The overthrow of commodity fetishism

Printer-friendly version

In the first part of this chapter (IR 75), we began to examine the historical context in which Marx dealt with capitalist society: as the last in a series of systems of exploitation and alienation, as a form of social organization no less transient than Roman slavery or mediaeval feudalism. We noted that, in this framework, the drama of human history could be considered in the light of the dialectic between the original social ties of humanity, and the growth of commodity relations which has both dissolved these ties and prepared the ground for a more advanced form of human community. In the section that follows we concentrate on the mature Marx's analysis of capital itself - of its inner nature, its insoluble contradictions, and of the communist society destined to supplant it.

Piercing the Commodity's Veil

It is surely impossible for anyone to approach Marx's Capital, its various drafts and annexes from the Grundrisse to Theories of Surplus Value, without a considerable degree of trepidation. This gigantic intellectual accomplishment, this work "for which I have sacrificed health, happiness and family" (Marx to Meyer, April 30, 1867), delves into the most extraordinary detail about the historic origins of bourgeois society, examines in all their concreteness the day-to-day operations of capital from the factory floor to the credit system, 'descends' to the most general and abstract questions about human history and the characteristics of the human species, only to 'ascend' again to the concrete, to the harsh and naked reality of capitalist exploitation. But although this is a work which demands considerable concentration and mental effort from its readers, it is never an academic work, never a mere description, or an exercise in scholarly learning for its own sake. As Marx so often insisted, it is both a description and a critique of bourgeois political economy. Its aim was not simply to classify, categorize or define the features of capital, but to point the way to its revolutionary destruction. As Marx put it in his usual colorful language, Capital is "assuredly the most frightening missile which has ever been launched at the heads of the bourgeoisie" (letter to Becker, April 17, 1867).

Our aim in this article is not, and could not be, to examine Capital and its surrounding works on political economy in any great detail. It is simply to draw out what seem to us to be its central themes, in order to emphasize their revolutionary and thus communist content. We begin as Marx began, with the commodity.

In the first part of this article we recalled that in Marx's view, man's history is not only the chronicle of the development of his productive capacities, but also the chronicle of his growing self-estrangement, of an alienation that has reached its peak in capitalism and the wage labor system. In Capital this alienation is dealt with from various angles, but perhaps its most significant application is contained in the concept of the fetishism of commodities; and to a very large extent, Capital itself is an attempt to see through, expose, and overturn this fetishism.

According to Marx in the opening chapter of Capital, the commodity appears to mankind as a "mysterious thing" (Vol One, chap 1) as soon as it is considered as more than an immediate article of consumption - i.e., when it is considered from the point of view, not of its mere use value, but of its exchange value. The more the production of material objects is subordinated to the needs of the market, to buying and selling, the more mankind has lost sight of the real aims and motives of production. The commodity has cast a spell on the producers, and never has this spell been so powerful, never has this "enchanted and perverted world" developed so much (see Vol Three, chap XLVIII), as in the society of universal commodity production, capitalism - the first society in history where market relations have penetrated to the very heart of the productive system, so that labor power itself has become a commodity. This is how Marx describes the process whereby commodity relations have come to bewitch the minds of the producers:

"... in the act of seeing, there is at all events an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relations between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities" (ibid).

For Marx, uncovering and overthrowing the commodity-fetish was crucial at two levels. First, because the confusion that commodity relations sowed in men's minds made it extremely difficult to grasp the real workings of bourgeois society, even for the most learned and acute theoreticians of the ruling class. And second, because a society which was ruled by the commodity was necessarily a society condemned to escape the control of the producers; not only in an abstract and static sense, but also in the sense that such a social order would eventually pull the whole of humanity towards catastrophe unless it was replaced by a society which had banished exchange value in favor of production for use.

