Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Radical perspectives on the crisis

I've not yet had a proper look at this website, but it sounds promising:

"The world is falling apart and we want to know why and what to do about it. Some of us have been studying some of this stuff for a while and others are trying to brush up quick. On this site we will post all the useful information we can find on understanding and grappling with whatever capitalism will throw at us during this exceptional period, as well as seeking exit strategies in the struggles which develop."

Marx's social survey of 1880

This is a social survey that Marx wrote in 1880, and which was published in La Revue Socialiste; I thought it might be interesting to look at in relation to the Kalinko Call Centre Communism thing. Love the way he writes of "the blackguardly features of capitalist exploitation" in the same sentence as "an impartial and systematic investigation".

A Workers' Inquiry

First published:in La Revue socialiste, April 20, 1880;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price, 1997.

Not a single government, whether monarchy or bourgeois republic, has yet ventured to undertake a serious inquiry into the position of the French working class. But what a number of investigations have been undertaken into crises — agricultural, financial, industrial, commercial, political!

The blackguardly features of capitalist exploitation which were exposed by the official investigation organized by the English government and the legislation which was necessitated there as a result of these revelations (legal limitation of the working day to 10 hours, the law concerning female and child labor, etc.), have forced the French bourgeoisie to tremble even more before the dangers which an impartial and systematic investigation might represent. In the hope that maybe we shall induce a republican government to follow the example of the monarchical government of England by likewise organizing a far reaching investigation into facts and crimes of capitalist exploitation, we shall attempt to initiate an inquiry of this kind with those poor resources which are at our disposal. We hope to meet in this work with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes form which they suffer and that only they, and not saviors sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills which they are prey. We also rely upon socialists of all schools who, being wishful for social reform, must wish for an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions in which the working class — the class to whom the future belongs -works and moves.

These statements of labor's grievances are the first act which socialist democracy must perform in order to prepare the way for social regeneration.

The following hundred questions are the most important. In replies the number of the corresponding question should be given. It is not essential to reply to every question, but our recommendation is that replies should be as detailed and comprehensive as possible. The name of the working man or woman who is replying will not be published without special permission but the name and address should be given so that if necessary we can send communication.

Replies should be sent to the Secretary of the Revue Socialiste, M.Lecluse, 28, rue royale, saint cloud, nr. Paris.

The replies will be classified and will serve as material for special studies, which will be published in the Revue and will later be reprinted as a separate volume.

