Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 27, 2008

Introduction to Karl Marx’s Capital

Filed under: economics,Introduction to Marxism class,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

(This was posted to the “Introduction to Marxism class” mailing list today.)

Marx’s decision to analyze the inner laws of the capitalist system was not primarily driven by intellectual curiosity. Faced with working class struggles breaking out all over Europe and challenged by theoretical debates in a socialist movement in its infancy, Marx decided that such a study would resolve political problems that were impeding future growth of the movement.

In this respect he was quite like Lenin who decided to analyze monopoly capital immediately after WWI broke out. When he was confronted by the immensity of the blood-letting and the betrayal of the socialist movement by its parliamentarians who voted for war, Lenin felt that it was necessary to look at the “latest stage” of the capitalist system, paying particular attention to the financial sector. In other words, economics for both Marx and Lenin is the handmaiden of politics.

Born in 1818 into a German Jewish family that had converted to Protestantism, Marx was a radical by his early 20s, just as was the case for just about everybody taking this class–including me. His early radicalism reflected the dominant current of his day, which was anarchism. If the anarchism of his time was as powerful as it is today, there was no alternate political movement that a young person could hook up with. Today you might have a choice at a place like Columbia University between an anarchist club and the ISO. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, anarchism and various forms of pre-scientific socialism were the only games in town.

As a challenge to the left in the 1830s, bourgeois economics largely served to justify existing class relationships in society and to represent the market as the most efficient way of generating wealth just as is the case today. Attempts at tampering with markets would only guarantee failure. There is nothing that a Thomas Friedman or one of Barack Obama’s advisers is saying now that has not already been said by Adam Smith. In attempting to answer both the anarchists and the bourgeois economists, Marx was forced to come to terms with their way of analyzing the world, which surprisingly overlapped in a number of ways.

When you first dive into Marx’s Capital with its terms like “use value” and “exchange value”, you might be led to the conclusion that Marx coined these terms himself. In reality, these terms had been around for a long time. Marx only hoped to redefine them using his own insights gathered from a study of the capitalist economy using a dialectical method he had adapted from Hegel.

In 1859, Marx wrote “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy “, which contained many of the concepts that he would elaborate on in Das Kapital. The earlier work contains an addendum to chapter one on “The Commodity” that is titled “Historical Notes on the Analysis of Commodities” and that gives credit to a number of others for having grasped that labor is the source of value. Among them is Benjamin Franklin, who wrote “Trade in general being nothing else but the exchange of labour for labour, the value of all things is, as I have said before, most justly measured by labour”.

But by far the most significant advocate of the view that labor creates value is the British economist David Ricardo, who like Marx was born into a Jewish family. Of Ricardo, Marx writes:

David Ricardo, unlike Adam Smith, neatly sets forth the determination of the value of commodities by labour-time, and demonstrates that this law governs even those bourgeois relations of production which apparently contradict it most decisively. Ricardo’s investigations are concerned exclusively with the magnitude of value, and regarding this he is at least aware that the operation of the law depends on definite historical pre-conditions.

In terms of the “determination of the value of commodities by labour-time”, Ben Franklin gives a useful example as cited by Marx: “As, suppose one man is employed to raise corn, while another is digging and refining silver; at the year’s end, or at any other period of time, the complete produce of corn, and that of silver, are the natural price of each other; and if one be twenty bushels, and the other twenty ounces, then an ounce of that silver is worth the labour of raising a bushel of that corn.”

What distinguishes Marx from Ricardo or the good Ben Franklin, however, was his ability to see how labor is exploited to produce surplus value. In the world of Ricardo and Ben Franklin, there is no exploitation. The man producing corn and the man producing silver are free agents who meet each other in the marketplace. But in capitalist society, the producer is a worker who receives a wage that is less than the value of the commodity he or she is producing. In the pre-capitalist epoch, exploitation was much easier to perceive. A Lord would come collect 10 percent of the corn produced by a Serf at the end of the growing season. Under capitalism, the wage relationship is mystified as a kind of contract between equals and thus less susceptible to exposure. It was Marx’s breakthrough to throw a powerful light on this kind of exploitation.

