Marx and the Present: An Introduction

Originally posted by Cassiodorus on 03/18/07

(crossposted to Daily Kos)

Plenty of discursive forces have arisen in the present, leading to a diary on Marx.  I’ve had discussions with people on DKos who wish to contest what they see as my “marxism.”  Actually, I suppose it all boils down to the student who asked me in my instructional communication class last fall, “are you a socialist.”  So what is my relationship to the O.G. of socialism?  I’m sure this topic comes up whenever I’ve disputed the ability of the capitalist system to come up with a solution to any significant ecological problem.

My reliance on terms such as “class struggle” and “political economy” is motivated by my interest in Kees van der Pijl, who works from a Marxist framework typically given the name of “neo-Gramscian international political economy.”  Now, “neo-Gramscian” refers to Antonio Gramsci, about whom I’ve written a diary previously.  But I haven’t really said much about Karl Marx (1818-1883), about whom much has been said and little actually known.  Marx is a symbol of “communism,” but his main contribution to intellectual thinking has been his critique of capitalism.  “Marxism” has been called “obsolete,” especially after the (1991) fall of the Soviet Union, yet its theorists produce works that meaningfully describe the political and economic realities of this era.

Marxism is, of course, a political football.  So-called “conservatives” never tire of describing the Soviet Union, the world’s first ostensibly Marxist regime, as a “failure,” ignoring its unparalleled success in transforming Russia into a superpower.  Few interested commentators on Marxism can distinguish the advocacy of a communist utopia from the critique of capitalism.  At any rate, here I shall attempt to say something brief about Marx, about 1) who he was and 2) what he said and 3) what it means for us today.

  • Who was Marx?

    Anyone who wants the full scope on this can read the biographies, especially: Marx: A Life by Francis Wheen, Marx: A Biography by Robert Payne, or Karl Marx: His Life and Thought by David McLellan. 

    At any rate, Marx grew up in Trier, a Catholic city in a Protestant kingdom, Prussia.  He was the son of a Jewish businessman who converted to Lutheranism to avoid losing his profession.  Marx’s daddy wanted him to be a lawyer; he decided to be a philosopher instead.

    At first Marx hung out with a school of philosophers which history calls the “Young Hegelians” – these were young men who had decided to criticize the structure of society using the philosophical framework of “dialectics” of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  Marx soon thereafter abandoned said school, and developed a communist philosophy which history calls “historical materialism.”  The first inkling of this philosophy was in a series of notebooks, published only long after Marx’s death, called the “1844 manuscripts.”  The 1844 manuscripts are about the meaning of “alienation,” by which Marx meant the loss of ownership the worker feels after selling his/ her labor to an employer.  But, within them, Marx has this stunning thought about the power of money:

    That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has a power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?
    If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? It is the coin that really separates as well as the real binding agent – the [. . .] chemical power of society.
    Shakespeare stresses especially two properties of money:
    1. It is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.
    2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.
    The distorting and confounding of all human and natural qualities, the fraternisation of impossibilities – the divine power of money – lies in its character as men’s estranged, alienating and self-disposing species-nature. Money is the alienated ability of mankind. (167-168)

    The power of this passage to evoke the cynicism of a society based on money is dramatic.

    Anyway, Marx went on to join various communist movements, getting kicked out of country after country until finally settling in London.  Marx’s early revolutionary participation was pretty much over by 1852, though.  In the meantime, however, he wrote a piece of propaganda, the Communist Manifesto, which egged on the international rebellions which history would call the uprisings of 1848.  It contains a famous phrase which all anti-Marxists like to cite in denouncing Marx:

    The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

    Of course, nothing of the sort happened.  The creation of factory life did not bring the workers together, and the victory of the proletariat is by no means inevitable.  In that quote, Marx was displaying a Victorian sense of hubris, a hubris which doubtless left him by the time 1872 rolled around (see below).

    Later in his life, Marx participated in the “International Working Men’s Association,” the First International, founded in 1864. 

    The various Internationals were organizations dedicated to uniting the working class for the sake of global revolution.  They all failed to achieve this goal, for various reasons: the First International had serious ideological and national problems, the Second International did not survive the hostilities of the First World War, and the Third International was Lenin’s attempt to institute ideological conformity among the various Communist Parties, which (according to Julius Braunthal in the 2nd volume of his 3-vol. History of the International) led to a 75% desertion from said Parties in western Europe.  Communist movements on planet Earth all appear to have been premature.

    But that’s a side-note.  By 1872, Marx effectively controlled the International, though, and claiming division between the various nations, Marx proposed that the headquarters of the International be moved to New York City, thus killing it off.  Why did Marx do away with the International as such?  Francis Wheen’s biography put it as follows:

    By exiling the International to America, Marx had deliberately condemned it to death? So why did he do it?  Marxian scholars have treated the question as an insoluble riddle, but there is no great mystery: he was simply exhausted by the effort of holding the warring tribes together? Marx knew that without his commanding presence the General Council would disintegrate anyway and might do serious damage to communism before expiring.  Far better to put the wounded beast out of its misery. (Wheen 344-345)

    It’s easy to see, too, why “Marxian scholars” would want to gloss this over: it’s a clear sign of the pessimism of the Marx of 1872.  Marx himself had grown to doubt the immediate possibility of revolution.