  1. What is your trade?
  2. Does the shop in which you work belong to a capitalist or to a limited company/ State the names of the capitalist owners or directors of the company.
  3. State the number of persons employed.
  4. State their age and sex.
  5. What is the youngest age at which children are taken off (boys or girls)?
  6. State the number of overseers and other employees who are not rank and file hired workers.
  7. Are their apprentices? How many?
  8. Apart from the usual and regularly employed workers, are there others who come in at definite seasons?
  9. Does your employer' undertaking work exclusively or chiefly for local orders, or for the home market generally, or for export abroad?
  10. Is the shop in a village, or in a town? State the locality.
  11. If your shop is in the country, is there sufficient work in the factory for your existence or are you obliged to combine it with agricultural labor/
  12. Do you work with your hands or with the help of machinery?
  13. State details as to the division of labor in your factory.
  14. Is stream used as motive power?
  15. State the number of rooms in which the various branches of production are carried on. Describe the specialty in which you are engaged. Describe not only the technical side, but the muscular and nervous strain required, and its general effect on the health of the workers.
  16. Describe the hygienic conditions in the workshops; the size of the rooms, space allotted to every worker, ventilation, temperature, plastering, lavatories, general cleanliness, noise of machinery, metallic dust, dampness, etc.
  17. Is there any municipal or government supervision of hygienic conditions in the workshops?
  18. Are there in your industry particular effluvia which are harmful for the health and produce specific diseases among the workers?
  19. Is the shop overcrowded with machinery?
  20. Are safety measures to prevent accidents applied to the engine, transmission and machinery?
  21. Mention the accidents which have taken place in your personal knowledge.
  22. If you work in a mine, state the safety measures adopted by your employer to ensure ventilation and prevent explosions and other accidents.
  23. If you work in a chemical factory, at an iron works, at a factory producing metal goods, or in any other industry involving specific dangers to health, describe the safety measures adopted by your employer.
  24. What is your workshop lit up by (gas, oil, etc.)?
  25. Are there sufficient safety appliances against fire?
  26. Is the employer legally bound to compensate the worker or his family in case of accident?
  27. If not, has he ever compensated those who suffered accidents while working for his enrichment?
  28. Is first-aid organized in your workshop?
  29. If you work at home, describe the conditions of your work room. Do you use only working tools or small machines? Do you have recourse to the help of your children or other persons (adult or children, male or female)? Do you work for private clients, or for an employer? Do you deal with him direct or trough an agent?
  30. State the number of hours you work daily, and the number of working days during the week.
  31. State the number of holidays in the course of a year.
  32. What breaks are there during the working day?
  33. Do you take meals at definite intervals, or irregularly? Do you eat in the workshop or outside?
  34. Does work go on during meal times?
  35. If steam is used, when is it started and when stopped?
  36. Does work go on at night?
  37. State the number of hours of work of children and young people under 16.
  38. Are there shifts if children and young people replacing each other alternately during working hours?
  39. Has the government or municipality applied the laws regulating child labor? Do the employers submit to these laws?
  40. Do schools exist for children and young people employed in your trade? If they exist, in what hours do the lessons take place? Who manages the schools? What is taught in them?
  41. If work takes place both night and day, what is the order of the shifts?
  42. What is the usual lengthening of the working day in times of good trade?
  43. Are the machines cleaned by workers specially hired for that purpose, or do the workers employed on these machines clean them free, during their working day?
  44. What rules and fines exist for latecomers? When does the working day begin, when it is resumed after the dinner hour break?
  45. How much time do you lose in coming to the workshop and returning home?
  46. What agreements have you with your employer? Are you engaged by the day, week, month, etc.?
  47. What conditions are laid down regarding dismissals or leaving employment?
  48. In the event of a breach of agreement, what penalty can be inflicted on the employer, if he is the cause of the breach?
  49. What penalty can be inflicted on the worker if he is the cause of the breach?
  50. If there are apprentices, what are their conditions of contract?
  51. Is your work permanent or casual?
  52. Does work in your trade take place only at particular seasons, or is the work usually distributed more or less equally throughout the year? If you work only at definite seasons, how do you live in the intervals?
  53. Are you paid time or piece rate?
  54. If you are paid time rate, is it by the hour or by the day?
  55. Do you receive additions to your wages for overtime? How much?
  56. If you receive piece rates, how are they fixed? Of you are employed in industries in which the work done is measured by quantity or weight, as in the mines, don't your employers or their clerks resort to trickery, in order to swindle you out of part of your wages/
  57. If you are paid piece rate, isn't the quality of the goods used as a pretext for wrongful deductions form your wages?
  58. Whatever wages you get, whether piece or time rate, when is it paid to you; in other words, how long is the credit you give your employer before receiving payment for the work you have already carried out? Are you paid a week later, month, etc.?
  59. Have you noticed that delay in the payment of your wages forces you often to resort to the pawnshops, paying rates of high interest there, and depriving yourself of things you need: or incurring debts with the shopkeepers, and becoming their victim because you are their debtor? Do you know of cases where workers have lost their wages owing to the ruin or bankruptcy of their employers?
  60. Are wages paid direct by the employer, or by his agents ((contractors, etc.).)?
  61. If wages are paid by contractors or other intermediaries, what are the conditions of your contract?
  62. What is the amount of your money wages by the day week?
  63. What are the wages of the women and children employed together with you in the same shop?
  64. What was the highest daily wage last month in your shop?
  65. What was the highest piece wage last month?
  66. What were your own wages during the same time, and if you have a family, what were the wages of your wife and children?
  67. Are wages paid entirely in money, or in some other form?
  68. If you rent a lodging from your employer, on what conditions ? Does he not deduct the rent from your wages?
  69. What are the prices of necessary commodities, for example:
    (a) Rent of your lodging, conditions of lease, number of rooms, persons living in them, repair, insurance, buying and repairing furniture, heating, lighting, water, etc.
    (b) Food — bread, meat, vegetables, potatoes, etc, dairy produce, eggs, fish, butter, vegetable, oil, lard, sugar, salt, groceries, coffee, chicory, beer, wine, etc., tobacco.
    (c) Clothing for parents and children, laundry, keeping clean, bath, soap, etc.
    (d) Various expenses, such as correspondence, loans, payments to pawnbroker, children's schooling and teaching a trade, newspapers, books, etc., contributions to friendly societies, strikes, unions, resistance associations, etc.
    (e) Expenses, if any necessitated by your duties.
    (f) Taxes.
  70. Try and draw up a weekly and yearly budget of your income and expenditure for self and family.
  71. Have you noticed, in your personal experience, a bigger rise in the price of immediate necessities, e.g., rent, food, etc., than in wages?
  72. State the changes in wages which you know of.
  73. Describe wage increases during so-called prosperity periods.
  74. Describe any interruptions in employment caused by changes in fashions and partial and general crises. Describe your own involuntary rest periods.
  75. Compare the price of the commodities you manufacture or the services you render with the price of your labor.
  76. Quote any cases known to you of workers being driven out as a result of introduction of machinery or other improvements.
  77. In connection with the development of machinery and the growth of the productiveness of labor, has its intensity and duration increased or decreased?
  78. Do you know of any cases of increases in wages as a result of improvements in production?
  79. Have you ever known any rank and file workers who could retire from employment at the age of 50 and live on the money earned by them as wage workers.
  80. How many years can a worker of average health be employed in your trade?
  81. Do any resistance associations exist in your trade and how are they led? Send us their rules and regulations.
  82. How many strikes have taken place in your trade that you are aware of?
  83. How long did these strikes last?
  84. Were they general or partial strikes?
  85. Were they for the object of increasing wages, or were they organized to resist a reduction of wages, or connected with the length of the working day, or prompted by other motives?
  86. What were their results?
  87. Tell us of the activity of the courts of arbitration.
  88. Were strikes in your trade ever supported by strikes of workers belonging to other trades?
  89. Describe the rules and fines laid down by your employer for the management of his hired workers.
  90. Have there ever existed associations among the employers with the object of imposing a reduction of wages, a longer working day, of hindering strikes and generally imposing their own wishes?
  91. Do you know of cases when the government made unfair use of the armed forces, to place them at the disposal of the employers against their wage workers?
  92. Are you aware of any cases when the government intervened to protect the workers from the extortions of the employers and their illegal associations?
  93. Does the government strive to secure the observance of the existing factory laws against the interests of the employers? Do its inspectors do their duty?
  94. Are there in your workshop or trade any friendly societies to provide for accidents, sickness, death, temporary incapacity, old age, etc.? Send us their rules and regulations.
  95. Is membership of these societies voluntary or compulsory? Are their funds exclusively controlled by the workers?
  96. If the contributions are compulsory, and are under the employers' control, are they deducted from wages? Do the employers pay interest for this deduction? Do they return the amounts deducted to the worker when he leaves employment or is dismissed? Do you know of any cases when the workers have benefitted from the so-called pensions schemes, which are controlled by the employers, but the initial capital of which is deducted beforehand from the workers' wages?
  97. Are there cooperative guilds in your trade? How are they controlled? Do they hire workers for wages in the same ways as the capitalists? Send us their rules and regulations.
  98. Are there any workshops in your trade in which payment is made to the workers partly in the form of wages and partly in the form of so-called profit sharing? Compare the sums received by these workers and the sums received by other workers who don't take place in so-called profit sharing. State the obligations of the workers living under this system. may they go on strike, etc. or are they only permitted to be devoted servants of their employers?
  99. What are the general physical, intellectual and moral conditions of life of the working men and women employed in your trade?
  100. General remarks.

