Saturday, June 1, 2024

Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading part one.

Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading

Tom Walker

Overview (chapter summaries will be presented in a future post)

This book proposes a remedial reading of the relationship in Marx’s critique of political economy between the forces and relations of production, real wealth, and value. It is remedial in two senses. First, it seeks to remedy the long-standing misconception of the 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy as Marx’s definitive statement on the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. Second, it does so by acknowledging the influence of the 1821 pamphlet, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties on Marx’s conception of disposable time as real wealth.

In his celebrated 1859 preface, Karl Marx stated the guiding principle of his studies to be the general conclusion he had reached in the 1840s that when the property relations of society come into conflict with the material productive forces, they become fetters on their further development. “Then begins an era of social revolution.” 

“Here we have before us,” wrote G. V. Plekhanov in 1907, “a genuine ‘algebra’ – and purely materialist at that – of social development.” Thirteen years earlier he had extoled Marx’s “completely materialist conception of history” as “one of the greatest discoveries of our century, so rich in scientific discoveries.” According to Plekhanov, Marx’s view of history gave sociology “a foundation as solid as natural science.” Already in 1908, though, Georges Sorel had warned of the extreme obscurity of the 1859 preface and the absence of any mention of class. It was not surprising to him that “many liberties have been taken with this preface, which so many men cite without ever having studied it seriously.”

Remnants of Plekhanov’s late 19th century interpretation of Marx’s 1859 preface survive in both socialist ecomodernist and degrowth communist arguments. The former embracing and the latter rejecting the interpretation’s inherent productivism but both accepting it as an accurate portrayal of Marx’s view (see, for example: Matt Huber, Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet. Verso Books, 2022. Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. Cambridge University Press. 2022). While faithful adherence to the maestro’s thought is no guarantee of analytical success, dogmatic adherence to a faulty interpretation may impose unnecessary obstacles to fruitful inquiry.

A potential remedy for this predicament materialized in 1968 with the publication by the New Left Review of Martin Nicolaus’s “The Unknown Marx.” Two-thirds of the way through his essay, Nicolaus announced he would “proceed now to examine to what extent the text of the Grundrisse justifies the sweeping claims made for Marx’s new scientific achievements in his 1859 Preface.” He was particularly interested in ‘whether the Grundrisse provides further elucidation of the famous passage in the Preface about Revolution…” The examination did indeed elucidate the passage – to the extent that the passage could have been cast aside as a mere husk once the kernel of its truth content had been revealed.

“The Unknown Marx” was awarded the first Deutscher Memorial Prize. It led Moishe Postone to discover the Grundrisse and revise his view of Capital “as basically a book of Victorian positivism.” It was copied and distributed in a “bootleg” edition by student radicals at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. It reputedly secured Nicolaus a commission from New Left Books, subsequently Verso, to translate the full Grundrisse. But Nicolaus’s elucidation of the passage about fetters on the productive forces has had little lasting impact. In his 1973 Foreword to the Grundrisse, Nicolaus himself gave only brief and elusive mention to his earlier conclusion:

The famous 1859 Preface speaks of the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. Relatively little is said in Capital about this question. The Grundrisse is one long extended commentary upon it; inversely, the 1859 formulation is a summary, in a word, of the Grundrisse.

“One could go on and on,” begins the next paragraph. But instead of saying anything further about the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, Nicolaus pivoted to speak of “the rich, all-sided individuality Marx was talking about.” This seeming non-sequitur may coyly allude to the fact that in the Grundrisse, the development of the forces of production in capitalism is revealed to be the development of “the rich, all-sided individuality” of the social individual -- a point Marx explicated on page 705, “…in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth.”

Three pages later, Marx defined the revolution as appropriation of “their own surplus value” by “the mass of workers.” In Capital and in his work for the First International, Marx repeatedly referred to the limitation of the hours of work as the prerequisite for the emancipation of the working class. These statements are not incidental to Marx’s theory of history but are deeply embedded in his critique of political economy as developed over three sections of the Grundrisse (pp. 397-423, 604-610, 704-711). All three sections deal with the consequences of the contradictory drive of capital to both reduce necessary labour to a minimum while simultaneously maintaining labour time as the measure of value. In the first and last of these fragments, Marx paraphrased The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulty, several times to emphasize a point he was making. 

