Leading Principles of Marxism: A Restatement

How Marxism exposes the weaknesses of sociology.

Submitted by libcom on July 24, 2005


Leading Principles of Marxism: A Restatement
Marxism versus Sociology

(Karl Korsch)

WHAT is the relationship between Marxism and modern sociological teaching? If we think of the sociology originated by Comte, and first named by him, as a special section in the system of constituted sciences, we shall find no link between it and Marxism.

Marx and Engels paid no attention to either the name or content of this ostensibly new branch of knowledge. When Marx felt himself compelled to take take notice of Comte's Cours de Philosophic Positive, thirty years after its appearance, 'because the English and French make such a fuss about the fellow', he still spoke of''positivism' and 'comtism' as of something to which he was 'thoroughly opposed as a politician' and of which he had 'a very poor opinion as a man of science'' Marx's attitude is theoretically and historically well-founded. The science of socialism, as formulated be Marx, owed nothing to this 'sociology' of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which originated with Comte and was propa- gated by Mill and Spencer. It would be more correct to say that 'sociology' is a reaction against modern socialism. From this stand- point only is it possible to understand the essential unity of the diverse theoretical and practical tendencies which during the last hundred years have found their expression in this science. As with Comte in his relation to St, Sîmon, his 'great master' so have the latter bourgeois 'sociologists' opposed another way of answering the questions erst raised by the rising proletarian movement to the theory and thus also to the practice of socialism. To these issues, which modern historical develop- ment has put on the agenda of present-day society, Marxism stands in a much more original and direct relationship than the whole of the so- called 'sociology' of Comtes Spencer and their followers. Fundamentally, then, there exists no theoretical relationship between those two doctrines of society, Bourgeois sociologists refer to the revolutionary socialist science of the proletariat, as 'an unscientifc mixture of theory and politics'. Socialists, on the other hand, dismiss bourgeois sociology as mere 'ideology'.

The position of Marx, however, is quite deferent toward the first 'Enquirers into the Social Nature of Man', who in the preceding centuries, in the radical struggles of the rising bourgeois class against the obsolete feudal order, had first set up the new idea of Civil Society as a revolutionary slogan, and had even unearthed, in the new science of Political Economy, the material foundations of this new 'civilised' form of society.

According to Marx's own statement, made in 1859, in the preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,he had begun the development of his materialistic theory of society sixteen years earlier with a critical revision of Hegel's Philosophy of Law. This was a task he had set himself because of certain grave doubts which had recently assailed him in regard to his Hegelian idealistic creed. Previously, as an editor of the Rheinische Zdtung (1842-43), he had for the erst time found himself called upon to discuss 'so-called material interests'. He had already begun to study 'economic questions' and had become vaguely acquainted with the ideas of (French Social- ism and Communism'. His criticism of Hegel led him to the conclsion that 'legal relations as well as forms of state cannot be understood out of themselves nor out of the so-called general development of the human mind, but on the contrary, are rooted in the material conditions of lifer the aggregate of which Hegel, following the precedent of the English and French of the eighteenth century, grouped together under the name of 'civil society' - and that the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy.'

We see here the decisive significance which the notion of civil society' had gained for the young Marx who was at that time just completing his transition from Hegelian idealism to his later materialistic theory. While still formally basing his materialistic criticism of Hegel's idealistic glorification of the state on the realistic conclusions (unexpected in an idealist philosopher) regarding the nature of civil society which he had found embodied in Hegel's Philosophy of Law Marx now definitely abandoned Hegel and all his idealistic philosophy. Instead he associated himself with those earlier investigators into the nature of society who had arisen in the period of revolutionary develop- ment of the English and French bourgeoisie, when the name 'sociology' had not yet been invented, but 'society' had already been discovered as 'a special and independent realm of knowledge.

