WHEN in 1866 Marx was busy preparing for publication of the first Book of Das Kapital, he compared his work in a letter with a new-born animal, licked into shape by its mother “after so many birth-pangs”. Marx's biographer, Franz Mehring, therefore gives the first section of the chapter in which he deals with the creation of Das Kapital the title of “Birth-pangs”; and he begins by remarking that these birth-pangs had lasted for about twice as many years as physiology requires months for bringing into the world a fully-formed human baby. Even in 1851 Marx had thought he would be finished within five weeks; and in 1859 he again saw the completion of his work as being less than six weeks away. In point of fact it was the end of 1865 when an enormous manuscript lay to hand, from which material, from the beginning of 1866, Marx managed over a period of fourteen months to compile the first Book of Das Kapital, although continually plagued by disease and by financial difficulties. It was with good reason that in a letter dating from this period Friedrich Engels wrote of “this accursed book”, the cause of Marx's unhappiness, “this never-to-be-finished thing” that was threatening to crush him physically, mentally and financially.
Between 1842, the year of Marx's first analysis of economic conditions in the article concerning the legislation on wood-stealing, and 1883, the year of his death, there is an interval of about forty years. If one goes by the fact that Marx's economic ideas had taken shape so early on (in 1842 he was twenty-four, and the Communist Manifesto appeared in his thirtieth year) then four decades should have afforded plenty of time for the systematic unfolding of fundamental ideas, formed at an early age. As a systematic work in several parts, the product of mature study, Das Kapital would fit splendidly into this picture. However, the picture is a misleading one and conflicts with the course which Marx's work in the economic sphere actually took. Ludwig von Beethoven testified towards the end of his life that he had only just begun to discover what composing is really all about. In the light of that declaration, Beethoven's development becomes something quite different from the organic ripening of the seed into the final fruit; it resembles more the surprisingly successful and yet abortive expedition of a Columbus, or the fruitless effort of a medical research-worker to track down the cause of cancer. Marx's economic anatomy is impelled by the insatiable flair of the scientific investigator and fired by the creative urge of the composer; and in these two together we can recognize the rational-irrational passion of the alchemist.
In 1859, when Marx is writing the Preface (Vorwort) to Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, he looks back over the way he has come, and in a matter of a few pages sums up the result, the conclusion, of his economic studies: a conclusion which “once reached, continued to serve as the leading thread in my studies”. He then sketches the main features of historical materialism, leading up to his thesis regarding the bourgeois relations of production as the last antagonistic form of the social process of production, constituting the closing chapter of the pre-history of human society. The impression created here by Marx's development is indeed that as early as in 1844 and 1845, the period he spent in Paris and Brussels, his economic philosophy was already settled in principle, so that all it needed was to be worked out in greater detail. Friedrich Engels said himself that, with the composition of the Thesen über Feuerbach in February 1845, the main features of Marx's materialistic theory of history had already been completed.
This view of Marx's development is certainly not wrong; and it is supported by Marx's autobiographical account. Nevertheless, it is misleading, if one takes it to be the whole truth. It is a half-truth, crossed by another interpretation. After all, a term such as “materialistic theory of history” (materialistische Geschichtstheorie) suggests that Marx's life's work consisted mainly in battling against idealistic theories and replacing them with his own materialistic theory; the antiquated and dilapidated buildings are demolished and a huge, brand-new construction is run up in their place.
Marx himself was all along opposed, and radically opposed, to any such scheme. If these lectures have the title, Critique of Heaven and Earth, the assumption is, of course, that the essence of Marx's whole work resides in critique. In his letters to Arnold Ruge of 1843, Marx had already described the replacement of one theory by another as the “setting up of a dogmatic banner” (eine dogmatische Fahne); and in the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right he also dismisses the vulgar critique that does battle with its object (mit ihrem Gegenstand kämpft) as “dogmatic critique”. A true critique describes the process of birth, the inner genesis within the human brain, the peculiar logic of the peculiar object. That is why his motto is reform of the consciousness, not by means of dogmas but through analysis of the mystical consciousness which has not attained to clarity regarding itself, whether in its religious or its political form of manifestation. To put it in a nutshell: the Selbstverständigung, the enlightenment of the age regarding its own struggle and its own desires. Instead of confronting the world on a doctrinaire basis, he wants to develop new principles for the world out of the principles (elements) of the world. That is critical philosophy.
In the light of this critical method, Marx's development is not simply that of a “materialistic theory of history”; it assumes a different appearance. Again, in Marx's autobiographical Vorwort to Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1859), the term Selbstverständigung plays an important role. The term is implicitly enshrined in the thesis that “mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve (stellt sick die Menschheit immer nur Aufgaben, die sie lösen kann), since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” This proposition is a product of the critical-analytical method that distinguishes sharply between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophical—in short, ideological—forms in which men become aware of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so we cannot judge such a period of transformation by its own consciousness. On the contrary, critical analysis operates the other way round. It explains the consciousness by reference to the contradictions of material life and in terms of the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the conditions of production. No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new conditions of production never appear before the material preconditions for their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.
The critical method which operates in this way achieves precisely what the letter of 1843, addressed to Ruge (the letter we quoted earlier) defines as Selbstverständigung, the capacity of the period for clarifying the question about itself, an ability to comprehend its struggle and its yearnings; in other words, critical analysis of the opaque, cloudy consciousness, whence it will appear that humanity is engaged not in any new enterprise but in the conscious completion of the old one. This Selbstverständigung, this clarification, is the fulfilment at the conscious level of the task, and the solution of the problem which, at the level of material life, is resolved by the forces of production that develop within the womb of bourgeois society and also create the material conditions for resolving the antagonism within the social process of production. With the resolution of this antagonism, which is at the same time the dissolution of the ideological consciousness, the prehistoric stage of human society is brought to an end.
