Teaching Marx in Anglophone Universities: interdisciplinary enquiry or unity of the sciences?

The purpose of this research is to reveal the ways in which the social theory of Karl Marx has been and is being taught in Anglophone Universities. The research will explore this issue starting from the emergence of Marx’s social theory as an academic subject in the twentieth century to the present day. This is not research into Marx’s teachings but the way in which Marx’s  teachings have been taught.

A distinctive feature of the research will be the way in which it draws out how Marx has been taught across academic disciplines: social science, arts and humanities, business and law and the natural sciences, through the work, for example, of Albert Einstein, John Haldane and Stephen Jay Gould. At the heart of this research lies the fundamental question, set out by Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1992/1844), of the possibility for creating a unified science between the social and the natural sciences as ‘One Science’ (p. 355). While the research carried out on this project will be interdisciplinary it will challenge the concept of interdisciplinarity itself, arguing that discrete subject disciplines, no matter how well connected, are not amenable to the holistic responses  required to deal with the many global emergencies facing humanity and the natural world. The research will be based on the hypothesis that the wide ranging application of Marxist science across academic subjects has the potential to provide a unifying principle through which to reappraise the fundamental nature of teaching and learning in higher education as well as the production of critical practical knowledge.

The ambitious scope of this project is emboldened by the research project:  Ordered Universe: interdisciplinary readings of Medieval Science, based at the University of Durham and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which seeks to support fresh and original readings of medieval science. The Ordered Universe research project has a particular focus  on the work of Robert Grosseteste, 1170 – 1253, who sought to provide a cosmological theory for the medieval world based on empirical research methodologies, establishing a foundation for experimental science (Neary 2012).  Robert Grosseteste was a Bishop of Lincoln as well as being the first Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. It is entirely appropriate that a research project which is, in part, inspired by his approach to experimental science should be established at the University of Lincoln where I teach.

The theoretical and conceptual framework for Teaching Marx is grounded in a version of critical theory that sought to connect the social and the natural sciences as a radical understanding of the world, a school of thought that has become known as ‘The Frankfurt School’, exemplified by the writings of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Alfred Schmidt (Neary, Critical Theory and the Critique of Labour 2017); as well as more recent scholarship that seeks to recover the unity of Marx’s social theory and its relationship to nature as a ‘world ecology Marxism’ (Moore 2015). While the teaching of Marx and Marxism has been in decline due to the dominance of neoliberal orthodoxy, there has been a resurgence of interest in Marx’s work following the Great Recession of 2008. For example, students at the University of Manchester have developed their own approach to this issue, known as Post-Crash economics, arguing that the economic syllabus and teaching methods needs to be rethought from a more critical perspective. Teaching Marx is drawing on the ongoing reappraisal of Marx’s social theory which is producing fresh and original insights into Marx’s theory, based on the work of  Diane Elson, Simon Clarke,  Ellen Meiksins Wood, John Holloway, Werner Bonefeld Robert Kurz, Moishe Postone and Ana Dinerstein. This research will trace the way in which this reappraisal of Marx’s work is being taught in English speaking universities. The research methods will include archival research into how curricula for teaching Marx have been developed, as well as interviews with leading teachers of Marx during the twentieth century  who have now retired, those who have been  teaching Marx over a sustained period  and academics and postgraduates who are new to teaching Marx.

Outputs will include reports of regular seminars, a conference at the end of the project along with an edited book. Teaching Marx will have an online presence that will include resources for teachers teaching Marx in higher education.

This research brings together the main strands of my work: research into Marxist social theory and teaching and learning in higher education. During the period I was Dean of Teaching and Learning at Lincoln, 2007 – 2014,  I developed, in collaboration with other staff and students, a model of teaching in higher education based on the support for undergraduate research as a fundamental part of the teaching and learning programme. This approach, with the title Student as Producer, became in 2010 the basis for the University’s teaching and learning strategy across all subject areas at Lincoln. Student as Producer is based on the work of Marxist intellectuals, including Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord and Lev Vygotsky. This work has been developed in other HE institutions in the English speaking world in their own particular ways, in the US, UK, Australia and Canada, and has been identified as a major trend for the future of teaching and learning in higher education (NMC Report 2014 p. 15). The University of Lincoln is recognised by academics as well as external review agencies for its support for student learning through research-engaged teaching and so is an entirely appropriate site to base this research (Quality Assurance Agency 2011, Higher Education Academy 2015).

Teaching Marx is an ambitious project in scope and scale with deep theoretical and conceptual roots; not least in the way in sets out to challenge traditional disciplinary boundaries, through an appeal, following Karl Marx and Robert Grosseteste, for the unity of the sciences.

I am just beginning this work so would welcome any suggestions you might have as to how the research could be developed.

