1868: a worker-socialist reviews Capital

Submitted by SJW on 8 May, 2018 - 3:01 Author: Josef Dietzgen
Josef Dietzgen

Published in the ‘Demokratisches Wochenblatt’ 1st, 22nd, 29th August and 5th September 1868

If I remember rightly, it was Goethe, who, on his death bed, called for “Light, more light”. Whether a lack of earthly light moved him to this, or, as the pious would perhaps have it, the prospect of heavenly light in the hereafter, the light of knowledge, which the present work has in abundance, has the same effect on me.

“Light, light! That is clear, that is illuminated”, I rejoiced, when I was able to penetrate with my intellect one chapter after another. Mental labour is certainly necessary for this. But a worker, who is used, not only to acquiring his own pleasures by “the sweat of his brow”, but also to making possible the ten times greater pleasures of others, will not shrink from the task.
For my part – if I might be permitted to introduce myself as a tanner – when at the start I could not understand the work of our philosopher, I kept saying to myself: what others can do, you can do too. Thinking is not a privilege of the professors.

Just like any other job, it just needs the usual practice. The great mass of workers is finally beginning to understand: that there is no salvation without practising thinking for oneself. In our class, we are generally now starting to realise that if we still let others tell us what they wish to let us know, they will know how to make material booty out of that intellectual advantage. The first necessity for a worker who wishes to work for the self-emancipation of his class is not to allow himself to be told, but instead to know himself. The particular, the individual, the special we can leave to experts. But a knowledge of capital, our powerful common enemy in the social struggle, is a general class interest that each of us has to take on.

Here it is time to use the slogan which the spokesmen and advocates of capital drum into us: here belongs “self help”.
If humans do not put on sackcloth, go barefoot, become hermits and live off roots and herbs, then they cannot practice self help in the field of economics. I hope Schulze-Delitsch does not wish to turn workers into monks – and Lassalle certainly doesn’t – so that like sanctimonious people they expect the help of god and compassionate people. For us, self help does not belong in our practice, but in our understanding of practice, in our scientific teaching. Here the individual can and must help himself. Socrates’ saying applies here: “Know thyself”, especially for the worker whom the shoe pinches worst.

The author gives us the mirror and light for this – not so that we have faith, but rather that we see and know.
We are presented with a massive work. Not an industrial product, designed for passing interest, for the market and its speculators. It is also not a phoney work, which plays with its object out of vanity and lets its appearance dazzle us. It is a piece of work. A work which one regards as the result of a life dedicated to it in unwavering love. And further, love alone would not have made it possible to dig out these treasures of science from the jumbled material of the previous literature and of contemporary life, to express them and to put them into shape. Alongside a passionate heart for the cause, belongs an eminent brain, the irresistible sharpness of a logical mind, the rare talent of an inspired thinker, the untiring industry of an educated and well-schooled researcher.

And the object of the study is worthy of the talent that took it on. Of course, the smallest thing is worthy of becoming the object of science. And yet we wish to subordinate one thing to another according to whether it is more or less necessary or more or less general. And what is closer to humans in general, particularly in our time, and again above all the worker, than the present process of production of the material necessities of life? Knowledge of this process and enquiry into its laws have been chosen by the author as his goal and, if I may say so, as his life’s work. It is not concerned with the individual, with the question of how you, I or he acquires food but is about us, the nation, or better, the international organisation of labour.

But do not take this to mean that the book is concerned with some project, with personal ideas of the order of things that can come about. The work is the product of science in the highest sense of the word. Science is only concerned with what is, with the actually given, not with projects – or if also with projects, then only insofar as they are given in reality and have a disruptive influence on science.

The international organisation of labour does not first have to come about, but already exists. From the fact that we only live indirectly from the products of our own labour but live directly from the international products of labour, that we consume Russian corn, Dutch herrings and American cotton, we can prove that we produce not with individual labour but with common, social labour. Now everyone knows that this labour does not appear as common labour but as private labour. Yet it is a normal task of science to show that appearance deceives, that the sun doesn’t go around the earth. It was the scientific task of political economy to discern the social essence of our privately formed labour. Karl Marx has presented us with the solution of this task in this critique.

