Marxism: The Key Tenets

Iron Rolling Mill, Adolph Menzel, 1875

“If Marx had not been more than a purveyor of phraseology, he would be dead by now.”

~Joseph A. Schumpeter

Any attempt to “sum up” Marxism is almost destined to fail, and often grossly miscasts the nature of his work. While there are indeed central themes to which he returns time and again, perhaps the most important notion to bear in mind when interrogating Marx’s enormous body of published theory, is that there is nearly nothing “essential,” about it. It defies broad categorization because of its staggering internal turbulence. It is at once elegant and tumultuous, mapping and expanding the taken-for-granted realities of a capitalist existence, illuminating its character in a revolutionary light, but always acknowledging that there is more to know, and always appreciative of capitalism’s dynamic flexibility in the face of conflict and contradiction. His seminal work Capital, for example, spans three volumes, the first of which runs for approximately 1000 pages, excluding appendices. While across every page and volume, the themes of the commodity, value, labour, and the relations between them are carefully supported, each chapter is relentlessly sub-titled, filled with annotations, and draws upon an immensely diverse set of metaphors, examples, formulae, and the like to articulate its argument. Such a structure reveals at once a brilliant elucidation of the often mysterious inner mechanics of the capitalist mode of production, but at the same time, highlights the enormity of his task, and the constant tension between the particular and the totality to which it belongs.

That caveat addressed, it is possible, if only for the purposes of categorization and simplicity, to draw out of Marx’s philosophy a few key concepts worth highlighting, as they lay the groundwork for later strains of influential cultural criticism.

Historical Materialism:

As mentioned earlier, Marx’s writings were heavily influenced by three antecedent schools of thought: German metaphysical philosophy, Hegelian dialectics, and French utopian socialism. German metaphysics envisions history as the product of human thought, and assumes that it is the mind that generates ideas which can then be codified as material relations and institutions. Collisions between these institutions generate a long progression of great upheavals and conflicts, which we refer to as “history.” From the metaphysicals, then, we inherit a view of history that indeed acknowledges the material substance of our existence, but only as a tangent to the true generative force of human societies- the human mind. Metaphysical philosophy demands introspective interrogation as a means of understanding the external world.

For Marx, this was a potentially productive philosophical corpus, but languished too heavily in the internal world of the mind to generate a cogent analysis of the external world of capitalist exploitation. In his analysis, it is indeed necessary to examine the cultural, social, and more “human” aspects of life, but not at the expense of interrogating the world as it was at the time. For this more materialist inspiration, Marx turned to utopian socialism, which reacted to the theories of Thomas Mathlus and David Ricardo. Malthus and Ricardo explicitly tied the existence of any kind of stable society to the production of food and other physical necessities. They asserted that, without the intervention of an industrial infrastructure, population growth would always outstrip food production, and thus that the growth of our civil society is always limited by the material conditions of our existence. The utopian socialists internalized this rigidly materialist logic and endeavored to create highly rationalized, planned communities in which population and production could be balanced through logical means. What this view lacked for Marx, however, was precisely what metaphysics tended to lose itself in: a consideration of cultural factors. Utopian socialism contains little recognition of the class struggle within society, and suggests that a proletarian revolution is not essential to the establishment of socialist communities. Utopian Socialism lacked what would become a central pillar of Marx’s work- a thorough examination and critique of the capitalist political economy.

Marx, then, needed to chart a moderate course through these two epistemological traditions. He needed to find a way to historicize materialism, that is, situate a thorough analysis of the material, economic, and industrial conditions of Modernity within an analytical frame that was inherently tied to more metaphysical concepts such as governance, power, the nature of the state, and culture. To unite these two seemingly disparate epistemologies into a dynamic dialogue, Marx turned to Hegelian dialectics. Through dialectical thinking, culture and economics (ie. the social and the material) could be placed in an inextricable relationship with one another, where each simultaneously informed and contradicted the other. Although it should be noted that Hegel himself was seen by Marx as too focused upon the mind and thought as the prime mover of history, it was Hegel’s “insistence that history is not only conflict-laden, but inherently conflict laden, and that its conflictual elements yield their meanings only when we understand them as ‘contradictions’ within a dialectical framework” that captured the character of the capitalist mode of production.

Many are quick to write Marx off as a crude materialist or economist, in that he allegedly constructs the social, cultural, and historical elements of our lives as the direct product of economic imperatives. Yet such a reading of Marx all but does away with the notion of dialectical contradiction so fundamental to his work. From the oustet, Marx makes it abuldantly clear that the social dimensions of life cannot be discarded in favor of a rigidly materialist analysis, asserting that man’s engagement with other living beings is an absolute. All humans will enter into social relationships. The question then becomes, how are these social relations altered by and embodied within a particular mode of production? That is, how does the material substance of our culture interact with and contribute to the formation of a unique form of social relation that serves the capitalist ethos of accumulation and maximization?

The Commodity and the Money Form:

As a means of unpacking this question, Marx begins with an interrogation of the commodity form as an embodiment of the mystification written into capitalist ideology. He contends that the commodity as we understand it today- an object for which we trade the abstraction “money”- is in fact, what Heilbroner calls “the carrier and the encapsulation of the social history of capitalism.”

The commodity is seen in two ways in Marx’s Capital, as a use-value and as an exchange-value. The use-value of a commodity refers to its usefulness or utility in our every day lives. A table, for example, can be valued for its utility as a table. The exchange-value of a commodity, however, is an abstraction. Exchange-value refers to the value of a commodity on the market when exchanged for a common currency. To jump ahead in Marx’s analysis, the exchange value may be thought of as a “dollar value.”

