The Neue Marx-Lektüre

Putting the critique of political economy back into the critique of society

RP 189 () / Article

The project to re-examine Marx’s critique of political economy at the end of the 1960s by pupils of Horkheimer and Adorno is nowadays known as the Neue Marx-Lektüre (hereafter NML). This ‘new reading of Marx’, initiated principally by Alfred Schmidt, Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt, attempted to free Marx from the petrified schemes of Marxist orthodoxy. In this article we will try to reconstruct the beginnings of this project, tracing its roots to Adorno’s critical theory of society. From this perspective we will proceed to examine NML’s original approach to Marx’s theory of value, its understanding of the ‘logical’ character of this theory, and how the contradictions of the commodity form and the double character of labour constitute an autonomization of society. Finally, we will outline some problems with NML, where criticism and further dialogue would be fruitful.

The birth of the Neue Marx-Lektüre

According to many interpretations of Marx, he proposed a labour theory of value which revised that of Ricardo. These interpretations tend to focus on the first two sections of the first chapter of Capital, leaving the sections about the form of value and the fetish character of the commodity to play a supplementary role. According to this approach, Marx first looks at the commodity as both ‘use-value’ and ‘exchange-value’. Then he argues that behind exchange-value there must be something common to commodities that are exchanged, which grounds their commensurability – that is, ‘value’. Finally, he connects this value to labour. This may appear complete; however, if we stop here we miss the whole point of Marx’s theory of value.

What actually distinguishes Marx’s critique of political economy from the economic theories before him, as well as those after him, is the theory of the form of value. Marx’s critique of political economy tries to answer the following questions. Why value? Why is value nothing but an expression of labour? What are the conditions of possibility of the existence of value, which is an ‘objective social dimension’, according to which commodities are exchanged? And why does the content of value (i.e. labour) take on the form of a thing – that is, money? [1] These questions, which can be found more or less explicitly in Capital and in the preparatory works for Capital (at least from the Grundrisse), were, with very few exceptions, not seriously addressed by Marx’s followers and interpreters.

This changed in the 1960s with the contributions of Backhaus, Reichelt and Schmidt. Emerging from the Frankfurt School at the height of its postwar influence on the New Left, they contributed decisively to the revitalization of the (West) German study of Marx. The general issues raised were Marx’s relationship with Hegel, the continuity or not of his value theory with political economy, the nature of his materialism, and so on. But at the heart of these issues was the radicalization of Marx’s break with classical political economy, especially that of Ricardo, and the resulting break that this induced with classical Marxism. A new heterodox reading of Marx emerged. [2 ]

Backhaus can be considered as the initiator of NML. In 1965 he held a seminar as part of Adorno’s course at the University of Frankfurt. Under Adorno’s influence, he elaborated the essential elements of a new interpretation of Marx. Four years later he published the best known and most widely translated of his essays, ‘On the Dialectics of the Value-form’. This was the blueprint of the research programme that became NML. Backhaus saw in the established reception of Marx’s critique of political economy a collapse of Marx’s theory of value into that of Ricardo, and a consequent misunderstanding of the specifically Marxian approach to political economy.

These misunderstandings included: treating Marx’s dialectical ‘method of presentation’ as mere wordplay or the logical mirroring of a historical process; and treating his argument about the form of value as a historical-logical overview of the emergence of money, or simply ignoring it altogether. As Backhaus put it: ‘The “economistic” interpretation …is bound to miss the critical intention of Marx’s value theory: the “Critique of Political Economy” is made into one economic theory beside many others.’ [3] But Backhaus also made clear that this misunderstanding of Marx’s conception of form is not a simple failure to …