1940s >> 1947 >> no-514-june-1947

“A Century! Declared”

Karl Marx published his first major work, “The Poverty of Philosophy,” in June, 1847. Written in French in the winter of 1846/7, it was the fruit of lengthy discussions which young Marx, then 27, had with Pierre Proudhon, the founder of the chief school of French Utopian Socialism, in Paris in 1845.

Marx himself wrote:

  “During my stay in Paris, in 1844, I had personal relations with Proudhon. I recall this circumstance because up to a certain point I am responsible for his ‘sophistication,’ . . . In our long discussions—often lasting all through the night —I infected him with Hegelianism, to his great prejudice, since, not knowing German, he could not study the matter thoroughly.”
(“Poverty of Philosophy.” Kerr Edition. P. 196.)

The work is a polemic. It is a criticism of Proudhon’s chief work, “The System of Economic Contradictions” or “The Philosophy of Poverty.”

When writing this, Proudhon informed Marx in a letter saying “I await the blow of your critical rod.” The “Poverty of Philosophy,” which Marx wrote in reply, was more a Torpedo or “Block-Buster,” than a “Critical Rod.” It blew Proudhon out of the water. This is not to say that Proudhonism, as a number of political ideas, was subsequently without influence in France. On the contrary, it was many years before the strongest critic of all, bitter experience, finally deposed Proudhon’s ideas among the French workers. In fact some twenty years later, Marx himself was to write “that little devil Lafargue is still plaguing me with Proudhonism” (“Karl Marx,” p. 345) about his own son-in-law to be. Chief among these—their most practical expression, was the formation of the “labour banks” or the theories of “labour notes” and the “constitution” of value. The “Mutuality” persist in Paris, in name only, to this day.

Pierre Proudhon was a remarkable man. It is not true that he was entirely self-taught (he gained a three-year scholarship to the Academy of Beqancon, the city of his birth, near the Swiss Border); it is true that he was a proletarian, a working compositor, who originally earned his living with his hands. For a working man, in the conditions of 1842, to produce a book such as “What is Property?” and wrestle with profound problems of philosophy as he did in 1844, striving to apply German thought to French politics, was an achievement of no mean order.

Proudhon, the Frenchman, like his contemporary Wilhelm Weitling, the German, really merited the appellation gratuitously bestowed on so many insignificant nonenties to-day—he was a genuine ”outstanding personality.”

Marx was almost the only thinker of his day to appreciate the significance of the first appearance of such men; worker-thinkers and writers.

Franz Mehring says finely:—

       “They were both well-built men, strong and vigorous and made to enjoy the good things of life, but instead they gladly suffered the severest privations in order to pursue their aims. ‘A modest bed, often with three persons in the same room, a piece of board as a writing desk and now and then a cup of black coffee.’ That was the life Weitling was living when his name was already a sound of fear in the ears of the great ones of the earth, and Proudhon was living similarly in a Paris attic ‘clothed in a knitted woollen jacket with his feet in clattering wooden clogs’; at a time when he already enjoyed a European reputation.” (”Karl Marx,” p. 117.)

In 1847 Paris was the axis of European trade and commerce and the centre of world culture. During the previous years, the basis of the great French textile industry had been laid. Paris was established as the world city of the luxury trades. Paris fashions, jewellery and perfumes were making the position then, which they hold to the present day. French literature was blooming. Victor Hugo had won world renown. Balzac was writing his immortal “Comedie Humaine.” Thousands of refugees from the tyrannical rulers of Eastern Europe flocked to Paris. Chopin and Liszt were electrifying audiences at the Royal Salon. George Sand had published her social novels. To Paris among other political fugitives, came Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx. The acquaintance with Proudhon was but one of the contacts he made there.

Proudhon started with a quite sound contempt for the unscientific features of French Utopian Socialism —St. Simon and Fourier. Attracted by the great weight of German philosophy, he sought to apply it to the findings of the economists—particularly Ricardo’s “Labour Theory of Value.” Thus, in a sense, he essayed the same task as Marx; an attempt to synthesise the thought of his day, but failed because he never grasped the practical features of Hegelian Dialectics. As Marx indicates in his rejoinder to Proudhon, the latter tried to artificially construct a series of “Contradictions” or “Antinomies” : to propound his “solutions.”

      “From the moment that the development of the dialectical movement is reduced to the simple process of opposing the good to the bad, of posing problems tending to eliminate the bad, and of giving one category as the antidote of the other . . .  the idea functions no more, it no longer has any life in it ” (says “Marx,” p. 192).

