Monday, May 21, 2007

Book Review: Karl Marx, The Essential Writings

This review will be partly of the book, partly of Marx, and partly of his ideas. I made a lot of marks in the book, which is good, and will stick a few of the better quotes in here.


The short introduction has a nice section on an interview conducted with Marx in 1865. It is a "self-portrait". I must set this down here first to give the reader a strong sense of how Marx thought.

When asked 'your idea of happiness', he replied: 'to fight'
'your idea of misery', he replied: 'submission'
'maxim': Nihil humani a me alienum puto - "Nothing human is alien to me."
'motto': De omnibus dubitandum - "Everything should be questioned."

Believe it or not, but Marx was a humanist and a freethinker:
The more of himself man attributes to God, the less he has left in himself.
In a discussion of prominent philosophers of his day, Marx compliments Pierre Bayle, a French atheist:
He heralded atheistic society, which was soon to come to existence, by proving that a society consisting only of atheists is possible, that an atheist can be a respectable person and that it is not by atheism but by superstition and idolatry that man debases himself.
In regards to the supernatural:
Since only what is material is perceptible, knowable, nothing is known of the existence of God.
At the time he was writing, the world around him was in the middle of profound social change. Nations across Europe were emerging from feudalism into mercantilism and republicanism, from cottage industry into capitalism, from agrarian society to industrial society. This was messy change. Imperialism, colonialism, etc., basically all the problems we have now were developed around this time. Marx did us the most marvelous of favours by observing, interpreting, and discussing these changes and what they meant in stunning detail.


One of Marx' most compelling and moving ideas is the concept of alienation. He began from the personal, subjective, and individual experience in his critique of capitalism. There are several ideas that branch off from this main concept, and many ideas that support it, but a brief, general overview will have to suffice here. Being propertyless in a post-feudal world meant having nothing to contribute to society but your time and labour. Those who were in this unfortunate position were thus dehumanized and debased by others, namely the capitalists. A trend in capitalist production methodology was the augmenting of human labour with machine power. To maximize profits and productivity, the machines were designed around the least amount of input from a human as possible. A quote from Marshal McLuhan is necessary here:
Man makes tool, tool makes man.
A small, jerky movement was a lot quicker when done in rapid repetition than a series of distinct and complex movements. This meant that a worker would not have to move as much, would not have to know as much. Those who designed and implemented the machines, the capitalists, did not care about these things. Those who used them were fast becoming less and less human, and more of a fleshy cog in a machine. The awful and plain truth of this mode of production is that it destroys the human spirit by limiting and crushing it in the most horrible of ways.

To add insult to injury, not only were the workers reduced to the most base and stupid state, they were made, as a result of the dynamics of the market, to be in constant competition for work. Wages plummeted, wage hours soared. So did profit gleaned from labour. The very means by which the worker is devalued is also the very way she is set against her fellows, preventing them from organized action, from personal development, from enjoying work.

Before factories, there was cottage industry. A labourer would often apprentice for many years under a master or a guild, learning a skill that would be beneficial and integral to the community. This is not the most perfect of systems, but from it, we can see what the workers of the industrial revolution lost. They went from being close-knit in the community, and well-trained at their jobs, to being atomized and skill-less.

Alienation and Happiness

I would like to bring up the results of a study on human happiness. Happiness is defined by how we relate to each other:

Capitalism is anathema to individual happiness in many ways. As that article suggests,

"Money was mentioned least as a reason for happiness. But
1) behaving in a way true to one's feelings,
2) being competent at activities,
3) having close bonds with other people, and
4) feeling self-respect were top of the list."

1) Forces wage-earners to compromise on their feelings. Someone may despise being debased in a factory, but financial concerns trump feelings.
2) Induces wage-earners to "work hard enough not to get fired" to quote Office Space. More work does not mean more pay, so it drops to mediocrity.
3) Produces a competitive environment as people within companies vie for positions, they become isolated and detached from each other.
4) Prevents wage-earners from feeling satisfied with their labour. They are dependent on someone else's capital, have very little decision-making power, and are reduced to possessing the most worthless of skills (like pulling a lever).

