Adam Smith, Anitra Nelson, Aphorisms, Bakhtin, Bertell Ollman, Capital Volume I, Carlyle, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Critique of Political Economy, dialectics, Dickens, Erich Auerbach, Figures of Speech, Francis Wheen, Franz Mehring, Frederick Engels, Gabriel Egan, Gustave Flaubert, Hegel, Heinrich Heine, Honore Balzac, Humphrey McQueen, Karl Popper, Literary allusions, Louis Althusser, Malthus, Margaret Rose, Marshall Berman, Marxist Internet Archive, mathematics, Maurice Dobb, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Reading Karl Marx, S. S. Prawer, Stanley Edgar Hyman, The bourgeoisie, the Communist Manifesto, The Eighteenth Brumaire, The fetishism of commodities, The German Ideology, Theodor Adorno, Theories of Surplus Value, Vilfredo Pareto
Source: “READING THE “UNREADABLE” MARX” was written for “Marx Myths and Legends” by Humphrey McQueen in March 2005, and rights remain with the author, as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.
Reading the “unreadable” Marx
Il n’y a pas belles pensées sans belles formes.
The first rule, indeed by itself virtually a sufficient condition for good style, is to have something to say.
From 1850 until his death in 1880, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert compiled a “Dictionary of Received Ideas” as his catalogue of stupidities, inanities and misinformation. In this word association game, “Malthus” summoned up “infamous,” and “Louis XVI” evoked “unfortunate.” Were we to update Flaubert by including “Marx,” the gully-trap of clichés would be clogged with “discredited” and “unreadable.”
Other contributors to this collection will discount the “discredited” label. This article tackles the accusation that Marx is “unreadable.” The two charges are connected. The more that people fear that Marx is impenetrable, the harder it will be to convince them to recover his relevance.
The way to challenge the accusation that Marx is “unreadable” is to read him. From The Communist Manifesto, here is the paean to the bourgeoisie that Marx and Frederick Engels penned in 1848:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned …
To keep pace with this torrent of transformations, Marx and Engels abbreviated their phrasing. To sketch how this turmoil had come about, they continued to use parataxis:
The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.
The second sentence is as breathtaking as the tumult it captures in its run of snapshots.
Even as we read the passage, it seems impossible that anyone could have condensed the expanse of capitalism across 500 years into a statement as exhilarating as it is exact.
Marx’s admiration for the historic achievement of the bourgeoisie as a class did not extend to their apologists. How he would have revelled in Flaubert’s “Dictionary”! Marx stretched language so far that, in 1860, he was probably the first person to use “Da-Da!” to voice his own detestation of what he called “twaddle.” Challenged as to its propriety, Marx came back: “Da Da puzzles the Philistine and is comical … It pleases me, and it fits my system of mockery and contempt.”
Just as the assault on Feudalism had broken through the Scholastic mode of communication to allow Martin Luther to render the bible in vigorous, direct and metrical German, so did the bourgeois revolution propel the prose of Marx and Engels. To convey the eruption of economy into society, they had to fashion a syntax, a vocabulary and a repertoire of devices in tune with the acceleration of life. Marshall Berman reads The Manifesto as a prose poem, as “the first great modernist work of art,” anteceding Baudelaire’s Spleen.
Engels had got there four years earlier when composing The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. In the 1970s, that work attracted the literary critic Steven Marcus who knew of no contemporary summary of the industrial revolution “that is as succinct, as wide-ranging and as coherent.” Apart from Engels’s use of “vortex,” he made scant use of hyperbole because “the unprecedented magnitude of the event is its own intensifier.” Marcus placed Engels alongside Carlyle and Dickens as writers who “were performing one of their quintessential functions: they were taking dead writing and transforming it back into living writing. Or we can say that they were transforming information into a present history whose structure they were simultaneously inventing.”
Bourgeois ideologues proved less keen to entertain the prospect of perpetual upheaval, once the proletariat began to challenge the rule of capital from the 1820s. History, therefore, had to come to an end, as Marx observed in 1847. By contrast, his welcoming of the organised working class allowed him to treat the present as history. He delivered a notable example of this perspicacity in his account of the rise to power between 1848 and 1852 of the French emperor, Napoleon III. Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is extraordinary for making so elaborate and so penetrating an analysis on the run. The parts, like a Dickens novel, were planned as installments to a weekly paper. The result is much more than a model of political journalism. By keeping the struggles between and within classes front and central to his unravelling of events, Marx could “demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relations that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.”
The opening lines of The Eighteenth Brumaire grace the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all events and personages of great importance in world history occur so to speak twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the other time as farce.
A few lines further on, Marx observes:
People make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please: they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.
Marx rounds off the first section of The Eighteenth Brumaire by dismissing Napoleon III as the farcically bad copy of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte:
Finally, the scum of bourgeois society forms the holy phalanx of order and the hero Crapulinski installs himself in the Tuilleries as the “saviour of society.”
Here, Marx has turned to his favourite contemporary poet, Heinrich Heine, for the figure of Crapulinski.
These three extracts indicate something of the range in Marx’s style. The opening is aphoristic, memorable for its puncturing of grand narrative with humour. The insertion of “somewhere” is no lapse of memory, but a considered affront to his erstwhile colleagues among the Young Hegelians. The middle passage is as suggestive in imagery as it is rich in concepts, bringing to life the vital processes on which Marx is commenting. He strengthens his representation of history’s slide into farce by associating its actors with a the travesty of cross-dressing. Hegel saw in parody the means by which one age returned to its past in order to criticise it. Marx saw parody, according to Margaret Rose, as “accompanying discontinuity in history.” Just as revolutions are ruptures in practice, so revolutionary writers need tropes that allow for disjunctures in thought. In the third extract, Marx turns to earthy language to put the pretender in his place; the see-sawing between scum and holiness, between crap and saviour, recalls the tumble from tragedy into farce.
Despite the care that Marx devoted to his prose, he never pursued style for style’s sake. For him, the form of his writing had to confirm its content and structure. The Eighteenth Brumaire is a fabulous read because he made it an exemplar of historical materialism. And it is exemplary because Marx’s tone of voice is as dialectical as his assembling of evidence and his pattern of analysis.
