A Gap in Marx? Value, Nature and Society

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin .... No. 1464 .... August 8, 2017

A Gap in Marx? Value, Nature and Society

Elmar Altvater

So many accusations have been levelled against Karl Marx and, to an even greater extent, his friend and co-author Friedrich Engels in the 150 years since Capital was first published (in German in 1867) that the charges are almost too many to list. Unlike the political economists that came before him, Marx was supposedly unable to explain price formation. What is more, according to his critics, the predicted immiseration of the working class never occurred, and capitalism was not in a state of collapse, but has instead emerged victorious from the battle between competing social systems.

Marx and Engels are also accused of having paved the way for Stalin’s atrocities with their theoretical and... political writings and of thus being the intellectual ringleaders of the crimes committed in the "age of extremes." Those are the harsh allegations still being penned by journalists even to this day. But some of the yawning gaps, which Marx no doubt left in his work, seem instead to appear as prejudgments: Marx, and especially Engels, supposedly had no answer to the ecological issues that are our main concern today. They are alleged to have overlooked the fact that value is not only created by labour, but by nature too; in their theoretical edifice, nature is afforded less space compared to society, and the monotheistic notion of humanity’s domination of nature is not critically interrogated. But an examination of the blue volumes of Marx and Engels’s collective writings, especially the first volume of Capital in volume 23 (volume 35 of the English-language Marx-Engels Collected Works) shows that readers have left behind stains and finger prints, i.e. traces of their ecological existence. It is impossible to read Marx without any consideration for ecology. One reads Marx with one’s head and, consequently, with reason, but the experience is also tactile as one turns the pages with one’s fingertips.

An author without blind spots in his writing is like a hero without any flaws, the very model of a saint or, in other circles, a monumental bore. Of course, readers living 150 years after the author has passed on are, first of all, smarter -- or at least, they should be, even if the author’s name is Karl Marx. But usually this intelligence only suffices to detect those predictions made by the author that have not come to pass, as well as to spot the odd gap in their argument, and announce such discoveries to the world. Some readers are only capable of challenging Marx’s theories armed with just the stale arguments of yesteryear.

Like many other authors, Marx undoubtedly left himself open to attack. These weak points should be seen as a challenge to the reader to improve them with their own thoughts and the resulting arguments. This demands a certain amount of effort, even if the gaps that Marx left behind are so rich with potential that they could give rise to many hundred thoughts. But nobody nurtures these creations in times in which the president of a fake country orders very real and deadly air strikes via Twitter with little contemplation, and when -- less outrageously -- the critique of ideas, including elaborated theories for which Marx provided a scientific rationale as well as examples, becomes part of a career opportunism that adheres to affirmative conformity, or when some foolish journalist from a well-respected newspaper sets out on a hopeless mission to uncover mistakes.

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