Thursday, December 1, 2011

Misunderstanding Marx from the Beginning: Notes on the Three Peculiarities of the Equivalent Form in Vol. 1 of Capital

(Thanks to the sadly departed Cyril Smith, whose translation correction led to a close reading and re-consideration of this material.)

In the appendix to his essay “Hegel, Economics, and Marx’s Capital” (History, Economic History and the Future of Marxism, Essays in Memory of Tom Kemp), Cyril Smith corrects the typical and oft-repeated mistranslation of the third peculiarity of the equivalent form. However, he makes his own mistake in reading the relation of the three equivalents, which led us to a productive rethinking of this very important section of Chapter 1 of Volume 1 of Capital and some of Marx’s fundamental notions. This is not merely important from the point of view of accuracy, but has theoretical and political implications for understanding Marx’s project, his materialism and a contemporary communist politics.

The Three Peculiarities
Ben Fowkes (Capital, Vol. 1, Vintage, 1978) translates the three peculiarities as follows:

1st peculiarity: "use-value becomes the form of appearance of its opposite, value." p. 148

2nd peculiarity: "concrete labour becomes the form of manifestion of its opposite, abstract human labour." p. 150

3rd peculiarity: "private labour takes the form of its opposite, namely labour in its directly social form." P. 151

Smith corrects the translation of the 3rd peculiarity, which in the German actually does read as follows:

…private labour becomes the form of its opposite, namely labour in its directly social form. (Das Kapital, 4th German Ed., 1908)

While this seems innocuous, even mere hair-splitting, we will argue that this is far from any such pettiness and indicates the opening to a radically different reading of Marx. The chart below provides a quick means of grasping the relation of the six elements of the three peculiarities to each other.

Traditional reading:
concrete labor---------------------------abstract labor
social labor-------------------------------private labor

Cyril Smith reading:
abstract labor---------------------------concrete labor
private labor------------------------------social labor

In the traditional reading, the first and second peculiarity are correctly grasped (use-value as the form of appearance of value and concrete labor as the form of appearance of abstract labor), but the third is completely wrong (social labor as the form of appearance of private labor.) As Smith points out, the traditional translation reverses the actual German. In Marx’s text, private labor is the form of appearance of social labor.

The traditional translation treats private labor as the essence of labor under capital, but this would be the position of bourgeois political economy. Marx’s whole work reveals that what appears under capital as merely private, individual activity is in fact social. The whole of Marxist Political Economy, or Marx’s critique of political economy rendered as the ideology of the left-wing of capital, stands upon this foundation, this mystification. In effect, it makes a fetish of private labor. Taken to its conclusion, then, the abolition of capital would mean the abolition of directly social labor, a non sequitir from Marx’s point of view. Yet how often has this been exactly true of orthodox Marxism? Bolshevism and social democracy did not seek to abolish capitalist sociality, but to put it under the control of the state, to socialize it or to make it directly social, to realize capitalist sociality via wage-labor through the abolition of its private appearance. Hence, ‘the revolution’ never involved the abolition of wage-labor, a change which was always put off until the ‘second, higher phase’ of communism. The results were all too clear.

Cyril Smith accurately grasped the political economic meaning of this mistranslation, but then reversed the relation to the first two peculiarities. Smith said that use-value, concrete labor and the social do not appear. This is not correct. Going through all three peculiarities, the balance is as follows:

concrete labor-----------------------------abstract labor
social labor---------------------------------private labor

The problem here is that while Fowkes and the rest of the translators cannot grasp the third peculiarity, starting as they do from the point of view of Marxist Political Economy and the perfection of the integration of labor and capital, Smith misread it from a humanist perspective which saw the social as 'human' and the private, isolated, apparently anti-social as inhuman.

This led Smith to adopt a normative treatment of sociality, use-value and concrete labor.
Use-value and concrete-labour become the forms of appearance of value and abstract labour. This reading of it is verified by the long paragraph on p. 166 of the Fowkes translation, where Fowkes also makes the exact same error again! That paragraph does not accord with the traditional reading, but neither with Cyril Smith’s.

