Review: Marx’s Literary Style, by Ludovico Silva

Sam Russek

Marx’s Literary Style, by Ludovico Silva (trans. Paco Brito Núñez) is now available from Verso Books.

Around Christmastime in the year 1836, a young Prussian aristocrat named Jenny von Westphalen received three books of endearingly bad poetry. They had been sent as a gift from her husband-to-be: a first-year university student named Karl Marx. Marx had taken passionately to the idea of literature while studying in Berlin, though he was not yet the writer capable of producing works such as Capital, as those early juvenilia make clear.

The poems were an expression of misplaced confidence and puppy love—a syndrome common among first-year university students—with lines like “LOVE IS JENNY, JENNY IS LOVE’S NAME.” But his excitable feelings weren’t enough to elevate the poems beyond “elf songs, gnome songs,” as Franz Mehring, Marx’s first biographer, called them: “They are completely formless in every sense of the word.”

Still, there may be no better way to learn how language feels than to fail as a poet. Youthful forays into verse allow for a deepening grasp of what Ludovico Silva, a poet and philosopher himself, calls “the plastic and rhythmic qualities of language, of prosody itself.” In Marx’s Literary Style, first published in Spanish in 1971, Silva sympathetically offers that even if Marx’s poems were too in love with their own sounds to succeed, when we squint, we can see some of the first manifestations of what would become his writing style. This includes his play of contrasts, which Silva calls “a kind of literary dialectic of opposites,” as well as “his early passion for metaphorical idealization, which would eventually transform into the proper metaphorization of ideas.”

Those metaphors precede themselves in the public mind. Notions like “commodity fetishism,” “alienation,” “base and superstructure”—people frequently learn of them by a sort of osmosis, without ever actually reading Marx’s work. But before they were shibboleths, belabored by acolytes and derided by critics, they were literary flourishes that Marx had developed over a lifetime, a device for giving form to abstracted processes. Across Marx’s Literary Style, Silva engages in a close reading of Marx’s oeuvre to show how his poetic sensibilities blended with his theoretical-scientific framework, ultimately becoming something wholly unique.

In Silva’s view, relegating Marx to the status of a scientific writer or philosopher misses the point of his work; however, to mistake his metaphors for mere flourishes also threatens to lead readers astray. Instead, Silva argues, Marx made a concerted effort to blend all three modes of thinking. By necessity, his theoretical framework was scientific and literary at the same time. He took great pains to develop his stylistic principles—his shifts from deductive to inductive reasoning, his figurative pirouettes, and his blend of the concrete and abstract—to model a sort of thinking that wasn’t specialized, and which could overcome what Silva calls the division of labor.

In doing so, Marx’s work mirrored his practical aspiration to overcome the unnatural division between intellectual and physical labor. This separateness is a function of the capitalist structure, and Marx’s work, by coherently enacting these multiplicities, is a model for how we might do the same in our own work, dispelling the artificial barriers between organizer, thinker, worker, tenant, and so on.

Verso’s new edition of Marx’s Literary Style, translated by Paco Brito Núñez, is the first of any of Silva’s books to appear in English—a bit surprising, as he was an acclaimed writer whose work is regarded as foundational to the critical study of communications in Latin America. Born in 1937 to a well-to-do family in Caracas, Venezuela, he became a professor of philosophy at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in 1970. His proclivity for Marx came relatively late in his career, “only in the context of a global ‘68,” as Alberto Toscano writes in the foreword to this edition, referring to the wave of rebellions that led many to believe the toppling of the capitalist world order was imminent. Central to Silva’s interpretation of Marx is the idea that, in his prolific work, he overcame the ostensible division of labor between scientific, philosophical, and so-called literary writing.

Marx’s Literary Style is not meant to scold other academics—but Silva’s study of Marx is, above all, a critique of the ideological lenses that filter the practices of modern university studies. On the one hand, Silva directed his ire at those who would see scientific writing neutered of style, touting “empirical objectivity” while evading any responsibility to grasp things by their roots. On the other, Silva condemned those whose work served to mystify Marx, obscuring greater concepts by taking metaphor as scientific fact. Together, these two types were, in his view, a similar breed of “intellectual ostrich,” their heads in the ground, incapable of fully surveying today’s material reality.