Exchange value is not inherent to the commodity itself; the usefulness of a table is inherent to the form and function of the commodity table- it may be used as a table, and so is desirable for the functional role it can play in our lives. But the exchange-value of that same table, as expressed in a dollar or currency amount, is socially constructed; it is an abstraction negotiated under the particular conditions of a capitalist mode of production, and is largely unrelated to its use value. Gold, for example, commands an extremely high dollar or exchange value, despite the fact that it has extremely limited utility to most people. By contrast, something such as water, a necessity for survival, is almost worthless in terms of dollar value.

As such, under capitalism, Marx posits, “value” is not a function of utility, but rather a function of the amount of human labour power required to produce a particular commodity, what he calls socially necessary labour power. Gold requires more human labour to extract, refine, and render useable than does water, thus investing the commodity gold with more “value” than the commodity water. For labour to function as the “substance” of value, though, it must must be homogenized and standardized. The form of labour required to extract gold versus the form of labour required to accumulate water, under capitalism, is immaterial.  For commodities- or congealed expressions of human labour power- to be exchangeable through a standardized currency form, the labour that constitutes those commodities must itself be standardized. Thus all human labour under capitalism is reduced to what Marx calls simple human labour, and is itself a commodity, varying quantities of which can be purchased by those who require it for the production of other commodities. The price of simple human labour is referred to as a wage, a form of payment that breaks decisively with pre-Modern forms of remuneration, which depended upon the utility and functional equivalency of certain quantities of particular objects.

Thus, by examining the most mundane of all objects- the commodity- Marx engages in a revelatory discussion of the internal workings and mystifications of the capitalist system, writ large. Implicated within this single topic is a much broader discussion of labour, value, the establishment of common currencies, and other seemingly ‘natural’ facets of a capitalist mode of production.  For a far more in depth discussion of Marx’s approach to the commodity, watch this lecture, drawn from David Harvey’s remarkable course, “Reading Capital.”

The question of how the commodity is transfigured by the exchange process into the abstracted “money form,” is a complicated one, and occupies a dense chapter of Capital. However, to grasp further Marxist concepts such as alienation, and later landmark critiques of capitalist society (Barthes Mythologies and Jameson’s Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, for example), it’s a concept that must be wrestled with. Again, David Harvey provides an exploration of the money form.

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The Base and the Superstructure

Based solely upon Harvey’s skeletal mapping of Marx’s argument in Capital, we can gather that we are grappling with ideas far more complex than a simple materialist formulation allows for. Rather, Marx’s socioanalytical examination is dynamic, flexible, and deeply responsive to the perceived fluidity of capitalism itself. However, this nuanced examination has proven to be, even for those well versed in social and political theory, daunting and at times overwhelming. Recognizing the density of their own work, then, Marx and Engels, in some of their earlier writings developed a metaphorical rendering of their concept of historical materialism- the base and superstructure metaphor of social reproduction. History has not treated this decision kindly, as this metaphor is likely the most frequently misappropriated, simplistically interpreted, and radically decontextualized of all points within Marxism.

Essentially, in an attempt to model or schematize the formation and reproduction of a capitalist society, Marx and Engels asked readers to imagine the world as split into two distinct, but tangled spheres: the “determining base” and its corollary, the “determined superstructure.” The determining base is comprised of the forces of production, which Helbroner defines as “society’s means of material reproduction- its population, skills, arts, techniques, and artifacts” (p. 65). That is, the base is made up of the material substance of economic and productive life such as labour power, machines, raw materials, manufacturing infrastructure, capital, and the like. The form of this base, metaphorically, determines the form of the cultural and social superstructure which is built upon it. In Heilbroner’s words, the superstructure is made up of the “relations of production,” or “the social arrangements that direct the forces of production and that allocate its output. Here are the institutions of power and hierarchy, embodied in the social classes that we find in all modes of production” (p. 65). In short, the superstructure, which is “determined” by the composition and form of the base is that sphere constituted by government, authority, culture, expression, social relationships, hegemony, and the like- the abstractions and institutions through which we play out our lived experiences.

The language of “determining” and “determined,” however, do much to obfuscate the true embeddedness of economic within social, and social within economic considerations. Even within this metaphor,

“neither the forces nor the relations of production are narrowly economic concepts. The forces of production embody the skills and arts of the population and are thereby inextricably mixed with its cultural and technical heritage. The relations of production necessarily embrace the legal and political and social bonds that legitimate and enfocre the roles of the different classes. Thus political and social, even religious elements, pervade the economic elements (p. 65).

Yet despite Marx’s careful considerations, the base/superstructure metaphor has been appropriated wholesale, and has become the keystone in hard-line materialist Marxist ideologies. Throughout his work, Marx continually comments upon the bourgeois tendency to confuse the part for the whole, to mistake their own particular ideological position for the nature and condition of the society writ large; that is, to fetishize the bourgeois and capitalist ideology by shrouding its historical construction in an ahistorical and natural language. To mistake the metaphorical rendering of the base and superstructure for the whole of historical materialism, then, is to subject Marxism to the most egregious of bourgeois errors.

These “basics’ of Marxism perform a gross reduction on the true complexity of his remarkable writings, but for the purposes of review and categorization, they are worth noting. To return this discussion of Marxist ideology to the themes of the course, the next entry will examine why it is that Marxism is a particularly modern socioanalytical framework.

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