Jacques Bidet  

An Introduction to Altermarxism

Japan, December 2008, Universities of Kyoto, Tokyo and Yokohama[1]






In the context of this conference which brings together economists and specialists of Marx’s writings, editors of the MEGA, I propose a philosophical approach that tries to assess the Marxian legacy as a social theory of modernity and its relevance in the world to-day. I will not deal with the structural character of capitalism − with exploitation, domination and destruction − or with its systemic tendencies to enslavement and extermination, but only with the supposedly rational and reasonable essence of modern society, taken as the founding presupposition of these real features. I will try to develop this well known, but still surprising, Marxian paradigm up to its complete elucidation[2].


Why Marx could not understand Capital.

I will start with an apparent paradox: Marx could not really understand Capital. The reason is simple. Like many other inventors before him, Marx finally discovered something different from what he was searching for. The concepts that his research produced lead to consequences, to requirements and views which are not exactly those that his project specifically aimed at. So he was never in position to master the "new continent" he discovered. That can be proved.

The first major manuscript, Grundrisse, is divided into two chapters: “Money” and “Capital”. In Chapter I, Marx analyzes "money" in its modern function, as instrument of universal circulation, as the medium of the generalized exchange of commodities. In Chapter II, he moves from circulation to production. He shows that capitalist production and accumulation can not be explained in terms of exchange: they imply the process of waged labour and the exploitation of labour force. In short, Grundrisse proceeds from (market) circulation to (capitalist) production.

Capital follows quite a different plan. It does not begin with money but with commodity. The first edition is still dominated by the context of circulation: the question is how we can account for the "exchange value" of commodities. But, in the second edition, market circulation correlates clearly "market production", which constitutes the starting point of the theoretical presentation[3]. Marx discovers that we cannot deal with money without having first provided a theory of commodity, which requires a theory of the market as "social form of production", and not only of exchange and circulation. He analyzes how the market coordinates commodity producers as owners of means of production and labour providers. In short, the first chapter of Capital defines ideally a pure market economy, supposedly rationally oriented towards production of use values.

This Marxian concept of "market production" is difficult to grasp. For we need to determine the ontological status - the mode of existence – of the object so designated. According to a trivial, but common, interpretation, Capital must be read in the light of Grundrisse: the famous "necessary starting point" − the most "abstract" moment from which Marx constructs his theoretical account − should be identified as the formal analysis of circulation, representing the “surface” of the capitalistic production process. Clearly, capitalistic production and exploitation are given in ideological terms of exchange. But actually, and especially in the final version of Capital, Marx follows a procedure quite different from that of Grundrisse. He does not move from circulation to production, but from the market as a relation of production (with the corresponding form of circulation) to capital as a mode of production. And this is perhaps his main discovery: Capitalism is not a “market economy”, but a profit economy - an issue still highly relevant to-day. Marx proved able to clarify this decisive relation: between the market metastructure[4] and the capitalist class structure, i.e. between the social logic of market production and the social logic of capital production. But he failed to understand adequately his own discovery. And that is why we must reconsider it and try to build a more coherent theory of modern society and its historical potential and tendencies.


The dialectical relation between the market and capitalism

Marx’s theory of commodity provides the theoretical prerequisite of his theory of capital[5] by introducing the concept of labour force as producing in terms of value[6], i.e. in terms of market production. To "move from market to capital", one just needs to suppose that, in the capitalist mode of production, market relation governs the whole production, i.e. all its ingredients, including labour force, turned into a commodity. And that is what capitalism does: it actually poses the market relation as the universal presupposition of the economic cycle[7]. It includes the labour force, whose value is measured by the time required to produce the “salary commodities”, − while the extra work generates the capitalist accumulation. In short, the "logic transition" from market to capital implies no difficulty for an (Marxist) economic analysis.

It is quite different for political philosophy and sociological analysis. Under the market logic of production, analyzed in Volume I Section 1, the partners, as modern individuals, consider and “address”[8] each other as free, equal and rational. According to the capitalistic logic, analyzed in Section 3, this market relation is, in last instance, no more turned towards use values but towards pure profit, whatever the consequences on humans and nature. The market relation turns in class relation: in domination, inequality and irrationality. However - and this is where the difficulty lies - in wage relations the individual capitalist cannot not address the waged individual as free, equal and rational. And, being addressed as such, the proletarian replies with class struggle for use values, human rights and good life. In short, in contrast to the continuity of an economic presentation of Capital, the social and juridical-political analysis comes up against a dialectical “reversal”, which has to be accounted for. Not only − and now more than ever − capitalism claims to be a "market economy" and maintains that such is the basis for a democratic order. But Marx himself puts at the centre of his analysis the fact that the worker is a "free" individual, insofar he can change master, contract with whoever he wants. In this capitalist market context, against all odds, the “prejudice of equality”[9] prevails. One is dominated, exploited, but as being equal. In short, the (capitalist class) structure poses the (market) metastructure as its presupposition with its juridico-political character, − but by turning it into its contrary, domination, exploitation and so on.


