The Merits of Classical Economics

Let us therefore take things as we are told they are, and ask how Marx himself thinks himself, not only directly, when he examines in himself what distinguishes him from the Classical Economists, but also indirectly, when he thinks himself in them, i.e., registers in them the presence or presentiment of his discovery in their non-discovery, and therefore thinks his own perspicacity in the blindness of its closest pre-history.

I cannot go into every detail here, although all of them deserve a precise and exhaustive study. I propose to concentrate on a few elements only, which will act as so many pertinent indices to the problem we are concerned with.

Marx assesses his debt to his predecessors and therefore estimates what is positive in their thought (with respect to his own discovery) in two distinct forms which emerge very clearly in Theories of Surplus-Value :

On the one hand, he pays homage to one or other of his predecessors for having isolated and analysed an important concept, even if the words that express this concept are still caught in the trap of linguistic confusion or ambiguity. In this way he registers the concept of value in Petty, the concept of surplus-value in Steuart, the Physiocrats, etc. He then makes allowances for isolated conceptual gains, usually extracting them from the confusion of a still inadequate terminology.

On the other, he stresses another merit which does not involve any particular detailed gain (any concept) but the 'scientific' mode of treatment of political economy. Two features seem to him to be discriminatory in this respect. The first, in a very classical spirit that might perhaps be called Galilean, concerns the scientific attitude itself: the method which brackets sensory appearances, i.e., in the domain of political economy, all the visible phenomena and practico-empirical concepts produced by the economic world (rent, interest, profit, etc.), in other words, all those economic categories from the 'everyday life' which, at the end of Capital, Marx says is the equivalent of a 'religion'. The effect of this bracketing is to unveil the hidden essence of the phenomena, their essential inwardness. For Marx, the science of political economy, like every other science, depends on this reduction of the phenomenon to the essence, or, as he puts it, in an explicit comparison with astronomy, of the 'apparent movement to the real movement '. All the economists who have made a scientific discovery, even a minute one, have

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done so by way of this reduction. However, this partial reduction is not enough to constitute the science. At this point the second feature intervenes. A science is a systematic theory which embraces the totality of its object and seizes the 'internal connexion' which links together the 'reduced' essences of all economic phenomena. The great merit of the Physiocrats, and of Quesnay in particular, was that, even if only partially (since they restricted themselves to agricultural production), they related phenomena as diverse as wages, profit, rent, commercial gain, etc., to a single original essence, the surplus-value produced in the agricultural sector. It was Smith's merit that he outlined this systematic while liberating it from the agricultural presuppositions of the Physiocrats. But, at the same time, he was at fault in only half-finishing it. Smith's unforgivable weakness was that he wanted to think of as having a single origin objects of a different nature: both true (reduced) 'essences', and also crude phenomena not reduced to their essences: the result is that his theory is no more than the necessity -- less grouping of two doctrines, the exoteric (which unites unreduced crude phenomena) and the esoteric (which unites essences), of which only the latter is scientific. This simple comment of Marx's is heavy with meaning: it implies that it is not just the form of systematicity that makes a science, but the form of systematicity of the 'essences' (of the theoretical concepts) alone, and not the systematicity of interlinked crude phenomena (elements of the real ), or the mixed systematicity of 'essences' and crude phenomena. However, it was Ricardo's merit that he thought and went beyond this contradiction between Smith's two 'doctrines', and conceived Political Economy in the true form of scientificity, i.e., as the unified system of concepts which expresses the internal essence of its object:

But at last Ricardo steps in . . . The basis, the starting-point for the physiology of the bourgeois system -- for the understanding of its internal organic coherence and life process -- is the determination of value by labour time. Ricardo starts with this and forces science to get out of the rut, to render an account of the extent to which the other categories -- the relations of production and commerce -- evolved and described by it, correspond to or contradict this basis, this starting-point; to elucidate how far a science, which in fact only reflects and reproduces the phenomenal forms of the process, corresponds to the basis on which rests the inner coherence, the actual physiology of bourgeois society, or to the basis which forms its starting point; and therefore how far these phenomena themselves so correspond; and in general to examine how matters stand with the contradiction between the apparent and the real movement of the system. This then is Ricardo's great historical significance for science (Theories of Surplus-Value, Vol. II, p. 166 -- modified).

