June 1, 1988
How is a work of social theory different from a novel? Both are interpretations: either deep or shallow, broad-gauged or narrow, weighty or trivial, crude or subtle, depending on the quality of imagination deployed. Both must contain at least a core of narrative; both encompass an irreducible ambiguity (often called “undecidability” in the case of theory); both are inescapably subjective, reflecting their creators’ histories, hungers, and limitations. And both have recourse to metaphor, not adventitiously but centrally.
Is there a difference, then? Beats me. And after reading Robert Paul Wolff’s “Moneybags Must Be So Lucky”, I’m less sure than ever. It is, of course, a commonplace that “Capital” is a literary masterpiece. Only a few the die-hard positivists still regard its style as merely Hegelian mumbo jumbo. Marx has been called by Edmund Wilson “one of the great masters of satire” and “certainly the greatest ironist since Swift”; by other critics, an Old Testament prophet, an epic poet, a dramatist of abstractions. All true enough, but Wolff has something more in mind. He wants to show that Marx succeeded in one of his main goals precisely because he failed in another: His critique of capitalist ideology relies on an expository strategy that rules out the “normalization” of his theory—its statement in textbook form—which is more or less our contemporary criterion for the “scientific” status that Marx aspired to. Marx outsmarted himself, though fruitfully; “Capital’s” “truth as well as its power resides at least in part in the ironic implication of its author in the mystifications and injustices it exposes.”
What is irony, anyway? In a passage of truly wonderful economy (the book is only 80 pages long, notwithstanding digressions Plato, Jewish humor, the metaphysical poets, and the philosophy of science), Wolff propounds one view:
“If the self were substantively simple…then declarative discourse would suffice…But if the speaking self is complex, many-layered, capable of reflection, self-deception, ambivalence, of unconscious thought processes, of projections, introjections, displacements, transferences, and all manner of ambiguities— in short if the his story of the self is directly present as part of its current nature— then only a language containing within itself the literary resources corresponding to these complexities will suffice to speak the truth.”
Because old beliefs are not simply displaced but persist within new ones, dominant ideologies cannot be merely refuted but must be demystified, which means that their plausibility must be acknowledged and accounted for. This is possible only if the writer has, either directly or vicariously, lived through and felt the attraction of these beliefs. But this experience leaves a residue of tension, of ambivalence. Irony is one way in which the writer may externalize this inner conflict for his own benefit and narrate it for the reader’s.
Near the end of chapter one, in the famous section called “The Fetishism of Commodities,” Marx notes that he has, of course, been pulling the reader’s leg. His entire elaborate development of the concept of abstract social labor—the ghostly, immaterial essence that determines the exchange-value of commodities—has resulted in a way of describing social reality that is manifestly absurd. And that, Marx observes, is the point. “Abstract social labor” is a reductio ad absurdum. Marx was forced to develop notion in order to solve the central riddle of classical political economy—how to account for profit. But the solution, being impossibility, explodes the theory that “Capital” originally seemed intended to correct and complete. In retrospect, the bewildering, often exasperating jargon of chapter one was a way of exorcising political economy, of demonstrating that for all its apparent clarity and commonsensicalness, it was destined in future to appear as queer and astonishing as Christian theology and Scholastic metaphysics, which had also seemed “natural” and self-evident in their day. “Writing for an audience that had been reared on the mysteries and incantations of Christianity [Marx] invoked its most powerful metaphors to force upon his readers a self-awareness of their complicity in the in versions and fetishism of capitalist market relations. By ‘coquetting with Hegel,’ as he himself described his discussion of the concepts of value and money, Marx clearly hoped to jolt the complacent apologists of capitalism into realization of the opacity, mystery, and underlying irrationality of their putatively transparent explanations of prices, wages, and profits.”
Wolff is a Marxist and an academic philosopher yet he also has a sense of humor and can write. The improbability of all these things being true of the same person is incalculable. “Moneybags Must Be So Lucky” (the title is from a pivotal passage of “Capital”), though modest in scope, contains more charm and illumination than most Marxology . Wolff proves that there’s life, along with still-unappreciated resources of art, and even a bit of fun, in the Old Man yet.