From the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: A concrete universal: Marx’s “Capital”

From the July-August 2017 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Continuing to mark the 150th anniversary of Karl Marx’s Capital, Vol. I, we present in two parts lightly edited excerpts from “Marx’s Transcendence of and Return to Hegel’s Dialectic,” a 1968 draft chapter for Dunayevskaya’s book Philosophy and Revolution. This section was titled “A Concrete Universal: Marx’s Capital.” The whole can be found in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #4227.

If Marx did not leave behind him a “Logic” (with a capital letter), he did leave the logic of Capital….In Capital Marx applied to a single science, logic, dialectics and the theory of knowledge of materialism (three words are not needed; it is one and the same thing).
—Lenin, Philosophic Notebooks

As we saw, there is a great deal more to Marxian methodology than the “application” of Hegelian dialectics to economic data. To whatever extent, the dialectic method enabled Marx’s “free movement in matter” insofar as refusing to accept the given concrete—in our case, a commodity—as the real, the truth is that Marx could not have disclosed the fetishism of commodities except by transcending both Hegel and Ricardo, both “abstract materialism” and historian-compilers of a collection of lifeless facts.

Put differently, it is the uniqueness of Marxian materialist dialectics, which is both class-rooted and Humanist, and that enables it to see the praxis of revolutionaries, of freely associated men in the Paris Commune “storming the heavens,” establishing both a new social order and stripping from the old its fetishism of commodities.

It is this uniqueness which has something vital to say to us today, and on no question more cogently than on “Machines,” to which Automation has imparted a new urgency. On this question, as in all else concerning Marx as theoretician and as revolutionary, the 1860s are the crucial years, the decisive years when theory and practice fused into the philosophic whole we know as Marxism.

It is of the essence, therefore, not so much to hold fast to the “results” as to follow the process of change so that we can ourselves work out its implications for our age. Thus, it is easy enough to trace the changes in the very concept of technology from its appearance in the Communist Manifesto as the instrument of bourgeois revolution, through its manifestation in the Grundrisse as the material foundation for the proletariat’s use in abrogating value production, to its full-blown essence and notion in Capital as “a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demon power, at first veiled under the slow and measured motions of his giant limbs, at length breaks out into the fast and furious whirl of his countless working organs.”1Capital, Vol. I (Charles H. Kerr, 1906), pp. 416-17. But there is no easy answer to whether what has been written before the 1860s was discarded. For the answer is two-fold, is contradictory, and yet is true in both of its parts.


History does nothing; it “possesses no colossal riches,” it “fights no fight.” It is rather man—real, living man—who acts, possesses and fights everything. It is by no means “History” which uses man as a means to carry out its ends as if it were a person apart; rather History is nothing but the activity of man in pursuit of his ends.
—Marx and Engels, The Holy Family

There is no doubt whatever that the period between the 1857-1858 Notebooks (that were not intended for publication and that have since become famous as the Grundrisse) and the 1867-75 editions of Capital was a period of total change, both of the method of presentation and of what Marx presented on the subject of Machines. Thus, the restructuring of the Grundrisse and the Critique of Political Economy as they developed into Capital meant a great deal more than the fact that the material had grown into four books. It meant a separation of analysis of the spheres of production, circulation and the forms of the process as a whole, in which would also be included the history of the theories of surplus value.

A worker in an automated factory in China, 2010.

A worker in an automated factory in China, 2010. Cory M. Grenier,

Of necessity, this signified not only a sharp and fundamental distinction between the essential function of machines in production and their appearance in the market, but that there be no rush to deal with their possible function in a non-value-producing society, for the need was to be concrete, historically precise, and, far from skipping stages to get to the end, to keep eyes riveted on men in history, at work.

Thus the decision to make room, in the first volume of Capital, for a new section on “The Working Day” meant, at one and the same time, a dramatic and basic shift in the concept of theory, from one of counterposing one’s theories to those of other theoreticians, to that of watching the birth of theory emerging out of the developing class struggles.

Insofar as the subject of technology was concerned, deep insight into the transformation of subject to object, of the perverse relationship of machine as “subject” dominating men as “object,” naturally entailed seeing the machine as “the enemy.” Indeed, the greater part of the first volume of Capital—Parts II through V, or some 400 pages devoted to the process of production—is, precisely, this; the method of analysis is nothing other than the process of development of essential relationship of subject to object. It is therefore totally and completely opposed to the idea that the worker is already “watchman and regulator,” a phrase used in the Grundrisse.

Thus, finally, the many new developments in Marx’s theoretical discoveries, his creation of original categories, in the decade between the two works, would seem to have torn everything up by its roots.

For example, to the extent that, at the time of the 1857-58 Notebooks, the dual character of labor had not been fully worked out so that unity of opposites from which all development proceeded, there was, of necessity, the tendency to be altogether too brief with the stage described in Capital as the stage of machinofacture where “capital celebrated its orgies” (p. 305). It is certainly true that, in the Grundrisse, there is altogether too much emphasis on the material, that is to say, the technological, foundation of the new social order.

