Draft Notes 1.1
[rough word hoard from lecture – not for forwarding – as it really needs editing]
How to start reading that rich book that is Marx’s Capital of which an immense, even monstrous, accumulation of commentary on the Marxist mode of literary production appears to have already shaped its elementary forms?
A great many declarations of the relevance of Marx, asserted again for a long time and now more than ever, are available on the shelves. Bookstores are not quite but almost awash with explanations of why it is that, since Capital is global, Marx too has his global moment (again – ‘workers of the world unite’). Nor are we lacking in texts that explain how twenty years ago the eclipse of sausage-and-three-veg versions of socialism, the renunciation of Stalinism and really existing communism, the decline of bureaucratic left or the orthodox Leninist Party etc., means Marx, and Communism, can at last be freed of its bad reputation (as said by Guattari and Negri, but see also everyone from Jean-Luc Nancy to Slavoj Žižek and back again). I wish it were possible not to take sides, but these texts influence readings – so at least we can agree with Daniel Bensaïd that ‘we no longer have the excuse of his [Marx’s] capture by the bureaucracy and confiscation by the state to duck the responsibility of rereading and reinterpreting’ (Bensaïd 2002:xi).
There are dozens of commentaries and guides and introductions and prefaces on Marx and Marxism. Indeed the history of Marxism is an instructive lesson in how reading is multiple and contested. A fratricidal spectacle even. The Marxism-Leninism of the Bolsheviks, the varieties of Stalinism, Council communism, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, the Maoists, the Surrealists, Bataille, Adorno, Heidegger even, of course the well meaning existentialists, Sartre, the eurocommunists and autonomes, in a certain sense Foucault, and, with flying vaginas and speeding penises our favourite two-headed beast Deleuze-Guattari (a strange echo of the Marx-Engels head-birth, repeated again as farce as Hardt-Negri, then as Badiou- Žižek – and I think by now I’ve heard all the jokes about Badizek, Zizzidou) including a call to a return to reading Marx by Jacques Derrida in the 1990s – ‘when was it time to have ever left off’, said Spivak. After that implosion of communism in Eastern Europe, all manner of declarations that Marx was relevant again, rereleases of the Manifesto on the 150th anniversary, and recently, Harvey’s lectures on Capital – which reorders the book, and Jameson’s very good volume as well as Eagletone’s somewhat annoying, but pint-sized and so welcome response to the ten worst objections – if you think somehow Marx is too ancient to be relevant to contemporary capital, that its good in theory but impracticable and will lead to totalitarianism, has a deterministic view of history, is too economistic, too dry, that the working class is over, or that violent revolution will only bring in a bloodthirsty absolutist state (or that this might be a bad thing) and that Marx has nothing to say to those of ‘us’ moderns, or postmoderns, who are committed to feminism, anti-racism, postcolonialism, environmentalism, gay rights, animal rights, ethnicity, individualism, transindividualism, grass roots collectivism, peace love and all – and assuming you can endure some of the wooden prose and somewhat tedious jokes – then Eagleton’s book is worth downloading from Pirate Bay (he certainly earns sufficient for us not to need to contribute royalties in every case). See also Michael Lebowitz’s Following Marx, and Peter Osborne offers How to Read Marx and Continuum gives us Marx for the Perplexed. More and more texts to read on how to read Marx. It is as if we can never be done with prefaces, never get to actually read Marx, instead to read about reading Marx. Even Žižek, who has voluminous introductions to reissues of the writings of Mao and an excellent volume of essays by Lenin, would seem rather have us read Lacan instead of Marx, or perhaps just Badiou. When Žižek does cite Marx, it seems as if its by memory – he gets the opening line wrong, as we shall see. Jacques Derrida spends a lot of time talking about how to start. We will spend much of the second week discussing his feints and whispered asides to a certain spirit that haunts all reading of Marx. The ontological status of a preface is nothing to be taken lightly, pace Hamlet, as again we will see. But let’s learn at least one thing – we would do well to open the pages up and actually read Marx, instead of all these others.