The incompleteness of the Marxian metastructure

Marx discovers this dialectical meta/structural[10] relation, specific of the modern form of society. But he fails to clarify it. He develops it in a strange way: half logical, half historical. He begins his presentation, Volume I, Section I, with the market as an (economically) rational and (juridically) reasonable metastructure. From there, Section III, he constructs "logically" the concept of capital: the modern class structure. At this point, Section IV, considering the competitive relations within the dominant class, he is in position to provide a description and a diagnosis of the historical dynamic of capitalism. Competition develops the large industrial factory, which is not a market (an a posteriori order), but an organization (an a priori order, organizing ends and means)[11]. This productive context generates a numerous and educated proletariat, organized and united by the very process of production. As the firms grow in size and decrease in number, the time of socialism comes. At the end, the concerted organization between all realizes what the market could only promise: the concrete community of human rights. Such is the well known framework of the Marxian "great narrative”.

This is not a “logical-historical” construction. For Marx proposes successively a logical construction, from market to capital, and then a historical development, that leads to the concerted organization. Such a procedure, which goes from the analysis of the capitalist structure to its tendencies, up to their supposed final end, is in itself legitimate. The mistake is to deal with the market at the (logical) beginning and with the organization at the (historical) end. For market and organization are actually the two modes of rational coordination at social scale. And, as such, they must be considered jointly within the rational metastructure of modernity, because separately each of them has only a limited rationality. And this supposed economically rational side of the metastructure of modernity (Verstand) exists only in parallelism with the supposed politically reasonable side, that of the juridical order (Vernunft): free inter-personal contractuality and social (among all) contractuality are closely co-involved - this is the central theme of modern democratic theory. The two “sides” − economic and political − have similarly two “poles”: from each to each and among all. In short, Marx was right to say that modern class society is built on the reversal (Verkehrung) of our common social reason-rationality, but he did not grasp the complexity of this metastructural presupposition[12].

Marx indeed addresses the question in a theoretically radical way. As he suggests, in Grundrisse (I, 28), the world is not a village. So, immediate communication can not suffice. There must be "mediation": Vermittlung muss natürlich stattfinden. And he distinguishes precisely two mediations: market and organization. The market, he says, gives rise to capitalism. We must therefore look to the organization. Such a pattern will be rediscovered by Parsons, who introduced the idea of “media”, “relaying” speech in a complex world. Habermas resumes this approach, reducing the Parsonsian media to two, trivially understood as “money versus power” or “economy versus administration”, of which he studies the "pathologies". But this paradigm, which links immediateness (Unmittelbarkeit) and mediation (Vermittlung), comes from Marx. In the Marxian socialism, "the concerted organization" is clearly the multiplier relay, the social space of the immediate communicative speech, of the shared life world of use values. Note that similarly for liberalism, the market constitutes the relay of the freely shared discourse: see the official motto that identifies "democracy and the market." According to the meta/structural approach, by contrast, market and organization are not only the two media, but the "class factors" which together form the "modern class relation[13].


The structural error of Marx, the ensuing political deficit

The Marxian metastructural deficit results in a structural error. Marx failed to grasp conceptually the fact that the "dominant class" implies two poles: one related to the market, governed by property, the other related to organization, governed by competence, “Finance versus Elite”. The owner’s power does not exist without being supported by authority, in the full sense of power-knowledge (see Foucault): competence for legitimate cultural aims and effective technical means. Each of these two, both complementary and antagonist, poles has its own mechanisms of social reproduction. The other class is, properly speaking, the "fundamental class"[14], which produces the material social world. Its members are specifically divided into various fractions (independents, employees of private, of state, or unemployed), depending on how much their productive labour and social existence are based on more organizational or more market mechanisms, including in the form of exclusion[15].

