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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Readers will note that I have said nothing about the decision by the grand jury in the case of the authorized murder of Michael Brown.  I am so sickened by the entire affair that I cannot find something witty or amusing to say about it.


And so, in my preparations for my course next semester, I come today to a re-reading of the Manifesto of the Communist Party.  What is there to say?  Everything!  My God, but that man could write!  The Manifesto begins with the chilling words "A spectre is haunting Europe," and ends with the immortal call to action:  "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.  Working men of all countries, unite!"

The central structural idea that organizes the Manifesto is the schema of an historical succession of socio-economic stages leading ineluctably to the supplanting of capitalism by socialism.  This thesis, elsewhere given by Marx and Engels the label "historical materialism," is one of the most powerful analytical ideas ever advanced.  We have all of us so completely incorporated it into our thinking that it is an effort of resurrection to remind ourselves of its origins.

Once again, we must repair to the Good Book.  The Judeo-Christian story unfolds in a sequence of religio-metaphysical stages, foreseen, ordained, and stage-managed by God.  The story begins with the Creation, followed [textually] almost immediately by The Fall.  Now, there are many alterations between the first and second stages:  sartorial [nothing before, fig leaves after], locational [Eden before, the world after], occupational [effortless ease before, labor after].  But these are, as it were, merely ephemeral.  The real, the objective change is from a condition of blessedness to a condition of sinfulness.  A man and woman living after The Fall might be so deluded as to suppose that by shedding their clothes, living at ease off the labor of others, and christening their pleasure palace Eden, they could thereby return to the metaphysical condition of Adam and Eve before The Fall, but they would be sadly mistaken, as would be made clear to them at The Last Trump.

The Fall is followed by the Covenant or Testament forged between God and Abraham and renewed with Noah, then by the Giving of the Law to Moses, then by the Word or Law Being Made Flesh in the Incarnation, and then by the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of the Son of God.  The unfolding of the religio-metaphysical story will be completed by the Second Coming and the Last Trump, after which time itself will end.

The central idea to take from this story, which infuses so much of Western Civilization, is that an individual's spiritual and metaphysical standing is entirely determined by where in this story his or her life takes place.  If you live in the time of the Old Testament, under The Law, your  condition is utterly different from what it is if you live after the Word has been made Flesh, in the time of the New Testament.  Nothing else matters.  That is why those living in the sixteenth century saw nothing anomalous or anachronistic in a painting of Old Testament characters dressed in Flemish clothes.  They understood, perhaps without even bringing that understanding to consciousness, that a Noah or David or Judas garbed as a burgher of Amsterdam is no less situated in his religio-metaphysical period for that fact.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel immanentized that story.  The succession of stages defined and imposed by God on His Creation became the immanent unfolding of Mind or Spirit within History.  Whereas each stage in the Judeo-Christian story is defined by Man's relation to Salvation, each stage in Hegel's story is defined by the degree to which Spirit has come to a Self-Understanding.  Each stage of history differs in this regard from what went before and what follows, and -- this is crucially important -- everything at a given stage of history is related to, exhibits, exemplifies that degree of the unfolding of Spirit or Mind.  [It is in this sense that Hegel is an Idealist.]  Each aspect of the civilization of a stage can be understood and characterized by this central Ideal character.  Thus we can speak of the Classical Period of Ancient Greece and Rome, and mean by this equally the character of its politics, its philosophy, its law, and also its architecture, statuary, and literature.  We can speak meaningfully of Baroque music, of Medieval sculpture, or of Romantic poetry, or, with Jacob Burckhardt, of Renaissance Man.

As readers of this blog know, I don't like Hegel, but give credit where credit is due.  This is a brilliant idea.  It is also the immediate origin of Marx's idea that the History of Europe exhibits the succession of a series of stages in the development of the social relations of production, each stage defining a distinct period of the human experience.  Primitive Communism, Roman Slavery, Medieval Feudalism, and Bourgeois Capitalism are to Marx as the Eden, The Fall, The Giving of the Law, and the Incarnation are to the Christian.  And Communism, like The Last Trump, will bring History as we know it to a conclusion, after which, as the old communist slogan has it, we will all eat peaches and cream.

It is worth noting one of the immediately obvious implications of this schema:  There can be no skipping of a stage.  Without the Fall, there can be no Covenant with Abraham and Noah, without the Giving of the Law no Word Made Flesh in the Incarnation.  So too, as Marx makes brilliantly clear and persuasive in Capital, it would have been impossible to institute full-fledged capitalism in twelfth century feudal Europe, or [somewhat closer to home] to skip over the full development of advanced capitalism and go directly to socialism, as the French, German, and English utopians desired.

