The piece below was written by German Marxist activist, educator and philosopher Karl Korsch as the introduction to a 1932 edition of Capital. Recently, the global financial sector crisis and its impact on the wider economy has renewed interest in Marx’s critique of the workings of the capitalist system among a section of ‘mainstream’ economics commentators and analysts – although Marx’s revolutionary conclusions remain as unpopular with them as ever. Korsch’s 1932 introduction is a useful reminder of the strengths of Marx’s magnun opus and why it has had such a powerful and enduring impact around the world.
by Karl Korsch
Marx’s book on capital, like Plato’s book on the state, like Machiavelli’s Prince and Rousseau’s Social Contract, owes its tremendous and enduring impact to the fact that it grasps and articulates, at a turning point of history, the full implications of the new force breaking in upon the old forms of life. All the economic, political, and social questions, upon which the analysis in Marx’s Capital theoretically devolves, are today world-shaking practical issues, over which the real-life struggle between great social forces, between states and classes, rages in every corner of the earth. Karl Marx proved himself to posterity to be the great forward-looking thinker of his age, in as much as he comprehended early on how decisive these questions would be for the approaching world-historical crisis. But even as great a thinker as Marx could not have grasped these questions theoretically and incorporated them in his work, had they not already been posed, in some form or another, as actual problems in the real life of his own epoch.
Fate treated this German veteran of 1848 in a peculiar way. He was banished, by both republican and absolutist governments, from the original context of his practical activity, and thus removed in good time from the narrow, backward conditions of Germany, and projected into the historical mainstream which was to be the setting for his real achievements. By the age of 30 Karl Marx had achieved, through his study of Hegel’s thought, a profound and comprehensive, albeit philosophical, grasp of life. But now, precisely in consequence of the forcible transposition of his fields of operation, before and after the failed revolution of 1848, he was able, during his successive periods of exile, firstly in Belgium and France, and later in England, to come into immediate theoretical and practical contact with the most progressive developments in the real life of that time.
On the one hand there were the French socialist and communist movements, advancing beyond the achievements of the great Jacobin-bourgeois revolution towards new, proletarian objectives; and on the other hand the fully developed structure of modern capitalist production, with its corresponding relations of production and distribution, which had emerged in England from the Industrial Revolution of 1770-1830. These elements of Marx’s vision – French political history, English economic development, the modern labour movement – all ‘transcended’ the contemporary scene in Germany, and Marx devoted decades of thought and research to the incorporation of these elements into his scientific work, especially into his magnum opus, Capital.
It was this combination of sustained energy and wide-ranging vision that lent to Capital the extraordinary vitality by virtue of which it remains entirely ‘topical’ in the present day. One might even say that in many respects it is only now beginning to come into its own. ‘The ultimate objective of this work’ is, in the words of the author, ‘to reveal the economic laws of motion of modern society.’ This statement already implies that Capital is not meant to be simply a contribution to the traditional academic study of economics. It is true, of course, that the book did play an important part in the development of economic theory, and has left its imprint on the technical literature of the subject right up to the present day. But Capital is also, as its subtitle declares, a ‘critique of political economy’, and this rubric signifies much more than the adoption of a critical attitude towards the individual doctrines advanced by this or that economic theorist; in Marx’s terms it signifies a critique of political economy as such. Looked at from the standpoint of Marx’s historical-materialist approach, political economy is, after all, not just a theoretical system involving true or false propositions. It embodies in itself an aspect of historical reality – or, to be more precise, it is one aspect of the ‘modern bourgeois mode of production’ and of the social formation that is built on it, one aspect, that is, of the particular historical reality which is critically analysed in Capital from its inception through its development and demise to its eventual transition to new and higher forms of production and society. If we think in terms of the academic categories we are used to today, then Marx’s Capital appears to be more an historical and sociological, rather than an economic theory.
