Karl Marx: Student and Teacher of Technology
The recent victory by the Amazon Labor Union on Staten Island, NY is a hopeful and inspiring indication that workplace organization is still possible, even in an age of isolated and unorganized workers within an ever-expanding e-retail sector. Just through looking at their methods of communication, the working people that made the union possible were obvious students of technology and envisioned how Amazon’s own surveillance and alienation could be harnessed into turning the tide against the bosses. In this article, Daniel Falcone explains how Marx was a student of technology, not a determinist and traces the historiography of the topic. It helps us arrive at the conclusion that innovation and modernization are things that socialists and people of the left can embrace as we carry out revolutionary change.
This article will use Marx’s own writings and secondary sources to trace the history of Karl Marx as a student of technology starting with Nathan Rosenberg’s seminal essay in 1976 through Amy Wendling’s work in 2011. The essay will provide a historiography of Marx and how scholars have analyzed his perceptions of technological development and how it relates to his ongoing objective critiques of capitalism. Peter Novick famously stated in his Introduction that objectivity in history could be like “Nailing jelly to a wall,” but this essay will argue that Marx was a dedicated student of technology and wasn’t speculating in subjectivity on the topic.
James Banner explains that Marx provides an example of “transformative revisionism.” He states that “it proved impossible to fence off [Marx] from historical thought but to prevent [his] writings from affecting the way the past was conceived, if only because [Marx’s] works made universal claims, were suffused with historical examples, it ventured to explain the past as well to predict the future.” Banner is indicating that scholarship after the nineteenth century was forced to grapple with a Marxist analysis of history, thus producing more nuanced views of his outlook on technology over time.
In 1921 Alvin Hansen claimed that Marx didn’t view history through an economic lens but a technological one. In other words, in 1976 Nathan Rosenberg was not the first scholar or economist that specialized in the history of technology as it relates to Marx but Rosenberg did help popularize the idea of studying Marx and technology from an economic and historical point of view. In 1983 in Inside the Black Box Rosenberg built on his 1976 work and examined social change and how Marx was one of the finest students of technology the world has ever produced. Rosenberg argued that Marx was conscious of technology’s historical significance. Marx, he maintained, was constantly unpacking “the inner logic of individual technologies.” He also argued that studies in technological history should begin with Marx.
The purpose of this paper is threefold: First, it argues that a careful review of Marx and his notebooks on the history of technology dispel any notion that he was a technological determinist. Technological determinism is the idea that a society’s technology determines its social structure. The term was coined by American Sociologist Thorstein Veblen in the early 1900s. Marx, like modern scholars over a century later, also argued that scientific and technological advancement were not individual moments but a set of historical processes.
Secondly, this historiographical essay expands on how Marx’s writing on the topic of capitalism evolved in relation to technology. Historians have treated Marx as if he was simply writing about revolution and capitalism in 1848 and science and technology in 1867. Marx’s interest in technology arrived early in his career and evolved steadily over time.
The third purpose of this writing is to demonstrate how technological, scientific, economic, and political histories of technologies change over time. Phil Gasper wrote that, “one of the most common misconceptions about Marxism is that it is a deterministic theory that sees the course of history as preordained by economic and social forces.” In other words, Gasper points out a tendency in the historical writing to associate Marxism with simply reacting to technology.
Karl Marx was a student of technology. Starting in 1976 the Marx scholarship started rethinking and analyzing his views on industrialization in making a case that refuted his reputation as a technological determinist. This countered William H. Shaw’s work in 1979 that argued that Marx was an empirical and scientific technological determinist when a broad definition of technology was applied. It also argued against Robert Heilbroner’s work in 1967 which argued that machines made history. But Marx was not just concerned with the current machines of his day but the innovations and developments and what earlier technologies meant to the worker in terms of continuity. Marx was asking essential questions regarding the history of technology: which machines make history and what was the impact of their technologies on the culture?
Arnold Pacey discussed intermediate technological movements to rethink what technology meant historically. He argued that it was a mistake to provincialize industry and technology while focusing on the inventive exchange. In other words, before this time world historical accounts of technology were discussed by country, period, and inventor, without synthesizing technologies across time, space, and people, as part of a greater dialogue. Pacey explains both the innovations as joint activities and developments that took place independently of each other. Marx as a student of technology, in my view, also challenged the provinciality of technology and provided an early global history of technology.