Friday, October 24, 2008


I can't remember who I was talking to, but I'm pretty sure someone said that they wanted to look at Capital in relation to literature or theatre...? If so, there's a reference to Goethe's Faust in the section that we've just read which I thought might be of interest.

On page 302, Marx describes capital as "an animated monster which begins to 'work', 'as if its body were by love possessed'." The quotation comes from a song sung in a a drinking den, and has been translated into English in a variety of different ways; the German is 'als hatt es Lieb in Leibe' which in addition to 'as if its body were by love possessed' has been rendered as 'as if it had love in its body', 'as if his frame love wasted', and, in my own copy - which sounds a bit rude - as 'love consumed his vitals'. Marx in fact liked this so much that he quoted it again in Volume 3 (p.517 of the Penguin edition, chapter 24) when describing interest: "The money's body is now by love possessed".

Faust is great, and you can find it for free on the internet. I found this version of the song here:

Brander [pounding on the table].
Give heed Give heed! Lend me your ear!
You, sirs, confess that I know what is what.
Some lovesick folk are sitting here,
And so in honour due their present lot
I must contribute to their night's good cheer.
Give heed! A brand-new song 'twill be!
And sing the chorus lustily!

[He sings.]

There once in a cellar lived a rat,
Had a paunch could scarce be smoother,
For it lived on butter and on fat,
A mate for Doctor Luther.
But soon the cook did poison strew
And then the rat, so cramped it grew
As if it had love in its body.
Chorus [shouting].
As if it had love in its body.
It flew around, and out it flew,
From every puddle swilling,
It gnawed and scratched the whole house through,
But its rage was past all stilling.
It jumped full of in anguish mad,
But soon, poor beast, enough it had,
As if it had love in its body.
As if it had love in its body.
By anguish driven in open day
It rushed into the kitchen,
Fell on the hearth and panting lay,
Most pitiably twitchin'.
Then laughed the poisoner: "Hee! hee! hee!
It's at its last gasp now," said she,
"As if it had love in its body."
"As if it had love in its body."

As is no doubt evident by now, Capital is full of literary references and it can be quite fun to chase them up. Francis Wheen's short biography of Capital (he's also done a biography of Marx himself, but I'm told it's not that great) stresses these literary references and describes the book as a 'Gothic novel':

"By the time he wrote Das Kapital, he was pushing out beyond conventional prose into radical literary collage - juxtaposing voices and quotations from mythology and literature, from factory inspectors' reports and fairy tales, in the manner of Ezra Pound's Cantos or Eliot's The Waste Land."

My own copy of this book is cicrulating in the second seminar group at the moment, but if anyone else wants to read it do say so. You can find a version of its first chapter here:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

back in fashion again - but when was it not.

From BBC News:

Karl Marx is back in fashion, says one German publisher, who attributes his
new popularity to the economic crisis.

Publisher Karl-Dietz said it sold 1,500 copies of Das Kapital this year - up from
the 200 it usually sells annually.

Written in 1867, sales of the tome rarely hit double digits but have been on
the rise since 2005.

Marxist economic philosophy - and in particular its Russian Leninist version -
fell out of favour with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

"It's definitely in vogue right now," said the publisher's director Joern

"The financial crisis brought us a huge bump."

He suggested that it was younger Germans who were buying the book
unhappy with the direction their elders had led the country.

"There's a younger generation of academics tackling hard questions and
looking to Marx for answers," Mr Schuetrumpf said.

But he doubted their perseverance: "I doubt they will read it all the way to
the end, because it's really arduous."

Other publishers also print Das Kapital, and German media have reported that
bookstores nationwide have seen a 300% increase in sales of the book in
recent months.

And suddenly too, some of the all-but-forgotten Marxist philosophers are
having their say again, such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm.

"Globalisation, which is implicit in capitalism, not only destroys the heritage
and tradition but it is incredibly unstable, it operates through a series of
crises, and I think this has been recognised to be the end of this particular
era," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Differences in the level of economic development

I'm posting the letter below as a follow up to the points made by Kassim as regards the issues of a historical development from capitalism to communism and their relation to the different levels of economic development reached by different countries. There's also a lot of debate and controversy surrounding Marx's references to 'the Asiatic mode of production' (I think Spivak says something about this somewhere...? Maybe in the Critique of Postcolonial Reason?)

This letter was written in 1877, just five years before Marx's death, and corresponds to his growing interest in Russia. He'd started to think that Russia might in fact prove a fertile ground for revolution - this despite its lack of an industrial proletariat, backwards economy and great mass of peasants - had taught himself Russian, and had started to amass piles of sociological data about the Russian economy (after his death Engels apparently found a room in his house full of Russia agricultural statistics). The letter is interesting, as in it Marx describes the account given in Capital as to the evolution of capitalism in Europe as a 'sketch' specific to Europe, and as something that could not be abstractly imposed elsewhere. He thus stresses that it is not "an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself."

