[OPE-L] "[Marx's] _Capital_ is about religion"

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon Aug 29 2005 - 10:02:11 EDT

Cyril Smith 2005
`Capital' and Religion

We live in a world dominated by huge aggregates of capital, which live
by feeding off the labour of millions and millions of ordinary men and
women. Marx's book is concerned with the struggle for that social form
which stands opposed to this. Millions of words have been written
about the most famous of Marx's works, some of them, informative, some
of them less so, but unlike most of these, I argue that the book is
about freedom, and the difficulties in present conditions of
appreciating it.

In my book, `Karl Marx and the Future of the Human', I found answers
to some related questions by considering Marx's writings without
referring to such figures as Plekhanov, Kautsky, Lenin, and even
Engels, answers which sometimes surprise us. `Capital: A Critique of
Political Economy' played only a minor role. This was not because I
made little of it, but because I could not bring it within a
sufficiently small scope. I still can't, but here I shall only try to
indicate what an article would be like which did.

In `Karl Marx and the Future of the Human' (Lexington, 2005), I tried
several times to define the word `critique'. Let me try again. Marx's
work throughout his life is concerned with showing that correcting the
output of philosophers, economists, theologians or sociologists is not
enough. His aim is to relate their efforts to the social forces which
gave rise to them, and in taking up their subjects at its highest
level to illuminate the task which humanity has to accomplish in going
beyond them.

This involves taking the positions of the highest achievements of
philosophy very seriously. But each philosophy is own time expressed
in thought, and no more, and it can, at best, not go beyond the set of
relations which exist. To do that, a mode of thought is required which
bases itself on a class which is not a class, whose interests demand a
fundamental break with everything that exists, and which therefore are
the interests of all humankind.

When it comes to the critique of political economy, even the most
honest of political economies, we are faced with the essence of the
social order. The accomplishment of this task would mean no less than
the construction of a new way of living for humanity. What criterion
is to be used in a critique like this? Utopians take an ideal from
their heads, never asking where it came from. But however interesting
each of them might be, their heads are only filled up with content
drawn from the present order of society. Where else could it come

Marx's critique of political economy is the most profound to be made
of human society. Here we meet the deepest sources of our world social
crisis. It ought to be clear that a critique of political economy must
take us to the very well-springs of our problems: it ought to be but
it isn't. What is known as `Marxist economics' is a collection of the
most obvious banalities.

`Capital' is about religion. I don't mean that Marx spends any time at
all in discussion of the existence of God  neither for nor against 
but that the critique of political economy must imply the critique of
human systems of belief . What is distinctive about his ultimate view
is that it sees in religion a way of thinking which reflects the way
that people live, and, in class society, the way of thinking which
determines the way that they live. I repeat: what does critique mean?
It means relating contradictions in the theoretical analysis of a
specific entity to the contradictions in society. Religion  including
most forms of atheism  is the mental correspondent which most clearly
identifies the nature of capital, and the methodological relationship
between the parts of the system described by political economy.

Talk about `Marxist economics', or `Marx's economic doctrines', imply
a first chapter which is about a `theory of value', or a `theory of
exploitation'. But, until `the veil is ... removed from the
countenance of the social life-process', these remain the prime
victims of what the veil obscures.

What is meant by `the fetish-character of commodities' makes this a
bit clearer. As long as commodities possess this property, they must
give their producers the appearance of independence of each other.
This makes religion the only possible analogy, since it is here that
systems of belief sustain an entire social order. To alter this, would
be impossible except by a profound act of collective will.

One aspect of this religious dimension of commodities is the use of
the word `form', which either on its own or as a part of a combined
term, is found everywhere in the account of capital. For instance:

`Things which in and for themselves are not commodities, things such
as conscience, honour, etc., can be offered for sale by their holders,
and thus acquire the form of commodities through their price.'
[Chapter 3]

These forms are sometimes described as `insane', or `absurd', or
simply `mad' [verrueckte].

`When the producers of coats or boots bring these commodities into a
relation with linen, or with gold or silver (and this makes no
difference here), as the universal equivalent, the relation between
their own private labour and the collective labour of society appears
to them in exactly this mad form. The categories of political economy
consist precisely of forms of this kind. They are forms of thought
which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations
of production belonging to this historically determined mode of
production, i.e. commodity production.' [Chapter 1]

What is not always understood about `Capital', is that money and
commodities are mental or spiritual categories, as is capital itself.
If they have material form, and have decidedly material effects, that
is precisely what is distinctive about them.

`The price or money-form of commodities is, like their form of value
generally, quite distinct from their palpable or real bodily form; it
is therefore a purely ideal or notional form. ... Since the expression
of value of commodities in gold is a purely ideal act, we may use
purely imaginary or ideal gold to perform this operation.' [Chapter 3]

When we set one commodity against another, we are identifying their
values, while we know quite well that as use-values they are as
different as chalk and cheese.

`Modern society, which already in its infancy had pulled Pluto by the
hair of his head from the bowels of the earth, greets gold as its Holy
Grail, as the glittering incarnation of its innermost principle of
life.' [Chapter 3]

Most important is the monetary crisis, when the money commodity
becomes the leading commodity. `As the hart pants after water, so
pants his soul after money, the only wealth'.

It is as religious elements that commodities, money and capital itself
possess their mysterious character, which is not seen if we begin with
money, etc. fully-formed. Thus, when in Section 3 of Chapter 1, we
examine the `transformation' of one commodity into another  linen
into coat, for example  `tailoring is now seen as the tangible form
of realisation of abstract human labour'. The various commodities are
transformed into one another, and all are all transformed into money.
In short, we see all these `shape-shifting' objects as identical.

