Marx and Engels

Assigned: Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. From Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (655-59); from The German Ideology (659-60); from The Communist Manifesto (661-64); from Grundrisse (665-66); from “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (666-67); from Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 1 “Commodities” (667-78); from “Letter from Friedrich Engels to Joseph Bloch” (679-80). Also read the editors’ introduction (652-55).

From Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1844/1932)

1. On 655-56 (“We have proceeded from the premises…”), what basic philosophical error does Marx say the Political Economists commit when they enunciate the laws of economics—what is it that they fail to understand about private property, and what does that error lead them to make about certain aspects of the capitalist system?

2. On 657-59 (“We proceed from an actual economic fact…”), what does Marx appear to mean by his term “alienation”? In what specific ways are workers alienated, and how are these instances of alienation caused by capitalist production? Why, according to Marx, is this process of alienation inherent in capitalist production, rather than a problem that we could fix while staying within the system?

3. General question: How does Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic (Leitch 549-55), if you are familiar with it, apply to Marx’s commentary about workers’ fourfold alienation in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844? How, for example, does the capitalist “master” relate to the worker and to commodified objects? How, according to Marx and Engels, do workers relate to the commodified objects they produce and to their employers?

4. General question: Why, by implication in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, is labor central to human existence? What fundamental assumption/s about human beings underlie Marx’s theory of alienation and his comments about labor? In your view, would it be a better world if none of us needed to work? Why or why not? If you did not need to work or study, how would you occupy your time?

From The German Ideology (1845-46/1932)

1. On 659-60 (“The fact is, therefore, that definite…”), what is a camera obscura? What does Marx and Engels’ reference to this device (660) imply about the possibility of arriving at true statements about human relations? Does the metaphor of the camera obscura imply that we can actually perceive ourselves and the world directly, or do you understand it differently? Explain.

2. On 660 (“In direct contrast to German philosophy…”), what basic philosophical error do Marx and Engels accuse German Idealists like Hegel and Kant of committing with regard to the relationship between ideas and material reality? How does the materialist philosophy of Marx and Engels set itself forth as correcting this error?

3. General question: In our excerpt from The German Ideology, Marx and Engels offer a thought-provoking metaphor to set forth their understanding of how “scientific socialist” investigation can, at least for practical, material purposes, arrive at the truth about socioeconomic affairs. The question as to whether we can ever truly get beyond or otherwise defeat the mystifying powers of ideology and the limitations of our own perceptual, emotional, and intellectual apparatuses is an ancient and contentious one, with attempts to answer it going at least as far back as Plato’s Republic. What is your view on this issue—can we see things as they “really are” instead of (to borrow a phrase from Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12) “through a glass darkly,” or is the question itself somehow implicated in erroneous thinking? Explain.

From The Communist Manifesto (1848/1888)

1. On 661 (“A spectre is haunting Europe…”), Marx and Engels begin The Communist Manifesto, published on Feb. 21, 1848,with the ominous pronouncement, “A specter is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.” Just one day later, as it turned out, France erupted in revolution, and a few days after that, King Louis-Philippe was forced to abdicate the French throne, which led to the establishment of the short-lived Second Republic of 1848-51, and great (if unsuccessful) unrest spread through Europe, to Germany, Italy, and Austria. Do some research online or in print and write a brief account of the 1848 uprising in France: to what extent did the revolutionaries share Marx’s goals and convictions as stated in The Communist Manifesto?

I. Bourgeois and Proletarians

2. On 661-62 (“The history of all hitherto existing society…”), how do Marx and Engels trace the historical development of the European bourgeoisie from the feudal era to the authors’ own mid-nineteenth century? That is, within and against what historical and economic conditions did this class arise—how did feudalism generate the bourgeoisie, and how did the bourgeoisie come into conflict with the basic property relations of the feudal order? How, according to Marx and Engels, is “the epoch of the bourgeoisie” (661) different from all previous epochs?

3. On 662-64 (“Each step in the development…”), how do Marx and Engels interpret the activities and impact of the bourgeoisie, which he calls the “executive of the modern State” (662), once it begins to dominate in social and political affairs? Why does it deserve to be called “revolutionary” (663 top)? How does it strip away the illusions held by members of pre-capitalist societies, and with what stark realities does it replace them?