Given the structure of the arguments, Marx has in mind not the social as an a-historical ‘in itself’, but the private and the social as two moments of the polarity engendered by their being split into apparently separate moments. This social is the social of capital. This is why directly social labor is not necessarily good either, as slavery and feudalism were directly social under relations of personal dependence. In a later discussion, Cyril Smith made the following point in agreement:

My mistake, in relation to Capital, was more serious than getting the translation wrong. I think that it had a systematic character. When I was writing it, it was part of a mis-reading of the whole of Chapter 1. The impression given was that the contradiction in the categories used by Marx were between their aspect as capitalist social forms and their non-capitalist 'material', transhistorical aspect. This contradiction supposedly pointed the way to communism. For example, use-value is taken as equivalent to goods, and concrete labour is taken as labor and thus if we could merely free use-value and concrete labor from their bad side, we could be free.

This was quite wrong. All the categories are capitalist.

But this only part of the story. The method of Capital is to bring out the elements of communism within their opposites, to show how the forms of communist life exist through the forms of bourgeois life. This becomes clear only when we reach the end of the analysis in Volume 3 of Capital where Marx discusses the relation between the Realm of Necessity and the Realm of Freedom:
Just as the savage must wrestle with nature in order to satisfy his wants, in order to maintain his life and reproduce it, so civilized man has to do it, and he must do it in all
forms of society and all possible modes of production…The freedom in this field cannot consist of anything else but of the fact that socialized man, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power; that they accomplish their task with the least expenditure of energy under conditions most adequate to their human nature and most worthy of it. But it always remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human power which is its own end, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can flourish only upon the realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is the fundamental premise. (Marx 1981, p. 958-959)

We find this supported by the discussion Marx has on p. 166 of the Fowkes trans. in section 4 on Commodity Fetishism. That long paragraph only makes sense if we read the three peculiarities of the equivalent form on pp. 147-151 in our way.

In that paragraph, in the last sentence, concrete labor, as the appearance of abstract labor, gives us (or rather, shows itself to our brains as) Value, and private labor as the form of appearance of social labor gives us Use-Value, therein the three peculiarities are united in his discussion of the dual appearance of the commodity as use-value and value in our brains. So from the 3 peculiarities, we come to this:

private labor-------------------social labor---------------use-values
concrete labor----------------abstract labor------------values

In a recent paper, Paresh Chattopadhyay actually quotes from Marx's manuscripts for Volume 3 about the abolition of private labor under the capital form, which indicates that private labor would have to be the form of appearance and not social labor:

In fact in his manuscript for Capital vol. 3 composed before Capital vol. 1 Marx himself takes full account of the evolution of capital's ownership form, entirely dictated by the demands of capital accumulation, till a stage is reached where capital remains no longer "private" and becomes "directly social" signifying the "abolition of capital as private property within the limits of the capitalist mode of production itself" (1964a: 452; 1992: 502; emphasis in the manuscript, not in Engels edition). (Paresh Chattopadhyay, Class Theory and History, pp. 4-5, not yet published)

It seems to further verify our notion of the relation between social and private in the context of class society and the movement of the three peculiarities, and this without our having realized it was there and without having received this paper before the exchange with Cyril Smith.

Implications, Theoretical and Political
The result is that abstract labor, sociality and value do not appear, which has radical implications, as we indicated above, both for the social and for a humanist reading of the 3 peculiarities, denying the social (and by extension, use-value and concrete labor) the position of unalienated or normatively positive status. The existence of a possible distinction between abstract/concrete, social/private or value/use-value already indicates a contradiction, a relation in Hegel's sense, and as such the abolition of capital should be the abolition not of one side, but the negation of the relation and therefore of all terms in the relation.

We therefore have to reckon with different uses of the notion of social within Marx’s work, and this would make sense. All human relations are social relations, some taking a directly social form, but that does not make the relations free. Slavery and feudalism were directly social. Capital introduces a new moment by inverting the social and private relations of production, in which social relations take the form of private relations, that of individuals in the market and individuals as citizens in relation to the state. Capital actually suppresses the sociality of human relations, displacing that sociality doubly onto things (commodities) and onto the state (the illusory community.)

