Friday, January 25, 2008

Peter Osborne: How to Read Marx

My review will appear in Practical Philosophy

Peter Osborne
How to Read Marx
London: Granta Books, 2005
ISBN1862077713 (pb), pp. vii + 136 pp.

Peter Osborne’s book follows the customary format of the How to read Series. Each of its chapters consists of a passage from Marx’s oeuvre followed by a discussion that is intended to both explicate the passage and to introduce broader issues of Marx’s thought. The purpose of the present book appears, however, to be somewhat different from that of others in the series. How to Read Marx might be more aptly titled How to Read Marx Correctly. While the other How to Read books serve as introductions to the thinkers to which they are devoted, Osborne’s book seems to assume that his audience already posses a basic - if flawed – acquaintance with Marx’s writings. As a result, he fails to give a systematic overview of Marx’s thought. In fact, Osborne consciously avoids overtly systematic interpretation, rather, he wishes “to present Marx’s writings as an ongoing process of investigation, rather than a doctrine” (pg. 6). Instead of explaining Marx from the ground up, he points out the varying rhetorical and historical factors that must be taken into account when reading different texts that Marx authored and he further tries to show us that Marx remains relevant in the age of globalization, that Marx can be read philosophically, that Marx was more innovative than we might have realized, and why Marx the father should not be held responsible for the sins of his Soviet children.

The book opens with a chapter on the “fetishism of commodities”, as set forth in a passage from Capital. Osborne takes pains to explain the historical background of the term “fetish” as it was used in Enlightenment accounts of non-western societies and in Marx’s own writings. He warns us against finding Freudian overtones in Marx’s use of the term. All of this is very well, but what exactly is fetishistic about commodities? Osborne tells us that a commodity’s “use-value” and “exchange-value” are mysteriously related, and that the work that goes into producing commodities is simultaneously both “concrete labour” and “abstract labour.” What he fails to do is to lead the reader through a single down-to-earth example of the production and marketing of a specific commodity in order to demonstrate how all of these theoretical concepts apply to the real world. The recurrent failure to flesh-out highly abstract ideas further undermines the book’s usefulness as a genuinely introductory text.

The next two chapters deal with passages from the “Theses on Feuerbach” and The German Ideology. Osborne uses these texts to explain Marx’s idiosyncratic materialism and how it developed during the course of his life. He tells us that the “Theses on Feuerbach” should be read as belonging to the genre of literary “fragments” as developed in German Romanticism and as an early example of a “posthumously published philosophical notebook” similar to Nietzsche’s Will to Power, Benjamin’s Arcades’ Project and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Osborne assures us that, “If the theoretical content of these texts is dense, at times to the point of enigma, the form of their incompleteness is nonetheless crucial for projecting a unity to the bodies of work to which they are appended’ (pg. 26). I am afraid that statements like this may well leave people who are acquainted with the authors mentioned no less confused than the philosophical neophytes who hope to gain an inkling of what Marx had to say about our world. Be that as it may, we come to understand that Marx’s new materialism is rooted in the standpoint of living, social, human beings who interact with material nature and with each other, rather than in the standpoint of an inactive, isolated scientific observer of material nature. We also learn that Marx’s standpoint is inherently historical, because when our needs move us to interact with nature, the technologies we develop in order to undertake that interaction generate new sets of needs in a recurring historical process. Although the ideas dealt with in these chapters are of considerable philosophical interest, Osborne once again fails to work hard enough to make the concepts involved readily and precisely understandable.

Chapter four uses a passage from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts as the textual anchor of a discussion of Marx’s notion of alienation as set against its Hegelian background. Chapter five presents excerpts from the early Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy (1839) and from the introduction to the “Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” in order to consider Marx’s developing views on the respective roles of philosophy and the proletariat in the emancipation of humanity. Chapter six, built upon another excerpt from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, explains that the emancipation heralded by Marx consists of communism – not, as Osborne is careful to tell, the “communism” of state socialism, but rather a truly emancipatory communism. This is a communism “which abolishes private property [especially privately owned means of production – BDL] in such a way as to move humanity to a more advanced stage of historical development” (pg. 79) by managing to preserve the advances that lay hidden and alienated in the capitalist system. Chapter six is devoted to the Communist Manifesto, and deals largely with literary questions surrounding the genre of manifestos in general and the rhetorical considerations that must be taken into account when reading them. Chapter seven treats a remarkable passage from Capital which is written in the first person as the plea or complaint of a worker against his employer. Chapter nine deals with another section from Capital, this time one concerning the problem of “original accumulation” (the question of how capitalists amass the “start-up” capital needed for economies to “take off”). The basic thesis is that this “original” wealth is acquired through violent and underhanded means rather than through thrift and personal virtue. The final chapter discusses a sample of Marx’s pot-boiling journalistic writing. The passage in question deals with the affects of British colonialism on India. Osborne takes the opportunity to soften (but not to entirely excuse) the political incorrectness of Marx’s views on non-Western societies.

In conclusion: there is much of interest in this book for people who have some acquaintance with Marx; it might find a useful place on the reading lists of some undergraduate courses. However, I do not think it can succeed as a stand-alone introductory text.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College,
Akko, Israel,