How Marx Reads
I wrote this essay for a course I took on Marx and am republishing it here.
In 1844, Karl Marx put a name to his project: a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” one that is “[not] afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.”So it is no surprise that in the years that followed, his writings mostly consisted of responses to other writers: Hegel, Bauer, Feuerbach, and Mill, to name a few.
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Due to Marx’s emphasis on criticism, I think it is worthwhile to investigate Marx not merely as a writer, but also as a reader. In what follows, we’ll look at his response to the political economist James Mill, specifically to Mill’s examination of money and exchange in his Elements of Political Economy. What is notable about this particular essay is that Marx did not initially set out to write it; rather it came about spontaneously as he was reading and taking notes, and so it was found in his notebooks bookended by quotations from Mill’s Elements. Because of the peculiar nature of this writing, by watching Marx write we are also watching him read.
Mill on Money
Before we look at Marx’s response, we should familiarize ourselves with Mill’s argument. In section eight of the Elements, after establishing that money is a medium of exchange between two other commodities, Mill notes that the value of money is determined by the quantity of money in circulation, which leads him to ask: what regulates this quantity?
Money can be made under two circumstances, he says. Either the government controls the quantity, or it “leaves the increase or diminution of it free.”In the latter scenario, people who possess bullion will only convert it into coins when it would be more valuable as a coin, and the reverse is true as well. “Whenever the coining of money, therefore, is free,” Mill concludes, “its quantity is regulated by the value of the metal.”
But this raises another question: how is the value of the metal determined? Mill confidently responds that gold and silver are commodities like any other, so their value is simply determined by the cost of their production.And here, Marx begins his critique.
Marx’s First Critique
“In designating money as the medium of exchange,” Marx writes, “Mill puts the matter very well and succinctly in a single concept.” Notice that Marx does not begin by rejecting Mill, but praising him. He goes on:
The essence of money is not primarily that it externalizes property, but that the mediating activity or process—the human and social act in which man’s products reciprocally complement one another—becomes alienated and takes on the quality of a material thing, money, external to man.
In borrowing Mill’s premise that money is a medium of exchange, Marx is able to demonstrate that money alienates humans from the social act of exchange itself, turning the process by which they compare their products into something external to themselves. “Apart from this mediation, objects lose their value. They have value only insofar as they represent it while originally it appeared that the mediation would have value only insofar as it represents objects.” Here Marx shows how money takes on a new social existence, becoming an “actual god”that gains value by devaluing the objects it supposedly represents, and that all of this follows from Mill's initial contention. With that established, he then looks at the effects of this process.
The crude economic superstitions of people and their governments hold on to the perceptible, palpable, and observable moneybag and believe in the absolute value of precious metals and their possession as the only real form of wealth. The enlightened and knowledgeable economist comes along and proves to them that money is a commodity like any other and that its value, like that of any other commodity, depends on the relationship of the costs of production to demand (competition) and supply, and to the quantity or competition of other commodities.
Marx lays out this disagreement between the public—who believe that only precious metals can be used as money—and the political economist who sagely demonstrates that any commodity can be used as money. In doing so he sets up his criticism of Mill, who we can only assume is the “enlightened and knowledgeable economist” Marx speaks of.
Remember that for Mill, the value of metallic money comes from its cost of production. If we are to follow this logic, then any other commodity could be used as money, so the public’s belief that money can solely reside in precious metals is only a superstition. However, Marx does not wish to follow Mill’s logic here.
The correct reply to this economist is that the actual value of things, after all, is their exchange value, and the exchange value resides in money, just as money exists in precious metals. . . . The economist’s doctrines yield the same wisdom, except that he can abstractly recognize the existence of money in all forms of commodities and not believe in the exchange value of its official metallic existence.
It is important to tease out what exactly Marx is saying here. The economists, he says, can “abstractly recognize the existence of money in all forms of commodities,” by which he means they can see that every commodity oculd conceivably be used as a medium of exchange. While Marx agrees with them here, he points out that they are mistaken in “not [believing] in the exchange value of its official metallic existence.” The word “official” is key here, as he has demonstrated above that money is more than what the economists make of it. On top of its economic existence as a mediator it has a social existence as a god of sorts, one that becomes the “true value of things and hence the most desirable thing”as objects begin to only have value insofar as they represent it.
