Karl Marx: Critique of Political Economy
Review by Frederick Engels

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


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.