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Re-reading Capital: the problem of old marginalia

Some of my colleagues underline and annotate books with pencil; I suspect this habit might have to do with the fact that, when returning to a text after years of intellectual development, they will have the option of erasing embarrassing marginalia made by their younger selves. Unfortunately, I have always preferred to use pens instead of pencils––not for any political reason, mind you, but simply because for some reason I own more pens than pencils and because I don't like the way that pencil smudges and fades.  Hence, whenever I return a particular book years after my initial reading I am met with more permanent traces of my previous self that can only be effaced by deliberate scribbling, a clear sign of guilt.

Recently I have started re-reading Capital––between other books I'm reading for the first time––in the interest of consolidating aspects of my ideology and practice.  I first read volume one during my MA, volume three by the end of my first year as a PhD student, and volume two by the mid-point of my second doctoral year.  (Yes, I read them out of order.  My only excuse is that, when I bought volumes two and three at the same time, I found volume three more engaging.)  Since then I have returned to them in a non-linear manner, reading large portions more than twice, but have never reread any of them from front to back.  Thus I figured, since my political commitments have changed since my first reading, it would be worth a systematic reread.

Yep, this is the version that I possess.

But good lord the marginalia!  One thing that makes my skin curl is the thoughts and insights of my younger self, recorded for posteriety with the naivete of a student who believed his views wouldn't change.  This younger reader of Capital was an autonomist marxist who approached (the first volume at least) according to a politics influenced by authors such as the early Negri, Tronti, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Harry Cleaver.  Hell, chances are I was reading Reading Capital Politically at the same time as I wrote most of those margin comments.  All chalk full of assumptions about "general intellect" and autonomist-style "workerism".  There has been more than one occasion where I was tempted to scribble out a previous "insight" or, at the very least, respond ironically, my older self dismissing the thoughts of my younger self.

Still, you can learn something about your younger self when you encounter old marginalia.  In the section about "the working day" in the first volume of Capital I discovered various excited comments about Marx's recognition of how the capitalist mode of production internally mutates, as well as underlined passages that might have to do with that autonomist obsession with the fragment on the machine in the Grundrisse.  I probably would have breezed past these elements, now that I care less about them, if these comments and emphases had not existed.

(As a side note, I'm also reading Lazzarato's most recent book, Governing by Debt, at the moment.  Funny how I keep returning to the odd autonomist analysis of capitalism and discover, despite being simultaneously annoyed, things that are interesting.  As opposed to The Indebted Man, as well as long-standing autonomist biases, Lazzarato is reasserting Lenin's theory of finance-capital.  That's enough to help me stomach his bizarre understanding of class struggle.)

In this context it is worth asking that terrible question that philosophers of mind/identity have been asking for a very long time: are we ever a unified person, is there an I that persists across time?  Something might indeed survive, but let's be honest: when I encounter the marginalia of my past self I only recognize it as the residue of a previous self because some part of me remembers writing it.  And if I'd encountered this marginalia a decade later, would I remember writing it?  What if someone was to read it to me, without letting me know that it was my copy of Capital or showing me the handwriting, would I recall it as the work of a previous self or would I find it wholly alien?  Indeed, my first instinct upon encountering some of my past marginalia is to argue against it, as if I am debating someone else––it might as well have been written by another person.

All I have to say is that I'm glad I'm not rereading the Grundrisse; I have a dim memory of filling that book with even more marginalia than Capital––I'm scared to crack its spine again for fear of what horrors my less political self will embarrass me with!  After all, that was one of the foundational books of operaismo, the inspiration of Negri's Marx Beyond Marx.  (To defend my earlier self a little, I liked early Negri but was greatly disappointed, after being excited, with Empire.)  That book is bound to be littered with embarrassing marginalia!  Maybe I should get a clean copy…

In the end, however, there is something worthwhile about encountering your past self in the margins of important books.  You can chart your political development, make sense of the gap between your current and previous self, and learn something in the process.  Hence, a part of me looks forward to the marginalia I will encounter in volumes 2 and 3 of Capital when I was growing closer to the politics I now possess.  And maybe I can learn something from my past selves just as they probably could have learned something from the self they eventually became.


