Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

In the Preface to the first German edition of Capital, Marx notes:

Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences. To understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty.

Marx begins Capital with a chapter on commodities. Why this beginning? And what kind of difficulty, exactly, does this beginning present?

The other day, writing on the textual strategy in Capital, I suggested that one of the things that makes this text difficult – far more difficult, in fact, that the text appears to be at first glance – is that Marx starts with an immanently voiced presentation that aims to present nothing, initially, other than the forms of phenomenological experience “given” immanently within capitalism, and expressed by political economy (and other forms of thought Marx wishes to embed). I suggested that Marx starts from these forms of “givenness”, and then gradually unfolds other, more complex, categories – trying to make the case that the possibility for these more complex categories is already presupposed by the initial forms of “givenness” with which he begins. The strategic intention here is complex.

On one level – and over the course of Capital as a whole – Marx will suggest that the initial, apparently simple and “primitive” categories with which he begins, themselves could not exist – would not be “given” – without the whole complex social structure that Marx proceeds to analyse in the rest of the text. These simple initial categories, from which Marx appears to “deduce” more complex categories in the opening sections of Capital, are thus gradually revealed over the course of the argument to be products or end results of a process of historical development, rather than decontextualised and ahistorical starting points of Marx’s analysis. These products, however, are also productive: the results of this historical process provide the materials (“subjective” and “objective” – practical) to point beyond the process that produced them.

Which brings us to the other strategic intention of this mode of argument: Marx is trying to engage in an immanent social critique – and therefore needs to show that capitalism, in reproducing itself, also generates potentials that can react back on this process of reproduction and therefore ground the potential for transformative practice and critique. The immanent voicing of the text is one of the ways that Marx tries to flag, on a stylistic level, that this kind of immanent social critique is possible: by showing how phenomenological experiences that are part-and-parcel of capitalism – that presuppose capitalism and are themselves demonstrated to be the historical products of this social system – also and necessarily (if tacitly and unintentionally) express the contradictory potentials of this social form, Marx is trying to suggest that we do not need to reach outside capitalism to overcome this social form: that the resources necessary for transformation are already present, generated within that social form itself.

This concern with immanent voicing explains why Marx doesn’t begin his presentation somewhere else: with, for example, a declaration that capitalism is unjust, or a call to revolutionary arms, or a polemic about the conceptual limitations of political economy. Instead, he starts within capitalism – with the practices and forms of thought given by, and intuitive within, this system. He then gradually shows how these practices and forms of thought themselves betray the possibility, first, for us to understand their own intuitiveness – for us to grasp how these specific givens are given – and, second, for us to criticise these givens as partial, with reference to other perspectives that can also be shown to be immanently generated within the same social field – other perspectives whose existence is, in fact, implied by the partial perspectives expressed by political economy.

As previously discussed, the strategy here is Hegelian – with theoretical concerns that interact in complex ways with principles set out in discussions like this one, from Hegel’s Phenomenology:

Among the many consequences that follow from what has been said, it is of importance to emphasize this, that knowledge is only real and can only be set forth fully in the form of science, in the form of system; and further, that a so-called fundamental proposition or first principle of philosophy, even if it is true, is yet none the less false just because and in so far as it is merely a fundamental proposition, merely a first principle. It is for that reason easily refuted. The refutation consists in bring out its defective character, and it is defective because it is merely the universal, merely a principle, the beginning. If the refutation is complete and thorough, it is derived and developed from the nature of the principle itself, and not accomplished by bringing in from elsewhere other counter assurances and chance fancies. It would be strictly the development of the principle, and thus the completion of its deficiency, were it not that it misunderstands its own purport by taking account solely of the negative aspect of what it seeks to do, and is not conscious of the positive character of its process and result. The really positive working out of the beginning is at the same time just as much the very reverse, it is a negative attitude towards the principle we start from, negative, that is to say, of its one-sided form, which consists in being primarily immediate, a mere purpose. It may therefore be regarded as a refutation of what constitutes the basis of the system; but more correctly it should be looked at as a demonstration that the basis or principle of the system is in point of fact merely its beginning. (24 – bold text mine)

Hegel presents here the notion of a form of “refutation” or critique that is not simply an abstract “negation” – that does not simply reject what it sets out to criticise. Instead, critique takes the form of unfolding, from what initially appears to be a first principle or a simple, immediate universal, a demonstration of the way in which the “first principle” actually immanently undermines, or symptomatically reveals the inadequacy of, its own self-understanding as a “basis”. The unfolded analysis thus enables a critique of the perception that something is a “first principle”, but in a manner that preserves or “grounds” that “first principle” by determining it as a moment or partial perspective within an overarching system.

