Max Beer 1923
Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 5, September 1923, No. 3, pp. 174-179;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
On February 9, 1849, Marx stood on trial before the Cologne jury, charged with having incited the people to sedition in his public appeal of November 18, 1848, calling upon the Rhenish population to refuse to pay taxes and to arm themselves against the Prussian authorities. For the understanding of the whole conflict the following remarks may be serviceable.
The German middle-class revolution broke out in March, 1848. On March 18, the Prussian Guards were beaten in the streets of Berlin. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV promised a constitution, but called the old United Diet together, the majority of which consisted of feudal nobles and landed proprietors, to legislate for the coming Prussian National Assembly and to prepare an “Agreement” between the Crown and the people. The Diet fulfilled its duty in its legislation of April 6 and 8, 1848. At the same time a Liberal Cabinet, with the bankers Camphanson and Hansemann at the head, prepared the elections for the National Assembly. On May 22, the Assembly was opened, but proved powerless or inefficient to secure freedom for the people as against the Crown and the army. None the less, the Assembly was a thorn in the side of the old powers, and it was violently dispersed in the middle of November, 1848, by General Wrangel’s troops. Hence the call of Marx to active resistance. The Public Prosecutor, arguing from the laws of April 6 and 8, which were passed by the United Diet, demanded severe punishment of the accused, but the Cologne jury brought in a verdict of “Not guilty.” Marx’s speech took over two hours in delivery; its purpose was to arraign the Prussian authorities, to explain to the German bourgeoisie the meaning of its own revolution, and to encourage it to carry on the revolutionary work to its logical conclusion—a middle-class democratic republic.
We take from Marx’s speech the following passages:—
“How did the laws of April 6 and 8, 1848, come about? By the co-operation of the Government and United Diet. In this way they thought to give continuity to the legal state of things and to patch up the break caused by the revolution, which had just put an end to that legal state of things…. For, what was the United Diet? The representation of old and decayed social conditions. The revolution which had taken place had no other aim but to bury the old society. And this representation of a defeated society was called upon to give organic laws which should recognise, regulate, and organise the achievements of the revolution against that very same old society! What absurd contradiction! The United Diet was overthrown together with the personal monarchy. How, then, could it legislate? Whence came the idea of allowing the United Diet, the representative of the old society, to dictate laws to the National Assembly, the representation of the new society born in the revolution?
“In reply to those questions it is stated that that was done in order to uphold the legal foundation of society. But, Gentlemen of the Jury, what do the old authorities mean when they argue in favour of upholding the legal foundation of society? They mean to maintain laws that sprang from the conditions of a past society and which were made by the representatives of obsolescent or past social interests, and which are therefore in opposition to the interests and needs of the new society.
“Society does not rest upon Law. This is a juridical fiction.
“Just the reverse is the truth. Law rests upon society; it must be the expression of the general interests that spring from the material production of a given society against the arbitrariness of any single individual.
“Here, the code of laws, which I hold in my hands, has not created modern civil society. It just happened the other way. The civil society that arose in the eighteenth and developed in the nineteenth century found its legal expression in the code. As soon as it ceases to correspond with the social conditions, the code will be as effete as wastepaper.
“You cannot make the old laws into the foundation of new social developments. They issued from the old conditions, and they must go down with the old society. And they necessarily change with the changing conditions of life. To maintain the old laws against the needs and claims of new social developments amounts really to the hypocritical assertion of obsolete exclusive interests against the interests of all,
“This plea for the upholding of the legal foundation intends to make those exclusive interests into ruling interests, while they are no more ruling; its purpose is to subject society to laws which are condemned by the very conditions of life of this society, that is, by its manner of creating the means of life, its trade and commerce, its material production. It aims at maintaining the function of legislators who but pursue their own exclusive interests, that is, at going on misusing national power in order to make the interests of an obsolescent minority have precedence of the interests of the majority. It is therefore in opposition to current needs; it impedes development; it prepares social crises, which eventually find their solution in explosive eruptions, in political earthquakes or revolutions.
“That is the true meaning of the plea for upholding the legal foundation. . . .
“Gentlemen of the Jury, let us not deceive ourselves as to the nature of the struggle which broke out in March, and which was later on continued between the National Assembly and the Crown. Do not imagine it to be one of those usual contests between the Front Bench and the Opposition, or a fight between politicians who are Ministers and politicians who want to be Ministers. It is quite likely that some members of the Assembly imagine themselves to be involved in such sham fights. The position is, however, not decided by the opinion of those members, but by the historic role of the National Assembly as it issued from the March revolution. We have to do not with a political conflict of two parliamentary parties based on the same social principles, but with a conflict of two societies, a social conflict which has assumed a, political form.... The political expression of the old society was the Crown by the grace of God, an independent army, a hectoring bureaucracy. The social basis of this political power was the privileged landed property. . . . The National Assembly, on the other hand, represents modern society, with its manufacturing and commercial basis, the political expression of which is Parliamentary government, the subordination of the State machinery, that is, public finance, the army, the bureaucracy, &c., to the needs of material production and circulation. Modern society knows no caste-like Estates of the Realm, but classes, formally equal before the law. Its progressive development depends on the conflict of classes.
“Royalty by the grace of God, the supreme political expression of the old feudal-bureaucratic society, can never make real concessions to modern society. Its instinct of self-preservation, the interests of the Estates who stand behind it, will continually impel it to withdraw the concessions, to reassert its old glory, to risk a counter-revolution”
“After a revolution, the counter-revolution is the vital urge of the defeated Crown, the defeated power. This urge will continually operate and renew itself. But the new society cannot rest unless the official and traditional machinery, by means of which the old society forcibly reasserts itself, in short, unless the State thereof is demolished and removed.”