But even this revised definition of Marx’s work, and the series of similar qualifications we might add, do not succeed in characterising the full range and depth of the Marxian scientific method and its subject matter. Capital does not belong to any one discipline, but neither is it a kind of philosophical allsorts, for it deals with ‘a quite definite object from a quite particular standpoint. In this respect Marx’s work may be compared with the famous book by Darwin on the Origin of Species. Just as Darwin discovered the laws of development of organic nature, so Marx revealed the laws governing the course of human history. Marx approached these laws in two ways: on the one hand he outlined the general historical law of development, which is called ‘historical materialism’, and on the other he propounded the particular law of motion of the modern capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois society it gives rise to. The comparison of Marx with Darwin is not based simply on the pure coincidence of historical dates (though it is true that the Origin of Species and the first part of Marx’s work on capitalism, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, both appeared in 1859). As Marx himself suggested, and as Engels made clear in his speech at Marx’s graveside, the comparison expresses a much deeper connection than this. In one of those profound and exquisite, though often seemingly digressive footnotes with which Marx almost overloads Capital, he relates how Darwin first drew his attention to the ‘history of natural technology’ that is, to the ‘formation of plant and animal organisms as installments for the sustenance of plant and animal life’. And he poses the question:
‘Does not the history of the productive organs of social man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organization, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former but not the latter?’
These remarks express perfectly the relation between Darwin and Marx, stressing not only what they have in common, but also the distinction between them. Darwin’s study deals with natural history in the narrower sense, whereas Marx deals with a practical socio-historical developments which man not only experiences, but also shapes. Marx, however, unlike some of the modern obscurantists and demi-theologians of the so-called ‘humanities’, did not draw the conclusion that the description and study of man’s social life permits a lesser degree of intellectual and empirical rigour and a higher ratio of subjectivity than the natural sciences themselves. Marx was inclined to work from the opposite position, and explicitly set himself the task of outlining the economic development of society as a ‘natural-historical’ process.
We are not yet in a position to judge whether, or to what extent, Marx carried out this imposing project in Capital. That could only be decided in some future age, when, as Marx anticipated, his theory would no longer be subjected to the ‘prejudices of so-called public opinion’, but would be assessed on the basis of a truly ‘scientific criticism’. As things stand at present, however, this is still a long-term prospect.
While it might be impertinent to attempt such a definitive judgement at the present time, it is appropriate to provide this edition of Marx’s Capital with an indication at least of the rather peculiar relationship between the realized and the unrealized portions of the work.
Marx’s work on economics presents itself to us today as a gigantic torso – and this aspect is not likely to be substantially altered by the appearance of the hitherto unpublished material still extant. Let us leave out of account for now the very broad outlines of Marx’s earlier drafts, in which the critique of political economy is not yet isolated from the critique of law and government, from ideological farms in general, is not yet distinguished as an autonomous and primary object of investigation – even then there remains an enormous gap between what Marx planned and what he actually carried out in his work.
In 1850 Marx settled in London where ‘The enormous material on the history of political economy which is accumulated in the British Museum; the favourable view which London offers for the observation of bourgeois society; finally the new stage of development which the latter seemed to have entered with the discovery of gold in California and Australia’ decided him to begin his political-economic studies again ‘from the very beginning’. In the period after his arrival in London Marx commented twice on the overall plan of the political-economic work he had in mind, firstly in the manuscript of the ‘General Introduction’, written down in 1857, but subsequently ‘suppressed’ until Kautsky published it in the Neue Zeit in 1903 and secondly in the ‘preface’ to the Critique of Political Economy, which made its appearance in 1859. Here is the first of these two comments: ‘The order of treatment must manifestly be as follows: first, the general abstract definitions which are more or less applicable to all forms of society … . Second, the categories which go to make up the inner organization of bourgeois society and constitute the foundations of the principal classes; capital, wage-labour, landed property; their mutual relations; city and country; the three great social classes, the exchange between them; circulation, credit (private). Third, the organization of bourgeois society in the form of a state, considered in relation to itself; the ‘unproductive’ classes; taxes; public debts; public credit; population; colonies; emigration. Fourth, the international organization of production; international division of labour; international exchange; import and export; rate of exchange. Fifth, the world market and crises’.
Two years later Marx published ‘the first two chapters of the first section of the first book on capital’ as a separate part (some 200 pages long) entitled A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. He began the Preface to this work with these words: ‘I consider the system of bourgeois economy in the following order: capital, landed property, wage-labour; state, foreign trade, world market. Under the first three heads I examine the conditions of the existence of the three great classes which make up modern bourgeois society; the connection of the three remaining heads is self-evident.’ Only a fragment of the first half of these comprehensive plans is realized in the work on capital that was actually completed, partly by Marx himself, and partly by others. At the end of 1862, when he had already decided that the ‘continuation’ of the Critique of Political Economy should be published by itself under the title Capital, he wrote to Kugelmann that this new book (by which he meant not only Volume I of Capital as we know it today, but all the other parts too!) ‘really only deals with those matters which should form the third chapter if the first section, namely capital in general’. For a variety of reasons, some internal to the work and others extraneous, Marx decided at about this time to cut down appreciably on the overall plan which he had maintained virtually unaltered up until then. He decided that he would present the whole of the material in three or four books, the first of which would deal with the ‘productive Process of Capital’, the second with the ‘process of Circulation’, the third with the ‘structure of the Overall Process’ and the fourth with the ‘History of the Theory’.