Thus, the genesis of capital is the `transformation of money into

`In truth, however, value is the subject of a process in which, while
constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it
changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself
considered as original value, and thus valorises itself independently.
For the movement in the course which it adds surplus value is its own
movement, its valorisation is thus self-valorisation
[Selbstverwertung].' [Chapter 4]

Here we have the magical process of capital. `Something must take
place behind the backs which is not visible in the circulation
itself'. [Chapter 5] The transformation takes place without the
conscious intervention of the capitalist or the worker.
`Personification of things and reification of persons' 
`Personifizierung der Sachen und Versachlichung der Personen': that is
how Marx describes the relationship of the elements of political
economy with the people who live by them. The relations between these
people is determined, not by themselves, but by the entities money,
commodities, capital, etc.

Marx points out that `the capitalist is the conscious bearer [Traeger]
of this movement'. He is distinct from the miser, in that `whereas the
miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational
miser'. The transformation of surplus value into capital means that
the whole of society is in the grip of capital, and is unable to think
outside it.

`While productive labour is changing the means of production into
constituent elements of a new product, their value undergoes a
metempsychosis. It deserts the consumed body to occupy the newly
created one. But this transmigration takes place, as it were, behind
the back of the actual labour in progress.' [Chapter 8]

In Chapter 23, the position of the modern wage-earner is contrasted
with the classical slave.

`The Roman slave was held by chains; the wage-labourer is bound by
invisible threads. The appearance of independence is maintained by a
constant change in the person of the individual employer, and by the
legal fiction of a contract.'

In Chapter 24, `The Transformation of Surplus-Value into Capital',
Marx is most clear about the illusory nature of this process:

`The relation of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere
semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes a
mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself,
and merely mystifies it.'

Within the bounds of alienation, the methods of thought called
economics maintain the domination of the producers.

`Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social
productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the
individual worker; that all means for development of production
undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of
domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker
into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an
appendage of a machine.' [Chapter 25]

And this is the specific function of economics, the theology of the
capitalist mode of production.

`The law of capital accumulation, mystified by the economists into a
supposed law of nature, in fact expresses the situation that the very
nature of accumulation excludes every diminution in the degree of
exploitation of labour, which could seriously imperil the continual
reproduction on a larger scale, of the capital-relation. It cannot be
otherwise in a mode of production in which the worker exists to
satisfy the need of the existing value for valorisation, as opposed to
the inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy
the worker's own need for development. Just man is governed, in
religion, by the products of is own brain, so, in capitalist
production, he is governed by the products of his own hand.' [Chapter

Now, how can human beings escape from this situation? Chapter 1,
Section 4 shows the way. The `atheistic' attitude towards its
religious expression would not show the way out at all, since it is
perfectly compatible with religious ways of thinking.

The importance of the religious element is seen in this escape from
the clutches of capital. The utopian solution to the problem is
simple: if the entities  commodity, money, capital, etc.  are mental
or spiritual, then you just have to point this out, and they will
cease to exist. This is the equivalent of atheism  `God doesn't
exist; end of story'  but the enormous power of religion is left
intact. The `heart of a heartless world' is not put right by a glib
argument like this, however well-meant it may be.

In the same way, it is no answer to commodities, to say `I don't
believe in money', or, to capital, `I never work for wages'. They are
`the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented
historical development', and communism cannot come into being without
their fullest unfolding.

As he writes almost at the end of his account of the historical

`The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production
which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralisation of the
means of production and the socialisation of labour reach a point
reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist
integument [Huelle]. This integument is burst asunder. The
expropriators are expropriated.' [Chapter 32]

What kind of truth is this sentence supposed to represent? Is it
`scientific', in the modern sense, showing part of a theory, logical
following from a hypothesis, which may or not be true? Some people
have read Marx like this. Many of them now present their cheque to
history: `Where is the revolution you promised me? Give me my life

They misunderstand the very meaning of Marx, losing him in `Marxism'.
If they had paid attention to the sentence in the `Afterword' to the
Second Edition, it would have been better:

`The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands by no
means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms
of motion.'

The prevalence of the dreaded `dialectical materialism' has meant that
the meaning of this sentence is  to say the least  not understood.
Marx was explaining how the `mystification' which was the essence of
Hegel's religious view, had to be seen in the context of his
understanding of capital. Like every other spiritual entity, the
categories of political economy are to be understood as religious, and
Marx points the way to the overcoming of religion, along with the
State and class division. (In my book, `Karl Marx and the Future of
the Human', Part III, `Marx and Mysticism', I have explored Hegel's
somewhat idiosyncratic conceptions of religion.)

`The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish
only when the practical relations between man and man, and man and
nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and
rational form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the
social life-process, i.e. the process of material production, until it
becomes by freely- associated men, and stands under their conscious
and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a
material foundation, or a series of material conditions of existence,
which in their turn are the natural and spontaneous product of a long
and tormented historical development.'

The overcoming of alienation is impossible without the overcoming of
religion, not just a denial, but really going-beyond. To go beyond
religion demands that, after the `long and tormented historical
development' has taken place, reflection on the `practical relations'
of society can occur without any distortion or special pleading by
individuals or groups of individuals. Then and only then will `freely
associated men' be able look at their individual and collective wills
as it is. Then they will live human lives.

Cyril Smith Internet Archive

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