Marginal Notes on Marx’s ‘Method of Political Economy’

Marginal Notes on Marx’s ‘Method of Political Economy’ [1]

[extra to text]

Marx is searching for a beginning for his writing of Capital. And beginnings, of course, are always problematic. Marx and Engels could clearly see this from a study of the beginning of Hegel’s Science of Logic. The notoriously problematic transition from ‘Being’ to ‘Becoming’ via (literally) ‘Nothing’ was noted by Engels. Marx writes…

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, [….] with e.g. the population, (p.100)

But ‘population’ turns out to be an abstract beginning because it leaves out a whole series of sub-determinations. In other words, population is an abstract determination with which to commence because it contains within it a whole series of determinations and relations which need to be developed and connected before we arrive at a characterisation of population as a determined category. If Marx begins with ‘population’, he must ‘move analytically towards ever more simple concepts’ and ‘ever thinner abstractions’ until arriving at the ‘simplest determinations’. By reversing and ‘retracing’ the exposition, we would arrive at ‘population’ once more ‘as a rich totality of many determinations and relations’. The ‘economists of the seventeenth century’ proceeded from this ‘living whole’ and concluded with a ‘small number of determinant, abstract, general relations such as division of labour, money, value, etc’. This process of analysis starting with the living whole and moving towards the establishment of simpler determinations becomes a necessary, historical moment in the evolution of the method of political economy itself. Subsequent to this development, ‘economic systems’ can ‘ascend’ from the simplest determinations to the ‘level of the state, exchange between nations and the world market’ (p.101). Marx writes that this latter ‘is obviously the scientifically correct method’.

Any object that faces us in observation is the outcome of its entire history, the fullness and complexity of that development. We face the object as a totality of inexhaustible relations, bottomless in its complexity and determinations. In rerum natura, our conception can only approximate this ‘rich totality of many determinations and relations’. Our appropriation is always, necessarily, ‘limited in its actuality, but unlimited in its potential’ (Engels).

The more ‘concrete’ is our appropriation, the less ‘abstract’ it is and, accordingly, the more closely do we approach the object in the real existence of its rich multi-faceted and multi-relational character. The less ‘concrete’ is our appropriation, the more ‘abstract’, and the further away do we distance ourselves from this real existence. The method of starting with the ‘population’ corresponds to the latter and that of commencing with the ‘simplest determinations’ corresponds to the former.

‘Historicistic’ writing of history which passes for ‘Marxist’ has a distinct tendency to follow the latter rather than the former. It starts with the ‘abstract beginning’ – undetermined, of course – and it tends to end up, via endless empirical detail, with a thin eclectic broth at the end of the discourse.

Any conceptual appropriation of the object – in the very nature of the relationship between thinking and the real existence of the object – can never present, therefore, an absolutely concrete conception or absolutely abstract conception of the object. Every ‘abstraction’ contains within it a relative degree of concreteness and every ‘concrete’ contains within it a relative degree of abstraction. This is the dialectic of the abstract and the concrete within the conceptual appropriation of the object itself and within the development of that conception.

Marx looks at this question of the concrete in the Grundrisse

The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception.

Marx then, referring to the differences in his and others’ method of political economy on page 100 of the Introduction to the Grundrisse (q.v.), continues…

Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought. In this way Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind.

But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being. For example, the simplest economic category, say e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, moreover a population producing in specific relations; as well as a certain kind of family, or commune, or state, etc. It can never exist other than as an abstract, one-sided relation within an already given, concrete, living whole.

As a category, by contrast, exchange value leads an antediluvian existence. Therefore to the kind of consciousness – and this is characteristic of the philosophical consciousness – for which conceptual thinking is the real human being, and for which the conceptual world as such is thus the only reality, the movement of the categories appears as the real act of production – which only, unfortunately, receives a jolt from the outside – whose product is the world itself; and – but this again is a tautology – this is correct in so far as the concrete totality is a totality of thoughts, concrete in thought, in fact a product of thinking and comprehending.

[Marx. Grundrisse. Penguin, 1993. Introduction, (3) The Method of Political Economy. p.101]

Marx starts, of course, with the ‘commodity’ which also ‘leads an antediluvian existence’ as a category and yet is, at the same time, the ‘cell of bourgeois society’ (Lenin). The ‘cell’ within which, embryonically, all the political economy of bourgeois society is contained and out of which it germinates and grows both logically and historically.

