Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Monday, July 11, 2011

Bad Marx

That’s Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels up there. In case you’re wondering he’s the bad Marx. There are four or five good ones (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo, though I don’t think Gummo ever showed up in any of the movies.)

We’re going to start off by looking at the writings from 1844, the period of the so-called “young Marx.” St. John’s college recommends the edition put out by Prometheus Books, so that’s up there on the right. I don’t want to spend money on Karl, so I’m using an old copy that I bought sometime in the 1960s, back when I was in my radical phase and active in SDS, or Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man. Fromm’s book has a lengthy introduction to what he considers the humanistic aspect of Marx, and then some selections from the 1844 manuscripts. We’ll be dealing with the manuscripts, then the Communist Manifesto. I won’t be dealing with Capital, even though it’s on the reading list, because St. John’s uses different editions than the one I have, and I’m not up to mapping out the various page equivalences. I should also mention that I’ve found most of Marx boring.

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Alienated Labor—Marx begins by saying that “The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces and the more his production increases in power and extent.” This is stated as something that evidently does not need proof. In any case Marx provides no proof for the truth of this statement. It would seem to fly in the face of the common sense observation that the worker also functions as a consumer, and that the maker of refrigerators also buys refrigerators, and thus participates in the consumption of his product. Marx then continues by finding that the product of work, the good that is manufactured, is “the objectification of labor.” The worker’s effort is thus embodied in an object.

It seems fair to ask at this point, what is the aim of unalienated labor? Is it not also to produce objects?

Now at this point Marx has not yet introduced the concept of alienation, In a subsequent paragraph though Marx does just that, and he describes the worker as being related to the object as he would to an alien object. This is apparently because the worker is producing the object for others. What, however, is the relation of the man who produces an object for his own use? Is it all that different from the relation of the man who produces for hire? Marx describes the object that is produced as having a power over the worker. Now here some would describe the object’s power as being mystical, however, I prefer to reserve mystical and related words to theology, so lets call it occult, a secret, hidden power cloaked in mystery. That’s precisely what Marx’s claim of alienation is. Somehow the object acquires this power over the worker. That’s not to deny that there is alienation, but when it occurs it owes more to psychological and sociological factors than to anything arising from economic transactions. It’s also more likely to be of a personal nature than of an economic nature.

Marx’s program, at least as evidenced in these manuscripts, seems to be based on the idea that this alienation exists, and that there is a program for overcoming this. If the concept of alienation fails, and I believe it does, then the program also fails.

Private Property and Labor. Marx believed that we are conditioned by the tools we use. In some mysterious way an object modifies the mind. He even applies this to the realm of the senses. He gives an example of music awakening the musical sense. This leaves unanswered the question of how the first music, which would come from presumably unmusical people, originated. He postulates that the senses of social man differ from those of unsocial man:

“for this reason the senses of the social man differ from those of the non-social man. Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form – in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, human sense, the human nature of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature. The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present. The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense.> For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract existence as food. It could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals. The care-burdened, poverty-stricken man has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value but not the beauty and the specific character of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense. Thus, the objectification of the human essence, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is required to make man’s sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance.”

Does unsocial man exist? If he does not, does Marx’s critique of the senses and their formation make sense?

I’m afraid that Marx’s science is pretty much out of date:

“The creation of the earth has received a mighty blow from geognosy – i.e., from the science which presents the formation of the earth, the development of the earth, as a process, as a self-generation. Generatio aequivoca is the only practical refutation of the theory of creation.”

Marx is referring here to Lyell’s description of geological processes, the uniformitarian theory, which does not have implications, in itself, about creation. In any case, the Big Bang theory refutes the idea of self-creation. (How does a formerly non-existent thing bring itself into being?)

“But since for the socialist man the entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labour, nothing but the emergence of nature for man, so he has the visible, irrefutable proof of his birth through himself, of his genesis.” This is circular reasoning. Marx contends that this apparent circularity is of no matter because communism is the negation of the negation, or some such thing.

