Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

The Two Sides of Society

Karl Marx ( 1818-1883) lived the life of an independent intellectual and political activist. After his studies, he worked as a journalist before leaving his native Germany in 1843, initially for Paris. There, Marx met Friedrich Engels ( 1820-1895), his lifelong friend, collaborator, and benefactor. Marx's writings of this early period in Paris reflected his youthful philosophical interests in the then-popular debate over Hegel. The Communist Manifesto, written with Engels, appeared in 1848, on the eve of the revolutions of that year. The following year, he settled in London, where he began his scholarly labors in the public reading room of the British Museum. In 1867, the first volume of Capital was published. It is fashionable, and plausible, to describe the ideas in Capital as Marx's mature science, in contrast to his more humanistic philosophy in the 1840s. In the 1860s, Marx was the dominant intellectual and political force behind the working people's movement known as the International. Marx died, alone, in 1888, shortly after the deaths of his daughter and wife, both named Jenny.

Marxism as a political and social philosophy took many forms, with different effects--from the terror of Stalinism to the aesthetically subtle explorations of economic and cultural life by critical theorists and other students of culture today. The selections represent the full range of Marx's thinking. "Estranged Labour" is from the early, philosophical period. Readers should note that this translation uses estrangement where the term alienation might be expected. "Camera Obscura" is Marx's memorable metaphoric description of ideology's inverted relation to social reality. "Class Struggle" is from his best-known public tract, the Manifesto, in which he combined a commanding popular style with precise theoretical analysis. "The Eighteenth Brumaire", likewise, was a popular account of the 1851 coup in Paris, and it presented Marx's political theory through a careful, if passionate, interpretation of historical events. "On Imperialism in India" ( 1853) is comparable in tone and purpose, though here Marx turned his critique of bourgeois civilization against its colonial system. "The Values of Commodities" is the key section from Marx's important theory of value. Though it is offered as an argument in his critique of capital, the theory has been used as a general theory of value in society. (There are passages in Saussure's discussion of linguistic and social value that could have been lifted from Marx.) "The Fetishism of Commodities" ( 1867) might be compared to "Estranged Labour" ( 1844) to determine how some of Marx's ideas were unchanged in his more mature writings. "Labour-Power and Capital" is one of the most powerful examples of Marx's critical and structural method. Having led the reader, in the first half of Capital (vol. 1), through his technical theory of the relation between labor and economic value, Marx abruptly announced that the secret of capitalist profit cannot be seen in the visible marketplace. He then turned to the hidden logic of the capitalist and capitalism. The final selection, Engels "Patriarchal Family", is a classic source for the outlines of a materialist feminism.

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