The only extensive discussion of Marx's concepts (or categories) and the conception of social reality that finds expression in them appears in his unfinished Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. This seminal work, which was first published by Karl Kautsky in 1903, has been unjustly ignored by most Anglo-Saxon writers on Marxism.1 Here we learn that "In the study of economic categories, as in the case of every historical and social science, it must be borne in mind that as in reality so in our mind the subject, in this case modern bourgeois society, is given and that the categories are therefore but forms of expression, manifestations of existence, and frequently but one-sided aspects of this subject, this definite society" (Marx, 1904, 302). This distinction between subject and categories is simple recognition of the fact that our knowledge of the real world is mediated through the construction of concepts in which to think about it; our contact with reality, in so far as we become aware of it, is contact with a conceptualized reality.
What is unusual in Marx's statement is the special relation he posits between categories and society. Instead of being simply a means for describing capitalism (neutral vehicles to carry a partial story), these categories are declared to be "forms", "manifestations" and "aspects" of their own subject matter. Or, as he says elsewhere in this Introduction, the categories of bourgeois society "serve as the expression of its conditions and the comprehension of its own organization" (Marx, 1904, 300). That is to say, they express the real conditions necessary for their application, but as meaningful, systematized and understood conditions. This is not merely a matter of categories being limited in what they can be used to describe; the story itself is thought to be somehow part of the very concepts with which it is told. This is evident from Marx's claim that "The simplest economic category, say, exchange-value, implies the existence of population, population that is engaged in production within determined relations; it also implies the existence of certain types of family, class, or state, etc. It can have no other existence except as an abstract one-sided relation of an already given concrete and living aggregate" (my emphasis) (Marx, 1904, 294).
One of the more striking results of this approach to language is that not only the content but also the categories are evaluated by Marx in terms of "true" and "false". Thus, in criticizing Proudhon, Marx claims that "political-economic categories" are "abstract expressions of the real, transitory, historic, social relations", and they "only remain true while these relations exist" (my emphasis) (Marx/Engels, 1941, 12; Marx, 1904, 301; Marx, n.d., 117-22). By deciding to work with capitalist categories, Proudhon, according to Marx, cannot completely disassociate himself from the "truths" which these categories contain. According to the common sense view, only statements can be true or false, and to use this same measure for evaluating concepts seems unwarranted and confused.
Three conclusions stand out from this discussion: that Marx grasped each political-economic concept as a component of society itself, in his words as an "abstract one-sided relation of an already given concrete and living aggregate"; that it is intimately linked with other social components to form a particular structure; and that this whole, or at least its more significant parts, is expressed in the concept itself, in what it is intended to convey, in its very meaning. If these conclusions are unclear, it is because the kind of structure they take for granted is still vague and imprecise. To properly understand concepts that convey a particular union, we must be at ease with the quality of this unity, that is, with the way its components combine, the properties of such combinations, and the nature of the whole which they constitute. Only by learning how Marx structures the units of his subject matter, only by becoming aware of the quality and range of what is known when he considers he knows anything, will the relations between concepts and reality that have been set out in these conclusions become clear.
What is distinctive in Marx's conception of social reality is best approached through the cluster of qualities he ascribes to particular social factors. Taking capital as the example, we find Marx depicting it as "that kind of property which exploits wage-labor, and which cannot increase except on condition of getting a new supply of wage-labor for fresh exploitation" (Marx and Engels, 1945, 33). What requires emphasis is that the relation between capital and labor is treated here as a function of capital itself, and part of the meaning of "capital". This tie is extended to cover the worker as well, where Marx refers to him as "variable capital" (Marx, 1958, 209). The capitalist is incorporated into the same whole: "capital is necessarily at the same time the capitalist . . . the capitalist is contained in the concept of capital" (Marx, 1973, 512). Elsewhere, Marx asserts that "the means of production monopolized by a certain section of society", "the products of laborers turned into independent powers", "money", "commodities" and even "value that sucks up the value creating powers" are also capital (Marx, 1959b, 794-5; Marx, 1958, 153; Marx, 571). What emerges from these diverse characterizations is a conception of many tied facets, whose sense depends upon the relations Marx believes to exist between its components: property, wage-labor, worker, his product, commodities, means of production, capitalist, money, value (the list can be made longer still).2
It is insufficient to accuse Marx of loose and misleading presentation for, as we shall see, all social factors are treated in the same manner. But if it is not incompetent writing, then Marx is offering us a conception of capital in which the factors we generally think of as externally related to it are viewed as co-elements in a single structure.
