Co-operatives, socialism and communism: Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

Below are some notes on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), focusing on what it says about co-operatives as a transitional form of production to post-capitalism: communism. I’m trying to get to grips with the text so as to better situate the potential of (worker) co-operatives as a transitional form of organising production and services which provide the experimental basis of a post-capitalist mode of production and the subsequent subjectivities, epistemologies, etc. that the emergence of post-capitalism (‘communism’) will give rise to.

In reading commentary elsewhere, there’s a tendency for some people to dismiss the revolutionary potential of worker co-operatives, arguing that they inevitably become disciplined, subsumed and converted by capital. There is certainly empirical evidence for this, but I think such a view is missing an important point which Marx’s Critique makes clear: Capitalism is a necessary historical condition for the mode of production that succeeds it (communism). Though worker coops might fail to maintain their radical objectives of democratic control over the means of production, they can be understood as prefigurative projects that have developed out of the historical and material conditions of capitalism. Worker coops are a dialectical response to capitalism and everything we understand about that historical mode of production. As Marx said, they “attack the groundwork” of capitalism, but they are not its negation. No single organisational form is. Furthermore, the transition to post-capitalism is inevitably gradual since the mode of production, according to Marx’s tradition of historical materialism, also ‘produces’ who we are and how we think. In that sense, we are capitalism. Several hundred years of being conditioned by capitalism cannot be rejected or put aside during a brief revolutionary uprising or indeed the constitution of a co-operative.

In some respects, attributes of communism are already here: the production of ‘free software‘ is a good example, I think. There are many examples of collective efforts to practice new forms of social relations that are not mediated directly by the capitalist production of value. The Social Science Centre, in which I am involved, is one of them. Of course, these are made possible, in part, because its members subsist through capitalist work elsewhere, but such efforts are experiments for exploring the possibilities of new forms of social relations. They are often transient, but collectively and gradually, have a pedagogical purpose in exploring the possibilities of alternative historical, material conditions and therefore new forms of subjectivity, knowledge and culture. Individually, I don’t think we should expect too much of them but rather engage them in critique as Marx was doing with the Gotha Programme . Collectively and over time, they are exploring and developing the conditions for a post-capitalist mode of production and social relations. To use Marx’s metaphor, they are a form of midwifery for a new mode of production to emerge from the “womb” of capitalism.

Another observation I had when reading the text is that Marx is relentless and steadfast in adhering to his scientific critique of capitalism. There are to be no compromises and much of his Critique of the Gotha Programme is an attack on the development of state socialism because he knew it could only be another form of liberal capitalism. For anyone to maintain Marx’s critical integrity is very difficult, not only to comprehend in the first place, but to commit to against popular (liberal) criticism , the seduction of capitalism, and what may appear to be the good intentions of the Left which are, in fact, only operating at the level of appearances, rather than social, scientific substance.

Section One

The Critique is a late text by Marx, which he described as “marginal notes” on the draft programme of the United Workers’ Party of Germany.  It is a scathing, short text, showing little regard for the version of socialism that the Gotha Programme outlines. It is regarded as one of the key documents where he described characteristics of a future post-capitalist mode of production: communism. On a number of occasions, he also discusses the role of co-operatives in the gradual transition from capitalism to communism.

In the text, it is clear that the capitalist mode of production is a necessary pre-condition for the communist mode of production. Marx states that “in present capitalist society the material, etc., conditions have at last been created which enable and compel the workers to lift this social curse.” In this respect, capitalism is both a curse and a force that develops the potential, unique in history, for self-determination.

What distinguishes the two modes of capitalist and communist production?

From Marx’s body of work, we can say that the capitalist mode of production has the primary purpose of creating value (‘wealth’) and it is a result of this imperative that ‘culture’ and other aspects of social life appear. It is a social, ‘co-operative‘ mode of production where labour power is employed to produce products/services (‘commodities’) for the purpose of exchange rather than direct use by the workers. The products are bought to be used by other workers (in their role as ‘consumers’), who likewise produce products/services for the purpose of exchange, and so on.

In this mode of production, the labour of an individual is not direct labour (Marx refers to it as ‘indirect’) that results in the exchange of another product of labour of equal value. In the capitalist mode of production, where workers do not own and control the means of production in common, they must negotiate the value of their labour power with the owners of the means of production (‘capitalists’), whose role and imperative it is to create additional, surplus value out of the labour power of the worker. Since the worker does not receive a wage that is equal in value to the value of their labour power, the money  they exchange (as an concrete representation of the abstraction of ‘value’) for the product of others is not a direct (i.e. equivalent) abstraction of the true value of their labour power in exchange for the true value of another worker’s labour power. Both workers have been paid less than the true value of their labour power and therefore the exchange value of the transaction does not equate to the use value of the worker’s labour power as a commodity itself.

To try to offer a simplified example:

Bob, who produces chairs is paid £10 for one hour’s work which his employer anticipates is worth £20 to them upon exchange of the chair that Bob produces. In this case, Bob’s labour power is actually worth £20 (the price of the product will be higher still) but is forcibly undersold to the employer who is under constant pressure to realise a surplus for a number of reasons, one of which is to re-invest surplus capital in new methods of production so as to remain competitive in the marketplace. Likewise, Bob sells his labour in a competitive labour market and is under constant pressure to identify the full value of his labour power so as to sell it at the highest price.

