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Friday, March 19, 2010

Necessity in History II

That's the way it's done up here yeah,
the boss, the boys, the fight up here
that's the way it's done up here.

In 1877, Marx wrote a letter to the editor of the journal, Otechestvennye Zapiski in response to an article about him by Nikolai Mikhailovski. Marx didn’t like Mikhailovski’s praise – which he felt was based on a misunderstanding. Marx himself compressed his work in the chapter on primitive accumulation in Capital to that of delineating an episode in the history of Western European society in which “the capitalist economic order had emerged from the entrails of the feudal economic order.” He did not think that the same process would necessarily occur in the same way in Russia. And he was moved to remark about the whole notion of historical ‘necessity”

“Now, what application to Russia could my critique make of this historical sketch? Only this: if Russia tends to become a capitalist nation in the wake of the nations of Western Europe – and during the last few years she has definitely given herself a lot of trouble trying to do this – she won’t succeed without having first transformed a good part of the peasantry into proletarians; and, after this, once led to the lap of the capitalist regime, she will be subject to ist pitiless laws like other profane peoples. This is it! But it is too little for my critic. He absolutely needs to transform my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general march, fatally imposed on all peoples, for arriving at last at this economic formation, which assures with the greatest push of the productive powers of social labor the most integral development of each individual producer. (This is at the same time too much honor and too much shame). Let’s take an example. In different parts of Capital I have made allusion to the destiny that the plebians of ancient Rome attained. They were originally free farming peasants, each working for himself on their own smallholdings (parcelles). In the course of Roman history they were expropriated. The same movement which separated them from their means of production and substance implied not only the formation of great landowners, but of great monetary capitals. Thus, one pretty morning (there was) on one side free men, denuded of everything except the force of their labor, and on the other, to exploit their labor, the holders of all the wealth so acquired. What happened? The Roman proletarians didn’t become wage laborers, but an idle mob, more abject even than the so called ‘poor whites’ of the Southern United States, and by there side was deployed a mode of non-capitalist production, but rather slave-centered. Thus events with a striking analogy, but occurring in different historical milieux, lead to completely disparate results. In studying each of these evolutions one will easily find the key to this phenomenon, but one will never get there with a skeleton key of a general historico-philosophical theory of which the supreme virtue consists in its being suprahistorical.”

Marx tended, after the Paris Commune, to react more and more with these cautions as his works began to circulate in revolutionary and socialist circles. This period coincided with his re-thinking of what he had written earlier about Indian village communes and the Russian peasant commune. Amie has pointed me to the sketches of the letter that Marx wrote to Vera Véra Zassoulitch in 1881. In this letter Marx retreats from his former certainty about the future of the peasant commune, and its irrelevance to a future communist society. In fact, he now writes that “ In order to save the Russian commune, there must be a Russian Revolution. Otherwise, the guardians of political and social forces will do their best in order to prepare the masses for such a catastrophe” – the catastrophe being the ‘conspiracy’ against the commune mounted by the proto-capitalists, who long to give it the boot.

Interestingly, this letter is treated, by Zassoulitch’s biographer, Jay Bergman, as a document that might have impeded Zassoulitch’s conversion to Marxism. Whey? Because, Bergman writes, “In this letter, Marx stated, in effect, that the general laws of economic development set forth in the first volume of Capital need not necessarily apply to Russia and that institutions peculiar to Russian society could lead it in a direction different from that of every other nation.” Such is the power of the idea that Marx’s Capital outlines what Marx believes to be the ‘laws’ of all economic development that Marx’s own disagreement is considered a lapse on his part, if not a denial of the clear message of Capital.

However, in Bergman’s defense – and in defense of the countless Marxists who have defended just that idea – Marx does have a powerful sense of universal history. The bourgeoisie, as Marx describes them in the Communist Manifesto, seem to face the option of succumbing to economic crises brought about by overproduction of finding new markets – and in so doing, creating a global economy, a world market.

Which I will plunge into in my next post.


Anonymous said...

If you have not already done so, you might be interested in reading Franlin Rosement's essay on Marx and the Iroquois.

John Garvey

Roger Gathmann said...

Thanks for the tip!

Anonymous said...

Aside from carving, a lot of the work in which Marx overdoame his Hegelian, nationalities-based overgeneralization really just wasn't widely available. India seems to have been the case that demonstrated the differences in the impact of capital on the colonies. In 2006 Leftword published this collection of the writings, Karl Marx on India.
. Introduction by Irfan Habib, Appreciation by Prabhat Patnaik. the introduction is a useful survey of Marx' materialist revision of his idealist views.

Chuckie K