Plekhanov on the law of the fall in the rate of profit and the alleged contradiction between Volumes One and Three of Capital.
Benedetto Croce. Economic Materialism and Marxist Political Economy. Critical Essays.
Translated by P. Shutyakov. Published by B. N. Zvonaryov,
St. Petersburg, 1901
Signor Benedetto Croce considers himself a Marxist. However, there are various kinds of Marxists. There are, in Signor Croce’s words, some who "are always ready" to accept Marx’s views "without discussion and with that absence of freedom and intellectual originality which is to be seen in all their literature" (p. 243). Signor Croce calls such Marxists vulgar (p. 244). Yet there are Marxists of a different coinage, those that criticise their teacher and are marked by "intellectual originality”. To such belongs Signor B. Croce, who thinks that his “critical” essays "in their sum comprise fairly complete research into almost all the fundamental problems of Marxism" (p. 3). To this, however, he adds the modest reservation "if I am not mistaken”, but his brash tone shows his conviction that no such mistake exists here and that, indeed, the fundamental propositions of Marxism have been seriously and thoroughly (and, of course, “critically”) studied in his essays. The claim, as one can see, is no small one. But is it well-grounded? We shall now see.
Signor B. Croce “analyses” Marx’s law of the fall in the rate of profit. The “vulgar” Marxists accept this thesis "without discussion”, in the way formulated and substantiated by their teacher. With the freedom and intellectual originality inherent in him, Signor Croce could not leave this law “unstudied”. He has made use of "logical arguments”, "arithmetical calculations" and even the "enlightened intuition of common sense" (p. 256; the Russian translation says: "the induction of common sense”, but this is a misprint, a slip of the pen or an error); all this has led him to the firm conviction that Marx was badly mistaken in this case, so much so that his method "fell apart in his hands" (p. 259). Elsewhere in the same essay, Signor Croce’s critical analysis leads to a result even sadder for the author of Capital: it appears that Marx “invented” his law of the fall in the rate of profit "out of his hatred for the kind of political economy he contemptuously called vulgar" (p. 256). Things must be in a pretty bad way, and we, vulgar Marxists, have suspected nothing. Horrible is the dream but merciful is the Lord. Let us turn an attentive eye to our critically-minded Marxist: perhaps we shall find that he has simply got things all muddled, following the notorious habit of Marx’s other “critics”.
The "intuition of common sense" says the following: "We have before us, according to Marx’s strictly schematic hypothesis, the capitalist class, on one hand, and the class of proletarians, on the other. Where does technological progress lead to? It increases wealth in the possession of the capitalist class. Does it not stand to reason that, as a result of technological progress, the capitalists, who are spending wealth whose value is falling’" (italics in the text—G.P.), "will be receiving the same services’" (italics in the text—G.P.) "from the proletarians as before, and that, in consequence, the relation between the value of services and that of capital will change in favour of the former, i.e., that the rate of profit will increase. With the spending of wealth" (capital), "which was originally reproduced during five hours of work and is now reproduced in four hours, the workers continue to toil for the same ten hours. The previous proportion was five to ten; it is now four to ten. The sponge costs less, but it absorbs the same amount of water" (p. 257).
Let us imagine that we are dealing with a manufacturer at whose spinning mill a certain amount of cotton is turned into yarn every year. Let us further suppose that a breakthrough occurs in machine-spinning which doubles the spinner’s labour productivity. How will this breakthrough affect the magnitude of the constant capital, i.e., of the sponge which, in Croce’s words, absorbs the workers’ living labour? Since the spinner’s labour productivity has doubled, it is clear that at present he will turn a double quantity of cotton into yarn. That double quantity of cotton should be provided by the manufacturer to the worker, which means that the former’s expenditures on raw material, with other conditions remaining the same, will double (disregarding any other additional expenditures). Hence it becomes clear that Signor Croce understood the importance of technological progress poorly when he asked himself: "How could Marx have imagined that the capitalist’s expenditures always increase with technological progress?" (same page). In practice, however, it turns out that Marx not only could but should have imagined this. But that is not all. The technological progress that doubled the spinner’s labour productivity consisted in improvements in machinery. Improved machinery usually costs more—there you have another factor of higher expenditures for the capitalist, and fresh proof that Signor Croce was very naive in asking himself: "How could Marx have”, etc.