The secret of surplus value

Bourgeois political economists had of course recognized that capitalism was a society based on production for profit; some of them had recognized the existence of class antagonisms and social injustices within this society. But none of them had been able to discern the real origins of capitalist profit in the exploitation of the proletariat. The fetishism of commodities again: in contrast to oriental despotism, or classical slavery, or feudalism, there is no institutionalized exploitation in capitalism, no corvee, no legal ownership of one human being by another, no days fixed for working on the lord's estate. In the straightforward, commonsense view of bourgeois thought, the capitalist buys the workers' 'labor' and gives him, in return, a 'fair day's pay'. If a profit arises from this exchange, or from capitalist production in general, its function is simply to cover the cost and effort expended by the capitalist, which seems fair enough as well. This profit might be produced by the capitalist 'buying cheap and selling dear', i.e. on the marketplace, or through the 'abstinence' of the capitalist himself, or, as in Senior's theory, in the "last hour of labor".

What Marx demonstrated, however, through his analysis of the commodity, was that the origin of capitalist profit lies in a real form of slavery, in the unpaid labor-time extracted from the worker. This is why Marx begins Capital with an analysis of the origins of value, explaining that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labor-time embodied in its production. Thus far Marx was in continuity with classical bourgeois political economy (though modern economic 'experts' will tell us that the labor theory of value is no more than a charming antique - which is an expression of the utter degeneracy of bourgeois economic 'science' in this epoch). But Marx's achievement was his capacity to go deeper into the exploration of the peculiar commodity labor power (not labor in the abstract, as the bourgeoisie always approached it, but the worker's capacity to labor, which is what the capitalist actually purchases). This commodity, like any other, was 'worth' the amount of labor-time needed to reproduce it - in this case, to fulfill the worker's basic needs, such as food, clothing shelter, etc. But living labor power, in contrast to the machines that it set in motion, had the unique characteristic of being able to create more value in the working day than was required to reproduce it. The worker who works an 8-hour day may thus spend no more than 4 hours working for himself - the rest is given 'free' to the capitalist. This surplus value, when realized on the market, is the real source of capitalist profit. The fact that capitalist production is precisely the extraction, realization and accumulation of this stolen surplus labor makes it by definition, by nature, a system of class exploitation in full continuity with slavery and feudalism. It's not a question of whether the worker works for 8, 10 or 18 hours a day, whether his working environment is pleasant or hellish, whether his wages are high or low. These factors influence the rate of exploitation but not the fact of exploitation. Exploitation is not an accidental by-product of capitalist society, the product of individual greedy bosses. It is the fundamental mechanism of capitalist production and the latter could not be conceived without it.

The implications of this are immediately revolutionary. In the marxist framework, all the sufferings, material and spiritual, imposed on the working class, are the logical and inevitable product of this system of exploitation. Capital is without doubt a powerful moral indictment of the misery and degradation that bourgeois society heaps upon the vast majority of its members. Volume One in particular shows in great detail how capitalism was born "dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt" (Vol 1, XXXI); how, in its phase of primitive accumulation, nascent capital ruthlessly expropriated the peasants and punished the vagabonds that it had itself created with the whip and the axe; how, both in the early phase of manufacturing, the phase of capital's "formal domination", and in the industrial system proper, the phase of "real domination", the capitalists' "werewolf greed" for surplus value led with the objective force of a machine in motion to the horrors of child labor, the 18-hour day and all the rest. In the same work Marx also denounces the inner impoverishment, the alienation of the worker reduced to a cog in this vast machine, reduced by repetitive drudgery to a mere fragment of his real human potential. But he does all this not with the aim of appealing for a more humane form of capitalism, but of scientifically demonstrating that the very system of wage labor must lead to these 'excesses'; that the proletariat cannot mitigate its sufferings by relying on the good will and charitable impulses of its exploiters, but only by offering a dogged, organized resistance against the day-to-day effects of exploitation; that this inevitably increasing "mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation" can only be done away with through "the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production" (chap XXXII). In short, the theory of surplus value proves the necessity, the absolute unavoidability, of the struggle between capital and labor, classes with objectively irreconcilable interests. This is the granite foundation for every analysis of capitalist economics, politics and social life, which can only be understood clearly and lucidly from the point of view of the exploited class, since the latter alone has a material interest in piercing the veil of mystification with which capital covers itself.