Needs, Production, and Division of Labor. Marx proclaims, with more than a little sarcasm, that economics is a moral science. “Thus political economy – despite its worldly and voluptuous appearance – is a true moral science, the most moral of all the sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis. The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise [sic], sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour – your capital.” What Marx has stumbled upon is what Max Weber described as the Protestant ethic. Weber found its roots in the Protestant reformation, particularly the Calvinist need for the certainty of salvation. Unlike Weber he doesn’t link it to religious thought, except as a general form of asceticism.

What happens though in an environment in which there is no savings as a prelude to investment and capitalization? Isn’t that exactly nothing? The failure to maintain a degree of savings means that there is no money available for railroads, telegraphs, and that later there will be no money for automobiles, airplanes, and computers. Unless Uncle Karl is going to wave his magic cape and produce the capital that will generate the companies to build the railroads, string the telegraph wire, build automobiles, and airplanes, and manufacture and program computers.

I’ll pass over his silly comments on the marvels of French workers.

The German Ideology. Marx writes on the distribution of labor that: “as soon as labor is distributed each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

There are good reasons for the specialization of labor. Let me illustrate with a story. In 1972-8 I had a Fiat, and I decided to do tune-ups and save money. The first thing you did back then was remove and replace the distributor cap and the condenser. The condenser was held on the distributor by a single screw. I dropped the screw and could not find it. The Fiat was Italian, and therefore the screw was a metric screw, not a normal, decent, God-fearing standard British/American screw. So that meant I had to walk up to Meenehan’s hardware store, and buy a tap and die outfit to fit a standard screw onto the distributor. I’m not sure if the next incident was connected to this, or was a separate attempt, but I was driving along one day, and I heard a thumping from the engine, and then the Fiat stopped. The distributor rotor had banged up against the cap and had smashed it into tiny little pieces. From incidents like this I learned that it was better to let mechanics work on my car while I studied Shakespeare and Shaw.

Marx assumes that all work is interchangeable, and does not require any effort to master. I could conceivably go hunting; I could be a hit man for the mob. In either case I wouldn’t hit what I’m aiming at. So I let the hunters hunt, and hit men do their thing. As to becoming a critic, well everybody has an opinion, some of them are worth listening to, and others are not, To have an opinion on painting or music or literature it is necessary to study painting or music or literature. One doesn’t have to paint, compose, or write, as Plato supposes in the Ion, but one has to know what makes a painting, a symphony, or a play work.

The sad reality for Marx is that where his dream was tried, it failed. During the heyday of Communism in the former Soviet Union doctors were not paid as well as they were in the west. The result was a lower quality of Soviet medicine. The bureaucracy, which expressed the general will of the people and regulated production, assigned incorrect valuations to the labor of doctors, while the untrammeled free market in the West assigned higher valuations, and produced better medicine.

The Communist Manifesto. This is famous for its opening and closing lines.

Bourgeois and Proletarian. Marx opens with his famous declaration about the spectre of communism haunting Europe. He then launches into the manifesto. Now this is a manifesto, a rhetorical call to arms, so he doesn’t devote a whole lot of time to proving his propositions, but some of them seem questionable at best. Take this for example, “From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed.” Now that might make an interesting topic sentence for a research paper, but there isn’t any development of the idea. How did the serfs gain the ability to become chartered burghers? They were serfs. They were tied to the land. All of a sudden they’re chartered burgesses. Now this is some sort of progress. They’ve moved up the social ladder, and become burgesses. You’d think this is a good thing. Hey, I want to live on the Hamptons like I just saw on Royal Pains, and you’re telling me I can do it because I’m a chartered burgess. Sign me up for this way of life. But Marx doesn’t think so. They form the basis for the bourgeois, the source of all evil in the Marxian universe.

Marx hates the bourgeoisie but believes that it “has played a most revolutionary role in history.” He gives a long description of this role:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

Note that Marx disapproves of the bourgeoisie and its destruction of feudal relations, of religious fervour, and sentimentalism. This is rather surprising, the implication would seem to be that these are good things, and that what Marx wants is actually counter-revolutionary. Perhaps I’m misreading this, and what Marx actually means is that these things are nice pieties that are now revealed as mere covers for exploitation.

However, he points out that “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” So the whole capitalist enterprise that generated good quality shirts and shoes, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and all of the things that characterized life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and that went on to produce computers, iPods, and iPads for the masses, and that allows the books and art of millennia to be streamed into a billion or more homes is revolutionary. And he’s against it.

Proletarians and Communists. Marx later on decries the absence of family life among the proletarians, and public prostitution. I loaned my copy of Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed out some 40 years ago, and never got it back, but my recollection is that one of Trotsky’s complaints was the existence of prostitution in Stalinist Russia.

He also wants to replace home education by social education. Now, as far as I know, Horace Mann, who was behind much of the push for public education in the US, was not a socialist or a Marxist, and the extent of the role of the state in education should be open to debate, but the idea in Marx’s manifesto seems to be that education should be indoctrination. “The Communists have not invented the intervention of society in education; they do but seek to alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.” This necessarily requires the replacement of the existing ruling class with a new one. In other words, same tyranny, different masters.

Marx’s comments on the community of women seem more indicative of his wet dreams than of serious thought.

Marx sets forward the Communist program of 1848

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes. 2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. 3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance. 4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. 5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly. 6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State. 7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan. 8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture. 9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

The progressive tax is a liberal ideal that was institutionalized in the 16th amendment. That hasn’t worked out to well. The centralization of credit in the hnads of the state is implemented, at least partially, in the Federal Reserve Board. The FCC doesn’t really centralize broadcasting, though PBS is an unnecessary burden upon the taxpayers. Note that “industrial armies” equals compulsory labor, i.e., slavery. Free education for all children. We all know what anything free is worth, and public education has reached that point.

Marx’s revolution, at least in the early works here, derives from his concept of alienated labor. If that is denied, or disproven, or even disbelieved, there is no reason to follow on to the next steps. It would appear to stand or fall on this doctrine. I find Marx’s concept to be more relevant to how he thought about his own labor, and his own rewards for it, than to the real world. His remarks in The German Ideology show that he had no real world experience of things like hunting, fishing, or cattle raising, and inhabited a dream world in which all men could do all things.

It is best to relegate the bad Marx to the dustbin of history.

Update September 25, 2011

Marx makes a great fuss over the alienation of worker and product, but he doesn’t seem to have any data to back up his contention. There’s no evidence that he took a poll of factory workers, and asked “What are your feelings about that widget that you just made?” So there’s no inductive basis for his assertion. Neither is there any deductive basis for his assertion. It’s not the result of syllogistic reasoning, and is presumably to be taken as axiomatic. Still, it’s a peculiar axiom, and should be testable.

The edition of the manuscripts that I used has a long introduction by Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst of the Freudian school. So why doesn’t Fromm ask not about the doctrine of the manuscripts, but about their psychic origin. Marx presumably experienced the alienation himself, and extrapolated to the outer world.

The typical Freudian analyst concentrates upon early childhood experiences. In one book that had a great influence upon me in my younger days, Prescription for Rebellion by Robert M. Lindner, Dr. Lindner recounts the story of a salesman who is having difficulties at work. He is quoted as saying, “Everybody says I do a good job.” Lindner asks him to free associate with the words “good job,” and it is revealed those are the words spoken to him during potty training. Marx’s recent experiences prior to the writing of the manuscripts involved his views of Hegel, and of his “intense vexation at having to make an idol of a view I detested.” However, this was probably not the first instance of that experience of alienation. His mother was supposed to have been obsessed with cleanliness. It may well be that his early childhood experiences included an obsession with disposing of the products of his body, to be as polite and euphemistic as possible. The waste products were something foul, and to be gotten rid of.

Can Marxism then be dismissed as a case of bad potty training? Is the sordid history of the late 19th and most of the 20th century the result of little Karl’s obsession with his waste? It’s tempting to reduce Marxism and to mock it as a result of little Karl’s cloacal obsessions, but that’s not really sufficient. The appeal of Marxism is that plays into the resentments of people, and that while the founder’s psychology may be warped, the followers are there because of their own psychic needs.

End Update

Next up, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. After that I’m going to talk about science fiction and drama for a bit.