Marx Yesterday and Today

Posted: April 29, 2011 in Mario Tronti

Marx Yesterday and Today Mario Tronti 1962

“We cannot stop accepting today the fundamental Marxist affirmations, in the same way that a serious physicist cannot stop being Newtonian, with the difference, among others, that in the camp of sociology there needs to pass numerous generations before an Einstein can emerge. This figure will not emerge until the work of Marx has bared all its historical fruit.” This was the conclusion that Rudolf Schlesinger reached after he worked through Marx’s thought as well as the whole historical period marked by him. It is important to note this conclusion in order to advance a few initial comments- working hypothesis with the purpose of their deepening and verifying.

And, before anything else, a premise: a project which seeks to take on the discourse of the contemporary validity of a few fundamental Marxist affirmations has to confront Marx not in his own time, but in our time. Capital should be assessed on the basis of the capitalism of today. In this way we can demonstrate, once and for all, the ridiculous and banal petit bourgeois assertions that Marx’s work is, simultaneously, product and explanation of a society of small scale commodity production.

One of Marx’s fundamental thesis is the following: at the social base of capitalism, its inherent historical process always realizes a logical operation of abstraction, which strips the object of all casual and occasional elements, immediately assumed by its contingent presence, in order to discover and valorize its permanent and necessary sides, those which designate it as a specific product of a historically determined reality and makes it, as a result, valid for its whole existence. The process of capitalist development carries within itself the work of simplifying its own history, making its ‘nature’ reveal itself ever and more pure, stripping itself of all inessential contradictions in order to expose that deep or fundamental contradiction which simultaneously reveals it and condemns it. In this sense, capitalist development is the truth of capitalism itself: in fact, only capitalist development can expose capitalism’s secret. This secret, expressed from the point of view of the bourgeoisie, becomes the ultimate mystification of capitalism for everyone, in everyone’s reach, or in other words, the ultimate truth capital is capable of and, as a consequence, the ideological instrument of its indefinite stabilization. The same secret, seen from the working class perspective, is transformed into the greatest scientific comprehension of the true nature of capitalism, through an analysis of the previous results of its own history; it is transformed, through the discovery of that ultimate contradiction of capitalism, and as a result, into the theoretical instrument of its coming destruction. If it is true that it is here- at the social base of the most advanced capitalism- where that decisive confrontation between working class and capital takes place, it is also true that it is also on the same terrain upon which we should express the class struggle between worker’s theory and bourgeois ideology.

Another fundamental thesis of Marx is the following: it is the most advanced point which explains the least developed and not vice-versa; it is capital which explains ground rent and not vice versa. As such, the verification of a particular thought should be achieved not on the social terrain which apparently produced it but in that which subsequently surpassed it: precisely because it was the last which, in reality, produced it. Like this Marx did not put Hegel in confrontation with the backwards situation in semi-feudal Germany but with the most advanced capitalistic developments in Europe, at the same time constraining Ricardo to give an immediate answer to the problems that his own time put to him. As a result, the Marx of today cannot eternally continue to ‘settle scores’ with his old philosophical conscience; he should instead be ‘cemented’ through an active encounter with the modern reality of contemporary capitalism: in order to understand and destroy it, because it is this that is the moment of verification and it is this which is required of or imposed by working class inquiry.  It is not a matter of coincidence that today when bourgeois thought constructs existentialist romances about the ‘alienation of human essence’, keeping itself entranced before a few unfortunate sentences in the Manuscripts of 1844, it is not a matter of coincidence that working class thought returns to Capital, for a classic model of scientific analysis of the present as a function of revolutionary struggle which seeks to abolish and overcome it.

In a very poignant page from his book, Michaud has the courage to express in words an idea which I judge to be very widespread if not in a state of confused sensation [no estado de sensacao confusa]: “the appearance in some respect, in our epoch, of a pre-Marxist ideological situation.” Is he correct in expressing himself this way? In what sense can we say this? The answer to these questions can potentially shine some light over some dark places.

