Review: Critical Theory and the critique of Political Economy

Review: Critical Theory and the critique of Political Economy

Critiquing the Critiques – Werner Bonefeld’s new book analyses the relationship between Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy with a particular focus on the ‘New Reading’ of Marx, that arose in Germany in the aftermath of 1968[1]


For those unfamiliar with Werner Bonefeld’s[2] work over the last three decades this book will be very useful. It lays out all the constituent elements of it in a compact but nonetheless rigorous fashion. His distinctive perspective on issues ranging from critical theory to anti-Semitism, and the social constitution of society via a unity-in-separation of subject and object, as well as what it means to be anti-capitalist.

The book is structured into four sections and three chapters within these sections. There is also an introductory chapter. There are introductions and conclusions to the sections, which give clarity to many of the ideas discussed, and the aims of what is being analysed. Despite the numerous topics and relative short length of the book, it flows well with no sections feeling out of place. Each chapter feeds into the next and there is no feeling of disjuncture. As noted, the book deals with numerous topics. My intention is to provide the reader with an overview and description of some of these.

Why critical theory? What is critical about critical theory? These are just two of the central questions this book aims to understand. It develops and reaffirms the importance of critical theory as the only true critical theory of society. Drawing his distinction between critical and traditional theories of society Bonefeld develops arguments in relation to political economy, arguing that many Marxist thinkers have failed to fully embrace a critical conception of capitalist society. This leads to what the author believes to be problematic and non-critical understandings of political economy.

Critiquing Economics

Against the grain of the classical Marxist tradition, I argue that the critique of political economy amounts to a critique of ontological conceptions of economic categories, including the category of labour as a trans-historically conceived activity that defines the human metabolism with nature in abstraction from society. The origin of this critique goes back to the early Frankfurt School challenge to the orthodox Marxist tradition, and it was later taken up by the so-called new reading of Marx that developed in Germany in the aftermath of the 1968 student movement.[3]

Bonefeld engages in a critique of both classical political economy and more traditional Marxian economics. His argument rests on the notion that any critique of political economy must engage in a sustained critique of economic theory as some form of natural law. Economic objectivity lies not with any trans-historical laws of development but rather with the social constitution of society. As he argues

the categories of capitalist political economy are the categories of definite social relations and are thus immanent to the actual relations of life’[4].

The argument here reflects the strong anti-teleological aspect of critical theory. The basis of classical political economy lies in the prescribed idea of general laws of economic development that assume a pattern that inevitably leads to the present. Thus a conception of society as naturalised. Economic theory does not question how things actually come to be, it simply takes them as they are. Thus the age-old argument of every Young Conservative I’ve ever met, that to criticise capitalist relations is to somehow critique human nature.

Critical theory accords primacy to the social relations that govern in and through society, not above it. The idea is that ‘however objective in its nature, economic nature is in its entirety a socially constituted nature’[5]. The critique of political economy must therefore negate any notion of ‘economic categories as naturally appearing things’ and dissolve their natural appearance as nothing more than a socially necessary illusion that forms the ideology of present society. To critique society means to not only critique its appearance but to understand the basis of how this appearance takes form. If one accepts the existence of economic categories as natural then the critique will reflect this acceptance. How then can political economy be truly negated if the basis of its existence is accepted?


The critique of the traditional schools of Marxism developed by critical theory and the New Reading based itself around challenging many preconceived understandings in Marxism. In doing so, it made no bones about noting the ambivalences in Marx’s work or its disagreement with revered figures such as Engels. If critical theory was to be truly critical then it must be within its own tradition as well as towards capitalism. It therefore opened up the reinterpretation of the prescribed understandings of ideas like dialectics, historical materialism, value and abstract labour that had dominated the Second and Third internationals along with the later Moscow-approved Official Communist philosophy. Bonefeld develops many of the arguments made by critical theory and the New Reading but provides his own nuanced understanding of ideas within the critique of political economy. He develops critiques of leading figures associated with the New Reading such as Hans Georg Backhaus[6], Helmut Reichelt[7] and Moishe Poistone[8].

The New Reading removed many of the dogmatic concerns of Marxism yet for Bonefeld it focused too much on the value-form, it thus failed to fully appreciate the conditions that allow exchange relations to take place[9]. The argument here rests on the notion that in order for capitalist social relations to take place, certain circumstances must be in place to allow this to happen. One must be in a position to sell his or her labour while the other must be in a position to buy his or her labour time with an eye to making profit. Exchange existed before capitalism yet the form it takes in the present relies upon the pre-condition of those two classes finding themselves in that position to enter into an exchange. As he notes:

‘The circumstance that the capitalist exchange relations comprise an exchange between unequal values in the form of value equivalence requires explanation. The exchange relations cannot be fully established without a critical theory of abstract labour, class and class antagonism. The attempt to do so substitutes the critique of the actual social relations for a logical development of the value form as some secularised thing that is valid in itself, as if value posits more value just like that, without certificate of birth’[10]

This specific insight is what to my mind marks out this book in terms of its criticism of the New Reading and its focus on the value-form. It does not deny the importance of the value-form but rejects the central focus put upon it by those associated with the New Reading. Engaging this particular point is somewhat difficult for non-German speakers such as me, as I am reliably informed that a majority of the material is untranslated into English. What can be asserted is this focus on class antagonism makes up the core backdrop of this work; all the major points developed in this book emerge from this insight, ‘class antagonism is the critical concept of a capitalist society’[11].

