This is probably not the most self-enobling observation, but I must confess that I enjoy Marx’s snarky footnotes. This one from the second chapter of Capital caught my eye today:
Proudhon begins by taking his ideal of Justice, of “justice éternelle,” from the juridical relations that correspond to the production of commodities: thereby, it may be noted, he proves, to the consolation of all good citizens, that the production of commodities is a form of production as everlasting as justice. Then he turns round and seeks to reform the actual production of commodities, and the actual legal system corresponding thereto, in accordance with this ideal. What opinion should we have of a chemist, who, instead of studying the actual laws of the molecular changes in the composition and decomposition of matter, and on that foundation solving definite problems, claimed to regulate the composition and decomposition of matter by means of the “eternal ideas,” of “naturalité” and “affinité”? Do we really know any more about “usury,” when we say it contradicts “justice éternelle,” équité éternelle “mutualité éternelle,” and other vérités éternelles than the fathers of the church did when they said it was incompatible with “grâce éternelle,” “foi éternelle,” and “la volonté éternelle de Dieu”?
There’s an enormous amount packed into this short passage, and I don’t have time to write on it in adequate detail. A few quick points on distinctions Marx makes between types of critique, some more tacit than others in the passage quoted. I toss these here by way of placeholders for future posts, as I don’t have time to do more than make notes now.
One is the issue of utopian forms of critique – forms of critique operating in the name of ideals that could never be realised (generally, in Marx’s work, this charge is levelled at a form of critique that he believes is assuming that some necessary moment of the reproduction of capital could be overcome, while all the other moments remain intact – since Marx sees the reproduction of capital as a “logic” that tends to generate its own conditions, he is deeply sceptical of such critiques; a major goal in Capital is to specify more precisely what needs to be overcome, in order to halt the reproduction of capital).
A separable issue is that of types of critique that operate within the established social form – appealing to ideals that resonate, that can to some degree be realised, and whose more complete realisation might make a significant difference to living conditions on the ground, but in situations where the ideals do not point beyond the existing social form. Such forms of critique can be problematic to the extent that they take themselves as something more transformative than they are, and thus obscure a recognition of what would be required to overcome that social form itself. Recognised as contestations within the existing social framework, however, these forms of critique can make a significant difference in the humanisation of everyday living and working conditions – precariously, as there will remain pressures to roll back humanising reforms, but with meaningful consequences while they hold, including perhaps the consequence of increasing receptivity to more fundamental transformations.
A third – quite significant – issue here is Marx’s criticism of Proudhon for shoving what Marx regards as historically-emergent ideals into an asocial and decontextualised space. Marx (characteristically) immediately likens this move to a form of religious mysticism, and reaches for practice: what are we doing that renders such ideals plausible to us? How do these ideals arise? Only once we can answer these questions, are we in the position to speak in terms of critique. For Marx, critique doesn’t float in an intrinsic “ought”, but is practically-emergent, albeit in a form that can react back on the existing organisation of social practice.
I have to leave this hanging for the moment – trying to get something else done on a deadline, and so depositing these thoughts here more to clear space for the things I’m meant to be thinking about right now. I’m sure I’ll have ample opportunity to retract later, what I’ve posted here in too much haste.