U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marx in His Time—and in Ours

The contradictions!

The contradictions!

Three years ago I wrote a post here—“Karl Marx and Intellectual History”—that used reviews of Jonathan Sperber’s 2013 biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life to ask questions about the relationship between biography and intellectual history. One of the reviews was by Terry Eagleton. Given my affinity for Eagleton I took his criticisms of Sperber at face value before reading the book itself. Eagleton made two charges that resonated with me. First, he disagreed with Sperber’s claim that Marx’s writings were a product of nineteenth-century concerns and thus don’t speak to twenty-first century problems. Second, Eagleton asserted that Sperber did not do justice to Marx’s ideas. These two criticisms were not mutually exclusive: Eagleton implied that someone who believed Marx relevant would have focused more on the ideas and less on the man.

I learned an important lesson from writing that blog post—better late than never! Do NOT criticize a book without first reading it. No, duh! Sperber left a reply in the comments section that exuded more patience than I deserved:

First, it’s a bit much to condemn, or at least criticize, a book, based on a review, without having read it yourself. Had you done so, you might have found that Eagleton’s contention I didn’t pay much attention to Marx’s ideas (I’ll leave aside the issue of whether my discussion of them is “clumsy,” as Eagleton states–not an impression of other reviewers) is problematic. The book contains a lengthy discussion of the Paris manuscripts, Marx’s theories of revolution, the influence of Hegel, the Young Hegelians, David Ricardo and Charles Darwin on Marx’s formulations. All that is without considering the chapter on Marx’s social theory (entitled “The Theorist”) and the one on Marx’s economic theories, esp. in Das Kapital (“The Economist”).

Now that I have read Sperber’s biography, I can say with certainty that Eagleton was dead wrong about Sperber not taking Marx’s ideas seriously. In fact, I learned tons about Marx’s ideas from Sperber’s beautiful and clear exposition of them. I found Sperber’s presentation of Marx’s ideas especially convincing in two ways. First, more than I ever realized, Marx’s writings were one long conversation with Hegel—and the Young Hegelians with whom Marx came of intellectual age. Second, Marx’s theories about historical change and revolution were deeply rooted in the French Revolution.

Insofar as Hegel and the French Revolution weighed heavily on the brains of nineteenth-century Europeans but barely register now, perhaps Sperber is correct to assert that Marx belongs to the ash heap of history.

But why, then, do so many of us continue to read Marx as our contemporary? Why do David Harvey’s online lectures on Capital continue to attract students in the thousands?Utopia? Nostalgia? Or perhaps we’re not so far removed from Marx’s world?

I don’t have ready-made answers to these perplexing questions. But perhaps returning to my discussion of the Harvey Capital lectures, with a focus on commodity fetishism, will help us ponder whether any of this is relevant to our times.

As Harvey says, Marx intended Capital to be 10 volumes, each focused on one major theme. (Sperber’s biography paints a vivid picture of how Marx’s personal and financial difficulties, many of which stemmed from his life in forced exile, contributed to Marx’s inability to bring many of his writing projects to completion.) Volume One is about the commodity, which is an auspicious choice since we all need them to live.

As I hoped to make clear in my first post about the Harvey lectures, Marx’s dialectical approach posits that capitalism is always in motion, always on the road. The commodity demonstrates this because its value cannot be understood in isolation. The commodity is the bearer of history, of social relations, and thus must be examined in motion.

One of the ways in which the commodity reveals the operations of capitalism beneath the surface is in the way in which the labor process is objectified in it. The Marxist theorist György Lukács later called this “reification” in his 1923 book, History and Class Consciousness, which has been said to have kick-started western Marxism of the type later practiced by Frankfurt School thinkers like Herbert Marcuse (see our recent roundtable on Marcuse). The labor process, social relations, the ways in which one class of human being exploits another, gets objectified as a “thing,” as a commodity.

Harvey explains this process of “thing-ification” by analogy: education is a process, like social relations or gravity, but we objectify it. We make education a quantifiable thing, with grades, degrees, and the like. We must have final products as signifiers.