At the same time, there is also no doubt that Marx, at no time, was looking at the expanding material forces as if they were “the condition, the activity, the purpose of liberation”; but that, on the contrary, he was talking of the expanding human forces as “the motive force of history.” They and they alone could abrogate the exploitative value relations of capitalist society; their activity and theirs alone would resolve contradictions and it is for them and them alone that the expansion of the material forces was intended. Marx spoke eloquently enough on this subject in the Grundrisse2The section is entitled “Die Letzte Entwicklung des Wertverhältnisses und der auf dem Wert Beruhenden Produktion”, pp. 591-2: 599-6. [Grundrisse (Pelican Books, 1973), pp. 705-06]:

The exchange of living labor against materialized labor, i.e., the existence of social labor in the form of the antagonism between capital and wage labor, is the last stage in the development of the value relationship and of production based on value. It presupposes the decisive factor in the creation of wealth is the amount of direct working time….But the more modern industry develops, the creation of wealth becomes less dependent on working time….Labor no longer appears so much enclosed in the process of production but rather man relates himself to it as watchman and regulator….Once direct labor has ceased to be the direct source of wealth, labor time must cease to be its measure, and, consequently, exchange value the measure of use value. The surplus labor of the masses has ceased to be the condition for the development of social wealth just as the idleness of the few has ceased to be the condition for the development of the universal capacities of the human mind. With this, the mode of production based on exchange value collapses and the immediate material process of production is stripped of its scantiness and its antagonistic form. Thus it is not the reduction of labor time to create surplus labor but the reduction of the necessary labor of society to a minimum which is then in accord with (entspricht) the artistic, scientific, etc., education of the individuals through the free time and the means created for everyman, for the free development of the individual….The measure of wealth will then no longer be labor time, but leisure time.

That anyone could conclude from this that it is Automation, here and now, which is creating “the material foundation” for the new, with or without the proletariat doing the overthrowing of the old, is only further proof of the fact that our age is ridden with such irreconcilable opposites as to have produced the disintegration of thought. We see this range before our eyes from those who see our times to be “the end of ideology,” the age of the “one-dimensional man,” “the critique of dialectical reason,” leaving us all to accept terror as the way to communal life!

Raya Dunayevskaya

Raya Dunayevskaya

So overwhelmed by the total mechanization of life that Automation seems to imply are philosophers even close to Marxism that they seem to have embarked on a search for some new principle of reality apart from either materialism or idealism or its unity in Humanism.

Jean-Paul Sartre has even introduced the question of sexuality into the machine as the daydream of the worker subjected to automated production. Naturally, he opposes such dehumanization. Naturally, he wants, not to reject Marxism, but to revivify “today’s Marxism” by making the human being central to it. But to the extent that neither he nor the other philosophers close to Marxism go down to where the worker is in the process of production or listen to his thoughts, the result is that, instead of holding on tight to the fact that Man alone is Freedom and Reason, they endow technology with rationality and capacity to be its own transcendence, or they consider “the Party” to be able to do so for Man. Philosophers who, yesterday, saw in the movement of Reason the tendency to go beyond ontology, i.e., beyond philosophy “as such,” today very nearly degrade ontology to technology. All the more reason for us to watch Marx at work on technology….

Moreover, his materialist conception of history notwithstanding, he seemed constantly amazed to find that scientists and philosophers would in all but their own specialty, accept the given as the real.

Thus, on June 18, 1862, he wrote Engels: “Remarkable that Darwin in the animal and plant kingdom reveals anew his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence.’ This is the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes, and this bears a resemblance to Hegel in his Phenomenology in which civil society is described as ‘the spiritual kingdom of animals’ while with Darwin the animal kingdom represents civil society.”

He was to put a similar thought directly in the section on Machines in Capital: “A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the 18th century are the work of a single individual….The weak points in abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their specialty” (p. 406 ftn.).

In Marx’s case even “pure research” was never restricted to “science as such,” but included the study of the Blue Books, those reports of the British factory inspectors Marx made so famous, “practical courses,” history of all class struggles and some histories that had not yet been written, so that once he settled down to work out the actual relations at the point of production, new categories emerged.

Once he entered the process of production and saw that machines had indeed no other existence than that which they fulfill in the factory, then the domination, utter and unquestioned and oppressive, of capital over all else was seen in the very change of title for his main work from that of Critique of Political Economy to Capital.

His two major original categories—constant capital and variable capital—showed that not only do machines in the factory exist as capital, but so does living labor, the only distinction between the two kinds of capital being that one was constantly undergoing a variation in magnitude, that is to say, living labor was exploited, made to produce many unpaid hours of labor.

The fact that he wouldn’t permit the publication of his own lecture on “Value, Price and Profit” until after he completed Capital is further proof that only the latter contained the whole of his theory, without which no single element could be fully understood.

Take his category, labor power, which was not in the Grundrisse or Critique or the pamphlets; in a word, hadn’t been fully worked out until Capital itself was.

To be continued

References   [ + ]

1. Capital, Vol. I (Charles H. Kerr, 1906), pp. 416-17.
2. The section is entitled “Die Letzte Entwicklung des Wertverhältnisses und der auf dem Wert Beruhenden Produktion”, pp. 591-2: 599-6. [Grundrisse (Pelican Books, 1973), pp. 705-06]

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