Marx at the Millennium by Cyril Smith
The rich individuality ... is as varied and comprehensive in its production is it is in its consumption, and ... labour therefore no longer appears as labour but as the full development of activity itself, in which natural necessity has disappeared in its immediate form; because natural need has been replaced by historically produced need. [Grundrisse]
How is it possible for us to grasp who we are? This, it seems to me, sums up our predicament at the end of the twentieth century. I am going to look at one side of Karl Marx’s approach to this question, his conception of what humanity is. But Marx’s conclusions cannot be separated from the way he came to them, that is, his notion of what science is. This will be dealt with in Chapter 4.
I contend that all of Marx’s work centres on these two issues and the relation between them. He was not a sort of mental gymnast trying to find answers to hard theoretical problems. He wanted to grasp both problems and solutions in the context of the question: what do humans have to do in order to live humanly?
Perhaps the question can be put like this: how can humanity make itself what it is in essence? Marx’s understanding of history, his critique of economics as a scientific expression of the existing socioeconomic order, his ethical ideas, his conception of the state, class struggle and revolution, his notion of a communist society – all are based upon his way of understanding what it is to be human.
Marx did not believe that there was a fixed, eternal ‘human nature’. So often did ‘Marxists’ repeat this rather obvious truth to each other that they forgot that Marx was a communist. By ‘communist’ I do not mean the policies, theories or action of parties or states who usurped this word. I mean that Marx concentrated all his work on the achievement of a truly human society and therefore of the notion of the truly human individual.
Of course, he knew that there was no human essence given in advance, a ‘human condition’ chosen for each human by God, or by the biological inheritance of homo sapiens. Instead, he thought that we ourselves have produced human nature, conceived as ‘the ensemble of social relations’. Through joint activity, in the course of their entire biological and social history, human individuals have made and remade themselves and their mutual relations.
Self-creativity is the specific characteristic of human beings. You might say that humans are that part of nature which is self-creating, self-conscious and social. This is not, of course, a definition. In fact, you cannot fit a definition – literally, placing a limit – on to something whose mode of being consists in continually making itself into something else. Moreover, as we try to examine these aspects, we will see that each is bound up with all of the others.
What can be said about something which creates its own nature? How can an individual be social? How can a part of nature be conscious, let alone be conscious of itself? Throughout history, philosophers have racked their brains, either trying to answer such questions, or trying to convince themselves that they don’t really matter.
It is not a matter of finding a good definition in words: we ‘define’ ourselves – distinguish ourselves from everything else – and become conscious of ourselves as a species in the way that we live. Afterwards, some of us might try to put it into words. Marx is not concerned with finding the best theoretical distinction between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom. What matters is how we ourselves act in relation to each other and to nature, and how we can transform our way of life. What actions will enable us consciously and purposively to remake the relations between us, so that we become what we really are: all-sided, social, free individuals?
The ‘Marxists’ quite rightly made a great deal of the precedence Marx gave to material production in his account of human history. In Capital, they read:
He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms and legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. He develops the potentialities slumbering within nature, and subjects the play of its forces to his own sovereign power. [Capital I]
When they came to study the earlier writings, they felt quite at home with statements like this:
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 organisation. By producing their means of subsistence, men are indirectly producing their means of life. [German Ideology]
Or even this:
Natural science has invaded and transformed human life all the more practically through the medium of industry; and has prepared human emancipation, although its immediate effect had to be the furthering of the dehumanisation of man. Industry is the actual, historical relationship of nature, and therefore of natural science, to man. If, therefore, industry is conceived as the exoteric revelation of man’s essential powers, we also gain an understanding of the human essence of nature or the natural essence of man. [Private Property and Communism]
(By the way, before anyone objects to the apparently sexist use of the word ‘man’ in such passages, remember that it translates the German ‘Mensch’, a neutral term for ‘human’, i.e. the species homo sapiens. Indeed, Marx uses the word in the very passage where he explains the importance of the relationship between men and women: ‘The direct, natural and necessary relation of person [Mensch] to person is the relation of man [Mann] to woman [Weib]. We shall come back to this passage in a moment, because it lies at the heart of Marx’s understanding of the social character of our place in nature.)
Marx is concerned with a humanity which is at all times part of nature, with
real, corporeal man, man with his feet firmly on the ground, man inhaling and exhaling all the forces of nature. ...
Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with natural powers, vital powers – he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities – as instincts. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous, objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants. [Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole]
We all live as part of the natural world. However much we fight to control that world, in the end we cannot evade its ways of acting. As natural beings, we have needs which spring from our natural make-up. For example, we get old and die, we have to eat and keep ourselves warm, and so on. In the process of creation and self-creation called industry, humans try to make nature work for their benefit. They succeed, but only up to a point, and sometimes the result is not what was intended.
(I remember once, when I worked in the coal industry, sitting a thousand feet underground and being told by an old man: ‘Never forget: however strong the supports you set up, the roof will eventually meet the floor. Just don’t be there when it happens!’)
However, humanity’s participation in nature is only the beginning of the story: ‘Man is not merely a natural being: he is a human natural being. That is to say, he is a being for himself’. Human production is deliberate, purposive activity. It involves, not only intellect and will, but also imagination. In striving to satisfy their needs, humans create things which do not exist in nature, except through their actions. Before doing something, we imagine the outcome we hope will result. In the very process of achieving the goal we have set ourselves, we begin to worry about better ways of acting and the achievement of new goals. Humans continually alter their relationships with nature and each other as they act. They develop new knowledge and new needs and find new ways to understand both the world around them and themselves.
Human creative activity involves not only consciousness, but self-consciousness, and that in turn is possible only in society, for nobody can be self-conscious on their own. Humans produce their own lives through the activity of the whole of society, and their individual relations with nature are determined by this joint activity.
The satisfaction of human needs is impossible for an isolated individual. Only by taking part in the collective production process, striving alongside everyone else to produce what we all require, can an individual become truly human. Humans are involved with the whole of nature, at every level, and that is completely tied up with our involvement with each other. Every human action, whatever it may be, is at once natural and conscious, individual and social.
The activity of labour, and the objects that result from it, thus do not just have a material, but a social character, belonging to the existence and the history of the whole of human society. Economics, including ‘Marxist economics’, which just sees their materiality, presents, at best, a flattened image of humanity.
A loaf of bread, the activity of a baker or the equipment for baking are not just material objects or processes. They are nodes in the network of social connections: the customer’s relationship with the baker, the farmer who produced the wheat, the engineering worker who made the machinery, and so on. All these lives are bound together, not just by the nutritious, biological or mechanical properties of things, but by how people feel about them, about each other and about themselves.
To be human is to be both social and at the same time a particular individual, a person. Indeed, Marx’s conception of communism was founded on the possibility of ‘the free development of individualities’. Humans do not exist as individuals outside society: ‘Man becomes individualised only through the process of history. ‘Individuality is itself produced by humans’ activity in the course of their collective history’.
Man, much as he may be a particular individual (and it is precisely his particularity which makes him an individual, and a real individual social being), is just as much the totality – the ideal totality – the subjective existence of imagined and experienced society for itself, just as he exists in the real world both as awareness and real enjoyment of social existence, and as a totality of human manifestation of life. [Private Property and Labour]
You are just yourself, this particular person. But that means only that you have a unique place in the world: you speak a particular language in your own inimitable manner, you like food or music of a particular sort, and so on. None of the things which make you exactly who you are exists except through the entire history of humankind.
We can be conscious of our own humanity only because, and to the extent that, we act humanly, and that means creating ourselves. We are not some kind of machine, nor are we passive victims of evolutionary history, governed by ‘instincts’ which can never be understood or controlled, subroutines in a universal computer program. What distinguishes humanity from the rest of nature is the conscious, active relationship we have with everything else, with each other and with ourselves.
Of course we have a given biological make-up, resulting from the evolutionary history of our species. This conditions but does not fix what we do, either collectively or individually. What makes us human is our conscious, social, purposively directed activity, and this produces the content of our biological form. Our relationships with nature and with each other are defined by our productive activity: we are what we do.
The animal is immediately one with its life-activity ... Man makes his life-activity itself the subject for his will and for his consciousness.
He has conscious life-activity. Conscious life-activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life-activity. [Estranged Labour]
No human individual is an isolated entity, which first exists apart from everybody else and is subsequently ‘moulded by society’, or ‘influenced by the social environment’, as sociologists and psychologists like to say. Each human is – potentially – a ‘social individual’, and a ‘universal individual’. Those creative powers which make him or her truly human, what Marx called ‘productive forces’, are at once totally social and totally individual. Marx takes his own work as an illustration:
When I am active scientifically, etc – an activity which I can seldom perform in direct community with others – then my activity is social, because I perform it as a man. Not only is the material of my activity given to me as a social product (as is even the language in which the thinker is active): my own existence is social activity, and therefore, that which I make of myself, I make of myself for society and with the consciousness of myself as a social being. [Private Property and Communism]
Anything we do is both entirely our own work, and the expression, the representation of the whole of society. Furthermore,
man appropriates his comprehensive essence in a comprehensive manner, that is to say, as a whole man. Each of his human relations to the world – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving – in short, all the organs of his individual being, like those organs which are directly social in their form, are in their objective orientation, or in their orientation to the object, the appropriation of the object, the appropriation of human reality. [Private Property and Communism]
The human individual is free, self-created, but only in his or her true, social being. However, this true being can be grasped only from a particular angle, what Marx called ‘the standpoint ... of human society, or of socialised humanity’. And this is exactly what is concealed and twisted by the way we live.
So those forms of living which have obtained for the past few millennia, and especially for the past few centuries, are human only in a certain fashion. That is why taking the standpoint of true, that is of ‘socialised’, humanity is such a difficult task, accomplished only precariously, partially, in opposition to the prevailing outlook and way of life. The standpoint from which most people see the world, most of the time, is rather that of ‘single individuals in civil society’. Dominated as they are by private property, money and the state, people see themselves as social fragments and society as a hostile, alien machine, a machine made up of other people.