Hegel, indeed, had not derived that deep realistic knowledge of 'civil society', which stands in such sharp relief to the rest of his book, from an independent study of the then extremely backward state of German society. He took both the name and content of his 'civil society' ready-made from the French and English social philosohers, politicians and economists. Behind Hegel, as Marx said, stand the 'English and French of the eighteenth century' with their new discoveries of the structure and movement of society, who in their turn reflect the real historical development which culminated in the Industrial Revolution in England after the middle of the eighteenth cen- tury and in the great French Revolution of 1789 to 1815. Marx, then, if developing his new socialist and proletarian science, took his cue from that early study of society, which, although it was erst communicated to him by Hegel, had really been born in the revolutionary epoch of the bourgeoisie. In the erst place he took over the results of 'classical political economy' (from Petty and Boisguillebert trough Quesnay and Smith up to Ricardo) consciously developing them as that which the great bourgeois investigators had already more or less unconsciously taken them to be, ie the basic structure or, as it were, 'the skeleton' of civil society. Even this basic importance of political economy, to which Marx alludes in calling it the sanatory of civil society', had afore him been recognised by his immediate predecessors, the German idealist philosophers, Kant, Fichte and Hegel. In the philosophical system of Hegel, 'civil society' is based on the 'system of needs' explored by the new science of political economy, and the philosopher had, in an earlier work, even ex pressly descried the 'system of needs' as the 'first form of government', as opposed to such higher developed forms as the state and the law.

The very pungency with which Marx in his later writings repeatedly emphasized that post-classical bourgeois economy (the so- called 'vulgar economy') had not advanced beyond Ricardo in any important points,; and scornfully dismissed the new socio-scientifc synthesis of Comte's Positivism for the infinitely greater achievement of Hegel,8 only shows once more the lasting influence of that early phase of economic and social thought on the theory of Marx. This is tee even though his analysis of the new development of society and the new needs and aims of the proletariat, now emerging as an independent class, far transcended the results of those older theories. The prol tarian class guided by the Marxist theory is therefore not only, as Friedrich Engels put it, 'the inheritor of German classical philosophy', it also is the inheritor of classical political economy and social research. As such it has transformed the traditional classical theory in accordance with the changes in historical conditions.

Marx no longer regards bourgeois society from the standpoint of its erst phase of development and its opposition to the feudal structure of medieval society. He is not only interested in the static laws of its existence. He treats bourgeois society as historical in all its traits and therefore merely a transitory organization of society. He explores the whole process of its historical genesis and development, and the in- herent tendencies which, in their further development, lead to its revo- lutionary overthrow. He ands these tendencies twofold : objective in the economic basis of burgeons society, subjective in the new division of social classes arising out of this same economic basis and not out of politics, law, ethics, etc. Thus civil society, which until then had con- stituted a homogeneous whole, opposed only to feudalism, is now torn into two opposed 'parties'. The assumed 'civil society' is in reality 'bourgeois society', ie a society based on the cleavage of classes, in which the bourgeois class controls other classes economically and therefore politically and culturally. So at last la close la plus laborieuse et la plus miserable enters the widened horizon of social science. Marxist theory recognises the class war of the oppressed and exploited wage labourers of present-day society to be a war for the supersession of the present structure of society by a more highly developed form of society. As a materialistic science of the contemporary development of bourgeois society, Marxist theory is at the same time a practical instalment for the struggle of the proletariat to bring about the realization of proletarian society.

The later artificial detachment of sociology as a special branch of learning, whose scientific origin dates from Comte, and, at the best, 'allows the great original thinkers who have done the real productive work in this field to stand as its 'forerunners', represents nothing more than an escape from the practical and, therefore, also theoretical tasks of the present historical epoch. Marx's new socialist and proletarian fierce, which further developed the revolutionary theory of the classical founders of the doctrine of society in a way corresponding to the changed historical situation, is the genuine social science of our time.

Marx comprehends all things social in terms of a definite historical epoch. He criticises all the categories of the bourgeois theorists of society in which this specific character has been effaced. Already in his first economic work we find him reproaching Ricardo for having applied the specifically bourgeois concept of rent to 'landed property of all epochs and of all countries. This is the error of all economists who represnt burgeois production relations as eternal.'

The scope of the principle of 'historical speculation is clearly demonstrated in this example. Landed property has been widely diferent in character and has played very different roles in the various historical epochs of society. Already the deferent ways in which primitive communall property in land had been broken up, directly lnfluenced the varied forms of the later development of society based upon private property. Up to the middle ages landed property (agriculture) constituted, according to Marx, the central category, dominating all the other categories of production, just as capital does in present-day burgeois society. The different ways in which, in different countries, after the victory of the capitalist mod: of production, feudal property in hnd was subjected to capital; th! deferent ways in which rent was Misformed into a part of capitalist surplus value, and agriculture into an industry - a1l retain their importance for the capitalist systems which arose therefrom, for the deferent forms of the labour movement which subsequently developed within them, and for the deferent forms in which the transition to the socialist mode of production will ultimately be effected in each of the different systems. For this reason Marx investigated with particular care, to the end of his life, the his tory of landed property and rent as shown on the one hand in the United States, and on the other hand in Russia. In the same way, at the end of the 19th century, Lenin, in his Development of Capitalism in Russia analysed particularly the specific historical forms of this transition process. Yet all this comprehensive study of the various historical forms serves, with both Marx and Lenin, only as a base for the working out of the specific character of capitalist rent in fully developed bourgeois society.

