I.2 The Historicist Interpretation of the Form-Genetic Method

If Lenin’s statement that “none of the Marxists for the past half century have understood Marx” – a dictum that in this case however also applies to Lenin himself – has any validity at all, then certainly with regard to the interpretation of the critique of political economy. Even 100 years after the publication of the first volume of Capital, Engels’ commentary was widely regarded as the sole legitimate and adequate assessment of Marx’s critique of economy. No reading in the Marxist tradition was as uncontroversial as the one casually developed by Engels in texts such as the review of Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) or the supplement to Volume III of Capital (1894). Here, considerably more explicitly than in the objectivist conception of historical materialism, Marxism is Engelsism:
Against the background of his conception of reflection, Engels interprets the first chapter of Capital as a simultaneously logical and historical presentation of a ‘simple commodity production’ developing toward the relations of capitalist wage labor, “only stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurrences.”1 The term ‘logical’ in this context basically means nothing more than ‘simplified’. The method of presentation, the sequence of categories (commodity, the elementary, expanded, and general forms of value, money, capital) in the critique of political economy is accordingly “simply the reflection, in abstract and theoretically consistent form, of the historical course.”2 The examination of the genesis of the money form is understood as the description of “an actual event which really took place at some time or other” and not as “an abstract mental process that takes place solely in our mind”. 3 In no other passage of his work does Engels so drastically reduce historical materialism to a vulgar empiricism and historicism, as is made evident by his associative chain ‘materialism-empirically verifiable facts-real process’ vs. ‘idealism-abstract thought process-purely abstract territory’.

With the ‘logical-historical’ method Engels provides a catchphrase that will be recited and stressed ad nauseum in the Marxist orthodoxy. Karl Kautsky, in his enormously influential presentations, understood Capital to be an “essentially historical work.” 4 “Marx was charged with recognizing capital to be a historical category and to prove its emergence in history, rather than mentally constructing it.” 5 Rudolf Hilferding also claims that “in accordance with the dialectic method, conceptual evolution runs parallel throughout with historical evolution.” 6 Both Marxism-Leninism7 and western Marxism8 follow Hilferding in this assessment. But if the critique of political economy is interpreted as historiography, then consequentially the categories at the beginning must correspond directly to empirical objects, for example a dubious pre-capitalist commodity not determined by price,9 and the analysis of the form of value must begin with the depiction of a coincidental, moneyless interaction of two commodity owners – with Engels’ so-called “simple production of commodities”,10 an economic epoch he dates from 6000 B.C. to the 15th century AD. According to this conception, Marx’s law of value11 operates at times in this epoch in a pure form ‘unadulterated’ by the category of price, which Engels illustrates with the feigned example of a moneyless ‘exchange’ between medieval peasants and artisans:
Here we are dealing with a transparent social interrelationship between immediate producers who are at the same time the owners of their means of production, in which one producer labors under the watchful eye of the other, and therefore “the peasant of the Middle Ages knew fairly accurately the labor-time required for the manufacture of the articles obtained by him in barter.”12 Under the conditions of this ‘natural exchange’, it is not some normative criterion that is for him “the only suitable measure for the quantitative determination of the values to be exchanged”13, but rather the abstraction of a labour-time consciously and directly measured by the actors. Neither the peasant nor the artisan is so stupid as to exchange unequal quantities of labor:14 “No other exchange is possible in the whole period of peasant natural economy than that in which the exchanged quantities of commodities tend to be measured more and more according to the amounts of labor embodied in them.”15 According to Engels, the value of a commodity is determined consciously by the labor, measured in time, of individual producers. In this theory of value, money does not play a constitutive role. One the one hand, it is an expedient and lubricant to trade that is external to value, but on the other hand it serves to obscure the substance of value: suddenly, instead of exchanging according to hours of labor, at some point exchange is conducted by means of cows and then pieces of gold. The question of how this notion of every commodity being its own labor-money16 can be reconciled with the conditions of private production based upon the division of labor is not posed by Engels. Engels – as will be elaborated by the Neue Marx-Lektüre – practices exactly what Marx criticizes in the case of the classical economists, above all Adam Smith: a projection into the past of the illusory notion of appropriation through one’s own labor, which in fact only exists in capitalism; neglect of the necessary connection between value and form of value17; a transformation of the ‘objective equalization’ of unequal acts of labor consummated by the objective social relationship itself into a merely subjective consideration of social actors18

