Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Review: Reading Capital Politically

[Harry Cleaver. Reading Capital Politically. San Francisco: Anti/Theses and AK Press, 2000. Original edition published by University of Texas Press, 1979.]

Often the most important question that we can ask ourselves about texts that we encounter is, why should I care? Sometimes this reveals more about the book; other times, it tells us more about our own paths and politics.

Reading Capital Politically is a short, simple book with a deceptively narrow focus. The main body of the text is concerned with providing a close reading of the first three chapters of Volume 1 of Karl Marx's Capital that is politically useful in struggles. I have never read any Marx directly, except for quotes in works by other writers who identify as Marxists of one sort or another, so for me reading this material was not a challenge to existing understandings of Marx's concepts related to his analysis of value, but an introduction to them -- or, at least, an introduction to understanding them systematically and with rigour.

The shallowest answer to the question of why I might care about such a seemingly obscure and technical subject is that this book is a supplementary text for the sociology course that I am auditing at the moment. I already had experience with a couple of the supplementary texts, and decided that if I was going to invest the time to do the reading and thinking for this course (even though I am not actually doing the writing that those formally enrolled must do to receive credit) that I might as well make sure I emerge with a solid understanding of the concepts under discussion by reading a couple of the other supplementary texts beyond just the handful of pages that might occasionally appear in the list of assigned readings.

A deeper reason has to do with the placement of this text within the context of particular histories and intellectual traditions. Some of the pertinent history is presented in the relatively in-depth introductions to the book, both the introduction to the new edition and, more significantly, the original introduction. It provides a brief outline of the evolution of intellectual traditions that describe themselves as Marxist from the time of the Second International (pre-WWI) to the late 1970s. In particular, it describes how most of those traditions, even when they appear to be quite different from one another, understand Marx's work in ways that treat it as a description of capital that is oddly disconnected from the struggles of working people. Some of these theorists were very committed to struggle in practice and therefore often felt compelled to construct one or another "political" theory to lay beside or over top of Marx's "economic" theories, while others felt there was no need to struggle, out of the misguided idea that the supposed "science" of Marxism had shown that capitalism would collapse eventually from its own conradictions without any need for help from those who suffer at its hands. You can, in various ways, apply this observation to writers as diverse as Berenstein and the other theorists of the Second International, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and the other figures within Western Marxism, the Frankfurt School and other Critical Theorists, and various approaches that academics have taken to turning Marx into a study of political economy rather than a critique of it.

On other hand, there are a number of diverse and small traditions -- all seen as dissident and heterodox by most Marxists -- which went out of their way to truly integrate the struggles of the working class (a concept understood in various ways by various contributors to these traditions) into ideas of social change not only at a practical level (like, say, Luxemburg) but also at a theoretical level. These ways of looking at the world include such diverse figures as C.L.R. James in the United States, E.P. Thompson in a different way in England, and the various theorists associated with the autonomia movement in Italy as well as the socialist feminist Wages for Housework campaign that existed in many countries in the early '70s.

I believe it was Cleaver that originated the English-language term "autonomist" as a way to group these various traditions together conceptually. Certainly, from what I understand, he has been one of the major proponents of these approaches in English for a long time, and this book is a critical contribution to figuring out how to use what he regards as some of the most important chapters in all of Marx's work to begin to see that work as a whole as an intervention in struggle that mattered because struggle was the only path to change. I'm not saying I am sure that I really understood all of the technical details of Cleaver's analysis of Marx's ideas about "value," but I am glad to have encountered the combination of the historical background and the conceptual underpinnings.

But the question still remains: why?

To understand that I need to reflect a bit on my previous encounters with various things to which the label "Marxist" has been applied. I am probably among the youngest generation of people whose political subjectivities began to be formed while the Soviet Union still existed. I was not politicized in any meaningful sense until a few years after, but I began to hear about and pay attention to the world at least a little bit as a pre-teen and teen in the '80s. I certainly didn't walk around my high school asking people "Are you or have you ever been..." kinds of questions, and I remember a few critical instances in those formative years that encouraged me to be open to views counter to the official hysterical rhetoric about big-C Communism that was prevelant during the Reagan years. Still, as I became politicized in the '90s, there were enough vestiges of the messaging that I had experienced in the media in the previous decade that I had much more openness to radical ideas that were critical of state as well as capital, and not a dismissal but a healthy skepticism of ideas/traditions associated with Marx.