The social form of human life in which we live sets people against each other. The social whole confronts each of us as our enemy. The whole process, both the relations between people and the relation of people to nature, is hidden, distorted and mystified. The relationship between each individual human and the society in which they live is a great problem, pondered by philosophers, psychologists and political scientists. In fact, the very existence of philosophy indicates that people do not know who they are: if they knew, there would be no need to find out.
If you look back at the history of our species over the past few millennia, and especially at our life today, the description of humanity I have suggested does not seem to fit at all. Individual lives are far from being self-created. They are governed by forces they cannot comprehend, let alone control. Their thinking takes forms which seem to be given to them from the outside. Society and nature confront them as mysterious, alien, hostile powers. People – at least, most people, most of the time – see themselves as discrete bits, colliding blindly with each other. The way we live denies what we are.
Because he had a conception of what was human, Marx could ask what it is to be inhuman. Marx strove to understand modern society in terms of the way the human was buried inside inhumanity. He often used the metaphor of a cover or shell or integument (Hülle) to describe the inhuman forms which enclose the human content. Liberation from these forms means to break out (enthüllen = reveal) of this wrapping, in which the truth lies encased (eingehüllt = wrapped up).
This word ‘integument’ is used by biologists to mean the covering round a piece of tissue. It is not like a separately manufactured container, into which the kernel may be later inserted. They belong organically together, and they have developed only in relation to each other. Both their unity and their separation belong to the essence of each, and were prepared over the whole of past history. Only humans can be inhuman. (You can’t have an inhuman cat!)
Humanity has hitherto created itself encased within these inhuman forms of life, now hardened into a shell. The connections between individuals and society, between society and consciousness, between purpose and the outcome of activity, are broken and perverted and have been throughout written history. No wonder that, at this late stage of the game, the relation of humanity to nature has been completely fouled up.
Take, for example, the power of speech. It is bound up with a vital aspect of humanness: the ability of each of us to have at least some knowledge of what it is like to be someone else. Otherwise, language would be impossible. Before we can say anything, we must know, without even thinking about it, that somebody will hear the noise you make and understand something by it.
But look at how this ability has turned out. Today, the knowledge of what other people will make of our speech is largely the basis for knowing how to deceive them and make them do something they don’t want to do. (Here are those ‘interpersonal skills’ I mentioned earlier. They are also known as ‘public relations’, or, in plain English, ‘lying’.) ‘Words were given to men to enable them to conceal their thoughts.’ To continue that passage I quoted earlier, about the relation of women and men:
The direct, natural and necessary relation of person [Mensch] to person is the relation of man (Matin) to woman (Weib). In this natural species-relationship man’s relation to nature is immediately his relation to man, just as his relation to man is immediately his relation to nature – his own natural determination. In this relationship, therefore, is sensuously manifested, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which the human essence has become nature to man, or to which nature has become the human essence of man. ... This relationship also reveals the extent to which man’s need has become a human need; the extent, therefore, to which the other person as a person has become for him a need – the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being. [Private Property and Communism]
This remarkable statement brings out the unity of all of the features of humanity I have been looking at. The sexual relation is undoubtedly natural, belonging to the biological character of human life, but at the same time governed by social convention. It is as personal as anything can be, and yet it is shaped and misshaped by all kinds of social, political and economic forces. Simultaneously, it is ‘instinctive’, and the outcome of conscious and self-conscious decision.
That is why this freest and most human of spheres is the locus for some of the most inhuman aspects of social life. So much is this the case that Marx can make it the measure of the degree to which humans have progressed towards becoming human, social beings. I am not only referring here to the oppression of women by men, their possession as pieces of property. It is the inhumanity of human life as a whole, which conceals, poisons and perverts the true humanity of men as much as of the women they oppress.
It is only too easy to see that, at the end of the twentieth century, the world is far from being a place for ‘the free development of individualities’. Everything about the modern world denies and perverts what is essentially human. Social relations are fetters on the development of human creative power, colliding with it at every turn. The more this power grows, the less free our lives become and the more they are limited and poisoned.
Instead of seeing the world from ‘the standpoint of socialised humanity’, we look at it as isolated individuals, one-sided fragments of humanity, confronted by abstract social relations and powers. These relations are both the product of human agency and beyond human control.
We do not know who we really are, and have now almost ceased to think about what we can become. Our relations with each other are alien to us today, far more than in Marx’s time. In an atomised society, individuals are not just strangers but enemies, to each other, to nature and to themselves. Human powers of creation, increased a hundredfold by the growth of technology, operate blindly against their creators and now become forces of self-destruction.
Marx did not judge such conditions against a blueprint he had devised for a ‘better world’. Nor would he have accepted the view that the way we Eve is the inevitable expression of the way we are. Rejecting both Utopian dreaming and cynical acceptance, he decided that we live in a way which is ‘estranged’ from our own essential nature.
Marx reached his view of the essential nature of humanity only through the inhuman forms taken by human life in modern times. He saw that the forms of social life are not decided consciously by the collectivity of men and women. We create them, but they appear to be imposed upon us, confronting us like an external power, a ‘second nature’.
Objects become the property of individuals, and in that form come to rule their lives. Human beings – who else? – set up and operate a political institution, the state, and it becomes a power that they have to obey. It impersonally regulates – and sometimes destroys – the lives of individual human beings. These hostile forms do not eliminate the essentially social nature of the humanity which survives inside them, but they twist it out of recognition. The problem is to grasp this human content and see the possibility of it breaking through the inhuman cover in which it has grown up.
We have seen how Marx regarded the human being: a self-creating, self-conscious and social part of nature. This conception is at the heart of his thinking, but it cannot be his starting-point. I mean that his investigation had to begin with the way we live now. Otherwise he would just have been a Utopian dreamer, merely counterposing an opinion about how the world ought to be to the way it unfortunately is.
Marx thought highly of some of the Utopians. People like Fourier and Robert Owen were responsible for inventing many of the ideas of socialism. They put these ideas forward as prefabricated plans for how society ought to be. They contended that these schemes, the result of ‘scientific’ work, somehow expressed human reason. But in this, they were accepting the idea of humanity as a collection of reasoning individuals, a position not all that different from those who upheld the existing social order. Thus they looked at society as if they themselves stood outside it.
While Marx took a great deal of their conception of communism from the Utopians, he rejected their basic notion of what it was:
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call Communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the now existing premise. [German Ideology]
The Utopian was caught up in an insoluble paradox: he was unable to explain where his own ideas came from. Consequently, however well intentioned he might have been, he inevitably regarded himself as a special kind of being, who had somehow been able to stand above the common throng.
The materialist doctrine about circumstances and education, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to society, (in Robert Owen, for example), The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionising practice. [Theses on Feuerbach]
A lot of the confusion in the ‘Marxist’ tradition sprang from a refusal to think about what this meant. Ideas about ‘bringing socialist consciousness into the working class from the outside’, ‘vanguard leadership’ and so on were the result. We surely know today, and should have known before, that nobody can be forced to be free, or driven to become human. To think otherwise is to have a distorted notion of what it means to be human. Moreover, how are those who ‘bring’ the ‘correct’ consciousness to the masses supposed to have got hold of it themselves?
In a society increasingly based upon self-interest, how can anybody take ‘the standpoint of socialised humanity’? Somehow, amidst all the corruption and fragmentation of the modern world, we have remained – not much, not always, generally unknown to ourselves and with many mistakes and distortions – human. At the back of our minds, we still know it.
If this were not the case, there could be no language, no science, no philosophy, no politics, no poetry, no love. These activities – twisted and perverted, organically entangled in their inhuman wrapping as they are – still do exist. That tells us that humanity does indeed survive, but bound up with, and hidden by, its direct opposite, in forms which simultaneously give us this message of humanity and deny it.
Thus, to the surprise of ‘Marxists’ and ‘dialectical materialists’, Marx’s problem turns out to centre on the question of individual consciousness.
Consciousness [‘das Bewusstsein’] can never be anything else than conscious being [‗das bewusste Sein’], and the being of men is their conscious life-process. If in all ideology men and their relations appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process. [German Ideology]
No human activity or human relationship is possible without consciousness playing a part. The fact that we go on living inhumanly shows that we look at the world in ways which make this inhumanity seem somehow ‘natural’ and inevitable. Inhuman forms of life cannot be seen except when wrapped up inside these forms of consciousness.
Marx was not a sociologist or an economist, nor a social scientist or political scientist of any kind, if by science we mean giving a logical account of something. For he was quite sure that the world he was trying to grasp was not logical. He regarded the enterprise of producing an elegant, smoothly working model of this mess as being itself an illogical dream, an attempt to rationalise the irrational.
This is how he judged the very existence of political economy as a field of investigation. It was an expression of this false way of seeing ourselves, and, through it, of the false – inhuman – way of living. So he was not trying to construct an abstract ‘model’ of such irrationality. He saw that this kind of attempt, which disguises inhumanity in a sort of scientific gift-wrap, is itself a symptom of a false way of life. The ‘object’ of his ‘science’, on the contrary, was to find out how to unwrap inhumanity from its ideological covering. That is why a major part of his life’s work was devoted to making a ‘critique of political economy’.
Anyone unfortunately obliged to open a textbook on economics is confronted with masses of technical jargon, decorated with graphs and bits of algebra. Clearly, this economy thing is an extremely intricate piece of machinery, far beyond the understanding of the ordinary mortal, and its study is highly scientific. The student of economics, watching wide-eyed as this complicated equipment is demonstrated, knows that he or she is being initiated into a mysterious craft. Why should this be? Isn’t the subject-matter simply about what ordinary people do almost every day of their lives? Where does the mystery come from?
