Cyril Smith 2005
We live in a world dominated by huge aggregates of capital, which live by feeding off the labour of millions and millions of ordinary men and women. Marx’s book is concerned with the struggle for that social form which stands opposed to this. Millions of words have been written about the most famous of Marx’s works, (some of them informative, some of them less so). But unlike most of these, I argue that the book is about freedom, and the difficulties in present conditions of appreciating it. Freedom, Marx thought and propounded in this book, could not be achieved without the mass of working people gaining their self emancipation. This would be attained when their ‘material dependence’ on capital was overcome in a ‘ union of free individuals’.
In my book, ‘Karl Marx and the Future of the Human’, I found answers to some related questions by considering Marx’s writings without referring to such figures as Plekhanov, Kautsky, Lenin, and even Engels, answers which sometimes surprise us. ‘Capital: A Critique of Political Economy’ played only a minor role. This was not because I made little of it, but because I could not bring it within a sufficiently small scope. I still can’t, but here I shall only try to indicate what an article would be like which did.
In ‘Karl Marx and the Future of the Human’ (Lexington, 2005), I tried several times to define the word ‘critique’. Let me try again. Marx’s work throughout his life is concerned with showing that correcting the output of philosophers, economists, theologians or sociologists is not enough. His aim is to relate their efforts to the social forces which gave rise to them, and in taking up their subjects at its highest level to illuminate the task which humanity has to accomplish in going beyond them.
This involves taking the positions of the highest achievements of philosophy very seriously. But each philosophy is ‘its own time expressed in thought’, and no more, and it can, at best, not go beyond the set of relations which exist. To do that, more than a philosophy is required, a mode of thought which bases itself on a class which is not a class, whose interests demand a fundamental break with ‘everything that exists’, and which therefore are the interests of all humankind.
When it comes to the critique of political economy, even the most honest of political economies, we are faced with the essence of the social order. The accomplishment of this task would mean no less than the construction of a new way of living for humanity. What criterion is to be used in a critique like this? Utopians take an ideal from their heads, never asking where it came from. But however interesting each of them might be, their heads are only filled up with content drawn from the present order of society. Where else could it come from?
Marx’s critique of political economy is the most profound to be made of human society. Here we meet the deepest sources of our world social crisis. It ought to be clear that a critique of political economy must take us to the very well-springs of our problems. It ought to be but it isn’t. What is known as ‘Marxist economics’ is a collection of the most obvious banalities.
‘Capital’ is about religion. I don’t mean that Marx spends any time at all in discussion of the existence of God – neither for nor against – but that the critique of political economy must imply the critique of human systems of belief . What is distinctive about his ultimate view is that it sees in religion a way of thinking which reflects the way that people live, and, in class society, the way of thinking which determines the way that they live. I repeat: what does critique mean? It means relating contradictions in the theoretical analysis of a specific entity to the contradictions in society. In criticising the State, Marx had from the start, put forward the prospect of life without any form of rule by a power above individuals. The criticism of religion, he stressed, meant removing the power which individuals erected over themselves.
Religion – including most forms of atheism – is the mental correspondent which most clearly identifies the nature of capital, and the methodological relationship between the parts of the system described by political economy. Talk about ‘Marxist economics’, or ‘Marx’s economic doctrines’, imply a first chapter which is about a ‘theory of value’, or a ‘theory of exploitation’, instead of being about the critique of political economy. Until ‘the veil is … removed from the countenance of the social life-process’, these remain the prime targets of what the veil obscures.
What is meant by ‘the fetish-character of commodities’ makes this a bit clearer. As long as commodities possess this property, they must give their producers the appearance of independence of each other. This makes religion the only possible analogy, since it is here that systems of belief sustain an entire social order.
One aspect of this religious dimension of commodities is the use of the word ‘form’, which either on its own or as a part of a combined term, is found everywhere in the account of capital. For instance: ‘Things which in and for themselves are not commodities, things such as conscience, honour, etc., can be offered for sale by their holders, and thus acquire the form of commodities through their price.’ (Chapter 3.) These forms are sometimes described as ‘insane’, or ‘absurd’, or simply ‘mad’ [verrueckte].
‘When the producers of coats or boots bring these commodities into a relation with linen, or with gold or silver (and this makes no difference here), as the universal equivalent, the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society appears to them in exactly this mad form. The categories of political economy 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 historically determined mode of production, i.e. commodity production.’ (Chapter 1.)
What is not always understood about ‘Capital’, is that money and commodities are mental or spiritual categories, as is capital itself. If they have material form and decidedly material effects, that is precisely what is distinctive about them.
‘The price or money-form of commodities is, like their form of value generally, quite distinct from their palpable or real bodily form; it is therefore a purely ideal or notional form. … Since the expression of value of commodities in gold is a purely ideal act, we may use purely imaginary or ideal gold to perform this operation.’ (Chapter 3.) (Today, he could add, money may be reduced to no more than a set of electronic impulses.)
When we set one commodity against another, we are identifying their values, while we know quite well that as use-values they are as different as chalk and cheese. ‘Modern society, which already in its infancy had pulled Pluto by the hair of his head from the bowels of the earth, greets gold as its Holy Grail, as the glittering incarnation of its innermost principle of life.’ (Chapter 3.)
Most important is the monetary crisis, when the money commodity becomes the leading commodity. ‘As the hart pants after water, so pants his soul after money, the only wealth’.
It is as religious elements that commodities, money and capital itself possess their mysterious character, which is not seen if we begin with money, etc. fully-formed. (The Catholic doctrine of trans-substantiation is a good analogy. Perfectly sensible – if we accept the Holy Trinity.)
