstraction and enclosure of spheres in other ways—for example, by abstracting the economy or the circuit of capital in order to construct a technically sophisticated alternative to bourgeois economics, meeting it on its own ground (and going significantly further than Marx himself in this respect, without grounding the economic abstractions in historical and sociological analysis as he did). The social relations in which this economic mechanism is embedded—which indeed constitute it—are treated as somehow external. At best, a spatially separate political sphere may intervene in the economy, but the economy itself is evacuated of social content and is, as it were, depoliticized. In these respects, Marxist theory has perpetuated the very ideological practices that Marx was attacking—those practices that confirmed to the bourgeoisie the naturalness and eternity of capitalist productive relations.