Coming to terms with the commodity as a thing derived from the labor process helps us understand Marx’s labor theory of value, which is the key contribution Marx made to modern political economy—in Harvey’s words, “Ricardo beyond Ricardo.”

The value of a commodity is determined by the “socially necessary labor time” that went into its production. Value gets objectified in exchange, in the form of a money commodity (gold) that conceals social relations. Value is thus social relations concealed. Marx wanted to understand social relations as something “real”—immaterial, but objective.

Harvey uses another analogy to explain this: gravity, like social relations, is immaterial, but objective. That a table is subject to the forces of gravity is knowable in theory—indeed, it is an objective fact—but we cannot dissect the table to figure it out.

Perhaps the most famous section of Capital, the part where Marx theorizes about commodity fetish, is great for illustrating Marx’s labor theory of value. Harvey notes that to many people the commodity fetish section reads more like a curious aside that, depending on how one thinks of it, either detracts from the main theory or is the only section worth a close read. Harvey suggests that such readings owe to the fact that for this section Marx switched writing styles rather abruptly, transitioning from close economic analysis to wide-ranging literary poetics. But Harvey contends that reading the commodity fetish section as an outlier is a misreading. Commodity fetishism, for Marx, is not a matter of consciousness—it is not extraneous to Marx’s attempt at an objective reading of commodity, value, and social relations. Rather it is, as Harvey says, “deeply embedded in the way commodities are exchanged.” Harvey says Marx’s argument is “simple enough: people relate to each other not as human beings but through exchange of commodities in the market.”

Harvey says that when he teaches his students about this theory he asks them a straightforward question: Where does your breakfast come from? Modernity makes it such that there is no easy answer to this question. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people far-flung across the globe worked to put it on your table. The commodity (breakfast, which appears simply before you in the morning) is therefore designed to conceal the social relations that went into its production (the people who planted orange trees, picked the oranges, squeezed them, bottled the juice, made the bottles, shipped the bottles, made the ships, and so on and so forth into infinity).

Socially necessary labor is embodied in commodities and sets the value of commodities relative to other commodities which also embody socially necessary labor. In this way, exchange conceals social relations between humans—this is Marx’s labor theory of value, dependent on his notion of commodity fetishism. We are alienated from our lives yet we don’t see alienation or understand its consequences.

Now tell me: does this seem irrelevant?

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew,
    Interesting post. I’ve read some of Sperber’s book, not all of it.

    I was impressed with the biographical aspect and certain other aspects of the book. However, in looking through the late chapter “The Economist,” I was struck — and not in a favorable way — by this sentence toward the end: “Far from opposing the mainstream political economy of his day, the ideas of Smith, Ricardo, and their followers, Marx had embraced it and promoted his own work as the most advanced and correct version of their approach.” (p.462) Along the same lines, at the beginning of the chapter Sperber writes that Marx would “not so much refute…as…reformulate” the ideas of “the leading political economists of the day….” (pp.420, 419)

    There’s certainly a kernel of truth here, but these sentences, and esp. the one on p.462, seem to me quite misleading. The subtitle of ‘Capital’ is “a critique of political economy.” The footnotes of Capital vol. 1 (and maybe the other two vols. as well — haven’t read them) are full of derogatory comments about ‘bourgeois’ economists — not so much Smith and Ricardo, but Nassau Senior and others.

    Might it be that Sperber was so wedded to his thesis that Marx was a backward-looking figure, rooted in every respect in the nineteenth century, that Sperber’s interpretation of Marx’s ideas was written, in effect, to fit the thesis? I think it’s possible. The book is impressive in various respects, but I would take what struck me as Sperber’s somewhat sledge-hammer-like approach to his thesis with a grain of salt. YMMV.


    Also, I’m afraid I’m going to have to take issue with David Harvey’s take on commodity fetishism as you summarize it (I haven’t watched Harvey’s lectures). According to you, Harvey says that the labor theory of value and commodity fetishism are intimately connected. That’s not my recollection, though admittedly it’s been a long time since I studied Capital vol. 1 in college.

