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Capital & Capitalism
"In my opinion, this is the principle reason why one should study Marxism: namely, that if it is so…that you can actually at a certain moment, given certain conditions, make a difference between victory and defeat, and not only for the working class but really humanity, with the power of ideas, then shouldn't we check these ideas out?That's the first premise of the educational approach that we take in this school. People should start by studying this important question of conscious politics, based upon a verifiable body of evidence that says that you can change the world if you engage authentically in this activity. That's the Marxist proposal…Where does this science reside? In the first place, it resides in the only scientific presentation of historical materialism, that is Capital. Lenin…was guided by this notion. You can find this in the book What the Friends of the People Are and Why They Fight the Social Democrats, where he specifically answers the derision of his opponents [who] said, "And where is your 'historical materialism' presented? Where is this thesis of history presented as a scientific thesis?" And Lenin responds, "In Capital, that's where." Arthur Felberbaum, Talk on "The Priorities of the Marxist Education Collective," January, 1976
Revolutionaries from all parts of the world have studied Capital. It was been banned in Korea. People, from the times of Czarist Russia to contemporary Thailand, have formed underground study groups, smuggled it in illegally, torn it into sections and circulated the sections till everyone read the entire text. This seminal world historic work has been hated by the powers that be. Attempts have been continuously made to ideologically dismiss its significance and validity. It has been panned as idealist (when the author's intention was considered as well-meaning), biased and non-scientific. Max Weber's sociology was a conscious attempt to negate the influence of Marx by creating a seemingly scientific and all encompassing alternative science of society. Yet, Marxism and Capital still prevail. The influence of Capital is evident throughout the world and in all disciplines, whether people are applying and developing the method and the results of the analysis or working in opposition to it. We at the Brecht Forum's New York Marxist School think that the study of Capital provides tools for the study of our current reality and for an understanding of the workings of capitalism that are important to our day to day struggles for a better life as well as for building a movement that seeks to go beyond the limits of capital.
1. Why do we still read and debate Capital? What relevance does it have for us today and how can it have this relevance? Why have people in all disciplines been influenced by this work? Marx stated that when one critiques one's predecessors, [in his case, Smith and Ricardo, for example] one has to assess their contributions and limitations in regard to: 1) the internal consistency of their argument, 2) the stage of historical development of their contemporary reality and 3) assumptions about reality and biases, given their class position or interest, that affect their analysis. If we apply these tests to Marx, how does his work hold up?
2. In considering Capital's relevance to conscious political practice, we keep clear that the political orientations that emerge out of the text —such as the various class relations, the irreconcilable antagonism between wage-labor and capital—are the result of the analysis and not the starting point? Too often left political tendencies have been satisfied with grounding their political agendas in the general conclusions drawn from Capital. Why is this not sufficient--and it certainly was not for Marx? (Even analytically Marx stated, for instance, that although there are general causes for the repetition of crises, each crisis must be understood concretely and specifically. The practical and political implications of such thinking are tremendously important, and it could be argued that such an approach has been ignored by much of the left.)
The Text: Marx's Method
1. Marx states in the "Preface" to Capital, Volume I that his standpoint is natural history. What do you think he means by this? How do his categories reflect the social and natural or material existence? Take for instance the concept of value, which Marx defines as socially necessary labor time. Marx and Engels considered Capital to be the equivalent within the social sciences to what Darwin had accomplished in the natural sciences. What do you think about this and is Marxism a science and what about Capital in particular? What relation do you see between the natural and social sciences, seeing as all disciplines, across natural and social lines, have been influenced by Marx's method? Has this orientation influenced your work, theoretically and/or politically?
2. In several places, for one, The Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (and particularly in the section entitled "The Method of Political Economy") Marx explicates certain aspects of his scientific method. How does Marx's method of inquiry differ from the method of presentation? In regard to the presentation, especially the first three volumes of Capital, how is this method expressed? How do the three Volumes relate to each other? How is the law of value developed over the three volumes? But, first, perhaps we should explicate the meaning of some of these concepts (especially, method of inquiry and method of presentation).
3. Engels states in a review of Marx's Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that their (Marx and Engels) method was historical, not in that it corresponded to the sequence of events in time, but rather to the actual logic of the unfolding of historical development. What is this about and how is it reflected in Capital, for instance in the discussion of the forms of value in section 3, chapter 1 of Volume I? How is this historical approach non-teleological and non-deterministic yet causal--or do you think otherwise? Has their historical approach been useful to your research and analytic work in your discipline?
