Four myths about Marx

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A polemic and an introduction to reading backwards


Marx did not own the truth. Perhaps this is not a statement dear to the interpretations of the “orthodoxist” tradition of classical Marxism (and all its ultimate ramifications), even though its internal theoretical disputes often intend to epistemologically tension the limits of the so-called “historical materialism” method. Therefore, I want to present here a Marx that can be criticized. It can often seem, on the contrary, that whoever tries to separate Marx from “Marxism” is seeking a dogmatic position. I seek to demonstrate here, in another inversion, that those who necessarily link Marx to “Marxism”, often without knowing it, cannot find another way out than to understand it dogmatically and remove it from all possibility of criticism. Your resulting balances are nothing more than scarecrows. For this reason, reconstructing many of the characteristics of his thought (by the way: never unified, much less unifying) would be a useful task even for his opponents. That is, make your criticism really have a target.

Despite this, my objective here is quite different. It is a question of mentioning, more or less in the form of topics, some naturalized myths of reading and placing them in reverse of their own theses of widespread reading. Everything happens as if we were digging in multiple biographical, editorial and textual directions, almost always second-hand, to make Marx a reading target. For this, I try to present four “aphorisms” of demystification. In two of them, when facing theses by Axel Honneth and José Arthur Giannotti, I walked on my own. In the others, I resorted to José Chasine Christopher Arthur. I hope that, at the end of the fourth myth, the reader will find an “upside down introduction” to start reading Marx. Even though it may seem like a sterile discussion, the motivation is simple: there is a new and growing interest in Marx in the public and cultural sphere of the country. In view of the recent “debate” (actually in quotation marks, which makes the motivation of the text even more evident) in the El País about the exaggerations or non-exaggerations of Soviet policy. Therefore, in addition to what will be presented here, far from the hermeneutical escapes that govern orthodox introductions, the best reading of Marx is the one in reverse: start with the critique of political economy. Who knows, maybe the result will be to discover a very current Marx. Or even ask yourself: was he right in everything he wrote?

I - Marx's thought is not a patchwork quilt

The first myth I consider here may be called "the myth of the three original sources". According to this perspective, widely disseminated by texts by Vladimir Lenin and Karl Kautsky, Marx's thought would be nothing more than a "patchwork quilt" made with pieces of English political economy, some fabrics imported from German idealism and sewn with threads and needles. of French revolutionary politics. I would like to start exploring an exhibition by Karl Kautsky. On the 25th anniversary of Marx's death in 1907, Kautsky delivered a lecture entitled "The Three Sources of Marxism". In 1908, this same conference was transformed into a text and published. Already in 1933 there was a new edition revised by Kautsky himself. This last version is the one I have in view here. The central thesis of this conference is that in the work of Marx and Engels “[…] we find[…] the synthesis of the natural sciences and the sciences of the spirit, the synthesis of English, French and German thought, that of the labor movement and the socialism and, finally, that of theory and practice” (KAUTSKY, 1933, p. 3).

According to Kautsky, this unity would only be possible because both Marx and Engels would have collected pieces of various sciences to develop their “materialist conception of history”. The content of his pseudo-biographical note is no different: “Marx's intellectual process progressed formidably because he dominated the German form of thought and completed it with French thought. On the other hand, Engels was more familiar with English thought [...] nothing could be more wrong than considering Marxism something purely German. From the beginning, it was international”. (KAUTSKY, 1933, p. 9). That is, if we look at the context in which the work of these two authors emerged, we would easily notice that what is understood by “Marxism” is not a national theoretical construction. That series of “syntheses” between different types of “thoughts” announced in the thesis of the text could only be understood when the original and contextual sources of this “patchwork quilt” were sought. And in this case, the three sources were in three different countries.[I]The knot of explanation of this vertex formed by a multiplicity of syntheses, on the one hand, and the biographical-scientific internationality on the other would serve, in this wake, as an introduction to the reading of Marx. From here such “arguments” are very well known, but it is worth remembering them.

Kautsky, as a 1933th-century fly-by historian, astutely observed that capitalism was best developed in England, concluded that, as a result, it would be the perfect laboratory for Marx to study modern civil society. However, “England did not offer anything more for this purpose than the research material, it did not offer the method” (KAUTSKY, 10, p. 1789). France's economically backward situation, evidenced by the lack of industrial development, had not prevented the formation of a more politically aware population than the English. After all, even before the 1933 Revolution, Parisians distinguished themselves from other peoples by extracting concessions from institutionalized power through pressure and revolts. “If in England the economic causes and antagonists of class struggles were barely verifiable, in revolutionary France, on the other hand, one could clearly see that every class struggle is a struggle for political power” (KAUTSKY, 11, p. 1933 ). Germany, on the other hand, despite being economically backward and politically conservative, was home to the most revolutionary method of thought: the dialectic. Consequently, “the German ideal was much more sublime than the French or the English” (KAUTSKY, 12, p. XNUMX). As you can see, a rigorous international history of nineteenth-century European thought.

