Authors: Francis Wheen
‘The German proletariat is the theoretician of the European proletariat, just as the English proletariat is its economist, and the French proletariat its politician,’ Marx wrote in his riposte to Ruge, prefiguring a later assessment by Engels that Marxism itself was a hybrid of these three bloodlines. The twenty-six-year-old Marx was already well versed in German philosophy and French socialism; now he set about educating himself in the dismal science. During the summer of 1844 he read his way systematically through the main corpus of British political economy – Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Mill – and scribbled a running commentary as he went along. These notes, which run to about 50,000 words, were not discovered until the 1930s, when the Soviet scholar David Ryazanov published them under the title
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
. They are now more commonly known as the Paris manuscripts.
Marx’s work has often been dismissed as ‘crude dogma’, usually by people who give no evidence of having read him. It would be a useful exercise to force these extempore critics – who include the present British prime minister, Tony Blair – to study the Paris manuscripts, which reveal the workings of a ceaselessly inquisitive, subtle and undogmatic mind.
The first manuscript begins with a simple declaration: ‘Wages
are determined by the fierce struggle between capitalist and worker. The capitalist inevitably wins. The capitalist can live longer without the worker than the worker can without him.’ From this premiss all else follows. The worker has become just another commodity in search of a buyer; and it isn’t a seller’s market. Whatever happens, the worker loses out. If the wealth of society is decreasing, the worker suffers most. But what of a society which is prospering? ‘This condition is the only one favourable to the worker. Here competition takes place among the capitalists. The demand for workers outstrips supply. But …’
But indeed. Capital is nothing more than the accumulated fruits of labour, and so a country’s capitals and revenues grow only ‘when more and more of the worker’s products are being taken from him, when his own labour increasingly confronts him as alien property and the means of his existence and of his activity are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the capitalist’ – rather as an intelligent chicken (if such an unlikely creature existed) would be most conscious of its impotence when at its most fertile, laying dozens of eggs only to see them snatched away while still warm.
Furthermore, in a prosperous society there will be a growing concentration of capital and more intense competition. ‘The big capitalists ruin the small ones and a section of the former capitalists sinks into the class of the workers which, because of this increase in numbers, suffers a further depression of wages and becomes ever more dependent on the handful of big capitalists. Because the number of capitalists has fallen, competition for workers hardly exists any longer, and because the number of workers has increased, the competition among them has become all the more considerable, unnatural and violent.’
So, Marx concludes, even in the most propitious economic conditions, the only consequence for the worker is ‘overwork and early death, reduction to a machine, enslavement to capital’. The division of labour makes him more dependent still, introducing competition from machines as well as men. ‘Since the worker has
been reduced to a machine, the machine can confront him as a competitor.’ Finally, the accumulation of capital enables industry to turn out an ever greater quantity of products. This leads to overproduction and ends up either by putting a large number of workers out of a job or by reducing their wages to a pittance. ‘Such,’ Marx concluded with bleak irony, ‘are the consequences of a condition of society which is most favourable to the worker, i.e. a condition of
wealth. But in the long run the time will come when this state of growth reaches a peak. What is the situation of the worker then?’ Pretty miserable, you won’t be surprised to learn.
The odds were hopelessly stacked in capital’s favour. A big industrialist can sit on the products of his factory until they fetch a decent price, whereas the worker’s only product – the sweat of his brow – loses its value completely if it is not sold at every instant. A day’s missed toil is as worthless in the market as yesterday morning’s newspaper, and can never be recovered. ‘Labour is life, and if life is not exchanged every day for food it suffers and soon perishes.’ Unlike other commodities, labour can be neither accumulated nor saved – not by the labourer, at any rate. The employer is more fortunate, since capital is ‘stored-up labour’ with an indefinite shelf-life.
The only defence against capitalism was competition, which raises wages and cheapens prices. But for this very reason the big capitalists would always try to thwart or sabotage competitiveness. Just as the old feudal landlords operated a monopoly of land – for which the demand was almost limitless, but the supply finite – so the new breed of industrialists sought a monopoly of production. It was therefore foolish to conclude, as Adam Smith had, that the interest of the landlord or the capitalist is identical with that of society. ‘Under the rule of private property, the interest which any individual has in society is in inverse proportion to the interest which society has in him, just as the interest of the moneylender in the spendthrift is not at all identical with the interest of the spendthrift.’