Making moves: the educative power of transnational co-operatives for higher education in an era of global civil war

This is the abstract for a paper I am giving at Crossing Borders conference at the University of the Aegean,  Lesbos, Greece, 7-10th, July


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UK Border Force vessel, Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece

The mass movement of dispossessed people towards the European continent is not just a desperate reaction to the brutal realism  and realpolitik of neocolonial and authoritarian governments, but is a crisis of the nation-state itself as the conflictual site(s) of the global capital-labour relation (Holloway and Picciotto 1979). An outcome of this conflictual relation is that nation states have declared war on their own civilian populations (Kurz 2014). This act of violence takes many forms: total and  low intensity warfare,  war against drugs and war on  terror as well as an economic assault through the imposition of poverty and hunger, leading to the migration of populations  to avoid these killing regimes. It is important to do everything to save the lives of those drowning in the seas around Europe, while recognising the nature of this global civil war requires  more than defensive humanitarian responses. This paper acknowledges the way in which Higher Education is responding to ‘the refugee crisis’. Universities are opening their doors to migrant students, e.g. in Germany with (DAAD, and through the EU MADAD fund, as well as the establishment of  new universities for refugees, e.g., Kiron University (Berlin) and the Silent University (England); and there are programmes to support displaced academics  at risk from oppression (CARA) as well as examples of student activism.This paper sets out an emerging resistance to global civil war in the form of transnational moves towards co-operative higher education, conceptualised here as ‘educative power’, which Walter Benjamin described  as a form of radical doubt (Critique of Violence, 1921).  The emergence of transnational co-operative universities offer the possibility to construct new forms of human sociability when connected to other working class struggles (Egan 1990). The University of Mondragon  is the most established co-operative university situated in the Basque region of Spain and a source of inspiration. These  new co-operatives include UnivSSE: the People’s University for a Social  Solidarity Economy  and the Co-operative Institute for Transnational Studies (Greece), Unicoop (Mexico), and the Social Science Centre, Lincoln and Manchester (England). They are  connected with other networks of resistance to capitalist higher education, e.g., Undercommoning (USA) and the Ecoversity. This is a fragile set of moves but contains within it the possibility of undermining  the capital-labour relation and the violence of the capitalist state.

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This work is ongoing and is being developed by further research: Beyond Private and Public: a framework for co-operative higher education (Neary and Winn, 2016)  and Co-operative leadership for higher education (Neary and Winn 2016)



TEF and REF: what are the effects?

I have been invited to speak as part of roundtable discussion about the effects of the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Research Excellence Framework on teachers, researchers, students and higher education. This discussion is part of a research conference hosted by the Cass School of Education and Communities, at the University of East London on the 26th of May.

You can see a full programme for this event below:

Cass School of Education and Communities

Research Conference, 26th May 2016 (1.15- 5pm)


1.15pm ED2.01

Welcome Address: Helen Masterton (Dean) & John Preston (Research Leader)

Individual panel sessions 1.30-3pm

Panel I: Teaching, learning & careers


Carrie Weston

Getting there by degrees: the HE motivations and aspirations of young east Londoners

Alison Baker

White working class trainee teachers’ early experiences of reading as children. To what extent has it informed their decision to train to teach?

Anthony Hudson

Just who is educating Rita? Exploring the learning careers and academic identity of Access HE tutors using the life-grid and qual interviews

Panel II: Participatory radio & at-risk youth


Andrew Ravenscroft:

Participatory Radio as an educational and psychosocial intervention with ‘at-risk youth’

Tom Gerken

Radio Active101 and Addiction: A pilot study investigating participatory radio as a tool to improve psychosocial dimensions of at-risk youth

Amanda Cooper

The Development of a Participatory Radio Drama Intervention to enhance Metacognitive themes in dialogue with At-Risk Youth

Panel III: Innovative methodologies


John Clark

“I don’t ‘believe’ it!”: Using elementary statistical methods, rather than ‘belief’, in understanding the results of quantitative research.

Anna Chapman

What role does distributed leadership play in supporting extended learning activities? A qualitative, interpretative investigation through the lens of activity theory.

Andrew Read

Making time to focus: how changing my relationship with email impacts on my capacity to concentrate on “deep work”

Panel IV: Life stories, biography & identity


Ximena Bonilla Medina

Education, globalisation and identities: teachers’ educational practices and their role in the configuration of racial identities in Colombia.

Chris Dalladay

Teacher biography and its impact on teaching practice. A study into music teacher biography; how its findings might apply to other subjects

David Bara

A teenagers story of living with cancer: The personal, social, emotional and educational challenges they faced



ED2.01  3-3.30pm


Roundtable Discussion

ED2.01 3.30-5pm

TEF and REF:

What are the Effects on Teachers, Researchers, Students and Higher Education?

The Teaching Excellence Framework, which follows in the footsteps of the Research Excellence Framework, may be the largest shift in the national framework for Higher Education in England for a generation. The Green Paper is about transforming a largely publicly funded system to one focused on students and teaching, and promoting competition. The Green Paper argues that the TEF will drive up teaching standards, increase productivity and transparency and raise standards, as well as boosting social mobility, creating a fairer field for suppliers, and reducing complexity in funding. Critics argue that all metrics, and these in particular, are open to manipulation, and furthermore that the TEF does not actually measure what it is supposed to. It is also argued that it is expensive, bureaucratised and top-down, and alienates teachers and learners from one another. It will lead to a concentration of funding at rich universities, and may be used as a premise to remove fee caps entirely. What is really important – teaching quality – may be displaced with metrics. This panel will explore arguments for and against the TEF, in the context of experience with the REF, and the effects of these metrics on those working in Higher Education, as well as the quality of the system itself.