The sequence of Kautsky's text shows how “Marxism” would always be a synthesis of distinct and unilateral elements in each sphere of its elaboration. Politics, economics, philosophy, etc. Paradoxically, the central point of this multiplicity of syntheses fused in an internationalist context, for Kautsky, was that there would be no founding originality in the thought of Marx and Engels. These men would have done no more than take political economy out of its English one-sidedness to combine it with French politics, and after that they would eventually overcome both one-sidedness with the help of the German philosophical method. A “dialectically” sewn triad! Firm ground for the famous nonsense: the reason why someone does not understand such miscellany is the “bourgeois point of view”… But, returning to what matters, it would be up to Marxism to unite investigation of English capitalism and political economy, French political socialism and materialism and German method of philosophizing with the aim of establishing a revolutionary cosmovision. Different worldview, of course, from the “bourgeois point of view”.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Marx's death, Lenin (1977 [1913], p. 23) found an opportunity to agree with Kautsky: “Marx's genius consists precisely in his providing answers to questions that had already arisen by leading minds. of humanity. His doctrine emerged as a direct and immediate continuation of the lessons of the great representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism […] the Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true”.

Furthermore, for Lenin, “it is the legitimate successor of what the great men produced in the 1977th century, production represented by German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism” (LENIN, 1913 [24], p. XNUMX).

As it turns out, Marx provided answers to "the questions that had already emerged from the leading minds of mankind". There would be no question of establishing a work, for example, how The capital. According to Lenin, in order to establish his “doctrine” of surplus value, Marx would only have accepted the central axioms of the supposed French materialism, with the mere exception of developing it in the light of the German dialectic. It is curious to note, then, that the processes of commodity fetishism and the specific social determination of money and value, conditions of possibility for Marx to make use of the thesis of absolute surplus value, were, for Lenin, questions posed by the “main minds of humanity”. In the first chapter of The capital, when clarifying that the main objective of his chapter is to develop the “money-form” from the “commodity-form”, Marx states: “it is necessary, here, to accomplish what has never been attempted by the bourgeois economy” (MARX, 2017 [ 1890], p. 125). But, for Lenin, in clear opposition to Marx's text, the great minds of English political economists just could not elaborate the “surplus value doctrine” and, therefore, answer such questions with an omnipotent and true doctrine only because they remained without accepting the dialectic and materialist internationality of the French and German theses. For this reason, “only Marx's economic theory explained the true position of the proletariat in the general system of capitalism” (LENIN, 1977 [1913], p. 28).

What is interesting to point out here is that Lenin's arguments repeat in a somewhat new way the thesis of the three sources elaborated by Kautsky. Or, to use José Chasin's terms, a new formulation of the “original amalgam” theory. However, would even Marx have used this “original amalgam” as a starting point? It is not difficult to say that the “three sources” of Marxism, claimed by both Lenin and Kautsky, made their way into the theoretical history of Marxism. Many textbooks have introduced Marx in this way. It is also not difficult to notice how it blocks direct reading access to Marx's texts, since it draws the reader's attention to pseudo-biographical externalities and to a supposed concatenation of syntheses (sic) without reference to Marx's text. However, however evanescent this conception may be, for which Marx's “starting point” would be to collect pieces of this “original amalgam” and, later, to remove them from their one-sidedness, it touches on a fundamental question: the question of genesis of Marx's thought. I would like to put the question this way: What is the specific difference of Marx's position in intellectual history? Next, rhetorically, I would ask: would it be a mere “patchwork quilt”?

On this occasion, I don't just want to mention that these statements by Kautsky and Lenin lack textual evidence, but rather show how they have serious practical implications for understanding what is peculiar about Marx. I agree here with José Chasin when he states that a position like this inevitably provides, in the background, an answer to the question of the genesis of Marx's theoretical position. His response, of course, is that this position “would be nothing more than the ability to bring together pre-existing ideas and procedures” (CHASIN, 2009, p. 34). From this it follows that the burden assumed by such positions is that they presuppose that, in order to bring together the “one-sidedities”, Marx would have inherited from Hegel a universal method of investigation instrumentally applied to his own ends. Despite the fact that, for these authors, Marx had adapted this universal method to the English materials of investigation, all of Marx's intellectual activity would be no more than the application of the “Hegelian dialectic” to “political economy”. All this with the aim of extracting a universal foundation for “scientific socialism”.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that demystifying the thesis of the “original amalgam” is not “mere erudition”. As José Chasin says, this process of demystification has the power to place us in front of Marx's texts without presuppositions regarding the genesis of his theoretical position, because within the history of Western thought “the new position formulated by Marx is not a pure establishment endogenous. Its genesis, therefore, is not just a question for intellectual history or mere erudition, but a conditioning problem for access to an effective understanding of its theoretical nature, as well as the quality of the categorical complex that integrates its physiognomy” (CHASIN, 2009, p. 29).

For this reason, this demystification can place the reader of Marx, before his texts, without generic presuppositions about the theoretical nature of his thought and about the referential content of the categorical complex (concepts) employed by Marx.