This issue became immediately [and bloodily] urgent in Russia in 1917 when a revolutionary Socialist vanguard seized control of a huge nation of serfs in which the very beginnings of capitalism were emerging in the Western regions.  The Bolsheviks were educated men and woman, and they knew full well the problem of "skipping a stage."  Indeed, they debated whether such an anomaly was possible.  The obvious answer was of course "no," but it was too much to expect those who had risked their lives to turn to whatever nascent capitalists they could find and say "Okay, it is your turn now.  We will be back when you have fully developed bourgeois capitalist social and economic relations, in a generation or two."  And so, we had State Capitalism, better known as The Soviet Union.

Clearly, there is going to be a great deal to say at the second meeting of my seminar.

Monday, November 24, 2014


The responses of Jerry Fresia and Magpie to yesterday's post raise so many  important issues that I scarcely know where to begin.  Let me start with the term banausic, an adjective translated [or virtually transliterated] from an ancient Greek term for the labor of common workmen, and by extension, for the workmen themselves.  It  is a term of contempt, sometimes translated "mechanic," or "mechanical."  Plato and Aristotle believed that the labor of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants corrupted their souls and made them unfit for full participation in the deliberations of the public sphere.  One finds a very similar attitude in the writings of Hannah Arendt [suitably cleaned up, as it were.]  There is an interesting echo of this attitude in John Stuart Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures, one of his revisions of the simple utilitarianism on which he was raised by his father and his godfather [Jeremy Bentham.]  Mill assumes without argument that the common folk are capable of enjoying only the lower pleasures, whereas the elite, such as himself, can appreciate both the lower and the higher pleasures, and hence are in a position to judge that the higher are better.[[One is reminded of the old definition of Jewish foreplay -- half an hour of nagging.]  By describing the labor of common workers in language customarily reserved for the analysis of the act of artistic creation, Marx accomplishes a brilliant transvaluation of values [to steal a phrase from that virtuoso of dismissive contempt, Friedrich Nietzsche.]

The celebration of manual labor appears in many places, such as the early Israeli Kibbutzim, various nineteenth century American transcendentalist utopian experimental communities, and the writings of such twentieth century authors as Carl Sandburg and Paul Goodman.  It also famously crops up in the late writings of Leo Tolstoy.

Although it is only tangentially relevant, I cannot resist the temptation to quote the glorious last paragraph of Leon Trotsky's Literature and Revolution:

"It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the height to which he may carry his technique.  Social construction and psycho-physical education will become two aspects of one and the same process.  All the arts -- literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form.  More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point.  Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler;  his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical.  The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic.  The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.  And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

A very large portion of Volume One of Capital is devoted to spelling out in rich circumstantial detail the ways in which first the substitution of manufacturing [literally "making by hand"] for traditional handicrafts and then the substitution of machine production for manufacturing robs labor of its natural rhythms and its fusion of hand and head and transforms it into a rote activity that is deadening and life-destroying.

The division of labor into handwork and headwork, with its implications for class stratification,  is one of the most distinctive "achievements" of capitalism, and the overcoming of the division has been a goal of revolutionaries in many countries.  In the South Africa that I first discovered in 1986, and with which I fell in love, this took the form of a call among radical academics for the granting of formal educational credentials to those township residents who, despite being denied access to higher education, had demonstrated in their work lives a mastery of the skills and concepts that school learning was intended to instill.  It was argued, for example, that those who managed the informal township councils of Soweto, Alexandra, or Mamelodi had acquired as much understanding of government as those who had studied Public Administration at university, and should therefore be awarded the appropriate university degree.  Needless to say, this, like so many other inspiring revolutionary goals, became a dead letter once the apartheid  regime was overthrown.

Here in the United States, the popular slang for this division used to be "suits and shirts," until in the '60s dress ceased to be a reliable marker for social class.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


My ebullient remarks about Marx's manuscript on Alienated Labor provoked two requests for a mini-tutorial on Romanticism.  Alas, I am not even remotely competent to write such a tutorial, desirable though it might be.  However, I think I owe Jerry Fresia and Magpie some explanation.  Consider this post yet another warm-up for my course next semester.

Let us begin, as I so like to do, with the Good Book, specifically Genesis 3:14-19.  God is royally pissed at the disobedience of Adam and Eve, who despite clear warnings, have succumbed to the seductions of the serpent and have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This is a moment of world-historical importance, of course, for from it flows original sin and the entire Christian story.  Note the last three verses, especially verse 19.  Man's labor is a curse laid upon him for his disobedience, and so is woman's labor, which is the name given to the bringing forth of children.  This conception of labor as a curse dominates the Judeo-Christian tradition ever afterward.  To be required to labor is to be cursed, if not for your sin then for Adam's.  Activity is not a curse, of course.  From Aristotle onward, activity, free autonomous self-directed activity, is understood to be a blessing, the condition of the aristocrat.  But the work of getting one's bread from the soil by the sweat of one's brow is the lot of the unfree, of those in bondage, of the poor who cannot command the labor of others for the satisfaction of their needs.