The German social philosopher Theodor Adorno might have had The Eighteenth Brumaire in mind in 1946 when he charged that
… the dialectic advances by way of extremes, driving thoughts with the utmost consequentiality to the point where they turn back on themselves, instead of qualifying them…
… limitation and reservation are no way to represent the dialectic…
If a dialectician, for example, marked the turning-point of his advancing ideas by starting with a “But” at each caesura, the literary scheme would give the lie to the unschematic intention of his thought.
For Marx, the dialectic had to be fleet-footed, or it ceased to be dialectical. Bertell Ollman writes of the “dance of the dialectic.” For the dialectician, there are no fixed categories, no external essences, no Ideal Forms. Everything, always and everywhere, is in a condition of becoming and passing away. The difficulties that this mobility presents to readers can be limited if an author makes our static medium convey the transitory.
The excitement in Marx’s manner of expression grows from his fulfilling of Schopenhauer’s contention that the “sufficient condition for good style, is to have something to say.”Hence, the deepest pleasure from reading Marx flows from the substance and structure of his thinking. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss recalled that he “rarely broached a new sociological problem without first stimulating my thought by rereading a few pages of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or the Critique of Political Economy.”
Two of the cerebral stimuli from The Eighteenth Brumaire are the ground rules that Marx offered for intellectual history and for tracing the political formation of a class. He summarised his explorations of these issues in two key passages. The first establishes the starting place for the history of ideas:
Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic supporters of shop keepers. In their education and individual position they may be as far part from them as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits that the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter in practice. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.
This explication of how ideas connect with social practices confirms the materialist credentials of the opening passages of The Eighteenth Brumaire where metaphors haunt present actors.
As a materialist, Marx recognised that existence conditioned consciousness. Hence, class consciousness could not fall from the sky as a disembodied idea. As a dialectician, he knew also that existence was insufficient to generate self-consciousness. Marx drew on the experiences of the French peasantry to illustrate why class consciousness had to be the outcome of social practices through organisation:
Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient; it itself directly produces the major part of its consumption and thus acquires its means of life more through exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A smallholding, a peasant and his family; alongside them another smallholding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these make up a village, and a few score of villages make up a department. In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.
The structure of this passage reproduces Marx’s case: phrases are accumulated into a statement that lacks a doing word, just as the “vast mass” of small-holders do not engage in “manifold relations with one another.” The next step takes in a larger social group and therefore requires an unbroken sentence. Finally, the commentary arrives at a metaphor apposite to farm life: the potato sack. As the class forms politically, Marx makes the units of his prose cohere:
In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.
Each sentence loops around alternative criteria for the forming of a class. Their juxtaposition gives way to a synthesis:
They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention.
Marx can now distill the components of his case into eight words which continue the see-sawing: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” From this position, Marx strikes out to link the movement of class into class consciousness with the structure of the state:
Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power which protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.
The assertiveness of “therefore” underlines Marx’s introduction of authoritarianism. Nonetheless, he has just mocked the capacity of any government to control nature, and hence, presumably, its ability to stem the tide of class conflict. While acknowledging that the life circumstances among the small peasants have allowed “Crapulinski” to ascend to the throne, Marx hints that their unsatisfied needs will unseat him.
Another way to entice readers towards Marx has been to dangle some of the aphorisms at which he was a dazzler, as when he observes: “Hence money may be dirt, although dirt is not money.” Of Proudhon, he quipped: “He wants to be the synthesis – he is a composite error.” Marx also used aphorisms as exclamation marks at the end of an analysis, a kind of “Eureka!” The impact of “Circulation sweats money from every pore” is convincing only if encountered as the outcome of his investigations into the metamorphosis of commodities. Torn from the page, it is mere assertion. “One capitalist always kills many” sounds more than a tocsin after Marx has explained the thrust of monopolising through the logic of competition.
The risk in parading Marx’s maxims is that his meaning is rendered obvious, that is to say, is misrepresented. Wrenched from its context, the bait can catch the opposite response to the one after which Marx had been angling. That outcome is true of a remark favoured by militants: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx never supposed that we could change the world without interpreting it, any more than he believed that we can interpret the world correctly without changing it.
Perhaps no quip from Marx is better known than his line that “Religion is the opium of the people.” Few assertions are more misunderstood. Placing that remark back in his 1844 Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right will reveal its significance, and display far finer turns of phrase than is apparent from the fragment:
Religious distress is at the same time an expression of real distress and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people…
To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions.
Marx’s meaning, along with the rhythms in which he expressed it, is evident once the epigram is returned to its textual origin. That relocation refutes any supposition that he was spurning all varieties of religious experience. Rather, he anchored his empathy with those enduring immiseration in his materialist appreciation that incorrect ideas are more than the product of wrong thinking.
Marx’s choice and arrangement of words strengthened the persuasiveness of this perception. His first sentence pivots on a conflicted concept of religion. The next carries that dichotomy through three variations, threaded with sibilance. After their rising inflection, the notorious remark falls as a lamentation, not a rhetorical slap. The second paragraph repeats this pattern, its recapitulated “illusions” again leading to a consolation. The compassion in Marx’s comment is assured by the felicities in his prose.
Figures of speech
As we have seen, wordplay is as much a part of Marx’s prose as the class struggle is pivotal to his picture of the world. The social philosopher Vilfredo Pareto worried that Marx’s words were like bats since one can see in them both birds and mice. One danger with this ambiguity is that his meaning can never be pinned down, and so his epigones can escape criticism by alleging that their prophet has been misunderstood – a variant of the irrefutability that upset Popper. This possibility is unavoidable in coping with contraries, and thus is a small price to pay for the depth of understanding that Marx was able to provide by his appreciation of the fluidity of nature and social relationships.
Alertness to three of Marx’s favourite literary devices, to wit, puns, paradoxes and irony, will help with a reading [of] the first volume of Capital by showing how [he] wove his dialectical method into the texture of his writing. One should always read Marx with an ear tuned for words, phrases and whole passages “enclosed by intonational quotation marks,” or trailing implied question marks.
