First Sentence

John Holloway has a thing in the latest HM Journal on the first sentence, but I had not seen it before writing these notes. See a link to his – or at least another verion of it, I dunno if exactly the same – via here. Meanwhile, these notes are the 2011 update of a text published in 2008 in Tom Bunyard’s “Devil’s Party“:

The first sentence

Starting with the difficult scene of commodity exchange, this is nonetheless a very clear and accessible read. Marx’s presentation differs from the mode of inquiry. The commentary on 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 1867/1976)

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…

Marx wrote his analysis of capital not only because he wanted to set down the answers, but so that the working class would have the wherewithal to make their own analyses, to read the world. We can have issues with this metaphor, which privileges text as unproblematic transcription, but Marx himself would not have difficulty here.

Who to write for as important as what to say.

So what to say? I would argue that the first sentence is of utmost important because the whole of Capital, in its presentation, is a staged drama. Throughout the literary theatrical code is prominent. Characters when they appear (as personifications, as ‘Moneybags’) perform in Marx’s theatre, even at the very beginning – the ‘immense collection of commodities’ is characterised as something like the World Fair, those mad exhibitions of the produce of the world, before which – in 1851 for example – Marx had marvelled as a visitor at the plunder of the world. The society to be examined is one where the capitalist mode of production prevails – prevails as a kind of monstrous law or power over all (prevails is translated as herrscht , which might be better rendered as rule, govern or controls). And though we are starting with the commodity, the analysis will look to the provenance of all these things, and how production determines exchange, and what follows (see my dispute with Clifford in Hutnyk 2004 chapter 1)

The very first four words of Marx’s Capital are ‘The Wealth of Societies’, surely echoing, as Spivak notes, Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. ‘In the rational plan for socialism’, however, ‘there is no room for nationalism’ (Spivak 2008:100). Against Smith, Marx writes a book that is aimed at overcoming the exploitation and appropriation of wealth that prevails in the capitalist mode of production as a social (class) formation. He writes in order to expose the trick of capital, its deceit and deception.

The wealth of societies is a phrase that should be the first to stop us. Recall that society is not community, think of Tonnies, soon to be writing on this distinction, recall Thatcher, recall Cameron’s big one – the proposal that the support work of social reproduction be further socialized, via all manner of voluntarism, non-remunerated labour, free for all disregard of the hard won concessions that a strong labour movement had wrested fro capital – we will spend considerable time on struggles over the length of the working say, but this is relevant also for family, ethnicity, self-education and a range of other modalities of reproduction, including affective labour in sexual service, family reproduction, marriage and – lets call it compensation dating.

Now, I am not saying we should address each word of Capital with a view to thinking how it is relevant to our circumstances today, to the current conjuncture, etc., though that is pretty much the essay question, but i do think its worth keeping in mind that we read with a contexted eye. This year, of all years, threatens to be interesting and I would like to think reading capital again can help us think differently than we presently do – the only reason to go on thinking at all.

What clinches this argument? The very wording of the opening sentence includes two visual references. In the Penguin edition the German word erscheint is translated as ‘appearance’. The German reads:

Der Reichtum der Gesellschaften, in welchen kapitalistische Produktionsweise herrscht, erscheint als eine “ungeheure Warensammlung”, die einzelne Ware als seine Elementarform.’

The term erscheint occurs just the once here, rendered as two instances of the word ‘appears’ in the English (as cited earlier). This is grammatically acceptable; translation is no pure calculus, but I think there is an important significance that is lost. In the Lawrence and Wishart edition the translation is better: ‘The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”; its unit being a single commodity’ (Marx 1867/1967:35 my italic). Both editions then go on to say that our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity. Noting that accumulation is perhaps a better translation that collection, my point is that revealed in the gap between the two English translations of erscheint is the entire burden of Marx’s project – to expose the trick of the commodity as social form so as to teach the working class to see into the mechanics of industrial capital. Erscheinung, in German usage, has a double, or even triple sense. It connotes ‘appearance’ both in terms of how something looks, and in the theatrical sense of putting in an appearance, of staging something; in addition, it also has the sense of an apparition (which is what Derrida makes so much of in Spectres of Marx, although not actually from this sentence; it seems he prefers the Manifesto perhaps because it’s a shorter read [‘A spectre is haunting Europe’]). The ‘presents itself’ of the International edition gets closer to the theatrical sense, but does not capture the doubling nor the monstrous spectre, the trick that is perpetrated by the animated commodity – animated by the masses themselves, though they do not see it as such, yet.