II – Marx was not an economist

Another myth worth calling attention to is the widespread thesis according to which Marx was an “economist”. Someone like Axel Honneth presents the “best version of this thesis” by stating that Marx's theory would have reduced the possibilities of emancipation to the spectrum of work.[ii]Em Struggle for Recognition, Honneth argues that the “young Marx” would have reduced his theory of emancipation economically and, therefore, would not have been able to consider the moral demands of social struggles (HONNETH, 2009, p. 228).[iii]For Honneth, the main theoretical reason why Marx was unable to formulate other alternative models of emancipation to the effects of alienation in capitalist sociability is that Marx understands work as a general anthropological bond of society. That's because, in Manuscripts from 1844, Marx would have conceived the formation of the general social bond “only in the narrow version that he had assumed in the master-servant dialectic; with that […] he succumbed at the beginning of his work to the problematic tendency to reduce the spectrum of demands for recognition of work” (2009, p. 230). The fact that in these manuscripts Marx never refers to the Hegelian dialectic of master and servant and, more than that, makes no theoretical use of this passage from Hegel's text was already demonstrated in 1983 by Christopher Arthur in an article in New Left Review. However, I would like to analyze the general implications of Honneth's thesis according to which Marx had “reduced the spectrum of demands for recognition of work”. Perhaps Honneth has as target the following formulation of the “young Marx”: “From the relation of alienated labor to private property it is inferred [...] that the emancipation of society from private property, etc., from serfdom, manifests itself in the political form of emancipation of the workers, not as if it concerned only their emancipation, but because in their emancipation universal human [emancipation] is contained. But […] it is closed there because the entire human oppression is involved in the worker's relationship with production, and all serfdom relationships are just modifications and consequences of this relationship (MARX, 2004, p. 88-89)”.

Since “the whole of human oppression is involved in the worker's relation to production”, the young Marx could only suggest that all particular human oppression (say of race, gender, etc.) would be more or less a modification of alienated labor relations. . This is because at the base of his philosophical anthropology we find work as essence. A “work concept”, according to Honneth (2009, p. 230), “so strongly charged in normative terms that Marx was able to construct the act of producing as a process of intersubjective recognition”. If that were the case, it would not be difficult, then, to perceive “economism” from Marx's political perspective. Especially because, according to this perspective, other struggles and social demands would be secondary and not “predominant moments” of a complex normative foundation of political practice. Is this really the case?

It is noteworthy that this criticism by Honneth targets the “Theory of Emancipation” which, supposedly, would necessarily follow from a “diagnosis of the epoch” proposed in the “Theory of Alienation” of the “young Marx”. As is known, the chapter on alienated work, planned as one of the central texts of the Manuscripts from 1844 (it must be remembered again: incomplete and unpublished), analyzes the phenomenon of the objectification of work from four points: (a) estrangement in relation to the products of work; (b) strangeness in relation to the act of work; (c) strangeness in relation to gender and (d) in relation to other human beings. I would like to underline decisive aspects only of the estrangement in relation to the products of the work. In the discursive economy of the “Theory of Alienation”, this is the first point analyzed by the “young Marx”.

At this point, Marx wants to explain a present fact (historical present, that is, with general reference to the dynamics of capitalist production and not only of a country) empirically verifiable: “the worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces” (MARX, 2004, p. 80). This paradoxical fact will be conceptualized through those four processes of estrangement. Each of them consists of a “determination” of the phenomenon to be explained by Marx. Before analyzing the point mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is not unnecessary to mention that the main conceptual gain (of self-clarification), for Marx, in this chapter is the following: private property is not a natural fact, it is rather the general balance of a determined and historically specific social behavior in a unique way of producing life in common. This does not mean that private property does not exist in other historical societies, but rather that it only plays a fundamental role in the generalized appropriation of labor products in the capitalist mode of sociability. Hence, in Marx, the concept of private property must be internally derived from the logical structures of functioning of a given social reality (capitalist sociability). Therefore, it is not a general assumption, if we prefer, a universal, to analyze the economy of any historical society. The point of controversy is due to the fact that, for Marx, such a “universal assumption” was made by political economy in general.

Returning to what matters, that first thesis of Marx explains that in the “production of wealth”, within the framework of capitalist sociability, the worker needs to objectify his work and, in doing so, he needs nature as a way of life. Marx observes that the human being, in capitalism, is before nature before anything else as a worker and that this is a specific way of finding himself before nature. The sense in which nature is a means of life for workers is twofold: (i) a means of meeting their physical needs; and (ii) provides means for work. In this relationship, (i) the more work is objectified, the more work becomes the means of work itself; and (ii) the more he works, the more the worker sees work become objectified as a way of life (MARX, 2004, p. 81). Therefore, “the height of this servitude is that only as a worker can one remain a physical subject” (MARX, 2004, p. 82). On the basis of these facts Marx explains a social relation invisible to the ordinary empirical propositions that analyze that paradoxical fact; a relationship that is the anthropological foundation of the worker's attitude (and this only in modern society, namely, a present fact). To put it briefly and bluntly: this is how work is objectified in capitalist societies. The whole problem is that when work becomes a central anthropological element of human life, other possibilities for the relationship between “human beings” and “nature” are blocked. After all, work really becomes the anthropological foundation of a specific social practice. For this reason, when the reader is in front of these manuscripts, he does not find a general anthropological theory about the fundamental traits of the sociability of “man” in general. That is to say, a life normatively based on work and which seeks self-realization in it is, for Marx, one in which the more we produce, the less we have. That is, contrary to Honneth's objections, for Marx himself, work is not a source of self-realization. By the way, Marx is precisely saying that work as a way of life produces harmful effects on the sensitive life of socially organized individuals. But it seems that not everyone paid attention.

