Totality and oppression: A reply to “Against reductionism: Marxism and oppression"

Totality, essence and the commodity

This contribution, although it contains one or two critical points, is not intended as a critique of Sarah Garnham’s article. Rather, I hope to further the discussion she has initiated, primarily by suggesting a few necessary points that are absent in her initial argument.

The first point concerns totality. While I’m not sufficiently acquainted with the literature Garnham discusses to judge the validity of her critique, she is quite right to suggest that the category of totality is required in order to adequately reply to class-reductionist theories of oppression. This raises a problem. What is totality, and how do you articulate it so as to preserve contradiction and complexity?

Totality means many things to many people. One could suggest that the earth, humanity, a nation, gender, language and so on constitute the totality. This, by virtue of fetishising an abstract category, would give way to conservative, moralistic or sentimental theories of change. In order to avoid shallow abstractions like these, we need to discover the real essence of the social totality.

Among those Marxists who defend a concept of totality (including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Lukács, Gramsci and other more contemporary figures), there exist different views on the question. These differences cut to the heart of historical materialism.

Garnham appears to define the totality in terms of production. She writes: “The production process is fundamental because it is the mechanism through which the central drive of the capitalist system – the accumulation of capital – is fulfilled and because it is the base of the social relations that pervade society as a whole”.[1]

While not wrong, this is still too ambiguous and abstract to provide a robust account of oppression. What does production refer to? Does it refer to technique and technology? If so, this suggests that the process of production constitutes the essence of the totality – a view shared by 2nd and 3rd International theorists.[2] If broadened to include the relations of production, it implies a base/superstructure model of historical analysis which finds support only in a few paragraphs of Marx, and which has largely been discredited.[3] Even interpreted more generously than this, to suggest that production is the key to totality does nothing to differentiate capitalism from pre-capitalism.

Instead, I propose that the best way, within the Marxist tradition, to ground totality is to identify its concrete essence as commodity production and the theory of commodity fetishism. As Lukács argued, the commodity must be regarded as “the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them”.[4]

In addition to establishing the specificity of production (and therefore oppression) under capitalism, this captures the unity of quantity and quality, appearance and essence and of abstract and concrete labour, the importance of which Garnham is correct to note.[5] Garnham is also quite correct to reject theorisations of oppression that project an “ideal type” of capitalism and, discovering that oppression cannot be located in its logic, consequently, suggest “transcendent contradictions”. This methodology has much more in common with Max Weber and neo-Kantianism than with Marxism.[6]

Yet, without the commodity as the essence of the totality, we cannot hope to ground a more concrete analysis which is capable of sustaining contradiction and complexity.

Of course, Garnham’s comments on production and the totality don’t extend beyond a few pages, after which they give way to a political argument, based on Trotsky, about the power of the proletariat. This, too, requires the theory of commodity fetishism. The proletariat only has historical power because labour power is the source of value. In the absence of this, the proletariat could only ever be another particular identity among many. Its universal mission would thus be ungrounded and utopian. This leads in directions which are generally unpalatable for Marxists: if the proletariat’s capacity to resolve oppression is not based on its power over the essence of the totality, we are left with a theory which posits multiple structures and demands multiple subjects.[7] Additionally, without the commodity, our picture of totality will always be abstract – and consequently, our explanations will always be functionalist and conspiratorial; i.e., “the ruling class uses oppression to divide us”.[8]

Finally, without the commodity, our theory of the state collapses, or we are forced to concede that the state adheres to a logic separate to the economy.[9] Consequently, for example, we would be incapable of replying to Foucault’s undoubtedly totalising and remarkably sophisticated historical account of state oppression in Discipline and Punish.

Antinomies! Or how does the commodity explain oppression?

In discussions like this, it is not uncommon to see formulations like “we must have a totalising analysis that isn’t reductionist”. While true on a certain level of generality, these types of formulations are unresolved antinomies. It is like saying “we must balance between spontaneity and organisation” or “we must chart a course between patience and impatience”. That is, they say next to nothing.

To resolve an antinomy – in this case, between totality and contradiction or complexity – a concrete third term is needed. So, Lukács proposes an aspiration towards totality. This refers to the historical process whereby the proletariat forms itself into a class, by way of its class consciousness (embodied in a party). In this process, the totality sheds its abstraction as it becomes concretely known. Totality and contradiction are sublated by a more concrete dialectic between theory and practice.[10]

Of course, in the absence of a proletarian movement, we can’t contribute much on the level of practice. But we can contribute intellectually: we can aspire to know the totality without either presuming that we possess infallible, absolute knowledge or abandoning totalisation as a methodological principle. This requires a concrete explanation of how commodity fetishism relates to oppression.

