Theory and practice: an introduction to Marxian theory - Root and Branch

1979 article by Root and Branch, introducing Marxist theory.

Submitted by libcom on December 20, 2010

Thus we do not confront the world dogmatically with a new principle, proclaiming: Here is the truth, kneel before it! We develop for the world new principles out of the principles of the world. We do not say to the world: give up your struggles, they are stupid stuff, we will provide you with the true watchword of the struggle. We merely demonstrate to the world why it really struggles, and consciousness is something that it MUST adopt, even if it does not want to do so. Karl Marx, 1843. (1)

In his critique of the leftwing philosophies attacked as the "German Ideology," Karl Marx contrasted communist literature that can be thought of "merely as a set of theoretical writings" with that which is "the product of a real movement." In his polemic against the so-called True Socialists, he pointed out that theory, as an activity of particular people carried out in particular social contexts, does not develop by a process of 11 pure thought" but springs "from the practical needs, the whole conditions of life of a particular class in particular countries."(2) In his own theoretical work his aim was to serve what he considered the practical needs of the working class in its struggle against capitalism throughout the world. This for Marx did not mean an abandonment of claims to objectivity or scientific truth, but the opposite. Those who wish to control their social-(as their natural) conditions of life need to understand the situations in which they find themselves and the possible choices of action within these situations. Such a view meant that, on the other hand, Marx's opposition to utopian thought did not imply submission to a pre-determined historical process. By "scientific socialism," as Marx out it in reply to criticism by Bakunin, he meant-in contrast with "utopian socialism which seeks to foist new fantasies upon the people"-"the comprehension of the social movement created by the people themselves."' The historical process Marx was interested in would consist precisely in people's attempts to change the society in which they find themselves. Theoretical work, in leading to a better understanding of society and so of the tasks involved in changing it, should serve as an element of these attempts.

Marx states in The German Ideology.: "The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. ... The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of the politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. -real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to them.. - Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. (4)

Once consciousness is construed as the organization of human activity, then revolutionary consciousness, like its opposite, can be understood as the systems and quasi-systems of conceptions, feelings, etc. by means of which people organize their revolutionary (or non-revolutionary) behavior. All action involves theory, or at least some degree of coherent thinking. Like everyone, revolutionaries think about what they are doing: the theoreticians among them are those who try to systematize and explore and understand the human interactions that constitute the social status quo and the movement against it.

Although this understanding of the role of thought in revolutionary activity runs throughout Marx's development as a thinker, only in the course of real political experiences (and reflection thereon) did its implications emerge. A major turning-point seems to have been the revolutionary period of 1848-49 on the Continent, which saw Marx return from exile to edit a left democratic newspaper in Cologne. As Friedrich Engels, at that time already Marx's closest friend and political companion, explained in the introduction he wrote for a collection of Marx's articles from that period,

"When the February Revolution broke out (in France in 18481, we all of us, as far as our conceptions of the conditions and the course of revolutionary movements were concerned, were under the spell of previous historical experience in particular that of the French Revolution of 1789. What all revolutions up to then (the bourgeois revolutions) had in common was that they were minority revolutions. Even where the majority took part, it did so-whether wittingly or not, only in the service of a minority; but because of this, or simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority, this minority acquired the appearance of being the representative of the whole people."

It seemed as though the proletarian revolution would have the same form. In this case, however, the minority leading the revolution would for the first time be actually acting in the interest of the majority. The minority was needed for this leadership role, it seemed at the time, because "the proletarian masses themselves, even in Paris, were still absolutely in the dark as to the path to be taken. And yet the movement was there, instinctive, spontaneous irrepressible." It needed for success only guidance from the vanguard, those who, combining in themselves understanding of history, economics, and a philosophical comprehension of the tasks of humanity, would be able to administer the creation of the new social world. (5)

The parallel with the position of the Marxists in the Russian Revolution of 1918 is worth noting. We find Engels in 1853 guessing that on the next outbreak of revolution "our Party will one fine morning be forced to assume power" to carry out the bourgeois revolution. Then, "driven by the proletarian populace, bound by our own printed declarations... we shall be constrined to undertake communist experiments ... the untimeliness of which we know better than anyone else. In doing so we lose our heads-only physically speaking, let us hope." The similarity between the "backward country like Germany" at this time, "'which possesses an advanced party and is involved in an advanced revolution with an advanced country like France" and the situation of Russia in relation to the German revolution following the first world war explains the eerie character of Engels' ideas as prophetic of the Bolshevik seizure of power(6). In the event, however, Lenin and Trotsky took care to save their heads, physically speaking even at the expense of those of the more revolutionary workers.