Marx extensively explores the result of the displacement of sociality into the thing, having already begun to conceptually come to terms with it via the concept of alienated labor and later concretized as commodity fetishism. The displacement of sociality into the state is also discussed by Marx, though in a more fragmented fashion. The implications of it have only been fleshed out in the experiences of revolution since the Paris Commune. I think that this discussion of the relation of social and private labor in this small section of Capital illuminates Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune, particularly his referring to the Paris Commune as a semi-state and his more neglected comments that:

The political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery. The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. With labor emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labor ceases to be a class attribute. (Karl Marx, The Civil War in France)

The overcoming of capital is thus a political struggle. This is not in the sense of creating its own state or taking over the state or in smashing the state. Such a notion exactly misses the point in treating the state as merely an apparatus, a thing. Rather, the working class must end that gap opened by capital between the political and the economic, which entails creating a new form of mediation. The proletariat does so by the creation of organs of social control which already begin that process. This is the key to Marx’s comment about the Paris Commune as a semi-state and the weakness of the anarchist critique of Marx. Marx too sees the abolition of the state as one of the tasks at hand, and one which, contra the Leninists, begins the day of the revolution. The abolition of the state is the beginning of the abolition of the separation of the economic and the political, not merely of some specific institutions. Those institutions must be replaced with other institutions, but of a new type. This is what often confuses people in reading The Civil War in France because Marx appears to simultaneously view the Paris working class as having abolished the state and at the same time as having merely taken over its functions as if creating a new state. It seems clear to me however that the re-instantiation of the state would destroy that unification of the economic and the political which is central to the emancipation from labor, in which “labor ceases to be a class attribute.”

I will merely note in passing that the end of the separation of private and social labor does not result in the submerging of the private, of the individual, back into society, but can only rest on the firm foundation of private labor having been individuated under the capital-labor relation. No doubt, posing capital as progressive in this way will annoy some people, and yet it happens to be that through this specific form of alienated labor that labor finds its own possible individuation.

We cannot stop at the relation of social and private labor, however, despite the limits of this discussion. I think it is critical to note that for Marx even if labor ceases to suffer from this contradiction between social and private, nonetheless labor remains in the Realm of Necessity, not the Realm of Freedom. Thus, the end of the contradiction goes hand-in-hand with the abolition of labor as the dominant social mediation, or, since Labor as such was always a category of capital, the abolition of Labor. This does not mean that what we comprehend as necessary activity mediating the relation of Man and Nature will not continue to some extent, but must be reduced to the point where the quality of human life is determined by the freely disposable time each and all have, to do or not do as each and all please. The non-disappearance of this Realm of Necessity however entails that there is always some process through which the allocation, performance, and completion of this labor must be determined and regulated.

Reproductive activity under communism will not be the primary mediation, but its reorganization into the activity of freely associated labor is central to its abolition as primary social mediation, or as Marx says in the next paragraph to the one cited above:

Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labor of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labor, into mere instruments of free and associated labor. But this is communism, "impossible" communism! (Italics mine.)

Keeping this limitation in mind, the correct grasping of the separation of private and social labor and their relationship within capital not only militates against an economistic reading of Marx, but is a crucial part of comprehending Marx’s whole notion of proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In relation to the former, the proletariat does not have an already positive social contained within itself. The negation of the proletariat, rather than its affirmation, constitutes revolution. This already finds itself posited within the form of the three peculiarities, in which use-value and value, concrete labor and abstract labor, and private labor and social labor, are all moments of the capital-labor relation, not the positing of the 'material' categories (and therefore pointing towards communism) of use-value/concrete labor/social labor versus the capitalist social forms of value/abstract labor/private labor.

In relation to the latter, the organs of revolutionary struggle exist not as a new “Workers’ State”, but as the political form of power which is simultaneously the end of a separate political sphere, which is the lever by which all the economic foundations of class power will be overturned.

This is the link between Capital and the Paris Commune, between the weapon of critique and the critique of weapons.

Originally Chris and Sabrina, 2004, revised by Chris 2011
(Even though Sabrina did not write the article, it was the product of our collective effort and many of the most important notes were hers. All defects in the final article are mine.)

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