More on ‘the new reading of Marx’

August 24th, 2012

“One of the consequences of the work of repression undertaken by the left was that many appropriated for themselves the reformulation that Michael Heinrich was proposing in the context of a ‘new reading of Marx’ which promised to furnish a refutation of the radical theory of crisis”.

Robert Kurz in Crise Mondiale et Ignorance (World Crisis and Ignorance), A collection of articles published in Vie et Mort du Capitalisme, Editons Lignes 2011 (Paris).

Full text available in German since January 2009 at

25 Responses to “More on ‘the new reading of Marx’”

  1. D. Ware Says:

    Whoa, purely in terms of factual accuracy, that’s just wrong.

    “New Reading of Marx” (“Neue Marx-Lektüre”) is the term for an actual research direction that began with Hans-Georg Backhaus and Helmut Reichelt in the late-60s and early-70s, a tradition that other researchers also stand in the tradition of (see Footnote number 2 of Heinrich’s Capital Introduction).

    I believe Backhaus was the first to refer to this school in those terms, and Ingo Elbe later used it as a broad term to refer to the “reconstruction” and “state derivation” debates of the 1970s.

    I don’t even think Kurz was in the MLPD during that time period, let alone developing his school of “Wertkritik”. The latter first started developing in the mid-1980s with the journal “Marxistische Kritik” (the forerunner to crisis).

    So in factual terms, the NML is not a response to any “theory of crisis”; it’s a school of Marx exegesis that long predates Kurz’s engagement with the critique of political economy.

    Did Kurz really write that? That’s sad. I’ve never known him to be dishonest before. Polemically excessive, yes, but never dishonest.

    It takes a real egomaniac to think that a school of thought developed a full decade-and-a-half before his own writings was somehow a response to him.

    P.S. Is this going to be what your engagement with Heinrich consists of? A bunch of little bite-sized tidbits with no argumentative substance? That’s disappointing. You guys were beating your chests like it was gonna be some all-out, hardcore critique.

    For starters, have you read the book? Maybe start by just discussing that. That’s usually how actual critique functions.

  2. Says:

    Kurz was not lying, nor was he an egomaniac. Seriously. Look again.

    The PD Editor in chief writes: Michael Heinrich has done one good thing – he has retranslated the ‘fragment on machines’ from Marx’s Grundrisse accurately. Instead of ‘production based on exchange value breaks down‘, as rendered by Martin Nicolaus (1973, Penguin edition, p705) Heinrich has put ‘collapses’. That is the only good thing in Heinrich’s book on the 3 volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital…

  3. Jules Guesde Says:

    I haven’t read much Kurtz so I don’t really understand what he means by the repression of the left, especially in reference to a radical theory of crisis. Does he mean that Heinrich and others are repressing the fact that we have entered into some cataclysmic final crisis? Is that your big beef with Heinrich?
    Cuz from my perspective, from what I’ve read, it seems like Heinrich’s point is potentially more radical–i.e. what is happening is not some final crisis but capital as usual. If anything it seems like talk of a radical crisis might be repressing this and substituting it with some sorta of thanatos laden wish fulfillment.

  4. Barry Sheen Says:

    What is this thing with ‘Colonel’ Kurz?

  5. Says:

    It’s KURZ not KURTZ.

    Come on Jules…think about it. Go take a look at your Sun Tzu again…

  6. Jules Guesde Says:

    Sorry. The idea of this final crisis must have caused my subconscious to substitute Kurtz with Kurz. Are you telling me he didn’t pen his columns whilst wiping sweat off his head and chanting–the horror, the horror.

    I had a look for Kurz’s account of this radical theory of crisis. All I could find were a few articles where he referred to it. Is there anything available in English I should check out? if not are you translating it?

    I certainly hope his article amounts to more then: (a) everything is fucked or (b) capitalism will eventually break down due to some sort of ecological cataclysm. Because you seem to imply that he has some intricate reading of Marx that has deciphered the march of history through the systematic collapse of capitalism. Whereas I think the Heinrich intro makes an interesting case–based on historical evidence–that these kind of crises are constitutive of the systematic function of capitalism. I’d also venture to say that your boys Postone and Adorno would firmly back Heinrich on this one.

  7. Says:

    Translations etc. will be available in time for the London anarchist bookfair in October. Details to follow.

    Kurz certainly distances himself from ‘ecological cataclysm’ theories – see the recent post with a fragment from the French translators Q & A.