I now want to face that assertion of the young Marx that “all servitude relations are just modifications and consequences” (MARX, 2004, p. 87) of the estrangement of work. In order to expose his “Theory of Alienation”, the conclusion that Marx reaches is that work, which becomes an objectified means of life in capitalist sociability, generates the following consequences: (i) work can only be owned because it exists external, objective, a sui generis kind of “social objectivity”; (ii) private property is thus conceptually derived from this objectification of work, as such objectification is a condition for the possibility of private appropriation. Roughly speaking: I do not appropriate subjective existences, but objective existences. This not only explains the dispossession of workers and the constant enrichment of capitalists, dear to the empirical observation of that paradoxical fact, but also shows, as Marx says, that his youthful critique of political economy cannot be “from the point of view of work” against “Private property”: “The national economy starts from work as being the very soul of production, and yet it concedes nothing to work and everything to private property. Proudhon, from this contradiction, concluded in favor of work and against private property. We recognize, however, that this apparent contradiction is the contradiction of work estranged from itself” (MARX, 2003, p. 88).

For this reason, Marx suggests that it is necessary to emancipate oneself from work as a way of life and not “conclude in favor of work”. If he were “in favor of work”, Marx would plead, with Proudhon, say, wage equality. But wage equality presupposes the existence of private appropriation which, in turn, presupposes work that has become the object of appropriation. That is, Honneth is right in saying that Marx's critique is not a moral critique of capitalism's inequality. However, not because Marx theoretically reduced the spectrum of recognition requirements to “work”. On the contrary, it is not a moral critique of capitalism because it is a critique of work as a way of life. Or, as a contemporary author like Moishe Postone liked to repeat, a critique of what happens to work under capitalism. With this Marx is not saying that all human oppressions will disappear with the end of capitalism. He is saying that to overcome the sensitive suffering of the present misery, it is necessary to emancipate oneself from work as a way of life. All that can be concluded from here, in relation to a later situation of emancipation from the alienated stage, is that such oppressions would supposedly no longer depend on their “economic” character.

Finally, distancing myself a bit from disabling Honneth's criticism, I would like to briefly mention a curiosity about Marx's analyzes of the American Civil War. On January 11, 1861, he wrote in a letter to Engels commemorating the election of President Abraham Lincoln: “In my view, the most important thing that is happening in the world today is the slave movement – ​​on the one hand, in the United States of America. America, those initiated after the death of John Brown and, elsewhere, in Russia […]” (MARX, 1985 [1861] p. 4).

Even though Marx considered slavery an “economic category” whose conceptual determination was such that it was not necessarily connected to skin color or ethnicity, he was well aware of the concrete American problem where the discourse and attitudes of the dominant actually enslaved because of color. of the skin. In a text for Die Presse, he says the following: “In the northern states, where black slavery is generally impracticable, the white working class would be demoted to the status of helots. [Saying] this would completely correspond to the principle proclaimed loud and clear that only certain races are capable of freedom [....]” (MARX, 2020, p. 64).

That is, the economicist discourse according to which white workers are as much slaves as black slaves is a discourse that, for Marx, disregards the situation of black people and is therefore racist par excellence. Just because in the northern states, unlike the southern ones, black slavery was being gradually abolished, this did not mean, for Marx, that there was a level playing field. That is, there is no equality of oppression due to its economic factor. On the contrary, considering that skin color played no role in the domination of whites over blacks would be a visibly racist attitude. Or, at the very least, trying to make existing racism invisible. Marx, at all costs, avoided reducing the analysis of struggles against oppression to an economistic point of view. Such considerations also reveal that the “criticism of political economy” does not explain the totality of social relations, but rather the historically determined relations of production that the general productive forces assume in a given historical epoch. When vulgar Marxists of all sorts accuse political movements of vulnerable groups of “identitarianism”, they forget that Marx himself already denounced true identityism: economicist and white identityism.

III - Marx was not a Marxist

Is it possible to read Marx without having “Marxism” on the horizon? Yes. The mythical thesis, sometimes only slyly spread, according to which certain Marxist theses are Marx's theses is the third myth I have chosen to present objections. In an introductory book to the life and work of Marx, José Arthur Giannotti points out the following: “It is important to remember that Marx’s ideas became true social forces, to the extent that communist parties and their parallel organizations were foci of dissemination of dialectical materialism, whose propaganda aimed at explicit political objectives. Just as the religious ideas crystallized in the person of Jesus Christ had their organizational arm in the Catholic Church, founded by the apostles and universalized by Paul, the social and political ideas of Marx and Engels, stitched together in a manual of dialectical materialism (Diamat), found in the communist parties, guided by the apostle Lenin, their instruments of dissemination and control” (GIANNOTTI, 2000, p. 10-11)

Soon after, he concludes: “Is this not the best moment to consider your work in the context of the most important landmarks of Western thought?” (namely, the moment of the collapse of “real socialism”) “[…] But this return to Marx would still contain a religious trait if he continued to intend to regenerate Marxian thought against the falsifications of the Marxist vulgate, to find again in a corpus its original truth, the true and authentic thought of its author. Only those who take the Holy Bible as the revelation of the divine word can adhere to the attacks of Luther and Calvin against the degenerate interpretations given to it by a Church in a state of sin.” (GIANNOTTI, 2000, p. 13).

