[OPE-L:651] Marx's categories

Michael Perelman (michael@ecst.csuchico.edu)
Mon, 4 Dec 1995 22:55:44 -0800

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Since there has been some discussion about Marx's categories, I am
enclosing an extract from my Marx book:
Marx and the Critique of Economic Categories
Thus, for Marx and Engels, political economy offers especially
significant insight into the nature of society:
[T]he final causes of all social changes and political revolutions
are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in man's better insight
into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of
production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the
philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch. [Engels
1894, p. 316]
Marx echoed this sentiment. He declared, "The anatomy of society had to
be sought in political economy" (Marx 1859, p. 20). The work of
classical political economy was especially valuable. The categories,
distilled from its study of the world around it, contained the essence
of the capitalist system in a purified form, freed from disturbing
influences of the concrete specifics of individual times and places.
Marx did not give equal weight to all economic categories. One
must focus on the process of production. Accordingly, the dominant
category of capitalism was necessarily the category of capital (Marx
1967: iii, pp. 826-27). Since "[t]he principal contradiction of capital
contains the germ of the whole of the social antagonisms of today"
(Engels 1894, p. 321), the categories used to analyze capital must also
reflect these antagonisms.
In this sense, classical political economy succeeded. It forged
categories, which captured the nature of the system, including its
contradictions. Thus, Marx claimed that as a result of:
the urge of political economists like the Physiocrats, Adam Smith
and Ricardo to grasp the inner connection of the phenomena, . . .
what [was]. . . new and significant develop[ed] vigorously amid the
"manure" of contradictions out of the contradictory phenomena. The
underlying contradictions themselves testify to the richness of the
living foundation from which the theory itself developed. [Marx
1963-71, Pt. 3, pp. 453 and 84]
To a great extent, Marx's analysis of political economy was essentially
a critique of these categories. He informed the readers of Capital that
"individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are
personifications of economic categories" (Marx 1977, p. 92). Earlier,
he had, in fact, described his work in political economy as a "critique
of the economic categories" (Marx to Lasalle, 22 February 1858; in Marx
and Engels 1975, p. 96).
Marx's critique of the categories of political economy took two
forms. On the one hand, he recognized the great intellectual
achievements of classical political economy. On the other hand, he
attempted to demonstrate the inadequacy of classical political economy.
His analysis led him to believe that "[e]conomic categories are
reflected in the mind in a very distorted fashion" (Marx 1963-1971, Pt.
3, p. 163). For example, concepts such as wages and competition
obscured the underlying process whereby surplus value was created (Marx
1977, Ch. 19; and Marx 1967: iii, Ch. 50).
Through the windows of the categories of classical political
economy, contradictions inherent in the system were not readily
apparent. Classical political economy had made some progress in
analyzing the appropriate concepts, but its work was incomplete. In
this sense, Shanin observed:
the theoretical structure of Capital would be, therefore, the
dialectical negation of Political Economy, a self-consciousness of
capitalism turning at its highest level of accomplishment into
criticism of its very root, its unmasking, and thereby its
subversion and transformation. [Shanin 1983, pp. 3-4]
For example, in a letter to Engels, dated 1 August 1877, Marx cited the
judgement of the Russian economist, Illarion Kaufman, with approval:
By review of the doctrine of value, we saw that political economy
clearly grasped the importance of this category. Despite that, all
that economic science busied itself with, the fact showed that
while it raised the significance of value to the highest level in
its phrases, in fact it forgot it as fast as possible, as soon as
more or less about it is written in the introduction. It is
impossible to supply even a single example where what was said
about value stood in organic connection with what was said about
other questions-- where what was said in the introduction exerted
some influence on the following explanations. [cited in Marx and
Engels 1966, pp. 66-67]
Marx continued with his own observations:
That is the mark of vulgar economy. Adam Smith had introduced it.
His pair of deep and surprising applications of value theory are
found in occasional expressions without any influence on his
development ex professio. The great sin of Ricardo's, that makes
him indigestible from the first, was just his attempt to prove the
correctness of his value theory on the apparently contradictory
economic facts. [Ibid.]