Before spending any serious time dissecting Marx’s chosen metaphors, Silva offers an anecdote of his own concerning a famous Biblical line from the Gospel of Matthew: “It is more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” Except—at least according to some scholars—that’s not the actual line. Citing an expert in ancient Greek, Silva says the correct translation is cable. While much ink has been spilled over why camel ended up in this passage, cable makes more logical sense, but at the expense of an analogy we’ve come to accept. To think of all that misdirected energy spent interpreting the meaning of “camel:” we were asking the wrong questions from the start.

The same has happened with Marx, Silva writes; when his words are “treated as gospel, we are meant to accept camel for cable.” To Silva, we should divide the “artistic whole” of Marx’s output into two sections: primarily, the books he was able to fully polish and publish in his lifetime (a span of output beginning in the final months of 1843, setting aside those dewy-eyed love poems). The rest should be considered distinct: Marx’s unfinished work, which was published posthumously. To Silva, the work from 1843 up until Marx’s death in 1883 represents a “complete union” between literary sign and scientific meaning, full of “round and polished phrases.”

The posthumous works are decidedly more jagged, forever incomplete. For instance, although Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and the Grundrisse were both written between 1857 and 1859, there is a “stylistic abyss” between the two; the Grundrisse was not published until 1939. “One can sit down to read the Critique,” Silva writes, but “one must sit down and study the Grundrisse.

If there is an abyss between Critique and the Grundrisse, it’s because one was ready for a wide audience, while the other was clearly not. During Marx’s lifetime, to his publishers’ chagrin, his manuscripts were often delayed by bouts of illness and other real-world demands. (To put food on the table, Silva writes, Marx sometimes became a “victim of journalism,” writing “hundreds of articles that contributed little to his scientific production.”). But sometimes, Marx delayed submitting to his publisher due to, as he put it, “preoccupations of style.” He considered the stylistic manner in which he transmitted his ideas to be as important as the content he presented.

Silva identifies three central aspects of Marx’s style. First, he describes Marx’s “architectonic” perspective—in other words, Marx systematically organizes his work so that “none is true without respect to the whole.” His concrete constructions build upon one another to make a “material skeleton of reasoning,” Silva writes. “All great thinkers who are also great stylists tend to present their work not as the result of a previous thought but as the process or act of thinking itself.” Marx’s method, then, is to demonstrate his process of construction of his argument.

This leads directly into Silva’s second point: at a sentence level, Marx uses literary techniques and structures to echo and reproduce the concepts he’s explaining. These are the “verbal sinews” that flesh out his material skeleton, hearkening back to his “dialectic” experiments in poetry. To explain, Silva reproduces the following passage from Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, on his concept of alienation:

“How could the product of the worker’s activity confront him as something alien if it were not for the fact that in the act of production he was estranging himself from himself? After all, the product is simply the résumé of the activity, of the production. So if the product of labour is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the alienation of activity, the activity of alienation. The estrangement of the object of labour merely summarizes the estrangement, the alienation in the activity of labour itself.”

Through a series of formal pirouettes, Silva writes, Marx exhausts “every syntactical possibility” while introducing key terms: ”product,” “estrangement-alienation,” and “production-activity of production.” He does so first to question these introduced notions, then to affirm them—and finally, in the closing phrase, to summarize them, where Silva claims the “conceptual and formal moves are both consummated.”

You would be forgiven for feeling that Silva’s meticulous and admiring reading, while illuminating, could be taken as more than a little aggrandizing—elevating Marx to the plane of “expressive genius.” And perhaps it is grandiose—but the same is true of Marx’s own figurative language. Elsewhere, Silva proposes that Marx should be understood as “endowed with the loftiest virtues of the aristocracy,” the “musical elegance of his phrases” harboring an “intellectual storminess worthy of Beethoven.” Talk about canonizing.

