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NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Sunday, February 16, 2020

PREPARING TO TEACH


The theoretical and literary turning point of Volume I of Capital is the last page of Chapter VI, “The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power.”  In that passage, the clouds lift, the mystification dissipates, and the representation of capitalism as a sunlit “Eden of the innate rights of man {where} rule Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham” is replaced by the stark brutality of the “dark, satanic mills” [to borrow a famous phrase from William Blake.]

This passage is a brilliant inversion of the oldest and greatest representation in Western thought of the philosophical distinction between Appearance and Reality, The Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic.  It seems undeniable to me that Marx, steeped in the literature of classical Greece, intended this stunning trope.

When I teach Marx at Columbia, I can assume that the students have read the Allegory, for they have all taken Columbia’s century old General Education primer, CC [for Contemporary Civilization], in which the Republic is assigned.  But I cannot make the same assumption at UNC, so as I was getting up this morning, even before I had had a cup of Nespresso decaf, I decided to read aloud the Allegory of the Cave when I reach that point in my lecture tomorrow.

One of the most delicious passages in the Allegory is this, in which Socrates is speaking of the individual who has freed himself from the chains and has seen Reality outside the cave:  “And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power?”

I like to compare the winners of those “honors, praises, or prizes” to neo-classical economists who have won the Nobel Prize in Economics and “our man” to Marx.

Tomorrow should be fun.

12 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

As far as I remember (and my memory is far from perfect), we read Plato's Republic in our freshman obligatory course on Humanities (which covered Greek literature and philosophy) rather than in CC.

Your class tomorrow looks fascinating. I hope that all goes well.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You may be right that it is read in Lit Hum rather than CC

LFC said...

Having watched RPW's lectures on Marx on YouTube, this lecture, on the end of Ch. 6 of Capital, is the one I remember best; even though I'd read Capital v. 1 in college, this interpretation (the contrast/comparison w the allegory of the Cave) was new to me and v. illuminating.

Charles Young said...

FWIW, YouTube has an animated version of the cave sequence from the Republic, narrated by Orson Welles: https://youtu.be/QFi8JUIwu2s. It ain’t RPW, but it ain’t bad,

s. wallerstein said...

Off topic, but the BBC has Bernie as the front-runner to face Trump.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51507205

(I've followed the BBC for many years ever since I read that Tito, while resisting the Nazis in Yugoslavia, listened to the BBC, not Radio Moscow. I like and admire Tito, as is fairly obviously.)

R McD said...

I usually find myself in agreement with s.w., but

Since Tito and his partisans were, I believe, getting more military aid from Britain than from the USSR, and since the BBC was, again I believe, broadcasting coded messages to various anti-Nazi organizations during WW Two, it doesn’t surprise me that Tito may have been listening to London rather than Moscow.

It should also be noted that today’s BBC isn’t what it was in times past—maybe it never was what so many believe it was and is. Just note that for the longest time, long after WW Two, an MI 5 representative was there full time in Broadcasting House censoring its output. More recently, see all the criticisms directed against the BBC in relation to its biassed reprting during the most recent British General Election.

Michael Llenos said...

Galileo believed the Earth orbited the sun. He had to give up this belief so he could continue successfully in life. Probably a classic case of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. But being a firm believer in Einstein's Relativity, I believe the Earth can still be considered the center of the universe as well...

s. wallerstein said...

RMcD,

That was smart of Tito to ally himself with the British instead of trusting blindly in Stalin, as other Communist leaders did.

As to the BBC, I also confess to being a fan of In Our Time. If I have to opt between the BBC and the New York Times, I'll go for the BBC.

R McD said...

I'm not sure, s.w., it was all that smart to rely more on the British than the Soviets. Gabriel Kolko's book, "The Politics of War," leaves one wondering whether it was smart to rely much on any of the combatants in WW Two.

s. wallerstein said...

I haven't read the book, but I say that it was smarter to rely on the British because the British, for their own non-noble reasons, were willing to accept a rebel and independent communist, while the Soviets during the Stalin era were not.

Danny said...

Of course you have encountered this point before, actually you have encountered it on this blog from me before, but opponents of Marxist economics argue that the labor theory of value is disproven asthe quantities of goods employed in the production of a good have neither a necessary nor a directly determining influence on its value.

I have encountered the retort that if there is an argument debunking Marx’s labor theory of value then this might seem a minor point in the grand scheme of things -- the grand scheme of things being that Marx maybe nodded once or twice but not on essentials. But supposing that this *is* essential, I would at least not pretend that there is no such thing as mainstream economics 101. In other words, just so we don't miss my point, Marxism is crackpot gobbledygook.

P.S. While we are at it, I don't understand how Marxists can be insisting that employers are “stealing” part of their labor, if they are out to eliminate private property and bourgeois morality anyways?

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