Marx's Critiques and Debates About Critical Method


Marx’s aim is ambitious -- it is to do more than just explain the social origins of ideas, becuase he wants to criticise them as well.  It is worth noting right away that some writers have said this is asking too much in fact, to both explain and criticise ideas at the same time using the same method. This is sometimes put rather obscurely as confusing "Kantian" with "Hegelian" forms of critique - the one seeks merely to understand, while the other seeks to move beyond. Anyone should be able to see that this can be contradictory -- if ideas are understandable as meaningful in their social context, it seems unfair and unwarranted (and even unnecessary) to say they are limited in terms of some "truth" of which the people themselves might be unaware. Let's try it out though. Many of the links point to the excellent Marx and Engels Internet Archive.

Critique is a particular task in Marxist sociology.  Marx’s work is going to be very useful to us to eliminate ideas that are 'wrong'. Wrong ideas are, for our purposes, ideologies.  This term has a number of meanings.  In certain Marxists traditions, ideology means ‘a set of false ideas that prop up a class system’.  The tradition I am going to look at tries to do critique in a special sense. Marx wants to not just dismiss certain ideas as wrong, lies or propaganda, but to account for them, to explain why they are plausible but still wrong.  In other words, his interest is not just in obvious party political propaganda but in other sets of ideas that are quite reasonable or plausible but, that are still, wrong. Ideas are plausible but wrong because the interests of the philosopher get in the way (vulgar ideology) , but also because social reality itself is very confusing and misleading (scientific ideology).  In particular I am going to develop an argument that the appearance of social activities of various kinds is misleading and there are real forces underneath that produce these misleading appearances that need to be examined.  So, we are going to operate with a notion, a metaphor (a common one in Marx) of surface, depth and appearance.  What appears to be the case on the surface actually is understood or grasped by particular ideologies, but there is also a reality only available in the depth, a deep series of forces that produce those plausible appearances and those are the ones that are missed by ideology.  They are missed by ideology and they are grasped by Marxism, so the claim goes. 

Marxist Critique of Hegel and idealist philosophy.

These arguments are outlined in many places: in The Poverty of Philosophy and in the Introduction to Grundrisse.  Both contain criticism of Hegel, Hegel’s methods  and a critique of political economy.  Before I get into the discussion on Hegel it is worth pointing out that Marx makes a number of other statements about his relation to Hegel.  In Capital Volume One (Afterword)  he states that:

But just as I was working at the first volume of “Das Kapital,” it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre ‘Epigonoi who now talk large in cultured Germany, to treat Hegel in same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing’s time treated Spinoza, i.e., as a “dead dog.” I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell. 

To take one example, social history for Hegel was basically to be interpreted as the emergence, conflict and change of ideas.  Hegel has a particular way of describing how ideas express themselves in material reality and develop into contradictory forms and then evolve into more advanced forms and permit  even more advanced ideas to express themselves in their turn [see file]. The goal of the process is to represent human reason at its most fully developed and the most fully developed kind of human reason was reason which had universal applicability (usually rendered with a capital letter as Reason. Very simply then, Hegel was keen to analyse how ideas developed and changed from lower, or specific or limited forms, to higher more universal forms. He was actually interested in rather formal models of social relationships which expressed these different ideas. 

What we find in his work is a kind of social history; an account of the development of particular kinds of social relations - social relations which express different ideas about human beings; there relationships to each other and their powers.  At the bottom of this hierarchy, in the earliest phase, human beings had social relations with each other of a pretty minimal kind.  There was a kind of brute struggle between individuals and the kind of social relationships they had were pretty bare and minimum if two individuals met; one would be likely to kill the other and that would be that!  Now that relationship isn’t a terribly well advanced one and it has obvious limitations:  it is rather risky and so that kind of relationship soon evolves into a slightly more advanced form of social relation -- slavery.  Slavery doesn’t sound a terribly nice form of social relation either, but it is better than killing people!  The defeated in battle became the property of the victor and not just a kind of useless corpse lying about the place.  Slavery itself evolves into a higher form and the higher form is social relations between free individuals.  This involves a famous analysis of Hegel the master-slave dialectic:

Basically, what happens is that when masters and slaves enter into their relationship initially, it is pretty clear who has the dominate hand, the dominant part in the relationship: the master does.  The master is the one who orders the slave about and can dispose of the slave. But a strange thing happens -- the longer that relationship between master and slave continues the more equal it becomes.  Masters become dependent on their slaves.  Slaves realise that masters have particular interests, habits, and likes and dislikes and soon make themselves a kind of space in which they can share power with their master.  So, by using this famous example of a master-slave dialectic, Hegel is able to demonstrate how slavery evolves from a very unequal, an asymmetric relationship into much more equal and democratic ones.  Slavery leads to the first notion of democracy; the concept of free individuals who negotiate with each other. 

