Tag Archives: Marx

Capitalism and the Value Form

The following post is the third installment in an ongoing series on some of the key ideas in Marx’s thought. Part one can be found here. The second part is linked here. The last two parts will follow as they are completed: “What is Capital?” and, lastly, “Communism”.

Capitalist Society and the Value Form

Marx begins Capital by raising the question of wealth: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form” (125). In putting forward the contradiction between increased productivity of labor and the division of labor, Marx was able to show that as wealth grows so does exploitation and misery. It is only with capitalism that this contradiction reaches its limit. In no other form of society has the concentration and accumulation of productive powers been so great and exploitation so immense. In capitalism, as Marx writes elsewhere, “the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production” (“Estranged Labor”).

So far we have been discussing Marx’s ideas for all societies in general. But Marx’s aim was to understand what was particular about capitalist society, a form of production that was, from a world perspective, only embryonic in his own day. For Marx capitalist society is characterized by the value form, a form of existence and social relations unique in human history. What follows is an attempt to summarize and synthesize this concept.

The Dual Character of Labor

For Marx, central to understanding the organization of capitalist society is the dual character of the commodity. He argues in Capital that one side of the commodity is defined by how it is used, or “use-value.” He defines use by how the commodity “satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (125). We have seen how the idea of “human needs” plays an important role in Marx’s thought. Throughout history human beings have produced uses to satisfy and express their needs, giving rise to particular forms of society.

When looked at as a use the commodity is indistinguishable from the process of fulfilling needs as a general characteristic of all human societies. As such, commodities “constitute the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be” (Capital, 126). However, the production of uses takes, or, more precisely, cannot be separated from a specific form in each society or historical epoch. In capitalist society, Marx argues, the production of uses has a dual character that consists of its use and its exchange value. As he writes in Capital: “In the form of society to be considered here [uses] are also the material bearers of exchange value” (126).

Marx defines exchange-value as “the quantitative relation, the proportion, in which use-values of one kind exchange for use-values of another kind” (Capital, 126). This type of exchange is necessary because of the division of labor in capitalist society, which is composed of separate workers producing privately and selling their labor power to produce single uses. He writes:

The totality of heterogeneous use-values or physical commodities reflects a totality of similarly heterogeneous forms of useful labour, which differ in order, genus, species and variety; in short, a social division of labour. This division of labour is a necessary condition for commodity production….Only the products of mutually independent acts of labour, performed in isolation, can confront each other as commodities. (Capital, 132)

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Communism is the Ascension of Humanity as the Subject of History: A Critique of Althusser and the Affirmation of Marx

(By Gussel Sprouts)

“Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.” (Marx)

If we are to affirm the ideology of Marx, and the Marxist understanding of not only communism, but its relationship to humanity, we can only begin so by understanding his thoughts on ideology and of his break with Feuerbach, and what this means for the relationships of subjects/objects. Louis Althusser, the philosopher who said “structures don’t take to the streets” as he turned his nose up at the students protesting in May ’68, disingenuously knew or cared little for the ideas of Marx and the ways they were distinct from the other thinkers of his time. At other times, he was willfully and honestly ignorant, but it is important to understand that Althusser’s thought is largely contradictory in a logistical sense (he was inconsistent in his breaks/agreements with Marx) but also in a sense that he produced thought which was fundamentally anti-Marxist.

Our critique of Althusser must go even further here than that of his misunderstanding of Marx, but what he builds on with such a conclusion, parallels can be seen in ideological apparatuses already in historical existence and the present moment, to which we can conclude that the ideological and cultural apparatus, the real movement to abolish the present state of things is not one of ideas, nor ideological “structures”. Capital has already reached an unprecedented level of totality, a certain subsumption of the Real by an irreconcilable “big Other” (1). Althusser would have all of this for what he calls “socialism”. We have seen this already in the history of existing socialisms, while originally hiding the ill-informed and possibly disingenuous veil of being “the first Left-wing critique of Stalinism”.

The first few sections are to provide contexts of Althusser (and therefore his thought) with that of Marx, revolutionaries of his time, and his politics in the Communist Party of France. After such, we will venture into Althusser’s ideas themselves. We will find that we do not require a deep understanding of Structuralism (or the sociological and Freudian undertones in his thought) to see that Althusser’s thought is irreconcilable with that of Marx.

