When I read Roger’s remarks of Feb. 25 on the piece ‘Wages’ by Marx, I wanted to comment immediately. But by the time I had outlined my response, it far exceeded any reasonable length for a comment box. I have reservations about the approach Roger has taken. His interpretation selects a single sentence from the text and draws from it implications that presume it conveys a scientific claim of universal scope. I read this sentence very differently. I believe we will find it has a very different force and scope if we consider in some detail the generic texture of ‘Wages.’
Four aspects of this texture indicate that the force of the text and of that one sentence follow from an immediate practical goal and that the scope of any claim it establishes are correspondingly limited. We need first to consider what kind of text ‘Wages’ is and how that status determines the logic that governs its argumentative construction. To specify the force of the sentence itself within this argument, we need to trace the topic of wages and their allocation fully. To understand the formulation of this topic in the crucial sentence, we need to consider how the text engaged its auditors. To grasp this engagement as concretely as we can, we need to connect the topic of wages and their use by the wage-earner to the political project Marx was embarked on.
The editors of the Marx-Engels Werke propose that Marx drafted ‘Wages’ in preparation for a talk he presented to the Deutscher Arbeiterverein (German Workers’ Club) in Brussels. This talk was the next to last or last talk in a series. I believe this ascription to be correct and that we must accordingly look at the constitution of this text as a ‘lecture’ if we are going to appreciate what Marx was saying and why he said it the way he did.
The lecture notes opens with a summary of the conclusions drawn in passages of the draft which have not survived. These conclusions establishes a ‘logic arc’ within which the statement functions. Now just as it is erroneous to retrospectively project the Marx of the future into his earlier works, it is equally erroneous to ignore the Marx of the past in reading the present Marx. At the time of ‘Wages,’ Marx’ work still retained much of the form and substance of Hegel. In keeping with Hegel’s style of dialectical argument, Marx has initially defined a fundamental relationship, then proceeds to elaborate the contradictions that unfold within this relationship. The first point of the summary establishes that capitalism treats human activity as a commodity and for workers this relationship reduces their life activities to a mere means.
The following points elaborate the processes implicit within this relationship which determine the rate of wages, such as supply and demand or the profit motive. Marx abstracts the logical properties capitalism, a logic in which life activities have already been completely permeated and transformed. After this abstraction what remains to discuss are the internal dynamics of that transformed instrumental life. When Marx concludes the lecture with a statement of the positive aspect of wages, he introduces a twinkle of starlight in this vast darkness. In Hegelian terms, after treating at length ‘necessity,’ that which capital must do in and of itself, he finds in it ‘possibility,’ that aspect of the relationship which can in its turn generate an new system of relationships out of the old.
The draft continues with notes on eight bourgeois economists pertinent to the second point of the summary. After these notes, the draft has three fully written sections in which Marx discusses his own insights into the system-internal determination of the level of wages. These sections correspond to points three through seven of the summary.
In the last two sections before the conclusion, Marx discusses measures which ameliorate the dismal rigors of wages. To appreciate the significance of these sections to the lecture’s conclusion, we now have to pay closer attention to the formulation of the test. We will see that the logic of the argument transforms dramatically and prepares the force of the conclusion.
In the first, lengthy section titled “Suggestions for Relief,” Marx mentions and criticizes three popular bourgeois proposals to insulate wage earners against fluctuating income or to generate higher wages. He then criticizes these measures because they cannot counteract the entire range of systemic pressures to reduce wages. In the second, much briefer section ‘Workers’ Associations’ Marx addresses the organizing undertaken by the workers themselves to obtain and maintain better wages. First he points out two objections to workers’ association advanced by bourgeois economists. Then he defends the formation of such associations.
To recognize how Marx transforms the logic of his presentation at this point, we must consider ‘Suggestions for Relief’ and ‘Workers’ Associations’ as a single rhetorical unit, despite their formal separation. Marx was widely read in the Greek and Latin classics in the original languages. Just as he had absorbed the principles and materials of Hegel’s philosophy, he had mastered the devices of Classical rhetoric. Marx has ordered the presentation of the topics in these two sections to form a single rhetorical unit through the mirror-symmetrical figure of chiasmus. Chiasmus consists of two parallel constructions in which the order of the constituents is reversed in the second construction. We could schematize this construction, A:B::B:A.
If we consider that dialectics assumes a dynamic relationship between at least two elements and that the dynamism induces a new relationship between those elements, then we can recognize in the chiasmus a rudimentary, prototypical schema of the dialectic. We can specify the schema that binds the two sections of the lecture. First there are two points of view, bourgeois and proletarian. There are two types of content, model and criticism. The chiastic structure of the two sections of the argument is bourgeois model:proletarian criticism::bourgeois criticism:proletarian model. The process begins in bourgeoisie’s conceptualization of their own practical activity and ends in the practical activity of the working class. The texture embodies rather than explicitly describing this historical and social development.
