U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Going Concern: Marx and Burke on Human History

This is not, properly speaking, a post on US intellectual history, and it is perhaps not even a post so much as a collision.

Today I read James Livingston’s brand new No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea, a book to which I really cannot do justice without a great deal more thought but which I encourage you to check out. Livingston’s against-the-grain scholarship is likely familiar to readers of this blog both from his own published work and from his great generosity in contributing numerous pieces here over the years, most recently an essay on Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform, a four-part series titled “What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?” (beginning here), and a eulogy of Martin Sklar.

Sklar’s ideas—particularly in the forms they have taken in Livingston’s work and the work of other Sklarists like Rosanne Currarino and Richard Schneirov—have been immensely important in my own work, so I was very eagerly awaiting Livingston’s new book, but it is not the book itself that I want to discuss. Instead, I was struck by a Marx quotation that Livingston uses; it is one I somehow had not come across before, and it struck me as ringing with an echo of—of all people—Edmund Burke. Maybe I am hearing things, but here it is:

It is superfluous to add that men are not free to choose their productive forces—which are the basis of all their history—for every productive force is an acquired force, the product of former activity. The productive forces are therefore the result of practical human energy; but this energy is itself conditioned by the circumstances in which men find themselves, by the productive forces already won, by the social form which exists before they do, which they do not create, which is the product of the former generation. Because of this simple fact that every succeeding generation finds itself in possession of the productive forces won by the previous generation, which serve it as the raw material for new production, an inter-connection arises in human history, there is a history of humanity which has become all the more a history of humanity since the productive forces of man and therefore his social relations have been extended. (Marx to Annenkov, December 28, 1846, printed as an appendix to The Poverty of Philosophy, ed. Dutt and Chattopadhyaya (New York: International Publishers, 1936), 152-153, emphases added; alternative translation here).

The echo I hear is to the famous passage in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. (Burke, Reflections, passage available here)

Now, the divergences between the two passages are as striking, certainly, as the congruences. But what is remarkable to me is, first, the immense intellectual fertility of this brief passage. In just these few lines from Marx’s 1846 letter, he appears to try out a preliminary formulation of the famous dictum “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please” from 1851’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and he gives a more cluttered but also therefore looser description of the base-superstructure relation, which he’d define more rigidly in 1859’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Marx is here foreshadowing major, even fundamental concepts which would only become fully mature either five or thirteen years later. Perhaps this is common knowledge among true Marxologists; I, at least, found it striking.

But the second remarkable aspect of this passage is what it does share with the passage from Burke. Perhaps it is banal or tedious to see a connection simply because both are “about” historical continuity. But there is something else there, I think, that lies under the surface of both—a kind of tension of the way that the past holds onto the present, encasing or constraining it. In Burke’s version, this is euphemized as a contract or a partnership and I believe that most conservatives read this passage triumphantly as an affirmation of this very thick form of historical continuity. I am not so sure there isn’t a gravity to this passage which borders on graveness—“reverence” is always such a complicated word because it spreads its fingers across many emotions, from love to fear.

Marx’s tone is also a bit unstable, and more than a bit ambivalent. But it is not really a consonance of tone that I find so fascinating but rather that both find human history to be most easily compassable, thinkable as a kind of deathless economic endeavor, as, in essence, a corporation. Marx is most explicit here, and the translation above is bad in the most significant sentence so I’ll give the French (source here) and point out the crucial moments[1]:

Par ce simple fait que toute génération postérieure trouve des forces productives acquises par la génération antérieure, qui lui servent comme matière première pour de nouvelles productions, il se forme une connexité dans l’histoire des hommes, il se forme une histoire de l’humanité, qui est d’autant plus l’histoire de l’humanité que les forces productives des hommes et, en conséquence, leurs rapports sociaux, ont grandi.

It is tricky to translate Marx’s move from “l’histoire des hommes” to “une histoire de l’humanité” to “l’histoire de l’humanité” to (finally) “les forces productives des hommes,” if for no other reason than that we can get caught very easily in the problematic use of “man” to mean “human” or “human being.” And the overall motion of the passage is complex, but what Marx describes is the realization that human history—“l’histoire des hommes” is, by virtue of this continuous process of inheriting the accumulated labor of the anterior generation, not only a possible way to think about human history as a more unified project—a history of humanity, “une histoire de l’humanité”—but in fact the fundamental (perhaps the only) way to see all humankind, all of humanity as a single ongoing story. History as such—the history of humanity (“l’histoire de l’humanité”)—is thinkable only as a history of individual humans reaching out to one another with the tools—“les forces productives”—which they have accepted from the hands of the generation prior; it is only through these tools, only through this inheritance that social relations—“leurs rapports sociaux”—can be formed. Society as a set of lateral links among the living is only possible because of the accumulated labor and knowledge of the dead.

