Friday, March 30, 2012

"Marx at 193"

Karl, not Groucho.
From the London Review of Books:
In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist. He didn’t think that you could gain access to the truth by gleaning bits of data from experience, ‘data points’ as scientists call them, and then assembling a picture of reality from the fragments you’ve accumulated. Since this is what most of us think we’re doing most of the time it marks a fundamental break between Marx and what we call common sense, a notion that was greatly disliked by Marx, who saw it as the way a particular political and class order turns its construction of reality into an apparently neutral set of ideas which are then taken as givens of the natural order.

Empiricism, because it takes its evidence from the existing order of things, is inherently prone to accepting as realities things that are merely evidence of underlying biases and ideological pressures. Empiricism, for Marx, will always confirm the status quo. He would have particularly disliked the modern tendency to argue from ‘facts’, as if those facts were neutral chunks of reality, free of the watermarks of history and interpretation and ideological bias and of the circumstances of their own production.

I, on the other hand, am an empiricist. That’s not so much because I think Marx was wrong about the distorting effect of underlying ideological pressures; it’s because I don’t think it’s possible to have a vantage point free of those pressures, so you have a duty to do the best with what you can see, and especially not to shirk from looking at data which are uncomfortable and/or contradictory. But this is a profound difference between Marx and my way of talking about Marx, which he would have regarded as being philosophically and politically entirely invalid.
Consider these passages from The Communist Manifesto, which Marx wrote with Engels in 1848, after being kicked out of both France and Germany for his political writings:
Capitalism has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities. Capitalism has agglomerated population, centralised means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands.
Capitalism has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.
Capitalism has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. Capitalism has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.
Capitalism cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the means of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the capitalist epoch from all earlier ones. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.
In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.
Commercial crises put on trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire capitalist society. In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed.
It’s hard not to conclude from these selected sentences that Marx was extraordinarily prescient. He really did have the most astonishing insight into the nature and trajectory and direction of capitalism. Three aspects which particularly stand out here are the tribute he pays to the productive capacity of capitalism, which far exceeds that of any other political-economic system we’ve ever seen; the remaking of social order which accompanies that; and capitalism’s inherent tendency for crisis, for cycles of boom and bust.

I should, however, admit that I haven’t quoted these sentences exactly as Marx wrote them: where I wrote ‘capitalism’, Marx had ‘the bourgeoisie’. He was talking about a class and the system which served its interest, and I made it sound as if he was talking only about a system. Marx doesn’t use the word ‘capitalism’. The term never occurs in the finished first part of Das Kapital. (I checked this by doing a word search and found it three times, every time an apparent mistranslation or loose use of the German plural Kapitals – in German he never talks of Kapitalismus.) Since he is widely, and accurately, seen as capitalism’s greatest critic, this is quite an omission....MORE
See also:
Groucho versus Karl: the great Marx debate
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.
Karl Marx
It isn’t necessary to have relatives in Kansas City in order to be unhappy.
Groucho Marx

Art is always and everywhere the secret confession, and at the same time the immortal movement of its time.
Karl Marx
I don’t have a photograph, but you can have my footprints. They’re upstairs in my socks.
Groucho Marx

The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.
Karl Marx
Money frees you from doing things you dislike. Since I dislike doing nearly everything, money is handy.
Groucho Marx

Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form.
Karl Marx
A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.
Groucho Marx

The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.
Karl Marx
In America you can go on the air and kid the politicians, and the politicians can go on the air and kid the people.
Groucho Marx
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