As Engels noted, history proved this vision of minority-directed revolution, classically associated with the name of Blanqui, wrong. In fact, despite alliances with Blanquist groups during 1848-50, Marx (and Engels).already by this time seem to have rejected this vanguardist model of revolution. They argued for open democracy, instead of conspiratorial secrecy and hierarchy, within the communist organizations they worked with; for democracy structured by mass meetings and recallability of delegates, as the basis for "proletarian dictatorship"; and, above all, for the conception that communism could not be imposed. by the will of political thinkers and activists but could only be created by a vast mass movement in response to actual social conditions. (7)

A communist movement, in Marx's opinion, could only arise as the development of the capitalist system transformed the majority of the population into wage-workers. In 1848-50, Marx and his friends believed that this development was proceeding 'quite rapidly, but in reality Europe was far from ripe for communism. Capitalism was only getting started in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the series of economic and social crises that followed that of 1847 were milestones on a road of continued and rapid economic growth. It was this development, wrote Engels in the text quoted above, which "for the first time produced clarity in the class relationships" by creating a real capitalist and a real proletarian class. The process of economic growth which pushed these classes "into the foreground of capitalist development" was also a process of struggle between them. By making it possible for masses of workers to understand their common interest and common antagonism to their employers, this process clarified the conditions of socialist revolution.

In fact Engels proved optimistic; the growth of Social Democracy did not represent the clarification of the nature of the class struggle that he thought it did in its first decades. The events of 1848 and the subsequent development of capitalism and of the socialist movement had, however, a definite effect on Marx's thought. In the first place, it turned Marx's attention to economic crisis as a key to the existence and meaning of the socialist movement. His renewed study of economics in the 1850s reflected his conviction that socialist revolution would have to come out of a response to social conditions on the part of the workers. Hence Marx dedicated his life's work to showing how capitalism, in its very process of growth and development, simultaneously creates the form and the content of its overthrow.

Marx's position was, generally, that the social interdependency, brought about by industrial capitalism, both within and between workplaces of different types would provide a basis both for revolutionary action against the old, and for the creation of a new, society. The transformation of peasant agriculture into large-scale farming by wage-labor for the market and the development of mass-production industry have bound the producers economically-and so socially-to each other. As each individual's productive labor requires coordination with his colleagues', so the individual's consumption depends upon the productive work of countless others. This characteristic of the current system explains the ideal formulated by its socialist opponents of a "collective commonwealth of labor," in which the producers themselves (and not a distinct class of owners or managers) would jointly control their labor and its products.

The nature of the goal dictates the form which revolutionary organizations must have. Ultimately, the "revolutionary organization" will have to be the working class as a whole; thus, Marx spoke of particular organizations as episodes "in the history of the party which everywhere grows up naturally and spontaneously from the soil of -modem society."' He essential, therefore, that the working class. movement. avoid the characteristics of the leftwing sect. The sect, as Marx put it in a letter, "sees the justification for its existence and its point of honor. not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which. distinguishes it from the movement." The attitude of the 'sectarian theoretician and leader-exemplified for Marx by Proudhon, Bakunin, and Lasalle-is (as he wrote of the latter) that "instead of looking among the genuine elements of the class movement for the real basis of his agitation, he wanted to prescribe the course to be followed by this movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe." This is not to say that sects cannot have useful insights to offer the movement. Marx, for instance, honored Fourier, in contradistinction to the Fourierists; for the former wrote in a period in which "doctrinaire" propaganda could not interfere with the growth of the (barely existing) movement. To the extent that a real workers' movement put into existence, the little parties and groups should " merge in the class movement and make an end of all sectarianism." (9)

Thus the General Rules which Marx drew up in 1864 for the International Working Men's Association, began with Flora Tristan's dictum, "That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working class themselves." The International was intended to be the opposite of a sect, in both theory and practice. It proclaimed as its business, in Marx's words, "to combine and generalize the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinaire system whatever."(10) And, regarding organization, Marx argued against centralism, on the grounds that a centralist structure, -though appropriate to sectarian movements, "goes against the nature of trade unions," struggle organizations of workers. Typical of his attitude is his remark in a letter of 1868 that especially in Germany, "where the worker's life is regulated from childhood on by bureaucracy and he himself believes in the authoritarian bodies appointed over him, he must be taught above all else to walk by himself." In the same spirit, Marx refused the presidency of the International in 1866, and soon afterwards convinced its General Council to replace the post with that of a chairman to be elected at every weekly meeting.