  8. Jules Guesde Says:

    I wasn’t trying to imply ‘ecological cataclysm’ but it does seem that he also points to it as an external limit here

  9. Chris Wright Says:

    @D. Ware
    I don’t think Kurz was misrepresenting anything.

    ““One of the consequences of the work of repression undertaken by the left was that many appropriated for themselves the reformulation that Michael Heinrich was proposing in the context of a ‘new reading of Marx’ which promised to furnish a refutation of the radical theory of crisis”.”

    I read this in the sense that Heinrich was proposing a reformulation, “in the context of a ‘new reading of Marx’”, which promised to furnish a refutation of the radical theory of crisis.

    Thus, it is Heinrich’s reformulation which promised a refutation of crisis theory, within the NM-L tradition. I don’t think that is terribly controversial since then Kurz is arguing that Heinrich is responding in his work to wertkritik, not the entire NM-L going back to Backhaus, to which Kurz himself has paid his respects and acknowledged his debt.

  10. Ellen Leinwand Says:


    that makes slightly more sense, but it’s still not accurate.

    The first edition (published by VSA) of Heinrich’s _Science of Value_ came out in 1991 (and most of it was probably written and prepared years earlier, since it’s Heinrich’s doctoral thesis).

    I have the 5th printing from Dampfboot Verlag, so I don’t know how changed it is from the VSA edition; Kurz’s “Himmelfahrt des Geldes” is mentioned in the literature list, but that’s about it, and keep in mind, that article by Kurz was written in 1995, so it’s literally impossible for it to have played a role in the writing of “Science of Value.” So Kurz’s work probably played no role in the writing of the book (keep in mind, Kurz only came to publicistic prominence when Eichborn Verlag published “Collapse of Modernization).

    About 50 pages of “Science of Value” — give or take — are devoted to crisis theory and the FROP. Out of a book of a total of 411 pages. Most of the book is not devoted to crisis theories at all, but rather to delineating Marx’s break with classical political economy.

    “Egomaniac” was probably a bit too much of a polemical exxcess toward Kurz, but he definitely does seem to have this weird paranoia that any value-form theoretical approach to Marx outside of Krisis/Exit constitutes some kind of affront to Krisis/Exit.

    If anything, almost the opposite seems to be the case: pretty much the entirety of Kurz’s final book is devoted to Heinrich. That strikes me as a bit odd, since I think IMHO the best and most thorough critique of Kurz from the perspective of the NML comes from Ingo Elbe. So, and I say this with all due respect and not to be a jerk, there’s definitely something of a Captain Ahab dynamic going on there.

  11. Chris Wright Says:

    Most of this is no doubt my lack of awareness of the German scene.

    Is the comment taken in the context of a reference to “Science of Value”?

    Do Kurz, et al see themselves as part of a larger tradition of crisis theory, e.g. Grossman, Mattick, etc.? Does Kurz see Heinrich’s work as against that?

    All of this sound-bite sized material seems unhelpful, as well.

    At the same time, I think it is better to read people as if they meant the strongest/most generous reading, if for no other reason than then one’s critique is on the firmest ground.

  12. Ellen Leinwand Says:


    I just took a quick glance at my copy of _The Science of Value_, and right in the Preface it says:

    “The text of the first edition of this book was written between 1987 and 1990.”

    So yeah, it’s extremely doubtful that formulating any kind of “refutation” of Kurz played any role in Heinrich’s work.

    Remember, “The Collapse of Modernization” came out in 1991, the same year of Heinrich’s book. Very few people even knew who Kurz was before “Collapse” came out.

  13. Ellen Leinwand Says:


    Chris, it’s also inaccurate to say that Kurz “pays his respects” or acknowledges any kind of debt to Backhaus and Reichelt. Not at all. Judging by the newest book, he puts them squarely in the position of the anti-substantialism of the NML, and attacks them accordingly. He basically argues that Heinrich makes explicit the “errors” that Kurz presumes to perceive in the work of Backhaus and Reichelt.

    Kurz basically comes out and says that there aren’t any affinities between the NML and “Wertkritik”, but rather regards the former as the latter’s biggest “competitor” in terms of value- and fetish- oriented readings of Marx.

  14. Ellen Leinwand Says:

    (somewhat long historical background post warning)

    “Is the comment taken in the context of a reference to “Science of Value”?”

    It seems to me to be intended in the context of referring to Heinrich or himself, or his work as a whole, which is odd, since the “Wertkritik” of the Nuremberg school doesn’t really play any role in his work.