Marx himself only completed one of these four books of Capital. It appeared as Volume I of Capital in 1867 and a second edition followed in 1872. After Marx’s death his friend and literary collaborator Friedrich Engels pieced together the second and third woks on the basis of the available manuscripts. They were published as Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital in 1885 and 1894. There are also the three volumes entitled Theories of Surplus Value, which were published by Kautsky between 1905 and 1910, again on the basis of Marx’s manuscripts, and which may be thought in a sense to stand for the fourth book of Capital. Strictly speaking, however, they are not a continuation of Capital but an incomplete version of an older manuscript which Marx wrote as early as August 1861-June 1863. This was not intended to be a part of Capital but forms the continuation of the Critique of Political Economy of 1859. Engels himself planned to publish the critical part of this manuscript as Volume IV of Capital after excising the numerous passages he had already used to build out Volumes 2 and 3. But what Marx does in Volume I runs counter to this intention. Not even that part of the manuscript that had already been published in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is taken over unaltered, but is rather submitted to a thorough revision in the first three chapters of the new work. One of the most important tasks of future editors of Marx will be to provide a complete and unabridged version of the manuscript of the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy for this is the earliest central exposition of Marx’s system of thought, and indeed the only one that he ever completed himself. Although there is an enormous gap between the project that was contemplated and the work that was completed, Marx’s Capital, even the first volume on its own, impresses us both in form and content, as a finished and rounded whole. We should not imagine that while Marx was at work on Volume I he saw the other volumes completed in his mind’s eye, and deployed in the first book a strictly apportioned one-quarter of all his thoughts on the subject. This conception is discredited by something that Rosa Luxemburg emphasized 30 years ago in an excellent study of Capital. She wrote that decades before the appearance at last of the third volume in 1894, ‘Marx’s doctrine as a whole had been popularized and accepted’ in Germany and in other countries ‘on the basis of the first volume’, which revealed ‘not a trace of theoretical incompleteness’.
There is little sense in trying to solve this apparent contradiction between the content and the reception of Capital by saying that this first volume already gives a complete picture of the relation between the two great classes in modern bourgeois society, the capitalist class and the working class, as well as describing the overall tendency of present-day capitalist development towards socialization of the means of production, while the questions that are dealt with in the subsequent volumes, the circulation of capital and the distribution of the whole surplus value between the different forms of capitalists’ income (such as profit, interest, ground-rent, and trading profit), are of less theoretical and practical relevance for the working class. Quite apart from the fact that Marx’s theory in Capital states that there are three and not two basic classes in bourgeois society (capitalists, wage-labourers and landowners), it would be an unthinkable over-simplification of the theory to say that it derives the laws of motion and development of modern society solely from the sphere of production and the convicts and contradictions arising in this sphere, and that it does not take account in this connection of the process of circulation too, and of the structural integration of both aspects in the overall process.
The real answer to the problem is that the investigation Marx undertakes in the first volume is only formally limited to the productive process of capitalism. In actual fact, in his treatment of this aspect, Marx grasps and portrays the totality of the capitalist mode of production, and the bourgeois society that emerges from it. He describes and connects all its economic features, together with its legal, political, religious, artistic, and philosophical – in short, ideological – manifestations. This comprehensiveness is a necessary consequence of the dialectical mode of description, an Hegelian legacy which Marx appropriates formally intact, despite his materialistic ‘reversal’ of its philosophical-idealist content. The dialectic may be compared with the modern ‘axiomatic’ method of the mathematical sciences, in so far as this method uses an apparently logical-constructive procedure to deduce from certain simple principles the results already arrived at through detailed research.
This is not the place to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of applying the dialectical method to political economy. Suffice it to say that this method is used, with consummate skill, in Capital, and that its employment for an examination of the process of production implies the necessity of including in this investigation the whole of the capitalist mode of production and the bourgeois society based upon it. Now there are a slumber of difficulties which arise for the uninitiated reader precisely out of the peculiar ‘simplicity’ of the conceptual development of the first few chapters of Capital. These difficulties are bound up with the dialectical mode of description, and I shall deal with them later on.