Is that not what Burke is saying as well? To be sure, Burke is thinking less of productive forces than laws and institutions, and he adds an emphasis on the generations to come which Marx leaves only implicit. But what is crucial in both these passages is a sense that human society works because it is a “going concern,” a corporation chartered in time immemorial; the crucial thing is that society is not, is never, a “start-up.”

This is, it scarcely needs to be said, not a revolutionary Marx, and how this passage can be squared with the rest of Marx I cannot really say. But unless I am completely misreading this letter, the connection—as Marx has it in the passage, “la connexité”[2]—with Burke is surprisingly strong: certainly not a deliberate or conscious link, but the product of a similar metaphorical imagination and a similar train of thought. How astonishing.

[1] For what it’s worth, Marx added a post-script to the letter a disclaimer that “je vous écris en mauvais français, au lieu de vous écrire en bon allemand.”

[2] “Connexité” as I understand it differs from “connexion” in as much as the latter links any two objects, while there is meant to be a kind of similarity or identity among the objects linked by “une connexité.” “Connexité” is therefore a stronger or more specialized kind of link.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is wonderful, Andrew. Whether radical or conservative, you have to posit some version of historical continuity–some kind of human nature, if you will, that is trans-historical. Marx followed Hegel’s lead and posited social labor as that continuity. Then he built the insight into an entire system of periodization according to labor systems (slavery, feudalism, capitalism, etc.), so that human nature appeared as both trans-historical and historical. Burke couldn’t be as concrete about it because when he was writing the labor theory of value was just being formalized, by Smith among others. Nor could he have recognized the implications of that theory, as Marx did at p. 59 of vol I of Capital (Kerr ed.): all men are created equal, all labor is of equal value. Thanks for this.

  2. This is fascinating, but it would be great to have an understanding of the particular context of this quote, what was Marx addressing in the letter in a general sense, especially if we are to suggest that this is “not a revolutionary Marx.” Just from glancing at the alternate translation link, one can see that Marx was criticizing Proudhon’s idealism (and voluntarism, though that is not a word he would use) as expressed in his Système des contradictions économiques, ou Philosophie de la misère (which I have not read).

    In fact, the very next sentence in the paragraph that is quoted offers an interesting turn. “From this it can only be concluded that the social history of man is never anything else than the history of his individual development, whether he is conscious of this or not. His material relations form the basis of all his relations. These material relations are but the necessary forms in which his material and individual activity is realised.”

    But even more importantly, Marx writes about change later in the text, emphasizing the importance of both a historica and materialistl dialectics:

    “Mr Proudhon confuses ideas and things. Man never renounces what he has gained, but this does not mean that he never renounces the form of society in which he has acquired certain productive forces. On the contrary. If he is not to be deprived of the results obtained or to forfeit the fruits of civilisation, man is compelled to change all his traditional social forms as soon as the mode of commerce ceases to correspond to the productive forces acquired…….For instance, In England, all the earlier economic forms, the social relations corresponding to them, and the political system which was the official expression of the old civil society, were destroyed. Thus, the economic forms in which man produces, consumes and exchanges are transitory and historical. With the acquisition of new productive faculties man changes his mode of production and with the mode of production he changes all the economic relations which were but the necessary relations of that particular mode of production.

    • That’s a very fair point, Kahlil, and thank you for providing the additional context, and you’re absolutely right, the next paragraph offers an immensely important elaboration of how Marx at this time saw historical change.

      I suppose, though, that if I were coming to that paragraph without knowing it was Marx, though, “renounc[ing] the form of society in which he has acquired certain productive forces” might not sound like a revolutionary act, and one might read that total “change [of all the economic relations” of a social order which Marx speaks of at the end of the paragraph in a variety of ways, not all of them revolutionary. It is true that he refers to “deux coups de tonnerre,” the English revolutions of 1640 and 1688, but the rhetoric of the rest of the sentence and the sentence following belies any sense that the nature of this total change is necessarily abrupt and violent–and after all, one of the revolutions he is alluding to here was famous for its very lack of violence. And by imagining 1640 and 1688 as two claps of thunder, Marx instead draws our attention away from these revolutionary moments to the duration in between, and (perhaps inadvertently) shifts the responsibility for this total overturning of the social and economic order from those revolutionary punctuations at either end of this 48-year period to that long interregnum, the rest between two staccatos. Finally, when Marx describes what happens to the old economic regime, the verb he uses is, I would almost say noncommital, banal: “furent brisés.” Surely Marx could have found a more violent verb to describe this process had he wanted to.

