Universal Translator

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reading Marx – Part II

Okay.  Having finished Colin Woodard’s American Nations, I’m now finally ready to plunge into Das Kapital, which I have promised myself I will get through for reasons explained here.  Already having watched David Harvey’s first lecture on the book, I now need to get through about 80 pages of Chapter I, then I will watch that first lecture again, and then I will move on to the second lecture, etc., etc., etc.

I wasn’t sure how I’d go about posting on this project.  I thought at first I’d take notes and then use those notes to put together more polished descriptions about my experiences with the book as I muddle through it, but it occurred to me that doing so would only add an extra amount of work that I don’t necessarily need to do.

So instead I’m simply going to start posting the notes themselves.  What follows below the fold are my initial thoughts on reading not Chapter I, not even the first page of Chapter I, but Marx’s prefaces to the First and Second Editions.

Oh vey, this is going to be a long-term project.

Author’s Preface to the First Edition

--Harvey was correct:  Marx’s style in the preface at least is erudite, lively and entertaining.  Nice shout out to the legend of Perseus, and great metaphor about the cap of invisibility.

--I quite like that Marx imagines what he is uncovering are “scientific truths.”  He clearly intended his work to be an examination and description of a system that exists in fact (not supposition), into which individuals are born and to which they are subject.  But note his insistence that he is considering this from an historical perspective, clearly recognizing that the social system into which individuals are born changes over time:

I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose.  But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests.  My stand-point, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.

--I remember as a kid, growing up in the 70s, being struck by a statement in some book I was reading that mentioned how sensitive people are about money matters.  It was something along the lines of “people are more willing to talk about their sex lives these days than they are willing to talk about their money.”  I was reminded of that memory when I came across this passage, discussing how reflexive is our defense of money:

The peculiar nature of the material [that the domain of Political Economy] deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest.  The English Established Church, e.g., will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income.

Author’s Preface to the Second Edition

--In tracing the historical development of what he calls the science of Political Economy Marx argues that by 1830 the bourgeoisie (which I take to mean the traders/manufacturers) in England and France “had conquered political power.”  I think this means that had taken a seat at the table of government alongside the aristocracies that traditionally had ruled these countries.  Great passage regarding those countries subsequent efforts to understand Political Economy:

Thenceforth, the class-struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. . . .  It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not.  In place of disinterested enquirers, there were hired prize-fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic. (emphasis added)

Man!  Does that sound familiar.  Arthur Laffer, anyone?  Tax cuts pay for themselves.  Funneling money to the rich creates jobs.  Lower government spending automatically leads to increased private spending.  When the economy shrinks, government spending must shrink too.  High inflation is worse than high unemployment.  Low capital gains taxes necessarily lead to greater economic investment.  The lower the tax rate, the greater the country’s economic growth.  And on and on and on . . . a list of economic nostrums that have been thoroughly debunked by in theory and in practice and yet persist as zombie lies because they are useful to the liars who repeat them.

--Ah.  It’s now clear what Marx has been leading up to in this preface to his second edition.  Marx argues that capitalism did not arise in Germany until well after it arose in England and France, and only after its antagonistic character had already “shown itself in a fierce strife of classes” in those two countries.  He argues that by the time Germany truly had embraced capitalism, the only social class that clearly understood the system’s “antagonistic nature” was the working class.

As a result, Germany’s professors of Political Economy divided into two camps, either (i) adopting the conventional wisdom and praising capitalism while (I guess) ignoring its problems and the competing demands of the workers, or (ii) attempting to reconcile the competing goals of the difference classes a la John Stuart Mill.  Marx argues that neither understanding is correct, implies that Das Kapital points this out and that, in response to the publication of its first edition the German professors “tried at first to kill Das Kapital by silence, as they had managed to do with my earlier writings.”  This preface is Marx’s response his critics.

--What follows is a series of quotes both from admirers and detractors of Marx’s work.  And now we get to the first of what I assume will be many instances of Marx either being coy or else deliberately obscure (for what purpose?  to shield himself from further criticism?  to maintain plausible deniability in the event another thinker attacks him for what they merely think he said?)

Specifically, after reproducing an exceptionally long quote from another writer explicating Marx’s method of inquiry (which, naturally, leads one to think Marx approves of the explication), Marx then writes:  “Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and [as far as concerns my own application of it] generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectic method?”  (emphasis added)

Harvey warned in the first video lecture to be careful when Marx says things appear to be a certain way; Marx supposedly is very precise in his language and “appearance is not reality.”  So how to understand Marx’s statement above?  I dunno.  But I’m going to disregard the other writer’s description of Marx’s method because I can’t say for certain now that it is accurate, but it was at least fairly straightforward -- perhaps that’s why Marx insisted on muddying things up.

--Well, whatever Marx’s method I can see that Harvey was right when he spoke of how obsessed Marx was with motion, transience and change (Buddhist obsessions, all).  He does seem to take pains to specify that he is describing a social system peculiar to his particular point in time (1873), that this system did not exist in the past and that it will not exist in the future.  He intimates that it is the suggestion that capitalism will not always exist (not exist at all, or merely not in its present form?), which offends the bourgeoisie: 

In its rational form [dialectic] is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up . . . .  (emphasis added)

Next Up:  Editor Frederick Engels’s prefaces to the First English Translation and the Fourth  German Edition.  Be there or be square!

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