Although in the course of his exposition Giannotti recognizes the need to separate what is “Marxian” from what is “Marxist”, as different axes of analysis, this author avoids answering the question about the possibility or impossibility of reading Marx without having the “ Marxism” on the horizon. However, this evasion of the answer in your text Marx: Life & Work, serves as a source of support for, in many passages, stating that it is impossible to remove “Marxism” from the reading horizon. In fact, Giannotti starts, throughout the discourse economy of his text, to assume this reading. It is not for nothing that he warns: “the separation is merely didactic, because, just as Aristotle's theses cannot be distanced from Aristotelianism, since the latter clarifies them as they unfold and contort themselves, Marx's thought also exfoliates its senses, with the vicissitudes of Marxism on the horizon” (GIANNOTTI, 2000, p. 13-14).

To make a first point and strain Giannotti's formulation, I want to note how he forgets that I don't need to believe the Bible to understand what the Bible actually says. And that, in doing so, I can smoothly appreciate the present explanatory potential of what the "Bible really says" without taking any faith perspective on its words. All this without dogmatic commitments beforehand. Incidentally, to say that only those who take the word of the Bible “as the revelation of the divine word can adhere to the advances of Luther and Calvin” is, in fact, analogous to saying that only those who take the word, if you like, of The capital “how the revelation of the divine word can adhere to the attacks of Lenin and Stalin”. Giannotti's own text contradicts his intentions. Furthermore, it seems to leave us in the awkward position of saying that neither Luther nor Calvin wrote the Holy Bible. What about Lenin and Stalin about The capital? Or even about any other Marxist who would come to occupy that place.

Another point is the following: Giannotti commits himself to a somewhat hermeneutic thesis of reading whose central assumption is that an author's ideas are necessarily clarified historically “as they themselves unfold and contort”. But is there any guarantee of this? In any case, if we have already read an author and want to criticize him, shouldn't we first criticize him internally instead of exposing external theses and merely opposing them? That is, shouldn't we criticize it according to its own assumptions before evaluating it according to ours? Just as such rhetorical objections can be accused ad infinitum that they also make this assumption, namely, that “this is also a reading principle”, Giannotti's hermeneutical good will is not exempt. For suppose for a moment that Giannotti is right in all his hermeneutical principles of reading: still, it is better to start reading The capital through The capital or considering it through “Marxism”?

Finally, a mere curiosity: between 1879 and 1880 Marx glossed over a book written by a German professor named Adolph Wagner. Marx repeatedly underlined passages by this professor of economics that distorted the content of his book (The capital) and aimed to provide him with a general foundation on the economic theory of value. Among other passages, today it is a famous text due to two iconic statements by Marx in which it is said that: (i) he does not analyze concepts, but social forms; (ii) never starts from man in general, but from an economically given social period.[iv] The last statement is interesting because the term “social period” already historically delimits the object of investigation and the second part, namely, the one that says “economically given” demonstrates that Marx is concerned with the “relations of production” according to which a historically determined social content appears or, if you like, through which it is presented to the agents of this process. Important information to mention against those who see in Marxism a foundation for a new philosophy in general. However, here I would like to draw attention to a paragraph of this text that is useful to oppose to Giannotti because it is possible to read Marx without Marxism on the horizon.

I believe that this paragraph may reveal some different characteristics of, if we want to call it that, Marx's “Theory of Exploitation” and the Marxist “Theory of Exploitation”: “[…] in my presentation capital gain is not 'just a subtraction or 'robbery' from the worker'. I present, on the contrary, the capitalist as an employee of capitalist production and demonstrate, very thoroughly, that he not only 'subtracts' or 'steals', but compels the production of surplus value, therefore, what he subtracts first helps to create. I show in detail, moreover, that within the exchange of commodities, even if only equivalents were exchanged, the capitalist - as soon as he pays the worker the effective value of his labor power - with all the right, that is, the corresponding right to this mode of production would gain surplus value [...]” (MARX, 2020, p. 44).

It can even be said that a standard Marxist thesis regarding capitalist production, in addition to repeatedly hitting the button announcing that the main problem of contemporaneity is due to the profitable interest of the capitalist, states that the “subtraction” of the worker is done through of unpaid surplus work. Law would be nothing more than an ideological form that would hide this exploitation that would occur in the “material base” of the capitalist production process. But things don't stop there. Indeed, what is seen in this passage of Marx is that the capitalist is also an “employee of capitalist production”. Production process that goes through the back of human subjects as if it were an automatic subject. A major theme of Marx's analysis of value-form fetishism, in the first chapter of The capital, in which Marx shows in more detail what he simply says here under the phrase that what the capitalist “subtracts before he helps to create”. This helps to create shows how exploitation is not a simple subtraction of unpaid work, but the subtraction of a “social substance” that is created only in a historical society in which the capitalist assumes a fundamental role as a “production worker”. This is not the place to go into this in more detail. A brief comment on this is enough to dispel the moral character of theories of exploitation based on a notion of worker's original ownership. Here also that passage in the Manuscripts from 1844 where Marx says it does not "conclude in favor of work" is helpful. This moral character is not in Marx. Perhaps it is not so impossible to read Marx without Marxism on the horizon.