Marx had a strong if critical respect for Smith and Ricardo. As with Hegel, he used their own words and logic to expose the shortcomings of their theories. And the most obvious shortcoming was this: ‘Political economy proceeds from the fact of private property. It does not explain it.’ Classical economists treated private property as a primordial human condition, rather as theology explained the existence of evil by reference to man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world.
But there was nothing fixed or immutable about it. Already, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, power had transferred from feudal landlords to corporate grandees: the aristocracy of money had supplanted the aristocracy of land. ‘We refuse to join in the sentimental tears which romanticism sheds on this account,’ Marx commented sternly. Feudal landowners had been inefficient boobies who made no attempt to extract the maximum profit from their property, basking in the ‘romantic glory’ of their noble indifference. It was thoroughly desirable that this benign myth should be exploded, and that ‘the root of landed property – sordid self-interest – should manifest itself in its most cynical form’. By reducing the great estates to mere commodities, with no arcadian mystique, capitalism was at least transparent in its intentions. The medieval motto
nulle terre sans seigneur
(no land without its master) gave way to a more vulgar but honest admission:
l’argent n’a pas de maître
(money knows no master).
Under this tyranny, almost everyone and everything is ‘objectified’. The worker devotes his life to producing objects which he does not own or control. His labour thus becomes a separate, external being which ‘exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien’. No Marxian scholar or critic has drawn attention to the obvious parallel with Mary Shelley’s
, the tale of a monster which turns against its creator. (In view of Marx’s fascination with the Promethean legend, one
might also note the novel’s subtitle:
A Modern Prometheus
.) While suffering from an eruption of boils in December 1863, Marx described one particularly nasty specimen as ‘
a second Frankenstein on my back
’. ‘It struck me as a good theme for a short story,’ he wrote to Engels. ‘
From the front, the man who regales
his inner man
with port, claret, stout and a truly massive mass of meat. From the front, the guzzler. But behind, on his back, the
, a damned carbuncle. If the devil makes a pact with one to sustain one with consistently good fare in circumstances like these, may the devil take the devil, I say.’ Marx mentioned this pustulent incubus to his daughter Eleanor, who was eight years old at the time. ‘But it is your own flesh!’ she pointed out.
The concept of self-alienation was drummed into Marx’s children from infancy, mainly through the fairy stories which he invented to amuse them. ‘
Of the many wonderful tales
[he] told me, the most wonderful, the most delightful one, was “Hans Röckle”,’ Eleanor wrote in a memoir:
It went on for months and months; it was a whole series of stories … Hans Röckle himself was a Hoffmann-like magician, who kept a toyshop, and who was always ‘hard up’. His shop was full of the most wonderful things – of wooden men and women, giants and dwarfs, kings and queens, workmen and masters, animals and birds, as numerous as Noah got into the ark, tables and chairs, carriages, boxes of all sorts and sizes. And though he was a magician, Hans could never meet his obligations either to the devil or the butcher, and was therefore – much against the grain – constantly obliged to sell his toys to the devil. These then went through wonderful adventures – always ending in a return to Hans Röckle’s shop.
Easy enough in a fairy tale. But how could a worker recover the fruits of labour without recourse to magic? For Hegel, alienation had been simply a fact of life, the shadow that falls between the conception and the creation, between the desire and the spasm.
Once an idea had become an object – whether a machine or a book – it was ‘externalised’ and thus divorced from its producer. Estrangement was the inevitable conclusion of all labour.
For Marx, alienated labour was not an eternal and inescapable problem of human consciousness but the result of a particular form of economic and social organisation. A mother, for instance, isn’t automatically estranged from her baby the moment it emerges from the womb, even though parturition is undoubtedly an example of Hegel’s ‘externalisation’. But she would feel very alienated indeed if, every time she gave birth, the squealing infant was immediately seized from her by some latter-day Herod. This, more or less, was the daily lot of the workers, forever producing what they could not keep. No wonder they felt less than human. ‘The result is,’ Marx observed, in a characteristic paradox, ‘that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his most animal functions – eating, drinking and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment – while in his human functions he is nothing more than an animal.’
