MARXISM - THE 'UNREADABLE' MARX
From 1850 until his death in 1880, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert compiled a “Dictionary of Received Ideas” as his catalogue of stupidities, inanities and misinformation. In this word association game, “Malthus” summoned up “infamous”, and “Louis XVI” evoked “unfortunate”. Were we to update Flaubert by including “Marx”, the gully-trap of clichés would be clogged with “discredited” and “unreadable”.
Other contributors to this website will discount the “discredited” label. This article tackles the accusation that Marx is “unreadable”. The two charges are connected. The more that people fear that Marx is impenetrable, the harder it will be to convince them to recover his relevance.
The way to challenge the accusation that Marx is “unreadable” is to read him. From The Communist Manifesto, here is the paean to the bourgeoisie that Marx and Frederick Engels penned in 1848:
To keep pace with this torrent of transformations, Marx and Engels abbreviated their phrasing. To sketch how this turmoil had come about, they continued to use parataxis:
The second sentence is as breathtaking as the tumult it captures in its run of snapshots.
Even as we read the passage, it seems impossible that anyone could have condensed the expanse of capitalism across 500 years into a statement as exhilarating as it is exact.
Marx’s admiration for the historic achievement of the bourgeoisie as a class did not extend to their apologists. How he would have reveled in Flaubert’s “Dictionary”! Marx stretched language so far that, in 1860, he was probably the first person to use “Da-Da!” to voice his own detestation of what he called “twaddle”. Challenged as to propriety, Marx came back: “Da Da puzzles the Philistine and is comical … It pleases me, and it fits my system of mockery and contempt”.
Just as the assault on Feudalism had broken through the Scholastic mode of communication to allow Martin Luther to render the bible in vigorous, direct and metrical German, so did the bourgeois revolution propel the prose of Marx and Engels. To convey the eruption of economy into society, they had to fashion a syntax, a vocabulary and a repertoire of devices in tune with the acceleration of life. Marshall Berman reads The Manifesto as a prose poem, as “the first great modernist work of art”, anteceding Baudelaire’s Spleen.
Engels had got there four years earlier when composing The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. In the 1970s, that work attracted the literary critic Steven Marcus who knew of no contemporary summary of the industrial revolution “that is as succinct, as wide-ranging and as coherent”. Apart from Engels’s use of “vortex”, he made scant use of hyperbole because “the unprecedented magnitude of the event is its own intensifier”. Marcus placed Engels alongside Carlyle and Dickens as writers who “were performing one of their quintessential functions: they were taking dead writing and transforming it back into living writing. Or we can say that they were transforming information into a present history whose structure they were simultaneously inventing.”
The opening lines of The Eighteenth Brumaire grace the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations:
A few lines further on, Marx observes:
Marx rounds off the first section of The Eighteenth Brumaire by dismissing Napoleon III as the farcically bad copy of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte:
Here, Marx has turned to his favourite contemporary poet, Heinrich Heine, for the figure of Crapulinski.
These three extracts indicate something of the range in Marx’s style. The opening is aphoristic, memorable for its puncturing of grand narrative with humour. The insertion of “somewhere” is no lapse of memory, but a considered affront to his erstwhile colleagues among the Young Hegelians. The middle passage is as suggestive in imagery as it is rich in concepts, bringing to life the vital processes on which Marx is commenting. He strengthens his representation of history’s slide into farce by associating its actors with the travesty of cross-dressing. Hegel saw in parody the means by which one age returned to its past in order to criticise it. Marx saw parody, according to Margaret Rose, as “accompanying discontinuity in history”. Just as revolutions are ruptures in practice, so revolutionary writers need tropes that allow for disjunctures in thought. In the third extract, Marx turns to earthy language to put the pretender in his place; the see-sawing between scum and holiness, between crap and saviour, recalls the tumble from tragedy into farce.
Despite the care that Marx devoted to his prose, he never pursued style for style’s sake. For him, the form of his writing had to confirm its content and structure. The Eighteenth Brumaire is a fabulous read because he made it an exemplar of historical materialism. And it is exemplary because Marx’s tone of voice is as dialectical as his assembling of evidence and his pattern of analysis.
The German social philosopher Theodor Adorno might have had The Eighteenth Brumaire in mind in 1946 when he charged that
If a dialectician, for example, marked the turning-point of his advancing ideas by starting with a “But” at each caesura, the literary scheme would give the lie to the unschematic intention of his thought.
For Marx, the dialectic had to be fleet-footed, or it ceased to be dialectical. Bertell Ollman writes of the “dance of the dialectic”. For the dialectician, there are no fixed categories, no external essences, no Ideal Forms. Everything, always and everywhere, is in a condition of becoming and passing away. The difficulties that this mobility presents to readers can be limited only to the extent that authors can make our static medium convey the transitory.
