Marx and his Discoveries

I shall start with an immediate reading, and here I let Marx speak for himself.

In a letter to Engels on 24 August 1867, he writes:

The best points in my book are: (1) the two-fold character of labour, according to whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange value. (All understanding of the facts depends on this.) It is emphasized immediately, in the first chapter; (2) the treatment of surplus-value independently of its particular forms as profit, interest, ground rent, etc. This will come out especially in the second volume. The treatment of the particular forms by classical economy, which always mixes them up with the general form, is a regular hash.


In the Marginal Notes on Wagner's 'Lehrbuch der politischen √Ėkonomie ', written in 1883, at the end of his life, Marx says of Wagner (Marx-Engels: Werke, Bd. XIX, pp. 370-1):

the vir obscurus [Wagner] has not seen:
that even in the analysis of the commodity, I do not stop at the double mode in which it is represented, but go straight on to the fact that in this double being of the commodity is represented the two-fold character of the labour whose product it is: the useful labour, i.e., the concrete modes of the labours which create use-values, and the abstract labour, labour as the expenditure of labour power, whatever the 'useful' mode in which it is expended (on which depends the later representation of the production process);
that in the development of the value-form of the commodity, in the last instance of its money-form, hence of money, the value of a commodity is represented in the use-value, i.e., the natural form of the other commodity;
that surplus-value itself is deduced from a 'specific' use-value of labour-power which belongs exclusively to it, etc., etc.;
and that therefore for me use-value plays a far more important part than it has in economics hitherto, but, N.B., that it only ever comes into consideration where such a consideration arises from the analysis of a given economic form, not from reasoning this way and that about the concepts or words 'use-value' and 'value'.


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I quote these texts as protocols in which Marx expressly designates the basic concepts that govern his whole analysis. In these texts, therefore, Marx indicates the differences between him and his predecessors. In this way he gives us the specific difference of his object -- but, note, less in the form of the concept of his object than in the form of concepts assisting in the analysis of that object.

These texts are far from being the only ones in which Marx announces his discoveries. We find far-reaching discoveries designated all the way through a reading of Capital : e.g., the genesis of money, which the whole of classical economics did not manage to think; the organic composition of capital (c+v), absent from Smith and Ricardo; the general law of capitalist accumulation; the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall; the theory of ground rent, etc. I shall not list all these discoveries, each of which makes intelligible economic facts and practices which the Classical Economists either passed over in silence or evaded because they were incompatible with their premisses. In fact, these detailed discoveries are merely the immediate or distant consequences of the new basic concepts that Marx identified in his work as his master discoveries. Let us examine them.

The reduction of the different forms of profit, rent and interest to surplus-value is itself a discovery secondary to that of surplus-value. The basic discoveries therefore concern:

(1) the value/use-value opposition; the reference of this opposition to another opposition which the Economists were not able to identify: the opposition abstract labour/concrete labour; the particular importance which Marx, as opposed to the Classical Economists, attributes to use-value and its correlate concrete labour; the reference to the strategic points where use-value and concrete labour play a decisive part: the distinctions between constant capital and variable capital, on the one hand, and between the two departments of production on the other (Department I, production of means of production; Department II, production of means of consumption).

(2) surplus-value.

To sum up: the concepts which contain Marx's basic discoveries are: the concepts of value and use-value ; of abstract labour and concrete labour ; and of surplus-value.

That is what Marx tells us. And there is no apparent reason why we should not take him at his word. In fact, while reading Capital we can prove that his economic analyses do depend on these basic concepts in the last instance. We can, so long as our reading is a careful one. But this proof is not self-evident. It presupposes a great struggle for rigour -- and above all it necessarily implies from the beginning something which is present in Marx's declared discoveries -- but present in a strange absence -- if we are to complete this proof and see clearly in the very clarity it produces.