Puns: To associate puns with the lowest form of wit is another possible entry in Flaubert’s dictionary. Marx used puns to bind concepts together, as in his specifying the feature of alienation under the rule of capital. He shows that alienation under capitalism is different from other kinds of estrangement because the wage-slave has sold his capacity to labour. In English, “alienate” means to sell and to make strange. In German, Marx makes play on the German “äusser” to convey that connection. [“Aus-” in German is the prefix for “out,” so that ein Auslander is a foreigner.]
One can sympathise with anyone translating passages such as:
Was früher Sichäußerlichsein, reale Entäußerung des Menschen ist nur [nun], zur Tat der Entäußerung, zur Veräußerung geworden.
The Soviet edition rendered this rolling pun:
What was previously being external to oneself – man’s actual externalization – has merely become the act of externalizing – the process of alienating.
The three different German words rooted on “äußer” have been given as cognates of “external.” Veräußern can mean “to sell one’s honour.” That medieval concept invokes capitalist alienation where the labourer is separated from the honour that the craftsman once put into a product, and from the honour that he drew from its quality. In addition, the wage labourer has sold his human capacities, his honour.
To complain about this aspect of Marx’s style is like objecting to Shakespeare’s punning on “will” in Sonnets 135 and 136. As Fowler has it: “Puns are good, bad and indifferent, & only those who lack the wit to make them are unaware of the fact.”
Paradox: Marx combined punning with paradox: “Das seine Lebensäußerung seine Lebensentäußerung ist,” that is, “The manifestation of his life is the alienation of his life.”The paradox is a pauper’s straining after dialectics. Paradoxes abounded in the young Marx as one mark of his legacy from Idealism where words stood in for reality. For example, he concluded The Introduction to the Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: “Philosophy cannot be made a reality without the abolition of the proletariat, the proletariat cannot be abolished without philosophy being made a reality.” This phrase-mongering contrasts with a comparable point which Marx made four years later at the close of the Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” The bi-polar form of the paradox remains, but Marx is no longer conjuring with categories. Instead, he is calling for the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”
Irony: Francis Wheen has discovered in Marx the Dean Swift of industrial capitalism. Marx and Swift share brilliance in irony, but they differ in tone because of opposed social outlooks. Irony in Swift is chilling. Marx’s can be red hot.
Swift’s “A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of the Poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick” (1729) reasoned that those infants should be reared as food for the English landlords whose expropriation of field and farm was devouring the parents. “A Modest Proposal” was Swift’s attempt to persuade his own class to alter their ways. By contrast, Marx aimed his ironies at energising a revolution of the masses.
Irony helped Marx to reproduce his dialectical method, as it had for Hegel who saw irony as dialectical because it allowed for two meanings simultaneously. An ironic comment has a kernel of subversive intent inside the shell of innocent observation.
Like Hegel, Marx saw that irony operates outside the logic that something must be either “A” or “non-A.” Marx’s analysis of capital could not be contained in such mutual exclusivities. Capital is capital only when it is expanding. To expand, it has to be in motion, passing from its money form, through a stage of production, into a commodity form, and then back to the money form so that the process can start over on an enlarged scale. Money is a shape-shifter and a form-changer. Marx found an analogue in irony, which not every commentator gets.
Marx’s ironic voice might not have been innate, but he had made it his own before he composed The German Ideology of 1845, as this prefatory note demonstrates:
Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to get this notion out of their heads, say by avowing it to be a superstitious, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful consequences all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence.
Marx has emphasised the fallacy of Idealist philosophy by understatement, never stepping outside the voice of an objective observer to display his own point of view by inserting “foolish” in front of “fellow.” The reader is left to add that judgement.
Quoting from the most popular of Marx’s writings to show how far they are from being unreadable was easy. Does Capital promise equal delights? Barriers exist between Capital and a mass readership. First, there is its length, 800 pages in volume one alone, and another 2000 pages in the three volumes that he left partly completed.
Above all, the difficulty with Capital is in the issues that Marx tackled. The dynamics of capital expansion will never be glimpsed by a Murdoch columnist fixated on Foxtel, or, for that matter, by a research assistant clipping the Financial Times each morning. Marx wrote books. He did not spray bullets from a Microsoft power point. To approach his writings, you have to be a prose person, not a dot.point person.
Most sympathetic guides to Capital warn the beginner away from beginning at the beginning. In those pages, Marx presented the results of twenty years research. He might have kept that material until the end, so that by the time we reached its intricacies we would have been drawn towards his conclusions and become familiar with his terms and cast of mind. Instead, he gave us the results first. They also set forth his method of analysis.
Marx acknowledged that “the method of analysis which I have employed … makes the reading of the first chapters rather arduous.” Their 100 pages cannot be recommended as in-flight entertainment. A clear head, a pen in hand, and the preparedness to read the material at least three times over several years are required to absorb all the secrets that Marx uncovers. As Marx knew from experience: “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”
At the trial of the Knave of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the King of Hearts admonishes the White Rabbit: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” In the case of Capital, it is perhaps more judicious to start at the end of volume one with the nine-page chapter on “The Modern Theory of Colonisation.” Australians are not the only people surprised that Marx wound up with the settlement of our continent. He tells a story about Edward Gibbon Wakefield who proposed a plan for Systematic Colonisation to compel workers to sell their labour power instead of setting up as farmers or tradespeople for themselves:
Wakefield discovered that in the Colonies, property in money, means of subsistence, machines, and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative – the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free-will. He discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things. A Mr Peel, he moans, took with him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of 50,000. This Mr Peel even had the foresight to bring besides 3,000 persons of the working-class, men, women, and children. Once he arrived at his destination, “Mr Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.” Unhappy Mr Peel who provided for everything except the export of English relations of production to Swan River!
Seven pages further, the final sentence establishes the true north of Marx’s life project. He is not concerned with Mr Wakefield, his schemes, or the emotional quotient of Mr Peel:
The only thing that interests us is the secret discovered in the New World by the Political Economy of the Old World, and proclaimed on the house-tops: that the capitalist mode of production and accumulation, and therefore capitalist private property, have for their fundamental condition the annihilation of self-earned private property: in other words, the expropriation of the labourer.