Likewise, Alice, who produces coats, is paid £5 an hour and her employer calculates that her labour power is actually worth £15 to them. Like Bob’s chairs, the final price of the coat is much higher and takes into account all other costs involved in production as well as the need to realise an overall surplus. A reliable income of surplus value can be achieved by her employer if Alice and her co-workers are consistently paid less than the true value of their labour power.

When Bob buys one of Alice’s coats, he uses some of the money from his wage. The money (cash or electronic) is the concrete result of the abstract exchange of value which takes place between Bob and his employer. Bob transfers that value to Alice’s employer, who has also undertaken an exchange of money for her labour power.  In Bob’s purchase of Alice’s product, the relationship between all four parties can be described like this:

Bob’s employer pays Bob for his labour power, who pays Alice’s employer for the coat, who pays Alice for her labour power.

However, the relationship between Bob and Alice, who may live on opposite sides of the world, is not direct, not because they don’t physically hand over the coat for money or barter chairs for coats, but because Bob and Alice’s employers have intervened in the exchange by under-valuing the true value of their labour power.

As such, labour power is no longer being exchanged as an equivalent, but rather the product of labour power, the commodity is exchanged as an equivalent. There is, what we might call a ‘corruption’ in what could be, under a different (proto-communist) mode of production, an exchange of equal values measured by the equal standard of labour rather than the equal value of the commodity. As such Alice’s labour power would be a direct equivalent of Bob’s labour power.

“…the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.”

In this transitional phase from capitalism to communism, the remnant of equivalence still remains from the capitalist mode of production, but it is an equivalence not mediated by capital but by labour which owns the means of production. An individual firm operating in this way is simply a situation where “workers are their own capitalists” and remain subject to the forces of the competitive markets. However this changes when the majority of enterprises in society are run as producer co-operatives.

“Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor.”

In his Critique, Marx recognises that a new mode of production cannot develop apart from the existing mode of production, nor will it occur suddenly. Communism emerges slowly from the “womb” of capitalism.

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

Recognising this transition, Marx offers some examples of what intermediary changes might take place prior to the establishing of full communism.

“Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption.

But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form”

The “deductions” Marx refers to can be generally understood as contributions (taxes) to administration, public services and welfare. In the transition from capitalism to communism, he sees some of those contributions diminishing and some increasing:

“First, the general costs of administration not belonging to production. This part will, from the outset, be very considerably restricted in comparison with present-day society, and it diminishes in proportion as the new society develops. Second, that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc. From the outset, this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops. Third, funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, for what is included under so-called official poor relief today.”

As I understand it, in such a society, there would be no need for the products of this mode of production to be held privately, because no-one is attempting to undercut the value of labour power in order to create a private surplus of value. All such goods and services would effectively be owned in common by individual workers and what we think of as ‘exchange’ would be recognised not as an act of transferring value, but merely as an exercise in administration and planning so as to avoid scarcity. In effect, exchange as understood under the capitalist mode of production would be abolished and labour would exist “directly as a component part of total labour.” Marx calls this ‘direct’ mode of production, communism. Arguably, this is already in practice among ‘free software‘ developers.

It is fundamental to Marx’s historical materialist method of analysis and critical theory that we understand that the specific historical mode of production gives rise to culture and therefore is the basis of human ideas. In a transition from one mode of production to another, people will assume existing principles hold true despite growing evidence of their contradictory nature. Discussing the equivalence of labour power, Marx identifies the principle of “equal right” as such a principle that will initially remain:

“Hence, equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.”

Marx sees the principle of “equal right” as a “bourgeois limitation” that will gradually be stigmatized. He sees this as an inevitable defect in the “first phase of communist society”

“Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

In this transitional phase, “the right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.” Here, Marx explains why the idea of equality is a bourgeois concept: Individuals are different but under the capitalist mode of production we are regarded fundamentally as equivalent workers. A communist society would recognise and compensate inherent ‘inequalities’.

“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal… In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

In the same way, Marx attacks the Gotha Programme’s assertion of the “fair distribution of the proceeds of labour”. He argues that what we might consider “fair” today, is a result of the capitalist mode of production. As above, he is arguing that legal principles such as “fair” are created within the economic context of the existing mode of production and that what might appear “fair” today, should not be assumed so for post-capitalist society. He regarded such terms as “dogmas, ideas which in a certain period had some meaning but have now become obsolete verbal rubbish”

Here, Marx also makes an interesting distinction about the relationship between production and distribution.

Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution.

Nothing has changed….!

Further on in the text, Marx discusses the the identity of the working class and its relation to the nation state. He emphasises the need for national solidarity while recognising that capital is transnational: “Every businessman knows that German trade is at the same time foreign trade.” If we relate this to the the formation of producer co-operatives it underlines the need for co-operation and solidarity at both national and international levels. Just as capital is continually trying to operate globally without restriction through international treaty and law, a co-operative working class movement must pursue the same at both the diplomatic, legislative and economic levels.

Section Two

In section two of the Critique, Marx discusses wages in an attempt to remind the United Worker’s Party that their proposed programme is yet again confused and taking retrograde steps by asserting an “iron law of wages”. Marx refers to his earlier work in scientifically analysing waged labour:

“there has asserted itself in our party the scientific understanding that wages are not what they appear to be — namely, the value, or price, of labor—but only a masked form for the value, or price, of labor power. Thereby, the whole bourgeois conception of wages hitherto, as well as all the criticism hitherto directed against this conception, was thrown overboard once and for all. It was made clear that the wage worker has permission to work for his own subsistence—that is, to live, only insofar as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist (and hence also for the latter’s co-consumers of surplus value); that the whole capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this gratis labor by extending the working day, or by developing the productivity—that is, increasing the intensity or labor power, etc.; that, consequently, the system of wage labor is a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labor develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment.”

