Marx's Critique of Political Economy

glevy at glevy at
Wed Jul 12 21:14:54 MDT 1995


I'll try and answer your questions.  Firstly, I would recommend that
anyone who is seriously interested in reading CAPITAL should join together
with a few others to form a study group.  Many have found that it is a
lot easier to work through CAPITAL in a group.

Secondly, a good reference work is useful.  There are many good
introductory texts on CAPITAL.  I would recommend Duncan K. Foley's
UNDERSTANDING CAPITAL (Harvard University Press, 1986).

Thirdly, now that you have completed Volume I, you must go on to read the
next 2 volumes as well.  Marx's critique of capital can only be really
understood after reading all three volumes.  If you look at the
sub-headings for each of those volumes, you will see why.  Now, I know
this is not an easy task, but ....

Fourthly, as you have no doubt realized from debates on this list, there
continues to be much disagreement about the meaning of Marx's critique of
political economy.  Works such as the GRUNDRISSE and THEORIES OF SURPLUS
VALUE help to clarify much of Marx's writing.  Also, no doubt, you are
aware that Marx wrote works on political economy during differed periods
of his life.  To get an idea of of the genesis of Marx's writings, you
could read Roman Rosdolsky's THE MAKING OF MARX'S CAPITAL (Pluto, 1977)
and a more popular work, Ernest Mandel's THE FORMATION OF THE ECONOMIC
THOUGHT OF KARL MARX (Monthly Review, 1971). It's also important to
recognize that Marx did not complete CAPITAL in his lifetime and there
remain many unanswered, and important, topics in political economy that
he did not address or complete his investigation of.

Fifthly, try to remember that understanding what Marx was saying
regarding political economy is different from the task of understanding
capitalism today.  Many authors read Marx dogmatically and defend his
writings as if they were the Holy Grail.  In all questions related to
Marxism, try to avoid dogmatic and simplistic forms of reasoning.

On this last point, I have no doubt judging from the quality of your
posts, that you will avoid (and have avoided) those pitfalls.

Now to some specific remarks on your post:

> Jerry, I like your post.  I just read Ch.25 in March, loved it, found
> it to be the place where the points Marx was building in early
> chapters came together to produce an elegant model of capitalism,
> that links the rich getting richer to the poor getting poorer.  Also,
> it's a self-limiting cycle, or rather it has feedback mechanisms that
> cause things to cycle, which I found very interesting.
The "model" of capitalism and cyclical behavior is not really found in
Volume 1. A "model" of sorts is found in Vol. 1 but it is a model which
is subject to the assumptions that he made at that level of analysis.
What you are interested in is found (in incomplete fashion) in Volume 3.
So, keep reading! (and don't skip over Vol. 2 either!).

> I think my reading is very similar to yours.  I esp. appreciated that
> line about "modified by many circumstances".  I take that as a
> ceteris paribum [all other things held equal] clause that he uses a
> lot, esp. earlier in Cap.vol I, as well as here.
> I once noticed somebody on the list bad-mouthing the use of ceteris
> paribum clauses, but I never followed up to find out what was
> supposed to be bad about them.  Not only did Marx use them, but they
> seem useful if not downright necessary, when trying to analytically
> separate inter-tangled threads of cause, effect and mechanism, no?
> But when we [scientists for instance] think this way, some say we are
> missing the "wholeness" for the "atomistic" parts.  But no, I know
> that there is a "whole" world and that parts are inter-related, I'm
> just trying to figure out HOW the parts are related.  I forget whose
> post it was that pointed out that the fact of
> dialectical/interrelatedness did not address HOW things are related,
> but I appreciated that point very much.

Yes, Marx does use the ceteris paribus assumption.  It is a necessary
part of the process of abstraction.  Without the use of this assumption,
then the fundamental relationships that Marx analyzed in the beginning of
Volume 1 (and elsewhere) would not be able to be revealed.

Any time that you spend reading Marx's philosophical writings, including
THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY and especially his writings on method and
abstraction, will help you to understand Marx's reasoning and method.
Indeed, it is very difficult for people who are not trained in Marx's
method to make any sense at all out of Marx's writings on political
economy, especially as it relates to the Law of Value (a controversial
topic, as you know).

While the ceteris paribus assumption is used at times by Marx, it is
important to note that this is a very severe assumption.  One must be
aware of what is being held constant and whether it is appropriate for a
particular level of analysis to hold a particular variable constant.  We
must always remember that the variables which were held constant at one
level of analysis, must be considered later on rather than just assumed
away for good.  Then we can see how the study of these variables impacts
and modifies our analysis and conclusions.  So, all those who use this
assumption should give very serious consideration to its meaning.

> > It took me a while just to come to think I know what Marx meant by
> LAW, too.  It was the style of writing and thinking of his time, and
> biologists used to do it all the time too, but not anymore.  It is
> considered archaic and now even misleading, because it seems to
> suggest that "it must always be so".  But as you have shown in your
> post by quoting one of my favorite paragraphs from Ch. 25, Marx knew
> better than that.  "Law" means something like "generalization", or
> "under most circumstances", it seems to me.
When Marx refers to a law in political economy, he argues that the law is
manifested in a tendency.  That is, a law does not mean that something
will always happen, but that it tends to happen and is impacted by other
variables.  For instance in Volume 3, Marx states what he calls the "law
of the tendency for the general rate of profit to decline."  After
presenting the "law", he then discusses "counteracting causes"  and
"counteracting tendencies" to the law.  Marx, as you will recall,
rejected the Hegelian idea of absolutes.  For Marx's political economy,
there are no absolute laws, only laws that manifest themselves as
tendencies and are affected by other variables (most of which he goes on
to discuss).

Never forget we are all students who continue to grow and learn. Just as
you examine science from a critical perspective, so too should you
examine political economy.  Any never take the word of economists for
granted (Marx had some pretty nasty things to say about that profession).



PS: I'll be going away for another 2 weeks starting tomorrow.  I look
forward to continuing our discussion on the many recent threads upon my

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