Book: Altered Pasts, by Richard J. Evans (2014)

I’m planning to start writing about books I’ve read, as a starting point for writing more generally. My basic intention is not necessarily to write a review per se, but rather an explanation of why I think someone should (or perhaps shouldn’t) read a book; why I think it’s interesting or significant, and so on, rather than giving it marks out of five. So here it goes.

I came across this book while researching the concept of inevitability in historical process, via a pointer towards E. H. Carr and then a review by Owen Hatherley. It is in itself a critique of a trend in historical writing for “counterfactual” history (that is, “historical” writing about events which did not take place), which the author connects particularly with conservative historians such as Niall Ferguson. For example, some have argued that counterfactual histories allow greater understanding of events which did take place by examining those which didn’t. Evans picks apart these claims, showing that the counterfactual methodology is neither sufficient nor necessary for good historical analysis.

Evans further identifies a tendency of counterfactualists to position their work in opposition to what they see as a stifling tendency towards “determinism” (particularly associated with Marxism, or at least, with misinterpretations of Marxism). This opposition is tantamount, he suggests, to a rejection of causality altogether, if the claims are to be taken at face value. He then proceeds to show that the counterfactualists are not opposed to determinism in practice, suggesting that their opposition is in fact merely an ideological distaste for left-wing theories which minimize the importance of “great men” like Churchill; he observes a disproportionate lack of counterfactuals coming from the political left. Evans is particularly strong in critiquing counterfactuals relating to the World Wars and rise of Hitler (his own historical specialty), including a trend within the British Eurosceptic Right to use hypotheses along their lines to make ideological points about the European Union. Thus, more broadly, this book is about placing intellectual tendencies within their historical context.

After reading this, I became aware of a newly-published collection of counterfactuals relating to the Russian Revolution (Historically Inevitable?, Brenton et al., 2016), which I suspect reflects similar prejudices and assumptions — the assumption that a revolution could be averted by arresting or assassinating one individual, for example, or even the characterization (in the introduction) of the idea of the revolution as a product of historical forces as being “quaint”, rather than this being merely a basic belief in causality, that things mostly happen for reasons and not for no reason at all. It is this, fundamentally, that makes it an ideological claim, in my view: to suggest that it is outdated and even silly to believe that the Russian Revolution was caused by anything more than the whims of a handful of individuals is to dismiss any critique of economic and social conditions; ironically, a dismissal of any real alternative in the name of exploring imagined ones.


On Capital

I initially intended to write a review of Capital, but in the process of doing so it turned into something more like an attempt to explain some of the basics of Marx’s theory. So, here it is. Note that it’s based on my own fairly limited knowledge and interpretation, so it’s entirely possible I’m mistaken about any or all of it; writing/explaining is as much a learning exercise for me as anything else, as well as an attempt to improve my writing regardless of the topic.

What even is Capital? It’s often also known, even in English, by its German title, Das Kapital. It was the life’s work of Karl Marx, and only the first volume was published in his lifetime; another two were published posthumously, along with various collections of his notes and drafts.1 But still: what is it? A handbook for revolution and mass murder, as some would claim?2

It’s actually more like a literature review (hence the subtitle, A Critique of Political Economy). Marx sets out to analyze contemporary economic theory in order to expose the assumptions underlying the capitalist system. Part of how he does so is by taking their claims at face value and trying to figure out what such a world might look like. In effect he’s constructing a model and tweaking one variable at a time to see how it alters the system as a whole; in this volume, it’s production, whereas in later volumes (which I haven’t read) he looks at exchange, and so on.

He begins by defining a commodity: a thing that is produced with the intent that it be exchanged for something else (as opposed to a thing that is produced with the intent of using it). Therefore, in turn, a capitalist society is one in which the majority of production is the production of commodities, unlike for example feudalism, where although commodities might be produced, most people are producing things for their own consumption or their family’s. These first few chapters, says everyone who’s ever read it, are the hardest, as Marx talks about various seemingly-basic concepts of value in seemingly-excessive detail, building up concepts like money on top of that. In the process, he traces back the fundamental concept of ‘value’ to its source: human labour, or at least, useful labour.3 How do we figure out what’s useful? Well, it’s useful if people are willing to pay for it. Of course, you can’t know that beforehand; this is an early example of a dialectical relationship, meaning what might now be called a feedback loop — two factors that constantly influence each other and find an equilibrium. (Also one of the most overused words in Marxist political writing.) So, the basic value of an item comes from the labour that went into producing it, but you can only figure out what that value is by the social processes of exchange.

From here Marx introduces the concept of commodity fetishism: the habit people have of thinking in terms of relationships between objects (i.e., the belief that the value of a commodity is somehow a property of the object itself) instead of relationships between people (i.e., in terms of who produces the commodity and how their labour is valued). This in turn is sort of a fundamental metaphor for the Marxist way of looking at the world: there’s underlying societal relations, which are specific to this society at this time and place, but they’re obscured by other ideas like the belief that they’re natural and that society always has been and always must/will be this way.

After Chapter 3 things get a lot more clear, particularly because, having set out the basics, Marx is now able to use some real-world examples. In particular, Chapter 10 is significant, because it’s here that he starts getting into the concept he’s most known for — class struggle. Chapter 10, ‘The Working Day’, discusses how, during the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution,4 it was necessary to change the way people thought about time — to take people who mostly judged time by the sun (which, naturally, varied by season), and impose a mental discipline where arriving and leaving work at a particular time actually matter. This matters more than you might realize, since it’s all part of the idea that capitalism (actually, every mode of production) developed over time, through a process of conflict between differing economic interests. In Marx’s model, laid out in the preceding chapters, technological advancement happens over a period of time, changing the relationships between groups of people (in the case of capitalism, leading to the rise in importance of cities and city-based business owners, the ‘bourgeoisie’, and their workers, the ‘proletariat’). This in turn brings the newly-ascendent class into conflict with the old ruling class (the aristocracy, for example), until the ascendent class is able to win political rights for itself (in Britain marked by the increasing significance of Parliament after the seventeenth century and decreasing power of the monarch). In turn, the development of industry leads to the increased number and importance of the urban proletariat, who then come into conflict with the bourgeoisie who own the factories. Over a period of decades during the nineteenth century, this conflict took the form of a fight for increased rights in the workplace — from limiting the hours a worker could be expected to work, and the age they can be expected to start work at, to the provision of education.

That will take you to about a third of the way through. Over the rest of the book, he looks at things like technological progress and how that relates to the relationship between worker and employer, wages, unemployment (and how unemployment is actually necessary and desirable from the perspective of an employer, in order to keep their profits up), and a host of other things. Then, in the final sections, Marx attempts to show that capitalism arose not as a ‘natural’ process, but as a result of violent upheaval (land enclosures, monastery dissolutions, vagrancy laws, etc.) and in particular colonization — something that’s often forgotten amidst the claims that capitalism rewards merit and hard work.

So, as for a review? It’s really difficult to ‘review’ a book like this — on the one hand, it’s probably the most significant political text I’ve ever read; on the other, it’s not something that I’d recommend others to read without caveats, since it’s pretty tough going. It is interesting, though, and feels a lot more relevant than, for example, J S Mill; despite being 150 years old, a lot of the topics Marx addresses are still very relevant. I also can’t overlook the helpfulness of David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, which I read alongside Capital itself chapter by chapter; it’s very useful for giving modern examples, and for providing clarifications so that I could be reasonably certain I was along the right lines before going on to the next chapter. (He also has a series of video lectures, upon which the book was based, if that’s more your thing.) There are better (and shorter) introductions to the various aspects of Marxist theory (Value, Price, and Profit gives a decent overview of Marxist economics; Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is a good overview of Marx’s theory of history) but Capital draws them all together and goes into greater detail on everything.

  1. Actually, he apparently wanted to dedicate his life to writing about the French author Balzac, but wanted to get this Capital thing out of the way first; he never did. 
  2. Although usually the title of ‘most evil book in history’ is, for some reason, given to the Communist Manifesto, a much shorter book written twenty years earlier, during the political upheavals around 1848. It is, as its name suggests, more like a political party’s election manifesto — except the elections were actually continent-wide uprisings. 
  3. This is a refinement of an earlier theory of value, from a guy called David Ricardo; most of the refutations of Marx’s theory of value actually ignore his refinement, and refute Ricardo’s theory instead. 
  4. Incidentally Marx was one of the first to use the phrase ‘industrial revolution’.