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Monday, March 29, 2021


My Interpretation of the Thought of Karl Marx


Part Two: Language and the Mystification of Appearances


Because Plato believed that the world revealed by our senses is merely appearance, not fundamental reality, and because he was convinced that only a tiny few – Socrates and those who followed him – recognize this fact, he needed a form of language that could capture this complexity and his solution was to write in what has come to be called Socratic irony. To speak ironically is not to speak with a wry smile on your face or a look of condescension at those around you. It is to use language with a quite precise complex structure. Ironic discourse presupposes a speaker and two audiences. The first, or superficial, audience hears what it thinks the speaker is saying and assumes that it has understood. But it has in fact only understood the apparent meaning of the speaker’s utterance. The second, or real, audience hears both this superficial or apparent meaning and the real, deeper meaning. Furthermore, it knows that there is a superficial audience mistakingly construing the utterance and so, in effect, it shares a private joke with the speaker at the expense of the superficial audience. In the Socratic dialogues, when Socrates says to one of his interlocutors “I am ignorant and so I ask in the hope that you can enlighten me,” the superficial audience – a sophist like Gorgias – is flattered and imagines that it is being asked for wisdom. Meanwhile the real audience – presumably the little circle of the followers of Socrates – smile to themselves, recognizing that what Socrates is really saying is something like “I am ignorant of the sophistical speeches that you give to your paying audiences, and it is my intention by asking simple questions to expose your lack of understanding of that which you claim to know.” Sometimes, as in the lovely little dialogue Crito, there is a double irony. Neither Crito, who has come to get Socrates out of prison, or the circle of Socrates’ disciples, understands the real pathos of the situation, which is that at the moment of his death Socrates must recognize that he has failed in his effort to educate his followers. So there is a third audience, consisting of the readers of the dialogue, to whom Plato is really speaking.


Because this is so important to my interpretation of Capital, let me give a second somewhat facetious but very clear example. It is actually an example I used in the first edition of my textbook, About Philosophy, but the editors got nervous and had me produce an alternative example in subsequent editions. Here it is.


A young man is having a passionate affair with a young lady who has been brought up in a very proper religious family. One evening he comes to call and take her out, claiming that they will be going to a church social. As they are leaving, the mother says to the daughter “be home by 10 o’clock and be a good girl.” The couple leave but instead of going to the church social they go to the young man’s apartment where they make love. The young man brings the young lady home promptly just before 10 and they find the mother waiting for her in the living room. “Were you a good girl?” she asks. The young man replies, “oh yes, she was good. She was very good.” The young woman smiles demurely.


What does all of this have to do with Marx? The answer is this. The great writers of the Enlightenment viewed the Middle Ages as a benighted time of mystery and miracle and obfuscation. The great English economist Joan Robinson quoted Voltaire as observing that you could kill a flock of sheep with magic so long as you also fed them arsenic. The goal of the Enlightenment was to dispel the clouds of mystification, to rid themselves of the mystery and tyranny of the church and the throne and to portray the world as it truly is, freed of all traces of the Catholic Church and the Divine right of Kings.


As a young man Marx accepted this enlightenment view of the world of capitalism. He described capitalism in the Communist Manifesto as having destroyed all the illusions of the feudal era. In one of the many famous passages from the Manifesto he writes “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.”


But the failures of the revolutionary uprisings taking place across Europe as he was writing these words forced Marx fundamentally to change his conception of the way in which capitalism presented itself to the world. Eventually he concluded that capitalism was even more mystified than feudalism ever had been. Indeed, like the Devil, whose greatest illusion, it was said, was to persuade human beings that he did not exist, capitalism had accomplished the ultimate mystification – it presented itself as completely without mystery, hence without any need to be demystified. If I may borrow a term from my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, capitalism accomplished the ultimate deception of presenting itself as one – dimensional.


Once Marx arrived at this complex conclusion he faced an extraordinary literary problem, more difficult to solve even than the problem confronting Plato. Marx had to find a way of presenting capitalism to his readers that made it on the page as mysterious as he – but not they – recognized that it was in reality. He had to force his readers to realize that they were confused when they thought they saw clearly, so that then he could dispel the mystifications and show them the reality of capitalism. And he had to do this while remaining true to the nature of capitalism, describing it in however mysterious a fashion correctly, so that when the reader, finally disabused of his or her confusions, went back and looked again at those early chapters it would be clear that everything Marx had written was precisely true and correct.