But Signor Croce goes on to object: "Capital ... is calculated, not in its physical volume but in its economic value. Economically, that capital (supposing all other conditions remain the same) should have less value, or otherwise there would have been no technological progress" (p. 258).
Here again our critic displays an extreme and almost moving naivete. Technological progress “should” diminish the value of constant capital, or else there would be no technological progress—that is all Signor Croce has to say to refute Marx’s law. But, alas, that is too little. Technological progress consists in higher labour productivity, i.e., in every given unit of the product embodying a lesser amount of labour than before. But it does not follow hence that commodities are now produced by less expensive machines. The reverse is true! Technological progress usually involves the use of more complex and consequently more expensive machinery. That is the case, not only in the sphere of production but also in the circulation of commodities. An ocean liner costs much more than a sailing vessel, though, with the development of ocean shipping, freight charges have fallen considerably. True, the existence of counteracting causes cannot he denied here. Marx gave a detailed list of them in his Capital (Vol. Ill, Part 1, p. 213 et seq. in the German edition). Among them he included cheaper raw materials, machinery and other components of constant capital. "For instance,"he says, "the quantity of cotton worked up by a single European spinner in a modern factory has grown tremendously compared to the quantity formerly worked up by a European spinner with a spinning-wheel. Yet the value of the worked-up cotton has not grown in the same proportion as its mass. The same applies to machinery and other fixed capital" (ibid., p. 217). "In isolated cases the mass of the elements of constant capital may even increase, while its value remains the same, or falls" (same page). But that happens only in individual cases; on the whole, the value of constant capital increases, though not so rapidly as the mass of its elements. Any bright schoolboy knows that. But here are some interesting new facts. In the United States of America, the number of industrial enterprises (exclusive of mines) with annual productions of at least 500 dollars went up by 44 per cent during the decade between 1889/1890 and 1899/1900; the number of workers employed there rose by 25 per cent; the aggregate pay-roll grew by 23 per cent; the capital invested in these factories (the reference is obviously to what is known as fixed capital) increased by 51 per cent; and, finally, mixed expenditures increased by 63 per cent (see Franz’s article "Aus den Vereinigten Staaten" in Neue Zeit of May 17, 1902). These figures show that constant capital grows more rapidly than variable capital in the United States. What is to be seen there in terms of time is to be seen in Russia in spatial terms. South Russia’s iron and steel industry is equipped far better than that of the Urals, for which reason there is far more constant capital per worker employed in the iron and steel industry of the South than there is in the Urals. That, I repeat, is known to any schoolboy. Yet, Signor Croce continues to ask: in that case, what sense is there in improved production methods? With his " critical" naivete he does not even suspect that a more advanced and therefore (in most cases) a more expensive machine shifts lower cost to each separate unit of the product than the less expensive one does. Had he known this, he would have understood how ridiculous his "enlightened intuition of common sense" is, and how clumsy and helpless he is in his “criticism” of the law of the fall in the rate of profit. But he is ignorant of that and is therefore extremely pleased with his “criticism”.
We have chosen this particular essay by Signor Croce because it confirms the truth of the French saying: les beaux esprits se rencontrent. It is common knowledge that in Russian literature Mr. Tugan-Baranovsky has used similar arguments to refute Marx’s law. That critic’s argumentation has been excellently refuted by Mr. Karelin (in Nauchnoye Obozreniye), while Mr. Tugan’s reasoning was recently taken up for scrutiny by Kautsky in Neue Zeit on the occasion of the appearance of a German translation of Mr. Tugan’s book on crises, which included his pseudorefutation of Marx. Of course, we shall not repeat here the arguments of Karelin and Kautsky.1
We would just like to note that whenever two great minds make some great discovery, it is always of interest to decide the question of what scholarly Germans call Prioritat. Who holds the “priority” in refuting Marx’s law of the fall in the rate of profit: Signor Croce or Mr. Tugan-Baranovsky? What does the chronology say? Signor Croce’s “critical” essay, which we are examining, first appeared in a scholarly Italian publication in May 1899 (see the introduction to his book, p. 4, footnote); in the same month of the same year Mr. Tugan-Baranovsky “refuted” Marx in Nauchnoye Obozreniye. It is evident that the priority belongs to neither of them: les beaux esprits (critiques) se sont rencontrés; but should you, dear reader, say that both these critical minds could borrow their “critical” idea from some third person, a still more “critical” economist, we would reply: you are right. Open Verhandlungen der an 28 und 29 September 1894 in Wien abgehaltenen Generalversammlung des Vereins fiir Sozialpolitik fiber Kartells und iiber das landliche Erbrecht, Leipzig, 1895, and you will find on page 218 the following words by Professor Julius Wolf, the notorious Sozialistenfresser:
“Professor Brentano’s viewpoint that fixed capital increases as against circulating capital seems to be shared in many circles. Though in a slightly different wording, this viewpoint forms part of the socialist doctrine. I cannot agree with him, at least, not absolutely. Several weeks ago, a Zurich manufacturer, with whom I am on friendly terms, made some calculations on that score. He is a spinner himself, with a thorough knowledge of the history of spinning, especially in Britain, i.e., in the country where, for quite understandable reasons, Herr Brentano and the socialists gladly borrow material to back their arguments. This manufacturer has calculated that fixed capital is now lower in spinning than before. Buildings, spindles and various machines have now become relatively less expensive; wages, on the other hand, have risen.... If so, the natural law (Naturgesetz) of economic development Herr Brentano makes reference to does not exist."