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For Herself, and Therefore, for the Class: Toward a Methodological Feminism

by Eve Mitchell and Tyler Zimmerman

Recently, Nat Winn, a member of Fire Next Time and Kasama weighed in on a discussion of Marxist-Feminism begun on the FNT blog originally by Ba Jin and ZoRa B’Al Sk’a and with a response by Eve Mitchell of Unity and Struggle.  We welcome the energetic engagement by all parties including those commenting on the Kasama blog on what remains one of the most critical questions of our time: the content and forms of women’s liberation.

The scope of Eve’s response did not go beyond clarifying the relationship between Federici and James, and discussing broadly the Marxist-Feminist methodology, including the Wages for Housework campaign.  Nat has challenged the practical implications of Wages for Housework which is supposedly linked to the political failings of Marxist-Feminism.

What may at first sight appear in Nat’s response as merely strategic difference (for instance, whether or not there should be an emphasis on intervention in struggles around reproductive freedom versus that over domestic and reproductive work), belying it is the crucial question of method that must be unpacked.

In Nat’s comments, we observe an unnecessary antagonism being drawn between two completely valid arenas of struggle; the content and form of reproductive labor on the one side and reproductive freedom on the other (there is no coincidence in the double use of “reproduction” here which we’ll expound further down).  The origin of this antagonism is located between a splitting of the subject and object.  This is done through a dualistic reading of  “economics” and “politics,” or, to use the terms Marx employed in the “Preface” to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, “base” and “superstructure.”  But there is an immanent unity between subject and object as well as between base and superstructure and what Marxism represents is precisely the unification of these categories.  The tragedy of orthodox Marxism is that it represents a reification of them; that is, regarding an abstract duality of the subject and object as a real thing that plays out in the real world in terms of forms of organizing and concrete political orientations.

We’d like to say a little bit about the importance of Marx’s conception of labor and unity of subject-object.  Only then will the political divergences with Nat come into relief.

Marx’s conception of labor and the unity of the subject-object.

Marx’s early philosophical texts directly fleshed out his conception of self-, or life-activity, which later in works like Capital, he discussed simply as “labor.”  In “Estranged Labour,” Marx writes,

“For in the first place labour, life-activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means to satisfying a need — the need to maintain the physical existence.  Yet the productive life is the life of the species.  It is life-engendering life.  The whole character of a species — its species character — is contained in the character of its life activity; and free conscious activity is man’s species character.  Life itself appears only as a means to life.” (76)

Self-activity, or labor, is universal; meaning it exists in all modes of production.  Further, it is defines our humanity. It is the ever-expanding process of satisfying our needs, introducing new needs, and developing new ways of fulfilling our needs.  Labor encompasses everything from our jobs under capitalism to tilling the land under feudalism to creating art and poetry to having sex and raising children.

But labor is not just what we do; it is our ability to choose, reflect upon, and change our labor process.  Labor is our process of changing the external world and our internal selves.  Later in “Estranged Labor,” Marx writes,

“It is just in the working-up of the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being.  This production is his active species life.  Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality.  The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created.  In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.” (77)

Here Marx’s conception of the subject-object becomes clear.  The external physical world is acted upon by humans, (labor is subjective), but the physical world is also an objectification of human labor, or self-activity (labor is objective).

Marx restated this concept in a polemic against the German “materialist” Ludwig Feuerbach.  In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx argues that sensuousness  is not something merely subjective, perceptive, and one-sided, as Feuerbach postulated.  It is also objective and used toward the transformation of the external world.  Human beings are both thinking subjects of the world but also objects of their own creation through labor.  This is what Marx calls the metabolic relationship between man and nature.

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History and the Social Forms of Existence

This is the second part in an ongoing series on some of the key ideas in Marx’s thought. The first part can be found here.

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The preceding section discussed Marx’s understanding of human beings in the abstract. However, a true picture only emerges when one grasps humanity in the concrete; that is, in its actual living existence. So, for instance, in the beginning of the previous section the relationship between essence and existence was described as a matter of “standpoint.” This terminology is important because it suggests how Marx conceived of humanity as a dialectical unity between its essence and its mode of existence. One can only view human beings from different, distinct sides that, nonetheless, constitute a whole. As was emphasized above, essence only comes into being through existence and its content only exists objectively as form.