In its historical development political economy has fared very similarly to speculative philosophy. It was neither clearly aware of its object nor of the method with which it wished to deal with it. It still lacked what Kant called the distinguishing mark of science – “a unanimous and sure course”. Liebig says: “Inductive method, which the ancient world neither knew nor practised, has since its appearance transformed the world. The conclusions which one comes to through this method are nothing more than the mental expression of experiences and facts. A glance in the journals of chemistry and physics makes one astonished. Every day brings new progress and all without conflict; one knows what a fact, a conclusion, a law an opinion and an explanation is. For all of these, we have touchstones that anyone uses before putting the fruits of his labour into circulation. Convincing people of a view by advocacy or with the intention of making someone believe something unproven fails in an instant because of the scientific moral code.”

Such a code was totally lacking in the economists. Today they are still as divided over the nature, boundaries and shape of their discipline as lawyers, philosophers and theologians. One minute they seek truth inductively by means of real appearances; the next they think that they can create the sought-after knowledge speculatively without experience from the depths of the human mind.

Now that is the first merit of our author; that he clearly and openly exposes the sensuous object of his research, the object of political economy. Who among present day economists can say whether the economy is a single organism, a single organised whole or just the sum total of private economic activities just as a pile of sand is made up of many grains? Who knows where the national economy, national wealth and national labour start and private economy, private wealth and private labour cease? That there exists a difference between them – and indeed an essential one – has certainly not been totally unrecognised by economic science but it is still less understood by it. It certainly has a dim view of the difference, but it has not become conscious for political economy. It has, as Kant describes such behaviour, just been “groping around”.

This fog recedes into concentrated clouds in the face of the author’s mind. We learn that private activity in production is only the form that conceals the social, collective essence of production. The more generally the product of labour becomes a commodity in the course of time, the more generally labour has ceased to be private labour. A commodity is intended for the market, the storehouse of society. Labour which is private, not merely in its form but in its essence, produces no exchange value. In modern production, which aims completely and utterly to transform the products of labour into commodities, there appears the tendency to transform the labour of individuals into a social labour process. This tendency appears in the first place from the nature of things quite without the knowledge and the will of humans.

It is an affair of people which hides mystically behind things, behind products. Products are exchanged, bought and sold, transformed into values, prices, money, articles of trade, capital etc. All these economic relationships can only be grasped if we see bourgeois society as a kind of productive cooperative which permits the well-endowed to become producers, treats the impoverished labour force as commodities, as raw materials, and distributes the product of their labours among the independent producers, not on a cooperative basis but according to the mass of labour delivered to society.

As this society is purely a historical growth and not consciously constituted, it is ruled not by purpose but by blind necessity. What, how many and how things should be produced is left to individual whim, which is regulated unconsciously through the market. The producer has the ‘freedom’ to do what he wants, which means society does not prescribe but teaches after the event by means of prizes or boxed ears.

If our subject had a head and could talk, it would explain its nature roughly like this:
“I, the process of production in general, along with good Mother Nature, the source of all objects of human need, am as old and lasting as the human race itself. Yet I, like everything on earth, am subject to change. I appear in many forms as the economy of a single individual, as family economy, as the labour of the local community, as slave labour, as guild or ‘free’ bourgeois economy etc. But I have never yet been political economy [the people’s economy] because the people have never yet run me but rather are still being managed. If I look back on my historic course, I see surely that I have to thank my modern power and productivity to the development of solidaristic social labour out of isolated labours. Yet at the moment when I revel in the enjoyment of my power, I become aware at the same time that the human race begins to have power over me. Up to now, I have more and more used and used up people in serving me.

First, I organised labour on under the whip of the slave owner. Then, when the owner of the products produced in this way by these peoples could no longer consume them all and this threatened to disrupt my further development, I gathered together the ruling powers of humanity and explained that it was possible to expand consumption if they took their different surplus products to market and there looked on the total product as the product of a communal or collective labour which would be distributed according to the mass of labour time used up in them.

So, for example, the wine that a Roman slave produced in a certain time – a day, a week, a year – should be the equivalent of the currants, which a slave of the Greeks produced in the same time. In order to spur economic interest still further, I made the stipulation that it was not the real time that was taken on one or other occasion but rather the value is defined by the average time that the product would necessarily cost society.