Starting economics is a process of brainwashing: beginners must be taught that, if they are to complete the course and pass the exam, only certain questions are appropriate. Other questions, however naturally they might occur, must be sternly repressed. (Of course, it is much the same in every subject at established seats of learning. Economics is only a glaring example.)
Elementary economics textbooks like to start with helpful-sounding statements like this one (which I found in a popular textbook): ‘Economics is the study of how society decides what, how and for whom to produce.’ That raises more questions than it answers. Since this study is not a textbook, has no set syllabus to cover, and there is no examination at the end of it, I am free to ask some of the impermissible questions. I don’t just mean issues like: Why are some people in the world very worried about their excessive food-intake, while most of the others do not know whether their children will die of starvation? Why do some people receive more money in a day than some families have to spend in an entire lifetime? Why are people out of work, when there are shortages of things they could be making?
There are left-wing economists who don’t mind queries like these, answering them with a kindly indulgence. But other kinds of question are less welcome: What is meant by ‘society decides’? (And what is ‘society’, anyway?) Why do people sell things to each other, instead of just giving them to whoever needs them? Why does most of the wealth produced by human labour take the form of private property, usually belonging to somebody who was not the producer? Since all economic events are examples of human action, why do we need professional help to explain them?
Given the assumptions on which their whole study is founded, it is quite natural that economists should have no patience with such queries. (It is not surprising that the last question makes them uncomfortable.) They are concerned with making a ‘model’ of a set of economic relationships. Before they start, they have taken for granted that the world they are ‘modelling’ works in a certain way. They seem to forget that they are talking about relations between and activities of human beings. So, without knowing it, they have taken a particular view of what human beings are like. For instance, they assume without question that each ‘economic agent’ is concerned for his or her own well-being far more than for anyone else’s.
Karl Marx had a rather low opinion of economists like these, referring to them as ‘vulgar’. They
only flounder around within the apparent framework of those relations, ceaselessly ruminate on the materials long since provided by scientific political economy and seek there plausible explanations of the crudest phenomena for the domestic purposes of the bourgeoisie. Apart from this, the vulgar economists confine themselves to systematising, in a pedantic way, and proclaiming for everlasting truths, the banal and complacent notions held by the bourgeois agents of production about their own world, which is to them the best possible one. [Capital I]
The banality and complacency of the statements of vulgar economists merely express uncritically the basic assumptions of this form of society.
Marx distinguished these people sharply from their predecessors, the ‘classical political economists’, a species he thought was extinct after about 1830. It included Adam Smith and David Ricardo, together with ‘all the economists who, since the time of W. Petty, have investigated the real internal framework [‘innern Zusammenhang’ = inner coherence] of bourgeois relations of production’. He believed these people were real scientists, however much he disagreed with their conclusions. He spent four decades working on, and never finishing, his ‘critique’ of political economy, including a long account of the history of the subject. What was he up to?
In the ‘Marxist’ tradition, it was assumed that he was trying to provide a better, ‘Marxist’/socialist economics. I think this is completely false. For Marx, ‘critique’ did not at all mean showing that a particular set of views was wrong and replacing it with another set. He was not interested in the straightforward rejection of the conclusions reached by economists about the working of a mechanical system called ‘capitalism’. Nor did he follow this up by showing them how their job should really be done. (By the way, ‘capitalism’ was a word Marx hardly ever used.)
Marx saw the work of the great classical political economists as investigating the social relations of the modern world, which they believed expressed ‘human nature’. (There is an analogy with the way Marx viewed the ideas of Hegel, which is outlined in the Appendix to Chapter 4.) Marx’s critique of political economy was his way in to the understanding of modern social relations and an essential prerequisite for their supersession.
What he wanted to do was to trace, in the most highly developed work of bourgeois thought, the ‘inner coherence’ of the various forms of social relations whose inhumanity had come to appear natural. Vulgar economics was not much use for this purpose: all one can do with it is marvel at its inanity.
But Smith, Ricardo and James Mill were tremendously helpful. Unlike their successors, they were striving to find an objective explanation of the huge social and economic developments unfolding in Europe during their lifetimes. What made them important for Marx was that, when they tried to develop the ‘laws of private property’, they sought to explain rationally what was essentially irrational, crazy.
Their greatest discovery was the importance of labour for the quantitative relationships between the prices of goods on the market. Marx shows just what this means. It implies that the lives of the owners of commodities are governed by the relations between the commodities, objects produced by human labour. Only thus is the labour embodied in them related to ‘the collective labour of society’.
The political economists could never ask why the relations between individuals took this particular form. And so their attempts to provide scientific accounts of economic life inevitably ran into contradictions. But that was precisely what made them important for Marx. For these logical contradictions were symptoms of actual contradictions of life. Forms of life dominated by the exchange of commodities and money are quite crazy (‘verrückte’).
The categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this kind. They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this mode of social production. [Capital I]
The word ‘valid’ – ‘gültige’ – is interesting. It is used in the sense in which a railway ticket or a banknote might be acceptable. These are forms with which you have to comply if you are to participate in the existing social order. But it is a set-up which is essentially mad.
These formulae, which bear the stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself’. [Capital I]
Precisely because they strove to give a rational, scientific account of the mad world of bourgeois social relations, they pinpointed the contradictions between those relations and the true nature of humanity. So the critique of their work could take us night inside the process whereby the insanity came to seem ‘natural’.
Reflection on the forms of human life, hence also scientific analysis of those forms, takes a course directly opposite to their real development. Reflection begins post festum [after the event], and therefore with the results of the process of development ready to hand. [Capital I]
Marx was not in the business of explaining the way money ‘worked’, but of finding out what money was, how this mediator between individuals took control of their lives. How did money, the global link between isolated human lives, become at the same time a barbed-wire fence between them?
The absolute mutual dependence of individuals, who are indifferent to one another, constitutes their social connection. ... The power that each individual exercises over the activity of others or over social wealth exists in him as the owner of exchange values, of money. He carries his social power, as also his connection with society, in his pocket. [Grundrisse]
Thus Marx’s critique of political economy, his refusal to accept its premises while carefully tracing where they lead, gets to the heart of the problems of the modern world.
In tracing the insane ‘logic’ which led from the ‘commodity-form’ to the ‘money-form’, Chapter 1 of Capital shows how the relations between human beings take the form of the relations between things.
[T]he labour of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labour of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. To the producers, therefore, the social relations appear as what they are, i.e., they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [‘dinglich’ = thing-like] relations between persons and social relations between things. [Capital I]
Political economy – let alone vulgar economics – takes for granted the act of exchange. What Adam Smith called a ‘natural propensity’ of human beings, Marx saw as essentially inhuman. From the time he began to study the subject at the end of 1843, he knew that this activity was at the heart of the heartlessness of modern life. Thus, in his Note on James Mill of early 1844, he shows the contrast between humanity and its inhuman cover:
Exchange or barter is therefore the social act, the species-act, the community, the social intercourse and integration of men within private ownership, and therefore the external, alienated species-act. ... For this reason ... it is the opposite of the social relationship.
The exchange relation was an ‘anti-social social’ relation, and so quite mad:
As a man you have, of course, a human relation to my product: you have need of my product. Hence it exists for you as an object of your desire and your will. But your need, your desire, your will, are powerless as regards my production ... [They] constitute rather the tie which makes you dependent on me, ... the means for giving me power over you. Our mutual recognition of the respective powers of our objects, however, is a struggle. ... If physical force cannot be used, we try to impose on each other by bluff, and the more adroit overreaches the other.
This was the ‘Young Marx’ (he was 25). When he was twice as old, writing Chapter 2 of Capital, ‘The Process of Exchange’, his message was precisely the same:
In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians [Marx means their owners], must place themselves in relation to one another in such a way that the win of the one is also the will of the other, and that each appropriates the strange commodity and gives up his own, by means of a common act of will. ... The content of this juridical relation (or relation of two wills) is itself determined by the economic relation. Here the persons exist for one another merely as representatives and hence owners, of commodities. [Capital I]
(By the way, this passage is a direct and deliberate allusion to a passage in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, except, instead of Marx’s two commodity-owners, Hegel has two ‘self-consciousnesses’.)
Marx is contrasting two opposite forms. Exchanging the products of labour is indeed the most human of activities: that is how we collaborate in our shared life. But the activity of exchanging private property defines inhuman relationships. And at the end of Chapter 2 of Capital, discussing the origin of money, Marx writes:
The purely atomic behaviour of men in their social production process and the objective shape taken by their own production relations, independently of their control and their conscious individual actions, appear in this: that their products take the form of commodities. [Capital I]
Within this framework, Marx traces the way that even the most objective of economists, giving a rational, ‘scientific’ account of the inhumanity of modern society, fails to notice its essential madness.
The ‘Marxist’ myth involved the belief that Marx held a ‘labour theory of value’, taking it from Adam Smith and Ricardo and just polishing it up a bit. Certainly, by distinguishing between ‘labour’ – the activity of production – and ‘labour-power’ – the capacity to labour, bought by a capitalist for wages – Marx exposed the origin of surplus-value, which took the forms of profit, interest, rent, etc., and showed that ‘free’ wage-labour was ‘wage-slavery’.
Is this a different kind of political economy, as ‘Marxism’ believed? Not at all. What is vital for Marx is that political economy was driven on to the rocks of logical contradiction not by some mistaken arguments, but by its inability in principle to see beyond the existing social order. Marx welcomed the theoretical inconsistencies he found in Ricardo’s system because they honestly expressed actual contradictions in bourgeois society. And each of these contradictions is a result of the basic conflict between humanity and its inhuman social form, the conflict which is invisible to the eyes even of Ricardo.
When Marx explains the nature of the money-relation, he shows how it necessarily transforms itself into capital, the impersonal social power which destroys the humanity of wage-workers and their families. What start off looking like relationships of freedom and equality reveal themselves as exploitation and oppression.
