Critique of Political Economy: 4 Central Elements and Ambivalences in Marx - Antifada Interview
Updated: Aug 19
Let’s start with the term “critique of political economy”. Of course Marx is criticizing Adam Smith, David Ricardo and other economists. This is the usual scientific business - whoever is preparing a PhD has to criticize other people in order to make clear that their dissertation is necessary. If Marx only sought to criticize these other figures and still referred to his work as a “critique of political economy” this would be an enormous exaggeration. Marx wanted to criticize not only certain persons and theories - he wanted to criticize a whole science, meaning the basics of this science, what is taken for granted across various theoretical approaches. This is what he wanted to criticize and insofar, I think it is not an accident that the title “Critique of Political Economy” sounds rather similar to a famous philosophical title from Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Pure Reason”. The core of the philosophy of Kant’s time was metaphysics and in the same way Marx wants to criticize this existing economic science in his time. I try to reconstruct what Marx is doing - what does it mean to criticize a whole science and I argue that the theoretical field of classical political economy (as well as modern neoclassical theory) includes 4 main elements:
1) Anthropologism - meaning they have an idea about the essence of humans - the essence of man.
2)They have a kind of methodological individualism. Starting with the individual they think they can construct the whole of society.
3) They are bound to empiricism - not only to empirical search (which Marx was also doing) but to empiricism. With this I mean the belief that reality is very transparent. If you just look very closely, when you pay attention, you can see everything.
4)Ahistoricism - of course bourgeois economics knows there is a history but they identify a basic structure of the economic problem which holds across all of time. This basic structure is shown by Adam Smith for example, who argued that the difference between animals and humans is that humans exchange commodities. So commodity production was transformed into a human attribute and made transhistorical. So they argue that there is a transhistorical structure, humans have come up with different answers as to what it might be, but there is only one correct answer and this is markets and capital.
Marx criticized the anthropologism - the idea of a human nature or essence - in German Ideology. The ahistoricism he criticized from the beginning - I think this Hegelian heritage did not allow him to believe such stupidity. The methodological individualism he only overcame in Grundrisse. In the 1840s there are also elements of this methodological individualism in Marx. And finally, empiricism, he also overcame mainly in the Introduction of 1857. So, this critique did not happen in a single moment or in a single event - it required a transitional period. Nevertheless (and I try to show this in The Science of Value), despite the fact that Marx formulated this very basic critique, he was still touched by the old theoretical field of political economy. This produced a lot of ambivalences and ambiguities in his own approach. For example, the famous transformation problem (I try to show) is caused by these ambivalences, which result in a new discourse about value. In his formulation of the transformation problem in Volume 3 of Capital Marx relapsed to the theoretical field of Ricardo. He tries to reformulate a Ricardian problem, unaware that in his new approach this is absolutely unnecessary.
This new approach (described by many people as the labour theory of value) criticizes the value theory of Smith and Ricardo on the grounds that they don’t really understand the connection between value and labour. So, what he was really doing was criticizing the existing labour theories of value and what Marx himself brought to the discussion was what I call a “monetary theory of value”. This theory can be seen in the theories of surplus value where Marx was criticizing Ricardo. Marx argued that Ricardo sees labour as the core of value, but he (Ricardo) does not understand that this labour has to be represented universally - which happens only with money. And so, for Marx the great deficit of Ricardo’s theory of value is that he does not understand the connection between labour, money, and value. Marx claimed that he himself could explain this connection. If Marx had adhered to this critique (and its consequences), some problems in Capital, like the transformation problem, would not appear. But I think it is too much to expect of one person to carry out this scientific revolution and at the same time draw all of the consequences of their critique without any ambiguities or ambivalences.
These ambivalences are interesting not simply from a “history of science” perspective. I think they are responsible for a lot of discussions and clashes among Marxists. One takes this sentence, the other takes that sentence, then they count how many quotes they can find in order to support their position as if it is a football game: “5 against 2, I am the winner!” They not only select quotations from different times, the ambiguities in Capital can sometimes be found within a single sentence or paragraph! Despite Marx’s scientific revolution, he was still glued to the kind of problem formulation of the classical economists. The same sort of ambivalences can be found in the work of Galileo Galilei, who was the big revolutionary thinker in physics. When you check his writings, they are full of old, medieval physics. But we have to do this job. We have to do a critical reading, not just a reading which admires Marx and says: “Look at these wonderful quotes and sentences.” No! We have to do what Marx asked for in the preface of Volume 1 at the end:
“Each judgment of scientific critique is welcome.”
Marx was clear that he was not producing a kind of eternal worldview. He was producing science and science moves forward as a result of critique. And this was one of the great tragedies of Marx’s life - he received too little critique at his own level.