The reduction of the phenomenon to the essence (of the given to its concept), the internal unity of the essence (the systematicity of the concepts

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unified behind their concepts): these, then, are the two positive determinations which, in Marx's eyes, constitute the conditions for the scientific character of an isolated result or a general theory. But the reader will have noted that these determinations express with respect to Political Economy the general conditions for the existing scientific rationality (the existing Theoretical): Marx merely borrowed them from the existing state of the sciences, importing them into Political Economy as the formal norms of scientific rationality in general. When he judges the Physiocrats, Smith or Ricardo, he applies these formal norms to them, deciding whether they have respected or ignored them -- without prejudging the content of their objects.

However, we shall not restrict ourselves to purely formal judgements. Has the content that these forms abstract from not already been designated by Marx in the Economists themselves? Do concepts that Marx makes the foundation of his own theory, value and surplus-value, not already appear in person in the theoretical charter of the Classical Economists, together with the phenomenon-essence reduction and theoretical scientificity? But this presents us with a strange situation. It seems that, in essentials -- and that is how Marx's modern critics have judged his undertaking -- Marx was really no more than the heir of Classical Economics, and a decidedly well-endowed one, since he obtained from his forebears his key concepts (the content of his object) and the method of reduction, as well as the model of internal systematicity (the scientific form of his object). What, then, is peculiar to Marx, what is his historical merit? Simply the fact that he extended and completed an already almost complete work: he filled in the gaps, resolved the problems it had left open; in sum, he increased the patrimony of the classics, but on the basis of their principles, and therefore of their problematic, accepting not only their method and theory, but also together with the latter the definition of their object itself. The answer to the question: what is Marx's object? what is the object of Capital ? is already inscribed, apart from a few nuances and discoveries, but in principle, in Smith, and especially in Ricardo. The great theoretical web of Political Economy was already there waiting: a few threads awry and a few holes, certainly. Marx tightened the threads, straightened the weave and added a few stitches: in other words, he finished the work, making it perfect. In this account, the possibility of a misunderstanding in reading Capital disappears: Marx's object is no more than Ricardo's object. The history of Political Economy from Ricardo to Marx thus becomes a beautiful unbroken continuity, which is no longer a problem. If there is a misunderstanding, it is elsewhere, in Ricardo and in Marx -- no longer between Ricardo and Marx, but between the whole of the Classical Economics of labour-value, which Marx merely brilliantly touched up, and modern marginalist and neo-marginalist political economy, which rests on a quite different problematic.

And in fact, when we read certain of Gramsci's commentaries (Marxist philosophy is Ricardo generalized), Rosenthal's theoretical analyses or even

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the much more critical remarks of Della Volpe and his disciples, we are struck by the fact that we never forsake this continuity of object. These authors see no essential difference between Smith's and Ricardo's object and Marx's object. This non-difference of object has been registered in the vulgar Marxist interpretation in the following form: the only difference is in the method. The method which the classical economists applied to their object was merely metaphysical, but Marx's method, on the contrary, was dialectical. Everything therefore depends on the dialectic, which is thus conceived as a method in itself, imported from Hegel, and applied to an object in itself, already present in Ricardo. Marx simply sealed this happy union with the miracle of genius, and like all happiness, it has no history. Unfortunately, we know that there remains one 'tiny' difficulty: the history of the 'reconversion' of this dialectic, which has to be 'put back on to its feet' if it is at last to walk on the terra firma of materialism.

Here, too, I have not evoked the facilities of this schematic interpretation, which no doubt has its political and historical justification, simply for the fun of disagreeing with them. This hypothetical continuity of object from classical economics to Marx is not restricted to Marx's opponents or even to some of his supporters: it emerges silently again and again in Marx's own explicit discourse, or rather it emerges from a certain silence of Marx's which unintentionally doubles his explicit discourse. At certain moments, in certain symptomatic points, this silence emerges as such in the discourse and forces it against its will to produce real theoretical lapses, in brief blank flashes, invisible in the light of the proof: words that hang in mid-air although they seem to be inserted into the necessity of the thought, judgements which close irreversibly with a false obviousness the very space which seemed to be opening before reason. All that a simple literal reading sees in the arguments is the continuity of the text. A 'symptomatic ' reading is necessary to make these lacunae perceptible, and to identify behind the spoken words the discourse of the silence, which, emerging in the verbal discourse, induces these blanks in it, blanks which are failures in its rigour, or the outer limits of its effort: its absence, once these limits are reached, but in a space which it has opened.

I shall give two examples: Marx's conception of the abstractions that underly the process of theoretical practice, and the kind of criticisms he makes of the Classical Economists.

The third chapter of the 1857 Introduction can rightly be regarded as the Discourse on Method of the new philosophy founded by Marx. In fact, it is the only systematic text by Marx which contains, in the form of an analysis of the categories and method of political economy, the means with which to establish a theory of scientific practice, i.e., a theory of the conditions of the process of knowledge, which is the object of Marxist philosophy.

The theoretical problematic underlying this text allows us to distinguish Marxist philosophy from every speculative or empiricist philosophy. The decisive point of Marx's thesis concerns the principle distinguishing between

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the real and thought. The real is one thing, along with its different aspects: the real-concrete, the process of the real, the real totality, etc. Thought about the real is another, along with its different aspects: the thought process, the thought-totality, the thought-concrete, etc.

This principle of distinction implies two essential theses: (1) the materialist thesis of the primacy of the real over thought about the real presupposes the existence of the real independence of that thought (the real 'survives in its independence, after as before, outside the head ' -- Grundrisse, p. 22) (2) the materialist thesis of the specificity of thought and of the thought process, with respect to the real and the real process. This latter thesis is especially the object of Marx's reflections in the third chapter of the Introduction. Thought about the real, the conception of the real, and all the operations of thought by which the real is thought and conceived, belong to the order of thought, the elements of thought, which must not be confused with the order of the real, the element of the real. 'The whole, as it appears in the mind as a thought-whole, is a product of the thinking mind ' (p. 22); similarly, the thought-concrete belongs to thought and not to the real. The process of knowledge, the work of elaboration (Verarbeitung ) by which thought transforms its initial intuitions and representations into knowledges or thought-concretes, takes place entirely in thought.

No doubt there is a relation between thought-about-the-real and this real, but it is a relation of knowledge,[2] a relation of adequacy or inadequacy of knowledge, not a real relation, meaning by this a relation inscribed in that real of which the thought is the (adequate or inadequate) knowledge. This knowledge relation between knowledge of the real and the real is not a relation of the real that is known in this relationship. The distinction between a relation of knowledge and a relation of the real is a fundamental one: if we did not respect it we should fall irreversibly into either speculative or empiricist idealism. Into speculative idealism if, with Hegel, we confused thought and the real by reducing the real to thought, by 'conceiving the real as the result of thought ' (p. 22); into empiricist idealism if we confused thought with the real by reducing thought about the real to the real itself. In either case, this double reduction consists of a projection and realization of one element in the other: of thinking the difference between the real and thought about it as either a difference within thought itself (speculative idealism) or as a difference within the real itself (empiricist idealism).

Naturally, these theses pose problems,[3] but they are problems unambiguously implied in Marx's text. Now, this is what interests us. Examining the methods of Political Economy, Marx distinguishes two such methods: a first one, that starts from 'a living whole ' ('the population, the Nation, State, several States '); and a second one 'that starts from simple notions such as labour,
2 Cf. Part I, sections 16 and 18.
3 Cf. Part I, sections 16, 17 and 18.