The starting point is that the logic of capitalism, bound up in the commodity, produces a rational and formal society which attempts to reduce the world to quantity. This is the basis for universal individuality and equality, which are historical products. Yet, at every stage in the totality, quality reappears – initially, in the form of the use value of the commodity. Where labour power is concerned, quality reappears in the concrete production of a use value and in the private reproduction of labour. In the state, quality reappears in the notion of justice.[11]

While this is a starting point, further concrete elaboration is required. This can only be outlined as a rough sketch – partly due to spatial constraints and partly because a fuller analysis would require systematic empirical and historical research, as well as a serious engagement with contemporary theorisations of oppression.

I will begin with gendered oppression. Capitalism generally privatises the production of labour power: the worker has responsibility for not only marketing, but reproducing the only commodity he or she has left. Yet, labour cannot be reproduced by isolated individuals. Not only is it enormously inefficient, there is still no way to give birth to the next generation without biological reproduction. So the family became the simplest economic unit for the reproduction of labour power. This ought not to be read as a conspiracy theory account of the family. Undoubtedly workers were coerced into the family. Yet today, the vast majority of this coercion no longer exists. Rather, the family has an appeal of its own.

This is partly economic – but also in large part because real people are not formal, isolated individuals. Hence the qualitative side of the family, which provides love, care and so forth. In the same way as a commodity without a use value possesses no exchange value, a home without a heart is just a house.

Of course, changes in reproductive technology and the modern workplace (which have been discussed capably in this journal) account for shifts in the way the family is organised. Similarly, the family is not the only connection between commodification and sexism: the commodification of sex and women’s bodies is both an obvious connection and of increasing importance.

Nevertheless, the point stands. This is also why contemporary Marxist-feminist research into social reproduction is worth paying attention to, even if one might, on the basis of the concept of totality, object to the commonplace undialectical separation that is customarily made between reproductive labour (which is said to be non-economic) and labour power, which is sold as a commodity.

Where racism is concerned, the argument is trickier, but no less important. Part of this difficulty resides in the fact that racism has occurred in a myriad of historical forms, each of which requires its own account and theorisation. Nevertheless, a general theoretical starting point can be found in the tension between abstract individual equality and concrete inequality outlined above. Capitalist economies and constitutions treat people as equals. Yet in practice, until very recently, people have been neither economically nor legally equal. By way of contrast, Roman law only treated citizens as equal. Slaves, most women and barbarians did not enjoy personhood.

This logic creates social facts which are then reified or hypostatised. This is to say, social facts which are historically constructed are seen as natural and inevitable. This informs the common-sense of capitalism. So, alcoholism among Aboriginal people or lower SES status among migrants are regarded as somehow indicative of the essence of those peoples. This is the material basis for naturalistic or biological accounts of oppression. The rebellion of the alt-right against “political correctness” where oppression is concerned is a rebellion of this reified common sense; that is, it is a supposedly realist defence of concrete inequality, against the formal and abstract equality promised by liberalism.

So, racial categories, like the commodity, are abstractions imposed on people. Also like the commodity, these abstractions – as Garnham notes, observing that a black man cannot identify as white – constitute reality. This reality is preserved by identity politics which simply inverses the valuation.[12] This also explains why racial essentialism can persevere without naturalistic or biological explanations. This is visible in the case of Muslims who, as the racists never fail to note, are not a race. Racism is here justified on the basis of cultural backwardness.


Far from outlining a full theory of oppression, these points are merely intended to illustrate my argument that the category of totality rises and falls on the concrete essence one identifies at its heart. As this is a primarily theoretical argument, I hope to have demonstrated the way in which oppression is no historical aberration, removable from the logic of capitalism, but is rather built into that logic.

I also believe that this analysis is capable of sustaining a more nuanced historical account. For example, neoliberalism, as the highest stage of capitalism so far, has deepened individualism. This has altered the dynamics of oppression and resistance, explaining the predominance of identity politics on both the right and the left. The neoliberal emphasis on self-actualisation, personal enrichment and subjective freedom also explains why certain oppressions seem set to disappear – gay and lesbian oppression, for instance.

Further discussion could either pursue this historical analysis, or conceptually interrogate the category of oppression as such, which is far from straightforward.


[1] Garnham, S., “Against Reductionism: Marxism and Oppression”, Marxist Left Review, 16, Summer 2018, p75, available online at:

[2] For the classical statement of this view, see Bukharin, N., Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology, Routledge, 2013. If, following Bukharin and others, we interpret production in the sense of technology and technique (i.e., the forces of production), we are left with a model of historical change that either relapses into technological determinism, or, as is more often the case, vacillates between determinism and voluntarism. This is usually justified by suggesting that while most of the time, the logic of history is economically determined, in period of crisis, ideology and politics come to the fore. This undialectical rendering of the antinomy between structure and agency (to use more modern terms) was all too often a theoretical cover for bureaucratic voluntarism, be it of the Stalinist or Trotskyist variety.

A basis for this version of historical materialism can be found in Marx, primarily in The Poverty of Philosophy and, to some extent, in The German Ideology. But then, every version of historical materialism, including that which is suggested here, has sought and successfully found a basis in Marx. Marx’s theory of history is less coherent than Marxists of different opinions have generally been happy to concede.