The germ of Capital’s 800 pages is in these sixty words. Almost every word that Marx wrote after 1842 was his contribution to the struggle to check exploitation and to end expropriation. Before reading any part of Capital, whether for the first or the umpteenth time, it is worth returning to these lines for orientation. Should you feel lost in the detail of factory laws, perplexed by the delineation of use, exchange and surplus values, or trip on the poetic allusions, remember that “class struggle” is an anchor against being blown off course.
Although the advice to postpone an encounter with the opening segment of Capital is sensible, that engagement cannot be put off for ever by any serious students of capitalism. After passing so many warning signs, readers are in for a surprise at how smoothly those early pages seem. Marx’s prose is neither convoluted nor arcane. The sentences are not very long. The vocabulary is well within the range of the average reader. There is no algebra. A year-eight student could manage the sums.
Before attending to how Marx draws us towards his discoveries, three difficulties in reading Capital should be mentioned. They are mathematics; Hegelian methods and language; and references to other literary works.
Mathematics: Many of the formulae in Capital are not algebra. Instead, they abbreviate Marx’s description of the circuits of capital. The simplest of these notations is M-C-M+, where M is money capital, C is Commodities, and M+ is the expanded volume of money capital that results from the making and sale of commodities. Marx could have kept writing these terms out in words, but hoped that a shorthand version would be easier on his readers. One does not need to understand any kind of mathematics to follow his notation. It involves no calculation. The formulae are closer to equations in chemistry than in mathematics.
Hegel: In an 1873 re-issue of Capital, Marx acknowledged that, in 1867, he had “openly avowed” himself “the pupil” of Hegel at a time when professors in Germany were contemptuous of “that mighty thinker.” Flaubert’s “Dictionary of Received Opinion” would now place “impenetrable” after Hegel’s name, not without justification, though he could be witty, clear and pungent. Ponderousness is one element in Hegel’s worst writing that Marx did not inherit. Indeed, when Marx admitted that he had, “here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar” to Hegel, the crucial word is “coquetted.” Even at his most Hegelian, Marx never lost his cutting edge, peppering his denunciations with raillery, lightening his expositions with caricature.
Literary allusions: The learning that Marx brought to his subject can be another toll-gate to entry. At the close of a discussion of commodities, he asked: “Who fails here to call to mind our good friend, Dogberry, who informs neighbour Seacoal, that, ‘To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by Nature’.” The question today is who will be familiar with Dogberry as a comic character from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Volume One of Capital includes quotations from Balzac, Cervantes, Dante, Goethe, Homer and Sophocles, whom Marx gave in their original tongues. Shy references to a host of other poets, dramatists and novelists embellish his critique of political economy.
Marx studded his writings with a comparable density of allusions to the ideas and terminologies of philosophers, historians and political economists. For example, when he likened life under communism where everyone would be able “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and criticize after dinner.” In the first three activities, Marx was mocking Adam Smith and almost every vulgar economist for their “unimaginative fantasies.” The post-prandial critical criticising was another dig at the Holy Family of Young Hegelians. Cultural semi-literates who fail to recognise these sources do not hesitate to berate Marx for putting forward an insipid picture of comforts suiting a country gent, or Tolstoy.
Another joy in reading Capital comes from discovering the treasures lurking in its footnotes which, as in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, contain several of the work’s more memorable insights and striking formulations:
This much however, is clear, that the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and there Catholicism, played the chief part. For the rest, it requires but a slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic, for example, to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property. And there is Don Quixote, who long ago paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight errantry was compatible with all economic forms of society.
This blast at the ludicrousness of idealist historiography is a marvel of concentrated thought, delivering more perception in its 80 words than 80 professors chorusing “discredited” at the mention of Marx’s name could come up with in a lifetime.
The greatest amazement from Capital is how Marx could keep so many levels of investigation going at once. Symphonists can rarely develop more than two principal themes, no matter how many variations they then introduce. Charles Dickens in Bleak House (1852) depicted the Court of Chancery’s generating multitudes of cases and devouring the lives of all who approach. Critics who disparage the novel’s spontaneous combustion scene fail to see that the energy of Dickens’s composition is of a piece with spontaneous combustion. How was it possible for him to keep all the themes, plots and sub-plots running without his brain catching fire? Marx’s portrayal of the expansion of capital matches Bleak House in its encompassing of energies marshalled and of forces unleashed.
Marx and Dickens also shared a fury at the grinding down of human capacities, especially in children. Marx summarised official reports on the effects of 72-hour week on the culture of children, anyone of whom could have been the model for Smike from Nicholas Nickleby, or Jo in Bleak House. Questioned by the Employment Commissioners, the twelve-year old Jeremiah Haynes responded:
We have a king (told it is a Queen), they call her the Princess Alexandra, Told that she married the Queen’s son. The Queen’s son is the Princess Alexandra. A princess is a man.
Marx fills page after page with such evidence until he takes another swipe at hypocrisy:
Meanwhile, late by night perhaps, self-denying Mr Glass-Capital, primed with port-wine, reels out of his club homeward droning out idiotically, “Britons never, never shall be slaves!”
Marx will have none of Dickens’s paternalism. Repentance no more than abstinence will redeem Mr Glass-Capital. The ghost that is haunting his kind is not Christmas Past but the spectre of a communist future.
The secret novelty of Capital
To propose that Capital can be read as a novel is not to imply that it is fictional, still less a faction. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) proposed that “the plurality of styles and levels” is “characteristic of the novel as a genre.” As a social investigator, Marx called on all manner of literary devices to convey the complexities that he traced through the social relationships of capitalism. By Bakhtin’s criterion, Capital Volume One lives within the genre of novel.
Balzac hinted at a secret history of “a scandalous kind.” For Marx, the secret history of the Roman Republic was in “landed property.” In capitalism, the secret rests in how the commodity form conceals “the expropriation of the labourers,” which is the condition for their ceaseless exploitation.