This, then, is the most important reason why the first volume of Capital shows ‘no trace of theoretical incompleteness’, why this, the only part of the work finished of by Marx himself, gives, despite the author’s explicit and oft-reiterated limitation of its formal purview to the ‘productive process of capitalism’, a much greater impression of unity than does the complete work formed by the addition of the subsequent volumes. But there is another reason too, and that is the artistic form which Volume 1 achieves as a whole, in spite of a style that often seems stiff and unnecessarily constrained. Marx once wrote a placatory letter to Engels in response to his friend’s good humoured complaints about the protracted delay in producing this work; the words of this letter are applicable not only to Capital, but also to some of Marx’s historical works, especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
‘Whatever shortcomings they may have, the merit of my writings is that they are an artistic whole, and that can only be attained by my method of never having them printed until they lie before me as a whole. This is impossible with the Jacob Grimm method, which is in general more suited to works not diametrically constructed.’ (Marx: Letter to Engels, 31st July, 1865)
Capital presents itself to us then, as a ‘fantastic whole’ or a ‘scientific work of art’: it has a strong and compelling attraction for any reader who comes to it free from prejudice, and this aesthetic attraction will help the beginner to overcome both the alleged and the genuine difficulties of the work. Now there is something rather peculiar about these difficulties. With one qualification, which will be elaborated in due course, we can safely say that Capital contains, for the kind of audience Marx had in mind (‘I assume of course they will be readers who want to learn something new, who will be prepared to think while they are reading’), fewer difficulties than any of the more-or-less widely read manuals on economics. The reader who is at all capable of thinking for himself if hardly likely to meet serious difficulties, even with terminology. Some sections, such as chapters 10 and 13-15, on ‘The Working Day’, ‘co-operation’, ‘Division of Labour’, and ‘Machinery and Modern Industry’, and Part 8 on ‘Primitive Accumulation’, all of which Marx assured Kugelmann would be ‘immediately comprehensible’ to his wife, are indeed so predominantly descriptive and narrative – and the description is so vivid, the narration so gripping – that they can be immediately understood by anyone; and these chapters together constitute more than two-fifths of the whole book.
There are a number of other chapters, however, which do not belong to this descriptive type, and yet are virtually as easy to read, besides having the additional merit that they lead us directly to the heart of Capital. That is why I want to recommend to the beginner an approach that diverges somewhat from Marx’s advice on a suitable start for the ladies (wherein we may sense a certain deference to the prejudices of his own time!). I hope that the approach I recommend will enable the reader to attain a full understanding of Capital just as readily, or even more readily than if he were to begin with the difficult opening chapters.
It is best, I think, to begin with a thorough perusal of Chapter 7 on ‘The Labour Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-value’. There are, it is true, a number of preliminary difficulties to be overcome, but these are all internal to the matter in hand, and not due, as are many difficulties in the preceding chapters, to a really rather unnecessary artificiality in the presentation. What is said here refers directly and immediately to palpable realities, and in the first instance to the palpable reality of the human work process. We encounter straightaway a clear and stark presentation of an insight essential for the proper understanding of Capital – the insight that this real-life work process represents, under the present regime of the capitalist mode of production, not only the production of use-values for human eventually through the difficult parts as well as the simpler passages of the book should save this part up until he really does come to the end of Part 7, for Part 8 was intended by Marx as a final crowning touch to his work.
There are a number of reasons why this is advisable. In the first place the preceding chapters of Part 7 may also be classed by and large with the less arduous portions of the book, and so present no special hindrance. Furthermore, the beginner who comes to the chapter on ‘primitive accumulation’ too soon may well be misled into thinking, along with Franz Oppenheimer and many others, that the Marxian theory of primitive accumulation is the theory of Capital, or at best its essential basis, whereas in fact it is merely one component of the theory, indispensable but not predominant within it. It seems advisable therefore to read Parts 7 and 8 in the order in which they stand, and then, having achieved a provisional grasp of the general shape of the whole work, to proceed with a closer study of its detail.
