[OPE-L] The unfinished work

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Mon Sep 11 2006 - 15:27:59 EDT


Brief comment as I am running out of time - as I see it, the younger Marx in
his late 30s originally conceived a very ambitious project - it would start
with the production and circulation of capital and surplus-value, and the
laws emerging out of their intertwining, and then go on to analyse
wage-labour in depth, the position of social classes, joint-stock companies
and capital finance, the state and civil society, and the world market. But
when he actually got down to writing - under terribly impoverished
circumstances with constant distractions where he was continually haggling
for money to survive - he realized at a certain point that realistically and
humanly he would not be able to complete any six large books in terms of
writing and researching.

In a sense, he was under pressure to write and publish - after all, if you
publish Vol. 1 then people - especially the publisher - expect further
volumes. But as Francis Wheen notes, not only was Marx's writing method
often messy and laborious (he often drafted the same type of thing
painstakingly over and over by hand, from a slightly different point of
view, or re-edited it, or fretted about the composition of the text) but
eventually he also grew weary of what he called one time the "economic crap"
[oekonomische Scheisse]. Once you've reached your scientific conclusions,
writing all that up and flaunting your erudition can seem terribly tedious
and a bore, you'd rather get on with the next thing. And while he was alive
he did not get a very enthusiastic reception of Vol. 1, anymore than with
the "Contribution", - Das Kapital became influential in Russia, of all

That being the case, he probably scaled down his ambition, sometimes
suggesting that with the four books he had drafted, the work would be
complete. Probably he was well aware that there were problems with the
details of the argument of Vol. 3, but he was content to sketch out the
basic storyline - possibly also he thought that making the basic argument
about the origin of economic value and the meaning of capital was sufficient
and radical enough, and that other scholars would be easily able to complete
the argument, or develop the analysis further, once they understood it.
Indeed Engels suggested a scholarly competition to iron out some problems in
Cap. Vol. 3. It is quite likely that, seeking to grasp the totality of the
new society emerging at the highest summits of abstraction, Marx as a
creative thinker wasn't even fully aware of the full implications of his own
thought and method, and strained to keep any reasonable relationship between
means and goals. He left the manuscripts of various parts of Vol. 2 and Vol.
3 without any precise order, thinking that Engels would be able to stitch
them together into a coherent whole, which Engels heroically tried to do,
adding a chapter himself where necessary.

The substantive point however is that, whatever interpretation one takes,
Marx did not analyse the whole of bourgeois society in his magnum opus, only
important aspects of its "deep structure". In that sense, the work was
necessarily incomplete, more a sort of "Streitschrift", and it was difficult
to develop it further. Specifically, a complication was the dialectical
method of presentation adopted - you couldn't simply do chapter one, chapter
two etc. with different themes as Adam Smith did, rather the whole story had
to develop integrally out of successively resolved dialectical
contradictions (what Geert Reuten calls "systematic dialectic"), constantly
incorporating new material - and even there Marx did not fully succeed, you
don't have to be Kozo Uno to see that. He chose a particularly difficult and
intellectually challenging method to tell a story, no doubt to impress and
persuade with his rigour of argument. The presentation of it as a "completed
system" however was more a latter-day phenomenon that had to do with the
birth of "Marxism" as a distinctive doctrine, in which men like Kautsky and
Lenin played an influential role.

I think it is often difficult to appreciate nowadays how far ahead Marx was
in the subtlety and breadth of his critique of the classics. The reality was
that even in the 1920s, the majority of self-proclaimed "Marxists" based
their beliefs on popularisations of Marx's thought by Engels, Bernstein,
Kautsky and Bukharin etc., and had at most read Vol. 1. (never mind reading
the classics to which Marx himself referred). Marx certainly succeeded in
vesting his authority as an intellectual giant, but ironically this was not
very conducive to a critical and self-critical development of his theories.
By the end of the 1920s, of course, Marxism had become a veritable new
religion, promulgated officially by a new government. People were inventing
a "Marxist approach" to all manner of things, often without rhyme or reason,
i.e. without much profound thought about the meaning of social progress and
human development. In their desire to be orthodox or fear of being
unorthodox, they made new thinking impossible.