    Heinrich has written three books, one a book of top-notch Marx scholarship (“Science of Value”), and the other two popular expositions of Capital (the one on all three volumes, which has been translated into English, as well as another one which is a commentary on the beginning chapters of Vol. I)

    None of these books are an engagement with Kurz or the ideas of the “Wertkritik” school. That isn’t their function. One of them briefly mentions Krisis (the Capital introduction), but only as a passing mention, briefly noting that there have been schools of thought adhering to a notion of the collapse of capitalism.

    A long time ago — back in 1999 — there was a conference at the University of Vienna where Heinrich sat at the same podium as the Krisis folks, and there was a debate about collapse theory. This debate was extended into a few print exchanges, between Heinrich and Norbert Trenkle. But that’s kind of par for the course for those kind of intellectual changes. But Heinrich was never known for being any kind of special opponent of the Krisis group. Quite the opposite: if I recall correctly, Trenkle even praised “Science of Value.”

    In fact, when I started reading Heinrich, I think the most prominent public intellectual conflict was with Wolfgang Fritz Haug of Das Argument, who kind of is an advocate of a traditional “Engelsian” reading (i.e. Chapter One as a historical tracing of the genesis of money, etc.). In the social milieu of radical-left/Antifa/student/etc. circles at the time, I think Heinrich vs. Haug was considered a notable controversy.

    Nobody talked about Robert Kurz at the time, since his star had already considerably waned (it didn’t help that Kurz had made a big point of refusing to write on principle for most radical leftist publications at that point).

    I think Kurz’s big attack on Heinrich’s work really began when the little Capital introduction started becoming something of a leftist best-seller. At the time, the magazine Wildcat correctly noted that with a reading of Marx that was focused on value and fetish, Heinrich was occupying a place in the general left public that had previously been occupied by Krisis. Up until then, the Neue Marx-Lektüre had primarily been an academic discussion, but by writing a popular Capital introduction that sold very well, I think Heinrich brought renewed attention to it, to the point where the NML reading of Capital is sort of the most prominent one in Germany (for example, the Teamers of the Capital reading groups at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation tend to adhere to a NML reading).

    So on the one hand, I can understand why Kurz regarded it as something of a priority to formulate a critique of Heinrich, since a renaissance of the Neue Marx-Lektüre sort of took on the role of being not only *the* value- and fetish- oriented reading, but also *the* reading, period (which is why a lot of Trad-Marxists from classical M-L milieus also mounted critiques of Heinrich).

    But where Kurz goes badly off the rails is in attributing the ascendancy of the NML to some sort of psychological act of “repression” against crisis theory. That’s just absurd. There are plenty of crisis theorists within the German left who are outside of the Krisis/Exit school. The aforementioned Wildcat, for starters. The “Friends of the Classless Society” and other ultra-left groups seem also to have crisis theories that look a lot like collapse theories to me, or at the very least, FROP theories.

  15. Ellen Leinwand Says:

    (continued from previous comment)

    But even if those groups have theories of crisis that are in some ways similar to Exit or Krisis, I think the ideological shibboleths of small left groups (for example, the terminological refusal of “class struggle” by the Wertkritik school, even though in practice they still voice support for strikes and whatnot) guarantees that there is no acknowledgments of commonalities.

  16. Ellen Leinwand Says:

    One more point regarding this talk of “repression” that I think is very relevant:

    until his passing, Kurz had a regular column in Neues Deutschland, a daily newspaper that used to be the official party daily of the SED back in GDR times, and which is now independent but closely aligned with the realpolitical wing of Die Linke.

    After Kurz passed, the traditional Marxist Harry Nick wrote a very warm remembrance of Kurz.

    So it’s just not the case that there has ever been any act of “repression” against Kurz or the Nuremberg school. Not at all.

    There was a stretch between 2003-2011 where Kurz refused to write for many prominent left publications (Konkret, Jungle World, iz3w, Phase 2) on the grounds that they allegedly refused to give him adequate space to respond to the Anti-Germans, but this was just a case of Kurz shooting himself in the foot and cutting himself off from potential audiences. Toward the end of his life, he started appearing Konkret again, so he probably realized what a mistake this self-imposed exile from many print media was.

    So nobody ever “repressed” Kurz or the Exit/Krisis school. I think Kurz just couldn’t handle the fact that they were other value- and fetish- oriented readings of Capital, and that one would eventually establish itself as the predominant one, a position I guess Kurz would have like to occupy.

  17. Says:

    Kurz devoted his life to analysing and explaining the capitalist system’s contradictions. He bequeathed us an incredible array of articles and books, outlining in some staggering detail both a methodology and an intricate theoretical range of ideas, on how to fight back against capitalist society.