In the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx turns that tradition on its head, and gives us an entirely new understanding of the nature of work.  For all its youthful wordplay and its juvenile show of paradoxes and Hegelian inversions, this text is one of the richest and most remarkable of the entire corpus of nineteenth century writings.  What Marx does is to take the Romantic conception of the creative artist and transform it into a radically new idea of the human condition [hence my ill-considered allusion to Romanticism.]

Briefly [for this is a subject about which one could go on endlessly], in the medieval period, and indeed in the Baroque and Classical periods as well, artists were considered artisans, on a par with stone masons, jewelers, carpenters, and goldsmiths.  They were frequently employees of royal or aristocratic courts and were treated as such, expected to bow and scrape in  the presence of the King or Duke or Prince, called upon to produce their works for ceremonial and other occasions.  It would have struck an Elector or Margrave as comical, indeed as actionable, for one of his employees to say, "I am sorry, but I cannot produce the Mass you requested for the baptism of your son because I do not feel inspired today."  That would have been as absurd and incomprehensible as his tailor saying, "The spirit does not move me to make a cloak for you this week."

The Romantic conception of artistic creation is completely different.  On this view, the process, putting it somewhat formulaically, is as follows.  The artist first forms in his or her mind an image of the work to be created [I know, Jerry, that this is not always the way it is, but bear with me.]  It may be a conception of a work in stone, or in paint, or it may be a poem, a tragedy, a string quartet.  Then the artist labors to externalize the ideal conception in stone or on canvas or on paper.  This externalization [entäusserung] is a profoundly ambivalent act.  On the one hand, it makes the ideal conception real, and thus is the fulfillment of the artistic act.  But the entäusserung is at the same time an alienation, an entfremdung, in two senses.  First of all, what was internal and wholly a part of the artist's mind or spirit now becomes a foreign object, separate from  the artist.  It stands over against the artist [i.e., it is quite literally a gegenstand, an object.]  The artist loses control over its fate.  It will outlive the artist.  And it may be alienated in another sense: its ownership may change hands.  For "to alienate," in German as in English, means both "to become the enemy of" and also "to change ownership."  [The sale of property is routinely referred to in the law as alienation.]

The artist loses physical control of the art object, which was, in the act of creation, the externalization of the artist's innermost being. And the artist loses control over how the art object will be interpreted or experienced by the public.  The artist may believe that the sculpture should stand alone in a barren garden, but the new owner may stick it in his entry hall along with other works that the artist hates and would rather die than be associated with.  [One is reminded of poor old René Descartes, who sent copies of his newly created Meditations to all the great philosophers of Europe, with precise instructions that they were to read one Meditation per day for six days and then think about each Meditation for one week before writing back with comments, only to begin receiving comments almost the very next day!]   Thus, the act of artistic labor is deeply ambivalent in its meaning and potentiality.

Marx now takes up this Romantic notion of artistic creativity and transforms it in two ways.  He "materializes" it by applying the very same analysis to the work of transforming nature so as to provide for human needs and wants, and he "socializes" it by integrating with it Adam Smith's notion of the division of labor.  Turning his back on the entire Western tradition arising from Genesis, Marx claims that work can be, and should be, intelligent, fulfilling, communal, and deeply pleasurable, if engaged in in the right fashion.  As the artist forms a conception in mind and externalizes it in a painting, sculpture, or symphony, so the farmer forms a conception in mind of a field of wheat for the making of bread, which he or she then makes real, realizes, externalizes by laboring with others in the fields, day after day.  Once the idea has been made flesh, as the Good Book might say, those whose labor has brought about this realization can join in a communal meal at which they enjoy "the fruits of their labors."

This social productive activity ideally is carried on with full recognition of the natural tempos of the human condition and with a generous acknowledgement of the variations in the capacity for work of one man or woman or another.  Just as the artist experiences a good fatigue, a satisfying ache of the muscles while wrestling the stone into shape or crafting just the right chordal transitions from major to minor, so the blacksmith, the farmer, the cobbler -- yes, and the teacher, the doctor, the lawyer as well -- will welcome the tiredness that accompanies a good job well done.  There will be a time for working from sun up to sun down, and a time for resting, for repairing the fishing nets, for waiting out the storms.

But this human activity with its natural fulfillment and satisfaction is corrupted by capitalism.  Objectively, the products of collective human activity become alienated from those who have brought them into existence.  They stand over against the workers as Capital, which oppresses and exploits them.  The harder they work, the greater grow the accumulations of Capital and the more powerless they become to resist the oppression.  Subjectively, the work process itself is distorted and corrupted.  The needs of Capital require men and women to transform themselves into wage laborers whose pace of work, intensity of work, and duration of work are determined neither by their human needs nor by their natural physical tempi but by the incessant, insatiable need of Capital for profit.  Work truly becomes the curse that God imagined it to be.  The alienation of man from his species being is complete.

Well, that, or something like it, is what I had in mind when I referred to the essay on Alienated Labor as "a wild, Romantic effusion of Marx's youth."




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.