New Interventions
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
Islamophobia Watch

Marx’s Method and Political Economy

Ken Tarbuck

From New Interventions, Vol.2 No.3,1991

On the Hundredth Anniversary of the Death of Karl Marx
The academic world has recently finished celebrating the centenary of the death of Karl Marx with a particularly loathsome series of programmes on BBC TV, presided over by Asa Briggs. This doyen of academe managed to combine some visually interesting film archive material with a vulgar, shallow and debased interpretation of Marx’s ideas; the latter being passed off as an "objective" account. I suppose, since it was impossible to celebrate the death of Marx’s ideas, this series of programmes was a species of consolation wake held to cheer up the bourgeoisie. In a way the garbage proffered the viewer was a back-handed acknowledgement that a clear, unvarnished presentation of Marx’s ideas is too dangerous an undertaking through the medium of television. In 1967, on the centenary of the publication of the first volume of Capital, the BBC was rather more devious; on that anniversary a serious Marxist scholar – Isaac Deutscher – was invited to give a talk on the subject, but it was tucked away on the then Third Programme, which was hardly renowned for its mass audiences.

There is, of course, a difference between 1967 and 1983. It is not just that the years have rolled by; no, there have been considerable changes in the social, political and economic climate. In 1967 it was still possible for the "establishment" to be "liberal"; after all hadn’t there opened up in 1945 an era of prosperity for capitalism which seemed set to go on for ever? In those, now, far off days of 1967 we were still being told that the world had changed so much since Marx’s times that he was just not relevant any more. So, in those heady circumstances, it was possible to treat Marx’s ideas on capitalist economy as something for a few footnotes in economic textbooks.

Therefore, to let Isaac Deutscher loose on the Third Programme was probably seen as letting a tiny, cranky minority have its say. Since that time we have, of course, witnessed the descent into economic depression which we were assured would never happen again. And with the onset of this depression a new set of academic witch-doctors have bounded forward, all with their patent remedies for what is – laughingly – called maladjustments of the system. It is never the capitalist system as such which is said to be at fault; rather the crisis that now besets the whole capitalist system is presented as an aberration, which needs one or the other quack remedies to effect a cure. Thus we see the witch-doctors of the Friedman or Keynesian lodges dancing around the patient muttering their incantations. And, of course, when the fever passes, each will claim it was their mumbo-jumbo that elicited the "cure". However, for the working class the cure is likely to be as painful as the disease. Moreover, it is usually the workers who are blamed for the crisis, and so unemployment with its attendant miseries is seen as a punishment for bad behaviour.

What is evident, from the way Marx’s ideas were treated in 1983 as compared with 1967, is how short-sighted and unhistorical is the view of the capitalist system taken by the establishment. The method used to analyse the world is essentially empiricist, one that observes a surface phenomenon and accepts it as a true reflection of how the world operates.

The Historical Method
The method of Marx and Engels stands in sharp contrast to the above, as is evident from the following: "all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided."1 The starting point, for Marx, when dealing with social, political and economic phenomenon, appears at first sight to be abstract. He seems to begin his analysis at the abstract level and move step by step to the concrete, everyday world. In other words, he attempts to discern the essence, the essential elements of a phenomenon before examining the concrete, or particular manifestations that exhibit themselves to the observer.

However, the abstraction that Marx seems to start with, or from, is not an artifice, a mere speculation nor a conjecture, but is based upon the real and historical world. He said, for instance: "The concrete concept is concrete because it is a synthesis of many definitions, thus representing the unity of diverse aspects. It appears therefore in reasoning as a summing-up, a result, and not as the starting point, although it is the real point of origin, and thus also the point of origin of perception and imagination."2

This synthetic conception, therefore, not only allows us to perceive the concrete, i.e. to interpret phenomenon but it also forms the basis for our "imagination"; and this imagination allows us to predict or forecast the possible and probable course of events based upon this perception.