Letter from Marx to Editor of the Otyecestvenniye Zapisky
[Notes on the Fatherland]

Written: in French at the end of November 1877;
Source: Marx and Engels Correspondence;
Publisher: International Publishers (1968);
First Published: Gestamtausgabe;
Translated: Donna Torr;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan in 1999;
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

The author of the article Karl Marx Before the Tribunal of M. Shukovsky is evidently a clever man and if, in my account of primitive accumulation, he had found a single passage to support his conclusions he would have quoted it. In the absence of any such passage he finds himself obliged to seize upon an hors d'oeuvre, a sort of polemic against a Russian “literary man,” published in the postscript of the first German edition of Capital. What is my complaint against this writer there? That he discovered the Russian commune not in Russia but in the book written by Haxthausen, Prussian Counsellor of State, and that in his hands the Russian commune only serves as an argument to prove that rotten old Europe will be regenerated by the victory of pan-Slavism. My estimate of this writer may be right or it may be wrong, but it cannot in any case furnish a clue to my views regarding the efforts “of Russians to find a path of development for their country which will be different from that which Western Europe pursued and still pursues,” etc.

In the postcript to the second German edition of Capital – which the author of the article on M. Shukovsky knows, because he quotes it – I speak of “a great Russian critic and man of learning” with the high consideration he deserves. In his remarkable articles this writer has dealt with the question whether, as her liberal economists maintain, Russia must begin by destroying la commune rurale (the village commune) in order to pass to the capitalist regime, or whether, on the contrary, she can without experiencing the tortures of this regime appropriate all its fruits by developing ses propres donnees historiques [the particular historic conditions already given her]. He pronounces in favour of this latter solution. And my honourable critic would have had at least as much reason for inferring from my consideration for this “great Russian critic and man of learning” that I shared his views on the question, as for concluding from my polemic against the “literary man” and Pan-Slavist that I rejected them.

To conclude, as I am not fond of leaving “something to be guessed,” I will come straight to the point. In order that I might be qualified to estimate the economic development in Russia to-day, I learnt Russian and then for many years studied the official publications and others bearing on this subject. I have arrived at this conclusion: If Russia, continues to pursue the path she has followed since 1861, she will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a nation, in order to undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime.


The chapter on primitive accumulation does not pretend to do more than trace the path by which, in Western Europe, the capitalist order of economy emerged from the womb of the feudal order of economy. It therefore describes the historic movement which by divorcing the producers from their means of production converts them into wage earners (proletarians in the modern sense of the word) while it converts into capitalists those who hold the means of production in possession. In that history, “all revolutions are epoch-making which serve as levers for the advancement of the capitalist class in course of formation; above all those which, after stripping great masses of men of their traditional means of production and subsistence, suddenly fling them on to the labour market. But the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the cultivators.

“This has not yet been radically accomplished except in England....but all the countries of Western Europe are going through the same movement,” etc. (Capital, French Edition, 1879, p. 315). At the end of the chapter the historic tendency of production is summed up thus: That it itself begets its own negation with the inexorability which governs the metamorphoses of nature; that it has itself created the elements of a new economic order, by giving the greatest impulse at once to the productive forces of social labour and to the integral development of every individual producer; that capitalist property, resting as it actually does already on a form of collective production, cannot do other than transform itself into social property. At this point I have not furnished any proof, for the good reason that this statement is itself nothing else than the short summary of long developments previously given in the chapters on capitalist production.

Now what application to Russia can my critic make of this historical sketch? Only this: If Russia is tending to become a capitalist nation after the example of the Western European countries, and during the last years she has been taking a lot of trouble in this direction – she will not succeed without having first transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once taken to the bosom of the capitalist regime, she will experience its pitiless laws like other profane peoples. That is all. But that is not enough for my critic. He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honouring and shaming me too much.) Let us take an example.

In several parts of Capital I allude to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome. They were originally free peasants, each cultivating his own piece of land on his own account. In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which divorced them from their means of production and subsistence involved the formation not only of big landed property but also of big money capital. And so one fine morning there were to be found on the one hand free men, stripped of everything except their labour power, and on the other, in order to exploit this labour, those who held all the acquired wealth in possession. What happened? The Roman proletarians became, not wage labourers but a mob of do-nothings more abject than the former “poor whites” in the southern country of the United States, and alongside of them there developed a mode of production which was not capitalist but dependent upon slavery. Thus events strikingly analogous but taking place in different historic surroundings led to totally different results. By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.

'Species-being', labour and nature

The text below was sent as an e-mail on Saturday morning, as some people are still having trouble accepting the blog invitations. I thought I'd post it here anyway:
Rita raised an excellent question on Thursday, as to what
'nature,' 'natural' and 'human nature' might mean for Marx. We spoke a
little about the sense in which he holds human nature to be historically
contextual, and John pointed out that this can be seen in his account of

As we said, 'species-being' is a term borrowed from Feuerbach's The
Essence of Christianity
and can be seen very clearly in one of Marx's early 1844 Manuscripts
entitled Estranged Labour
I thought it might be good to read that text alongside this week's
sections of Capital (assuming you want to do even more reading), as it
describes the sale of labour power whilst stressing the concept of
alienation. The text also opposes alienated labour undertaken for the
capitalist to a more 'natural' conception of human activity.