The insoluble contradictions of capital

As we showed in the first part of this article, historical materialism, the marxist analysis of history, is synonymous with the view that each class society has moved through an epoch of ascendance, in which its social relations provide a framework for the progressive development of the productive forces, and an epoch of decadence, in which the same relations have become of growing fetter on further development, necessitating the emergence of new relations of production. Capitalism, in Marx's view, was no exception to this - on the contrary, Capital, indeed Marx's entire work, can justly be described as the necrology of capital, a study of the processes leading to its demise and disappearance. This is why the crescendo to Volume One is the passage where Marx predicts a time when "the monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated" (Chap XXXII).

The first volume of Capital, however, is mainly a critical study of "The process of production of capital". Its principal aim is to lay bare the nature of capitalist exploitation, and thus largely restricts itself to analyzing the direct relationship between the proletariat and the capitalist class, keeping to an abstract model where other classes and forms of production are of no importance. It is in the subsequent volumes, particularly Volume Three and the Theories of Surplus Value (part two), as well as in the Grundrisse, that Marx embarks upon the next phase of his missile attack upon bourgeois society: demonstrating that the fall of capital will be the result of contradictions rooted in the very heart of the system, in the production of surplus value itself.

Already in the 1840s, and especially in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had identified the periodic crises of overproduction as the harbingers of the eventual demise of capitalist society. In Capital and the Grundrisse, Marx devotes considerable space to polemicizing against the bourgeois political economists who tried to argue that capitalism was essentially a harmonious economic system in which every product could, all being well, find a purchaser - i.e. that the capitalist market could absorb all the commodities churned out in the capitalist production process. If crises of overproduction did take place, went the arguments of economists like Say, Mill and Ricardo, they were the result of a purely contingent imbalance between supply and demand, some unfortunate 'disproportionality' between one sector and another; or perhaps they were simply the result of wages being too low. Partial overproduction was possible, but not general overproduction. And any idea that the crises of overproduction sprang from insoluble contradictions built into the very system itself could not be admitted, because that meant admitting the limited and transient nature of the capitalist mode of production itself:

"The apologetic phrases used to deny crises are important are so far as they always prove the opposite of what they are meant to prove. In order to deny crises, they assert unity where there is conflict and contradiction. They are therefore important in so far as one can say they prove that there would be no crises if the contradictions which they have erased in their imagination, did not exist in fact. But in reality crises exist because these contradictions exist. Every reason which they put forward against crisis is an exorcised contradiction, and therefore, a real contradiction, which can cause crises. The desire to convince oneself of the non-existence of contradictions is at the same time the expression of a pious wish that the contradictions, which are really present should not exist" (Theories of Surplus Value, part two, chap XVII).

And in the ensuing paragraphs, Marx shows that the very existence of the wage labor system and of surplus value contains within itself the crises of overproduction:

"What the workers in fact produce is surplus value. So long as they produce it, they are able to consume. As soon as they cease to produce it, their consumption ceases, because their production ceases. But that they are able to consume is by no means due to their having produced an equivalent for their consumption ... By reducing these relations to those of consumer and producer, one leaves out of account that the wage-laborer who produces and the capitalist who produces are two producers of a completely different kind, quite apart from the fact that some consumers do not produce at all. Once again, a contradiction is denied, by abstracting from a contradiction which really exists in production. The mere relationship of wage laborer and capitalist implies:

1. that the majority of the producers (the workers) are non-consumers (non-buyers) of a very large part of their product, namely, of the means of production and the raw material;

2. that the majority of the producers, the workers, can consume an equivalent for their product only so long as they produce more than this equivalent, that is, so long as they produce surplus value or surplus product. They must always be overproducers, producers over and above their needs, in order to be consumers or buyers within the limits of their needs" (Theories of Surplus Value, part two, chap XVII).