The excitement in Marx’s manner of expression grows from his fulfilling of Schopenhauer’s contention that the “sufficient condition for good style, is to have something to say”. Hence, the deepest pleasure from reading Marx flows from the substance and structure of his thinking. The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss recalled that he “rarely broached a new sociological problem without first stimulating my thought by rereading a few pages of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or the Critique of Political Economy”.
Two of the cerebral stimuli from The Eighteenth Brumaire are the ground rules that Marx offered for intellectual history and for tracing the political formation of a class. He summarised his explorations of these issues in two key passages. The first establishes the starting place for the history of ideas:
This explication of how ideas connect with social practices confirms the materialist credentials of the opening passages of The Eighteenth Brumaire where metaphors haunt present actors.
As a materialist, Marx recognised that existence conditioned consciousness. Hence, class consciousness could not fall from the sky as a disembodied idea. As a dialectician, he knew also that existence was insufficient to generate self-consciousness. Marx drew on the experiences of the French peasantry to illustrate why class consciousness had to be the outcome of social practices through organisation:
The structure of this passage reproduces Marx’s case: phrases are accumulated into a statement that lacks a doing word, just as the “vast mass” of small-holders do not engage in “manifold relations with one another”. The next step takes in a larger social group and therefore requires an unbroken sentence. Finally, the commentary arrives at a metaphor apposite to farm life: the potato sack. As the class forms politically, Marx makes the units of his prose cohere:
Each sentence loops around alternative criteria for the forming of a class. Their juxtaposition gives way to a synthesis:
Marx can now distill the components of his case into eight words which continue the see-sawing: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented”. From this position, Marx strikes out to link the movement of a class into its self-consciousness with the activity of the state:
The assertiveness of “therefore” underlines Marx’s recognition of Bonapartism. Nonetheless, he has just mocked the capacity of any government to control nature, and hence, presumably, its ability to stem the tide of class conflict. While acknowledging that the life circumstances among the small peasants have allowed “Crapulinski” to ascend to the throne, Marx hints that their unsatisfied needs will unseat him.
The risk in parading Marx’s maxims is that his meaning is rendered obvious, that is to say, is misrepresented. Wrenched from its context, the bait can catch the opposite response to the one after which Marx had been angling. That outcome is true of a remark favoured by militants: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. Marx never supposed that we could change the world without interpreting it, anymore than he believed that we can interpret the world correctly without changing it.
Perhaps no quip from Marx is better known than his line that “Religion is the opium of the people”. Few assertions are more misunderstood. Placing that remark back in his 1844 Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right will reveal its significance, and display far finer turns of phrase than is apparent from the fragment:
To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions.
Marx’s meaning, along with the rhythms in which he expressed it, is evident once the epigram is returned to its textual origin. That relocation refutes any supposition that he was spurning all varieties of religious experience. Rather, he anchored his empathy with those enduring immiseration in his materialist appreciation that incorrect ideas are more than the product of wrong thinking.
Marx’s choice and arrangement of words strengthened the persuasiveness of this perception. His first sentence pivots on a conflicted concept of religion. The next carries that dichotomy through three variations, threaded with sibilance. After their rising inflection, the notorious remark falls as a lamentation, not a rhetorical slap. The second paragraph repeats this pattern, its recapitulated “illusions” again leading to a consolation. The compassion in Marx’s comment is assured by the felicities in his prose.
Alertness to three of Marx’s favourite literary devices – to wit - punning, paradoxes and irony will help with a reading the first volume of Capital by showing how he wove his dialectical method into the texture of his writing. One should always read Marx with an ear tuned for words, phrases and whole passages “enclosed by intonational quotation marks”, or trailing implied question marks.
Puns: To associate puns with the lowest form of wit is another possible entry in Flaubert’s dictionary. Marx used puns to bind concepts together, as in his identifyinging the feature of alienation under the rule of capital. He shows that alienation under capitalism is different from other kinds of estrangement because the wage-slave has sold his capacity to labour. In English, “alienate” means to sell and to make strange. In German, Marx makes play on the German “ausser” to convey that connection. [“Aus-“ in German is the prefix for “out”, so that ein Auslander is a foreigner.]
One can sympathise with anyone translating passages such as:
The Soviet edition rendered this rolling
The three different German words rooted on “ausser” have been given as cognates of “external”. Veraussern can mean “to sell one’s honour”. That medieval concept invokes capitalist alienation where the labourer is separated from the honour that the craftsman once put into a product, and from the honour that he drew from its quality. In addition, the wage labourer has sold his human capacities, his honour.