Clearly Marx is exasperated here with the lack of understanding and development of his critique of political economy, published just eight years earlier. He criticises the Party, which “following in the wake of the bourgeois economists, took the appearance for the essence of the matter.” Today, he would say that nothing has changed!

Section Three

Section three focuses on the role of the state and the role of class struggle. The Gotha Programme places an emphasis on state assistance in setting up worker co-operatives. Agency is therefore assumed to be in the hands of the state rather than the workers’ struggle. Marx responds:

“Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the “socialist organization of the total labor” “arises” from the “state aid” that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, “calls into being”.”

Marx is clear that the need for workers themselves to “revolutionize the present conditions of production and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid.” The meaning and purpose of co-operatives is, we might say, expedient or pedagogical. They are a step towards communism and away from the capitalist state, but should not be confused with a form of communism itself. They provide the conditions for communism to historically, materially and epistemologically emerge.

“But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois.”

Section Four

The final section of the Critique focuses on freedom and democracy. The Gotha Programme advocates “the free basis of the state”, which Marx questions rhetorically: “Free state – what is this?”

He accuses the German Workers’ party of treating the state as independent of the mode of production, asserting that the state is “a fiction”.

“…instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.

And what of the riotous misuse which the program makes of the words “present-day state”, “present-day society”, and of the still more riotous misconception it creates in regard to the state to which it addresses its demands?

“Present-day society” is capitalist society, which exists in all civilized countries, more or less free from medieval admixture, more or less modified by the particular historical development of each country, more or less developed. On the other hand, the “present-day state” changes with a country’s frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States. The “present-day state” is therefore a fiction.

Nevertheless, the different states of the different civilized countries, in spite or their motley diversity of form, all have this in common: that they are based on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less capitalistically developed. They have, therefore, also certain essential characteristics in common. In this sense, it is possible to speak of the “present-day state” in contrast with the future, in which its present root, bourgeois society, will have died off.”

In this sense, the state as a social form, independent from capitalist society is “a fiction”, but the capitalist state as an abstraction that has essential characteristics shared across national borders, is real: a real abstraction which appears in the form of national governments.

In this section of the Critique, Marx also attempts to discuss how a future communist society would perform the social functions currently handled by the state (“the government machine”).

“What transformation will the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions? This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand-fold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state’.

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

It’s worth nothing, too, that Marx views social change without regard for national borders. He complains that the Gotha Programme is simply appealing for what has already been realised elsewhere. For the German liberal socialist, the future already exists, only it is elsewhere (Switzerland!).

“Now the program does not deal with this nor with the future state of communist society.

Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been realized. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of “state of the future” is a present-day state, although existing outside the “framework” of the German Empire.”

Although written nearly 150 years ago, the same could be said of much political activism today.

Marx is scathing at this point in the Critique, and accuses the German Workers’ Party of demanding a democratic republic from what he regards as a military dictatorship, “a state which is nothing but a police-guarded military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms”. Only in their imagination could their demands be met through the instruments of the bourgeois state.

The last few paragraphs of the Critique focus on the demand for free, public elementary education. Marx argues that “free” education is not free but paid for through taxation of the rich and he equates the demand for free education to the existing administration of free criminal justice, which “is to be had free everywhere.” Marx objects to “elementary education by the state”, preferring the American system whereby education is regulated by the state, rather than “appointing the state as the educator of the people!” Rather, “the state has need, on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people.”

“But the whole program, for all its democratic clang, is tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state, or, what is no better, by a democratic belief in miracles; or rather it is a compromise between these two kinds of belief in miracles, both equally remote from socialism.”

Marx on co-operation

When numerous labourers work together side by side, whether in one and the same process, or in different but connected processes, they are said to co-operate, or to work in co-operation… Co-operation ever constitutes the fundamental form of the capitalist mode of production. (Marx, Capital Vol.1, Ch. 13)

I think that what is key to any advocacy of co-operatives as anti- or post-capitalist organisations, is not co-operation in terms of the division and participation of labour, but rather co-ops as a response to capital’s antagonistic relationship between labour and property: democratic control of capital by workers i.e. a ‘commons’.

I have no interest in advocating co-operatives that do not pursue ‘common ownership‘. 1

Political Economy

Political economy abstracts from the social fact of landownership, to present rent as a quality of the land. It abstracts from the social form of wage-labour, to present wages as the recompense for labour. It abstracts from the social form of capital, to present profit as a quality of the means of production. It abstracts from the social form of exchange, to present exchange as an expression of a rational, natural propensity to ‘truck, barter and exchange’.

However this is an illegitimate form of abstraction, for it is only in a particular form of society that land generates a rent, means of production a profit, and labour a wage. It is only in a particular form of society that the private labour of individuals is related through exchange. To treat these categories in abstraction from their social form is to deprive them of any content, to make them into purely formal categories that exist wherever there are land, labour, means of production or co-operation. Thus the categories of political economy are given an eternal status, and are even applied to societies within which neither wages, nor profits, nor rent, nor exchange, actually exist.

