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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Karl Marx on how to start a flame war and sell your book

Marx is not often pointed out to aspiring writers for his imitable work in publicizing his masterpiece. However, the correspondence of Marx and Engels, in 1867 and 1868, is filled with strategies for making Capital known on a broad scale – from Engels suggestion that Marx should take seriously the idea of a “portrait” in the Leipzig Illustrated Paper to the campaign of reviews meant to pump the book.
Among the letters is one that is quoted extensively by Schlomo Avineri in his essay trying to prove that the connection between  Marx and Darwin came about as the result of a hoax. Avineri cherrypicks a bit in this essay: Marx, who was no biologist, was alternatively impressed by Darwin and scornful of the way he took Malthus’ method and applied it to nature (I should say, from comments of Darwin’s this is what Marx took Darwin to be doing, although of course the issue is more complex than that). Still, it gave Avineri the chance to quote a quite amazing letter in which Marx pens a review of Das Capital that criticizes its “subjective” anti-capitalist tendencies while praising its general tenor. Its quite an amusing text:   

“As regards the little Swabian paper, it would be an amusing coup if we could hoodwink Vogt’s friend, the Swabian Mayer. It would be easy to contrive the thing as follows. D'abord to begin by saying that whatever one may think of the draft of the book, it is a credit to the ‘German spirit’, for which reason, too, it was written by a Prussian in exile and not in Prussia; Prussia having long ceased to be a country where any scholarly initiative, especially in the political or historical or social field, is possible or is actually to be found, it now being the representative of the Russian and not of the German spirit. In respect of the book itself, a distinction has to be drawn between two things, between positive developments (’solid’ would be the second epithet) given by the author, and the tendentious conclusions he arrives at. The former are a direct addition to the sum of human knowledge, since actual economic relations are treated in an entirely new way by a materialistic (‘Mayer’ has a liking for this catchword, on account of Vogt) method. Example: 1. the development of money, 2. the way in which co-operation, division of labour, the machine system and the corresponding social combinations and relations develop ‘spontaneously’.
Now as regards the tendency of the author, another distinction has to be drawn. When he demonstrates that present society, economically considered, is pregnant with a new, higher form, he is only showing in the social context the same gradual process of evolution that Darwin has demonstrated in natural history. The liberal doctrine of ‘progress’ (c'est Mayer tout pur) embraces this idea, and it is to his credit that he himself shows there is hidden progress even where modern economic relations are accompanied by frightening direct consequences. At the same time, owing to this critical approach of his, the author has, perhaps malgré lui , sounded the death-knell to all socialism by the book, i.e. to utopianism, for evermore.
The author’s tendency to be subjective, on the other hand — which he was perhaps bound and obligated to assume in view of his party position and his past — i.e. the manner in which he represents to himself or to others the ultimate outcome of the present movement, of the present social process, bears absolutely no relation to its real development. If space permitted this to be more closely examined, it could perhaps be shown that its ‘objective’ development refutes his own ‘subjective’ fancies.
Whereas Mr Lassalle hurled abuse at the capitalists and flattered the backwoods Prussian squirearchy, Mr Marx, on the contrary, shows the historical necessity of capitalist production and severely criticises the landed aristocrat who does nought but consume. Just how little he shares the ideas of his renegade disciple Lassalle on Bismarck’s vocation for ushering in an economic millennium he has not merely shown in his previous protests against ‘royal Prussian Socialism’ but he openly repeats it on pp. 762, 763, where he says that the system prevailing in France and Prussia at present will subject the continent of Europe to the regime of the Russian knout, if it is not checked in good time.
That is my view on how to hoodwink the Swabian Mayer (who did after all print my preface), and small though his beastly rag is, it is, nevertheless, the popular oracle of all the Federalists in Germany and is also read abroad.”
This purely gleeful side of Marx is what makes him a manyhandled author – note the scorn connected with the world “materialist”, and the surprisingly turn at the end of the pseudo-review in which Capital is taken as the death knell of socialism. In fact, this view of the book has, outside of Marx’s “hoax”, endured, with the “rational expectations” Marxists of the 80s – I’m looking at you, Jon Elster – making it the centerpiece of their radicaly purified Marxism.
So, here’s Marx’s advice to young writers: get your friends to write reviews of your book in which they praise it for its objective merits, but qualify the praise by saying that the author’s viewpoint is, unfortunately, completely wrong.
Marx was ahead of his time: what he was doing was inventing the flame war as a way to sell his book.


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