H*lp and the Preface
cburford at gn.apc.org
Sun Apr 9 22:35:00 MDT 1995
Thanks so much for your detailed and thoughtful clarification of
the resonant passage from Marx's Preface to the Critique of
It sounds even more momentous in German.
I particularly like direct quotes from the masters and I am
unsure how much that would still put me in the same band as the
group whom Tom Condit sensitively critiqued a few days ago. But
it is perhaps a question of how the quotes are used. If they are
to give mechanical and dogmatic guidance that is one thing. But
if they are a gateway to understanding what Marx was trying to
say, then as for the atomic physicist, the higher the power of
magnification the more complex the pattern of subatomic particles
appears to become.
Your commentary seems to me to illustrate that there is no such
thing as perfect reflection of reality. The words are unavoidably
conditioned by whole arrays of associated meanings which are
different in each language, and perhaps different for each
century and each speaker.
Angst and anxiety overlap in their meanings only partially; each
has its own matrix of associations. The same applies perhaps to
some of these crucial words in marxism. Even if you and I agreed
a best translation for each word, you would by definition always
hear a different set of connotations, of harmonics, to those I
Before I explain my own thinking I should respond to your
association, which appears to go in another direction to that I
expected. The idea of lawfulness in some sense, whether you mean
a law of society or a law of science, links for me with Hegel,
having dipped by chance today into the translator's introduction
to the Philosophy of Right which explains why the title itself
cannot convey in English the German. He says the German word
Recht means not only civil law, but also morality, ethical life,
and world history. So now I wonder in what sense of lawfulness
you thought you saw connotations in "bestimmt"?
But perhaps I can present my prejudice, intuition and explanation
instead, which is on a different track.
If we are all blind men trying to get to grips with the shape of
the same elephant and approaching it from different angles, we
are trying to agree what Marx thought he was palpating and
IMO the themes here are the contrasts between the particularity
of actual existence in all its rich diversity and the generality
of the overall pattern.
I therefore want to read in your first sentence "bestimmt" to
mean a variety of English words such as certain, particular,
definite, set. [I am struggling with a mere three years of spare
time German, and a fat 780 page dictionary, compared to your
intuitive knowledge of the mother language - but just possibly
this may serve to make conscious some choices of direction which
might otherwise not be so conscious].
In the second sentence the verb "bestimmen" is used and I am
seeking against all your rightfully more authoritative claims,
to grope for meanings where the word can be translated into
English for example as "to characterise", "to have a determining
influence on", "to qualify", if I use my dictionary as fully as I can.
Thus I like the fact that the preceding sentence is translated
in English with the word "conditions":
"The mode of production of material life conditions the social,
political and intellectual life process in general".
I prefer such words as they do not lead automatically into
deterministic assumptions about the nature of what Marx was
I was struck by this back in November when a graduate student
came onto the list to ask for the location of Engels's statement
about "In the last instance production is the decisive factor",
and it was strangely elusive. When I went on to read Althusser's
essay on "Contradiction and Overdetermination" it seemed to me
that Althusser had greatly higlighted words leading to a
deterministic interpretation out of the many varied expressions
used in Engels' subtle handle of the issues in his famous late
I have no doubt that Althusser was right that a deterministic
interpretation of Marxism is widespread and has to be corrected,
but I doubt that it is entirely the fault of Marx and Engels.
So "bestimmen" I accept has associations with conscious decision
but I would say that other words, such as "conditions" are used.
What does this all add up to?
I think we humans have three common experiences of causal
1) when a decision is made and an act follows
2) mechanically, when a lever moves and a tap opens with perfect
3) the momentum of the interacting processes of the natural
world, (including the self-orgnising processes of the subset of
I think that Marx and Engels were describing both the
particularity and the general momentum of the third type of
sequential phenomena and I think this is completely consistent
with modern scientific paradigms influenced by dynamical systems
I dislike the mechanistic paradigm of science which I think has
tortured Marx this century and so many other branches of human
And working backwards, the idea that the processes of statistical
momentum are best described by English or German words compatible
with conscious decision making is at best an unfortunate
metaphor. Each of our own decisions is in any case conditioned
by a vast array of assumptions and associated factors, many of
which we do not even know at the time. At the very moment of
thinking we are acting with free will, we are caught up, - not
it is true as a mechanical cog in a machine, because we do decide
all too feebly to flap our butterfly wings consciously, - but in
a momentum with countless others, almost independent of our
I am hoping you will not say my interpretation is impossible but
I would also be interested in any further thoughts you have.
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