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Monday, April 20, 2015


One of the students in my Marx course, Jack Denton, put me onto a very interesting review essay by Bruce Robbins in a journal called N+1 [although the original reference may have come from Chris, since I put Mr. Denton in touch with Chris for reading suggestions for the final paper in the course.]  I read the essay, which ranges widely over French Marxism of the last thirty years or more, in the course of reviewing a book by Etienne Balibar.  The essay prodded me to say a few things that have emerged from my close reexamination of Capital this semester.

You will have to forgive me if I say some things that I have said before.  I only know three chords on this guitar, so all my songs sound alike.

Bruce Robbins begins his review essay thus:  At a debate in southern California in 2007, the French philosopher Alain Badiou informed the French philosopher √Čtienne Balibar that he, Balibar, was a reformist. “And you, monsieur,” Balibar replied, “are a theologian.”

This theme, of reformism versus theology in the ranks of Marxists, runs through the entire essay.  In this dispute, I am clearly and unapologetically on the side of reformism, not theology, and I am quite convinced that Marx was as well.  Let me explain, at some length.  Since this is a song about the inadequacies of theology, let me begin with the Bible.

As told in the Old and New Testaments, human history is a story that unfolds according to God's plan in five metaphysical stages:  The Creation, The Fall, The Law, the Incarnation, and The Last Trump.  Man's ontological condition, his relationship to the Almighty, is completely transformed as each stage succeeds the preceding one.  In the first stage, man is without sin.  He walks and talks easily with God.  This stage, Eden, ends with the Fall, the violation of God's commandment not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  After the Fall and the expulsion from Eden, man lives in sin.  Some time later, God makes a covenant with Abraham, which He renews with Noah.  He then gives to Moses his Law in the form of written Commandments.  The entire period of the Old Testament after the Fall, however long it lasts, and whatever secular events take place during it, is the time when Man lives in sin under The Law.  This stage in history comes to an abrupt end with the Incarnation, through which miraculous event God gives His only begotten Son to save man from the damnation that must otherwise be visited upon him for failing to obey the Law.  With the Passion of Christ, there begins a new stage, the one in which we now live.  In this stage, man is offered the miracle of undeserved salvation, through faith in the promise of Jesus Christ.  ["Belief in God" does not mean "Belief that God exists."  That is taken for granted.  It means belief that God will keep his promise of salvation to all those who trust unreservedly in that promise.]  History ends with the Last Trump, when the graves give up their dead and those who are saved sit at the footstool of the Lord forever in eternal bliss, while those who are damned are denied forever the presence of the Lord.

O.K.  That was fun.  The crucial thing to notice here is that the passage from one stage to the next, according to the Christian story, is abrupt, total, and irreversible.  Nothing of any importance remains the same.  Before the Fall, man is free of sin.  After the Fall, he bears the mark of Original Sin in his soul.  Before the Incarnation, man lives under the Law.  After the Incarnation, the Word is made Flesh, and salvation is by faith [since I am, in my heart of hearts, a Lutheran, I will say by faith alone, as Luther wrote in the margin of his copy of Paul's Epistles.]

Hegel immanentized the transcendent Christian story, and Marx secularized Hegel's version.  So the Creation, the Fall, the Law, and the Incarnation became Primitive Communism, Slavery, Feudalism, and Capitalism, with Socialism playing the role of the Last Trump.  BUT:  along the way, Marx had the genius to understand that the passage from one stage to the next is NOT abrupt, total, and irreversible.  In human history, the transition from one stage to the next is lengthy, complex, and ambiguous -- the product of the decisions, actions, and reactions of countless men and women over centuries.  Marx's work, so completely grounded in his archival historical research, was almost completely focused on the transition that had taken place within the memory of those then living, and indeed was only commencing in many parts of the world:  the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

As a young man, Marx, like all of his contemporaries, was mesmerized by the world-historical upheaval of the French Revolution, and although he understood even in his twenties that that event was the culmination, not the inauguration, of the centuries long transition from feudalism to capitalism, he allowed himself to hope that the next transition, from capitalism to socialism, would come abruptly, violently, and virtually immediately, even in lands like Prussia in which the first tender shoots of capitalist social relations were only beginning to thrust their heads above the soil.  Eventually, Marx knew better.  In 1859, he published the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, in the Preface to which he wrote these famous and very profound words:

" In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have 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. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation."

