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KARL MARX

By Paul Thomas

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The Montréal Review, August 2012

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 "Karl Marx" by Paul Thomas (Reaktion Books, 2012)

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'Paul Thomas quotes Marx, in the years before he died, saying he was glad to be appreciated, yet "I am not a Marxist". Thomas helps us unravel this paradox. For most of a century, "Karl Marx" became an advertisement for a country that would have killed him if it could have. Thomas introduces us to a "post-Cold War" Marx, who can breathe, and we can breathe along with him. Thomas conveys Marx's immense horizon, originality and imaginative power. Marx may be the world's first global writer, and Thomas helps us share this world with him.'

- Marshall Berman, author of "All That is Solid Melts into Air and Adventures in Marxism"

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Engels's well-known keynote 'Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx' (1883) was bent upon seeing to it that the name and work of his friend and guiding spirit would 'endure through the ages.' Engels's heartfelt, distraught words - 'we are what we are because of him; without him we should still be sunk in a slough of confusion' - cannot avoid raising the question of the gap between the immediate circumstances of Marx's theorizing and the ultimate effects of the theory he produced. Marx in Sheldon Wolin's words 'founded a new conception of politics, revolutionary in intent, proletarian in concern, and international in scope and organization.' (Marx, we may presume, would have wished to be remembered as the founder of these, and not as he once described himself to his daughter Laura, as 'a machine condemned to devour books and then throw them, in a changed form, on the dunghill of history.') 'Over the whole range of the social sciences,' David McLellan wrote in 1987, 'Marx has proved probably the most influential figure of the twentieth century.' Eric Hobsbawm extends the range of McLellan's tribute even further. Marx, he says, 'is and will remain one of the great philosophical minds and economic analysts of the nineteenth century. (T)he world in which we live today cannot be understood without the influence that Marx's writings had on the twentieth century.' Yet Marx never attained to a coherent and fully thought-out presentation of his ideas in published form. Volumes II and III of his masterwork, Capital, were put together by Engels after Marx's death, and his Grundrisse of 1857-8, themselves belatedly published, indicate that the three volumes of Capital, along with the three volumes that have come down to us as Theories of Surplus-Value, would, even when taken together, have formed only part of Marx's planned life-work.

THEORY AND PRACTICE

Immediately after finishing Capital volume I in 1867, Marx wrote the following words in a letter to Siegfried Meyer: 'Well, why didn't I answer (your last letter)? Because I was constantly hovering at the edge of the grave. I therefore had to use every moment when I was able to work to finish my book, to which I have sacrificed health, happiness and family. I trust that this explanation needs no postscript. I have to laugh at the so-called 'practical' men and their wisdom. If one chose to be an ox, one could of course turn one's back to the sufferings of mankind and look after one's own skin. But I should really have considered myself impractical if I had 'checked out' without completely finishing my book, at least in manuscript form.' These are words to ponder. Not only did Marx wish, according to Paul Lafargue's Reminiscences, 'to place (his) knowledge at the service of humanity;' he thought about this knowledge itself in an altogether distinctive way.

'I am working madly through the nights,' Marx wrote in 1857 to Engels, 'so that before the deluge I shall at least have the outlines clear.' This may be one of the most extraordinary statements about theorizing ever made. It does not simply re-run the idiom of its source-statement, Louis XIV's notorious, but oddly complacent, après moi, le déluge. The deluge this time is not, like Louis XIV's, about to happen anyway, but is to the contrary a deluge that isn't about to happen in the desired way unless Marx's words hit home and prove their effectiveness. Marx's words are extraordinary not because Marx was alone or unique in devoting his life to a revolutionary cause, or in being galvanized by revolutionary urgency. The merest glance at the wonderland of nineteenth century revolutionism will indicate otherwise. It is extraordinary because of what Marx thought theorizing could do or be: an Archimedean lever with which to move the world. And whatever we think of the movement it effected, it did move the world - though not as Marx would have wanted it to, and not necessarily in a manner of which he would have approved. (The solitary success of a beleaguered Russian Revolution laying claim to his mantle was to Marx the least likely of scenarios.)