This attitude was reflected in Marx's conception of the tasks of intellectuals in the movement. He put his writing skills at the service of the International, in preparing statements of position, official communications, and so forth. In addition, we should note the project of an "Enquete Ouvriere, " a questionnaire which Marx publisher in the Parisian Revue Socialiste in I880, and had reprinted and distributed to workers' groups, socialist and democratic circles, "and to anyone else who asked for it" in France. The text has the form of 101 questions about working conditions, wages, hours, effects of the trade cycle, and also about workers' defense organizations, strikes and other forms of struggle, and their results. Though this might be described as the first sociological survey, its preface urges workers to reply, not to meet the data needs of sociologists or economists, but because only workers can describe "with full knowledge the evils which they endure" just as "they, and not any providential saviors, can energetically administer the remedies for the social ills from which they suffer." Strategy and tactics, to use the terms of more recent leftwing theory, can only be created by workers who know their concrete conditions, not by "leaders-." Intellectuals can, however, play an important role in the collection and transmission of information; thus, the results of the Enquete were to be analyzed in a series of articles for the Re-vue, and; eventually,. a book. (12)

The main task that Marx took on as a revolutionary intellectual, however, as the task- of theory: the elaboration of a set of concepts, at a fairly abstract level, that would permit a better comprehension of the struggle between labor and capital. He prefaced the French serial edition of the first volume of Capital with an expression of pleasure, because "in this form the book will be more accessible to the working class-a con- sideration which to me outweighs everything else." (13) The function of theory was to help the movement as a whole clarify its problems and possibilities; it did not, in Marx's view, place the theorist in a dominating (or "hegemonic," as the currently fashionable euphemism has it) position vis-a-vis the movement, but was rather what he had to contribute to a collective effort.

In the light of the career of official Marxism since Marx's time, his criticism of Feuerbach's recasting of eighteenth century materialism has a prophetic cast:

"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated. This doctrine has therefore to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.' (14)

-Or, we may add, superior to the class it claims it represents, just as the philosophes claimed to represent the interests of society or of humanity as a whole. And in fact, as the "unity of theory and practice," in the form of "scientific socialism," became a basic element of orthodoxy in those organizations and currents of thought which presented themselves as Marxist, it took on just this doctrinal flavor.

The relationship of revolutionary theory to political practice acquired the practical form of the relationship of theorists (mostly middle-class intellectuals) within political organizations to the masses of workers they supposedly represented and gave direction to. For instance, by maintaining that "without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement," Lenin in 1902 meant that "socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously." He quoted Kautsky, the high priest of Social Democratic orthodoxy:

"Of course. socialism, as a doctrine, has its roots in modern economic relationships just as the class struggle of the Proletariat has and, like the latter, emerges from the struggle against the capitalist-created poverty and misery of the masses. But socialism and the class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other.. . . Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.. . The vehicles( science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia... the task of Social Democracy is to imbue the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task."

Thus, as Lenin continued in his own words, "since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is either bourgeois or socialist ideology"-in either case supplied by the intellectuals." (15)

This position reflected. (and was to justify) the actual division of labor within the Marxist movements, which, like the division in society as a whole, lay between professional leaders, or decision-makers, and the masses, who were to be provided by the former with outlook, strategy, and tactics. Aside from its outward implausibility as a theory of consciousness and of how it changes, that this position represented only an ideological expression of the interests of the professional revolutionaries as a social group was amply shown by events around the time of the first world war. In Western Europe, Marxist theory, "orthodox" as well as "revisionist," turned out to be compatible with an organizational practice that was not only less revolutionary than, but actively reactionary in comparison with, the response of large numbers of workers to the new crisis conditions. In Germany and Russia (as elsewhere) Marxist organizations responded to the revolutionary upheavals that followed the war either (in the West) as saviors of capitalism or (in Russia) as the creators of a new state power suppressing the attempts of workers to gain direct power over production. Social Democracy, in its reformist and in its revolutionary (Bolshevik) forms alike, showed its relation to the deeds of particular classes in particular countries- the rationalization, especially through state action, of capitalism in the West; and the creation of a new class society to carry out the process of industrialization forbidden the bourgeoisie in the underdeveloped East.