The Zurich manufacturer mentioned by Herr Wolf was evidently no one else but Friedrich Bertheau, who, early in 1895, published a booklet, Fünf Briefe über Marx an Herrn Dr. Julius Wolf, Professor der Nationalokonomie in Zurich, with an introduction by the selfsame Dr. Wolf. On pages 47–49 of this booklet the author cites figures designed to show that, in reality, it is not constant capital that has shown a relative increase but variable capital (note that Herr Bertheau uses Marx’s terminology: constant and variable capital). As for the figures cited by Herr Bertheau, we can say that even if they really proved what he wanted, they could not refute Marx’s law, which is backed by figures of far broader significance than those of the Zurich manufacturer: even in this case, the best, they could indicate that Britain’s spinning industry belongs to those exceptions to the general rule that Marx himself referred to. But Herr Bertheau’s figures do not contain even the slightest shadow of what he is out to prove with the frivolity in matters of theory typical of so many "people of practice”. This can be easily seen by anybody who will go to the trouble of reading the above-mentioned excerpt from Fünf Briefe über Marx. We can refer those who are interested in learning in what direction the ratio of constant capital to variable capital is proceeding in Britain’s cotton industry to a book Large-Scale Production, etc., by Herr Schulze-Gavernitz, St. Petersburg, 1897. This book is, in its turn, full of misunderstandings, understatements, paralogisms and sophisms, but it contains some very instructive data on the problem we are dealing with.
Be it as it may, our beaux esprits have met in the field of ... plagiarism. Criticism, forsooth!
The above-cited arguments of the "intellectually original" Marxist give a very clear idea of his economic naivete. But to make sure, here is another economic gem of his—after all, plenty is no plague.
In the essay "New Interpretations of the Marxist Theory of Value" we read:
“Marx constructed his own concept of value; he set forth the process of the transformation of value into price, and reduced the nature of profit to surplus value. To me, the entire problem of a criticism of Marxism boils down to the following: is Marx’s concept basically wrong (wholly, if the premises are erroneous, or partly because of erroneous deductions)? Or else: if Marx’s concept is basically correct, has it not been brought into a category it does not belong to; has something been asked of it that it does not give; with a failure also to recognise what it is in reality? After arriving at the second conclusion, I asked myself: in what conditions and with which hypotheses is Marx’s theory intelligible" (pp. 216–17).
To this clearly formulated question Signor Croce replies to himself as follows: "The concept of labour value holds true for an ideal society, in which the products of labour are the only benefits, and class distinctions are non-existent...” (p. 231). "Thus we shall have: 1) An\ economic producing society without class distinctions. The law of labour value. 2) A social division of classes. The origins of profit, which solely in comparison with the preceding type and inasmuch as the concepts of the former are transferred to the latter (Signor Croce’s italics), can be qualified as surplus value. 3) The technological distinction between various industries, which necessitate a different composition of capital.... The appearance of the average rate of profit, which, in comparison with the preceding type, can be regarded as transformed and equalised -surplus value" (p. 213, italics ours).
In the essay "On the Question of the Interpretation and Criticism of Certain Concepts of Marxism”, in which the same question is examined, Signor Croce’s idea is explained as follows:
“Marx’s labour value is not a logical generalisation but a fact thought of and taken as a type, i.e., something quite distinct from a logical concept. It is not a pale abstraction, but has all the richness of a concrete fact.2 This concrete fact serves, in Marx’s research, as a term of comparison, a measurement, a type" (p. 106).