Thus, when in Section 3 of Chapter 1, we examine the ‘transformation’ of one commodity into another – linen into coat, for example – ‘tailoring is now seen as the tangible form of realisation of abstract human labour’. The various commodities are transformed into one another, and all are all transformed into money. In short, we see all these ‘shape-shifting’ objects as identical. Thus, the genesis of capital is the ‘transformation of money into capital’.
‘In truth, however, value is the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorises itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus value is its own movement, its valorisation is thus self-valorisation [Selbstverwertung].’ (Chapter 4.)
Here we have the magical process of capital. ‘Something must take place behind the backs which is not visible in the circulation itself’. (Chapter 5.) The transformation takes place without the conscious intervention of the capitalist or the worker. ‘Personification of things and reification of persons’ – ‘Personifizierung der Sachen und Versachlichung der Personen’: that is how Marx describes the relationship of the elements of political economy with the people who live by them. The relations between these people is determined, not by themselves, but by the entities money, commodities, capital, etc.
Marx points out that ‘the capitalist is the conscious bearer [Traeger] of this movement’. He is distinct from the miser, in that ‘whereas the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser’. The transformation of surplus value into capital means that the whole of society is in the grip of capital, and is unable to think outside it.
‘While productive labour is changing the means of production into constituent elements of a new product, their value undergoes a metempsychosis. It deserts the consumed body to occupy the newly created one. But this transmigration takes place, as it were, behind the back of the actual labour in progress.’ (Chapter 8.)
In Chapter 23, the position of the modern wage-earner is contrasted with the classical slave.
‘The Roman slave was held by chains; the wage-labourer is bound by invisible threads. The appearance of independence is maintained by a constant change in the person of the individual employer, and by the legal fiction of a contract.’
In Chapter 24, ‘The Transformation of Surplus-Value into Capital’, Marx is most clear about the illusory nature of this process:
‘The relation of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes a mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself, and merely mystifies it.’
Within the bounds of alienation, the methods of thought called economics maintain the domination of the producers.
‘Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine.’ (Chapter 25.)
And this is the specific function of economics, the theology of the capitalist mode of production.
‘The law of capital accumulation, mystified by the economists into a supposed law of nature, in fact expresses the situation that the very nature of accumulation excludes every diminution in the degree of exploitation of labour, which could seriously imperil the continual reproduction on a larger scale, of the capital-relation. It cannot be otherwise in a mode of production in which the worker exists to satisfy the need of the existing value 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 products of is own brain, so, in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand.’ (Chapter 25.)
Now, how can human beings escape from this situation? Chapter 1, Section 4 shows the way. The ‘atheistic’ attitude towards its religious expression would not show the way out at all, since it is perfectly compatible with religious ways of thinking. The importance of the religious element is seen in this escape from the clutches of capital. The utopian solution to the problem is simple: if the entities – commodity, money, capital, etc. – are mental or spiritual, then you just have to point this out, and they will cease to exist. This is the equivalent of atheism – ‘God doesn’t exist; end of story’ – but the enormous power of religion is left intact. The ‘heart of a heartless world’ is not put right by a glib argument like this, however well-meant it may be.
In the same way, it is no answer to commodities, to say ‘I don’t believe in money’, or, to capital, ‘I never work for wages’. They are ‘the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development’, and communism cannot come into being without their fullest unfolding. As he writes almost at the end of his account of the historical process,
‘The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralisation of the means of production and the socialisation of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument [Huelle]. This integument is burst asunder. The expropriators are expropriated.’ (Chapter 32.)
What kind of truth is this sentence supposed to represent? Is it ‘scientific’, in the modern sense, showing part of a theory, logical following from a hypothesis, which may or not be true? Some people have read Marx like this. Many of them now present their cheque to history: ‘Where is the revolution you promised me? Give me my life back!’ They misunderstand the very meaning of Marx, losing him in ‘Marxism’.
If they had paid attention to the sentence in the ‘Afterword’ to the Second Edition, it would have been better:
‘The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion.’
The prevalence of the dreaded ‘dialectical materialism’ has meant that the meaning of this sentence is – to say the least – not understood. Marx was explaining how the ‘mystification’ which was the essence of Hegel’s religious view, had to be seen in the context of his understanding of capital. Like every other spiritual entity, the categories of political economy are to be understood as religious, and Marx points the way to the overcoming of religion, along with the State and class division. (In my book, ‘Karl Marx and the Future of the Human’, Part III, ‘Marx and Mysticism’, I have explored Hegel’s somewhat idiosyncratic conceptions of religion.)
‘The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it becomes production by freely-associated men, and stands under their conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence, which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development.’
The young Marx, over thirty years earlier, said what was needed about this question: ‘Did not the ancient Moloch reign? Was not the Delphic Apollo a real power in the life of the Greeks?’ (Notebooks to the Doctoral Thesis. 1839) He was criticising Kant’s ‘famous refutation’ of Anselm’s ‘proof’ of the existence of God. He never went back on this.
The overcoming of alienation is impossible without the overcoming of religion – not just a denial, but a real going-beyond. To go beyond religion demands that, after the ‘long and tormented historical development’ has taken place, reflection on the ‘practical relations’ of society can occur without any distortion or special pleading by individuals or groups of individuals.
Emancipation from the power of capital, money, the State, and God, will be possible not by a change of thinking, but by the actual alteration of people’s material being. Then and only then will ‘freely associated human beings’ be able look at their individual and collective wills as they are.
Then they will live human lives.