In contrast to the dominant interpretation of the "unity of theory and practice" as the control of the workers' movement by the Party and of socialist society by the party-state, around the turn of the century Rosa Luxemburg revived Marx's conception by expressing the idea that a truly socialist movement must be "the first in the history of class societies which reckons, in all its phases and throughout its entire course, on the organization and the direct, independent action of the masses." As she saw it, "social democratic activity ... arises historically out of the elementary class struggle," and becomes "aware of its objectives in the course of the struggle itself." In her opinion the activity of the self-proclaimed carrier of revolutionary theory, the bourgeois intelligentsia, constituted a subsidiary and politically less dependable element of the revolutionary process. It posed the threat, as she saw long before the Bolshevik coup d'etat, of dictatorship over the proletariat, in the left organizations and the. future society alike. Against Kautsky and Lenin, she proclaimed that

"The working class demands the right to make its own mis- takes and learn in the dialectic of history. Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee." (16)

This position too reflected the experience and needs of a particular segment of society at a particular time- not only ultraleft theoreticians but also the working-class militants with whom they associated in their organizational activity. By Rosa Luxemburg's time there was considerable evidence both of the negative effects on workers' radicalism of trade-union and parliamentary politics and of workers' ability to organize their own radical activity in the absence of, and indeed in the face of, official left organizational, efforts. The truth of Luxemburgs perceptions was shown decisively, on the one hand, by the class-collaborationist policy of the Second International in Western Europe in 1914, and by the development of the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia; and, on the other, by the spontaneously organized revolutions in Germany and- Russia, as well as similar, though less spectacular, occurrences throughout the West. Moreover, while Rosa Luxemburg still believed in the necessity of a party organization as the basis for revolution, the actual events showed the greater importance of new forms of organization arising from the social relationships in which workers' lives were structured. In the factory committees, in soviets,- and in workers', soldiers', and peasants' councils, Marx's concept of the development of the new society in the womb of the old took on a concrete meaning. This historical experience therefore involved also a justification of Marx's attitude towards the relation of "consciousness," theoretical and tactical, to the real activity of social groups.

These events provoked a rebirth of revolutionary analysis, as militants involved in, or affected by, the post- World War I struggles attempted to understand the failure of the Second International, the counter- revolutionary character of the Third (and its Trotskyist caricature), and the potentiality for new forms of social organization and action revealed by the mass revolutionary movements. Such thought was also stimu- lated by the efforts made by Spanish workers and peasants in the development of communist socialist relations in the revolution of 1936-37. In the thirties and forties, theorists once again tried to understand reality with regard to the needs of revolution; we may note here work in political and economic theory by Otto Ruehle, Anton Pannekoek, Paul Mattick, Karl Korsch, and Henryk Grossmann.

With the collapse of the inter-war revolutionary movements, however, and the solution through the second world war of the immediate crisis situation that had begun for world capitalism in 1929, the ideas disappeared with the activities they had been attempts to understand and structure. The result was that the Leninist version of social democratic orthodox Marxism," now the official ideology of several totalitarian states, survived as representative of Marxist theory. This was challenged only by a professorial, philo- sophical, "humanist" Marxism, which drawing inspiration particularly from the works of Marx's youth, made use neither of Marx's analysis of capitalism nor of the consequences to be drawn from it for revolutionary action.

In the East, particularly in the satellite countries, Marx's critique of economics was quite understandably identified as an ideological prop for the Stalinist system. In the West, Capital seemed even more out of touch with economic reality than at the turn of the century when Bernstein and his followers had turned their backs on Marxist orthodoxy. The abolition of capitalism in Russia had obviously not resulted in the achieve- ment of workers' power. On the other hand, capitalist society had not evolved in the direction of an obvious polarity between a small group of rich capitalists and a mass of impoverished proletarians, periodically reduced to total destitution by economic crisis. While control over capital has been continually centralized, the small group of the very rich and powerful stand at the top of a continuum of wealth and privilege, in which status and income-level seem to replace class (i.e., relation to the means of production) as the center of analytical interest. Furthermore, the combination of the war with Keynesian policies in peacetime has made possible continuous economic growth and rising incomes for large numbers of workers.