Professor Miriam David (UCL Institute of Education)

Dr Heather Mendick (Freelance social researcher & Alternative Academia Network convenor)

Professor Mike Neary (University of Lincoln & The Social Science Centre co-operative)

Professor Sir Peter Scott (UCL Institute of Education)

Roundtable panel speakers’ bio notes:

Miriam E David is a professor emerita of sociology of education at the University College London Institute of Education. She has a world-class reputation for her scholarship on feminism, gender and education. Her classic study – The State, The Family and Education – originally published in 1980, was republished by Routledge/Taylor & Francis in 2015.  Her most recent book – Feminism, Gender & Universities: Politics, Passion and Pedagogies – was published by Ashgate in 2014, based upon a study of more than 100 international women academics. A Feminist Manifesto for Education will be published by Polity Press in the summer of 2016, based upon her EU-funded study about challenging sexual violence for children and young people. She is co-editor, with Dr Marilyn Amey, with associate editors Drs Terri Kim, Rebecca Ropers-Huilman and Pamela Eddy, of the Sage International Encyclopaedia of Higher Education scheduled for publication in 2017/8.

Heather Mendick works as a freelance academic, having previously been employed in Education at Brunel, Goldsmiths, London Metropolitan and Lancaster Universities, and as a mathematics teacher in secondary schools and post-16 colleges. She has published widely on mathematics education, science education, gender, social class, ethnicity, youth aspirations, celebrity and popular culture. Those publications include two books: Masculinities in Mathematics and Urban Youth and Schooling (with Louise Archer and Sumi Hollingworth). Her most recent major research project was an ESRC-funded study of the role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations (www.celebyouth.org) and she continues to blog irregularly for that website. She also coordinates meetings of the ‘Alternative Academia Network’ and is co-organiser for Momentum Hackney. She tweets from @helensclegel about education, politics, academia, darts, popular culture, sociology, and veganism. Most of her publications are available at: https://independent.academia.edu/HeatherMendick.

Mike Neary is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln. Before coming to Lincoln in 2007 he was a Reader in Sociology at the University of Warwick, 1994 – 2007. His main areas of research are academic labour and student life with a particular focus on the relationship between teaching and research. Mike was the Dean of Teaching and Learning at Lincoln from 2007 – 2014, during which time he was the director of the Centre for Education Research and Development (CERD) and Director of the Graduate School. Mike was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship by the Higher Education Academy in 2007. In 2014 he was made an honorary life member of Lincoln Students’ Union for his work with students. Mike is currently completing a book ‘Student as Producer, How Do Revolutionary Teachers Teach?’ He is a founder member in 2011 of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, a worker-student cooperative providing no-fee higher education.

Sir Peter Scott is Professor of Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education. Previously he was Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University. Before going to Kingston he was Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Education at the University of Leeds and between 1976 and 1992 Editor of ‘The Times Higher Education Supplement’. He is a trustee of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA), and Treasurer of the Academia Europaea. From 2011 until 2015 he was Chair of the Council of the University of Gloucestershire. His major research interests are the social, cultural and intellectual impacts of mass higher education; governance, leadership and management; and the internationalisation of higher education (and the development of European higher education). He is a member of the management committee of the newly established UCL IOE’s Centre for Global Higher Education co-founded by the ESRC and HEFCE.

Co-operative Leadership for Higher Education




The aim of this research is to explore the possibility of establishing co-operative leadership as a viable organisational form of governance and management for Higher Education. Co-operative leadership is already well established in business enterprises in the UK and around the world (Ridley-Duff and Bull 2016), and has recently been adopted as the organising principle by over 800 schools in the United Kingdom (Wilson 2014). The co-operative movement is a global phenomenon with one billion members, supported by national and international organisations working to establish co-operative enterprises and the promotion of cooperative education. The research is financed by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s small development projects fund.

Higher education in the UK is characterised by a mode of governance based on Vice-Chancellors operating as Chief Executives supported by Senior Management teams.  Recent research from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education on Neo-collegiality in the managerial university (Bacon 2014) shows that hierarchical models of governance alienate and de-motivate staff, failing to take advantage of research-based problem solving skills of staff operating at all levels,  not accounting for the advantages to organisations when self-managed professionals interact with peers on matters of common purpose, particularly in knowledge-based industries.

The co-operative leadership model for higher education supports the ambition for more active engagement in decision-making to facilitate the best use of academics’ professional capacities, but framed around a more radical model for leadership, governance and management. Members of the co-operative university would not only be involved directly in decision-making and peer-based processes that make best use of their collective skills, but have equal voting rights as well as collective ownership of the assets and liabilities of the co-operative (Cook 2013). This more radical model builds on work done recently as part of a project funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation to establish some general parameters around which a framework for co-operative higher education could be established (Neary and Winn 2015). One of the key issues emerging from this research is the significance of co-operative leadership – the focus of this research project.


 The research will done by Mike Neary and  Joss Winn  both of whom have experience of running research projects funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, the Higher Education Academy and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). Mike Neary was the Dean of Teaching and Learning at the University of Lincoln, 2007-2014, giving him relevant experience of senior leadership in the sector. Mike and Joss are founder members of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, a co-operative for higher education.

The research will be carried out using a case study method.

The case-study sites proposed are: a co-operative school in England; a large co-operative commercial enterprise in the UK; a retail partnership trust and a co-operative university in Spain. The researcher(s) will spend one week on site doing participant observation, semi-structured interviews and group conversations, taking field notes and photographs, recording interviews, as well as documentary analysis.