The implication is clear, and thoroughly anti-theological:   The transition from capitalism to socialism [deo volente] must come about through the development within capitalism of the elements of what will eventually become socialist social relations of production.  In the absence of such developments, no movement, however orthodox, however courageous, however true to the ipsissima verba of Marx's writings, can accomplish a transition to socialism. 

Since in this neck of the ideological woods, as in the land of theological disputes, proof texts are much prized, I offer in closing this quotation from that most canonical of all texts, Capital Volume I.  In the long Chapter 10, "The Working Day," Marx details the devices by which factory owners seek to wring a bit more surplus labor time from their workers.  Here is the concluding paragraph:

"It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, [163] that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” [164] For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling. by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. [165] In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.” Quantum mutatus ab illo!"

Take note, all you secular theologians, for whom concern about minimum wage laws or occupational safety and health regulations are a cop-out, a gradualist sell-out.  Karl Marx himself calls for the workers to organize and struggle for passage in England of a bill limiting the working day to ten hours.

Balibar is right.  Badiou is wrong.



David Auerbach said...

BTW, there's a little debate on marxism scholarship going on at the Leiter blog.

Chris said...

Jack actually sent me the N+1, and I'm glad he did, it's an interesting read. I'm unsurprisingly not a reformist, although I wouldn't vocalize opposition to reforms, e.g., I'll support raising the minimum wage, but I won't see it as part of a necessary condition for the realization of socialism.

I think Badiou is accused of being a theologian because of his brand of metaphysics and ontology, as best espoused in Being and Event. People argue that his event is tantamount to a miracle (I did in a review of his book Philosophy for Militants found in Science and Society). So I think the author of that article is erecting a strawman version of Badiou, as if his theology is related to his views on reform versus revolution, when it's a matter of his metaphysics - which does of course guide his politics.

Nevertheless, I'm not sure Marx is a reformist either. Here's an excerpt from Value, Price and Profit:

Chris said...

These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.

At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!"

After this very long and, I fear, tedious exposition, which I was obliged to enter into to do some justice to the subject matter, I shall conclude by proposing the following resolutions:

Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.

Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.

Thirdly. Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.

I have my own ideas on what the 1859 preface is actually saying, but I'm not in a position to openly disclose them at the moment...such is the nature of competition in academia.

Chris said...

Also from the critique of the gotha program:

"Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat."

Matt said...

A trivial point not related to the main one but this, I think, is just backwards: Some time later, God makes a covenant with Abraham, which He renews with Noah.

The main debate is, of course, old. Eduard Bernstein got drummed out of the International for arguing that piecemeal reform could work and was infact (before WWI), working. The mainstream Marxists at the time were not happy to hear this claim. Bernstein's book, _The Preconditions of Socialism_, however, is really very good and very unjustly ignored. There's excellent discussion of this in Sheri Berman's really very good book, _The Primacy of Politics_. I'd highly recommend it (and Bernstein's book.)

Magpie said...

I've read the essay carefully, and I think it raises important questions, although I didn't like Bruce Robbins' tone or the implied answers to those questions.

Experience has taught me something: when a writer attributes obviously absurd ideas to others, readers should ask for quotes. Regarding Badiou, Robbins offers none.

(Chris writes, above, that "I think the author of that article is erecting a strawman version of Badiou". Mind you, I can't tell from first-hand knowledge, but I suspect he may have a point).

As I see things, that article stretches the notion of "reformism". By reformism it was originally meant the notion that society could transform itself by stages, little by little, largely through trade union/parliamentary means. The idea was that better wages, improved working conditions, social security, equal voting rights, etc. would undermine capitalism and eventually lead to a transition to socialism.

When people speak of the Scandinavian countries as "socialists" this is what they have in mind.

In this sense, even Keynes could be said to have been a "reformist": he thought capitalism would eventually reach a stage where capital would be so abundant that it would only be rewarded for depreciation and "entrepreneurialism" (he loved the word entrepreneur). Profit (rents, in Keynes' "views") would disappear.

Not everybody was in favor of these ideas. Anarchists, for one, were (and largely remain, for what I can tell) radically opposed. Almost as opposed were most Marxists. The old Social Democrats (and Fabians, and Christian Socialists), however, enthusiastically embraced reformism in this original sense.

It didn't work, as the history of the last few decades shows.

Now, Balibar (and apparently Robbins) redefine reformism: not only he is ready to jettison the concept of proletariat, but also thinks that the Marxist left should change its focus, given that "the center of radical activity had moved away from working-class organizations and toward what came to be called the 'new social movements.' Problems of race, gender, and sexuality were generating the most self-conscious, committed, and consequential political subjects".