The thought of Marx- as any authentically revolutionary thought- tends to destroy what exists in order to construct that which does not. There exists then two parts, distinct in themselves but organically united, which form this thought. One is the “ruthless criticism of all that exists”, which in Marx is expressed as the discovery of the mystified procedure of bourgeois thought and, as a consequence, as theoretical demystification of capitalist ideologies. The other is the “positive analysis of the present” which produces from the maximum level of scientific comprehension the future alternative to the current present. One is the critique of bourgeois ideology; the other scientific analysis of capitalism. In the work of Marx these two moments can be apprehended, divided logically and chronologically successive: from The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right to Capital. This does not mean, therefore, that this procedure should be repeated in this precise division and in this succession. Marx himself, when he addressed classical political economy and retread that same path which had led him to discover, through the means of analysis, a few general abstract relations, knew quite well that that path was not to be repeated; on the contrary, it was necessary to start from those simple abstractions- the division of labour, money, value- in order to then reach, once again, the “living unity”: the populace, the nation, the State, the world market. In the same manner, today, once the point of arrival of Marx’s work is reached –Capital– it is necessary to use it as a point of departure: once we reach an analysis of capitalism, it is from here that we must start again. Inquiry around certain determinant abstractions- wage-labour, the modifications in the organic composition of capital, value under oligopolistic capitalism- should be the point of departure in order to arrive at a new ‘living unity”: the people, democracy, the political State of neo-capitalism, the international class struggle. It is not by accident that this was the path undertaken by Lenin: The development of capitalism in Russia to The State and Revolution. It is not by accident either that bourgeois ideology and all the reformist ideologies of the working class seek the inverse path.

All this however is still insufficient: since it is not enough to grasp the specific character which today the analysis of capitalism should assume, it is also necessary, simultaneously, to grasp the specific character which the critique of ideology should assume. And here we should start then from a precise assumption, operating according to one of those excessive/forcing biases which are the positive characteristics of the science of Marx, stimulants for new thoughts and active intervention in practical struggle. Now, the assumption is the following: an ideology is always bourgeois, since it is always the mystified reflex of the class struggle on the capitalist terrain.

Marxism has been conceived as the “ideology” of the worker’s movement. This is a basic error since its point of departure, its “act of birth” was precisely the destruction of all ideology through the destructive criticism of all bourgeois ideologies. The process of ideological mystification is only possible, indeed, on the basis of modern bourgeois society: this has been and continues to be the bourgeois point of view on/over bourgeois society. For those who have glanced at the opening pages of Capital, even only once, can see that the process is not one of a process of pure thought which the bourgeoisie consciously chooses to mask the fact of exploitation but instead it is the result of the process itself, real and objective, of exploitation.In other words, it is the result of the process itself and the mechanism of development of capitalism in all its phases.

It is because of this that the working class does not need an “ideology.” Since its existence as a class, that is, its presence as an antagonistic reality against the global capitalist system, its organization as a revolutionary class, do not link it to the mechanism of that development but make it instead, yes, independent of it and opposed to it. Better yet: the more that capitalist development advances the more autonomous can the working class become in relation to capitalism; the more the system “perfects” itself the more the working class should become the maximum contradiction within the system, to the point of making its survival impossible and at the same time making it possible and, as a result, necessary the revolutionary rupture which liquidates and overcomes the capitalist system.

Marx is not the ideology of the worker’s movement: it is its revolutionary theory. A theory which was born as the critique of bourgeois ideologies and which must daily live from that criticism- it should continue to be the “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” A theory that came to constitute itself as the scientific analysis of capitalism and that should feed from each moment of that analysis and at certain times should identify itself with it when it is necessary to recuperate the lost ground and bridge the gap, the distance, which has opened up between the development of things and the postponement and verification of the research and its instruments/tools/means [strumenti]. A theory which only lives as a function of the revolutionary practice of the working class, that provides weapons for its struggle, develops instruments/tools for its knowledge, isolates and magnifies the objectives of its action. Marx has been and continues to be the point of view of the worker over bourgeois society.

