Marx's Metaphor

In The Poetics, Aristotle’s treatise on the art of literature, he says: “…most important by far is it to have a command of metaphor. This is the one thing the poet cannot learn from others. It is the mark of genius; for to coin good metaphors involves an insight into the resemblances between things…(p. 74)”

Another classic of literary criticism, Katherine Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery, examines this command of metaphor in Shakespeare’s plays. The author explains “…I believe we can draw from the material of a poet’s images definite information about his personality…a poet will…naturally tend to draw the large proportion of his images from the objects he knows best, or thinks most about…each writer has a certain range of images which are characteristic of him…with Shakespeare, nature…animals…and what we may call (the) every day and domestic…easily comes first…(p. 12, 13)”

In a previous essay I applied Spurgeon’s method to Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and concluded that, in contrast to Shakespeare, Trotsky’s imagery largely consists of the world of the scientific laboratory, the machinery of industry and the physical processes of nature. This imagery is used to depict the development of the revolution, its conflicting classes and their respective  organizations. In this essay I will focus on Marx’s Capital, Volume 1. Spurgeon tells us that in her examination of Shakespeare: “…the images form, when thus collected, a world in themselves, for they mirror the richest experience and the most profound and soaring imagination known to man.”(p. x, xi, Shakespeare’s Imagery, by Katherine Spurgeon.) I believe that Marx reveals a no less “soaring imagination” in his masterpiece, Capital, Volume 1. Let us now turn to its imagery.

Already in his Preface to the First Edition, Marx likens the social body, capitalism, to the human body, and the commodity to its cell-form, thereby introducing us to his method:

[T]he complete body is easier to study than its cells. Moreover, in the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both. But for bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour, or the value-form of the commodity, is the economic cell-form. (p. 90)

In another of his Prefaces he warns us that the literary journey we are about to undertake will require the stamina of an assault on Everest: “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits. (Preface to the French Edition)”

In Chapter 1, we examine the cell-form, the commodity, and discover its crystalline essence: labor-power:

If we disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property remains, that of being products of human labour…human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all. (p. 128)

Capital, Volume 1, is not only a critique of capitalism; it also illustrates Marx’s general theory of historical materialism, a component of which is the “labor process”. The “labor process” is common to all societies: a universal fact of life. Marx employs the biological metaphor of metabolism:

Labour, then, as creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society, it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself. (p. 133)

Marx employs a variety of metaphors for labor-power. It is “embedded”, “coagulated”, “congealed” (p. 142) in commodities. The imagery of metamorphosis — from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly — is another variation: “The physical form of the linen counts as the visible incarnation, the social chrysalis state, of all human labour. (p. 159)”

Labor-power is also described as the kernel within the shell. “In this sense every comomodity is a symbol, since, as value, it is only the material shell of the human labour expended on it…(p. 185)”

The imagery of the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, accomplished by the great French linguist, Champollion in the 1820s, is employed in the following passage:

Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product…The belated scientific discovery that the products of labour, in so far as they are values, are merely the material expressions of the human labour expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development… (p, 167)

Compared to previous societies (what Marx calls modes of production), in which there was a transparent relationship between the laborer and his product, under capitalism that relationship is hidden within the commodity-form. He likens this to primitive man’s creation of gods that hide, or are projections of, his own hopes and fears:

It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There, the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities, with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as they are produced as commodities…(p. 165)

Capitalist production, with its fetishism of commodities, is also likened to a spider’s web that ensnares and hides from the worker his own relation to the products of his labor:  “[B]ut the division of labour is an organization of production which has grown up naturally, a web which has been, and continues to be, woven behind the backs of the producers if commodities…(p. 201)” From the process of production we proceed to the circulation of commodities and money. Once again, the formation and dissolution of crystals is Marx’s choice of metaphor: “So too money appears in the first phase as a solid crystal  of value into which the commodity has been transformed, but afterwards it dissolves into the mere equivalent-form of the commodity…(p. 207)”

The process of circulation is variously described. It is likened to the butterfly’s “metamorphosis” (p. 206) from its “chrysalis state” (p. 207):

The money-owner, who is as yet only a capitalist in larval form, must buy his commodities at their value, sell them at their value, and yet at the end of the process withdraw more value from circulation that he threw into it at the beginning. His emergence as a butterfly must, and yet must not, take place in the sphere of circulation…(p. 254)

The circulation of commodities is also likened to “the alchemist’s retort” (p. 208) in which lead is transmuted into gold: “Circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as the money crystal. Nothing is immune from this alchemy…(p. 229) ”

