Initial Communist Learnings

March 13, 2022

Friedrich Engels - Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

I read Engels’s introduction to socialism, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, and found it nice and easy to follow. There was this sort of circular dependency in the arguments through the assumption that the reader already buys into Marx while also trying to explain Marxist thought, but I think this can be resolved by tempering my expectation for the piece: i.e. it is not a self-contained argument for historical materialism or socialism, etc., rather it’s an introduction to Marx. And it was interesting/compelling enough for me to want to read Marx or at least seek out secondaries on Marxism (so I don’t have to put myself through reading all of Capital, which I know part of me would foolishly start and never finish).

Exposure to Marx’s Capital and art thoughts

I’ve been making my way through Theory & Philosophy’s series going over Karl Marx’s Capital.

An important concept so far is the distinction between the use-value and exchange-value of an object. In capitalistic exchange, a weird thing starts to happen in which an object’s exchange-value precedes its use-value. For example, if I were to bring a shovel to trade for a sweater at a market, the shovel’s exchange-value (what I can trade it for) is more important to me than its use-value (as a digging thing). Inherent in exchange markets is the presumption that the object of exchange has no use-value for the seller, only an exchange-value. When I finally do exchange the shovel, it can then receive its use-value for the person that it ends up with, but that value is secondary here. That is interesting.

Already I resonate with this critique, and find it helpful for articulating my frustration growing up when people would insist I sell my art. There is an antagonism between use- and exchange-value at the heart of the matter, and as a creator I’ve felt it. The problem is that we can slip into conflating an object’s exchange-value for its use-value.

In high school I would sketch a lot, and I was encouraged to make products to sell out of my sketches. I eagerly opened an Etsy shop and started to sell t-shirts and posters with my designs, but underlying this experience was a deep discomfort and dissatisfaction. Is art only worth anything if it can be commodified? Must I sell my art in order for it to be a justified pursuit? I felt very obviously the answers to these questions were “no”, but it didn’t feel like the default outlook of society.

Years later now as I’m writing this, I don’t think I’ve recovered from that disappointment. The future as an artist seems bleak, and as much as art has always been my first love, it is also the thing I had the strongest conviction about not pursuing as a career. I read things like:

Perhaps no music has ever been written or heard. Perhaps the birth of art will take place at the moment in which the last man who is willing to make a living out of art is gone and gone forever.
Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata (1920)

and agree almost too strongly. I yearn for a world of art not tied to money.

(Detached thought: the use/exchange distinction gets especially tricky with art, because what is art’s use-value?)

Eventually Marx uses this value formulation to illustrate how with money as an intermediary element to facilitate exchange, use-value and exchange-value become completely decoupled, and value becomes tied to labor.

I love world-reframing critiques, so I’m enjoying this vector of learning so far, but practically I am also interested in Marx’s and contemporary socialists’ proposals for post-capitalism and building a new society. Looking forward to more learning.