In the fundnmental analysis of the modern capitalist mode of production, which forms the subject matter of the first book of Capital, Marx does not deal with the category of, rent at all. What is discussed there, in addition to the general function of the soil as an element of the labour process itself, is only the different ways by which the transition to the modern capitalist mode of production reacted upon the conditions of the agricultural proletariat, first, in developed capitalist countries, second, in such countries as Ireland that had fallen behind in the process of industrialisation, and finally in the colonial countries.

Marx discusses 'rent' in the proper place, in a section of the third book of Capital, in which the special forms of capitalist distribution are analysed as they arise from the special historical forms of capitalist production. Even here, there is no room for an independent exposition of earlier historical forms. Only a few scattered remarks throw a flash of light on the contrast between the modern bourgeois form of landed property and past historical forms; and only an additional closing chapter - and indeed, of that only a part - is devoted to the historical Genesis of Capitalist Rent. Indeed, as Marx says in the opening phrase of this whole section, ,the analysis of landed property in its various historical forms lies beyond the scope of this work.

The concept of 'rent', then, as discussed in the Marx ist theory, is in no way a general term referring to landed property of all epochs. The form of landed property which is considered in Capital is a specifically historical one; it is that form into which feudal land ownership and small peasants' agriculture have been transfortmed through the influence of capital and of the capitalist mode of production'. In this sense, and in this sense only, an analysis of modern capitalist rents or of that portion of the surplus value produced by industrial capital which falls into the hands of the capitalistic landowner, is a necessary part of the complete analysis of the process of capitalist production which is embodied in the three books of Capital.

The application of the principle of historical specifiation as further demonstrated by the way Marx deals with the different historical forms of capital itself. Just as in the present epoch industrial capital appears as the standard forma so did merchants' capital and its twin brother, interest-bearing capital, and the various sub-forms of these (more exactly described by Marx as 'capital for trading in goods', 'capital for trading in money', 'capital for lending money') occupy an independent and, in certain respects, a predominating position in the epochs preceding capitalist society, and, indeed, in the Erst phases of capitalist society itself . Even in present-day fully developed capitalist economy the merchant and the banker, though not involved in actual production like the industrial capitalist, still perform a definite func- tion in the circulation of capital. They also participate in the distribution of the total 'surplus value', a considerable part of the yearly amount at the disposal of the capitalist class falls to their share as commercial prest' and (interest' - just as we have seen another part of it going in the form of 'rent' to landed owners of property who have as little to do with actual production. Moneylenders' capital has even recaptured an important position - though not, as many Marxists have believed, a definite supremacy - in it, new form as an integral part of the modern So-called 'finance capital', ie a system of highly concen trated capital created by the fusion of private and slate-controlled bank capital with trust and state-controlled industrial capital.

The Marxist analysis of modern capitalist production starts from the asumption that the previously independent forms of trading- capital and money-capital have been transformed into mere accessor- ies of the new prevailing form. It is true that capitalist production even today bears the stamp of its historical origin - the intrusion of the merchant into the sphere of feudal production. All capitalist produc- tion remains essentially a production for sale. Every article resulting from capitalist production is to be sold as a commodity, whether it is sold to another industrial capitalist who needs it for carrying on his own process of production or, ultimately, to the immediate consumer. Again the very way in which 'capital' first arose and gained control of production in the shape of money, as supplied by wealthy individuals, merchants, usurers, etc, constantly repeats itself under the present condition of fully developed capitalist production. Every new aggre- gate of capital, even today, Centers upon the stage, ie comes into the market - the commodity market, the labour market or the money market - still in the form of money that by a definite process has to be transformed into capital'.

Nevertheless the 'secret', not only of 'how capital produces' but also of 'how capital is produced' - and incidentally the key to the aboli- tion of all capitalist exploitation and wage-slavery - can in no way be theoretically discovered by an analysis of the functions performed by those 'accessory' forms of capital in the process of circulation, or of the revenues which accrue to the capitalists concerned, in consideration of the 'services' they perform in this sphere. done will therefore under- stand,' says Marx, 'why in our analysis of the basic form of capital, of the form in which it determines the economic organization of modern society, its popular, and as it were, antediluvian forms, degrading capi- tal'' and 'usurers capital'' are for the present (viz in the analysis of the actual process of capitalist production in the Erst book of Capital) entirely ignored.'

Even when, in the second and third books of Capital, Marx comes back to these 'antediluvian forms' in his analysis of capitalist circula- tion and distribution, he takes as his main theme, not their historical development, but only the specific form into which they have been transformed by the action of modern industrial capital. Just as with rent, the historical analyses which run through the whole of Marx's work, and both the concluding chapters added to the sections con- cerned, under the headings Historical data concerning merchants' capital and Pre-capitalistic conditionsn merely serve to illuminate that great historical process through which, in the course of centuries and millenia, trade and money transactions lost more and more of their originally dominating position until they assumed their present place as mere detached and one-sidedly developed modes of existence of the various functions which industrial capital sometimes adopts and sometimes discards within the sphere of its circulation.

There is one aspect alone, under which rent as well as trading- capital and money-capital might have been treated as a proper subject in Marx's analysis of the modern capitalist mode of production and of the economic form of society based thereon. According to an original and lore comprehensive plan, Marx would have followed up the discussion of the more strictly economic questions of production, circulation and distribution, social classes etc, as contained in the three books of Capital, by an investigation of what may be called Taxonomic questions of an higher order' such as the relation between town and county and the international relations of production.

Only with these later researches would Marx's analysis have reached the point where the antagonism of landed property to capital, as well as that of trade and money-capital to industrial capital survives in present-day society; the former as a relation between agricultural and town industry and as an international relation between primarily agrarian and industrial countries - the latter as a relation between trading cities and factory towns, and on an international scale between commercial and industrial states.

The principle of historical specification as illustrated by the pre- ceding examples (landed property and the various forms of capital) is strictly adhered to by Marx in all his economic and socio-historical researches. He deals with all categories in that specific form and in that specific connection in which they appear in modern bourgeois society.

The contrast which exists in this respect between Marx & his forerunners, comes out most strikingly in a comparison. While the work of the last representative of classical bourgeois economy, David Ricardo, is devoted to the Principles of Political Economy, Marx strictly limited his economic research to 'modern bourgeois production' and finally gave the work which contains the whole of his analysis and critique of all traditional political economy the plain and definite: name Capital. Ricardo begins the exposition of his system with the general concept of'lvalue'; Marx commences his critical investigation of the theory and the facts underlying modern bourgeois economy with the analysis if an external object, a palpable thing - 'commodity'. Again, Ricardo from the traditional economic concept of value from the last earthly impurities that were still attached to it by his predecessors; while Marx,on the contrary, regards even the concept of 'commodity' in its isolation, as ii applies also to conditions other than those of present day bourgeois production, as too abstract a category, and defines it specifically as an element of 'bourgeois wealth' or as the wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails'. Only in this specific definition does 'commodity' form the subject matter of his investigation. Only as properties of such a commodity do the general concepts of lvalue in use' and lvalue in exchange', and the other terms of the classical economic system derived from these fundamental concepts, interest him. He does not treat them as eternal categories. Nor does he for that matter transform himself into an historian. While fully aware of the fact that many economic categories of modern bourgeois society occurred, in other specific relations to the whole of the mode of production, also in earlier epochs, he does not go into the history of (money', of 'exchange of commodities', of ,wage-labour', or that of fell-operation', 'division of labour', etc, He discusses the deferent stages of the historical development of all these economic concepts only in so far as it is necessary for his main theme : the analysis of the specific character assumed by them in modern bourgeois society. All the economic terms of Marx, then, as opposed to those of the classical bourgeois economists, refer to a special historical epoch of production. This applies even to that, most general tend, value, which, according to Marx, must still be distinguished from 'value in exchange' - the latter being only the external form in which the intrinsic 'value' of a given commodity manifests itself in the ratio of exchange of such commodities. This most abstract term, which Marx adopted from the later classical economists, has been highly suspect to some well-meaning but superficial interpreters of Marx who found that the concept of an intrinsic 'value',distinct from exchange-value, reeks of scholasticism, metaphysical realism, Hegelian idealism and what not, and for this reason does no credit to a 'materialistic' science. As a matter of 'fact, Marx discussed just these fundamental concepts of his economic theory in a somewhat obscure language, thereby avowedly 'coquetting' with the modes of expression peculiar to that mighty thinker, the idealist philosopher Hegel'.However, there is no point in accepting the term exchange-value, as taken by Marx from his fore- runners, the founders of classical political economy, and rejecting that of intrinsic 'value' which was used by Marx only as a means to work out more clearly the true content of the 'value' concept of the classical writers and to expose critically what he called the 'fetishism' under- lying the whole of their economic theory.