In the years 1850-1870 Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels lived apart—the former in London, the latter in Manchester. Marx kept him well posted with information regarding the progress of his Capital. He was particularly anxious to initiate him into his work, so that Engels might spread the doctrine and continue the mission to which Marx devoted his life. The letters which they exchanged on economic, philosophical, literary, and political subjects contain a great deal of information on the various questions treated in. Capital. They were published in four volumes under the title Briefwechsel zwischen Engels und Marx (Stuttgart, 1912-1913). For the purpose of showing what Marx himself thought of his main achievement in economics, we quote the following from Marx’s letters, dated August 24, 1867, and January 8, 1868, respectively:—
“The best thing in my book (Capital, vol. i)—and on it depends the proper comprehension of the meaning of wage-labour—is, first, the treatment of the two-fold nature of labour, according to the circumstances: in which it expresses itself as use-value or exchange-value. Secondly, the treatment of surplus-value is done independently of the special forms, such as profit, interest, rent, &c. This will be shown particularly in the second volume of Capital. The treatment of this subject by the classical economists, who mix up the special forms with their general source, is an olla podrida.”
“I read. Dühring’s review of Capital. . . . It is curious that the fellow did not perceive the fundamentally new elements of the book. They are as follows:—
“(1) In contradistinction to all former economists, who from the onset treat the various fractions of surplus-value, in their fixed forms of rent, profit, interest, as something self-evident, as economic categories which need no explanation and no tracing back to their origin, I deal first with the source from which they spring, namely, surplus-value, in which they are still, so to speak, in solution.
“(2) All former economists, without exception, failed to notice that if a commodity has use-value and exchange-value, then also the labour which is embodied in the commodity has a two-fold nature, namely, use-value and exchange-value. The mere reduction of the commodity to labour sans phrase, as it is done by Smith, Ricardo, &c., must involve us in an inextricable tangle. The recognition of this point is the whole secret of the critical attitude towards political economy.
“(3) The wages of labour are, for the first time, revealed in my book to be an irrational form, behind which is concealed the social relation between the exploiters and exploited. I demonstrated this relation in both forms of wages—time and piece wages.”
It may perhaps be advisable to give some commentary on those points, which Marx regards as vital to an understanding of his critical attitude. And I can do this best by starting with the two-fold nature of value.
According to the economists who wrote before Marx, the worker received for his labour a certain quantity of means of subsistence or wages sufficient to replace the labour he has expended in the work; the capitalist and the worker exchange equivalent values, one gives a certain quantity of labour, the other a corresponding quantity of means of sustenance. The pre-Marxian economists believed to have disposed of the whole wage problem by showing that the economic relation between employer and employee was based on the law governing the exchange of values.
Then Marx came in and argued, You, political economists, have shown that all commodities have a use-value and an exchange-value. You have further shown that labour is a commodity. If so, then labour must also have a use-value and exchange-value. The capitalist, as a matter of fact, buys the use-value of the commodity labour power, which has this remarkable quality that it produces exchange-value far in excess of its use-value or the wage paid for it.
Now, this excess is surplus-value, the source from which profit, interest, and rent are drawn, or from which all non-productive members of society are fed and clothed and housed. While the pre-Marxian economists, Petty, Smith, Ricardo, &c., did not particularly inquire into or had no consistent view of the source of profit and interest or did not distinguish between surplus labour and profit, &c., Marx looked, above all, for the source which supplies the accretions of capital, and then showed the distribution of that surplus value, in the form of profit, interest, and rent, among the various classes of society. The only economic category which was much investigated was rent, but only because it constituted a surprofit. Ricardo’s problem was not as to source of rent per se, but as to its nature of surprofit, or how did it come about that land yielded a profit to the farmer as well as to the owner?
As to point (3) concerning wages as an irrational form, it will be best to refer the reader to Marx’s Capital, vol. I, pp.590-592 (English edition, Chicago, Kerr & Co., 1920, where it is shown that under the appearance of wages, which are supposed to be the value of labour, there is concealed the domination of Capital over Labour. The wage which is but a compensation for the expenditure of labour power, and therefore only for a certain fraction of the working day, appears as the value or the price of the whole working day, which thus includes also that fraction of the working day which is not paid for.
“The wage-form thus extinguishes every trace of the division of the working day into paid and unpaid labour. All labour appears as paid labour. Under villeinage, the labour of the worker for himself and his compulsory labour for the lord differ in space and time in the clearest possible way. In slave labour, even that part of the working day in which the slave is only replacing the value of his own means of existence, in which, therefore, he works for himself alone, appears as labour for his master. All the slave’s labour appears as unpaid labour. In wage-labour, on the contrary, even surplus labour or unpaid labour, appears as paid. There the property relation conceals the labour of the slave for himself; here the money relation, the cash nexus, conceals the unrequited labour of the wage-labourer. Hence we may understand the decisive importance of the transformation of value and price of labour-power into the form of wages, or into the value and price of labour itself. This phenomenal form, which makes the actual relation invisible, and indeed shows the direct opposite of that relation forms the basis of all the legal notions of both labourer and capitalist of all the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, of all its illusions as to liberty, of all the apologetic shifts of the vulgar economists.”
(The earlier instalments of this series of Max Beer’s annotated selections from the 12 literary remains of Karl Marx appeared in the July and August issues of the LABOUR MONTHLY (Vol. V, Nos. 1 and 2), which can be ordered through any newsagent or obtained direct for 8d. each post free, or both for is. 3d., from the Publisher, at 162 Buckingham Palace Road, London, S.W. 1.)
1. Karl Marx vor den Kölner Geschworenen. Hottingen, Zurich, 1886