To complain about this aspect of Marx’s style is like objecting to Shakespeare’s punning on “will” in Sonnets 135 and 136. As Fowler has it: “Puns are good, bad and indifferent, & only those who lack the wit to make them are unaware of the fact”.
Paradox: Marx combined punning with paradox: “Das seine Lebensausserung seine Lebensentausserung ist”, that is, “The manifestation of his life is the alienation of his life”. The paradox is a pauper’s straining after dialectics. Paradoxes abounded in the young Marx as one mark of his legacy from Idealism where words stood in for reality. For example, he concluded The Introduction to the Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: “Philosophy cannot be made a reality without the abolition of the proletariat, the proletariat cannot be abolished without philosophy being made a reality”. This phrase-mongering contrasts with a comparable point which Marx made four years later at the close of the Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win”. The bi-polar form of a paradox remains, but Marx is no longer conjuring with categories. Instead, he is calling for the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”.
Francis Wheen has discovered in Marx the Dean Swift of industrial
capitalism. Marx and Swift
share brilliance in irony, but they differ in tone because of opposed
social outlooks. Irony in Swift is chilling. Marx’s can be red hot.
Swift’s “A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of the Poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick” (1729) reasoned that those infants should be reared as food for the English landlords whose expropriation of field and farm was devouring the parents. “A Modest Proposal” was Swift’s attempt to persuade his own class to alter their ways. By contrast, Marx aimed his ironies at energising a revolution of the masses.
Irony helped Marx to reproduce his dialectical method, as it had for Hegel who saw irony as dialectical because it allowed for two meanings simultaneously. An ironic comment has a kernel of subversive intent inside the shell of innocent observation.
Like Hegel, Marx saw that irony operates outside the logic that something must be either “A” or “non-A”. Marx’s analysis of capital could not be contained in such mutual exclusivities. Capital is capital only when it is expanding. To expand, it has to be in motion, passing from its money form, through a stage of production, into a commodity form, and then back to the money form so that the process can start over on an enlarged scale. Money is a shape-shifter and a form-changer. Marx found an analogue in irony, which not every commentator gets.
Marx’s ironic voice might not have been innate, but he had made it his own before he composed The German Ideology of 1845, as this prefatory note demonstrates:
Marx has emphasised the fallacy of Idealist philosophy by understatement without stepping outside the voice of an objective observer to display his own point of view by inserting “foolish” in front of “fellow”. The reader is left to add that judgement.
Above all, the difficulty with Capital is in the issues that Marx tackled. The dynamics of capital expansion will never be glimpsed by a Murdoch columnist fixated on Foxtel, or, for that matter, by a research assistant clipping the Financial Times each morning. Marx wrote books. He did not spray bullets from a Microsoft power point. To approach his writings, you have to be a prose person, not a dot.point person.
Most sympathetic guides to Capital warn the beginner away from beginning at the beginning. In those pages, Marx presented the results of twenty years research. He might have kept that material until the end, so that by the time we reached its intricacies we would have been drawn towards his conclusions and become familiar with his terms and cast of mind. Instead, he gave us the results first. They also set forth his method of analysis.
Marx acknowledged that “the method of analysis which I have employed … makes the reading of the first chapters rather arduous”. Their 100 pages cannot be recommended as in-flight entertainment. A clear head, a pen in hand, and the preparedness to read the material at least three times over several years are required to absorb all the secrets that Marx uncovers. As Marx knew from experience: “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits”.
At the trial of the Knave of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the King of Hearts admonishes the White Rabbit: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop”. In the case of Capital, it is perhaps more judicious to start at the end of volume one with the nine-page chapter on “The Modern Theory of Colonisation”. Australians are not the only people surprised that Marx wound up with the settlement of our continent. He tells a story about Edward Gibbon Wakefield who proposed a plan for Systematic Colonisation to compel workers to sell their labor power instead of setting up as farmers or tradespeople for themselves:
Seven pages further, the final sentence establishes the true north of Marx’s life project. He is not concerned with Mr Wakefield, his schemes, or the emotional quotient of Mr Peel:
The germ of Capital’s 800 pages is in these sixty words. Almost every word that Marx wrote after 1842 was his contribution to the struggle to check exploitation and to end expropriation. Before reading any part of Capital, whether for the first or the umpteenth time, it is worth returning to these lines for orientation. Should you feel lost in the detail of factory laws, perplexed by the delineation of use, exchange and surplus values, or trip on the poetic allusions, remember that “class struggle” is an anchor against being blown off course.
Before attending to how Marx draws us towards his discoveries, three difficulties in reading Capital should be mentioned. They are mathematics; Hegelian methods and language; and references to other literary works.
