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Category Archives: Capital Read Along

What is a commodity?

1. ‘The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing, which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind’ (126). Whether these ‘needs’ arise from the stomach or mind makes no difference.

2. It also makes no difference wether the thing is used as means of production or means of subsistence, i.e. as tools or resources to make something else, or to consume and destroy (over a longer or shorter period) in consumption.

3. ‘The wealth of capitalist societies exists as an ‘immense collection of commodities’. The individual commodity is the ‘elementary form’ of this wealth.

This multiple definition will be refined and complicated further as the text proceeds

What is a use-value?

We take a commodity and we say that it is useful because it possesses so many ‘useful’ qualities. This is not to be conflated with ‘useful’ in the utilitarian sense. A piece of paper is useful not only for keeping notes or records (a ‘utilitarian use’ I suppose) or to make a paper airplane from the thing (not very utilitarian at all, but totally fun!). At this level of abstraction, both are useful qualities of the paper commodity. They are both use-values.

Though there is clearly a qualitative difference as to whether the paper is used as an airplane or for record keeping, we are concerned here with the use-values of commodities as quantities of use values (we always assume that use-values exist in varying quantities). That is, with x of paper commodities we can make y paper airplanes or print z characters.

This is merely a method of abstractions and not intended to brush aside the individual qualitative, relational, or symbolic properties of commodities as ‘mere use-values’.

‘…use-value does not dangle in mid-air. It is conditioned by the physical properties of the commodity, and has no existence apart from the latter. It is therefore the physical body of the commodity itself…which is the use-value of a useful thing. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labor required to appropriate its useful qualities.’

For example, the fact that one can make a paper airplane with the paper is incidental to the fact it takes v hours of labor time to make the sheet of paper in question – of course one is probably less inclined to go the airplane route if v is higher than lower, and one must be able to ‘discover’ the properties and means of making paper ‘fly’, but these latter two points are outside the present scope.

In addition to existing in definite quantities, ‘Use-values are only realized in use or consumption. They constitute the material content of wealth [the ‘body’ of wealth], whatever its social form may be.’ That objects have qualities which make them useful is not particular to any one type of society -though of course the types of things that have uses or the types of uses which are realized may change over time. 

What is distinctive about use-values in a capitalist mode of production is that they are ‘material bearers of…exchange value’ (126).

Exchange value, of which much more will be spoken next time and many times after that.  


Today I am detetmined to punch out of the preface material material so that tomorrow (or the next time I post) it will be at the start of Capital v.1 proper.  

Contuning with the Postface…

Here is a quote from what Marx terms a ‘generous’ review of his method followed by a short comparison and contrast of his dialectic method to that of Hegel.

“It will be said…that the general laws of economic life are one and the same, no matter whether they are applied to the present or the past. But this is exactly what Marx denies. According to him, such abstract laws do not exist…On the contrary, in his opinion, every historical period has its own laws…As soon as life has passed through a given period of development, and is passing over from one given stage to another, it begins to be subject also to other laws….Marx denies, for example, that the law of population is the same at all times and in all places. He asserts, on the contrary, that every stage of development has its own law of population….from this point of view, he is only formulating…the aim that every accurate investigation into economic life must have…The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in the illumination of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development and death of a given social organism and its replacement by another, higher one. And in fact this is the value of Marx’s book’ (101-102).

Of course, we know better than to assume that the next stage of development will be a ‘higher’ one; know that the dominant concepts of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ stages are socially shaped and shaping relative concepts.

Marx appreciates this generous review, “But what else is he depicting but the dialectical method?”, he says. And now we’re on to his self-summarized relationship to Hegel. One can certainly reference Marx’s earlier works like The German Ideology, or Critique if Hegel’s Doctrine of the State to get the more nuanced versions.

This is on the level of ontology.

“My dialedtical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which even he transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the Idea’, is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought.”

“The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”

“In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesman, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition  of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspects as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its essence critical and revolutionary” (103).

The remaining preface material, “Preface to the French Edition”, “Postface to the French Edition”, and then Engels’ “Preface to the Third Edition”, and “Preface to the english Edition” mainly have to do with editorial commentary regarding changes/additions/translations to the volumes. I feel this passage of Engels’ from the “Prefaqce to the English Edition” sets the proper tone for the rest of the book.

