The Social Democrat October 1906

The Marxian Method

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. X No. 10 October, 1906, 598-603;
First Published: in “Vorwaerts,” Sept. 16 1906, anonymous;
Translated: by Jacques Bonhomme.

During the last few years some of the writers in Socialist organs have been saying that the Marxian theories have become somewhat antiquated owing to the facts of economic science, and that therefore it would be necessary to proceed to a complete revision of the theories expounded by Karl Marx, and also of the second part of the Erfurt programme which is based upon them. It is as well, therefore, to submit these new theories to criticism, on account not only of the romance of revolution, but also because of the bearing which it will have on the class struggle of our party. There is a reluctance on the part of these men to openly advocate the orthodox theories of Marxism, and there is an eagerness to promote theories of revisionism, but it must also be admitted that sometimes the defenders of Marx urge his claims in such a manner as to make us understand Marx when he said that in that sense he was not a Marxian.

In a certain sense such appeals and tactics are really due to the political necessities of the moment, so that in the struggles of the Labour Party it is not always possible to adequately estimate the value of Marx’s teaching as compared with the revisionist reading of his doctrines. But the ignorance of Marxian methods is also due to the fact that much of the sociology of the day does not rest on a biological basis, and indeed because the modern science of political economy stands in marked contrast to it. The methods of the political economy of to-day, which are taught at most of the universities and expounded by the chambers of commerce, are based on purely empirical considerations, often indeed on very crude empirical reasons; that is to say, that the phenomena of political economy are treated as if they were independent of observation, they are considered as extraneous matters, not in connection with other outside matters, and indeed often only so far as they appear to have reference to commercial matters. Thus, if, for instance, a student of political economy notices that as soon as there is a commercial crisis then there is a demand for gold and the rate of discount rises, and he draws the inference that the crisis is the cause of the scarcity of gold, another one observes that during the time when there is a sudden expansion of trade the wages and the demands of the workers are increased, and that more is consumed, and he concludes that this upward tendency of trade is due to there being more consumed by each individual, and that in that way capital has not been able to increase at so great a rate. A third one has remarked that in the beginning of the crisis there was an overproduction of certain articles consumed, and he infers that the crisis is due to a previous deficiency of production. Very often these observers go a few steps further, and by means of their precious analogies and such-like discoveries they enunciate the discovery of beautiful laws.

The Marxian method stands in marked contrast to these processes.

To draw conclusions from a few casual facts, or still more, to try and enunciate laws of political economy from a few scattered facts, would have seemed a task of pure imbecility to Marx. According to him, such laws could only be arrived at by a proper method of logical deduction. Daily practical knowledge, he said, only gave one a glimpse of the real bearing of things. The outward import of economic relations which is apparent to the scrutiny of our observation is, in fact, quite different from the inner fundamental but true meaning, and this cannot be so readily ascertained. The object of science is by means of external appearances to penetrate more into the true nature of things and to ascertain thus their mutual relations. More than once Marx in his “Capital” complained that popular economics – that is to say, the science of political economy which to-day more than before is dominant in the official seats of learning, and rules the press – only took into account outward signs and only considered them from a mercantile and industrial point of view. He referred to them when speaking – in the first volume of his “Capital” – of the national economists when he complained that they bragged about things, taking appearances for laws. “All scientific men,” he said, “except political economists think that you cannot in experiment rely solely on what you see.” And in Volume III., Part II., page 352, Marx says:-

“The ordinary political economist sees in facts nothing but the systematisation of the means of middle-class production, and the ways by means of which this production may be increased, systematised and apologised for. We must not, therefore, be astonished if he has codified, so to speak, into proverbs everything relating to this. All knowledge would be superfluous if things could be done in this way, and really the more the inner meaning is hidden, the more the economist claims to have arrived at the truth.”

Marx deals with the investigation of political economy in the same way as a physicist refers to the setting forth of physical laws. Just as the latter tries to arrive at the discovery of a law by eliminating from his path all disturbing causes which can in any way affect the result, so does Marx endeavour clearly to isolate the pure economical law from the discordant facts. And as the economist is not able to put economic facts under the microscope, nor to treat them chemically, he must do the best he can to deal with them from an abstract point of view.

Kautsky, in his very valuable work, “The Economic Teaching of Karl Marx “ (4th edition, pages 24-25), thus speaks of this method: “A law, whether of the physical sciences or of sociology, is an attempt to explain facts in nature or in society. But it is very rare that any of these facts appear singly. The causes are not always simple, nor are the facts, but they are often curiously intermingled with one another. The man who tries to interpret nature or Society has, therefore, to make use of a double method. He must first try to isolate the different phenomena, then he must try and isolate the causes which produce these phenomena, the apparent from the real, the casual from those which are persistent. Both these operations are only possible through abstraction.

“By abstraction the experimenter may arrive at the discovery of a law which will account for the facts. Without this knowledge the various facts cannot be satisfactorily accounted for. One phenomenon may be weakened by another, or even it might give an entirely different result, and it would be false to conclude therefore that the first phenomenon did not exist. The law of falling bodies, for instance, is not merely dependent on weight; a piece of lead and a feather fall through space at the same rate of speed. Much will, however, also depend on the density of the medium through which the body falls, but the law of falling bodies is nevertheless correct.”

Marx, for instance, founds his law of value not only on the surplus value as compared with prices, but much more on the logical deduction of methods of exchange, and his law of the accumulation of capital was not due to his observation of capitalists, though he did not fail to take that also into account, but to a thorough-going analysis of the methods of the growth of capital, the changes in the surplus value of capital, and of the necessary consequences which were due to the relations of individual capitalists to each other.