Everything seems clear: labour value is merely a "fact thought of as a type”, and it is only from the standpoint of such a "facttype" that the name of surplus value can be applied to profit. Well, well, this is the way our extraordinary Marxist has understood the author of Capital. Does Marx ever “call” profit surplus value? Applying such a “name” to it means confusing those very concepts which have to be clarified. According to Marx, profit, like interest or ground rent, constitutes part of the value created by the workers’ unpaid labour. But if that provides grounds to rename it as surplus value, we shall have to apply the same “name” to interest and ground rent as well. It is obvious that nothing good can be expected from such terminology. But all this is merely en passant. The main thing for us here is that, according to Marx, it is not at all in an imaginary "economic producing society without class distinctions" that profit constitutes part of the surplus value, but in present-day capitalist society, which is an indisputable "empirical fact". This is something our "critically minded" Marxist does not understand. He is so imbued with the spirit of vulgar political economy that the question simply pops out of him: why should one designate as transformation of surplus-value something that is the natural economic outcome of capital, which (because it is capital) must produce profit? (p. 230). This is something beyond compare! After this, how can one discuss things with Signor Croce, or explain to him, that it was Marx’s scientific purpose incidentally to prove why that "natural outcome of capital" which is called profit is possible and where it comes from, or present surplus value to him as the source of the "natural outcome"? All that will be in vain, a waste of time, the intellectually original Marxist will reply with invincible conviction that the existence of surplus value is possible only in an imaginary society without class divisions and that therefore linking surplus value with the source of profit—that natural outcome of capital—means revealing that lack of original thinking which, to their uttermost shame, marks the vulgar Marxists. Signor Benedetto Croce is evidently directly descended from the man in the fable by the Russian writer Ivan Krylov, who failed to notice the elephant, and does not see what stares him in the face.
Indeed, the offspring of that remarkable specimen of human nature are most numerous. They include all those “critics” of Marx who believe in the existence of a contradiction between 665 Volumes One and Three of Capital. In a review of Mr. Frank’s book Marx’s Theory of Value and Its Significance (see Zarya, Nos. 2-3, p. 324 et seq.3 ), we showed that, in reality, there is no contradiction between the two volumes, and that Volume Two—somehow quite forgotten in this case—contained unequivocal indications as to how Marx resolved the antinomy between the law of value, on the one hand, and the law of the equal rate of profit, on the other. In our review, we referred to pages 152 and 253 of Volume Two (in the Russian translation, these correspond to pages 185 and 315 of the second edition of the German original). Now let us refer to some more passages in the same volume. On page 79, Marx says that, under the capitalist method of calculating profit ... for capital in different spheres of investment, wherever the times of circulation are different, a longer time of circulation period tends to bring about an increase of prices, in short, serves as one of the causes of equalising profits- (italics ours; the excerpt is on page 97 of the second edition of the German original). This is completely in the spirit of Volume Three. Further, 4he excerpt on p. 88 reads as follows: "All labour which adds value can also add surplus-value, and will always add surplus-value under capitalist production, as the value created by labour depends on the amount of the labour itself, whereas: the surplus-value created by it depends on the extent to which the capitalist pays for it. Consequently, costs which enhance the price of a commodity without adding to its use-value, which therefore are to be classed as unproductive expenses so far as society is concerned, may be a source of enrichment to the individual capitalist" (p. 107 in the German original). The reader will realise that these unproductive expenses could not serve as a source of wealth for individual capitalists had not the surplus value extracted from the working class been distributed between employers proportionately to the capital of each of them. Finally, on p. 296, in posing the question of how the value of the capital! consumed in production is replaced from the annual product, and how the movement of this replacement is absorbed by the consumption of surplus-value by the capitalists and of wages by the workers, Marx remarked that he was implying an exchange of products in accordance with their value, but made a highly significant reservation, which has been poorly translated into Russian, and which we shall first quote in the original: "So weit die Preise von den Werthen abweichen kann dieser Umstand ... auf die Bewegung des gesellschaftlichen Kapitals keinen Einfluss ausüben. Es tauschen sich nach wie vor im Ganzen dieselben Massen Produkten aus, obgleich die einzelnen Kapitalisten dabei in Werthverhaltnissen betheiligt sind, die nicht mehr proporzionell wa’ren ihren respektiven Vorschüssen und den von jedent von ihnen einzeln produzierten Mehrwerthmassen" (p. 368 of the second edition). What this means is: "The fact that prices diverge from values cannot, however, exert any influence on the movements of the social capital. On the whole, there is the same exchange of the same quantities of products, although the individual capitalists are involved in value-relations no longer proportional to their respective advances and to the quantities of surplus-value produced singly by every one of them." If, with prices diverging from values, the exchange of quantities of products remains the same, this makes it obvious, on the one hand, that the aggregate sum of the values exchanged will remain the same too. If the above-mentioned divergence does not influence the movements of the social capital, then, on the other hand, such divergence cannot change the nature of the process of creation of that quantity of surplus-value which is absorbed by social capital and is distributed among individual capitalists. Consequently, no matter how we reply to the question of the divergence between average prices from values—whether affirmatively or negatively—our reply cannot affect the solution of the question of where social surplus value comes from. Hence, it follows that Volume Three of “Capital” could not contradict Volume One, and that the “critics” have sought contradictions where none could exist, i.e., they have completely misunderstood Marx.