The master-slave dialect is a famous piece and a number of people have used it, for example, to explain the way in which underdogs in modern societies can seek or grasp power.  Some feminists have used the master-slave dialectic to explain how women gain power as their relations with men evolve.  On the most general level, we get a picture of relationships between people becoming more and more complex, expressing more and more universal principles - principles that end inequalities and asymmetries and come to apply equally to both parties to that relation. 

We pass through modern forms of competition in markets --  not a very long step away from the political associations between free individuals -- and, to cut a long story short, the peak of the whole history of development right at the top is the modern State.  The modern State for Hegel operates with rational and very impersonal forms of regulation of the country's affairs: it offers universal principles to organise the activities of different groups or communities. 

In fact, Hegel’s picture of the modern state allows for earlier forms of social relationships surviving as well. Each of these forms of  social relations expresses a different idea, a different set of principles about how human beings relate to each other: for the peasants, there is still the mystique of monarchy, where a magical person stands for the Nation;  the liberties of ‘civil society’ and the realities of the market symbolise society for the bourgeoisie.  Human beings have to learn these principles as they experience older forms and contradictions with them and evolve just as in the master-slave dialectic. But there is also this particular rational bureaucratic element, which characterises the modern State as impersonal and universal (and thus more likely to be able to operate in the universal interest). 

This is really not all that different from some modern accounts that you find, say, in functionalist sociology.  It is certainly plausible enough, once you allow for the rather obscure language in which it’s put. Why was it still wrong for Marx?  Remember, we are looking for ideas that are plausible but still wrong.  Hege;l's analysis was wrong because it’s “upside down” in the famous phrase above: it takes ideas as the driving force of history and it never asks what produces these ideas.  It never looks at concrete actual social relations, it looks at ideas primarily,  and then (idealised) social relations somehow just emerge to express them.

For Marx, real material processes produce ideas.  These are conceived in different ways, but they involve labour or production for Marx. Hegel and any similar philosophy that stresses the role of ideas – idealism -- treats material social relations in insufficient detail. Thus it becomes easy, for example, to see the State as nothing but an expression of some idea. 


  1. Hegel tends to see the Prussian State like this, as the expression of a set of ideas about the universal nature of social relations. 
  2. Marx wants to see the Prussian State differently, as something that arises from a particular group of people being able to seize power and develop the machinery to dominate the political process in Prussia. 
  3. Hegel would see the Prussian monarch, the Kaiser as some sort of symbolic embodiment of Reason (potentially  anyway) 
  4. Marx wants to see him as a real individual, as a member of a family that has come to power in a real material political struggle. 
Colletti’s introduction (Colletti 1975) argues that Marx’s critique of Hegel, especially on the state, is developed along those lines.  The point is that idealism -- accounts stressing the role of ideas -- is a quite understandable mistake.  Hegel is not a deliberate liar; he’s not a half-wit. Some people have tried to put him down as a kind of paid apologist of the Prussian Monarch but even that is pretty dubious (he was critical of the actual person on the grounds that he was not fulfilling his potential as the embodiment of the Universal).  Perhaps we should treat him as a philosopher dealing in plausible, but wrong, ideas. 

Social relations and ideas are mixed up together and both are found in reality.  So, it is quite an understandable mistake to think that ideas somehow cause social events to happen and, again, it is a common mistake that at an individual level we still like to think of human action, the kind that we engage in ourselves, as following a sequence whereby somebody has an idea and they then put that idea into practice (you have the idea that you want to come to college and you then organise the process and end up at college entirely as a result of your personal idea).  It is quite understandable to think that ideas cause social events but in fact, despite all common-sense appearances to the contrary, it is the other way around. Ideas themselves are created by social and material forces.  This is not immediately obvious, and you need careful and detailed analysis to point this out, but it happens to be, nevertheless, the right way up for marxists. 

Colletti argues, very plausibly, that Marx’s critique of Hegel is more or less the same as his critique of political economy or accounts of capitalism, as we shall see, It is the same sort of critical task. With political economists, who are trying describe the economic and political system of capitalism, Marx tries to take the same tack showing that the ideas of his opponents are plausible but still wrong.  They are wrong for the same reason that Hegel’s arguments are wrong -- because political economists have not penetrated far enough beneath the surface of capitalism.  They have operated on the surface; they have taken common sense perceptions of the economic system at face value. 

