Full Marx Library series

MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains how capitalism turned art into a commodity and gave rise to the cult of the artist.

MOST Marxists would say that the worth someone sees in a work of art such as a painting, or the pleasure they get from it — in its original or as a reproduction — is above all else an individual matter, not something that “experts” (Marxist or otherwise) can or should pronounce upon.

And while experts can enhance that pleasure, for example by explaining the technique and methodology of the composition of a painting, this is no more the exclusive province of a Marxist than a commentary on the technical skills embodied in the design or manufacture of a washing machine.

However, a Marxist approach may help to deepen the appreciation or understanding of an artwork by revealing the historical context of its production and the relation of a work of art or of an artist to society.

MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY discusses why Marxists challenge the view of science as pure knowledge.

Science and the word “scientific” can mean at least three different things, including: the “knowledge content” of different disciplines (as in physics, chemistry, biology) about the universe; the processes by which this understanding is acquired (the “scientific method” and wider issues in the philosophy of science) and the relationship of science to society — in particular the organisation, funding and control of research (in the laboratories of universities, by pharma companies or within the “military-industrial complex)” and how access to and use of that knowledge is controlled.

All three of these are connected, and we’ll take them in reverse order. Here we’ll look at what a Marxist approach can reveal about the practice of science and its relation to society. We’ll consider scientific knowledge — the content of science — in a subsequent answer.

Science is often conceived as “pure” knowledge or facts, independent of the way these are produced, controlled or used.

Marxists would challenge this, pointing out that throughout history, the changing content of scientific knowledge — what are understood at any point in time as facts — is closely related to the social conditions of their production, though in a dialectical rather than a deterministic way.

This week, the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains that, while the ruling class might look somewhat different from Marx’s day, its fundamental nature remains unchanged.

YES, it does, though it’s changed a bit since Marx’s time. Most industrial and commercial capital — factories, machinery, distribution and communication systems — the means whereby wealth is created (with a little help from workers, of course) is rarely any longer owned directly by individuals but by companies.

Though most land is still privately owned (and that’s excluding the house and garden that you and I may own — land becomes “capital” only when it can be used to make a profit) increasing amounts are held as investment by financial institutions.

However despite the significant sums that are held by pension funds, local authorities, universities and other institutions that you and I may feel we have a stake in, capital — stocks, shares, bonds and other “investments” — are overwhelmingly in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals.

Their assets are spread to minimise any risk (that’s what “hedging” is all about) and most have little involvement in the processes of production, unlike the entrepreneurial capitalists of Marx’s and Dickens’s day.

Don’t let the fact that you may receive some benefit from your own Isa or pension fund (if you are lucky enough to have one) fool you into thinking you’re a capitalist yourself.

The interest of course does come from other people’s labour but you have no control over how these funds are used and you probably don’t reinvest most of the income you get from them.

MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY examines the various definitions of value and how capitalism distorts it.

A GOOD question, and one that Marx explored 150 years ago in the first volume of Capital (published in September 1867).

Value can be understood and measured in at least three different ways. A common use of the term is how much something might sell for or cost to buy.

Marx called this “exchange value”the “worth” of something, measured by what it can be exchanged for — if the measure is money, its price.

A second kind of value is “use value” (sometimes referred to today as “instrumental value”) — the capacity of something to satisfy a (human) need or want. There are two sources of use value — nature and human work.

A third and for Marxists a central concept of value has to do with the human work, or “labour,” embodied in the production of commodities (ie use values for sale) whether in the form of goods (such as food, tools or manufactured items) or services (like dentistry, travel, childcare, media and IT).

Labour-value is fundamental to all human societies and, arguably, is peculiar to our species. Wild blackberries can be eaten straight from the bush, but human labour is needed to cultivate, pick, pack and transport them, ie creating use value and exchange value for others.

MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY describes why Marxist dialectics is a way to understand how the world works.

OUR last article looked at materialism. This week we’ll move on to look at the “dialectical” part of dialectical materialism.

The term “dialectics” originates from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. To him dialectics involved a discourse between two or more individuals who seek to understand a problem through careful, reasoned argument from different perspectives or disciplines.

Later philosophers, in particular G W Hegel, developed dialectics but in an abstract, idealist way. Marx turned Hegel “right side up,” rescuing “the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”

MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY describes what Marx’s materialism is and what it meant at the time.

LET’S start with “materialism” first. We’ll follow up with the “dialectical” bit in the next instalment.

Colloquially, the terms materialism and materialistic are often used in a pejorative way to mean “concerned or preoccupied with material things” at the expense of values and ideas. But in philosophy the term materialism is used rather differently.

Materialism holds that the world, the universe and “nature,” actually exist. Beyond this, it holds that that all phenomena — including consciousness — are ultimately the outcome of (though not reducible to) material processes. And that humans can, in principle, understand that world — often incorrectly and never completely, but that over time we can collectively work towards a better knowledge of what reality is and how it functions.

That sounds pretty obvious now, but in Karl Marx’s time (1818-1883), there were, as there are today, philosophers who argue that ideas are primary and that it is impossible to ever “know” the world — all we can be sure of are our sensations — or even to know that we exist. Others argue that ideas (consciousness) can exist independently of the brain, books or other physical entities.

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