But, for all this, the provocation of Marx's claim remains. The unsettling social and political changes through which he lived, eventuating in something he had the temerity to pin down with a name - capitalism - can be characterized theoretically in such a way that theory itself will be not just 'descriptive' or 'prescriptive' but actually premonitory. '(W)hat earlier century,' Marx had asked of capitalism in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, 'had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?' His question deserves to be extended to cover Marx himself as a theorist. Who among Marx's precursors had ever made such exalted claims about the province and purchase of theory? Who had 'had even a presentiment' that theory, once it is geared with and meshed into the prospects of revolutionary change, could become a, or the catalyst that could make all the difference to its outcome? Theory, to be sure, is no demiurge, sweeping all before it. It cannot create dissatisfaction or resentment, cannot engender the desire for fundamental change. But it does not need to do this. What theory can do is channel discontent into worthwhile directions, guard against blind alleys and false friends, and reground struggle. Theory need not operate at the expense of agency but at its behest. The working class, Marx's proletariat, can be shown and must be shown how and why it has come into existence, why it is suffering as much as it is suffering, and why its suffering takes the form it does. The working class must in this way be 'taught the secret of its own existence' but not as an insight handed down from on high in the manner of the Mosaic tables. The working class must itself penetrate the 'secret' of its own placement, its role, its task, its agenda, its agency. Capitalism's development simplifies and polarizes society's class structure. Intermediate classes below the bourgeoisie would resolve themselves into the proletariat, and bourgeois numbers would themselves contract; given these dual distillations, social revolution made by the vast majority would necessarily be democratic in character. Throughout, it is the centrality of productive activity to life in society that is to underlie democratic politics; the very analysis of the former would contribute decisively to the latter. (This differs markedly from the prevailing wisdom which would have it that change, if it is to come at all, will proceed from above, from intellectual schemes devised for the betterment of the rest of us).

FACTS AND VALUES

Theory properly so-called could thus, in helping the working class to penetrate its own secret(s), speak to people, not at them - which is to say that what usually passes for scholarly objectivity was not among Marx's priorities. Many scholars have long exclaimed with some indignation that he 'imported' extraneous value-judgments into what ought to have been a strictly 'factual' process of 'inquiry.' Marx was never remotely 'academic,' distanced, or 'objective' in this sense. He did not think that knowledge of the human world, his own or anybody else's, could be 'apolitical,' value-free, neutral or objective even as an ideal. He made no secret of his identification with the wretched of the earth, particularly the industrial proletariat. He developed his theoretical work on the basis of this avowedly political commitment. He never tried to be detached or neutral in his analyses. This 'partiality' or partisanship makes Marx's intellectual impact all the more striking. Despite what later scholars hastened to identify as his biases, he threw down challenges that they could not afford to ignore.

WORDS AND THINGS

More remarkably still, Marx changed the very vocabulary with which such challenges could be advanced. Without Marx we would still have had 'revolution' as a word and as a concept, since the French and the Americans had put revolutionary change on the map in the late eighteenth century. Without Marx, we would still have had 'capitalism'; we would even have had 'socialism' and 'communism.' (The celebrated opening sentence of the Manifesto was designed to call the reader's attention to the 'specter haunting Europe,' in other words to invoke, not to invent communism.) It is no doubt easier to imagine a world without Marx than a world without revolution, capitalism, communism and socialism. But in the world we actually inhabit, these still have to be seen through Marx. He may not have coined any of these terms, but he set his seal decisively on all of them - so much so that down to the present day it remains impossible to discuss them without bringing Marx into the discussion. Marx was not alone in having advocated revolution, in having believed in the need for drastic change in order to attain human autonomy. But Marx's belief that capitalism must be succeeded by another form of society is, unlike so many of his contemporaries' convictions, based not upon hope or will - not, that is to say, on wishful thinking or on empty 'oughts' - but instead on a serious analysis of historical development in general and of the genesis of capitalist society in particular. More specifically, Marx's sense of the tension between the depravity, the betrayal, and the promise of capitalism was all his own, as was his sense that this same tension could animate and galvanize Marx himself and others like him.

Other general categories that have become stock-in-trade components of later social and political speculation are more nearly Marx's own, though others have long adopted them: proletariat, including dictatorship of the proletariat; class, including class struggle, class warfare and class consciousness; ideology, including what came to be known as false consciousness; alienation, including the fetishism of commodities, so memorably discussed in the first volume of Capital; and, most of all, the method that Friedrich Engels termed 'historical materialism' or the 'materialist conception of history.' Marx's central idea that 'the mode of production of material life conditions the social political and intellectual life process in general' has been of monumental importance to the study of history. Without this emphasis on the influence of economic factors, the entire discipline of history, especially economic history, might have taken a radically different direction. And without Marx's detailed investigations of labor, commodities, value, wages, and exploitation, twentieth century economics, as well as social science and history, might have taken a very different path. On the one hand, the idea that capitalist society has an unprecedented structure, within which it makes sense to distinguish microeconomic from macroeconomic analysis, is an idea that owes much to Marx. On the other hand, the idea that this same structure is rent with contradictions and has tendencies toward potentially catastrophic crises is an idea of distinctly Marxian provenance. Without Marx's juxtaposition of base to superstructure we would probably not be speaking of social contradictions at all, but would instead be discussing science, technology, production, labor, the economy, and the state - quite an inventory! - along lines very different from those that have become commonplace today.

