Karl Marx: Critique of Political Economy
Review by Frederick Engels

Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political economy”

First Published: Das Volk, Nos. 14 & 16, August 6 & 20, 1859;
Written: between August 3 and 15, 1859.


The Germans have long since shown that in all spheres of science they are equal, and in most of them superior, to other civilised nations. Only one branch of science, political economy, had no German name among its foremost scholars. The reason is obvious. Political economy is the theoretical analysis of modern bourgeois society and therefore presupposes developed bourgeois conditions, conditions which for centuries, following the wars in the wake of the Reformation and the peasant wars and especially the Thirty Years’ War, could not establish themselves in Germany. The separation of the Netherlands from the Empire removed Germany from the international trade routes and restricted her industrial development from the very beginning to the pettiest scale. While the Germans painfully and slowly recovered from the devastations of the civil wars, while they used up their store of civic energy, which had never been very large, in futile struggle against the customs barriers and absurd commercial regulations which every petty princeling and imperial baron inflicted upon the industry of his subjects, while the imperial cities with their craft-guild practices and patrician spirit went to ruin — Holland, England and France meanwhile conquered the leading positions in international trade, established one colony after another and brought manufactory production to the height of its development, until finally England, with the aid of steam power, which made her coal and iron deposits valuable, headed modern bourgeois development. But political economy could not arise in Germany so long as a struggle had still to be waged against so preposterously antiquated remnants of the Middle Ages as those which hampered the bourgeois development of her material forces until 1830. Only the establishment of the Customs Union enabled the Germans to comprehend political economy at all. It was indeed at this time that English and French economic works began to be imported for the benefit of the German middle class. Men of learning and bureaucrats soon got hold of the imported material and treated it in a way which does little credit to the “German intellect.” The literary efforts of a hotchpotch of chevaliers d’industrie, traders, schoolmasters and bureaucrats produced a bunch of German economic publications which as regards triteness, banality, frivolity, verbosity and plagiarism are equalled only by the German novel. Among people pursuing practical objectives there arose first the protectionist school of the industrialists, whose chief spokesman, List, is still the best that German bourgeois political economy has produced although his celebrated work is entirely copied from the Frenchman Ferrier, the theoretical creator of the Continental System. In opposition to this trend the free-trade school was formed in the forties by merchants from the Baltic provinces, who fumblingly repeated the arguments of the English Free Traders with childlike, but not disinterested, faith. Finally, among the schoolmasters and bureaucrats who had to handle the theoretical aspects there were uncritical and desiccated collectors of herbaria, like Herr Rau, pseudo-clever speculators who translated foreign propositions into undigested Hegelian language like Herr Stein, or gleaners with literary pretensions in the field of so-called history of civilisation, like Herr Riehl. The upshot of all this was cameralistics, an eclectic economic sauce covering a hotchpotch of sundry trivialities, of the sort a junior civil servant might find useful to remember during his final examination.

While in this way in Germany the bourgeoisie, the schoolmasters and the bureaucrats were still making great exertions to learn by rote, and in some measure to understand, the first elements of Anglo-French political economy, which they regarded as incontestable dogmas, the German proletarian party appeared on the scene. Its theoretical aspect was wholly based on a study of political economy, and German political economy as an independent science dates also from the emergence of this party. The essential foundation of this German political economy is the materialist conception of history whose principal features are briefly outlined in the “Preface” to the above-named work. Since the “Preface” has in the main already been published in Das Volk, we refer to it. The proposition that “the process of social, political and intellectual life is altogether necessitated by the mode of production of material life"; that all social and political relations, all religious and legal systems, all theoretical conceptions which arise in the course of history can only be understood if the material conditions of life obtaining during the relevant epoch have been understood and the former are traced back to these material conditions, was a revolutionary discovery not only for economics but also for all historical sciences — and all branches of science which are not natural sciences are historical. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” This proposition is so simple that it should be self-evident to anyone not bogged down in idealist humbug. But it leads to highly revolutionary consequences not only in the theoretical sphere but also in the practical sphere. “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.... The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence — but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism.” The prospect of a gigantic revolution, the most gigantic revolution that has ever taken place, accordingly presents itself to us as soon as we pursue our materialist thesis further and apply it to the present time.

Closer consideration shows immediately that already the first consequences of the apparently simple proposition, that the consciousness of men is determined by their existence and not the other way round, spurn all forms of idealism, even the most concealed ones, rejecting all conventional and customary views of historical matters. The entire traditional manner of political reasoning is upset; patriotic magnanimity indignantly objects to such an unprincipled interpretation. It was thus inevitable that the new point of view should shock not only the exponents of the bourgeoisie but also the mass of French socialists who intended to revolutionise the world by virtue of the magic words, liberté, égalité, fraternite. But it utterly enraged the vociferous German vulgar democrats. They nevertheless have a partiality for attempting to plagiarise the new ideas in their own interest, although with an exceptional lack of understanding.

The demonstration of the materialist conception even upon a single historical example was a scientific task requiring years of quiet research, for it is evident that mere empty talk can achieve nothing in this context and that only an abundance of critically examined historical material which has been completely mastered can make it possible to solve such a problem. Our party was propelled on to the political stage by the February Revolution and thus prevented from pursuing purely scientific aims. The fundamental conception, nevertheless, runs like an unbroken thread through all literary productions of the party. Every one of them shows that the actions in each particular case were invariably initiated by material causes and not by the accompanying phrases, that on the contrary the political and legal phrases, like the political actions and their results, originated in material causes.

After the defeat of the Revolution of 1848-49, at a time when it became increasingly impossible to exert any influence on Germany from abroad, our party relinquished the field of emigrant squabbles — for that was the only feasible action left — to the vulgar democrats. While these were chasing about to their heart’s content, scuffling today, fraternising tomorrow and the day after once more washing their dirty linen in public, while they went begging throughout America and immediately afterwards started another row over the division of the few coins they had collected — our party was glad to find once more some quiet time for research work. It had the great advantage that its theoretical foundation was a new scientific conception the elaboration of which provided adequate work; even for this reason alone it could never become so demoralised as the “great men” of the emigration.

The book under consideration is the first result of these studies.


[Das Volk, No. 16, August 20,1859]

The purpose of a work like the one under review cannot simply be desultory criticism of separate sections of political economy or the discussion of one or another economic issue in isolation. On the contrary, it is from the beginning designed to give a systematic résumé of the whole complex of political economy and a coherent elaboration of the laws governing bourgeois production and bourgeois exchange. This elaboration is at the same time a comprehensive critique of economic literature, for economists are nothing but interpreters of and apologists for these laws.

Hardly any attempt has been made since Hegel’s death to set forth any branch of science in its specific inner coherence. The official Hegelian school had assimilated only the most simple devices of the master’s dialectics and applied them to everything and anything, often moreover with ridiculous incompetence. Hegel’s whole heritage was, so far as they were concerned, confined exclusively to a template, by means of which any subject could be knocked into shape, and a set of words and phrases whose only remaining purpose was to turn up conveniently whenever they experienced a lack of ideas and of concrete knowledge. Thus it happened, as a professor at Bonn has said, that these Hegelians knew nothing but could write about everything. The results were, of course, accordingly. For all their conceit these gentlemen were, however, sufficiently conscious of their failings to avoid major problems as far as possible. The superannuated fossilised type of learning held its ground because of its superior factual knowledge, and after Feuerbach’s renunciation of the speculative method, Hegelianism gradually died away, and it seemed that science was once more dominated by antiquated metaphysics with its rigid categories.

For this there were quite natural reasons. The rule of the Hegelian Diadochi, which ended in empty phrases, was naturally followed by a period in which the concrete content of science predominated once more over the formal aspect. Moreover, Germany at the same time applied itself with quite extraordinary energy to the natural sciences, in accordance with the immense bourgeois development setting in after 1848; with the coming into fashion of these sciences, in which the speculative trend had never achieved any real importance, the old metaphysical mode of thinking, even down to the extreme triviality of Wolff, gained ground rapidly. Hegel was forgotten and a new materialism arose in the natural sciences; it differed in principle very little from the materialism of the eighteenth century and its main advantage was merely a greater stock of data relating to the natural sciences, especially chemistry and physiology. The narrow-minded mode of thinking of the pre-Kantian period in its most banal form is reproduced by Büchner and Vogt, and even Moleschott, who swears by Feuerbach, frequently flounders in a highly diverting manner through the most simple categories. The jaded cart-horse of the commonplace bourgeois mind falters of course in confusion in front of the ditch separating substance from appearance, and cause from effect; but one should not ride carthorses if one intends to go coursing over the very rough ground of abstract reasoning.

In this context, therefore, a question had to be solved which was not connected with political economy as such. Which scientific method should be used? There was, on the one hand, the Hegelian dialectics in the quite abstract “speculative” form in which Hegel had left it, and on the other hand the ordinary, mainly Wolffian, metaphysical method, which had come again into vogue, and which was also employed by the bourgeois economists to write their bulky rambling volumes. The second method had been theoretically demolished by Kant and particularly by Hegel so that its continued use in practice could only be rendered possible by inertia and the absence of an alternative simple method. The Hegelian method, on the other hand, was in its existing form quite inapplicable. It was essentially idealist and the main point in this case was the elaboration of a world outlook that was more materialist than any previous one. Hegel’s method took as its point of departure pure thought, whereas here the starting point was to be inexorable facts. A method which, according to its own avowal, “came from nothing through nothing to nothing” was in this shape by no means suitable. It was, nevertheless, the only element in the entire available logical material which could at least serve as a point of origin. It had not been subjected to criticism, not been overthrown; none of the opponents of the great dialectician had been able to make a breach in the proud edifice. It had been forgotten because the Hegelian school did not know how to apply it. Hence, it was first of all essential to carry through a thorough critique of the Hegelian method.

It was the exceptional historical sense underlying Hegel’s manner of reasoning which distinguished it from that of all other philosophers. However abstract and idealist the form employed, yet his evolution of ideas runs always parallel with the evolution of universal history, and the latter was indeed supposed to be only the proof of the former. Although this reversed the actual relation and stood it on its head, yet the real content was invariably incorporated in his philosophy, especially since Hegel — unlike his followers — did not rely on ignorance, but was one of the most erudite thinkers of all time. He was the first to try to demonstrate that there is an evolution, an intrinsic coherence in history, and however strange some things in his philosophy of history may seem to us now, the grandeur of the basic conception is still admirable today, compared both with his predecessors and with those who following him ventured to advance general historical observations. This monumental conception of history pervades the Phänomenologies, Asthetik and Geschichte der Philosophie, and the material is everywhere set forth historically, in a definite historical context, even if in an abstract distorted manner.

This epoch-making conception of history was a direct theoretical pre-condition of the new materialist outlook, and already this constituted a connecting link with the logical method as well. Since, even from the standpoint of “pure reasoning,” this forgotten dialectics had led to such results, and had moreover with the greatest ease coped with the whole of the former logic and metaphysics, it must at all events comprise more than sophistry and hairsplitting. But the critique of this method, which the entire official philosophy had evaded and still evades, was no small matter.

Marx was and is the only one who could undertake the work of extracting from the Hegelian logic the nucleus containing Hegel’s real discoveries in this field, and of establishing the dialectical method, divested of its idealist wrappings, in the simple form in which it becomes the only correct mode of conceptual evolution. The working out of the method which underlies Marx’s critique of political economy is, we think, a result hardly less significant than the basic materialist conception.

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 in 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 society, and the task would thus become immense, because of the absence of all preliminary studies. 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 occurrences. 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.

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 that 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 which 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.

Political economy begins with commodities, with the moment when products are exchanged, either by individuals or by primitive communities. The product being exchanged is a commodity. But it is a commodity merely by virtue of the thing, the product being linked with a relation between two persons or communities, the relation between producer and consumer, who at this stage are no longer united in the same person. Here is at once an example of a peculiar fact, which pervades the whole economy and has produced serious confusion in the minds of bourgeois economists — economics is not concerned with things but with relations between persons, and in the final analysis between classes; these relations however are always bound to things and appear as things. Although a few economists had an inkling of this connection in isolated instances, Marx was the first to reveal its significance for the entire economy thus making the most difficult problems so simple and clear that even bourgeois economists will now be able to grasp them.

If we examine the various aspects of the commodity, that is of the fully evolved commodity and not as it at first slowly emerges in the spontaneous barter of two primitive communities, it presents itself to us from two angles, that of use-value and of exchange-value, and thus we come immediately to the province of economic debate. Anyone wishing to find a striking instance of the fact that the German dialectic method at its present stage of development is at least as superior to the old superficially glib metaphysical method as railways are to the mediaeval means of transport, should look up Adam Smith or any other authoritative economist of repute to see how much distress exchange-value and use-value caused these gentlemen, the difficulty they had in distinguishing the two properly and in expressing the determinate form peculiar to each, and then compare the clear, simple exposition given by Marx.

After use-value and exchange-value have been expounded, the commodity as a direct unity of the two is described as it enters the exchange process. The contradictions arising here may be found on pp. 20 and 21. We merely note that these contradictions are not only of interest for theoretical, abstract reasons, but that they also reflect the difficulties originating from the nature of direct interchange, i.e., simple barter, and the impossibilities inevitably confronting this first crude form of exchange. The solution of these impossibilities is achieved by investing a specific commodity — money — with the attribute of representing the exchange-value of all other commodities. Money or simple circulation is then analysed in the second chapter, namely (1) money as a measure of value, and, at the same time, value measured in terms of money, i.e., price, is more closely defined; (2) money as means of circulation and (3) the unity of the two aspects, real money which represents bourgeois material wealth as a whole. This concludes the first part, the conversion of money into capital is left for the second part.

One can see that with this method, the logical exposition need by no means be confined to the purely abstract sphere. On the contrary, it requires 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.

The economic content of the book will be discussed in a third article.