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 Königsberg. 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.