Thursday, March 11, 2010

Marx and Walking-Around Money (3)

Here is third part of my contribution to the discussion of ‘Wages’ .

For a lecture to be a lecture, Goffman claimed that the lecturer must unite in his person the functions of author, animator and warrant for the text. In this last section of our interpretation, we will be asking just what it means to be the ‘author’ of the scripted portion of this discussion of wages with wage-earners. We also need to consider just what Marx stands as the warrant for, and how he does so. We have seen that Marx has shaped the discussion to persuade the workers taking part in it that they have the social possibility and the personal qualifications to transform their lives. To grasp the possibility he poses them in its specifics we must look at how it follows from Marx’ political activism at the time of the lecture and the ways it is directly expressed in the script for his talk. How does Marx connect the issues of consciousness, organizing and finances we have already explored to the notion of revolution and how does he include his listeners in this connection?

We have twice mentioned the point in the discussion of workers’ associations where Marx touts the pleasures of revolutionary activity. In the course of the talk, Marx connects workers and revolution in two distinct ways. In the lengthy critique of bourgeois economics, he talks about the objective process in which immersion in wage-relations revolutionizes workers social relations and life activities by removing them from the feudal, patriarchal relations of production.

In the discussion of the factors that cause wages to vary, Marx argues that the wage-labor relationship has two central implications. Because the capitalist commands the means of production, he commands the worker. This command entails for the workers a cycle of employment, rising wages, falling wages, and no wages in unemployment. In the discussion of bourgeois proposals to ameliorate the effects of this cycle, Marx argues that any amelioration that takes the cycle as given, only perpetuates the cycle and reinforces the power of the capitalists and of capital. Thus, from the perspective of the worker, amelioration of the symptoms of the system must lie outside the system.

Marx draws his conclusions about this self-perpetuating power of command in terms that imply a revolutionary response. In interpreting savings banks as a ‘machine of despotism,’ he concludes his first argument, “The workers themselves thus give into the hands of their enemies the weapons to preserve the existing organisation of society which subjugates them.” His first critical conclusion about the Malthusian supposition that capital must grow before wages uses the same language. If capital must first grow before conditions improve, then the worker must , “depress his position in relation to the bourgeois class more and more, to increase as much as possible the power of his opponent, capital. That is, he can only be in a passable position provided he creates and reinforces the power which is hostile to him, his own opposite.” This translation does not fully capture the violence of the relationship, since ‘hostile’ translates ‘feindselig,’ literally ‘enemy spirited,’and ‘opposite’ translates ‘Gegensatz’ which in context may be translated as ‘antagonism’ or ‘antithesis.’

Marx presents the factual shortcomings, logical contradictions and class perspectives of bourgeois economic as expressions of the real insufficiencies, injustices and oppressions of the bourgeois economy from the perspective of workers. These two perspectives are incommensurable in theory, and violently conflictual in practice. The wage-relationship is inherently antagonistic and combative. In the passage on workers’ associations in which Marx valorized the consciousness, activism and self-sacrifice of his collaborators in the lecture, he elevates this diction of conflict to the highest level.

The goal of worker’s associations is ultimately not the regulation of wages, “but the overthrow of the entire old society with its class contradictions,” where ‘contradiction’ translates the same ‘Gegensatz’ that referred to the enemy-class. The workers laugh at bourgeois economic authorities precisely because their language of monetary calculation is so utterly inappropriate to “this civil war” and its “fallen, injured, and financial sacrifices.” Marx underscores this analysis by repeating in a generalizing, sentential paraphrase, “He who wants to beat his adversary will not discuss with him the costs of the war.”

The passage closes with a dexterous rhetorical antithesis, or Gegensatz in German, in praise of the fearless autonomy of the workers who count their paltry wages, and “reckon in this minimum a little of the costs of war against the bourgeoisie,’ and who by judicious application of this minimal pittance to “their revolutionary activity … even make the maximum of their enjoyment of life.” When ‘revolution’ makes reappears, it refers to the subjective revolution made by the workers in themselves and by themselves in recognizing and avowing the necessity of social revolution.