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the division of labour, money, value, etc. ' There are therefore two methods, one starting from the real itself, the other from abstractions. Which of these two methods is correct? 'It seems to be correct to start with the real and concrete . . . but on closer inspection it is clear that this is false. ' The second method, which starts from simple abstractions in order to produce knowledge of the real in a 'thought-concrete' 'is manifestly the correct scientific method ', and this was the method of classical Political Economy, of Smith and Ricardo. Formally, there is no need here to look beyond the obviousness of this discourse.

But in its obviousness, this discourse contains and conceals one of Marx's symptomatic silences. This silence is inaudible everywhere in the development of the discourse, which sticks to showing that the process of knowledge is a process of work and theoretical elaboration, and that the thought-concrete or knowledge of the real is the product of this theoretical practice. This silence is only 'heard' at one precise point, just where it goes unperceived: when Marx speaks of the initial abstractions on which the work of transformation is performed. What are these initial abstractions? By what right does Marx accept in these initial abstractions the categories from which Smith and Ricardo started, thus suggesting that he thinks in continuity with their object, and that therefore there is no break in object between them and him? These two questions are really only one single question, precisely the question that Marx does not answer, simply because he does not pose it. Here is the site of his silence, and this site, being empty, threatens to be occupied by the 'natural' discourse of ideology, in particular, of empiricism: 'The economists of the seventeenth century,' writes Marx, 'always begin with a living whole, the population, the Nation, the State, several States, etc. ; and they finish up by disengaging through analysis a number of determinant, abstract, general relations such as the division of labour, money, value, etc. Once these individual moments had been more or less abstracted and established, economic systems began to appear which ascend from simple notions such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value ' (p. 21). Silence as to the nature of this 'analysis', this 'abstraction' and this 'establishment' -- silence, or rather the inter-relationship of these 'abstractions' with the real from which they have been 'abstracted', with the 'intuition and representation' of the real, which thus seem in their purity the raw material of these abstractions without the status of this material (natural or raw?) having been expressed. An ideology may gather naturally in the hollow left by this silence, the ideology of a relation of real correspondence between the real and its intuition and representation, and the presence of an 'abstraction' which operates on this real in order to disengage from it these 'abstract general relations', i.e., an empiricist ideology of abstraction. The question can be posed in a different way, but its absence will always be noticed: how can these 'abstract general relations' be called 'determinant'? Is every abstraction as such the scientific concept of its object? Surely there are ideological abstractions and scientific

