Marx’s “most realistic… most amazing insight!”

Marx’s “most realistic… most amazing insight!”

In his farewell lecture at Brandeis University, “Obsolescence of Socialism,” Herbert Marcuse quoted a passage from the Grundrisse and claimed that in Capital, Marx had “repressed this vision, which now appears as his most realistic, his most amazing insight!”

As large-scale industry advances, the creation of real wealth depends increasingly less on the labor time and the quantity of labor expended in the productive process than on the power of the instruments set in motion during the labor time. These instruments, and their growing effectiveness are in no proportion to the actual labor time which the production requires; their effectiveness rather depends on the attained level of science and technical progress. Human labor then is no longer enclosed in the process of production — man rather relates himself to the process of production merely as supervisor and regulator. He stands outside this process instead of being its principal agent. In this transformation, the basis of production and wealth is no longer the actual (physical) labor performed by man himself, nor his labor time, but his own creative power, that is, his knowledge and mastery of nature through his social existence in one word, the development of the social (all-round) individual. The theft of another man’s labor time, on which the social wealth still rests today, then becomes a miserable basis compared with the new basis which large-scale industry itself has created. As soon as human labor, in its physical form, has ceased to be the great source of wealth, labor time will cease, and must of necessity cease, to be the measure of wealth, and exchange value must of necessity cease to be the measure of use value. The surplus labor of the mass of the population has then ceased to be the condition for the development of social wealth, and the leisure of the few has ceased to be the condition for the development of the intellectual faculties of man. The (capitalist) mode of production, which rests on exchange value, thus collapses… 

Marcuse’s quotation corresponds to the passage beginning on page 704 of the Penguin edition and continuing through most of page 705, with some elisions. “Man becomes free from the necessities of spending himself in material production,” Marcuse exclaimed following the quotation, “Free to control, even to ‘play’ with it according to his own human faculties. Not a word about class struggle! Not a word about impoverishment!”

Not a word about class struggle or impoverishment in the passage quoted by Marcuse because those questions were dealt with elsewhere in the manuscript. “It is already contained in the concept of the free labourer,” Marx wrote on page 604, “that he is a pauper: virtual pauper.” And, Marx continued:

According to his economic conditions he is merely a living labour capacity, hence equipped with the necessaries of life. Necessity on all sides, without the objectivities necessary to realize himself as labour capacity. If the capitalist has no use for his surplus labour, then the worker may not perform his necessary labour; not produce his necessaries. Then he cannot obtain them through exchange; rather, if he does obtain them, it is only because alms are thrown to him from revenue. He can live as a worker only in so far as he exchanges his labour capacity for that part of capital which forms the labour fund. This exchange is tied to conditions which are accidental for him, and indifferent to his organic presence. He is thus a virtual pauper. Since it is further the condition of production based on capital that he produces ever more surplus labour, it follows that ever more necessary labour is set free. Thus the chances of his pauperism increase. To the development of surplus labour corresponds that of the surplus population. In different modes of social production there are different laws of the increase of population and of overpopulation ; the latter identical with pauperism. These different laws can simply be reduced to the different modes of relating to the conditions of production, or, in respect to the living individual, the conditions of his reproduction as a member of society, since he labours and appropriates only in society. The dissolution of these relations in regard to the single individual, or to part of the population, places them outside the reproductive conditions of this specific basis, and hence posits them as overpopulation, and not only lacking in means but incapable of appropriating the necessaries through labour, hence as paupers. Only in the mode of production based on capital does pauperism appear as the result of labour itself, of the development of the productive force of labour.

 “Not a [single] word about class struggle! Not a [single] word about impoverishment!” No, not one word — three hundred and twenty words about class and pauperization with another six pages on the same topics to follow. 

The passage Marcuse quoted is from a part of the Grundrisse that has come to be known as the “fragment on machines.” It is my argument that the so-called fragment is intimately related to two other fragments that occur earlier in the edited manuscript as it has been published. The connections between the three fragments are both lexical and logical, and the analysis in the first two informs the interpretation of terminology used in the third. Marcuse was right that the passage he quoted contained a “most amazing insight.” It just wasn’t the one he thought it was.