It is this system-owning quality of capital that he has in mind when he refers to it as a "definite social relationship". This conception is contrasted with Ricardo's where capital "is only distinguishable as 'accumulated labor' from 'immediate labor'". In the latter case, where capital "is something purely material, a mere element in the labor process", Marx claims, "the relation between labor and capital, wages and profit, can never be developed" (Marx, 1968, 400). Marx believes he is only able to trace out these connections because they are already contained in his broad conception of capital. If they were not, he would, like Ricardo, draw a blank. Every factor which enters into Marx's study of capitalism is a "definite social relationship".
The relation is the irreducible minimum for all units in Marx's conception of social reality. This is really the nub of our difficulty in understanding Marxism, whose subject matter is not simply society but society conceived of "relationally". Capital, labor, value, commodity, etc., are all grasped as relations, containing in themselves, as integral elements of what they are, those parts with which we tend to see them externally tied. Essentially, a change of focus has occurred from viewing independent factors which are related to viewing the particular way in which they are related in each factor, to grasping this tie as part of the meaning conveyed by its concept. This view does not rule out the existence of a core notion for each factor, but treats this core notion itself as a cluster of relations.
According to the common sense view, a social factor is taken to be logically independent of other social factors to which it is related. The ties between them are contingent, rather than necessary; they could be something very different without affecting the vital character of the factors involved, a character which adheres to that part which is thought to be independent of the rest. One can logically conceive, so the argument goes, of any social factor existing without its relations to others. In Marx's view, such relations are internal to each factor (they are ontological relations), so that when an important one alters, the factor itself alters; it becomes something else. Its appearance and/or function has changed sufficiently for it to require a new concept. Thus, for example, if wage-labor disappeared, that is, if the workers' connection to capital radically changed, capital would no longer exist. The opposite, naturally, is also true: Marx declares it a "tautology" that "there can no longer be wage-labor when there is no longer any capital" (Marx and Engels, 1945, 36). Max Hirsch is clearly right, therefore, when he points out that if "capital" is defined as a "means of exploitation and subjection of the laborer", a machine used by a farmer who owned it would not be capital, but it would be capital if he hired a man to operate it (Hirsch, 1901, 80-1). Rather than an obvious criticism, which is how Hirsch intends it, this paradox merely illustrates the character of capital as a social relation.
In this study, I shall use the term "relation" in two different senses: first, to refer to a factor itself, as when I call capital a relation, and also as a synonym of "connection", as in speaking of the relation between different factors. Marx and Engels do the same. Besides calling capital a "social production relation" (Verhältnis), Marx refers to money as a "relation of production", the mode of production itself as the "relation in which the productive forces are developed", and the list of such remarks is far from complete (Marx, 1959b, 794; Marx, 1973, 120; Marx, n.d., 137). His use of "relation" as a synonym of "connection" is more extensive still, with the result that Verhältnis probably occurs more frequently than any other expression in Marx's writing, confounding critics and translators alike.3 It is not entirely satisfying to use "relation" to convey both meanings but, rather than introduce a new term, I accede to Marx's practice, with this single change: for the remainder of this book, I shall capitalize "relation" (henceforth "Relation") when it refers to a factor, as opposed to the connection between factors, to aid readers in making this important distinction. Besides, such obvious alternatives to "Relation" as "structure", "unit" and "system" suggest a closed, finished character which is belied by Marx's treatment of real social factors. "Relation" appeals to me, as it must have to him, as the concept which is better adapted to take account of the changes and open-endedness that constitute so large a part of social life.
The outlook presented here must not be confused with the view that has found great favor among sociologists and others, which holds that social factors are unintelligible except in terms of relations. It is important to realize that Marx took the additional step indicated in his claim that society is "man himself in his social relations" (Marx, 1973, 712). On one occasion, Marx specifically berates apparent allies who accuse economists of not paying enough attention to the connections between production and distribution. His complaint is that "this accusation is itself based on the economic conception that distribution exists side by side with production as a self-contained sphere" (Marx, 1904, 276). Marx's own version of this relationship is presented in such claims as "Production is . . . at the same time consumption, and consumption is at the same time production" (Marx, 1904, 278).4
For the average social scientiststarting with a conception of factors as logically independent of one anotherthe conjunction of parts in his analysis is mechanical, an intrusion; it exists only where found and disappears once the investigator's back is turned, having to be explained and justified anew. One result is the endless attempts to account for causality and the accompanying need to distinguish between cause and condition. In such studies, one side of the interaction invariably wins out over the other (comes first) leading to "economic determinism" or "existentialism" or other partial positions.