    Commodity fetishism, as you say, is about the commodity as congealment (perhaps not a word) or objectification of social relations — somehow social relations between persons are ‘thing-ified’ in the object of the commodity while the commodity itself takes on an ‘alive’ quality — hence the line from Capital that I’ve always remembered as a one-phrase summary of commodity fetishism: “reification of persons, anthropomorphizing of things.”

    I think, though others may disagree, that this has nothing, or almost nothing, to do with Marx’s labor theory of value, which holds that the value of a commodity is equal to the amount of socially necessary time required to produce it (and he defines ‘socially necessary time’ in a very specific way).

    Even if one thinks, as I do, that Marx’s labor theory of value is wrong, one can still see some interest in his description of ‘commodity fetishism’. That a commodity “hides” the worker’s labor and the social relations betw worker and capitalist is one statement; that the value of a commodity equals the ‘socially necessary labor time’ required to make it is a separate statement. Even if Marx purports to tie them together (and I’ll assume he does), I don’t think one statement is logically dependent on the other.

    And since I’ve managed to criticize both Jonathan Sperber and David Harvey in a single comment, I guess you can see why I don’t comment under my full name.

    • p.s. correction: “socially necessary time” should read “socially necessary labor time”.

    • Louis: Thanks for your smart comments. You may very well be right about Sperber’s argument being overdetermined. I do indeed think Marx challenged the political economists of his time in serious fashion, and I also think Marx is relevant now even in ways Sperber doesn’t. In this short Guardian piece Sperber argues Marx is relevant in some limited ways, like for example in the way that he theorized crises, but not in others, such as his labor theory of value which Sperber finds of no use now. I’m not sure about that, as I implied in my post.

      As to your second point about Marx’s commodity fetishism section of Capital not being related to his labor theory of value, Harvey said that most people think as much. That you don’t agree with his labor theory of value but find something useful in his take on commodity fetishism might be instructive. I have a lot of thinking to do about this still, and appreciate the push back.

  2. Andrew–
    Thanks for the post on commodification. Isn’t there an ambiguity in your account of Marx on commodity fetishism. On the one hand, you(and David Harvey) evoke markets and ultimately capitalism as the “cause” of commodification and thus alienation. Yet near the end, you seem to identify “modernity” as the effective cause of commodification. Doesn’t this suggest that the very conditions of modern production, whether capitalist or socialist, necessarily involve commodification and alienation? Put another way, how might we imagine a non-alienated way of living in a “advanced industrial economy/society”(Marcuse) or a post-industrial economy/society or whatever we want to call it?

    • Good question, Richard. The use of the word “modernity” is mine, not Marx’s or Harvey’s, and in this I was using it loosely (perhaps too loosely) as a synonym for capitalism a la Marshall Berman and many others. I certainly don’t think the socialist states of the twentieth century solved the problem of alienation, but I also don’t think production in those regimes was all that different from that in modern capitalist states.

      As to answering your question… yikes! Marx theorized that if you take exploitation out of labor relations–his definition of communism–that such a state was possible. Hard to imagine, though, isn’t it?

  3. I found this post very helpful and clarifying for me Andrew, thanks!

    I always wonder about these debates about the relevance of Marx. Of course, he’s not 100 percent relevant, and he failed to predict a lot, but dude; why the particular skepticism applied to him when, as you illustrate here, so much still seems solid? I just don’t get it.

    When it comes to race, though, it does make sense to me. I enjoyed Eagleton’s “Why Marx Was Right,” but the chapter on race was a case study in excuse making.

  4. Andrew,

    Great post. I want to add, though, that I think what makes Marx relevant in our moment is mainly his methodology. There are no fixed ideas in Marxism – it is a flexible interpretive framework grounded in historical and dialectical materialism. Even Engels (often derided) use of the term “scientific socialism,” implies that he and Marx conceived of themselves as developing a method more-so than “ideas” that may or may not live into 2016.

    Marx the man had serious limitations. I’ve always been frustrated with how he never fully grasped colonial political economy or, to put it another way, the ways imperial capital fashioned relations of exploitation and domination that did not mirror urban industrial Europe. In short, his writings on British India, China, etc. don’t hold up (and the “asiatic mode” stuff is bunk). But ultimately, Marx was just one Marxist writing in the 19th century.

    That’s my take, anyway.

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