This is not to say the assembled prefaces are not useful or that they do not teach us many things. For sure they do – they are a growing record of really important and relevant struggles, it is the history and record of Marxism. Why would there be so many intros, prefaces and afterwords to the start of Capital if we were not supposed to be forewarned of certain difficulties- specifically of Hegelian coquettery, dangers of misreading, and the mechanics of abstraction. This deserves close attention, but so also does the words of Marx, and Engels.
Of course Engels also tampers with the text, but by now we know there is no originary text. We cannot read the text exactly as Marx intended.
The context has changed – Like Borges’ Pierre Menard rewriting Don Quixote 200 years after Cervantes but in totally new and profound circumstances, we can imagine a different contemporary context for Das Kapital. You will see Marx refer to shifts of emphasis and plan in Kapital several times, as of course does everyone.
Of course we should, and cannot not, read Marx for our own times. If there is some correspondence between theory and circumstance (economy and thinking, ideas and context, extension and interiority) we must also recognise we try to work out this relation with difficulty because we are already on the way. At least, now, with some hindsight, we can see how we invent a new Marx for our times each decade or so – 1960s Althusserian, which has shaped French thinking ever since; 1970s structuralist; 1980s the rise of autonomist interpretations and a Trotskyite revision, which has harmed English Marxism ever since;1990s and after, Derrida its spectral and naive abstract globalism; 2000s a techno-machine/immaterial/affective care and fear (of terror) – and in the 2010’s it may well be apocalypse, end-times, revolutionary possibilities and ‘interregnum bursting asunder’ and the consequences of austerity and crisis – plus the coming war with China.
The course will offer us a chance to think about the importance of banks for Capital (credit as a force in production), the significance of Education and training, of race and white supremacy as a context for the so-called primitive accumulation (property) and wage labour trade union struggles (of which Marx was critical), as well as how to do research, research materials, class composition and recomposition of capital, time, technology and tactics… I am not sure we can finally decide, in the last instance, which Marx is for our times, but some attention to the way we read and why is a good place to start.
An open reading of Capital can be very important for cultural studies no matter what the time, but also at this time. Open reading requires opening the book, not reliant upon the ‘patina of speculation’ and rumour that surrounds it. Of course we must also read with a view to the dangers of that reading, and the way we too will read Marx through a prism that can become a prison. Suffice to say there is no guarantee that a new kind of quarantine and detention will be in store for Marx given renewed popularity. The primers and guides abound – the danger is that a clerical police countenance, having sought and found the correct attitude and which brave face to put up for the teaching and direction of Marx, may mean we soon suffer from too much instruction.
To which I can only add an attempt to trip up the security guards and try to smuggle in several counterfeit or contraband versions of the text for your edification. Read through the prism bars as an escapade in radical thinking, reading Marx promiscuously, without apology. You need no qualification to read, beyond literacy and a copy of the text, and, the damndest thing of all, a desire to question everything.
We need to prepare to read this book. This cannot be a clean slate, but we can try to trick ourselves into something like that. Hence the trick of a dead poets society moment where it would be possible, and even plausible, to insist on channelling Robin Williams and rip out spurious introductions, for example that of the Secretary of the Fourth International, Trotskyite Ernest Mandel, in the Penguin Edition. Although we should never trust a Trot, there is not much to be gained from this merely theatrical gesture. This is not to say the SWP are not annoying, patronizing, parachuting in on campaigns, etc, but just to suggest this is rather to remind us that all introductions are framing, and we should ask where they are coming from. This includes anything I can say.
For all the interest in Marx, in the past and renewed today, it is at least worth attempting at first to read anew. Yet this vast accumulation of commentary stands before us.
I will offer you my reading, and read with you. Of course perspectival, and sometimes naïvely so. In reading Capital, if anything about beginnings should be considered necessary, it might be good just to start with what is immediately at hand. There are too many prefaces, No ‘one’ book. Even the authorship is a problem, except perhaps for Capital, the major theoretical text that the author Marx released into the world.
