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”