If those views prevail, then count me out. (So, Mr. Robbins and Prof. Balibar, take your Marxism and shove it).

Is not that I oppose those "new social movements", quite to the contrary: I honestly sympathise with them. It's that their demands can be met within capitalism: why should these "most self-conscious, committed, and consequential political subjects" want socialism?


I wish the essay had been shorter.

Chris said...

Amen Magpie :)

Chris said...

If you're interested in Badiou, I found this:

I think he's a pretty fascinating guy, and a true genius in philosophy. Few philosophers write tombs that are wholly unique. He has written a few.

Jerry Fresia said...

This is a great blog, not only in terms of content, but form as well. The aesthetic is palpable: the momentum created with Biblical analogies and the quote from "The Working Day" functioning as coda. A pleasure to read, digest, and reflect upon.

classtruggle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
classtruggle said...

Not a fan of either writer but my thesis tentatively entitled 'Labour Standards as Class Rights' (which is an argumentative piece about the rise of labour law at the national, international and global levels) addresses some of these issues. I am receiving help, of course, from two theoretical giants who have written a lot on the nature of social reforms -- Gary Teeple and Simon Clarke.

I had to delete my previous comment to add this point which is very important because it seems there is some confusion over the term reforms and reformism (see Rosa Luxembourg's 'Reform or Revolution' (1900)). The latter is a political philosophy that sees reform as the end goal of political/economic activity and that rejects radical critiques of the system itself.

Social reforms, in a word, are paradoxical. On the one hand, to dismiss them is to misunderstand their necessity. Without reforms, the working class (and the environment) would be exhausted long before a transition would be possible. So, reforms are necessary for the well being of the working classes and for society and nature in general, yet they are compromises that perpetuate the system, increase its legitimacy, mediate class conflict and conceal class contradictions. Hence their paradoxical nature and I think Marx certainly saw them this way.

By grasping only one side of the paradox, however, many writers on the left have been led to dismiss reforms as simply class compromise and nothing more. They overlook the possibility that capitalism without reforms might not even lead to a working class revolution and instead reduce the working class to poverty, destitution, etc. They also fail to see that reforms raise working class consciousness, lead to demands for more reforms, and even in some cases be legislated at the expense of capital.

They are arguments from the petty bourgeois revolutionary who thinks that WC suffering will hasten the revolution. The world is not so simple. Let those who make such arguments be the first to present themselves as examples. They seem to dream up these ideas at their summer cottages.

Also remember the Communist Manifesto laid out a series of working class demands which, although were very revolutionary in 1848, are of such a nature today that they seem commonsensical to workers. While Marx did not view these demands as implementable under capitalism, he thought in seeking to fulfill these demands, workers would eventually weaken the entire system. The revolutionary program, in other words, was intended not only to formulate proposals that would make sense to the working class but would lead them to undermine the system while struggling to obtain what appeared to be intelligent and reasonable proposals.

"Take note, all you secular theologians, for whom concern about minimum wage laws or occupational safety and health regulations are a cop-out, a gradualist sell-out. Karl Marx himself calls for the workers to organize and struggle for passage in England of a bill limiting the working day to ten hours."

Certainly Marx regarded the struggle over the length of the working day as the essential focus of WC struggle and the Factory Acts as a great advance in the condition of the working class. But a word of caution -- Marx’s emphasis all the time was on the growing strength of the organised working class as the key to the amelioration of working conditions, rather than on the legislation to which it might give rise, because the latter, as we have learned too well, can easily be reversed if the strength of the organised working class wanes (and, of course, relying on legislation tends to demobilise the working class, which is why trade unions have often been wary of legislative intervention).

Magpie said...

Thanks, Chris.

Chris said...

Classtruggle, I love your closing paragraph! Very succinct and well put.

Are you working under the Simon Clarke that wrote several Marx books? If so, I thought he was retired?

Magpie said...

Very good, classtruggle.

I am a bit reluctant to offer my ramblings to anybody, but for what it might be worth, I've written about unions and the UK Labour Party and the PSD (Germany), which may be of some modest interest

Social Democracy in The Communist Manifesto.

classtruggle said...

Dear Chris,
That's the one, Simon Clarke from Warwick.

He's still active and supervising dissertations at Warwick I believe (he's not on my committee though). Very nice guy.

Dear Magpie,
Much appreciated. I am promoting this one to the very top of my list!

Marx and the Trade Unions by Lozovsky and the section on the sale of labour-power and trade unions in Capital Volume One (in the Appendix p.1066 in Fowkes ed) are very good resources too.