Many of the formulae in Capital
are not algebra. Instead, they abbreviate Marx’s description of the
circuits of capital. The simplest of these notations is M-C-M+, where M
is money capital, C is Commodities, and M+ is the expanded volume of
money capital that results from the making and sale of commodities. Marx
could have kept writing these terms out in words, but hoped that a
shorthand version would be easier on his readers. One does not need to
understand any kind of mathematics to follow his notation. It involves
no calculation. The formulae are closer to equations in chemistry than
Hegel: In an 1873 re-issue of Capital, Marx acknowledged that, in 1867, he had “openly avowed” himself “the pupil” of Hegel at a time when professors in Germany were contemptuous of “that mighty thinker”. Flaubert’s “Dictionary of Received Opinion” would now place “impenetrable” after Hegel’s name, not without justification, though he could be witty, clear and pungent. Ponderousness is one element in Hegel’s worst writing that Marx did not inherit. Indeed, when Marx admitted that he had, “here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar” to Hegel, the crucial word is “coquetted”. Even at his most Hegelian, Marx never lost his cutting edge, peppering his denunciations with raillery, lightening his expositions with caricature.
Literary allusions: The learning that Marx brought to his subject exacts another entry toll. At the close of a discussion of commodities, he asked: “Who fails here to call to mind our good friend, Dogberry, who informs neighbour Seacoal, that, ‘To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by Nature’.” The question today is who will be familiar with Dogberry as a comic character from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Volume One of Capital includes quotations from Balzac, Cervantes, Dante, Goethe, Homer and Sophocles, whom Marx gave in their original tongues. Shy references to a host of other poets, dramatists and novelists embellish his critique of political economy.
Marx studded his writings with a comparable density of allusions to the ideas and terminologies of philosophers, historians and political economists. For example, when he limned life under communism where everyone would be able “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, read cattle in the evening and criticize after dinner”. In the first three activities, Marx was mocking Adam Smith and almost every vulgar economist for their “unimaginative fantasies”. The post-prandial critical criticising was another dig at the Holy Family of Young Hegelians. Cultural semi-literates who fail to recognise these sources do not hesitate to berate Marx for putting forward an insipid picture of communism as a superabundance of comforts suitable to a country gent, or Tolstoy.
Another joy in reading Capital comes from discovering the treasures lurking in its footnotes which, as in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, contain several of the work’s more memorable insights and striking formulations:
This blast at the ludicrousness of Idealist historiography is a marvel of concentrated thought, delivering more perception in its 80 words than 80 professors chorusing “discredited” at the mention of Marx’s name could come up with in a lifetime.
The greatest amazement from Capital is how Marx could keep so many levels of investigation going at once. Symphonists can rarely develop more than two principal themes, no matter how many variations they then introduce. Charles Dickens in Bleak House (1852) depicted the Court of Chancery’s generating multitudes of cases and devouring the lives of all who approach. Critics who disparage the novel’s spontaneous combustion scene fail to see that the energy of Dickens’s composition is of a piece with spontaneous combustion. How was it possible for him to keep all the themes, plots and sub-plots running without his brain catching fire? Marx’s portrayal of the expansion of capital matches Bleak House in its encompassing of energies marshaled and of forces unleashed.
Marx and Dickens also shared a fury at the grinding down of human capacities, especially in children. Marx summarised official reports on the effects of 72-hour week on the culture of children, anyone of whom could have been the model for Smike from Nicholas Nickleby, or Jo in Bleak House. Questioned by the Employment Commissioners, the twelve-year old Jeremiah Haynes responded:
Marx fills page after page with such evidence until he takes another swipe at hypocrisy:
Marx will have none of Dickens’s paternalism. Repentance no more than abstinence will redeem Mr Glass-Capital. The ghost that is haunting his kind is not Christmas Past but the spectre of a communist future.
novelty of Capital
Balzac hinted at a secret history of “a scandalous kind”. For Marx, the secret history of the Roman Republic was in “landed property”. In capitalism, the secret rests in how the commodity form conceals “the expropriation of the laborers”, which is the condition for their ceaseless exploitation.
The plotline of Capital confronts us with this secret history, and then conducts us through the evidence. The secret about the commodity form proves to be another multiplicity of secrets about money as another commodity; about money as the universal equivalent for every commodity; about human capacity as a commodity. Having established these premises, Marx can lead us to an indictment of a system of exploitation which presents itself as one of a fair exchange of equal values.
Marx wrote in the tradition of Realism, not of Naturalism. He compiled details about factory conditions to uncover the logic of the expansion of capital. Thus, although he accumulated evidence with the assiduousness of a miser hoarding brass farthings, he used those mites, as would a capitalist, to expand his intellectual store “by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation”.