Marx evidently casts a long shadow. Even in the case of words in the Marxist lexicon that turn out to owe nothing to Marx himself - 'scientific socialism', for example, is much more the province of Engels, as is 'imperialism' the province of V.I. Lenin, or 'hegemony' of Antonio Gramsci - it is Marx's authority that is generally invoked whenever these terms, and a myriad of terms like them, are employed. Similarly, the term 'Leninism' itself is usually prefaced by 'Marxist'- or 'Marxism'-. If one sign or index of a theorist's power is the adjectival status that is awarded his or her name, then Marx has surely been powerful indeed.

PAST AND PRESENT

It bears repeating that what stands out most distinctively about Marx is his unsurpassed sense of the enormous potential, alongside the actual depravity, of capitalism, and that this double-edged characterization was one that Marx could proffer without either lapsing into a purely moralistic critique, or, alternatively, subscribing to the romantic attitude (one that was far from uncommon among his contemporaries) that capitalism had disrupted some pre-industrial idyll. It is to Marx we owe the insight that under capitalism the capacity to produce expands, and might even exceed all known bounds, while ownership of the means of production contracts (relatively or absolutely.) We are not yet done - particularly now - with the sheer usefulness of this insight into an asymmetry or maladjustment that is not accidental but built-in. It was Marx's distinction of forces from relations of production that enabled him, and may still enable us today, to deny that physical production and material growth depend by their very nature on the maintenance and furthering of capitalism. Just because a recession-averse capitalism depends (we are told, in its absence) on the maintenance of a steady rate of growth, it does not follow that the rate of growth in question depends on the maintenance of capitalism. Marx contended that if capitalism is not understood genetically - understood, that is to say, as it arose and when it arose - we have no way of accounting for its historical specificity. Capitalism will then be falsely and uncritically understood as the universal norm and standard by which all earlier modes of production could be judged, and found wanting. Conversely, these earlier modes of production will be, again falsely and uncritically, regarded as though they were nothing but early, immature, faltering, tentative approximations of capitalism itself.

Capitalism is not unassailable, whether or not what Marx understood by 'revolutionary activity, practical-critical activity' will suffice as its assailant. The chain of causality that undergirds capitalism, according to which human relationships have become phenomena of the market, can in principle (like the crust of custom) be broken. Capitalism, that is to say, has its enabling assumptions, and these in turn have practical effects; should these cease to operate, capitalism could not and (Marx commonly hastened to add) would not persist.

Marx's career as a revolutionist was never crowned with the kind of practical success he hoped and worked for. But its significance does not end here. To see this we must take a broad view. Plato (at least in the Republic ) had dared to imagine a politics without chattel slavery; Marx dared to visualize a society without wage labor. While twentieth and twenty-first century developments have chipped away at the kind of wage labor with which Marx was most immediately familiar, they have neither toppled nor sought to dislodge wage labor from its position as a key component of capitalism. To the extent that we can still speak of capitalism and wage labor - and that extent, I take it, is still considerable - Marx to this day has much to teach us.

DOCTRINE AND METHOD

Until recently, Marx's central conviction that wage labor was one of capitalism's enabling assumptions and that neither the one nor the other was sacrosanct or essential to human civilization was often regarded as peremptory and over-optimistic. These days, no-one can afford to be so sanguine. Today more than ever, Marx must be seen as having thrown down the gauntlet - not least by virtue of his insistence that opposition to capitalism, to be effective, must also be theoretically well-grounded. What Marx bequeathed to his followers was a revolutionary doctrine and movement, as well as a method of social, economic, political and historical argument. While the combination was nothing if not fertile, it could be argued, of course, that doctrine, method and movement have never yet found their proper mix (if indeed there is a proper mix to be found.) It could also be argued, more prospectively, that such shortfalls simply give us more work to do.