To develop this methodological point further it is necessary to consider the important role of abstraction in Marx’s thought. In order to understand the concrete phenomena of society, it is necessary to abstract from their particularity. Since a specific phenomena cannot be comprehended in itself, but only in its relation to other phenomena, it is necessary to discover new concepts that explain their unity. One thereby moves toward a conception of the totality of all relations in society. Without the relations between phenomena, the concrete becomes merely empirical. Once again, in Marx’s approach there are no “things,” but only relations and moments of totality. However, it is also necessary to grasp the concrete or else the relations from which phenomena emerge would become abstract. As a result, social reality and its concrete historical movement could not be comprehended at all. Marx’s methodology regarding abstraction and the concrete will be returned to later and developed further.

With these considerations in mind it becomes clear that Marx’s philosophical break in the “Theses” and ‘Estranged Labor” does not really begin to take methodological shape until he grounds his categories in history. For Marx history is the movement of the successive modes of existence humanity has created. History is the result of and the process of the objectivity of sensuous activity he speaks of in those early writings. In this light it is possible to understand more clearly Marx’s turn to the critique of political economy. Of course, this move was necessary to critique bourgeois ideology. But this critique proceeded in immanent fashion by grasping the movement of human activity in its concrete forms of existence. Marx’s aim was to show how in class society, humanity’s essence and existence come into contradiction with each other.
Mode of Production and the Mode of Life

When Marx turns to history he does not look at human beings in isolation, but rather in society. It is not possible to think of humanity as separate individuals. Human beings only come into being and gain awareness in mutual association with each other. In The German Ideology, Marx writes that if “consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other” people, then “consciousness of the necessity of associating with the individuals around [them] is the beginning of the consciousness that [they are] living in society at all.” Consequently, Marx’s concept of self-activity must be understood as being a social process, one that involves human beings reproducing themselves only in relation to each other.

We are not dealing with the materialization of a single individual, but a collective realization. Only in mutual association do human beings therefore “distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation.” The means of subsistence are the objects produced by people in association that consist of the tools and knowledge that subsequently absorbs and gives shape to the labor that follows. The means of subsistence is the basis for society because it is the foundation for the reproduction of the people who comprise that society. As Marx notes, “By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life” (The German Ideology). The result of this mutual materialization is the creation of the means of labor.
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Notas Del Capítulo Uno De El Capital

Lo siguiente es la primera parte de algunas notas del capítulo uno de El Capital. Esta es mi primera vez traduciendo un artículo tan complejo como éste. Así que si lees algo que no está traducido bien o hay un error gramático le agradecería su ayuda en corregirlo. Puedes conseguir el artículo original en Ingles aquí.

Originalmente escrito por HiFi y traducido por Parcer.

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El Carácter Doble de la Mercancía es el Carácter Doble Del Trabajo 

Marx empieza capítulo uno de El Capital describiendo el carácter doble de la mercancía. Un lado de la mercancía se define por la forma en que se utiliza. Marx llama a esto el “valor de uso.” Él define uso por cómo la mercancía “satisface necesidades humanas, de cualquier clase que ellas sean” (3). La idea de “necesidades humanas” representa una función importante en el pensamiento de Marx y toma una multitud de significados interrelacionados. En La Ideología Alemana él argumenta “El primer hecho histórico es, por consiguiente, la producción de los medios indispensables para la satisfacción de estas necesidades, es decir la producción de la vida material misma, y no cabe duda de que es éste un hecho histórico, una condición fundamental de toda historia” (28). A lo largo de la historia los seres humanos han producido cosas, o “usos,” para atender sus necesidades básicas y ampliadas, que causa formas particulares de la sociedad, determinados tipos de relaciones sociales y subjetividades.

Cuando se observa sólo como un uso, la mercancía es indistinguible del proceso de satisfacer necesidades como una característica general de todas las sociedades humanas. Así, como diversos tipos de usos para cumplir con nuestras numerosas necesidades, la mercancía “forma el contenido material de la riqueza, cualquiera que sea la forma social de ésta.” Sin embargo, Marx deduce en El Capital que una mercancía asume características que son específicas de la sociedad capitalista, que sólo se aclarará cuando se mira al otro lado de la mercancía: el cambio. “En el tipo de sociedad que nos proponemos estudiar [en Capitalismo], los valores de uso son, además, el soporte material del valor de cambio” (4).

La producción de usos para satisfacer necesidades en la sociedad capitalista asume una forma específica de cambio. Aunque históricamente han habido otros tipos de cambio, estos reflejaban no capitalista formas de sociedad. Una de las tareas de Marx es mostrar cómo la forma de cambio en el capitalismo, y por lo tanto las relaciones sociales o forma de esa sociedad no tiene precedentes históricamente y es algo nuevo.