Up until the 1960s, Engels’ theorems continued to be passed on undisputed and, along with his formula (once again taken from Hegel) of freedom being the insight into necessity and the drawing of parallels between natural laws and social processes, gave sustenance to a social-technological ‘concept of emancipation’, the gist of which is that ‘the social necessity (above all the law of value) operating anarchically and uncontrolled in capitalism will be, by means of Marxism as a science of the objective laws of nature and society, managed and applied according to plan.’ Not the disappearance of capitalist form-determinations, but rather their alternative use characterizes this ‘socialism of adjectives’ (this term comes from Robert Kurz) and ‘socialist political economy’. 19 There is a significant disproportion between on the one hand the emphasis upon the ‘historical’ on the one hand, and the absence of a historically specific and socio-theoretically reflected concept of economic objectivity on the other. This is made evident by the irrelevance of the concept of social form in the discussions of traditional Marxism, in which it at most is considered to be s a category for ideal or marginal circumstances, but not as a constitutive characteristic of Marx’s scientific revolution.20

  1. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/appx2.htm []
  2. ibid. []
  3. ibid. []
  4. Kautsky 1922, p. VIII []
  5. Kautsky quoted by Hecker 1997 []
  6. http://www.marxists.org/archive/hilferding/1904/criticism/ch03.htm []
  7. see Rosental 1973 []
  8. see Mandel 1968 []
  9. “This makes clear, of course, why in the beginning of his first book Marx proceeds from the simple production of commodities as the historical premise, ultimately to arrive from this basis to capital — why he proceeds from the simple commodity instead of a logically and historically secondary form — from an already capitalistically modified commodity.” http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/pref.htm []
  10. ibid. This interpretation of the analysis of the form of value is also adopted by Kautsky http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1903/economic/ch01.htm []
  11. that is to say, the law of value discussed by Marx. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/supp.htm#law []
  12. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/supp.htm#law []
  13. ibid. []
  14. Or is it believed that the peasant and the artisan were so stupid as to give up the product of 10 hours‘ labor of one person for that of a single hours‘ labor of another? (ibid.) And whoever does so learns “only through mistakes.“ (ibid.) []
  15. ibid. []
  16. In contrast, See Marx’s critique of the notion of labor-money or respectively the notion of a pre-monetary commodity exchange in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/ch02b.htm and in the Grundrisse http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch03.htm#p166 []
  17. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#33 []
  18. For Marx’s view, see for example: “Adam Smith constantly confuses the determination of the value of commodities by the labour-time contained in them with the determination of their value by the value of labour; he is often inconsistent in the details of his exposition and he mistakes the objective equalisation of unequal quantities of labour forcibly brought about by the social process for the subjective equality of the labours of individuals.” http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/ch01a.htm []
  19. According to Marxism-Leninism, “value functions as an instrument of the planned administration of the socialist processes of production and reproduction, according to the principles of bookkeeping and control of the mass of labor and of consumption. Correspondingly, the relation of value is consciously implemented.” (Eichhorn 1985, p. 1291) Within this framework, socialism consists “merely in the revolutionized way of calculating the same social determination of the products of human labor as exists in the capitalist commodity economy.” (as Grigat (1997, p.20) critically notes.) Thus, allegedly Marxian communism degenerates into a sort of Proudhonian system of labor notes, as Behrens/Hafner also observe: “all hitherto existing conceptions of the transition to socialism resort to models of immediate calculation of labor-value and utility.” (Behrens/Hafner, p. 226) See here also Heinrich (1999, p. 385-392); Kittsteiner (1974, p. 410-415); Kittsteiner (1977, p. 40-47); and Rakowitz (2000). On the socialism of adjectives in the theory of law and the state, see Elbe 2002b. []
  20. For example, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch04.htm []