I’m sure this clarifies everything for everyone… ;-P My main point here is simply to gesture to some of the ways in which Marx’s vision of critique – and his presentational style – is not individually idiosyncratic, but can be situated in relation to Marx’s dialogue with Hegel’s work. The initial passages of Capital can most productively be read, I am suggesting, with certain Hegelian presentational and analytical principles in mind. Passages like the following, with which Hegel begins his discussion of Sense-Certainty, suggest some of what is involved. Hegel writes:

THE knowledge, which is at the start or immediately our object, can be nothing else than just that which is immediate knowledge, knowledge of the immediate, of what is. We have, in dealing with it, to proceed, too, in an immediate way, to accept what is given, not altering anything in it as it is presented before us, and keeping mere apprehension (Auffassen) free from conceptual comprehension (Begreifen). (90)

Hegel then proceeds (and not just in this section, but each time he moves to a new phenomenological perspective) to remind his reader that they cannot have direct recourse to the “for us” from whose perspective the text has actually been written: that they must instead unfold all insights immanently, as these would be given to each shape of consciousness under consideration. Look, for example, at the shifts between “we” and “it”, and at the use of words like “appear” and “seems” and “given”, in this passage from Phenomenology – looking not so much for the contents of the argument Hegel is trying to make here (much of which I’ve excised for brevity), but for the standards of argument that Hegel puts into play:

The concrete content, which sensuous certainty furnishes, makes this prima facie appear to be the richest kind of knowledge, to be even a knowledge of endless wealth–a wealth to which we can as little find any limit when we traverse its extent in space and time, where that content is presented before us, as when we take a fragment out of the abundance it offers us and by dividing and dividing seek to penetrate its intent. Besides that, it seems to be the truest, the most authentic knowledge: for it has not as yet dropped anything from the object; it has the object before itself in its entirety and completeness….

92. But, when we look closely, there is a good deal more implied in that bare pure being, which constitutes the kernel of this form of certainty, and is given out by it as its truth. A concrete actual certainty of sense is not merely this pure immediacy, but an example, an instance, of that immediacy….

93. It is not only we who make this distinction of essential truth and particular example, of essence and instance, immediacy and mediation; we find it in sense-certainty itself, and it has to be taken up in the form in which it exists there, not as we have just determined it. One of them is put forward in it as existing in simple immediacy, as the essential reality, the object. The other, however, is put forward as the non-essential, as mediated, something which is not per se in the certainty, but there through something else, ego, a state of knowledge which only knows the object because the object is, and which can as well be as not be. The object, however, is the real truth, is the essential reality; it is, quite indifferent to whether it is known or not; it remains and stands even though it is not known, while the knowledge does not exist if the object is not there.

94. We have thus to consider as to the object, whether in point of fact it does exist in sense-certainty itself as such an essential reality as that certainty gives it out to be; whether its meaning and notion, which is to be essential reality, corresponds to the way it is present in that certainty. We have for that purpose not to reflect about it and ponder what it might be in truth, but to deal with it merely as sense-certainty contains it.

95. Sense-certainty itself has thus to be asked: What is the This? (90-95, bold text mine)

In passages like this, Hegel outlines standards for an immanently-unfolded argument – in particular, the standard that the argument must proceed only on the basis of what is given to whatever shape of consciousness is being analysed. To meet these standards, Hegel provides long, immanently-voiced analyses, which seek to describe what is available from within particular perspectives. These immanently-voiced sections are then used critically – to show how each particular perspective points beyond itself – how each perspective suggests the necessity for something that, at the outset, would have appeared alien to the perspective under investigation.

Hegel isn’t, though, particularly shy about telling his readers what his presentational strategy is – what these immanently-voiced passages are intended to achieve. He also doesn’t hesitate to editorialise in the margins of his immanently-voiced argument, foreshadowing the conclusions the immanent analysis will draw.