There is much discussion and theory about this, and its probably naïve to simply say that materialism might start with things themselves, but why not start with the objects, commodities, souvenirs or detritus of our lives? There surely is enough stuff of which to take account in our contemporary world. Plenty of junk. Marx himself has much to say on waste and shit, that which is slurred off in the process of production gets incorporated again, not just recycling, but a number of circuits – in volume three of Capital this becomes crucial (see http://hutnyk.blogspot.com/2007/05/theory-of-shit.html)
But we are not at volume three as yet, by any means, though it is a key to the beginning of volume one, where Marx starts with an immense or monstrous collection or accumulation of commodities, it is also crucial that materialism as material-ism would have to take account of all this stuff from the perspective of the whole, of totality (Lukacs). This will never be easy or straightforward – an impossible accounting, which must nevertheless be our aim. The collection too is not that of a collector, but the monstrous accumulation of capitalist society. Though even if documentation of all this stuff is forever incomplete, and that in all the varied and multiple efforts, interpretations are, or should be, always contested, to do so still betrays a totalizing ambition. We might also call this a reckoning to come. And perhaps still the collection is messianic, the collector divine (Benjamin).
But that is to get ahead of things a little, the task here is to start to read a text, and then to relate it to our present conjuncture.
There are many possible starts
There are many versions of Marx, and of Capital, and it would be easy but false to say each reader reads anew, and this false-easy is most wrong if it goes on to hope that each reader can fashion their own reading and their own Marx. But how can we think that the vast apparatus surrounding this book – translations, versions, commentaries, pronouncements, parties, revolutions, trials, tributes, reaffirmations, libraries, academia, bookshops, footnotes, conferences, course guides – so as to do just that? And can we recover this book from all that? Of course not, and yet.
Acknowledge that there is no start that has not already started. We come to the book already opened, even before turning a page.
The dedication, for example, of Volume One is to Wilhelm Wolff, co-founder of the League of Communist, an editor of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and benefactor of Marx. The dedication reads ‘to my unforgettable friend, intrepid, faithful, noble protagonist of the proletariat, born in Tarnau on June 21 1809, died in exile in Manchester on May 9, 1864’ (Marx 1867/1967: preface). Note here the mention of exile and of Manchester – already significant code words in the Marxist lexicon. In a reminiscence Engels wrote of his later years: ‘For several years Wolff was the only comrade I had in Manchester with the same views as myself; no wonder that we met almost daily and that I then again had more than ample opportunity of admiring his almost instinctively correct assessment of current events’ (Engels 1876).
Was Marx writing for Wolff, and old comrade from the German revolution of 1848? Marx has earlier times in mind. The Preface to the first edition – this is a Preface by Marx – tells us this is a continuation of a text from eight years before – Critique of Political Economy. This text is summarized, in part – some thing consigned to later volumes – in chapter one and ‘The Presentation is improved’. The presentation is improved with French and German readers in mind. Marx then reminds us that ‘Beginnings are always difficult’ (penguin p89, Deutsch p11). Well, the value form is simple, but for 2000 years nutting it out has been a task. Some claim this! Then some comments on microscopes and abstraction – which will be important later – before we here another comment directed to us. Marx writes: ‘I assume, of course, a reader who is wiling to learn something new and therefore think for themselves’ (Marx 1867:12, penguin p90)
After this, some varied comments – Medusa’s head… factory inspectors … child labour … magic and monsters, plus a hero with a cap pulled down over his eyes (or are they ours). Various literary allusions – we can read Kapital as literature, or even as high opera.
And the protagonists – the capitalist class who has an interest in the development (and exploitation) of the working class – since a developed working class best develops the productive forces – think this dialectically, a model of critique that comes from, yet inverts, reverts, the great Hegel. Marx coquettes with Hegel and distinguishes between method of presentation and method of analysis. This to is important and we should keep it n mind when we as why Marx starts as he does. Why with The Commodity, or rather, in German Die Ware – commodities.
When Marx says collection – in the first sentence – he does not mean someone who collects, but perhaps something like the accumulated display of the Great Exposition.
So not Kane – though something like Kane as ‘personification of the economic category is very much on the cards.
Marx himself was born in 1818, died 1883. A German-Jew in a family converted to Christianity. Student in Bonn and Berlin, met Friedrich Engels in 1844, from which his first important works date, together they wrote The German Ideology, a critique of right Hegelians, and The Communist Manifesto. We all know this.