Starting with Ricardo, and his Theory that Labour-Time determines Value, Proudhon announced a great original discovery. Accepting the fallacy of Sismondi and others (Lord Lauderdale), that Use-Value and Exchange-Value were in “inverse ratio,” he declared the “cost of production” as the synthesis of Use-Value and Exchange-Value. This “synthesis” value he proclaimed as “Constituted” value, and concluded that the whole trouble was that value was not properly (legally) “constituted.” A start had already been made, he thought, with money—which he held, derived its value from the reigning monarchs, who issued it. All that was necessary, therefore, was for the value of products to be “constituted” in hours of labour, and workers would receive just as much as they give. If a man worked six hours he would receive a chit, or docket, for six hours, and draw products to that “value.” All men will be wage-workers, growing richer as productivity increases.

It is in reply to the “equalitarian” application of the Ricardian theory that Marx for the first time (if we except the somewhat immature lectures on “Wage Labour and Capital”) puts the idea of labour-power as distinct from labour.

    “If the relative value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour required to produce it, it naturally follows that the relative value of labour, or wages, must be equally determined by the quantity of labour which is necessary to produce the wages. The wage, that is to say, the relative value, or price, of labour, is then determined by the labour-time which is necessary to produce all that is required for the subsistence of the worker. ” (“Poverty of Philosophy,” p. 54.)

Proudhon had confused the workers’ commodity, which he sells (Labour Power or Labour commodity, as Marx still calls it here) with his product which he makes. The two have no connection. Marx had little difficulty in showing that, although this “labour-note” idea might be new in France, England has been drenched with a huge literature, including “plans” worked out in detail, from 1810 onwards.

He quotes John Bray, “Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedy”; John Gray, “The Social System,” “Political Economy”; Hopkins, William Thompson, T. R. Edmonds, etc., displaying encyclopaedic knowledge of English Utopian writers.

Thus, instead of being the “revolutionary theory” of the emancipation of the Proletariat which Proudhon claimed it to be, relative value measured by labour-time is “fatally the formula of the modem slavery of the worker,” says “Marx” (p. 55).

Proudhon had tried to re-translate Ricardo, or the “equalitarian” application of the Ricardian theory of the English Utopian Socialists (Bray, John Gray, Thompson, Robert Owen) into French, using German metaphysics (Hegel) as his lexicon.

In fact he merely propounded in metaphysical terms as a “new system” what Ricardo had already analysed with all the curt precision of a world-famous banker; the normal operation of the existing capitalist system.

Marx made very short work of J. F. Bray, John Gray, etc., by informing Proudhon that several “equitable labour-exchange bazaars had been founded in London, Sheffield, Leeds, etc., all failing miserably.” He pointed out in the “Critique of Political Economy” twelve years later “bankruptcy would play the part of the practical critic” for any bank foolish enough to issue “labour-notes.”

Much more instructive is the demolition of Bray’s “equality” argument, i.e., the notion of the exchange of equal quantities. of labour to insure social equality.

Taking Bray’s fundamental axiom that an hour of the labour of Peter is exchanged for an hour of the labour of Paul, he shows that production for individual exchanges (commodities) cannot result in anything but inequality.

Even if we assume all to be workers, exchange of equal quantities of hours of labour is only possible on condition that we understand beforehand the number of hours necessary to employ on material production. “But such an understanding denies individual exchange.” (P. 83.)

In other words what the Labour Party is doing in England to-day, planning (?) an unplannable system.

“Thus there is no individual exchange without the antagonism of classes.” (“Poverty of Philosophy,” p. 84.)

So far from the value of money being “constituted” by reigning monarchs, they do not “create” or “constitute” its value. In any case, they stamp upon money, not its value—but its weight.

Proudhon and his English predecessors got the cart first. It was not kings which made gold become money; but money which made kings coin gold. The economic power of the rising capitalist class expressed itself in the social supremacy of its most characteristic product —money, the universal equivalent of all labour products, now transformed by Capitalism into saleable commodities.

In actual fact, the only way that individual exchanges can realise themselves is through a universal equivalent, which, whether “labour-notes” are issued or not can only be MONEY.

(Marx remarks in “Capital” (p. 106 Kerr Edition) that Robert Owen’s “Labour Money” “is no more ‘money’ than a ticket for the theatre.”)

What these Utopian Socialists, true to type, like our Labour-Fabians of to-day wanted to do, was abolish the worst effects of Capitalism. Not understanding the nature of commodities as Exchange Values—they sought to ameliorate social disparity by equalising exchangee. They wanted products to be produced as commodities but NOT exchanged as such. They wanted to prevent Use values from becoming Exchange values while still remaining commodities produced by private OWNERS. This could be nothing but an empty dream and the vast capitals of our modern Co-operative Societies to-day are its epitaph.