There are two points above all which must be elucidated if we are to gain a deeper understanding of Capital. We have already touched upon the first point if mentioning that mistaken estimate of the significance of Part 8 in the overall theoretical framework of the book – a misjudgment that has wide currency both within and outside the Marxist camp. It is not just a question of this part however, but also of a number of other sections scattered throughout the book, and not developed into chapters in their own right. Among these passages are the fourth section of Chapter 1, on the ‘Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof’, the third section of Chapter 9, on ‘Senior’s “last hour”’ the sixth section of Chapter 15 on ‘The Theory of Compensation’, and, perhaps most intimately connected with on ‘primitive Accumulation’, the two sections of Chapter 24 on the ‘Erroneous Conception by Political Economy of Reproduction on a Progressively Increasing Scale’ and ‘The So-called Labour Fund’. All these discussions, and a large number of other similar passages too, have this in common, that they represent a critique of political economy – in a more specific sense than that in which the whole work purports to be, as its subtitle declares, ‘A Critique of Political Economy’. The critical intention of these passages is immediately obvious from the kind of language they use, from their explicit reference to the ‘misconceptions’ of individual economists (like Senior) or of political economy as such, and from their description of the matter in hand as a ‘secret’ or as something ‘so-called’, masking something really quite different.
We may call these passages ‘critical’ then, in the narrower sense of the word, but on closer consideration we and that they in turn divide into two different types of rather unequal importance. The first type is that of ordinary academic criticism, where Marx, from his superior theoretical position, entertains himself and his readers with gleeful devastation of the aberrant quasi-scientific theories of post-classical bourgeois economists. To this category belong such passages as the brilliant demolition in Chapter 9 of the ‘theory’ of the well-known Oxford Professor Nassau Senior, on the importance of ‘the last hour’s work’, and the refutation of another ‘theory’ discovered by the same ‘earnest scholar’ and still surviving today in bourgeois economics, the ‘theory’ of the so-called ‘abstinence’ of capital. These parts of Marx’s economic critique are among the most enjoyable passages in the book, and usually conceal beneath their satirical-polemical exterior a considerable fund of pertinent and significant insights, conveyed to the reader in what we might call a ‘playful’ manner. Strictly speaking however, these passages do not belong to the essential content of Capital: they might appropriately have been incorporated in the fourth book Marx projected, on the ‘history of the theory’, of which he wrote to Engels (31st July, 1865) that it was to have a more ‘historical-literary’ character in comparison with the theoretical parts (ie, the first three books), and that it would be the easiest part for him to write, since all the problems are solved in the first three books, and this last one is therefore more of a recapitulation in historical form. The second category of specifically ‘critical’ arguments in Capital are of a quite different kind. There are a considerable clamber of passages here which are less bulky but extremely important as regards their content. There is, for example, the delineation of that conflict over the limits of the working day, a conflict that cannot be resolved by reference to the laws of commodity exchange. Most important of all there is the final section of Chapter 1 on the ‘Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof’, and the final part of the whole work on ‘The So-called Primitive Accumulation’ and the ‘secret’ it contains. The Marxian ‘critique of Political Economy’ begins, as an economic theory, with the conceptual clarification of the real economic laws of motion and development of modern bourgeois-capitalist society.
This critique maintains the most scrupulous scientific consistency in order to follow through to their logical conclusion all the propositions advanced on this topic by the great economic theoreticians of the classical, ie revolutionary, period of bourgeois development, and concludes by exploding the very framework of these economic theories. Although in the section on the process of production and again, in the section on reproduction and accumulation, everything which can be said in economic terms about the origin of capital through surplus-value or unpaid labour is already stated, there still remains after all an unsolved problem to be elucidated, which proves in the last analysis, to be non-economic in character.
This problematic residue may be expressed in the following question: what was the origin, before all capitalist production began, of the first capital, and of the first relationship between the exploiting capitalist and the exploited wage-labourer? Already in the course of the economic analysis itself Marx had repeatedly pursued his line of enquiry almost to the point of posing this question – only to break of there each time; but now, in the final part of his work, he returns to this problem. First of all his critique destroys with merciless thoroughness the answer given to this ‘ultimate question’ of bourgeois economics not only by the straightforward champions of capitalist class-interests (Marx calls them the ‘vulgar economists’), but also by such ‘classical economists’ as Adam Smith. Marx shows that theirs was not an ‘economic’ answer at all, but simply purported to be historical, and was in fact nothing more than legendary. Finally he addresses himself, with the same merciless and methodical realism to this ‘economically’ unsolved and still open-ended question. He too proposes not an economic, but an historical answer – although in the last analysis his solution is not a theoretical one at all, but rather a practical one that infers from past and present history a developmental tendency projecting into the future. It is only when we appreciate clearly the way in which Marx deals with the question of ‘primitive Accumulation’ that we can understand the proper relation of this final part to the foregoing parts of his book, and also the position within Part 8 of the penultimate chapter, which concludes the historical examination of the origin and development of the acculturation of capital with a treatment of the ‘Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation’. These considerations also make clear the compelling methodological reasons why ‘The So-Called Primitive Accumulation’ belongs at the end, and not at the beginning or in the middle of Capital. It was for these reasons that Marx positioned it there, and, for the same reasons, the reader too should save it up until the end.