Steven Shapin wrote about the mechanization of nature and discussed how there is no cultural consensus of science. I relate his work to Marx’s view on technology in that both seem concerned with the doing part of science and technology not something likened to a list of floating conceptions. Marx was interested in the depersonalization of science but not technological determinism. Further, Lisa Jardine emphasized the importance of seeing technology from a distance and to not exaggerate its changes. Marx too, knew that things changed but nothing totally changed.
Thomas Misa breaks down the dynamics of industrial capitalism and society and reiterates Marx’s prophesizing “that capitalism’s contradictions would bring about its destruction with the memorable phrase,” ‘the bourgeoisie would produce its own gravediggers.’” This source is important to reinforce how technology and culture needs to be analyzed in different generations to understand its context for the time. Technology had different meanings in relation to exploitation of the worker historically. Additionally, when looking at Marx’s own writings both segments of the industrial revolution spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveal how Marx was a student of technology.
In the book entitled The Romantic Machine, John Tresch debunks how prior scholarship presented romanticism and industrialization in opposition to one another. Instead, Tresch claims that both concepts worked together historically and managed to unify people’s romantic conceptions to machinery. Machines were not simply cold alienating devices to Trecsh and he explains how Marx appreciated technology and argued for “continued inventiveness in the administration of machines.” That is to say that Marx did not view romanticism and industrialism as purely separate nor was he opposed to technological progress.
The Writings of Karl Marx
The beginning of the Communist Manifesto is important for understanding Marx as a student of technology because he looks at navigation, commerce and market transitions emerging out of The Enclosure Movement. To be sure, Marx was not simply saying that these transitions of technology and innovation were evil happenings leaving the worker at its mercy. He is instead emphasizing the need to investigate the process of commercial expansion. Exploitative economic development produced navigational improvements. It was not the modernization of navigation simply acting upon the worker and accelerating misery by virtue of any machine.
Capital was written by Karl Marx in 1867. This is a transformative work within the field of philosophy. This primary source offers a criticism of the political economy and breaks down in exhaustive fashion, the capitalist mode of production while pushing back against the classicists. Readers interested in Marx’s views on technology are naturally drawn to Chapter 15 of this seminal book, where his approach to the topic historically serves as a foundational framework for twentieth and twenty-first century scholars who might argue against viewing technological breakthroughs as coming from single individuals.
A third area of primary data for Marx and his thoughts and views on technology are found in his unpublished notebooks on the history of technology. At one time the archive was in Moscow. In 1925, after uncovering the archive Hungarian philosopher György Lukács argued that Marx was not a technological determinist, but someone who analyzed technology as another form of work relations to be explored. Lukács’s study was later published in the New Left Review in response to Nikolai Bukharin’s conception, a Bolshevik who once stated, “it would be strange if Marxist theory eternally stood still.” Marx’s notebooks on the history of technology are currently held at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.
Karl Marx as a Student of Technology
In 1976 Nathan Rosenberg argued “that a major reason for the fruitfulness of the Marxist framework for the analysis of social change was that Marx himself was a careful student of technology.” His contention is that Marx knew the implications that technology had on society historically and spent hours writing and thinking about their impacts on economic structures. Rosenberg asserts that Marx was ahead of his time and essentially wrote an introduction on the history of technology over one hundred years before modern scholars. He considers Marx’s writing in the Capitalist Production section of Capital, where in a footnote Marx wrote:
“The critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the 18th century are the work of a single individual. Hitherto there is no such book. Darwin has interested us in the history of nature’s technology, for example, in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are material basis of all social organization deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile since human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former but not the latter? Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations and the mental conceptions that flow from them.”