“Every new aspect of a science involves a revolution in the technical terms of that science….Political economy has generally been content to take, just as they were, the terms of commercial and industrial life, and to operate with them, entirely failing to see that by so doing it confined itself within the narrow circle of ideas expressed by those terms…It is…self-evident that a theory which views modern capitalist production as a mere passing stage in the economic history of humankind, must make use of terms different from those habitual to writers who look upon that form of production as imperishable and final” (111).

Next time we enter Part One – ‘Commodities and Money’!

I’ve been trying to think about other angles of relevance in terms of this discussion about the relationship between the practice of a science and the social context in which the science develops/is placed.

Science is a socially situated practice -and political economy, sociology, anthropology (whatever) especially. It seems Marx was both aware, and trying to make his readers aware, of this through the German example.

Political economy, whether bourgeois or socialist, is not equipped to totalize. Nevertheless the ‘science of capitalism’ (if you will) and later on the ‘science of socialism’ (if you will) did just that, and to a certain extent applied a total analysis/explanation on particular societies in particular phases of their development.

Even though capitalism is now total, its expression is not, and the analysis, crtique, and reaction we bring to it cannot be satisfied with (reduced to) a totalizing approach. We must always bear in mind, in science, the particular historical, material, cultural -social contexts.

For example, today I had a conversation about communism’s many failures, and in particular Cuba. Do we point to Cuba and say ‘communism doesn’t work!?’ Or do we look at Cuba and try to assess and understand the path it took in relation to its particular historical and social conditions?

In a sense we are anticipating elements of ‘post-modernism’, though I would never be so vulgar as to suggest Marx was ‘post-modern’.

Yeah, yeah, it was an abrupt end yesterday -but like I said when we started this I would just post what gets done in the hour or so. And then there are chores and things. You know how it is. So anyway,

We were talking about how a discipline can be imposed upon another culture. In this case the most industrially developed capitalist economy imposed its ‘science’ of political economy upon less industrially developed countries.

Only in this instance the ‘science of political economy’ imported into Germany did not match the conditions ‘on the ground’ so that the ‘science of political economy’ in Germany remained in an underdeveloped state.

Sort of how the World Bank develpment programs that emphasize free trade conditions (generally good for the core nations and not so great for the periphery). The result of these programs tends not to be development, but a persistent relative underdevelopment. 

A good anecdote for analogy. My partner, an objects conservator for an ethnographic museum here in the Netherlands does a lot of work with museums in underdeveloped Southeast Asia – Jakarta and Manilla (Indonesia and the Phillipines). There is a tendency for the ‘pupil’ and ‘expert’ relationship in her exchanges, where the underdeveloped tropical museums look to the ‘developed’ museum in temperate Netherlands for the ‘right’ way to store and treat their objects. The problem is storing and treating objects presents different needs and possibilities, a different array of materials (in both availability and priority) and so on and so forth depending upon whether your climate is tropical, arid, temperate and from which climatic conditions the objects hail. Nevertheless, the conservation practices found in the core portions of Europe, Australasia, and North America have a tendency to dominate the conservation practices of the periphery.

I would never suggest that this dominance in terms of ideology and practice exists in every instance, but there does appear [at a glance] that this is the case. At any rate, Marx feels this is the case with Germany and political economy at the time of this book. One could probably find a number of contemporary analogs.

III. The relationship between the level of class conflict and the extent to which ‘political economy’ is capable of being critical of itself, i.e. scientific versus dogmatic or polemic.

“In so far as political economy is bourgeois, i.e. in so far as it views the capitalist order as the absolute and ultimate form of social development, it can only remain a science while the class struggle remains latent or manifests itself only in isolated and sporadic phenomena” (96).

According to Marx, Ricardo was the last scientifically motivated political scientist, and “…classical political economy belongs to a period in which the class struggle was as yet undeveloped” (96).

