This afternoon following lecture a number of students had questions about Marx, which is kind of remarkable given that Marx died in 1989 with the collapse of Soviet-style communist economies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. I actually think renewed interest in Marx — specially the late Marx — is a good thing. It may mean that enough time has passed for students to read Marx without the ideological baggage with which Marx scholarship was burdened for most of the twentieth century.
First, I think that Marx is most helpful when we read him historically. Lifted out of his historical context, Marx (not unlike the Bible) can be made to say many silly things. Second, reading Marx historically requires a pretty thorough grasp of the classical economic tradition. Any quick glance at the footnotes in Capital gives us a good indication what Marx was reading. Third, before Marx was Marx he was a left-wing Hegelian. So, I don’t know how you can expect to understand Marx without reading Hegel — and not simply the Philosophy of Right, but also, and more importantly, the Phenomenology; and the Philosophy of Right through the lens of the Phenomenology. Reading Hegel in this way, I feel, removes it and Hegel from the realm of too abstruse to be of much value. Hegel is not referring to anything other than what A Smith is referring; but he is doing it in a manner that is self-aware.
Example: Although A Smith recognizes that he is able to do what he does because he owns someone else’s labor (which gives him leisure and capital to be a political philosopher, a political economist), A Smith is not curious about why others before him failed to recognize or use the interpretive categories that he uses and recognizes. He simply assumes that his models are more useful because he is a better or more helpful thinker. This answer does not satisfy GWF Hegel. Hegel wants to know what it is about his his times and his world that makes it possible for him to grasp things that others before him did not see or did not understand. In other words, Hegel assumes that the world has played a role composing the categories he uses, and he assumes that the world that helps compose these categories has changed over time. Here is Hegel in Philosophy of Right §198:
Political economy is the science which starts from this view of needs and labour but then has the task of explaining mass-relationships and mass-movements in their complexity and their qualitative and quantitative character. This is one of the sciences which have arisen out of the conditions of the modem world. Its development affords the interesting spectacle (as in Smith, Say, and Ricardo) of thought working upon the endless mass of details which confront it at the outset and extracting therefrom the simple principles of the thing, the Understanding effective in the thing and directing it.
This shows an amazing grasp of what economists do. But it also shows that Hegel was aware that what we do is new, “one of the sciences which have arisen out of the conditions of the modern world.”
One way therefore to interpret Marx and Engel’s epic misread of 1848-49 is to fault them for interpreting social and political movements historically. Marx himself however drew a different conclusion. Since his expectations were not realized, Marx came to doubt his initial interpretive framework. That framework ascribed characteristics to working class social subjectivity — for example, a built-in road map to republican self-government — that turned out to be fabulous. A more critical review of working class subjectivity and of the conditions that give rise to republican self-government brought Marx to feel that nothing in working class experience by itself would give workers the kind of knowledge about their form of domination or how to eliminate it that they might find useful. Marx also discovered upon reflection that he had vastly underestimated the complexity and coherence of the capitalist social formation.
Language Marx had used in the 1840s to describe the industrial working class and the class struggle, he now began in the 1850s to use to describe capital and capitalism. That is to say, he shifted the vantage-point of his critique from the industrial working class to the social system as such, to capitalism. This shift was important because it brought Marx to appreciate why more than simply a shift in consciousness or political action was necessary in order for individuals to enjoy freedom. There needed to be a real shift in the relationship between value and labor. For so long as value was created by labor, labor could never truly free itself from necessity; every incremental increase in productivity would create more immaterial value, but only temporarily, since the new level of productivity would simply become the new floor. What was necessary — which we learn in Volume III — is a legislative fix: shortening the work day; or, if you prefer, lengthening and protecting the time we can spend doing things that do not create abstract social value.
From roughly 1860 to 1945, the battle over the length of the working day was huge. But just when it looked as though the battle had been won, investors noted how the returns on their investment were not keeping up with their post-war expectations. More efficiencies would have to be created, not simply through technological innovations, but through increasing the labor time necessary for creating the same social value. We call that shift the 1980s. But that comes toward the end of our course.