Dec 12, 2007

Book Review: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

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Marx, Karl
New York: International Publishers, 1979, 264 pages


Many of the ideas that Karl Marx developed for his 1858 book Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy found their way into the more comprehensive Das Kapital, but each work should be recognized for its individual merits. Marx intended Das Kapital to be the first of a multi-volume treatise on capitalism, but only finished this first volume before he died in 1883. Later volumes were edited by Friedrich Engels, a close friend and collaborator of Marx. Unlike Das Kapital, which is also noteworthy for its employment of such diverse disciplines as social history, anthropology, and political philosophy, Critique of Political Economy focuses solely on the underpinnings of the system of capitalism and the process of historical materialism that, according to Marx and Engels, explains human history.

The term political economy itself merits a brief discussion. As used by Marx, Adam Smith, and other classical theorists, “political economy” is simply an earlier moniker for economics. More recently, though, political economy has developed as a social science that studies the interrelationships between political and economic institutions.

Marx began his Critique with an analysis of commodities, which he calls “an object of human wants,” or “anything necessary, useful, or pleasant in life.” The wealth of bourgeois society, according to Marx, can be measured in commodities. These basic units of the measure of wealth have two distinct characteristics: use-value and exchange value. An object’s use-value can only be determined through use, as when an ear of corn is consumed. The exchange-value of an object can only be determined as commodities are exchanged; if the same ear of corn could be exchanged for, say, a pencil, one could express the exchange value of one ear of corn as one pencil.

Marx posited that the exchange-value of a given commodity also contains the value of the labor used to produce the commodity. Without labor, Marx argued, the ear of corn would not have been produced, and the pencil could not have been fashioned. Thus, the value of labor inherent in the exchange-values of commodities can also be used as a measure of wealth.

Marx next tackled the use of money as a medium of exchange. The impracticality of exchanging, in the previous model, ears of corn for pencils is bypassed with the introduction of money as a commodity by which all other exchange-values can be expressed. Money, concurrently, then can also be expressed in equivalent terms of human labor.

Karl Heinrich Marx, 19th century philosopher, political economist, and revolutionaryLeft: Karl Heinrich Marx, 19th century philosopher, political economist, and revolutionary

At this point Marx began to move away from traditional political economy; he argued that money, in the capitalist system, ceased to be merely a reflection of the exchange value of commodities, or as the medium of exchange. Instead, money became a commodity used for enrichment and aggrandizement. Hoarding, or the stockpiling of money, thus represents the ability of an individual to achieve great wealth through the labors of workers.

The Marxian concept of historical materialism is more fully developed in Critique than in the earlier writings of Marx. Drawing on the Hegelian dialectic (thesis-antithesis-synthesis), Marx posited that the material productive forces of a given society come into conflict with the existing superstructure of production relations. Under capitalism, for example, Marx argued that this conflict is manifest in the opposition between workers and capitalists, since the goals of workers (such as higher wages, better working conditions) are diametrically opposed to those of capitalists (such as higher profits, increased productivity). This conflict, according to Marx, will ultimately lead to social revolution, and the evolution of a new system of economic relations.

One of the most important contributions by Marx to the discipline of history was his dismissal of the role of “great men” in history. For Marx, historical figures were merely surfers on the waves of existing social movements, rather than causing the wave in the first place.

Marx also forced historians to consider the ideological and material context in which a given period of history is studied. One cannot, for example, study the French Revolution in isolation; for a full understanding of the period, the scholar must take into account such factors as the histories of the French monarchy, the rising bourgeoisie, and that of the entrenched feudal character of eighteenth-century France.

One need not be a doctrinaire Marxist in order to find usefulness in the analytical methods pioneered by Marx. To be ignorant of the social and economic movements of a particular period is to engage in historical provincialism and myopia. Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy turned upside-down the worlds of historiography and historical analysis, and the debate over his influence continues to the present.

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