IV- There is no “simple production of goods”

As is known, The capital of Marx is not a finished work. The planned manuscripts for Volumes II and III remained incomplete and far from final in writing. However, Friedrich Engels took on the noble task of publishing these volumes. He has tried to remain as faithful as possible to the original manuscript and leave it unchanged. However, many of the sections, especially of Book III, required reconstructions and sometimes even Engels' redaction of entire chapters. For example, this is the case of chapter 11 of section I of book III. Despite the nobility of his enterprise and the incessant dedication to publishing the work of his friend Marx, the Preface written by Engels to volume three brought remarkable reading implications to the text of the first book of Capital. One such reading implication was denounced as a “myth” by Christopher Arthur. In an article entitled The myth of “simple commodity production, Arthur tries to demystify the myth that gives title to the text. The Brazilian translation of this article is recent and dates from 2020, made by prof. Jadir Antunes. Until the end of this text it will be my task to expose the myth and its criticism made by Arthur and try to show why it is very important to put this myth aside for a first reading of The capital.

Engels wrote a Preface to Book III of The capital where he makes it clear that he often drew “his own conclusions […] albeit within the Marxian spirit” (ENGELS, 2016, p. 32) regarding Marx's original manuscripts. In this way, he warned his reader that many of the conclusions there could be his. So much so that, by presenting this myth, it is not a question of saying that Engels misrepresented Marx and despising the theoretical legacy of this author. Far from it, I just want to show a “myth” about how to read The capital which arose from an expression used by Engels in that Preface to talk about the first section of Book I of The capital. Undoubtedly, Engels' publishing activity helped not only the workers' movement, but the publishing history of Marx's works as a whole. Furthermore, such editorial activity, while limited by today's standards, was far ahead of what was technically available in his time.

Before that, I think a brief contextualization is necessary to situate the place of genesis of the “myth” in question. After talking about the editorial implications, everything in this Preface, Engels goes on to analyze some problems related to the understanding of the text of The capital. He mentions, then, an attempt to harmonize, made by Conrad Schmidt, between the theory of market price formation with the law of value exposed by Marx. Engels' aim is to present objections to this economist. It is worth mentioning that, in this sense, Engels thinks he is defending Marx, since Schmidt's attempt was to object to the mode of exposition of this law in Marx's text. Shortly after this, Engels cites an objection by Peter Fireman who also addresses Marx's mode of exposition in The capital. Engels says that these objections aim to show the “misconception of Marx wanting to create definitions at the very moment he argues and that, in general, it would be necessary to look for fixed and ready-made definitions in Marx, valid once and for all” (ENGELS, 2016, p. 39).

Note that this problem already touches on a fundamental problem in contemporary Marxology: Marx's method of exposition. Unfortunately, this is not the place to discuss this issue. However, I would like to start presenting this myth by pointing out Engels' objection to Peter Fireman in this context: "It is evident that when things and their reciprocal relations are not conceived as fixed, but as changeable, their mental reflections, the concepts, are also involved. equally subjected to modification and renewal; that these are not enclosed in rigid definitions, but developed in their historical or, depending on the case, logical formation process.” (ENGELS, 2016, p. 39).

So far Engels brilliantly defends the necessary fluidity that is dear to the “dialectical style” of Marx's method of exposition. However, he proceeds: “[…] accordingly,[v]therefore, it will be clear why Marx, at the beginning of Book I – where he takes the simple production of commodities as his starting point as his historical presupposition and then advances from this base to capital – starts precisely from the simple commodity, and not in a conceptual and historically secondary form, of the commodity already modified in a capitalist way, which, of course, Fireman cannot understand” (ENGELS, 2016, p. 39).

I would like to stop here to make a few notes. As Christopher Arthur well noted, through studies based on the new editions of MEGA2 and with his excellent philological work, the term “simple commodity production” was never used by Marx in any of his manuscripts. The first time this term appeared was through this conceptual introduction by Engels in the Preface to Book III of The capital and, after that, in the other manuscripts of Marx that he edited. Be that as it may, many authors have taken this statement by Engels seriously, who, over the years, has suggested that reading The capital it should take the first chapters, of Book I, as if they were destined to present a successive distinction of modes of commodity production. Mainly, showing the difference between an initial stage (simple) and the capitalist one. But what does it mean to say that there is a “simple production of goods”, supposedly presupposed in the discursive economy of Marx's text, in opposition to the “capitalist production of goods”? What are the implications of this? In very general terms, it can be said that Marxists, in general, found here a key to applying “dialectical logic”, outside the coordinates of exposition and constitution of what is specific to the capitalist production process, to the historical process in general. In addition, they saw there an opportunity to see the “logical-historical” moment of the “historical materialism” method as a theory of the logic of the economic evolution of the history of societies.

However, the categorical complex of The capital has as reference exclusively the capitalist mode of production and not a general theory of society. That is, Marx in view of the “specific difference” of the “relations of production”, and the historicity of these (and not the historical succession of “production relations” in general), which constitute the capitalist mode of production. It is to Chris Arthur's credit that he has shown that the assumption of the "general logical-historical" aspect of so-called "historical materialism" is also one of the myths and legends surrounding Marx's readings. According to Arthur, even renowned Marxist theorists and economists such as Karl Kautsky, Ernest Mandel, Paul Sweezy, Oskar Lange, RL Meek, would have repeated this myth and endorsed such a way of reading that it would finally completely distort Marx's analysis. “Completely” because it would remove from the center of attention precisely what was most dear to Marx: the historicity that confers the “specific difference” of a mode of production.