It is from such a class analysis that the questions of political struggle and hegemony can be raised. The two poles of the dominant class do not share the same social character. Other’s competence gives you more chance than other’s property. Insofar it became self conscious, the fundamental class always understood that in order to defeat the adversary, it should divide it, and to this end forge an alliance with the pole of the competent organizers. This alliance, experienced (for better and for worse[16]) in the revolutions of the twentieth century, dominated the political landscape of the "Thirty Glorious". It happened to be broken in the seventies by the rise of neo-liberalism. The technological and geopolitical circumstances permitted "finance" to undermine the national-state structure, which previously provided the context of the historic “social-democrat” alliance. Finance proved able to impose its hegemony on the competent "elite". But the fundamental class − we can also call it simply “the people” − has no other choice than a new program of class struggle in order to reconstruct an anti-finance, or “anticapitalist”, alliance. Clearly, the challenge is to realize this alliance in terms of people’s hegemony on the elite. And that implies achieving the political unity among its disparate internal fractions: a people’s unity.

Paradoxically - and the Marxist tradition was never able to address theoretically this paradox - the political struggle between the two classes is a “three partners game”: “people” // "finance" / "elite". And, in this game, there are however only two places on the political stage of a supposed democracy. A stage on which actually each of the two dominant poles has its assigned place of hegemony: the Right for property and the Left for competence. No reserved place for the “people”. The fundamental class has no other choice than fighting to become hegemonic within an alliance on the "Left". Such is, seen in the institutional mirror, the challenge of the political class struggle[17].


The other dimension of modernity: the World System and the World State

For the interpretation of modern society, class analysis as forming the Nation State, is only half of the story. But such is the necessary beginning to introduce the second part, which has more radically to do with exploitation, domination, destruction and extermination.

The meta/structural analysis reveals here another deficiency, of equal importance, in the Marxian construction. Market and organization are the two class factors, tangled at every level in modern class structure. There is however a constitutive asymmetry between these two poles, which is such that this supposedly rational-reasonable social structure can only exist in the form of Nation States, each singular society being under the auspices of a supreme organizational instance: the modern State[18].  As a matter of fact, capitalism emerges historically not as an empire, as a universum, but as a pluriversum of such entities, that have first the size of the medieval city, then that of the “classic” States, tending today to a continental scale.

At the beginning, and for a long time, this modern logic of society has little substance or influence on the world where it appears. But from the start this social logic of modernity possesses specifically (even if faintly) two emerging dimensions: that of class structure within the (proto) nation-state, and that of (proto) world system as a totality. The characteristic of world system, by contrast with class structure, is that it implies no metastructural presupposition. The whole is systemic, not structural, because it is devoid of metastructure. Hobbes stressed that the natural relation between nations is war. But the whole do not spare the part. The whole is immanent in the part: global war is constitutive of national internal peace. The modernity of the Nation State has always already been perverted by the barbarity of the World System. The Nation State is "race factor”.

But I do not follow Wallerstein when he suggests that capitalism is to be conceived from the whole. The total, imperialist, dimension is as important − as original and founding − as the national-state dimension. Imperialism, in this sense, is not only the “supreme stage of capitalism”: it is constitutive of modern world since its first European start. Yet it is the state-national class structure that provides the key for understanding the imperialist world system. For, such a supposedly rational-reasonable social logic, realized within such a class structure, could initially exist only at a very small scale. As, under the pressure of competition, companies grew in size, and production forces in performance, the state structured entities acquired the organizational (administrative, military, cultural…) capacity to expand as larger national units.

The necessary term of this tendency is the World State, which is already looming on the horizon, as the ultimate realization of the geopolitical logic of social modernity: not as a utopia to achieve, not as “regulative Idea” (Kant), but as a historical social form, which emerges slowly but irresistibly, behind our backs: a territory which is the world, a population that is mankind, a law which is that of capitalism. Clearly, World System is prevailing on World State: world “statality”, still in gestation, is “instrumentalized”, and for a long time, by the imperialist forces that dominate the world system and tend to dictate their laws through supra-national institutions. This is, in this sense, an imperialist World State, even if the tendency to multi-polarization alters the balance. But it is a modern class State entity, and as such haunted by the metastructural injunction of communism that the Spectre evokes in the first chapter of Volume I: Let us think of “a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common”, and so on…, this time at global scale, and the means of production being also means of destruction.

Through local and global class, “race” (transnational) and gender struggles, through recurring crises, the ultimate geo-political conditions of the modern confrontation on human emancipation slowly emerge. This does not mean an end of history, but the supreme modern challenge: that of what we can call “ultimodernity”, the ultimodern condition of mankind. Such is the configuration of the new battlefield.