Marx, in a sense, takes the issue of immanent voice more seriously – making his text far more unforgiving of readers who overlook the technical meaning or precise strategic intention of certain key phrases that bookend his presentation. Thus, in the very first sentence of chapter one, Marx thinks he is providing sufficient warning of his immanently-voiced, phenomenologically embedded, approach, when he begins:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity. (bold text mine)

He offers other subtle flags as he unfolds new categories:

Exchange value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place. Hence exchange value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms. (bold text mine)

After these initial categories of use value and exchange value are introduced, Marx proceeds to offer what look like either deductive or definitional elaborations from those initial categories. The text is often read as though Marx is setting out his “first principles” or the key terms on which he will rely subsequently in the text, and then proceeding from these “incontrovertible” or “certain” foundations, to more complex aspects of his own analysis. I am suggesting instead that Marx is not speaking in his own voice much at all in these early passages – Hegel’s chatty stage whispers on textual strategy, as well as his constant foreshadowings of how things look “for us”, are largely missing from Marx’s text, while Marx tries to explore how capitalism “gives” itself to us – attempting to express the forms of perception and thought and practice that appear intuitive to people individuated within this context. He will then try – as Hegel also does – to demonstrate how these “givens” ultimately react back on themselves, undermining their givenness as “first principles”, and suggesting the need for a form of analysis that will instead capture them as products and as partial.

So a passage like the following, on use value, looks like nothing more than a definition – and a fairly obvious and intuitive one at that:

A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production.

Every useful thing, as iron, paper, &c., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. It is an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways. To discover the various uses of things is the work of history. So also is the establishment of socially-recognized standards of measure for the quantities of these useful objects. The diversity of these measures has its origin partly in the diverse nature of the objects to be measured, partly in convention.

The utility of a thing makes it a use value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities. When treating of use value, we always assume to be dealing with definite quantities, such as dozens of watches, yards of linen, or tons of iron. The use values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities. Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value.

Only in the footnotes – and in a typically wry way – does Marx explicitly hint that “we” are not meant to agree fully with the definitional, and tacitly ahistorical, presentation offered in the main text. Marx’s footnotes offer a subterranean narrative quite distinct from the more immediately striking, overt narrative presented in the eye-catching centre of vision in the main text. As always, for Marx, the style of presentation mirrors the content of the critique: critical perspectives thus are available, even in these earliest moments of the text – but what is most immediately striking, and what therefore tends to distract the eye and the mind, is the central and textually prominent discussion of those forms of perception and thought that most evidently “give” themselves to awareness under capitalism – the reader has to work to unearth the counter-narrative suggested by the structure of the text. The footnotes map, for the most part without any explicit commentary on the strategic intention of this textual strategy, the earliest historical moment at which each position recounted in the text came to be articulated. This citational strategy got Marx into trouble in his own time, as hostile readers took Marx to be illegitimately citing these historical sources as support for his own views. Engels eventually attempts to clarify Marx’s strategic intent in the Preface to the 3rd German edition:

In conclusion a few words on Marx’s art of quotation, which is so little understood. When they are pure statements of fact or descriptions, the quotations, from the English Blue books, for example, serve of course as simple documentary proof. But this is not so when the theoretical views of other economists are cited. Here the quotation is intended merely to state where, when and by whom an economic idea conceived in the course of development was first clearly enunciated. Here the only consideration is that the economic conception in question must be of some significance to the history of science, that it is the more or less adequate theoretical expression of the economic situation of its time. But whether this conception still possesses any absolute or relative validity from the standpoint of the author or whether it already has become wholly past history is quite immaterial. Hence these quotations are only a running commentary to the text, a commentary borrowed from the history of economic science, and establish the dates and originators of certain of the more important advances in economic theory.

In stressing such strategic elements of Marx’s presentational strategy, I don’t wish to imply that Marx never breaks with his immanent voice. Increasingly he will do so in the text itself – initially mainly in transitional points, but the immanent analysis is of course intended to demonstrate that it is possible to unfold, from within what is “given” by capitalism, the categories that allow for a more explicit expression of Marx’s own critical standpoint in the main text. Even very early, Marx can’t always restrain himself, and he periodically bursts into sarcastic meta-commentary in the footnotes on the historical sources he cites. In the third footnote of the first chapter, for example – the footnote that hangs off the sentence “To discover the various uses of things is the work of history.” – Marx couples his historical citation with a dryly sarcastic observation:

“Things have an intrinsick vertue” (this is Barbon’s special term for value in use) “which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron” (l.c., p. 6). The property which the magnet possesses of attracting iron, became of use only after by means of that property the polarity of the magnet had been discovered. (bold text mine)

The meta-commentary Marx is making here is extremely subtle (and also, I should note, isn’t phrased as precisely as Marx will put similar points in other places). I draw attention to it, however, because recognising that a meta-commentary is being made – already, in these opening passages – becomes important for fleshing out what Marx is trying to do in pivotal (but often misread) sections like the later discussion of commodity fetishism. Let’s spend a bit of time with this footnote.