This quote shows that Marx was thinking about technology and social relations in 1867 comparable to 1848 and his first chapter of the Communist Manifesto, where Marx writes about commerce, industry, and navigation. After reading Rosenberg’s perspectives it is evident that Marx had clear views on technological determinism, the nature of modern industry, and the social importance of evolving technologies as they applied to capital-goods. Rosenberg basically asks, what made Marx’s treatment of technology special and unique? The answer is found in the insightfulness of his methodological approach which was to analyze history through the lens of technology. Rosenberg states “the method of historical materialism which Marx utilized was one which emphasized the interactions and conflicts of social classes and institutions not individuals. Thus, for Marx, invention, and innovation no less, than other socioeconomic activities, were best analyzed as social processes rather than as inspired flashes of individual genius.” In other words, Marx held that technological progress was driven by history instead of driving it.
Marx understood technology to be a socially constructed albeit neutral tool for fulfilling societal roles within institutions in that the profit motive would adjust to any innovation. They could be embraced or contested entities for individual workers under the capitalist system. It is far too simple to suggest that Marx had binary views: socialism and the worker as intrinsically good and technology as inherently bad. Instead, he offered what socialists, social democrats, postmodernists, and contemporary scholars analyze regarding technology routinely: exchanges and responses between market forces and the economy on the one hand and technology and advanced industrial machinery on the other.
Rosenberg cites The Poverty of Philosophy, a book answering Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty, as one cause for the misconception for Marx as technological determinist. In this book, Marx famously indicated that the hand mill was to the feudal lord what the steam mill was to the industrial capitalist. This, according to Rosenberg only signifies that Marx insisted on a concrete method to address exploitation, not fancy slogans about reform efforts and philosophical takes about property being theft. This is important to highlight because much of the Marx as determinist discourse comes from the simple hand mill quote. It is like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” notion, popularly cited even though Smith said it only once.D. Ross Gandy would go on to argue in 1979 that Marx was not a technological determinist but someone who saw human beings interacting freely with nature in history.
Donald MacKenzie also explains how, “the hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord, the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist,” is a standalone phrase that misleads and presents Marx as a technological determinist. So much of Marx’s work on technology, MacKenzie argues “cannot be captured by any simple technological determinism.” He points out that Marx believed that “social relations molded technology rather than vice versa.” His work shows the further need to see technological development in the context of the era.
Furthermore, as indicated in the review of the primary literature, Rosenberg points out Marx’s view on technology is found in the Communist Manifesto where he comments on improvements in navigation caused by the prior expansion in the marketplaces of commercial trade. Again, Marx isn’t preoccupied with innovations modernizing and their adverse effects per se, but he is interested in addressing the ever-increasing world of profit-making ventures that negatively impact workers and their conditions. Again, the early writings of Marx reveal him to be a student of technology and explaining how economic history has shaped it.
Bruce Bimber further explains technological determinism as it applies to Marx’s specific views on technology and culture. He is interested in the varied approaches in looking at technological determinism (TD) and explains Marx’s outlook of human self-expression and resistance to alienation while arguing that Marx was more economically deterministic than he was technologically. TD states that a society’s technology defines the growth of its social construct, overall culture, and societal beliefs and values. The phrase in this context, is often used in academia by sociologists and economists. Bimber doubts that Marx was himself purely determinist and sets out to explain technological determinism’s three faces. All three faces are considered technologically deterministic, but Bimber cites how comparing them allows for a clearer understanding if Marx was a proponent of TD or not.
Bimber cites G.A. Cohen’s notion of Norm Based Accounts of technological determinism, which are “accounts that attribute casual agency in the history of technology to human social practices and beliefs.” In short, these are aspects of technology that deal with technology as simply a byproduct of culture. He also cites Langdon Winner and the concept of Unintended Consequences Accounts that constitute the unpredictable instances of social outcomes when it comes to technological development. Unintended Consequences Accounts are not driven by technology but by social actions. Logical Sequence Accounts, or those viewing technology’s impact as universal laws are the most deterministic oriented accounts. In other words, Bimber argues that Marx’s views on technology are aligned with the first two socially constructed accounts and not the fixed third accounts. Marx did not see technology as automatically exploitative, but rather human interaction that had this potential.
