Eric Rahim, A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview. Glasgow: Praxis Press jointly with the Marx Memorial Library, 2020. xiv + 122 pp. ISBN 978-1- 899155-08-8. £20.00.
[Page numbers cited in brackets refer to Rahim Eric’s work being reviewed here].
It may appear odd to introduce a review of a work on Karl Marx by associating it with William Wordsworth; the quintessentially Romantic poet so pervasively self-absorbed.
I make no excuse for doing so because I have always read Marx in my capacity as a lifelong student of literature. I have always thoroughly enjoyed following Marx’s development as a writer with his customary slow and often seemingly ponderous way of developing his arguments – often changing his mind before starting again. Indeed, Marx’s habit of starting to write a ‘major’ work after promising a publisher a delivery date was repeatedly reneged on. Marx justified his regular non-delivery of promised manuscripts when he wrote to Hegel:
I cannot make up my mind to send anything off before I have the whole thing lying in front of me. Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my works is that they form an artistic whole, and I can only achieve that by my practice of never having them printed before I have them complete in front of me (page 10).
Notice Marx’s use of the epithet ‘artistic’ in referring to his work as forming ‘an artistic whole’. He is writing rather like the poet who keeps revising his poems to the point of driving his editor to distraction with endless e-mails changing one word for the umpteenth time. Rahim describes Marx’s writing method as one that ‘consisted in seeing ideas in their inter-connectedness with other ideas, to see things in their totality’ (page 10). This accounts for Marx’s organic, dialectic and constantly living argument. It also explains the style that he uses which is more akin to a situation where Marx and his reader are engaging in a discussion and which, over time, allows the author to develop, amend and often correct earlier conclusions. He uses his, by now famous, dialectical method wherein he establishes the truth through reasoned argument – a skill that he learnt early on from his readings of Hegel’s dialectics (following the pattern of thesis – antithesis – synthesis). By its nature a dialectical argument is a living process subject to change and development. However, Marx is rarely too distant from the form of his expression as quoted by Rahim:
There are moments in one’s life which are like frontier posts marking the completion of a period but at the same time clearly indicating direction’ At such moments, however, a person becomes lyrical, for every metamorphosis is partly a swan song, partly the overture to a great new poem” (page 3).
Half a century ago, I remember our professor urging us to read each author’s original works. She strongly recommended that we eschew reading books about them. Indeed, she joked that many of us understood our Marx, Freud, Shakespeare and other greats through reading endless essays about them rather than through reading their originals works. This started me on a lifelong habit of first reading the likes of Dickens, Trollope, Austen and other great novelists whilst ignoring many books on literary criticism. Of course, I exaggerate a little because there has always been a few critics whose writings were wonderful to read; but only after reading the original first and foremost.
Eric Rahim’s A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview is such a work.
Rahim traces Marx’s early development in a way that helps the reader to see why such great works as Das Kapital and many others took so long to produce.
Rahim also shows why occasionally, Marx’s style of writing appears to meander in such a way as to produce some apparently forbidding internal contradictions.
That is the very essence of dialectical writing where a reasoned argument is developed over time. For the likes of Karl Marx, there would be none of today’s easy fixes and platitudinous writings that are made up of assertions with little reasoned substance. A quick flick through many so-called academic publications shows that these books have very little to say and take up a great deal of space to say it.
Rahim presents a chronological narrative and analysis of Marx’s early development.
His central argument is that Marx’s development in his first thirty years fully equipped him with all the skills needed to produce his life’s work. He shows how Marx’s early engagement with content rather than language, coupled with his ‘self-belief’, produced early indicators of what was still to come. As early as 1837, when Marx was barely nineteen, he wrote to his father about the difficulties he was having in his early efforts at writing: ‘Here the same opposition between what is and what ought to be stood out as a serious defect’ (page 3).
In a style that is accessible and readable, Rahim successfully shows the impact that Hegel had on Marx. Marx clearly engaged with his subject in a highly structured way by extracting excerpts from his readings, arguing the antithesis to the original before moving on to his synthesis. This method stayed with him for life. By doing so, Marx was soon able to develop his readings of Hegel and Feuerbach through various critiques that eventually led him to produce his own philosophical basis of communism.
Even as Marx argued in a scientific way, he still had the breadth of vision and character to allow that which would be deemed unscientific. For example, Rahim shows how he ‘tolerated’ the poet Heinrich Heine’s assertion that communist ideas would produce ‘the time when sombre iconoclasts will destroy my laurel groves and plant potatoes’ (page 21). In the world of communism, such sentiments are sacrilege – not to mention that they allude to the personal rather than the collective good. Marx dismissed all this by saying that Heine, like all poets, was a ‘queer fish’ who must be allowed to go their own ways’ (ibid).
Rahim takes us through the friendship and collaboration of Marx with Engels who, it must be admitted, must have had the patience of an absolute saint given the way that his friend appeared to fairly regularly fail to deliver on promises (pages 10, 24 and 25). Marx was constantly starting new ‘projects’ (page 25). These apparent changes of mind were really a developmental learning and synthesising process tinged with an early lack of clear focus. It certainly was not, as some might have suggested, as a result of innate laziness since Marx worked tirelessly – often going days without sleep.
Despite Engels urgings to produce a book on economics because the time was ripe for one, Marx still took his time working hard on reading, reflecting and synthesising in order to reach his central positions, e.g. showing that ‘the process of historical development is the process of consciousness’ (page 32), man creating religion as well as the people creating a constitution (page 32), dualism in society (page 34), the social determinations of what man is (page 38), self-alienation (page 39), wealth as ‘objectified labour’ (page 50 and 51)’etc’ Consequently, Marx came to the conclusion that ‘material relations determine all other relations’ which leads to ‘alienated man’ being ‘a commodity, bought and sold in the [capitalist] market’ (page 56).
The most enjoyable section of this wonderful book is the one dealing with Marx’s reading of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Marx uses Smith’s arguments on capital and on its concentration in a few hands in order to part company with Smith and develop his own truth through reasoned argument (dialectical method – pages 58 and 59).
Marx also parts company with Hegel’s argument that reality was shaped by the ‘spirit’ which moves and develops. He replaces this with historical social development through active man – determinism and passivity are replaced by freewill and activity.
By this stage, Marx is still in his mid-twenties. Yet, he has all that he needs to write his seminal work Das Kapital with its carefully argued synthesis on surplus production, the emergence of private property, controlling the means of production, labouring for those who control the means of production, appropriating the surplus product, the internationalisation of capitalism (globalisation), the collapse of capitalism leading to the fall of the bourgeoisie as surplus production remains unsold because the badly paid worker can no longer afford it’etc’Rahim quotes from Grundrisse: ”the aim of production [which] leaves us unsatisfied, or, where it appears to be satisfied with itself is vulgar and mean’ (page 112).
Rahim convincingly shows that Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx reach the same ultimate conclusion of a state of ‘antagonism’. The first two do so through analysis of capitalist relations. Marx does so through an analysis of capitalist development. The first two find the actual point of antagonism and effectively leave it there. Marx offers a solution to it by removing the propertied owning classes and handing power to the working class.
I shall reiterate my late professor’s advice: Do not read Eric Rahim’s book. If you are really interested in political economy, then read Karl Marx as well as those who influenced him such as Hegel, Feuerbach, Smith and others.
Once you have done so, Eric Rahim’s work is, in the words of David McLellan (author of the highly readable Karl Marx His Life and Thought), ‘an excellent account of how Marx came to develop his materialist conception of history’.
It is also a well written and enjoyable book in every way and well worth reading (with apologies to my much respected late professor).
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This post was written by Faysal Mikdadi