The other point which has still to be elucidated, concerns not the connection between the individual sections and chapters, but the way in which the thoughts and concepts themselves are developed. It also concerns the few really grave difficulties raised by certain parts of Marx’s work which we have not discussed yet – difficulties experienced not only by the untutored, but also by those who are at home in the subject, but are not philosophically trained. It is these difficulties that are chiefly responsible for the oft-reiterated complaint about the ‘obscurity of Capital’. The passages in question are, above all, the third section of the first chapter on the ‘Form of Value’, which we have already mentioned briefly, and one or two passages closely connected with it in Chapter 3, dealing with ‘Money’. Then there are a few other, rather less difficult parts, among them Chapters 9, 11 and 12, which we have also mentioned before, considered now in their proper relation to Chapters 16 to 18 on ‘Absolute and Relative Surplus Value’, which are often regarded superficially as a simple recapitulation of Chapters 9, 11, and 12. All these difficulties are integrally bound up with what is called the ‘dialectical method’.
The explanation Marx himself gave (in the Afterword to the second German Edition) of the importance of this method for the structure and exposition of Capital, has often been misconstrued – whether honestly or not – to mean simply that in the formulation of his work, and in particular of the chapter on the theory of value, Marx flirted here and there with the peculiar mode of expression of the Hegelian dialectic. When we look closer however, we recognise that even the explanation given by Marx himself goes much further than that. It implies in fact that he fully espoused the rational kernel (if not the mystical shell) of the dialectical method. For all the empirical stringency which Marx, as a scientific investigator brought to his observation of the concrete reality of socio-economic and historical facts, the reader who lacks a strict philosophical training will still find the very simple concepts of commodity, value, and form of value, rather schematic, abstract, and unreal at first sight. Yet these concepts are supposed to anticipate entirely, to contain within themselves, like a germ as yet undeveloped, the concrete reality of the whole process of being and becoming, genesis, development, and decline of the present-day mode of production and social order – and the concepts do indeed anticipate these realities. It is only that the connection is obscure or even invisible to the common eye. But the one who is aware of the connection, the author himself, the ‘demiurge’ who has re-created reality in the form of these concepts, refuses to betray the secret of his knowledge at the outset. This is true above all of the concept of ‘value’. It is well known that Marx invented neither the idea nor the expression, but took it ready-made from classical bourgeois economics, especially from Ricardo and Smith. But he treated the concept critically, and applied it, with a realism quite untypical of the classical political economists, to the actually given and changing reality around him. For Marx, in contrast with even Ricardo, the socio-historical reality of the relations expressed in this concept, is an indubitable and palpable fact. ‘The unfortunate fellow does not see,’ wrote Marx in 1868, about a critic of his concept of value, ‘that, even if there were no chapter on ‘value’ in my book, the analysis of the real relationships which I give would contain the proof and demonstration of the real value relation.
The nonsense about the necessity of proving the concept of value arises from complete ignorance both of the subject dealt with and of the method of science. Every child knows that a country which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but for a few weeks, would die. Every child knows, too, that the mass of products corresponding to the different needs require different and quantitatively determined masses of the total labour of society. That this necessity of distributing social labour in definite proportions cannot be done away with by the particular mode of social production, but can only change the form it assumes is self-evident. No natural laws can be done away with. What can change, in changing historical circumstances, is the form in which these laws operate. And the forms in which this proportional division of labour operates, in a state of society where the interconnection of social labour is manifested in the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange-value of these products.’
Compare this passage, however, with the first few pages of Capital, and consider what immediate impression these pages make on the reader who knows nothing as yet of the realistic ‘background’ to the author’s arguments. Initially, it is true, there are a slumber of concepts introduced here which are taken from the ‘phenomenal’ realm, from the experience of certain facts about capitalist production. Among these concepts is the one that expresses the quantitative relationship of various kinds of ‘use-values’ being exchanged for one another, the idea, that is, of ‘exchange-value’. This empirically-coloured notion of the contingent exchange relations of use-values promptly gives way however, to something quite new, arrived at by abstraction from the use-values of the commodities, something which only appears in the ‘exchange relationship’ of commodities, or in their exchange-value. It is this ‘immanent’ or inner ‘value’, arrived at by disregarding the phenomenon, which forms the conceptual starting point for all the subsequent deductions in Capital. ‘The progress of our investigation,’ declares Marx explicitly, ‘will show that exchange-value is the only form in which the value of commodities can manifest itself or is expressed. For the present, however, we have to consider the nature of value independently of this, its form.’