4. On 663-64 (“The need of a constantly expanding…”), Marx and Engels describe capitalism as an international phenomenon that tends to give a “cosmopolitan character” (663 bottom) to production and consumption all over the world. How do they describe the social and economic transformation wrought by this dynamic phenomenon in their time? How would you relate that comment to what observers today often call the “globalization” of national economies? Is capitalism fully compatible with the idea of separate, sovereign nation-states, or should we understand its demands upon those states as ultimately destructive? Explain.

5. General question: On the whole, in our selection from The Communist Manifesto, what attitude do Marx and Engels suggest readers should take towards the advent of the capitalist order? Does that advent sound like it could be slowed or even avoided, or do the authors seem to consider such an outcome impossible? Do they see the arrival of capitalism as a positive development in human affairs, in spite of all the injustice and suffering the system generates? If so, why and to what extent?

6. General question: Market societies produce useful objects for sale as commodities, but in what sense might such societies be said to create new desires, or “new wants” (664 top), as Marx and Engels call them in The Communist Manifesto? Why should that sort of manufacture of desire itself be necessary for the success of capitalism? Consider, for example, what might happen if we, as consumers in a modern economy, decided to buy only what we indisputably need. How would that kind of decision on the part of consumers and citizens impact a complex, dynamic modern economy and society?

7. General question: In what sense might Marx and Engels’ notion of history as “the history of class struggles” be indebted to their German predecessor Hegel—how does the Marxist formulation of the concept of struggle in The Communist Manifesto compare to the situation Hegel examines in the Master/Slave dialectic (Leitch 549-55), if you are familiar with that dialectic? What general assumptions about consciousness, work, and human relations more broadly do Marx and Engels seem to share with Hegel, either wholly or in part? Explain.

From Grundrisse (1857-58/1939-42)

1. On 665 (“In the case of the arts…”), what is the source of Greek art, according to Marx? That is, what ancient belief system made Greek art possible, and why would that art be impossible to produce today?

2. On 666 (“But the difficulty lies not in…”), what theoretical difficulty, according to Marx, arises when we consider that modern people can still enjoy works of art like the ones the ancient Greeks produced? How can this be the case even though moderns no longer share the Greeks’ religious convictions? To what extent are the authors describing a kind of nostalgia? How do you understand Marx’s characterization of the Greeks as “normal children” (666)—do you find it a compelling explanation for our love of the literature and other art forms of this ancient people, or not? Explain.

3. General question: Friedrich Engels recounted in some of his letters that Karl Marx had quipped on at least one occasion, “I am no Marxist.” How does this selection from Grundrisse demonstrate that Marx’s status as an economic determinist (a theorist who sees economic activity as the direct basis or foundation for our ideas about the world and ourselves) is more complex than some followers of Marxism might desire? Explain.

From “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)

1. On 666-67 (“The first work which I undertook…”), what assumptions does Marx the “scientific socialist” make in this selection concerning the process of history and our ability to comprehend that process, describe it, and even make predictions on the basis of our understanding? In his view, how do we know when “an epoch of social revolution” (667) is coming on—what conditions make such an epoch inevitable?

2. General question: In our selection from the “Preface” to A Contribution the Critique of Political Economy, Marx declares boldly, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (667). This is, of course, Marxist economic determinism: the notion that the economic basis of a society is the source of citizens’ ideas and beliefs, not the other way around; as individuals, we are a product of the society into which we have been born. What is it about determinism of this or any other kind that sparks such intense resistance on the part of many people who encounter it? What cherished assumptions about ourselves (at least in the “bourgeois” West) does it challenge, and what is the most predictable response to that challenge? Finally, Marx and Engels write with confidence and optimism about humanity’s future under “scientific socialism”—to what extent does that attitude lighten the gloomier cast we might otherwise attribute to their deterministic philosophy? Explain.

From Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, Section 4: “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” (1867)

1. On 667-69 (“A commodity appears, at first sight…”), Marx characterizes people’s relationship with commodities under capitalism as a species of “Fetishism” (669). How does he analyze the material and psychological mechanics of the fetishistic relationship consumers supposedly have with commodities? What is it about the commodity form itself that gives rise to such a strange state of affairs, one shot through with misunderstanding and distortion of reality? What “definite social relation between men” (669 top) is thereby obscured by the dominant status of commodities, and more particularly by their exchange, in a capitalist society?

