The Portable Karl Marx

Marx, Karl. The Portable Karl Marx. ed. Eugene Kamenka. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

Even though Marx was completely demonized, this is a lucid volume and well organized, though that probably speaks more of the editor than of Marx. This book is like one of God’s spies stole Satan’s battle plan and now we get to read it.

Marx’s style is often criticized. Kapital has the reputation of being one of the worst books ever written.  Actually, his transitional writings are usually quite lucid and forceful.  His journalistic writings are mostly bombastic nonsense–much like journalism today.  They can be safely ignored.


“1844 Manuscripts.”  By not owning the means of production, the worker is alienated from his labor.  He only has an external relationship to it; hence, he is alienated from it.  This labor is “self-sacrifice” (Marx 136).  This alien labor now becomes an alien power that confronts me.

Theses on Feuerbach

Marx is aware of the limitations in earlier materialism.  If we’re just atoms bumping around, then we really can’t speak about much.  Marx takes it a step further: materialism is now defined as praxis (155).  While he takes the standard line that truth = power, he draws a different conclusion.  If truth is power, then it can only be demonstrated in praxis.

With ominous portents to come, he defines man as the aggregate of social relations (thesis VI).

Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

Social relations determine man’s consciousness (160). It’s at this point that Marx rejects Hegel.  For Hegel, essence determines existence.  For Marx, it’s the other way around.

German Ideology

Marx gives a relatively accurate account of the division of labor (almost certainly copying from Adam Smith).  There isn’t much to disagree with here. The division of labor is a necessary development. Unfortunately, it cleaves man’s relation in two. Marx sees this as alienation.  What he doesn’t see is that it allows man to produce more food and not starve to death.

He pauses his analysis to talk about consciousness again. Our “mental intercourse” is “the direct efflux of [our] material behavior” (169).  Consciousness is just conscious existence.  It is a “social product” (174).  I could be wrong, but I don’t think Marx completely rejects (at least here) the idea of a nonphysical consciousness.  He could be simply saying that consciousness supervenes on the physical.  That’s still wrong, but it is a bit more sophisticated.

Division of labor now becomes “an alien force existing outside them” (177).  Alienation, as a result, renders men propertyless.

On History: history develops by opposing forces clashing into each other, which generates a new contradiction.  Specifically, it is a contradiction between productive forces and social community (192).  This provides the sharpest contrast with Christianity:  the Church sees society held together by the bonds of love (Augustine, Book 19, City of God).  Marx sees society’s essence as the clash of forces and contradiction.


Here is Marx’s famous (and debunked) labor theory of value.   Value is “proportional quantities in which it is exchanged for other quantities” (Marx 401).  If I want to exchange wheat for iron, I must refer both to some third term which is neither (cf. 439).  For Marx this is labor. When I produce a commodity, a certain amount of labor goes into it.  This crystallization of social labor is a commodity’s value.  Indeed, it is a “social substance contained in it” (396).

A profit, therefore, is a surplus to my labor.  This profit doesn’t come back to me, though. Boss Man, according to Marx, has literally taken my substance.

It is not necessary to continue this discussion.  This is the heart of his system.  If this is false, then everything he says is flawed.

Das Kapital

Famous discussion of labor’s being the 3rd term in exchange value.  The quantity A being exchanged for B must be equal to labor, C.

Human labor is a substance which is embodied in production (441). Marx then abstracts labor-value from use-value.  Upon further abstractions, the human person is eclipsed altogether.  Marx sees a “homogenous mass of labor power” (442).  This isn’t all that different from the grim and chilling term “human resources.”

I’m not overanalyzing Marx.  He reifies labor, calling “commodities congealed labor-time.” Labor is almost a physical substance, whereas the human person, for Marx, is simply the result of social forces.

Then it gets weird.  Marx gives labor and value an almost magical creating-power.  He writes, “It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic” (449).  And: “The character of having value, when once impressed upon the products, obtains fixity only by reason of their acting and re-acting upon each other as quantities of value” (450).  This sounds very similar to medieval and alchemical grimoires, instead of lead we have humans, and instead of the sulphur we have the re-acting agent of value.  What he has completely missed is that it is humans who act, not abstract concepts.

Places where Marx almost gets it right

Marx sees a world-market existing with propertyless workers (179).  These workers are cut off from capital.


Labor theory:  while sociologists and journalists might praise the labor theory of value, few economists take it seriously.  First, as Bohm-Bawerk notes, Marx rests upon Aristotle’s theory of equality in exchange.  Aristotle said that goods of equal value are traded in an exchange.  Marx agrees but puts labor as one of the terms.  But if that’s true, then there is no reason to even exchange anything.  Nothing would disturb the equilibrium (Bohm-Bawerk 2007:70).

Further, Bohm-Bawerk continues, some goods that are exchanged do not involve any labor time: such as the soil, wood in trees, water power, coal beds, stone quarries, petroleum reserves, mineral waters, gold mines, etc.” 

Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen v. 2007. Karl Marx and the Close of His System. Auburn: Mises Institute.


Given the attacks on liberty today, understanding Marx is essential.  The reader should familiarize himself with the philosophical writings.  That is where the attack is coming from.  Class consciousness is being weaponized.  True, socialism is on the rise, but it is more of a “gimme free stuff” than it is a serious analysis alienation and labor.


One thought on “The Portable Karl Marx

  1. I’ve been reading into Marx and related literature for the last few years. Some thoughts that might help:

    – I think you might not be aware that Marx distinguished value (which he only addresses in Capital vol 1) from price (which he only gets onto in vol 3). So, for him, price and profit are what we see on the surface, while value is more like the gravitational field behind them, shaping them, but altered by differing levels of investment and supply and demand. He believed that a major contradiction in capitalism was that value and price would diverge radically (as with the loss of the gold standard in the 70s), ultimately leading to the collapse of value and capitalism itself. The last quote from Bohm-Bawerk misses the point that even those things take labour-time to locate.

    – The point with the abstractions of ‘use-value’, ‘exchange-value’, and ‘abstract labour’, etc. is that they are fetishised qualities of commodities in a historically specific form of society arranged entirely around wage-labour and the consumption of commodities (as opposed to previous forms arranged largely around subsistence farming or hunter-gathering, etc). So these concepts are a way of describing the compulsive power that abstract labour and commodity consumption has over social life in ways that already shape our actions by being the structures that we necessarily inhabit and must live within. Marx wasn’t entirely consistent (see Kurz’s essay below), but his best side is a highly negative critique of this: you’re absolutely right to see this as a chilling analogue to ‘human resources’, and that was his point.

    As a Christian I must reject various aspects of Marx’s thought and hopes, of course, but I think there’s some value to his analysis as described above. But I’ve written more on that on my blog. A worthwhile essay to find out more on these themes is the late ‘wertkritik’ theorist Robert Kurz’s ‘Marx 2000’ essay, available for free on Libcom. It’s not a great translation, but worth a read.


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