The plotline of Capital confronts us with this secret history, and then conducts us through the evidence. The secret about the commodity form proves to be another multiplicity of secrets about money as another commodity; about money as the universal equivalent for every commodity; about human capacity as a commodity. Having established these premises, Marx can lead us to an indictment of a system of exploitation which presents itself as one of a fair exchange of equal values.
Marx wrote in the tradition of Realism, not of Naturalism. He compiled details about factory conditions to uncover the logic of the expansion of capital. Thus, although he accumulated evidence with the assiduousness of a miser hoarding brass farthings, he used those mites, as would a capitalist, to expand his intellectual store “by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.”
The protagonist for Marx is neither a Romantic champion such as Julian Sorel, a carpenter’s son, in Stendahl’s Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), nor the master criminal Vautrin in Balzac. In Capital, the central figure is the aggregation of capital, a figure which is most truly itself when its individual personifications behave as the accumulation of dead labour. Here is Marx making those bones speak:
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. There 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 power over the clever not more clever than the clever?
Marx has brought us close to the grotesqueries of Rabelais as capital reproduces Gargantua’s appetites. Capital is also like that giant when he pours salt into the mouths of sleepers to stimulate their thirst; the managers of capital have to inculcate desire for commodities of every kind:
He puts himself at the service of the other’s most depraved fancies, plays the pimp between him and his need, excites in him morbid appetites, lies in wait for each of his weaknesses – all so that he can then demand the cash for this service of love.
Gargantua and Pantagruel are flesh-and-blood creatures of a society dependent on the soil and hand labour. Capital must be depicted as a machine because the operations of its social world has become like the machines that accelerate its expansion. Leviathans become the apt image for the power of capital in Dickens’s Chancery Court or Circumlocution Office, Melville’s factory ship, Zola’s coal mine, Sinclair’s slaughterhouse and Ireland’s oil refinery.
The anti-heroes, and thus the true heroes of Marx’s Capital are “the new fangled men” who are needed to master “the new-fangled forces of society.” They too have become machine-like. They are new-fangled because of their place in the productive order. If ordinary people enter European fiction as degraded, Marx represents their misery as a pre-condition for their remaking themselves into a collective presence to take the place of Hegel’s world historical figures.
Marx did everything a writer could to clarify the complexities of capitalism without over-simplifying. He used homely examples of how linen becomes a coat, or of how linen is exchanged for a bible before the cash from that transaction is spent on brandy. His materialist approach to history as the activity of living people encouraged his dramatic flair. Although he presented capitalists as the personifications of capital, he knew that he had to treat these “actors … as individuals.” Hence, he told tales about “Mr Moneybags” or “Mr Glass-Capital.”
Marx’s core task was to explain the expansion of capital in the aggregate, what he called “social capital,” as distinct from individual capitals. The fun that he had with fables about Mr Moneybags ran second to the delight he took in mocking writers who represented capitalism from the standpoint of “our friend Robinson” Crusoe. Capitalists got workers to produce exchange values. Crusoe, the complete homo faber, made nothing but use values for himself. He has provided for himself before Friday arrives. That approach equated the operations of the capitalists’ system with its ideological mask as individualism. Capital, for Marx, was a social relationship before it was anything else. Marx created fables to convey actual relationships: the Robinsonards treated Defoe’s fiction as the model for reality. The real-life captains of industry were imprisoned in the iron cage of capital’s expansion, not marooned on an island.
No more than the meanest child labourer could escape from her travails by wishing herself into a Dickensian plot is the capitalist able to choose the circuits of capital around which he must chase a fortune:
If social capital experiences a revolution in value, it may happen that the capital of the individual capitalist succumbs to it and fails, because it cannot adapt itself to the conditions of this movement of values. The more acute and frequent such revolutions in value become, the more does the automatic movement of the now independent value operate with the elemental force of a natural process, against the foresight and calculation of the individual capitalist.
The excitement that Marx brings to his account of the accumulation of capital is possible because of the space he accepts between tendential laws and entrepreneurship, fate and risk-taking, or what he calls “a Faustian conflict between the passion for accumulation, and the desire for enjoyment.” Marx used story-telling to illuminate this reality.
Polyvocalism: Bakhtin found “laughter” and “polyglossia” to be of “decisive importance” in making “possible the genre of the novel.” Capital is heir to both qualities, contributing to their enrichment. The tonal range in the laughter has been indicated. Now it is time to illustrate how Marx creates dialogue to convince his audience that the story he is relating represents their actual conditions.
In a chapter examining the labour-process, Marx grappled with the puzzle at the center of the expansion of capital, and therefore the most difficult concept to explain. He had to get across how capitalists paid their workers the full value of their capacity to add value, while at same time paying those labourers less than the total value of the commodities they produced. Marx restated his case in the negative by falling into conversation with a capitalist “friend” who has failed to turn a profit. This unhappy fellow has been offered no more for the cotton that his operatives have spun than the fifteen shillings it cost him to have them produce it.
Unlike Mr Peel, this capitalist cannot lay the blame for his unhappiness on the absence of the capitalist relations of production. What has gone wrong? His failure to profit leaves him staring “in astonishment” before he gathers his knowledge of “vulgar economy” to exclaim:
Oh, but I advanced my money for the express purpose of making more money.
The way to Hell is paved with good intentions, and he might just as easily have intended to make money, without producing at all.
The loser now
threatens all sorts of things. He won’t be caught napping again. In future he will buy the commodities in the market, instead of manufacturing them himself.
We have heard from the capitalist again, but in the third person. Marx reappears to ask and state the obvious, also in the third person:
But if all his brother capitalists were to do the same, where would he find his commodities in the market? And his money he cannot eat.
Next, the capitalist “tries persuasion”:
Consider my abstinence; I might have played ducks and drakes with the 15 shillings; but instead of that I consumed it productively, and made yarn with it.
The capitalist has returned in his own colloquial voice. This time Marx addresses his remarks to some unseen third party:
Very well. And by way of reward he is now in possession of good yarn instead of a bad conscience; … Let him therefore console himself with the reflection that virtue is its own reward.
This verdict is no comfort to the appellant, who “becomes importunate”:
He says: “The yarn is no use to me; I produced it for sale.