But Silva’s praise is, I think, intended to call attention to itself while at the same time truthfully describing Marx’s technique. Before Marx was the father of Marxism, he was only a writer, an upper-middle-class intellectual, and a product of the bourgeois university apparatus, with a radical streak and bills to pay. To say so is to state the obvious. Yet the dogmatists’ preoccupation with his thoughts on historical systems paradoxically threatens to flatten the rich offerings of his theory into rote ideology: a reductionist manual for the mechanical workings of the world. Yet Marx’s writing is not merely a critique, nor is it a rigid set of terms. Instead, he was suggesting a process for thinking through problems, mapping systems not to dictate scientific phenomena but to theorize what sustains them, who compels them, and why.

That brings us to the third aspect of Marx’s style that Silva outlines: the former’s use of metaphors as “cognitive and poetic instruments.” In typical scientific writing, metaphors are often dismissed as frivolous, distracting from the subject at hand—or worse, as falsely analogous interpretations of what should remain purely objective. But to Silva, metaphors, beyond their aesthetic value, expand the expressive power of language and supplement “the frame” of scientific theory.

For instance, “commodity fetishism” gives a certain character to Marx’s contention that social relations among people appear as relations between things. The thing—a commodity to be exchanged—is personified, while, at the same time, the person is thingified: a worker becomes the value of his labor-power, or a capitalist becomes his capital. Without the metaphor, this process can be explained, but it might not be felt. Likewise, if we employ only the metaphor, the process might be reduced to a slogan—and the particulars worth further analysis could fall by the wayside.

Is it splitting hairs to so thoroughly interrogate the difference between “term” and “metaphor”? No, in Silva’s view, this is not just “bourgeois subtlety” that threatens to undermine Marx’s ostensibly scientific and mechanical theoretical framework. To avoid “dissonance and disproportion” when discussing his theories, we can’t take metaphors for explanations in and of themselves.

Silva contends that no metaphor is quite so misunderstood as “base and superstructure”—a “camel” par excellence. The base refers to the economic foundation upon which society is built; that is to say, its mode of production. Defining those boundaries has been cause for enough debate—yet the superstructure perhaps even more commonly misconstrued.

Silva again turns to translation to explain the two distinct ways that Marx designated what would be later translated as “superstructure:” the Latin Superstruktur—in Spanish sometimes translated to “supra-structure,” or “over-structure”—and the German Überbau, which more accurately refers to the scaffolding attached to a building during its construction. It’s a metaphor for the “legal-political” (and cultural) framework that makes up the state. In all of Marx’s writings, Silva says, he employs Superstruktur and Überbau a total of four times—and when Marx collaborated with the French translator of his work, Überbau wasn’t translated as “superstructure” at all, but as “edifice.”

To Silva, the danger here is that we might take superstructure to be equivalent to “scaffolding”—something that can be separated from the structure of the building’s foundation, perhaps standing up on its own legs. Indeed, Marx spilled a great deal of ink relentlessly attacking so-called “ideologues” for their insistence that ideas, beliefs, religions, and philosophies—in other words, the exact makeup of the superstructure—could exist independently in civil society. Silva writes, “Is this not precisely why he called them ideologues?”

Societies tend to present themselves as the results of idealist historical myths rather than as long and grinding material processes. The mistake of such “ideologues” is take those results as the premise of their diagnosis, and to attribute them undue causal force. These are circular, self-affirming explanations. Silva derides the social scientists who confuse the duty of science with a supposed “value neutrality” while using their pulpit to claim Marx’s work is nothing more than a “redemptive, messianic ideology.” But at the same time, Silva sees a real threat in that Marxists may stumble down a similar path.

When we take Marx’s metaphors as self-evident terms, we mirror the overdetermined liberal ideology that we are supposedly separate from. In doing so, we threaten to compartmentalize into camps, just as capitalism would hope us to. If we want a different outcome than self-disempowerment, we must think through our problems differently.

“Marx knew what Marxists seem to ignore,” Silva writes. “[I]t’s one thing to give a schematic introduction to a theory by means of illustrative metaphors and quite another to explain that theory scientifically.” In doing so, Silva contends that Marxists confuse the foundation and framework of society with its legal-political facade. They come to believe that “the building holds up the foundation, and not the other way around.” The idealist mistake is to judge civilization based on how it conceives of itself and its principles, and not by the real, material relations that are sustained by and composed of the people.

At the same time, even with this paradigm in mind, you can’t really understand a society’s material character by analyzing ideology strictly at face value. Marx derided this sort of misperception in The Poverty of Philosophy: “The moment you present men as the actors and authors of their own history, you arrive—by a detour—at the real starting point, because you have abandoned those eternal principles of which you spoke at the outset.”

When we see only civilization’s edifice, Silva argues, without accounting for the entirety of what keeps it from crumbling, we threaten to turn Marx’s theory into an absurd, “mechanistic determinism, if not a unilateral causalism.” (The same is true in the converse; the tendency to conceptualize the base as crudely deterministic has often proved irresistible.) In other words, we become ideologues, specializing in Marxist critique only in name, and failing to fully grapple with the drivers of the social structures we are critiquing. And if we expend all our energy studying that edifice, we can’t direct our efforts toward shattering its foundation.

Silva’s position here doesn’t so much contradict other theorists whose work is informed by the base and superstructure metaphor as it does buttress some of their key arguments. In particular, Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, and Stuart Hall have developed important insights into how the superstructure functions in service to capitalism’s economic foundation, while also exerting causality of its own. In Marx’s Literary Style, Silva lists few other theorists by name, so without a firm grasp of the arguments of the period, it might sometimes feel like he is arguing with long-dead ghosts.

The same theorists have sometimes been derided as “culturalists.” Especially among the ’60s-era New Left (of which Silva could be considered a part), the fear is that these thinkers emphasize culture or politics at the expense of a critique of our material economic reality. Silva, too, was preoccupied with the culturalists of his day. To him, this was the danger of relegating Marx to a hidebound school of thought: if we focus too much on one aspect of Marx’s critique, we miss the artistic whole of his argument. Marx was not interested in just politics or economics or culture.

Marx took great pains to develop his stylistic principles—his shifts from deductive to inductive reasoning, his figurative pirouettes, and his blend of the concrete and abstract—to model a sort of thinking that wasn’t specialized, that overcame what Silva called the division of labor. He could move from cultural criticism to science to history and then back again, illustrating how each was interlinked and mutually supporting. The concurrent use of all these frameworks was a prerequisite for achieving what Marx called an “artistic whole.” He saw economics as the driving force of history, permeating all things and inseparable from them. But, Silva insists, “He was neither a pure economist nor a pure sociologist, philosopher, literary intellectual or politician.” When partitioned into their own schools, all of those roles offer only a glimpse of the “semblance” of social phenomena.

As such, for those attempting earn a more precise acquaintance with Marx, it’s productive to approach his work by studying literary style. The field cannot be wholly cordoned off from other categories of writing—it’s necessarily a general skill, equally applicable to historical and scientific texts and fiction alike. Silva was rightly anxious about the emerging crisis of the humanities at the time. He took after Marx, who famously dreamed of a multifaceted future in which it’s “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

That future, for now, remains a faraway dream. In the meantime, Silva’s long-overdue English debut offers another view on the full, resonant brilliance of Marx’s work: how masterfully he harmonized modes of language that ranged from positivist to poetic, and how urgently he sought to identify what hinders our realizing the world of which he dreamed. In that effort, at least, he was successful. We have Marx to thank for making clear that, without intervention, parasitic capitalism will only continue to grow more deeply entrenched, its tendrils ultimately extending into all domains of life. The question that remains is whether we will choose to grasp it by the roots and pull. ♦

Sam Russek is a writer from Houston, Texas, currently living in New York. You can find him on Twitter.

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