      I’m certainly not arguing for some major reinterpretation of the young Marx as some kind of moderate. But I think there is a kind of ambivalence here regarding the nature of historical change that is not a characteristic of the Marx I thought I knew.

      • Fair enough. I understand what you are arguing here, and I think it’s very and thought provoking. Yet, I do not sense any ambivalence in how Marx writes here about history. Perhaps this has to do with the connection you are making between ambivalence and the role of revolution–one might well ask why does would the context of this letter Marx have to necessarily find a more “violent” language or refer directly to revolutionary action. The thing is, in the later Marx you will find many passages that do not come off as immediately or necessarily “revolutionary” when they are isolated, particulartly when he is positioning himself explicitly as a critic or as a political economist. It would be interesting to read this letter alongside the letters to Engels that he wrote in this year–the German Ideology was already in process of coming about, as one can see in this letter’s references to utopian socialism. Maybe one could develop the argument about “ambivalence” in more detail by reading these texts. Last but not least, one cannot underestimate the fact that Marx was writing this letter in French–if we are to analyze how he chose his words.

  3. I could write pages on this matter, but I’ll settle for just two points.
    First, while Marx saw economics as the driver of history, Burke saw it as one (fairly important) component. Burke’s perspective in Reflections was overwhelmingly political, and he feared that (for example) confiscation of aristocratic estates threatened political and social stability (likewise with the new French paper money, the assignats). Burke saw inherited structures as cultural ballast against dangerous innovations; Marx viewed them as fetters preserving exploitation. (Marx called Burke a “sycophant…in the pay of the English oligarchy” and “an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois.”) Burke stressed continuity as a means of dampening human agency; Marx acknowledged continuity as a restrictive force that must be taken into account when attempting revolutionary action. Both men sensed a similar historical condition, but, respectively, saw it in a positive and negative light, and thus with competing “lessons” to be drawn.

    • Thanks, Drew! I must say, I always enjoy Marx’s jabs at other writers.

      I agree that it is surely a matter of Marx and Burke looking at the same intellectual problem from opposing political ends, but I was trying here to add a bit of gray to both writers’ articulations of this question of historical continuity, a little bit of uncertainty or ambivalence on both of their ends. Corey Robin has done such great work, I think, in bringing out some of the instability in Burke (as in his recent Raritan article), and perhaps I am simply trying to extend that here.

  4. Andy–
    Isn’t this language in Marx consistent with the famous passages in the Communist Manifesto in which he and Engels hammer on the bourgeoisie for destroying the established forms of feudal and post-feudal order, an attack characterized as “pitiless,” and marked by the erasure of all forms of relationship beyond the mere “cash nexus”? In other words, there seems to be a criticism of the revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie precisely for its denial of continuity in history, its uprooting of the past. The use of the “cash nexus” metaphor–in contrast to the bonds of duty and obligation, of family, of established forms–seems to embrace a romantic vision of the past. Admittedly, there is a great ambivalence about this, since the rejection of the past is both false consciousness but also the necessary condition of historical development and revolutionary change. But there’s always been the sense that “all that is solid melts into air” is a kind of denunciation of the bourgeoisie, a cultural conservative’s declension narrative. Doesn’t Marx want to have it both ways?

  5. I think Andy’s remarks on the difference between the Marx of 1846 and of 1857 (Grundrisse) are crucial in addressing these comments. It’s a world of difference.

  6. Dan,
    Sorry for the delay! I tend to wonder if the bit about the cash nexus in the CM wasn’t more Engels than Marx. Not that Marx disagreed with him, but Engels was a more enthusiastic reader of Carlyle, who coins the phrase. Certainly, this is a moment in which the CM is channeling Carlyle’s own mystified reverence for the past. But I think there is also quite a bit of daylight to be seen between Carlyle and M&E when it comes to the feudal order. That is, the kind of principles which Carlyle believes to be innate in the human spirit–especially hero-worship or reverence–are not so much about historical continuity as about deference. Clearly, deference can be grounded in a claim to some form of historical continuity (a lineage, most obviously) but it doesn’t need to be: for Carlyle, hierarchy works not because it honors and maintains tradition but because it satisfies the human need to be mastered by another. Clearly, that is not something you’ll find in Marx and Engels.

    Kahlil,
    That’s a great point. I shouldn’t read this letter out of a larger context, and I should probably have been more measured in my assertions about its meaning. I do think, though, that it’s an important text in the ways that it forces us to ask these questions about Marx and about his ideological development. Obviously, there are enough passages out there that we can turn to almost any purpose, but this passage feels to me to have an unusual intensity and, as I said, intellectual fertility that I thought was worth sharing. But I got a bit carried away!

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