Abbildung zu Objekt Inv.Nr. III-14785 von Frankfurter Goethe-Haus / Freies Deutsches Hochstift

Capitalism and bourgeoisie: The sorcerer’s apprentice

The magic and necromancy
of commodity production

Goethe’s famous 1797 ballad Der Zauberlehrling [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice] provides probably the best allegory for Marx’s own conception of capitalism, which he memorably described as partaking of a kind of sorcery — “the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities.”

Under the capitalist mode of production, the producer is ruled by the products of his labor rather than the other way around. Living labor in the present serves the accumulated dead labor of the past. “We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! [The dead holds the living in its grasp!]

An illustration of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found on

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels implicitly allude to Goethe’s poem, comparing society’s relation to capital to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Marshall Berman, the late Marxist critic, reflected on this line at some length in his 1982 masterpiece All that is Solid: The Experience of Modernity:

This image evokes the spirits of that dark medieval past that our modern bourgeoisie is supposed to have buried. Its members present themselves as matter-of-fact and rational, not magical; as children of the Enlightenment, not of darkness. When Marx depicts the bourgeois as sorcerers — remember, too, their enterprise has “conjured whole populations out of the ground,” not to mention “the specter of communism” — he is pointing to depths they deny. Marx’s imagery projects, here as ever, a sense of wonder over the modern world: its vital powers are dazzling, overwhelming, beyond anything the bourgeoisie could have imagined, let alone calculated or planned. But Marx’s images also express what must accompany any genuine sense of wonder: a sense of dread. For this miraculous and magical world is also demonic and terrifying, swinging wildly out of control, menacing and destroying blindly as it moves. The members of the bourgeoisie repress both wonder and dread at what they have made: these possessors don’t want to know how deeply they are possessed.

All this ought to be perfectly familiar to attentive readers of Marx. Remarking on this peculiar double aspect, by which all things seem to engender their own negation, Marx observed: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, as if by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.”

To illustrate this, here is Walt Disney’s animated epic Fantasia, starring Mickey Mouse. (Walter Benjamin and Sergei Eisenstein already recognized Mickey as a revolutionary in the early 1930s). Capital appears here as a spell to alleviate necessary labor, the bewitched broomsticks as automata. But it works too well. It overwhelms its putative master, resulting in serial overproduction, overflowing basins of water, etc.

Wir sehen von links, Max Horkheimer, Maidon Horkheimer, Felix Weil, eine schöne Unbekannte (Lucille?), Friedrich Pollock1d

On the work of Friedrich Pollock

Jake Bellone, a comrade currently living in Canadian exile, has scanned the early Frankfurt School economist Friedrich Pollock’s 1956 work
 Automation: A Study of Its Social and Economic Consequences. I’ve digitized and uploaded it here for anyone who’s interested. You can download it by clicking on the link in the title above.

As far as I know, this book has been virtually forgotten in terms of the history of economic literature. It’s not the most thrilling read, but it’s a workmanlike survey of a number of studies and publications on the subject of automation. Counter to the prevailing optimism of the period, riding the long postwar boom, Pollock foresaw increasing technological unemployment ahead in the field of industry as automation became further generalized. Here he distinguished full-scale automation from the earlier phenomenon of mechanization, a process well known to political economists since Ricardo.

Pollock’s book has perhaps had a subterranean influence that has generally gone unnoticed. Ernest Mandel, the Belgian Trotskyist economist, cites it repeatedly in his celebrated book on Late Capitalism. An online acquaintance of mine, Elliot Eisenberg, who is close friends with Moishe Postone and studied with the brilliant Soviet Marxist economist Karl H. Niebyl back in 1961, went so far as to claim that “one cannot understand Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization without Pollock’s Automation.” This would seem to accord with Postone’s own estimation of Pollock’s significance:

Pollock’s work in the 1930s provided the implicit political-economic presuppositions of the pessimistic turn in Horkheimer’s theory and the changes in his conception of social critique. More generally, on the basis of an examination of Pollock’s investigations, I shall discuss the intrinsic relation of the political-economic dimension of Critical Theory to its social, political, and epistemological dimensions.

Here Postone mostly has in mind Pollock’s seminal 1941 essay on “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” as well as his consideration of the question “Is National Socialism a New Order?” later that same year. But I see no reason not to extend this observation to the Institute’s work during the 1950s.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno dedicated their jointly-written Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Pollock. Now that I think of it, this work was translated and made available just a year after it was first published in German, in 1956, when Horkheimer and Adorno were still virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. (Outside of the few works they wrote in English, that is). Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Pollock is rather coy when it comes to openly expressing his Marxism. He never mentions Marx by name, but talks about “relative surplus population,” fixed vs. circulating capital, and other concepts clearly derived from the critique of classical political economy. Similarly, early members of the Frankfurt School used “critical theory” as a kind of codeword for Marxist theory, both in order to disguise their communist sympathies and to emphasize a critical dimension that had been lost in the dogmatization of DiaMat in Moscow during the 1930s.

What follows is Rolf Wiggerhaus’ brief biographical sketch of Pollock, taken from his monumental study of The Frankfurt School. My only comment is that Wiggerhaus misleadingly suggests that Pollock and Horkheimer came to agree with SDP’s position on organized “state capitalism,” as if Hilferding had anything original to say on the matter. The Bolsheviks would have readily agreed with Hilferding’s remarks — at least prior to 1928, when Stalin combined Preobrazhenskii’s position on collectivization from the Left with Bukharin’s theory of “socialism in one country” from the Right.

Friedrich Pollock

Friedrich Pollock

Rolf Wiggerhaus
The Frankfurt School
Munich, 1986 (1995)

The frank, limitless enthusiasm which the thirty-two-year-old Friedrich Pollock had for Karl Marx was somewhat artless, although it did have its own appeal. Marx, when he was thirty, had `worked out his philosophical, sociological and political views so clearly that, right to the end of his life, there was never anything he had to retract’, according to Pollock. Marx had “struggled untiringly right up to his death for the proletariat, regardless of obstacles.” This homage to Marx was published in 1926 in a discussion of a pamphlet on Proletarian Socialism [Der proletarische Sozialismus] by Werner Sombart, a former supporter of Marxism and correspondent of Engels. During the 1920s, Sombart had begun to support a “German” form of socialism, and had become an anti-Semite with intellectual links to Oswald Spengler, Johann Plenge, and Othmar Spann. Pollock objected to Sombart’s reference to the phenomenological “intuiting of general essences [Wesensschau],” demanding empirical research instead. He rejected Sombart’s claim that Marx and Engels subscribed to “plebeianism” as a “basic value,” asserting that scientific socialism had the character of a natural science. And he rejected the accusation that materialist dialectics was part of an exclusively proletarian metaphysics of history, mainly by appealing to references in Engels’s Anti-Dühring showing that Marx and Engels had been convinced that dialectics had universal validity.

All of this was characteristic of Pollock. He was born in Freiburg in 1894, and it had originally been intended that he should take over his father’s business, as in Horkheimer’s case. With his indifference towards Judaism and certain conventions — qualities instilled by his upbringing and reinforced by his simple, phlegmatic manner — Pollock made a lasting impression on the sixteen-year-old Horkheimer, and they began a peculiar, but lifelong, friendship. Pollock was less horrified by social injustices than Horkheimer was, but he was also less apprehensive than Horkheimer about committing himself openly to Marxism and communism: when the Munich Soviet Republic was crushed in May 1919, he gave his passport to a Russian who was hoping to escape abroad; the refugee was caught, and Pollock got into trouble with the police. Although Pollock, like the others, studied philosophy, it was only a minor subject alongside his principal interest, economics, in which he took his doctorate in 1923 with a thesis on Marx’s monetary theory. In an article “On Marx’s Monetary Theory” published in 1928 in [Carl] Grünberg’s Archiv, he complained about the “unhappy division between the economic and philosophical elements in Marx’s system.”  But he had a lifelong, philistine contempt for philosophical theory, and held to a pre-Leninist form of Marxist orthodoxy.

At the invitation of David Riazanov, Pollock travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927 to take part in the celebrations on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. One of the results of the visit was his book on Experiments in the Planned Economy in the Soviet Union, 1917-1927, with which he took his Habilitation in 1928. The book was published as the second volume in the Institute’s publications series, the Schriften des Instituts für Sozialforschung, and was written in a style similar to that of Carl Grünberg, the “master of historical realism in the investigation of social existence,” as Max Adler described him in 1932 in the Festschrift published on Grünberg’s seventieth birthday. In the preface to his book, Pollock acknowledged his debt to his “friend, teacher, and father-figure, Professor Carl Grünberg.” The reader was informed in the first sentence of the preface that “a theoretical analysis of the material will follow in a later work,” but this was never published. Pollock described the particularly unfavorable conditions which the Russian revolutionaries had faced at the outset, their tremendous, continuing difficulties, the often glaring mistakes they had made, and their constant changes of direction and frequent reorganizations. In the penultimate and longest chapter of the book, `The State Planning Commission [Gosplan] and its Work,” he used all of this to show how plans had been formulated in an absurdly inadequate way from the start, and had only gradually become more realistic. The book’s style was soberly informative, but it nevertheless clearly indicated the sympathy, patience, fascination, and even admiration which Pollock had for the “heroes and martyrs of the planned economy” and their tireless efforts to construct “a complete whole” out of various different plans, one which would, “at its fullest stage of development, consciously and totally incorporate the entire economic process” and gradually guarantee “the conscious structuring of the entire economic process and all of its parts.”

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