In Marx's case, all conjunction is organic, intrinsic to the social units with which he is concerned and part of the nature of each; that it exists may be taken for granted. On this view, interaction is, properly speaking, inneraction (it is "inner connections" which he claims to study) (Marx, 1958, 19). Of production, distribution, consumption and exchange, Marx declares, "mutual interaction takes place between the various elements. Such is the case with every organic body" (Marx, 1904, 292). What Marx calls "mutual interaction" (or "reciprocal effect" or "reciprocal action") is only possible because it occurs within an organic body. This is the case with everything in Marxism, which treats its entire subject matter as "different sides of one unit" (Marx, 1904, 291).5
It is in this context that we must place Marx's otherwise confusing and confused use of "cause" and "determine". There are not some elements which are related to the factor or event in question as "causes" (meaning among other things that which does not condition) and others as "conditions" (meaning among other things that which does not cause). Instead, we find as internally related parts of whatever is said to be the cause or determining agent everything that is said to be a condition, and vice versa. It is this conception which permits Engels to say that the whole of nature has "caused" life (Engels, 1954, 267-8).
In practice, however, "cause" and "determine" are generally used to point to the effect produced by any entity in changing one or more of the relations that make up other entities. But as each one develops with the direct and indirect aid of everything else, operating on various levels, to single out any aspect as determining can only be a way of emphasizing a particular link in the problem under consideration. Marx is saying that for this factor, in this context, this is the influence most worth noting, the relation which will most aid our comprehension of the relevant characteristics.6
The whole at rest which I have been examining is but a limiting case of the whole in movement, for, in Paul Lafargue's words, Marx's "highly complicated world" is "in continual motion" (Lafargue, n.d., 78).7 Change and development are constantly occurring; structure is but a stage in process.
To introduce the temporal dimension into the foregoing analysis, we need only view each social factor as internally related to its own past and future forms, as well as to the past and future forms of surrounding factors. Capital, for Marx, is what capital is, was and will be. He says of money and commodities, "before the production process they were capital only in intention, in themselves, in their destiny" (Marx, 1971, 399-400).8 It is in this manner, too, that labor is seen in the product it will soon become and the product in the labor it once was. In short, developmentno matter how much facelifting occursis taken as an attribute of whatever undergoes development.
The present, according to this relational model, becomes part of a continuum stretching from a definable past to a knowable (if not always predictable) future. Tomorrow is today extended. To speak of such a relation between the present and the future within the context of formal logic would indicate belief in a vitalistic principle, divine will or some other metaphysical device. But, here, all social change is conceived of as a coming to be of what potentially is, as the further unfolding of an already existing process, and hence, discoverable by a study of this process taken as a spatial?temporal Relation. The "destiny" of money is rooted in its existing structure. So is the "destiny" of any society. What will become of it (or, more accurately, what is likely to become of it) is pieced together by an examination of the forces, patterns and trends that constitute the major existing Relations. It is the result of such research into any particular factor or set of factors that is conveyed by Marx's concept "law".9
The common sense view recognizes two types of laws: inductive laws, which are generalizations based on the results of empirical research, and deductive laws, which are a priori statements about the nature of the world. For the first, evidence is relevant, and the predictions it occasions are never more than probable. For the second, evidence is irrelevant and the predictions occasioned are necessary. Marx's laws possess characteristics that we associate with both of these types. Like inductive laws, Marx's laws are based on empirical research. Unlike them, however, his laws are not concerned with independent events whose ties with each other and with surrounding circumstances are contingent. Marx says that in political economy "law is chance"; the elements related have no ties other than those actually uncovered by research (Rubel, 1959, 52). Whereas, for Marx, the relations he discovers are considered already present as real possibilities in the relations which preceded them (they exist there as temporally internal relations).
