U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Leftovers: William Clare Roberts and Marx’s Manuscripts

Please forgive my disappearance: I have been away from these pages for a few months while I finished my dissertation. Fortunately, now that’s over with!

One of the first books I picked up after I turned the diss in was William Clare Roberts’s Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, which I think it’s safe to say is already making quite a stir. (You can read the whole introduction here [pdf].) Not only did Andrew Hartman assign it to his History of Capitalism course, but David Harvey reviewed the book for Jacobin, and he expressed some fairly strong reservations regarding Roberts’s understanding of what kind of book Marx’s Capital is. Roberts has defended his method and arguments in three blog posts (1, 2, 3), which also serve nicely to highlight some of the more contentious and original aspects of Marx’s Inferno.

And there are numerous aspects which are both highly original and intensely contentious to the book. Perhaps the most attention-grabbing is Roberts’s argument that Marx consciously modeled Capital Vol. 1 on Dante’s Inferno, though—perhaps just because I haven’t read all that deep into the book—that angle doesn’t seem to me to be as substantial as its prominence in the book’s title implies.

One of the aspects which at first might seem a bit pedantic or insider baseball-ish is Harvey’s disagreement with Roberts’s decision to treat Capital Vol. 1 as a stand-alone text—as, in essence, Capital itself. “[T]his book maintains a focus on volume one, and I will refer to it simply as Capital,” Roberts writes. Harvey regards this choice as a serious error. “My most serious objection,” Harvey protests, “is that Roberts isolates Volume 1 of Capital as a standalone text and seeks to interpret it by ignoring its relation to Marx’s other works.”

That is not at all a distortion of Roberts’s intentions, for he tells us that he is writing about Volume 1 because it

was prepared by Marx for publication. It is a polished literary work, and a considered piece of political speech. This differentiates it from the immense mass of Marx’s writings—the Paris notebooks, the so-called German Ideology, the Grundrisse, the “Theories of Surplus-Value,” volumes two and three of Capital, and so on—which were notebooks, or rough drafts, or attempts at self-clarification, or all three. In the unpublished writings, it is hard to say which claims and arguments represent Marx’s considered views and which are attempts with which he became unsatisfied.

So Roberts really does consider Volume 1 to be complete by itself and able to be read and understood without reference to any of the other (unpublished) volumes of Capital, or any of Marx’s writings which scholars have plumbed to understand some of the more theoretically rich or complicated arguments of Volume 1.

There are two points to be made here which make Roberts’s decision—and Harvey’s objection to that decision—of much broader interest than simply a disagreement in Marxology. The first has to do with Roberts’s assumptions about the relationship between published and unpublished material within an intellectual’s career, and the second is about the nature between politics and economics. I’m going to take up the first point now, and perhaps next week I’ll discuss the second when I’ve read some more of Marx’s Inferno.

Harvey complains that Roberts rests his decision to focus exclusively on Volume 1 “on the shallow but convenient grounds that these other works were not prepared for publication and therefore not definitive.”[1] Harvey finds this “deeply problematic” in part because of the particular nature of Capital as an intellectual project: “The proposed three volumes of Capital were designed to dissect and represent the capitalist mode of production as a totality.” But I would tend to believe that Harvey reflexively recoils—as most of us must—from Roberts’s astringent standard for what “a polished literary work” or “a considered piece of political speech” might be. Surely something does not have to be published—in the most common sense meaning of the term available—for it to be “polished” or “considered.” As intellectual historians we deal with texts all the time which were circulated privately or held back from publication that were nevertheless written with an eye both to their form and their rhetorical effect. It probably strikes most of us as strange to suggest that, by failing to be published, a text also fails to be “political speech,” as Roberts implies.

Roberts in practice is not quite so doctrinaire as he is in declaration. He writes,

I will draw upon Marx’s correspondence, his drafts and notebooks, and his other—especially contemporaneous—writings and speeches, but I do so with an eye to explaining what Marx is trying to do in Capital. Where what he wrote elsewhere seems to buttress or clarify what he wrote in Capital, I will often say so. Where what he wrote elsewhere seems to contradict what he wrote in Capital, I will often try to explain the discrepancy. However, I make no claim to exhaustively pursue either sort of comparison. Marx could not reasonably have expected the reader of Capital to be familiar with his other works, much less with his unpublished writings. My presumption, therefore, is that the argument of Capital is supposed to be intelligible on its own—once, that is, one takes into account the discursive field into which it is meant to intervene.

