A Layered Approach to Reading Marx

Those who still try to engage seriously in the work of reading Marx often find themselves grappling with a number of apparent ambiguities or indeterminacies that seem to inhabit the source materials in advance. Here, I can only mention a few of these, hinting at the scope of the problem:

  • Is Marx’s “social-scientific socialism” somehow “objective” in the sense of being value-neutral, or is it animated crucially by an interest to “change the world” and oppose injustice?
  • Is the “dictatorship of the proletariat” a prediction about how capitalism is likely to unravel and be displaced due to acute and escalating conflict between classes, or is it a political strategy proposed as maximally advantageous for those endeavouring (voluntarily, as it were) to effect revolutionary change?
  • Is the end of capitalism and its displacement by socialism “inevitable,” in a causal sense, or is it desirable (worth wanting), in a normative sense?

Readers of Marx, confronted by these apparent ambiguities or indeterminacies, tend to part company with one another, as different “schools” or “currents” of opinion align in favour of one reading or another, with little prospect of a convergence. There are, for instance, neo-Schmittian Marxists who oppose any notion of normative assessment, in favour of a narrow “Realpolitik” conception of social conflict. And conversely, there are “humanist” Marxists who insist on the fundamentally ethical nature of Marx’s challenge to capitalism and his insistence on the “universality” of the proletarian self-emancipation project. And both seem able to cite passages in Marx (or other classical marxist writers, like Engels, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lenin, and so on), to support their views.bpp-photo

On one level, this seeming indeterminacy might be OK. Why, after all, should we favour convergence around an unchallenged official version of what Marx had to say? It seems that, whether we look at it in intellectual terms or in political terms, there is little to be gained by seeking to liquidate our differences of interpretation or emphasis. Quite the reverse, in fact: we can expect a greater fruitfulness and fecundity to accompany such conflicts of interpretation.

Nevertheless, it is always better, intellectually and politically, to strive for a sophisticated and mature, rather than a simplistic and naive understanding of any text, tradition, practice or event. And so, in the case of Marxism, we should approach this matter of indeterminacy with a critical and discerning eye, in the hope to shed some light on — if not the “right” version of Marx — at least the roots of our inability to agree about the contours of his theoretical contribution.

In this spirit, I want to urge upon Marx’s readers a general approach to examining and reflecting upon, not to mention deploying and relying upon, his core concepts and theoretical commitments. The approach that I advance here is to read Marx’s concepts as layered.

In what sense are Marxist concepts layered? In this context, I can only offer the most concise sketch of the idea. In a nutshell, my suggestion is that most of Marx’s key concepts (surplus-value, dictatorship of the proletariat, communism, and so on) operate simultaneously, and in a way that obeys a consistent logic, on three distinct levels, or in three differentiated but interconnected layers: the level of causal explanation, the level of strategic analysis, and the level of normative evaluation.

Thus, for instance, to understand the concept of “surplus value,” one has to grasp it, simultaneously, (1) as a causal-explanatory concept used to explain capital accumulation, and the source of profits, rent, etc., (2) as a strategic concept used to delineate a plausible collective agent of effective anti-systemic revolt, and (3) as a normative concept used to condemn capitalism as a system founded upon and continually reproducing injustice and dispossession.

Surplus value is only one example, however. Consider the concept of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” It functions simultaneously (1) as an explanatory concept that licences predictions about causal dynamics likely to accompany any durable dissolution of capitalist hegemony, (2) a strategic concept pinpointing the most potent strategic orientation for a decisive struggle to wrest political power from the investor class and to establish institutions of working-class self-governance in the context of an acute social crisis, and (3) as a normative concept (“public autonomy”) that links anti-capitalist revolt to the moral ideal of a “social republic” in which the “immense majority” throws off the yoke of “a few usurpers” to establish, as Marx put it, “government of the people by the people.”

But simply listing these triple-layered readings seems only to underline the problem stated at the outset, the ambiguity and indeterminacy of Marx’s meaning. It doesn’t — yet — resolve or dissolve the difficulty. This, however, brings me back to my reference above to a “consistent logic” that relates these layers one to another in every such case. This logic has a structure which, luckily for those of us hoping to read him with due care, he meticulously spelled out in the pages of his second most important work (after The Civil War in France), namely, the first volume of Capital. In particular, he outlines the logic of conceptual layering in two key places: first, the “Afterword” to the 2nd German edition, and second, in the chapter on the labour process. In essence, it is a logic of labour, understood as negation of negativity by way of purposive, world-transforming praxis.

In the “Afterword,” Marx says that his mode of interpretation “includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.”

