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December 2000 (Volume 52, Number 7)

» Notes from the Editors
December 2000 (Volume 52, Number 7)

Praise for Karl Marx—albeit of a somewhat mocking kind—comes from the strangest places nowadays. In their new book Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, bestselling business authors and correspondents for the adamantly procapitalist Economist magazine, declare that, “as a prophet of socialism Marx may be kaput; but as a prophet of ‘the universal interdependence of nations,’ as he called globalization, he can still seem startlingly relevant. His description of globalization remains as sharp today as it was 150 years ago” (pp. 332-333). The same thing has been noticed in a quite different way in colleges and universities, as demand for courses on Marx, Marxism, and political economy appear once again to be on the rise.

One of us was recently drafted by graduate students, most of them veterans of the November and December 1999 protests in Seattle, to lead a course on the second and third volumes of Capital. This was remarkable for several reasons. Although the first volume of Capital was once known as the “worker’s bible,” and is still regularly studied in certain quarters, the second and third volumes of Capital have never been as widely read (except perhaps the section on the tendency for the rate of the profit to fall). The reasons are not difficult to discern. The first volume of Capital deals primarily with the direct exploitation of workers. The second and third volumes, in contrast, deal with circulation, competition, the division of surplus value into profit, interest and rent, the concrete conditions governing accumulation, financial capital, and agricultural production. All of these topics were necessary in order to provide a scientific assessment of capital’s laws of motion but much of this seemed far removed from the class struggle as such. As Rosa Luxemburg once observed,

the first volume of Capital…deduces the expropriation of the expropriators’ as the inevitable and ultimate result of the production of surplus value and of the progressive concentration of capital. Therewith, as far as theory is concerned, the essential need of the labour movement is satisfied. The workers, being actively engaged in the class war, have no direct interest in the question how surplus value is distributed among the respective groups of exploiters; or in the question how, in the course of this distribution, competition brings about rearrangements of production. That is why, for socialists in general, the third volume of Capital remains an unread book (Luxemburg, in D. Ryazanov, Karl Marx: Man, Thinker and Revolutionist).

Marx’s critique of capital, Luxemburg explained, was a “titanic whole” that had taken him far beyond the immediate goals of the class struggle and, hence, his work tended to transcend the most pressing interests of socialists themselves. Yet, history and the development of the movement could lead to renewed appreciation of his work: “Only in proportion as our movement progresses and demands the solution of new practical problems, do we dip once more into the treasury of Marx’s thought in order to extract therefrom and to utilize new fragments of his doctrine.”

Certainly, this was the experience of the small group of students who took part in the course on volumes two and three of Capital. In the third volume, they encountered an analysis that seemed in many ways more concrete and contemporary than what they had earlier encountered in Marx, addressing the issues that most concerned them: the relation between production and distribution, the ins and outs (and illusions) of capitalist competition, financial speculation, economic crises, capitalist agriculture and the degradation of the soil, the division between town and country on a world scale, the role of international trade, and the treatment of ideology in the famous trinity formula discussion. All of the students in the course concluded that in thinking of Marx’s Capital in the future, their principal reference point would be volume three, since it was there that Marx’s analysis of exploitation was brought home and made relevant to the driving issues of our time.

It would appear that as the globalization of capital has become a major issue, the theoretical needs of radicals, confronted with new practical problems, have widened and they are being brought back, paradoxically, to Marx—but this time with greater attention to the largely unread Marx of the second and third volumes of Capital. It is a testimony to the breadth of Marx’s critique of capitalism that as new problems present themselves in history, his work as a whole becomes more, not less, relevant.

This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of Giordano Bruno’s burning at the stake during the Roman Inquisition. Bruno was a complex figure who contributed to the development of science, materialism and the overthrow of medieval scholasticism, and who facilitated the acceptance of the Copernican interpretation of the universe, but who also advocated mystical- religious views. For four centuries, people have debated whether Bruno should be regarded as a martyr to religion or a martyr to science, with the verdict lately tending toward the former. Yet, Bruno’s vision of an infinite universe, with which he complemented and helped generate acceptance for the Copernican theory, was derived largely from the ancient materialists Epicurus and Lucretius, via the latter’s De rerum natura. Moreover, his sup-port of Epicurean atomism (considered by the medieval church to be the fountainhead of all atheism) was included in the charges of heresy leading to his condemnation. Our verdict would then be that Bruno was a martyr to science (see Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, pp. 199, 235-237). Interestingly enough, a little more than two centuries after Bruno’s execution, another heretic and defender of science, Karl Marx, was to make the same ancient materialists who had influenced Bruno (Democratist, Epicurus, and Lucretius) the subject of his doctoral thesis. (The story of this is told in John Foster’s Marx’s Ecology.)

The Russian electronic weekly newspaper, left.ru recently translated and published Michael Yates’ “Workers of the World, Unite: Will this Include the US Labor Movement?(MR, vol. 52, no. 3, July-August 2000). In response to an email from Michael, Svetlana Baiborodova, one of the editors of left.ru, said, “We are confident that it will be read and discussed with avid interest by labor activists and other leftists, that it will help Russian workers to understand better the processes going on in US labor, and to realize how crucial is the task [of building] bridges between them and their American sisters and brothers.” Congratulations, Michael.

We record with sorrow the death on October 21 at age 106 of MR author Dirk J. Struik (pronounced stroyk). For many years a professor at MIT, he was one of the world’s most influential historians of mathematics. His recent work chal-lenged Eurocentric interpretations of the origins of mathematics (see his “Multiculturalism and the History of Mathematics,” MR, March 1995). Dirk wrote a landmark essay on Marx’s approach to calculus for the Winter 1948 issue of Science & Society (a journal of which he was one of the founders). He also authored the introduction to the International Press edition of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. In the McCarthy period, a grand jury accused him of advocating the overthrow of the government because of his Marxist views and MIT suspended him from teaching. The charges against him were later dropped following a Supreme Court ruling that states had no jurisdiction in such matters, and his professorship was restored. (See Struik, “The Struik Case of 1951,” MR, January 1993.) We plan to run a more detailed assessment of Dirk’s contribution to socialist thought in a future issue of MR.

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