    But Neg Pot ignores all of this and indulges in amateurish and breathless trainspotting reports of what might or might not be true – gossip, tittle tattle, flim flam. Nothing here actually adds to the task of helping to create a collective knowledge we can use against the system. As usual. Pathetic.


  18. Ellen Leinwand Says:

    Stop moving the goalposts. You posted a quotation by Kurz making the utterly untrue assertion that Heinrich’s work is intended as some kind of “refutation” of Kurz, and I simply provided information that this is not true.

    Stop being so thin-skinned about your idols. In fact, don’t have idols at all. It’s downright religious.

  19. Chris Wright Says:


    RE: Kurz, Heinrich, etc. in the German scene, I couldn’t say. Your point about whether or not Heinrich was responding to Kurz seems reasonable enough. Thank you for the detail.

    I think it would be interesting to see something develop on these pages re: crisis theory in its various forms. I am personally against a ‘theory of collapse’, and thus generally against Grossman and Mattick, Krisis/Exit!, Roman Rosdolsky, Rosa Luxemburg, etc. and their proponents of their various theories of crisis.

    I think the correct way to think of the problem is brought up by Postone with his “treadmill effect”, but also by the Internationalist Communist Group in very similar terms.

    A broader discussion of this would have to take up substantialist vs. non-substantialist notions of value, substantialist vs. non-substantialist concepts of money (commodity money theory vs. a “money-form” concept?), and of course an explanation of capitalism after 1945.

  20. Ellen Leinwand Says:

    Yeah, I definitely agree that a lot of the support for the theory of collapse hinges upon substantialist vs. non-substantialist conceptions of value.

    I don’t know about the other collapse theorists you name, but the Exit/Krisis milieu tends to argue in a way that suggests the absorption of human labor- power in the production process is somehow the aim of capitalist production. (if you want me to pick out some passages by Kurz that are typical in this regard, I can go dig through my library)

    I think that’s wrong both in a systemic sense and in terms of methodological individualism (i.e. individual capitalists are not out to suck up as much human labor-power as possible).

    This is a conception Marx implicitly mocks at the very beginning of Capital, when he mentions that if this were the case, then a very slow or inept carpenter would create more wealth than an efficient one.

    I think Freddy Perlman gets it exactly right in his introduction to Rubin’s _Essays_: Marx’s value theory is a theory of **how** labor is allocated among different branch of productions in capitalism; and the entirety of Capital, from Vol. I to Vol. III, traces the myriad processes involved in the operation of the system. “Value” as a category expresses at a deep level a social relationship that is an emergent property of the various operations and activities by human beings analyzed by Marx.

    Whereas when I say that Exit/Krisis are Ricardian, I mean that they seem to not conceive of value as an abstract social relationship expressed __through__ the various categories of Capital, but rather as some hidden “substance” of wealth that is somehow occluded by those categories. And consistently with this conception of value, they are thus led to the conclusion that the aim of capital accumulation must somehow be to absorb as much physical labor-power in the production process as possible.

    This is a real fault of their inability to regard all of Marx’s categories as being of equal importance; the categories in Vol. I are not “primary” while the categories in Vol. II and Vol. III (or even just the later categories of Vol. I) are merely somehow “secondary”, “derived” categories (this is the core of Gerhard Hanloser’s — of Wildcat — critique of Kurz). Rather, the various volumes trace the process of capital accumulation through different levels of abstract. I agree with the theorists who advance the notion of a “circular movement” of Marx’s presentation in Capital: ultimately if Marx completes his account, then we return all the way back to the commodity, but not to the simply commodity of Chapter One, but rather the commodity enriched by the various more concrete determinations of the subsequent volumes.

    When Ingo Elbe and Sven Ellmers criticize the “mysticism” of the Nuremberg school, they are pointing out this unwillingness to take in all of Marx’s categories. By failing to see how categories are unfolded from previous ones, the Exit/Krisis school mistakenly believe Capital constitutes some kind of logical contradiction with ontological status (along the lines of “labor is the substance of wealth, but the capitalist is determined to reduce the amount of labor in the production process”). But what is in fact “dialectical” in Marx’s account is precisely how “contradictions” are resolved by the introduction of further categories (the capitalist is not interested in the socially necessary labor-time involved in the production of a commodity, but rather the surplus generated above and beyond this level of social necessity).

  21. Ellen Leinwand Says:

    P.S. on the “money commodity” vs. “state money” debate, I find the partisans of “money commodity” odd on two counts:

    1) they seem to have succumbed to what Marx calls the “money fetish”, namely the misapprehension that money is money due to some inherent quality of representing value, rather than because all other commodities express their value in it.