Así, la tendencia de la producción de usos para satisfacer las necesidades para asumir una forma específica de cambio es el otro lado de la mercancía. ¿En qué forma se realiza este cambio en el capitalismo? “A primera vista, el valor de cambio aparece como la relación cuantitativa, la proporción en que se cambian valores de uso de una clase por valores de uso de otra” (4). Como explica Marx:
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The Communist Theory of Marx

The link for the Spanish translation of this post can be found here.

The following posts represent one part of a larger project on communist theory and revolutionary organization that was begun this past summer [2012]. It is an ongoing working project that was not only intended to provide a frame of reference for our own grouping. More broadly, it is meant to be a contribution to ongoing discussions and debate on communist theory and practice, which, in our historical moment, cannot and will not be the product of any single grouping.

The overall project is divided into three main parts 1) Partial synthesis of Marx 2) Critique of the history of revolutionary organization 3) Provisional thoughts on the need for organization today. We are currently in the process of writing a draft of part two, but we wanted to begin to post part one now, which will be serialized over number of months.

The draft on Marx is not intended as a popular introductory pamphlet. Instead, it is meant for an audience with some basic familiarity with Marx. In our own practice we use it as a supplement to study groups and ongoing discussions on Marx, as well as wider revolutionary theory.

It is important to say something about the concept of communism that underlines this series. We understand communism in the sense that Marx wrote in “The German Ideology”:

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 premises now in existence.

This passage contains a whole world of thought and historical experience that must be unraveled and put back together again. However, what is important about Marx’s work, including, crucially, Capital, is that it places living human activity at the center of the concept of communism. Communism is the necessary and ongoing struggle of humanity to achieve freedom—to liberate itself from its own alienated existence.

There are a great number of thinkers and political trends that have taken up this mantle and have influenced our own developing thinking. However, we claim no specific adherence to them. While they may have made important contributions, we are not bound by their limitations that arose from their particular historical experiences. Instead, we need a new synthesis that arises out of the social realities of today.

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The history of communist organization cannot be separated from the history of marxism as a critique of its own history. Since the crisis of the revolutionary left is, in part, a crisis of revolutionary theory we must, to some extent, begin again by returning to Marx. The history of revolutionary theory itself is marked by such returns in which revolutionaries attempted to understand their society in the light of past ideas and struggles. This has been a critical and necessary part of communist practice historically.

Since today we again face an impasse defined by a lack of categorical knowledge and analysis we must struggle again to find ground upon which to stand. Only with clarity can we arrive at a more solid foundation for revolutionary work.

The understanding of revolutionary organization must be rooted in a categorical approach and it is for this reason that we attempt to synthesize some of the fundamental premises of Marx’s thought. The aim here is somewhat limited. We have neither the space nor the time at the moment to cover the sum of Marx’s thought. This involves his critique of capitalist society as a whole, including the critical volumes two and three of Capital. Instead, we hope to concentrate on the bare outline of his view of humanity and its relations in capitalist society.

What follows is a somewhat abstract presentation. It is meant to function as a foundation for the further development of theory, investigation, strategy and tactics. The achievement of categorical knowledge and methodology is absolutely necessary to avoid the empirical, pragmatic and economistic perspectives that haunt the American Left – symptoms of its own decay. What follows is meant to provide the basis for the concrete investigation of the actual, real, and moving society. Without clear categories and methodology, strategy and tactics become increasingly delinked from anything concrete, and thereby reified in their abstraction.
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Thoughts on Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins

Marx at the Margins is an important summary of Marx’s thought concerning the relationship between the capitalist and non-capitalist world, colonialism and social development, as well as nationalism and internationalism. The book provides a general overview of Marx’s thinking about these issues, especially as Anderson draws together and gives some narrative form to an extremely wide-ranging number of Marx’s writings. However, Anderson doesn’t always step back to consider this material from a more conceptual standpoint. Therefore these notes try and synthesize Anderson’s reading in order to lay the groundwork for a more schematic understanding of the issues raised in the book.

