Monday, October 11, 2010


What remains of Marx?
by Georg Sans
From the misery of the proletariat Karl Marx was led to conclude that alienation could be neutralised only by the elimination of capitalism and abolishing private property. However, the history of Marxism has taught us that all attempts of introducing communism violently have led to greater injustice and misery. What is therefore left of Marx, the philosopher and the economist, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall?
The novelty of the Parisian manuscripts consisted in connecting anthropological and philosophical-social issues with the economic problems. As Marx illustrates the principles and the theories of economic science have strong foundations. Especially as far as the fundamental object of every financial matter is concerned: money. ” capital”, is indeed a treatment of the very nature of money. Marx worked for more than thirty years on his main work, of which he only completed the first volume.
Critically challenging representatives of classical political economy, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx seeks to transform money into capital. While the money that one possesses is necessary, in principle, to be exchanged in order to acquire different things for daily needs, the function of payment of capital is purely theoretic. Who possesses or wants to possess capital desires that it grows. This desire is not at all a sign of cupidity or greed, but it simply reveals the very function of capital.
According to Marx capital originates, so to speak, as a secondary product of work, when the employer sells the goods produced and earns more than what he pays his employees.
The employer certainly needs money to buy machinery and raw material in order to produce new goods; but he gets profit only when he refuses to give employees the just portion of what is gained through the sale. Capital grows only thanks to the work done by employees beyond the measure of the value of their labour power. ‘It produces surplus-value, which smiles at the capitalist with all the fascination of something created from scratch’. Although the Marxist theory of value has spawned multiple objections in the sphere of economics, recently it has generated new interest. A new reading of Marx has started, especially in Germany and Italy, thanks to the attention given to his preliminary works before ‘Capital’ now the integral critical work of Marx and Engels is published, which attempts to free it from a determinist vision of the history the first critical elements of Capitalism, formulated by the mature Marx. The primary supposition of this work is that social injustice that can be found everywhere in capitalist society is not simply the consequence of wrong individual conduct, but it finds its roots in the way money becomes capital. According to these studies, Marx highlighted that, contrary to external appearances, money is not a simple object of exchange and it is not be correct to say that money in the bank or in the purse ‘works’ for its owner. It is no exaggeration to say that nothing has damaged the interests of Marx the philosopher more than Marxism. The ideological abuse, which lasted for decades, the excessive exaltation of the significance of his thinking has led, first, a resolute denial and, in obstinate misunderstandings. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War should now be high time to draw a balance sheet.
For this purpose it is necessary to distinguish between Marx of the communist party and Engels from the young Marx and author of Capital. Furthermore it is necessary to give pre-eminence to the observer critical of all rigid dogma. Researches conducted on the evolution of his thought have shown that Marx was much less determined in his beliefs than is commonly thought.
Also, a debate that desires to be productive presumes that one knows how to carefully distinguish between the various elements which compose Marxist theory. Therefore, for example, nobody will find the materialist conception of history convincing – that considers the ‘material production of immediate life as a foundation of history’. And in the same way the materialist vision of man is similarly too reductive – according to which our culture can only be understood only relation to the physical needs and the concrete activity of man. This however is not an attempt to pronounce a judgment on the nature of alienated labour, nor the unresolved problem of the origin of surplus-value. These are the questions that face the study of Marx today. We should be grateful to the philosopher for the idea that the human being is also considered in light of the mode of production and of the form of economic management that predominate in society.
After the fall of communism it is not a matter of condemning every private property as bad or unjust in itself. The experience of the previous century has shown sufficiently that the difficulties that have augmented with industrialisation cannot be overcome by collectivising property. Much more urgent is the problem of the equal participation of all men, and not just the ones who are part of the decision processes – financial and political. The fact that a large part of humanity remains outside a social co-participation can be considered with Karl Marx as the alienation of man from himself, as a social being.
Another aspect of the alienation, of which we are certainly more aware, is the one that concerns man with respect to nature. It not necessary to be a materialist in order to recognise that harmony between human beings and their natural environment must be established. It is not about simply relating to a vital space or finding food, but taking into account the man who is constituted of the unity of one spirit and body. Inconsiderate exploitation of natural resources and the consequent destruction of the environment, show us how necessary it is to form an integral vision of man. Finally we have to ask ourselves, with Marx, whether the forms of alienation of which he spoke have their origin in the capitalist system. Although today one is broadly in agreement with the Marxist theory of wages and prices it does not find correspondence in concrete economic situations, the question of the origin of the surplus-value has not lost its legitimacy at all. “If money as such does not multiply on its own, how are we to explain the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few? However so far it does not seem to contradict Marxist thesis, that in the end it is always the actual work of someone that creates the excessive wealth of others. Obviously this statement has to be framed and nuanced in light of other considerations, for instance the role of intelligence, acquired knowledge and time.Certainly, it has become common fashionable to counter ‘the market economy’, understanding in a positive sense to capitalism understood in its negative sense. But this contraposition remains imprecise, as long as it is not sustained by a general theory of money. Also from this point of view it is not convenient, today as in the past, to simply leave the critique of Marx’s political economy to the left.

By Georg Sans on “l’Osservatore Romano”


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