Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Fetish and the Commune

Marx makes significant edits to Capital between the first German edition in 1867 and the second in 1873 – edits that begin to be articulated in his revisions for the serialised French publication of Capital between 1872 and 1875. Revisions are particularly heavy in Capital‘s opening chapter – where the concept of the fetish character of the commodity is massively expanded and gains its own section. When interpreting the dramatic structure of the first chapter, as I’ve done on this blog off and on for the past few years, I’ve followed the text as it stands after the revisions of the second German edition. I would have done this even if I had regarded these revisions as fundamentally altering the meaning and structure of the first edition but, as it happens, there is textual evidence from the first edition that Marx understood the dramatic structure of that original edition to be very similar to what I find in the edition familiar to us: a text that enacts three different perspectives on the wealth of capitalist societies, and then destabilises even the final perspective by suggesting that it is still not fully adequate to express the characteristics of that wealth. In Marx’s words (using Hans Ehrbar’s extremely useful side-by-side German-English version of the first edition) these are the final sentences of the equivalent to our current opening chapter:

The commodity is immediate unity of use-value and exchange-value, i.e. of two opposite moments. It is, therefore, an immediate contradiction. This contradiction must develop as soon as the commodity is not, as it has been so far, analytically considered once under the angle of use-value, once under the angle of exchange-value [by which, in this edition, Marx means what will be called “value” from the second edition], but as soon as it is placed as a whole into an actual relation with other commodities. The actual relation of commodities with each other, however, is their exchange process [which is what Marx will explore in the following section]. (cf. Ehrbar 148)

So: three voices, the first two of which do not have the capacity to show how the contradictions in the commodity can be developed in practice – the third of which does potentially lead in a more promising direction, but not in the form in which it has been presented in this opening chapter. The revisions for the second edition, on my reading, bring out the distinctions between these voices more clearly – at which point Marx, in a typical move, excises the little bit of stage direction I have quoted above, ending the chapter instead on the Dogberry and Seacoal exchange that, in the first edition, takes place in the paragraph prior. The edits to the chapter – which include a much clearer terminological distinction between exchange-value and value, as well as the expansion of the discussion of the fetish character of the commodity – each seem, on my reading, ways of cashing out more clearly the claims of its original concluding sentence.

Particularly in Marxist Humanist readings of Capital, it is common to argue that the revisions to the first edition were provoked by Marx’s experience of the Paris Commune, which, it is suggested, for the first time give him a sense of the standpoint from which the fetish character of the commodity can be penetrated: the standpoint of freely-associated labourers.

Peter Hudis, for example (159-60), argues:

Remarkably, there is no section on commodity fetishism in the 1867 (first) edition of Volume 1 of Capital. It was only between 1872 and 1875, in revising Capital for the French edition, that Marx created a section entitled ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and Its Secret’. Marx introduced certain crucial changes to his discussion of commodity fetishism in the French edition, which he said ‘had a scientific value independent of the original’. One of the most important changes concerned his effort to answer the question of ‘whence arises this enigmatic character of the product of labour, once it assumes the form of a commodity’. It is only with the French edition that Marx answered this to his satisfaction, by stating, ‘Clearly from this form itself’. With this change, Marx makes it clear that what explains the fetish is the very form assumed by the product of labour, the very nature of the ‘peculiar social character of the labour’ which produces commodities. This new formulation, as well as the new section on commodity fetishism as a whole, explicitly posed the abolition of fetishism as centring on the abolition of value-producing labour.

What intervened between the first German edition in 1867 and the French edition of 1872-5 which explains Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism? The Paris Commune. The changes introduced in the French edition reflect its impact…

The activity of the Communards thereby allowed for a new leap in thought. Commodity fetishism cannot be penetrated by enlightened critique which assumes a privileged standpoint outside the value-form; nor can it be stripped away by pointing to a hidden essence obscured by the ‘illusion’ of fetishism. Instead, ‘The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surround the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes as soon as we come to other forms of production.’ The emergence of a new form of association pointing to the transcendence of the value-form in 1871 provided the vantage point for penetrating the secret of the fetish. Marx’s reworking of the section on commodity fetishism after the Paris Commune reveals the impact of the workers’ revolts on the creation of his central value-theoretic categories.

Hudis’ argument subtly displaces the form in which Marx presents his discussion of the free association of labourers. In Marx’s text, the sentence on how the mystery of commodities vanishes when we confront other forms of production, does not immediately lead into the discussion of freely-associated labourers. Instead, that passage describes the hypothetical Robinson on his island, then moves to a discussion of medieval serfdom, then to a discussion of labour in common within a patriarchal household – and only then to a discussion of freely associated labourers. Moreover, when this more emancipatory example is introduced, the text makes clear that the point is not specifically to put forward a model for future social development, but rather to come up with an example that closely parallels the component aspects of commodity production that have been put forward earlier in this chapter. By omitting all of the other examples Marx considers, and juxtaposing the example of freely-associated labour directly with Marx’s claim to reveal the “magic and necromancy” that surrounds commodities, Hudis makes it sound as though the discovery of the possibility for freely-associated labour is what allows Marx to penetrate the mystery of the commodity form.

Hudis seems unaware that the first edition of Capital – published in 1867, prior to the Commune – already includes the passage on freely-associated labourers (cf. Ehrbar 2009: 120-22). It immediately follows a discussion of Robinson on his island. In other words, the first edition of Capital already contains the nucleus of the passage Hudis presents as new to the French edition – and that nucleus already contains the central insight Hudis argues is pivotal to Marx’s post-Commune critique of the fetish.

What is new with the later edition is that the two earlier examples – Robinson on his island, and freely-associated labour – are now joined by two further, historical examples. What Marx changes, in other words, is a passage from the original edition that included only hypothetical examples: he beefs up the passage by adding a couple of real-world examples from actual historical cases. The nature of this change suggests that Marx might have been worried that, without real-world examples, it would seem utopian to suggest that the fetish-character of the commodity was not in some sense inherent. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but the logic of this revision does not suggest that, when he speaks of an association of free labourers in this context, he has the very real-world example of the Commune in mind. This point should not be too surprising, however, given that the text expressly says that this more emancipatory example has been chosen for the parallels it offers to commodity production, rather than as a recommended model for future social development.

I have written elsewhere on the function these examples serve within the architechtonic of Marx’s argument: they allow him to demonstrate that you can take some of the same component practices that – in their present configuration – help to reproduce capital, and reconfigure them into new forms in which they can be shown no longer to generate this unintentional aggregate result. If I am right about what Marx is trying to show, revising the passage to add historical examples would make sense: otherwise it could appear that Marx is unable to show – other than by ungrounded hypotheticals – that it should be possible to transform social relations in such a way that the fetish character would no longer exist. For this purpose, Robinson on his island – or a hypothetical future society of freely associated labourers – are useful thought experiments, but could leave a nagging doubt about the practical reality of Marx’s claims. The historical examples thus bolster the argument by identifying actual examples of social relations that, while by no means ideal, nevertheless help illustrate that the fetish character of social relations is not an inevitable result of material production – or even of class domination. This strategic goal, I suggest, drives these particular revisions.


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