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Friday, January 23, 2015


The irresistible temptation when lecturing on the Communist Manifesto, a temptation to which, I am afraid, I succumbed, is simply to read aloud from the text, page after page, line after thrilling line.  "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."  ""For exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, [the bourgeoisie] has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."  As the transformations wrought by the bourgeoisie spread throughout society, "all that is solid melts into air."  "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers."  "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.  Working men of all countries, unite!"

And, of course, that chilling opening line:  "A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of communism."

What is there left to say after quoting these and countless other passages?  

Having turned the last page of the text in my lecture, I returned to the opening words.  Here, reproduced somewhat as I delivered it, is the commentary I offered.

"A spectre is haunting Europe."  Marx was right.  There was indeed a spectre haunting Europe, but it was not the spectre of communism.  It was, rather, the spectre of capitalism, for in 1848, capitalism had scarcely begun its world-historical mission of uprooting and transforming world society.  Even in England, where capitalism was most fully launched, there were still profound transformations yet to come.  In France, capitalism had begun to take root, in Marx's Prussia, barely at all, and in Eastern and Southern Europe it was still entirely in the future. With the benefit of one hundred sixty-seven years of hindsight, we can see how much more work lay before capitalism in its historic assault on traditional feudal society.

Marx knew this, as some of his statements in the Manifesto make clear, but he was beguiled by the popular uprisings in France and elsewhere, and willed himself to believe that the next stage of history was in the wings. 

The failure of the uprisings also compelled Marx to completely reverse his understanding of the relationship between feudal and capitalist society [or bourgeois society, as Marx repeatedly labels it in the Manifesto, revealing thereby how shallow his understanding still was of what was being wrought by capitalism.]  Previously, Marx had viewed Feudal society as mystified and bourgeois society as naked, raw, unmystified, with the exploitation in plain view for all to see.  But after '48, Marx came to view Feudal society as relatively less mystified.  Indeed, the mystification of capitalism was so complete that its most gifted theoreticians were utterly incapable of recognizing it at all.

The devastating failure of those uprisings forced Marx to reconsider everything he had so optimistically concluded.  By 1859, we see him, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, articulating for the first time one of the most important insights of those post-Manifesto years.  This passage from the Preface announces an entirely new theory of historical change:

"No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself."

As one who began his long career as a Kant scholar, in an effort to understand the nineteen years that separate the appearance of the Manifesto from the publication of Volume One of CAPITAL, I find it useful to look back to the period in Kant's career between 1770 and 1781.  In 1770, Kant was elevated to a professorship at the University of Kรถnigsberg.  As part of the formal ceremony installing him in his new position, he delivered a public address, now known as the Inaugural Dissertation of 1770.  In this Dissertation, Kant announced a bold new philosophical position that broke decisively with the version of Leibnizean philosophy on which he had been raised.  Kant believed himself to have arrived at a thoroughly satisfactory compromise of the competing claims of metaphysics and natural science.  Shortly thereafter, in a letter to his friend Marcus Herz, who had served as the official Respondent to the Dissertation, Kant announced that he would very soon publish a "Critique of Reason."  But then, in 1772, Kant encountered David Hume's crushing critique of causal inference.  Perhaps alone in the world, Kant understood how deep Hume's scepticism cut.

A personal and private word, by way of interpolation.  The medium of Kant's encounter with Hume was a 1772 translation of a wretched little English book called On the Nature and Immutability of the Truth, by one James Beattie.  Beattie's book was an attack on those he called "sceptics," among whom, by the bye, he included Descartes.  Beattie's arguments were hardly worthy of attention, but to the eternal benefit of Philosophy, he quoted at length from the books he attacked, including Hume's early anonymously published work, A Treatise of Human Nature, the greatest work of philosophy ever written in English.  Hume, who was a modest, unassuming man but very vain of his literary reputation, was stung by Beattie's criticisms.  In a new edition of his Enquiries, he inserted a disclaimer, disavowing the Treatise as a work of his youth.  [I wept when I read those words for the first time.]  Beattie, whose book was a rave success and went through annual editions for six years, rather grandly replied, "Fine, I shall delete all the passages quoted from the Treatise."  As a dissertation writing graduate student, I undertook to ascertain whether the German translation read by Kant was made from the first edition, which contained the crucial passages from Book One, Part Three of the Treatise in which the sceptical arguments were set forth, or from later editions from which Beattie had removed them.  I was astonished to find that Harvard's Widener Library did not possess a copy of the German version of the Essay on Truth [I was only twenty-two, and still thought that Widener contained every book ever written], but Harvard graciously obtained a microfilm of it from Vienna, and I was able to demonstrate that the edition read by Kant did indeed contain the most important passages.  I presented this as an Appendix to my dissertation which was subsequently published in the Journal of the History of Ideas.  Inasmuch as it is the only genuine scholarship I have done in my entire life, I am inordinately proud of it.

But back to Kant.  Confronted by Hume's arguments, Kant set aside plans for a Critique of Reason, and embarked on deep and intense investigations.  Like Gandalf the Grey, who plunged into the depths of the caves of Moria in a death struggle with the Balrog, to emerge victorious but transfigured as Gandalf the White, so Kant plunged into the philosophical depths and emerged, nine years later, grasping in his hand the Critique of Pure Reason, the greatest philosophical work ever written in any language.

This is how I understand what Marx went through after 1848.  The defeat of the popular uprisings was for him what Hume's sceptical critique was for Kant, and like Kant, by the time he emerged from his intense investigations, his understanding of capitalism was completely transformed.

