Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Notes from our discussion on section 1: "the method of political economy"

(Notes by Martin Thomas)
Murray said that Marx is addressing the question of how to start, in social analysis. We know Capital starts with the analysis of the commodity, and Marx was concerned about that. Why is that a big deal? Why not start with labour? With the population? With production?
Bourgeois economists' starting point, says Marx, is determined by the impression on them of incipient civil society. They start with a supposed autonomous, pre-social, individual, with exogenous preferences, abilities, and so on. In fact the illusion of the autonomous individual and economic atom is generated by bourgeois society, which is in fact a very close-knit society.
Murray reckoned that in this Introduction Marx is not sure about the starting point for analysis. He is weighing up the options.
In my own view this Introduction is a false start by Marx (which doesn't mean that it is of no interest or value).
The next year, when Marx publishes the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he writes in the Preface: "A general introduction, which I had drafted, is omitted, since on further consideration it seems to me confusing to anticipate results which still have to be substantiated".
In other words, Marx has decided that to try to prove in an introduction, starting from general principles, that production is primary, is a dead end. He is right about that. There is no axiom before or above concrete analysis that makes production primary. The general primacy of production is a conclusion, a generalisation, arrived at by a variety of concrete analyses.
In the Introduction, Marx offers no clinching general arguments as to why production should be primary. All he does is demolish the bourgeois economists' habit of "starting with production" - starting in such a general, abstract way that production comes across as being a structure common to all societies, the variation only coming in distribution and circulation. (Then, at that point, discussing capitalist distribution, you can argue, as various bourgeois economists have, alternatively that it is the ideal fair distribution, or that it is unjust and some ideal [the labour theory of value, the laws of fair exchange, or the maximisation of utility] demands a more equal distribution).
He shows that to separate off production, circulation, and distribution in that way is false. They are all closely intertwined.
Marx is not at all unsure about the actual primacy of production. In his 1859 preface he will write that he had already concluded, in the mid-1840s, that "the totality of [the] relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life". He has been sure of that for a decade and a half.
As for the "how to begin" question, he does not follow the advice he gives himself in the Introduction either in Capital (1867), or in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), or in the Grundrisse itself. In all of those, he actually starts with circulation - commodities and money. The whole discussion of "how to begin" in the Introduction is a false start which he later rejects.
Why does Marx start with circulation? I don't think there is any argument "forwards" from first principles that can tell us why - only the argument "backwards" from the later analysis.
To explain profits, Marx must explain the relation between production and value - the determinants of the difference in value between the inputs to an act of production, and the output, or in other words the relation between labour and value. To do that he has to start with value in the simplest form, with the commodity.
Also (as he explains in a letter to Weydemeyer about the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) Marx is concerned to clear away the superficial socialist ideas which claim to remedy the unequal distribution in capitalist society while leaving commodity exchange untouched. "In these two chapters [i.e. the Contribution] the Proudhonist socialism now fashionable in France which wants to retain private production while organising the exchange of private products, to have commodities but not money is demolished to its very foundations. Communism must above all rid itself of this false brother. But apart from all polemical aims, the analysis of simple money forms is, you know, the most difficult because the most abstract part of political economy".
In my view, also, the Introduction has had some bad effects on later "Marxism".
You can read it as saying that production is dominant a priori - that there is a structure called the relations of production which shapes society a priori without any intermediary of human action. You can see the harmful effects of that in the idea that the Stalinist USSR was a workers' state because of the supposed relations of production. (One of the problems with the approach is - actually in line with Marx's argument in the Introduction - it is tricky, or even impossible, to define "relations of production" in abstraction from everything else in society).
You can read it as saying that some process of introspection can tell you, once and for all, which concepts are the right ones to analyse capitalist society - that there is no process of successive approximation, of modification or even replacement of concepts, but only a once-and-for-all discovery. Actually Marx does modify his concepts as he continues his investigations. At the worst, this approach leads people to judging analysis as "Marxist" or not depending on whether it displays the jargon. You can see that sort of thing in some of the discussion on Brenner's "Economics of Global Turbulence".
Ted raised the question: what defines what is "Marxist"?

I referred to and argued against Lukacs' definition: "Orthodox Marxism... is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis... On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method". This makes sense only if there is some a priori argument, prior to all scientific investigation, which defines a special "method" once and for all.
Put aside Lukacs' question-begging scare-quotes round the word "belief". Marxism is not, or should not be, defined by a "belief", or belief, in a method in abstraction from actual investigations using or developing that method, and their conclusions. A better idea is that sets of ideas are defined as Marxist, or not, by "family resemblance", as Wittgenstein put it.
"The idea that in order to get clear about the meaning of a general term one had to find the common element in all its applications has shackled philosophical investigation... [In the different applications of a general term]
we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities... I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than 'family resemblances'..."

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