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

III: Empiricism and the empirical

Now this reference by Engels to the ‘long empirical history’ involved in the elaboration of scientific concepts should warn us against confusing the ‘empirical’ with ‘empiricism’, a confusion which, for instance, runs through the whole of Althusser’s work. Before saying something about Althusser, let us note a statement by Lenin.

In order to understand it is necessary empirically to begin understanding, study, to rise, from empiricism to the universal. In order to learn to swim it is necessary to get into the water’.

Lenin is drawing attention to the fact that for Marxism the empirical is a necessary, unavoidable, stage in the development of conceptual thinking. Marx supported Hegel’s view of knowledge as a process from the sensed to the logical (conceptual), but Marx never forgot that Hegel was an idealist. The Phenomenology is concerned with the path along which, according to Hegel, consciousness moves, raising itself from the level of sensation to that of ‘pure thought’. But Hegel’s idealism meant that he rejected the material basis of sensation: he was therefore obliged to represent the ascent of consciousness as one in which thought was gradually emancipated or ‘purified’ from sensuous reality. Marx’s view here departed sharply from that of Hegel. For Marx the logical growth of knowledge takes place on the foundation of a continual working on the ever richer material of sensation; in the course of this the mind abstracts richer and therefore increasingly adequate concepts. Here there is no confusion whatsoever between ‘empiricism’ and the ‘empirical’. The construction of Capital would have been impossible had Marx not spent hour upon hour sifting through a mass of empirical material, against which the real criticism of the categories of political economy was to take place. Lenin expressed this point, saying of Marx: ‘he took one of the economic formations of society – the system of commodity production – and on the basis of a vast mass of data which he studied for not less than twenty-five years) gave a most detailed analysis of the laws governing this formation and its development’ (LCW, vol. 1).

The insistence by Hegel that thought must rise from the immediate, the sensed, to the apparent, to the universal provided the germ for Marx’s revolutionary conception of practice as the decisive component in the development of human knowledge. Human thought does not occupy some hermetically sealed compartment, standing outside the real object under investigation. Knowledge must and can only start from perception; it is from these perceptions that abstractions are made which in turn must be subjected to continual testing in practice, that is testing against the historically evolved concepts of the science. It is only in this light that we can overcome the erroneous conception that Marxism is a fixed body of knowledge, rather than a theory of knowledge, a theory of how knowledge develops through man’s practice. Both Hegel and Marx objected to the Kantian position in that Kant, in effect, wanted knowledge outside the process of knowledge; their fundamental reproach to Kant is this, that he wished to learn to swim before getting into the water. (To take a previous example, it is clear that all those who interpret Marx’s value theory as the search for an ‘invariant measure of value’ are guilty of foisting a Kantian position on to Marx, a position which he entirely rejected.) In the light of the distinction between the ‘empirical’ and ‘empiricism’ let us pause to consider the case of Althusser. One aspect of Althusser’s work is that he is guilty of transforming Marx’s many statements on the inadequacy of empiricism to mean that the empirical must be rejected entirely as purely ideological. Reading Marx through the distorting lens of structuralism, Althusser wants to pretend that Marxism is antiempiricist in the sense that there is a reality lying beyond and entirely separated from the immediate appearances of the world. On this view – one quite at variance with Marx – the essence of phenomena inhabits a realm divorced completely from the manner in which these, the phenomena, were actually historically formed, from the path along which they actually appeared. And this sphere – the essence of phenomena – is to be discovered through ‘theoretical practice’ – that is, in a process of thought separated entirely from historical practice. And because he separates out the ‘essence’ from the path by which that essence actually takes on the form of its appearance, he must separate out logic form history. Thus we find in Reading Capital:

Knowledge working on its object ... does not work on the real object but on the peculiar raw material which constitutes in the strict sense of the term, its ‘object’ (of knowledge) and which, even in the most rudimentary forms of knowledge is distinct from the real object. For that raw material is ever-already, in the strong sense Marx gives it in Capital, raw material, i.e. matter already elaborated and transformed, precisely by the imposition of the complex (sensuous-technical-ideological structure) which constitutes it as an object of knowledge, however crude, which constitutes it as the object it will transform, whose forms it will change in the course of its development process in order to produce knowledge and which are constantly transformed but will always apply to its object, in the sense of the object of knowledge. (Althusser and Balibar 1970, p. 43).