So Marx has used one of Mill’s basic premises to problematize another. From Mill’s declaration that money is a mediator, Marx shows how this mediator takes on a life of its own, becoming more and more desirable until it is seen as the most desirable thing, as it represents the value of all other commodities to be desired. And so, it is not just that precious metals are one commodity among many that could be used as money, it is that the “metallic existence of money is only the official sensuous expression of the very soul of money existing in all branches of production and in all operations of civil society.”The true value of things, Marx notes, is exchange value, which resides in whatever expresses the sensuous "soul of money," in this case precious metals. If Mill is right about money as a mediator, he must also recognize that exchange value only resides in what is officially used as money. Marx wields Mill’s own weapons against him.
But Marx does not merely interrogate the implications of the laws of political economy. He also interrogates their underlying assumptions. After wrapping up his first critique, he goes back to reading for a while, until he stumbles upon the following passage:
A man produces, only because he wishes to possess. If the commodity which he produces is the commodity which he desires to possess, he stops when he has produced as much as he desires.
Marx begins to write again.
Marx’s Second Critique
“That man produces only in order to own,” Marx regards as “the basic presupposition of private property.”So what are the consequences of setting out from this presupposition? He answers:
As soon as exchange occurs, there is an overproduction beyond the immediate boundary of ownership. But this overproduction does not exceed selfish need. Rather it is only an indirect way of satisfying a need which finds its objectification in the production of another person. . . . I have produced for myself and not for you, just as you have produced for yourself and not for me. . . . My social relationship with you and my labor for your want is just plain deception and our mutual reintegration is deception just as well.
If Mill is right that we produce in order to possess, then any production over what we immediately need must be to exchange for someone else’s product. If this is true, we are not exchanging products as humans. Instead, we mutually seek power over each other by producing what the other needs to survive. I get what I need, and you get what you need, but we have only produced for ourselves. Under the assumption of private property, the best we can do is extort one another. But this is only Mill’s assumption, and there is no reason we need to make it our own. What if we stop presupposing private property entirely?
According to Marx, if we had produced things as human beings, each of us would have “twice affirmed himself and the other.” What does he mean by this? Under free, socialized production we both objectify our “individuality and particularity,”he says. We would each enjoy the "direct and conscious satisfaction that [our] work satisfied a human need,” and we would have been our own mediators, unalienated by money.
In my individual life I would have directly created your life; in my individual activity I would have immediately confirmed and realized my true human and social nature. . . . My labor would be a free manifestation of life and an enjoyment of life.
To Marx, this is the world that waits for us if we can free ourselves from the presupposition of private property.
How Marx Reads
By investigating the implications of Mill’s premises, Marx shows that money is an alienating force, but by investigating the assumptions underlying Mill’s premises, Marx gives us the solution, that is, the abolition of private property. By accepting Mill’s declaration that money is the medium of exchange, Marx is able to uncover both sides of this statement, reading into Mill’s very own words things that Mill himself failed to discover, and in doing so providing us with a vision of an unalienated future.
What we have seen here is that Marx does not undergo a critical reading with the sole intent of rejecting what he is reading. Rather, he accepts many of its premises and examines them, looking at where they come from and where they lead, finding in this case that Mill is blind to both the presuppositions and implications of his own laws. We come to find that when Marx reads, he is not interested in a mere surface-level rejection of what he is reading, but rather, in unearthing what is hidden behind these words, looking for ways to use them to his own ends. A transformative critique, if you will.
The French intellectuals Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari write in What Is Philosophy? that all too often, philosophy is seen as a perpetual discussion. “Nothing is less exact,” they say,
and when philosophers criticize each other it is on the basis of problems and on a plane that is different from theirs. . . . To criticize is only to establish that a concept vanishes when it is thrust into a new milieu. . . . But those who criticize without creating, those who are content to defend the vanished concept without being able to give it the forces it needs to return to life, are the plague of philosophy.
Unlike the philosophers bemoaned by Deleuze and Guattari, Marx does not merely critique, he also creates. Or at least, creation is a vital part of his style of criticism. He does not intend to take the concepts of political economy and vanish them, but instead looks at what happens when he “[accepts] its language and its laws.”It seems that these philosophers who criticize without creating stand to learn something from Marx as a reader.
Engels & Marx (1978). The Marx-Engels Reader (Robert C. Tucker, Ed.) (2nd ed.). p. 13
Mill (1844) Elements of Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 131
Mill, p. 133
As per Mill’s theory of value, which is by no means representative of those of the other classical political economists, or those of economists today.
Marx (1994), Selected Writings (Lawrence H. Simon, Ed.). p. 41
Marx, p. 42
Marx, p. 42-43
Marx, p. 43
Marx, p. 43
Marx, p. 43
Mill, p. 222
Marx, p. 50
Marx, p. 50-51
Marx, p. 52
Marx, p. 53
Marx, p. 52
Deleuxe & Guattari (1994). What Is Philosophy? p. 28
Marx, p. 58