These results due to abstraction and to the laws obtained by logical deduction were called by Marx “pure” or “absolute” laws, not meaning by absolute a law which could never be changed, but using the word in the meaning given to it in the philosophy of Hegel; that is to say, he implied by an “absolute” law one which under various different forms contained in itself certain immanent tendencies. That these “pure” laws or tendencies were not present in economics in their purest form was always made abundantly clear by Marx. In political economy a law was seldom found to act by itself alone, nor was each law able always to exert its full effect. Economics are really the resultant of many laws, some of them of no great power, yet, on the whole, working together, though this fact is often somewhat obscured. It is, therefore, possible, as Kautsky has remarked, in the passage which we have just quoted, “that one cause may be weakened by another cause and may even produce quite a different effect.” It is often true, too, that an economic law does not act in a “pure” way, but its working may be hindered through the effects of another law, or it may be directed into quite a different channel. Therefore, if the full import of all these economic facts has to be properly grasped, it is highly desirable that all these laws should be properly analysed. If it be necessary, in order to understand physical phenomena to understand clearly the laws of physics, and then to allow for the effect which will be produced by other laws, so according to the expression of our old Master[1] it is still far more important to understand the “pure” or “absolute” laws of economics.

Marx declares the same thing in various places in his “Capital” – that laws in political economy produce at times different effects to what might at first have been anticipated, as, for example, speaking of the law of the accumulation of capital (Vol. I. 4th edition, page 609): “This is the absolute, universal law of capitalistic accumulation. Like many other laws, it may be modified through many secondary causes which we need not analyse here.”

As a matter of fact, the above-mentioned method is that of the whole of the English classical school of economics, except that Marx is far superior to his predecessors in power of abstraction and keenness of analysis. While the theoricians of the classic schools enunciate economic laws as if they were laws of nature and eternal laws, having existed from all eternity, and while they work out their conceptions in certain very primitive ways, Marx speaks of economic laws as laws illustrating the progress of society and as laws of sociology. As society does not always remain the same, but is constantly changing, therefore each period of development has its own proper economic laws. It follows from this that political economy is mainly an historic science. It deals with matters which are changing, and its decisions cannot therefore be for all time and all places, but have to be constantly reconsidered in the light of the events of the period under review.

These methods have been misunderstood by many critics of the Marxian system. To them, the present capitalist method of production, as well as its laws, appears to be something which will last for ever. They do not understand how a thinker of genius like Marx can enunciate economic laws of which he himself said that their influence might through many other causes be hindered or prevented. “What!” they say, “Marx first talks about an absolute law, and then tries to diminish the force of his assertion by saying that in its working it may be modified. How very frivolous this is! What a sheer waste of power!” Professor Lorin has even cleverly discovered that Marx in composing his “Capital” was guided by some evil spirit in order to get the better of his readers. And Bohm-Bawerk writes, in his criticisms of Marx, as follows: “The fundamental thesis which Marx wishes his readers to believe, is that the exchange-value of commodities – to which he devotes the greater part of his analysis – depends on the mass of labour expended in their production. Instead of basing his thesis on experience, due to the working empirically or psychologically of motives, he adopts a third method, and tries to arrive at a conclusion resting on its own clear proof of a dialectical deduction of the way of value.”

What is really the strength of the Marxian method is, according to Herr Bohm-Bawerk, a weakness and an “error in method.”

Not only do many opponents misunderstand the Marxian method, but also for many revisionists who are going to modify the teachings of Marx his works are books sealed with seven seals. For instance, it is often said that his theories referring to the accumulation and concentration of capital must be wrong because in certain countries or in certain callings – as, for example, in agriculture – there are no traces of this concentration. The man who argues in that way only shows that he has failed to comprehend the Marxian method in the slightest degree, and the best thing he could do would be to write as an epigraph to his revision studies the words of Dante: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate” (All hope abandon, ye who enter here).

The Marxian law of accumulation – and the same applies to the other laws – can only be regarded as permanent in so far as it is the basis, the ground work, on which Marx built his system. And it is impossible to find faults in his logical deductions. It must not, however, be assumed that the laws of political economy will never vary, for, as Marx himself said, in practical working these “absolute” laws may be greatly modified or even entirely set aside.

Therefore the critics of Marx greatly err who in this way impugn the accuracy of his teaching and who assail him by quoting comical proverbs. For example, one has made the discovery that the concentration theories of Marx were correct as far as English agriculture was concerned till about the middle of the last century, but are no longer true now. Another finds that up to the last 40 or 50 years this concentration went on in Germany but that now it has been arrested. A third has discovered that there is no longer any concentration in Germany but that it exists in Hungary, and in certain parts of Russia and the United States. All these comments are beside the question from a Marxian standpoint. A law of capitalist production holds good wherever this production takes place, and not only for certain countries and certain times, though it is quite possible that its working in some countries owing to various causes may be accelerated or diminished, as for example through tariffs, laws relating to inheritance, mortgage, competition, etc.

The understanding of the Marxian method is the first step necessary in order to comprehend the great work on economics of our old Master. He who misunderstands his method cannot follow its applications, and for them the work on “Capital” is only an exemplification of logical abstraction and is for the most part only an example of wasted analysis.

Note – The references throughout are to the German edition of Marx’s works. – J.B.

1. Karl Marx.