Abstract. According to the meta/structural theory capitalist societies are based on two class factors, market and organization, which combine dialectically in the modern class structure within the nation-state. Modern world as a whole does not imply a meta/structural but a systemic logic. The state form eventually emerges today as world-state, perversely embedded with the world system.



[1] This paper was discussed in the following academic contexts. Kyoto University, Department of Economics, Seminary of Professors Kichiro YAGI and Hiroshi OHNISHI. Tokyo University (Hitotsubashi), Department of Philosophy, Seminary of Professor Tomonaga TAIRAKO. Yokohama University (Kanawaga), Institute of Economics and Foreign Trade, International Symposium “Inheritance of Marx”, organised by Professor Masashi IZUMO. This is the last version, to appear in Japanese.

[2] This presentation refers to a research continued over several decades. Que faire du Capital? (Exploring Marx’s Capital), PUF, 1985, published in Japanese in 1988 and in English 20 years later, Brill, 2007, marks the beginning of this long way. Théorie Générale (A General Theory), PUF, 1999, and Explication et Reconstruction du Capital (Explanation and Reconstruction of Capital), PUF, 2004, are its key milestones. Altermarxisme, Un autre Marxisme pour un autre monde (Altermarxism. Another Marxism to another world), PUF, 2007, written with Gérard Duménil, an Marxist economist, constitutes a new stage. I propose here my own interpretation of “Altermarxism”. The difference with Gérard Dumenil’s conception appears notably in the fact that he distinguishes three social classes (capitalists, cadres, classes populaires), while for me they are only two: the “dominant class” (with its two poles: property and competence) and the “fundamental class”. Two further books are in preparation: Marx and the Contemporary World. Class, State, Ideology and Revolution after Althusser and Foucault and The World State. More details on my Home Page: http://perso.orange.fr/jacques.bidet/.

[3] Therefore the challenge is how to understand the concept of "market production" − a term that occurs several times in this context – i.e. that of a "market economy". This expression is to be taken seriously: the question to know in what sense capitalism is and is not a market economy is central in Capital.

[4] This concept of “metastructure” is the pillar of the reconstruction I propose for the Marxian theory. This neologism means something quite different from “superstructure”.

[5] In Volume III Chapter 10, Marx returns to the theory of market production. He explains the difference between the competition around the labour time, which determines value, and the competition around the profit rate, which determines the concretely observable prices (or "production prices"). This fragment provides the required elements for a proper understanding of Volume I, Chapter 1. Competition within a branch determines the socially necessary labour time, competition between branches determines the problematic of abstract labour, while changes in supply and demand introduce a market price which differs from value. These considerations belong to the abstract level of the “logical” beginning.

[6] The expression "producing value" is quite problematic and would require further explanations. Marx makes a specific use of this terminology: “producing” appears in contrast to "transferring" value (from input to output). Of course, the main conceptual contrast concerns the relation between production of use values and production of surplus value, − see Volume I Chapter 5. Yet one could legitimately expect that, at the beginning of this chapter, Marx should expose the “production of use values” not in general − he should have done that as a preliminary to his book −, but specifically as supposedly being the purpose of market production as such, which supposedly rewards those producing use values, concrete goods, in less time, i.e. more productively. This would have provided the appropriate theoretical context for comparing the logic of the market, as “concrete oriented”, and the logic of capital, as turned towards “abstract wealth”, i.e. as “profit oriented”. Under this condition, the dialectics of the social-economical class struggle could have appeared concretely at this decisive “abstract” (i.e. general versus concrete) level. Note the difference between the epistemological and the substantial use of the “concrete/abstract” opposition.

[7] Note another paradox: for their economical science and practice, capitalists do not need the Marxian “economical” concepts. In Volume III, Marx explained this issue very clearly. The kind of rationality that governs the capitalist competition concerns the profit rate (surplus value / advanced capital) and not the surplus value rate (surplus value / paid wage). Therefore “standard economy” does not require the Marxian categories of surplus value or value (as the prerequisite of the former). These concepts - value and surplus value - have quite a different purpose: understanding the socio-economic logic of capitalism, the logic of modern class structure, or analyzing modern society and history.

[8] For a reconstruction of Althusser’s theory of “interpellation”, see Marx and the Contemporary World. Class, State, Ideology and Revolution after Althusser and Foucault (forthcoming).