In his 1885 preface to volume 2 of Capital, Friedrich Engels told of Marx’s high regard for The Source and Remedy. Until recently, very little has been written about the influence of the pamphlet on Marx’s critique of political economy. In 2021, I wrote an article to commemorate the bicentennial of the pamphlet’s publication and give some background on its author, who has since been identified as Charles Wentworth Dilke. Subsequently, I scoured the Grundrisse, Capital, Theories of Surplus Value, and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy for further evidence of the pamphlet’s influence on Marx’s thought. I documented what I found here on EconoSpeak.

What I found has led me to an unconventional interpretation of Marx’s theory of revolution. My interpretation focuses on the role of disposable time as both the foundation and measure of real wealth. Reading those passages from the Grundrisse through the lens of The Source and Remedy reveals the intimate relationship of Marx’s analyses of surplus value, forces of production, and socially necessary labour time with the pamphlet’s corresponding, albeit non-identical, analyses. Such a reading highlights how Marx’s theoretical contribution brilliantly goes beyond the pamphlet’s radical liberal insights and serves as a corrective to a radical liberal misreading of Marx. Although novel, my interpretation is not without some precedent in the writings of André Gorz, Moishe Postone, Martin Hägglund, and others. With the exception of Gorz, though, these writers treat disposable time as the desirable end of social revolution rather than as both means and end.

Since translations of the Grundrisse became available in the 1960s and 1970s, the “fragment on machines” has been lauded by Herbert Marcuse as Marx’s “most realistic, his most amazing insight,” and by Moishe Postone as containing a key to interpretation of Marx’s analysis in Capital. But those rightly famous passages in notebook VII recapitulate and amplify themes whose exposition and development came in the earlier notebook IV. Although the recapitulation is itself compelling, it gains much needed coherence in context of the earlier discussion. For Postone, for example, Marx “characterizes a possible postcapitalist society in terms of the category of ‘disposable’ time.” But Marx’s category of disposable time went much deeper than that. “The whole development of wealth,” he wrote in notebook IV, “rests on the creation of disposable time.” In earlier stages of development, people exchanged only their superfluous products. In capitalism, the spontaneous order between necessity and superfluity is inverted: “In production resting on capital, the existence of necessary labour time is conditional on the creation of superfluous labour time.”

The relations of production and productive forces make a dramatic return in chapter 48, near the end of volume 3 of Capital, “The Trinity Formula.” Marx’s explanation here of why individuals enter into these relations of production echoes the narrative of the 1859 preface. In place of the relations of production turning into fetters on the productive forces and beginning an era of social revolution, Marx offers a disquisition on the “realm of freedom [which] begins only when labour determined by necessity and external expediency comes to an end…” and the disclosure that “[t]he reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.” 

This latter statement may seem to come out of the blue unless one is familiar with Marx’s Inaugural Address to the International Working Men’s Association, in which he upheld the Ten Hours’ Bill as “not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.” In his address, Marx had defined the political economy of the working class as “social production controlled by social foresight” in contrast to bourgeois political economy which relied of “the blind rule of the supply and demand laws.” In the passage in chapter 48 of volume 3, Marx “socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power.”


peggy said...

Thank you, Tom Walker. This essay is almost as big a gift as Marx has been to us and as Dilke was to him.

Of course disposable time, time free from necessary labor, from time necessarily spent doing what one must to survive and reproduce, at whatever stage of the technoloigcal productivity of one's society, is the sine qua non for advancing that tecnological productivity. Not that an idea for how to gather more and more effeciently might not come to one in the midst of gathering. But one would need time off from gathering to weave a basket to gather more and more expediously tomorrow.

And of course, which you diplomatically do not wave a flag about: Paid Leave For All is todays call for the 10 hour day. One can not figure out how, much less organize the working class to successfully ensure the surplus value collectively created common wealth is reallocated to serve the commonweal, and enforced as law, much less democratically and peacefully, without real freedom. That is to say as you have said, without real free time. Live forever Tom Walker. Persist.

Sandwichman said...

You are very welcome, Peggy. And thank you for the appreciation!