Posts Tagged 'Marxism'

Marx’s Contribution to Political Economy

Lego Marx (photo by Dunechaser).

Ken C. Kawashima writes:

One of the abiding insights made by Marx in Capital is that in the colonies of capitalist nation-states the illusions of the capitalist law of supply and demand of labor are shattered.  In the home country, the great beauty of capitalist production consists in being able to reproduce the wage worker by periodically setting him free, i.e., firing him, and producing a surplus population that stands in relative exteriority to capitalist production as the precondition for the commodification of labor power.  Periodically treating labor power as a disposable commodity is thus the way capitalist production can ensure that its most indispensable commodity–labor power–is always already there when capitalist production experiences so-called labor shortages during times of industrial expansion.  It is this reproductive mechanism that allows for the smug deceitfulness of the political economist, not to mention the Japanese colonial policy maker, to think, and to formalize into naturalized axioms of economic movement, that owners of labor power–who are in fact compelled to enter into a relation of dependence with the wage form–can enter into a free contract between sellers and buyers, between owners of the commodity labor power, on one side, and owners of capital, on the other.  In the colonies, however, “this beautiful illusion is torn aside” because the conditions for the appearance of owners of labor power on the stage of the capitalist market do not originally exist there.  The dependence on wages must therefore be “created by artificial means,” and until that happens, the law of supply and demand of labor is torn aside.  In this way, this artificial and historical process in the colonies represents that which originally took place in the home country, but which has long since been repressed and disavowed there.  The political and economic unconsciousness of the home country dwells in the artificial processes in the colonies (Kawashima, 25).


Ken C. Kawashima.  The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan.  Durham, USA: Duke University Press, 2009.

Bourdieu & Gramsci

Gramsci (Red)

Antonio Gramsci

P. Kerim Friedman reviews Peter Ives‘ book Gramsci’s Politics of Language and the connections between Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) and Antonio Gramsci:

In Bourdieu’s early work with Jean-Claude Passeron, we find the term “the cultural arbitrary” used in a way which seems quite similar to Gramsci’s concept of normative grammar: “In any given social formation the cultural arbitrary which the power relations between the groups or classes making up that social formation put into the dominant position within the system of cultural arbitraries is the one which most fully, though always indirectly, expresses the objective interests (material and symbolic) of the dominant groups or classes.” In developing this concept, Bourdieu draws upon William Labov’s early work which showed that “members of a speech community can share allegiance to the same standard, despite differences in the (nonstandard) varieties they themselves speak.” Bourdieu’s work with Passeron serves to highlight how the educational system institutionalizes these arbitrary standards; thus naturalizing the success of the elite who are socialized into these norms before they ever set foot in school. Unlike normative grammar, however, the phrase “cultural arbitraries” reveals a lingering Saussurian structuralism. The specific content of the dominant cultural or linguistic form is less important for Bourdieu’s theory than the mere existence of an arbitrary standard which is recognized as legitimate even by those unable to perform it.

Gramsci’s historical method serves to highlight the cross-class alliances that stabilize in any given “historical bloc”-a phrase that refers to the “complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures” and corresponding “relations of production.” The hegemonic ideology of any given bloc does not simply reflect the interests of only the ruling elite, but also those of the other classes with whom they have entered into alliances and even the very process by which that alliance took shape. For instance, even though America’s financial elite share a generally secular libertarian ideology, the conservative movement was able to succeed by combining elite interests with those of evangelical southern white Christians. This has its roots in post-Civil War Reconstruction and in the “Southern strategy” adopted by Nixon’s Republican party in the wake of the civil rights movement. Choices regarding hegemonic cultural forms are not arbitrary nor do they simply reflect the cultural forms of the elite. They are the product of the “complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble” of a given historical bloc. While Bourdieu may tacitly acknowledge the importance of such processes, his theory of the “cultural arbitrary” retains its structuralist roots. (Friedman, 361-363)


Friedman, P. Kerim.  “Ethical Hegemony.”  Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 3 (July 2009): 355-365.

The Worker, Scarcity, & Violence

The mines of Serra Pelada by Sebastião Salgado.

The mines of Serra Pelada by Sebastião Salgado.