Marx’s book is about how this inhuman social relation, capital, produces and reproduces itself, enslaving the human beings whose life-activities and forms of consciousness are alone responsible for its existence. At each stage, he describes simultaneously the forms of this movement and the falsified, ‘fetishised’ way it appears to those who live within these forms. That is how he finds the meaning of the struggle of labour against capital.
On his title-page, Marx declared his subject to be ‘CAPITAL: Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1: Capital’s Production-process’, not ‘CAPITAL: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production’, as it said on the first English translation. The significance of this tiny difference is immense: Marx is not describing how goods are produced inside a ‘capitalist system of production’.
The point is that each time a worker goes to work in a factory, what she produces is not just an item which can be used, and not just a value to be exchanged for money. It is the capital-relationship which has been reproduced, the relationship which separates the workers, including that very worker herself, from the conditions of production, which remain the property of the factory owner. Her own activity has resulted in something alien to her.
As Marx declares more than once, what has to be explained is not the history of how these elements came together to make production possible, but how they were separated in the first place and how the separation was reproduced. That is what forced the worker to accept the position of wage-worker and dragged her out of the house and into the factory, forcing her to spend life-activity to produce something quite indifferent to her.
What requires explanation is not unity of living and active human beings with the natural, inorganic conditions of their exchange of matter with nature, and therefore their appropriation of nature; nor, of course, is this the result of an historical process. What we must explain is the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active being, a separation which is posited in its complete form only in the relationship between wage labour and capital. [Grundrisse]
What has to be understood is not just the possibility of human creativity, but the inhuman shape into which it is twisted in bourgeois society. This is not economics, and certainly not political economy. It is actually its direct opposite: the attempt to undo the work of economists. Where economics tries to explain why things are necessarily the way they are, Marx is showing the possibility and necessity of making them different.
Marx recognised the advance in understanding brought about by the great classical political economists. But their theories – for example, the relationship between value and labour – were not his. Where they were trying to explain value, Marx was demanding to know why this relationship took its particular form and how it could exert its power over our lives.
Political economy ... has never once asked why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the value of its product. [Capital I]
A few pages earlier, before he develops the forms of value, Marx has described his task as being ‘to show the origin [Genesis] of this money-form’. Professors of economics think what they have to teach their students is just ‘how money works’, because ‘everybody knows’ what money is.
Surplus value, as revealed in the quantitative difference between the capitalist’s receipts and his outlay, is important, of course. But what really matters to Marx is the essential inhumanity of one human being selling off his or her own life-activity for money, as if it were a lump of cheese or a table. The wage relationship means that human beings are treated as if they were things, means for the self-expansion of capital, not ends in themselves.
The standard of living to which workers and their families are condemned, and their conditions of life and labour, are expressions of this inhuman, alien relationship they have with their own life-activity, that is, with themselves. Thus the ‘madness’ seen in the value- and money-forms now returns on a higher level.
The form of capital takes over and perverts those very characteristics which belong to the worker’s humanness, her ability to create socially. It is not merely that the ability of the worker to produce is controlled by somebody else, a capitalist, or his manager, that Marx is stressing here. What he wants to bring out is that this human power appears in the form of capital, belongs to and is controlled by capital, an impersonal social power, of which the capitalist is merely the ‘personification’.
It is controlled by nobody in particular. In fact, it controls everybody. That is why, when workers combine to force an improvement in their conditions of work, however mundane the immediate issue, they are implicitly fighting for their humanness against the power of capital to dehumanise them. The problem is: how to make this explicit?
The collective power of labour, its character as social labour, is therefore the collective power of capital. Likewise science and the division of labour, which appears as the division of EMPLOYMENTS and the exchange corresponding to them. All social powers of production are productive forces of capital and consequently capital itself appears as their subject.
Hence the association of the workers as it appears in the factory is not posited by them but by capital. Their combination is not their being but rather the being of capital. To the individual worker it appears fortuitous. He relates to his own association with other workers and to his cooperation with them as alien, as to modes of operation of capital. [Grundrisse]
How is it possible for the goods that people produce, merely inanimate objects, to control their lives, for ‘dead labour’ to control ‘living labour’? It is because these objects are not just material things, but social beings, in a world where dead social beings have power over living people. It is only through the social relations between them as commodities that their producers are related.
Marx compares this upside-down set-up, in which the products of human creation control the producers, with the world of religion, referring to it as ‘the fetishism of commodities’. It appears as if gold is ‘by nature’ money, as if labour is ‘by nature’ wage-labour and as if machines are ‘by nature’ capital.
When Marx discusses capital, he shows how this fetishism is brought to higher and higher levels of perversity. Capital, the social relation after which he named his book, was ‘value in process’, a ‘substance which is also subject’, an active power, which necessarily grew out of money and took control of everybody’s life.
In engaging in the essentially human activity called ‘labour’, workers are forced by the inhuman forms, money and capital, to subordinate themselves to the requirements of these forms. They are caught in the grip of capital, which makes their own activity continually produce and reproduce its hostile power over them. This antagonistic relation, that of wage-labour and capital, underlies and colours everything else about modern society.
To define capital as ‘accumulated labour which serves as a means of production’, as Ricardo did in the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, is logically equivalent to defining a Negro slave as ‘a man of the black race’. The monstrosity of this logic is obvious. Economics thinks the same way about capital.
A Negro is a Negro. He becomes a slave in certain relations. A cotton-spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It becomes capital only in certain relations. Torn from these relations it is no more capital than gold is in itself money or sugar the price of sugar. [Wage Labour & Capital]
What is most important about capital is its impersonal activity, the way that it produces and reproduces itself, ‘behind the backs of the producers’. Its movement is the outcome of actions of the individuals whose lives are dominated by it. But this fact is hidden from them, from capitalists, from the workers they employ and exploit – and especially from economists. This magic power is an illusion which is not merely an illusion: it really is like that.
A rise in the price of labour, as a consequence of the accumulation of capital, only means in fact that the length and weight of the chain that the wage-labourer has forged for himself allow it to be loosened somewhat. ... Labour-power can be sold only to the extent that it preserves and maintains the means of production as capital, reproduces its own value as capital, and provides a source of additional capital in the shape of unpaid labour. [Capital I]
Capital is an antagonistic social form. The struggle between labourers and employers is essential to the concept of this relation. It is produced and reproduced by the wage-workers themselves as they produce commodities. That is why the entanglement of the greatest of political economists in contradictions over the nature of capital was their most important contribution to our understanding.
Marx’s work on political economy centred on the contrast between two opposed forms: the alienated life-activity ‘subsumed under capital’, and production carried out humanly in a ‘free association of producers’. This contrast is not about whether the ‘same’ object with the ‘same’ materials and equipment was being made.
That is why he stressed the opposition between value, a ‘purely social reality’, belonging only to an inhuman form of production, and wealth. Originally, ‘wealth’ meant the well-being of humanity as a whole, as in ‘commonwealth’. Locked up inside the crazy, inhuman form of bourgeois property, it is expressed in quantitative terms as an amount of money. It takes the form of capital, through which the owner of capital exploits those who produce it.
In Chapter 1 of Capital, there are two statements within a few pages of each other, one about wealth, the other about value.
Labour is ... not the only source of material wealth, i.e. of the use-values it produces. As William Petty says, labour is the father of material wealth, the earth is its mother. [Capital I]
The degree to which some economists are misled by the fetishism attached to the world of commodities or by the objective appearance of the social characteristics of labour [Arbeitsbestimmungen], is shown, among other things, by the dull and tedious dispute over the part played by nature in the formation of exchange-value. Since exchange-value is a definite social manner of expressing the labour bestowed on a thing, it can have no more natural content than has, for example, the rate of exchange. [Capital I]
In Grundrisse Marx explains wealth like this:
In fact, however, if the narrow bourgeois form is peeled off, what is wealth if not the universality of the individual’s needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive forces, etc., produced in universal exchange; what is it if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature – over the forces of so-called Nature, as well as over his own nature? What is wealth if not the absolute unfolding of man’s creative abilities, without any precondition other than the preceding historical development, which makes the totality of this development – i.e. the development of all human powers as such, not measured by any previously given yardstick – an end-in-itself, through which he does not reproduce himself in any specific character, but produces his totality, and does not seek to remain something he has already become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?
Later in the manuscript, Marx discusses the way that the growth of modern technology makes possible the production of human wealth, ‘real wealth’ [wirkliche Reichtum], and a truly human life, ‘the free development of individualities’. This is quite opposed to the inhuman form wealth assumes in bourgeois society.
When humanity is locked away inside inhumanity, what effect does this have on the prisoner?
In the bourgeois economy – and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds – this complete unfolding of man’s inner potentiality turns into his total emptying-out. His universal objectification becomes his total alienation, and the demolition of all one-sided aims becomes the sacrifice of the [human] end-in-itself to a wholly external purpose. [Grundrisse]
Adam Smith – and David Ricardo agreed with him – called ‘productive’ precisely that labour which produced surplus value for capital. Those who were paid out of ‘revenue’ they called unproductive workers. Smith was not entirely consistent on the question, but Marx condemns those second-rate economists who criticised him. Smith’s strength, thought Marx, was his determined attempt to analyse a specific historical form of production.
Marx naughtily suggests two examples of the category ‘unproductive labourer’: a prostitute and the Pope. And there are a couple of wonderful pages where Marx pretends to ‘prove’, using the arguments of the vulgar critics of Smith, that the criminal is a productive worker: ‘The criminal produces not only crimes, but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law ... .’ He then adds to the list: police, judges, instruments of torture, perfection of banknotes, the manufacture of locks, the books of the professor, and so on!
However, the true meaning of Smith’s distinction is brought out in a further illustration.