Having summarized these insights as the product of his economic studies, Marx proceeds with the account of his development. He describes how Friedrich Engels, with whom he had maintained a continuous correspondence ever since the publication of Engels' ingenious outline for the critique of economic categories (the article Umrisse zu einer Kritik der National ökonomie in the Deutsch-Französischen Jahrbücher of 1844), had come by a different road to the same conclusions as himself. When they were both staying in Brussels, in the spring of 1845, they decided to work out together the contrast between their views and the ideological notions of German philosophy and thus to settle accounts with their earlier philosophical conscience. The outcome of their collaboration was a critique of post-Hegelian philosophy, set out in Die deutsche Ideologie. When it turned out to be impossible to get the bulky manuscript into print, “we abandoned it to the gnawing criticism of the mice, the more readily because we had accomplished our main purpose—Selbstverständigung—the business of clarifying the question for our own benefit.” Having referred to a few writings published during the years that followed (primarily, the Manifesto of the Communist Party and the anti-Proudhon tract, Misère de la philosophie), Marx rounds off the sketch of this period with a mention of his essay, Lohnarbeit und Kapital, the publication of which was prevented by the February revolution of 1848 and his expulsion from Belgium.
Thus in the Selbstverständigung which was his purpose in writing Die deutsche Ideologie his career, the development of his economic studies and the tumultuous events unfolding on the political stage are inextricably intertwined. The Critique of Ideology is no private concern of a few philosophers, any more than is the construction of a new philosophical theory, now called “materialistic”; but in the Critique there occurs the Selbstverständigung, the dissolution of the ideological consciousness that goes hand in hand with the resolution of the social antagonism. That is why he could calmly yield the manuscript of the Critique of Ideology to the gnawing criticism of the mice. If the work had been intended as a philosophical enterprise in its own right, then its going to waste would have meant serious frustration for the two authors. In point of fact, Marx treated the manuscript with such lack of care that it has been preserved more or less by accident and was not even published until 1932. The same fate awaited the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, likewise published only in 1932. Of them too it could be said that they were written for the purpose of Selbstverständigung, of “sorting oneself out”, and had therefore fulfilled their function.
What Marx calls “settling accounts with our earlier philosophical conscience” is defined more closely in Die deutsche Ideologie, where he criticizes the “philosophical phraseology” of his two articles in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbüchern(the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right and the article on the Jewish question). But he goes on at once to say that this philosophical phraseology itself definitely points the way to the materialistic view of the world, that is, the view which is not based on reasoning without premises from an a priori (nicht voraussetzungelosen) but, on the contrary, examines empirically the actual material premises as such and is therefore really critical. In other words, Marx's Critique of Ideology is necessarily also a critique of political economy; and taken together, the two comprise the Selbstverständigung that Marx achieved in his economic studies during the eighteen-forties, as the attainment of self-consciousness by the “prehistoric stage of human society” which is ending and is pregnant with the real history to come. The economic critique is not a self-supporting formulation of theory, but a function of the “pre-history” of which it is itself a part. So we find Marx at the close of the eighteen-fifties looking back on his studies during the eighteen-forties: the compendious economic studies of that period in which the broad features of the economic insights set out in Das Kapital had already taken shape become part and parcel of the emergence of “pre-history” into self-consciousness.
The years 1848 and 1849 bring with them the pause which Marx describes as the interruption of his economic studies by the publication of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung and the events which ensued later. In May 1849 he is exiled from Germany; and not until the next year is he able to pick up the threads of his study of economics in his new place of residence—London. But the continuity has been broken. Revolutionary events have brought the period of the eighteen-forties to an abrupt end; and emigration entails a transition to a new environment. Just as emigrating from Germany and settling in Paris had been both a drastic and a definitive step and set a seal upon the critique of religion—which was at the same time the critique of Germany—so did his expulsion from France set a seal on the critique of politics. In London the Critique of Economy begins really in earnest for the first time; or as Marx himself says, it is there that he was obliged to start completely from scratch, all over again. He mentions three reasons for this: the enormous amount of material on the history of political economy which is stored in the British Museum; the convenient vantage-point which London offers for examining bourgeois society; and finally the new stage of development upon which the latter seemed to have entered with the discovery of gold in California and Australia. Furthermore, a critical study of the new material led him into the area of other sciences, specifically of history and of the physical sciences.
Indeed, these factors were more than enough to warrant a course of scientific labours spread over very many years, especially as Marx was still obliged to earn his living as a correspondent of the Anglo-American paper, the New York Daily Tribune. Yet Marx would seem to have something else in mind, when he uses such a radical expression as “needing to start all over again from scratch” (ganz von vorn wieder anzufangen). The turn of phrase does seem highly exaggerated, when one takes stock of what he had been doing during the eighteen-forties. From the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts on (that is, from 1844), Marx is engaged in elaborating the basic elements of his economic critique, and in the Misère de la Philosophie of 1847 he displays a thorough knowledge of the classical economists, in particular of Adam Smith and Ricardo. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 enshrines the ground-plan of historical materialism. No doubt the remaining task—the completion of the whole building—is an enormous one; but that is something basically different from a totally new start. On the contrary, one's impression is that Marx is all the time in pursuit of a mystery, a secret which he has been vainly trying to unravel, and that he is now endeavouring with renewed determination to pick up the scent.
In the eighteen-fifties too a restless passion for research and exploration continues to goad him into activity. With the arrival of an economic crisis in 1857 comes a quickening of the pace. With the possibility of a revolution in view, Marx wants at any rate to finish marking out clearly the main contours of his economic Critique. Between August 1857 and March 1858, working chiefly through the night hours, he writes the Einleitung zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie and several Gahiers in which he builds up an enormous stock of analyses and detailed studies.