Simon Clarke (1982) Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology

Comment on abstract labour and the method of abstraction

I tried leaving this as a comment on ‘The Real Movement‘ but for some reason WordPress mangled it so here it is in full. It relates to my previous notes on Marx’s method of “rising from the abstract to the concrete.”

I agree, Heinrich’s conflation of wealth with value isn’t particularly helpful, but looking at his Introduction to capital (p.68), it may be justified:

“Whereas the various commodities in their material existence repre­sent particular use values and their value (“abstract wealth”) can only be imagined, real money is the “material being of abstract wealth” (MECW, 29:358, corrected translation).”

He seems to be quoting Marx (“abstract wealth”) and interpreting it as “value” (seems fair enough to me), of which money is the material form or “being”. From this, abstract labour can be said to be the substance of (abstract) wealth or value.

On another of your points, you say:

“By inventing an additional category distinct from value, called abstract labor, Heinrich does not have to address Marx definition of value.”

I don’t think that Heinrich has invented an additional category. Marx uses the category of ‘abstract labour’ on a number of occasions, as you know. By calling abstract labour the ‘substance’ of value, the relationship is clear. It’s not distinct. It’s the substance of value. It’s “congealed”, “jelly”, a reduction into “a definite quantity of equal, general, undifferentiated, social, abstract labour”; or, “labour pure and simple, abstract labour; absolutely indifferent to its particular specificity.”

Here’s a nice, helpful riff from Marx:

“The coat is value only to the extent that it is the expression, in the form of a thing, of the human labour-power expended in its production and thus insofar as it is a jelly of abstract human labour – abstract labour, because abstraction is made from the definite useful concrete character of the labour contained in it, human labour, because the labour counts here only as expenditure of human labour-power as such.”

He’s saying:

Value ← abstract labour ← concrete labour ← labour ← labour power

So, we have value, which is derived from abstract labour, which is derived from concrete labour, which is derived from labour, which is derived from labour power. In his analysis, Marx starts with the abstract to arrive at the concrete.

Expressed the other way, we have:

Labour power → labour → concrete labour → abstract labour → value

As Marx indicates elsewhere, depending on which way you think it through, abstract labour might be seen as the expression of labour power, or labour power might be seen as the expression of abstract labour: “concrete labour becomes, therefore, the medium for expressing abstract human labour”.

To arrive at something that is “abstract”, is the result of “abstraction” i.e. abstract thinking. It is not just a category of thought but also a method for Marx, “rising from the abstract to the concrete.

‘Abstract labour’ is not a substance in the sense of a kernel or essence of a thing, it’s a way of articulating something socially active that normally goes unspoken, so that we understand capital better. Because Marx’s approach is historical materialist, thought is understood to be derived from the real experience of life rather than existing independently. In that sense, abstractions are “real abstractions” and the meaning of “abstract labour” is a matter of life and death.

Marx’s method (II): ‘the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete’

In my previous notes I quoted Marx describing his approach as “the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete”. What a wonderful description, but what does it mean? Marx goes on to discuss it in some length in that section of his notebooks for Capital, first using the concept of ‘population’:

“When we consider a given country politico-economically, we begin with its population, its distribution among classes, town, country, the coast, the different branches of production, export and import, annual production and consumption, commodity prices etc.

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations.”

Shortly after this passage, he clarifies the relation between the abstract and the concrete:

“The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. … the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.”

For brevity, I’m cutting out the parts where Marx offers the contrasting conventional method of analysis employed by political economists. He also wants to distinguish his approach from Hegel’s idealism, arguing that his own abstractions are reliant on, and grounded in, the concrete. These ‘real abstractions’ exist dialectically with the concrete.  He gives the example of the abstraction of ‘exchange value’, which can only exist in a dialectical relationship with the concrete social relations found in society, such as the family, commune or state.

This section in Marx’s notebooks is an attack, not just on Hegel’s idealism, but philosophy in general, which he claims equates reality with consciousness. For Marx, thought is a product of material, concrete conditions. Thought does not exist apart from the world, but is “a product, rather, of the working-up of observation and conception into concepts.” The real is a presupposition of the abstract:

“The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts, is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world. The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical. Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition.”

Marx then goes on to discuss how an abstraction can change in relation to the concrete world. Simple abstractions might appear to presuppose the more complex reality of the world, but in fact, he argues, they express the historical development of the social conditions and relations at particular times and places. He starts by discussing the category of ‘possession’, which has both abstract and concrete qualities reflecting the social relations of a given historical moment, e.g. possession of a flint axe in the Stone Age, differs from the modern judicial meaning of possession of property. Similarly, the category of ‘money’ existed in a simple form prior to the existence of ‘capital’ and may continue to exist in its simpler form depending on the historical development of the society. That is, the category of money, for example, is not trans-historical or absolute but rather expresses the concrete development of the social conditions in which it is being used as a category. “To that extent”, says Marx, “the path of abstract thought, rising from the simple to the combined, would correspond to the real historical process.” In effect, this is a warning not to methodologically employ abstract concepts such as ‘money’, ‘exchange’, or labour’, etc. to all people at all times across all places. It is an argument for grasping the contingent basis of theoretical concepts prior to their application in the concrete world, i.e. “rising from the abstract to the concrete.” Marx underlines this again with a useful discussion of the seemingly simple category of ‘labour’ and concludes that

“even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations.”