As Marx’s exposition unfolds in Capital, ‘a process of concentration’ takes place in thought of the ‘many determinations’ so that we are following in our study an unfolding richness and multifacetedness of the whole conception, a dialectical concentration and continuous augmentation in the complexity of the whole conception. This progressive deepening of the concreteness of Marx’s conception has, as its ‘point of departure’, the commodity as the ‘cell of bourgeois society’ i.e. the commodity as a category but, as Marx writes, the real ‘point of departure for observation and conception’ is the concrete itself, the world of capitalist society in all its inexhaustible complexity and infinitude of detail and relations. From the commodity, he progresses through 3 volumes to give an increasingly concrete analysis of the system of production and distribution based on capital which is the system of capitalist commodity production. It is quite obvious that more volumes were intended for publication but his death truncated this monumental project.

Marx was working towards a comprehensive ‘reproduction of the concrete by way of thought’ in the unfolding of his unfinished magnum opus. We have a reproduction of the real in thought by means of the unfolding conception ‘concentrating itself’ in a process of continuous negation and re-deposition, a continuously higher degree of concreteness in the totality of the conception. Marx planned further volumes, after volume 3, on class relations, the state, the world market, competition and crises of the capitalist order. And, accordingly, by this process, ‘appropriating the concrete, reproducing it as the concrete in the mind’ ‘by rising from the abstract to the concrete’.

The process by which the overall ‘concrete’ conception arises in the mind ‘is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being’. And Marx refers above to the ‘simplest economic category’ of exchange value which – as a social relation between producers – can only really exist as an intrinsic, organic part of a ‘concrete, living whole’ and has no real determinate existence outside of this other than as a categorial ‘abstract, one-sided relation’.

The fundamental question, in my opinion, which Marx is addressing is how do we appropriate this real living concrete whole, how do we reproduce it in the mind, with all the limitations necessarily associated with the appropriation of this living concrete whole? And, of course, for Marx it was a specific question of how to proceed in his analysis of the production and circulation of capital. Pointing out the approach of the ‘philosophical consciousness’ (Hegel) in the next sentence, he writes that exchange value ‘as a category…..leads an antediluvian existence’. (p.101)

For Marx to begin to reproduce this concrete within thought, he must first submit to the form of value as a category which has a primordiality prior to the historic rise of capital itself. Then follows the question….

But do not these simpler categories also have an independent historical or natural existence predating the more concrete ones? That depends…. (p.102)

‘Possession’ as a juridical, property-holding relation – with which Hegel begins the Rechtsphilosophie – always presupposes a ‘more concrete juridical relation’ which, Marx writes, we find with the ‘family or master-servant relations’ and ‘in the higher society it appears as the simpler relation of a developed organisation’. In other words, this simpler category – as a property-holding relation and not as mere possession – does not have an ‘independent historical existence predating the more concrete one’ of family and master-servant relations. But as mere possession – which is not a juridical category and therefore distinct from it – it does indeed have a ‘natural existence’ in the ‘savage’ which predates both family and master-servant relations.

However, Marx adds, the simple categories may be…

the expressions of relations within which the less developed concrete may have already realised itself before having posited the more many-sided connection or relation which is mentally expressed in the more concrete category; while the more developed concrete preserves the same category as a subordinate relation. Money may exist, and did exist historically, before capital existed, before banks existed, before wage-labour existed, etc. Thus in this respect it may be said that the simpler category can express the dominant relations of a less developed whole, or else those subordinate relations of a more developed whole which already had a historic existence before this whole developed in the direction expressed by a more concrete category. To that extent the path of abstract thought, rising from the simple to the combined, would correspond to the real historical process. (p.102)

The first part of Capital begins with the commodity and then later develops the money form of value.

Historically, the commodity and money pre-date capital which only arises in its first forms as peripheral to the dominant mode of production in Antiquity in the form of commodity (trade) and money (usury) capital. These forms existing in the ‘pores’ of the societies of the ancient world. Capital as a relationship of production only starts to entrench itself from the 16th century onwards in England and later in European societies. It first creates the sphere of circulation as its very own realm, its ‘forcing-house’ and ‘playground’ so to speak, through its mediation of subsistence production by means of the forms of commodity (trade and exchange) and money capital (usury). This becomes a historically necessary pre-requisite to the blood-soaked ‘primitive accumulation’ in which the peasantry were driven from the land [Part 8, Volume 1,Capital]. It then subsumes agricultural production under its rule and only later manufacture and industrial production in the wake of sweeping away the feudally-mediated guild system of masters and journeymen.