In short, because the capitalist extracts surplus value from the worker, the worker always produces more than he can buy back. Of course, this is not a problem from the point of view of the individual capitalist, because he can always find a market with some other capitalist's workers; and the bourgeois political economist is likewise prevented by his class blinkers from seeing the problem from the point of view of the total social capital. But as soon as it is grasped from this standpoint (which only a proletarian theorist can do), then the problem indeed becomes a fundamental one. Marx explains this in the Grundrisse:

" ... the relation of one capitalist to the workers of another capitalist is none of our concern here. It only shows every capitalist's illusion, but alters nothing in the relation of capital in general to labor. Every capitalist knows this about his worker that he does not relate to him as producer to consumer and he therefore wishes to restrict his consumption, i.e. his ability to exchange, his wage, as much as possible. Of course he would like the workers of other capitalists to be the greatest consumers possible of his own commodity. But the relation of every capitalist to his own workers is the relation as such of capital and labor, the essential relation. But this is just how the illusion arises - true for the individual capitalist as distinct from all the others - that apart from his workers the whole remaining working class confronts him as consumer and participant in exchange, as money spender, and not as worker. It is forgotten that, as Malthus says, 'the very existence of a profit upon any commodity presupposes a demand exterior to that of the laborer who has produced it', and hence the demand of the laborer himself can never be an adequate demand. Since one production sets the other into motion and hence creates consumers for itself in the alien capital's workers, it seems to each individual capital that the demand of the working class posited by production itself is an 'adequate demand'. On one side, this demand which production itself posits drives it forward, and must drive it forward beyond the proportion in which it would have to produce with regard to the workers; on the other side, if the demand exterior to the demand of the laborer himself disappears or shrinks up, then the collapse occurs" (The Chapter on Capital, notebook IV).

If the working class, taken as a whole, cannot provide an adequate market for capitalist production, neither can the problem be solved by the capitalists selling each other their products: "If it is finally said that the capitalists have only to exchange and consume their commodities amongst themselves, then the entire nature of the capitalist mode of production is lost sight of; and also forgotten is the fact that it is a matter of expanding the value of the capital, not consuming it" (Capital, vol III, chap XV). Because the aim of capital is the expansion of value, reproduction of value on an ever-extending scale, it requires a constantly expanding market, an "expansion of the outlying fields of production" (ibid), which is why in its ascendant period capitalism was driven to conquer the globe and subject more and more of it to its laws. But Marx was quite aware that this process of expansion could not go on indefinitely: eventually capitalist production would encounter the limits of the market both in the geographic and the social sense, and then what Ricardo and the others refused to admit would become manifest: "that the bourgeois mode of production contains within itself a barrier to the free development of the productive forces, a barrier which comes to the surface in crises and, in particular, in overproduction - the basic phenomenon in crises" (Theories of Surplus Value, part two, chap XVII, section 14).

Just as the bourgeois economists were compelled to deny the reality of overproduction, they were no less troubled by another basic contradiction contained in capitalist production: the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Marx located the origins of this tendency in the imperious necessity for capitals to compete, to constantly revolutionize the means of production, i.e. to increase the organic composition of capital, the relation between the dead labour embodied in machines, which produce no new value, and the living labor of the proletariat. The contradictory consequences of such 'progress' are summarized as follows:

" ... proceeding from the nature of the capitalist mode of production, it is thereby proved a logical necessity that in its development the general average rate of surplus value must express itself in a falling general rate of profit. Since the mass of the employed living labor is continually on the decline as compared to the mass of materialized labor set in motion by it, i.e. to the productively consumed means of production, it follows that the portion of labor, unpaid and congealed in surplus value, must also be continually on the decrease compared to the amount of value represented by the invested total capital. Since the ratio of the mass of surplus value to the value of the invested total capital forms the rate of profit, this rate must constantly fall" (Capital, Vol Three, chap XIII). What worried the more serious bourgeois political economists like Ricardo about this phenomenon was again its inescapable nature, the fact that "the rate of profit, the stimulating principle of capitalist production, the fundamental premise and driving force of accumulation, should be endangered by the development of production itself", because this again implies that capitalist production "has its barrier, that it is relative, that it is not an absolute, but only a historical mode of production corresponding to a definite limited epoch in the development of the material requirements of production" (Vol Three, chap XV).