Critiques of Political Economy (and Positivist Social Science)

I will illustrate Marx’s famous and wonderful critiques of political economy by taking a couple of examples.  These are examples that you will find discussed in the commentaries, such as the excellent Sayer (1991) . Let me try to illustrate Marx’s criticisms of political economy first by looking at the history of capitalism in Marx.  This is the bit you find in Capital, volume 1. Part 8

The real history of capitalism

The general point is that the surface relations of capitalism are misleading and they have to be penetrated by proper methods.  It seems to us these days as if capitalism has always been around, as if it is natural or rooted in human nature, or for that matter, as if it’s at the end of some long process of evolution.  Particularly common, even today, is a myth about how capitalism began -- the myth of primitive accumulation. 

The myth goes like this: long ago, but not too long ago, some members of society began to save their money instead of spending it and perhaps they were prompted to do this by Protestant religion or whatever as in Weber’s famous analysis.  These hard working puritan people invested their savings in small businesses and, as they saved more and more money, they invested more and became big businessmen.  Idle, feckless people who had not saved became labourers.  That, apparently, is how we got capitalism and how we got two classes.  This picture is a common one, which relates to common sense views about the spending habits of our friends and, of course, it is apologetic. That is, it sees the very rich as people who have simply worked harder and therefore deserve their riches in some way.  The point for Marx is that it does fit a few examples -- some famous cases of self-made men, not only in Britain but in America (the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, modern heroes like Alan Sugar[!]). However, apart from those few cases it is almost completely wrong again.  

In Marx's account, the prime movers -- the people who launch capitalism -- were not small businessmen at all but large landowners, and the process begins as early as the 14th or 15th century when they had already built up substantial surpluses of wealth.  They had done this mostly by political domination:  they had been able to force peasants to work on their land for free and this was done in a number of ways.  There were certain customs like labour days where you trooped off and laboured on your lord’s estates, or there were other occasions where you paid tithes (that is a proportion of your harvest to the local aristocracy) in exchange for certain forms of alleged protection (such as the right to have them hear your case against your accusers or whatever). 

Occasionally, it was just possible for the aristocracy to go out and simply grab some surpluses of other kinds. Landowners were able to continue to accumulate by good old fashioned robust means like seizing common land and enclosing it -- putting a fence round it and claiming the land and driving off the peasants.  This is often associated with military conquests or various military struggles as in the clearances of the Scottish Highlands for example, which accelerated after the Battle of Culloden in the 1740s.  Later on, the same group of powerful landowners or their descendants were able to seize the chance to extract new kinds of surplus from trade and eventually,  after the Industrial Revolution, the same group were able to enter production as manufacturers.  That’s where we get manufacturers from, not from hard working and hard saving Protestants, but from landowners who already extracted a large surplus from their labourers using a variety of dubious means.  Labourers came from groups of peasants who were “freed”, that is to say dispossessed, by the break-up of the old feudal system and “encouraged” (through evictions, starvation, beatings, shootings) to move to towns off the land, which didn’t belong to them anymore, they were told. 

So, in summary: 

1.  Capital is already being seen here as the result as accumulated labour.  Landowners were able to amass wealth or capital by simply making people lend them or give them labour.  Capital is accumulated labour -- it’s not some separate magical factor of production.  It is necessary to point that out, because, again as we see shortly, some economists saw capital, land and labour as completely separate factors of production.  This is still the way some people are taught economics; it’s the way I was taught it myself. It is then possible to go on and explain how these different factors, contribute to the process, and attract different sorts of revenue.  Marx is saying capital is simply another form of labour (and that a surplus only comes from one source, whether it is called a ‘wage’, ‘profit’, ‘interest’, or ‘rent’).
2.  Already in this account, surplus is being produced by exploitation.  First, an openly tyrannical, political form of exploitation then an economic form of exploitation.  Again, this is going to be a point Marx wants to make against political economists. If you are going to get a surplus out of the system; if the system is going to deliver profit or economic growth, somebody’s got to be exploited. We just don't see it so obviously these days as we used to in the old days when police and troops cleared the Highlands. These days especially , it looks as if everything exchanges fairly, abocve all via the old slogan 'a fair day's pay for a fair day's work'.
3.  Labour in capitalism is not really like labour of the kind that occurred before it.  There is a particular form in capitalism.  For the first time in human history, labour in capitalism is “free”.  That is, it’s not tied to particular type of production -- it’s “abstract labour”, as Marx puts it.  People sell their labour in a very abstract way -- they don’t sell ploughing labour, they don’t sell shepherding labour, they sell labour which can be put to serve a number of different productive tasks. There are a number of implications from that one thing: the development of abstract labour requires a new system of organisation -- a labour market to replace the traditional ways in which people just grew up to be shepherds and went to work on the local land.  Therefore, there has to be a whole set of social institutions to recruit labour, fix a price for it, ensure it flows to people who need it and so on.  None of that was needed in the old established, settled, feudal production system. The workings of this labour market need pareticualrly careful exanmination, as we shall see.
In general then, the point that this section is making is that what looks natural to us now is in fact decidedly historical, that is capitalism, and the forms with which we are all familiar,  like labour markets and so on, are not “natural”. They lie at the end of a long process involving the development of social relations of production. Tthe development of social relations and production, are characterised by struggle, by exploitation, by the naked political and economic exploitation of one group by another.  This is not a nice long rational process of evolution -- capitalism is the result of actual historical struggles.

