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Saturday, November 22, 2014


After a day of rest, I have returned to my course preparations, today re-reading the famous discussion of alienated labor from the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.  I should not be surprised if all of the readers of this rather recherché blog are fully familiar with the text, but if there are some folks who have been drawn to my daily musings merely out of an affection for Paris or from grandfatherly fellow-feeling, I should explain that at the age of twenty-six, the young Karl Marx, living in Paris, sat down to sort out some thoughts.  On large sheets of paper he drew vertical lines to create three columns, each headed with one of the central categories of Political Economy:  Land, Labor, Capital.  Then he wrote as much as he had to say about each subject, page after page.  He never published these writings -- they were in the nature of study notes or self-explications -- but in the twentieth century they finally saw the light of day.  They were seized on especially by dedicated Marxists who were alienated from Stalinist Russia, which had appropriated Capital as its bible.  In this and other early writings, a number of mid-century radicals found fresh inspiration.

The text breaks off abruptly in what is clearly the middle of a much longer exposition.  In the edition I shall be assigning, it runs only to sixteen pages, and yet there is a world in those pages. I shall spend much of a two and a half hour class unfolding that world for my students.

In this post, I should like simply to quote a single brief passage from what is, in my opinion, the richest passage, and connect it with one of my favorite movies from the '50s, the Peter Sellars vehicle, I'm All Right Jack.  Here are the two sentences from the manuscript on alienated labor:

"The worker, therefore, feels himself only outside his work, and feels beside himself in his work.  He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home."

In the movie, Sellars plays a communist union boss whose members work at a factory, owned by Dennis Price, in which wealthy young Ian Carmichael finds a job [he is enamored of Sellars' implausibly bosomy daughter.]  Price wants to lay off some workers, but Sellars negotiates for them a deal that allows them to stay on the payroll even though they are now supernumerary.  Each day those workers sit behind a stack of bales on pallets and play cards.  One day, Sellars schedules a labor action.  The workers stream out of the factory, but the excess workers, behind their bales, do not notice at first that their comrades are on strike.  Suddenly, they realize what is going on, and they drop their cards, jump up from their chairs, and hurry out of the factory -- presumably to go home, where they will play cards!
That scene is the perfect comic rendering of Marx's profound insight.  For half a century and more, I have wondered idly whether the writers knew what they were doing


My two closest friends in college were fellow members of the Harvard class of '54, Michael Jorrin and Richard Eder.  Mike was [and still is] a tall, handsome blond man with a big basso singing voice.  Dick was a short, slender, wry, dark-haired man with a quirky sense of humor and a limp as the result of a childhood bout of polio.  He sang tenor.  I cannot recall how we met, but somehow we found one another as devotées of early music and formed a little trio to sing Elizabethan madrigals.  We worked our way through a book of madrigals arranged for men's voices and would burst into song spontaneously whenever we met.  Early on, we discovered that the tunnels connecting some of the Harvard houses had great acoustics.  I recall with fondness our rendition of The Silver Swan.

I graduated a year early, and to commemorate the occasion, Mike and Dick bought me my very own copy of the Critique of Pure Reason [I was at that point too strapped for funds to own one and used the library copy.]  I used it until it began to fall apart, at which point I had it re-bound.  It sits on the shelf in my Paris apartment.  The inscription reads, "To Bob, Each even line from Dick, Each odd line from Mike."

Dick got a job as a copyboy on the TIMES when he graduated, and rose from there to become an important foreign correspondent and then book reviewer.  Later in life, when he had moved to the Los Angeles TIMES, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book reviews.  He was married for his entire adult life to his childhood sweetheart, Esther, with whom he had seven children.

The NY TIMES today carries the obituary of Richard Eder, who died yesterday at 82.  He was an extraordinary man, a gifted man, and with Michael Jorrin, a bright light of my undergraduate days.  I was deeply saddened by the word of his passing.

Friday, November 21, 2014


With the re-reading of Capital behind me, I can now turn my attention to the re-reading of the 1844 manuscript on "Alienated Labor" and the 1848 Communist Manifesto, "a task which is rather an amusement than a labor," to snatch a line from the Preface to the First Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.  The first of these texts, barely 15 pages in the edition I shall be using, is of course one of the most often read of Marx's writings.  It makes for a fascinating comparison with Capital.  The manuscript is a wild, Romantic effusion of Marx's youth, spun, so far as I can tell, entirely out of his head.  It was written before Marx had begun the backbreaking work of archival scholarship into every aspect of the emergence of capitalism from European feudalism that serves as the foundation of the argument of Capital.  And yet, at the age of twenty-six, the young Karl Marx had intuited the essential inhumanity of capitalist labor that is detailed over so many pages in his mature hauptwerk.  