To get Marx into perspective we should remember that in early socialist doctrine - the doctrine he went beyond and rejected - there is not a word about the proletariat, the class system, or revolution. While John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy (1848) regarded socialism and communism not as political movements but as theories, Marx and Engels's Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) proceeded to identify communism as a movement that would render socialism, as a theory, beside the point, and would make it utopian in the sense of being impracticable. It was communism, not socialism, that carried with it the idea of revolutionary struggle and human agency. A new and better society could not be wished or legislated into existence by benevolent doctrinaires, but had to await the advent of a politically conscious labor movement.

A politically-oriented labor movement that was self-consciously socialist did emerge in Marx's name later in the 19th century, by which point socialism had changed its meaning of its own accord. Today the word can mean a social or political doctrine or a political movement or system. In view of this latitude, it is not surprising that 'socialism' in social science literature often becomes a noun qualified by an adjective - as in utopian socialism, scientific socialism, state socialism, revolutionary socialism, evolutionary socialism, Fabian socialism, democratic socialism, parliamentary socialism, or as in actually existing socialism (until recently) or market socialism. Similarly, the adjective 'socialist' can act as a pendant qualifying or characterizing a noun, as in socialist internationalism, socialist economics, socialist realism, or socialist feminism.

Some of those opposed to capitalism expect too much from Marx, however, and they did this even while Marx was still alive. Why didn't he spell out the lineaments of 'his' future society? (This is a question that still agitates students -at least the ones I teach - today). Marx had an answer in an 1881 letter to Domela Nieuwenhuis:

The doctrinal, and necessarily imaginative anticipation of the programme of action for a future revolution only diverts attention from the present struggle. To dream of the imminent destruction of the world inspired the early Christians and gave them the certainty of victory. The scientific understanding of the inevitable and increasingly visible decay of the prevailing social order, the growing hatred of the masses for the old phantoms who are in power, and the simultaneous huge development of the means of production - all that is a guarantee that at the moment when a real proletarian revolution breaks out there will also appear the conditions (certainly far from idyllic) in which it will carry out its most urgent immediate measures.

People will know what to do - or they won't. Marx, who may have been guilty, here and elsewhere, of wishful thinking, nevertheless knew what he alone could have known: he knew what he had to do. He may not have finished the tasks he had set himself - he may even have been rather good at incompletion - but he did make a valiant start.

ECONOMY AND SOCIETY

Marx may be best known as the author of Capital, a magnum opus of economic analysis, which is also an instance of what the French term a texte producteur, a text frequently referred to by name in numerous other, later texts. Today Marx's writings are disseminated far and wide, so much so that scholarly neglect of his 'critique of political economy,' the critique that had been central to Marxian economics, has become a serious liability. David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity agues that the 'space-time compression,' the bodiless, instantaneous transactions of recent finance capital - without which there would and could have been no implosion, no recession and no crisis - are far better explained by Marxian economics than by other, more 'conventional' kinds of economic theory. Marx had warned of 'forged labels, fictitious deals, financial chicanery, and a credit structure which lacked all real basis' as early as 1846 (in The German Ideology), repeating this warning even more forcefully and memorably in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in 1851-2. The long-trumpeted rhetoric of free trade, of the 'self-regulating' market mechanism, and of their universalizing benefits has imploded by now, producing the very result Marxian economics had predicted all along: a massive concentration of wealth and power at one end of the social scale alongside proliferating inequalities, impoverishment and built-in joblessness at the other. That 'the market' is possessed of a robotic capacity to dispense the 'right' solution to any economic problem would appear to be the illusion of our sad epoch. Marx's economic arguments do not lack applicability or purchase at a time when people are being deprived of their pensions, their health care, their welfare rights, not to mention their houses and their very livelihoods - at the very time when the remuneration of Wall St executives and investment bankers has simultaneously soared, subsidized withal by the capitalist state and its 'tax base.' In view of these developments - if indeed 'developments' is the right word to use - it seems hard to deny that Marx was a more prescient observer and analyst of capitalism than those who until recently, and for 'professional' reasons, felt free, and made it their business, to disdain and derogate his credentials as an economist.

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Paul Thomas is Professor of Political Science at University of California, Berkeley. He has published extensively on Marx including Karl Marx and the Anarchists (1985) and Marxism and Scientific Socialism From Engels to Althusser (2008).

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READ MORE ON THIS TOPIC:

MARX AND ALIENATION

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By Sean Sayers

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Alienation is a pervasive but puzzling feature of modern life. It is one of the few theoretical terms from Marxism that has entered into ordinary language. There it usually denotes a vague feeling of malaise or meaninglessness. In Marx, however, it has a precise meaning derived from Hegel's philosophy, and it plays a central role in Marx's critique of capitalism and his conception of an alternative form of society... | read |

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