2. On 669-72 (“This Fetishism of commodities has its origin…”), Marx offers a somewhat more detailed explanation of how commodities mystify people about the true basis of the creation of value and about the nature of their own material relationships with other human beings. What use does he make of that English favorite, the story of Robinson Crusoe as told by Daniel Defoe? (671-72) What insights can you gather from the pages specified concerning what a commodity is and how it comes to be such, and about the creation of value in the course of economic activity?

3. On 672-73 (“Let us now transport ourselves…”), discuss Marx’s analysis of human relations under feudalism and in a “peasant family” (672) as a counterweight to the capitalist economic system. Marx, who saw the development of capitalism as historically necessary, is obviously not advocating that we should return to feudalism, so what is he accomplishing with these references?

4. On 673 (“Let us now picture to ourselves…”), how, according to Marx, might a collective socioeconomic system function so that “The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products … [would be] … perfectly simple and intelligible”? In other words, how might the mystification prevalent under capitalist socioeconomic relations be reduced or even entirely dispelled?

5. On 673-75 (“The religious world is but the reflex…”), what criticism does Marx level against commodities-based societies and the Political Economists whose analysis perpetuates the mystification created by the dominance of the commodity form? What is the point of his quotation of the confused thoughts of Constable Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing: “To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by Nature” (675)? How does it illustrate the mixed-up, inverted quality of thinking among the Political Economists?

From Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 10, Section 5: “The Struggle for a Normal Working-Day” (1867)

6. On 675-78 (“What is a working-day…”), how does Marx analyze the way capitalists necessarily regard their labor force? In what ways does capitalist production encourage treating individual workers as easily replaceable things rather than as human beings with innate value; or, for that matter, even as possessors of valuable “labor-power” (676) whose lives must be preserved for that power alone? (They produce what Marx calls “surplus value” for the capitalist who works them as hard and long as possible.) How did the working classes in Marx’s century win at least some partial victories in improving labor conditions? (678)

7. General question: Karl Marx points out in Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 10, Section 5 (specifically, Leitch 678) that much struggle over time was required to win any consideration for the humanity of the working class. What is your assessment of relations between “labor and capital” in contemporary America (or wherever you live)? Some things to consider in responding: the way today’s corporate and legal occupations take up a large slice of employees’ lives (beyond the 40-hour work week); the “gig economy,” wherein people try to make ends meet by taking on many temporary jobs; the fight to increase the minimum wage in various states; and the corporatization of academic jobs (see Andrew Ross, The Mental Labor Problem, Leitch 2410-31).

8. General question: In our selections from Capital, Volume 1,Karl Marx relies upon the labor theory of value, which he has modified from other proponents of the theory such as Adam Smith, author of the 1776 classic The Wealth of Nations, and the Political Economist David Ricardo, among others. The basic point of this theory is that labor endows a commodity with value; Marx develops from this notion the idea that capitalists can only turn a profit by exploitingtheir workers, paying them less than the true value of their labor. Contemporary economists, by contrast, tend not to see labor as the basis of a product’s value. The twentieth century’s so-called “Subjective Revolution” in economics posits a subjective theory of value. Do some research and set down your thoughts about modern economists’ enumeration of the problems with the labor theory of value and the advantages of the subjective theory of value. To what extent do you credit Marx’s theory making labor central to the value of commodities? To what extent do you credit it as a kind of moral injunction, whether or not it makes for accurate economic theory? If indeed Marx’s economic theory is flawed and his philosophy has lost a great deal of material power since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, what accounts for the continued popularity of Marxist thought (and updates thereof) in academic circles?

From “Letter from Friedrich Engels to Joseph Bloch” (Sept. 1890)

1. On 679-80 (“According to the materialist conception…”), in what way does Friedrich Engels explain the complexity involved in Marxist analysis—a complexity often missed not only by Marxists themselves but by opponents of that theory? Why is it wrong to assert simply that “the economic element is the only determining one” (679) in any given analysis of historical developments? What additional elements must be factored in, according to Engels, and how difficult is it to do that? Finally, why does Engels in part blame himself and his friend and collaborator Karl Marx for the misperception of Marxist theory he criticizes in his letter?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake