Perspectives in Politics & International Studies

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The Point is Not to Change the World, But to Interpret it

Frederick Harry Pitts launches Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx alongside Marx, Engels, and Marxisms series editor Terrell Carver at the University of Bristol on Tuesday 30th January at 5 pm. More details are available here.

Dr. Frederick Harry Pitts is a Lecturer at the School of Economics, Finance & Management, University of Bristol. 

Read a free chapter, “The Fragment on Machines,” free until May 18th.

Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx addresses an upsurge of interest in the work of Marx by offering new theoretical resources to get to grips with the intellectual legacy he left behind, 200 years since his birth and 150 years since the publication of his masterwork, Capital. It pitches the key selling point of Marx’s thought as a radical reckoning with a specific type of society constituted in an antagonism between a class that lives by selling labour and one that lives through buying it, and how this relation takes on certain kinds of socially mediated forms in the exchange of commodities for money.

This analytical insight bears dividends for reinvigorated political radicals today precisely by opting out of setting impossible political tasks it cannot solve. What is important from the theoretical perspective advocated in my book is that Marx’s work allows us to understand how capitalist society is organised by a force that springs from our creation but that controls us all, from the worker on the shop floor to the director in the boardroom. This force is not some shady cabal of wealthy individuals. It is, rather, capital. In other words: self-valorising value. Its passage through the sphere of production where workers labour to create the things that carry it only serves to conceal its status as nothing more than money begetting money. On the basis of this pessimistic assessment of how human creations come back to haunt us, easy political lessons are much harder to extract from between the lines of Marx’s work. By Capital Marx was concerned with a systematic critique of a society shaped by a self-moving force, and not with critiques or political campaigns aimed at individuals or groups within that society. The contemporary left at its worst displays a tendency towards a kind of conspiratorial mindset that seeks to find culprits for things for which no individual or group is to blame. Marx’s critique of political economy, therefore, represents an antidote rather than antecedent to the populist analyses of capitalist power popular on both left and right today.

At least in the UK context, the contemporary left comprises two competing sides each of which claims textual authority from pieces of Marx’s unfinished and mostly posthumous output. As I chart in Chapter 7 of my book, a hipster postcapitalist wing sources from a single ‘Fragment’ of his unpublished notebooks an imagined future of automated abundance. Meanwhile, throwback Leninists lift from the equally fragmentary and posthumously repackaged thoughts the paper-selling imperative to change the world and not interpret it. What they struggle with is that there is no single authentically ‘Marxist’ economic or political programme one can source support for from within Marx. There is only a certain analysis of what capitalism is and how it works, the political implications of which shift with the society in which it sits. As Terrell Carver’s recent book on Marx shows- launched alongside my own in Bristol on January 30th- Marx’s practical politics largely consisted of contributions to liberal coalitions for piecemeal reforms, resting not on millenarian optimism, but a radical pessimism cognisant of the limits constraining attempts at systemic change. At a time where the Marxist left senses opportunity in the end of liberal order, an imperative counterintuitive to traditional Marxist commonsense bears repeating: the aim must be to first interpret the world and only then to seek to change it. My book is a small contribution to the former.

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