Like most of us, Marx understood history as developing, carrying with it remnants of earlier historical ways of living and understanding our lives. Thus, modern ‘bourgeois’ society is “the most developed and the most complex historic organization of production.” As such, our modern categories, when analysed, are found to comprise the remnants of history, too, yet should not be applied to all of history:

“The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society… The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself – leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence – it always conceives them one-sidedly.”

Thus, it is not simply a mistake to apply existing categories to history but also a constraint because it limits our ability to understand the present as well as the past. Marx argues that categories such as ‘money’ and ‘labour’ express both “what is in the head as well as in reality”, and therefore “the characteristics of existence” but from specific, limited points of view. Thus, says Marx, it is a mistake to think that society , “begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well.What does he mean by this last remark about ‘science’? It seems to be a rejection of positivism.

He then goes on to discuss the example of rent, property and agriculture, and provides a wonderful description of the centrality of the specific mode of production in all societies:

“For example, nothing seems more natural than to begin with ground rent, with landed property, since this is bound up with the earth, the source of all production and of all being, and with the first form of production of all more or less settled societies – agriculture. But nothing would be more erroneous. In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.”

So, Marx’s starting point of analysis is the dominant, ruling, mode of production in society i.e. capital, rather than what he argues are related but secondary (derivative??) categories such as ‘population’ or ‘landed property’. Although there may appear to be a ‘logic’ to starting with a specific point of interest (e.g. ‘population’, ‘higher education’, ‘science’, ‘hacking’, etc.) and then developing one’s analysis from there, Marx argues that the mode of production (i.e. capital) dominates – “rules” – the body and mind to such an extent that without starting from an examination of capitalism’s fundamental categories (and therefore one’s own abstractions) is to approach one’s analysis (e.g. of ‘population’) more-or-less blind. In effect, he is saying that we are born out of capital – we are capital – and must begin our analysis from that point.

“Capital is the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society. It must form the starting-point as well as the finishing-point, and must be dealt with before landed property. After both have been examined in particular, their interrelation must be examined.

…It would therefore be unfeasible and wrong to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. Their sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to historical development. The point is not the historic position of the economic relations in the succession of different forms of society. Even less is it their sequence ‘in the idea’ (Proudhon) (a muddy notion of historic movement). Rather, their order within modern bourgeois society.”

In the final passage of this section of his notebooks, he demonstrates the method of “rising from the abstract to the concrete” using the example of ‘national wealth’, which he says arose in the 17th century as the idea that

“wealth is created only to enrich the state, and that its power is proportionate to this wealth. This was the still unconsciously hypocritical form in which wealth and the production of wealth proclaimed themselves as the purpose of modern states, and regarded these states henceforth only as means for the production of wealth.”

Having explained how the term came into use and over time came to uncritically justify the conception of the modern state, he then finishes by outlining his “method of rising from the abstract to the concrete” in the study of capitalist society:

“The order obviously has to be

(1) the general, abstract determinants which obtain in more or less all forms of society, but in the above-explained sense.

(2) The categories which make up the inner structure of bourgeois society and on which the fundamental classes rest. Capital, wage labour, landed property. Their interrelation. Town and country. The three great social classes. Exchange between them. Circulation. Credit system (private).

(3) Concentration of bourgeois society in the form of the state. Viewed in relation to itself. The ‘unproductive’ classes. Taxes. State debt. Public credit. The population. The colonies. Emigration.

(4) The international relation of production. International division of labour. International exchange. Export and import. Rate of exchange.

(5) The world market and crises.”

In summary, (1) start with simple, abstract concepts that seemingly apply to all people at all times e.g. ‘labour’; (2) move on to an examination of contemporary forms of those abstractions e.g. ‘wage labour’; (3) next, examine the inter-relation of those abstractions in concrete social forms e.g. the ‘workplace’; (4) examine the concrete/abstract dialectic developed so far in the more expansive, global setting e.g. global labour market; (5) examine the dialectic developed so far at a systemic level e.g. the inter-relation between global production, exchange, unemployment, crises, etc. Thus, we’ve started from a simple abstraction of ‘labour’ and moved to examine that abstract category both in terms of its appearance at a local, social level, and its role in international politics, markets, war, etc. To conceive of ‘labour’ or any other simple category in any other way is to fall short of understanding it.

I think that’s what Marx’s means by his “method of rising from the abstract to the concrete”. What do you think?

Marx’s method

Together with colleagues at work, we are planning to offer a Master’s level module on ‘Marx’s Theory and Method’ for students studying an MSc in Social Science Research Methods. Having this to plan for over the course of the year is a useful way of focusing my own reading and understanding of Marx’s method, too.

Marx’s method is widely described as scientific, dialectical and historical materialist (Marx discussed his work in these terms, too) and part of the module will be about understanding what these terms actually mean through a reading of the primary texts. For example, on historical materialism, here’s a key quote from The German Ideology (1845).

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.

This production only makes its appearance with the increase of population. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse [Verkehr] of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production.

Reading Capital itself is a lesson in Marx’s method, but he was aware of the difficulty of his scientific approach to the critique of political economy, which he described in his notebooks as as ‘the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete’. In the preface to the first German edition of Capital, Marx was confident that his work would be understood:

With the exception of the section of value-form, therefore, this volume cannot stand accused on the score of difficulty. I presuppose, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself.