  1. "...the self they eventually became"

    but are you a finished product regarding your ideas and beliefs? is it not possible that you may change radically? ie you may have a spiritual or religious turn and then see your revolutionary beliefs as silly. maybe not.

    i used to be a marxist, but while i am still a leftist, i see marxism as limited mainly because it doesnt understand the spiritual side of human life. i am a Christian socialist, and am sympathetic to liberation theology. capitalism has led to the most materialist societies that have ever existed; i dont believe that the answer to capitalism can be entirely materialistic. We also need to recognize the spiritual side of life.

    do you believe with Nietzsche that 'God is Dead', or do you think religion is silly like the humanists such as Dawkins and Dennett? do you ever read religious books or scripture, or do you think it is a waste of time?

    1. I don't see what this really has to do with what I wrote. Yes, it is entirely possible that I might become a different person, just as I am no longer the same person as I was in the past, for a variety of reasons.

      I have no sympathies with Nietzsche, I dislike new atheism, and I have written a bit about these things here and there on the blog. I was raised within a socialist christian tradition, so I am familiar with scripture and theology and have a long-standing affinity with liberation theology. As for marxism being limited because its inability to "understand the spiritual side of life," I tend to believe that discourses that place too much weight on the spiritual side of human life result in mystification and are unhelpful for any meaningful social change. I also disagree with your definition of "materialism", which is a very bad definition––the kind of thing that appears in American christian discourse that means people who consume and who are into living a life of the flesh or some nonsense––when what it actually means is understanding the world according to concrete, material causes and is, like it or not, the reason why we crawled out of mystified alienation in the first place. The threat of idealism is that which threatens to take us away from understanding the concrete processes of society, whether this idealism be an obsession with the "spiritual side of human life" or Dawkins-style atheism.

  2. You have a sophisticated reading of philosophy and classical texts, however, in practice things become simpler. I saw a while back Sunsara Taylor, of the RCP USA, discuss atheism and promoting BA's new book 'Away with all Gods'. I also watched the Avakian and Cornel West debate on the role of religion, and was surprised how shallow and simplistic BA's understanding of religion is. i am glad that your understanding is far more nuanced and developed. however, it seems to me that BA's view of religion, or similar views, is the more common amongst Marxist-Leninists.

    1. In my experience, though, Avakian's views are considered shallow and simple by a lot of Marxists.

  3. why this unprovoked and undisciplined attack on BA?
    Nobody seriously considers BA's views 'shallow and simple' apart from elitist academics. Away with all Gods was not written for seasoned communists, nor for academics, nor for theologians. It was written for the people in Ferguson and for the oppressed all around the world. It has, however, been highly acclaimed by many academics including Cornel West.

    1. Assuming this isn't trolling…

      1) It's not unprovoked if I've spoken about Avakian before; it's not unprovoked in the context of the havoc the Avakianites wreaked in the ICM; it's not undisciplined because I'm not under any party discipline connected to BA. Stop throwing words around that have no meaning in this context.

      2) When you claim that "nobody seriously considers BA's views 'shallow and simple'" you've just made a generalization that is proved wrong by the very fact that you are responding to someone who does. I am aware that his books were supposedly written for seasoned communists and normal people. But if they really did relate to the masses then the RCP-USA wouldn't be degenerating, would it? Also there are a lot of non-academics and revolutionaries around the world who dislike his view about reality: the most significant groups in the MLM camp right now, such as the Indians and Afghanis, have claimed that Avakianism is a revisionist deviation, and a not very exciting one at that.

      3) Saying it is highly acclaimed by many academics is a joke. Cornel West apparently likes it, but Cornel West likes a lot of things. There are not many academics who care about Avakian, but this shouldn't matter anyway because you just said it wasn't written for academics. And I agree: a revolutionary text's measure is not its academic feasibility. There is nothing interesting in the New Synthesis period: it is a banal rehashing of a lot of stuff that was developed without Avakian, and there is nothing "new" about it besides some of his arrogant claims.

      But you are most likely a troll who thinks making Avakianite sounding comments is funny.

  4. All this debate about religion aside, I personally liked this post, JMP. I can empathize with it totally. I think the same thing about my earlier marginalia, when I too thought I would never change my mind again because I thought I had the whole world figured out. I went from an even crazier ideology to another: from an obsession with Ron Paul and right-wing libertarianism, to reformist social democrat, to Trotskyist, to eventually Maoist. I admit I too have scribbled out some comments out of embarrassment or fear of someone else discovering my earlier comments! Nice post.

    1. Thanks! Earlier marginalia, as much as we might find it cloying, can be sobering. At least it reminds us that our positions aren't static and that sometimes we're capable of ideological development. Good to keep these humbling reminders around, I guess.


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