Stripped of the pomposity which characterises the Althusserian style, what does this passage mean if not that there is supposedly a rigid distinction to be drawn between reality and the way in which we come to perceive that reality? And from this must inexorably follow an attack upon Marx’s insistence on the historical nature of all the categories evolved in the study of society. We note in passing that Althusser tries to foist this view mainly on to Engels, rather than Marx. It was in fact a position held by them both.

This metaphysical separation of ‘dialectics’ and ‘history’ runs throughout Althusser’s work. Another example of it will have to suffice. Attacking those who have conceived Capital as a historical work, Althusser says:

They did not see that is presumably until Althusser fell from the skies that history features in Capital as an object of theory, not as a real object, as an ‘abstract’ (conceptual) object and not as a real-concrete object; and that the chapters in which Marx applies the first stages of a historical treatment either to the struggles to shorten the working day or to primitive capitalist accumulation refer to the theory of history as their principle, to the construction of the concept of history and of its ‘developed form’, of which the economic theory of the capitalist mode of production constitutes one determinate ‘region’. (Althusser and Balibar, 1970, p. 117)

Shorn of its verbiage, what does this amount to if not the old ideological prejudice that theory precedes practice? Practice is to be degraded to the level where it merely illustrates theory. The abstract is to be sundered entirely from the concrete, this abstract to be arrived at by a process metaphysically standing apart from the process of reality. Only when science has developed can it then be applied to history. Hence the concern of this school to find adequate concepts which alone will allow us to understand the movement of reality. Once more Althusser, if he will pardon the expression ‘inverts’ the real path by which knowledge grows. Marx’s categories in Capital arose through a long process in which all the perceived developments and changes within capitalism were posited on to all the previous attempts – inside and outside the working class movement – to grasp the real nature and significance of this new mode of production. Only in this process was political economy ‘tested out’ and its inadequacies exposed. For instance, Marx’s ability to grasp the real nature of surplus value would have been impossible without the discovery of the category ‘labour power’. Only with this discovery was Marx able to resolve a number of the theoretical problems which had beset political economy. But, and it is a vital ‘but’, such a ‘discovery’ by Marx was possible only because the category labour-power was actually being brought into being by the development if capital, brought into being in the shape of the modern working class, a class selling this commodity, labour-power, as the basis for its existence.

In short, the Althusser position is one totally incompatible with that of Marx. The way man perceives reality is not purely ideological, not something entirely separated from reality, but always the starting point for knowledge, for the elaboration of concepts. Althusser’s position far from being ‘rigorous’ in fact leads to a position where the individual can believe or do anything in practice, because for him theory constitutes an autonomous sphere. Althusser and his followers have in effect merely been engaged in the very old and entirely petty dispute as to whether truth is located in the immediately sensed or in the essence of things. Hegel (followed by Marx) put an end to this squabble by insisting that it was not a question of ‘or’ but of ‘and’. Truth was a process which involved both the immediate and the mediated – truth was not a body of dogma (to be discovered by the practitioners of Theoretical Practice) but a process, a process which moved always from appearance to essence. Speaking specifically of Marx’s analysis of the commodity, Lenin shows how much richer is his position as against the arid structuralism of Althusser. ‘A double analysis, deductive and inductive – logical and historical (forms of value). Testing by the facts or by practice respectively, [author’s emphasis] is to be found here in each step of the analysis’.

