Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Sunday, February 3, 2013

WHAT I HAVE BEEN DOING -- PART TWO


What struck me most immediately and powerfully in my reading of CAPITAL is its extraordinary language.  Marx wrote in a style that bears no relation at all to any other works of  economics, sociology, political theory, or history that I have ever read.  Since the matter of Mark's literary style came to play a central role in my interpretation of his thought, it might be well to give examples, so that those of you who are not readily conversant with CAPITAL will have some sense of what I am referring to.  Here are two passages chosen from the first few chapters.

The first is taken from the opening paragraph of the famous Section 4 of Chapter I:  "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof."

A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.  Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.  So far as [a table] is a value in use [Adam Smith's term], there is nothing mysterious about it. ... But, as soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.  It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than 'table-turning' ever was."

The second is from Chapter III:  "Money, or the Circulation of Commodities."

Because money is the metamorphosed shape of all other commodities, the result of their general alienation, for this reason it is alienable itself without restriction or condition.  It reads all commodities backwards, and thus, so to say, depicts itself in the bodies of all other commodities, which offer to it the material for the realisation of its own use-value.  At the same time the prices, wooing glances cast at money by commodities, define the limits of its convertibility, by pointing to its quantity.  Since every commodity, on becoming money, disappears as a commodity, it is impossible to tell from the money itself, how it got into the hands of its possessor, or what article has been changed into it.  Non olet, from whatever source it may come.

Defining prices as "wooing glances cast at commodities" is simply wonderful.  Marx loved the novels of Charles Dickens, and like Dickens, he achieves some his most striking literary effects by describing people as things and things as people.  Prices "cast wooing glances" at commodities, linen "officiates" as standard of value in its exchange with coats.  The phrase "Non olet," by the way, is a passing reference to a well-known story about the Emperor Vespasian.  In Vespasian's day [he was Emperor from 69 to 79 a.d.], Rome collected taxes from the public urinals.  One day, Vespasian sent his son, Titus, to collect the money, a task that offended his son.  When Titus returned, he flung the money at his father's feet.  "Non olet," Vespasian replied with equanimity.  "It stinketh not."  Money from whatever source does not bear the mark of its origin, the point Marx is making in this paragraph. 

CAPITAL is full of metaphors and literary allusions called down by Marx from two thousand five hundred years of European literature.  It also abounds in religious echoes.  Commodity exchange is described by Marx at one point as transubstantiation inverted, for whereas in the Roman Catholic rite of the mass, the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ while the accidents -- the taste and smell and look -- remain unaltered, in commodity exchange, the substance, which is value, remains unaltered, while the accidents -- the properties of the corn and linen, coal, and iron  -- change.

Those of you whose light reading does not regularly include the writings of Franҫois Quesney, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, or John Stuart Mill will have to take my word for it that Marx's literary style bears no resemblance to theirs, even though he conceives himself as writing in, and bringing to its highest development, the Classical Political Economy that they created.  What on earth can he possibly have thought himself to be doing?

5 comments:

Jim Westrich said...

Are you familiar with any of the novels that were written in the early to mid 19th century that were attempts to popularize and making easier to understand the writings of David Ricardo and Adam Smith. The one I remember was "Ella of Graveloch" by Harriet Martineau which was an attempt to literally embody the no-rent margin of Ricardo (Ella lived on the remote island of Graveloch)?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not, but that sounds fascinating. I couldn't persuade you to write a little something about it for this blog, could I?

Jim Westrich said...

I really do not know that much (and I am not a historian nor an expert on anything literary). Many years ago when I taught history of economic thought I included a chapter or two of "Ella of Graveloch" so that is why I remember it. I could try to dig up ELLA of Graveloch though and summarize it again.

Jim Westrich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Paul Wolff said...

Far be it from me to send you down the memory hole, but I would be delighted to post it here if you were to say something about the novel, and perhaps about Martineau herself.