Marx’s Capital – Philosophy and Political Economy. Geoff Pilling 1980
Chapter 3. The Concepts of Capital


Formal Logic and Dialectics

In its most profound sense, Capital is a work which elucidates the history of capitalism and it does this by means of ‘an analysis of the concepts which sum up this history’ as Lenin at one point puts it. The nature of the concepts Marx develops in his work and the role played by them are therefore of decisive importance in understanding the nature of this work. It is no accident that nearly all the attacks launched against Capital have been directed against the fundamental concepts of the work - the law of value, the notion of surplus value, etc. It has been asserted that these categories do not correspond to the observed development of capitalism; either this or they are merely theoretical constructs, a legacy of Marx’s unfortunate flirtation with Hegelianism.

In examining the nature of Marx’s concepts, let us recall one decisive point which emerged from his critique of classical economics. In this critique Marx (here following the lead of Hegel) recognises that every science necessarily evolves through its own categories and that it is only through the development of such categories that thought is able to gain a more rigorous understanding of the objects and processes it is studying. Marx’s concern was never confined to pointing out the errors of Ricardo and others he was above all concerned to show the limitations of a method that had produced a series of concepts which, while explaining bourgeois economic relations ‘with social validity’, proved incapable of probing to the ‘law of motion’ of capitalist society. In his critique of the categories of bourgeois economy Marx was directly influenced by Hegel. It was Hegel who drew an important distinction between the mere formation of images of things and the drawing of notions. It will be important to keep this distinction in mind for what follows. Hegel says on this point: ‘The mind makes general images of objects long before it makes notions of them; and it is only through these mental images and by recourse to them, that the thinking mind rises to know and comprehend thinkingly’ (Shorter Logic, § 1). And Hegel proceeds to characterise philosophical thought as ‘a peculiar mode of thinking – a mode in which thinking becomes knowledge, and knowledge through notions’ (Shorter Logic, § 2). Elaborating on this distinction between ‘image’ and ‘concept’ Hegel further says: ‘It may be roughly said that philosophy puts thoughts, categories, or in a more precise language adequate notions, in place of generalised images we ordinarily call ideas. Mental impressions such as these may be regarded as the metaphors of thoughts and notions’. (Shorter Logic, § 3).

It was in tracing this path along which ‘thinking becomes knowledge’ that Hegel insisted on the objectivity of the basic categories of thought. Real scientific thought was impossible if it confined itself to the immediate impressions given in sensation. It was necessary to posit these sensations on to a body of existing knowledge, a body of knowledge built up historically by previous thinkers in the particular field concerned. There is no doubt that Marx and Engels fully agreed with Hegel on this point. The categories of thought were not the product of minds considered in their individuality; the development of knowledge, like the development of history generally, was the product of ‘many wills’. It is important in this respect to note that Marx did not confine his studies in the history of political economy to one or two individuals. It is, of course, true that he gave particular prominence to Ricardo; but he also studied thoroughly Ricardo’s opponents, even though he considered their work often contained much ‘vulgar’ material (Malthus would be a case in point). And this is no accident: Marx studied all the aspects of the development of political economy, for it was only in this process - in the ‘clash of many wills’ - that the science had in reality developed. Ricardo’s own development provides a striking example of the objective character of the categories of political economy. His early works are almost wholly concerned with monetary questions, the question of fixed currency and the bullion price. Despite the fact that Ricardo had studied Smith’s Wealth of Nations before these early writings, there is no evidence that he was at that stage in any way concerned with the more abstract questions (law of value, rate of profit, etc.) which were to dominate his latter work, notably the Principles. He was forced to consider the problem of the law of value by practical necessity in his case by the problem of the Corn Laws and the analysis of class relations which this involved. And this in turn obliged him to attempt to resolve the theoretical inconsistencies in Smith’s work. He was forced to ‘connect up’ with the basic concepts of political economy, as these had been developed up to that point.

I: The objectivity of concepts

In considering this point about the objectivity of conceptual knowledge let us consider Marx’s well-known statement in the 18th Brumaire:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

The important point for us here is that what is true of man’s economic, political, etc. history is true equally of his intellectual history. Every new development in knowledge, in all spheres of investigation, necessarily grows out of the old forms in which that knowledge has historically emerged. And the form taken by human thought is always a series of interrelated concepts, concepts which do not reflect the whim of individual thinkers, but reflect man’s practice in the particular sphere of science concerned. It is for this reason alone that all attempts to separate Marx’s thought off completely from his predecessors can only lead to sterility, as with efforts by some members of the Althusser school to paint Marx as an a-Ricardian. The diversity in pre-Ricardian and Ricardian economic thought reflected the contradictory, diverse, nature of the reality under investigation. Marx had to work over this body of literature, recognising that as a reflection of man’s social practice it marked an important stage forward in the efforts to understand the nature of the bourgeois mode of production. Thus, Marxism, the theory of modern socialism, cannot be metaphysically separated from the highest achievements of bourgeois thought, on the grounds that it has a different ‘object’. ‘Like every new theory, modern socialism had, at first to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in (material) economic facts!’ (Anti-Duhring).

We know that Marx did not dismiss the concepts developed by classical economy as merely ‘bourgeois’. Ricardo’s work came nearest to reflecting the true interests of industrial capital (in its conflict with the landed interest) precisely because it came closest to a truly objective grasp of bourgeois economy. And this ‘paradox’ is explained precisely by the fact that at the time he was writing, the industrial bourgeois still had undisputed leadership in the struggle for the development of the productive forces. Their immediate class interests did, at this period, coincide with the elaboration of an objective, ‘disinterested’ view of social and class relations. Only when their leadership in the historical development of these productive forces was challenged - as it was with the appearance of the working class - did this position alter. Because this was the case, Marx had to subject the categories of political economy to the most detailed scrutiny - as part of the task of uncovering the material and social forces which had given birth to these categories. This was the very essence of the ‘critique’ of political economy. In short he had to show the necessity of the categories of political economy as a reflection of man’s developing and unfolding social practice. For Marx, new concepts arise in science because, penetrating ever more deeply into the world of phenomena, man reveals new aspects of these phenomena which simply cannot be fitted into the existing categories of thought. New concepts are demanded if these new aspects are to be adequately expressed and established. And they in turn become necessary only when the material and social conditions for the new concepts exist or are coming into being. Engels’ example from the history of chemistry is worth repeating in this connection:

We know that late in the past century, the phlogistic theory still prevailed. It assumed that 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 chemical phenomena then known, although it had to be considerably strained in some cases. But in 1774 Priestley produced a certain kind of air ‘which he found to be so pure, so free from phlogiston, that common air seemed adulterated in comparison with it’. He called it ‘dephlogisticated air’. Shortly after him Scheele obtained the same kind of air in Sweden and demonstrated its existence 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 ‘fireair’. From these facts 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 glass’. (Preface by Engels to Capital II)

As Engels remarks, Priestley and Scheele ‘had produced oxygen without knowing what they had laid their hands on’ (Preface to II). They remained prisoners of the conventional categories of chemistry. It fell to Lavoisier (to whom Priestley had communicated his findings) to analyse the entire phlogistic chemistry in the light of this discovery. It was Lavoisier who came to the conclusion that this new kind of air was a new chemical element and that combustion was not the result of this mysterious phlogiston leaving a burning body, but of this new element combining with that body. Priestley and Scheele, although they had produced oxygen prior to Lavoisier, because they remained trapped in the old concepts, were unable to grasp what they had done. Thus although Lavoisier ‘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-a-vis the others, who had only produced it without knowing what they had produced’ (Preface to Capital II).

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