For example, Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost for five pounds was an unproductive labourer. On the other hand, the writer who turns out stuff for his publisher in factory style, is a productive labourer. Milton produced his Paradise Lost for the same reason that a silk-worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature. Later, he sold the product for five pounds. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig, who fabricates books, (for example, compendia of Economics) under the direction of his publisher, is a productive labourer, for his product is from the outset subsumed under capital, and comes into being only for the purpose of increasing that capital. [Theories of Surplus Value]
‘Marxism’ was so absorbed in describing the exploitation of wage-labour by capital in purely quantitative terms that it forgot that this was only one of the symptoms of the underlying disease. The wage-worker’s life was increasingly ‘impoverished’, however much she may be paid. A life is not only assessed in terms of so many pounds per week, as a I standard of living’, although that is part of the picture, of course, but in terms of the criterion of what is truly human.
The ‘general law of capitalist accumulation’ expressed the nature of this social formation,
a mode of production in which the worker exists to satisfy the need of the existing values for valorisation, as opposed to the inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development. just as man is governed, in religion, by the product of his own brain, so, in capitalist production, he is governed by the product of his own hand. [Capital I]
(‘Valorisation’, or ‘Verwertung’, means the process by which capital ‘value in process’ – increases its own value.)
Consider the relation between the worker and the technology with which he spends his working life. Instead of the worker using the machine, the machine uses the worker. But the machine is the expression of human power, wrapped up in the inhuman form of capital.
As Marx’s analysis in Capital proceeds, he describes social forms which dominate human life more and more inhumanly, less and less under conscious control. Naturally, the way economists think about them is increasingly fantastic. The forms of capital all have this crazy character, springing from the fundamental madness of exchange-value. But the absurdity reaches new heights in more developed forms of the capital-relation. Take ground rent, for instance. How can you measure land, which is not produced by anybody, in terms of commodities or money?
The proportion of one part of the surplus-value, the money-rent ... to the land is as it stands absurd and irrational; for it is incommensurable quantities which are measured against one another here, a particular use-value on the one hand, a piece of land of so and so many square feet, and value, in particular surplus-value, on the other.
From the standpoint of a higher socioeconomic formation, the private property of particular persons in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. [Capital I]
Near the end of Volume 3, Marx speaks of the crazy way economists look at the world, as
the bewitched, distorted and upside-down world, haunted by Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre, who are at the same time social characters and things. ... Even its [‘classical economics’] best representatives remained more or less trapped in the world of illusion their criticism had dissolved. [Capital I]
In more developed forms of credit there appear financial arrangements in which money seems by magic to produce more money. It seems to have this ‘occult property’, without any relation to production at an: ‘Like the growth of trees, so the generation of money seems a property of capital in this form of money capital., And when he talks about the buying and selling of the state debt, Marx says: ‘interest-bearing capital always being the mother of every insane form, so that debts, for example, can appear as commodities in the mind of the banker’.
Each of the features of modern society analysed by Marx through his critique of political economy expresses the contradiction between human potential for creation and self-creation, and the inhuman denial of this potential inside which it is imprisoned and which is the essence of capital as a social power. Under this power, individuals are regarded, and sometimes regard themselves, as merely ‘the personification of economic categories, the bearers [Träger] of particular class-relations and interests’. The conflict between the worker and capital makes this visible, palpable. The workers as a class link up with the means of production, which represent the knowledge of society as a whole, as individuals that is, when they sell their human capacity, labour-power, in return for wages. They are thus shut out from the true characteristics of humanity – self-conscious self-creation as part of nature.
The struggle of the working class for organised unity shows the possibility and necessity of transcending these inhuman conditions of life. Those whose life-activity is the human process of interaction with nature to create wealth, fight back against their reduction to being merely ‘the personification of labour-power’. This movement – whether its Participants are aware of it or not – challenges the immediate power of capital over life-activity. It calls into question all of the ways in which human life is treated inhumanly, the many forms of inhumanity of modern society.
In present-day society, productive labour can have no other meaning but production under the dominion of capital. Productive forces can take the form only of the productive power of capital and social relations of production can only be the impersonal, abstract relations of capital. The aim of Marx’s ‘critique of political economy’ is to exhibit and to challenge the assumption, common to all schools of economics, that there have to be social forms like these, distinct from and in opposition to the lives of the people who live within them.
Because of our alienated lives, the historical process seems to be driven by a force external to human life, something which happens to us, rather than something which we do. Marx insists that history is the activity of men and women, but they have not always got the results they expected:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. [18th Brumaire]
Of course, we can never escape from our history. It will always provide the conditions for our lives. One day, however, it will not be ‘like a nightmare’.
‘Marxism’ read this account of the historical process as if Marx was describing an eternal and essential characteristic of human life. The whole point of his work was the exact opposite. He was talking about the inhuman condition, when our lives are steered by what seem to be external forces. ‘History’ appears as the active subject, and we are just its puppets, pulled around by ‘historical forces’. Living humanly implies that the social relations between us will be subject to our collective decision. This will be the beginning of our ‘real, conscious history’.
In the estranged form of life, human creative powers operate within the framework of alienated social relations, continually colliding with them. The self-activities (’selbstbetätigungen’) of individuals
appear as a world for themselves, quite independent of and divorced from the individuals, alongside the individuals; the reason for this is that the individuals, whose forces they are, exist split up and in opposition to one another. [German Ideology]
For humans to be ‘split up and in opposition to each other’ implies they are also in opposition to themselves. To be human entails productive activity and social connection forming a united whole. At present, they directly conflict with each other. One result of this conflict is the splintering of the social totality and of individual personalities.
‘Marxism’ made a mechanical ‘model’ out of Marx’s metaphor about ‘basis and superstructure’. This is what Marx actually says, in the most famous statement of his thoughts on the matter, the much reprinted Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
The sum total of these relations of production constitutes [bilden = shapes, forms] the economic structure of society, the real basis, on which rises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite [bestimmte] forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material [materiellen] life, conditions [bedingt] the social, political and intellectual [geistigen = spiritual] life process in general.
‘Marxism’ in its cruder forms managed to read this as a description of changes in consciousness being caused by the action of production relations. (Some accounts even say productive forces, while the worst say this just means technology.) Even if Marx was not sufficiently clear in this very concentrated passage, the causal interpretation cannot be right. I think he means that when our social relations are strangers to us, our enemies, we do not control our lives. Our ideas arise within forms which we do not create, given to us ‘Independently of our will’.
When life goes on inside a set of estranged relations, all this is concealed. The social connections appear to have a life of their own. Every change in the forces of production, say, in the efficiency of baking machinery, or of combine harvesters, will upset this network of connections, in unpredictable ways. On the new basis, political, ideological and emotional life will be affected. And none of this will be the outcome of conscious decisions by anybody.
The distinction and opposition between productive forces and social relations implies the distortion of each of the pair. Marx shows the organic connection of these two opposed categories. He sometimes speaks of the social relation, capital, as itself being a force of productions Abilities to produce are not consciously directed to satisfy collective human needs. Inhuman relations between antagonistic individuals hold back and pervert the development of these abilities.
Human productive capacity, human self-creation, grows up inside inhuman social forms. With it grows the possibility for living humanly – but only the possibility, for the inhuman skin acts as a barrier to the human content. In modern times, when the antagonism is at its sharpest, it is possible for this to be recognised, and for this recognition to be made the basis for conscious action.
The ‘Marxist’ equation: forces of production = machines + labour power, which looks terribly ‘materialist’, actually exemplifies the outlook associated with estrangement. It takes for granted precisely what Marx challenges: the separation of labour from the means of labour. This corrupted account of ‘Marxism’ held to an ‘economic determinism’, in which technology, in some mysterious fashion, pushed everybody along, operating behind the back of human consciousness.
The ‘Marxist’ discussion of the relation between ‘material social relations’ and consciousness implied that it accepted their separation.
Human activity can be considered independently of consciousness and its forms only by ignoring what humanity is. When Marx said: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines [bestimmt] their being but their social being that determines their consciousness’, the ‘Marxists’ heard that human thinking is inevitably moulded by external ‘social conditions’. They weren’t listening. Marx was pointing to the way that alienated social life appears to those who live it. Their liberation means the expansion of the power of consciousness to determine their social being.
There are exceptional times when it becomes a bit easier to gain an insight into what is happening, even if it is only a partial one. This is on those special occasions when the mismatch between the human powers of production and the existing social relations reaches a climax. Then some people can become partially conscious of the meaning of their suffering and that of others, and that this suffering expresses the stunting of their human powers. The chance that a different way of living might possibly be created peeps through the alien forms: ‘Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.
Marx is far from regarding such changes as if they happened mechanically. Instead of individual men and women simply obeying the dictates of History, he is concerned with what individuals think and do in such periods of change, when suffering pushes them to ask: why? It then might become possible for some of them to see that their misery arises from the collision between their human potential and the existing social set-up. Then they struggle to find ways to remake their social relationships.
Marx is especially keen to point out that, while ‘material changes in the economic conditions of production’ may be ‘determined with the precision of natural science’, this is by no means true of ‘ideological forms’ like law, politics, religion, art or philosophy. These are the forms in which I men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. ... This consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life.
In Grundrisse, there is a passage comparing the consciousness of the proletarian with that of the slave, which I think ought to make even the most hardened ‘Marxist’ stop and think.
The recognition of the products as its own, and its awareness that its separation from the conditions of its realisation is improper and imposed by force, is an enormous consciousness, and is itself the product of the mode of production based on capital, and just as much the knell to its doom as the consciousness of the slave that he cannot be the property of another, his consciousness of being a person, reduced slavery to an artificial lingering existence, and made it impossible for it to continue to provide the basis of production. [Grundrisse]
Now look again at what Marx includes under the heading of ‘superstructure’ (‘Uberbau’): law, state, religion and philosophy – all those institutions and forms of thought which characterise estrangement. Each of them has, of course, played its part in the process of history, but as a form which expresses the antagonism between individuals and society. Each of them is an inhuman, non-social form of something human and communal, a form of human life which denies humanity. This illustrates Marx’s remark that our lives appear to be ‘ruled by abstractions’ – money, nation, state, and so on – while ‘the abstraction or idea is nothing but the theoretical expression of those material relationships which dominate the individuals’.