I think that Marx considered that his analysis of the capitalist mode of
production already implied what the role of the state would be, in the sense
of securing the general conditions for the accumulation of private capital
and the reproduction of society as a whole, which competing capitalists and
the commercial process itself could not produce, Arrow-Debreu equations
notwithstanding. I think Hal Draper has sketched out fairly well the ideas
Marx himself had about the state, in his "State and Bureaucracy". Engels's
comments are also helpful. Most probably Marx would have written about the
essence of the state (referring to the origins of the bourgeois state and
its class nature), its operations, and its forms, both in terms of taxation,
the rule of law, democratic procedure or the lack of it, and social/economic

An important consideration in this, as Mandel emphasized and Marx well knew,
is that capitalism did not originally produce the state, rather the European
bourgeoisies took over and modified an existing state power through lengthy
struggles against the appropriation of taxes, social and religious
oppression, strictures on trade and confiscations of capital - a highly
contradictory development, since the bourgeoisie both sought to free its own
activity from state interference and yet needed the state power to protect
private property relations, regulate competition, and ward off foreign or
domestic threats.

As Engels already noted, the essential polarity that runs like a red thread
through the whole history of the bourgeoisie is the polarity of free trade
and protectionism (or what we now call deregulation and regulation, which is
becoming a veritable bipolar disorder): at once the desire to trade and
behave freely, and the need to constrain/mediate/control that freedom
(mainly for the benefit of the bourgeois classes of course). The attempt to
deduce the essence and forms of the state directly from the logic of the
accumulation process (or to derive the rule of law directly from the
relations of commodity trade) is therefore unlikely to generate a credible
analysis. If there is a "logic", it is that the evolution of state forms and
the accumulation process were bound up with each other, so that not just
anything could happen, and some things were more likely to happen than
others: the state mediated social conflicts under given economic conditions,
and was changed in its form by those conflicts, yet in essence it remained
the same, in that it continued to perform the same kinds of social

"Essence" can be specified in terms of a relationship (or interaction)
between the real-general and the real-particular (the boundaries identifying
what something really is positively, and what it cannot be) - there are the
general conditions for the reproduction of human society as such, the
general conditions of maintaining a society divided into social classes with
conflicting interests, the general conditions of maintaining capitalist
society, and finally the specific conditions applying to a specific society
with its own unique historical origins and biological/geographic features.
Most likely, Marx would have based his critique on a discussion of the
English state and possibly the German state, the French state or the
American state, because those were the ones he had experience of or read

The American state of course originated in very different conditions from
Europe, in part from a conflict between rival bourgeois forces, which
strongly shaped its identity - e.g. the fact that the American state denies
its imperialism is rooted in its own origins in a revolution against British
and French colonial rule. Yet in essential respects the English state and
the American state have been much the same in their operation, and that has
to do with the "general conditions for the existence of capitalist society",
of class society and human society as such. The American state did not
abandon English law altogether, but modified it, and added new norms to it.

I think that if we see Marx not as deity but as a fallible human being who
pioneered new vistas of thought, and if we are less concerned with problems
of metaphysical orthodoxy, we will arrive at better analyses. A pioneer is
not necessarily always correct - rather he creates a breach through which
others can follow, using their own brains. Thus the most fruitful insights
have come from thinkers who actually did study the known facts and studied
real historical experience (or tried to "make history" themselves) using
theory as a guide to inquiry, rather than as an ideological constraint...
outside of which lay only hell and sin.

The advantage you have, if you do an empirical inquiry is that you have a
real object to explain which provides theory with a real use, and can
improve and develop the theory - whereas with an Althusserian "theoretical
object" or a "Marxist philosophy" we just end up rearranging or repeating
things that we knew already! I read a great article as a student once by
David Selbourne - I think in the journal Critique - who convinced me of
that. As far as I know, he's still writing great stuff.


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