More importantly, political economy failed to follow through with the
relevant questions (Marx 1977, p. 173-74). Even when it did succeed in
this respect, it remained unconscious of its own results (Marx 1977, p.
679; and Marx 1967: iii, p. 830). As Marx noted:
Classical political economy stumbles approximately onto the true
state of affairs, but without consciously formulating it. It is
unable to do this as long as it stays within its bourgeois skin.
[Marx 1977, p. 682]
Marx, who succeeded in shedding his own bourgeois skin, was able to
traverse ground that was inaccessible to his predecessors. In the
process, he used his critique of the categories of political economy to
show the deeper contradictions contained within these categories.
In this sense, Marx carried on the best of the tradition of
classical political economy. For example, he built on the work of
classical political economy in recognizing that the commodity
encompassed both use value and exchange value. He added that this
duality also holds true for the special commodity, labor power. Thus,
the contradictions between labor and capital were an integral part of
the seemingly innocuous category, the commodity.
Marx saw himself as carrying out a process that had been begun by
the group now called Ricardian socialists. In commenting on their work,
he wrote:
The opposition evoked by the Ricardian theory-- on the basis of its
own assumptions-- had the following characteristic feature.
To the same extent as political economy developed-- and this
development finds its most trenchant expression in Ricardo, as far
as fundamental principles are concerned-- it presented labor as the
sole element of value and the only creator of use-values, and the
development of the productive forces as the only real means for
increasing wealth; . . . But in the same measure as it understood
that labour is the sole source of exchange-value and the active
source of use-value, "capital" is likewise conceived by the same
economists, in particular by Ricardo (and even more by Torrens,
Malthus, Bailey, and the others after him), as the regulator of
production, the source of wealth and the aim of production, whereas
labour is regarded as wage-labour, whose representative and real
instrument is inevitably a pauper, . . . a mere production cost and
instrument of production dependent on a minimum wage. [Marx
1963-1971, Pt. 3, p. 259]
Here we come to one of Marx's clearest statements about his method of
critiquing political economy. He continued:
In this contradiction, political economy merely expressed the
essence of capitalist production or, if you like, of wage-labour,
of labour alienated from itself, which stands confronted by the
wealth it has created as alien wealth, by its own productive power.
This aspect of classical political economy was not a mistake as such.
It was a necessary outcome of the situation of the classical political
Their thoughts being entirely confined within the bounds of
capitalist production, they assert that the contradictory form in
which social labour manifests itself there, is just as necessary as
labour itself freed from this contradiction. Since in the same
breath they proclaim on the one hand, labour as such and on the
other, capital as such-- that is the poverty of the workers and the
wealth of the idlers-- to be the sole source of wealth, they are
perpetually involved in absolute contradictions without being in
the slightest degree aware of them. [Ibid].
What follows deserves an especially close reading:
[T]he same real development which provided bourgeois political
economy with this striking theoretical expression, unfolded the
real contradictions contained in it. . . . [T]hese contradictions
are given a theoretically compelling if unconscious expression in
the Ricardian theory. [Ibid, pp. 259-60]
Unfortunately, the work of the Ricardian socialists was incomplete:
[I]t was natural for those thinkers who rallied to the side of the
proletariat to seize on this contradiction, for which they found
the theoretical ground already prepared. Labour is the sole source
of exchange value. . . . This is what you say. On the other hand,
you say that capital is everything. . . You have refuted
yourselves. Capital is nothing but the defrauding of the worker.
Labour is everything. . . .
Just as little as he [Ricardo] understands the identity of
capital and labour in his own system, do they understand the
contradictions they describe. [Ibid]
In conclusion, the different failures of classical political economy and
the Ricardian socialists form a dialectical unity. Classical political
economy discovered theoretical categories that revealed important truths
about society. The Ricardian socialists were quick to dismiss the
theoretical achievements of classical political economy, focussing
instead on the contradictions and distortions implicit in the categories
of the economists.