We could, of course, conclude that promoting revolutionary consciousness and activity simply represents another perspective on the transformation of the lecture into an event embodying the worth of the democratic relations within the Workers’ Association and attesting to its qualities and the qualities of its members and friends. But if we include Marx' membership in the Brussels branch of the international League of Communists, we can hear the more specific and tangible organizational and programmatic messages he shares with his collaborators in the Association.

Marx and Engels has participated in founding the German Workers’ Association in August 1847, just four months before Marx delivered his talk on wages. Only two or three weeks before that, they had also participated in the founding of the local group and the regional organization of the League of Communists. The League had reconnected and reorganized the scattered, surviving circles of the League of the Just, a socialist organization of artisan-proletarians. This older League had views inspired by the French Revolution and correspondingly couched its aspirations in terms of universal reason and universal brotherhood.

When the League reconstituted itself as the League of Communists, it had gone thorough discussion of its political and organization principles and had opted for the new class-struggle perspective espoused by Marx and Engels. We can safely surmise that in accordance with those principles the League of Communists in Brussels took the initiative in establishing the Workers’ Association. The Association would appeal to workers who had already become active and conscious to a degree, without the requiring the level of theoretical sophistication, commitment or militancy expected from members of the League. The activities of the Association would promote the development of class-consciousness, socialist politics and revolutionary strategy through education and through worker activism around immediate goals.

In the protracted discussion of wages up to the section on workers’ associations, Marx explicates the socialist argument that the wage-relation must be abolished, not ameliorated. In the final two sections, he advances the communist conclusion that the abolition of wages will arrive through revolutionary struggle. When Marx, present as the guiding intellectual of the League, closes his talk with an invocation of the revolutionary strategy, he is, in the organizational context of the Association appealing to his listeners to support or even join the League.

As Marx describes the state of workers’ consciousness and organizations and as he reflexively describes the immediate small-scale realization of those aspirations in the lecture hall, he also appeals with urgency to the workers present: You have created the kind of organizations needed to bring down “the entire old society;” You have seen through the worthless arguments advanced against your cause; You understand that vehemence of the struggle; You have the means and the persuasion to fund this struggle; You can taste the satisfactions of revolutionary activity.” Marx is asking for money and recruits.

Since Marx begins the final discussion of the positive side of belonging to the wage-earners with the note, “Before we conclude … ,“ it would seem that this appeal for men and money sounded like the conclusion. So let’s put off the final reading of that section to consider two additional, specific and concrete messages Marx conveys in his appeal. The League of the Just had adopted revolutionary politics before Marx and Engels became involved in its development. The League made this move under the influence of Wilhelm Weitling, a self-educated worker militant, widely known among German working class activists. While Weitling advanced socialist and revolutionary views, he had two strategic differences with Marx and Engels.

Weitling proposed, in effect, an oppression-based theory of revolutionary agency. He believed that the poorest of the poor, the notorious raggedy-ass proletariat, were the core of the revolutionary forces. He also believed that they would revolt spontaneously, without prior preparation, in response to an insurgent action by a small, conspiratorial group of militants. Marx and Engels, by contrast advocated education and mass activism as the foundation for revolutionary uprising. During 1846-47 through their writings and their correspondence Marx and Engels argued against Weitling’s ideas and propagated their own principles of revolutionary socialist activism. In 1846 Weitling moved to Brussels, so these views confronted each other face to face. The confrontation climaxed in a blow out between Weitling and Marx. Weitling then emigrated to America, and the movement building strategy prevailed in the reorientation and reformation of the League of the Just.

The League of Communists solidified Marx influence on its strategies when it invited him to attend its Second Congress in London in late November and early December of 1847, after the League was established in Brussels, but before Marx composed and delivered the talk on wages. At this congress, the League revised and definitively adopted its ‘Statutes . Most of the statues deal define organizational structures and their relationships, but the first and the next to the last bear directly on the meaning of Marx’ lecture.