Even when this progression is followed through we are not returned to anything like an empirical, immediately given phenomenon. We move instead, through an absolute masterpiece of dialectical conceptual development unsurpassed even by Hegel, from the ‘Form of Value’ to the ‘Money Form’, and then proceed to the brilliant, and, for the uninitiated, correspondingly difficult, section on the ‘Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof’. Only here do we learn that ‘value’ itself, unlike the corporeal commodities and the corporeal owners of commodities, is not something physically real, nor does it express, like the term ‘use-value’, a simple relationship between an available or manufactured object and a human need. ‘Value’ reveals itself instead as an ‘inter-personal relationship concealed beneath a reified exterior’, a kind of relationship integral to a definite historical mode of production and form of society. It was unknown, in this obscured and reified form, to all previous historical epochs, modes of production, and forms of society, and it will be just as superfluous in the future to societies and modes of production no longer based on producing commodities.
This example illustrates the structure of Marx’s descriptions of things. Not only has that structure the intellectual and aesthetic advantage of an overwhelming force and insistence; it is also eminently suited to a science that does not submerge the preservation and further development of the present-day capitalist economic and social orders but is aimed instead at its subversion in the course of struggle and its revolutionary overthrow. The reader of Capital is not given a single moment for the restful contemplation of immediately given realities and connections; everywhere the Marxian mode of presentation points to the immanent unrest in all existing things. This method, in short, demonstrates its decisive superiority over all other approaches to the understanding of history and society in that it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; it regards every historically developed form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.
Anyone who wants to derive from his reading of Capital not just a few glimpses of the workings and development of modern society, but the whole of the theory contained in the book will have to come to terms with this essential characteristic of Marx’s mode of presentation. We should be deceiving ourselves if we were to think we could find a less strenuous access to Capital by reading it, so to speak, ‘backwards’ rather than from beginning to end. Not that it would be impossible to read it like that. If we did, we should certainly be spared, for example, the trouble of coming to grips in Chapter 11 with a number of laws concerning the relation between ‘Rate and Mass of Surplus-value’, all of which are valid only if we disregard the possibility of ‘Relative Surplus-value’ – which is not even raised until the next chapter. We should be spared the discovery in Chapter 16 alter working through a similarly ‘abstracted’ treatment of the laws of relative surplus-value in the preceding chapters, that ‘from one standpoint any distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value appears illusory’ inasmuch as it transpires that ‘relative surplus-value is absolute, and absolute surplus-value is relative’; and the discovery then that both categories in fact merely represent abstract elements of real, concrete surplus-value – which reveals itself in turn as nothing more than one, highly abstract factor in the overall descriptive development leading up towards the actual phenomena of the economic reality around us.
All this we could avoid. But it is precisely upon this stringent method that the formal superiority of the Marxian analysis depends. It is a method which leaves nothing out of account, but which refuses to accept things uncritically on the strength of a superficial common-or-garden empiricism soaked in prejudice. If we cancel out this feature of Capital we are left in fact with the quite unscientific perspective of the vulgar economics Marx so bitterly derided. Vulgar economics ‘theorises’ by consistently invoking appearances against the laws that underlie them, and seems in practice only to defend the interests of that class whose power is ensconced in the immediately given reality of the present moment. It seems not to know, or not to want to know, that beneath the surface of this immediate reality there lies a profounder dimension, more difficult to grasp, but just as real; a dimension that embraces not only the given reality itself, but also its continual alteration, its origins, development and demise, its transition to new forms of life in the future, and the laws governing all these changes and developments. It may well be advisable all the same, even for the reader who is prepared in principle to submit to the dialectical progression of the argument in Capital, to scan a few pages of Chapter 16 before reading Chapter 11. This will reveal in advance something of the tendency of the argument in Chapter 11, a tendency we find on closer inspection to have begun much earlier even than this.