But the origins of capitalism predate the circulation of commodities. Only with the establishment of what Marx calls the “capital relation” is the foundation of this society – the separation of the worker from the means of production – laid:

It is otherwise with capital. The historical conditions of its existence are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodities. It arises only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence finds the free worker available, on the market, as the seller of his own labour-power. And this one historical pre-condition comprises a world’s history. Capital, therefore, announces from the outset a new epoch in the process of social production…(p. 274)

Once more employing the biological imagery of metabolism, Marx produces one of his most eloquent passages about the “labor process” as the basis of historical materialism:

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. He develops the potentialities slumbering within nature, and subjects the play of its forces to his own sovereign power…A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax…(p. 283, 284)

Marx emphasizes the universality of the “labor process”; and Marxism, itself, defines man as the producer and product of society:

The labour-process, as we have just presented it in its simple and abstract elements, is purposeful activity aimed at the production if use-values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction…between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live…

But whereas the “labor process” is common to all modes of production, under capitalism it takes the deadly form of the extraction of surplus-value from the working class. Marx has no hesitation in describing this process of exploitation of labor-power in terms of the most horrifying creatures of the occult:

Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks…(p. 342) 

So far, we have observed the drive toward the extension of the working day, and the werewolf-like hunger for surplus labour…(p. 353)

And in a passage of breath-taking power he summarizes the capitalist Frankenstein:

But in its blind and measureless drive, its insatiable appetite for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral but even the merely physical limits of the working day. It usurps the time for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It haggles over the meal-times, where possible incorporating them into the production process itself, so that food is added to the worker as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, and grease and oil to the machine. It reduces the sound sleep needed for restoration, renewal and refreshment of the vital forces to the exact amount of torpor essential to the revival of an absolutely exhausted organism. It is not the normal maintenance of labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory and painful it may be which determines the limits of the worker’s period of rest.

Capital asks no questions about the length of life of labour-power. What interests it is purely and simply the maximum of labour-power that can be set in motion in the working day. It attains this objective by shortening the life of labour-power, in the same way as a greedy farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility…

By extending the working day, therefore, capitalist production, which is essentially the production of surplus-value, the absorption of surplus labour, not only produces a deterioration of human labour-power by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and activity, but also produces the premature exhaustion and death of this labour-power itself. It extends the worker’s production-time within a given period by shortening his life…(p. 375, 376, 377)

In one of his greatest chapters Marx summarizes the history of the working day: “The establishment of a normal working day is therefore the product of a protracted and more or less concealed civil war between the capitalist class and the working class…(p. 412, 413)”

The working day is the basic unit of time of the capitalist process of production. But this process is one in which a monstrous system of machinery, controlled by capital, exploits, exhausts and eventually destroys the worker:

It is no longer the worker who employs the means of production, but the means of production which employ the worker. Instead of being consumed by him as material elements of his productive activity, they consume him as the ferment necessary to their own life-process, and the life-process of capital consists solely in its own motion as self-valorising value…(p. 425)

The process of production, likened to an organism with the workers as its organs, also reduces work to exhausting and repetitive specialization. It converts the worker into a part of a machine:

The one-sidedness and even the deficiencies of the specialized individual worker become perfections when he is part of the collective worker. The habit of doing only one thing converts him into an organ which operates with the certainty of a force of nature, while his connection with the whole mechanism compels him to work with the regularity of a machine…(p. 469)

And within the large scale factory the worker is dwarfed by “…machines of Cyclopean dimensions” (p. 506):

Here we have, in place of the isolated machine, a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power, at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally burst forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs…(p. 503)

Marx describes some of these mechanical behemoths, likening one to mythical god, Thor: “[T]he tool of the shearing machine, which shears iron as easily as a tailor’s scissors cut cloth, is a monster pair of scissors, and the steam-hammer works with an ordinary hammer head, but of such weight that even Thor himself could not wield it…(p. 507)”

But the most terrible effect of the large-scale employment of machinery within the factory is what it does to the family, especially to women and children. Modern machinery, which could be used to shorten the hours and diminish the misery of factory work, is, on the contrary, used to further exploit all members of the worker’s family:

The labour of women and children was therefore the first result of the capitalist application of machinery!…Compulsory work for the capitalist usurped the place, not only of children’s play, but also of independent labour at home…machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms capital’s most characteristic field of exploitation, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation…Previously the worker sold only his own labour-power, which he disposed of as a free agent, formally speaking. Now he sells wife and child. He has become a slave-dealer…(p. 517)

The imagery of war, armies and battle is a favorite of Marx’s. From the fundamental dialectic of the class struggle, to the exploitation of the worker in the process of production, it appears throughout his writings: “The technical subordination of the worker to the uniform motion of the instruments of labour…gives rise to a barrack-like discipline…dividing the workers into manual labourers and overseers, into private soldiers and the N.C.O.s of an industrial army…(p. 549)”

And within this world at war fall whole armies of workers in every form of exhaustion, maiming and  death:

Every sense organ is injured by the artificially high temperature, by the dust-laden atmosphere, by the deafening noise, not to mention the danger to life and limb among machines which are so closely crowded together, a danger which, with the regularity of the seasons, produces its list of those killed and wounded in the industrial battle…(p. 552)

In another of his great indictments of capitalist production, combining mechanical and mythological imagery, Marx summarizes:

[A]ll the means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate…from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital…(p. 799)

But the clockwork mechanism of capitalist society encompasses even the capitalist himself. Marx  emphasizes that it is the system that is the ultimate enemy, not the individual capitalist, who, himself, is at the mercy of its terrifying logic:

But what appears in the miser as the mania of an individual is in the capitalist the effect of a social mechanism in which he is merely a cog…competition subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external and coercive laws…(p. 739)

In the conclusion, Part Eight, “So-Called Primitive Accumulation”, Marx describes the historical origins of capitalism. One highly esteemed comrade of mine suggests that this chapter be read first, before beginning Part One. I heartily agree.

The capital relation presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labour…So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production…And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire…(p. 875)

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist accumulation…(p. 915)

And in this, the finale of the greatest work of social science in all of world literature, Marx rises to very heights of Old Testament prophecy:

[T]he mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated…(p. 929)  

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Let us conclude with an examination of the imagery of Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, and what it tells us about its author. In, Shakespeare’s Imagery, Katherine Spurgeon describes that author’s characteristic imagery as concerned with nature, animals and the everyday and domestic world. In my, “Trotsky’s Imagery”, I suggested Trotsky’s imagery was of the scientific laboratory, the processes of industry and  of nature. With these, Trotsky described the revolution, its conflicting classes, and their respective parties and leaders. Capital, Volume 1 is a critique of the capitalist system, the process of production, and the history of working-class exploitation.  He situates this critique within the general theory of historical materialism and the labor process. Marx was a doctor of philosophy, a man with a classical education, possessed of immense learning. This education embraced Greek philosophy, literature and science; the works of Shakespeare, Moliere, Goethe; and the scientific developments of his time. As a result, the imagery he employs ranges far and wide.

He reaches backward into the Greek mythology of the Cyclopses, to describe monster machines, like a gigantic hammer that even Thor could not wield; and into Hindu mythology, to allude to the proletariat being crushed beneath the wheels of the chariot of Juggernaut. He digs deep into the grave of the occult, conjuring vampires and werewolves, that suck the blood of workers and devour their flesh. Along with the occult, there is the alchemist’s retort, into which lead is transformed into gold. He employs the imagery of the processes of nature:  the biological metabolism of man and the physical world; the metamorphosis of the larva in a chrysalis, to emerge as a butterfly. There are nature’s flora and fauna: the body with its members, organs and cells; the nut and its kernel, spider and its web, honey bee and its hive. There is the world of machinery, like the clockwork with its cogs and wheels. And man is crippled by this same machine, consumed by it; and is transformed, himself, into a machine for the production of surplus-value. Our search for knowledge is likened to the scaling of a mountain peak; the secret of exploitation to the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Our fetishism of commodities is compared to an ancient tribe’s creation of a fetish to worship as a god. And finally there is the metaphor of war, beginning with the class struggle between the working class and the capitalist class that lies at the heart of capitalism. There are its battles and armies; its barrack-like discipline; its unending list of working-class casualties. And this is to mention only the major categories of Marx’s rich imagery.

If you read nothing else, read Part Eight, “So-Called Primitive Accumulation”. Try to see and — more importantly —feel the centuries-long suffering of generations of working-class families that it depicts. Then turn to the capitalist world of today – with its multiple crimes against humanity — and try to view it through Marx’s eyes. If you can only see it with the “eye of anguish” (that Shakespeare speaks of in King Lear), then Capital, Volume 1 will plant in you the seeds of revolution.

Mark Dickman is a writer, socialist and playwright living in Chicago.