The following period, however, ‘was the vulgarizing and extending of Ricardo’; the transformation of ‘scientific’ poltical economy into a weapon of the bourgeoisie once they finally siezed political power from ‘the governments and the feudal aristocracy gathered around the Holy Alliance’. The siezure of legitimacy “sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economics”.

“It was thenceforth no longer a question whether this or that theorem was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, in accordance with police regulations or contrary to them. In place of disinterested inquirers (academics) there stepped hired prize-fighters (think-tanks, lobbyists, publicists, pundits, etc.); in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and evil intent of apologetics” (97 – paranthesis mine).

In Germany, because it imported the ‘bourgeois science of political economy’ before the material conditions of the country in question met the material conditions upon which the science was based had the situation where “the capitalist mode of production came to maturity after its antagonistc character (that is the class conflict that partially defines capitalism as a struggle between exploiters and exploited) had been revealed” (98).

In other words, when the material conditions for developing a science of political economy indigenous to the ‘German condition’ finally presented themselves, the class conflict had already reached the point where any such science (or at least the dominant approach in that science) descends into the vulgarisms Marx mentions above.

When it comes to the vulgarized bourgeois political science, Marx identifies two groups of ‘spokesmen’ (because now they are not scientists but apologists or idealogues):

1. ‘prudent, practicval business folk’ (perhaps crudely typified in our context by economics and business degrees -MBAs, the ‘entrepeneur’ who may study things like ‘the law of supply and demand’ but not look at the things underneath.

2. the apologists “proud of the professorial dignity of their science, followed John Stuart Mill in his attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable” (98).

Might it be possible to make the same basic illustration with Marxist political economy and the socialist revolutions that seized legitimacy in the periphery and semi-periphery of the capitalist world economy in the last century?

Okay. I did scan back on this last night. And I am looking at it again right now; will spit out denotations as they occur to me. Quote the stand-outs. Actually, a number of things occur to me, and things we probably should note if we want to evaluate the parts and then total of Marx’s analysis -which I suppose is one of the investments here, in reading this material and adapting it to our contexts.

I. The epistemological approach…

Marx informs of changes, additions and so forth from the first edition so that things in general have “been carried out with greater scientific strictness”.

Is ‘scientific strictness’ here to be conceived of as sticking to theories as a religion takes its scripts, or of constantly refining and critiqueing -sometimes revolutionizing- the way we think and do thinking and do? or whatever.

“I find now, on revising the French translation…that several parts of the German original stand in need of…thorough re-working…” (95)

It’s always being re-worked.

II. Consequences of Germany’s role in the capitalist world economy of 1871-2.

“Political economy remains a foreign science in Germany….the historical circumstances…prevented the development of the capitalist mode of production in Germany, and consequently the construction there of modern bourgeois society. Thus the living soil from which political economy springs was absent. It had to be imported from England and France as a ready-made article; its German professors always remained pupils. The theoretical expression of an alien reality turned in their hands into a collection of dogmas, interpreted by them in the sense of the petty-bourgeois world around them, and therefore misinterpreted.”

1. The most ‘economically advanced’ states of the world economy, England and France, developed the study of economics and exported that study -imposing it in a sense- upon the ‘second’ and ‘third’ worlds of their day, such as Germany (from here on out we’ll use Wallerstein’s categories – core, semi-periphery, periphery -terms which strictly refer to the role the country plays in the world economy in relation to all the other states and not a measure of ‘economic development’ though certainly variably related).

Okay. Am I glad to be past that last one. I really don’t like posting that tedious stuff. But it also means we can put this preface to rest.

A few last things to top off the discussion. Let’s just bullet this.

1. How is Marx dealing with the agent in Capital?

A: “Individuals are dealt with here only in so far as they are the personifications of eocnomic categories, the carriers/bearers of particular class-relations and interests.” (92)

In other words we are not looking at the ‘whole individual’, but only that part of indivudual which is the ‘personification’ of economic categories. We have to wait until Giddens or Bourdieu to refine the discussion (this personification) of political economy to include (or even focus upon) those difficult concepts like taste and culture – and to a demonstration of how there are certain class patterns (though not determinations) to the distribution of cultural production and consumption – of cultural capital.