However, five years later in the preface to the French edition, he acknowledges that his novel methodological approach “has been little understood”, and that the first chapters are “rather arduous” and might render the book inaccessible to the working class, “a consideration which to me outweighs everything else.”

Marx considered his dialectical, historical, materialist method to be rational and scientific and share similar methodological characteristics to that of the natural sciences. In his research, he employed various techniques such as detailed observation, logic, reference to literature, and the use of documentary evidence (e.g. the English ‘Blue Books’) to explicate social ‘laws’ and tendencies. In seeking to explain the concrete nature of our lives, he identified a realm of real abstraction that is often contradistinct to what appears to be real and natural. In doing so, his analysis is systematically and simultaneously abstract and concrete; he acknowledged the material reality of our lives and the world we live in but is sceptical of simple surface appearances and especially commonsensical ideas which we take for granted as trans-historical and natural, such as the idea of ‘labour’.

In a preface to Capital he compares his task to that of the Physicist, Biologist and Chemist, explaining that for the study of society, “the force of abstraction” must take the place of the microscope and chemical reagents.

The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy…

The physicist either observes physical phenomena where they occur in their most typical form and most free from disturbing influence, or, wherever possible, he makes experiments under conditions that assure the occurrence of the phenomenon in its normality. In this work I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode.

In his examination of the capitalist mode of production, he reminds the reader that his approach is to abstract from specific, concrete observations to an “ideal average”, so as to offer an “analysis of capital in its basic structure.” In seeking to reveal the basic structures and ideal averages of society, Marx also makes clear (again, in the prefaces to Capital) that where he might seem to criticise certain types of individual, such as the capitalist and landlord, these are in fact intended to be

personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.

What is clear to me as I read Marx’s work with an eye on his method is the clarity it brings to his theoretical insights and the power it adds to his critique of capitalism. I’m really enjoying the process and hope that our students will too.

The association of free and equal producers

We acknowledge the cooperative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers. (Marx, 1866)