But why would Engels' reading be wrong? Now, according to Arthur, i) Marx never used the expression “simple commodity production”[vi]; ii) moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, Marx never referred to capitalist commodity production as something “secondary and derivative”. The opening sentence, often ignored in readings that already assume the background of reading Marxist-Leninist “historical materialism”, already has the power to demystify this issue. As always, in Marx, some “methodological” sentences are central. The first sentence of Capital is part of this set: “The wealth of societies where the capitalist mode of production reigns appears as a 'huge collection of goods', and the individual commodity, in turn, appears as US elementary form. Our investigation begins, that is why, with the analysis of the commodity” (MARX, 2017, p. 113, my emphasis).

The most important substratum of this citation is that the commodity analyzed by Marx is the commodity that appears as an elementary form of a specific type of wealth: capitalist wealth. Contrast this directly with what Engels said in his Preface about the first chapter of the first section of Book I of The capital: “[Marx] starts precisely from the simple commodity, and not in a conceptually and historically secondary way, from the commodity already modified in a capitalist way”. As mentioned before, in the context in which Engels introduces the concept of “simple commodity production”, his main aim is to deal with methodological issues. Engels introduced this concept, according to Arthur (2020, p. 177), “because he sowed the idea that in the third volume of The capital Marx abandoned the law of value in favor of another principle of price determination. Since the values ​​were no longer “empirically present” in the course of Marx's exposition, Engels thought that the first chapter of the first book turned out, at the end of reading the manuscript of Book III, to be a mere historical and factual assumption by Marx. As we have seen, against Peter Fireman, Engels postulated that definitions are not rigid because they are developed “in their process of historical formation”, as well as saying that “depending on the case” they are “logical”. What matters is that Engels, here, gives primacy to the logic of formation of the “historical”. It follows that we should read Marx's text, then, as if definitions were presented and made more complete as certain historical stages were presented in accordance with their realization. For this reason, Marx would have supposed that “simple production of commodities” and not “commodities” as an “elementary form” of “wealth” only “where the capitalist mode of production reigns”.

As Christopher Arthur has rightly noted, this is completely at odds not only with the first chapter of The capital and in the blatant scandal of its opening sentence, but also with what is said in the Introduction that Marx had prepared in 1858 for his 1859 book and decided not to publish because he did not want to anticipate methodological results. Today this Introduction is known as Introduction of 1857 ou Introduction to the Grundrisse. It may be that Engels did not read this material. However, it was through him that Kautsky got the material and, after that, published it. Before going any further, I must repeat the following: Engels is absolutely correct when he enunciates that Marx does not work with rigid definitions. The question raised in the light of Arthur's text is the following: are rigid definitions avoided, as Engels says, because they are merely “historical”? I quote here one of the passages of this Introduction in which Marx says something about his method of exposition: “It would be impractical and false, therefore, to let the economic categories succeed one another in the sequence in which they were historically determinant. Their order is determined, on the contrary, by their relationship to each other in modern bourgeois society, and which is exactly the reverse of what appears as their natural order or the order that corresponds to historical development. It is not the relationship that economic relations have historically assumed in the succession of different forms of society. Much less of his order “in the idea” ([as in] Proudhon) (an obscure representation of the historical movement). It is, on the contrary, its structuring within bourgeois society (MARX, 2011 [1857-8], p. 60).

Be that as it may, turning the historical specificity of Marx's categorical complex into a logic of general theories is not something that only Engels accidentally contributed to. Someone like György Lukács, insisting in his late work on the decisiveness that, for Marx, categories are “forms of being, determinations of existence”, constantly forgot to add that they are “ways of being, determinations of existence [… ] with frequency of a specific society”. (To briefly mention against Lukács, the “determinations of existence” to which Marx refers are not the categorical complexes of all societies that would ground a general theory of social being, but forms of being of capitalist sociability. to Marx the fact that the “social forms” concretize and historicize the analysis and not the “content” of these “forms” apart from them).

Still with regard to the Preface to Book III, Engels was able, through that methodological note, not only to object to Peter Fireman, but also to Conrad Schmidt. For Chris Arthur (2020, p. 177), Engels was able to respond to Schmidt's objection that the “law of value” was a necessary fiction, appealing to this notion of the process of historical formation of categories, leaving aside, in turn, , the historical specificity of the categories. The consequences of this for the reading of The capital are evident. Arthur (2020, p. 178) rightly notes that Engels' conception would lead to the very desistorization of the “specific difference” of the law of value in the capitalist mode of production, as it would also apply universally to that supposed “simple production of goods”. merchandise". This universal application contradicts not only the text, but the “spirit of the text” of Marx, as it adopts a point of view that, according to Marx, was the traditional one of political economy and that, nota bene, was precisely one of the central targets of Marx's criticism.

It is therefore necessary to remember with Arthur, in the light of all this, that “Marx's economics has been taught to generations of students on the basis of a distinction between capitalist production and 'simple commodity production'. However, this distinction comes from Engels, not Marx.” (ARTHUR, 2020, p. 178). The historical character of Marx's exposition concerns the fact that "capitalism is a historically specific social formation" and nothing else. What becomes clear when we pay attention to the Introduction of 1857. Especially because this is one of the criticisms that Marx directs at Hegel and the British political economists, namely, that his investigation eternalizes and atemporalizes the laws of a particular society. It is true that Marx also disagreed with them about the laws that prevail in that particular historical formation that is capitalism. However, the point here is to show how a method of exposition that aims to present a historically specific social formation cannot i) eternalize the economic laws that prevail in that society; ii) nor present its categories as if it were developing them historically. If there is such a thing as “historical materialism” it is a theory of capitalist society and not a method of universal investigation.