Marx continued: "... the simplest economic category, e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, a population moreover which produces under definite conditions, as well as a distinct kind of family, or community, or State, etc. Exchange-value cannot exist except as an abstract, unilateral relation of an already existing concrete organic whole."3

Therefore it is impossible to reduce Marx’s method to one that supposedly moves from the abstract to the concrete, to do so would be to ignore the richness of Marx’s conception. There is a reciprocity flowing between concrete and abstract in Marx. It is clear that what seems to be the simplest abstract idea, is in reality compounded of, and based upon, a whole constellation of concrete historical facts. There is, in this process, a continual tension between abstraction and the concrete that compels one to establish a proper relationship between these two aspects of thought. It is indeed inappropriate that we take only surface phenomenon as being sufficient to establish a coherent relationship between them, rather we have to comprehend the historical and social substrata which are not immediately obvious. Nor should we confuse appearance with the concrete, since the real concrete world of social and economic relationships may actually be falsified by their outward appearances. It is by the very process of abstraction that we are able to get behind the appearances and establish the concrete reality. The process of abstraction is not abstraction from reality, but rather a process whereby we can truly perceive that reality. Thus, right at the heart of Marx’s method we have the twin couplets of abstract/concrete and essence/appearance, and the latter can be rendered as content/form.

In discussing the category and concept of labour, Marx commented that it is: "The simplest abstraction, which plays a decisive role in modern political economy, an abstraction which expresses an ancient relation existing in all social formations, nevertheless appears to be actually true in this abstract form only as a category of the most modern society."4

Marx was pointing to a fact of modern commodity-producing industry, i.e. that labour does indeed become labour in general, abstract labour. For a large part of the labour force the homogeneity of labour becomes an actual experience. In previous societies labour was usually specific, a person was a smith, potter, weaver, etc, with no change in the type of labour performed throughout their lifetime. Indeed in some traditional societies this specificity of labour became fixed into a caste system, where the type of labour performed was strictly bound by tradition to a specific strata of the population. In modern industrial capitalist societies the reverse is true; the worker may at one time be a car-worker, a glass-worker, a bakery-worker, etc. The individual worker may, in the course of their working life, experience production of many different types of commodities. The very concept of the mobility of labour has important, definite historical connotations. When labour is mobile this has at least two implication: Firstly, in the geographical sense labour goes where capital dictates the siting of industry; secondly, it implies a switching of labour from the production of one type of one commodity to another, with a minimum of dislocation for capital. Few workers today expect to remain either with the same company or in the same type of work for the whole of their working life. These two aspects could not have become generalised under previous modes of production. The concept of labour could be held as an abstraction in traditional societies, but the labour performed was always very particular.

This is not to deny, of course, that even in capitalist society all labour is still concrete and particular. Indeed, with the ever-increasing division of labour, there appears the paradox that labour becomes more particular, even detailed. But this particularity is merely a mask which hides the general, abstract nature of such labour. Nevertheless, the abstractions that Marx talked about are historical ones in the sense that they are particular to a given mode of production, i.e. capitalism, which is finite in its existence, having an historical beginning located in time and place, and also will have an end which will be subject to similar verification.

Abstract labour, as concrete labour, presupposes free labour, that is labour which is not only free in the legal and judicial sense but also is labour that owns no property which can be considered to be means of production. (I do not include personal possessions in this category.) Therefore, the very concept of free labour implies and is founded upon propertylessness for the majority of the population. Private property can only exist alongside, and because of, the non-ownership of the majority; each is a mirror image of the other, but the form that these reciprocals take helps to determine the mode of production. The capitalist and the worker are expressions of a definite historical mode of production, just as the slave and slave-owner were.5 Generalised commodity production carried on in a capitalist manner therefore presupposes labour-power as a commodity.

