[OPE-L:2780] Re: assumptions, assumptions, assumptions

Michael Williams (100417.2625@compuserve.com)
Thu, 1 Aug 1996 16:54:24 -0700 (PDT)

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In reply to me, Andrew says:
, I find it [the account of production in Vol 1] very concrete. I don't think
examines production in isolation from circulation, but presupposes particular
conditions of circulation. More importantly, none of the analysis needs to be
modified in the least as a result of examining *circulation* more concretely.

To which Michael W:
I appear not to be making myself clear. To take as given 'particular conditions
of circulation' is, IMO, to abstract from the effects of changes in them on
Your second point is even more puzzling: First, I think 'analysis' is not what
is going on in a dialectical presentation. Secondly, I assume that the purpose
of the exercise is to re grasp the unmediated empirical as the concrete. This is
surely a process of concretization, in which abstract tendencies and
determinants are systematically articulated one with another, to attempt to
establish what demands a modification of the categorical system. If you are
merely pointing out that what has been established as a tendency at a high level
(would 'degree' be less confusing?) of abstraction cannot, in a valid systematic
presentation, be negated at a more concrete level.

Later Andrew continues:
Yet, here[Grundrisse pp. 100-8] the opposition is not
between abstract and concrete, but between chronological order and "order
within modern bourgeois society" (p. 108).

Michael W:
Given that actual history - including that within bourgeois society - happens
in chronological order, opposing 'order within modern bourgeois society' to it
is surely a process of abstraction? Concerned, IMO, to establish the
determination of elements of the bourgeois system by their location within the

And then Andrew:
The discussion of abstract vs.
concrete has to do with investigation, specifically the development of

"the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in
which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the
mind" (p. 101).

Michael W:
I'm afraid I read this quote in exactly the opposite way: investigation has lead
'thought' to a number of abstractions, which then, by systematic presentation,
have to be grounded in their more concrete conditions of existence with a view,
eventually to appropriating the empirical as the concrete. (Of course, this is a
stylized account of the method: any contact with the empirical is always
mediated by our (intersubjective) conceptualizations to date; and the
presentation has to be continually redone in response to conceptual and
empirically based critique.)

Marx gets to the very end of the Grundrisse and begins to talk about
"commodity," noting that this section is to be brought forward (p. 881). It
became the starting point of CCPE and _Capital_.

Grundrisse are notes, reporting, inter alia, some of Marx's investigation,
leading him to postulate the commodity as the most fundamental abstract starting
point for the presentation of the bourgeois system in Capital. (Again, Capital
contains many reports of investigation, but generally these are not essential to
the logic of the systematic presentation.)

As I'm sure
Michael knows, Geert Reuten has also called attention, rightly in my view, to
Marx's approach in the initial pages as being (dialectical) analysis, and not
the systematic-dialectical development he favors. It couldn't be, if it
begins from the concrete.

Michael W:
(Who surely knows!) I think the very beginning of Capital is as puzzling as the
first nano-seconds of the 'big bang'. To the extent that Marx is engaging in
analysis, he is giving a stylized account of his investigation (which, of
course, was undertaken largely as an investigation of existing accounts of the
capitalist economy).
I am, however, puzzled by the notion that the starting point in the commodity is
considered to be 'concrete'. It is certainly not an unmediated empirical
concept, but it is, I think, clearly abstract. It is worth noting that my
partner (who is German) tells me that the English opening sentence in my (L&W,
1970) version, which reads:
'The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production
prevails, presents itself as "an immense accumulation of commodities," its
UNIT being a single commodity.'

Should, according to her German edition read:
' ..., its ELEMENTARY FORM being a single commodity.'

This puts things in a slightly different light:' elementary form', fundamental
abstraction, basic primitive - what's in a name. (see your remarks below)

I should make it clear that my own project (with Geert) is explicitly a
reconstruction of Marx's argument, in the attempt to overcome the opposition in
it between the Hegelian and the 'English political economy' influences. Of
course what Marx has to say on method is important, but one may speculate that
in trying to distance himself from Hegelian idealism he may sometimes have
tended to throw out the baby with the bath water?
Incidently, I have written a critical review of paper ( and the other
contributions) in the Fred (ed)'s book (unfortunately, no one wanted to publish
the long version, so a much curtailed version will be coming out in ROPE, idc.)

I think Marx is signalling that his method is the very opposite
to that of ascending from abstract to concrete. And I think the reason, to
begin with, is that he is starting from the concrete. To be more precise, he
is starting with the basic unit or elementary form of wealth in capitalism and
developing all the contradictions of capitalist society out of the
contradiction within each commodity, between social form (value) and material
form (use-value). This is extremely important, IMHO, because it locates the
source of contradictions in the commodity form of the product of labor itself,
not money, not unfair distribution, not property forms, not "planlessness,"
etc. That labor produces value, produces commodities---this is what must be

Michael W:
Your first sentence is a puzzle:
1) I am not sure what you mean: are you saying that Marx method is the OPPOSITE
OF ascending from abstract to concrete? In which case this conflicts with your
quote above from Grundrisse.
2) His 'method' surely encompasses both the process of inquiry and the process
of presentation?
We agree that he starts with the commodity, conceived as the 'elementary form'
of capitalist wealth. But I read 'elementary' as the most abstract, fundamental
'acorn' containing within it the whole of the capitalist economy. Then the
process you describe, and the location of the fundamental contradictions emerge
from the concretization of this most abstract form. In this sense, the most
abstract is that which is most fundamental to understanding the system - the
process of concretization, including the eventual re grasping of the empirical
as the concrete is the argument that the postulated 'elementary form' does
indeed 'contain the whole' within it. (As you may know, Geert and I argue in our
1989 that the value-form is more fundamental and most abstract than the
commodity form - but that is another story.)

Since Marx is
talking about what the reader must do to follow his *presentation*, since the
reader certainly cannot share Marx's process of inquiry, I think advance from
particular to general refers to the method of presentation.

Michael W:
While the quote from the Preface to the CCPE is puzzling, your argument here is
not cogent. Much of science does indeed invite the reader to follow a REPORT OF
the process of inquiry, analysis and abstraction from the unmediated empirical.

I am arguing that the dialectic in
_Capital_ is an historical one, gets its shape from history (though that
doesn't imply chronological presentation). I don't think the development
moves by transcending the insufficiencies of the less developed categories.

I agree with your characterization of the dialectic, and that it cannot be
imposed upon Capital, or indeed externally 'applied' to anything. What Geert and
I tried, woefully inadequately I fear, to do was to provide an outline of a
reconstruction of the argument of Capital (ad an extension of it),
re-emphasizing the dialectical elements in it. In the process, of course, the
dialectic itself is transformed.
I think, however, we do disagree about the notion of a historical dialectic. The
essential nature of capitalism is, IMO, to be grasped in terms of its processes
of reproduction, not its history. More generally I have some difficulty with any
notion of an historical dialectic: dialectical processes are conceptual. None of
this undermines the importance of historical knowledge in grasping the nature of
the present; but what is dialectically necessary to that system are the
conditions of its reproduction. The process of discovering those conditions does
seem to me to involve transcending the insufficiencies of the more abstract
categories. Again , I can only offer R&W (1989) as a feeble example of this

Thanks to Andrew for his complementary remarks. I too am still learning about
these processes. (My text could usefully be sprinkled with 'IMO's and 'IMHO's,
which are left out only on the grounds of brevity, not of self-confidence!)

Comradely greetings

Dr Michael Williams
"Books are Weapons"