Marx's unfinished work

Capital is necessarily an unfinished work. Not only because Marx did not live long enough to complete it, but also because it was written in a historical period in which capitalist social relations had not yet become a definitive barrier to the development of the productive forces. And it is surely not unconnected to this that when Marx comes to define the basic element in the capitalist crisis, he sometimes emphasizes the problem of overproduction and sometimes the falling rate of profit, although there is never a mechanical and rigid separation made between the two: for example, the chapter in Volume Three devoted to the consequences of the falling rate of profit (Chap. XV, 'Internal contradictions of the law') also contain some of the most elucidating passages about the problem of the market. Nevertheless this apparent gap or inconsistency in Marx's theory of crisis has led, in the actual epoch of capitalism's decline, to the emergence within the revolutionary movement of different theories about the origins of this decline. Not surprisingly, they fall under two main headings: those based on Rosa Luxemburg's work, stressing the problem of realization, and those deriving from the work of Grossman and Mattick, emphasizing the falling rate of profit.

This is not the place for a detailed examination of these theories, a task we have at least initiated elsewhere (see in particular 'Marxism and crisis theory', IR 13). At this point we simply want to reiterate why for us Luxemburg's approach is the most coherent.

'Negatively', it's because the Grossman-Mattick theory, which denies the fundamental character of the realization problem, seems to regress to the bourgeois political economists denounced by Marx for claiming that capitalist production created a sufficient market for itself. At the same time, the adherents of the Grossman-Mattick theory often resort to the arguments of revisionist economists like Otto Bauer, whom Luxemburg ridiculed in her Anti-critique for arguing that the abstract mathematical schemas on expanded reproduction that Marx constructed in Capital Vol Two 'solved' the problem of realization and that Rosa Luxemburg's whole approach was a simple misunderstanding, the raising of a non-problem.

In a more positive sense, Rosa Luxemburg's approach provides an explanation for the historically concrete conditions determining the onset of the permanent crisis of the system: the more capitalism integrated the remaining non-capitalist areas of economy into itself, the more it created a world in its own image, the less it could constantly extend the market and find new outlets for the realization of that portion of surplus value which could be realized neither by the capitalists nor the proletariat. The inability of the system to go on expanding in the old way brought about the new epoch of imperialism and inter-imperialist wars, signaling the end of capitalism's progressive historical mission and threatening humanity with a relapse into barbarism. All this, as we have seen, was fully in line with the 'problem' of the market as posed by Marx in his critique of political economy.

At the same time, while the Grossman-Mattick approach, at least in its pure form, simply denies this whole question, Luxemburg's method allows us to see how the problem of the falling rate of profit becomes increasingly acute once the world market no longer has a field of expansion around it: if the market is glutted, there is no longer the possibility of compensating for the fall in the rate of profit, i.e. the decreasing amount of value contained in each commodity, by a rise in the mass of profit, i.e. by producing and selling more commodities; on the contrary, the attempt to do so only exacerbates the problem of overproduction. Here it becomes evident that the two essential contradictions uncovered by Marx act on each other and aggravate each other, deepening the crisis and making it ever more explosive.

"In the crises of the world market, the contradictions and antagonisms of bourgeois production are strikingly revealed" (Theories of Surplus Value, part two, chap XVII). This is certainly true of the economic disaster that has ravaged the capitalist world over the past quarter century. Despite all the mechanisms that capitalism has installed to delay the crisis, indeed to cheat the consequences of its own laws (mountains of debt, state intervention, the organization of world-wide fiscal and trade organisms, etc), this crisis has all the hallmarks of the crisis of overproduction, revealing as never before the true absurdity and irrationality of the bourgeoisie's economic system.