However, Marx is a century earlier, and in order to analyze the mode of production abstraction is required. Marx is using the 500x microscope, later social scientists can (though seldom really do) move on to the 10,000x.

Marx has also this to say about the peculiar character of economics as a ‘science’:

“The peculiar nature of the material it deals with summons into the fray on the opposing side the most violent, sordid and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest.”


“…within the ruling classes themselves, the foreboding is emerging that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and constantly engaged in a process of change.”

“I welcome every opinion based on scientific criticism.”

That’s that.

Make of the preface what you will – but it seems we will be analyzing capitalism:

1. at the ‘microscopic’ level, yet also as a macro level social structure, i.e. as an abstract type (or rather a set of related abstract types)

2. from the perspective of a tension between agent and structure  – the historical material angle; change as dialectic, conflict – the atom (agent) sent on a trajectory but, to a certain extent, resisting or shaping that trajectory over time.

3. A stagist and rather linear conception of economic development.

4. as the locus of ideological struggle

5. as ever changing and capable of being consciously shaped within the limits a given set of material conditions will allow. (this is in some respects a mere repetition of the second point).

I notice I made very few notes on Marx’s ‘Postface to the Second Edition’ so I will scan it to see what, if any, is vital at this stage of the read along. I won’t say I’ll post tomorrow because last time I did that it wound up being almost a week later! Consider that lesson learned.

Okay, so before I go on brandying about like some sort of know-it-all, let me just say I lack the specific knowledge to simply dismiss Weber, nor could he simply be dismissed even if I wanted. Most of my information and interpretation of Weber is derived of secondary sources. The amount of Weber’s own text I have read is severely limited to the introduction to his Protestant Ethic… I am a little too harsh on Weber here, which is too bad, since my main motivation is to counter Weber’s seeming dismisal of Marx as en economic determinist -which I feel is not too badly presented here. Why am I so fixated on this determinism business?

Weber, and much of ‘Weberian’ sociology tends to dismiss, marginalize, or neuter Marx on the grounds that his analysis presents the subject as having no agency, of society unfolding according to purely objective laws operating ‘behind our backs’; that these laws determine for us how we respond and behave. This, of course, is a gross simplification of Marx -where the model is neither all object or all subject/all structure all agent. Of course, these dualities are a little outmoded, but in Marx’s day incorporating dialectic thinking into the analysis of a society (at least in terms of political economy) was quite a step. Nevertheless, since one ‘don’t need to read him’ dismissal of Marx is the charge of economic determinism, I wrote a formal piece for social theory class about four months ago that fits in nicely with the last two posts on the Preface. It is longer than the recent posts. We’ll be back to quick posts tomorrow.

Tomorrow I hope to finish up the ‘Preface to the first Edition’. I am not sure yet if I will discuss the second preface. Or, if so, in what depth.

Alan Swingewood cautions all who would weigh on ‘Weber v. Marx’, “Only if Marxism is defined as a one-factor theory of social change can Weber’s study be regarded as its opposite and refutation” (Swingewood: 96). In other words, neither Marxist political economy nor Weber’s sociology has all its causal eggs in one basket; to treat either as single factor vulgarizes one or both. Certainly Weber no more believes his Protestant ethic the singular springboard of capitalism than Marx assumes all action and thought materially determined. Nevertheless, a conundrum prevents us from wiping clean this slate, for while Swingewood’s caveat is warranted, the fact remains that Weber structured elements of his sociology as a reaction to what he perceived as Marx’s economic determinism.[1] While Weber brings much of value to sociological thought, the elements of his sociology which purport to “correct” the passive role of the subject in Marx must be dealt with head on, for in many respects they are the very vulgarizations against which Swingewood warns, and Marxist thought works against. This essay proposes three things: First, a passive subject is contrary to the essence of Marxist thought. Second, Weber’s ‘iron cage’ vis-à-vis industrial capitalism’s ‘rational goal-oriented action’ is not unlike Marx’s critique of capitalism as an alienating social construct that by its very nature objectifies and disfigures the human subject. Last, in trying to prove the active role of the subject in social change, Weber, as presented by Swingewood, conflates subjective human activity with an objective conception of culture, crudely predicates material development upon this reification, and in so doing embraces both structure and super-structure as fetishes; thereby re-enslaving his ‘liberated’ subject to the probabilistic directivity of both.


That is to say, of all social factors this particular over-arching one seems at present to influence us most. Weber makes clear he holds no naïve assumptions regarding the influential strength of a society’s prevailing mode of production. Indeed, Weber’s metaphor of modernity as an iron box, ‘rational capitalism’s’ tendency toward rational goal-oriented action, implies concern and criticism of meaningful action transformed into habitual response; naught but the “application of systematic and precise modes of calculation and available means in pursuit of specific goals and ends” (Swingewood: 103). Rationalized capitalism denudes the human; makes an increasingly calculating and determinable creature out of what is an intrinsically indeterminable (self-determining) and active subject. “For Weber, action governed by rational norms is always more predictable in its possible effects…” (Swingewood: 93).  

Faced with the awesome breadth, complexity, and power of social production, particularly a mode which seems to make of society an ‘iron box,’ it is perhaps an innate response to try and assert for the subject a degree of autonomy from/within the process. Indeed, the very notions of individuality and freedom (however cynically expressed) underpinning capitalism’s development demand it. Given this, it is no surprise Weber places a portion of his intellectual weight against crude concepts of historical materialism; as well he should. Swingewood’s Weber is correct in asserting, “…the view that capitalism necessarily develops through the workings of objective, economic laws determined by material forces…effectively render…human action irrelevant…to the status of total passivity” (Swingewood: 97). Historical materialism, as Swingewood’s Weber conceives and critiques, is no more than an extension of rational goal-orientated action into the past. It is a rational conception of history which erases entirely the agency of the human subject in shaping what becomes. Historical materialism is tantamount to the iron box slamming shut so that when society looks back it cannot see beyond to a time when the cage did not exist. This thread is compelling, but Swingewood’s Weber commits two errors: First in characterizing crude historical materialism as Marxist, and via an accidentally objectified subject in Weber’s attempted demonstration of the active role of the subject over history’s course vis-à-vis religion. 


Weber fails to understand the role of the subject in Marxism, and completely ignores one of Marx’s key concepts, namely fetishism. As will be discussed below, Weber himself washes into fetishism in his attempt to free, in the world of ideas, the subject from economic determinism. However, it must first be noted that, regarding the historical role of the human agent, little difference exists between Swingewood’s Weber, “change is always through the actions of human agents… (who) accept or reject the prevailing system of ideas…” (Swingewood: 97), and Marx, “The materialistic doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself must be educated” (Marx in Fromm: 22). Despite Weber’s view that Marx’s historical materialism renders passive the human subject, makes her or him a mere object acted upon by historical material forces, Marx clearly conceives of society as the product of the subject, of human idea and action vis-à-vis labor and production. “The whole of what is called world history is nothing but the creation of man by human labor, and the emergence of nature for man; he therefore has the evident and irrefutable proof of his self-clarification, of his own origins” (Marx in Fromm: 26), or as Fromm interprets, “Man gives birth to himself in the process of history…”(Fromm: 15), “in the course of history; he develops himself; he transforms himself, he is the product of history; since he makes history, he is his own product” (Fromm: 26).  While it is tempting to view the language of labor and production as evidence of economic determinism, it must be remembered that labor and production are for Marx inherently human, subjective categories, and that it is a particular mode of production, namely capitalism, which effaces labor’s subjective character; rationalizes this subjective activity and makes it nothing more than an economic category, labor-power, a peculiar commodity in a circuit of valorization and exchange. “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence…is a definite form of expressing their life….As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are…coincides with their production, both what they produce and with how they produce” (Marx in Fromm: 10). I am a farmer because I grow grain. I am a teacher because I teach. I am a father because I produce/adopt offspring. These are not economic categories but human roles in which function subjective actors generating/entertaining ideas in their brains and realizing these ideas in the world of things: “We presuppose labor in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax” (Marx: 284). 


Contrary to the picture Swingewood’s Weber offers us of Marx’s systemic conception of meaning, the social whole conferring historical meaning on individual actions (Swingewood: 94), Marx’s concept of the ‘social whole’ is predicated on the very notion of inter-subjectivity Weber sought to promote. Marx conceives both structure and superstructure as the product of human hands and brains; that society, including and especially society’s mode of production, is and can only be socially constructed by interacting human subjects agreeing (explicitly or implicitly) to construct it in such a manner. In Marx’s thought, something as powerful as money only possesses that power because humans themselves endow it. With respect to economic forces or a mode of production, they rule over us as subjects, determine us as individuals and a social whole, objectify our subjective essence only to the extent that we as agents allow them to do so. The notion that humanity can only be determined by material forces is, in Marx’s words, a form of fetishism, “It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes…the fantastic form of a relation between things….to find an analogy we must take flight into…religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor (recall society itself is a product of labor) as soon as they are produced as commodities” (Marx: 165, parenthesis mine). 

Weber confuses a particular Marxist critique of the capitalist mode of production, the critique that capitalist society constructs itself as a sea of commodities determined by production and exchange, with Marx’s entire notion of historical materialism, which is, as discussed above, more nuanced than Swingewood’s Weber admits.[2] Marx’s fetishism and Weber’s iron cage both carry this notion of the subject objectified, of a person tainted by habituated behavior courtesy of social constructs. However, while Weber’s iron box is exclusive to modern, “rationalized capitalism”, Marx’s concept of fetishism is not so limited in scope. Marx sees both material and ideal as potential iron cages, fetishes,  things created by us and allowed to exist as forces beyond our control, “Thus, at the level of material production…we find the same situation that we find in religion at the ideological level, namely the inversion of subject into object and vice versa” (Marx: 990), or “As in religion man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalist production he is governed by the products of his own hands” (Marx in Fromm: 51).  

It now becomes clear that Weber’s attempt to assert subjective autonomy from the ‘fateful’ forces of social production by demonstrating that “ideal elements, such as religious ideas, are not mechanically linked to the economic structure but actively shape the ways in which individuals carry out their ordinary day-to-day activities” (Swingewood: 95) is ill conceived. Instead of proving the active subject as creator of its mode of production (a fact presupposed by Marx), he merely demonstrates that an ideal fetish, “religious belief…gave a direction to practical conduct and held the individual to it” (Weber in Swingewood: 99 parenthesis mine), and that this ideal fetish correlated at a specific point in time with the construction of a material one. The Protestant ethic, if such a thing can be defined, is naught but a cultural object created by subjects into a thing with the appearance of autonomy. Weber’s liberation of the subject vis-à-vis the Protestant ethic as capitalist progenitor is impotent. If we take Simmel at his word, “The real tragedy of culture is…the tendency to turn the creative subject into an object, to reify the products of human culture and effectively eliminate purposive human action” (Simmel in Swingewood: 103), we see the counterpunch Weber mounts against “Marxist” historical materialism is less a Cassandra and more an Agamemnon.    

Works Cited

Fromm, Eric. (1961). Marx’s Concept of Man. Frederick Ungar Publishing:
New York. 

Marx, Karl (1976). Capital Volume 1. (Ben Fowkes, Trans.). Penguin Books:

Swingewood, Alan. (2000). A short History of Sociological Thought 3rd. Ed. Palgrave Macmillan:

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Talcott Parsons, Trans.). Unwin University Books:

Works Referenced

Marx, Karl (1976). Capital Volume 2. (Ben Fowkes, Trans.). Penguin Books:

Marx, Karl (1976). Capital Volume 3. (Ben Fowkes, Trans.). Penguin Books:

[1] Of course, given Weber’s rather imprecise economics in which all forms of accumulation are capitalism (Weber: 17-27), one is forced to wonder upon which of Marx’s works his critique is based.

[2]  “…the very aim of Marx is to liberate man from the pressure of economic needs, so that he can be fully human” (Fromm: 5).

Yes. We’re still in the Preface to the first edition. How irritating, I know it. It gets worse. To be honest, I am dreading this post because it centers upon a passage that can lend itself to a number of arguments, but it especially seems to play into the hands of those who criticize Marx for ‘economic determinism.