A significant outcome of the research will be to develop a co-operative leadership tool (CLT) for  Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to audit the extent of co-operative provision in HEIs and to assess if a co-operative leadership model is viable within an institution. The tool will be based on a set of catalytic principles that distinguish co-operative enterprises: ownership, democracy, autonomy, independence and social value, in the context of practical, pragmatic and political possibilities.


Online – establish a strong online presence across a range of different platforms, including website, Twitter and Facebook.

Speaking – disseminate findings as speakers at national and international events on co-operative higher education.

Print media – write journalistic articles in national and higher education press.

Labour Movement – further develop links between the University and College Union, the  Trade Union movement and the Co-operative College to explore the possibility of setting up a worker-cooperative for further and higher education.


Contribute published material to an under-researched area of leadership in HE  to inform policy and strategy to develop co-operative forms of higher education.

Create a Co-operative Leadership Tool (CLT) to classify the organisational form of HEIs in terms of their co-operative values and politics, based on catalytic principles that distinguish co-operative enterprises.

Establish a new area for consultancy and capacity building through leadership development programmes supported by the CLT with practical guides and other materials. Given the global nature of the co-operative movement these areas for development work have strong international potential.

TIME FRAME  March 2016 –  February 2017

March – April

Milestones – Establish a steering group with individuals from case-study sites, the Co-operative College, academics who work on co-operative provision, a member of a student co-operative and a senior leader at Lincoln. Employ a research assistant, arrange access to case study institutions, gain ethics approval.

April – July

Milestones – Carry out case study visits. Develop prototype of Co-operative Leadership Tool (CLT)

August – December

 Milestones- Pilot-test CLT in three HEIs, as well as focus groups x 2 and interviews x 3 with key individuals in pilot institutions at the end of the test period.

January – February

Write up report and academic publication. Consolidate CLT as usable developmental device.



Bacon, E. (2014) Neo-Collegiality: restoring academic engagement in the managerial university. London, Leadership Foundation.

Neary, M. and Winn, J. (2015) ‘Beyond private and public: a model for co-operative higher education’. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy.  Perspectives for the new university. Volume 2: 114 – 119.

Wilson, M. (2014) ‘Learning Together: perspectives in cooperative higher education’ (keynote address), Co-operative College, Manchester.

Ridley-Duff R. and Bull, M. (2016) Understanding Social Enterprise, London: Sage.

Cook, D. (2013) ‘Realising the Cooperative University’,   A consultancy report for the Co-operative College.

Yeo.S. (ed) New Views of Co-operation. London: Routledge.









Student as Producer – challenging the principle of student as consumer


This is the updated and revised abstract for my keynote talk at the conference of Association of Law Teachers at Northumbria University, 21st March.

In this talk I will explore the nature of the academic-student relationship with reference to the UK Consumer Rights Act 2015, where students are confirmed as consumers of higher education. Given that legal arrangements are by their nature adversarial (Pashukanis 1983 81) the legal status of consumer has devastating consequences for academic-student collaboration, the subject of this year’s conference. Following Evgeny Pashukanis (1891 – 1937), a Marxist legal theorist,  I will suggest a remedy to this situation based not on the law but on a form of ‘technical regulation’, or ‘unity of purpose’ (81)  in which social arrangements are organised in terms of the goal to be achieved rather than the protection of private interest ( Fine 1984, Mieville 2005, Winn 2015). I will illustrate this remedy with examples of my own work with others: Student as Producer, a model of curriculum development where students are part of the academic project of the university, and the Social Science Centre, Lincoln a membership based, jointly owned and democratically ran co-operative for higher learning.


Fine, Bob (1984) Democracy and the Rule of Law: Liberal Ideals and Marxist Critiques. London: Pluto Press.

Mieville, China ( 2005) Between Equal Right: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Leiden: Brill.

Pashukanis, Evgeny (1989) Law and Marxism: A General Theory. London: Pluto Press.

Winn, Joss (2015) Open Education and the emancipation of academic labour. Learning, Media and Technology, 40 (3).


Student as Producer and the politics of abolition: making a dissident institution?


studentasproducer poster


This paper, jointly authored with Gary Saunders, tells the story of how a group of academic staff and students set out to establish a subversive teaching and learning project: Student as Producer, across an English university.  Confronted by the intensification of neoliberal education policies and faced with the recuperation of its radical practice, the paper recounts how staff and students involved with Student as Producer moved outside of the university in 2011 to set up a cooperative form of higher education: the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, where students can attain higher education awards without the burden of debt, along with the experience of running a workers’ cooperative. This subversive practice is grounded in a Marxist ‘critique of value’, underpinned by a politics of abolition based on the work of Thomas Mathiesen. The paper concludes that it is possible and necessary to create new dissident institutions ‘in and against’ the organisational forms of capitalist society as the embodiment of revolutionary theory.

Accepted for publication by Critical Education, November 2015

An Introduction to the Work of Karl Marx: science of revolution and revolutionary science


This is the text of a lecture I gave to the Marx Research Seminar at the University of Lincoln on 6th of October 2015.

In this lecture I claim that the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) was not only a science of revolution but also a revolutionary science, constituting a scientific revolution in social and political thought. This claim is based on Marx’s discovery of the dynamic substance: value in motion (Capital Vol 2 ), on which  the social universe of Capital is founded: a dynamic substance that is unknown and invisible to the methods of bourgeois social science. This claim is grounded in a reappraisal of Marx’s social theory that seeks to recover and develop the revolutionary proposition in Marx’s writing through ‘a critique of value’, recognising the revolutionary principles (communism) and practices (class struggle) out of which a postcapitalist society is already emerging, but is always and everywhere at risk.

This reappraisal runs counter to ‘worldview’  traditional marxism (Heinrich 2004) or ‘western Marxism’ (Anderson 1987), both of which are distractions from and degradations of Marx’s work.

Worldview Marxism is characterised by ‘crude economism (ideology and politics reduced to a direct and conscious transmission of economic interests), as well as a pronounced historical determinism that viewed the end of capitalism as inevitable occurrences’ and in which the category of worker and the working class takes on ‘an all identity constituting role’ (Heinrich 2004 24-25). A defining feature of worldview Marxism is that it is based on the politics of distribution of resources rather than any fundamental transformation in the social relations of production (Postone 1993).

Western Marxism is characterised by a shift from a critique of political economy towards matters of philosophy and culture: ‘to concentrate overwhelmingly on [the] study of superstructures’ (Anderson 1987 75), introducing concepts that were antithetical to political economy, including Althusserian over-determination,  Gramscian hegemony, Freudian psychoanalysis,  Weberian rationality and  Sartre’s dialectical reason (Anderson 1987 47 – 74).

What distinguishes the critique of value from worldview or western Marxism is that it takes the concept of value, not the proletariat or the working class, as its starting point. Rather than see the proletariat as the subject of revolution, this critique of value regards the proletariat as a determined form of value which must be ‘abolished’  for communism to be established.  The critique of value seeks to deconstruct the main categories of political economy: the commodity, money-capital and labour, to reveal that  value, more correctly  value in motion [capital], is not a system of economics or ideology that has been imposed on society, but that value in motion [capital] mediates all aspects of social life, including everyday life outside of economic activity and the workplace: as a ‘social ecological metabolism’ (Charnock et al 2014 12)  or a ‘web of life’ ( Moore 2015) or a ‘social factory’ (Tronti 1979) or ‘social universe’ (Postone 1993) with its own ‘political cosmology’ (Neary 2004). In other words, value is ‘the construction of capitalist society in its totality’ (Dinerstein and Neary 2002 21).

This reading of Marx through the prism of value spawned a dissident tradition at the start of the twentieth century (Pashukanis 1983, Rubin 1972), beaten, brutalised and buried by the  orthodoxies of Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism as well as  Social Democracy, characterised as the prevention of communism ( Binns and Dixon 1999). A focus on value re-emerged in the 1960s as a contribution to  Critical Theory by members of the Frankfurt School, following  Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1973) and Sohn-Rethel’s work on real abstraction and his Marxist theory of consciousness. This work has been  developed since through various critical encounters with Marx’s work as  neue Marx lecture ( Heinrich 2004), critique of value ( Larsen et al 2014), capital relation theory (Clarke 1991), Open Marxism ( Bonefeld, Holloway, Gunn, Psychopedis 1992, 1995 and Dinerstein 2014) and more recently through the notion of Communisation (Endnotes 2012). Along with this intellectual endeavour there has been a significant archival research project to recover and reappraise Marx’s life work [MEGA2]. What connects all of this writing, along with its emphasis on value, is its stress on the unfinished and non-dogmatic nature of Marx’s work within a consistent theoretical framework, notwithstanding its deviations and ambiguities, sometimes pushing up to and beyond Marx’s own radical conclusions. This reappraisal sees Marx’s work as  grounded in the historical moment when it was written which, despite its nineteenth century vernacular, is still of central relevance to our present circumstances as capitalist civilisation has not yet been transcended (Musto 2009 2010).

Marx set out his critique of value most substantially in the Grundrisse and Capital Volumes 1-3, in his Theories of Surplus Value and in Results of the Immediate Process of Production, although traces of its development can be found throughout his work. I want to focus on the first chapter of Volume 1 and more specifically to  start where Marx starts in Capital with his first sentence (Holloway 2015).  But before doing  that we need to be aware of the problem that Marx is attempting to solve.

The problem that faced political economy was what is the value of value in a world where the absolutism of the Monarch was replaced by the relativity of market based prices (Rubin 1989 65). From the 17th to end of 19th century it was well understood that labour was the source of value in commercial society, elaborated in the work of William Petty, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, among others. The problem was how to reconcile this fact with the emergence of a political society in which labour was becoming increasingly antagonistic as a result of the negative social consequences resulting from the appropriation of  value by the capitalist class. While political economy sought to maintain the basis of commercial society through the provision of cheap labour, Marx’s critique of political economy sought to abolish the emerging industrial society based on the labour theory of value and construct a communist world on a new principle of social wealth. What emerged at the end of the 19th century is what we now call mainstream or marginalist economics which maintains there is no intrinsic value to commodities other than what a customer is prepared to pay based on their utility and quantity, with the focus  on markets and prices ( Mason 2015 160, Clarke 1991). This version of economics has been described as a Great Avoidance (Perlman 1972), recognised for what it was: an attempt to  take the politics out of political economy while, at the same time,  the newly emerging liberal state sought to contain the nascent political power of labour through the administration of democratic representation.  Given the nature of what was at stake, the problem of labour and  the labour theory of value was not going to go away ( Dinerstein and Neary 2002, Elson 1980).

So what is Marx’s first sentence in Capital and why is it so significant?

‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form’ (Marx 1990 125).

The first sentence points to the problem of the nature of wealth in capitalist societies. Marx is suggesting with the word ‘appears’ that social wealth lies beyond the mere empirical and that an immense collection of capitalist commodities is a kind of wealth that cannot be easily measured, pointing towards a deeper scientific understanding of the non-empirical social forces out of which wealth is produced. This approach is not amenable to positivist methodologies but requires a more critical practical reflexivity where concepts (abstractions) cannot be assumed, but must be interrogated in relation to the  material ( concrete) world out of which they are derived (Gunn 1989). Marx’s method is no arbitrary gesture but is grounded, as we shall see, in his exposition of the movement of  value in motion, between its concrete and the abstract  forms, as the real nature of the commodity, as Capital expands at the level of society. Marx is writing at an abstract level but it is not an abstract theory, rather a theory of abstraction: and more especially invokes the social power of  real abstraction  in capitalist society. This is the essence of reading capital politically (Cleaver 2000) and the basis for  such definitions of communism as ‘the ruthless critique of everything that exists’ (Marx 1843) and ‘the real movement that abolishes the present state of things’ (Marx 1845).

And so the second sentence in Capital 1 is, ‘Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity’ ( Capital 1 193). Marx’s main contribution to social science is the revelation of value in motion as an (im)material social substance not recognisable to bourgeois social theory. Marx comes to this discovery through an exposition of the dual nature of commodity form, which contains within it the whole organising principle of capitalist society and is the basis for its contradictory dysfunctionality (Lukacs 1967).  A commodity is constituted as use value (concrete) and exchange value (abstract); as a contradictory ‘unity of opposites’ which, contrary to Hegel’s affirmative dialectic, is not resolvable within itself. Whatever usefulness a commodity (concrete value) may possess, the main reason for its manufacture is to be exchanged (exchange value) so that the surplus value created in the process of production can be realised. Labour, or rather labour power: the sale of the capacity to work, is identified as a commodity with a specific skill (concrete labour) and exchange value ( abstract labour), calculated as the level of subsistence by which the worker can reproduce themselves. Surplus value is based on the exploitation of labour power (commodified work) whose exchange value (wages calculated as a rate of workers’ subsistence) is less than the total value that is produced and from out of which the surplus value is obtained. This is the basis of Marx’s labour theory of value.

A further feature of Marx’s revolutionary science is the way in which value is measured. For Marx, as for David Ricardo, value was measured in labour time, but unlike Ricardo’s version of the labour theory of value where time was related to the socially necessary conditions of production, (Rubin 1979 252), Marx’s  labour time was not a measure of clock time but a peculiar form of social time, ‘socially necessary labour time’:  the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society.’ (Capital 1 129). This temporal measure of competitive productivity means that the struggle over working time becomes a major feature of class conflict. The intensification of the rate of productivity as a measure of labour time is not contained within the factory but becomes a new social measure for ‘the speed of life’ (Neary and Rikowski 2000 2002).

For Marx the value of value is an immaterial social substance (abstract labour) making it much more than a quantitative accounting device, and more like ‘a social ecological metabolism’ (Charnock et al 2014 12). Value is a form of social mediation that dominates all aspects of Capital’s life-world. The level of productivity against which socially necessary labour time is assessed is the total amount of value produced at the level of society: or the total amount of work (human energy) that has been abstracted from workers in the process of production without any reference to the concrete specificity of work (use value). This process of abstraction is not something that happens in the mind, but is a real social process in which each commodity represents a discrete portion of value in motion as a dynamic and coercive expansive totality; or, a temporal quantification of densified matter (Postone 1993 292), making the intellectual space to re-envision Marx’s work as  a very distinctive contribution to the critique of political cosmology (Kay and Mott 1983, Neary 2004). Marx represents this totality as a process of circulation in which value takes on the form of different commodities: Money (M), Labour Power (L), Means of Production ( MP) and Capital (M’), as it moves through its expansive cycle, giving the movement of time in space; or, rather space-time, a logical and historical trajectory, in what amounts to a Einsteinian-like process of  social metamorphosis (Postone 1993, Neary 2004).


Following this methodology Marx’s critique of political economy can be seen more sociologically as a theory of social forms. This theory can be applied to social forms that appear to lie outside of this productive cycle, including all forms of capitalist institutions: the state ( Clarke 1991b Meiksins Wood 1999,  Postone 1993), human consciousness ( Sohn-Rethel 1978), Culture (Adorno 1973), humanity-in-nature including worker animals (Moore 2015) , colonisation and post-colonisation ( Dinerstein 2014, Moore 2015), gender and sexuality ( Scholz 2014, Stoetzler 2009), socialist objects (Kiaer 2008,) and even  human subjectivity itself (Clarke 1991, Jappe 2015).

Productivity is further enhanced by the introduction of machines, harnessing science and technology to the process of valorisation, stripping workers of any specific skills, becoming machine minders until they are eventually expelled from the workplace. The rationality that lies behind this process is not the rationality of individual actors, who are always and everywhere depersonalised and become representatives of a particular aspect of value in motion, as workers or employers or other forms of unproductive work. But, the rationality of value in motion is ultimately irrational.  While machines may increase material wealth, like the collection of things outlined in the opening sentence of Capital 1, they do not create social wealth: value, as they can only transfer their own value (dead labour)  into the commodities they produce before degrading and becoming obsolete.  Labour power (living labour) is the only commodity that produces surplus value (Marx 1992).