At a certain point in the twentieth century evolution of Marxism, it became popular to speak of a break or discontinuity between the youthful writings and the mature works, and yet in this important respect, the two are seamlessly continuous one with the other.  There was indeed a break, or at least a reversal, in Marx's views of feudalism and capitalism, but it concerned something quite different.  Briefly, when he was young, Marx viewed feudal socio-economic relations as thoroughly mystified by religious and political rationalizations, whereas capitalism, he thought, had dispelled the clouds of mystery to reveal the raw, naked exploitation lying beneath.  But the dramatic and deeply disappointing failure of the 1848 revolutionary uprisings seems to have persuaded Marx that the truth was in fact the reverse.  Under feudalism, he came to think, the economic structure of exploitation was nakedly exhibited, as typified by the division of the week's labor into days owed to the Lord and days for cultivating one's own land.  It was capitalism that presented its exploitation in the mystified form of a Free Market in which legally free workers met legally free capitalists and bargained as equals for their wages.

All of this, as the saying goes, will be gone into at the proper time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


Well, I finally completed my re-reading of Capital Volume One today.  Here is an odd fact.  Marx wraps up his long discourse with a dramatic, powerful five page Chapter XXXII entitled "Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation."  The mists have dispelled, the veils have parted, and the raw story of the development of modern capitalism is laid before us as clearly as one could desire.  The chapter concludes with this marvelous paragraph:

"The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already resting on socialised production, into socialised property.  In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers;  in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people."

That ought to be the end of the book, right?  But then, unaccountably, Marx adds one more chapter, "The Modern Theory of Colonisation."  It is in every way an anticlimax, engendered, so far as I can tell, by Marx's desire to beat up on a wretch named E. G. Wakefield. 

When I teach the book next semester, I plan to end with Chapter XXXII. 


My grandson, Samuel, has expressed an interest in learning to play the violin, so I shall foot the bill for a half sized instrument for his birthday present [he will be nine in December].  I have dreams of playing duets with him.  What is it with little Jewish boys and violins?  I think half of the little boys in Vilna must have studied the violin in the early twentieth century.  Samuel's six year old sister [the one who is a shark at Backgammon] would like a pair of boots.  So I went on line.  Do you have any idea how many styles of boots there are for little girls?  This business of being a grandpa is more complicated than it looks.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Inasmuch as Chris has done me the honor of addressing me by the title I have affected these past  fifty -six years [I think of it as the academic version of a patronymic or matronymic], I think I owe it to him to pause momentarily in my re-reading of Capital in order to address the question he raises, viz, how exactly would a socialist society work?  It is worth reminding those of you who have read a great deal of Marx and telling those of you who have not that Marx said almost nothing about this subject.  Indeed, if we were to add up all the pages that Marx devoted to an analysis of capitalism and the critique of theorists of capitalism, we would certainly pass 5000, and perhaps many more.  If we were then to gather together every passing comment, aside, and ephemeral remark he made about what a socialist society would look like, we might manage, generously, to cobble together five pages, but even that would be in large print.  There were, of course, many nineteenth century authors who speculated extensively about the lineaments of a socialist society.  Marx and Engels had nothing but contempt for them, referring to them as "Utopian Socialists."

There are a number of reasons why the high priest of socialism never wrote about it, the most profound of which is that Marx understood, better than anyone before him [and perhaps after as well] that how the transition to socialism was made would shape what emerged from the transition.  This idea, of the relationship between the character of a socio-political transition and what emerges from it, is the subject of a truly great book by my old friend [and the godfather of my younger son] Barrington Moore Jr.  I refer, of course, to The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:  Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World.

What follows are some thoughts I had during my morning walk.  The temperature at six a.m. was hovering just above 20 degrees, so a good deal of my energy was devoted to staying warm, which may explain why these thoughts are a trifle scattered.  [Wearing thermal underwear, two sweaters, and a scarf under my hoodie, I looked rather like a miniature version of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.]

I shall begin with a point Chris makes, about which Marx has a very great deal to say in Volume One:  At the present stage of economic development, an extremely extensive division of labor has long since taken place, with the result that few if any of us actually reproduce our own means of existence by our own individual labor.  Those of us who are city dwellers , which I assume includes virtually all the readers of this blog, do not grow our own food or spin, weave, and tailor our own clothes, nor have most of us had a hand in the building of the dwellings in which we reside.  [I have, as it happens, carded and spun raw wool into thread, but that was at an upscale leftwing work camp for middle-class teenage boys and girls, so it does not really count.]

For this reason, Marx, for certain analytical purposes, speaks in Capital of the assembled labor of the entire working class as though it were the labor of a single worker, a portion of whose day is devoted to reproducing "his" conditions of existence [i.e., wage goods], the remainder being devoted to producing the surplus value that is transmuted into the money form as profit for the capitalist. 

Thinking in this way is useful for reminding us that in a socialist society, a certain amount of labor must be done in each cycle simply to produce what is consumed, one way or another, by the workers, and also to reproduce the capital that is used up in the processes of production.  If the population is growing, or if a decision has been made [by whom?  Ah.  That is the question] to raise the standard of living, in either case requiring an expansion of the scope of output through economic growth, then "the" worker will have to labor longer than is required for simple reproduction, either to produce the capital goods to which the additional working population will apply itself productively or else to expand the output of wage goods available to the existing population.  What is more, if the demographic composition of the population is shifting, perhaps with fewer persons of working age doing the labor required to support the entire population, then those who work will have to labor longer than would be required merely to sustain themselves.  All of this is obvious and has been well understood for a long time.

