Inicio > Economía marxista, Filosofía marxista, Psicología marxista, Teoría crítica acumulada > “Breaking away from Capital? Theorising activity in the shadow of Marx”: Peter E Jones

“Breaking away from Capital? Theorising activity in the shadow of Marx”: Peter E Jones


The paper reflects on the relationship between the understanding of human activity which Marx expresses in Capital and the theoretical model of activity offered by an influential contemporary variant of Activity Theory. The paper argues that this variant departs significantly from Marx’s conception of human activity and its role in what he calls the ‘labour process’. In particular, Activity Theory has failed to distinguish between the labour process and the valorization process, a distinction which is fundamental to Capital and to Marx’s theoretical and political perspective more generally. The paper also argues that this conceptual conflation is also evident in the theoretical discourse of the founders of the Activity Theory tradition. The paper goes on to consider the theoretical and practical implications of this departure from the method and conclusions of Capital.

1. Introduction

Are Marx’s ideas relevant to researchers in the cultural-historical and Activity Theory (CHAT) tradition today? And if so, how exactly are they relevant? These are not only interesting but also important questions and ones which I believe we must squarely address as a research community.

No less important, but more difficult, however, is the follow-up question: assuming that Marx’s ideas are still relevant, are the aims, concepts and theoretical presuppositions of Activity Theory today consistent with his ideas? On this question, opinion seems to be divided amongst those researchers who are keen to reaffirm the Marxian roots and orientation of CHAT. Some scholars (Adler, 2006, 2007; Sawchuk, 2006) see a continuity and compatibility between Marx’s analysis of capitalist production and the analytical framework of Activity Theory. By contrast, others (Jones, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2009; Langemeyer & Roth, 2006; Avis, 2007; Warmington, 2008) detect a serious rift between Activity Theory and the Marxist tradition. I hope to explain here why I think the second group of authors has it right.2 Of course, it could be argued that a turning away from Marx and, in particular, a breaking away from Capital, is a good move and a timely one. Maybe it’s time to settle accounts with Marxism, to bring our theory up-to-date and reorient ourselves on a different basis? But it is unclear as yet on what basis we might do this and what we might lose in the process. Maybe there is still something we can learn from Marx’s Capital, as Ilyenkov, one of the most frequently cited philosophers in the Marxist tradition, argues insistently (Ilyenkov, 1982).

Specifically, I will argue that the methods and key concepts of one current, and very influential, version of Activity Theory developed by Yrjö Engeström and his co-workers and colleagues (e.g., Engeström, 1990; Engeström & Miettinen, 1999; Miettinen, 2000), imply a significant departure from Marx’s Capital, and I will try to draw out some of the implications of that. At the same time, however, I will try to show that the seeds for such a rift were planted in the very conceptual foundations of the Activity Theory tradition and will argue that there is scope for a renewal and a revitalization of that tradition in a rediscovery of the method, conclusions and implications of Marx’s work and of Capital in particular.

Breaking away from Capital? Theorising activity in the shadow of Marx

Outlines • No. 1 • 2009

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