As an index which gives a negative foretaste of this absence, one comment will do: the concepts to which Marx expressly relates his discovery and


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which underly all his economic analysis, the concepts of value and surplus-value, are precisely the concepts on which all the criticism addressed to Marx by modern economists has focused. It is not immaterial to know in what terms these concepts have been attacked by non-Marxist economists. Marx has been criticized on the grounds that they are concepts which, although they make allusion to economic reality, remain at heart non-economic, 'philosophical' and 'metaphysical' concepts. Even as enlightened an economist as Conrad Schmidt -- who was intelligent enough to deduce the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall from Volume Two of Capital soon after its publication, even though that law was first expounded in Volume Three -- even Conrad Schmidt attacked Marx's law of value as a 'theoretical fiction', a necessary one no doubt, but a fiction all the same. I do not quote these criticisms for fun, but because they are directed at the very foundation of Marx's economic analyses, the concepts of value and surplus-value, which are rejected as 'non-operational' concepts designating realities which are non-economic because they are non-measurable, non-quantifiable. Obviously, this reproach in its own way betrays the conception the economists in question have of their own object, and of the concepts it authorizes: but if this reproach does show us the point in which their opposition to Marx is at its most palpable, these economists do not give us Marx's object in their reproach, precisely because they treat that object as 'metaphysical'. However, I indicate this point as the point of misunderstanding, the point where the Economists misconstrue Marx's analyses. But this misunderstanding in their reading was only possible because of a misunderstanding of Marx's object itself: a misunderstanding that made the Economists read their own object into Marx, instead of reading another object in Marx which is not their own object but a quite different one. This point of misunderstanding which the Economists declare the point of Marx's theoretical weakness and error is, on the contrary, the point at which he is strongest! the point which marks him off radically from his critics, and also, on occasion, from some of his closest followers.

To demonstrate the extent of this misunderstanding, I should like to quote the letter from Engels to Conrad Schmidt (12 March 1895) from which we took the echo of Schmidt's objection above. Engels replies as follows:

There (in your objections) I find the same way of going off into details, for which I put the blame on the eclectic method of philosophizing which has made such inroads in the German universities since 1848, and which loses all general perspective and only too often winds up in rather aimless and fruitless speculation about particular points. Now of the classical philosophers it was precisely Kant with whom you had formerly chiefly occupied yourself, and Kant . . . was more or less obliged to make some apparent concessions in form to . . . Wolffian speculation. This is how I explain your tendency, which also shows in the excursus on the law of


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value in your letter, to become so absorbed in details . . . that you degrade the law of value to a fiction, a necessary fiction, somewhat in the manner of Kant making the existence of God a postulate of the practical reason.
The objections you raise to the law of value apply to all concepts, regarded from the standpoint of reality. The identity of thinking and being, to express myself in Hegelian fashion, everywhere coincides with your example of the circle and the polygon. Or the two of them, the concept of a thing and its reality, run side by side like two asymptotes, always approaching each other yet never meeting. This difference between the two is the very difference which prevents the concept from being directly and immediately reality and reality from being immediately its own concept. Because a concept has the essential nature of that concept and cannot therefore prima facie directly coincide with reality, from which it must first be abstracted, it is something more than a fiction, unless you are going to declare all the results of thought fictions because reality corresponds to them only very circuitously, and even then only with asymptotic approximation.


This reply is astounding (despite the banality of its obviousnesses) and it constitutes a kind of well-intentioned commentary on the misunderstanding, on which Marx's opponents set out to produce ill-intentioned commentaries. Engels escapes Conrad Schmidt's 'operational' objection with a theory of knowledge made to order -- that looks to the approximations of abstraction to establish the inadequacy of the concept as a concept to its object! This answer is beside the point: for Marx the concept of the law of value is in fact a concept perfectly adequate to its object, since it is the concept of the limits of its variation, and therefore the adequate concept of the field of its inadequacy -- and in no sense an inadequate concept by virtue of some original sin which affects all concepts brought into the world by human abstraction. Engels therefore transfers to an empiricist theory of knowledge, as a native weakness of the concept, precisely what constitutes the theoretical strength of Marx's adequate concept! This transfer is only possible with the complicity of this ideological theory of knowledge, ideological not only in its content (empiricism), but also in its use, since it is designed to answer, among other things, precisely this theoretical misunderstanding. There is a risk not only that the theory of Capital will be affected by it (Engels's thesis in the Preface to Volume Three: the law of value is economically valid 'from the beginning of exchange . . . until the fifteenth century A.D.' is a disturbing example), but also that Marxist philosophical theory will be marked, and with what a mark! The mark of the empiricist theory of knowledge which serves as a silent theoretical norm both in Schmidt's objection and in Engels's reply. I have dwelt on this reply in order to stress the fact that the present misunderstanding may betray not only political or ideological ill-will, but also the effects of a theoretical blindness which is a serious hazard so long as we neglect to pose Marx the question of his object.

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