Another point to bring up in regards to number 2 is the idea of social loafing. This is a very common criticism of "communism" as it existed in the USSR. The understanding is that since there is no profit and no competition, there is no motivation. I've dealt with this before, but think that in light of that damning list above, another damning list will be in order. Through a meta-analysis on social loafing, sources of apathy were identified, as well as specific methods of dealing with them:
  1. Collaboration is a way to get everyone involved in the group by assigning each member special, meaningful tasks. It is a way for the group members to share the knowledge and the tasks to be fulfilled unfailingly.
  2. Content identifies the importance of the individuals' specific tasks within the group. If group members see their role as that involved in completing a worthy task, then they are more likely to fulfill it.
  3. Choice gives the group members the opportunity to choose the task they want to fulfill. Assigning roles in a group causes complaints and frustration. Allowing group members the freedom to choose their role makes social loafing less significant, and encourages the members to work together as a team. (from wikipedia)
1. Undermines collaboration by fostering and encouraging competition.
2. Reduces the role of each worker into a simple mechanical movement, diminishing the importance of each worker.
3. Gives the worker two choices: sell yourself or starve.

This is all well and good, but what constitutes non-alienated labour?
Suppose we had produced things as human beings: in his production each of us would have twice affirmed himself and the others.

1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality and its particularity, and in the course of the activity I would have enjoyed an individual life; in viewing the object I would have experienced the individual joy of knowing my personality as an objective, sensuously perceptible and indubitable power.

2) In your satisfaction and your use of my product I would have had the direct and conscious satisfaction that my work satisfied a human need, that it objectified human nature, and that it created an object appropriate to the need of another human being.

3) I would have been the mediator between you and the species and you would experienced me as a redintegration of your own nature and a necessary part of your self; I would have been affirmed in your thought as well as your love.

4) In my individual life I would have directly created your life; in my individual activity I would have immediately confirmed and realized my true human and social nature.
Modern economics does not consider these things, and certainly modern criticisms of the works of Marx overlook them. I do hope the reader has made the connection between the happiness study and Marx' list above. Thought question: would someone who wrote these things, and for the reasons he did, advocate or in any way support what happened in the USSR?

I have often asked myself how I can adhere to the ideas of Marx and yet feel immune to charges of believing in the basis for the brutality of the USSR and PRC. I can easily claim that what happened was obviously not what he intended. Straight from the horse's mouth:
Does this mean that after the fall of the old society there will be a new class domination culminating in a new political power? No.
The condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class, just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders.
Apart from being a researcher and a writer, Marx was a journalist. He published numerous articles, some of which have eerie premonitions. His take on Russia, for example, is that it would not be able to succeed in a proletarian revolution because it is not developed far enough into capitalism.

It could be that the consciousness of the people of the USSR did not foster the necessary behaviour to bring about socialism. (Maybe our generation, with the social-networking, multi-source media, and global-perspective of the internet has what it takes). Whatever the reasons, even a superficial inspection would show that the ideas of Marx were hardly an influence at all.

Historical Materialism

A major idea that Marx rarely receives credit for articulating is historical materialism. To understand history or society or any complex system involving humans, we must examine the physical, concrete things with which they interact (including each other).

This should not be a novel methodology, and indeed, some segments of academia have been well-infused with it (anthropology, sociology - even if they don't know it came from Marx), but strangely, "big-picture" thinking is often superseded by low resolution models. Very complicated systems are reduced to simple ones, so that we can understand them better. And yes, this reductionist approach works very well for lots of applications, even economics; it can give us great slices of reality. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that the models are universal. For example, suppose we want to study a species of flowers in a meadow. If we examine only the flower and nothing else, we can build an impressive picture of the flower. We can see how it works and how it grows and how it does what it does. We can take this information to another meadow and can make some claims about the similar flowers there. Depending on how much information we gathered, our claims will be more or less accurate. But we may have missed very important information. Factors other than the just the internal workings of the flower may have a lot to do with the flower in a particular meadow. Weather patterns, soil pH and composition, local fauna and flora all have their distinct effects. So while we can glean a lot of information from the flower in one meadow, this does not make it applicable to similar flowers of other meadows because we failed to consider other variables.

I believe this is a huge problem in economics. Abstract models like the "free" market may be very good at expressing the movements of goods under particular social relations, given certain conditions and presuppositions, but they miss other, perhaps equally important factors or considerations. And thus using a slice of reality taken from a larger, dynamic system, economists support outrageous policies that they believe fosters and encourages the growth of "free" markets (see: Iraq).

Another example might be with Freud, who described legitimate phenomena (penis-envy, etc), but only as an ethnocentric interpretation. While the themes of his diagnoses are still legitimate, their particular expression is dependent on existing cultural attitudes.

This quote is from wikipedia, but I prefer the one in the book (too lazy to type out):
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
What a powerful idea! If we want to solve real problems, we'll have to look at the real situation. This is about the time I bring in my little reminder: capitalism cannot exist without the state, and the state cannot exist without capitalism, so if you want to get rid of the state, you'll have to get rid of capitalism (there is no baby, it's all bathwater). I won't elaborate here - you'll have to read Marx and Mandel for a more in-depth explanation.