    Marx married Jenny von Westphalen, a member of the petty German nobility, and lived in London as a bourgeois, draining his and his wife’s inheritances and sponging off of his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, whose daddy owned a factory.  He earned money now and then by publishing his writings, although this was work he disliked.  In this vein, he published some stuff for the New York newspapers during the (American) Civil War.

    Although Marx was very cutting in dealing with those who in the least disagreed with his approach, he was exceedingly mellow in dealing with allies and with children, was known as “Moor” to his immediate friends and family (for his swarthy complexion) and grew a very shaggy beard.  He was survived by his wife and by five daughters.

  • What did Marx say?

    Marx’s theories can be grouped fourfold:

    1) Theories of revolution and utopia

    2) Theories of political-economic life

    3) Theories of history, and then (of course) there are

    4) Overall statements of philosophy

    When we talk of “Marxism,” then, we should be specific about what we mean.  Marx’s critique of political-economic life is a far different vegetable than his theory of revolution and utopia, for instance.  I see these theories as follows: 


    1) Theories of the revolution are probably the most problematic of Marx’s theories.  The Manifesto is problematic, for reasons stated above, and also for the ten-point program given in Chapter 2:

    1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
    2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
    3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
    4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
    5. Centralisation of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
    6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
    8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
    9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
    10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

    This sometimes comes in for criticism as a sort of state authoritarianism, a sort of Marx endorsement of the proto-Soviet Union.  One must remember, however, that the “state” Marx had in mind was a preliminary, ad hoc conspiracy of the working class to keep from being crushed by the owning class and its armies, and that said “state” was to abolish itself as soon as its program, communism, was abolished.

    Marx eventually decided that the Paris Commune, an uprising of democrats in France over two months of 1871, would be his ideal of communism.  The Paris Commune, which risked all for the sake of democratic elections when its very existence was at stake, was hardly the sort of dictatorship Stalin would institute in Russia.  (Unfortunately, Marx did not endorse the Paris Commune until it had been brutally suppressed by the mass murder of its participants; during the Commune’s two months, says Wheen, Marx was sick with bronchitis.)

    Now and then, Marx’s statements of “communism” specify increases in the rate of production.  The assumption Marx was under, then in the 19th century, was that capitalism hindered overall production, and that when people were free of capitalism they would be free to produce more.  Today, however, capitalism is plagued by overproduction.  Any socialism that arises tomorrow will have to offer global society the right to produce less, not more.

    Occasionally Marx’s notion of utopia comes under fire for not offering “incentive.”  Only capitalism, the Right likes to babble, will offer everyone incentive to work.  Never mind that the Soviet Union used the ideal of communism to turn a peasant nation, ruined by war, plague, and famine, into the world’s first spacefaring superpower in the space of four months.  And, of course, said babblers never look at the following passage from the Critique of the Gotha Program:

    What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

    Try again, right-wingers.  Socialism and communism are fully workable social systems; the main question, as Marx well knew, is one of whether or not they have a chance to develop out of capitalism.

    Another primary fallacy of the Right with respect to Marx is that they imagine that under socialism everyone would be “equal.”  The Critique of the Gotha Program ends that speculation, too.  Marx didn’t give two hoots about equality — he knew that people weren’t equal.  His goal was the abolition of social classes, and thus of all political systems aimed at the domination of men.  Equality had nothing to do with that.  From the domination of men to the administration of things, an old slogan once went.


    2) Marx’s theories of political-economic life are really the main contribution of Marxism to the future.  The main document to read, of course, is Capital – biographer Francis Wheen quotes Marx’s letters to suggest that Capital was intended as a “work of art,” a basically literary attempt to uncover capitalism’s claims to rationality and morality.  In Capital, Marx argues, wage labor is a form of exploitation, for those who hire wage laborers profit off of them by taking the “surplus,” that portion of the worker’s daily labor not necessary for the working class’s survival.; Thus, suggests Marx, the working class creates the capitalist world, but does not participate in its benefits.

    Marx’s world is that of a class system, composed not of many classes but of two (essential) classes:

    1. the owning class, which lives off of its investments, and
    2. the working class, which really has nothing to sell but its labor.

    We can see from the literature on neo-Marxism that other classes than these two may be important within the same framework.  This is true most especially the contingent working class (discussed in great detail in Vijay Prashad’s Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses), the class of workers who don’t work all the time and thus suffer from exemplary poverty.  Also, the idea that professionals constitute a separate class is endorsed by Donald C. Hodges’ Class Politics in the Information Age.  At any rate, later writers have sought to amend Marx’s notions of class by looking carefully at other relationships to the means of productions than just “owners” and “workers.”  Marxist ideas of class, however, share a common orientation: class is defined by one’s relation to production.