(N.B. The text is entitled 'estranged' labour rather than 'alienated'
labour as Marx employs two German words for alienation: 'Entäusserung' and
'Entfremdung'. Entausserung means externalisation, objectification, i.e.
selling property, my labour power, making my intentions manifest in real
activity. Entfremdung is more to do with subjective experience, i.e. two
people feeling alienated from one another ('estranged' in this
translation). Just googled this explanation by Chris Arthur, which looks
pretty good:

Anyway, back to 'species-being': as I understand it, the term can be
explained fairly quickly as follows. For Hegel, particular human
individuals were to recognise their unity with others through
comprehending the reason that underpins the universe; a little like
recognising God to be the truth and meaning of everything.

According to Feuerbach, this was too much like Christianity: for him,
partiular human beings were not to recognise their unity in some abstract,
fantastical, ideal universal posited above their real existence, but
rather in human beings themselves. Universality would be found in the
species of humanity, and philosophy would thus allow humanity to arrive at
a self-conscious awareness of its own 'species-being'.

Marx really likes this, but thinks it has drawbacks (see the famous Theses
on Feuerbach: These
drawbacks basically boil down to the claim that although Feuerbach had
succeeded in bringing philosophy down from the clouds, he still concieved
material reality in static, immobile terms (i.e. the human species as an
absolute rather than a historically contingent category). Reality is
subject to historical change, and - crucially - human beings are capable
of serving as the agents of change. The real nature of human beings is the
capacity to shape and consciously experience history, and it is in this
respect that Marx ends up with a notion of 'species-being' based around
formative activity. This can be seen fairly clearly in the essay on
Estranged Labour.

Anway, all of this can be summed up in the famous exhortation from the end
of the Theses on Feuerbach (also the inscription on Marx's grave in
Highgate Cemetary): "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in
various ways; the point is to change it." Philosophy thus becomes
political economy: rather than interpreting the world as it appears to us,
the task that Marx sets himnself is to figure out how our social relations
compose our world, and to thereby wrest control of human history from the

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sorry, still have to figure out how this works ;-)

Slavoj Zizek - 'From The Critique of Religion to the
Critique of
Political Economy'

Registration essential – Standard £10
Birkbeck Staff and all Students £5

Credit card booking will be available soon. If, in the
meantime you would like to send a cheque and book a place
please click here for a booking form.

Saturday 6th December, 2.30pm, Room B01, Clore Management Centre,
Birkbeck College
Should be worth attending:

Slavoj Zizek - 'From The Critique of Religion to the Critique of
Political Economy'

Registration essential – Standard £10 Birkbeck Staff
and all Students £5

Credit card booking will be available soon. If, in the meantime you would
like to send a cheque and book a place please click here for a booking form.

Saturday 6th December 2.30pm Room B01 Clore Management Centre,
Birkbeck College

freedom x 2?

comments seem broken, so this is also a response to Rita's intersting earlier post (with links).

Hi Rita

I wish I'd had time to respond earlier, but the vampire is at my throat, my labour is not my own. Funny that.

Anyway, a possible and interesting way to read Marx might be through his comments on slavery - there are quite a few more coming up - from wage slavery through to slavery proper. (no freedom for labour in the white skin when in the black it is in chains')

There would be reason to move carefully though - in the cited passage in your post (Rita's post), Marx refers to 'the concept of human equality'. This "concept" gained popularity in popular opinion, I guess, after the declaration of the rights of man, after the 'liberty, equality, fraternity' of the French and after the abolitionists [we 'commemorated' the so-called abolition of slavery last year by noting its replacement with indentured labour etc etc - see posts on my blog about the slaver statues on Goldsmiths town hall. Paul Hendrich had done good work on this, as had Les Back. The ship above the clock is not just any old boat].

So, I think it would be a great way to generate an opening into Marx by tracking together Aristotle, concept of equality (equivalence, substitution, relation) and slavery - with perhaps the notion of freedom. And what must be said about the double sense of freedom in the lecture on thursday (which I elaborated in detail in an essay on, of all people, Crispian Mills, in "Critique of Exotica".

thanks heaps Rita, good stuff.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

This is an answer to Rita's post. Since my computer doesn't seem able to open the comments' page only for this time I leave it here instead.

Hi Rita,

it seems to me that contemporary liberal-democratic societies have indeed rised the "equality of all men" to the level of undeniable, unresistable truism. Ideology at its purest. The doctrine of human rights, together with liberal obsession with "tollerance", maybe can show us this tendency in its most clear, crystalline form. I would be careful though. When we talk of human rights - as when Marx talks of modern, widespread notions of human equality I would claim - we really talk of a particular "cult of abstract man".

The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion.

Liberal notions of human equality and Christian cultus of abstract man are strictly related, intimately connected. Both have nothing to do with material equality – which it seems to me is what you are referring to saying “There is certainly a lack of equality or we wouldn't have the economic system we have today”. This disjunction between liberal “cultus of abstract man” and material (in)equality is today at the very heart of the ideological apparatus of liberal-democratic societies, but already at the time of Marx one could have noticed – and he certainly did - on the one hand increasing legal equality (abolition of slavery), on the other growing material inequality. As expressed brilliantly by Anatole France:

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." (from The Red Lily, 1894)

By the way, many of the laws Anatole France refers to were first developed in England during the period of so-called primitive accumulation which seems only to reinforce the relationship between liberal abstract equality and the management of growing material inequality.

I don’t think Marx is here trying to say that he has the privilege to live in an age where people are considered as equals but that only in the space created by the disjunction between abstract equality (free labor) and material inequality (surplus labor) can philosophy come to grasp the “secret of the expression of value”.

Hope it makes sense.

Marx 1 - Aristotle 0?

I have a question to raise, before we all get stuck in to chapters 2, 3, 4 and 6 (why not 5?) about one or two paragraphs in chapter 1.