The Roman Imperium starts to break down at the point of the development of simple commodity production. ‘Among the Greeks and Romans, the full development of money…………appears only in the period of their dissolution’ (p.103). But even here, in the Roman period, ‘at its highest point of development’, the ‘money system actually completely developed there only in the army. And it never took over the whole of labour’ (p.103).

The commodity and money express here the ‘dominant relations of a less developed whole’ and become, later, the expressions of ‘subordinate relations of a more developed whole’ as the capital relation becomes the all pervasive and dominating relationship of production and distribution. The ‘more developed concrete’ of capital preserves the categories of the commodity and money as  ‘subordinate relations’. Thus commodity and money – existing as expressions of a less developed whole before capital became the dominant relation – become expressions of subordinate relations in the historically more concrete emergence of capital as the dominating relation of production and distribution. Capital is a more concrete category than commodity and money and both logically and historically these latter categories are less concrete, subordinate moments of the higher, more concrete category of capital. In Marx’s Capital, we observe the exposition of this relationship (commodity-money-capital) in which the ‘path of abstract thought, rising from the simple to the combined,…’ corresponds, in its dialectical logic, according to the real historical process.

Commodity and money historically pre-date capital but only reach their fullest development in ‘a combined form of society’ (Marx) whilst history gives us examples where ‘more concrete categories’ such as co-operation were more ‘fully developed in a less developed form of society’. He writes of the existence of ‘very developed but nevertheless historically less mature forms of society, in which the highest forms of economy’ such as co-operation, in the absence of money, etc, are to be found (p.102). So history does not unfold according to a formula, according to a linear template, but rather dialectically with all the contradictory complexity and paradox involved in this process.

Marx summarises the development of the conception of labour from the the ‘Monetary System’ to Adam Smith. At the end of this development, after noting the difficulty of the transition, he remarks that…

Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society – in the United States (p.104, Grundrisse)

Herein we find posited Marx’s conception of value-creating, abstract, social labour in general in contrast to the many forms of use-value producing, concrete private labour of the producers. And hence the commodity as exchangeable unity of value and use-value…

It is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire a socially uniform objectivity as values, which is distinct from their sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility. This division of the product of labour into a useful thing and a thing possessing value appears in practice only when exchange has already acquired a sufficient extension and importance to allow useful things to be produced for the purpose of being exchanged; so that their character as values has already to be taken into consideration during production (Capital, Vol 1, pp.165-66, Penguin Edn)

With the ‘globalisation’ of capitalist commodity production, we can, more or less, consider what Marx refers to here as universalised in its scope and intensity so that on a global scale ‘the abstraction of the category ‘labour” ‘becomes true in practice’ and thereby ‘achieves practical truth as an abstraction only as a category’ in the globalised existence of the capital relation. The capital relation has only now, within the past half century or so, become a world-historical relation. This has profound implications for the struggle for socialism in which capital now arrives at the point of ‘the activation of its absolute limits’ (Meszaros).

The validity of the abstract, transhistorical character of the category of labour demonstrates, however, that even the ‘most abstract categories’ are, ‘in their specific character’, creations of determinate historical relations and that, accordingly, they ‘possess their full validity only for and within these relations’ (p.105). The categories expressing the character of bourgeois society can therefore provide us with an insight into the character of past social relations and formations where these categories, in less developed form, can express the nature of the social relations of these past formations. Marx gives the example of being able to grasp tribute and tithe on the basis of an understanding of ground rent but without explicitly identifying the two. We must not ‘smudge over all historical differences’.

Human anatomy contains a key to the anatomy of the ape. The intimations of higher development among the subordinate animal species, however, can be understood only after the higher development is known. The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. (p105)

Bourgeois political economy and its later vulgarised forms ‘sees bourgeois relations in all forms of society’. This conception feeds the ahistorical notion that such relations are an intrinic part of some nebulous ‘human nature’, as a natural law forever to determine the relations between people. Bourgeois economy confuses and confounds the strictly determined and limited truth of these categories in earlier forms of society with the ‘essential differences’ which separated these latter forms from bourgeois society as a distinct and determinate ‘contradictory form of development’.

Marx writes that the ‘one-sided’ ‘so-called historical presentation of development’…

is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself,…[p.106]

This form of ‘presentation’ presents the material in a one-sided, linear, ‘inevitabilist’ (fatalistic and thereby ‘metaphysical’) concatenation as if the existence of the ‘latest’ is the only possible outcome of the ‘previous’. The historical product is not grasped in its dialectical relations as simultaneously producer and producing of its producer and product so that the ‘two-sided’ character of development is ‘smudged over’. The efforts of ‘historicistic’ writing therefore present in the form of an unending baton relay in which A could only give rise to B and this to C and so on. The later form views the earlier like a son viewing a father without any mutually determining reciprocality of historical relationship between them.  It is the ‘contemplative’ shallow rationalistic approach which ‘regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude’. [First Thesis on Feuerbach]. In Marx’s Capital we see the central role of his earlier revolutionary critique of Hegel and Feuerbach in his transcendence of this whole historicistic, rationalistic approach. This gives Capital its thoroughly revolutionary character as opposed to a discourse in historicistic rationalism which we sometimes find in the various “Marxian” expositions of historical development.

Marx is confronted with the reality of bourgeois society as a complex whole so this must be his point of departure for observation (Anschauung) and conception. But this totality is the outcome of a long period of development. The unfolding of his exposition [‘the succession of the economic categories’ p.106] must not only grasp and articulate the historic immediacy of this reality but also the detailed, historically-mediated relations, interconnections and ‘individual sides’ of bourgeois society which ‘by no means begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such‘. [p.106]. The categories lead an ‘antediluvian existence’ because they are the encapsulations of specific, usually subordinate, relations in previous societies but which now find themselves integrated into a totality of the higher relations of bourgeois society. The underlying method and the presentation of the exposition are constituted as a synthetic unity of the logical and the historical.

Marx must begin with the dominant relation of production in bourgeois society…

In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialised within it. [pp.106-107]

And this ‘specific kind of production’ is the process of production of capital. But in order to ‘begin’ with capital, Marx has no other option but to begin with the commodity (the cell of bourgeois society). In this he is ‘rising from the abstract to the concrete’ in order to ‘appropriate the concrete’ and ‘reproduce it as the concrete in the human mind’. Capital predominates and is ‘dealt with before landed property’.

The elaboration of the categories in the exposition cannot, therefore, follow the same course in which they were ‘historically decisive’ but rather must articulate the degree of their mutual determinativeness in their ‘relations to one another in bourgeois society’ [p.107] which does not follow the ‘natural’, “common sense” or historicistic order and approach to ‘historical development’ [was it not Hegel who wrote that ‘common sense is the prejudice of the day’?]. The elaboration of the exposition must reflect the degree of primacy which each category holds, and its degree of influence over all the others, in bourgeois society. The order of presentation in Capital must ‘obviously be’….

(1) the general, abstract determinants which obtain in more or less all forms of society, but in the above-explained sense. (2) The categories which make up the inner structure of bourgeois society and on which the fundamental classes rest. Capital, wage labour, landed property [p.108]

Marx’s critique of political economy (his presentation and representation of the relations governing the process of production of capital) could only be elaborated with a method which was animated by the logic of dialectics. However….

Even after the determination of the method, the critique of economics could still be arranged in two ways – historically or logically. Since in the course of history, as in its literary reflection, the evolution proceeds by and large from the simplest to the more complex relations, the historical development of political economy constituted a natural clue, which the critique could take as a point of departure, and then the economic categories would appear on the whole in the same order as the logical exposition. This form seems to have the advantage of greater lucidity, for it traces the actual development, but in fact it would thus become, at most, more popular. History moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line, and as this would have to be followed throughout, it would mean not only that a considerable amount of material of slight importance would have to be included; but also that the train of thought would frequently have to be interrupted; it would, moreover, be impossible to write the history of economy without that of bourgeois economy, and the task would thus become immense, because of the absence of all preliminary studies. [2] [3]