Key points from Egan and Jossa papers 1

  1. Both authors write about co-operatively run ‘Labour Managed Firms‘ (LMF) in the context of Marx, Marxism and the historical development from capitalism to socialism. Jossa appears to be unaware of Egan’s earlier work but can be read as a continuation of Egan’s main points, as outlined below.
  2. Co-operatively run Labour Managed Firms (LMF) are distinct from Worker Managed Firms (WMF) – Jossa regards this distinction as “decisive.” (2005:14) However, for the purposes of these notes we can refer to both types of co-operative firm as ‘producer co-ops‘, which are distinct from the more common ‘consumer co-ops’. “We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.” (Marx, 1866)
  3. Producer co-ops abolish wage labour. They hire capital rather than labour. This is a fundamental characteristic. “Employment is based on payment of a membership fee or the purchase of a membership share in the enterprise, not the sale of workers’ labor power. Any net surplus is distributed to labor, not capital.” (Egan: 67)
  4. Another fundamental characteristic of producer co-ops is that they are democratically run. In capitalism, democracy operates politically, but not economically. Capitalist firms are not democratic. Producer co-ops uniquely establish democracy within the firm. “Advanced capitalist states are predicated on the exclusion of democracy from all but the political sphere of social life. In particular, the discourse of democracy in these states is not extended to work and the economy.” (Egan:67) A genuine producer co-op is “an organizational expression of democratic control of production.” (Egan:69) “…one main advantage of producer cooperatives (from the perspective of a critic of capitalism) is to realise economic democracy as an essential component of political democracy.” (Jossa, 2005:5)
  5. A principal contradiction of capitalism is that it socialises the production of private property. i.e. labour is purchased and brought together by the owners of capital to produce more privately owned capital. In the capitalist firm, capital controls and co-ordinates labour through the wage.  Marx referred to the ‘double nature’ of management in capitalist firms, where due to the imperative to grow, capital ownership and management become separated and management is socialised (Egan: 70-71). The owner of capital supplies capital while the manager of the firm is the administrator of capital. The capitalist no longer directly supervises the production of capital. Joint-stock companies resolve this contradiction for the capitalist, in a way that remains negative for labour.
  6. Producer co-ops resolve this contradiction positively for labour. “The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.” (Marx, 1894) The management of a producer co-op is established as a function of labour instead of capital. As Marx recognised: “In a co-operative factory the antagonistic nature of the labour of supervision disappears, because the manager is paid by the labourers instead of representing capital counterposed to them.” (Marx, 1894, quoted in Egan: 71) “Instead of management hiring labor, labor now hires management.” (Egan, ibid)
  7. Historically, Marxists have largely dismissed the potential of co-operatively run firms as ‘market socialism’ which inevitably degenerate into capitalist firms. However, there is clear evidence that Marx understood the distinct form of producer co-ops positively and as a historical development of capitalism leading to socialism (both Jossa and Egan point to similar sources in Marx’s writing to evidence this). “Marx sees cooperatives as a “transforming force” to the extent that they reflect the structural possibilities for democratic social production found within capitalism.” (Egan:72)
  8. Marx recognised that emerging producer co-operatives continue to operate within capitalism and reproduce the commodification of use-values through the sale of things in the market. In this way, the sustained success of producer co-operatives approximates that of the capitalist firm. Egan states that “this is where most contemporary Marxist commentary on labor-managed firms in advanced capitalism stops… A form of market determinism permeates this commentary; the power of the market to force cooperatives to degenerate into capitalist firms (if they survive at all) is seen as absolute.” (Egan: 73) However, capitalist markets are a historically specific form of social relations and therefore a dialectical analysis reveals the possibility of an alternative. “Worker cooperatives are politically and theoretically problematic, but so are all struggles which arise out of and challenge (either intentionally or unintentionally) the logic of capitalism… A Marxist analysis of worker cooperatives must critically examine the limitations of such an organizational form within capitalism, but it must do so from a foundation which also recognizes the positive qualitative developments which such organizations reflect.” (Egan: 76) “The potential for degeneration [into a capitalist firm] must be seen to lie not within the cooperative form of organization itself, but in the contradiction between it and its capitalist environment. Degeneration is not, however, determined by this contradiction.” (Egan: 82)
  9. For Marx, the formation of co-operatives as a historical (dialectical) outcome of capitalism must be the outcome of class struggle, rather than instituted by the state or paternalistic capitalists. For Marx, Egan and Jossa, a further fundamental characteristic of producer co-ops is “the development of a cooperative, solidaristic orientation between cooperatives themselves.” (Egan: 74) Co-operatives must assist each other rather than compete with each other in a “unity of action, and identity of interest.” (Egan, quoting Jones: 74)
  10. Drawing from Marx, Egan outlines “three institutional mechanisms designed to prevent co-operative degeneration.” First, hired labour must be prohibited. Second, co-operatives should belong to a national organisation. Third, a proportion of the surplus of co-operatives should be devoted to a fund for the creation of new co-operatives. (Egan: 75)
  11. Worker Managed Firms, “which are widespread in the Western world, self-finance themselves and consequently do not strictly separate labour incomes from capital incomes; their members earn mixed incomes (from capital and work), in place of pure incomes from work.” (Jossa, 2005:14) In such firms, workers are “their own capitalists”, a progressive development of capitalism. Marx wrote: “The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour. They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage.” (Marx, 1894)
  12. Labour Managed Firms “are cooperatives which fund themselves with loan capital and consequently draw a clear-cut distinction between incomes from work and incomes from capital or property.” (Jossa, 2005:14) LMFs “effectively reverse the capital-labour relationship… the moment when cooperatives are prevented from self-financing themselves (i.e., provided they are organised as LMFs rather than WMFs), the description of producer cooperatives as firms run by workers as ‘their own capitalists’ will no longer apply. And as the LMF reverses the capitalistic relationship between capital and labour, it can without doubt be rated a genuine socialist enterprise in which workers cease acting as their own capitalists.” (Jossa, 2005:15) Does this mean that the LMF abolishes the duality of concrete and abstract labour determined by capitalist wage labour and therefore the production of value based on the exchange of labour as a commodity? For Jossa (2005:8), “The commodities manufactured by democratically managed cooperatives cease to be ‘in the first place an external object’ unrelated to our work … and turn into the product of free choices made by workers in association.”
  13. For Jossa, the successful transition to socialism can and must be a gradual, non-violent process (Jossa, 2009). Producer co-operatives operating within a market economy “must be looked upon as a transitional economic system.” (2005:12) “This [co-operative] system can be established piece by piece, by enacting parliamentary legislation designed to further self-management in manners that will encourage the creation of democratic firms until these end up by outnumbering capitalistic firms. (Jossa, 2012a:834-5) Producer co-operatives mark a change in the mode of production and in this sense are revolutionary.  Socialism based upon national and international associations of producer co-operatives is the most credible alternative to the failures of state socialism and its centralised planning. (Jossa 2012a: 823)
  14. According to Jossa, a defining characteristic of capitalism is not that commodities (use values) are produced primarily for sale (exchange value), but that labour power is purchased as a commodity for the production of profit (surplus value).  In a LMF, labour power is not purchased and consequently a number of features of capitalism are called into question (e.g. alienation, the ownership of the means of production, the mode of production, the division of labour, the necessity of work). (Jossa, 2012a: 836)

Open education. From the freedom of things to the freedom of people

In this book chapter I offer a critical analysis of Open Education, a growing international movement of educators and educational institutions who, through the use of the Internet, seek to provide universal access to knowledge. The purpose of this analysis is to examine the production of value through technological virtuality, in the concrete labour process of teaching and learning.

Published in Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University

Download the full chapter

Digitising Common Sense. Journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists

Last week, I wrote to Werner Bonefeld, seeking a couple of articles that were published in Common Sense. Journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists. This journal is pretty hard to come by these days. Back-issues are limited and relatively few of the articles exist on the web. It was published from 1987 to 1999, over 24 issues of about 100 pages each. As you can see from the image, early issues (one to nine) look more like an A4, photocopied zine than an academic journal, but later issues take the more traditional form and were distributed by AK Press. A few articles were collected and published in 2003.

In my email to Werner, I mentioned that if I could get my hands on whole issues of the journal, I would digitise them for distribution on the web. As an editor of the journal, Werner was grateful and said that copyright was not a problem. I didn’t realised that Werner would send quite so many issues of the journal, but yesterday 15 of the 24 issues of Common Sense arrived in the post, along with a copy of his recent book, Subverting the Present, Imagining the Future.

My plan is to create high quality digital, searchable, versions of every issue of Common Sense over the next few months and offer them to Werner for his website, or I can create a website for them myself. I’ve done a lot of image digitisation over the years but not text. If you have some useful advice for me, please leave a comment here. I’ll also seek advice from the Librarians here, who have experience digitising books.

