Reading any text entails the following limits: not everyone uses the same words in exactly the same sense because any word can be used to convey a range of different meanings and sometimes simultaneously so. Reading is therefore always a ‘best guess’ as to what someone may have had in mind when he wrote it down, and especially when the issues being addressed are many and complex.
One’s ‘best guess’ becomes even more tenuously speculative when the person who wrote the text is no longer around to prod as to what his meaning might have been. The uncertainty inherent in one’s ‘best guess’ is further compounded when what is being read is a series of texts, a record of insights being elaborated over many months and years while using words and figures of speech that in their printed form remain the same but to which subtle changes in meaning are being made and tweaked. This is what we have before us when reading Marx.
Different works were written at different periods in his life and often many years apart, and Marx’s thinking unfolds on a moving trajectory. He was also prolific and at times – at least to my mind – needlessly long winded.
Consequently, it is not to wonder that any two readers of Marx will inevitably come to disagree on any number of points as to what Marx may or may not have had in mind. On the other hand, while one should attend to the possible meanings of the texts, engaging them in a serious vein, one should not become overly obsessed with trying to pin down exactly what Marx might have meant in each and every instance of ‘this’ or ‘that’ instantiation, where in one place it can clearly be taken to mean ‘this,’ while in another it clearly means ‘that’ – otherwise the reading runs the risk of becoming overly rigid and scholastic, unnecessarily focused on potentially irrelevant and distracting detail, a sterile obsession with quite simply unresolvable ambiguities. Rather, the reading should be undertaken in the spirit of trying to raise one’s general awareness about the kind of society in which one lives so as to better position oneself to contribute something, however small, to increasing the potential for social change in a badly needed progressive direction. You take what you ‘get’ and leave the rest behind.
If you cannot possibly hope to rise to an exhaustive and complete understanding of Marx (and no one can), you can nevertheless rise to a level of comprehension sufficient to grasp in broad outlines why things are so utterly fucked up in the face of so much outsized technological proficiency and vastly underutilized productivity potential. If most people only had a slightly more than vague and general grasp of the actual contours of our collective misfortunes under this system that we call capitalism – which I believe anyone who can read fairly well can derive in large measure from reading Marx – then the march forward toward more individual freedom and a more inclusive economic and political democracy would be set to begin in earnest.
Marx isn’t a god or the last word on capitalism, of course. But he is an important source of a great diversity of potentially fruitful ideas and analytical insights.
Like us, he is digging himself out from under heaps of inherited cultural clutter, not all of which he manages to clear away – which may explain the ambiguities and apparent contradictions that do abound in his writing – but he succeeds often enough to be an instructive read. We save ourselves some time and effort by reading him, I think; because here and there in our sifting of his work, we alight upon observations and analyses that help to dispel the mystery of where and what we are in social terms, and that thereby suggest avenues of actions that we can take as individuals, alone or in concert with others.
If Marx is important, it is also because his work brings together in a highly systematic and coherent fashion many different strands or traditions of thought and scholarship bent upon the effort of making sense of our political, economic, and social reality.
You read Marx as yet another voice trying to contribute to the overall collective effort to shake ourselves free of the many cultural delusions that as a society we could not but inherit and continue to blindly reproduce by virtue of being profoundly social creatures who have an overwhelming proclivity for consensual and convergent perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes, and not, as we are apt to regard them through the prism of the cult of the self-made individual, for sets of values and insights – fictional in any case – arrived at independently by each of us carefully parsing the contextualizing ‘facts’ of our individual lives.
We are more group minded than truly independent and original in anything that we may think or believe. But that is actually our strength if also our weakness: collective enlightenment can’t happen without individual effort to break out of the dead ends of established and enslaving traditions and dogmas; but neither can the effort of the individual bear fruit without leaning heavily upon the foundations of past cultural achievements if also to tear down some of those foundations so as to rebuild them again upon firmer and more relevant intellectual ground.
To quote Murray Bookchin,
The Marxian dialectic, the many seminal insights provided by historical materialism, the superb critique of the commodity relationship, many elements of the economic theories, the theory of alienation, and above all the notion that freedom has material preconditions—these are lasting contributions to revolutionary thought.