Another point to be made here is that Marx, in that first sentence, quotes himself. Others have pointed to this curiosity (see Pepperell 2009), but Marx had already quipped in a preface that he was ‘coquetting’ with the presentation style of Hegel in setting out his rendering of Capital. This flirtation, that we do not need to take at its somewhat flippant word, is itself a machine for seduction, for storytelling, repetition, and a gamble that starts with a kind of doubled disguise (self quotation from the start) as a tactic. The wealth of societies is Smith, but not Smith, ‘ersheint’ is Hegel, but not Hegel, the commodity is the elementary form, but social, the monster accumulates.

I will also take up, in this first sentence that has detained us already for a long time, and further holds the rest of the text in abeyance, another translation slippage that I think is significant. Within the self quoted quote, the English renders the accumulation of commodities as ‘immense’. Ungeheure can certainly mean immense, or enourmous, but it also evokes a more Gothic meaning, that certainly fits the context – ungeheuerlich is ‘monstrous’, Ungeheuerlichkeit is ‘atrocity’. Perhaps it would be good, even in this first sentence, not to write out the evocations of Marx’s language – the theatrical and the gothic – a book populated by monsters is not merely comic, it is deadly serious, engaged in combat against demons and death.

Ungeheuer is immense but also monstrous. The demonic inflection is intended in Marx’s language. What today is the most monstrous appearance of capital? No longer a commodity economy but an economy economy, an immense collection of abstract shares, interest margins, affective attachement to interest rates and other markers of well-being, all of course based upon property and privilege still, but somewhat more clearly only the appearance of wealth is mediated through salary and bonus and all that can afford. Good schools, white entitlement, supremacy and privilege have never been less obvious as the marks of accumulated wealth of society types.

Appearance is theatrical, yet also a machine of domination. The point is to see though this trick, to see through the plastic appearances. We are not only talking of how things are, but also of how they are made to seem, and how we put up with them, even smiling as we do so. This needs a storyteller’s skill; so that rhetoric, metaphor, trope, coquetting; nothing escapes its role in the system. It might not even be impossible to imagine Marx as the system thinking itself in some contradictory, reflexive and critical manner (self quotation, doubling, haunting itself), but this is of course a fantastical deceit. Marx delivered a book that was itself a machine for narrative action (and still is, it gets inside your head and rewires thought, the tables dance). Now, the book could be read every time and for everyone as a potentially endlessly reorganized and renewed epic (it is hoped), still true to the project of teaching the implied reader to conjure with theory so as to unpack the real – to unpack the wealth of societies in which the capitalism mode of production prevails. Sure, it is a gamble to set out the analysis in a rhetorical style – inevitably part of the culture industry, the book itself still today engages with this gamble: Capital as a radical text sells more in times of crisis than not, and is sold as a commodity in bookshops for gain. It has its own commodity fetish format, precariously inserted into the DNA of the system of co-option and recuperation, even in the radical must-needs product. But the plastic will not remain forever – the reading of Capital is not merely system noise. We want people to read more than the first sentence, but also we want to read with care – and with a view to changing everything because, well – this is too quick, but we know the co-constitution of industry and exploitation cannot be merely described. The point is to change it. Books are also tools, plastic wealth is a trick, the screams of pain are real.

Note: Hans Ehrbar has prepared a resource that presents large sections of the English (Penguin, but often amended) and German (4th Edition) text of Capital in parallel, with significant explication. (Ehrbar 2009

Ehrbar notes that this ‘new’ translation and interpretation of Marx ‘is deeply indebted to Critical Realism, a philosophical current founded by Roy Bhaskar’. He also says, unfortunately, that ‘I did not try to reproduce all ambiguities of the German text. If the German can be understood in two different ways, and interpretation a is, in my view, clearly right while interpretation b is wrong, then my translation will only try to bring out interpretation a’ (Ehrbar 2009

My reading of the first sentence, prepared before I found Ehrbar, follows Spivak and attends to what might be called ambiguities, but which I think may be better rendered as dialectical style. The reading of the rest of the book will confirm or deny this assertion.

Marx himself rewriting the first sentence is here (which in turn links to this post, so a circuit metaphor is lurking there somehow… mis-en-about…)

Translating Capital in context, politics, struggles

From Subversive Festival Zagreb, May 2014. 