By contrast, Marx applauded the success of classical political
economy, but he did not stop there. He also insisted on the importance
of the contradictions inherent in these categories, discovered through a
theoretical analysis of political economy. In addition, classical
political economy had difficulty in distinguishing between categories
that revealed the deeper features of capitalism and those categories
which were only "the forms of appearance of essential relations" (Marx
1977, p. 677). This failure was not unique to political economy: "That
in their appearance things are often presented in an inverted way is
something fairly familiar in every science" (Marx 1977, Ibid.).
Careful consideration of these limits to the categories of
political economy is an important activity. It reveals hidden aspects
of the existing society. Moreover, it offers a window to the future,
through which one can catch a glimpse of the future, without waiting for
it to make itself felt through a crisis.
In addition, Marx placed considerable importance on demonstrating
that the categories of political economy express certain features
specific to the society in which they are developed. By recognizing
this specificity, one can clear the way for a better understanding of
the future. Thus, Marx noted the absurdity of ascribing universal
validity to the categories of political economy. He insisted that they
"are forms of thought which are [nonetheless] socially valid, and
therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this
historically determined mode of social productions" (Marx 1977, p. 169).
Moreover, economic categories are not static. Over time, "economic
categories appropriate to earlier modes of production acquire a new and
specific historical character under the impact of capitalist
production"41 (Marx 1977, p. 950; Marx 1974, p. 104; Myrdal 1969, pp.
19-20; and Foucault 1970) and new patterns of thought evolve. This
process does not cease with the emergence of capitalism. Writing about
the rise of the joint stock companies and modern finance, Marx noted,
"Conceptions which have some meaning on a less developed stage of
capitalist production, become quite meaningless here" (Marx 1967: 3, p.
439), at least unless they are refined in light of the more recent
conditions. Again, new patterns of thought are required. By reflecting
upon the manner in which such thought patterns develop, we can penetrate
the inner workings of the system more deeply.
The task of political economy is made all the more difficult
because of the changing nature of the object it studies. For example,
new experience allows us to learn more about a particular mode of
production retrospectively, but the mode of production is itself bound
to give way to another. Although we accumulate insight concerning the
past, we might be no closer to understanding the ever changing-present.
Thus, when Marx remarked that the "bourgeois economy contains the
key to the ancient," just as "human anatomy contains a key to the ape"
(Marx 1974, p. 105), he seems to have used a misleading analogy, since
the pace of human evolution is slow compared to social transformations.
However, if we conceive of a mode of production in terms of the
structure of relations of production, we might then be considering
elements that remain fixed over a relatively long period of time and
then change very dramatically, as when feudal relations gave way to the
relations of wage labor.
We must be careful not to push this line of reasoning too far.
Different modes of production coexist over long periods of time.
Moreover, even within the capitalist mode of production, significant
changes occur. For example, hourly wages are not quite the same as
piece work. Yet, capitalism, for example, did exhibit enough constancy,
that Marx believed that he could use abstractions to discovery the
underlying tendencies that persist throughout the history of the
capitalist mode of production.
In summary, the absurd, as well as the contradictory features of
the categories of political economy, as well as the society, which they
reflect, are not necessary in all societies. People can develop
preferable systems. Political economy is a tool, which should be
designed toward that end.
Marx was convinced that as a result of his critique of categories,
the working class could possibly recognize the manner in which the
capitalist mode of production could be abolished with a minimum of human
and social costs42 (Marx 1977, p. 92). In Engels' words:
The task of economic science is . . . to show that the social
abuses which have recently been developing are necessary
consequences of the existing mode of production, but at the same
time also indications of its approaching dissolution; and to
reveal, within the already dissolving economic form of motion, the
elements of the future new organisation. . . . [I]t begins with a
critique of the survivals of the feudal forms of production and
exchange, shows the necessity of their replacement by capitalist
forms, then develops the laws of the capitalist mode of production,
. . . and ends with a socialist critique of the capitalist mode of
production. . . . This critique proves that the capitalist forms
of production and exchange become more and more an intolerable
fetter on production itself. [Engels 1894, p. 180-81]

Michael Perelman
Economics Department
California State University
Chico, CA 95929

Tel. 916-898-5321 E-Mail michael@ecst.csuchico.edu