Marx was fully conscious of the fact that all concepts of lvalue' are strictly relative terms. They either denote an immediate relation between objects and man (which becomes a reality by actual use or consumption), or a relation of a different order (realised by the exchange of such objects), viz the quantitative relation in which use- values of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort whenever they are exchanged. The relations of the latter order had been regarded by the later classical economists as the only 'value' to be dealt with in a strictly economic science, and had been styled by them value in exchange or value proper, as distinguished from mere utility or 'use- value'. Marx easily agreed with the classical writers when they estab- lished the deference in kind prevailing between value as a quantitative relation arising through the exchange of commodities, ie by a social process; and use-value as a merely qualitative relation between external objects and man. But he did not agree with them in the ulti- mate location of the social relations manifesting themselves in the 'value' relations of the commodities as established by their exchange. A closer investigation of the economic concept of 'value' shows that this concept expresses a relation arising not between the commodities as exchanged on the market, but rather a relation previously established between human beings co-operating in the production of such commodities, a social relation of production arising between man and man. Indeed, the main result of Marx's criticism of the traditional theory of political economy consists in the discovery and description of these fundamental social relations of men - relations which for a despite historical epoch, appear to the subjects concerned in the disguised and, as it were, perverted form of relations of things, viz as 'value-relations' of the commodities cooperatively produced by them and mutually exchanged on the market.

'Value', then, in all its denominations, just as either economic things or relations such as 'commodity', 'money','labour-power', 'capital', means to Marx a socio-historical fact or something which though not physical is still given in an empirically veritable manner As in general, with every socio-historical science, we must always keep in mind when considering the progress of economic theory, that the subject matter, here modern burgeois society, is given in the mind of the observer just as it is in reality, and that its categories express, therefore, forms of being, modes of existence, and often only single aspects of this definite society or subject matter.'

We shall later in another connection study the far-reaching theoretical and practical implications of this apparently minor difference between the scientific method of Marx and that of the classical burgeois economists. We here confine ourselves to one most important result. The concept of commodity, in the special form and context in which it appears under the conditions of the present system of 'capital- istic commodity production', includes from the very beginning a com- modity of a peculiar nature, incorporating the mesh and blood in the hands and heads of the wage-labourers - the commodity labour-power. 'These labourers who have to sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the markets' Further, the sellers of this peculiar commodity, under the very conditions of its sale, are never in the position of free agents,for they'liveve only so long as they find work, and find work only so long as their labour increases capital.'

Only by earing in mind this special sense in which for Marx commodity production' or 'general' commodity production becomes entirely equivalent to present-day capitalist ' commodity producton can we understand the importance of that general analysis of 'commodity' which in Marx's book precedes all further analyses and critique of the capitalist mode of production. Marx is aware of the 'definite historical conditions' which are necassary in order that a product may become a 'commodity' and that, an its further development, 'money' should appear as the general commodity, for the purpose of exchange. 'The appearance of products as commodities pre-supposed such a development of the social division of labour, but the separtion of use- value from exchange-value, a separation which first begins with barter, must already have been completed.' Again, 'the peculiar factions of money which it performs, either as the mere equivalent of commodi- ties, or as means of circulation, or means of payment,' as hoard or as universal money, point to very different stages in the process of social production'. Yet we know by experience that a relatively primitive development of society suffices for the production of all these forms. It is otherwise with capital. 'The historical conditions of its existence are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodi- ties. It can spring into life only when the owner of the means of production and. subsistence meets in the market with the free labourer selling his labour power. And this one historical condition comprises a world's history. Capital therefore, announces from its first appearance a new epoch in the process of social production.'

At this stage only are we able to grasp the full importance of industrial capital as the only form of existence of capital which adequately represents the nature of modern capitalist production. 'Industrial capital,' according to an express assertion of Marx which we may safely take to be his final and most complete statement on this matter, 'gives to production its capitalistic character. Its existence in- cludes thlt of class antagonism between capitalists and labourers. To the extent that it assumes control over social production, the technique and social organization of the labour process are revolutionized and with them the economic and historical type of society. The other kinds of capital, which appear before industrial capital amid past or declin- ing conditions of social production, are not only subordinated to it and slider changes in the mechanism of their functions corresponding with it, but move on it as a basis; they live and die, stand and fall, as this, their basis lives and dies, stands and falls.'