Estevan Hernandez, John Prysner, and Derek Ford set out to explain Chapter 15 of Marx’s Capital to highlight the status of automation and its relevancies to capitalist economies in, A Marxist Approach to Technology. The authors think social scientists in the contemporary period have downplayed the loss of jobs as only temporary until a new technological revolution addresses unemployment to make up for lost production. This was written to explain how Marx’s views on modern industry, machinery, the working day, labor intensity, and compensation, help to better understand the challenges of current day displaced workers and alterations taking place in both agricultural and industrial production.
The interesting part about this piece is that it reads to be the most leftist of the literature I’ve seen about Marx as a student of technology and uses Capital to argue points of view that might be contrary to the previous analyses of Marx as a technological determinist. For example, it rightly and thoroughly discusses how technology and investments in innovation can be ruthless, put profits first, and make working class people more disposable, but what determines this more than technology is economic determinism. The authors are aware that Marx was not a technological determinist, but their writing shows how in my view when critiques of capitalism are at stake, subtle, internal Marxist debates take shape.
Andy Merrifield argues that Marx’s 150-paged chapter in Capital, Chapter 15, could be a book unto itself. He states how Marx provides a fascinating explanation of the mechanizations within the capitalist structure while providing a social history of technology. Merrifield also argues against Marx as technologically deterministic and says that Marx detailed the value of the worker whether they used primitive tools or large-scale industry. Marx’s ability to articulate exploitation was defined by how he analyzed the structure of employment, not the respective technologies themselves. Marcello Musto includes an important section in his edited, The Marx Revival: Key Concepts and New Interpretations, with Chapter 21 entitled “Technology and Science,” by philosopher Amy Wendling. She is interested in studying technology and science included in Marx’s research specifically.
In 2011, Wendling provided a revisionist perspective of Marx’s concepts of alienation by reevaluating his notebooks on technology. She focused on the transformation of work, machines and the communist future, and the capitalist reality. Wendling reviews the Marx archive to uphold the notion that Marx embraced skill and technology and moved his concepts of liberation to the machine and the worker by 1867. This could be found in some instances as early as in his 1848 writing. To understand Marx, Wendling argues is to understand that work requires both human and mechanized labor. The skill concept is relative to the time and is socially constructed as Marx carefully traced capitalism’s requirements. I read this to mean that Marx was less deterministic in a sense when it came to technological development and innovation and more focused on market forces that produce technology and inequality.
In other words, Wendling states that a major misconception of Marx and his notions of worker alienation comes from too much focus on his earlier Hegelian writings. She also argues that when Marx is seen in two parts: first, simply as a younger intuitive thinker interested in history and humanism in the 1840s, and second, strictly scientific in the 1860s, that this misinforms and inhibits our ability to see Marx already interested in science and technology in his earlier writings.
The recent victory by the Amazon Labor Union on Staten Island, NY is a hopeful and inspiring indication that workplace organization is still possible, even in an age of isolated and unorganized workers within an ever-expanding e-retail sector. Just through looking at their methods of communication, the working people that made the union possible were obvious students of technology and envisioned how Amazon’s own surveillance and alienation could be harnessed into turning the tide against the bosses.
This essay used Marx’s own work and secondary evidence dedicated to Marx as a student of technology. I tried to trace the history of Karl Marx as a student of technology starting with Nathan Rosenberg’s seminal essay in 1976 and ending with Amy Wendling’s work in 2011, while incorporating essays and articles that lead up to the present. The essay provided a historiography of Marx and how scholars have analyzed his perceptions of technological development and how it relates to the ongoing depredations of state and industrial capitalism. I argued that Marx was not a technological determinist, but someone interested in studying and writing about how capitalism was altered by its relationship with technology.
Like Banner argues, Marx continues to be a source of transformative revisionism. Vanessa Wills draws from Marx and Engels to argue that racist ideology is a form of false consciousness. In other words, Marx’s impact on scholarship continues to extend in many directions. Marx was also aware of capitalism’s global reach, as recent scholarship by Lucia Pradella points out he did not view globalization in linear terms nor in a Eurocentric way. Ultimately, the purpose of this writing was to demonstrate how technological, scientific, economic, and political histories of technologies changed over time albeit subtly and slowly, while resistance to these mechanisms remained the same. Marx was a historian of technology and an economic determinist much more so than an economic historian and technological determinist.
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