The initial section of the statutes states the revolutionary goal of the League and requires of its members, “A way of life and activity which corresponds to this aim‘ as well as “Revolutionary energy and zeal in propaganda. “ The last section of the statutes, “League Funds,”deals with finances. These statutes oblige national sections and individual members to pay dues to cover the costs of correspondence, administration, the printing and distribution of propaganda, and the dispatch of emissaries on League business. The section is, in fact, the longest one in the statutes. The League was very concerned with money.

Since the Congress ended on Dec. 9, Marx must have begun the draft for the lecture very shortly after his return to Brussels. In accord with the statutes Marx exerts energy and zeal by immediately preparing a sterling piece of propaganda. He urges a circle of class-conscious worker activists, a number of whom would have had the opportunity to meet and discuss with Weitling, to reject Weitling’s strategy and adhere to the newly adopted standards of the League.

In direct contrast to Weitling, Marx argues that the best-paid workers should allocate disposable income to the formation of political and industrial associations. Dues-paying members are the heart of the League's strategy. If for a moment, we skip to the conclusion, the claim “the worker can do what he likes with his money” not merely encapsulates the decision for self-organization, socialism and revolution, it advocates a specific, organizational strategy for pursuing those ends. The talk directly advocates this new strategy of the League and familiarizes the listeners with this position.

To return to the structural possibilities of the text again, despite formal division between the apparent conclusion after the discussion of workers’ associations and the putative coda on the positive side of wages, these two passages form a coherent topical unit. The theme is the overthrow of the old society. We will need to reflect a little on the character of the ‘old society.’ The statement that concludes the coda on the revolutionary overthrow of the old society through the workers use of their wages conjoins the subjective and objective sides of revolution in a singularly complex pun that the linked English translation fails to capture. The complex conjunction of these elements condenses the program that Marx and Engels will in a matter of months write for the members of the League returning to Germany to participate in the revolutionary movement of 1848.

The last paragraph on workers associations and the coda on the positive side of wages bound together in another chiasmus. What the translation calls “the overthrow of the entire old society” is in German the Sturz, the fall of that society, the fast, hard fall. The paragraph closes with the objective ‘revolutionary activity of the workers’ through their wages in their organization. We move through the steps of the process to the summary of the whole.

The first paragraph of the coda resumes the topic of the proletariat ‘revolutionizing’ “the old society” and “itself.” The revolutionary process is then specified in a series of indexically mediated subjective ‘falls.’ The first two falls are explicit, “everything patriarchal falls away” and “halo of sanctity is entirely fallen” (which the translation turns ‘fallen’into ‘gone.) In the next paragraph, the ‘higher forms of labor’ have ‘lost their old sanctity.’ Since ‘sanctity’ is effectively synonymous with ‘halo,’ ‘lost’ is chained with ‘fall.’ The final step reverses the perspective of ‘lost,’ the workers “first became free of their subjection to a given relationship.” Now we have proceeded from the whole to the steps. The apparent conclusion ended at the peak of the revolution. The coda returns to the details of the process. This return prepares the ground for the very specific, tightly constrained conclusion.

How does the 'old society' figure in this process? Exactly how have the workers ‘lost’ patriarchal relations and entered ‘freedom’? Marx defined patriarchal relations briefly in the last piece of complete text in his discussion on the lower limit of wages, “The peasant still has free time and can earn something on the side.” Because the peasant is bound to the ground he lives on, he can, outside the time required for his manual services, provide his own subsistence. He owns the means of production, aside from the soil, from which, however, he cannot be alienated. This self-subsistence furnished the material basis for the feudal class struggle over the time spent in services and the amount of payments in kind. The surplus that belongs to the peasant exists as particular use-values. He struggles to eat more and drink more of that which he has produced. The collective struggle of the peasants secures for each individual the right to consume the produce of his own labor.