Capital was based, in part, upon a thorough study of capitalism and its development in England. At the time it was the most developed capitalist environment, and therefore, as far as Marx was concerned, the closest thing to a ‘pure model’ available. Of course, Capital was not intended to apply merely to conditions in England, but to capitalism et al – even countries where capitalism was both emerging and underdeveloped (like the Germany of 1867). To his German readers Marx says, ‘the tale is told of you’.

“Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that spring from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies winning their way through and working themselves out with iron necessity. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” (90-91).

Woah Nellie! Sounds mighty determinist to me. ‘Natural laws’, ‘iron necessity’, ‘image of its own future’. Of the thousands of pages of Capital I have read, this passage tends to remain most present in my mind. It troubles me, precisely because elements of it seem to contradict the emmancipatory core in Marx’s work.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, and with Marx:

Q. If we accept that capitalism is a social construction, how does that jive with ‘laws of iron necessity’? Isn’t that precisely economic determinism?

A. Capitalism is a social construction. However from Marx’s viewpoint it is a necessary and inevitable step on the road to a higher stage of development. It is inevitable and necessary because, even though all of us would like to believe we can create something through the power of raw imagination, the fact is a society is limited by the historical and material conditions it finds at its disposal.

For example, even though the USSR or Communist China had a vision of scoialism, neither were/have been able to realize that vision by virture of the fact both still had to venture through a phase of industrialization which, at the time, required (state) capitalistic means.

“Even when a society has begun to track down the natural laws of its movement –and it is the ultimate aim of this work to reveal the economic law of motion of modern society– it can neiter leap over the natural phases of its development nor remove them by decree. But it can shorten and lessent the birth-pangs” (92).

This brings us to a far more interesting critique of Marx’s economics. Marx’s model of economic development is essentially ‘Rostowian’ (though this is a little anachronistic on that Rostow came later). Stagist is a better, more generic term. Marx conceived of the development of a society’s productive powers and evolved from one stage to the next, from primitive hunter/gatherer, to primitive agricultrual, to ancient plantations, to feudal forms, and from feudal forms to agricultrual capitalism and then, finally, to industrial capitalism. It is industrial capitalism which, according to Marx, has the distinctive capacity of laying the material framework for the transition to socialism.

One can, of course, argue that such models of development are essentially Euro-centric and assume a particular path or type of development as both desirable, and to a certain extent, inevitable.

“…we [Germany] suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside modern evils, we are oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations” (91).

Marx and Engels, unlike the Communists of the Second International (Lenin, Trotsky, Luxembourg, Kautsky [before WW1]) and rather unlike most communists of today, very much supported the globalizing tendency of capitalism. There is a very famous quote of Marx, which laziness prevents me from grabbing just this moment, which essentially states the British presence in India was serving to sweep away old ‘Asiatic’ economic forms, and replacing them with a more productive capitalist model.

In other words, the faster and further capitalism develops, spreads, develops, the sooner socialism can be made.

Of course, and as was stated in an earlier post, international trade and imperialism (economic and militaristic) are not really analyzed in Marx. Consequently, the role advanced capitalistc countries can play in keeping other less developed countries in an underdeveloped state is not addressed. For a discussion of this the work of the ‘neo-marxists’ Immanuel Wallerstein (The Modern World System), Paul Baran (The Political Economy of Growth), or A.G. Frank (Capitalsim and Underdevlopment in Latin America: historical studies of chile and brazil) is good reference. Lenin (Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism) and Rosa Luxembourg also have some interesting points. For a compelling defense of ‘orthodox’ Marxism re development and imperialism see Bill Warren’s Imperialism: the pioneer of capitalism. The work of economic historian, Karl Polyani is also worthwhile, as it (to an extent) addressed the aspect of cultural hubris in notions of ‘development.

All right. That’s quite a load for one day. Oh. And tomorrow I will post an essay I wrote for my social theory class addressing, specifically, Weber’s criticism of Marx’s economic determinism.


The other day I briefly addressed the concept of determinacy in relation to Capital specifically, and marxism in general. This quote from the preface to the first edition figured prominently.