In the main text, the form of thought being analysed – the form of thought that reflects the way things “present” in capitalist societies – looks at first glance like a historicising form of thought: how could it not be historicising, to point out that discovering the uses of things is the “work of history”?

And yet. The concept of “discovery”, as a way of understanding historical change, has strangely dehistoricising implications: for something to be “discovered”, it must already somehow be present – existent – waiting to be unveiled. “History” here – thematised as “discovery” – is a process that uncovers something that is already there – a process of unveiling – a process of uncovering what lies in wait within nature, which itself is thematised as possessing timeless and invariant traits, and as intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations.

Marx’s sarcastic aside re-presents the loadstone’s properties, not as some timeless “intrinsick vertue” patiently waiting to be unveiled, but as something actively constituted as relevant for us by the way in which a particular kind of interaction with a natural object comes to be rendered socially meaningful in practice – in use, through the emergence of a particular kind of collective activity. Marx hints here at the importance of situating what present themselves as “discoveries” of the timeless and intrisic properties of things, in the context of shifts in collective practice that render socially meaningful a sensitivity to some specific selection from among the universe of determinate potentials tacit within natural objects.

Marx’s comments here are reminiscent of a criticism that he will repeatedly make of the political economists: that their specific mode of historicisation fails to be reflexive – that it falls short of treating their own position as fully historical – that it captures that capitalism is historically-emergent, but still somehow treats capitalism as a “natural” form of society – that it treats its insights as “discoveries” of principles that are “given”, but fails to analyse the determinate ways in which that particular given comes to be given, in this specific form, with determinate properties that necessitate that what is given possesses non-explicit properties that need to be “discovered” in a particular way.

Marx will hit this same point over and over again as he unfolds his analysis: he is constantly suggesting, on many different layers in the text, that qualitative characteristics that we intuitively take to be “natural” – more specifically, that we take to be material – are instead social. He means this in a more fundamental sense than may be apparent at first glance. As we will see when we reach the section on commodity fetishism, Marx will suggest that the very notion of a “material world” must be understood as a product of human practice – not in the sense that all of nature can be reduced to a human construction, but in the sense that the intuitive gestalt of “materialism” – of “matter” – of a natural world that exists independently of human cultural and social determinations – is the distinctive cultural and social determination that our society projects onto “nature”. (Describing this in terms of “projection” is a simplification – the term isn’t fully adequate to the requirements of an immanent critique. To avoid overcomplication at this stage in the analysis, however, I’ll stay with this expression for now, with the caveat that this issue will need to be revisited more adequately at a later point.) Marx will try to argue that we do this, of course. But, more importantly (since many theorists will “declare” the notion of “materialism” to be a cultural construct – and thus offer an “abstract negation” or ungrounded negation or oppositional stance to the notion of materialism), Marx will also try to show how we do this – why this is not a contingent or arbitrary form of perception and thought, but is instead deeply (if unintentionally) embedded in specific forms of collective practice. It is this that makes his account a determinate negation of materialism.

More on this, and other elements of the text, next time I return to this theme…

[Citational note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Capital are taken from the text of Chapter 1, Section 1 available at the Marxists Internet Archive; all quotes from Hegel’s Phenomenology are from the online text here.]

7 responses to “Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

  1. The Constructivist September 18, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    Just a reminder that Keenan does a close reading of Chapter 1 in Fables of Responsibility. I’ll never forget the question he asked when he taught it, about why there are quotation marks in the first sentence.

  2. N Pepperell September 19, 2007 at 12:14 am

    Yes – I’ve somehow committed myself to something on Marx’s “monsters” – I’ll have to revisit Keenan for that. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Pingback: » Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Nature and Society

  4. Nate September 27, 2007 at 11:34 pm

    Once again, great stuff. Two questions for you. I’m not suggesting you make this into an airtight “Marx is always and only doing X” kind of reading, but for the sake of argument, from the perspective you lay out here, what do you make of Marx’s first citation and quotation being his own work? Second, in the Engels quote, Engels suggests that Marx’s quotes from the factory inspectors (which themselves quote from workers) are simple and straightforward. Your argument in the post is that the opening bits of Capital at least are even less simple and straightforward than they appear. I’m curious what you make of Engels’ take on the factory inspectors etc – is there a similarly complex and interesting intention operating in those passages of Capital? I ask because those bits are among my favorite types of sections in Capital, and I wonder what your perspective on Marx’s writing in this post makes of those sections.
    take care,