Here, Roberts seems to me to be backtracking on the absoluteness of his distinction between Volume 1 as a published text and Marx’s unpublished corpus—his Nachlass (which might be translated colloquially as I have done in the title of the post). Roberts acts as if he wants to bear down on a kind of internalist reading of Capital Volume 1 as if it is self-sufficient, but also to leave himself some exegetical escape hatches.

For there are a couple of other things going on in this passage which Roberts is trying to do that conflict, I think, with his avowed goal of taking Volume 1 as a very different kind of work from the rest of his unpublished contemporaneous works. First, he argues that “Marx could not reasonably have expected the reader of Capital to be familiar with his other works, much less with his unpublished writings.”

I want to set that off in a new paragraph because I find it rather difficult to object to on its face, but nonetheless wrong: “Marx could not reasonably have expected the reader of Capital to be familiar with his other works, much less with his unpublished writings.”

The way to contest that statement is to note the location it presumes that the text occupies: for Roberts, the text assembles itself in the (hypothetical) reader’s mind, it exists in the form the reader makes of it. What the reader does not—or cannot—see in a text does not exist. But this implies that Marx could not have (consciously or even unconsciously) inserted references or connections to his unpublished works into the published version of Capital Volume 1, which seems to me a dubious stricture on any writer, let alone on one as complex as Marx. It seems fairly uncontroversial to me to hold that writers may draw on materials that remain unpublished—perhaps even unwritten—and that will therefore be invisible to contemporary readers but which can be teased out by later scholars who have access to those materials. If I am reading Roberts correctly here, he is suggesting that this retrospective mining of a text for its latent content—meanings that are only made available after time has “brought to light” other supplementary but previously unavailable materals—is a fool’s errand, or perhaps a kind of cheating. We have to read Capital Volume 1 as one of Marx’s contemporaries would have.

And that is where the second point comes in. While Roberts seems to want us to bracket Marx’s Nachlass, he wants us to make our reading of Capital Volume 1 more dependent on an enriched contextualist reading of the text. “[T]he argument of Capital is supposed to be intelligible on its own—once, that is, one takes into account the discursive field into which it is meant to intervene.” Or in other words, Roberts wants us to imagine ourselves not as scholars who have access to Marx’s unpublished writings, but as scholars who have access to (and the time to digest) all the various socialist and non-socialist debates that Marx was entering by writing Capital.

But if that is true, then Roberts is arguing that the kind of reader Marx had in mind when he wrote Capital was a highly particular one: someone who would be highly familiar with a huge range of references and arguments, their implications, their histories and the personalities involved that made up the world of international socialism. I have to confess that just trying to figure out what is going on at any given moment on Left Twitter leaves me gasping in bewilderment—it seems an even taller order to ask a contemporary reader of Capital to have been aware of all or even most of the barbs Marx left inside the text for his foes.

But it also makes the universe of Marx’s intended readers seem rather clubby, as if Capital were written as a kind of subtweet. That may be totally unfair of me: Roberts may, as I move further into the book, operate in fact very differently from what he seems to promise in theory. Because it is the conjunction of these two ideas—that Marx couldn’t have written Capital in a manner that requires us to read it with his unpublished works but that he also must have written it in a manner that would have restricted his readership to people deeply familiar with the minutiae of socialist debate—that seems to guide Roberts’s reading of Capital.

And that seems to me to be a mode of reading peculiar—sorry to make this disciplinary—to political theorists, who seem suspicious of intellectual history’s archival-mindedness but also irritated by our occasional tendency to read an author’s corpus as a conversation with themselves. Political theorists seem to distrust the kind of depth that we cherish and to prioritize the agonistic interplay that we (quite often) foreshorten. But perhaps those contrasting tendencies simply indicates how much we have to learn from each other. We shall see.

