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Peter Rabbit and the Grundrisse

Pale.. Rabbil
aDd Ihe

Rosa and Charley Parkin

There can be no such thing as an innocent reading
of the Tale of Peter Rabbit. As that. most percipient analyst of the later manuscripts, Enid Blyton.

puts it: ‘We must pose this work the question of
the specificity of its object, its relation to its
object. The only readinq of Peter Rabbit which
speaks to us through the congealed layers of the
past-becoming-present is a symptomatic reading – a
reading in which we listen attentively to Beatrix
Potter’s silences. ,1
So much is of course clear to the average
reader of this epochal work, this work which has
not only transformed our collective perceptions’

of rabbitness (Kaninchenliohkeit) but which has
contributed a new chapter to the political economy
of the cabbage patch. It is our contention in

this brief monograph that Peter Rabbit marks a
watershed in Potter’s philosophical development,
a distinct epistemological rupture from the
earlier problematic of the Hern.e Bay manuscripts
(above all, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and Jemima
PUddleduck). Nothing ~ore tellingly illustrates
the completeness of this scientific metamorphosis
than the contrast between the rather schematic
hermeneutics of the Nutkin-Puddleduck period and
the sure grasp of the principles of comparative
political economy manifested in Peter Rabbit. The
dramatization of the conflict between Peter and
Mr. McGregor in the celebrated garden scene
brilliantly pinpoints, in a so brief episode, those
acute contradictions and levels of overdet’ermination characteristic of ~e-capitalist cabbage
production. The revelatory instance (Potter’s
favoured methodological device) is that ‘moment’

when Mr. McGregor, chasing Peter from the garden,
seizes the rake and aims a blow at the fleeing
creature. Through an inspired stroke of trans30

formative symbolism, in which the essence of the
rake changes from that of tool to that of weapon,
Potter lays bare the irresolvable antagonisms of
a sub-feudal order in which the role of producer
and the role of warrior are indissolubly linked
yet totally incompatible in their binary opposition.

It is quite clear from our reading of the unpublished drafts and revisions of the early
manuscripts that Mr. McGregor is. to be understood
as an embodiment (Trc!iger) of that class of small
peasant .proprietors from whom baronial landlords
extracted in direct and unmediated forms. surplu8
value in the dual forms of military service and
corv6e labour. 2 However, we must state quite emphatically that despite. certain surface similarities the role of Mr. McGregor in the productive
process is not to be equated with that of the
Seven Dwarfs, as so many theorists from Schumpeter
onwards have argued. The extraction of surplus
from the productive labour of the Seven Dwarfs by
the Royal household (Snow White) was a mediated
political form, though ultimately backed up by
terror, which is a condition more akin to the
Asiatic mode of production than to sub-Feudalism.

Failure to appreciate this crucial distinction has
led to quite understandable confusion among the
readers of these works – though unfortunately we
cannot ge into the important question of whose
self-interests are in fact being served by these
not accidenta~ attempts at mystification and concealment.

The thesis we wish to advance- t . that the
entire episode between Peter and Mr. McGregor,
quite apart from the ‘rake’ scene is decisive in
marking a conjuncture in the transformation of
Peter Rabbit from an object of history to the, real
subject of history. It is precisely at that:

‘moment’ when Peter is threatened by the ‘rake’

that he gets his blue jacket caught on the fence,
and can only make good his escape by abandoning

it. Again, in this capsule statement ,we nave
Potter’s brilliant portrayal of the self-emancipatory act – the shedding of the ‘jacket’ conveys to
us of course the throwing off of servile, anthropomorphic status imposed by the structures-indominance of the ideological state apparatus. It
is ~uring Peter’s tearful monologue in ~ potting
shed that the full significance of his act comes
home tD him: i.e. that he has finally and irrevocably entered the realm of history as a reflexiv,e
agent. From this moment on he will be marked out
by his kinsmen, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (who
chose to remain in the ever-pre-given-structure of
the warren) as a figure of destiny: the siIloCJular
and heroic figure for which all Potter’s earlier
works have in a sense prepared us.

None of the previous manuscripts matches the
theoretic grandeur and philosophic presence of
Peter Rabbit – including the much overrated Tale
of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle which, notwithstanding
Lukacs’ extravagant assertions to the contrary,
still bears the unmistakable traces of the Herne
Bay period. 3 It is quite clear from a synp~tic
reading of the Preface to the second edition of
the Czech translation of Tiggy Winkle, published
after the final (Putney) draft of Peter Rabbit,
that Potter expresses serious reservations about
the internal structure of the argument. There is
a tacit recognition of the failure to give full
weighting to those forces bearing upon t-~s. Tiggy
Winkle’S actions which can only be accounted for
as a result of the over-determination of conjunctive instances within the given totality of
the farmyard. What this does in effect is to
present us with a completely de-historicizad
hedgehog-subject. 4 It is impossible to imagine
Potter falling’ into this same trap in any of her
later analyses of pre-capita1ist economic formations.

OUr attempt to produce a correct reading of
Peter Rabbit deliberately poses the problem of what
it is to read. Only in answering this question
can we feel confident in our task of rescuing
Potter’s contribution to science from the hands of
those who seek to reduce this work virtually to
the level of a fairy tale.

(1) Enid B1yton, Lire le Peter Rabbit, Paris,
Maspero, 1968
(2) See Nicos Poulantzas, ‘Hegemony, Surplus and
Unproductive Labour in the Cabbage Patch: a reply
to MiliJjand’, New Left Review LXIV, 1970
(3) G. Lukacs,Weltgeist, Naturgeschichte und
Symbolsbegriffe bei Frau Tiggy Winkle, in
Beatrix-Potter studien VIII, 1956
(4) Adorno’s biting cOJllllent is hare very much to
the point: ‘The thought to ·which a positive hypostasis of anything outside the immanence of the
dialectic is forbidden, overshoots the subject
with which it no longer simulates as being one’.

T. Adomo, Spasms, Frankfurt, 1972. This passage
could have been written ~cifically.with Mrs.

Tiggy Winkle in mind.

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CONTENTS – Preface, Postface (Why all publishers
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1 A Conception or Philosophy
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2 Rational Error
3 Idle Discourse
4 Repressive Discourse
5 Impossible Discourse
6 Tolerance
7 Concluding remarks
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