On page 151/152 Marx is talking about Aristotle and the way he first analysed the value form, yet had 'no concept of value'. Marx goes on to claim that Aristotle was unable to identify human labour and its relationship with commodity value because:

"Greek society was founded on the labour of slaves, hence had as its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour powers."

He then goes on to suggest that:

"The secret of the expression of value, namely the equality and equivalence of all kinds of labour...could not be deciphered until the concept of human equality had already acquired the permanence of a fixed popular opinion."
(all in 1st para of 152)

Is he suggesting that he lives in a society whereby this is the popular opinion? He later mentions that it was 'historical limitation' which prevented Aristotle from understanding the relation of equality. Is it just me, or is this an alarmingly sweeping statement?

He repeats himself over and over and over again about the linen and the coat but completely brushes over something which I think is extremely important. I know we are supposed to consider the idea of average labour power, but I feel this is a different point entirely? To suggest that he is privileged enough to live in an age where people are considered as equals seems absurd? There is certainly a lack of equality or we wouldn't have the economic system we have today. Surely it thrives on the inequality? On cheap labour in China etc?

I don't understand how he can make the argument that Aristotle didn't figure it out before him because of historical limitation. I can deal with him presenting the concept that people/labourers have to be considered equal before you can make the connection between labour and value, but why state that he only deduced this before Aristotle did because he lives in a society where people are considered equal? I just don't think they are, or have ever been.

Perhaps I have misunderstood, but I'd be really interested to know if this equality of people thing is approached later, or has been commented on elsewhere?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Harvey at the ICA in Nov 2008

David Harvey on the Communist Manifesto

20 November 2008

David Harvey, American geographer and author of seminal book The Condition of Postmodernity, has written the introduction to a brand new edition of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. On a rare visit to the UK, he comes to the ICA to talk about the contemporary relevance of the manifesto, how it might inspire a new generation of political activists and how it might be rewritten for contemporary times. Harvey will be in conversation with Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of Invitation to Terror.

£10 / £9 Concessions / £8 ICA Members.

Date Time Venue Book
Thursday 20 November 2008 6:45 pm Cinema 1

Friday, October 10, 2008

'On the Method of Political Economy'

(Cheers Amadeo, that looks geat; I'll have a proper read tonight)

I've made reference to this text for two weeks running in relation to the mode of enquiry/mode of analysis issues, and as such thought I ought to signal it here with a weblink:

From 'On the Method of Political Economy' (a subsection of the introduction to the Grundrisse):

"When we consider a given country politico-economically, we begin with its population, its distribution among classes, town, country, the coast, the different branches of production, export and import, annual production and consumption, commodity prices etc.

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations...."

N.B. the words Vorstellung and Begriff have Hegelian connotations that are worth bearing in mind; Hegel's use of Vorstellung is sometimes translated as 'picture thought', as it means an inadequate conceptual representation that remains distinct from its object. Begriff refers to the Hegelian Concept (sometimes translated as Notion) which basically means the metaphysical mechanics underlying reality. Previous philosophy understood things as Vorstellungen, Hegel grasps the Begriff (Spirit - human self-consciousness, society, philosophy etc. - thus effectively becomes the self-consciousness of the universe). Borgeouis economics only got the surface appearances of capitalism, Marx gets the essential categories and concepts underlying it (this leads characters like Lukacs to posit Marxist thought, when actualise in the Party, as a kind of self-consciousness).

...that's an awful explanation; I'm writing this at work. I'll try and clarify next Thursday if required.

Engels' synopsis of Capital

This is a synopsis of Capital, Volume I, written by Engels in 1868.
Supporting our right to be lazy...

in HTML:
and in PDF:

Vix Pervenit (On Usury and Other Dishonest Profit)

I follow Tom's suggestion and I leave here a couple of words on what I was saying yesterday regarding the relationship between commodity fetishism and the Catholic ban on usury. I do it even if, most probably, as someone said: "it's madness".

This will be indeed a very short post - just a bunch of confuse ideas caused by the accidental reading of an encyclical of Pope Benedict XIV called Vix Pervenit, On Usury and other dishonest profit. Nevertheless I thought it could be interesting to try to follow Marx in his speculations about the relationship between commodity fetishism and religious fetishism. In particular, I found myself wondering if one could see the Catholic ban on usury as a revealing instance in which our two favourite fetishisms, coming finally to recognize each other as conflicting belief systems, engaged in an hegemonic struggle over workers' fantasies and desires.
I try to explain myself. When confronted with the challenge of showing us the secret workings of that mysterious thing that is the commodity Marx can't find anything better than dragging us on a flight up in the misty realm of religious faith. He then shows us, side by side, two different types of fetishism: religious fetishism and commodity fetishism.
"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."
I would suggest that the Catholic Church was most certainly aware of the fetishistic character of the commodity, of the super-human power of the trinket which not only dance and move through the market but even seems to reproduce itself through the mysterious workings of finance, banking and usury.

What is it happening today in that most magic realm of finance?
At first sight, what we have is matter giving birth to matter, wealth springing up most mysteriously from the hands of the capitalist. Or better, what we have is matter destroying itself out of stubborn free will, disappearing, collapsing, imploding in spectacular explosions.

Isn't there something truely diabolic in the art of financial speculation? God is marginalized, pushed on the margin by this act of creation: He neither blesses the capitalist with the miracle of creation, nor He curses him with the necessity to work. The capitalist as thus a new fetish: money. A new godly thing which finally frees him from the "original sin" opening up a new Eden where work, sacrifice, muscular strain is forgotten. Value is not a product of labour - "congealed labour-power" - value comes from value, directly, out of magic multiplication.