As a newly politicized activist on a university campus who did not take any overtly political courses (since I was in a science program), my main encounter with explicitly self-identified Marxist ideas and practices came in the form of interacting with members of a particular Trotskyist formation that existed on campus for a few years. While I respected the organizing of some of the people who became affiliated with the group, I went to a few of their meetings and found the group, even at that point when I doubt I could've voiced a particularly sophisticated or convincing critique, to be intellectually sterile. One of their leading theorists from England spoke on campus and I remember thinking he was quite good, but it wasn't nearly enough to convince me to join the party.

A few years later, out in the community, I encountered members of a couple of other explicitly Marxist groupings who were trade unionists. I quite respected their lifelong commitment and their organizing skills, even while I didn't always agree with some of the places those skills took them or with some of their broader analyses of the world. Even up until just before we moved away from Hamilton, I quite happily organized with some of them in the anti-war movement, and would do so again if I was still living there. But I was never tempted to join either of those parties. As well, in those years I also encountered a couple of older white men and one younger one who did not, to my knowledge, belong to any party-like formation but who explicitly identified with Marxism and who are absolutely insufferable and very hard to work with, and they certainly didn't do much to win me over.

More generally, I was happy to read theorists from various Marxist traditions in a kind of random and haphazard way if the books happened across my path, and I was happy to learn useful ideas from these texts -- things like Gramsci's concept of hegemony (and later adaptations) and a few small samples of A. Sivanandan's writings on race and class and the odd bit or piece I've come across from Critical Theory were quite compelling for me, and some odds and ends from publications like the Socialist Register series and Marxist grouplet newspapers were of more intellectual interest than practical-to-me value. But a few core ideas that seemed unavoidable in anything that adopted the label of "Marxism" as more than a sylistic affectation (a la some postmodern writers) continued to make me ambivalent about the tradition as a whole -- things like the sense that history is completely deterministic and linear, the seeming disconnection from real people's real struggles (rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding), the seeming obsession with disputes between white guys who died decades ago, the lack of critique of oppressive hierarchy inherent in most party and state forms or satisfactory account of atrocities previously done supposedly in Marx's name, and the usually completely unsatisfying (and often openly contemptuous and oppressive) theorization of the relationship between narrowly defined class struggle and every other kind of struggle. Those are the concerns that come to mind, though I'm sure I could come up with more if I thought more about it.

The various traditions brought together under the label "autonomist Marxism", as well as related things like "open Marxism", seem to address at least some of the things that gave me reservations about Marxist approaches more generally. They put human beings and their experiences and struggles at the centre. They are focused on making their analyses practically useful in struggle. Some do seem to worship militancy in unhealthy ways but others recognize the importance of the everyday as well. They are not determinist. They have a role for human agency, individual and collective. They provide room for critique of both social democratic and Leninist party forms, and theoretical openness for other forms that are developed to meet today's needs. They theorize struggle very broadly, and explicitly value many different sorts of struggle and not just the activities of the industrial proletariat -- and they attempt to do that in a theoretically coherent manner that respects separate organizing and, for some at least, listening as a core political practice, though I remain to be convinced that this recognition and celebration of many fronts of struggle against many axes of oppression is necessarily completely consistent with my own take on things. Not all theorists in all of the parts of these traditions exhibit all of these things, and certainly not all are visible in this quite focued book by Cleaver, but one of the other encouraging factors that these traditions associated with autonomism display is a willingness to accept new data, creativity, new voices, new ways of thinking, as opposed to the feeling of dogmatic sterility I have gotten from many other self-described Marxisms.

All of this isn't to say that I now "am" this or that. I have become more open to some of these ideas, which I have had a modest interest in for years, and, yes, I will be interested in learning more about them, letting them settle, and seeing what eventually permeates into the core of how I think about things and changes me, and what gets expelled. Rather, I say all of this to try and explain (to myself and readers) why this book matters: because it is one part -- and a theoretically important one, I think -- of a relatively new-to-me family of approaches that help extract from the massive and variegated landscape of political thought after Marx some of what is insightful and powerful from thinkers that trace their intellectual origins through him while working hard to avoid what is politically distasteful or no longer relevant.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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