We have adduced a number of examples to illustrate the ‘dialectical’ relationship between an initially rather abstract treatment of a given object or nexus, and the subsequent, increasingly concrete, treatment of the self-same phenomenon. This mode of development, which characterizes the whole structure of Marx’s Capital, seems to reverse, or to ‘stand on its head’ the order in which given realities are ‘naturally’ regarded by the non-scientific observer. There is, as Marx declares repeatedly, no concept of wages in his analysis before the nineteenth chapter; there is only the concept of the value (and sometimes the price) of the ‘commodity labour-power’. Not until Chapter 19 is the new concept of ‘wages’, which ‘appears on the surface of bourgeois society as the price of labour’, ‘deduced’ from the preparatory concept.
This dialectical mode of presentation is also connected with something else which the diametrically uninitiated (in other words the vast majority of present-day readers, whatever their academic qualification) find difficult to understand at first. This is Marx’s use, throughout Capital and in his other works too, of the concept and principle of ‘contradiction’, especially the contradiction between what is called ‘essence’ and what is called ‘appearance’. ‘All science,’ said Marx, ‘would be superfluous if the outward appearance of things coincided exactly with their essence,’ The reader will have to get used to this basic principle of Marxian science. He will have to get used to the sort of comment that is often made in Capital, to the elect that this or that ‘contradiction’ shown to be present in some concept, or law, or principle (in, for example, the concept of ‘variable capital’), does not invalidate the use of the concept, but merely ‘expresses a contradiction inherent in capitalist production’. In many such cases a closer inspection reveals that the alleged ‘contradiction’ is not really a contradiction at all, but is made to seem so by a symbolically abbreviated, or otherwise misleading, mode of expression; in the case we have just mentioned of ‘variable capital’ this is pointed out by Marx himself. It is not always possible, however, to resolve the contradictions so simply. Where the contradiction endures, and the anti-dialectician persists in his objection to it, even as function of a Strictly Systematic logical-deductive treatment of concepts, then this opponent will have to be placated with Goethe’s remark on metaphorical usage, which Mehring refers to in his interesting study of Marx’s style: ‘Do not forbid me use of metaphor; I could not else express my thoughts at all’.
Marx employs the ‘dialectical’ device at many crucial junctures in his work, highlighting, in this way, the real-life conflicts between social classes, or the contrast between the realities of social existence and the consciousness of men in society, or the contrast between a deep-going historical tendency and the more superficial, countervailing tendencies which compensate, or even over-compensate for it in the short-run. These tensions are all pictured as ‘contradictions’, and this can be thought of as a sophisticated kind of metaphorical usage, illuminating the profounder connections and interrelation between things. Exactly the same could be said of that other dialectical concept of the ‘conversion’ of an idea, an object, or a relationship into its (dialectical) opposite, the conversion, for instance, of quantity into quality. This is not used so often as the concept of contradictions but it occurs at a number of decisively important points.
A number of appendices are provided to assist the practical use of this edition of Capital. These include notes on English coins, weights and measures etc mentioned in the book. But in addition to these we have also included an appendix of great theoretical importance. This contains Marx’s famous recapitulation of his political and economic studies and the general conclusions to which they had given rise, which appeared as the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859. This resumé provides a penetrating insight into Marx’s development as a student of society and economics, and into the essential features of his materialist conception of history. This was the conception he had worked through to in the mid-forties, leaving behind both Hegelian philosophical idealism and revolutionary-democratic political idealism. From 1845 he worked with Engels towards the completely matured version of this theory which received provisional formulation in the Preface of 1859.
Here Marx explicitly condemns what is obvious anyway from the pages of Capital, that he did not remotely intend to turn his new disciple into a general philosophical theory of history that would be imposed from the outside upon the actual pattern of historical events. The same can be said of Marx’s conception of history as he himself said of his theory of value; that it was not meant to be a dogmatic principle but merely an original and more useful approach to the real, sensuous, practical world that presents itself to the active and reflective subject. Fifty years ago Marx parried certain mistaken conceptions about the method of Capital, entertained by the Russian sociologist and idealist Mikhailovsky, by explaining that Capital, and in particular the conclusions arrived at in Part 8 on Primitive Accumulation, was not intended as anything more than an historical outline of the origins and development of capitalism in Western Europe. The theories propounded in Capital may be said to possess a more general validity only in the sense that any searching, empirical analysis of a given natural or social structure has a relevance transcending its particular subject matter. This is the only conception of truth compatible with the principles of a strictly empirical science. The present development of European and of a few non-European countries already demonstrates to some extent that Capital may justly claim to possess such validity. The future will confirm the rest.