The protagonist for Marx is neither a Romantic champion such as Julian Sorel, a carpenter’s son, in Stendahl’s Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), nor the master criminal Vautrin in Balzac. In Capital, the central figure is the aggregation of capital, a figure which is most truly itself when its individual personifications behave as the accumulation of dead labour. Here is the young Marx making those bones speak:
Marx has brought us close to the grotesqueries of Rabelais as capital reproduces Gargantua’s appetites. Capital is also like that giant when he pours salt into the mouths of sleepers to stimulate their thirst; the managers of capital have to inculcate desire for commodities of every kind:
Gargantua and Pantagruel are flesh-and-blood creatures of a society still dependent on the soil and on hand labor. By contrast, capital must be depicted as an “automaton” because the operations of its social world have become like the machines that accelerate its expansion. Leviathans become the apt image for the power of capital in Dickens’s Chancery Court or Circumlocution Office, Melville’s factory ship, Zola’s coal mine, Sinclair’s slaughterhouse and Ireland’s oil refinery.
The anti-heroes, and thus the true heroes of Marx’s Capital are “the new fangled men” who are needed to master “the new-fangled forces of society”. They too have become machine-like. They are new-fangled because of their place in the productive order. If ordinary people enter European fiction as degraded, Marx represents their misery as a pre-condition for their remaking themselves into a collective presence to take the place of Hegel’s world historical figures.
Marx did everything a writer could to clarify the complexities of capitalism without over-simplifying. He used homely examples of how linen becomes a coat, or of how linen is exchanged for a bible before the cash from that transaction is spent on brandy. His materialist approach to history as the activity of living people encouraged his dramatic flair. Although he presented capitalists as the personifications of capital, he knew that he had to treat these “actors … as individuals”. Hence, he told tales about “Mr Moneybags” or “Mr Glass-Capital”.
Marx’s core task was to explain the expansion of capital in the aggregate, what he called “social capital”, as distinct from individual capitals. The fun that he had with fables about Mr Moneybags ran second to the delight he took in mocking writers who represented capitalism from the standpoint of “our friend Robinson” Crusoe. Capitalists got workers to produce exchange values. Crusoe, the complete homo faber, made nothing but use values for himself. He has provided for himself before Friday arrives. The approach of the vulgar economists equated the operations of the capitalists’ system with its ideological mask as individualism. Capital, for Marx, was a social relationship before it was anything else. Marx created fables to convey actual relationships whereas the Robinsonards treated Defoe’s fiction as the model for reality. The real-life captains of industry were imprisoned in the iron cage of capital’s expansion, not marooned on an island.
No more than the meanest child labourer could escape from her travails by wishing herself into a Dickensian plot is the capitalist able to choose the circuits of capital around which he must chase a fortune:
The excitement that Marx brings to his account of the accumulation of capital is possible because of the space he accepts between tendential laws and entrepreneurship, fate and risk-taking, or what he calls “a Faustian conflict between the passion for accumulation, and the desire for enjoyment”. Marx used story-telling to illuminate this reality.
Polyvocalism: Bakhtin found “laughter” and “polyglossia” to be of “decisive importance” in making “possible the genre of the novel”. Capital is heir to both qualities, contributing to their enrichment. The tonal range in the laughter has been indicated. Now it is time to illustrate how Marx creates dialogue to convince his audience that the story he is relating represents their actual conditions.
In a chapter examining the labor-process, Marx grappled with the puzzle at the center of the expansion of capital, and therefore he had to convey the most difficult concept. He had to get across how capitalists paid their workers the full value of their capacity to add value, while at same time paying those laborers less than the total value of the commodities they produced. Marx restated his case in the negative by falling into conversation with a capitalist “friend” who had just failed to turn a profit. This unhappy fellow has been offered no more for the cotton that his operatives have spun than the fifteen shillings it cost him to have them produce it.
Unlike Mr Peel, this capitalist cannot lay the blame for his unhappiness on the absence of the capitalist relations of production. What has gone wrong? His failure to profit leaves him staring “in astonishment” before he gathers his knowledge of “vulgar economy” to exclaim:
After the capitalist has entered his first plea, Marx assumes the voice of a judge from on high:
The loser now threatens all sorts of things. He won’t be caught napping again. In future he will buy the commodities in the market, instead of manufacturing them himself.