*Felipe Taufer is a doctoral student in political philosophy at the Graduate Program at the University of Caxias do Sul.


MARX, Carl. Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts. Trans. Jesus Ranieri. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2004.

MARX, Carl. floorplans: economic manuscripts of 1857-58. Trans. Mario Duayer, Nelio Schneider. São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro: Boitempo, UNESP, 2011.

MARX, Carl. The capital: critique of political economy. 2. Ed. Trans. Rubens Enderle. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

MARX, Carl. Marginal Glosses to Adolph Wagner's Treatise on Political Economy in: Latest economic writings: notes from 1879-1882. Trans. Hyury Pinheiro. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020, pp. 37-84.

MARX, Carl. The Civil War in the United States in: MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. Writings about the American Civil War. Trans. Felipe Vale da Silva and Muniz Ferreira. Londrina: Aetia Editorial 2020. pp. 58-66.

MARX, Karl; ENGELS, Friedrich. Collected Works. v. 41. Trans. Peter Ross and Betty Ross. New York: New York Publishers Inc., 1985. [Useful Information: This volume has published a compilation of the letters exchanged between Marx and Engels between January 1860 and September 1864. For this reason, many of them deal with the controversies with Vogt and about the American Civil War].

ENGELS, Friedrich. Letter to Conrad Schmidt in Berlin. London, August 5th, 1890. Accessed at:

ENGELS, Friedrich. Foreword in: MARX, Karl. The capital: the global process of capitalist production. v. 3. Trans. Rubens Enderle. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2016, pp. 31-46 [Quotations from this edition may not match the printed book as I used a digital version].

ARTHUR, Christopher J. The Myth of “Simple Commodity Production”. Trans. Jadir Antunes. Eleutheria, v. 4., no. 7., 2020, pp. 175-182.

CHASIN, Jose. Critique of the Originary Amalgam in: CHASIN, José. Marx: ontological status and methodological resolution. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2009, pp. 29-38.

GIANNOTTI, Jose Arthur. Marx: life & work. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2000.

HONNETH, Axel. Struggle for recognition: the moral grammar of social conflicts. 2nd ed. Trans. Luiz Rep. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2009.

KAUTSKY, Karl. The three sources of Marxism: the historical work of Marx. Access at:

LENIN, Vladimir Ilich. The three sources and three component parts of Marxism in: LENIN, Vladimir Ilich. Collected Works. v. 19., Moscow: ProgressPublishers, 1977. pp. 23-28.


[I] “In the 1933th century, three nations represented modern civilization. Only someone who had imbibed the spirit of all three and was equipped with all the intellectual achievements of his century could produce the enormous work that Marx accomplished. The synthesis of the thought of these three nations, in which each of the three loses its unilateral aspect, constitutes the starting point of the historical contribution of Marx and Engels” (KAUTSKY, 9, p. XNUMX).

[ii] Ordinary objections against an “economist Marx” are directed at his alleged late economic determinism. There is much basic literature on the ineffective falsity of this thesis. However, I chose as the object of attention a critique of the “young Marx” because it sometimes happens that many Marxists seek a solution to Marx’s “late economism” in the “philosophy” and “anthropology” of his youth writings. I think this is not a proper way to proceed: (i) these juvenile Marx manuscripts were not intended for publication; (ii) they represent still unsuccessful attempts to develop a critique of political economy; (iii) if there is no economism in late Marx, it is not necessary to solve it with any other work. After all, there simply isn't. In any case, this criticism by Honneth presented here would be “stronger” because it tries to weaken even those Marxists who, believing in a “late economism”, seek to solve them by appealing to juvenile manuscripts.

[iii] By the way, Honneth's works are much more serious in character than the objections of “economism” ordinarily raised against Marx. However, precisely because it is one of the most elaborate, it is the special focus of our attention. An author like Honneth recognizes the due importance of Marx's work for the history of the concept of “social freedom”. It so happens that, with the aim of creating an original theory regarding the normative foundation of recognition policies, this author was forced to criticize authors from the modern tradition who would have unilaterally understood such a concept. According to him, this would be the case for Marx. I don't think this is the case. Be that as it may, the mention here is only useful to deconstruct the idea of ​​an “economist” Marx.

[iv] "At first sight, I never start from 'concepts', therefore, not even from the 'value concept', and, therefore, in no way do I have to “divide” it either. I start from the simplest social form in which the product of work is presented within today's society, and this form is the 'commodity'. I analyze it, first of all, precisely within the way she appears[…] That is why our come obscurus, who never noticed my analytical method, which starts not from the human being, but from the economically given period of society, has nothing in common with the German-professional method of referring concepts […]” (MARX, 2020 [1879-80] , p. 59-61).

[v] This “according to this” is important because Engels wants to show that his next argument follows from the fact that in Marx's text there are no fixed and rigid definitions.

[vi] “The only occurrence of the term 'simple commodity production' in all three volumes of Capital occurs in volume III, but this is in a passage given to us subsequent to Engels' editorial work, as he himself tells us in a note. This is now possible to verify by checking the manuscript itself, which has been published in the Marx-Engel Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2). There it is clear that the entire paragraph was inserted by Engels […]” (ARTHUR, 2020, p. 176).

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