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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."


Chris said...

So let's push this point, because I think you and Marx are right, but this doesn't make for a socialist society. It's true that if I own all the means of production I need to reproduce my labor power, then I'm set, and can work exactly what needs to be worked every day.

But then we run into a few issues, that Marx of course recognized (long before Rawls), that natural endowment and social circumstances can impact this necessary labor time (see the Gotha program) and so lead to issues of obvious unfairness. So it's not a leap to say given our age differences, I could probably outperform you by an hour or so, and thus be required to work less due to natural (morally arbitrary) constitution.

But pushing the point further, it's dubious anyone will even be capable of accessing all the means of production if they wanted to. They must rely to some degree on social production (let’s say you and I cannot cook, so we must rely on the cook). Now for social production to take place we need 1) to reproduce the means of production, 2) produce for those that need what they cannot otherwise provide themselves, and we would want to arrange this in such a way that natural endowment isn't a deciding factor, right? So that you’re not working that extra hour to get fed, and I’m not.

So how do we address these socialist concerns?

Michael said...

To add on to Chris's concerns, I thought I'd link to this interview with Charles Mills (whose work I know you know)which has a nice critique of some of the historical failings of Marxists to incorporate the lived experiences of people of color and women into their work:
" Mainstream Marxism has (with a few honorable exceptions) been “white” in the sense that it has not historically realized or acknowledged the extent to which European expansionism in the modern period (the late 15th century and onward) creates a racialized world, so that class categories have to share theoretical space with categories of personhood and subpersonhood. Modernity is supposed to usher in the epoch of individualism. The Marxist critique is then that the elimination of feudal estates still leaves intact material/economic differences (capitalist and worker) between nominally classless and normatively equal individuals. But the racial critique points out that people of color don’t even attain normative equality.

In the new language of the time of “men” or “persons” (displacing citizens and slaves, lords and serfs), they are not even full persons. "

I look forward to hearing more about your course as you go along.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, Chris, you need to develop a certain literary sensibility! I was talking about an 800 page book, and I was suggesting, rather dramatically, that out of this single sentence, midway through it, one could unpack Marx's entire account. This was obviously intended by me as deliberate hyperbole. There are ten thousand things one would need to add to this sentence, and Marx says at least nine thousand of them! Just for starters, recall that Marx says that by the time we get to an advanced stage of capitalist development, it is the entire labor force, conceived for purposes of analysis as a single worker, who must be reckoned with, not each individual man or woman or child. And that is just for openers. My worry is that an entire semester will be insufficient to talk about everything that needs to be said about CAPITAL, quite apart from what would need top be said about the next stage of economic development [something that Marx talks about virtually not at all in CAPITAL, and very little anywhere else.]

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Michael, I saw the interview with Mills, whom I admire enormously. I agree with much of what he said there. This is a huge subject, not really suited to quickie blog post comments and entries. I am struggling to figure out how much I can say in one course, clearly, coherently, connectedly, all the while remembering that the students will be taking three or four other courses apiece.

Chris said...

Oh boy. Professor Wolff, I'm more than adamant to acknowledge that Kapital is work a philosophical, economic, political, and LITERARY ingenuity. And should be read in philosophy, economic, poli sci, and english classes. Moreover, there are dozens of single sentence passages in the text that are truly awe inspiring.

I just wanted to flesh out a broader discussion of what Marxian socialism could and should look like. Of course that passage isn't sufficient to do that, but it's certainly a discussion worth having, independently of the literary genius of any particular passage in Kapital.

Michael, I'm no fan of Rawls, but I've found Mills critique of Rawls to be highly dubious, moreover, I do think Marxism does add some necessary components to understand the ideological reasons why racism is predominant. Mills is of course right that Marxism has often been a white enterprise, but we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater, as he seems to in his 'black liberalism'.

jeremie jenkins said...

This is the first time I've seen Chris call the author of this blog "Professor Wolff" instead of "Wolff". Looks like you're back in the saddle Professor!

Chris said...

Someone had said it was rude that I was calling him Wolff. I don't know if that's true, but I felt bad since I don't intend to be disrespectful.