I was so irritated by the review of Gareth Stedman Jones’ Marx “biography” in the London Book Review that I began to research GSJ’s past pronunciamentos in re the great man. Jones has been treading high road to capitalism for a long long time. But he has the misfortune, or fortune, to have linked himself early to Marx. Instead of disavowing Marx and moving on, he’s dedicated himself to the more remunerative task of misinterpreting Karl. As was pointed out in 2004 by Jacob Stevens, fascinated by Jones’s long yawp of an intro to the Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto, Jones’s Marx is recognizably a product of one of the Cold War subthemes in the “battle of ideas”: that Marxism is a religion. Hence, the title of the book of confessions by ex-Commies: The God that Failed. Jones’s variant is that Marx knew very well that ideas rock the world, but hid this under a materialism that was in stark contradiction to his humanist faith.
In making this case, Jones embraces the idea that intellectual history is pretty much about reading books. Marx reads some books, is influenced, writes books, etc. etc.
It is a case he has been making for some time. For instance, in 2002, writing for the Guardian, Jones casts cold water on the anarchos and lefties making with the cops at globalist fests – like G20 summits – by way of another Cold War trope – capitalism did everything that Marx wanted communism to do! In 2002, it was very popular for ex-lefties to make arguments of this form. Hence Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens making mock of the betrayal of the “left” by those who opposed the crusade for all that was right and good in Iraq.
Jones did not go that far, although the Blairist butter in his Guardian article is pretty thick. But what bugs me about Jones is not so much his politics – which is a garden variety of bien-pensant reformism, which in the short term is what we got – as his historical method. For instance, this:
“Marx’s manifesto vision was driven by a conviction that the capitalist cash-nexus distorted the expression of human need. Drawing upon legal historians, he concluded the modern forms of private property and the exchange economy based upon it was only one in a historical succession of different property forms. Capitalist private property had produced the unparalleled productivity gains of the 19th century industrial revolution.”
This to my mind ignores the Marx who did not have to read German legal historians to see what was going on about him as he lived and worked in Cologne. All he had to do was read the newspaper he edited. Jones simply ignores the series of newspaper articles Marx wrote about the laws concerning the abolition of traditional gleaning rights in the woods that formed an important part of the wealth of the German landowner aristocracy. How important was this issue? Wood theft constituted the highest percentage of the crimes for which people were sentenced to prison in Germany in the nineteenth century. It was while working on his newspaper that Marx saw the belief he’d been educated in – that law makes property – was untrue. Rather property law was being remade by class. Although Jones has evidently had his head in a library for a long long time, he might have stuck it out enough to notice how intellectual property laws have again remade property. This was not in response to some principle in the law, but rather to some pressure from the owners of computer software and giant pharma. You can sell your car second hand – you can’t do the same with your code for your Microsoft Office Suite. Rationalization isn't reason - the capitalist libido operates now just as it operated in the forests around Cologne in 1845.
All of which is a way of saying: Marx noticed things outside of books. He noticed events. Jones is correct that the critique of capitalism was never succeeded by the construction of some positive communist utopia, with instructions showing how part a fits into slot b. On the other hand, what promoter of capitalism ever envisioned global warming? Or had a grasp of the vast effects of unleashing the chemical-industrial products on this world? Did the inventor of nitrogen fertilizer have any sense that he was igniting a population boom, and destroying peasant societies globally – more effectually than communism ever did?
All of these overwhelming effects of the system can be abbreviated into the term “alienation.” It is what we live in. Marx’s critique gives us a mirror of how it came about, and how it functions. It is based not on reading the British economists and the German legal historians – these were useful, but not sufficient – but on reading newspapers, reports on factory conditions, going out into the streets. Marx was perhaps the first philosopher to ever take what the newspaper reported as material for thought.
You’d never know that from an intellectual archaeology that refuses to look at the nineteenth century except in the cliched terms of “the industrial revolution” – a sort of children’s book caption for what was happening. A more serious issue might be Jones’s substitute of private property relations for wage labor. Which is what Marx was on about at the time he wrote the Manifesto, and immediately afterwards, when he edited – wait for it – a newspaper, and made speeches to workers organizations, such as the one in Vienna in 1848, on the theory of property by Puffendorf. Just kidding! The speeches were on wage labor, and were reprinted in a pamphlet, and referred to the wages made by weavers, for instance. It referred to the worker’s time – his or her living time.
Here’s a quote, ending with a perfect little metaphor. And then I’m done with the bug up my ass that succeeded my reading of that stupid review in the LRB.
“But the putting of labor-power into action -- i.e., the work -- is the active expression of the laborer's own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another. The product of his activity, therefore, is not the aim of his activity. What he produces for himself is not the silk that he weaves, not the gold that he draws up the mining shaft, not the palace that he builds. What he produces for himself is wages ; and the silk, the gold, and the palace are resolved for him into a certain quantity of necessaries of life, perhaps into a cotton jacket, into copper coins, and into a basement dwelling. And the laborer who for 12 hours long, weaves, spins, bores, turns, builds, shovels, breaks stone, carries hods, and so on -- is this 12 hours' weaving, spinning, boring, turning, building, shovelling, stone-breaking, regarded by him as a manifestation of life, as life? Quite the contrary. Life for him begins where this activity ceases, at the table, at the tavern, in bed. The 12 hours' work, on the other hand, has no meaning for him as weaving, spinning, boring, and so on, but only as earnings, which enable him to sit down at a table, to take his seat in the tavern, and to lie down in a bed. If the silk-worm's object in spinning were to prolong its existence as caterpillar, it would be a perfect example of a wage-worker.“