In this crisis we are faced, to a far greater degree than in the past, with the insane contrast between the vast potential for wealth and enjoyment promised by the development of the productive forces, and the actual misery and suffering induced by the social relations of production. Technically speaking, the whole world could be provided with adequate food and shelter: instead millions starve while food is dumped in the ocean, farmers are paid not to farm, and unimaginable scientific and financial resources are cast into the abyss of military production and war; millions go homeless while building workers are thrown onto the dole; millions are forced to work more and more intensively, for longer and longer hours, in order to meet the needs of capitalist competition, while millions more are ejected from work into the idleness and poverty of unemployment. And all because there is this crazy epidemic of overproduction. Not, as Marx pointed out, overproduction in relation to need, but overproduction in relation to the capacity to pay. "There are not too many necessities of life produced, in proportion to the existing population. Quite the reverse. Too little is produced to decently and humanely satisfy the wants of the great mass ... On the other hand, too many means of labor and necessities of life are produced at times to permit of their serving as means for the exploitation of laborers at a certain rate of profit. Too many commodities are produced to permit of a realization and conversion into new capital of the value and surplus value contained in them under the conditions of distribution and consumption peculiar to capitalist production ... Not too much wealth is produced. But at times too much wealth is produced in its capitalistic, self-contradictory forms" (Capital, Vol Three, chap XV).

In short, the crisis of overproduction, which can no longer be attenuated by a new expansion of the market, exposes the fact that the productive forces are no longer compatible with their "capitalist integument", and that this integument must be "burst asunder". The fetishism of commodities, the tyranny of the market, must be overthrown by the revolutionary working class, the only social force capable of taking hold of the existing productive forces and orienting them towards the satisfaction of human needs.

Communism: a society without exchange

The definitions of communism in Marx's 'mature' theoretical work operate at two connected levels. The first derives logically from the critique of commodity fetishism, of a society ruled by mysterious, non-human forces, and caught up in the terrible consequences of its inner contradictions. It is, in fact, Marx's attempt to concretize a project already announced in The Jewish Question in 1843: that human emancipation requires man to recognize and organize his own social powers instead of being dominated by them. He thus outlines the solution to the insoluble contradictions of commodity production: an essentially simple form of social organization where the divisions based on private property have been superseded, where production is carried on for need, not profit, and where calculations of labor time, instead of being applied as a wrack for each individual worker and the working class as a whole, are directed solely towards working out how much social labor should be expended on the production of such and such necessities:

"The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip itself of its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan" (Capital, Vol One, Chap I).

"Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of a change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labor power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labor-power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson's labor are here repeated, but with the difference, that they are social, instead of individual. Everything produced by him was exclusively the result of his own personal labor, and therefore simply an object of use for himself. The total product of our community is a social product. One portion serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another portion is consumed by the members as a means of subsistence. A distribution of this portion amongst them is consequently necessary. The mode of this distribution will vary with the productive organization of the community, and the degree of historical development attained by the producers. We will assume, but merely for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labor-time. Labor-time would, in that case, play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the proper proportion between the different kinds of work to be done and the various wants of the community. On the other hand, it also serves as a measure of the portion of common labor borne by each individual, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labor and its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but to distribution" (ibid).[1]

For all that these features seem transparently simple, even obvious, it has time and again been necessary for marxists to insist on this minimal definition of a communist society against all the false 'socialisms' that have plagued the workers' movement for so long. In the Grundrisse, for example, there is a long polemic against Proudhonist fantasies about a socialism based on fair exchange, a system where the worker is paid in full for the value of his product, and money is replaced by a kind of non-money to measure this exchange. Against this, Marx insists both that "it is impossible to abolish money itself as long as exchange value remains the social form of products" (Chapter on Money), and that in a real communist society, "the labor of the individual is posited from the outset as social labor. Thus, whatever the particular material form of the product he creates or helps to create, what he has bought with his labor is not a specific and particular product, but rather a specific share of the communal production. He therefore has no particular product to exchange. His product is not an exchange value" (ibid).