The work advances but slowly, he writes in a letter of February 1858 to Lassalle, “because subjects which one has made a principal object of study over many years are always revealing new aspects and raising new problems. Moreover, I am not master of my own time, but more of a lackey. I have only the nights to myself; and besides, frequent attacks of a liver complaint disrupt these hours of nightly toil.”
His plan is still to work away at the Critique of Political Economy in a number of Cahiers to be published in due order, one by one, to oblige the public. He is far from happy with this way of doing things; for he has always preferred the method of condensation. His primary concern in this enterprise, as he goes on to explain to Lassalle, is with “a critique of economic categories or, if you like, a critical exposition (Darstellung) of the bourgeois economy as a system. It is at one and the same time an exposition of the system and a critique of it… The exposition, I mean the manner, is wholly scientific and therefore not in conflict with police in the ordinary sense. The whole is divided into six Books: (1) On Capital; (2) on land-holding; (3) on wage-labour; (4) on the state; (5) international trade; (6) the world market. Of course, I cannot avoid taking up a critical posture from time to time towards other economists, especially in argument against Ricardo, in so far as even he, as a citizen, is compelled to commit blunders, looking at it even from a strictly economic standpoint. Taken as a whole, however, the critique and history of political economy and of socialism must constitute the subject of a different enterprise. Finally, the brief historical outline of the development of economic categories and relations: a third undertaking. After all, I have a presentiment that now—now that after fifteen years of study I have got so far as to begin to get a grip on the thing—various outside tumults and commotions will very likely get in the way. Never mind. If I get finished too late to find the world still interested in such matters, then the fault will obviously be my own.”
In April 1858 Marx's iron constitution gave way under the excessive strain. Because of overwork, he was obliged temporarily to give up. In sheer volume the result of his work was enormous, but for that very reason not ripe for publication. It is typical of Marx's way of working that the Einleitung zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie was only discovered among his papers in 1902 and was first published in the following year in the journal Die Neue Zeit. So far as the seven Cahiers are concerned, these were first published in 1939 under the title “Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy” (Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie), comprising about 700 printed pages. How far the manuscript was from being ready for publication is clear, for instance, from the fact that Marx had not himself given it any title. This had to be concocted from references in his letters of that period. I shall refer to this work from now on as Grundrisse.
Strictly speaking, the Grundrisse comprises only an opening section of the first Book of the outlined plan of six Books, which he had unfolded in the letter to Lassalle already quoted, that is to say, of the Book on Capital. In the Grundrisse we find various draft plans for this first Book; from which it appears that during the time he was writing it, Marx was continually occupied with the basic structure, and within a few months had gone over to a new scheme for this first Book. But, in addition, the manuscript contains abundant material for the subsequent chapters as envisaged by him in the first Book, as well as for the five other Books. He had, of course, already decided to limit himself to basics in the last three Books (State; International trade; World market), and to go into detail only in the first three (Capital; Land-holding; Wage-labour). But he did not get anywhere near achieving even this more summary exercise.
In the course of 1858 a publisher was found in Germany who was prepared to publish the entire work in successive stages, in a run of what looked like being fifteen Cahiers, or thereabouts. At the beginning of June, having sufficiently recovered from his period of depression, Marx started to prepare for the publication of the first Cahier. He had systematically to select the relevant material for that purpose from the enormous manuscript in which everything lay jumbled together (wie Kraut und Rüben durcheinandergeht). What resulted was a manuscript of which only the closing part has survived. “In all that I have written,” he complains in a letter sent in November to Lassalle, “the style bespeaks my liverish affliction. And I have a dual reason for not letting this document be spoilt and wasted on medical grounds: (1) It is the result of fifteen years' scientific investigation, that is to say, of the best years of my life; (2) It is the first scientific presentation of an important view of social relations… I have not aspired to elegant presentation, but am only trying to write in my run-of-the-mill fashion—a thing that during the months of suffering was impossible for me on this subject.”
Eventually, in the early months of 1859 a finished manuscript was ready for the press and was published under the title Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. This was, in fact, the title under which the whole series of Cahiers was to appear. The work published in 1859 contains the first two chapters of the first part of the first Book on Capital. This first part was meant to deal with “Capital in general”, subdivided into three chapters, the first two of which had as their subjects “Commodities” and “Money or elementary circulation”, respectively. Marx's plan was to prepare the third chapter, dealing with “Capital”, for publication, as he had already announced at the end of the printed edition of the first two. This third chapter was arranged under three heads: (1) The production process of capital; (2) The circulation process of capital; (3) The union of these two, or capital and profit, interest.
Had the third chapter been published, that would have served to complete only the first of the four parts of the first Book. According to the plan worked out during the ensuing years, three more parts should have followed (Competition; Credit; Nominal (share) capital (Aktienkapital)). Meanwhile, however, the basic plan was altered. In the early months of 1859 Marx devised a scheme for this third chapter, giving it the title of “Capital”, with a view to publication. This scheme he took as a guiding principle for a new manuscript, extensive enough to include 23 Cahiers. On this enormous manuscript, which again bore the title Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, he set to work in the summer of 1861. In the course of the following year he decided not to give this manuscript the form initially intended for it, as the third chapter of the first part of the first Book on capital, but to bring it out as an independent work, with the title Das Kapital. The title Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, originally intended to cover all six Books as a whole, became in this new and considerably reduced design the sub-title of what, viewed in the context of the original scheme, was in fact only the third chapter of the first part of the first Book.
Das Kapital was actually published in accordance with the new scheme, devised in 1862. Marx laboured from 1861 to 1863 on the above-mentioned manuscript of 23 Cahiers, which dealt principally with subjects that were to be taken up later in Book I of Das Kapital. In the next two years he was working on the manuscript from which a great part of Book III was compiled; and only after that did he get down to preparing for the publication of Book I, which eventually came out in 1867. It is the only Book of Das Kapital which Marx was able to prepare for publication and personally see published. Between 1867 and 1870 he was at work on manuscripts, the material from which turns up in Books II and III. Then came an interval when sickness made it practically impossible for him to write. In 1877 and 1878 he renewed his attempts to apply himself to the preparation of Book II; but he gradually realized that he would never see it completed.
A part of the manuscript of 23 Cahiers, which came into existence between the summer of 1861 and the summer of 1863, was devoted to one particular subject, namely, “theories of surplus value” (Theorieën über den Mehrwert), ten Cahiers in all, comprising more than half the total manuscript. In the letter of February 1858 to Lassalle, in which Marx unfolds his basic plan for six Books, he talks about a separate work, the subject of which is to be the critique and history of political economy and of socialism, and then also of a third work which will present a brief historical outline showing the development of economic categories and relations. In fact, these second and third works were not drawn up individually; but the material for them turns up in the manuscript we have already referred to, in the form of “theories of surplus value”. Indeed, it was a feature of the original scheme that this special subject was to form only a constituent part of the whole. Marx described this as the historical, historico-critical or historico-literary part of his work, as distinguished from the theoretical part. In the document Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie of 1859 there are indeed three special sections on this subject occurring in the course of the work (A. Notes on the history of the theory of commodities; B. Theories of the unit of measurement of money; G. Theories of the means of circulation and money). The same kind of procedure was envisaged for the subsequent Cahiers. But during the actual writing this historical and critical part grew far beyond the proportions of the basic plan. This expansion was also bound up with the fact that his critical analysis of the classic representatives of political economy in part preceded the writing of the theoretical portion in which he developed his own ideas, and formed an important stimulus and challenge to them.
So, we find in Marx's letters from 1865 onward indications that he wanted to set aside this historico-critical part for Book IV, which was to follow the three Books of Das Kapital. On the other hand, he proceeds on the assumption that in substance he has already completed this part. It is obvious that the “Theories of Surplus Value” are indeed part and parcel of the total design of Das Kapital. “Indeed,” runs a letter of 1877, “I privately began Das Kapital in exactly the reverse order to that in which it is being presented to the public.” The historico-critical part was, the pre-requisite and premise for the emergence of Books I to III, the theoretical part of Das Kapital. When in 1861 Marx set himself to prepare all this, and started to edit the manuscript of the Grundrisse on which he had begun four years previously, he needed a fresh confrontation with the bourgeois economy, in particular that of the British classicists, to clarify his ideas. The sub-title, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, given to Das Kapital, applies in the first instance as a critical analysis of politico-economic theories.
In line with Marx's own intention, it was Friedrich Engels' plan to publish the “Theories of Surplus Value” as Book IV of Das Kapital; but though he had mentioned this in the Foreword to the edition of Book II as being what he meant to do, he was unable to carry it further. The material was first published between 1905 and 1910 by Karl Kautsky, but as a separate document, and without any grasp of the distinctive structure of Marx's work, in which historico-critical analysis is inextricably interwoven and bound up with theoretical exposition and argument. Only during the nineteen-fifties did a Russian edition appear, arranged according to Marx's original scheme, to be followed in 1965 by an edition of the original German text, connecting up with the three Books of Das Kapital.
It was more than a century, therefore, before Marx's historico-critical work, incorporating the cornerstone of his Critique of Political Economy, was published in a scientifically responsible edition and in the original language. The circumstance typifies the very arduous way in which his economic analysis developed. The “birth pangs” were so protracted and so painful that even the greatly reduced and condensed form in which the original plan of the Kritik zur politischen Ökonomie was transposed into the design of Das Kapital proved almost too much for the author to cope with. When he did eventually manage to bring out Book I of Das Kapital, it was as though giving birth to this one and only child very nearly cost the mother her life. In a letter written in April 1867 he describes how he “was all the time hovering on the edge of the grave. I was therefore obliged to employ every moment available to me in an effort to finish the work; and I have sacrificed to it rny health, my happiness and my family… I laugh at so-called ‘practical’ men and their sagacity. If one wanted to be a brute beast, one could of course turn one's back on all the sufferings of mankind and save one's own skin. But I would have thought myself really unpractical to peg out without having fully completed my Book, at any rate in manuscript.”
To find an explanation for the “birth pangs” of the Critique of Political Economy one could, of course, adduce the “fantastical” strain in Marx's character; but a psychological explanation of that sort in fact depends on a circular argument; and, what is more, it conflicts with the speed and apparent ease with which the same man produced other works, such as the Communist Manifesto. One has to look for the explanation more in the peculiar character of Marx's critical method itself.
Friedrich Engels points the way to it in the Foreword to Book II of Das Kapital, which he himself published, when he asks what is really new in Marx's theory of surplus value, compared with the theories put out by various predecessors and contemporaries. How is it that Marx's theory struck home like a bolt from the blue—in every civilized country too—whereas those of all his socialist predecessors went up in smoke, leaving not a wrack behind? He finds the answer in an illustration taken from the history of chemistry.
The theory that received general support up to the end of the eighteenth century was the phlogistic theory, according to which combustion consisted essentially in this; that a certain hypothetical substance, an absolute combustible named phlogiston, separated from the burning body. This theory sufficed to explain most of the chemical phenomena then known, although it had to be considerably strained in some cases. But in 1774 Priestley succeeded in producing a certain kind of air which was free from phlogiston.” Dephlogisticated air”, he called it. Shortly after, Scheele obtained the same kind of air in Sweden and demonstrated its presence in the atmosphere. He also found that this kind of air disappeared, whenever some body was burned in it or in ordinary air and therefore he called it “fire-air”. He drew the conclusion that the combination arising from the union of phlogiston with one of the components of the atmosphere (that is to say, from combustion), was nothing but fire or heat which escaped through the glass.
Priestley and Scheele had produced oxygen without knowing what they had in front of them. They remained imprisoned within the phlogistic categories, as they had encountered them. The element destined to upset all phlogistic views and to revolutionize chemistry remained barren in their hands. But Priestley had immediately communicated his discovery to Lavoisier in Paris, and Lavoisier, with the help of this new fact, now analysed the entire phlogistic chemistry. He first discovered that this new kind of air was a new chemical element; that in combustion the mysterious element does not vanish from the burning body, but that this new element combines with that body. Thus he put the whole of phlogistic chemistry, which in its phlogistic form had stood on its head, squarely on its feet. And although he did not produce oxygen simultaneously and independently of the other two, as he claimed later on, he nevertheless is the real discoverer of oxygen vis-à-vis the others who had only produced it, without having the least suspicion of what it was they had produced.
Well now, says Engels, proceeding with his argument, as Lavoisier relates to Priestley and Scheele, so does Marx to his predecessors. The existence of that part of the value of a product which we now call surplus value had been ascertained long before Marx; it had also been stated with more or less precision what it consisted of, namely, the product of the labour for which the person acquiring command of the product had paid no equivalent. But there was no getting any further. Some (the classical bourgeois economists) investigated at most the quantitative proportion in which the product of labour was divided between the worker and the owner of the means of production. Others (the socialists) found this division unjust and looked for Utopian means of abolishing the injustice. Both parties remained prisoners of the economic categories as they had encountered them.
Now Marx appeared on the scene; and he took a view directly opposite to that of all his predecessors. Where they had seen a solution (Lösung), he saw only a problem. He saw that he was dealing neither with dephlogisticated air nor with fire-air, but with oxygen. He discovered that it was not here simply a matter of baldly stating an economic fact or of pointing out the conflict between this fact and eternal justice and true morality, but of explaining a fact which was destined to revolutionize all economics and offered to the one who knew how to use it the key to an understanding of all capitalist production. With this fact as his starting-point he examined all the economic categories, the whole body of categories employed up to then, just as Lavoisier, with oxygen as his touchstone, had examined the categories of phlogistic chemistry in current use.
In order to understand what surplus value was Marx had to find out what value was. He had to criticize above all Ricardo's theory of value. Hence he analysed labour's value-producing property and ascertained for the first time what labour produced value, and why and how it did so. He found that value is, in fact, nothing but condensed labour of this kind. Next, he examined the relation of commodities to money and demonstrated how and why commodities and commodity-exchange are bound to engender the opposition between commodity and money—and that because of the attribute of value intrinsic to commodities. The theory of money he based on this is the first exhaustive theory, which, Engels adds, has now been tacitly accepted everywhere. Marx further analysed the transformation of money into capital and demonstrated that this is based on the purchase and sale of labour-power. By substituting labour-power, the value-producing property, for labour he solved at a single stroke the difficulties which had proved the downfall of the Ricardian school: the impossibility of harmonizing the mutual exchange of capital and labour with Ricardo's law that value is determined by labour. By establishing the distinction between constant and variable capital he was the first to succeed in tracing (darzustellen) the process of the formation of surplus value in its real course and in the minutest detail, and so to succeed in explaining it (erklären)—a feat which none of his predecessors had achieved. In other words, he established a distinction within capital itself; neither his socialist predecessors nor the bourgeois economists knew what to do with this distinction, although it does in fact furnish the key to the solution of the most complicated economic problems. On analysing surplus value yet further, he found its two forms: absolute and relative surplus value. And he showed the differing but in both cases decisive role played by surplus value in the history of capitalist production. On the basis of this surplus value he developed the first rational theory of wages we have, and for the first time drew up an outline of the history of capitalist accumulation, with a sketch of the course its history has taken.
Thus far, the argument presented by Engels. We have followed it here quite deliberately, step by step, because it opens a way to the heart of Marx's critical method. Although he does not actually say so, Engels is making advance use here of an analogy which Marx uses himself in Book III of Dos Kapital. As about nine years elapsed between the publication of Book II (1885) and Book III (1894), in both cases by Engels, he was perhaps not even aware of having borrowed the comparison from Marx himself. At all events, it is to Engels' credit that by using it he was able to get at the core of Marx's critical method and give us a clearer picture of it than Marx himself was able to do.
In Book III, which is entitled “The United Process of Capitalist Production”, the subject of the first chapter is “Cost Price and Profit”. Marx first argues that profit is the same thing as surplus value, only in a mystified form that is none the less a necessary outgrowth of the capitalist mode of production. He then shows that the excess value realized in the sale of a commodity (the surplus value) appears to the capitalist as an excess of its selling price over its value as a commodity, whereas in reality the surplus value is the excess of the value over the cost price of the commodity. Because of this mystification, the capitalist imagines that the surplus value incorporated in a commodity springs out of the sale itself, whereas in fact the surplus value is only realized through the sale. The bourgeois economy, because it remains the prisoner of this mystification, is unable to offer any real explanation of how profit is formed, because on its false assumptions profit can only appear to be a “creation out of nothing”. He then comments critically on Malthus in particular, and concludes that Malthus is unable to explain the sale of commodities above their value, “since all arguments of this sort never, in effect, fail to be reduced to the same thing as the once-famed negative weight of phlogiston”. Marx also takes Proudhon into his Critique, particularly the idea that the cost-price of a commodity constitutes its actual value, and that, on the other hand, surplus value springs from selling the product above its value. This “thoughtless conception… has been heralded… as a newly discovered secret of socialism by Proudhon with his customary quasi-scientific charlatanry.”
So here is Marx himself drawing a parallel between both a bourgeois and a socialist economy on the one hand, and on the other the phlogistic theory of eighteenth-century chemistry, exploded by the discovery of oxygen. But this is not the first time that Marx has ventured into such terrain. The first chapter of Zur Kritik derpolitischen Ökonomie (1859) starts with an analysis of the distinction between use-value and exchange-value. Use-value as such lies beyond (jenseits) the horizon of political economy. Use-value only comes within its purview as the material basis which directly underlies a definite economic relation called exchange-value. Only the latter has an economic significance. Thus, entirely apart from their natural forms and without regard to the specific kind of wants for which they serve as use-values, commodities in certain quantities equal each other, take each other's place in exchange, pass as equivalents, and in spite of their variegated appearance, represent the same entity. Use-values are primarily means of existence. Conversely, however, these means of existence are themselves products of social life, the result of an expenditure of man's vital power, labour materialized (vergegenständlichte) or turned into an object. As the embodiment (Materiatur) of social labour, all commodities are the crystallization of the same entity.
Basing himself on this analysis, Marx now goes on to examine more closely the character of this entity, that is to say, of labour, which is expressed in exchange value. In this context he chooses an analogy from the field of chemistry, namely, the existence of oxygen. Let us suppose that one ounce of gold, one ton of iron, one quarter of wheat and twenty yards of silk represent equal exchange-values. As equivalents, in which the qualitative difference between their use-values has been eliminated, they represent equal volumes of the same kind of labour. The labour which is equally embodied (sich vergegenstdnälichi) in all of them must be uniform, homogeneous, simple labour; in the case of this labour it makes no difference whether it be manifested in iron, gold, wheat or silk, just as it makes no difference in the case of oxygen whether it appears in the rust of iron, in the atmosphere, the juice of a grape or human blood. But the digging for gold, the extraction of iron from a mine, the raising of wheat and the weaving of silk are so many kinds of labour, differing in quality. Indeed, what appears from a realistic viewpoint (sachlich) as a diversity of use-values, from the standpoint of the productive process (prozessierend) appears as a variegation of the activity that engenders the use-values. Since the labour which creates exchange-values is neutral vis-à-vis the particular material of the use-values, it is also neutral vis-à-vis the particular form of the labour itself. Furthermore, the different use-values are the products of the activity of different individuals, and thus the result of instances of labour differing individually the one from the other. But as exchange-values, they represent the same homogeneous labour, that is, labour from which the individuality of the workers has been eliminated Labour which creates exchange-value is therefore abstract general labour.
In the first chapter of Book I of Das Kapital we find this piece of exposition recurring almost word for word, with an interesting illustration. The mutual exchange of quantities of different commodities presupposes that in so far as they constitute exchange-values, those quantities must be reducible to a third factor. A simple illustration from geometry will make this clear. In order to calculate and compare the areas of rectilinear figures we decompose them into triangles. But we reduce the triangle itself to a formula totally different from its visible figure, namely, half the product of the base into the altitude. In the same way the exchange-values of commodities must be reducible to something common to them all, of which thing they represent a greater or less quantity. This common “something” cannot be a geometrical, physical, chemical or any other sort of natural property of the commodities. Such material properties claim our attention only in so far as they affect the utility of those commodities, that is, make them use-values. But the exchange of commodities is evidently an act characterized by a total abstraction from use-values… As use-values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange-values they can only be of different quantity, and so do not contain an atom of use-value. Discounting, then, the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. Of their material existence there is no residue other than the same spectral objectivity (gespenstige Gegenständlichkeit), no more than a congelation of homogeneous human labour. Looked at as crystals of this social substance, which they all have in common, these things are values, that is to say, commodity-values.
Taken together with the analysis provided by Engels, the arguments expounded by Marx offer in principle a sufficient basis for grasping the essence of his critical method. Nevertheless, there remains even now the fundamental difficulty that whilst the analogy with the field of the natural sciences is totally adequate and indeed provides the key to the secret of Marx's analysis, even then one cannot begin to get anywhere (as Engels puts it) so long as one does not know how to use the key. The fact is, an analogy with scientific research only takes us part of the way, since the whole area of economics is substantially different in kind from that of the physical sciences. Not until we understand this distinction are we in a position to open the door to which the analogy furnishes the key. Then again, Marx himself adds to the difficulty by at the same time drawing a parallel with the field of geometry, which itself is essentially different from that of the physical sciences, even though up to a point both areas do admittedly apply the same sort of method to the solution of problems.
In order to find our way through this complex nexus of problems, we shall start from the analogy Marx has given between the labour which creates exchange-values and oxygen. That analogy presupposes a knowledge of what oxygen is; and this concept in turn assumes the previous analysis first completed by the chemist, Lavoisier. The fact that labour creates exchange-values was known before Marx, just as oxygen was known and had been produced by investigators like Priestley and Scheele prior to Lavoisier's discovery. But before Lavoisier's discovery there was no possibility of understanding what had been produced, or in other words, what oxygen is, as the categories of phlogistic chemistry were barring the way to such an understanding. Similarly, prior to Marx's critical analysis the possibility had been denied to economics of grasping the essential nature of exchange-value and so of reaching any real understanding of surplus value. Phlogistic chemistry explained the nature of combustion by postulating a hypothetical substance, phlogiston, which escapes from the burning material. When it had been established that the weight of metals heated in the atmosphere increases, some champions of the theory ascribed a negative weight to the phlogiston. Marx compares the way in which in the field of political economy people were trying to explain surplus value with these phlogistic hypotheses which, as he puts it, more or less amount to assuming a creation ex nihilo.
The analogy with Lavoisier's work points the way to an understanding of Marx's analytical method. Just as Priestley and Scheele had already produced the element which Lavoisier was to call “oxygen”, at the same time they had no idea of what they were doing. First, a revolution in phlogistic chemistry was necessary. Whilst the production of oxygen provided an opening for this, it was not in itself enough to set such a radical change in motion. That required a fundamental renovation of chemistry, the creation of new categories. Although both his predecessors had produced “oxygen”, Lavoisier was the first to discover oxygen, because he replaced the inadequate categories of phlogistic chemistry with adequate ones, thus making possible the notion of oxygen as a new element that combines with the burning substance. Similarly, Marx's analysis of surplus value signified a revolution in economic science. Although surplus value was known to exist, it was he who discovered it, because his was the first analysis capable of creating adequate categories for understanding the origin and nature of surplus value.
As Lavoisier, using Priestley's observations to help him, had subjected the whole of phlogistic chemistry to investigation, so Marx did the same with the current “theories of surplus value”; but this investigation was inseparably bound up with an analysis of the economic process itself. Just as in the illustration from geometry, which he himself employed, a comparison of the areas of rectilinear figures only becomes possible when these are decomposed into triangles, and the triangle itself is then reduced to a mathematical formula, so Marx analysed the economic process first into exchange-values, which he then reduced to abstract, general human labour, in so far as that labour creates exchange-values. This abstract, general labour he compares, on the one hand, with a mathematical formula, and, on the other with, oxygen. The correspondence between the two analogies is this. Both the mathematical formula and the chemical element, oxygen, can be the common denominator for a comparison of very different things: in the first instance, every possible sort of triangle; and in the second case, all substances whatever, containing oxygen. Yet there is, on the other hand, a fundamental difference between the two analogies. In geometry the mathematical formula is a pure abstraction, whereas oxygen is a chemical element which experiment can detect and establish.
Now, by using both analogies, Marx reveals the distinctive character of his method, which, on the one hand, is purely analytical and, on the other, is engendered by the encounter with the empirical terrain of the economic process, the phenomena of which demand an analysis that will make it possible to understand and explain them. This brings us close to the heart of the problem. For it consists in the fact that the so-called empirically ascertainable phenomena of the economic process at the same time have a specific character directly akin to that of the mathematical analysis of geometrical figures. Once again we must hear what Marx has to say. Entirely in keeping with the geometrical illustration, he puts it in the first chapter of Zur Kritik derpolitischen Ökonomie like this: “In order to measure commodities by the labour-time contained in them, the different kinds of labour must be reduced to uniform, homogeneous, simple labour, in short, to labour which is qualitatively the same, and therefore differs only in quantity.” This is paralleled in every respect by the illustration of the reduction of all possible triangles to one and the same mathematical formula.
But then comes a passage of crucial importance: “This reduction appears to be an abstraction; but it is an abstraction which occurs daily in the social process of production. The conversion of all commodities into labour-time is no greater abstraction nor a less real process than the chemical reduction of all organic bodies to air.” In this utterance we can recognize the combination of analogies: there is the geometrical-cum-mathematical abstraction or reduction, and also the abstraction or conversion (Auflösung) which occurs in chemical reduction. But the most important element in this passage is embodied in the proposition that an abstraction which would appear to be the preserve of the geometrical-mathematical method, occurs in reality, nay, takes place daily in the social process of production. “Labour, thus measured by time, does not appear (erscheint) in fact as the labour of different individuals, but the various working individuals appear rather as no more than organs of labour.” This applies not only to unskilled labour but to skilled labour as well. “This kind of labour resolves itself into composite unskilled labour… This is not the place to consider the laws which regulate this reduction. It is clear, however, that such reduction does take place; for as exchange-value the product of the most skilled labour is in certain proportions equivalent to the product of unskilled average labour.” In other words, analogously to the reduction of complex rectilinear figures to triangles.
The central problem now is this: that the crucial abstraction in the economic process is the reduction to a unity (or entity) of a basically different order, just as the reduction of areas in geometry to a mathematical formula is likewise a transition to another order, namely, from a visible figure to a mathematical expression, which abstracts from all representational extension. Analogously, this transition occurs in the economic process where exchange-value is determined by labour-time. The following three aspects are crucial in this regard: (a) the reduction of labour to simple (unskilled) labour, devoid of any quality; (b) the specific way in which labour, which creates exchange-value and so produces commodities, becomes social labour; (c) the distinction between labour as producer of use-values and labour as the creator of exchange-values.
If we equate the visible geometrical figure to the use-value of a product of labour, then the mathematical formula is equivalent to the exchange-value. This abstracts from the geometrical, physical, chemical or other kind of natural properties of a commodity. Yet it is precisely through the exchange-value that the labour of the individual, which creates use-values, becomes social labour. The heart of the problem resides in the fact that the labour of the individual becomes social labour only by taking on the form of its direct opposite, the form of abstract universal labour.
Exchange-value is, in fact, a social relation between persons; but in its manifestation this reality appears as it were in reverse (sick gleichsam verkehrt darstellt), namely, as a relation in the disguise of a thing (unter dinglicher Hülle verstecktes Verhältnis). Just as a pound of iron and a pound of gold represent the same weight in spite of their different physical and chemical properties, so do two use-values, as commodities containing the same quantity of labour-time, represent the same exchange-value. Exchange-value thus appears as a social property naturally inherent in use-values, as a property which they possess by virtue of being things. Appearing in this form, use-values can be exchanged for one another in definite proportions or form equivalents, just as simple chemical substances combine in certain proportions, and form chemical equivalents. In commodities this mystification is as yet very simple; but in higher productive relations this semblance of simplicity disappears. That, Marx concludes, is why the modern economists who sneer at the illusions of the monetary system exhibit the same illusions as soon as they have to deal with higher categories—capital, for example. “These illusions appear in the expression of naive astonishment, when what they have just thought to have defined with great difficulty as a thing suddenly appears as a social relation and then reappears to tease them again as a thing, before they have barely managed to define it as a social relation.”
It must by now be clear to what a complicated analysis Marx was committed in the cause of probing and searching out the specific nature of the economic process. His critical method is sui generis, with a character all its own. On one hand, it is analogous with the abstractive and reductive method used in the mathematical analysis of geometrical figures, but for a surprising reason—because of the method of abstraction which the social process itself employs in the reality of everyday life. On the other hand, his method is analogous to the way in which in the history of chemistry oxygen is discovered as a new element—yet with this crucial difference, that the analogous “element” which Marx discovered, namely, the specific character of surplus value, is the direct opposite of a physical element. A fundamental aspect of his discovery is the very fact that he tore the veil from the mystification which perverts a social relation between human beings into a natural property inherent in things as such.
