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POLSCI 791G: Marx Ivan Ascher

Spring 2009 436 Thompson


Office Hours.: Tues 1-4 pm
ascher@polsci.umass.edu

(DRAFT 1/21/09)

Karl Marx
Reading Capital/Reading Capital

“The philosophers have heretofore only interpreted the world in various ways; [but] the point is to change
it.” It was Friedrich Engels, not Karl Marx, who inserted the conjunction “but” in the now famous
Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. The opposition between the two phrases was implicit, of course, but in
preparing the manuscript for publication Engels felt it necessary to draw the contrast more starkly,
thereby turning Marx’s philosophical fragment into a political injunction. Engels interpreted Marx’s
statement, and in so doing he also changed it.

What is at stake in this rewording of the Eleventh Thesis? On the one hand, Marx’s friend and colleague
was only drawing out something that was already there, clarifying what would otherwise have been an
awkward phrase. On the other hand, in deciding thus on the proper meaning of the phrase, Engels was
also preempting the philosophical questions posed by this very awkwardness: What is the relation
between interpreting and changing the world, and what is the position from which Marx is able to contrast
the two? If there exists a break between the fragment scribbled in a notebook and the revolutionary call to
arms, how should it be understood?

In many ways, the fate of the Eleventh Thesis is emblematic of both the promise and dangers of Marx’s
critique. In his lifetime, Marx was famously committed to the “ruthless criticism of everything existing”;
it is in this spirit that the Eleventh Thesis was written, and it is this spirit that it summons. But while
Marx’s intervention moved us beyond the dogmatism of earlier times by allowing us to imagine a
different world, its legacy has not been without its own dogmatism. Throughout much of the twentieth
century, Marx’s apologists and detractors alike ceased to read Marx and quoted him instead. When the
century came to an end and the Soviet Union collapsed, they ceased even to do that. But today, as we
encounter Marx’s phrase in the wake of Marxism’s demise, it is possible again to hear to the provocation
that Engels unwittingly quelled. And in these times of unprecedented crisis in global capitalism, it is not
only possible but imperative that we heed the call and ask ourselves what Marx’s critique of political
economy has to offer: what is its legacy, what is its potential.

This seminar is an introduction to Marx’s work, with a focus on his last major published work: Capital: A
Critique of Political Economy (Volume 1). Although Capital will serve as the principal text for the
course, the first few weeks will be devoted to some of Marx’s earlier interventions, including his essay
On the Jewish Question, The German Ideology and his1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. We
will then turn to reading Capital, before considering critical readings of Marx by Louis Althusser, Jacques
Derrida and Kojin Karatani. In the last few weeks we return to Marx’s text in light of the questions we
will have encountered along the way.

Seminar Participation
The class will be run as a reading intensive graduate seminar. Students are expected to carefully and
critically read all the material and engage actively in the seminar discussions.
Critical Commentaries on Readings
Four times during the semester, you will be asked to provide 4-5 pages of written commentary on the
week’s readings, to be shared with the class on the Tuesday of that week. These critical reflections are
not summaries or descriptive overviews of the readings. They should be analytical, critically engaging
the central arguments and difficulties of the texts under discussion. These reflections will also serve to
stimulate discussion during our seminar meeting on Thursday.

Class Presentations
Each student will be responsible for at least one class presentation of weekly readings designed to
provoke and facilitate discussion. Class size will determine whether this is done individually or
collectively in small groups. Rather than provide an overview of the week’s readings, presentations
should be concise and conceptually oriented. They should clarify key arguments, critically engage
readings, and pose questions that open up the material for discussion.

Seminar Papers
Enrolled students will be expected to write a seminar paper, on a topic to be chosen in consultation with
the instructor. A draft of the paper will be due on the last day of class (May 7); the final version will be
due about two weeks later.

Required Readings
The reading for this course consists of a reader (R) and the following list of books, which are on order at
Amherst Books at 8 Main Street. A copy of the reader will also be available on-line through SPARK.

Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin)


Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Routledge)
Kojin Karatani, Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, trans. Sabu Kohso (MIT)

Schedule of Readings
29 January Friedrich Engels, Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx (R)
Letter to Ruge, “A Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing” (R)
On the Jewish Question (R)
5 February Introduction to a contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
The German Ideology, Part I (Feuerbach) (R)
12 February The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
19 February Capital, Volume 1 (Parts 1-2)
26 February Capital, Volume 1 (Parts 3-5)
5 March Capital, Volume 1 (Parts 6-8)
12 March Louis Althusser et al., Reading Capital (chapters by Althusser) (R)
Louis Althusser, Preface to Capital, Volume 1 (R)
26 March Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx
2 April Kojin Karatani, Transcritique (Part II: Marx)
9 April M Notebook (from Grundrisse) (R)
Capital, Volume 1 (selections)
16 April The Results of the Immediate Process of Production [appended to Capital, volume 1]
Capital, Volume 1 (selections)
23 April Capital, Volume 1 (selections)
30 April Capital, Volume 1 (selections)
7 May Draft due