The replacement of labour power by machines leads to  a decline in the rate of surplus value, described by Marx as ‘a tendency for the rate of profit to fall’  resulting in periodic economic  crises (Marx 1990). These slumps in the rate of surplus value  have up until this point been ameliorated by moving production to places where the value of labour is below the average rate of socially necessary labour time, or to areas where natural resources can be appropriated  without recompense, or by military conflagrations which through massive destruction create the conditions for a renewed cycle of surplus value production, starting up a new period of ‘primitive accumulation’ ( Marx Capital 1), or with the expansion of credit and debt, mortgaging a future that will never be paid for, or through innovation, e.g., microtechnologies, ushering  in a new phase of the industrial revolution to further socialise production, sometimes referred to  as ‘immaterial labour’ (Virno 2004). However, despite capital’s capacity to avoid terminal crisis, the future for capital appears everywhere as catastrophe. The current predictors are looking at a situation beyond amelioration: a period of long term stagnation (Mason 2015 27-29), alongside a global collapse in the world of work (ILO 2015).

All of this causes enormous social upheaval and resistance, but the source of the conflict is not according to this critique of value a struggle between capitalists and the proletariat, or an unequal distribution of resources, or a refusing the identity of the Other, or Patriarchal Power; rather, it is the contradictory logic that lies at the heart of the commodity form. This core contradiction is the basis for class struggle and the revolution of everyday life (Lefebvre 1990), including the struggle over the value of labour and jobs, which involves struggles over the value of unpaid domestic labour forcing women into various types of gender specific subjugation, as well as struggles against all colonised life, slave labour, racist and dehumanising police and other types of population control and environmental destruction beyond the human imagination. The working class is not a sociological category, following E P Thompson ‘class itself is not a thing, it is a happening…not part of the machine but the way the machine works …the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise’ (Thompson 1991); but, contra Thompson, class struggle  is not ‘ the friction of interests’, rather it is the consequence of the contradiction inherent in the value form; revolution is the ‘ latent potential’ of the use value dimension, no longer constrained and shaped by the value dimension.’ (Postone 364).  The critique of value is then a categorial critique and the basis for defetishisation (Bonefeld 2014).

In Chapter 1 of Capital Volume 1 Marx leads us through the movement of value in an historical and logical process as it takes on social forms that are appropriate to the exchange process before emerging as money  ‘the universal equivalent’ through which all economic transactions are validated. The final part of   Chapter 1 gives an elaboration of defetishisation in a section on commodity fetishism, which deals with the issue raised in the very first sentence of Capital Vol 1: how the things in capitalist society are not always as they appear and while they may appear to have a life and, indeed, a value of their own, are in fact the result of more foundational processes derived from the dynamic interaction between the empirical and non-empirical world of value in motion.


From Harry Cleaver (2000), Reading Capital Politically

Later in Volume 1, Marx shows us how money (M) is transformed into capital ( in a process by which surplus value is created . The key to this sequence is that if value is validated in exchange,  a process which gives rise to the liberal principles of freedom and equivalence/equality, then surplus value, which provides money with its ‘supreme form of social power’ ( Clarke 1988) , is generated in the process of production, a realm that is characterised by coercion and domination ( M’). Marx describes this process of valorisation as the General Formula of Capital expressed through a series of algebraic-like equations.

C – M- C

M – C- M’

Note well: Capital as value in motion is a ‘moving contradiction’ (Grundrisse 706), in the form of a self-valorising automatic Subject, without an ego or consciousness ( Postone 1993). A  Monster that has subsumed the planet, where through the process of real abstraction ‘all that is solid melts into air…’ (Marx 1848).

When Marx is working this out in the 1850s, he is the only person in the world who understands what he is talking about ( Nicolaus 1993 61). Our understanding of Marx’s method has been greatly enhanced by the recovery of a body of work, known as the Grundrisse,  a series of workbooks first published in Germany in 1930s and in an English translation in the 1960s, casting ‘a fresh light on the inner logic of Capital…which challenges and puts to the test every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived’ (Nicolaus 1993 7).

There is an important section in the Grundrisse: the Fragment of Machines, where Marx goes through the revolutionary consequences of labour power  being withdrawn from the process of production and replaced  by machines, thus reducing the rate of valorisation: a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. The result of this ongoing withdrawal is a  mass of unemployed workers and an enormous collection of things without a market for their exchange value to be realised. This emergence of surplus population alongside a surplus of material wealth renders the production of capitalist value anachronistic as it is no longer appropriate or necessary for the society that it has produced (Postone 1993). This raises the possibility for a higher level of society (712) based on a new logic of abundance rather than subsistence, where human life is able to organise itself on the principle of ‘disposable time’ (708) rather than ‘labour time’; in what has become ‘ a mass of workers [who] must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour…measured by the needs of the social individual [as] the development of  the power  of social production…For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals’ (708), for ‘every individual and the whole society’ (706). And, in a passage that is particularly relevant for those of us who work in universities, Marx recognises the extent to which the  general power of science, knowledge and technology, which he defines as : ‘general social knowledge’ (706) ,  ‘the general powers of the human head’ ( page), ‘the social brain’ `(694), and   ‘the general intellect’ (706) or’ knowledge in an alien form : the power of knowledge objectified’ (Grundrisse date 706), which had previously been used to increase capitalist productivity,  can now be reappropriated as knowledge at the level of society as a new type of ‘social intellect’ (709)  ‘for society generally and each of its members..the development of the individual’s full productive forces, hence those of society also ‘ (708).