Primitive Accumulation

Regarding primitive accumulation, the book presents a highly original insight against the traditional conceptions of the idea. Primitive accumulation is understood as the distinct period of transition from pre-capitalism to capitalism[12], Bonefeld argues against this pre-written ideal of capitalist development seeing it as highly deterministic. This reiterates the critique of teleology discussed earlier, ‘the past does not contain the future as its unfolding destiny. Rather, the present contains the past, and it is the present that reveals the significance of the past as the historical foundation of the existing social relations’[13].

The development of this argument is premised again on critiques of exiting Marxist accounts and the primacy of class. Primitive accumulation can only be primitive from the standpoint of capitalist accumulation. Its necessity exists not in the past but in the present where it is described as a period necessary for later developments as if it was predetermined. In order for capitalist accumulation to explain its existence, it evokes an historical objectivity that divorces the human basis of such developments as if they existed beyond our action. This once again negates the primacy of class antagonism as the foundation and central conception of capitalist society.


The final section deals with anti-capitalism. The chapter speaks more broadly to the ‘Left’ and the proponents of modern anti-capitalism. This by no means involves a dumbing down, but rather the ideas discussed should be familiar to anyone with experience in Socialist or anti-capitalist politics. The chapter contains a critique of anti-capitalism that presents a strong criticism of the personification of capital. This criticism deflects from critiquing capitalism as a system but rather places responsibility on the heads of individuals or groups of people. Marx’s insight that his critique was not ‘to make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them’[14] remains as valid then as it is now. Bonefeld draws upon this to note how many modern anti-capitalists are drawn into bizarre justifications in the name of opposing capital. These range from providing support to organisations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in the name of opposing imperialism, and on the domestic front laying the blame of current crisis on groups of people such as bankers and the elites.

At its core the personification of capital leads not to a critique of capitalism but rather excuses its excesses on the basis of bad management, “If things had been done correctly then we wouldn’t be in this mess” is hardly the most piercing of criticisms but it seems to have dominated most debates since the recent crisis erupted. The specific causations of the crisis remain important but as Bonefeld rightly asserts capitalism is a system based upon crises, its very foundation rests upon this. The understanding of the current crisis as caused by the overzealous nature of certain groups in society fails to grasp this fundamental point. That does not mean to say sit back and just allow crises to unfold as inevitable. To truly resist crises one must resist capitalism as the form of society that allows crises to cause such misery and destitution.

The personification of capitalism represents a frustration at capitalism that leads to badly rationalised arguments about the state of things. At its worst, this can lead to the demonization of specific ethnic and religious groups of people, most notably anti-Semitism. The closing section of the final chapter engages in an argument regarding the characterisation of the Jews as the powerful other that controlled money capital. The perceived conflict between finance capital and labour provides an interesting read. The basic point of this chapter reiterates Adorno and Horkeimer’s argument from Dialectics of Enlightenment[15] regarding the character of anti –Semitism during the Nazi period. The argument has seemingly lost none of its potency and is well presented and argued by Bonefeld.


It could easily be assumed, as is often the case with critical theory, that an account such as this, with its focus on negation and critique, leads to a blind alley in terms of proposing forms of struggle in the present. I reject this point completely; the promise of a new tomorrow must be premised on a complete critique of society in its present form. To my mind there can be no argument against this point. This works seems to reiterate that in a in a well-developed theoretical manner; the analysis and critique are incredibly persuasive and potent. There are no punches pulled in his engagement with the supporters of capitalism and its opponents from within Marxism, I feel there will be many debates to be had regarding its content. The premise of a new tomorrow for Bonefeld lies with the realisation of negation in the struggle against existing society; the promise of tomorrow lies with the rejection of society, as it exists. This means a complete negation. To say no as an individual is a difficult thing but to say it as a class in unity could bring the curtain down on capitalism. The reality of communism exists with this negation.

Overall, this book was a very rewarding read. It brings together a large array of ideas and provides devastating critiques of both capitalism and some of its Marxist critics. The book will no doubt appeal to those most associated with left communist ideas. That said, in a period where criticisms of capitalism have taken on no more than a dismal rejection of it as an unfair system ran by elites and corporations, I feel it is a must read for any person who considers themselves Marxist or anti-capitalist. Werner Bonefeld restates the fundamentals of the critique of political economy and provides us with a highly engaging and important piece of work.


[1] See Ingo Elbe’s Between Marx, Marxism and Marxisms – Ways of Reading Marx’s Theory for a useful account of the New Reading and how it differs from traditional approaches
[3]Bonefeld, W. 2014 p.3
[4] Ibid p.41
[5]Bonefeld p.2
[6] See Open Marxism volume 1 Backhaus, H. ‘Between Philosophy and Science: Marxian Social Economy as Critical Theory’. Link here
[7] See Open Marxism volume 3 Reichelt, H. ‘Why did marx conceal his dialectical method?’ Link here
[8] See Postone, M. ‘Time, Labour and Social Domination (Cambridge, CUP) 1996.
[9] Bonefeld p.42
[10] Ibid p.42
[11] Ibid p.22
[12] Ibid p,80
[13] Ibid p.80
[14] See Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, vol 3 (London, 1972) p.252
[15] Adorno, T and Horkeimer, M. Dialectic of Enlightenment (London, Verso) 1972.


Critical Theory and the critique of Political Economy – On Subversion and Negative Reason – Werner Bonefeld (2014) Bloomsbury, London.

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