The multidimensional character of Marx's critical method offers a real obstacle to a full comprehension of it. The comparison with Lavoisier properly puts it in the succession of scientific revolutions. The historian, Thomas S. Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), analyses Lavoisier's discovery as a classic example of the way in which revolutions in the history of the natural sciences come about. What Engels calls “categories” in Kuhn's terminology is a “paradigm”: it is a “paradigm change” that activates a scientific revolution. Kuhn also argues that this entails a combination of two closely interrelated factors, namely, “discovery”, the demonstrating of new facts (“novelties of fact”) and “invention”, the creation of a new theory (“novelties of theory”). An analogous distinction is made by Engels, when he distinguishes between Priestley's work which “produced” (dargestellt) oxygen and Lavoisier's work as the “discoverer” (Entdecker) of oxygen. The conformity between Engel's analysis and Kuhn's goes one stage further, where the latter concludes that after a scientific revolution the scientist not only uses another “paradigm” but finds himself in another world (“after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world”). This he illustrates with the aid of Gestalt experiments, first written up by Stratton in 1897, in an article entitled Vision without inversion of the retinal image. In our own century these experiments have been taken further. The subject of the experiment is given a special pair of spectacles which invert the image. At first he sees everything upside down, because the organ of sight functions as it had learnt to function without the spectacles. After an initial phase in which the subject is totally disorientated and undergoes an acute personal crisis, he learns slowly but surely to feel at home in this new world. Usually after a transitional phase in which his vision is simply confused, he begins to see things as he used to before the spectacles were put on. The assimilation of a previously anomalous visual field has changed the field itself. Literally as well as metaphorically, the subject has undergone a revolutionary transformation of vision.
Indeed, Engels expresses himself in very much the same way when he says that Lavoisier was the first to place all chemistry, which in its phlogistic form had stood on its head, squarely on its feet. Without actually saying so, Engels returns to a simile already found in Die deutsche Ideologie, which he and Marx had written together: “Consciousness (Bewusstsein) can never be anything else but conscious being (das bewusste Sein) and the being of men is their real life-process. If in the whole of ideology men and their relations appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this is due as much to their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina is due to their immediate physical life-process.” There follows an explication of Marx's critical method: “In direct opposition to German philosophy, which comes down from heaven to earth, here there is ascension from earth to heaven… At the point where speculation ceases—that is, with real life—actual, positive science, the representation (Darstellung) of real activity, the practical process of human development begins. When the vapourings of consciousness cease, real knowledge must surely take their place. With the representation of reality a self-sufficient philosophy loses its means of existence.”
In the postscript (Nachwort) to the second edition (1873) of Book I of Das Kapital, again without actually referring to it, Marx elaborates upon these views when he explains the specific character of his critical method as distinct from Hegel's. “Of course, the method of presentation (Darstellungsweise) must differ in form from that of enquiry (Forschungsweise). The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development, to trace out their inner connection. Only after this work has been done can the actual movement be presented in conformity with it. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction. My dialectical method is not only different from Hegel's, but fundamentally its direct opposite. To Hegel… the process of thinking, which under the name of ‘the Idea’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurge of the real process, which itself is only the external, phenomenal form (Ersckeinung) of the Idea. Conversely, for me the ideal is nothing other than the material, transmuted and translated in the human brain (das im Menschenkopf umgesetzte und übersetzte Materielle)… The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands by no means prevents him (however) from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him dialectic is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up (umstülpen, i.e., literally, ‘to turn it inside out’) again, if one is to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”
So far the analogy between Marx and Lavoisier would still seem to be totally applicable. Just as Lavoisier set to rights phlogistic chemistry, so Marx did the same for Hegel's dialectic. But as we have already seen, between the critique of political economy and the method used in the natural sciences there is a fundamental point of difference, in that the sphere of economics is not nature but the human and social process of production. The “inversion” occurs not only on the retina and in the brain of the scientific investigator but in the actual thing being investigated, that is, in the very process by which the object of economics, the commodity, comes into existence. As soon as a natural product of human labour begins to function as a commodity (so Marx argues in the first chapter of Das Kapital) it changes into something still sensory yet transcendent (sinnlich übersinnliches). It stands, not just with its feet on the ground, but in relation to all other commodities it puts itself on its head.
This is why the critique of political economy calls for a more complex method than do the physical sciences. There is an extra dimension, as it were. Lavoisier became the discoverer (Entdecker, or, in Kuhn's terminology, “inventor”) of oxygen. After it had been produced (dargestellt, or, in Kuhn's terminology, “discovered”) by another chemist, Priestley, Lavoisier created the theory, the categories, the “paradigm”, calculated to enable us to understand what oxygen is. Marx's investigation of surplus value, on the other hand, required a quite different approach; for surplus value was not, like oxygen, something produced (dargestellt) by earlier economists, but is being produced (dargestellt) day by day in the social process of production itself—produced, indeed, by a process which stands on its own head. It is not enough to put on a special pair of spectacles so that one can watch this process inverted, that is, right side up; but we must invert the process itself, if our analysis is to be an adequate one. Marx's mode of presentation really means that by his use of critical analysis he must produce, must present (darstellen) the truth and reality of the object. The reality being investigated is a perverted world (verkehrte Welt), which gives rise to a perverted world consciousness (verkehrtes Weltbewusstsein). It is the task of a critique to present (darzustellen) an inversion of that perverted world, to present it, that is, “normal side up”; and in so doing it at the same time “rights” the inverted consciousness. The critique of political economy follows no other road than the critique of religion.