Historians might like to check this out as history, of course. It has become common for historians to debate the precise role of things like struggles over enclosures but Marx is making a methodological point here - if you look at the historical development of capitalism in a real way, not a mythical way, you find struggle, political conflict, a role for human activities -- and above all, you find a much complicated picture where a number of factors and forces have led to the emergence of the present system. 

Modern capitalism

You will remember the story so far.  Marx is going to argue that the political economists in his day were very important figures in justifying capitalism and in offering a kind of theory of the system on which a lot of politics were based.  These people were trying scientifically to understand how capitalism worked, or the best ones were (and Marx especially admired Ricardo) -- but they were still making a number of mistakes through failing to realise how social relations of the kind mentioned earlier -- political struggles of various kinds --  have produced a seemingly natural system. I have chosen a couple of very quick examples to make this point. 

Example#1 -- the origin of revenues

The first example I want to discuss is found in Theories of Surplus Value.   These volumes together are sometimes known as the 4th volume of Capital and they are a collection of articles and notes that Marx left when he died. Marx himself had only actually worked on the final editing of Capital Volume 1.  - all the other volumes were put together by other people, including Fred Engels who survived him. Theories of Surplus Value is the title is given to three volumes of various bits and pieces on economics that Marx wrote. 

I have chosen this particular section because it summarises in a very readable way Marx’s point about political economy and how it misunderstands things.  The chapter is about revenues and, in particular, he tries to analyse the phenomenon of interest on money. 

There used to be a good deal of fuss made about interest. Interest is the revenue, the sum of money, you get when you lend money to someone or to a bank. Interest on the money used to be seen as some special kind of revenue.  Some people wanted to justify or explain interest in terms of it being a reward for risking your money.  If you lent your money to companies like the ones that built the railways, you got interest back as kind of reward for risk.  This is a nice way of justifying interest.  Socialists on the other hand, including some native British ones, but also socialists like Proudhon who is savagely mocked and criticised in Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy, didn’t really like the idea of interest.  They have often seen interest as a particularly parasitical form of revenue and there has been a long history of attempts to condemn people who lived off interest and therefore lived off  “unearned income” as it’s sometimes called.  If we press that argument closely, we might find that it is the professional bourgeoisie, who have not inherited much capital and who cannot live off its interest, who feel the most annoyed about people who have and do.

I myself, for example, feel that reaction when I reveal how, say,  my modest nest egg of £10,000 that I have saved from my salary, as a good puritan, earns me 10% interest [only offshore these days!!].  Sociology students in the past have been known to grimace at this point and say I am some kind of bloated capitalist -- there is something honourable for them, perhaps, about working for money and getting paid wages and there is something dishonourable about living off interest. But Marx is going to say that those distinctions are unwarranted [one reason I like this bit!]. 

Interest is difficult to understand on the surface. You think you know how it works - you put a £10,000 in a bank or building society and at the end of the year you make more money by getting back, say, an extra £1000 - you make 10% interest.  It looks like magic. You just leave your money in the bank and when you return you get more money back!  It is even difficult to explain it as a sort of reward for risk because lending your money to banks isn’t exactly very risky these days. It looks as if money somehow earns money all by itself. What you see on the surface is people putting money into a bank in January, checking the account in December and pocketing interest of £100 on every £1,000 they were wise enough to put in. What you see on the surface is money going into a bank and then money coming back out of the bank with interest.