John Hutnyk: Translating Capital in context, politics, struggles
The School of Contemporary Humanities
moderator: Dunja Matić


the dedication, the prefaces, the first sentence, the tenth/eight chapter, the teaching factory, malignant and parasitic, etc…

[errata: New York Daily Tribune, not herald. Fudged Horace and Dante quote, not rude enough about Zombie’s… but otherwise…]

Marx Trot 2014

john hutnyk:

5 days to go…

Originally posted on trinketization:

Marx Trot on sunday 13 July, starts at 2.30 archway tube…


A day of revolutionary dawdling, pints, and ending up awash somewhere on Tottenham Court Rd… The annual Marx trot this year will be on Sunday 13 July. All welcome. Lal Salaam!

We will again be leaving from Archway tube 2:30 pm, then to Highgate Cemetery Marx’s Grave about 3pm – heading across the Heath to the Lord Southampton pub which was the old man’s local on Grafton Terrace – then onwards to Engels’ house, then to the pub where the Manifesto was adopted by the Communist League, – now a crappy cocktail bar – and more… All welcome (kids could surely come for the first couple of hours – but warning, its a longish walk across the heath between Highgate and the Grafton Terrace House BYO libations for the first part).

[word to the wise: bring some tinnies in a bag –…

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Fast Forward 2014: Demanding the Future? Sept. 12th-14th

FF14-landscape_01 (1)

FFW2014 is a weekend of discussions, plenaries, workshops, walking, climbing and socialising. We hope FFW2014 will contribute to building new relationships, new ideas, new energies and new strategies that help equip us to enact the future.

The central theme of the event is “Demanding the Future?”: We’ll be inquiring into what it means, and what it could mean, to make demands. Who makes them, and who are they aimed at? Can demands help us build our counter-power? What do they achieve? Can demands – possible and impossible – move us beyond a simplistic revolution/reform debate? The format for these discussions will be small group based facilitated discussions which will allow for lots of participation and engagement.

Alongside these core discussions on demands there will be focus sessions on particular topics and issues. There will be space alongside these focus group sessions to organise your own workshops, relax with friends new and old or simply to enjoy the brilliant location on our walking or climbing trips. In the evenings we are planning larger plenary events. We will be running a bar at the hostel and are hoping to arrange evening entertainment.

The full event programme will be released later in the Summer.

When?  FFW2014 will take place between 12 pm (noon) on Friday 12th until 5pm on Sunday 14th September.

Where FFW2014 will be taking over the whole of the YHA Edale in the heart of the Peak District:

Subversive Text – in Croatian

Screen shot 2014-07-03 at 10.16.07Revolucionarni projekt nam je imanentan.

Mi, profesori ljevičari, tužna skupina, volimo se diviti Kapitalu. Poneseni obrtanjem uloga (Derridaova seansa), s grešnim zadovoljstvom uzimamo predmete kao fetiše (ne pomišljamo na Marxa), u razornoj fusnoti suptilno ismijavamo sektaše i drugove neistomišljenike. Očigledan je bar entuzijazam za čitanje, premda u tim tekstovima ono očito nije najvažnije i bitno. Na završnim stranicama analizirat ću gore napisanu kritiku i, kao što sam obećao u uvodu, opisati loš marksizam koji se poziva na drugačijeg Marxa. U zaključku se može dati samo eklektičan sažetak u kojem je nemoguće detaljno opisati što je ranije bilo, ali inzistirat ću na dvostrukom obilježju lošega marksizma. S jedne strane pronašao sam (a) kvijetističko suučesništvo navodno lijevih teoretičara i aktivista ljevice premda se oba “tabora” čine aktivnija i posvećenija nego prije te (b) trivijalizaciju koja hara u teorijama kulturalnih studija, a marksizam ograničava na ošamućenu kontemplaciju. A s druge strane (c) važnost otvorenoga “lošeg” marksizma koji je od tih ošamućenih kritika napravio nešto angažirano i otvoreno. Dakle imamo (d) rekapitulaciju nekih bitnih teza koje su se pojavile u tekstu ove knjige, zaključke i kako se sve to međusobno uklapa, a kako bismo (e) skicirali analizu gdje smo danas glede kapitala i antikapitalizma kao projekta. I neka zapažanja o (f) pitanju partije kojim je uloga teorije u kulturalnim studijima i antropologiji iznova testirana u kontekstu (g) naše potrebe da izučavamo (strukturu klase, imperijalizam itd.), podučavamo i (h) (ajme meni) promijenimo svijet.