In Grundrisse, Marx sets out his understanding of historical necessity as something to be overcome. Talking about the ‘distortion and inversion’ involved in the exploitative relations of wage-labour and capital, Marx stresses that
this process of inversion is merely an historical necessity, merely a necessity for the development of the productive forces from a definite historical point of departure, or basis. In no way is it an absolute necessity of production; it is, rather, a transitory [verschwindene = disappearing] one, and the result and immanent aim of this process is to transcend this basis itself and this form of the process. [Grundrisse]
There are laws of nature: we make use of them in our work if we can, but we cannot alter them. There are laws of history: the aim is to overcome them. Marx’s view of history referred to the history of humanity locked inside its inhuman shell – and its struggle to get out. Only in this context can you ask why this opposition exists between human productive powers and the social relations within which they develop. Only then does it make sense to ask how this breach can be transcended. This division is the basis for those ‘contradictions of material life’, which alone provide the possibility of understanding why forms of consciousness appear to be independent of the way we live.
Marx’s conception of the historical development of estranged life thus centres on the nature of human activity and the growth of human creative power. In a society in which relations between humans is collectively and consciously decided, and which thus corresponds to the essential characteristics of humanity, Marx foresees that ‘productive forces and social relations’ will be ‘two sides of the development of the social individual’.
When I mentioned, on page 91, the elements which Marx included as belonging to the ‘superstructure’, I omitted one from the list: art. What is that doing alongside religion, philosophy, law and politics? I think what it has in common with the rest is its separation from living, and the fact that its practice is in the hands of special people called ‘artists’. Overcoming estrangement would involve the organic unity of artistic production with all other departments of production. Imagination will be united with intellect, feeling with reason.
And yet, even today, things of beauty and the modes of their production might give us a window on to humanness, demonstrating the possibility of free creation. Only the window is dirty, smeared with the filth of money, oppression, exploitation and privilege, and the vision we can sometimes discern through it is of a world mockingly inaccessible to us.
Marx understands history as a double movement. ‘Humanness’, human creativity, expands with every advance of technology. But it does so inside a progressively dehumanised cage. The conflict and organic interdependence of these two sides is the source of change. This is the lesson of the twentieth century, even more clearly than of the nineteenth. In the twenty-first century, win the conditions at last exist for this contradiction to be resolved?
Everybody knows the statement with which Marx and Engels began their Communist Manifesto: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ However, the place of classes in Marx’s view of history is not as simple as ‘Marxists’ have often supposed. Even this very sentence was not left intact: Engels later added a footnote excluding pre-history from its scope. Furthermore, the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy does not mention classes at all.
By the term ‘class’, Marx did not intend a sociological category, a way of classifying people by their economic role or income bracket. It was not a component of a ‘model’ of society or of history: there is no place in Marx’s thinking for that device. The classical Marxist definition of a class as ‘a group having the same relation to the means of production’ is actually one of the aspects of Ricardo’s work which Marx took up as part of his critique.
Ricardo described the division of bourgeois society into the three great classes, distinguished by their different ‘revenues’: capitalists received profit, workers’ wages and landlords rent. But what Marx wants to know is how the social relation, capital, shapes our lives, and how the division into classes and sub-classes helps to hide and constrict humanity.
A class, for Marx, is a historical entity, something which acts and shapes itself in the course of its conflicts with other classes. The classes of modern society cannot be understood in isolation from each other. Each must be grasped in relation to the whole ‘social formation’ as an alienated way of living. The transcendence of estrangement implies the disappearance of classes and the antagonism between classes.
The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; in other respects they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn assumes an independent existence as against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of life predetermined. ... This subsuming of individuals under classes cannot be abolished until a class has evolved which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against a ruling class. [German Ideology]
The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic, not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social mode of existence. [Grundrisse]
What is special about this ‘bourgeois mode of production’? Why did Marx think that the modern working class was the revolutionary class, and that bourgeois society was ‘the last form of servility [die letzte Knechtschaft] assumed by human activity’? Capital produced ‘the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism’ in two ways. The activity of capital raised the productive power of labour. On a world scale, humanity had the potential to relieve itself of inhuman conditions of life and work. Capital perverts this potential into inhuman forms.
As it did this it produced the proletariat, a social class unlike any other in history. It was able to ‘form itself into a class’, to organise itself and, in the course of this activity, to become conscious of itself, to ‘constitute itself into a party’. The inhuman conditions of life of the proletarian, the fact that she can live only by selling her human life-activity for money, means that she can assert her humanity only through the Collective struggle to overthrow the power of capital on a global level.
To struggle to be human, the wage-worker cannot avoid confronting the tasks which go far beyond her individual difficulties: uniting the entire body of wage-workers, abolishing all classes, including the proletariat itself, liberating the whole of humankind from estrangement in au its forms. As a class, the proletariat had to become conscious of these objectively given tasks. It had to establish its own governmental machine, to take the means of production out of the hands of the owners of capital, and to lead the whole of society in establishing a free association of producers.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels trace the historical formation of the working class as an objective process, bound up with the rise of the power of capital. The struggle for the independence of the working class begins as a blind individual struggle, develops into partial, local struggles and ends as an international fight for communism. Only when it becomes conscious of this task does its past history make sense.
The movement which begins with the assertion of the interests of individuals and of sections of the exploited class, develops into a united struggle of the entire class, first nationally and then globally, and is eventually transformed into the fight for the disappearance of all classes. The climax of this development is therefore inseparable both from the expansion of human productive power and the degree to which the movement of the working class becomes conscious of itself.
‘Marxism’ lost sight of the connection between class struggle and the struggle for humanity. Today, it is hard to discern this link in the activity of the labour movement. And yet, despite all the confusion and betrayal, the Organisation of wage-workers into a united social power never ceases. Marx conceived of communism as the objective struggle of this movement to free itself from the alienated forms of consciousness engendered by the relations of capital. His communist political activity did not mean bringing socialist ideas into the struggle of the working class ‘from the outside’, but telling it, and anybody else who would listen, about die human meaning of what they were already doing.
One element of the ‘superstructure’ is of obvious importance. The statements of Marx and Engels about the state as an instrument for the violent suppression of the exploited class are well known. In the 1990s, we hardly need to be reminded of the brutality and corruption of those great, impersonal bureaucratic structures, the modern nation-states and the international agencies which are their globalised offspring.
But the power of the state cannot be reduced to instruments of violence, although these are at times its direct expression. Nor can it be understood simply as an instrument of the ruling class. That would be dodging much deeper questions: Why do the majority of individuals bow to the authority of the relatively small minority who exercise that power? Why do they generally accept without question the necessity for someone to govern them? To say that policemen, soldiers, judges, prison warders and executioners carry out the law neither explains why they do, nor why it is generally accepted that they should.
Our attempt to get to grips with this problem is not helped by the fact that Marx never wrote the book on the state which he had planned. The only full-length work he produced on the subject was the unfinished Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State, written (on his honeymoon!) in 1843. That was before he had started to study either socialism or political economy and before his concept of the proletariat had begun to take shape. Only the famous ‘Introduction’ was completed and published.
In his later political work, of course, Marx made many statements about the state and its forms – but these were never fully integrated into the main body of his work. His aim was to develop the methods with which he studied alienated economic relations in the analysis of alienated political forms.
Even the first, ‘economic’, part of his huge project was never completed. Its continuation would undoubtedly have dealt with the way that political forms developed historically, and with the relationship between them and the forms of consciousness in which they appear. Perhaps it would have paralleled the unfolding of the forms of value in Capital, Chapter 1, Section 3, and the discussion of fetishism in Section 4.
Marx spent a great deal of time studying the earliest forms of society, although only at the end of his life was there very much to be studied. He wanted to understand how forms of estrangement like private property, money and the state actually originated from within social forms which had existed without them for countless centuries.
The state, like capital, finds very material and very violent expression. Yet each of them might be termed a spiritual entity, as inseparable from their conscious reflections as value is. It is important to distinguish between the state in this sense and its appearance in particular forms of governmental machine. Marx discusses these, the different ways that nations have been governed, and the relation between governmental institutions on the one hand, and social classes and parts of classes on the other. However, none of this is outside the framework of the basic questions: Why do some people have power over others? Why are there states? Why is there a split between ‘civil power’ and ‘civil society’? These questions were central to the general issue of the relation between ‘basis’ and ‘superstructure’, discussed on pages 87-92.
Marx’s battles with his main political opponents can be understood only in this context. His lifelong fights against August Blanqui and his followers, against Proudhon, against Bakunin and, before them, against Max Stirner, are fundamentally directed against the way they looked at the relations between individuals and the state. (I shall have more to say about these people when I talk about revolution in the next section, ‘Transcending Estrangement’.)
Marx showed how the state, among other institutions, exemplified the estrangement of social life, the antagonism between the interest of the individual and that of the community, which is actually more basic than that between classes.
The state is based on the contradiction between public and private life, on the contradiction between general interests and private interests. [MECW Vol. 3, p 198]
[The community] takes on an independent form as the State, divorced from the real interests of individual and community, and at the same time as an illusory communal life. ... On the other hand, too, the practical struggle of these particular interests, which constantly really run counter to the communal and illusory interests, makes practical intervention and control necessary through the illusory ‘general’ interest in the form of the State. [MECW Vol. 5, p 46]
So the state is a form of community, but an illusory form, in contrast to the real, human community: ‘In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.’
