Kautsky parle

Rakesh Bhandari bhandari at phoenix.Princeton.EDU
Thu Sep 3 22:07:23 PDT 1998

Michael, never underestimate the working class. I myself have taught in adult literacy program for one year, an inner city high school for two years, four years of "remedial" composition (there was still Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action), though I am bit out of touch here. But I have your ear, and that's gratifying.

Now each of these expressions would have to be discussed and rediscussed (I did not attempt to explain any of these concepts in my post): value, proletariat, fetishism, surplus and necessary labor, absolute and relative surplus value, the organic composition of capital and whether it is really reflected in the capital-output ratio.

They are difficult concepts; but I suspect that my struggle with them can be more intense than for an actively exploited or oppressed worker who is refracting them through daily experience and whose thirst for knowledge may be whetted by humiliations of daily life. I have every confidence that every worker, if she so desired, could master basic Marxian concepts to the degree that she could make the determination of whether they really do help to organize and illuminate the character of society and the struggles which animate it. Nothing in my experience contradicts this and my experience indicates to me that the working class is much more likely to have an easier time understanding Marx.

This may in part because his analysis is based on abstract labor time, and skilled workers and petit bourgeois, much like Aristotle's slave owners, have a repulsion towards an abstract concept like our social labor time, how it is divided between necessary and surplus labor time and that wages on the one side and profit, interest and rent on the other hand are just fetishistic expressions of that division; there may be a certain prejudice towards the understanding of a commodity's value as a fraction of a common social labor time, which can only be (mis)represented in the use value of another commodity and finally in money. These are some of the most difficult ideas in human history; there is a puzzle, wrapped in an enigma, here which humanity could not solve for 2,000 years: as what do commodities exchange in equivalent ratios to each other (150 pens, Doug's new scanner, two sets of my crutches, a new fuel pump, etc)? As equivalent materializations of our social labor time; what are the alternative bases of equilvalence? And why then is our social labor time represented in money? Why can an object of labor only count as a fraction of social labor after it has expressed that value in money? Was social labor always organized and carried out in such a way? Why are we are basically only related through the things we own even if it is only our wierdly thingly labor power that we have to sell? What are the basic features and nature of a society so organized? How does it differ from other societies across time and space? How does the value form of almost all products of labor stamp our society as epoch in human history? Why is money itself value, itself the incarnation of value (it is worth what it is), while everything else is simply a use value the value of which can only be discovered in its money price (we can put all the commodities on one side in varying quantities and make them all equivalent to a certain sum of money on the other side--this is truly fantastic, no? why does money have this power? how is money fetishistic? how is such equivalence possible among such diverse use values, the product of many different concrete labor processes, possible?) And why is the value of a commodity necessarily misrepresented by its money price?

Everybody is going to have difficulty with these ideas (I know I do)or even posing the questions, as I have just made clear! (My experience is that the majority of academic marxists are at best confused about that very difficult beginning of Capital--after all Althusser advised us to just forget it), but I truly suspect the working class will be less perplexed for reasons of absence of prejudice. Which is not to say that there will not be great difficulties and confusions. But we must try and try again;

our failure to do so is reflected in the total absence of substantial discussion on the so called left of how it would be possible for humanity to achieve a society without commodities, money and wage labor. Yes, we talk about partially decommodifying health care and higher wages of course and taxing money (that is, the rentier class) but not about whether humanity can emerge from bourgeois society to a new epoch in our history.

The movement has become everything; we are all activists, content with a magzine like The Nation. The goal has never been so nothing at all. Nothing has yet proven Kojeve or Marcuse or Fukuyama wrong; no ever widening great depression in itself will drum dialectics into our head. That was Marx's fale hope, Grossmann's as well, Mattick was much more circumspect; it took someone like Guy DeBored to ask why we remain in the thrall of a society of commodities and spectacle.

In Marx it is always a matter of discovering in the prosaic and the ordinary, the seemingly natural and the taken for granted the real drama of human history, the history of the mass of humanity in our long struggle as part of natural history to achieve human community and freedom. It is nowhere near even dawn, yet this is no time to throw in the towel, as my intellectual hero Paul Mattick concluded his Marcuse critique.

late nite ruminations. good nite, rakesh

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