We have heard from the capitalist again, but in the third person. Marx reappears to ask and to state the obvious, also in the third person:
Next, the capitalist “tries persuasion”:
The capitalist has returned in his own colloquial voice. Unmoved, Marx addresses his remarks to some unseen third party:
This verdict is no comfort to the appellant, who “becomes importunate”:
Marx gives more unwelcome advice from the stance of a disinterested commentator:
interchange continues the switch between direct speech and commentary. The
capitalist gets no more satisfaction from Dr Marx than he has had from
the market. Small wonder the capitalist “friend” now “gets
obstinate”, flinging forth rhetorical questions:
Where will this eloquence get him? Marx no longer addresses himself to his “friend”, but to the reader of Capital:
Marx has spoken as the author of Capital rather than as the author of this fable within Capital.
Our friend, up to this time so purse-proud, suddenly assumed the modest demeanour of his own workman and exclaims: “Have I myself not worked? Have I not performed the labour of superintendence and of overlooking the spinner? And does this labor, too, create value?” His overlooker and his manager try to hide their smiles.
Marx assumes that readers who have reached this point in his analysis will realise that the tasks that the capitalist claims to have performed himself were done by his smirking employees. The smiles that Marx hopes that his fable by now will have provoked in his readers are here brought to the surface by this silent chorus of overseers. Even without having read a line of Capital, those foremen know that their disciplining of labor time differs qualitatively from its application by laborers in the creation of additional values. By this stage, not even the capitalist can keep a straight face:
Though he chanted to us the whole creed of the economists, in reality, he says, he would not give a brass farthing for it. He leaves this and all such like subterfuges and juggling tricks to the professors of Political Economy, who are paid for it.
Throughout, Marx has been using his “friend” to express his own scorn for those professors. Marx had reached that valuation from his critiquing of their “subterfuges and juggling tricks”. The capitalist, on the other hand, is sprouting what passes for common sense among his kind:
Marx leaves us with the capitalist at his own assessment. Marx knows otherwise. The anecdote would never have been possible had the capitalist known what he was about “in his business”. After all, he has failed to realise a profit.
The sole author of all these words has been Dr Marx. Yet, not all the views expressed are his. The capitalist speaks in his own defence only to convict himself. His offence is not that he has exploited his workers, but that he has failed to do so. Through this negative, Marx has revealed the positive secret of capital.
Marx has subverted the Socratic dialogue by having his “friend” arrive at the truth about surplus value through rehearsing the conditions of his existence as a personification of capital. Instead of Marx’s presenting himself as a Socratic interlocutor, he confronts the capitalist with the steps of practice that have led to his failure to profit.
The humour that Marx has built throughout the passage depends on the instability in the speaking positions of both Marx and his friend. Marx is, by turns, reporter, judge, and critic of political economy. The capitalist appears astonished, threatening, persuasive, importunate, obstinate, modest, laughing. Despite his dodges and masks, his performance has had but one theme. Unlike Shylock, he demands only “My ducats”, caring not for his daughter, justice, religion or the law.
Marx has reproduced in his analysis of capital the Babel of voices in a stratified society. He has orchestrated the voices of his “friend”, but also interpreted them by putting his pleas for profit into their context of capitalist exploitation. Marx has not only put them into his friend’s mouth, but has made his account of the logic of capital accumulation – namely Capital - speak through his creature. The ventriloquism is from off-stage, with both Marx and the capitalist taking turns as its mouthpieces.
Abstinence: One strand in the capitalist’s claim for a profit was “his abstinence”. This justification provided Marx with life-long opportunities for mocking the professorial subterfuge that profit is the reward that the capitalist earns for his not having spent his money on consumer goods:
The unhappiness that the capitalist must undergo for the sake of “abstinence” becomes too much for Marx to bear:
The more honest supporters of abstinence as a claim on profit had to admit that the children of these self-deniers had no right to inherit their fathers’ fortunes because the offspring had foregone none of the pleasures.
The Mirror Image: Because Marx recognised that capital is a social relationship, he sought images to convey that multi-sidedness. The mirror and reflection were two obvious tropes, yet too obvious to satisfy:
As we have seen, Marx extended his rejection of reflection to history. In The Eighteenth Brumaire, revolutionaries recognise themselves only after they have donned the “drag” to appear as some historical other. Similarly, he argued that petty-bourgeois thinkers do not reflect the thinking of shop-keepers. Their relationship is the active one of the intellectuals’ not proceeding in their theoretical practices further than the shopkeepers do in business.
Yet the mirror could be a more acceptable figure of speech if used as a simile rather than a metaphor:
The distancing that Marx has achieved here by the use of the conditional will not serve in all cases. A looking glass cannot convey human behaviour as the “real, sensuous activity” that Marx took as the root of his materialist dialectics:
Marx needed an active processing agent for his imagery. Here, the Soviet translation came closer: “Money … depicts itself”, rather than “mirrors itself”.