It was not so difficult, however, to understand him. If the “critics” have held the opinion that, according to Volume One, average commodity prices coincide with their values, they have done so of their own free will. As to Marx, he stressed, in the above-mentioned volume, that there is actually no such coincidence. For his part, Frederick Engels declared that the idea of such a coincidence was quite groundless. In objecting to Eugen Dühring, he remarked that Marx never claimed that the individual industrialist, in all and any circumstances, sells at its full value the surplus product received by him. "Marx says expressly that merchant’s profit also forms a part of surplus-value, and on the assumptions made this is only possible when the manufacturer sells his product to the merchant below its value”. (Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwalzung der Wissenschaft, 3. Auflage, S. 226). Later, referring to a passage in Volume One, Engels says: "Herr Dühring might see from this alone that competition plays a leading part in the distribution of surplus-value, and with some reflection the indications given in the first volume are in fact enough to make clear, at least in its main features, the transformation of surplus-value into its subforms" (Unterformen) (ibid., S. 228). The words we have italicised in themselves provide a clear instruction with regard to the direction in which the solution of the celebrated “riddle” should have been sought. When the selfsame Engels suggested in the Preface to Volume Two that the riddle should be solved by scholars who held that Rodbertus’s viewpoint was the hidden source of Marx’s economic theory, it should have been perfectly clear to any man of understanding how matters stood. The reader should note that Engels addressed those very people who lauded Rodbertus as against Marx, and them alone. He invited them to show that, with the help of Rodbertus’s economic theory, the riddle could be solved, not only without any divergence from the law of value but rather on the basis of that law. He made the suggestion simply and exclusively because they could not take it up without renouncing Rodbertus’s economic theory. Anyone familiar with the latter’s writings knows that, in his opinion, the law of value is far from predominant in capitalist society.4 It was this aspect of Rodbertus’s view on value that Engels had in mind when he made his wily suggestion to Rodbertus’s followers, which the “critics” understood as a guarantee that the coincidence of prices with values would be proved in Volume Three of Capital. It was a bad miscalculation, but responsibility for it lay with the critics, not with Volume Three or with Marx and Engels.
Consequently, Rodbertus’s theory of value differs greatly from Marx’s theory on the same subject. Indeed, it differs in the extreme, though the “critics” do not, of course, even suspect it. Rodbertus puts it as follows: if commodities are exchanged in proportion to the amount of labour spent on their production, the law of value is fully applicable; if not, the operation of this law seems to be cancelled. Marx understood the question in a far broader way, which is clear from Volume One of Capital and is shown even better in one of his letters to Kugelmann published recently in Neue Zeit. We are referring to the letter of July 11, 1868 in which Marx says: "As for the Centralblatt, the man is making the greatest possible concession in admitting that, if one means anything at all by value, the conclusions I draw must be accepted. The unfortunate fellow does not see that, even if there were no chapter on ’value’ in my book, the analysis of the real relations which I give -would contain the proof and demonstration of the real value relations. All that palaver about the necessity of proving the concept of value comes from complete ignorance both of the subject dealt with and of scientific method. Every child knows that a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish. Every child knows, too, that the volume of products corresponding to the different needs requires different and quantitatively determined amounts of the total labour of society (der gesellschaftlichen Gesammtarbeit). That this necessity of the distribution of social labour in definite proportions cannot possibly be done away with by a particular form of social production but can only change the mode of its appearance, is self-evident. Natural laws cannot be abolished at all. What can change in historically different circumstances is only the form in which these laws assert themselves. And the form in which this proportional distribution of labour asserts itself, in a social system where the interconnection of social labour manifests itself through the private exchange of individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange value of these products. Science consists precisely in demonstrating how (in the original: zu entwickeln—to develop) the law of value asserts itself. So that if one wanted at the very beginning to ’explain’ all the phenomena which seemingly contradict that law, one would have to present the science before science. It is precisely Ricardo’s mistake that in his first chapter on value he takes as given a variety of categories that have not yet been explained in order to prove their conformity with the law of value.... The vulgar economist has not the faintest idea that the actual everyday exchange relations can not be directly identical with the magnitudes of value. The essence (der Witz) of bourgeois society consists precisely in this, that a priori there is no conscious social regulation of production. The rational and naturally necessary asserts itself only as a blindly working average. And then the vulgar economist thinks he has made a great discovery when, in face of the disclosure of intrinsic interconnection, he proudly states that on the surface things look different. In fact, he boasts that he sticks to appearance, and takes it for the ultimate. Why, then, have any science at all?"
Exchange value is a form assumed by the operation of the law of value, a mode of operation of that law. It is no more than an historical category. But while the above-mentioned law’s mode of operation changes together with social relations, the operation itself is just as ineradicable as the operation of the eternal laws of Nature. Therefore, if we see that the mode of operation changes or becomes more complex for one reason or another, say, because of competition between capitalists that does not mean that the operation itself ends, or is eliminated at least partially. No, while manifesting itself differently, or intertwining with the operation of another law, it still remains in full force, and it is the researcher’s task to follow it up through a multitude of new forms and intertwinings. Marx accomplished that task in his Capital. As to Rodbertus, he not only failed to solve it, but considered its solution impossible. In his words, one of Marx’s mistakes was that "er nimmt den Arbeitswerth aller Güter schon in dem heutigen Zustande als realisiert an, während dies nur durch Gesetze geschehen kann" (see his letter to R. Meyer of September 8, 1871 published in his Briefe und sozial-politische Aufsatze, Vol. I, pp. 99– 100. Italics ours). For Rodbertus, the entire law of value consisted in the exchange relations of commodities being determined by the amount of labour spent on the production of each of them. In other words, Rodbertus confused the operation of the law with one of the modes (“forms”) of its operation determined in each particular period by society’s economic structure. The same error is repeated by all who think that in Volume Three of Capital Marx discarded his theory of value. But enough of that. The reader can see for himself how far removed Marx’s idea is from what is ascribed to him by Signor Croce with his "fact thought of and taken as a type".
To criticise Marx, or any other thinker, one should understand him. That is the crux of the matter, and it makes itself unpleasantly felt almost on every page of Signor Groce’s critical essays. He has failed to understand Marx’s economic theory, or his historical theory. We have no space for long excerpts here, so we shall confine ourselves to one statement alone. After praising Antonio Labriola, incidentally for the fact that in his book on the materialistic explanation of history he “allows” of the existence of ideology, and even "the frequently occurring absence in him of a consciousness and understanding of his position”, Signor Groce adds: "Since man lives not only in society but also in Nature, Labriola recognises the force of race, temperament, and" (!) "’the promptings of Nature. Finally, he does not close his eyes to human personality, that is to say, the actions of those who are called great men and who, if not creators, are certainly collaborators of history" (pp. 29–30). Signor Croce calls all this concessions (p. 30). The term will probably be approved of by the celebrated Professor Kareyev, but the “vulgar” Marxists will reply with derisive laughter. Let Signor Croce give good thought to Marx’s theory of history; he will then see that, far from precluding the "promptings of Nature”, it simply assumes their existence (as will be seen, for instance, from Volume One of Capital). In exactly the same way, it has never occurred to any serious Marxist to deny the "actions of great men”, but it is doubtful whether any of them regards the latter as “collaborators” of history. The idea associated with the word consists in great people working together with or alongside of history—a patent absurdity, at least for our fraternity of “vulgar” Marxists.5 Equally obvious to us is the old truth that people are not always aware of their condition in life. After all, our activities are all directed primarily towards developing the consciousness of the proletariat. To see any “concession” here means behaving like one who has failed to notice what stares him in the face.