In Marx's day, when he criticized "the idea held by some socialists that we need capital but not the capitalists" (Grundrisse, Chapter on capital, notebook V), he was referring to confused elements in the workers' movement. But in the period of capitalist decay such ideas are not simply wrong; they have become part of the arsenal of the counter-revolution. One of the distinguishing features of the entire left wing of capital from the Labor Party through the Stalinists to the most radical Trotskyists, is that all of them identify socialism as a capitalist society without private capitalists, a system where capital has been nationalized and wage labor statified, and where commodity production still reigns supreme, if not within each national unit then on world scale, as a relation between the various 'socialist nations'. Naturally, as we saw with the Stalinist system in the old eastern bloc, such a system in no way avoids the fundamental contradictions of capital and is just as doomed to collapse as the more classical variants of bourgeois society.

The realm of freedom

Thus far, Marx has described the material underpinnings of communist freedom, its basic prerequisites:

"Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis." (Capital, Volume Three, chap XLVIII).

The true goal of communism, therefore, is not merely a negative freedom from the domination of arbitrary economic laws, but the positive freedom to develop human potential to its utmost, and for its own sake. As we have noted before, this far-reaching project was announced by Marx in his early writings, particularly the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, and he never deviated from it at any stage in his later work.

The passage just cited is preceded by the statement that "the realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production". This is true insofar as the enormous development of labor productivity under capitalism, the automation of production (which is clearly glimpsed by Marx in a number of passages in the Grundrisse), make it possible to reduce to a minimum the amount of time and energy spent on repetitive and unrewarding tasks. But when Marx actually begins to examine the content of the free activity characteristic of a communist humanity, he recognizes that such an activity will overcome any rigid separation between free time and working time:

"It goes without saying, by the way, that direct labor time itself cannot remain in the abstract antithesis to free time in which it appears from the perspective of bourgeois economy. Labor cannot become play, as Fourier would like, although it remains his great contribution to have expressed the suspension not of distribution, but of the mode of production itself, in a higher form, as the ultimate object. Free time - which is both idle time and time for higher activity - has naturally transformed its possessor into a different subject, and he then enters into the direct production process as this different subject. This process is then both discipline, as regards the human being in the process of becoming; and at the same time, practice, experimental science, materially creative and objectifying science, as regards the human being who has become, in whose head exists the accumulated knowledge of society. For both, in so far as labor requires practical use of hands and free bodily movement, as in agriculture, at the same time exercise" (Grundrisse, Chapter on Capital, notebook VII).

Thus, if Marx criticizes Fourier for thinking that labor can become "mere fun, mere amusement" (a misunderstanding kept alive by the successors of Fourier who abound on the margins of the revolutionary movement, such as the Situationists), he offers instead not a greyer, more mundane goal, but one far more epic in scope, pointing out that "the overcoming of obstacles is in itself a liberating activity - and that, further, the external aims become stripped of the semblance of merely external natural urgencies, and become posited as aims which the individual himself posits - hence as self-realisation, objectification of the subject, hence real freedom, whose action is, precisely labor" (Grundrisse, Chapter on Capital, notebook VI). And again: "Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion" (ibid).

The worldview of the first laboring class to be a revolutionary class, and thus one which recognizes labor to be the specifically human form of activity, marxism cannot envisage human beings finding real satisfaction in mere 'leisure' conceived in abstract opposition to work; it thus affirms that humanity will find its true fulfillment in a form of active creation, an inspired fusion of labor, science and art.


In the next part of this series, we will follow Marx's 'return' from the abstract world of economic studies to the practical world of politics, in the period that culminated with the first proletarian revolution in history, the Paris Commune. In so doing, we will trace the development of the marxist understanding of the political problem par excellence: the problem of the state, and how to get rid of it.


[1] We will return in another article to the question of labor-time as a measure of individual consumption. But let's note that here labor-time no longer dominates the worker or society; society uses it consciously, as a means of planning the rational production and distribution of use-values. And, as Marx points out in the Grundrisse, it certainly no longer measures its real wealth in terms of labor-time, but in terms of disposable time. 


Automated tagging: 

General and theoretical questions: