Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

A Highly Complicated World in Continual Motion

I was just reading Paul Lafargue’s 1890 Reminiscences of Marx, and was struck by his attempt to convey what Marx was trying to present – from context, I would assume the reference is to Capital:

I worked with Marx; I was only the scribe to whom he dictated, but that gave me the opportunity of observing his manner of thinking and writing. Work was easy for him, and at the same time difficult. Easy because his mind found no difficulty in embracing the relevant facts and considerations in their completeness. But that very completeness made the exposition of his ideas a matter of long and arduous work…

He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of those parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went on from the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects. He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion.

His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and continually varying action and reaction. Men of letters of Flaubert’s and the Goncourts’ school complain that it is so difficult to render exactly what one sees; yet all they wish to render is the surface, the impression that they get. Their literary work is child’s play in comparison with Marx’s: it required extraordinary vigour of thought to grasp reality and render what he saw and wanted to make others see. Marx was never satisfied with his work – he was always making some improvements and he always found his rendering inferior to the idea he wished to convey …

Marx had the two qualities of a genius: he had an incomparable talent for dissecting a thing into its constituent parts, and he was past master at reconstituting the dissected object out of its parts, with all its different forms of development, and discovering their mutual inner relations. His demonstrations were not abstractions – which was the reproach made to him by economists who were themselves incapable of thinking; his method was not that of the geometrician who takes his definitions from the world around him but completely disregards reality in drawing his conclusions. Capital does not give isolated definitions or isolated formulas; it gives a series of most searching analyses which bring out the most evasive shades and the most elusive gradations.

Marx begins by stating the plain fact that the wealth of a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production presents itself as an enormous accumulation of commodities; the commodity, which is a concrete object, not a mathematical abstraction, is therefore the element, the cell, of capitalist wealth. Marx now seizes on the commodity, turns it over and over and inside out, and pries out of it one secret after another that official economists were not in the least aware of, although those secrets are more numerous and profound than all the mysteries of the Catholic religion. Having examined the commodity in all its aspects, considers it in its relations to its fellow commodity, in exchange. Then he goes on to its production and the historic prerequisites for its production. He considers the forms which commodities assume and shows how they pass from one to another, how one form is necessarily engendered by the other. He expounds the logical course of development of phenomena with such perfect art that one could think he had imagined it. And yet it is a product of reality, a reproduction of the actual dialectics of the commodity.

I thought I should tuck the comment here for future reference… The Reminiscences as a whole is a touching document, reflecting on Marx’s work rituals, family life, friendships – even the way he organises his study. I particularly enjoy moments like this in the piece:

He never allowed anybody to put his books or papers in order – or rather in disorder. The disorder in which they lay was only apparent, everything was really in its intended place so that it was easy for him to lay his hand on the book or notebook he needed. Even during conversations he often paused to show in the book a quotation or figure he had just mentioned. He and his study were one: the books and papers in it were as much under his control as his own limbs.

Marx had no use for formal symmetry in the arrangement of his books: volumes of different sizes and pamphlets stood next to one another. He arranged them according to their contents, not their size. Books were tools for his mind, not articles of luxury. “They are my slaves and they must serve me as I will,” he used to say. He paid no heed to size or binding, quality of paper or type; he would turn down the corners of the pages, make pencil marks in the margin and underline whole lines. He never wrote on books, but sometimes he could not refrain from an exclamation or question mark when the author went too far.

I find the following comment particularly poignant:

There is no doubt that Capital reveals to us a mind of astonishing vigour and superior knowledge. But for me, as for all those who knew Marx intimately, neither Capital nor any other of his works shows all the magnitude of his genius or the extent of his knowledge. He was highly superior to his own works.


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