Marx wanted to discover the basis of the illusion which is involved in this ‘illusory community’ and, above all, how the illusion is to be dispelled and the true community released.
Seen from inside estranged social forms, the state seems to speak with the voice of God Almighty, even to those of us who are quite well aware that – like the Deity – it is actually the product of the activities of all too human mortals. Explanations in terms of individual will are futile, declaring no more than that ‘people behave like this because they want to’. Neither the goodwill nor the malevolence of those who control the functioning of the state apparatus provide a solution to the riddle of the state. Nor is the mystery of the state and its power explained by talking in terms of ‘might’: ‘They would be killed if they did not obey.’
The bourgeois state, and its separation from its economic base, are shown by Marx to arise necessarily from the atomisation of individual life within that base. Estrangement and fetishism mean that the lives of individuals are controlled by powers which they themselves have made, but which lie outside themselves. Like money and capital, the political form simultaneously links people together by separating them:
The contradiction between the purpose and goodwill of the administration, on the one hand, and its means and possibilities, on the other hand, cannot be abolished by the state without the latter abolishing itself, for it is based on this contradiction.” [MECW Vol. 3, p 198]
This occurs when matters have changed in such a way that man as an isolated individual relates only to himself, but that the means of positing himself as an isolated individual have become precisely what gives him his general and communal character. ... In bourgeois society, e.g., the worker stands there purely subjectively, without object [objectivlos]; but the thing which confronts him has become the true community, which he tries to make a meal of and which makes a meal of him. [Grundrisse]
Take, for example, the worker who faces a new piece of technology. The law says that it does not belong to her, but to her employer. It will dominate her isolated life until either it or she is worn out. And yet it is actually her connection with the world of global technical development.
Marx saw the necessity of this form arising. The Enlightenment conception of pre-existing individuals freely deciding to come together to set up a state is itself an expression of the atomisation of bourgeois society. It is the illusion of ‘the egoistic individual in civil society’.
However, all his needs drive him to seek out other human beings.
Therefore, it is natural necessity, the essential human properties however estranged they may seem to be, and interest, that hold the members of civil society together; civil, not political life is their real tie. It is therefore not the state that holds the atoms of civil society together, but the fact that they are atoms only in imagination, in the heaven of their fancy ... not divine egoists, but egoistic human beings. Only political superstition still imagines that civil life must be held together by the state, whereas in reality, on the contrary, the state is held together by civil life. [MECW Vol. 4, p 120]
Society seems to be governed by rules laid down by the state. Marx shows the origin of the illusion that this is something natural. As he explained later in Grundrisse: ‘society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of the relationships and conditions in which these individuals stand to one another’.
Marx sought the source of ‘legal relations and political forms’ in ‘the material conditions of life’.
The specific economic form in which unpaid labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant. On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production, and hence also its specific political form. It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the immediate producers – a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds always to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power – in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice, and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of state in each case. [Capital III]
Marx’s analysis of commodities, money and capital showed how these social entities moved ‘behind the backs’ of individuals and enslaved the lives of wage-labourers and their families. So the bourgeois state, whatever its particular shape, could not but be the political representative of capital and the class of capitalists. Capital operates as a ‘subject’, and the state belongs in a superstructure, built upon estranged, exploitative economic relations.
Here is a quotation from A Dissertation in the Poor Laws, by the eighteenth-century parson-economist Townsend, as given in Grundrisse:
It seems to be a law of nature that the poor should be to a certain degree improvident, that there may be always some to fulfil the most servile, the most sordid and the most ignoble offices in the community. The stock of human happiness is thereby much increased. ... Legal constraint to labour is attended with too much trouble, violence and noise, creates ill-will, etc., whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent unremitted pressure, but, as the most natural motive to industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertion.
Marx knew that, here, for ‘hunger’ you ought to read ‘capital’:
Under capital, the association of the ouvriers is not enforced through direct physical force, compulsory, serf and slave labour; it is enforced by the circumstance that the conditions of production are alien property and are themselves present as objective association, which is the same as accumulation and concentration of the conditions of production. [Grundrisse]
The way that hunger does its work, exerting its ‘silent, unremitted pressure’ on the worker, is through the ‘accumulation and concentration of the conditions of production’ in the hands of the capitalist. The alternative – direct state violence – would be much more ‘troublesome’, as Parson Townsend’s highly Christian observation correctly argued.
The state, along with religion, law and philosophy, can now be seen as exemplifying humanity in inhuman shape. Political, legal and scientific forms arise as illusory stand-ins for community and the collective experience of humankind. These substitutes are necessary so long as that experience is atomised. While we are cut off from the ‘true community’, they will appear as external, enforced, superhuman powers and our consciousness of each of them will invert their real relationship to us. Thus they accurately express the upside-down nature of the world they seem to dominate.
They are superstructural, not the basic problem. They appear in history so long as production of human life takes the form of the production, not of the ‘real wealth’ of socialised humanity, but of the private property of certain individuals. This is the basis of our dehumanised lives. The false conceptions which accompany these forms are constituted by our own activities, which are our own enemies.
Unlike ‘Marxism’, Marx himself had no notion of a ‘workers’ state’ replacing the bourgeois state. I shall have a bit more to say about this when I come to discuss the problem of the transition to communism shortly. The overcoming of alienated life, what Marx called ‘communism’, means the disappearance of the opposition between political power and productive activity. Communal decision-making becomes a part of collective productive life.
Breaking out humanity from its inhuman shell means dissolving any political organ standing above society – the “illusory community’ – into the ‘true community’. This is the same process through which the working class itself must disappear, along with all other classes. How repugnant to Marx, therefore, would any idea have been that ownership of the means of production by a bureaucratic state machine would constitute ‘socialism’.
We often read the allegation that Marx never gave us a clear ‘description of communist society’. Some people complain about this, while ‘Marxism’ praised Marx for it, using ‘utopian’ as a swear-word to put a stop to all discussion of how we should live. That Marx devoted his whole life to the struggle for communism, a world in which we will transcend estranged forms of life like property, money and state, seems to be somehow ‘overlooked’.
He did not envisage a process in which some experts thought up a new set of relations, which then had to be brought into being by a clever bit of ‘social engineering. The problem was how we – all of us – could break out of a shell which denies what we already are. Collectively, we can remove the obstacles to a way of life in which ‘humanness’, which already exists, would be allowed to develop. Instead of forcing people to live another way, the aim is to allow them to live as they truly are.
Every bit of Marx’s work is based upon his conception of communist society as ‘an association of free human beings, working with communal means of production, and self-consciously expending their many individual labour powers as a single social labour power’.
Individuals will freely, collectively and consciously construct their social relationships. Their productive activity, instead of colliding with social relations which isolate them from each other, will be clearly seen to be for each other. How can the shape of such a future social form be spelled out in advance? Like this? ‘From next Tuesday, you will be free, in accordance with the following rules ...’:
Marx himself described his conception of communism, before he had used the word itself, in the Note on James Mill, back in 1844:
Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of thus having created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.
I am not going to try to summarise this amazingly rich passage, let alone the whole of this remarkable document, but here are some comments.
Passages like this are deeply embarrassing to ‘Marxists’, who ascribe such ‘sentimentality’ to their author’s ‘immaturity’. In fact, they contain the essence of all Marx’s work. In my opinion, the Note on James Mill embodies – of course in undeveloped form – the whole content of Grundrisse and Capital. Fourteen years after it was written, this is how the ‘mature’ Marx saw it:
The bourgeois economists are so wrapped up in the notions of a definite historical stage of social development that the necessity for the objectification of the social powers of labour appears to them to be inseparable from the necessity for their alienation over against living labour. But as soon as the immediate character of living labour is transcended, i.e. its character as merely individual, or as only internally or only externally general, with the positing of the activity of individuals as immediately general or social activity, this form of alienation is stripped from the reified moments of production. Then they are posited as [social] property, as the organic social body in which the individuals reproduce themselves as individuals, but as social individuals. [Grundrisse]
The belief of bourgeois economists, even the best of them, that the existing set-up is ‘natural’, makes it impossible for them to understand it. They are incapable of separating the social character of modern labour from its capitalist form. When this form is transcended, alienated labour – that means production in a social form which is the enemy of the producer – will be replaced with ‘immediately general or social activity’, in which ‘social individuals’ reproduce themselves and the relations between them. We shall work for each other, fulfilling each other’s needs as human beings, and this will become the normal way to live and to think. Marx sees this, not as the introduction of some new, previously non-existent, social form, but as the revelation of an existing humanness which has still to shed its ‘last form of servility’.
When the technology, developed inhumanly under the power of capital, is employed humanly, ‘disposable time has ceased to possess an antithetical character ... necessary labour-time will be measured by the needs of the social individual ... for real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals’.
Marx’s distinction between productive forces and social relations is understandable only from the standpoint of ‘socialised humanity’, of communism. In a world in which our individual life-activities were consciously and transparently devoted to the satisfaction of the needs of an, productive forces would be, and would be seen to be, human creative capacities, directly identified with the relations freely and openly obtaining between us. Needs, too, will become human needs, without the distortion which the market and exploitation necessarily bring about.
Let me repeat, I am not here talking about a ‘blueprint for the future’. Marx’s concept of communism cannot be separated from his description of the estranged life which we live today. That is why the problem of ‘transition’ was so badly mangled by the ‘Marxists’, who had forgotten what Marx was up to.
The productive powers of humanity have grown up inside the shell of inhumanity and have taken the form of means of exploitation, degradation and oppression. Simultaneously, the foundation for transcending this estrangement has been maturing. The potential for producing enough to satisfy our needs under human conditions of labour already exist. In fact, the crisis of humanity is a symptom of this possibility and its denial.