I have issues 10 to 24 (though not 11) and issue five. To begin my hunt for missing copies, I’ve ordered issues 1,2 & 3 from the British Library’s Interlibrary Loan service. An email this morning told me that the BL don’t have copies of the journal and are hunting them down from other libraries. We’ll see what they come up with. If you have issues 1,2,3,4,6,7,8,9 or eleven, I’d be grateful if you’d get in touch. It would be good to digitise the full set and I’ll return any copies that I’m sent.

Why go to all this trouble?

Well, Common Sense was an important and influential journal “of and for social revolutionary theory and practice, ideas and politics.” In issue 21, reflecting on ten years of Common Sense, the editorial stated that:

Our project is class analysis and we aim to provide a platform for critical debates unfettered by conventional fragmentations of knowledge (either into ‘fields’ of knowledge or ‘types’ of knowledge, e.g. ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’). This continuity in the concepts of class struggle and social change flies in the face of most interpretations of the last 10 years.

When the journal switched from A4 to A5 size, in May 1991 with issue ten, the editorial collective reflected on the first few years of the journal.

Common Sense was first produced in Edinburgh in 1987. It offered a direct challenge to the theory production machines of specialised academic journals, and tried to move the articulation of intellectual work beyond the collapsing discipline of the universities. It was organised according to minimalist production and editorial process which received contributions that could be photocopied and stapled together. It was reproduced in small numbers, distributed to friends, and sold at cost price in local bookshops and in a few outposts throughout the world. It maintained three interrelated commitments: to provide an open space wherein discussion could take place without regard to style or to the rigid classification of material into predefined subject areas; to articulate critical positions within the contemporary political climate; and to animate the hidden Scottish passion for general ideas. Within the context of the time, the formative impetus of Common Sense was a desire to juxtapose disparate work and to provide a continuously open space for a general critique of the societies in which we live.

The change in form that occurred with issue ten was a conscious decision to overcome the “restrictive” aspects of the minimalist attitude to production that had governed issues 1 to 9, which were filled with work by ranters, poets, philosophers, theorists, musicians, cartoonists, artists, students, teachers, writers and “whosoever could produce work that could be photocopied.” However, the change in form did not mark a conscious change in content for the journal, and the basic commitment “to pose the question of what the common sense of our age is, to articulate critical positions in the present, and to offer a space for those who have produced work that they feel should be disseminated but that would never be sanctioned by the dubious forces of the intellectual police.” Further in the editorial of issue ten, they write:

The producers of Common Sense remain committed to the journal’s original brief – to offer a venue for open discussion and to juxtapose written work without regard to style and without deferring to the restrictions of university based journals, and they hope to be able to articulate something of the common sense of the new age before us. Common Sense does not have any political programme nor does it wish to define what is political in advance. Nevertheless, we are keen to examine what is this thing called “common sense”, and we hope that you who read the journal will also make contributions whenever you feel the inclination. We feel that there is a certain imperative to think through the changes before us and to articulate new strategies before the issues that arise are hijacked by the Universities to be theories into obscurity, or by Party machines to be practised to death.

Why ‘Common Sense’?

The editorial in issue five, which you can read below, discusses why the journal was named, ‘Common Sense’.

Hopefully, if you’re new to Common Sense, like me, this has whetted your appetite for the journal and you’re looking forward to seeing it in digital form. In the meantime, you might want to read some of the work published elsewhere by members of the collective, such as Werner Bonefeld, John Holloway, Richard Gunn, Richard Noris, Alfred Mendes, Kosmas Psychopedis, Toni Negri, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Massimo De Angelis and Ana Dinerstein. If you were reading Common Sense back in the 1990s, perhaps contributed to it in some way and would like see Common Sense in digital form so that your students can read it on their expensive iPads and share it via underground file sharing networks, please have a dig around for those issues I’m missing and help me get them online.

Cheers.

Common Sense

The journal Common Sense exists as a relay station for the the exchange and dissemination of ideas. It is run on a co-operative and non-profitmaking basis. As a means of maintaining flexibility as to numbers of copies per issue, and of holding costs down, articles are reproduced in their original typescript. Common Sense is non-elitist, since anyone (or any group) with fairly modest financial resources can set up a journal along the same lines. Everything here is informal, and minimalist.

Why, as a title. ‘Common Sense’? In its usual ordinary-language meaning, the term ’common sense’ refers to that which appears obvious beyond question: “But it’s just common sense!”. According to a secondary conventional meaning, ‘common sense’ refers to a sense (a view, an understanding or outlook) which is ‘common’ inasmuch as it is widely agreed upon or shared. Our title draws upon the latter of these meanings, while at the same time qualifying it, and bears only an ironical relation to the first.

In classical thought, and more especially in Scottish eighteenth century philosophy, the term ‘common sense’ carried with it two connotations: (i) ‘common sense’ meant public of shared sense (the Latin ‘sensus comunis‘ being translated as ‘publick sense’ by Francis Hutcheson in 1728). And (ii) ‘comnon sense’ signified that sense, or capacity, which allows us to totalise or synthesise the data supplied by the five senses (sight, touch and so on) of a more familiar kind. (The conventional term ‘sixth sense‘, stripped of its mystical and spiritualistic suggestions, originates from the idea of a ‘common sense’ understood in this latter way). It is in this twofold philosophical sense of ‘common sense’ that our title is intended.

Continue reading “Digitising Common Sense. Journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists”