Hermann Duncker 1923

Marx as Economic Scientist

First Published: in Internationale Presse-Korrespondenz, 3: 44 (March 10, 1923), p. 328-329.
Source: Hermann Duncker: Introduction to Marxism. Selected Speeches and Writings, VEB Edition Leipzig, Leipzig, 1963, 2. enl. ed., pp. 174-180.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive 2021
Transcribed: Geoff
HTML Markup: Zdravko Saveski

In the centre of Karl Marx's scientific life work stand his investigations into the nature of capitalist economy. Marx devoted only a few sentences to the explanation of his historical-philosophical method, although he certainly applied it in every line he wrote. On the whole he dedicated only a few years to purely political writing; thus, even seen from the outside, the bulk of his intellectual work is to be found in the economic field. And in it there is really only one single problem - albeit a tremendous one to the solution of which all volumes of "Capital", all volumes of "Theories of Surplus Value" serve. Marx himself once described the final aim of his "Capital" as to "lay bare the economic laws of motion of modern society."[1]

Whereas bourgeois scholars of political economy, in line with their basically individualistic outlook, to a growing extent saw before them in the economic field only individuals and individual actions and, accordingly, perforce, deteriorated to more and more subjective and isolationary ways of thinking, crowned with the fool's cap in the shape of the Austrian School of Marginal Utility. Marx always had in mind the social interrelation of the entire economy, society as such. This economic point of departure was for him all the more noteworthy since no one had grasped more strongly than Marx precisely the social dismemberment of capitalist society.

It remains the great deed of Marxian genius to have shed the brightest light on the antagonistic, contradictory nature of capitalism by proving the class-antagonisms and by emphasizing the necessity of the class struggle.

By this means, then, emotional, utopian, philanthropic socialism became modern, scientific socialism based on class struggle. But, while Marx as a revolutionary politician understood how to make the insurmountable antagonism between capital and labour the starting point of all communist explanation of society, yet economically he saw the unique economic interrelation which the capitalist drive for profit brings about. But that certainly involves no question of "civil peace", or at most, no more than the "peace" between the cunning and the stupid through which the sheep ends up in the belly of the wolf.

The Marxian theory of value, this core of Marx's economic doctrine, becomes quite unintelligible if one seeks to develop it only from the individual exchange of two commodities. Marx is often misunderstood, also by his followers, that they overlook the social-economic frame work on which the first and most often read chapter of "Capital" (on the explanation of the elementary form of the mode of commodity production and the commodity) is built and so also overlook the social character of value producing labour itself.

But Marx in his speech of 1865 on "Wage, Price and Profit" speaks precisely of "hours of social labour" which alone are represented in exchange value. How exchange value is actually the final regulator of the whole social distribution of labour is described by Marx with classical brevity and clarity in a letter to Kugelmann:

"And the form in which this proportional distribution of labour operates in a state of society where the interconnection of social labour is manifested in the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange value of those products."[2]

Thus the planned distribution of labour in the primitive communist stage of society, or later in the feudal subsistence economy is displaced by the automatic distribution of labour taking place in commodity production. The amount of "socially necessary labour" which in the various fields of production has to be absorbed into commodities in order to maintain the time-honoured "equilibrium of economic organisation", is indicated through the equation of value of the corresponding products of exchange. Either a dictatorship, regulating the subsistence economy by foresight or a retrospective (and therefore wasteful of power and material) balancing out of the socially necessary by the exchange of commodities. There is no third possibility.

In the stage of "simple commodity production", where the commodity was still produced by the owner of small scale means of production, the commodities had the tendency to be exchanged at approximate "labour value equivalents", the price "shell" directly approximated to the "kernel" of value. The capitalist mode of production, on the other hand, carried with it a complicated extension of the law of value. It is not labour which decides there, but capital, and this finds its expression this connection, too. The value-product produced by labour is turned into money by the capitalist in the market in relation to the magnitude of his profit-hungry capital. Only in this way can each capital take an even share in the surplus value generated by production.

The exposition of the origin of surplus value from the use of the purchased commodity labour power has certainly been the most popular and effective part of Marx's doctrine. The value of the product of a day's labour is, from a certain stage of the production onwards, greater than the value of a day's labour power. This surplus value the capitalist takes as owner of the means of production which are indispensable to the process of work. Consequently once and for all the primitive notion of a "just wage" is refuted and herewith reformism in the labour movement is absolutely deprived of any theoretical basis.

"The system of wage labour is a system of slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labour develop whether the worker receives better or worse payment."[3]

A distortion much loved by bourgeois critics of Marx, is that Marx, when speaking of surplus-value-producing labour, that is exploited labour, really only meant manual labour. They probably hoped in this way to protect the intellectual wage earners from being infected by Marxism. Against this, it must be underlined here that Marx included in productive labour under capitalism "all those who contribute to the production of the commodity in one way or another, from the actual operative to the manager, engineer, as distinct from the capitalist."[4] In saying this, of course, it is not disputed that capitalism seeks to bribe the upper crust of its intellectual wage earners with shares in the booty of surplus value, and that other strata through their social traditions, have for a long time been made blind to reality.

Labour "produces" the surplus value (profit), but the possession of capital "procures" the profit for the capitalist, and as a result the capitalistically generated commodities show the tendency no longer to be fully exchanged at their "value equivalent" but at their "profit equivalent". The competition of the capitalists, through the outflow and inflow of capital between the different spheres of production, produces a tendency towards a general and average rate of profit. An average level of profit is only produced, however, when:

"Commodities are not exchanged simply as commodities, but as products of capitals which claim participation in the total amount of surplus value, proportional to their magnitude or equal if they are of equal magnitude."[5]

Thus is completed the transformation of value into price of production, that means the price which is made up of the capital advanced plus the average profit as it has resulted from equalization of the rate of profit. With that Marx had completed his theory of value:

"The value of the commodity appears directly only in the influence of the fluctuating productive forces of labour on the rise and fall of the price of production, on its movement, not on its ultimate limit."

This theory of the price of production, with few exceptions has been disregarded in the popular exposition of Marx's economic doctrines. To clarify the nature of exploitation, the nature of surplus value, the theory of value as it is presented in the first volume of "Capital", may indeed suffice. But a serious study of Marx's economic doctrine cannot blindly by-pass the later volumes of "Capital".

The motive force in the universal development of capitalism is the striving for increased profit. That leads to increased productivity, increased rate of exploitation of labour and a drive towards the monopolistic elimination of free competition. The striving of the capitalists to prevent a fall in the rate of profit has the same effect. The fall follows from the development of the social productive force of labour, since an ever-larger part of the capital in the shape of machines, raw materials, etc. is "employed", set in motion by wage labour, the sole producer of surplus value. In this way, price formation on the market goes through yet another modification - to monopoly price, which, in the final instance, however much unrelated to the labour value of the product, cannot in the long run remain in the air. On the other hand, it is precisely the monopolistic development of capitalism which makes more and more impossible this "balancing out", which is so necessary for the self-preservation of capitalist society, and consequently carries with it and accelerates the breaking down of this system.

It is only the "deceptive appearance of things" on the surface of the economy which appears to contradict Marxist theory. Scientific truths are always paradoxical, in contradiction with everyday observations. But it is also paradoxical that the earth moves around the sun and that water is composed of two inflammable gases, Marx once said. How would one be able, for example, with the law of supply and demand so much loved by bourgeois vulgar economics (which certainly keeps the surface of price fluctuation in motion) to explain the fundamental difference between the average price of different types of commodities. Without Marx one just fumbles completely in the dark. From what he had seen, of course, Marx knew only the period of growing capitalism and not its highest stage - imperialism. And yet Marx's theory encompasses the nature of capitalism so profoundly that each new phase of capitalist society only brings an abounding confirmation of the line of Marx's thought. And only by basing itself on his genius, can scientific investigation make any further detailed progress.

More so today than before we feel the truth of those great prophetic words, stated and established 55 years ago in the first volume of "Capital":

"Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation, but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with and under it, "Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated."[6]


[1] Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 10.

[2] Marx/Engels, Selected Works, vol. II, p. 419.

[3] Marx/Engels, Selected Works, vol. II, p. 27.

[4] Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, p. 153 (London 1951).

[5] Marx, Capital, vol. III, p. 172.

[6] Marx, Capital, vol. I, p. 163.