    One element of capitalist propaganda is that the owning class is in its privileged position because it is “better” than the working class.  Marx debunks this by showing how the class society of his 19th century Europe was created through an ongoing theft by those who now call themselves owners, in what he calls “primitive accumulation”:

    This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone-by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in the defence of property. M. Thiers, e.g., had the assurance to repeat it with all the solemnity of a statesman to the French people, once so spirituel. But as soon as the question of property crops up, it becomes a sacred duty to proclaim the intellectual food of the infant as the one thing fit for all ages and for all stages of development. In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part. In the tender annals of Political Economy, the idyllic reigns from time immemorial. Right and “labour” were from all time the sole means of enrichment, the present year of course always excepted. As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic.

    We might, in fact, see this “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force” playing a part in modern economy, e.g. Bush Junior’s conquest and occupation of Iraq.  When they can’t exploit the people’s labor, the dirtiest of elites just steal.

    Now, it needs to be mentioned at this point that the conditions of a portion of the working class (especially in the most industrialized nations) are much better than they were when Marx was alive.  This is, for the main part, true because of the 20th century invention of Keynesian economics, wherein the prosperity of a portion of the working class is seen as necessary toward overall prosperity.  This was determined through a Keynesian mechanism called the “multiplier effect.”  The multiplier effect is said to work as follows: the state runs a deficit, for the sake of increasing the circulation of goods and services.  As an increased supply of money circulates from person to person within society, more people are supposedly put to work producing, thus increasing society’s stock of goods and services.  Thus with Keynesian economics the capitalist world saw the advent of a semi-planned capitalist society.  With Keynesianism one also sees a “middle class,” characterized by home ownership.

    Keynesianism has proved invaluable, moreover, in advertising capitalism to the world.  Under Keynesianism, ostensibly, anyone can join the middle classes.  The cornucopia of consumer life awaits.  The problem is, however, that Keynesian economics does not change the essentially exploitative reality of capitalist economics as a whole, and that the operation of a Keynesian economy requires the satisfaction of at least two basic material conditions.

    Two prerequisites for a Keynesian economy, it must be said, are 1) an autonomous national currency, and 2) a national economy capable of significant growth.  Both of these prerequisites are endangered today, the first by dollar hegemony, which makes the dollar everyone’s currency, the second by ecological limits to capitalist growth.  Keynesian economics became possible because, in a period of great struggle (the 1930s), it was seen as necessary to create a consumer class so that capitalist society’s ability to produce would be absorbed by someone.  Whether capitalist society can continue to produce enough consumers in the 21st century future is in my opinion an open question.  My guess is that, in its heedless production of consumers, the capitalist system will soon exhaust some of Planet Earth’s important resource bases.


    3) Marx’s theory of history is a theory of the development of productive forces, from those of hunter-gatherer societies to those of settled agricultural societies, and from there to the empires of Antiquity to the feudal societies of the Middle Ages to the capitalism of the present day.  This theory is given in general in Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, and (in my opinion) has been superseded by the theory of history given by Kees van der Pijl.

    4) Marx’s philosophy, as displayed above, is about the overall primacy of economic life in society.  The central statement of historical materialism is given in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

    In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate for a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.  The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.  The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life.  (20-21)

    Sometimes this theory of historical materialism is presented as a “determinism,” wherein the events of history are seen as inevitable consequences of the development of productive forces in world society.  However, historical materialism need not be that way.  All Marx is describing, in the paragraph cited above, is the notion that law, politics, and the other various and sundry social dramas of culture take place on a foundation composed of economic facts, and that the most important of economic facts concerns the relations of production.  Marx says nothing about economics determining culture.

    In fact, Marx had no idea what would happen in the future.  This is revealed most distinctly in Volume 3 of Capital, where Marx, after discussing the disintegrative tendencies of capitalism, suggests that he has no clue as to where it is all headed.


    What does Marx mean for us today?

    In developing historical materialism, Marx laid the theoretical basis for modern neo-Marxism, which offers contributions to the social sciences which are at least as meaningful as those of the other schools.  The neo-Marxists continue in meaningful vein the theories of political economy displayed with literary verve in CapitalRobert Brenner, for instance, deserves at least a diary…

    Marx’s utopia, communism, will have to look a lot different in its vision than it did in the 19th century if it is to remain viable today, mostly in the realm of the global society’s relationship to global ecosystems.  More likely than not, participants in the post-capitalist future will be cleaning up the enormous mess left behind by the dead carcass of capitalist society.  It will not, in short, be half as fun as Marx proclaimed it would be in the Critique of the Gotha Program when he said:

    In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

    Sorry, I’m disappointed too, but it ain’t gonna happen.

    That’s all I’m going to say for now: this diary is way too long, and so more discussions of Marx will probably be needed later to cover the subject with anything close to adequacy.  Really all I’m trying to do is incite some conversation about a much-misunderstood topic.

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