  5. N Pepperell September 28, 2007 at 12:22 am

    Ask some easy questions, why dontcha – it’s not as though I need any sleep tonight or anything… ;-P

    First, on the “Marx is always and only doing X” – just to vent my current frustration with the text (which I love, and which I get enormous amounts from – I even get things from it that I’m not sure Marx put in! ;-P – but which I also find just maddening): I should note that it’s not just that I’m not sure that Marx is always doing X, or only doing X – sometimes I’m not sure that he’s doing X at all. It’s just that, if he isn’t doing X, then he is sometimes being inexcusably self-contradictory, and I have trouble believing that this is the case, which is what pushes me into the kind of reading that I’ve been sketching here. However, even if this sort of reading is somewhat on the mark, I don’t think that I can make a fully consistent Marx out of this approach, either… I think I can make sense of some otherwise baffling elements in the text, but there are elements that remain persistently baffling – which may mean that the reading I’m outlining is not very good… I should probably be more careful when I write to flag my own uncertainties – I’m just struggling a bit to get this written down at all, so to some degree these pieces should be read as my trying a reading on for size to see what it lets me do… It may be that the kaleidoscope will suddenly shift, and a better interpretation will shift into view… At any rate…

    On Marx quoting himself: he actually does this more than once – even in the first chapter, I think (too lazy at the moment to double check, but I’m fairly sure he quotes himself on the dual character of labour). As The Constructivist has mentioned above, Keenan riffs off this bit of textual strategy, and is a bit more willing to interpret it than I am, at least at this point. Among other things, Keenan takes it as a hint to go back and look at the surrounding text in the work being quoted, a move Keenan makes with a number of passages, if I’m remembering correctly.

    I don’t have a definitive take on the issue, but, given that I read Marx as self-consciously putting forward an immanent critical theory, the most straightforward thing Marx might have been doing in quoting himself, was treating himself as he treats the political economists: flagging himself, and the critical perspective he is putting forward in the text, as objects of analysis – hinting to the reader that this starting point is not a priori, but something that will eventually be embedded as the text unfolds. In this sense, he is treating himself symmetrically to how he treats the political economists, whose quotations he footnotes and occasionally brings into the main text, and whom he criticises for their failure to treat themselves as objects of analysis, in the same way that they treat older forms of thought that they criticise. So I would take that initial quotation as a quick signal that Marx is placing himself and his positions on the same plane that he will place the political economists – which means that he has to understand their errors as more than “mere” errors – as errors that were historically plausible given the circumstances in which they were working – and he also needs to position his insights as more than “mere” good thinking – he needs to explain why his insights have become plausible in his own historical period.

    But who knows whether this is right? ;-P

    In terms of the factory inspector sections (which, I agree, are fantastic): my general sense is that, as the text moves along, Marx voices his own critical perspective more openly, as he’s moved the analysis along to the point where he has “grounded” his ability to use his own categories (whereas early on, for example, he will often says things like [not a real quote] “we can’t talk about wages yet, because at this point in our investigation, this category doesn’t exist” – again, as though he’s embracing Hegel’s notion of needing to show how everything “unfolds” before you can actually use the concept…). As to Engels’ comment on the factory inspectors… First, I think Engels was just trying to contrast the citational styles: so I’d probably agree, for example, that, in passages where Marx quotes a factory inspector, the footnote simply tells you where to go find the supporting evidence for that quote – whereas, when Marx quotes a political economist, especially in the early parts of the text, they are never a straightforward “source” for the argument Marx is making, although they generally are an example of a tradition and an historical period when the perspective being analysed in the main text, was first introduced.

    But this answer doesn’t hit on your main question, which I take to be more, “Is there still something subterranean going on in these sections?” Just to be irritating, I don’t quite want to answer that yet. As stupid as this probably sounds (and probably is…), I’m trying to move through an extremely close read of Capital right now – I won’t write on the whole thing with the level of detail I’m using for the first chapter, but I do want to write on major sections, to force myself to confront things my reading might not be able to make any sense of… And these sections on the factory inspectors are something I want to look at really closely, among other things to look at how the state is thematised in them.

    I did re-read these bits fairly recently, when trying to write one of the responses to Lumpenprof, but I didn’t thematise these passages in that post. Certainly I think Marx is still voicing something immanently in these passages – but the period whose insights he is voicing is much closer to his own, so I need to look much more carefully, and with this sort of question in mind (and not at midnight… ;-P) to decide how I would tackle your question… Sorry – bit of a lame response. But with a promissory note for less lameness in the future… ;-P

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