For the twenty-odd years of relative social stability that followed World War 11, proponents of the status quo and leftish critics alike by and large agreed that capitalism had escaped Marx's "iron-laws." The basis for economic conflict between workers and bosses was eroded by technological advance and political manipulation of the economy, which together made for permanent prosperity and the satisfaction at least of all material demands. While the official voices of sociology, economics, and political science celebrated this situation as the "end of ideology," however, leftwing pessimists bemoaned it as the advent of a "one dimensional" society, in which no oppositional force was left but ideology, in the form of a "critical theory" (or of "cultural revolution"). They agreed with conservatives that material opposition to the system was re- stricted to the threat posed by the so-called socialist systems of Russia, China, and their allies. Hope for change in the world rested first of all on the peasants of the Third World, though they would find allies in the developed countries among disadvantaged minorities and the student movement. The Leninist character of this picture of the theory-possessing vanguard, deserted by the labor-aristocratic masses, awaiting the com- mencement of capitalism's destruction at its weakest links, goes far in explaining the apparently bizarre transition in some New Leftists from an interest in "culture" and "liberatory lifestyles" to militaristic guerrilla fantasies.

If such views could be crudely, labeled "Stalino-humanism," a related but, in my eyes, more interesting set of ideas emerged from the Trotskyist critique of the Soviet Union, which was identified as the vanguard in capitalism's current tendency to monopolization and state regulation. This current (represented variously by Socialism ou Barbarie, the English Solidarity, Facing Reality in Detroit, the group around Murray Bcokchin, the Situationist International, and others) revived the earlier ultraleft criticism of Leninism, which was now equated with Marxism. The onset of permanent prosperity was seen as neither a cause for pessimism nor the deathblow to ideology. On the contrary, just by suggesting the possibility of total satisfaction of every desire, modem capitalism -East and West-was bound to produce a conflict between its promise and the restrictions placed on its fulfillment by the institutions of private property and the state. The old conflict between an impoverished working class and a rich ruling class gave way only to expose the deeper, and unsolvable, contradiction between those -who control the lives of others and those who are controlled, in a period of history when the end of scarcity made such a division irrational. Again the issues were clearly not "economic" but ones of social and spiritual liberation. Marxism was rejected insofar as it was thought to make this distinction and concentrate on the former.

Both of these leftwing tendencies, along with bourgeois sociology, restricted their appreciation of Marx to his earlier works. The rediscovery of these explorations of "alienation" appealed to those who rejoiced in, as to those who worried about, the cultural malaise that seemed a byproduct of material well-being. But the end of the "permanent prosperity" in the late 1960s; the failure of the "technological revolution" to leave the sphere of armaments production; the increasing assimilation of the conditions and consciousness of the "new," technical and intellectual, working class to those of their bluecollar fellows (including the experience of mass unemployment); and the disintegration of student leftism and the "youth" movement as such have all brought about a renewal of interest in Marx's chief work, the -theory of capitalist development.

At the same time, the practical insignificance the revolutionary Leninist sects and the' self-proclaimed reformism of the mass left parties in the West leaves the way open to a rediscovery of the creative possibilities of the working class in a capitalism that is entering once more into visible-painfully visible-crisis. As Marx's theory of economic change is one with his theory of revolution, the renewed interest in Capital should go hand in hand with consideration of the views about the nature of radical politics. Once again it may be possible to raise the question of the relation of theory to, practice, of 'science to socialism, in a way which does not assume the subservience of the struggle of millions of people to a handful of leaders "armed with Marxist science."

Discussing the utopian socialists, Marx observed that

"So long as the proletariat is not yet sufficiently developed to constitute itself as a class, and consequently so long as the struggle itself of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie has not yet assumed a political character, and the productive forces are not yet sufficiently developed in the bosom of the bourgeoisie itself to enable us to catch a glimpse of the material conditions necessary for the emancipation of the proletariat and for the formation of a society, these theoreticians are merely utopians who, to meet the wants of the oppressed classes, improvise systems and go in search of a regenerating science. But in the measure that history moves forward, and with it the struggle of the proletariat assumes clearer outlines, they no longer need to seek science in their minds; they have only to take note of what is happening before their eyes and to become its mouthpiece. (17)

Although the current (1979) spirit of the working class is not a revolutionary one, the problems we have today in understanding the nature of revolutionary action do not stem primarily from an insufficiency of capitalist development or a lack of historical experience of class struggle. In fact, this history offers us more than a supplement to the observation of what is happening before our eyes, as it allows for the detachment from it of concepts and models to aid in the interpretation of present-day events. Such concepts and models cannot provide us with strategy and tactics for the situations we face and will face, but they are essential as an education that helps prepare us for the creativity that revolutionary activity requires.