Marx gives more unwelcome advice from the stance of a disinterested commentator:
In that case let him sell it, or still better, let him for the future produce only things for satisfying his personal wants …
This interchange continues the switch between direct speech and commentary. The capitalist gets no more satisfaction from Dr Marx than he has from the market. Small wonder the capitalist “friend” now “gets obstinate,” flinging forth rhetorical questions:
Can the labourer, merely with his arms and his legs, produce commodities out of nothing? Did I not supply him with the materials, by means of which, and in which alone, his labour could be embodied? And as the greater part of society consists of such ne’er do-wells, have I not rendered society incalculable service by my instruments of production, my cotton and my spindles, and not only society but the labourer also, whom in addition I have provided with the necessities of life? And am I to be allowed nothing in return for all this service?
Where will this eloquence get him? Marx no longer speaks either to his “friend” or as a remote adjudicator, but to the reader of Capital:
Well, but has not the labourer rendered him the equivalent service of changing his cotton and spindle into yarn? … The capitalist paid to the labourer a value of 3 shillings, and the labourer gave him back an exact equivalent in the value of 3 shillings, added by him to the cotton: he gave him value for value.
Marx has spoken as the author of Capital rather than as the author of this fable within Capital.
Our friend, up to this time so purse-proud, suddenly assumed the modest demeanour of his own workman and exclaims: “Have I myself not worked? Have I not performed the labour of superintendence and of overlooking the spinner? And does this labour, too, create value?” His overlooker and his manager try to hide their smiles.
Marx assumes that readers who have reached this point in his analysis will realise that the tasks that the capitalist claims to have performed himself were done by his smirking employees. The smiles that Marx hopes that his fable will provoke in his readers are here brought to the surface by this silent chorus of overseers. Even without having read a line of Capital, those foremen know that their disciplining of labour time differs qualitatively from its application by labourers in the creation of additional values. By this stage, not even the capitalist can keep a straight face:
Meanwhile, after a hearty laugh, he re-assumed his usual mien.
Though he chanted to us the whole creed of the economists, in reality, he says, he would not give a brass farthing for it. He leaves this and all such like subterfuges and juggling tricks to the professors of Political Economy, who are paid for it.
Throughout, Marx has been using his “friend” to express his own scorn for those professors. Marx had reached that valuation from his critiquing of their “subterfuges and juggling tricks.” The capitalist, on the other hand, is sprouting what passes for common sense among his kind:
He himself is a practical man; and though he does not always consider what he says outside his business, yet in his business he knows what he is about.
Marx leaves us with the capitalist at his own assessment. Marx knows otherwise. The anecdote would never have been possible had the capitalist known what he was about “in his business.” After all, he has failed to realise a profit.
The sole author of all these words has been Dr Marx. Yet, not all the views expressed are his. The capitalist speaks in his own defence only to convict himself. His offence is not that he has exploited his workers, but that he has failed to do so.
Marx has subverted the Socratic dialogue by having his “friend” arrive at the truth about surplus value through rehearsing the conditions of his existence as a personification of capital. Instead of Marx’s presenting himself as a Socratic interlocutor, he confronts the capitalist with the steps that have led to his failure to profit.
The humour that Marx has built throughout the passage depends on the instability in the speaking positions of both Marx and his friend. Marx is, by turns, reporter, judge, and critic of political economy. The capitalist appears astonished, threatening, persuasive, importunate, obstinate, modest, laughing. Despite his dodges and masks, his performance has had but one theme. Unlike Shylock, he demands only “My ducats,” caring not for his daughter, justice, religion or the law.
Marx has reproduced in his analysis of capital, the Babel of voices in a stratified society. He has orchestrated the voices of his “friend,” but also interpreted them by putting his pleas for profit into their context of capitalist exploitation. Marx has not only put them into his friend’s mouth, but has made his version of the logic of capital accumulation speak through his creature. The ventriloquism is from off-stage, with both Marx and the capitalist taking turns as its mouthpieces.
Abstinence: One strand in the capitalist’s claim for a profit was “his abstinence.” This justification provided Marx with life-long opportunities for mocking the professorial subterfuge that profit is the reward that the capitalist earns for his not having spent his money on consumer goods:
It has never occurred to the vulgar economist to make the simple reflection, that every human action may be viewed, as “abstinence” from its opposite. Eating is abstinence from fasting, walking, abstinence from standing still, working, abstinence from idling, idling, abstinence from working, &c.
The unhappiness that the capitalist must undergo for the sake of “abstinence” becomes too much for Marx to bear:
The simple dictates of humanity therefore plainly enjoin the release of the capitalist from this martyrdom and temptation, in the same as that the Georgian slave-owner was lately delivered, by the abolition of slavery, from the painful dilemma, whether to squander the surplus-product, lashed out of his niggers, entirely in champagne, or whether to reconvert a part of it into more niggers and more land.
The more honest supporters of abstinence as a claim on profit had to admit that the children of these self-deniers had no right to inherit their fathers’ fortunes because the offspring had foregone none of the pleasures.
The Mirror Image: Because Marx recognised that capital is a social relationship, he sought images to convey that multi-sidedness. The mirror and reflection were two obvious tropes, yet too obvious to satisfy:
It is a sign of crudity and lack of comprehension that organically coherent factors are brought into haphazard relation with one another, i.e., into a simple reflex connection.
As we have seen, Marx extended his rejection of reflection to history. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, revolutionaries recognise themselves only after they have donned the “drag” to appear as some historical other. Similarly, he argued that petty-bourgeois thinkers do not reflect the thinking of shop-keepers. Their relationship is the active one of the intellectuals’ not proceeding in their theoretical practices further than the shopkeepers do in business.
Yet the mirror could be a more acceptable figure of speech if used as a simile rather than a metaphor:
Money … reads all prices backwards, and thus as it were mirrors itself in the bodies of all other commodities (Emphasis added.)
The distancing that Marx has achieved here by the use of the conditional will not serve in all cases. A looking glass cannot convey human behaviour as the “real, sensuous activity” that Marx took as the root of his materialist dialectics:
The chief defect of all previous materialism … is that things, reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.