During those nineteen years, Marx read every work of economic theory on which he could lay his hands, be it in English, French, Italian, Spanish, or Latin.  if we in this course are to understand the progress of Marx's thought, we must therefore follow him into the bowels of Classical Political Economy.  That is why, next week, we shall for a time set aside Marx's writings and devote ourselves to an exploration of the central works of that classical tradition, as they came to be understood by a world-wide network of brilliant mathematical economists in the 1960's and 70's, and as I have set them forth using only elementary mathematics in the next assigned reading, chapters I-III of my book Understanding Marx.

Until next Wednesday.


Tom Hickey said...

I have done this too. A well-delivered reading with emphasis and feeling is more powerful than commentary when the meaning is obvious.

I believe it drills it in the way just reading one's own doesn't accomplish, and is difficult to forget. I think that the secret lies in delivering it as a speech, for effect, and watching for reaction, rather than just reading extended passages.

This technique is actually very old. It was used in ancient times with sutras, for instance. The teacher would deliver the sutra. The students would then ponder it, and this would be repeated until the text was finished. Through successive repetitions, the text was committed to memory and preserved through oral tradition.

Jerry Fresia said...

Thanks for the summary. This is quite a course! I love the parallels you are drawing. I can't remember: what level are the students? What has been the reaction thus far? I suspect a few heads are exploding.

classtruggle said...

Was Marx a generalist before he became a specialist? Did he live in an era when a single person could still draw on and synthesise an entire body of knowledge that is today broken up into competing fields (history, political philosophy, economics, sociology, etc.,)?

But perhaps an even more important question is to ask what was/is the significance of outlining a theory of the bourgeois revolution?

In the Eighteenth Brumaire (1852) Marx's opening passage makes the case that modern society was a product of a number of political events dating back at least to the 17th century and that the bourgeois revolution had brought into being a reality unlike anything its creators had intended. So if socialists wanted to avoid a similar outcome, they would have to watch out for ideological thought forms which were associated with the bourgeois revolution and make sure their theorising was both 'scientific and historical i.e., not just see empirical reality as it presented itself but actually try to see through it.

LFC said...

Most historians today seem to work with more than just the two categories of "traditional feudal society" and industrial capitalism. Restricting the focus to Europe, there is a long stretch of time in which the old economic order is breaking down and a new one emerging, in different ways and at different speeds depending on the particular location. Those scholars who think of this early-modern 'capitalism' in terms of, for example, more extensive and regular patterns of trade, the development in some cases of export agriculture (e.g. production of cash crops for export), and the rise of merchants and traders as a more-or-less distinct class (along with the rise of stronger monarchs/states) would see the transition from 'feudalism' to 'capitalism' as a long process, as (probably) would those historians who identify capitalism more closely with the emergence of wage labor on a large scale.

How does this connect to Marx's views? The sentence you quote from the Preface to A Critique of Political Economy of course is part of the passage in which Marx describes the period of transformation in which the existing 'relations of production' turn into 'fetters' upon the 'material productive forces'. He refers there to "Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois [i.e. capitalist] modes of production" as "progressive epochs in the economic formation of society." The sentence you quote beginning "no social order ever disappears" suggests that Marx thinks the transition from each of these "epochs" to the next is a fairly long process. So although his terminology and frame of reference is different from that of many contemporary economic historians, on that particular point -- i.e. the length of the transitions -- there would seem to be some agreement. (Marx goes into this in more detail and nuance elsewhere, as I recall, but I'm using the Preface for convenience.)

P.s. Quotes from the Preface as printed in D. McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, pp.389-90.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is the whole point. Marx thinks it was a centuries long process, and in CAPITAL he goes into very great detail [given what was available to historians -- remember that a vast amount about the "Middle Ages" has been learned since the 1860's.]

Marx was also very well aware of the variations in the process of transformation as it took place in different countries. But he knew very little about other parts of the world, as did most European historians of that time.

classtruggle said...

While the transition from feudalism to capitalism remains a topic of debate, with some favouring an 'exchange relations' perspective (e.g., Sweezy 1976; Wallerstein, 1974) and others a 'property relations' perspective (e.g., Dobb 1946; Hilton 1973; Brenner 1976, 1977) -- I tend to favour the latter which I think aligns itself more with the argument found in CAPITAL where less attention is paid to the dynamic of expanding world market or towns, and more to changes in property relations manifest through class struggle, as was the case in Tudor England , where the peasantry lost its land and a free, landless and rightless (vogelfreit) proletariat gradually came into being.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think you know a good deal more about this debate than I do. I would be delighted to host a guest post about the subject [but only if you sign your real name. :) ]

classtruggle said...

Unfortunately some compliments never make their way to the people who actually deserve them. But I am honoured nonetheless.

The literature on the so called feudal-capitalist transition, especially since the publication of the first volume of CAPITAL, is certainly vast as you have pointed out already. The first 'great' debate probably started with the publication of Studies in the Development of Capitalism by Maurice Dobb in 1946 (way before my time!) and the second great debate probably started with the publication of Robert Brenner's article on 'Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe' in the British historical academic journal Past & Present in 1976 (again before I was born).

Alex Callinicos discusses the works of Robert Brenner in his Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History (1995) (pages 122-126; 131-134) and Robert Paul Resche provides a useful summary of the works of Philippe Rey, Guy Bois, Perry Anderson and Peter Kriedte in Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory (1992) (pages 131-157). I thought David Laibman's survey of the literature in The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics (2012), Chapter 55 entitled 'The transition from feudalism to capitalism' was very good (but unfortunately too short) as well.

There is also Claudio J. Katz's article 'Karl Marx on the transition from feudalism to capitalism' in Theory and Society 22: 363-389, 1993 which if you ever find the time to read, I would be interested to know your thoughts on it. Like you and many other readers of your blog, I am also very much interested in Marxology and learning more about Marx's distinctive position on certain topics like the feudal-capitalist transition.