An understand of the changing conditions of the workers' movement requires an understanding of its context, the capitalist system. This system has continued to develop and change since Capital was written, and in ways which do not receive much attention in Marx's writing, in particular. with the increasing participation of the state in economic activity. The new developments require theoretical discussion. How have Keynisian techniques measured up against the limits Marx discovered in the capitalism of his time? Does the carrying of such techniques to their logical conclusion, in the total state domination of the economy in Russia, China, etc., represent a new form of exploitative society? Above all we have to understand the nature of capitalism to define the system we wish to create in its place. For all of these questions, Marx's work remains an essential starting point. By providing us with a developmental model of "pure" capitalism it allows us to judge the significance of the phenomena like monopolization and state-interference in the economy, to see in what sense the party-state-run systems are alternatives to private-property capitalism , and to pose basic questions about the construction of a system without capital or State.

But Capital is not, as it has been taken to be, only a "theory of capitalist development." It s a "critique of political economy" - that Is, an exploration of the bases of, and alternative to the modes of thought characteristic of life in a society ruled by business. As such it not only "takes note" of our experiences in this system, but, by demonstrating a new way of interpreting them, provides a necessary weapon for the struggle against the system. By showing the roots of capitalist theory in capitalist practice, Marx's theoretical work is a practical tool from which we can learn to organize our own activity in new ways.

It is a remarkable confirmation of Marx's ideas about the relation between social reality and the theories constructed to comprehend it, that the first fifty years of the Marxist movement saw a nearly total failure not only to extend but even to understand Marx's economic writings. Although constant lipservice was paid to Capital as the scientific socialist "Bible of the working class," (!) it is fair to say that the publication of Henryk Grossmann's The Capitalist System's Law of Accumulation and Collapse in 1929 marked the first serious and knowledgeable attempt to come to grips with Marx's actual work. Since then there have been only a few books of importance, either as exegesis or as extension of Marx's theory. Marx theorized with the assumption of a developed worldwide capitalist system, divided into two classes with the vast majority living as wage-earners. Even an approximation to such a state of affairs-in Europe, North America, and Japan-has only recently come into existence. Until the Great Depression of 1979, every crisis heralded a new prosperity in the course of which the long-term trend of growth would continue. It is only today when capitalism seems unable (at least in the absence of world war) to continue its expansion-externally by a rapid development of the Third World, internally by maintenance, of a steady growth rate-that the questions Marx raised about the long-term trends have become questions of the hour.

If Marx is now more relevant than ever, the Marxist tradition in which his relics have been enshrined has little to offer us as a guide to understanding, and much to confuse us with. It is necessary, therefore, to go back to Capital itself as a starting point for further progress in analysis. Even apart from the ideological accretions of the last hundred years, however, Marx's works pose certain difficulties for the reader. It must be said that in this matter professional intellectuals have shown no advantage over working-class readers. This is no doubt in part due to the disadvantage of having professional interests incompatible with taking Marx too seriously. But even assuming a desire to understand the world as it is, Marx had to forewarn his readers that "there is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits." (18)

In addition to the difficulty inherent in coming to grips with any abstract theory, particularly one, like Marx's, which asks us to think about a familiar subject matter in a most unfamiliar way, Capital presents the reader with a number of problems peculiar to what its author called the "method of presentation" of his ideas. First of all, the structure of the argument is such that it is only when all three volumes are read that the whole significance of the first can be seen. Marx ought to have begun with a clear explanation of what he was trying to do and the method he would employ, but he did not. Secondly, Marx's book looks so much like a work of economic analysis that it has been difficult to remember or to understand the significance of its original title: critique of political economy. What Marx meant by "critique," and what accordingly the relation of his work to economic theory is, calls for some exposition. In addition, though "it is generally agreed that Marx was a master of literary German," (19) his style cannot be called a "popular" or simple one. As he wrote Kugelmann in reference to this problem,