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abstractions, 'good' and 'bad' abstractions? Silence.[4] The same question can be put in another way: the famous abstract categories of the classical economists, the abstractions that we have to start from in order to produce knowledges, these abstractions were no problem for Marx then. For him, they are the result of a process of preliminary abstraction about which he is silent: the abstract categories can then 'reflect' real abstract categories, the real abstract which inhabits the empirical phenomena of the economic world as the abstraction of their individuality. The same question can be put in yet another way: the initial abstract categories (those of the Economists) are still there at the end, they have indeed produced 'concrete' knowledges, but it does not look as if they have been transformed, it even seems that they did not have to be transformed, for they already existed from the beginning in a form adequate to their object, such that the 'thought-concrete' that scientific work is to produce, can emerge as their concretization pure and simple, their self-complication pure and simple, their self-comparison pure and simple treated implicitly as their self-concretization. That is how a silence can be extended into an explicit or implicit discourse. The whole theoretical description that Marx gives us remains a formal one since it does not question the nature of these initial abstractions, the problem of their adequacy to their object, in short, the object to which they relate; since, correlatively, it does not question the transformation of these abstract categories during the process of theoretical practice, i.e., the nature of the object implied by these transformations. I am not attacking Marx for this: he did not have to say everything, especially in an unpublished text, and in any case, no one can be convicted for not saying everything at once. But his too hurried readers can be attacked for not having heard this silence,[5] and for having rushed into
4 The price of this silence: read Chapter VII of Rosenthal's book (Les problèmes de la dialectique dans 'Le Capital ') and in particular the pages devoted to avoiding the problem of the difference between 'good' and 'bad' abstraction (pp. 304-5, 325-7). Think of the fortunes in Marxist philosophy of a term as ambiguous as 'generalization ', which is used to think (i.e., not to think) the nature of scientific abstraction. The price of this unheard silence is the empiricist temptation.
5 There must be no misunderstanding of the meaning of this silence. It is part of a determinate discourse, whose object was not to set out the principles of Marxist philosophy, the principles of the theory of the history of the production of knowledges, but to establish the methodological rules indispensable to a treatment of Political Economy. Marx therefore situated himself within an already constituted learning without posing the problem of its production. That is why, within the limits of this text, he could treat Smith's and Ricardo's 'good abstractions' as corresponding to a certain real, and keep his silence as to the extra-ordinarily complex conditions that gave birth to classical Political Economy: he could leave in suspense the point of knowing what process could have produced the field of the classical problematic in which the object of classical Political Economy could be constituted as an object, giving by its knowledge a certain grasp on the real, even though it was still dominated by ideology. The fact that this methodological text leads us to the threshold of the requirement that we constitute that theory of the production of knowledge which is the same thing as Marxist philosophy, is a requirement for us : but it is also a requirement for which we are indebted to Marx, so long as we are attentive both to the theoretical incompleteness [cont. onto p. 90. -- DJR] of this text (its silence on this particular point) and to the philosophical scope of his new theory of history (in particular to what it constrains us to think : the articulation of ideological practice and scientific practice to the other practices, and the organic and differential history of these practices). In other words, we can treat the silence in this text in one of two ways: either by taking it for a silence that goes without saying because its content is the dominant theory of empiricist abstraction; or by treating it as a limit and a problem. A limit : the furthest point to which Marx took his thought; but then this limit, far from returning us to the old field of empiricist philosophy, opens a new field before us. A problem : what precisely is the nature of this new field? We now have at our disposal enough studies in the history of learning to suspect that we must look in quite different directions from the empiricist one. But in this decisive investigation, Marx himself has provided our fundamental principles (the structuration and articulation of the different practices). From which we can see the difference between the ideological treatment of a theoretical silence or emptiness, and its scientific treatment: the former confronts us with an ideological closure, the latter with a scientific openness. Here we can see immediately a precise example of the ideological threat that hangs over all scientific labour: ideology not only lies in wait far science at each point where its rigour slackens, but also at the furthest point where an investigation currently reaches its limits. There, precisely, philosophical ideology can intervene at the level of the life of the science: as the theoretical vigilance that protects the openness of science against the closure of ideology, on condition, of course, that it does not limit itself to speaking of openness and closure in general, but rather of the typical, historically determined structures of this openness and closure. In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin constantly recalls this absolutely fundamental requirement which constitutes the specific function of Marxist philosophy.

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empiricism. By locating accurately the site of Marx's silence, we can put the question which contains and coincides with this silence: precisely the question of the differential nature of the abstractions which scientific thought works on in order to produce new abstractions at the end of the labour process which are different from the previous ones, and, in the case of an epistemological break like the one between Marx and the classical economists, radically new.

I once tried to stress the necessity of thinking this difference by giving different names to the different abstractions that occur in the process of theoretical practice, carefully distinguishing between Generalities I (initial abstractions) and Generalities III (products of the knowledge process). No doubt this was to add something to Marx's discourse: but in a different respect, I was merely re-establishing, i.e., maintaining his discourse, without yielding to the temptation of his silence. I heard this silence as the possible weakness of a discourse under the pressure and repressive action of another discourse, which takes the place of the first discourse in favour of this repression, and speaks in its silence: the empiricist discourse. All I did was to make this silence in the first discourse speak, dissipating the second. The reader may think this a mere detail. Certainly, it is, but, when rigour is lacking, the more talkative and self-important discourses which deport Marx the philosopher entirely into the very ideology that he fought and rejected depend precisely on this kind of detail. We shall soon see examples of this, where the non-thought of a minute silence becomes the charter for non-thought discourses, i.e., ideological discourses.

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