“…in the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both. But for bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labor, or the value-form of the commodity, is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but so similarly does microscopic anatomy” (90).

(In)determinacy is really a secondary concept here (and will be discussed later in the preface in, perhaps, better detail). The main thrust of Marx’s biology metaphor has more to do with the notion that ‘what you see is not always what you get’ -to put it as colloqiually as I can manage.

“The complete body is easier to study than its cells.” (90)

What Marx is really getting at is that how things appear to be/work are not always actually how they function. While the human organism, taken at face value, is a single body composed of various limbs and organs, this body is in fact constituted of not only many cells and sub-cellular structures, but also other microscopic life forms which serve to break down or chemically balance our organism. A ‘superficial’ analysis of the body does not reveal all of its ‘actual’ functions -and so as observation of the body becomes less superficial physicians move from treating infections with bleedings to treating them with antibiotics.

Capital, as stated previously, is an attempt to delve into these ‘economic cell forms’ and peer behind the superficial or ‘face value’ analysis and conceptualizations of capitalism. 

This quote from Capital volume 3 (which I serendipitously came upon last night) makes the point in this manner:

“As the reader will have recognized in dismay, the analysis of the real, inner connections of the capitalist production process is a very intricate thing and a work of great detail; it is one of the tasks of science to reduce the visible and merely apparent movement to the actual inner movement. Accordingly, it will be completely self-evident that, in the heads of the agents of capitalist production and circulation, ideas must necessarily form about the laws of production that diverge completely from these laws and are merely the expression in consciousness of the apparent movement” (vol. 3 428).

In other words, without an adequate analysis and understanding of the capitalist mode of production, economics can easily base itself upon so many ‘frogs in the belly’. It is not without reason Marx states in the preface, “I assume…a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore think for himself” (90).

Continuing with the preface

Volume 1 was published in 1867, and is a continuation of work last visited in 1859 (Zur Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie). The substance of which is, according to Marx, summarized in chapter 1 of Capital.

Delimitation is one order of business:

“The sections on the history of the theories of value and of money are now…left out all together” (89).

The theories of value were left to volume 4 (Theories of Surplus Value), and is essentially Marx’s survey of the literature referenced and cited throughout Capital. Also left out of the analysis in any volume are adequate discussions of international trade, the role of the state and civil society; and of course the production of culture and the culture of production. Also left out is the role specific types of ‘fixed capital’ (machines, infrastructure, things not consumed in entirety when applied to the production of a good) may play in the development of capitalism. Means of communication, for example.

In other words, Capital is not a theory of everything. It offers plenty of pieces with which to model, but never a ‘total’ understanding. While some interpretations might seek to endow marxism as a total explanation, this totalization is imposed on the text. I’ll pull this bit out of Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu to make this more clear:

“The primary differences, those which distinguish the major classes of conditions of existence, derive from the overall volume of capital, understood as the set of actually usable resources and powers -economic capital, cultural capital and also social capital” (Bourdieu 1979: 114).

Marx offers an excellent (though still incomplete) analysis of the functioning of economic capital (a phenomenal achievement), but other forms of ‘capital’ are not as thoroughly analyzed in Marx.

Marx’s study of political economy disavows any notion that one can study society, even its economic forms, in ‘pure’ positivist faith.

“…in the analysis of economic forms (note the delimitation) neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both. But for bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labor, or the value-form of the commodity, is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but so similarly does microscopic anatomy” (90).

Microscopic anatomy was still a frontier of biology, mysterious in a way quantum physics is to us today. We can never see small enough, but there are patterns to be found at varying scopes and levels of analysis.

It is helpful to point out that Marx’s doctoral thesis had to do with the Epicurian view of the atom in that whole ancient age philosophy dialogue over whether the trajectory of each atom is determined once and for all at inception or if it can change trajectory.

Someone who knows a lot more about this please feel free to step in here.

Anyway, Marx more or less sought to rescue this Epicurean notion of indeterminacy within overdetermination. Throughout Marx there is always this notion of emancipation, of the atom trying to break free, even in the pre-communist work.

In other words, we are not after a deterministic model. We are learning to analyze what we construct.