If the thought of Marx is the revolutionary theory of the working class, if Marx is the science of the proletariat, on what basis and how has one part, at least, of Marxism turned into a populist ideology, an arsenal of banal platitudes to justify all possible compromises in the course of class struggle? Here the task of the historian is great. In the meantime this simple fact  is evident by itself:  if ideology is part, is a specific articulation, determined historically, of the mechanism proper of the development of capitalism, to accept this “ideological” dimension- to construct a working class ideology- this can only mean one thing: that the working class movement has itself become- as such- in part, a passive articulation of capitalist development; it has suffered a process of integration within the system, a process which can have various phases and levels but which nonetheless has the same consequences of provoking different phases and different levels- that is, different forms– of that reformist practice which is ultimately seen today, in appearance, implicitly in the very concept of the working class. If ideology in general is always bourgeois, an ideology of the working class is always reformist: this is the mystified mode through which is expressed and, at the same time, inverted [rovesciata], its revolutionary function.

If this is true, from this follows that the process of demystification must today pass through Marxism itself, it should conceive itself as well as a process of the deideologization of Marxism. I refer here to Marxism and not the work of Marx, for the discourse required on the latter is quite diverse. This is, naturally, a work of internal criticism of Marx’s own work, of the separation and choosing of some major directions that it contains. Those that should be focused on and valued are those in which scientific generalizations are exercised at the highest level and where, therefore, the analysis of capitalism demonstrates in a powerful way a dynamic understanding of the system, individualizing and judging the substantive tendencies which continually modify capitalism and revolutionize it internally. On the other hand, those parts that should be isolated and pushed aside are those in which that type of generalization at the scientific level appear to have not been attained and where, as a result, immediate generalizations of relative particulars of a particular state of the development of capitalism which ends up covering up the character of capitalism as a whole. This internal criticism- which represents in a certain sense the self-criticisms of Marx- is something different from the work of demystification of a few Marxist theories. This last point speaks not with respect to the work of Marx, but to a certain part of Marxism.

We are used to speaking today with a certain degree of irony and contempt of vulgar Marxism: this we even learned from Marx himself. The diverse judgments and attitudes of Marx towards classical political economy are well known, which he himself called vulgar economics. The merit of classical political economy is the effort to reduce, through analysis, the different forms of wealth to their intrinsic unity, depriving them of the figures in when they coexist independently one of the others: classical economics seeks to understand the internal connection of facts, liberating them from the multiplicity of phenomenal forms. In doing this, even in operating according to its specific process of mystification, classical economics is able to proceed hand in hand with the real development of social antagonisms and, thus, with the objective level of class struggle implicit within capitalist production. However, there exists within political economy- or better yet: there emerges at a specific stage in its development- an element which represents within it “the simple reproduction of the phenomenon” as its simple representation: and it is this which is its vulgar element, which at a certain point is separated and isolated from the rest as a particular representation of economy in general. The more the real contradictions advance, the more difficult and complex is their reproduction on the plane of thought, the more difficult and slow is the analysis at the scientific level – and ever more does that vulgar element opposes itself to this work as an autonomous and alternate [sostitutivo] element to it, “until it finds its best expression in a compilation academically syncretic and classical without character”; vulgar economics becomes increasingly apologetic and “seeks to eliminate with verbiage” all contradictory thoughts  through which real contradictions are expressed. When we read these pages from Marx and we think about vulgar Marxism we are tempted to think that everything has been said.