Those of you who have actually read the opening chapters of Capital will, I think, readily agree that it is absolutely nothing like any work of classical or indeed of modern economics that you have ever encountered. This is not at all a dissenting view of the work. Indeed, that most refined of all French Marxists, Louis Althusser, actually recommended that students skip the first chapter and come back to it only after they have read the rest of the book – not a wise suggestion but one that acknowledges the utterly bizarre nature of the language in it and the several chapters thereafter. Indeed, in the English-speaking world, readers puzzled and offended by those early chapters offered what I like to refer to as the childhood polio explanation. According to this view, very popular in Cambridge England for example, Marx as a young university student contracted a nearly fatal case of the Hegelism that was raging pandemically across the University campuses of 19th century Germany. The disease nearly killed Marx, according to this theory, and though he survived, he was intellectually crippled by the encounter, so that it was simply unkind to expect him to make his way gracefully from the premises to the conclusion of an argument like Michael Jackson moonwalking across the stage or Fred Astaire tip-tapping his way up a flight of stairs. The short version of this explanation was simply that Marx was German and therefore could not be expected to write like an Englishman.


Fortunately, we know this explanation to be false. How so?


Well, in 1865 when Marx had essentially completed writing volume one and was endlessly fussing with it to the great exasperation of Engels, he attended a meeting of the First International at which a workingman, John Weston, delivered a speech in which he argued on the grounds of David Ricardo’s economic theories that there was no point in the worker striking for higher wages because the result would simply be a rise in the price of the food and necessaries that they bought so that they would be no better off. Marx, who was a member of the governing Council, decided to respond and being Marx he wrote a response so long that it took him two meetings to deliver it. Marx wrote the response in English, he delivered it in English, and eventually it was published in English as a little pamphlet called Value, Price, and Profit.  If you take the trouble to read this little pamphlet you will find that it is written in language fully as clear and transparent as that of Ricardo’s great work, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Indeed, save for the difference in the theories being put forward, much of it could have come directly from Ricardo’s Principles.


So Marx could write like Ricardo despite having started his intellectual life in thrall to Hegel but he chose not to. Why? Tomorrow I shall begin to answer that question with a trip to a supermarket. 


Anonymous said...

Have you not said all this before, several time, on this blog? Should we consider this just a replay of an old song?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Some of this I have said before, some I have not, as you will see. I only have several songs. One is a completely new interpretation of the critique of pure reason, never seen before I wrote. The second is a completely new interpretation of volume 1 of capital, also never seen before I wrote. Sing along with me if you can.

s. wallerstein said...

I've been following this blog since 2015 and while I've read similar thoughts from Professor Wolff, I've never seen him develop the theory of Marx's irony so thoroughly.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Junior year I started into the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and then went to my advisor to ask what else I should read of Marx and also the secondary literature. I got some excellent advice - he said to start at the beginning, as I had, and work my way through. As to the issue of secondary literature he said to not pay much attention to it until I felt I understood Marx.

It was’t until a couple of decades after Marx’s death that the ‘Manuscripts became available. That meant that Marxists had developed their theories of ‘scientific socialism’, etc. without an awareness of the totality of Marx’s work. The Manuscripts challenged Marxist orthodoxy, and the easy way to deal with it was to say the young Marx had been unnecessarily burdened by Hegelianism which he later overcame and become appropriately scientific. Georg Lukas and Karl Korsch mounted a very effective assault on the scientific socialism of the Communist Party when they published History and Class Consciousness and Marxism and Philosophy respectively.

I had the great good fortune to arrive at UMASS for the Fall ’77 semester and I immediately signed up for Dr Wolff’s Seminar on Marx, Freud and Mannheim (with some trepidation, I might add), However, I was surprised - more like gobsmacked - to learn that there was a flowering of Althusserian thought in the Econ. Dep’t. The “young Marx-old Marx” controversy was Ike some apparition that could not be killed.

So I am guessing that when Dr. Wolff refers to Louis Althusser as “the most refined of French Marxists” he, despite the apparent compliment, is really being wryly ironic? On a serious note, Dr. Wolff’s melding of ironic discourse with the appearance /reality distinction and explaining Marx and the structure of Das Kapital in this framework is his most important contribution to the understanding of Karl Marx’s thought. And, frankly, his use of comedy to demonstrate dual levels of meaning is brilliant. I’ve stolen that routine a number of times.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, thank you very much for the puff. I was indeed being wryly ironic about Althusser. I had something of a set to in one of Richard Wolff's classes over the misuse of the term "over determination" but when it was clear that I was simply being disruptive I bowed out and left him and Steve Resnick to their thing. I loved Steve and Rick but my heart really belonged to Sam and Herb. Those were the days when one had to choose which group of Marxists in the economics department to side with! What a luxury it was.

Anonymous said...

Should I read the footnotes? Won't this contaminate my thoughts? I read them to understand more, as a crutch, if you will.

marcel proust said...

This strikes me (in a good way) as very reminiscent of a book I last read at least 15 years ago, >Moneybags Must Be So Lucky by (checks notes) Robert Paul Wolff. Is there, will there be more (or other) here than there?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Marcel Proust, yes.

chrismealy said...

"Have you not said all this before, several time, on this blog? Should we consider this just a replay of an old song?"

Some of us need to hear a song more than once to learn it!

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