In the schema ‘::” stands in the place of the fulcrum on which the order is overturned. Let us consider the dramatic assertion which occupies this position in the argument. Marx prefaced his reprise of the bourgeois criticisms of association with the assessment, “What the economists remark about associations is correct …,” a characterization perhaps all the more surprising once we have heard that the economists claim association cannot maintain or raise wages. After completing his reprise of the objections, Marx repeats his assessment, but adds a crucial explanation, “ All these objections of the bourgeois economists are, as I said, correct, but correct only from their point of view.”
In moving through the rhetorical reversal of order, we have moved into a new logical grounds for understanding. We began with bourgeois models which characterize the reciprocal relations of the factors that determine wages in terms of mathematical ratios and which seek the optimal equilibrium within this constrained range of necessities misconceived as possibilities. At the same time, we have moved from the conceptual proletarian critique of the bourgeois model’s categorical insufficiencies to the workers' practical critique via organizing associations. Returning to the level of the lecture’s logic, as we pivot on this fulcrum, we also pass from the formal dialectic of ideas to the material dialectic of activity. Marx has refuted the bourgeois ideas not by an immanent critique, but by demonstrating that they advance the interests of capital in and within wage relationships and that they are irrelevant to solving the problems wages pose for workers.
After this assertion of the distinct and irreconcilable bourgeois and working class viewpoints, Marx completes this section with a discussion of associations. He does not analyze the inherent logic of associations in the way he analyzed capital. Marx approaches the organizing of associations as a practical activity and focuses on a single, salient aspect of that activity. In fact, the meaning and the force of the claim that workers can do whatever they want with their money follows from this topical focus. The reiterated perspectives on the topic delineate a textually specific sense for workers using their money, and the truncated paraphrase in the concluding section of the lecture must be read as a summarization of this more elaborate presentation of the topic.
Marx comments take as their point of departure the first of the two bourgeois criticisms of association, namely that the cost of creating and maintaining an association will exceed any increase in wages obtained through the association. He rejects the very pertinence of this utilitarian logic. Against it he poses claims about how workers’ consciousness of their struggle and its depth lead them beyond a utilitarian view of wages. If the apparent struggle for wages entails an ultimate struggle against wages, then the workers “rightfully laugh” at the kind of pedants who would even try to calculate “the cost in dead, wounded and money.” In fact, “Anyone who wants to beat the enemy, will not discuss with him the costs of the war.” The mere fact that workers really are forming associations refutes the economists' claim that workers are selfish self-calculators. When we look at the organizing underway, we see wages play an obvious role in the process, “the best paid factory workers form the most associations.”
Workers assume the expense of self-organization even though it requires sacrifice, “the workers use everything they can scrimp together from their pay to form political and industrial associations and to cover the costs of this movement.” Accordingly, the employers and economists, who award minimal wage increases thinking they will be absorbed in modest luxuries like tea, rum, sugar and meat, are outraged when the workers “include in their calculation of these raises a little of the costs of the war against the bourgeoisie.” The section climaxes with the pithy contrast between the bourgeois view of wages as a means to participate in markets and the workers view of money as a means to meaningful life activity, “they even make out of their revolutionary activity the maximum of their pleasure in life.” In four, sometimes lengthy sentences, Marx crams in seven instances of the use of the meager disposable income provided by wages for the purposes of self-organized political and industrial organizing and motivated by class-consciousness.
The entire brunt of the argument is that any wage that allows more than the bare necessities can also provide a resource for the struggle to end the wage relationship altogether. When Marx concludes his lecture with the claim that wages have the “Advantage: that the worker can do whatever he wants with his money,” he summarizes the more extensive argument of the preceding section with a brevity comparable to the condensed conclusions with which the draft for the lecture began. The brevity should not mislead us. Marx does not argue that workers can spend whatever money they have on whatever commodities they want. He never once says “spend” or “buy.” He says, “use” and “do.” Within money he sees possibilities outside capitalist production and circulation. He advocates uses of money as an instrument of non-instrumentalized life activity.
So much for today and so much for the conventional, internal verbal factors in the analysis and understanding of genre. Structure and diction contribute essential components in the constitution of genres, but we still have to consider the articulated text as an active element in the dynamic relationship between Marx the lecturer and the workers in his audience. Those elements will allow us to reflect not just on what Marx said, but on the force of his talk, why he said what he said and to what end. What is the situated, pragmatic sense of “the worker can do whatever he wants with his money”? I’ll be back in a day or two with more of the story.