The other giant of bourgeois economics that Marx entered into battle with is the aforementioned Adam Smith. For Smith, the source of all wealth is the division of labor, which in conjunction with the free market, makes for a more efficient economy. This schema shares Ricardo’s emphasis on the individual free agent that assumes society to be organized on the basis of millions of Robinson Crusoes pursuing a rational path to their own enrichment that will automatically benefit everybody else.

Marx kept notebooks titled “Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie ” (Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy) that like the aforementioned “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” was to become transformed into Das Kapital. In the introduction, he wrote:

Individuals producing in Society – hence socially determined individual production – is, of course, the point of departure. The individual and isolated hunter and fisherman, with whom Smith and Ricardo begin, belongs among the unimaginative conceits of the eighteenth-century Robinsonades, which in no way express merely a reaction against over-sophistication and a return to a misunderstood natural life, as cultural historians imagine. As little as Rousseau’s contrat social, which brings naturally independent, autonomous subjects into relation and connection by contract, rests on such naturalism. This is the semblance, the merely aesthetic semblance, of the Robinsonades, great and small.

Annette Rubinstein, the great Marxist literary critic who died last year at the age of 97, had the last word on Robinson Crusoe’s island as a prototype of capitalist civilization in her magnum opus “The Great Tradition: From Shakespeare to Shaw”:

The emphasis is not on wonderful and terrible events but on resourceful and effective activity. The initiative comes from man throughout. Nature is raw material for his shaping, not a god for his worship. Sometimes stubborn and difficult, it is never purposeful or malicious and can therefore be mastered and used by any educated, intelligent, self-reliant, hard working and prudent man who has a reasonable share of good luck—just such a share as the laws of probability (or the goodness of God) is likely to afford him.

For bourgeois economics to work, it is absolutely necessary to make the individual the principal economic actor. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.” It was Marx’s most subversive insight to tackle this myth and drive a stake into its heart.

Given Adam Smith and David Ricardo’s commitment to the capitalist system, it is somewhat surprising to discover that many of their ideas were reflected in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s “The Philosophy of Poverty”. Born in 1808 and 13 years older than Karl Marx, the French father of anarchism was a pivotal figure in the radical movement that Marx joined up with as a youth.

Initially Marx viewed Proudhon in favorable terms. In the 1844 “The Holy Family “, Marx hails Proudhon:

Now Proudhon has put an end to this unconsciousness once for all. He takes the human semblance of the economic relations seriously and sharply opposes it to their inhuman reality. He forces them to be in reality what they imagine themselves to be, or rather to give up their own idea of themselves and confess their real inhumanity. He therefore consistently depicts as the falsifier of economic relations not this or that particular kind of private property, as other economists do, but private property as such and in its entirety. He has done all that criticism of political economy from the standpoint of political economy can do.

But as Marx deepened his understanding of the capitalist mode of production, he was forced to disassociate himself from the anarchist and wrote a sharp polemical attack in 1848 titled “The Poverty of Philosophy ” that inverted Proudhon’s title. This was the first work in which Marx began to rigorously define the terms that would crop up in Das Kapital.

Before turning to Marx’s critique, it would be useful to take a look at Proudhon’s work, which is available on the Marxism Internet Archives, where most of our readings can be found. In chapter 3, titled “Labor as the Efficient Cause of the Domain of Property”, you find a wholesale adoption of Adam Smith’s division of labor:

Let us admire Nature’s economy. With regard to these various needs which she has given us, and which the isolated man cannot satisfy unaided, Nature has granted to the race a power refused to the individual. This gives rise to the principle of the division of labor, — a principle founded on the speciality of vocations.

The satisfaction of some needs demands of man continual creation; while others can, by the labor of a single individual, be satisfied for millions of men through thousands of centuries. For example, the need of clothing and food requires perpetual reproduction; while a knowledge of the system of the universe may be acquired for ever by two or three highly-gifted men. The perpetual current of rivers supports our commerce, and runs our machinery; but the sun, alone in the midst of space, gives light to the whole world. Nature, who might create Platos and Virgils, Newtons and Cuviers, as she creates husbandmen and shepherds, does not see fit to do so; choosing rather to proportion the rarity of genius to the duration of its products, and to balance the number of capacities by the competency of each one of them.

