On Marx and Labor Certificates
Conrad Hamilton October 10, 2022
Flirting with the Future
For a man widely regarded as the founder of “scientific socialism,” Karl Marx did not, in fact, write very much about it. It is true, of course, that all of his writings dwell upon socialism, in the sense of treating it as a terminus that the Victorian capitalism of the nineteenth century was rapidly barreling towards. But especially in his mature works — which Louis Althusser, in a widely-cited formulation, dates from 1845 onwards — he was conspicuously more invested in showing how capitalism’s internal contradictions would lead to its demise than in making forecasts about the utopic future that would arise therefrom. These contradictions, of course, are charted above all in Capital, in which we are told that the progressive replacement of workers by machines will — in so far as it is primarily the former that creates value — lead to a progressive decline in the rate of profit. And thus the breakdown of capitalism in the (vaguely specified) “long run” (1991, 337).
Marx’s hesitancy to speculate about what a socialist future would look like owed a great deal to the influence of G.F.W. Hegel. A more renowned philosopher but less perspicacious political thinker, Hegel rails in tomes like the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic against those philosophers who postulate “abstract determinations,” purporting to know the intransitive nature of things. If you look at your watch, you’ll see what time it is, but in one minute, it will change. So, the goal of philosophy is not — as thinkers of the past conceived it — to describe the “timeless” structure of reality. Rather, it is to portray the immanent flux of human knowledge, which only progresses through discarding old hypotheses and assuming new ones. Marx’s signature gesture was to interpret this immanent flux of human knowledge, the Geist or Logik, as the economic backbone of human society. Seen this way, the socialists who preceded Marx — utopians such as Robert Owen or Charles Fourier, the latter of whom infamously predicted that in their state of final perfection, the world’s seas will acquire the flavor of lemonade — could be analogized with the comparatively “unscientific” philosophers who preceded Hegel. That is to say, they were not wrong, but the atemporal character of their thought meant that they remained trapped within a specific conjuncture, unable to pass over into a larger consideration of the process of history.
This is all admirable intellectual stuff. The practical result of it, however, is that there are precious few passages in Marx that discuss what the communism of the future will entail. Exceptions include the Manifesto to some extent, comments on the “realm of freedom” (1991, 958) in the third volume of Capital, and others. Likely the most significant exposition of this subject is in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Written in 1875 in order to repulse the influence of the followers of rival socialist intellectual Ferdinand Lasalle on the party platform of the nascent Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (which later became the much-derided Social Democratic Party of Germany), Gotha was never intended for a general readership and had little impact even upon the audience of half a dozen socialist activists it was written for. Sixteen years later, though, in 1891, Engels made it public to influence the SDP (which at that point was on the cusp of adopting a new program) to come around to Marx’s position. Engels’ attempts to push the SDP in this direction were partially successful: While the 1891 Erfurt Program contained certain “opportunistic” and reformist elements, it still represented a marked improvement in his view over the one adopted at Gotha.