Marx needed an active processing agent for his imagery. Here, the Soviet translation came closer: “Money … depicts itself,” rather than “mirrors itself.”
Better still, the eye let Marx represent the active aspect of the relationships between people and objects. The eye was available as the apposite figure of speech only because of what had happened with the actual eye in history:
The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object – an object made by man for man.
Under capitalism, the use value of the eye undergoes a transformation parallel to that experienced by all the objects created by humankind. While use values are becoming exchange values, the eye is being re-made into the sense mechanism that most stimulates desire for them.
The crucial case, and the hardest to represent, is that of the commodity form, the workings of which the untutored eye cannot discern:
From the mere look of a piece of money, we cannot tell what breed of commodity has been transformed into it. In their money-form all commodities look alike.
Marx infuses this conceptual connection between commodities and money into an evocation of urban energy of which Balzac or Dickens would have been proud:
The busiest streets of London are crowded with shops whose show cases display all the riches of the world, Indian shawls, American revolvers, Chinese porcelain, Parisian corsets, furs from Russia and species from the tropics, but all of these worldly things bear odious, white paper labels with Arabic numerals and then laconic symbols £. s. d. This is how commodities are presented in circulation.
From this description, Marx moves to a sensuous image in which “the prices” become the “wooing glances cast at money by commodities.”
Commodities create a mirror-effect when their differences, real or apparent, are perceived by potential consumers. The contrast between a castle and the adjoining cottage becomes a source of desire for a bigger house:
A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But let a palace arise beside the little house, and it shrinks from a little house to a hut. The little house shows now that its owner has only very slight or no demands to make; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilization, if the neighbouring palace grows to an equal or even greater extend, the occupant of the relatively small house will feel more an more uncomfortable, dissatisfied and cramped within its four walls.
The contrasts are reflected through the eye, that is to say, received into the brain. By exciting consumption, the eye holds a mirror to the production-consumption of commodities.
To learn to expand one’s needs through the perception of contrasts in the use values we already possess did not come into the world with capitalism. Rather, the proliferation of use values into ever more exchange values was able to build on a process at the heart of hominisation:
In a certain sense, a man is in the same situation as a commodity. As he neither enters into the world in possession of a mirror … a man first sees and recognises himself in another man. Peter only relates to himself as a man through his relation to another man, Paul, in whom he recognises his likeness. With this, however, Paul also becomes from head to toe, in his physical form as Paul, the form of appearance of the species man for Peter.
The mirror-phase is limited neither to infancy nor to the origins of our species, but acquired a vast domain with the spread of capitalist relations.
Neither money nor commodities is alive. Yet, it is integral to Marx’s picture of the capitalist world that they appear to be so. A carpenter fashions wood into a table. As soon as he offers this everyday thing for sale, “it steps forth as a commodity, [and] is changed into something transcendent.” Marx has to explain how a physical object acquires the imperceptible qualities of the social relationship between capital and wage-labour. He again turns to the experience of sight:
… light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connexion with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.
The fetishism of commodities is the knot that must be untied to unravel the secret of the expansion of capital, and hence to follow its exposition through the plot of Capital.
Most socialists have not been Marxists, or aspired to be. It is lunacy of a high order to insist that the only people who will be allowed to participate in the overthrow of capitalism are those who subscribe to this or that version of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. It is no less true that no one can remain a Marxist without being a socialist. Before Marxism is anything, it is a critique of capitalism. There can be no Marx for the master class. No one who has made peace with that regime of exploitation can use the methods, insights or rhetoric developed by Marx and Engels, not even to explain the longevity of the system that they spent their lives interpreting, in various ways, in order to hasten its end.
As a materialist, Marx had no time for those who approached his writings as sacred texts. As a revolutionary, he would never have judged our understanding of him by our ability to retrieve what he had intended, like some Medieval Schoolman[.] From the standpoints of revolutionary politics and materialist historiography, his test would be whether what he had written conforms to the realities of capitalist development, or to the experiences that socialists had acquired about how to overthrow the state. Only by grappling with those practical ideas can we begin the even more taxing effort needed to create a socialist society.
Gabriel Egan, Shakespeare and Marx, OUP, Oxford, 2004.
Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Tangled Bank, Darwin, Marx, Frazer and Freud as Imaginative Writers, New York, 1962.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, “The Literary Achievement of Marx,” The Modern Quarterly, New Series, 2, Summer 1947, pp. 239-44.
Giosue Ghisalberti, “Tragedy and Repetition in Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Clio, 26 (4), Summer 1997, pp. 411-26.
Thomas M. Kemple, Reading Marx Writing, Melodrama, the Market and the “Grundrisse,” Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1995.
Franz Mehring, “Karl Marx and Metaphor,” D. Ryazanoff (ed.), Karl Marx: Man, Thinker and Revolutionist, London, 1927, pp. 95-101.
Michael Paul Rogin, “Herman Melville’s Eighteenth Brumaire,” Subversive Genealogy, The Politics and Art and Herman Melville, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1979, pp. 155-86.
Allen Speight, Hegel, Literature and the Problem of Agency, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.
Dirk J. Struik (ed.), The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, New World, New York, 1964.
Dirk J. Struik (ed.), Birth of the Communist Manifesto, New World, New York, 1971.
2. A recent biographer, Francis Wheen, deplored “the mad circular argument one hears from people who haven’t ventured even as far as page two. ‘Capital is all hooey’. ‘And how do you know it’s hooey?’ ‘Because it’s not worth reading’.” Francis Wheen, Karl Marx, Fourth Estate, London, 1999, p. 299.
The propulsion through the opening section of the Manifesto is so convincing that it can sweep the reader past the warning that Marx had placed above the portal: class struggle can end with “the common ruin of the contending classes.” Marx drew on his knowledge of the Ancient world to deny inevitable progress from any purpose-driven view of history.
Karl Popper’s obsession with his version of historicism blinded him to this contra-teleological strand in Marx, whom he otherwise admired for his humanity and his contributions to social and historical knowledge, The Open Society and Its Enemies, RKP, London, 1966; for Popper’s praise of Marx’s “lasting merit,” see p. 88.
