Fritz Poebel comments:
“The world—or the microcosm of it here—awaits your exegesis of the Book
of Genesis, chapter 3 verses 16 – 19. So what is God telling us there about
work--and workers and their bosses?”
Let us begin with the words of Genesis themselves:
16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy
sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy
desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto
the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee,
saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow
shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee;
and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou
return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and
unto dust shalt thou return.”
This is the seminal moment in the human story, according to
the Judeo-Christian tradition. God has created Adam and Eve and placed them in
the garden, commanding them only that they shall not eat of the fruit of the
tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But Adam and Eve disobey God, so he
drives them from Eden and lays upon them a curse. This curse becomes the
universal human condition, for each of us inherits Adam’s original sin. What is
For woman, labor is the pain of childbirth; for man, it is
the work required to get our bread.
For six thousand years, labor is understood as a curse.
Labor is done by the lowly, by the slaves, by the peasants, by the serfs. The
high born, the nobility, do not labor.
Notice that it is not activity that is a curse, but labor.
Both in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the Greco-Roman tradition,
activity is a blessing, a sign of divinity. God is conceived as pure activity,
and the men meeting together in the public spaces to determine their collective
will are manifesting their godlike nature by their activity. To be sure, monks
and nuns labor in the fields but they do so as penance for their original sin,
not as a fulfillment of their divine nature.
In a brilliant tour de force, Karl Marx takes this ancient
and universal view of labor as a curse and transforms it. He seizes upon the
Romantic understanding of artistic creativity as a self externalization, as a
making actual of that which begins as an idea in the mind. The painter, the
sculptor, the composer, the poet begins with an idea in mind which he or she
then makes actual in the work of art. This act of creation is the fulfillment
of the artist, the realization of his or her inner essence.
Marx changes this understanding of artistic creativity in
two fundamental ways: First, he says that all men and women by virtue of their
humanity have the capacity for this process of self externalization. It is not
just the artistic genius in his or her garret but the farmer in the field, the
weaver spinning flax into thread and weaving it into cloth, the carpenter
carving wood into furniture, the potter shaping vases from clay, who engages in
an act of creative self externalization; and Second, Marx says, men and women
engage in this activity of creative self externalization not as isolated
individuals but collectively, through the division of labor and its
reintegration into the productive process.
Indeed, this act of collective and purposive transformation
of nature is what makes us human, for, as he writes in The German Ideology the following year:
“Men can be
distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you
like. They themselves begin to
distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a
step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men
are indirectly producing their actual material life.”
Alas, under capitalism this natural fulfillment of our human
nature is distorted and corrupted, and it is that distortion and corruption
about which Marx writes in the essay on alienated labor.
That is where I began my lecture two days ago.