At this point, Marx is only telling us part of the story. He’s drawing our attention to one of (but not all of) the crucial elements of his approach to conceptualizing capitalism and anti-capitalist revolt: that it acknowledges the existing state of the system, but also its fluid movement. His approach to conceptualizing capitalism, in other words, highlights the system’s “diachronic” dynamism and instability as much as its “synchronic” coherence and regularity. In this sense, his “method” is “critical and revolutionary,” unlike the conventional social sciences, which tend overwhelmingly to depict the core institutions of present-day society as self-reproducing structures that gravitate toward stable equilibria (or other such schemas of stability and recalcitrance to popular contestation).

But a mistake lurks here, threatening to trap the unsuspecting reader. Does Marx think of capitalism’s “fluid movement” as directionless, in the way that Darwin regards evolution as directionless (that is, non-teleological)? No, he does not. There is more to be said about the precise sense in which Marx’s method is “critical and revolutionary.”

For this, we have to turn to the chapter on the labour process. There, he writes: The labourer “makes use of the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of some substances in order to make other substances subservient to his aims….Thus Nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, one that he annexes to his own bodily organs, adding stature to himself.” And in this passage, among others in the labour process chapter, he reveals the key to his conceptual layering methodology: pursuit of a telos or aim can only proceed on the basis of insight into causal regularities, enabling their conversion from constraints into instruments for actualizing latent possibilities, i.e., “unleashing,” or unfettering, forces that already exist within a reality that still restrains their potentialities from being realized (prior to the intervention of praxis). Herein lies the bond that ties together Marx’s three layers: a reality to be understood (in its causal regularities), an ideal to be realized (defining a standard of success), and a plan for acting upon the former in order to actualize the latter (a plan that either works or doesn’t work, as a means of world-transforming practice, or labour).

In discussing the constructive activity of the architect, which he uses as a stand-in for human agency in general, Marx points out that the architect “raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” This is crucial not only to architecture, but also to critical social theory (Marxism), because it is only in light of — that is, under the guiding illumination of — the looming prospect of communal reappropriation (“expropriation of the expropriators,” the haunting “spectre of communism”) imagined as the orienting reference point of inquiry and practical engagement, that we know what to look for in the “momentary existence” of the prevailing situation that will unlock the secret of its “transient nature,” notably, its “inevitable breaking up,” its “crisis tendencies,” its “cleavages,” its latent, fettered forces and strategic vulnerabilities, etc. The opening up of this “continent” of possible knowledge, however, requires that we find the point of convergence between two variables: first, the mechanics of how the system reproduces itself, i.e., what Marx calls the “fetters” that presently hold at bay the construction of communism, and second, the disruptive “forces” that operate within the system-reproduction mechanics that can be brought to bear in order to “burst asunder” those “fetters” on “free development.” All of Marx’s thinking, or at any rate most of it, is rooted very specifically within this cluster, or rather this structure of concerns: the “negativity” (potentiality-withholding character) of the present order, as a system of fetters on forces of a possible, but denied liberation. Marx calls this structure of concerns “the materialist conception of history.”

Seen in this broader view, then, we can see that there is a stable connective tissue, a consistent logic, that binds together the explanatory, the strategic and the normative layers of each concept Marx deploys in the core of his critical theory. Consider again the concept of surplus value. He is only interested in surplus value because the illuminating prefiguration of communal reappropriation (the “haunting” spectre of communism) draws his attention to the existence of a (dys)functioning Achilles heel that, on the one hand, props up and enables the system to reproduce itself (explanatory layer), and on the other hand, exposes it to the vulnerability of unauthorized withdrawal, e.g., general strikes and other deployments of the power of workers to block the production of surplus value (strategic layer). But besides explaining the system and orienting strategies to attack it, surplus value is also a condemnatory concept, which exposes the fact that capitalist relations of exploitation fetter communal liberation (normative layer). The moral import of exploitation — that, in Marx’s formula, “the labour of the many becomes the wealth of the few” — is inseparable from what gives it a decisive explanatory import, and what thereby highlights a vulnerability of crucial strategic significance.

Once we get the hang of this three-layered praxis-logic (linking the causal regularity of an object to be acted upon, the pre-imagined normativity of an aim to be realized, and the strategic efficacy of an instrumental intervention to be carried out), the suggestion that Marx’s thought is ambiguous between a “social-scientific socialism,” a strategic orientation for anti-capitalist resistance, and a normative basis for condemning exploitation and oppression as moral injuries, seems like a naive and over-hurried failure to read Marx with sufficient care and attention.

When Marx says, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it,” what he means is this: We conceptualize capitalism as part of a complex labour of transforming it, and so our concepts don’t try simply to represent the system’s “momentary existence,” but also, and especially, to highlight the possibility of overthrowing it, of ensuring its “transient nature.” Accordingly, the rationality of each concept we deploy to “understand” capitalism is a function of its contribution to “the expropriation of the expropriators,” i.e., “the negation of the negation,” bringing the spectre of communal reappropriation to life, and thereby “proving the reality and power, the this-sidedness of [our] thinking in practice.”

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