[1] Harvey even aggravates this charge by adding sotto voce that “I suspect that the isolation of Volume 1 rests on the fact that the Inferno analogy simply doesn’t work with the content of the other two volumes of Capital.” That seems harsh to me. I do agree that Roberts seems more enamored with his hermeneutic brilliance in pairing Dante and Marx than seems necessary for making his other arguments—but you know those Canadians (McLuhan, Frye, Morissette), they are always seeing gigantic patterns in everything. (No offense, Kurt!)

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  1. Congrats on diss.

    Haven’t read the book, just glanced at the introduction.

    This, from the intro —
    Second, I argue that…Capital is best read as a critical reconstruction of and rejoinder to the other versions of socialism and popular radicalism that predominated in France and England in the 1860s and 1870s, when
    Marx was composing his magnum opus.

    doesn’t really strike me as all that startling a claim (though it may be phrased somewhat strongly).

    The competing versions of socialism and radicalism that Roberts refers to — Proudhonism, Owenism, Saint-Simonianism, Fourierism, etc. — were probably rather familiar, if perhaps in some cases in condensed or summary form, to a quite a lot of workers and activists in the radical movements of Marx’s time.

    So to counter the post’s suggestion that Roberts is assuming Marx wrote Capital v. 1 for a small group “familiar with the minutiae of socialist debate,” what Roberts has to show or assume w/r/t the particular claim quoted above is that the basic ideas/notions/tenets of Proudhon, Owen, Saint-Simon, Fourier et al had become fairly common currency in radical circles including some workers and political activists, and that these ideas were not known only to a small, isolated group of socialist intellectuals. And I suspect that this is something that a bit of research would show to be the case.

    And lastly and relatedly, what we’re talking about here, contrary to what the post suggests, is not really a “huge range of references” but a decidedly finite and not that large range of references, as Roberts lays it out in the opening pages. He specifically mentions in that passage Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Proudhon, James Bronterre O’Brien. At least the first three of these arguably suffered from whatever the fancy term is for verbal diarrhea in their writings, but their basic ideas are not especially difficult or intricate.

    So while Marx’s sometimes densely allusive style may at times seem to presuppose a contemporary audience versed in minutiae and with a grasp of a huge range of references, if Roberts is correct that what Marx is (at least partly) doing in Capital vol. 1 is a “critical reconstruction” and “rejoinder to” the writers mentioned above, that aim does not require or presuppose, it seems to me, an audience versed in a huge range of references. These thinkers (Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Proudhon, et al) may be obscure or forgotten to many today, but in the politically aware circles of Marx’s time, they were not obscure at all.

  2. Thanks, L.D. and Louis!

    These are great points, and perhaps my reading of Roberts’s arguments is rather uncharitable.

    But I’d offer a few points in response. The strength of the Roberts’s claim that you quote comes not from its contextualism–as you say, that’s not really controversial–but from Roberts’s prioritization of the political dimension of Capital (Vol. 1) explicitly at the expense of the economic. That is, Roberts sees Vol. 1 as a work of political theory first, and economic theory second. Compared to most traditional interpretations of Capital, that is much more controversial.

    There are a few ramifications of that prioritization of the political, but the most important for my purposes is that Roberts sees Marx’s interactions with Proudhon, the Saint-Simonians, et al. not just as an engagement with relatively static (and perhaps not that intricate) bodies of economic theory, but as much more minute (or perhaps, better said, specific) conflicts over a larger variety of political principles and their applications to concrete circumstances. Yes, it wouldn’t take that much for a reader to grasp the “basic tenets” of the rival socialisms’ economic systems, but I think it makes a bit more difference to prioritize the political as Roberts does.

    I do take your point that these basic tenets “were probably rather familiar, if perhaps in some cases in condensed or summary form, to a quite a lot of workers and activists in the radical movements of Marx’s time,” but my point wasn’t so much about the size but about the self-enclosed nature of the audience. That was the force of my reference to Left Twitter: the audience who feels looped in to some of the more concrete disagreements and divisions seems to me to be a more exclusive subset of the people aware of the general existence of separate camps.

    • Andy,
      I agree that Roberts’s treating Capital v. 1 as above all a work of political theory is controversial, and I take some of the other points. Since I haven’t read Roberts’s book, and since there are many people more able than I am to make informed contributions to this conversation (although they haven’t appeared on this thread yet), I think, at least for the time being, I’ll leave it at that.

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