[9] As Marx pointed out in this passage of Chapter 1, Section IV, which refers to the difference between the slave society where Aristotle lived and modern times, where the “prejudice of equality” prevails. But the metastructure not only “overturns”, changing into its opposite, into class structure. It should be noted that it is also always already cleaved by a spectral amphibology due to the fact that it is “posed” in class relation. "Liberty, equality, rationality!", this is the shared proclamation that the two involved classes declare: contradictorily, both from beneath as a requirement of justice and from above as the assertion that such a just order is realized. This “differend” (see Lyotard) is the shared ground for the ideologies of domination and for the utopias of emancipation. See my « Court Traité des Idéologies », Actuel Marx, N°44, PUF, 2008.

[10] “Metastructure” refers to the relation between the declaration of modernity and the mediations, market and organization, in which this declaration is supposed to relay. The metatructure is posed only in the structure, i.e. in class relations which reproduce through the contradictory practices of individual actors involved. “Meta/structure” refers to the dialectical relation between structure and metastructure through social practices, i.e. acts which are also to be understood as "speech acts" – according to the linguistic approach of contemporary historians. These social practices, as speech acts, give permanently new contents to the statement of modernity: to be "free, equal and rational", takes constantly new meanings with the development of the struggles of proletarians, women, poor people, oppressed nations - and also with the reactionary tendencies in the opposite direction.

[11] See Capital, Volume I, chapter 12.

[12] Through this figure, taken in its complex unity (discourse/mediations, with their two "poles" and two "sides"), Marxism can find a productive connection with classical political philosophy and with the major social theories of the twentieth century. Philosophy see Habermas, Althusser, Rawls, Foucault and Derrida. Economics: from institutionalism to regulation or convention. Sociology: from Bourdieu to Boltanski, to speak only of France. History: from Skinner to the French “histoire des concepts” (Guilhaumou). The meta/structural approach opens a program of a rereading of modern and contemporary literature, understood as a prerequisite for empirical and political analysis.

[13] Classical Marxism proposes to substitute the supposedly concerted organization for the market. Meta/structural Marxism understands market and organization as our common powers turned into class factors. It does not lead to opt for a “market economy”, but rather to a (anti) “subsidiarity principle”: cooperate first by immediate interactive communication, and, if not efficient, by concerted organization, and eventually, if not efficient, by market, − but where market should remain under control of organization, and organization under control of interactive communication. It leads to class gender and “race” struggles aimed to a common re-appropriation of those two social powers, i.e. to abolish them as class factors. But one cannot expect such a general socio-philosophical approach to be able to determine concretely what should be conceded to one or another of the two forms of mediate coordination. It simply establishes a order of suspicions, which also governs the political theory of “alliance”, as shown below.

[14] I proposed this denomination as preferable to the traditional paternalistic “exploited” or “dominated class”. The multitude cannot be properly defined in terms of subalternity.

[15] One might think that the reason for this metastructural deficiency and for this structural error in the classical Marxism stems from the intellectual and social position of its founders and, first of all, Marx. The creator of the critical and revolutionary theory of modernity represents a prominent figure of "competence", in which a large range of social strata could identify. “Marxism” means “communism”, indeed, but in organizational terms of "socialism". Marxism is the profound but ambiguous discourse of the alliance between the fundamental class and the production, administration and culture organizers.

[16] More on the Soviet “collectivism” in Altermarxisme, pp. 158-162.

[17] See Altermarxisme, pp. 205-233. This approach will be explained in “Penser les partis en termes de classe”, Actuel Marx N°46, PUF 2009.

[18] The modern State is supposed (declared) to be a purely metastructural organization, and a pure organization of speech, where a man = one vote. This (abstract) concept of a metastructural State is clearly referred to by Marx in Volume I Chapter 3: a theory of State, linked to a theory of money, before arriving “logically” at the moment of capital as class relation, Chapter 5. This is obviously a symptom of a Marxian metastructural program, which needs to be completed. At the Marxian structural level, the situation is contrasted. Marx has done so much to illuminate the immanent relationship between economy and politics that he can be considered as the real founder of political economy: he is the first author to produce economical/political concepts (such as “value” and “surplus value”, − see Exploring Marx’s Capital, chapter 3, Value as Sociopolitical Concept). But Marx’s approach of State remains at distance of his economic conceptuality. Significatively he does not leave us analytical concepts to study how the State could intervene to regulate somehow a capitalist economy. "Western" Marxism will have such practical concern, but will suffer from the lack of appropriate concepts rooted in a political-economic conceptuality.