Having dealt with economics, Marx turns to philosophy, and really “goes to town.” Whereas one can almost feel him groping his way to his conclusions in the first part—when dealing with Proudhon’s attempt to be a French Hegel, he is obviously in his element.

Quoting from Ricardo in the first part, who as he said, “turned men into hats” by saying that a reduction in the cost of production of the one was identical in its operation with the other; in the second he says, “If the Englishman transforms men into hats, the German transforms hats into ideas. The Englishman is Ricardo, a rich banker and distinguished economist; the German is Hegel, a simple professor at the Berlin University.”

On pages 117/118 Marx outlines the Dialectic of Hegel, i.e., the conception of the thought process in the human brain as an endless series of partially reconciled contradictions. This is to explain the reasons motivating Proudhon to give his treatise its forms and title:—

“The System of Economic Contradictions.”

As we have indicated, whereas Marx applied the dialectic to actual reality, to the economic conditions as they were, Proudhon constructed or invented a series of antinomies based on a number of questions, such as: The Division of Labour; Good Side—Bad Side; Solution (by Proudhon). Competition and Monopoly: Good Side, Competition is essential, Bad Side; Competition is ruinous, Problem to solve; Find equilibrium. Property and Rent (where Marx, exactly the opposite to Proudhon, says, “Rent proceeds from society, NOT the soil”); and lastly, Strikes, and Trade Unions or Combinations, which Proudhon condemned.

With an astonishing similarity to claims made by tin-pot peripatetic “philosophers” of to-day, Proudhon wrote:—

“We will not make a history according to the order of time, but according to the successions of ideas. The economic phases or categories are in their manifestation sometimes contemporaneous, sometimes in inverse order . . .     “Economic theories have also their logical succession and their series in the comprehension. It is this order which we flatter ourselves with having discovered.” (Page 113.)

This is the notion that the Ideas create the conditions.

The conception that the rotation of human thought has produced social systems.

Thus, Feudalism, e.g., arose because men first conceived the ideas of the feudal system.

Marx, in reply, says bluntly there are no eternal ideas or “categories”. “They are historical and transitory products ” of the conditions.

What Proudhon calls the “bad” side of feudalism, serfdom, privilege, anarchy, etc., e.g., was precisely the side responsible for its break-up and the subsequent development leading to capitalism, the bad side of which, poverty, contains its progressive elements! “It is the bad side that produces the movement which makes history, by constituting the struggle.” (P. 132 ) Thus, Proudhon is not dealing with really existing contradictions but those posed in Proudhon’s own head based on conceptions of “eternal justice,” “eternal right” and “eternal law,” which turn out on close examination to be the typical notions of the French petty-Bourgeoisie, or in Marx’s own words, “a petty-chandler’s phantasy” (see “Capital,” Vol. I, p. 96, Kerr edition).

Whereas Marx investigated the actual effects of “hats,” e.g., in a certain way on men, Proudhon juggled with noisy paradoxes created out of the ideas into which Hegel turned the hats.

In one of the brilliant epigrams in which this remarkable work abounds, Marx declares, in reference to Proudhon’s “eternal categories”:—

“The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” (P. 119.)
“Monsieur Proudhon does not know that the whole of history is nothing but a continual transformation of human nature.” (P. 160.)
“. . . . in a society based on poverty, the poorest products have the fatal prerogative of serving the use of the greatest number.” (P. 67.)

It is quite impossible to give any complete idea of the breadth and depth of this astounding performance of the youthful Marx, then a mere stripling of 28, within the limits of an article. There is only one word for it: Genius. For one hundred years now it has lain almost dormant on the shelves partly because of the massive and conclusive character of the works like the “Critique” and “Capital” of which it was the brilliant precursor. ‘

Unlike previous occasions, 1933, e.g., when those with temporary axes to grind, showered peons of fulsome praise on Marx and his works, no self-styled “Marxists” (?) have now rushed forward to try to suck a little political marrow from his smouldering bones.

Working men who turn the pages of this work to-day will find (although some references, which we have tried to elucidate may be somewhat obscured through passage of time) an almost inexhaustible source of purest gold.

We Socialists are not Marx idolators—we have never been adulators like those prompting Marx to say he was “no Marxist,” or self-appointed “High Priests” of Marxism, as Mehring called Kautsky and Co. We have never postulated Marxian Papal infallibility—or produced a special “interpretation” of Marxism. It is perhaps for this reason that we have not forgotten Marx’s first brilliant contribution to working-class thought, the exposure of the Poverty of the Philosophy of 1847 as a Philosophy for our poverty.