I mean, the Church clearly had to get a little bit upset about that. And that is probably the reason why usury was condemned by many theologians and effectively banned after the Council of Trento (1545-1563). As far as I know St.Thomas Aquinas has written quite a lot on usury and his positions seem to point exactly to the fetishistic character of usury. St Thomas quotes Aristotle as saying that "to live by usury is exceedingly unnatural". Practicing usury is diabolic since it means nothing else than "to make money simply by having money" without neither work or risk implied. This in total disregard both of the labor theory of value and, most importantly, of the word of God: "In sudore vultus tui ovesceris pane: you will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow". (Genesis: 3,19)
Only God can make tables dance, reproduce and turn on their heads. Not the market!

It seems to me, thus, that the Church, and Aquinas in particular, had a fairly good grasp on the dangers of commodity fetishism. And they weren't the only: Judaism and Islam equally apply some kind of ban on usury (but I don't know much about it).

It seems like religion is an extremely jealous creature, it doesn't like fellow fetishisms coming alone. But what about commodity fetishism, isn't it a far more social and tollerant lad? And aren't they united in their "cultus of abstract man"?

Strange relationships...

(For reference: ; ; ).

Monday, October 06, 2008

Hi (great post by Judy below; anyone else want to comment?)

Thought this might be of interest; I have a tendency to read Marx as a philosopher, and wish I had a greater facility with the economic stuff:

Public Meeting

Tuesday October 21st

7pm Conway Hall, Red Lion Square

MARX and the credit crunch

Istvan Mezsaros, author of Beyond Capital

Chris Harman, editor, International Socialism journal

Richard Brenner, author of The Credit Crunch - a Marxist Analysis

A global credit crunch. Banks collapsing. Prices soaring. Recession looming. Conventional economic theory appears to have no coherent explanation. Government stumps up hundreds of billions to rescue the bankers - and demands that working people's pay be held down and spending cut on public services. At this meeting, three Marxist writers examine the roots of this great crisis in the nature of capital itself. Tracing the current crisis to its origins, they show how workers can resist paying the price for a crisis they never made, and set out the case for systemic change.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Where's Wally?

After attending the lecture and seminar for this course I felt rather adventurous. I'm particularly relieved that we're encouraged to read the text afresh and for ourselves (in so far as that is possible).

However, after reading what Luckacs had to say about totality as opposed to particulars and analysing fragments, I'm confused about our approach to the text.

I understand the distinction between analysis and presentation and that Lukacs criticises certain economists for focusing on Marx's formulae / the particulars of the text and their failure to understand history as a totalising process, rather than the coherence of his analysis as a WHOLE.

However, while Marx's analysis as a whole is fascinating and revolutionary (literally), what I find equally if not more compelling is to read the text in order to explore the different images, references and subplots that are contained within it (have I missed the point if I call these images/metaphors/sentences fragments - or even trinkets?????) and the ambivalence/contradictions/disjunctures/ambiguities contained within these trinkets themselves and what happens or what you can see when you put them next to each other.

After the lecture I felt really inspired and that I could approach this text as MYSELF(s) but then I wondered if I am supposed to be looking for Wally after all- I mean, looking for the analysis, the 'point' of the text, what he MEANS to say about capitalism, rather than the relationship between what he means to say and the way he says it. I felt that Lukacs didn't want Marx to be read with too much attention to all of the other characters on the page (the vampires etc), only on where Wally (the main analysis) was located.

But then maybe I'm the wally and I'm taking Lukacs too personally.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Housmans Radical Booksellers

I just wanted to shamelessly promote an endangered bookshop in Kings Cross:

They have loads of stuff on anarchism, situationalism, marxism- yet they have no particular allegiance to anything (which perhaps puts them in a rather precarious position). They run lots of events which are free and at which they serve wine and afterwards people stand around and talk about Syd Barrett and Guy Debord.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


...Thought I might add a couple of links too:

Firstly, I wanted to remind people to look at the library:

I've found it to be enormously useful in the past, as they have just about everything there for free (including all sort of other stuff: Clausewitz, Lao Tse, Machiavelli, Kant, Hegel, etc.). very useful if you're trying to track down a quotation, check something of just want free access to a text.

I thought this next one might be useful to some of you: when I first started trying to make sense of Capital I found one book (reccomended by John) to be patricularly useful: Felton Shortall's The Incomplete Marx. It's very dry, but very helpful, as it basically gives you a run through of Volumes 1, 2 and 3. It stresses the centrality of class struggle and revolution to Marx's work, and describes Capital as an unfinished project. There's a copy in the library (I think), but you can get in free from the library of a site called Libcom:

I know Felton, so if anyone is particularly keen I can probably put you in touch.

I'm not sure if this next one is a good idea or not, but I thought it might be worth mentioning the theory discussion forum at Libcom:

I've used that forum on several occasions; sometimes to run ideas past people, to ask questions, or just to relieve boredom. There are almost always online reading groups of Volume 1 that you can look at or participate in, as well as endlessly convoluted and heated debates about the more confusing aspects of what Marx was trying to say and do. Please don't take anything that anyone says there as gospel, and obviously don't reference postings when writing an essay (at least not unless you're doing some complicated anthropological study of Marxist internet forums). That said, I thought discussion there might provide a helpful supplment to the seminars (should anyone find themselves to be really eager).