Manifesto – this was written over the winter of 47-48 for the International Workingmen’s Association. First drafted on the train from Manchester to London, then finished in a frenzy of work by Marx in Brussels in January 48. It influence astonishing, global, relevant still, etc.
Everyone can quote from it: from its first words: ‘Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa’ (1848/1970:41) – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe’, to its last words ‘Mögen die herrschenden Klassen vor iner kommunistischen Revolution zittern. Die Proletarier haben nichts in ihr zu verlieren als ihr Ketten. Sie haben eine Welt zu gewinnen. Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch’ (1848/1970:82-3) – ‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite’.
Perhaps most important for us as students is the passage on how the capitalist system forces the bourgeoisie to expand everywhere, to try to extend its mode of production to all lands, to recruit and co-opt all peoples, increasingly, through advances in means of production, communication and coercion, to draw all peoples and all lands into industrial production. Hence colonialism, imperialism, transition…
The Manifesto was written just as Europe launched into a period of revolutionary turmoil. Marx was himself an activist, expelled from Brussels and Germany for political reasons, exiled in Paris then London. He was, apparently, a rebel rousing type, turning up to demos and meetings not always sober, but able, in repartee, to make mince meat of any other ideologues. The printing of the Manifesto in April 1848 preceeded a revolutionary upsurge in Germany by a matter of weeks. Marx moved to Cologne with other revolutionaries from the Communist League entering Germany carrying 1000 copies of the Manifesto, and a list of 17 Demands of the Communist Party in Germany that Marx had paid to have printed – the demands included a State Bank, Nationalisation of the Railways, progressive taxation, Free education and confiscation of the lands of the princes (McLelland 2006:181). Marx published an increasingly agitational newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, organized meetings, considered running as a candidate, increased activity among factory workers and peasants, raised funds for the cause, met with Bakunin in Berlin, gave lectures to the Workers Association (‘Wage Labor and Capital’) and, with the Prussian State facing down uprisings in Frankfurt, Vienna, and later the Ruhr, Baden and Dresden (where a young Richard Wagner was behind the barricades), radical publications banned, Marx dragged to court on libel charges (acquitted after 300 plus supporters that had come with him, and he had delivered an impressive speech), confrontations with the army, Marx was arrested and expelled. The last issue of the paper printed in red. The revolutionary period of 1848-9, did not deliver freedom. It might be possible to gloss this as meaning Marx’s hope for the situation was disappointed and he thus (re)turned to the library. His whole career seems to move between these two poles – although henever gave up activism – he also was keen to seek an explanation. Writing the 18th Brumaire as an analysis of the struggles in France. His work on economics that begins what would be Capital is taken up some several years later in the context of another crisis. Throughout the 1950s Marx writes often on Colonialism and India, and in 1857 the crisis of capitalism provides him with crucial material for the Grundrisse (see letters on capital for Engels discussion with him including reports from the factory management office of Ermine, Engels and Co). Following Spivak, I want to stress this pattern – the Manifesto, and his other works, including the most theoretical, are written in the context of actual political events – of the type I’ve been emphasising…
Marx’s most important work, published in his 49th year, is Das Kapital, first appeared in 1867. This is so whether you go by his own assessment, evidenced by his allocation of so many years to its writing, or the uses made of the host of Marxists which follow his work in a multiplicity of ways.
Crucial is that Marx writes volume one of Capital as the first part of six projected volumes, that did not appear. Volume one is about the dynamics of simple reproduction of Capital. It will not be an analysis of how things are and it is not a blueprint for action, however much the old 11th thesis excuses all to stupid lurches into adventures. Marx expected his readers to read, and we owe him at least that.
Marx, of course its now boring to even tell this, was the first to announce that he was not a Marxist. The various interpretations and reinterpretations offer good reason for thinking there was never just one Marxism. Interpretation becomes key, much of it done by scholars in sociology, economics, cultural studies, and by some anthropologists, but also done in practical politics and the sometimes violent scene of really existing Marxisms ranged across the globe throughout the previous century.
We will start with Das Kapital, but any introduction to this book is a misconstrual. So often, like perhaps Don Quixote, or the Bible, only the first chapter is read. To read just the section on commodities, even as this is the key to the whole, would be only to begin and thus to misrepresent. Das Kapital though is a fat book.