15. In their correspondence, Engels wrote to Marx of the “Goldshit” in the Australian colonies, 23 September 1851, Henry Mayer (ed.), Marx, Engels and Australia, Sydney Studies in Politics 5, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1964, p. 104.
21. This interplay of thinking with doing explains how those children of the bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels, could become proletarian intellectuals. Their case was less remarkable than that of Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), whose sequence of novels, The Human Comedy, Engels described as “a constant elegy to the irretrievable decay of good society; his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction.” Yet, as Engels went on to explain, he and Marx admired Balzac above all other contemporary novelists:
his satire is never keener, his irony never more bitter, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathises most deeply – the nobles … That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described them as people deserving no better fate … that I consider one of the greatest triumphs of Realism. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Selected Correspondence, FLPH, Moscow, 1953, pp. 479-80.
In 1867, Marx alleged that “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.” Capital, I, p. 10; Penguin, p. 92. The stand-alone witticisms in Marx and Engels have a Shavian ring, which leaves one wondering how much George Bernard Shaw learned from them about punch lines.
28. MECW, 3, 1975, pp. 175-76. Our appreciation of the complexity of Marx’s comment on religion will be deepened by adding knowledge of medical practices from around 1840 when opiates were not taken merely to put their users to sleep, but to deaden the pain, physical and psychological. Opiates allowed workers to continue their battles for existence, offering comfort, not oblivion, sustenance not slumber. It was in this ambivalent sense that Marx referred to religion as an opiate. An appreciation of the history of pharmacy is but one example of the care that must be exercised when interpreting any text.
A similar point can be made about Nietzsche’s “God is Dead.” The messenger is a madman who at once adds that he has arrived too soon. Anyway, the shocking aspect of his annunciation is not that God is dead, because the death and rebirth of gods are integral to religious thinking, including Christianity. The horror was the subsequent claim that “God remains dead,” leaving humanity without the promise of resurrection, see The Gay Science, New York, Vintage, 1974, p. 181.
37. Anitra Nelson, Marx’s concept of money: the God of commodities, Routledge, New York, 1999. Because Nelson is deaf to dialectics, she complains that Marx does not have a concept of money but rather a “theory of the money commodity.” She divides her time between nit-picking and thinking up Marx’s motives. (pp. 92-93). The intentionalist fallacy encouraged her to suppose that she can see into Marx’s thinking, which is the more risible given that she neither gets his jokes, nor is aware that he is being ironical. Her literalism is of a piece with her insensitivity to process. For an astute reading of Marx on money see Suzanne de Brunhoff, Urizen Books, New York, 1976.
Switzerland is the center of attraction for hysterical virgins over thirty, for the pale buds of the finishing school who are keen on the chaste by so effective love-making of the fleet hunters of the Chamois. In the original agricultural cantons the people live like animals, and are as bovine as their oxen. It is necessary, very necessary, that this last refuge of brutal primitive Germanism, of barbarians of bigotry, of patriarchal naiveté and purity of morals, of agricultural stability and of loyalty to death – available to the highest bidder – should at last be destroyed.
This “birthplace of freedom” is nothing else but the center of barbarism, of brutality, bigotry, hypocritical “purity” … Internal affairs are exhausted in making cheese, chastity, and yodeling … abroad, the only claim of the Swiss is that of being hired mercenaries.
Here, the rolling thunder comes with its flashes of ridicule. To strike at his target of hypocrisy, Marx reaches for the directness and rhythms of Luther’s bible. This barrage could be Luther’s excoriating the Papacy.
40. The French Marxist Louis Althusser was but one in a line of commentators to warn those opening Capital to skip those 100 pages, that is, Part I on “Commodities and Money,” until after they had read the next 600. He further advised them to delay reading the 30 pages of Part V, see Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, NLB, London, 1971, pp. 79-86.
Engels had offered parallel advice on how to approach volumes II and III, Selected Correspondence, pp. 566-68.
Many of us have been comforted to learn from Engels that Marx, although adept at algebra, including differential calculus “did not get the knack of handling figures, particularly commercial arithmetic.” Marx kept notebooks on differential calculus. The notion of approaching a result by ever smaller increments without ever reaching that end, that is, asymptotically, appealed to Marx as a means to express the dialectic, the process of change, see Mathematics Manuscripts of Karl Marx, New Park, London, 1983.
46. To dispel the lopsidedness of that judgement, let Hegel also speak in his own defence. Just before the end of his life in 1831, he responded to the debates leading up to the First Reform Bill in the British parliament: “Nowhere more than in England is the prejudice so fixed and so naïve that if birth and wealth give a man office they also give him brains.” “The English Reform Bill,” T. M. Knox and Z. A. Pelczynski, Hegel’s Political Writings, OUP, Oxford, 1964, p. 311.
The Soviet editions did not provide translations, though the Penguin series does. Working one’s way through the explanatory footnotes is a short course in cultural literacy. Marx advised one militant to learn Spanish, as he had done, by reading Don Quixote. The Moscow editions provided much of the necessary detail, culminating in the Marx-Engels Collected Works from 1975. Dirk Struik’s editing of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts andThe Communist Manifesto was exemplary for his commentaries and scholarly apparatuses. The Penguin-New Left Editions from the 1970s also deserve to be consulted, both for their translations and their explanatory notes, which supply translations for Marx’s quotations.
The Penguin editor, Ben Fowkes, missed this jibe at Richard Wagner’s 1849 manifesto, “The Art-Work of the Future”: “Nobody – not even a practitioner of Zukunftsmusik* – can live on the products of the future ….” The asterisked footnote misinterprets Zukunftsmusik as “castles in the air, or dreams which may or may not be realized,” p. 272; The Moscow edition,Capital, p. 169, made no attempt to explain this rare reference to music in Marx, which he repeated in Volume II, Moscow, p. 493.
A disciple of Auerbach’s Mimesis could explicate the structure and texture of Capital to reveal Need to make a comparison with the tropes of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1770). The inclusion of Capital would disturb Auerbach’s categories.
In The House of All Nations (1938), Christina Stead gave a fictional representation of money capital.