A good deal of the labor performed by our "worker" goes to produce wealth for those who control or own the means of production, and are therefore in a position collectively and individually to compel the workers to perform surplus labor by threatening to withhold from them the food, clothing, and shelter that they need to survive.  There are more pages in Capital devoted to this doleful subject than to anything else.  It is the fundamental fact of capitalism [and also of all previous economic formations, but that is several other stories.]

How would things differ in a socialist society?  Indeed, what would a socialist society be?  Well, the traditional answer -- and I am in this, as in so much else, a traditionalist -- is that in a socialist society capital, which is to say the means of production, would be collectively owned, and decisions about what and how much to produce would be made collectively.  [This is why the transition process matters.  If a small cadre of revolutionary leaders act as the commanders of the revolutionary process, you can bet that after the revolution, even if we are all eating peaches and cream, they and their epigones will be making all the big decisions, which they will no doubt call Democratic Centralism, without irony, alas.]

At the present time, decisions about the allocation of capital are for the most part made by private owners who are motivated by a desire to expand the value of their holdings through the making of a profit.  These decisions may, but they also may not, serve the human needs of those doing the labor in the society.  In America today, for example, a good profit can be made by manufacturing in expensive, nicely designed, reasonably well made clothes.  Hence even the poor are well-dressed by historical standards.  But in the housing business, the real money is to be made in high-end luxury housing.  Hence the poor, who are well-dressed, are ill-housed.  In a socialist society, it would be possible to allocate capital in such a way that the workers are well-housed.  It would not be cheap.  Even under socialism, there is no free lunch [except at Apple headquarters].  It would be a deliberate decision, made with full knowledge of the costs, which include what would have to be foregone.

Shifting the capital around looks easy on paper when one is working with dollar equivalents.  Take so many billions out of this industry and put it into that industry.  Things are a bit trickier when we get down to the real economy.  One cannot simply issue an order that an aircraft manufacturer making Lear Jets must forthwith start producing nicely designed workers' dwellings, nor can one require a Rolex Watch manufacturer, by fiat, to start churning out nutritious school lunches for poor children.  However, with a little Schumpeterian "creative destruction" the changes can be made.

Thus far, I have been talking about America, but it is time to acknowledge a fact that requires some deep thought.  Those cheap, well-designed clothes I mentioned that you and I are wearing [leaving to one side my utter lack of clothes sense] are made by girls and women working twelve hours for a wage that we would not consider adequate pay for a day.  So are those making our cell phones.  They just don't happen to be living in America, so a socialist transformation in America will do them precious little good.  [Oscar Wilde is reported to have said of socialism, "It will never work.  Too many meetings."  I shudder to think what would happen to me if I were to explain to a gathering of revolutionary youth that they might have to give up their IPhones.]

Well, this is a great deal more in a connected way than Marx ever wrote about socialism, and since I am now all warmed up, I am going to go back to reading Capital. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


I begin my daily portion of Capital today on page 668, a little more than one hundred pages from the end of Volume One.  My careful reading notes, filled with notations of passages I must call to the attention of my class, now fill almost nineteen pages.  Inasmuch as there is more to say about this extraordinary book than even thirty-seven and a half hours of class time will allow, I need to begin the difficult business of deciding what is essential and what can, albeit reluctantly, be set aside.

Happily, I have already identified what seems to me to be the single most important sentence in the entire volume.  It appears in the middle of a long paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 307 [in the Aveling and Moore translation] and continues on to page 309.  The context is not important, because what Marx says could as easily have been said on every single page of the book.  Here is the sentence:

"If this labourer [who is being hired for a year by a capitalist] were in possession of his own means of production, and were satisfied to live as a labourer, he need not work beyond the time necessary for the reproduction of his means of subsistence, say 8 hours a day."

Literally everything in Marx's long, complex, detailed critique of capitalism is contained in this simple sentence.  Why must the nineteenth century English worker labor for ten or twelve or fourteen hours?  Because, by an historical process that Marx will analyze in the final pages of Volume One, he has been deprived of access to and ownership of the means of production that he requires in order to reproduce his own existence.  Why, as the productivity of the workers improves and grows, does the work day not shorten?  If only six hours, or four, come to be required to reproduce the worker's means of existence, why must he still labor for eight or ten or twelve hours?  Because those means of production, which his labor and that of other workers has created, are owned not by himself and his comrades, but by the capitalist, who in his role as capitalist [not as plant manager -- that is a separate matter] does nothing save own the means of production and "allow" the workers to use them.  Whence comes his profit, that grows and grows as the years roll by?  From the unpaid labor extracted from the workers.

If this is the sum and substance of Capital, why is the entire academic Economics profession incapable of grasping its truth?  The great old American novelist Upton Sinclair had the answer:  "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."