Empiricism and the commodity

Returning to our main theme, both Hegel and Marx wished to stress as against empiricism that rational knowledge is a deeper, richer form of knowledge of the material and spiritual world when compared with that furnished by mere direct apprehension of it in sensations and representations. Now these considerations, although seemingly remote from the concerns of Marxist political economy as it has developed over the last fifty years, have, in fact, an immediate bearing on an attempt to understand Capital. Let us take a statement by Marx about the analysis of the commodity:

The reality of the value of commodities thus represents Mistress Quickly, of whom Falstaff said, ‘A man knows not where to have her.’ This reality of the value of commodities contrasts with the gross material reality of these same commodities (the reality of which is perceived by our bodily senses) in that not an atom of matter enters into the reality of value. We may twist and turn a commodity this way and that – as a thing of value it still remains unappreciable by our bodily senses. (Capital I, p. 47)

What is the meaning of this passage? This: that man can see and touch the material envelope of different commodities. He can weigh them, measure them, test their hardness, etc. But such sensuous knowledge cannot itself in any way disclose the universal connection between commodity producers, cannot possibly discover the social relations which are attached to these sensuously perceptible things, cannot discover within the commodity the ‘germ’ of money, cannot possibly comprehend capital in the whole process of its birth, development and decay. In this task – the task which Marx set himself in Capital – abstraction is required if the true nature of these economic relations is to be understood. ‘In the analysis of economic forms ... neither microscopes nor chemical agents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both’ (I, p. 8). The nature of the commodity is not to be disclosed through a knowledge of its chemical etc. properties. Lenin’s comment here is right to the point, when he notes Hegel’s repudiation of those philosophies which reject conceptual knowledge because such concepts are without the spatial and temporal material of the sensuous. Lenin says: ‘Hegel is essentially right: value is a category which disposes with the material of sensuousness but it is truer than the law of supply and demand’.

We have argued that in so far as Marx stressed the objectivity of thought-concepts he stood on the same ground as Hegel as against empiricism or Kantianism. According to Hegel, the categories of thought are generated dialectically one after the other and it is through the dialectical movement of these concepts that the Absolute Idea unfolds and its content is transformed into nature, through which process it becomes embodied in material entities. It would be easy to dismiss such a conception as merely idealist. This has been the stance of many who thought that they were thereby defending the positions of materialism. What such a position misses out is that in its idealist form Hegel’s conception contains a profound truth, a truth which was fully assimilated by Marx. The truth was this: although Hegel treats the categories of thought as the creation of a world spirit (God), his service to philosophy lay in the fact that in the dialectical transformation of the categories he sensed the movement of the world: ‘He brilliantly divined the dialectics of things (phenomena, the world, nature) in the dialectics of concepts’. This was certainly the ‘rational kernel’ which Marx extracted from Hegel and it was Lenin’s main concern in his reading of Hegel. All those who tend to dismiss Hegel as merely an idealist, approach philosophy more from the standpoint of vulgar materialism than from a dialectical materialism which was formed on the basis of the conquests of the whole of philosophy, including the contribution made to human thought by the Plato-Hegel tradition in philosophy (the ‘intelligent idealist’ trend). When Lenin undertook his study of Hegel he did so precisely to combat that trend inside the working class movement which started from positions close to those of mechanical materialism. Despite formally arguing against Kantianism, they ended up capitulating to it. Lenin had Plekhanov and others in mind when he says ‘ Marxists criticised (at the beginning of the twentieth century) the Kantians and the Humists more in the manner of Feuerbach (and Buchner) than of Hegel’.

In this respect Hegel stands infinitely closer to dialectical materialism than the whole of modern positivism, which is ultimately forced to the conclusion that in the face of our (supposed) inability to establish causality and necessity in nature the mind must carry out this task, according to the principles of formal logic. By a concept, in stark contrast to this subjectivist view, Marx meant an abstraction which approached the essence of a series of phenomena; a concept was not to be derived mechanically – by ‘adding up’ all the features common to a series of phenomena. Hegel also vigorously attacked this latter view, and here lies the significance of his distinction between a concept and ‘general image’. By a general image Hegel meant an abstract common element found in every single representative of a class. (For instance, one found an element common to all observed capitalism’s – say the existence of commodity production. An image of capitalism is constructed which abstracts this element, commodity production. It is of course again ‘easy’ using this method to ‘prove’, for example, that the USSR is ‘capitalist’.) This method of constructing concepts (as merely general images) was one adopted by Kant. ‘The concept is . . . a general image or representation of that which is common to many objects, consequently a general idea provided that it can be included in several objects’ (Kant, Logic, quoted in Ilyenkov, 1977, p. 184).

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