Objavljivanje knjiga i ocjena istraživanja– [Research Assessment Exercise] na britanskim su sveučilištima zamijenili istraživanje i politiku; ugledni diletanti sada zastupaju – i zbog toga ih se osuđuje – opća stajališta; na zatvorenim konferencijama s izgrađenim sustavom zvijezda lešinari kulture neprestano trabunjaju, pa ih se mora optužiti da nisu u stanju biti prava desničarska reakcija; kooptiranje i suučesništvo – pametna i isprazna erudicija. Kod post-, neo- i eksmarksista: abdikacija feminizma; komercijalizacija životnih stilova seksualne politike; izdvojena manjina “iznimki” od pravila, bez baze u masi – gdje je napor institucije za ohrabrivanjem širokih slojeva stanovništva odanih i aktivno uključenih u teoriju i praksu libertanske borbe?

Konformistički prostori

Dakle ima mjesta za oštru kritiku akademskoga načina života teorijskih glava kulturalnih studija. Luksuzne konferencije i restorani čak i skromnih profesora moraju se opisati kao jet-set. Naravno, nema puno kavijara i Moeta, nema koktela i sunčanja uz bazen, ali to je sigurno razina udobnosti koju sebi ne mogu priuštiti robovi koji rade za plaću u uredima i tvornicama. Koja je svrha teoretiziranja radi bodova za popust na avionske karte? Reći ću otvoreno. Mora postojati još nešto osim podučavanja ili nekakva prakticiranja režima za štimanje umova – ako je to sve, onda je svrha negdje drugdje. Ne možemo isključiti egoistični interes – želju da se bude poznat zbog svoga mišljenja, pisanja, podučavanja; prestiž i slava (premda je to danas ograničeno). Zbog odanosti instituciji i njezinoj korporacijskoj politici – plitka, ali, moramo reći, realna privrženost – profesori neće u bližoj budućnosti shvatiti da je revolucionarni projekt imanentan.

Ljevica kao odgovor?

Zbog toga je ona verzija Marxa koja je najpopularnija u sveučilišnoj areni vrlo pročišćena. Kontekstualno stanje nedvojbeno čine mnogo veći faktori, naprimjer suučesništvo u moći i politici koje se širi izvan maloga svijeta kulturalnih studija. Je li organizirana stranačka ljevica bolja? U ovoj knjizi nema izravne analize partijskih škola, ali je zapažena vrlo poznata produktivna napetost kad pravovjerni čuvari tradicije posežu za udžbenicima i brzim analizama jer ne vole teoriju i raspravu. Kritika svega postojećega zahtijevala bi novu vrstu partije i Marxa koji nije puki prorok. Mogućnosti postoje u neobuzdanoj inteligenciji koja se protiv globalnoga poretka bori alatkama starog bradonje – “u školu, drugovi” – ali ljevičarske sekte danas ne zanima istraživački i angažirani projekt. U svom aktivizmu oni su najčešće zainteresirani nominalno unovačiti horde ljudi i ispuniti pristupnice na zadnjoj ljetnoj radionici. Zbog sumnjivih promjena u savezima i nepredvidljivih varijacija u fokusima svi napeto iščekuju, ali samo pozorni čitatelji aktivističkih glasila imaju kakvu-takvu ideju o čemu se raspravlja. A ništa od toga, na sreću ili nesreću, nije prodrlo na akademsku scenu. Rekao bih da organizirana ljevičarska misao nije bila uspješnija od liberalnoga akademskog tumačenja Marxa o kojem sam pisao u ovoj knjizi. Ukratko, ako razmotrimo implikacije posljednje velike nade “kulturne politike” i analiziramo njezine avanture u biračkome tijelu stranačke političke ljevice i institucionaliziranoj akademskoj “ljevici”, uočit ćemo nekoliko oblika suučesništva.

Sve po starom

Oportunizam sigurno nije nov, ali tu se s jedne strane uspjeh u instituciji, objavljivanju i karijeri navodno ljevičarskih profesora besramno prilagodio znanosti i strogoći – što nije samo po sebi loše – pa se onda antirasizam pretopio u zagovor etniciteta i hibridnosti, aktivizam u poziranje i stručno mišljenje, a spori politički rad u gestikulaciju i konferencije za tisak. A s druge se strane mrvljenje ljevice u organizacijskoj politici može opisati kao paradiranje pravedničkih i samoproglašenih, umišljenih mikrosekti koje crtaju zamršene arabeske oko obožavane ispravne linije i/ili kao ukopavanje identiteta i kulturalne pozicije s ciljem izbjegavanja nužnog novog ocjenjivanja.

– See more at:

– For Bad Marxism see the link on the left column that leads you to books by JH.