Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Mon Mar 27 21:57:46 MST 1995

Horvath, R.J.; Gibson, K.D.  "Abstraction in Marx's method",
ANTIPODE, vol. 16, no. 1, 1984, p. 12-25.

A few years ago I tracked down this article pursuing a lead from
Bertell Ollman.  I am amazed at how something can just go in one
eyeball and out the other.  Well, I guess everything depends on
your frame of reference when you read something.  Anyway, I
recommend this article for the decisive questions it touches and
the level at which it engages the fundamental issues of Marx's
scientific method and picture of social reality.

The authors consider the decisive question of abstraction in the
rational reconstruction of Marx's method, which, according to the
authors, has heretofore been dominated by philosophers rather than
by social scientists.  They start out with a typology of
abstraction summarized in a chart (p. 13).  Level I involves
universal abstractions and level II historically specific

First, Level I abstractions and theory are treated.  I will just
mention some interesting highlights of this section.  The authors
analyze how Marx used Ricardo's theory of value, also drawing on
the work of Jindrich Zeleny.  On the question of Marx's universal
theory at the highest level of abstraction, which must be
reconstructed by others since Marx's own textual material is so
scanty in this area, the authors are skeptical of Althusser,
Hindess and Hirst, and Cohen, rating their conceptions of
historical materialism "static and narrow" [p. 14].  (Cohen gets
cleanly eviscerated in footnote 3, p. 23.)  The authors outline
their very own general theory of historical materialism.

Then comes an analysis of level II abstractions and theory.
Marx's _Capital_ is developed at a more specific level of
historical abstraction, Level II.  Note the following:

"... Marx distilled from the historical realities of the British
and European 19th Century economy which surrounded him, those
features which constitute the essential nature of the capitalist
mode of production stripped of its historically and specifically
geographic details.  Using a profoundly historical method of
analysis which differentiated his work from classical political
economy, he did not produce a theory of competitive capitalism
which has long been outdated, as some of his critics would have
believed.  The genius of Marx was that in his definition of the
abstract theoretical categories private property, capital
accumulation surplus value, and labour power as a commodity, he
was able to penetrate the historical specificity of the 19th
century English social formulation to identify the fundamental
defining characteristics of the capitalist mode of production as
it exists in _all_ of its historical forms." [p. 16]

Note that second last sentence.

Section 2 -- the abstract-concrete polarity -- is even more
interesting.  The authors distinguish the specific or real
concrete from the general concrete or concrete in thought.  here
are some of the most interesting statements on the general

"In _Capital_ Marx had little to say about how abstract concepts
are discovered in the real concrete, let alone how his theory
could be applied to the scientific analysis of a real concrete
social formation once it was developed." [p. 17]

"As it stands we have a well developed theory of the capitalist
mode of production in general, but as yet no systematically
developed theory of capitalist politics of [sic] capitalist
ideology in general.  For this reason we are far from
appropriating in the mind the totality of the capitalist social
formation and its dynamics at any level of historical
abstraction." [p. 18]

Now note:

"Marx's grasp of capitalist society incorporated some awareness of
all of its aspects and obviously a feel for all of their
interrelations.  We are only stating that Marx used the logic of
abstraction to systematically isolate from the complex whole
particular relations for examination.  He chose to concentrate
first upon those economic relations he considered were fundamental
to the functioning of the whole and began his work by considering
those production relations upon which the economy is based.  By
doing so Marx did not intend to understate the role politics and
ideology play in the reproduction of capitalist society; he just
did not have the time to begin to systematically analyse all of
their central connections to the economy and whole social
formation." [p. 18]

Get that?  Marx "just did not have the time"?  Why don't you do
your own work instead of being so smug about what Marx did not do?
(Note footnote 9, p. 23: Marx describes his project for political
economy but died halfway through project 2 of 5.)

Now comes the specific concrete.  On the question of the relation
of Marx's theory to real, specific societies, Marx was too
interested in praxis or the revolutionary overthrow of existing
society to tarry doing empirical bourgeois sociology.  A specific
concrete situation comes in for analysis at Level IV.  And then
comes yet another kick in the behind for Althusser:

"Why Althusser failed to recognise the two types of "concrete"
mixed up in his concepts of social formation and conjuncture may
relate to the idealist focus of his problematic ... which
prevented him from seriously considering the level of abstraction
at which Marxian empirical work is conducted." [p. 19]

Section 3 -- transition theory within modes of production: this is
the heart of the authors' economic analysis.  I am ashamed to
admit I have not digested this section but I recommend it for
study by those scholars interested in the logical structure of
Marx's economic theory.  Among matters discussed are the
devalorization of capital.  The original framework of _Capital_ is
retained, without the accretions of later theoreticians such as
Lenin, Baran, and Sweezy (see also note 14, p. 24).  The authors
promise that:

"We are of the opinion that our method of abstraction can begin to
address some of the problems associated with understanding the
dialectical relationship embodied by transition within a
theoretically constant set of characteristics.  We argue that it
is possible to analyse the general defining relations of the
capitalist mode of production (CMP) at a lower level of logical
historical abstraction." [p. 19]

The authors also insist on the eventual practicality of their
theoretical formulations for a political strategy for labor.

The conclusion restates the more challenging aspects of this
paper.  Two movements in Marx's intellectual filtering process of
abstraction are identified.  Recognizing Level II abstractions,
_Capital_ is not validly construed as an out-of-date 19th century
theory.  Marx's scientific project is not inconsistent with a more
concrete analysis incorporating political and ideological factors.
Level IV is where the empirical problems are to be found.  The
fuzziness on this level gives rise to the kinds of clashes that
occur between, eg. Thompsonians and Althusserians, and a
forthcoming book by the authors will deal with the problem of
Marxian empirics.

The footnotes give further examples of mistaken notions of Marx's
abstractions on the part of other noted Marxist theoreticians: not
only Cohen, but Althusser, Volpe, and Sweezy's, Fine's and
Harris's notion of successive approximation.

     --- from list marxism at lists.village.virginia.edu ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list