[3] Today, only Trotskyists or quasi-Trotskyists of a more orthodox bent defend this model. By far, the most successful attempt to outline a genuinely dialectical account of the “base/superstructure” view of history was produced by Franz Jakubowski. The virtue of his attempt is that he pushes these terms beyond themselves, in order to argue for a basically Lukácsian theory of totality. See Jakubowski, F. Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism, Pluto, 1990.

[4] Lukács, G. History and Class Consciousness, Merlin, 1971, p83. The extent to which Marx shared this view is not subject to debate at this time. Suffice to say that Marx himself provided us with an excellent document which outlines very similar methodological concerns. See: Marx, K. “Introduction: (3) The Method of Political Economy” in Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1973, available online at It is my view that this method is clearly on display in Capital, which, as it hardly needs to be noted, begins with the commodity.

[5] Garnham, S. “Against Reductionism: Marxism and Oppression” in Marxist Left Review, 16, Summer 2018, pp63-67. This view also sheds light on how Marxists understand abstraction. Abstraction is not a “tool” used in order to approximate the truth – to suggest this falls into a Kantian, and ultimately idealist framework. Rather, Marxists should, following Sohn-Rethel, regard abstractions as real. After all, money, exchange value and labour time are all abstractions. These abstractions are real, and, as alienated expressions of human activity, possess power over us that cannot be ignored. See Sohn-Rethel, A. Intellectual and Manual Labour: Critique of Epistemology, Macmillan, 1978.

[6] Moreover, this approach fails to appreciate that as an “absolute historicism” (to use Gramsci’s turn of phrase), Marxism strictly prohibits all knowledge which is not grounded in the present. Marxism, which envisages immanent social change, ought to be strictly anti-transcendental: all “ideal types” and “transcendental contradictions” are only comprehensible as the abstract logic of the present. By presenting these logics in abstraction from the historical present, they are rendered idealistically. That is, they are hypostatised and made eternal. This is, coincidentally, a good example of how reductionism gives way to crude idealism.

[7] My PhD thesis, entitled “Georg Lukács’s Philosophy of Praxis”, which will be published in due course, outlines a critique of the standpoint of the proletariat and philosophies of praxis that emerges on this basis. One consequence of this is scepticism towards the universal mission of the proletariat. However, at present, I am not outlining my view, but making an intervention into the intellectual life of an organisation which generally possesses a commitment to the standpoint of the proletariat.

[8] Of course, this is not to dispute that the ruling class (or better, specific groups within the ruling class which have different projects) will consciously use oppression for particular ends. However, their thinking in doing so is usually far more contingent, pragmatic and unreflexive than the conspiracy theory view of oppression gives them credit for.

[9] For a good account of Marx’s philosophical critique of the state, see Schneider, S. “Marx and the state: the politics of philosophy”, Marxist Left Review, 12, Winter 2016, available at Similarly, as Bellingham capably outlines, Evgeny Pashukanis is the main Marxian legal theorist to premise his account of law on the commodity. See Bellingham, J. “Commodity exchange is nine-tenths of the law: the life and work of a Bolshevik jurist”, Marxist Left Review, 12, Winter 2016, available at

[10] Although I no longer defend many of the views expressed within it, my article entitled “Georg Lukács’s Theory of Revolution” is still a reasonable (if uncritical) summary of the dialectic between theory and practice in Lukács. Lopez, D., “Georg Lukács’s Theory of Revolution”, Marxist Left Review, 8, Winter 2014, available at

[11] This pertains to the divide between history and logic that Garnham notes. It is true that capitalism is a formally equal system. Yet this formal equality, of its own logic, even without the interference of concrete historical circumstances, becomes irrational precisely because humans are not formally equal (neither on the basis of nature, nor on the basis of society and culture). Nietzsche, for example, accurately perceived this. Yet he resolved the dilemma in favour of irrationalism and inequality: thus, he is often described by Marxists as an aristocratic critic of modernity. Whatever else might be said about Nietzsche, who is an important philosopher in his own right, this is quite fair. A Marxist, on the other hand, should see that irrationalism is an inbuilt consequence of the inherent contradiction in capitalist rationality. So, even on a strictly logical level, oppression is a necessary logical-dialectical expression of the limits of bourgeois freedom and equality. The overcoming of this situation entails the sublation of equality. Lenin outlines something like this in The State and Revolution, in which he rejects bourgeois right as a basis for communist jurisprudence. Of course, the point remains: capitalism has never lived up to its “pure” logic historically. Yet, history itself gives rise to a logic. While it might be expedient to relatively separate the two for the purposes of a specific work – as Marx did while writing Capital, or Trotsky did while writing The History of the Russian Revolution – to suggest that the two terms can or should be comprehended in isolation can only result in an apology for capitalism.

[12] Such an inversion may well be the starting point for a struggle. I do not mean to imply that all identity politics or all movements which involve identity politics are conservative – far from it. If identity is the basic reality produced by neoliberal capitalism, it follows that it will form a starting point in one way or another for whatever comes next.

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