[OPE-L:3028] Re: empirical verification of interpretations of Marx?

From: nicola taylor (nmtaylor@carmen.murdoch.edu.au)
Date: Sat May 06 2000 - 16:24:48 EDT

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A thought experiment:

Andrew K and others place great importance on the empirical verification or
falsification of different interpretations of Marx. Textual data can, of
course, be found to support different views. But, surely, producing
textual evidence will not be sufficient to resolve questions about the
meaning, or the relative importance and significance of texts. On the
contrary, I suspect that what texts say to each of us, and the importance
we attach to a text in any particular argument, depends mostly upon the
methodological and ontological commitments that we bring to the
interpretation and argument.

For example, if I read the concepts of the 'commodity', 'value', and
'abstract labour' as being important (practically significant) only in
Capitalism, that is because I begin a priori with the assumption that Marx
presupposes capitalist relations of production in developing his
theoretical system. If I then cite textual evidence from the Grundrisse to
support my argument, will that evidence convince EVERYONE on this list that
my interpretation is correct?

Here is a testable hypothesis. Below is a text from the Grundrisse
followed by a very brief interpretation. I predict that alternative
interpretations are possible, and that my particular interpretation will
not be accepted by those on this list who hold that Marx's theoretical
system can be applied to forms of social organisation other than capitalism.

The text (Grundrisse, Penguin, 1973 pp.103-108):

"Labour seems a quite simple category. The conception of labour in this
general form - as labour as such - is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless,
when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, 'labour' is as modern
a category as are the relations which create this simple abstraction (p.103).

"It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting
specification of wealth-creating activity - not only manufacturing, or
commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the others, labour in
general. With the abstract universality of wealth-creating activity we now
have the universality of the object defined as wealth, the product as such
or again labour as such, but labour as past, objectified labour. How
difficult and great was this transition may be seen from how Adam Smith
himself from time to time still falls back into the Physiocratic system.
Now, it might seem that all that had been achieved thereby was to discover
the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which
human beings - in whatever form of society - play the role of producers.
This is correct in one respect. Not in another. Indifference towards any
specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds
of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule,
the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest
possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many,
to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the
other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental
product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific
labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease
transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a
matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category,
labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth
in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular
individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most
developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society - in
the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure
of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category 'labour',
'labour as such', labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. The
simplest abstraction, then, which modern economics places at the head of
its discussions, and which expresses an immeasurably ancient relation valid
in all forms of society, nevertheless achieves practical truth as an
abstraction only as a category of the most modern society (pp.104-105).

"Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics
possess a truth for all other forms of society, this is to be taken with a
grain of salt. They can contain them in a developed, or stunted, or
caricatured form etc., but always with an essential difference. The
so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on
the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up
to itself....In the succession of the economic categories, as in any other
historical, social science, it must not be forgotten that their subject -
here, modern bourgeois society - is always what is given, in the head as
well as in reality, and that these categories therefore express the forms
of being, the characteristics of existence, and often only individual sides
of this specific society, this subject... (p.106)

"It would therefore be unfeasible and wrong to let the economic categories
follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were
historically decisive. Their sequence is determined, rather, by their
relation to one another in modern bourgeois society, which is precisely the
opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds
to historical development. The point is not the historic position of the
economic relations in the succession of different forms of society. Even
less is it their sequence in 'the idea' (Proudhon) (a muddy notion of
historic movement). Rather, their order within modern bourgeois society"

Interpretation: This particular text provides irrefutable evidence that
Marx's subject was capitalism - a *particular* system of production for
exchange. The text provides evidence that Marx believed that his concepts
(and the concepts of political economy) have practical relevance ONLY for
the explanation of capitalist phenomena. Moreover, if these concepts are
used in the explanation of other forms of economic organisation they are
empty abstractions (i.e. a mental imposition of categories on the subject

Is another interpretation possible?

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