Better still, the eye let Marx represent the active aspect of the relationships between people and objects. The eye was available as the apposite figure of speech only because of what had happened with the actual eye in history:
Under capitalism, the use value of the eye undergoes a transformation parallel to that experienced by all the objects created by humankind. While use values are becoming exchange values, the eye is being re-made into the sense mechanism that most stimulates desire for them.
The crucial case, and the hardest to represent, is that of the commodity form, the workings of which the untutored eye cannot discern:
Marx infuses this conceptual connection between commodities and money into an evocation of urban energies of which Balzac or Dickens would have been proud:
From this description, Marx moves to a sensuous image in which “the prices” become the “wooing glances cast at money by commodities”.
Commodities create a mirror-effect when their differences, real or apparent, are perceived by potential consumers. The contrast between a castle and the adjoining cottage becomes a source of desire for a bigger house:
The contrasts are reflected through the eye, that is to say, received into the brain. By exciting consumption, the eye holds a mirror to the production-consumption of commodities.
Learning to expand one’s needs through the perception of contrasts in the use values that we already possess did not come into the world with capitalism. Rather, the proliferation of use values into ever more exchange values was able to build on a process at the heart of hominisation:
The mirror-phase is limited neither to infancy nor to the origins of our species, though it acquired a vaster domain with the spread of capitalist relations.
Neither money nor commodities is alive. Yet, it is integral to Marx’s picture of the capitalist world that they appear to be so. A carpenter fashions wood into a table. As soon as he offers this everyday thing for sale, “it steps forth as a commodity, [and] is changed into something transcendent”. Marx has to explain how a physical object acquires the imperceptible qualities of the social relationship between capital and wage-labour. He again turns to the experience of sight:
The fetishism of commodities is the knot that must be untied to unravel the secret of the expansion of capital, and hence to follow the exposition of this engorgement through the plot of Capital.
As a materialist, Marx had no time for those who approached his writings as sacred texts. As a revolutionary, he would never have judged our understanding of him by our ability to retrieve what he had intended, like Medieval Schoolmen. From the standpoints of revolutionary politics and materialist historiography, his test would be whether what he had written conforms to the realities of capitalist development, or to the experiences that socialists had acquired about how to overthrow the state. Only by grappling with those practical ideas can we begin the even more taxing effort needed to create a socialist society.
Humphrey McQueen is a freelance historian writing from Canberra.
 Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976, pp. 289ff.
 A recent biographer, Francis Wheen, deplored “the mad circular argument one hears from people who haven’t ventured even as far as page two. ‘Capital is all hooey’. ‘And how do you know it’s hooey?’ ‘Because it’s not worth reading’.” Francis Wheen, Karl Marx, Fourth Estate, London, 1999, p. 299.
 Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works (MECW), volume 6, Lawrence & Wishart, London, MECW, 1976, p. 487.
The propulsion through the opening section of the Manifesto is so convincing that it can sweep the reader past the warning that Marx had placed above the portal: class struggle can end with “the common ruin of the contending classes”. Marx drew on his knowledge of the Ancient world to deny inevitable progress from any purpose-driven view of history.
Karl Popper’s obsession with his version of historicism blinded him to this contra-teleological strand in Marx, whom he otherwise admired for his humanity and his contributions to social and historical knowledge, The Open Society and Its Enemies, RKP, London, 1966; for Popper’s praise of Marx’s “lasting merit”, see p. 88.
 MECW, 6, p. 485.
 Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), Moscow, pp. 89 and 94.
 Letter from Helmut Hirsch to Encounter, November 1980, p. 92.
 Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts Into Air, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982, pp. 102 and 121.
 Steven Marcus, Engels, Manchester and the Working Class, Norton, New York, 1974, pp. 139, 137 and 108.
 MECW, 6, p. 174.
 Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, Merlin, London, 1971, p. 224.
 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1954, p. 6.
 Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, MECW, 11, 1979, pp. 103-4.
 MECW, 11, p. 112.
 Margaret Rose, Reading the young Marx and Engels, Croom Helm, London, 1978, pp. 84 & 131.
 In their correspondence, Engels wrote to Marx of the “Goldshit” in the Australian colonies, 23 September 1851, Henry Mayer (ed.), Marx, Engels and Australia, Sydney Studies in Politics 5, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1964, p. 104.
 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, NLB, London, 1974, pp. 85-86.
 Bertell Ollman, Dance of the Dialectic, Steps in Marx’s Method, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003.
 Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1970, p. 203.
 Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976, p. 70.
 MECW, 6, pp, 130-1.