From the foregoing we can see that Marx approached political economy by way of his historical method, i.e. which state, which owning class, what forms of private property, etc, etc? It is not sufficient that we operate with general abstractions, since they usually turn out to be truisms. If we say that people must work to produce food, clothing and shelter and leave the matter there we repeat what is already known. Each abstraction must be anchored in, and related to, specific historical conditions. Trotsky made the point pertinently: "Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers’ state, etc as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism, morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which ‘A’ ceases to be ‘A’, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state. The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion.... [Thus we have] Not capitalism in general but a given capitalism at a given stage of development."6

Marx’s whole analysis and critique of capitalism proceeded upon this basis. We thus find in his work the close interweaving of generalised theoretical conceptions and empirical data. And only this synthesis enables one to understand the actual concrete essence which is often obscured by surface or outward appearances. However, such outward appearances are not any the less real for this obscuring function in so far as form and content have specific relationships.

Not a Textbook
This method often confuses those who open the pages of Capital for the first time. They are usually expecting a formal economics textbook, one that deals in generalised a-historical abstractions, which are removed from contact with concrete reality both at the level of appearances and concrete abstraction.7 Instead of a formal textbook, the newcomer finds a close interweaving of empirical data, drawn from the most diverse sources, and Marx’s "abstractions" which are founded upon this data. In so far as Marx’s abstractions are grounded in the empirical data, the Marxist method has this strong "empiricist" undertone, which a number of Marx’s followers fail to recognise. This sometimes leads to absurd attitudes being adopted when certain writers attempt to defend, at all costs, the letter of Marx’s writings in the face of changed historical circumstances.

In examining production, Marx suggested that: "In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production, take place."8

We see that Marx was not interested in production per se. It was not important for his investigation that this or that technique was used, or improved; what was decisive was the relationship of people to each other at any particular time. And what this relationship is, is the relationship of the various classes to each other as it is expressed through their relationship to the means of production. That is not to say, of course, that Marx was not aware of the very real advantages that new techniques of production gave over superseded ones; indeed sections of the Communist Manifesto read rather like a hymn of praise to those aspects of capitalism, with its ability to unleash enormous developments in productivity. Moreover, Marx’s whole view of capitalism is impregnated with an understanding of the necessity for capitalism to be constantly revolutionising the means and forces of production.

But the whole thrust of Marx’s investigations were directed towards finding out why, and in what circumstances, such new techniques were discovered and then applied. It was not sufficient to know that the introduction of, for example, the steam engine gave a big impetus to productivity and laid the basis for a general expansion of production. The question that Marx addressed was, why did such techniques, new technologies, emerge at this or that precise historical juncture and what were the social, political and economic forces that corresponded with this event? It was this set of "definite connections" that Marx was mainly concerned with. Thus, contrary to some interpretations, Marx did not set out in the first chapter of Volume One of Capital to merely provide an elaboration of the labour theory of value. Nor did he even start from a conception of value; he explicitly stated this:

"In the first place, I do not proceed on the basis of ‘concepts’ hence also not from the ‘value-concept’, and I do not have the task of ‘dividing’ it up in any way, for that reason. What I proceed from is the simplest social form in which the product of labour in contemporary society manifests itself, and this is as ‘commodity’. That is what I analyse, and first of all to be sure in the form in which it appears."9

Therefore, the abstraction which Marx started with in Capital was one that presents itself in the most concrete form, the commodity. In so far as Marx did present a conception of value, it was one that arose out of his analysis of the commodity, and the particular form which it takes as the product of capital.

Given the critical nature of Marx’s method we can never assume it to be a finished theory, nor is it immune from criticism itself. The very critical tools which Marx fashioned must be themselves applied to Marxism. Warning against turning Marx and Engels’ writings into dogma, Labriola said "they are fragments of a science and politics in the process of continuous growth".10 The fragmentary nature, of which Labriola wrote, did not mean that he considered these writings to be merely episodic or disjointed. No, he was referring to two aspects: Firstly, Marx and Engels were unable to survey the whole terrain of human endeavours through the prism of historical materialism, and thus this meant that there was the necessity for doing a great deal more work even in their own particular chosen fields of study. Secondly, as Trotsky pointed out, social, political and economic formations are in a continuous state of flux, of growth and decline or mutation, and therefore it is necessary to continuously examine the concrete stages of development of any society and not assume that Marx and Engels had written the last word on any subject.

The Production of Crises
Any critical writer must, of necessity, be self-critical and making provisional judgements which are open to revision in the light of new evidence or a deeper understanding of existing evidence. On the other hand, it would be wrong to assume that any empirical evidence, that may itself be transitory, is either proof or disproof of any particular theoretical proposition. Only when events repeatedly occur in a manner which forms a pattern should we accord them the status of historical tendencies. Moreover, such tendencies themselves cannot be reduced to inexorable laws, but may exert themselves in numerous and sometimes paradoxical forms capable of being transmuted in their historical determination. Therefore what is defined as being the norm for certain historical tendencies can only be seen in some specific historical manifestations and will only ever be more or less approximations to the norm.

A particular example of the unwisdom of accepting short-run empirical evidence was the extended boom in the capitalist economies after the second world war. Many writer began to suggest that this long period of relative stability and equilibrium in the metropolitan centres of capitalism had disproved the Marxist analysis of capitalism as being basically a crisis-producing mode of production. I say crisis-producing, since production under capitalism is not merely that of the production of use-values and value but also the production, and reproduction, of the relations and contradictions of that mode of production. It was claimed that capitalism could and had erased unemployment, provide a steadily rising standard of living, could eliminate depressions and crises, etc. Marxists who disputed such claims were decried as being "dogmatists", and were accused of being "hopelessly old-fashioned". We were told that what would usher in the "golden age" was not a proletarian revolution but the Keynesian revolution!11

But who was correct in their views about the longer-term prospects for capitalism? The "dogmatists" have been proven correct in their views about the essential cyclical, boom-bust, nature of capitalism, which they said had not changed. Of course, there have been many changes in the capitalist economies in the last thirty or forty years, and this has not always been appreciated by some Marxists. But the essential mechanisms described by Marx: in Capital are still operative in the capitalist economies. In this respect the historical method of Marx has proven to be infinitely superior than any revamped bourgeois ideologies.

I am not suggesting that Marx was infallible or there are not aspects of political economy that still require clarification. However, I am saying Marx’s method has stood the test of time in the hundred years since he died. But his method is not merely a cognitive process in the strict sense of the term, it is above all a method of theory and practice. His famous dictum, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it",12 itself has to be interpreted dialectically. The point is to change the world, but it can be done only on the basis of understanding, and the understanding and change are two moments of the same process.

How we initiate change will depend upon how we understand the world, but that process of change will itself help to determine our understanding. This understanding and activity allows us to move from the realm of necessity to that of freedom, and as Max Adler said, this does not mean that: "... man is sacrificed to alien and dominant laws, which confront him, as it were, with cold inevitability. Instead man is sacrificed only as long as he has not understood these laws. For the true nature of this law-governed process is not passivity at all, but its activity which Marx called revolutionary praxis."13

The revolutionary heart of Marx’s critique of political economy resided in his refusal to accept that what is will always be. He did not accept that this vale of tears is visited upon us by the gods; on the contrary he said that this society can be changed, it will pass away. I see no reason to dispute that.

18 May 1983 (previously unpublished)


1. Capital, Vol.III, 1974, p.817

2. Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1977, p.206

3. Ibid..

4. Ibid., p.210.

5. For an excellent account and discussion of abstract labour, see C.J. Arthur, "Marx’s Concrete Universal" in Inquiry, 1978.

6. Trotsky, In DefenCe of Marxism, 1971, p.65.

7. See almost any standard textbook on economics, e.g. Stonier & Hague, Samuelson, Lipsey, Hanson.

8. Marx, "Wage Labour and Capital" in Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol.9, 1977, p.211.

9. Marx, Studies in Value, 1976, p.214.

10. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 1918, p.21.

11. The Keynesian "revolution" can broadly be described as being the theory of state intervention into capitalist economy to facilitate equilibrium growth and full employment. This was to be achieved by a combination of monetary and fiscal manipulation. For an incisive account and critique of Keynesianism see Peter Erdos, Wages, Profit, Taxation, 1982.

12. Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol.5, 1976, p.8.

13. Max Adler, in T. Bottomore, ed., Austro-Marxism, 1978, p.67.