Marx’s anticipation of modern industrial advance in Grundrisse is justly famous:
Real wealth manifests itself rather ... in the immense disproportion between the labour time employed and its product, and simultaneously in the qualitative disproportion between labour reduced to a pure abstraction and the power of the production process which it oversees. Labour no longer appears so much as included in the production process, but rather man relates himself to that process as its overseer and regulator. ... No longer does the worker interpose a modified natural object between the object and himself; now he interposes the natural process, which he transforms into an industrial one, between himself and inorganic nature, which he makes himself master of. He stands beside the production process, rather than being its main agent. [Grundrisse]
Our investigations have, I hope, made it clear that this is no utopian flourish, but the essence of Marx’s entire work. Modern industry, which has brought so much misery and destruction into the world, is the basis for a truly human life.
The theft of alien labour time, which is the basis of present wealth, appears to be a miserable foundation, compared to this newly developed one, the foundation prepared by large-scale industry itself ... Production based upon exchange value collapses, and the immediate production process itself is stripped of the form of indigence and antagonism. Free development of individualities ... in general the reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, to which corresponds the artistic, scientific, etc. development of individuals, made possible by the time set free and the means produced for all of them. [Grundrisse]
Marx talked about this again near the end of Volume 3 of Capital.
Freedom in this sphere can consist only in this, that socialised man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control, instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; and accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions worthy and appropriate for their human nature.
It is embarrassing to read such statements in the world of the 1990s. To people living in the moral and spiritual desert of our time, how naive it sounds! Limited by the narrow horizons of the modern nightmare, they can only accept that the world has to be like it is, because that is just how human beings are. Marx’s insights point the way out of this miserable narrowness. Estrangement, egoism and violent antagonism are the denial of humanity. Given the development of modern technology, only the transcendence of estrangement will establish relations which are worthy of and adequate for our human nature.
Marx, for whom communism is not a ‘doctrine’, but a universal task, anticipates a world whose social character is open, transparent, taken for granted by everybody. Relationships like this have become possible because of the growth of modern industry under the rule of capital. But that implies alterations in people, in their consciousness and self-consciousness. As the experiences of this century show, this task must raise enormous difficulties, and I don’t want to pretend that Marx has answered all these problems.
At its best, ‘Marxism’ thought it was engaged in the preparation of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, a process whose climax was to be the world-wide smashing of the bourgeois state machine. But what did Marx mean by revolution? Was it just a matter of a change of state form? Of getting rid of one ruling class and replacing it with another? Of altering the legal form of property?
In the light of Marx’s view of humanity, we ought to look a bit deeper. First of all, we must distinguish between his understanding of the revolutions of the past – of course, he always had the French Revolution in mind – and the taking of political power by the proletariat. This is how he put it in a famous passage from the German Ideology:
In all previous revolutions the mode of activity always remained unchanged and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the hitherto existing mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc, within present society. [German Ideology]
(Of course, at the time when Marx wrote this, when he said ‘labour’ he meant ‘estranged labour’.)
The problems of the transition to socialism, which ‘Marxism’ tried to theorise, still confront us. But, how can we – people who live as social atoms, whose lives are dominated by social relations which confront us as our enemies, whose thoughts are gripped by the power of money and the state – how can people like us think about the way to live in an association of free human beings?
Such a transformation cannot be just an updated version of the seventeenth-century upheaval in England, or of that in France at the end of the eighteenth. Those were vital experiences which involved many people – though they were still only a minority – in attempts to liberate their lives from particular forms of oppression, and to understand what they were doing. But the conditions under which they fought limited the outcome to no more than ‘a question of a different distribution’ of labour. I am concerned with understanding a far more drastic change.
To continue the passage from the German Ideology, quoted earlier:
Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages [sich den ganzen alten Dreck vom Halse zu schaffen]. [German Ideology]
This is not a change of political regime, which leaves intact the main obstacles to humanness. Marx is discussing the overcoming of centuries of alienated life. A change like that is impossible without the changing of people – people consciously and deliberately altering their ways of living and their ways of thinking.
Marx never altered his view that such a transformation was likely to be violent. The taking of political and social control from the old ruling class, as it clung to power and privilege, could never be an easy process. But the most changeable – self-changeable – element in the transition is the revolutionary class.
No wonder, then, that Marx and Engels could never draw a diagram showing just how it was to take place, what difficulties it would encounter, and how to overcome them. I am discussing an epoch of social development through which men and women will have to pass, and they Will answer its problems in the course of creative and self-creative activity on an unprecedented scale.
The transcendence of estrangement must arise from within the old way of life, but at a particular stage in its development: the revolutionary epoch in which its estranged, inhuman character begins to impinge on the consciousness of those who live and suffer under it. Each aspect of the conflict between humanity and its inhuman shape must be brought to light, so that we can begin to see it for what it is.
Those who could grasp the general nature of the transition a bit more clearly than their fellow humans had to engage in practical activity within the conflicts in society as a whole. For this, they needed to try to illuminate each of these struggles with their understanding of the nature of their time as the epoch of the socialist revolution.
Loose talk among ‘Marxists’, however sincere, self-sacrificing and devoted, about a ‘revolutionary party making a revolution’, missed the whole point. The violence of this process, about which both we ‘Marxists’ and our opponents made such a fuss, is hardly the issue – there is so much violence going on anyway within our crazy world.
Marx was convinced that the transformation he anticipated would be spearheaded by ‘the proletariat constituting itself as a party’, supported by people from all sections of society. The idea that communists would ‘seize power’ and exercise a ‘dictatorship’ over society belonged not to Marx but to his lifelong opponent Blanqui. As I mentioned in Chapter 2, when Marx used the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, that is what he meant: it was the class en masse which would be the ‘dictator’, not some self-appointed elite.
The most important feature of this class activity was that it centred on the disappearance of this class itself, its dissolution in the true community.
The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society. ... It is only in an order of things in which there are no more classes that social evolutions will cease to be political revolutions. [Poverty of Philosophy]
From his study of the experience of the upheavals of 1848, and of the Paris Commune in 1871, Marx clarified this conception. In The Civil War in France (1871), read by the General Council of the First International to its members after the brutal suppression of the world’s first working-class government, the characteristics of the Commune which he highlighted demonstrate how far his ideas of transition were from the ‘Marxist’ caricature. The Commune was ‘the direct antithesis of the Empire’, ‘a republic that was not only to supersede the monarchical form of government, but class rule itself. He stressed the Commune’s decision to suppress the standing army and to substitute for it ‘the armed people’. He firmly applauded its democratic character, its attempt to establish a form of government in which ‘the police was ... stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agents of the Commune’. Among the most important features of the Commune were the efforts it made to prevent its servants from acquiring special privileges. Marx applauded the aim of setting up an ‘elective, responsible and revocable judiciary.
Those who accept the ‘Marxist’ version of ‘proletarian dictatorship’ may be surprised to hear that Marx favoured the Communard notion of decentralised government, in which
the rural communes of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the national delegation in Paris, each delegate to be revocable and bound by the mandat impératif [formal instruction of his constituents]. [Civil War in France]
In The Civil War in France, Marx is careful never to refer to the Commune as a state, but as a form of government which had tried to take over the functions of the state. Indeed, in an earlier draft of the ‘Address’, he put it like this:
The Commune – the reabsorption of the state power by society as its own living forces instead of as forces controlling and subduing it, by the popular masses themselves, forming their own force instead of die organised force of their suppression – the political form of their social emancipation, instead of the artificial force (appropriated by their oppressors) (their own force opposed to and organised against them) of society wielded for their oppression by their enemies. [Civil War in France]
Considering what the Commune might have achieved, he speaks of
all France organised into self-working and self-governing communes ... the suffrage for the national representation not a matter of sleight-of-hand for an all-powerful government, but the deliberate expression of organised communes, the state functions reduced to a few functions for general national purposes.
Such is the Commune – the political form of the social emancipation, of the liberation of labour from the usurpations (slave-holding) of the monopolists of the means of labour, created by the labourers themselves or forming the gift of nature. As the state machinery and parliamentarism are not the real life of the ruling classes, but only the organised general organs of their dominion, so the Commune is not the social movement of the working class and therefore of a general regeneration of mankind, but the organised means of action. [Civil War in France]
These words show why Marx never used the term ‘workers’ state’, later so widely employed by ‘Marxists’ to describe a particular form of centralised state power. When Bakunin asks, sarcastically, ‘There are about 40 million Germans. Does this mean that all 40 million will be members of the government?” Marx, in 1874, answers directly: ‘Certainly! For the system starts with the self-government of the communities. ... When class rule has disappeared, there will be no state in the present political sense.’
In his controversies with Proudhon, with Stirner and with Bakunin, what was at stake was not so much their call to ‘abolish the state’, but their refusal to consider what was the basis of the state. Only when private ownership of the means of labour, and thus the alienated form of labour, disappeared, would the state dissolve into the community. The socialist revolution was simply the way this historical process would be organised. In view of the distorting experience of the Russian Revolution, I believe these ideas of Marx are among his most relevant for our time.
I have reviewed some of the most important of Marx’s ideas, trying to see them as revolving round his basic conception of humanity and its development within inhumanity. Does this way of looking at the world and its problems enable us to find a way forward in the next century? That is what I shall be discussing in Chapter 5.
We must get away from the false understanding of Marx as the formulator of ‘iron laws’ of history. On the contrary, his entire work was directed at showing that such laws can be transcended, and that humanity can take control of its own life. Indeed, that is what it means to be human.
It would be quite ridiculous to contend that Marx had a complete world outlook, or that his views formed a consistent system. His own way of thinking makes such a view quite untenable. It is not just the opinions that he held on many issues which today can be seen to have been quite wrong (I am thinking, especially, of his ideas about nationality, which are sometimes appalling); nor is it the immense size of his uncompletable project. It is because his own conception of the relation between science and the alienated social forms within which it has to develop is quite hostile to the idea of a complete body of knowledge. That is why Chapter 4 deals with Marx’s idea of how knowledge developed.