 This interplay of thinking with doing explains how those children of the bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels, could become proletarian intellectuals. Their case was less remarkable than that of Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), whose sequence of novels, The Human Comedy, Engels described as “a constant elegy to the irretrievable decay of good society; his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction”. Yet, as Engels went on to explain, he and Marx admired Balzac above all other contemporary novelists:
is never keener, his irony never more bitter, than when he sets in
motion the very men and women with whom he sympathises most deeply
– the nobles … That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his
own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the
necessity of the downfall of his favourite nobles, and described
them as people deserving no better fate … that I consider one of
the greatest triumphs of Realism. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Selected Correspondence, FLPH,
Moscow, 1953, pp. 479-80.
 MECW, 11. 1979, pp. 187-88.
 Karl Marx, Capital, I, FLPH, Moscow, 1958, p. 109; Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976, p. 204.
In 1867, Marx alleged that “The English Established Church, e.g., will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income”. Capital, I, p. 10; Penguin, p. 92. The stand-alone witticisms in Marx and Engels have a Shavian ring, which leaves one wondering how much George Bernard Shaw learned from them about punch lines.
 MECW, 6, 1976, p. 178.
 Capital, I, p. 113; Penguin, p. 208.
 Capital, I, p. 763; Penguin, p. 929.
 MECW, 5, 1976, p. 5.
 MECW, 3, 1975, pp. 175-76. Our appreciation of the complexity of Marx’s comment on religion will be deepened by adding knowledge of medical practices from around 1840 when opiates were not taken merely to put their users to sleep, but to deaden the pain, physical and psychological. Opiates allowed workers to continue their battles for existence, offering comfort, not oblivion, sustenance not slumber. It was in this ambivalent sense that Marx referred to religion as an opiate. An appreciation of the history of pharmacy is but one example of the care that must be exercised when interpreting any text.
A similar point can be made about Nietzsche’s “God is Dead”. The messenger is a madman who at once adds that he has arrived too soon. Anyway, the shocking aspect of his annunciation is not that God is dead, because the death and rebirth of gods are integral to religious thinking, including Christianity. The horror was the subsequent claim that “God remains dead”, leaving humanity without the promise of resurrection, see The Gay Science, New York, Vintage, 1974, p. 181.
 Bertell Ollman, Alienation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976, p. 3.
 M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, Four Essays, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1981, p. 75.
 MECW, 3, 1975, p. 291; Karl Marx, Fruhe Schriften, I, Cotta-Verlag, Stuggart, 1960, p. 586.
The translations deserve attention. Bertell Ollman has suggested that “conditions” is closer than “determines” to Marx’s meaning. Marxists could do with an investigationi comparable to Darius Gray Ornston (ed.), Translating Freud, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1992.
 H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Omega, Ware, Herts., 1984, p. 474.
 MECW, 3, p. 299; Fruhe Schriften, I, p. 598.
 MECW, 3, p. 187.
 Rose, Reading the young Marx and Engels, p. 141.
 Capital, II, pp. 105-6; Penguin, II, p. 185.
 Anitra Nelson, Marx’s concept of money: the God of commodities, Routledge, New York, 1999. Because Nelson is deaf to dialectics, she complains that Marx does not have a concept of money but rather a “theory of the money commodity”. She divides her time between nit-picking and thinking up Marx’s motives. (pp. 92-93). The intentionalist fallacy encouraged her to suppose that she can see into Marx’s thinking, which is the more risible given that she neither gets his jokes, nor is aware that he is being ironical. Her literalism is of a piece with her insensitivity to process. For an astute reading of Marx on money see Suzanne de Brunhoff, Urizen Books, New York, 1976.
 MECW, 5, p. 24.
 Notwithstanding this restraint, Marx was not afraid to be robust, as in this sardonic onslaught:
is the center of attraction for hysterical virgins over thirty, for
the pale buds of the finishing school who are keen on the chaste by
so effective love-making of the fleet hunters of the Chamois. In the
original agricultural cantons the people live like animals, and are
as bovine as their oxen. It is necessary, very necessary, that this
last refuge of brutal primitive Germanism, of barbarians of bigotry,
of patriarchal naiveté and purity of morals, of agricultural
stability and of loyalty to death – available to the highest
bidder – should at last be destroyed.
“birthplace of freedom” is nothing else but the center of
barbarism, of brutality, bigotry, hypocritical “purity” …
Internal affairs are exhausted in making cheese, chastity, and
yodeling … abroad, the only claim of the Swiss is that of being
Here, the rolling thunder comes with
its flashes of ridicule. To strike at his target of hypocrisy, Marx
reaches for the directness and rhythms of Luther’s bible. This
barrage could be Luther’s excoriating the Papacy.