    2) the whole argumentation seems unfalsifiable in a “heads I win, tails you lose” kind of way. If capitalism has existed for the last 40+ years without a money commodity, then money somehow really isn’t money (this seems idealistic and normative), and therefore capitalism must be shortly before its collapse. But if capitalism still goes no in the future, for decades and decades, then it’s still in a state of collapse, but it’s collapse has somehow been averted by state monetary policy. But if that’s the case, then in a real sense, there is literally no way of distinguishing between a “normal” capitalism that is always prone to crisis vs. a capitalism that was supposed to have collapse but somehow manages to keep chugging along due to state intervention. For all practical purposes and to our perception, they would be the same thing, with no way of really verifying which it is.

  22. Ellen Leinwand Says:

    P.P.S. One issue I think should be addressed from an anti-substantialist perspective is the notion of “productive” vs. “unproductive” labor.

    One of the main arguments of Heinrich’s _The Science of Value_ is that there are two conflicting discourses in Marx’s work, a Ricardian Marx and a Marxian Marx.

    As far as I know nobody from the anti-substantialist school argues this, but I have a suspicion that if the anti-substantialist position is applied consistently, then we might just have to conclude that the distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” labor might have to be regarded as one of those Ricardian traces. But I’m not fully decided; for one thing, Marx basically has two different ways of making the distinction, one in _Capital_, and another in the _Theories of Surplus-Value_.

  23. Ellen Leinwand Says:

    BTW, apropos of Postone and the “treadmill effect”, I’m glad Principia Dialectica is finally airing out the very real differences between Kurz and Postone.

    I think for too long the Krisis group has been claiming Postone as some unproblematic co-thinker; Kurz and Exit, to their credit, made their substantial (pun intended) differences with Postone clear from the very first issue of Exit.

    I think the initial sympathy for Postone in the “Wertkritik” milieu rested upon 1) their respect for his work on anti-Semitism, and 2) happiness that there was another thinker attempting a categorical, and not just a phenomenal, critic of labor. But ultimately, Postone’s critique of labor rests upon a very different reading of Marx’s than the Wertkritik school, and I think he fits more comfortably in the NML lineage.

  24. Noa Rodman Says:

    “they seem to have succumbed to what Marx calls the money fetish [..]” That’s neither here nor there. Marx could still write that “The difficulty lies, not in comprehending that money is a commodity, but in discovering how, why, and by what means a commodity becomes money.” Nowadays, the difficulty seems to lie even in comprehending that money is a commodity. Postone on Arrighi “He reinforces this approach by appropriating Karl Polanyi’s critique of the nineteenth century idea of a self-regulating economy. For Polanyi, the latter depended on transforming all elements of industry into commodities, including land, labor, and
    money. The commodity nature of the latter three, however, is completely fictitious, according to Polanyi.”

    See also in TL&SD.

    “According to Marx, the nature of social mediation in capitalism is further obscured by the fact that money has developed historically in such a manner that coins and paper money have come to serve as signs of value. There is no direct correlation, however, between the value of these signs and the value they signify. Because even relatively valueless objects can serve as means of circulation, money does not appear to be a bearer of value. Consequently, the very existence of value as a social mediation, whether located in the commodity or in its expression as money, is veiled by this contingent surface relationship between signifier and signified. This real process of obfuscation is reinforced by the function of money as a means of payment for commodities that had been acquired previously through contracts, and as credit money. In such cases, money no longer seems to mediate the process of exchange; rather, the movement of the means of payment seems merely to reflect and validate a social connection that already was present independently. In other words, social relations in capitalism can seem as though they have nothing to do with the commodity form of social mediation. Rather, these relations can appear either to be pregiven or to be constituted ultimately by convention, by contracts among self-determining individuals.”

    Credit makes it seem that commodities express their value directly, without money (e.g. gold), through paper notes (or electronically) as Proudhon argued (and the difference with Ricardian versions of the LTV from Marx is precisely here).

  25. Ellen Leinwand Says:

    Proudhon and sundry utopians thought that socially necessary labor-time was something that could be directly measured, whereas as Marx correctly points out, socially necessary labor-time can only be determined retroactively through the process of exchange.

    BTW, since so much justified critique of has been made of Graeber, one good thing that has to be said in his favor is that he completely demolishes the Barter Myth from a historical perspective. If people want to keep arguing that Marx’s analysis of the forms of the commodity constitutes a historical sequence rather than a logical one, they will have to confront the actual historical evidence.

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