Re: [OPE-L] on the political economy of the working class

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sat Apr 16 2005 - 10:47:30 EDT

At 3:15 AM +0200 4/15/05, Michael Heinrich wrote:
>  See for example the Postface
>to the Second Edition: there Marx confronts political economy (in a
>scientific  and in a vulgar shape) with its "critique".

I think the second postface is best read as 
largely a response to Comtist positivism--then 
all the rage in intellectual circles.  Korsch is 
the only one I know who has emphasized this 
interpretive foil, but he doesn't really develop 
the point.

There are of course formal resemblances between 
Comte and Marx--reference to inexorable laws and 
laws that work themselves out with iron clad 
necessity. But the meanings of law are of course 
diametrically opposed.

I was recently pointed to Marcuse's comments on 
Comtean positivism; I had simply forgotten how 
illuminating this book is (note who is footnoted 
in the analysis of Marx):

The idealistic idea of reasonŠhad been 
intrinsically connected with the idea of freedom 
and had opposed any notion of natural necessity 
ruling over society. Positive philosophy tended 
instead to equate the study of society with the 
study of nature, so that natural science, 
particularly biology, became the archetype of 
social theory. Social study was to be a science 
seeking social laws, the validity of which was to 
be analogous to that of physical laws. Social 
practice, especially the matter of changing the 
social system, was herewith throttled by the 
inexorable. Society was viewed as governed by 
rational laws that moved with natural necessity. 
This position directly contradicted the view held 
by dialectical social theory, that society is 
irrational precisely in that it is governed by 
natural laws.
The 'general dogma of the invariability of 
physical laws' Comte calls the 'true spirit' of 
positivism. He proposes to apply this tenet to 
social theory as a means of freeing the latter 
from theology and metaphysics and giving it the 
status of a science. 'Theological and 
metaphysical philosophy do not hold sway today 
except in the system of social study. They must 
be excluded from this final refuge. Mainly, this 
will be done through the basic interpretation 
that social movement is necessarily subject to 
invariant physical laws, instead of being 
governed by some kind of willŠ.' Assent to the 
principle of invariant laws in society will 
prepare men for discipline and for obedience to 
the existing order and will promote their 
'resignation' to it. 'Resignation' is a keynote 
in Comte's writings, deriving directly from 
assent to invariable social laws. 'True 
resignation, that is, a disposition to endure 
necessary evils steadfastly and without any hope 
of compensation therefor, can result only from a 
profound feeling for the invariable laws that 
govern the variety of natural phenomena.' Reason 
and Revolution P. 343-45

This is not to say that political economy--today 
in the form of ever less social democratic 
Keynesianism--renounces the struggle  for 
'improvements'. But Marcuse also noted:

Comte denounces 'the strange and extremely 
dangerous' theories and efforts that are directed 
against the prevailing property order. These 
erect "an absurd Utopia.' Certainly it is 
necessary to improve the condition of the lower 
classes, but this must be done without deranging 
class barriers and without disturbing 'the 
indispensable economic order'. On this point too, 
positivism offers a testomonial to itself. It 
promises to insure the ruling classes against 
every anarchistic invasion and to show the way to 
a proper treatment of the mass. Outlining the 
meaning of the term positive in his philosophy, 
Comte summarizes the grounds for his 
recommendation of himself to the cause de l'ordre 
by stressing that his philosophy is of its very 
nature 'destined not to destroy but to organize' 
and that it will 'never pronounce an absolute 
From Marcuse's Reason and Revolution p. 347

Stedman Jones as the new Comte, even though he 
claims to be renewing Condorcet and Paine?

At any rate, Political economy is positivist (as 
was the political economy of the working class 
developed in the Kautskyan Second International); 
the critique of political economy dialectical or 
in Comtist terms destructive; an absolute 

I think Marx's understanding of dialectics and 
critique and his insistence on the debt to Hegel 
make sense against the implicit background of 

By critique Marx may have meant in part the 
making conscious of the struggle of actors not to 
maintain a system against its finitude but rather 
to overcome a structure. But  the overthrowing 
and transformation of a structure can only happen 
through consciousness.  For this reason Lukacs 
emphasized that there could be no true dialectics 
of nature. Levins and Lewontin would of course 

But if Marx's work is not simply a political 
economy but a critique thereof, and critique is 
meant not in the Kantian but the 
Lukacsian-Hegelian dialectical sense of making 
conscious a struggle for the overthrow and 
transformation of a structure, then Marxism 
cannot  simply be a science, it is indeed, contra 
Althusser, a historicism; and Marxism must by 
nature impute class consciousness to actors.

But it then threatens to become a dictatorship 
over the proletariat. Lukacs profoundly 
understood and exemplified the problem. Korsch 
was led to reconsider anarchism.

But Lukacs may well be  most important Marxist after Marx.

His discussion of imputation in a defense of 
History and Class Consciousness an absolutely 
pivotal text. More important than the concept for 
which he is famous--reification


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