"It is due in part to the abstract nature of the subject-matter, to the limited space prescribed to me, and to the goal of the work.. . . Scientific attempts at the revolutionizing of a science can never be truly popular. But, once the scientific foundation is laid, popularization is easy. If the times become somewhat stormier, it will be possible again to choose colors and inks which will cover a popular presentation of these subjects.(20)

To date, such a presentation has not been written. The forthcoming series of articles, to which this is an introduction, is not intended to answer this need, -but rather to supply enough of the methodological background to enable the reader to deal with Marx's own writing. We will begin with an exploration of Marx's political and intellectual objectives in Capital and then see how the form of the argument derives from these. We will end with a discussion of the extent to which Marx achieved his aim-that is, to which his theory can help us organize the overthrow of the current system of social life and the construction of a new one.

Paul Mattick, Jr.


1. Marx to Arnold Ruge, September. 1843 Karl Marx on Revolution ed. Saul K. Padover (NY: Mc Graw-Hill; 1971), pp. 517-18; original in Marx Engels Werke (henceforth MEW ) (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1959) 1:345

2. Marx and Engels, The German ideology (NY; International Publishers, 1939), p. 79.

3. Marx, Notes on Bakunin in MEW 18: 5970642; cited and trans. Richard N. Hunt, the POloiyticla Ideas of Marx and Engels (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1974), p.326.

4. Marx and Engels, German Ideology. pp. 13-14.

5. Marx, Class Struggle in France 1848-1850 (International Publishers, 1964) pp. 12, 14. 15.

6. Engels to J. Wedemeyer, 12 April 1853, Marx -Engles Selected Correspondence (henceforth MESC) (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, n.d.) p. 94

7. See Hunt, op cit pp. 212-283 and passim. In 1874, Engels criticized the Blanquist idea of revolution in these terms: "From Blanqui's conception that every revolution is a surprize attack by a small revolutionary minority, there follows of itself the necessity for a dictatorship after the success of the venture. This would be, for sure, a dictatorship not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of a small number, who have made the surprise attack and who are themselves previously organized under the dictatorship of one or several individuals" (Engels, "Programm der Blanquitsten Kommunefluchtilinge", in MEW 18:529, cited and translated Hunt, op. cit. p. 311)

8. Marx to F. Freilgrath, 29 February 1860 in MEW 30: 495.

9. Marx to J.b Schweitzer, 13 October 1868 MESC pp. 257-58

10. Marx, "General Rules of the International Workingmen's Association: in Karl Marx on the First International ed. S. Padover (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1973) p. 13 and "Instructions for delegates of the provisional general council (1866) ibid. p. 27

11. Marx to J.B Schweitzer op. cit. p. 259

12. T.Bottomore and M. Rubel eds. Karl Marx;: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (Penguin 1963) pp. 210-11.

13. Marx , Capital (Penguin, 1976) 1: 104

14. Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach,: in Bottom0ore and Rubel,op cit pp. 82-83.

15. Karl Kautsky, cited by Lenin, "What is To Be Done?" in his Selected Works (NY: International publishers, 1967), 1: 129-130 cf. ibid pp. 82-83.

15. K. Kautsky, cited by Lenin, "What is to be Done?" in his Selected Works, 1: 129-130.

16. Rosa Luxemburg, "Organizational Questions of Social Democracy" in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary Alice Waters (Pathfinder Press, 1970) pp. 117-18 and 130.

17. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow, Foreign Language Publishing House, n.d.) p. 125

18. Marx, Capital 1: 104

19. Ben Fowkes Translator's Preface to Capital 1: 88

20. Marx to L. Kugelman, 28 December 1862 in briefe uber "Das Kapital" (Berlin, Deitz Verlag, 1954) p. 114

From Root and Branch #8, taken from Collective Action Notes



12 years 1 month ago

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Submitted by jura on May 29, 2012

To date, such a presentation has not been written. The forthcoming series of articles, to which this is an introduction, is not intended to answer this need, -but rather to supply enough of the methodological background to enable the reader to deal with Marx's own writing.

Does anyone know if the "forthcoming series" was actually published in later issues of Root & Branch? If so, are these articles online? If not, could someone try to locate them? If so, could someone... Thanks! :D