What was the alternative? By the time he wrote the Paris manuscripts, in 1844, Marx already had a formidable talent for spotting the structural faults of society – the rising damp, the rotted timbers, the joists that couldn’t sustain the weight placed on them – and explaining why the wrecking ball was urgently required. But his skills as a surveyor and demolisher were not yet matched by any great architectural vision of his own. ‘The supersession of private property is … the complete
of all human senses and attributes,’ he wrote. ‘Only through the objectively unfolded wealth of human nature can the wealth of subjective
sensitivity – a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form, in short,
capable of human gratification – be either cultivated or created.’ Communism alone could resolve the conflict between man and nature, and between man and man. ‘It is the solution to the riddle of history,’ he announced, with a grandiloquent flourish, ‘and knows itself to be the solution.’
Maybe so; but what exactly
it? Unable to elaborate on his
rather vague humanism, Marx preferred to say what it was not. No solution to the riddle of history could be found in the petty-bourgeois platitudes of Proudhon (‘his homilies about home, conjugal love and suchlike banalities’), or in the pipe-dreams of egalitarians such as Fourier and Babeuf, who – driven by ‘envy and desire to level down’ – would not abolish private property but merely redistribute it. Their imaginary Happy Valley was ‘a community of
equality of wages
, which are paid out by the communal capital, the
as universal capitalist’. Material possession would still be the purpose of existence, the only difference being that all men – including the former capitalists – would be reduced to the category of ‘worker’. And what of the women? Since marriage was itself a form of exclusive private property, presumably the crude communists intended that ‘women are to go from marriage into general prostitution’ – thus becoming the property of all. Marx recoiled in horror from this ‘bestial’ prospect.
One can see why the attempt at communal living with Herr and Frau Ruge was so unsuccessful. For all his mockery of bourgeois morals and manners, Marx was at heart a supremely bourgeois patriarch. When drinking or corresponding with male friends, he loved nothing better than a dirty joke or a titillating sexual scandal. In mixed company, however, he displayed a protective chivalry that any Victorian paterfamilias would have admired. ‘As father and husband, Marx, in spite of his wild and restless character, is the gentlest and mildest of men,’ a police spy observed with surprise in the 1850s. The German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht – his companion on many a pub-crawl – found Marx’s prudishness touching and rather comical. ‘
Although in political and economic discussion he was not wont to mince his words
, often making use of quite coarse phrases, in the presence of children and of women his language was so gentle and refined that even an English governess could have had no cause for complaint. If in such circumstances the conversation should turn upon some delicate subject, Marx
would fidget and blush like a sixteen-year-old maiden.’
In August 1844, while Jenny was still on her extended maternity leave in Trier and Karl toiled alone over his economic notebooks at their apartment in the Rue Vanneau, the twenty-three-year-old Friedrich Engels passed through Paris en route from England to Germany. Although the two men had met once before – when Engels visited the office of the
on 16 November 1842 – it had been a cool and unmemorable encounter: Engels was wary of the impetuous young editor who ‘raves as if ten thousand devils had him by the hair’, as Edgar Bauer had forewarned him; Marx was equally suspicious, guessing that since Engels lived in Berlin he was probably an accomplice to the Free Hegelian follies of the brothers Bruno and Edgar Bauer. Engels redeemed himself soon afterwards by moving from Berlin to Manchester, and was allowed to write several articles for the
, but what really stirred Marx’s interest was a brace of essays submitted to the
– a review of Thomas Carlyle’s
Past and Present
, and a lengthy
Critique of Political Economy
which Marx described as a work of genius. One can see why: though he had already decided that abstract idealism was so much hot air, and that the engine of history was driven by economic and social forces, Marx’s practical knowledge of capitalism was nil. He had been so engaged by his dialectical tussle with German philosophers that the condition of England – the first industrialised country, the birthplace of the proletariat – had escaped his notice. Engels, from his vantage point in the cotton mills of Lancashire, was well placed to enlighten him.