The factory worker cannot provide for his own subsistence. He cannot consume the produce of his own labor because that particular commodity could not meet his subsistence needs, even if it were his own property and not that of the capitalist. But in contrast to the produce of the peasant, wages as money are the universal equivalent of all other values. Their equivalents extend beyond the narrow range of subsistence produce, and, just as factory workers labor collectively, their money can be pooled. When the workers pooled their money for collective struggle against “the entire old society” in Germany in 1847, their struggle included the struggle against the feudal relations of exploitation as well as against capitalist exploitation. This double struggle comprises the strategic point of the coda’s conclusion.

The translation of the decisive final sentence in the coda, unfortunately captures only half the meaning of a profoundly conceived, but awkwardly executed pun, and thus obscures its political sense. The sentence says in full, “The advantage both over payment in kind and over the way of life prescribed purely by the (feudal) estate is that the worker can do what he likes with his money.” First, let us note that the German text does not have a sentence. It simply begins, “Advantage, that … .” Like the shift from third person to second person that shortly precedes it, this stylistic shift in the script mimes more spontaneous speech, blunt and succinct. The shift in spoken style foregrounds the conclusion, differentiates and separates it from the entire preceding text.

The second problem with the translation is in the coordinated construction of the two prepositional phrases, "both over payment in kind and over the way of life prescribed purely by the (feudal) estate.” These phrases are grammatically ambiguous in the text. The preposition is ‘gegen,’ which can, as it is translated here, be used in construction with ‘advantage.’ In this first sense, the entire construction asserts the subjective superiority of wages to natural produce in the sense we just discussed.

But ‘gegen’ much more commonly means ‘against.’ In this sense, it modifies “do what he wants.” The lost half of the construction’s sense says, ‘he can do what he wants both against payment in kind and against the way of life prescribed purely by the (feudal) estate.’ In this second sense, the construction describes the political and social goals of a democratic revolution that throws down the oppression and exploitation of the peasants. In combination, these senses express both the subjective possibility of freedom inherent in wages and the most tangible objective possibility for their use.

The last misleading feature of the translation is the transposition of the prepositional phrases. The less flexible word order of English and the choice to make the phrases depend on ‘advantage’ has moved them toward the front of the construction to immediately follow ‘advantage.’ But in the original they are the last constituent of the sentence. The actual word order is that in my second translation, “he can do what he wants both against payment in kind and against the way of life prescribed purely by the (feudal) estate.” The translation has chosen the less obvious, less intuitive reading, which is only an echo of the second, and an awkward injected one, and this choice has inadvertently concealed the more obvious and straightforward reading.

This choice has also obscured the single most complex rhetorical structure in the work, a second device constructed to make this conclusion as striking and as salient as possible. The coda rings out on a clear assertion that the immediate political goal of the revolutionary German workers’ movement is to prepare for and see through the democratic, anti-feudal revolution. After all the lengthy exposition of wages, wage labor and the internal logic of capitalism, the final words of the lecture put the workers at the service of another class and say nothing of socialism.

This conclusion comes as no surprise. If it should implausible, we need only look at two other documents drafted by Marx and Engels around this time. The two were working on the Manifesto of the Communist Party from the 9th of December 1847 to the end of the month at the same time Marx was preparing the script for his lecture.


  1. Anonymous3:12 AM

    Weisst du, was in dieser Welt
    Mir am mesiten wohlgefällt?
    Dass die Zeit sich selbst verzehret
    Und die Welt nicht ewig währet?

  2. Anonymous11:53 AM

    Na klar, daß das Währen währt nicht während, aber woran ich mich am klarsten erinnere, ist als unsere Ströme Flut, von Leichen fast verstopfft sich langsam fort gedrungen. War das ein Verzehren!


  3. translate please!

  4. Anonymous7:57 PM

    Well, right you are, endurance does not endure enduringly. But what I remember most clearly [and as far as the period, it's a quote from a sonnet by Andreas Gryphius about the ravages of the 30 Years' War] is when our rivers flood, almost completely jammed with corpses forced its way slowly on.
    Was that a consuming! (Verzehren that is)
    The two sides of the German sublime, so to speak.


  5. Anonymous8:40 PM

    O voi che avete gl’intelleti sani,
    Mirate la dottrina che s’asconde
    Sotto il velame delli versi strani!