4. How do Marx's method and his problematic or project differ from those of standard economics? For example, in relation to "economic" terminology, how is Marx's definition of productivity different from that of bourgeois economics? In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels state that when they refer to the economic they do so not in the narrow sense but as a mode of life. The two friends, early in their relationship, realized they needed to work out the theory of history before they could continue their theoretical and practical work. How is this reflected in Capital? How does Marx's work at once continue and break with all previous "economics"? What about the relation of objectivity to values?
5. Marx clarifies in "The Method of Political Economy" that he does not begin the study of contemporary society with labor, because this is a historically general category and therefore does not explicate what is specific to any particular historically constituted society. Throughout his body of work he makes this distinction between form and content or substance and its empirical manifestation. In fact, this is central to his insistence that we need science in order to understand ourselves and to intervene as historically conscious individuals in transforming ourselves and emancipating humanity. Why is this important analytically and politically, and what other thinking follows from this understanding of reality, particularly in relation to the general significance of labor to human existence and the specific ways in which we engage in reproducing human life? Has this aspect of Marx's method been important to your work? This aspect of Marx's method has been misunderstood not only by lay people, but by many political economists and intellectuals. Why do you think this is the case?
6. The opening sentence of Capital takes off from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but Marx makes a modification, stating that "The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an "immense collection of commodities." Why this change from nations to societies? How does this change in terms reflect Marx's materialist and historical method? [For instance, he elaborates in "The Method to Political Economy" that the nation, state, population, etc. cannot form the stating point of the science, because these are the very things that need to be explained, although, as he says, we do begin the study of society from our sense perceptions of, and the given concepts about, reality, which include these notions of nations, states, populations, etc.]
7. Marx says his task in Capital is two-fold, namely, laying bare the laws of motion of capitalist development and the critique of political economy. How does he do this and how do the arguments hold up today? What are our tasks on these two fronts given the ongoing development of capitalist societies on a world scale and the ideological hegemony of the ruling classes?
8. Throughout Part I and especially chapter 1 of Volume I, Marx uses a dialectical method in the Socratic sense--question/answer. He also begins from apparent categories or "empirical" concepts about social forms, but then unveils, negates these concepts to derive the social content being expressed. This forces the reader or student into an active mode of study, investigation and thinking. I think it could be argued that this is the first instance, in modern terms, of a pedagogy of emancipation, rephrasing Paulo Freire's term pedagogy of the oppressed. And, in Capital, this engagement with the reader is being applied to the presentation of a science. What do you think about this and does this have any significance for how we might think about our own roles as activist educators/intellectuals?
The Text: Its Applicability & Debates from Within and Without
1. It is important to understand the level of abstraction that Marx uses throughout Capital--for instance, in regard to the working class and capitalist class. In Volume I, for example, Marx analysis the various strata of the working class (the active and surplus components) but not the composition of the working class in relation to e.g. women, nationality, ethnicity, age, color, immigration--all things with which we are deeply concerned today. The lack of inclusion in the analysis of the position of women or race in particular has been a source of many of the critiques of Marx. This can be understood in relation to the level of abstraction or generality at which the work (as a science uncovering the laws of motion of capital) is operating,, notwithstanding the fact that this specific empirical work is necessary for us to undertake within our specific historical circumstances.
2. What are some of the central conclusions or processes elaborated in Capital that are key for us today and what do we need to develop? Marx explicates many phenomena including the laws of capitalist accumulation, fetishism, stratification of the working class, technological transformation, polarization of classes, increase in productivity of labor, competition among capitals and within the working class, primitive accumulation, modern colonialism. How do all these developments and others express the internal contradictions embedded in the capitalist mode of production that we are also experiencing today? How can understanding these developments in the way Marx approaches reality help us form conscious political practice? 3. What are the main debates centering on Capital and what are their relevance to developing the science and political practice? (Such as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall versus underconsumption, unproductive versus productive labor, reproductive versus non-reproductive capital, rents, finance versus industrial capital, absolute and relative improverishment, imperialism versus globalization, as well as the more general questions regarding methodology.)
1. Globalization and neo-liberalism are common terms today. How does a study of Capital help demystify/unveil these terms and not only help explain the phenomena these terms refer to in the real world, but also their obscuring of the social content? Can the study of Capital help us understand and make sense out of what is occurring today and help us ground our political strategies by understanding the underlying dynamics being expressed and the historical direction these developments are taking? How, for example, do we understand the deterioration of nation states simultaneously with US global hegemony? Markets in goods and labor are international, and production, distribution and consumption processes are carried out through international linkages. At the same time, the nation-state serves as the arena of class struggle, is the basis for citizenship (making millions of people stateless and politically disenfranchised) and the appropriation of surplus-value (or profits)? How are these developments expressions of the accumulation of capital on a world scale?