[OPE-L:6570] [OPE-L:35] Re: laws of motion?

jurriaan bendien (Jbendien@globalxs.nl)
Thu, 28 May 1998 16:03:05 +0200

Jerry asks interesting questions:

Nowhere --
>that I can recall -- [Marx] refer to the "laws of motion" (NB: plural).
>Is my recollection failing me? Did Marx elsewhere refer to "laws of
>motion"? If not, who was the first? Engels? Kautsky? Aveling?

I do not know the answer for certain. Marx rarely refers to "laws of
motion" (Bewegungsgesetze). But he does repeatedly refer to "laws" and
"law" in the sense of a scientific hypothesis about necessary connections,
causes and consequences.

> what -- specifically -- are the "laws of motion
>specified by Marx"?

Marx himself, as judged by the contents list of Das Kapital, refers
explicitly at least to "the general law of capitalist accumulation" and the
"law of the tendential fall of the rate of profit". He refers also numerous
times to other laws, including most importantly "the law of value". How
specifically we itemise the main laws of motion of capitalism is open to
interpretation (see E. Mandel, Introduction to Marxism, for one such
interpretation). It is clear from Marx's text that he considers that
capitalism is governed by a number of "laws" (plural) which are historically
specific to this mode of production, i.e. a product of the universalisation
of the market (of generalised commodity production). He says explicitly
that "It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies winning
their way through and working themselves out with iron necessity" (Cap 1,
Penguin, p. 91).

>Beyond the historical questions above, of what significance is the
>"law vs. laws" question?

Presumably if there is not just one law but a number of them, then these
laws operate jointly and interact, with the possibility of modifying or even
cancelling out the effects of another law. This seems to be very much
Marx's approach. He typically first considers the "pure" law, or "the law
as such", and then considers a number of factors which may modify the
operation of the law under consideration. In other words, Marx builds a
causal model at a certain high level of abstraction which he begins to
concretise step by step, showing the ways in which the operation of the law
is modified by other circumstances or other laws.
For example, one of the effects of capitalist accumulation is a rising
organic composition of capital, exerting "ceteris paribus" a downward
pressure on the rate of profit. But if this necessary tendency is
accompanied by a reduction in the costs of constant capital and/or an
increase in the turnover time of capital due to perhaps better means of
transport and communication, and/or an increase in the rate of surplus
value, then the fall in the rate of profit may be braked or even cancelled
out for a time. Nevertheless, Marx suggests that the falling tendency of
the profit rate will prevail in the long run, which is why it can be
considered a distinct law. If we now take just one "counteracting factor",
e.g. increase of the rate of surplus-value, we can see that this increase
may be brought about in numerous different ways, according to the historical
circumstances which must be investigated. As Marx puts it in the Grundrisse
(paraphrase), "the theory shows where empirical investigation must enter
into the analysis". Marx is not an empiricist, although he insists (unlike
many Marxists) on carefully studying the "empirical raw material", and his
laws are not like Hempel's covering laws.

Independently of whether Marx wrote about the
>"laws of motion", should we talk about them? If so, why? If not, why not?

I guess it depends on the context. If I am going out with a pretty girl
then probably the last thing I want to do is to argue about "laws of
motion". But seriously though, the argument for why we should talk about
laws of motion is mainly an argument about the nature of scientific
Scientific investigation is about the discovery of observable patterns
in the subjectmatter which are determinate, that is to say law-governed.
Whether the determinacy (or the law) is a causal or probabilistic is another
matter (see Mario Bunge, Causality and Modern Science for a good
discussion). But anyway to qualify as scientific, a theory must, as a bare
minimum, rule out certain events or states of affairs - some things "cannot
happen", and this must be, at least in principle, testable. A more
developed scientific theory identifies the most likely variant or variants
of what will happen under given circumstances, with reference to laws or
basic regulative principles. These laws enable us to make predictions and
test them in practice. This is essential to rational, experimental
In saying that capitalism is governed by laws, Marx's intention is to
say that from the specific structural characteristics of capitalism there
follow a number of laws (or regulative principles, or necessary connections)
governing market behaviour and social behaviour, definite social dynamics,
and a definite developmental path or "logic". For a simple example,
contrary to Adam Smith, Marx anticipates that as accumulation grows, the
number of wage-dependent workers will increase, not decrease. Contrary to
theories of "people's capitalism", Marx anticipates an increasing
concentration and centralisation of capital. For Marx, capitalist crises
are not "abberations" or the result of "bad policies", but "system immanent"
and an inevitable result of the uneven development of the capitalist mode of
production - the specifically capitalist way in which the law of value
restores some sort of economic equilibrium. And so on.

The argument against talking about "laws of motion" I would say is basically
Karl Popper's critique of Stalinism (which he unfortunately confused with
Marxism). For Popper any talk of social or historical laws of any sort is
"totalitarian", an ideological restriction on freedom of choice and a denial
of humanity's ability and assertion of will to change their circumstances.
Thus, the Stalinist faction argued about the "laws of capitalism" and the
"laws of socialist development" in the sense of an "inevitability" which no
one can do anything about because it is wholly independent of human wills.
This reflected, ideologically, the interests of the bureaucratic elite in
ensuring the passive acceptance by the masses of their monopoly of power,
and thus the atomisation of the working class.
But that is not an argument against Marx's laws of capitalism, or
against the operation of social laws. For Popper, social science is
impossible. Marx (and Engels) however suggest that by understanding the
laws governing capitalist activity, and historical development as such, we
can use the knowledge to our advantage. People can act and change the course
of history without really knowing fully what they are doing, or what really
motivates them. The role of social scientific cognition is to make them
better aware of the impulse and consequences of their actions.
Successful political intervention must be based on a correct assessment
of what can be achieved in given circumstances, and to that end we have to
judge both the nature of objectively (historically) given conditions and of
subjective capacities to intervene in the situation. For Marx, that
involves the work of science. When he left the Communist League, it was
because he judged the economic and political situation had changed, and he
told his critics "It takes years, nay even decades, to make yourself ready
for power". That was his assessment, and then he went on to write Capital.
What is called "praxis" involves precisely a rational grasp of the
"dialectic" of objective and subjective factors, a high level of unity
between theory and practice. Too much emphasis on objective factors leads
to a deterministic, fatalistic objectivism; too much focus on subjective
elements leads to voluntaristic subjectivism. Of both there are plenty
examples in the history of Marxism, including in Marxist economics - because
economics is certainly not immune to ideological influence or "the fury of
private interests" - to the contrary !
Probably, what lurks behind the hesitation to refer to social scientific
laws is the dillema/counterposition of free will and determinism. But that
dillemma only exists because human practical activity, and the test of
practice, has dropped out of the picture - which tends to happen in
philosophy inasmuch as issues are considered "in general" and in separation
from any particular practical context; a phenomenon which the young Marx
already criticised.


Jurriaan Bendien