Marx also has some interesting words for those who use social "darwinism" (and other such explanations) to excuse their status compared to others:
The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises... men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.
Slave-owners don't find anything wrong with treating humans as slaves, because that's how their society operates. Their material life depends on and is meshed with the institution of slavery - this does not justify it. We have since disproved the necessity of slavery. In a likewise fashion, I believe - haven't we already? - we will disprove the need for wage labour and hierarchy.


Competition is a natural human urge. We compete for resources, we compete for mates. The nature of competition does not define the expression of competition. In our society, capital is synonymous with success, which, to choosy females = great nest. In previous societies (and in ours still), other forms of competition take place, like sporting events or debates. Marx did not say that we must abandon competition, just that our particular expression of competition - "free competition"/laissez-faire - reduces humans to outgrowths of capital; we are not competing as humans:
This kind of individual liberty is thus at the same time the most complete suppression of all individual liberty and total subjugation of individuality to social conditions which take the form of material forces - and even of all-powerful objects that are independent of the individuals relating to them.
Honestly, how great is a win in a battle between a shotgun and a sling-shot? The initial conditions render any sense of "achievement" moot; if someone starts out with a bunch of money and manages to drive someone else even further into abject poverty, how is this a victory? And no, I do not believe that competition is the sole force driving innovation or refinement; stress is. I will likely discuss this in a forthcoming post.

Odds and Ends

Marx was a prolific writer - several millions of words in newspapers and magazine articles, as well as thick and imposing books. He researched on these topics for over 40 years. (His favourite pastime was 'book-worming'). It would not do one any good to conclude that Marx' ideas are entirely wrong or false, especially without examining them in some detail. Certainly, some of his ideas are incorrect, but a great many of them are truly gems.

Even during his time, Marx was treated as some sort of messiah. He and Engels made it a point to remove, restrict and downplay this hero-worship from the worker's movements they supported; they did not want their ideas to be blindly followed. Marx even suggested that if people did do so, he would have to refuse to call himself a Marxist. Much the same way I'm sure Jesus (if the Sermon on the Mount is to be believed) would be appalled at modern evangelical xianity, to the point where he would deny he was a xian.


Some parts of this book could be considered tedious, dry, convoluted and boring - but that applies to any philosophical work and will not reduce the wit and linguistic style of his works. My head feels heavier on my neck after reading this stuff. I would encourage anyone willing to take an honest look at Marx' ideas to read this compilation. The editor adds in some wonderful commentary that primes the reader for the material. I have little doubt that you will find some of the memes very compelling.

As the reader may be aware, I am fond of Marx and his ideas. They strike me as being complete and thoughtful, addressing several angles and perspectives, yet ever seeking the nugget of truth, the underlying mechanisms that give rise to the structure of society. Marx as a person is hard to imagine apart from his works, so, based on them and his biography, I would probably find him an agreeable and interesting fellow. He was, after all, a left-leaning atheist blogger of his day. :-D


Blogger Delta said...

Great book review Mookie! Thanks for doing it, I know these types of things take a fair amount of time to put together (at least for me).

I often wonder how much longer the world will live under the shadow of capitalist oppression. Technology may be able to increase the standard of life for enough people to make them content with not having their true political and economic freedom, but I think increasing demands on the environment and the natural desire of people to see more free time and a better life in a world where technology makes scarcity and want more and more avoidable will soon put pressure on the existing social hierarchy. Hopefully these presures come to the breaking point before the robotics industry becomes too developed. I worry that if the state could fulfill its policing and military ambitions by using fully mechanical enforcers (and thereby could operate almost completely independent of popular opinion) that change would be very easily suppressed in a violent manner.

27 May, 2007 17:12  
Blogger Mookie said...

Thanks, it did take a while.

I've been mulling over a new take on things that you would find very reminiscent of the economic system in Alpha Centauri: energy. If we compare energy costs of doing certain things, we can see that local is often better, and mechanized to avoid scarcity is often better as well. The current social hierarchy artificially changes the nature of energy usage by maintaining strange patterns of production and distribution. Environmental concerns are intimately tied to energy usage, which depends a lot on distribution patterns, etc, so if we really want to reduce energy use (or even switch to alternative, renewable energy), we'll have to approach economics from a basis that represents real value.

As a physics guy, I'm sure you can appreciate that.

29 May, 2007 17:56  

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