Jean-Paul Sartre writes:

Engels was right to say that very often, when two groups engage in a series of contractual exchanges, one of them will end up expropriated, proletarianised and, often, exploited, while the other concentrates the wealth in its own hands.  This takes place in violence, but not by violence: and experiencing exchange as a duel in this way is characteristic of the man of scarcity.  Though the result is appropriated in violence by the dominant class, it is not foreseen by the individuals who compose it. (Sartre, 153-154)


Sartre, Jean-Paul.  Critique of Dialectical Reason Volume I: Theory of Practical Ensembles.  Edited by Jonathan Rée Translated by Alan Sheridan-Smith.  London: New Left Books, 1976.

Philosophy as Totalization of Knowledge

Sartre drawing

In the introduction to Critique of Dialectical Reason (which in America was published separately as Search for a Method) Sartre wrote:

If philosophy is to be simultaneously a totalization of knowledge,, a method, a regulative Idea, an offensive weapon, and a community of language, if this “vision of the world” is also an instrument which ferments rotten societies, if this particular conception of a man or of a group of men becomes the culture and sometimes the nature of a whole class-then it is very clear that the periods of philosophical creation are rare…If this movement on the part of the philosophy no longer exists, one of two things is true: either the philosophy is dead or it is going through a “crisis.” In the first case there is no question of revising, but of razing a rotten building; in the second case the “philosophical crisis” is the particular expression of a social crisis, and its immobility is conditioned by the contradictions which split society.  A so-called “revision,” performed by “experts,” would be, therefore, only an idealist mystification without real significance.  It is the very movement of History, the struggle of men on all planes and on all levels of human activity, which will set free captive thought and permit it to attain its full development. (Sartre, 6-8)


Sartre, Jean-Paul.  Search for a Method.  Translated by Hazel E. Barnes.  New York: Vintage Books, 1968.

Gramsci on “Intellectualistic” Language

Gramsci circa 1922

While imprisoned under the fascist Italian regime of Mussolini, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) wrote:

It is necessary to avoid posing the problem in “intellectualistic” rather than historico-political terms.  Naturally it is not disputed that intellectual “clairvoyance” of the terms of the struggle is indispensable.  But this clairvoyance is a political value only in as much as it becomes disseminated passion, and in as much as it is the premiss for a strong will. (Gramsci, 113)


Gramsci, Antonio.  Selections from the Prison Notebooks.  Eds. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith.  New York: International Publishers, 2008.

Mao on Practical Organizing and Studying Theory

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong (1893-1976), in 1930, wrote:

The method of studying the social sciences exclusively from the book is likewise extremely dangerous and may even lead one onto the road of counter-revolution.  Clear proof of this is provided by the fact that whole batches of Chinese Communists who confined themselves to books in their study of the social sciences have turned into counter-revolutionaries.  When we say Marxism is correct, it is certainly not because Marx was a “prophet” but because his theory has been proved correct in our practice and in our struggle.  We need Marxism in our struggle.  In our acceptance of his theory no such formalistic or mystical notion as that of “prophecy” ever enters our minds.  Many who have read Marxist books have become renegades from the revolution, whereas illiterate workers often grasp Marxism very well.  Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship, which is divorced from the actual situation.  (Mao, 42-43)


Mao Tsetung.  Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung.  Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1971.

Marx and the Commodity Fetish


In the July 2009 issue of Rethinking Marxism John Lutz goes over Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism and how it relates to human relations and the human psyche in a capitalist society:

One of the central contradictions that Marx seeks to identify in his theory of commodity fetishism involves the extent to which capitalism, in inverse proportion to the extent that it expands the power of human beings over nature, disempowers individual subjects by subordinating them to the imperatives of capital.  While it appears to expand the sphere of human freedom, the concrete effects of the labor process lead to the economic and psychological diminishment of the majority in order to benefit the minority materially.  Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is intended to expose the mystification of social relations in the commodity form as the basis for a bourgeois conception of autonomy that exists in the implicit contrast with its socialist alternative.  In this respect, the dual manifestation of commodity fetishism as a mystification of social relations promising power and fulfillment and its reality as a form of economic domination are fundamentally intertwined. (Lutz, 421)


Lutz, John.  “A Marxian Theory of Subject: Commodity Fetishism, Autonomy, and Psychological Deprivation.”  Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 3 (July 2009): 420-34.


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