The overall argument of Marx at the Margins is that Marx develops from a position relatively uncritical of colonialism to one that is far more complex and oppositional. Specifically, Anderson shows how Marx’s early work on the non-western world and the peasantry tended to be undialectical, reflecting a unilinear conception of history. Marx was inclined, Anderson argues, to conceive of historical development in non-western societies as inevitably mirroring that of Western Europe. Furthermore, the peasantry was to gradually wither away into the proletariat. The problem with such thinking is that it lends itself to a stagist understanding of the historical process, one that has had profound political consequences. Anderson contends that it was not until the Grundrisse that Marx began to arrive at an alternative view, one that was more dialectical and global perspective. Anderson characterizes Marx’s developing theory of history as multilinear, rather than unilinear. These ideas are outlined in chapters one, five and six in the book. Chapters 2-4 focus on Marx’s understanding of nationalism and capitalist development. Those issues are not covered here.

A “never changing natural destiny”

Anderson notes that Marx’s early writing on non-western societies was “clearly influenced by Hegel.” For instance, examining his “harsh critique” of Indian society, Anderson quotes Hegel’s racist disregard of “India as a society that ‘has remained stationary and fixed’.” Therefore, “as a society where no real change or development had occurred, India had no real history,” Anderson concludes. Hegel accepted “colonialism as the product of historical necessity”; that is, the inevitable outcome of the absence of historical dynamism. India, like most of the non-Western world, was for Hegel characterized by a fundamental inertia, a lack of antagonism which “undergirded internal despotism.” Nevertheless, citing anthropologist Lawrence Krader, Anderson holds that, all things considered, Hegel could be distinguished from his contemporaries by his “concrete and historical” approach—something Marx was to later develop in more liberating directions (14).
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Notes on chapter one of Marx’s Capital, Part One

The following is the first part of some notes on chapter one of Capital. The second part will follow in the upcoming months.

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The Dual Character of the Commodity is the Dual Character of Labor

Marx begins chapter one of Capital by describing the dual character of the commodity. One side of the commodity is defined by how it is used. Marx calls this “use-value.” He defines use by how the commodity “satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (125). The idea of “human needs” plays an important role in Marx’s thought and takes on a number of interrelated meanings. In the German Ideology he argues “The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history” (47). Throughout history human beings have produced things, or “uses,” to address their basic and expanded needs, which gives rise to particular forms of society, specific kinds of social relations and subjectivities.

When looked at as merely a use, the commodity is indistinguishable from the process of satisfying needs as a general characteristic of all human societies. So, as various kinds of uses to fulfill our many needs, commodities “constitute the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be.” However, Marx concludes in Capital that a commodity takes on characteristics that are specific to capitalist society, which only becomes clear when he looks at the other side of the commodity: exchange. “In the form of society to be considered here [in Capital] they are also the material bearers of exchange value” (126).

The production of uses to satisfy needs in capitalist society takes a specific form of exchange. While historically there have been other types of exchange, these reflected non-capitalist forms of society. One of Marx’s tasks is to show how the form of exchange in capitalism, and therefore the social relations or form of that society is historically unprecedented and something new.

So the tendency for the production of uses to satisfy needs to take on a specific form of exchange is the other side of the commodity. What form does this exchange take place in capitalism? “Exchange-value appears first of all as the quantitative relation, the proportion, in which use-values of one kind exchange for use-values of another kind” (126). As Marx explains:
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When we lose control of our labor power

by Will

Background to the 1844 Manuscripts

Some of us around Gathering Forces are reading a selection from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 by Karl Marx. We should be careful not see this document as just a brilliant piece of writing coming from a solitary brain of an intellectual giant. Instead this writing is a powerful product of its time with all sorts of issues and events shaping its coming together. Four things which stand out in shaping this document are: a) Marx was breaking from Hegel who thought history moved through a world spirit and alienation was only mental. b) Marx was heavily influenced by the working class and specifically the Silesian weavers uprising in Germany. This was an important moment for Marx has it continued to propel him to break from bourgeois radicalism and left-wing Hegelianism. He saw that the movement of history was the process of production, that it was materially located in the working class. So two things are solved in this piece: alienation’s material dimension and the labor process as the central thread of human history. What placing the labor process as central to human history meant was that by only solving the contradictions in how humans work can we hope to build a radically new society. Or as Raya says, “He began with the proletarian activity at the point of production. He separated labor from product and from property, and looked for the contradiction within labor itself. It is through this contradiction that the laborer would develop, that is, would overcome the contradictions in the capitalist method of production (Marxism and Freedom, 55).” c) Marx was separating himself from the various dimensions of French socialism. It’s a big list so I won’t go into it here but folks can look up Utopian Socialism, Auguste Blanque, and Proudhon to get a sense of what I mean. d) He was using British political economy as a basis for his critique of political economy.

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