“With regard to the contradiction that one labour and another labour are two different things; that more skilled labour commands a greater value more cheaply than ordinary labour, that it is accordingly unreasonable to define value solely in terms of time, I made it clear that they as people of intelligence can easily level out this difference if different types of labour – like fractions in arithmetic – are previously reduced to a common denominator. If one were to give all labour, even the most complex, the common denominator of ‘simple average labour’, then a day’s work by Abel would, for example, be worth twice a day’s work by Cain, without thereby disproving the idea of calculating the value of things by the average duration of time which their production costs society. And if a community rashly produces too much or too little of one or another commodity, then for the individual the labour time used is calculated to be equal to that which society needs for the production of the given quantity. In brief, I discovered exchange value, that is, the accounting of individual labour in terms of social average labour.

“It was a decisive step forward but still I could not be satisfied with it. I wanted and still want to be bigger and richer. For this reason I created a second essential means for my extension: money. In this way I solved the contradictory task of letting independent private economy function as one organised social economy with a special material, which, in a contradictory manner, has a general value and serves as money.

“Once the economy had been politically organised to this point, I could leave its detailed maintenance to humans. Private interests were skilfully linked to the interests of society. Thus one learnt to protect my fundamental interest too. For my sake, slaves were given first half and then finally all their freedom. They were transformed first into bondsmen and then finally also into ‘free’ labourers. The economy took different forms: ancient, feudal, small and large scale merchant, guild and capitalist. It took up protectionism and free trade – all of that just as my purpose, profitability, demanded. For me, men have gone to war and on voyages of discovery; invented subjugation and freedom; studied and toiled; provided the means of life and saved and gathered capital together; at one moment, made more production more specialised and divided up, at the next more concentrated and large scale. Yet every change was a step forward.

“I, the process of production, became continuously more powerful, larger, richer and more profitable. I have so dominated that one might say that the history of my development was identical with the historical development of humanity. And the closer I come to the present, the more evident is the truth of this statement. Yes, it has become so evident that humanity stops short and begins to ask: ‘Am I, humanity, here for the process of production or isn’t it the other way round: the process of production is here for me?’”

The author is the first to clearly formulate the social question in this way. First, he recognised that production of the material necessities of life has long been the business of society and the henceforth is destined to be made so consciously. Political economy is not for him a fixed substance, a sum of ‘eternal truths’ but a fluid development. It is the basis of the history of culture. Up to now, culture has consisted of progress in the productive power of human labour. The forces of production were the motive force and humans and their historic transformations only moments of its development.

In recent times, this power has succeeded in developing to the point where it produces national wealth which, instead of letting the nation live in so much greater abundance, threatens it with starvation and ruin. Everyone knows that our national wealth is in the hands of a few individuals. Economic development demanded that it be concentrated in this way. Where every peasant has his own individual piece of land and every weaver weaves on his own loom, then modern methods of working – which might produce fifty times as much in the same time – are impossible. In order that humanity no longer toils, as the nature of things demands, plots of land and weaving looms – in short, the means of labour – must be brought together. The physical law according to which one uses a longer lever to move a greater weight has its counterpart in political economy where we only increase the capacity to produce much more in a given time if we enlarge the instruments, the means of labour. Capitalist production came about as a consequence of this law.

Capital is means of labour that have become so free, large and powerful in the course of their development that, not the worker, but the material [objectified] means make up the dominant element in labour. Capital, a thing, is alive, produces independently, “it brings forth living offspring, or, at the least, lays golden eggs” , as the author aptly says. Not labour but capital receives the surplus value, the gain, the profit, the interest, the wealth. The present form of economy has cultivated only the labour process without consideration of human beings. This civilisation has reached its highest point in that the expanded and extended part of production fails to find consumers.