Marx and Philosophy Society

The next Marx and Philosophy Society meeting takes place on the 25th of October. Some of the talks look good (particularly Chris Arthur's and Andrew Chitty's, both of whom are worth seeing in their own right):

Anarchist Bookfair

The London anarchist bookfair takes place on the 18th of October. It's the biggest annual gathering in the U.K. of anarchists and associated lefty activist types, and is always worth a visit; loads of books, thousands of leaflets and pamphlets, and lots of talks and events. Details can be found at the link below:

Historical Materialism conference

The Journal Historical Materialism will be holding their annual conference next month, at the School of African and Oriental Studies. They haven't got the timetable set up on their website yet, but it's bound to be worth a visit; last year's event was good, and involved some very interesting papers.



7-9 November 2008

School of Oriental and African Studies, Central London

Organised in collaboration with the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher
Memorial Prize Committee and with Socialist Register.

Organised in association with the International Initiative for the
Promotion of Political Economy, the journal Situations and the Journal
of Agrarian Change, and with the assistance of the Faculty of Law and
Social Sciences of SOAS.

Ever since its foundation in 1997, Historical Materialism has sought
to contribute to the intellectual recomposition of the global Left by
serving as an international venue for critical Marxist research. The
journal's initial wager - that Marxism remains a vital, and
heterogeneous and many-faceted political and theoretical tradition -
has been borne out in a conjuncture where Marxist thinkers have amply
demonstrated the critical resources at their disposal (witness recent
debates on imperialism and neoliberalism). Within the academy, the
facile dismissal of Marxism seems to have run out of steam, and the
attitudes of new generations of students and researchers have changed
accordingly. Marxist intellectuals are no longer simply forced to
survive in hostile conditions or to retreat into isolated academic
subcultures, despite an often adverse global political context. In
this setting, they face new challenges, which this conference seeks to

How can we develop the plurality of Marxist debates, fields and
schools without making concessions to eclecticism, narcissism or
compartmentalisation? How do we square the concrete multiplicity of
Marxisms with the strong commonalities in intellectual vocabularies,
theoretical sources and political aims? Hasn't the question of the
diversity of Marxism - of many Marxisms - accompanied the tradition’s
entire development, a testament both to its internationalist horizon,
and to the inexhaustible potential of its many critical insights and
conceptual formulations? What strategies can allow us to confront, and
perhaps overcome, some of the disparities or even misunderstandings
born of these processes of differentiation?

Having tried to foster a form of critical cosmopolitanism and debate
in past conferences, bringing together thinkers working in different
fields, and out of different traditions, this year's Historical
Materialism conference wants to emphasise problems and opportunities
raised by the existence of 'Many Marxisms'. To this end, it aims to
take stock of recent developments in Marxist thought, surveying the
most vibrant recent debates; to confront critical moments in the
historical development of Marxism; to identify crucial concepts and
areas of research that can cut across any preconceived academic
specialisation or geographical isolation of Marxism; to reflect on the
ways in which Marxism has and continues to intervene in mainstream
intellectual debates; and, finally, to generate a space in which the
outlines of the many twenty-first century Marxisms may be delineated.


For more details, please contact:


Approaching Passive Revolutions * Art and Capitalism * Aspects of
Imperialism * Base and Superstructure * Beyond Global Value Chain
Analysis in Commodity Studies * Bolshevism: Yesterday and Tomorrow *
Capitalism / Knowledge Capitalism * Capitalism and Architecture *
Climate Change, Sustainability and Socialism * Contemporary Radical
Thought and Marxism: Agamben, Holloway, Zizek * Early Modern
Capitalism * Ecological Crisis and Marxist Theory * Everyday Life *
Finance and Neo-Liberalism * Financialisation and Crisis * Food Crisis
* From the Grundrisse to Capital * Future of World Capitalism *
Historical Materialism and Late Development * Historiography in the
Development of Marxism * International Financial Institutions * Is
Today's Capitalism Actually-Existing Barbarism? * Labour-Process and
Resistance * Latin American Left Today * Learning from Enemies and
Rivals: Schmitt, Strauss, Weber * Life, Politics & Capitalism * Many
Marxisms and India * Many Marxisms: Key Figures * Many Marxisms:
Problems and Polemics * Marx and Fetishism * Marx on World Economy and
World Politics * Marxism and Cinema: Film Noir and Neo-Noir * Marxism
and Metropolitics * Marxism and Philosophy * Marxism and the Sciences
* Marxism Outside the West * Marxism, Feminism and Women’s Politics *
Marxisms and Literature * Marxisms and Religion * Marxisms and
Southern Africa * Marxisms and Violences: Gender and Race * Marxist
Theories of Practice * Modes of Foreign Relations * Monetary Policy
and Banking under Neoliberalism * Money * Negativity and Revolution *
North East Asian Marxisms and Socialisms * On the Concept of Surplus
Populations * Perspectives from Althusser * Perspectives from Marx’s
‘Jewish Question’ * Philosophies of Revolt and Revolution *
Philosophy in the Early Marx * Political Categories of Marxism *
Political Economy and Economics Today * Politics of the Promotion of
Global Competitiveness * Racism, Class and Politics * Restructuring,
Capital and Labour * Revolutionary Politics in the Middle East *
Sexual Liberation: Historical Materialist Approaches * Situationism at
the Limits: Must we Burn Debord? * Socialism in Search of an Economic
System * State in the Bolivarian revolution * Theories of Class *
Theories of Imperialism * Time, Temporality, History * Transformations
in the Neoliberal State * Uneven and Combined Development: Towards a
Marxist Theory of ‘the International’? * US Financial Power in
Crisis * Utopianism * Value: Political and Economic Dimensions *
‘Western’ Marxism and the Anti-Colonial World/Intellectuals *
Windows on Empire: Perspectives from History, Culture and Political
Economy * Workerism: a Generation Later *