Various examples and evidence might be offered for this argument. Best of all I think is Felton C. Shortall’s book The Incomplete Marx (1994) which tracks the various et in advance closures of Marx’s various plans for Capital and where you can read of planned but not completed volumes on the state and on foreign trade. Another example, that does not require us to leave volume one, is the notice that Ben Fine and Laurence Harris make that when Marx talks of exchange it is ‘only present to the extent that is necessary for the existence of specifically capitalist production’, and the exchange of commodities amongst the capitalist class themselves is not considered until volume two and more fully in volume three (Fine and Harris 1979:16). Of course any careful reader knows that Marx had already said as much, though the extent to which this has passed people by, especially in English translation, or perhaps I should say paraphrase, is astonishing.
Are we even reading Marx? The first chapter that we read is actually the rewritten version of 1873. Marx was already revising Marxism six years after publication.
Before examining what is changed in the rewriting, and why, it might be worth thinking about rewriting as a mode of work. Marx was always revising – Manifesto, German Ideology, Grundrisse and Capital (volumes 123456). There is also the issue of the mode of preservation versus the analysis – these two construed sometimes as different, but not separate, moments of the writing.
The version we read is not the one of 1867 (acknowledged year of publication).
Engels preface to the English edition noted that he – Engels – had made changes according to notes Marx had left ‘indicating the passages of the second edition [in German] to be replaced by designated passages from the French text published in 1873 (Engels, preface 1886 Lawrence and Wishhart edition 1970:4). A footnote indicates that ‘the latter part of the book … contains considerable alterations in and additions to the text’ (Engels 1886/1970:fn4).
We can speculate as to why the text of Capital was rewritten when it was. In 1872 Marx agreed to a serialised publication of Capital, a year after the Paris Commune, revising substantially. In English we do not get all of this, despite Engels efforts after Marx’s death. What did he change in that first rewrite? Anderson says the ‘omitted or alternate texts cover the subjects of the role of private property in capitalism, alienation and unskilled factory work, capitalist crises, unemployment, and imperialism’ (Anderson 1983:71) but in the absence of a suitable English comparative text, this remains difficult to judge. Certainly, the analysis of commodities as enhanced, and there are changes not only to the latter sections, but important passages in chapter one were added. (Pages xxx to xxx).
In 1998 Anderson gave a summary indication of where the MEGA publication of Capital was then up to, with plans, and funding, to continue:
Series II. Marx’s Major Economic Writings. Of 15 volumes now planned, 10 have been published. Significantly, what has already been published includes all the editions of Vol. I of Capital which either Marx or Engels prepared for publication. Especially important here is Vol. II/10, a reprint of Engels’ 1890 fourth German edition, but with an important addition, an appendix which gathers together 60 pages of text, much of it very significant, from Marx’s 1872-75 French edition of Vol. I. This material was not included by Engels in Vol. I, and has yet to appear in standard German or English editions of Vol. I. (Anderson 1998: http://www.kevin-anderson.com/wp-content/uploads/docs/anderson-article-uncovering-marx.pdf)
This MEGA Vol II/10 appendix is unavailable in English. In the French, and in part incorporated into the German 4th edition and the extant English edition, it is still possible to see more clearly that the argument proceeds by abstraction, by abstracting the kernel of a wider and more complicated system and showing the workings of the unreal scene of exchange, and then increasingly in chapter and chapter, widening the analysis, adding ethnographic examples and heading towards the – never completed – comprehensive understanding of capitalism as a global system.
Althusser in Reading ‘Capital’ starts with a declaration that we should read Capital letter by letter, line by line, but he also will have us skipping section one until we have read the rest all the way through at least once (Althusser). The issue here is not just to begin, but to ‘begin to understand’ (http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpalthusser11.htm). One year I may suggest we begin from the end, with the sections on history, since Marx says he wrote this section first (Letter to Shott, November 3 1877, Letters on Capital p188). Elsewhere Marx advises Kugelmann to tell his wife to start with the chapter on the Working Day (November 30 1867, Letters on Capital p120). There are many options. And disputes over where to begin, you will be surprised to know, sometimes quite spiteful. Ranciere reacts to Althusser’s reading – the line by line comment – by saying that to read like that ‘we must first be assured that there indeed exists a book, Capital, that Marx wrote’ (Ranciere 2004:131) Althusser ‘in fact produces and extraordinary theatricalization of the text’ of Capital, (Ranciere 2004:141). Why is this a surprise.