Despite the acknowledgement here, of the progressive ‘concentration’ of the developing conception reflecting the unfolding of the historical process itself, ‘from the simplest to the more complex relations’, the critique could not be ‘arranged’ on this historical basis for the reasons Engels gives. Accordingly…

The logical method of approach was therefore the only suitable one. This, however, is indeed nothing but the historical method, only stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurences. The point where this history begins must also be the starting point of the train of thought, and its further progress will be simply the reflection, in abstract and theoretically consistent form, of the historical course. Though the reflection is corrected, it is corrected in accordance with laws provided by the actual historical course, since each factor can be examined at the stage of development where it reaches its full maturity, its classical form [4]

This is why we may characterise Marx’s method of political economy as a unity of the logical and the historical. Marx commences with the commodity as ‘the starting point of his train of thought’ and works dialectically towards an increasingly richer conception of the capital relation. Logically and historically the commodity precedes capital. The former contains the undeveloped germ of the latter and the latter is, accordingly, the highest expression, the ‘truth’ or outcome of the development of the former. Marx’s exposition does not follow – for reasons already given – the actual course of historical development but is modulated according to the laws furnished by this evolution. So, for example, even though forms of commodity and money capital historically preceded productive capital, these forms do not ‘reach their full maturity’ until productive capital itself has become the dominant relationship in production. Only then do commodity and money capital attain their ‘classical form’. Hence, in Marx’s exposition, the process of the production of capital (volume 1) precedes the circulation of commodity and money forms of capital (volume 2).

With this method we begin with the first and simplest relation which is historically, actually available, thus in this context with the first economic relation to be found. We analyse this relation. The fact that it is a relation already implies it has two aspects which are related to each other. Each of these aspects is examined separately; this reveals the nature of their mutual behaviour, their reciprocal action. Contradictions will emerge demanding a solution. But since we are not examining an abstract mental process that takes place solely in our mind, but an actual event that really took place at some time or other, or which is still taking place, these contradictions will have arisen in practice and have probably been solved. We shall trace the mode of this solution and find that it has been effected by establishing a new relation, whose two contradictory aspects we shall then have to set forth, and so on..[5]

The ‘first and simplest relation’ is, of course, the commodity as the unity of value and use-value whose contradiction is developed through the different forms of value and then expressed in the positing of the higher relation of the money-form. The money-form was preceded historically by earlier forms of value, e.g. barter, and arises as the product of exchange.

The commodity is not only the ‘cell of bourgeois society’ but historically predates all the other economic forms which are specific to this society. The ‘prehistory’ of bourgeois society commences with the commodity whose existence precedes bourgeois society by thousands of years. All economic forms in bourgeois society arise out of the development of the commodity-form, from its first appearance in the simple exchange of barter to the mass, global capitalist commodity production we see today. The commodity is therefore the logical starting point for an analysis of capitalist production which also corresponds with the historical point of departure in the ‘pores’ of previous societies which were neither capitalist nor were mediated by the capital relation itself. Commodity and money forms of capital came later.

The commodity is therefore the point of departure for Marx, both logically and historically, in Capital. The logical expostion in Capital proceeds, accordingly, out of the development from this point of depature, always returning to itself in a continuous process of conceptual enrichment and ‘concentration’, becoming evermore concrete in this exposition. On almost every page in Capital we find the actual word ‘commodity’.

With Marx’s method, the exposition in Capital is not ‘confined to the purely abstract sphere’. Rather it required….

historical illustration and continuous contact with reality. A great variety of such evidence is therefore inserted, comprising references both to different stages in the actual historical course of social development and to economic works, in which the working out of lucid definitions of economic relations is traced from the outset. The critique of particular, more or less one-sided or confused interpretations is thus substantially given already in the logical exposition and can be kept quite short. [6]


[1] Marx. Grundrisse. Penguin, 1993. Introduction. (3) The Method of Political Economy, pp.100-108.

[2] Engels. Das Volk, No 16, August 20, 1859. [in Marx. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, 1977. pp 224-227]

[3] Marx’s notes on the ‘Method of Political Economy’ in the Grundrisse are dated late August to mid September 1857. Engels article for Das Volk is dated August 20th 1859, two years subsequent to Marx’s work on method.

[4] Engels, Ibid

[5] Engels, Op. cit

[6] Engels, Op. cit

Shaun May

December 2013




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