Clarke on The Critique of Political Economy

“According to the dominant interpretations, Marx’s theories suppos- edly integrate the critical historicist perspectives of utopian socialism and of Hegelian idealism with the bourgeois materialism of Feuerbach’s philosophy, in the early works, and of political economy, in the works of his maturity. Marx’s critique of political economy is then seen as an ‘extrinsic’ philosophical critique, expressed from the standpoint of ‘human nature’ in the early theory of alienation, and from the standpoint of the economic interests of the working class in the mature theory of surplus value, so that the development of Marx’s critique is seen as a move, for good or ill, from ‘philosophy’ to ‘economics’.~

These interpretations can certainly find some textual justification, for Marx borrowed from a wide range of sources, so that his early works, in particular, can easily be dismissed as an eclectic and contradictory mixture of borrowings and original insights. It is also true that the young Marx used the materialism of political economy as a stick with which to beat the idealism of Proudhon and the Young Hegelians, at the same time as using the utopian communism of the latter as the basis of a critique of the ‘cynicism’ of political economy. However these interpretations isolate Marx’s texts from the intellectual and political project which underlies them and gives them their coherence in relation to his work as a whole, whether to dismiss Marx’s early work as incoherent and unoriginal, or to appropriate his work for quite different projects. My aim in this chapter is to cut through this confusion, to locate Marx’s early works in relation to his overall project. While the exposition of Marx’s early work in this chapter is close to that of the few commentators who have stuck to Marx’s text (see particularly Comu. 1934; Mkszaros, 1970; Arthur, 1986; and the exposition, although not the interpretation, of McLellan, 1970), the interpretation is very different from those which dominate the literature.

The assimilation of Marx’s works to other projects is not surprising when we remember that the founders of ‘Marxism’ all came to the works of Marx from quite different intellectual backgrounds, and saw Marx’s work a., the means of resolving intellectual and political problems which they brought with them. Moreover the publication of Marx’s texts was in the hands of his ‘orthodox’ interpreters (first Kautsky, and then the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), so that those texts which did not endorse the orthodox interpretations were only published in the 1930s, as part of the still (unfinished) project of publishing Marx’s complete works, and even then were not widely disseminated. The appearance of these ‘subversive’ texts did not immediately lead to a re-examination of Marx’s work as a whole, but rather to the reinforcement of the orthodox opposition of Marx’s romanticism to his mature economism.

The re-interpretation of Marx’s work is perfectly legitimate, and indeed is essential if Marx’s work is to have a continuing relevance. However the dominant interpretations of Marx’s work, far from revitalising Marxism, lose sight of the originality and critical power of Marx’s critique of political economy, to reduce Marx to an ideologue of one or another brand of ‘utopian’ or ‘scientific’ socialism. But Marx’s critique of political economy cannot be reduced to the simple task of reinterpreting the findings of classical political economy from a different class viewpoint, or situating them historically, or criticising them morally, all of which had been done by previous thinkers, let alone to the narrow technical amendment of certain aspects of the labour theory of value. Marx’s critique is in fact a total critique in the sense that it is at one and the same time methodological, theoretical and political, attacking the very foundations of classical political economy in attacking the conception of society and of history on which it rests. Moreover it is not only a critique of political economy, it is a critique of liberal social theory in general, and at the same time a critique of the capitalist society which that theory serves to legitimate.

It was really only with the re-emergence of an independent socialist movement in the advanced capitalist countries in the 1960s that the orthodox interpretations of Marx’s work began to be questioned. Much of this work of re-interpretation again involved absorbing Marx into contemporary academic debates within economics and sociology, as a means of introducing critical perspectives into a complacent conservativism. But Marx’s texts also came to be seriously studied in their own right, and to be translated and published more widely.

(Selections from the early writings appeared in 1956 (Bottomore and Rubel, 1956). The Grundrisse only appeared in French in 1968 and in English in 1973.) Lost traditions of Marxism (lost because annihilated by Hitler and Stalin), embodying alternative political and ideological perspectives, began to be recovered (Korsch, 1970; Rubin, 1972; Hilferding, 1975; Pannekoek, 1975; Grossman, 1977; Mattick, 1978; Bottomore and Goode, 1978; Smart, 1978; Pashukanis, 1978) and Marx’s work restored to the context of his own intellectual and political project, which had long been submerged beneath the polarisation of social democratic reformism and Marxism-Leninism (Colletti, 1972, 1975; Draper, 1977-8; Mattick 1983). It is these developments which have made it possible to recover the intellectual power and revolutionary significance of Marx’s critique of political economy and, more generally, of liberal social theory, to resolve this paradox of a critique which is both total, and yet retains so much from what is criticised.”

Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology  p 49-51.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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