What do we want to do? – probably we want by now to begin to read Capital. But already we have moved far too fast – an understanding of capital as global system is more than we could hope for. Marx offers several warnings before we read:
In his preface, he writes that he will ‘pre-suppose, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for themselves’ (Marx 1867/1970:8, gendered language modified). The implied reader is something to which we might also aspire, since thinking for yourself and learning something new are the criteria for thinking and learning anything at all – as Foucault also wrote, the question of whether it is possible to think differently is the only reason for continuing to think at all.
What are we to think about: Capital as system, but starting with commodity. There are no people at the start. Marx warns ‘individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personification of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests’ (Marx 1867/1970:10). But Capital is a social system – the commodity in this use is a social form. The code word that indicates this in the very first sentence, which will be looked at more carefully below, is ‘society’. Margaret Thatcher famously said there was ‘no such thing as society’. I can assure you, she was certainly not a Marxist.
In the preface to Capital, Marx writes: ‘Of course the method of presentation must differ from that of inquiry’ and ‘my dialectical method is not only different from the Hegelian, but its direct opposite’ (Marx 1867/1970:19). I am not going to enter the swamps of spinning Hegels on this occasion (see Tom Bunyard’s forthcoming book from his PhD, Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths), but the question of method, presentation and dialectics is relevant to how we read. So, to stress this – the procedure is dialectical. Yet, not exactly the same as Hegel’s ‘mystified dialectic’, (it is always more complicated than thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis etc). Nicole Pepperell has prepared a useful primer to many of the various feints and staged voices in chapter one (See The Devils Party, essay one – Pepperell 2009) but it might be possible to gloss that set of hesitations in a more progressive way – Marx offers a procedure that allows a stitching back and forth between complex examples and accumulating understanding.
Capital – we need to read this in several ways, as a dialectical versioning of Marx’s thinking and this first sentence announces the basic premise of critical Hegelian dialectics – that is, a Hegel stood back on his head by Marx after Feuerbach turned him upside down (this will have to be explained). We can read this sentence with the help of Adorno, for example as a critical Hegelianism that rails against identity. The work of showing that appearances of identity are non-identical. Capital is not an immense collection of commodities. Nor is it exchange, property, circulation, credit or labour. We will also read this sentence according to our time, but of course cannot but be influenced by reads of other times – there are perhaps an infinite number of readers, such that we do not read alone, but we read each time ourselves. Let us try to keep both these things in mind.
Starting with the difficult scene of commodity exchange, this is nonetheless a very clear and accessible read. Marx tells us that the presentation differs from the mode of inquiry. The analysis of commodities was not his first object of analysis, it is an abstracted presentation, a writerly, rewritten, text.
Marx’s introduction anticipates a great many themes that will recur over and over in the text. Readers are forewarned, the wealth of nations is at stake, there be monsters, in this drama, where production rules, and its very elements, and their abstract form, will be examined.
Look at the first sentence of the text (in English, Penguin translation):
‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”, the individual commodity appears as its elementary form’ (Marx 1867/
I think it is crucial that the commodity is the opening scene of a drama that has a wider purpose for demystifying. It is the opening to a work that will provide the ‘implied reader’ of Capital (I follow Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Scattered Speculations’ essay of 1985 in seeing this reader as first of all a member of the German socialist workers party here, and by extension today, you and I) with the x-ray vision to see through the trick of market exchange, control of production, distribution, valourisation, credit, the varieties of subsumption and the crises of capital, so as to sublate the productive power of capital away from the exploitative production for profit of commodity wealth into a more plentiful abundance of life and creativity for all…
 Engels, ‘Wilhelm Wolff’ Written: between June and September 1876; First published: in Die Neue Welt, July 1, 8, 22, 29; Sept 30; Oct. 7, 14, 21, 28; Nov. 4, 25, 1876; Translated: Barrie Selman for Collected Works; http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1876/wolff/index.htm