As regards deductive laws, Marx's laws also deal with the nature of the world, but do so on the basis of evidence, and are forever being modified by evidence. As a result, they cannot be encapsulated in simple formulae which hold true for all time. Still, strictly speaking, all Marx's laws are tautologies: given these are "A's" relations, this is what "A" must become and, in the becoming, "A" may be said to obey the law of its own development. Such laws express no more necessity than that contained in the particular group of relations for which they are standing in. The very uncertainties in the situation are their uncertainties. Yet, by including within the law all possible developments prefigured by the relevant relations, the law itself may be said to be necessary. All that happens to a factor is the necessary working out of its law. Consequently, rather than coloring Marx's findings in any way, it is his findings which lend these laws their entire character.
The relations bound up in any factor generally make one kind of development more probable than others, and Marx often uses "law" to refer to this development alone. "Law" in this sense is the same as "tendency", and on one occasion, Marx goes as far as to say that all economic laws are tendencies (Marx, 1958, 8).10
Until this point, the discussion has been limited to social factors which are generally recognized as suchcapital, labor, class, etc.though Marx's interpretation of them was shown to be highly unusual. However, in seeking favorable vantage points from which to analyze capitalism, a system contained relationally in each of its parts, Marx sometimes felt obliged to create new parts. This was simply a matter of mentally carving up the whole in a different manner for a particular purpose. The result is, in effect, a new social factor, a new unit in which to think about and refer to society. Perhaps the most important new social unit created in this way is the "relations of production", the core of which lies in the complex interaction of production, distribution, exchange and consumption. Another is "surplus-value". These two Relations occupy a central position in Marx's work.
The novelty of having the relations of production as a subject matter becomes evident when we consider the limited concern of most capitalist economists. The latter are interested in studying (more particularly, in measuring) what goes on in the "economy", a sector of life artificially separated from other sectors, whose necessary links with human beings as regards both pre-conditions and results are seldom investigated.
What kind of productive activity goes on in a society where people obtain what they want through the exchange of value equivalents? What kind of political, cultural, religious, and social life fosters such exchange and is, in turn, fostered by it? These questions are beyond the bounds of relevance established by capitalist economics, but they are well within the boundaries set by Marx. He tells us in Capital I, for example, that he wants to examine "Why is labor represented by the value of its product and labor-time by the magnitude of that value?" (My emphasis) (Marx, 1958, 80). This is really a question about how the particular "economy" that capitalist economists are content to describe came into existence and how it manages to maintain itself. By conceptualizing his subject matter as "relations of production", as a union of the main processes involved (as a factor centering upon this union), Marx facilitates his efforts to deal with this wide ranging problem. The result, Capital, is not properly speaking an economic treatise, butas many readers have noteda work on social praxis.
Returning to Marx's discourse, the problem of misinterpretation arises from what might be called his practice of making definitions of all his descriptions. Whatever Marx discovers about any factor, particularly if he considers it important, is incorporated into the meaning of its denoting term, becomes a part of its concept. Marx's concepts, then, are meant to convey to us the already structured information they express for him; it is in this way that they acquire a "truth value" distinct from that of the statements in which they are found (Marx and Engels, 1941, 12).
Therefore, whatever Marx understands about his society, including its processes of change and the projections he has made from them, is already contained in each of the major concepts used to explain what it is he understands. Such meaning lies heavy on Marx's terms. It is this which allows Marx to equate "economic categories" with "historic laws", and which makes "logic" a synonym for "law" in Marxism (Marx and Engels, 1941, 12). "Law" refers to relations in the real world; while "logic", as Marx ordinarily uses it, refers to these same relations as reflected in the meanings of their covering concepts.
Marcuse offers the same insight when he claims that Marx's categories are negative and at the same time positive:
"they present a negative state of affairs in the light of its positive solution, revealing the true situation in existing society as the prelude to its passing into a new form. All the Marxian concepts extend, as it were, in these two dimensions, the first of which is the complex of given social relations, and the second, the complex of elements inherent in the social reality that make for its transformation into a free social order" (Marcuse, 1964, 295-6).11That readers make any sense of Marx's terminology at all suggests that many of the relations he sees in reality correspond, more or less, to our "common sense" view of the world (which is not much to assume), and that it is these relations which constitute the core meanings of most of his concepts.12
Though each of Marx's major concepts has the theoretical capacity to convey the entire analysis made with its help, in practice Marx's current interest governs the degree to which the relations bound together in any social factor (and hence the meaning of its covering concept) are extended. As Marx moves from one problem to the next, whole new areas inside each social Relation become relevant, and some areas which were relevant in the previous context cease being so. In this way, what was formerly assumed is expressed directly and what was expressed is now assumed. Class, for instance, has a vital role in explaining the state, but only a small part in accounting for exchange, and the size of the Relation, class, in Marx's thought (and the meaning of "class" in Marx's writing) varies accordingly.
It is this practice which is responsible for the "manipulation" of classificational boundaries (both those which were generally accepted and those which he himself seemed to lay down earlier) that so many of Marx's readers have found in his work. (See my Introduction) Yet, each such restriction of the social whole is merely practical, a means of allowing Marx to get on with his current task. Should he ever want to extend the size of any factor, and hence the meaning of its concept, to its relational limits, he can do so. Thus, we learn, "Man, much as he may therefore be a particular individual . . . is just as much the totalitythe ideal totalitythe subjective existence of thought and experienced society present for itself" (Marx, 1959a, 105)
If each of Marx's concepts has such breadth (actual or potential), and includes much of what is also expressed by other concepts, how does Marx decide on any given occasion which one to use? Why, for example, call interest (which, for him, is also capital) "interest" and not "capital"? This is really the same problem approached from the other side. Whereas before I accepted Marx's nomenclature and tried to find out what he meant, I am now askinggiven his broad meaningswhy does he offer the names that he does? The unorthodox answer given to the first question has made this second one of special importance.
It may appear that I have only left Marx a nominalist way out, but this is not so. The opposition between the view that the world gives rise to our conceptions and the view that naming is an arbitrary process is, in any case, a false one. The real problem is to discover the various precise ways in which what actually exists, in nature as well as in society, affects the ways we conceive of and label it; and how the latter, in turn, reacts upon what exists, particularly upon what we take to be "natural" structures. In short, this is a two-way street, and to be content to travel in only one direction is to distort. Marx's own practice in naming takes account of both the real world as it is, and his conceptualization of it which decides (as distinct from determines) what it can be. The former is seen in Marx's acceptance of the core notion of each factor, which is simply what the factor, being what it is, strikes everyone that it is (the idea is of necessity quite vague); and the latter stands out in the decisive importance he attributes to the function of each factor (grasped as any part of its core notion) in the particular subsystem of society which he is examining.
In setting out what can and cannot be called "fixed capital", Marx says "it is not a question here of a definition, which things must be made to fit. We are dealing here with definite functions which must be expressed in definite categories" (Marx, 1957, 226). Thus, capital in a situation where it functioned as interest would be called "interest", and vice versa. However, a change in function only results in a new name (as opposed to a descriptive metaphor) if the original factor is actually conceived to be what it is now functioning as. That is, capital can only act as or appear to be interest and, hence, never really deserve its name unless we are able to conceive of the two as somehow one. This, of course, is just what Marx's relational conception allows him to do. Through its internal ties to everything else, each factor is everything else viewed from this particular angle, and what applies to them necessarily applies to it, taken in this broad sense. Thus, each factor hasin theorythe potential to take the names of others (of whatever applies to them) when it functions as they do, that is, in ways associated with their core notions.
When Marx calls theory a "material force", or when Engels refers to the state as an "economic factor", they are misusing words only on our standard (Marx, 1970, 137; Marx and Engels, 1941, 484).13 On the relational view, theory and state are being given the names of their own facets whose core functions they are performing. Thus, Marx says, in the instance quoted, that theory becomes a material force "once it gets a hold of men", that is, once it becomes a driving factor in their lives, strongly influencing character and actions. This role is generally performed by a material force, such as the mode of production, but theory can also perform it, and when it does it is said to become a "material force".
To understand Marx's nomenclature, however, it is not enough to know that naming attaches to function, which in turn is conceived of within a relational whole. The question arises whether the particular function observed is objective (actually present in society) or subjective (there because Marx sees it to be). The answer is that it is both: the functions, according to which Marx ascribes names, exist, but it is also true that they are conceptualized in a manner which allows Marx to take note of them. Other people viewing the same "raw facts" with another conceptual scheme may not even observe the relation he has chosen to emphasize.
For example, when Marx calls the worker's productive activity "variable capital", he is labeling a function that only he sees; in this case, because this is how such activity appears "from the point of view of the process of creating surplus-value", a unit that Marx himself introduced (Marx, 1958, 209). It is only after we finish reading Capital and accept the new concept of "surplus-value" that "variable capital" ceases to be an arbitrary name for labor-power. Generally speaking, we understand why Marx has used a particular name to the extent that we are able to grasp the function referred to, which in turn depends on how similar his conception of the relevant factors is to our own.
Marx's concepts, it is clear, have been tailored to fit both his unique vision of capitalism and his unusual conception of social reality. The great lesson to be drawn from all this is that Marx's concepts are not our own, no matter how much they may appear so. In short, the fact that Marx uses the same words as we do should not mislead us into believing that he has the same concepts. Words are the property of language and are common to all who use this language. Concepts, or ideas about the world which find expression in words (or words in so far as they contain such ideas), are best grasped as the property of individuals or of schools of thought. Expressing what he knows as well as how he knows it, Marx's concepts tell us much more (often), much less (sometimes), and much different (always) than we think they do. In his Preface to the English edition of Capital I, Engels says it is "self-evident that a theory which views modern capitalist production as a mere passing stage in the economic history of mankind, must make use of terms different from those habitual to writers who look upon the form of production as imperishable and final" (Marx, 1958, 5). Whether, the need for new terms (concepts) here is "self-evident" is debatable; that Marx felt such a need is not.
Moreover, as if this were not enough, the very sense conveyed by Marx's concepts is unstable. What he understands at any given time of the interrelations which make up social reality is reflected in the meanings of the words he uses. But these interrelations are constantly changing, and, further, Marx is forever learning more about them through his research. Hence, eight years later, in his Introduction to Capital III (after a considerable volume of misinterpretation had passed under the bridge), Engels also warns that we should not expect to find any "fixed, cut-to-measure, once and for all applicable definitions in Marx's works" (Marx, 1959b, 13-14).14
The lack of definitions (that is, of statements obviously meant as definitions) in Marx's writings has often been belabored, but it should now be clear what difficulty he had in providing them. Viewing the world as undergoing constant change and as devoid of the clear cut classificational boundaries that distinguish the common sense approach, Marx could not keep a definition of one factor from spilling over into everything. For him, any isolating definition is necessarily "one-sided" and probably misleading. There are critics, such as Sartre, who have accepted Engels' dictum.15 More typical, on the other hand, is the reaction of Carew-Hunt who is so convinced of the impossibility of such an approach to meaning that he claims (against the evidence) that Marx does not manipulate language in this way, though his dialectic, according to Carew-Hunt, requires that he do so (Carew-Hunt, 1963, 50). Basically unaware of Marx's relational conception, most critics simply cannot take the concepts which are entailed by this conception for what they are.16
What emerges from this interpretation is that the problem Marx faces in his analysis is not how to link separate parts but how to individuate instrumental units in a social whole that finds expression everywhere. If I am right, the usual approach to understanding what Marx is getting at must be completely reversed: from trying to see the way in which labor produces value, we must accept at the outset a kind of equation between the two (the two social Relations express the same wholeas Marx says, "Value is labor"), and try instead to see the ways in which they differ (Marx, 1959b, 795). Marx's law of value is concerned with the "metamorphosis of value", with the various forms it takes in the economy, and not with its production by labor. This, and not what Smith and Ricardo had said before, is the economic theory illustrated in the massive volumes of Capital.
So, too, instead of seeking a strict causal tie between the mode of production and other institutions and practices of society which precludes complex social interaction, we must begin by accepting the existence of this interaction and then seek out the ways in which Marx believes that the effects proceeding from the mode of production and other economic factors (narrowly understood) are more important. Such interaction, as we have seen, is a necessary part of each social Relation. This, and not technological determinism, is the conception of history illustrated in all Marx's detailed discussions of political and social phenomena. If Marx is at ease with a foot on each side of the fence, it is because for him the fence does not exist. In light of this analysis, most of Marx's opponents are guilty of criticizing him for answers to questions he not only did not ask, butgiven his relational conception of realitycould not ask. Marx's real questions have been lost in the process. They must be rehabilitated.