In the meantime, however, there is an essential point which must be added. If it is true that mystification today has penetrated the roots of Marxism and if it is true there are objective reasons which led and continue to lead this process of vulgarization- then the most urgent task is that of identifying these objective reasons, not only to simply know them, but to struggle against them. It is necessary to be clear in this respect. This is not about a struggle simply at the theoretical level. This is not about opposing a neo-scholasticism of pure Marxists against the old academy of vulgar Marxists. We must take the struggle to the real terrain: conceiving the theoretical task itself as a moment of the class struggle. Once convinced of the necessity of this, let us say, Marxian purification of Marxism; once that scientific level of analysis of capitalism is regained and which should be applied to the whole complexity of international phenomenon; once the scientific unity of the thought of Marx is recovered and once again verified, that unity which is expressed in an organic unity of economics and sociology, of political theory and real, practical struggle- from here, from this point it is necessary to start again, or rather, from this point we have to leap, finding once again the real forces which should guide this process, the objective conditions which necessarily produce them, the material reasons which will make, once again, of theory itself a material force.

Today, perhaps more than ever, the truth of the Leninist thesis is highlighted in full force: there does not exist a revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory. When it is felt to be  expressed on the part of all the requirement of seeing and understanding the strategic perspective of the revolution, beyond the blind day to day tactics, then we can understand how great today is this necessity of theory, that captures and understands the entire arch of the antagonistic forces of the capitalistic system and breaks that arch at a decisive point thereby contributing to maintaining those forces divided, as much as theory could help to make them united and homogeneous. And, in the meantime, never has the opposite been as true as it is today: that revolutionary theory is not possible without a revolutionary movement. Therefore the theorist himself today should focus his energies and lend a hand to the practical work of rediscovery and reorganization of the only truly subversive forces which live within capitalism; he should once again become conscious of his existence and contribute towards giving a materially organized form to the revolutionary instance which in that existence is objectively expressed. In the last instance, the process of the demystification of Marxism is not possible without worker’s power. Therefore, worker’s power – the autonomous organization of the working class- is the real process of demystification since it is the material base of revolution.

In that sense, the principal polemical objective of the Marx of today cannot be anymore Vulgarokonomie , vulgar economics, not even under its current form of vulgar Marxism. In as much as the latter has as a presupposition and result, simultaneously, the Vulgarpolitik vulgar politics of the worker’s movement, it is against this vulgar politics which needs to be struggled against. However, it is necessary to choose well the ways in which to struggle and the task of contemporary Marxists cannot be exhausted in those ways. It is an obvious principle, even though it has been wrongly interpreted many times: the internal criticism of the worker’s movement should express itself always as an external struggle against the class enemy. Therefore, the internal criticism of Marxism should be expressed first of all as a struggle against bourgeois thought. Today then the destructive criticism of all neo-capitalist ideologies should be the necessary point of departure in order to reach, once again, the critique of all ideology, including all reformist ideologies of the worker’s movement. We saw, however, that currently the analysis of capitalism should, in a certain way, precede the critique of ideology, in the sense that it should form its basis. We can, then, say that today the positive analysis of the present- that is, the formulation of important insights from practical struggle and the rediscovery and reorganization of the material forces which should lead it forward– has to necessarily precede and form the basis for the negative destruction of all ideological and political mystifications.

We can thus conclude in the following manner: the ideological situation of today is perhaps pre-Marxist, with the difference that the theoretical situation is perhaps pre-Leninist. Which is to say, that today, the way to begin is not to once again trace the path before Marx nor after Lenin. It is, perhaps, and I say this in a consciously provocative manner, the path of today, perhaps, is to once again accomplish the leap from Marx to Lenin. From the analysis of contemporary capitalism to the elaboration of a theory of the proletarian revolution on the basis of modern capitalism. The worker’s revolution- with all of its means at its disposal– should become once again, and concretely, the minimum program of the worker’s movement. Already once the working class rediscovered Marx through Lenin and the result was the October revolution. When this repeats itself, the death knells will sound- as Marx said- for capitalism in the world.

(January 1962)

From Operarios e Capital

Translated from Portuguese and Italian by Guio Jacinto

  1. […] a new translated bit of Tronti’s great untranslated Workers and Capital. I apparently read and took notes on this a while […]

  2. […] new translation is up at Operaismo in English: Marx Yesterday and Today by Mario Tronti, […]

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