Marx had previously argued in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) that ‘natural science has transformed human life all the more practically through industry and has prepared the conditions for human emancipation, however much its immediate effect was to complete the process of dehumanisation’ (355). Now, in the Fragments the stage is set for natural science to ‘become the basis of a human science…The idea of one basis for life and another for science is from the very outset a lie…Natural science will in time subsume the science of man, just as the science of man will subsume natural science: there will be one science’ (355). This is much more than a call for interdisciplinarity, but is a powerful critique of the subject discipline obsessed capitalist university, providing the basis for a new revolutionary science and the foundation for a communist higher and higher education.


Writing at the end of his life, in The Critique of the Gotha Programme (2009), Marx elaborated further on the transition from capitalism to communism: ‘not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society… and is still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges’ (Marx 2009  8). This   transition to the new communist society, is not based on  fair distribution of goods but a change in relations of production, in this case no longer based on indirect labour mediated by  exchange and the coercive logic of  socially necessary labour time, but in the form of  directly social labour, in which value is assessed by the actual labour time performed by freely associating individuals based on actually existing needs and capabilities. In this way ‘individuals receive back from society – after the deductions have been made – exactly what he gives it ..[as]..his individual quantum of labour’ (Hudis 2012 194):  ‘The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another’ (Hudis 2012 194), the level of which would ‘involve a great deal of discussion and debate’ (Hudis 2012 197) as part of a system that is totally transparent (Hudis 2012 198). However, during this period of transition Marx recognises that  the system is still defective as the bourgeois principles of equivalence and equal rights are implied in a society that still appears to be dominated by work ( Hudis 2012 199): ‘The type of highest phase of communist society can only be fully realised when labour is no longer ‘the means of life, has itself become the prime necessity of life; after the productive forces have also increased with the all round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly..’ (2009 10). This necessary moment is  represented by the phrase ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’, (10). Marx is very clear, he is not talking about  the emancipation of labour, but the emancipation from labour ( 2009 11).

In the meantime and in our current predicament,  Marx agrees that worker cooperatives are a means towards revolutionising the present conditions of production so long as they remain ‘the independent creations of the workers and not proteges of the government or of the bourgeoisie’ (17). This form of democratic workers control would form part of transitional political society in which the state is under the control of the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’, like the Paris Commune(13) (Lissagaray 2014). Marx is clear, this revolutionary communist arrangement would need to defend itself as democratic forms of parliamentary representation  are only ever forms of  Police-State despotism (Marx 2009 19).

Concrete Thought experiment – higher education for a higher society

Imagine for  a moment a Jeremy Corbyn-like figure wins a future General Election and begins in earnest the transition towards  communism based on the principle of ‘from each according to their capacity to each according to their needs’. As part of this programme and based on the  slogan ‘higher education for a higher society’  new legislation developed with the Cooperative Party has been passed to replace the target driven Soviet Style five year planning on which Universities are currently governed (Radice 2008).  As we have seen, knowledge, science and technology:  described as ‘the general intellect’ have been key factors in the production of capitalist value and must be reappropriated for the communist future. Institutionally: the University of Lincoln, together with other universities, is to  become a worker-student cooperative, where students are regarded as workers who for the time being and in this transitional phase before the labour theory of value is abolished will be paid a salary. A key principle of the cooperative university is that knowledge is not simply to be learned, like ‘alien knowledge’ ( Marx Grundrisse 695) but knowledge to be produced in collaboration with students and academics in a programme referred to as Student as Producer. The Research Excellence Framework, Teaching Excellence Framework and the National Student Survey are to be abandoned, leading to the development of an alternative set of judgements and practices to consider academic work, based on standards of academic integrity and values including transparency, the commons and commonwealth, radical democracy, and the meaning and substance of disposable time.  Locally, the University of Lincoln is to act as a resource for Lincolnshire’s already existing cooperative societies and many cooperative schools. Globally, the University and its staff will seek dialogue, exchange and solidarity with other co-operative and democratically run universities, such as that of Mondragon in Spain, and other revolutionary forms of higher education. The University of Lincoln, together with other Universities, will work to strengthen collaborative interdisciplinary relations with research partners in the International Cooperative Alliance, International Labour Organisation, United Nations and other global organisations which acknowledge the key contribution that cooperatives make to their members’ lives at the regional, national and international level.

This is not just a concrete thought experiment, but is the basis of a contribution to the University of Lincoln’s new Strategic Plan consultation process ( Neary, Amsler and Winn 2015). This contribution is based on work that has been ongoing at the Social Science Centre Lincoln, a co-operative providing no-fee higher education in Lincoln since 2011, and a subsequent  research project began in 2015: Beyond Private and Public: a cooperative model for higher education, which, as the title implies,  is not the protege of either  the state or bourgeois preoccupations. The theory and practices that lie behind the development of this type of cooperative university are carried out resolutely with a Marxist critique of value in mind (Neary and Winn 2015, Winn 2015).


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