The fundamental tendency of the capitalist economy consists of producing as much as possible with the least effort. Part of that consists now of the freedom of ‘free competition’ that takes care of the rest. It forced and forces small scale instruments of labour out of production in favour of larger ones. It decreases the number of capitalists and increases the number of workers. At the same time, production would base itself on buying the worker – or rather his labour power – for the cheapest possible price; on not paying the worker according to the measure of what is produced but only the minimal quantity for which they can be had, for which they can be kept alive, so that, as of necessity, an overfull warehouse arises from customers who are unable to pay. For decades industry has wavered between crisis and prosperity. Barely has one branch of industry now and again succeeded in pulling itself up to a full expansion of its forces than its pride is followed by a steep fall. The labour process stagnates, society lives in distress and hunger because it is not in a position to consume.

Yet “mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.” The author has particularly concerned himself with demonstrating through a detailed exposition using authentic sources of the factory legislation of England – the classic country of capitalism –how the consequences of capitalism force us to this conclusion: namely, that the economy can no longer be left to its own blind working but rather be made subject to the instructions of the human understanding. Labour must first be freed in order to become capable of working well, while the capacities of the economy must be organised if it is to serve us.

For sure, our small-minded world, with its inherited dogma of freedom, will only come to agree with this against its will and slowly. “The creation of a normal legal working-day is, therefore, the product of a protracted civil war, more or less dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working-class.” Our author has painted a wonderful picture of this war as presented in the archives. “As the contest takes place in the arena of modern industry, it first breaks out in the home of that industry — England… Hence, the philosopher of the Factory, Ure, considers it a mark of ineffable disgrace to the English working-class that they wrote ‘the slavery of the Factory Acts’ on their banners, as opposed to capital, which was striving manfully for ‘perfect freedom of labour.’” “The English factory workers were the champions, not only of the English, but of the modern working-class generally.” “France limps slowly behind England… [In the USA] the eight hours' agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific”. The General Workers’ Congress in Baltimore (16th August 1866) and the international Workers’ Congress in Geneva (Spetember 1866) agree with the English Factory Inspector, R. J. Saunders that "Further steps towards a reformation of society can never be carried out with any hope of success, unless the hours of labour be limited, and the prescribed limit strictly enforced."

"What is a working-day?”, the author asks. Capital replies: “The working-day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours of repose without which labour-power absolutely refuses its services again... time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity, even the rest time of Sunday (and that in a country of Sabbatarians!) — moonshine! But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It haggles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery.”

“Capital further developed into a coercive relation, which compels the working class to do more work than the narrow round of its own life-wants prescribes. As a producer of the activity of others, as a pumper-out of surplus labour and exploiter of labour-power, it surpasses in energy, disregard of bounds, recklessness and efficiency, all earlier systems of production based on directly compulsory labour. ” With reference to Liebig’s writings on the despoiling character of modern agriculture, the author writes: “Capitalist production only develops technology and the coming together of the social labour process insofar as it simultaneously undermines the original sources of all wealth: the earth and the worker.”

And finally, how rich and striking are the pieces of evidence, how unsurpassed is the form by which the author illustrated his propositions. No unprejudiced reader, nobody for whom the prejudices of self-interest do not make understanding impossible, can with this account escape the conviction that the social question is not just a question for the working class but a life and death question facing society as a whole.

Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch (1808-83) German liberal politician instrumental in the foundation of the German cooperative movement and of credit banks to support small producers. Schulze-Delitzsch supported the “harmony of interests” between labor and capital.

Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64) was the founder of the first significant workers’ organisation in Germany the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein ("General German Workers' Association" ) in1863. It advocated the winning of equal, universal, and direct suffrage by peaceful and legal means which drew him into an alliance with Bismarck against the liberal bourgeoisie. He was also a supporter of ‘the Iron Law of Wages’ and the idea of the state as ‘night watchman.’ All of these positions brought him into conflict with Marx.

Justus von Liebig (1803 – 73) was a German chemist who made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry, and was considered the founder of organic chemistry. He was concerned with the degradation of the soil and provided the basis of the ‘metabolic rift’ theory adopted by Marx.
Capital, Vol1. p255 (Penguin)
Preface to Introduction to a critique of political economy
Capital, Vol1. p412-3 (Penguin) The quote is taken directly from Dietzgen’s article and does not correspond exactly to Marx’s text.
Capital, Vol1. p375-6 (Penguin)
Capital, Vol1. p424-5 (Penguin)

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