Furthermore, where Proudhon writes about the capacity of labor to create value, it is done in a fashion that owes more to Ricardo than to the revolution in thinking carried out by Karl Marx. In language that is addressed to the boss rather than the worker (anarchism of this sort has a natural tendency to appeal to the boss’s better nature), Proudhon only asks for a fair deal and generously assures the boss that since “you have contributed to the production, you ought to share in the enjoyment”:

The price is not sufficient: the labor of the workers has created a value; now this value is their property. But they have neither sold nor exchanged it; and you, capitalist, you have not earned it. That you should have a partial right to the whole, in return for the materials that you have furnished and the provisions that you have supplied, is perfectly just. You contributed to the production, you ought to share in the enjoyment. But your right does not annihilate that of the laborers, who, in spite of you, have been your colleagues in the work of production.

Marx throws a Molotov cocktail into this cheerful chatter:

In English society the working day thus acquired in 70 [years] a surplus of 2,700 per cent productivity; that is, in 1840 it produced 27 times as much as in 1770. According to M. Proudhon, the following question should be raised: why was not the English worker of 1840 27 times as rich as the one of 1770? In raising such a question one would naturally be supposing that the English could have produced this wealth without the historical conditions in which it was produced, such as: private accumulation of capital, modern division of labor, automatic workshops, anarchical competition, the wage system — in short, everything that is based upon class antagonism. Now, these were precisely the necessary conditions of existence for the development of productive forces and of surplus labor. Therefore, to obtain this development of productive forces and this surplus labor, there had to be classes which profited and classes which decayed.

Proudhon’s socialism was basically a romantic yearning for a return to the days of the small proprietor. When he wrote that property is theft, his hope was not to abolish private property but to establish the conditions for individual proprietorship. While Marx accepted the reality of those seventy years of the private accumulation of capital, Proudhon longed to turn the clock back as Hal Draper made clear in Volume IV of “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution”, titled “Critique of other Socialisms”:

Early socialism—from the traveling salesman Fourier to the peasant-minded Proudhon, from the fashionable ladies’ tailor Weitling to the semi-proletarian artisans of the Communist League—was tied by a network of threads to petty-bourgeois producers caught in the act of turning into modern workers. All of socialism began with the tension between hostility to, and hope in, the state. This could be resolved only by a thought-through theory of the state, but the tension lasted for most of the nineteenth century.

There was, then, a vast reservoir of inchoate antistatism, lapping around the borders of the socialist movement, for a very long time, continually renewed as new streams of raw, undeveloped, unclass-conscious workers poured into the reservoir from the sea of peasantry. The history of anarchism—its flare-up and decline in one area after another, from the Jura Mountains to the plains of Andalusia—is one of history’s best cases of correspondence between politics and technology.

In volume one of “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution” it was stressed that pre-Marx socialism usually entailed hostility to politics; it was social-ism counterposed to political-ism. This early socialism was inhospitable to concern with the major political issues of the day (constitutional democracy above all), which it saw as of interest only to the bourgeoisie or the “politicians.” It was a theoretical advance when Marx showed how it was possible to link the “Social Question” up with the “political question” in a single programmatic approach, which he called a “new direction.” The primitive state of mind in the movement, general antipoliticalism, was the source of several isms, including pure-and-simple trade-unionism and cooperativism, and only in a specially abstract form did it also show itself as an ingredient of anarchism.

So to conclude on the note that we started with, Karl Marx’s economic theory was a challenge to the prevailing anti-political mood of the existing radical movement. By identifying the underlying and inescapable class antagonisms of the capitalist system, he hoped to make it abundantly clear that the only way to live freely and justly was by abolishing that system and replacing it with one that was in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the planet: communism.

Tomorrow evening I will post readings and study questions for Volume One of Capital. Feel free to discuss this post but understand that detailed questions and comments about “exchange value”, etc. would make more sense until we have had a chance to look at the readings tomorrow.


  1. Thanks for the post and look forward to the series! Your introduction is superb especially the references to both the context of Marx’s works as well as our times (like that quote from Margaret Thatcher). I look forward to revising my own study of Capital after nearly two decades. cheers!

    Comment by readerswords — January 28, 2008 @ 1:16 am

  2. thanks for posting this

    Comment by Graeme — February 3, 2008 @ 7:13 am

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