We shall not discuss Labriola’s other “concessions”, which have already been dealt with in Russian literature (see Kamensky’s article in Novoye Slovo).
After everything that has been said, the “vulgar” Marxists will not be surprised to learn that our intellectually original Marxist belongs to the category of the forthright opponents of the dialectical method and of materialism. Naturally, he has not the slightest notion of either. Without feeling a shadow of doubt, he repeats the opinion that philosophical materialism consists in a recognition of spiritual phenomena being merely an unreal semblance, behind which physical phenomena lie concealed (p. 190). Such patent absurdities deserve no refutation, which is why we shall leave unanswered the rebuke made against us personally, namely that, in our Beitrage zur Geschichte des Materialismus we voiced "the need to go back to Holbach and Helvetius" (pp. 19–20). We returned to Holbach and Helvetius in the sense that we considered it necessary to compare Marx’s materialism with French eighteenth-century materialism and discover kinship and genetic links between these two phases in the history of the materialistic world-outlook. Had not Signor Croce been blinded by the usual philistine prejudices against materialism, and had he understood Marx’s views, he would have found strange, not that we felt a need of that comparison but its not having been expressed far earlier in philosophical literature.
Of himself Signor Croce says that he has not "escaped from the power of Kant’s critique" (p. 175), in ethical questions. We shall add that "Kant’s critique" has made a deep and indelible impress on all his world-outlook. Therein lies the secret of his own “critical” exercises. He senses that Kantianism is incompatible with Marx’s historical and socio-political views, which are imbued through and through with the spirit of materialism. But instead of decisively rejecting Kantianism or completely turning away from Marxism, he tries to sit between two stools by trying to modify Marxism to make it finally cease from contradicting what it cannot but contradict. With him, as with many others, this assiduous but quite unproductive labour is adorned with the label of criticism. Hardly has there ever existed, in the history of human thought, a name less suited to what it should indicate.
Thus, Signor Croce’s book is a poor gift to the Russian reader. It is all the worse for Mr. P. Shutyakov having produced a very poor translation. For example, we read on p. 132 of his translation that Marx’s historical theory is nothing more but a canon, a manual of historical interpretation, and that the "manual counsels concentration on society’s economic essence, for a better understanding of its configuration and changes”. What is society’s economic essence"? We turn to the original and find (p. 115): Sostrato economico della societa, i.e., society’s economic substratum. This does not precisely convey Marx’s view either, but at least makes some sense, while "economic essence" is sheer nonsense. The footnote on page 61 says: "On the whole, the form of value pursued by Marx is an equation between two concrete values." What does "to pursue" a form of value mean? And what is an “equation” between values? The Italian original (p. 53) says: "La concezione del valore nel Capital del Marx ... e insomnia il paragone fra due valori concreti”, i.e., "in a word, the definition of value in Marx’s Capital is a comparison between two concrete values”. Theoretically, as we already know, this is incorrect, but there is no "pursuit" or “equation” here, which raises Signor Croce’s error to the power of two. Mr. P. Shutyakov’s translation contains quite a few such blunders.
Source: Georgi Plekhanov Selected Philosophical Works In Five Volumes Volume II. Taken from: http://web.archive.org/web/20110529205859/http://leninist.biz/en/1976/GPSPW2PP/Croce
- 1Kautsky, who showed that Mr. Tugan-Baranovsky’s “criticism” was merely a return to the viewpoint of vulgar political economy, nevertheless, pays him quite a few compliments. To Kautsky’s mind, Mr. Tugan is almost a most outstanding “critic”. In fact, this writer possesses great diligence and a certain descriptive skill. However, as far as economic theory is concerned, he is dead to it, or as yet unborn. To us, the compliments he has received from Kautsky seem completely undeserved. We believe they can be explained by the same psychological aberration which makes socialists in each separate country think that the bourgeoisie of foreign countries are better than their own: Kautsky was excessively bored with the German " critics".
- 2In a footnote Signor Croce adds: "It should not be forgotten that a concrete fact need not be an empirical fact, but one which js purely hypothetical, i.e., existing only in part in an empirical reality."
- 3I intend to translate this. – Noa Rodman
- 4In 1883 Plekhanov wrote a booklet against Rodbertus: Экономическая теория Карла Родбертуса-Ягецова (untranslated: http://az.lib.ru/p/plehanow_g_w/text_0290.shtml
- 5On the question of the role of so-called great and highly placed men, see our article in the collection of essays Twenty Years.