What is it that really happens according to Marx?  A circulation of that money goes on “beneath the surface”.  It goes on without anybody actually being able to witness all of it.  As soon as you have deposited your money in the bank, what does the bank do with it?  It lends it out to capitalists of various kinds -- and what do capitalists do with that money? They transform it into capital (tools, land, equipment, machinery, factory buildings) and then use that capital to extract surplus value using the time-honoured processes of exploiting labour to do it.  That surplus value is then appropriated and circulated back, taking the monetary form of a number of other revenues.  It takes the form of “profit” if it goes to capitalists as their slice. Of course, they don’t take it all -- they have to make payments to the bank for the privilege of borrowing the money. The bankers take their cut in the form of "salaries" and pay “dividends” to their shareholders. Finally, some of the moolah comes back to you, the customer, as “interest”.  Interest is your share of the surpluses kept by capitalists who have borrowed the money. All of this is hidden under a lot of traditional hokum, including the practice of giving different names to different bits of the booty. These days an additional "technological veil" helps conceal the process from the vulgar gaze, as  it all happens in a particularly invisible way, electronically and on an international scale. 

It is this cycle that produces all revenue. Rent, interest, profit all come from the same source beneath the surface - the source is surplus value.  You can see a number of implications following this – one is that it is silly for socialists to get sniffy about interest or rent as a particular source of revenue since it all comes from the same source: surplus value. Further, using the same terms as the bourgeoisie do is hardly helping understand the system. There is another lesson for socialists in this too -- there is no clean way in capitalism to make money.  Whether you yourself exploit black workers in South Africa or whether you lend your money to a bank that lends it to someone else, who then exploits those black workers is hardly significant.  It is the system that produces surplus and you are either in the system or you aren’t.  If you are then you’re exploiting people indirectly as much as anyone else.  There are a number of other political points that arise from this: lecturers’ wages, of course, are also paid from surplus value --  they come from the same source as interest.  There is really no reason for college lecturers or teachers to somehow think they are “pure” or “noble” by receiving wages and “impure” by receiving interest. 

There are also a number of technical, theoretical points here as well.  You have got to look beneath the surface to get categories like surplus value.  It is pointless trying to invent different laws and theories to explain and control or regulate these different revenues, which is what political economists were trying to do.  They were trying to argue that interest arose as a reward for risk (so it should be lightly regulated), while people like Ricardo had a very complicated theory to explain surplus as 'rent' (a gift from Nature, so it should not be taxed at all). These categories stand on sand, however.

Adam Smith, and others, tried to explain profit in terms of some kind of reward for managerial ingenuity and efficiency -- profit was a special managers’ wage.  Something similar is still argued today, of course, when fat cats receive huge “performance-related” bonuses.  I hope you can also see that this apparently “technical” matter has some considerable political importance, as is common with Marx’s work – no split between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ for him!!.

Example#2 -- the mystery of the commodity

The second example is found in the opening sections of Capital Volume 1. It starts with Marx arguing that the most interesting feature of modern capitalism is the widespread system of exchanging goods -- that’s really what it defines it as a mode of production.  Just exchanging goods with other people is not new -- it has always been done as an occasional activity. Communities that met each other would often swap things. If you had a surplus of horses and you wanted a few iron tools you would do a deal. But in capitalism exchange becomes the most important reason for producing goods at all.  Good are not really produced any more because people have an immediate use for them, but deliberately in order to exchange them. 

You can see how pre-industrial communities had a immediate use for horses, tools or weapons. Things in capitalism are produced primarily for exchange. Goods can actually even be harmful, or completely useless, but nonetheless they still get produced and exchanged. You can fit in your own favourite commodity -- it might be something like lemonade which is produced just because people will buy it. It can be exchanged but, in fact, it is largely useless and, in my view, a harmful commodity (it makes you thirsty, rots your teeth, gives you flatulence and makes you fat!!). 

Exchange is the thing that dominates in capitalism and because exchange is so widespread, there has to be some sort of system to sell exchange rates.  If you are regularly swapping and exchanging goods of a different variety, you need some way to work out how to exchange them 'fairly' and systematically.  How many rabbits should you actually exchange in return for wooden drinking bowls? You might have to negotiate this each time, in the beginning. Capitalist societies very rapidly develop an advanced money system to perform all these exchanges.  It is obviously very convenient if you can give things a value in monetary terms.  If you can say two rabbits are worth, not  four wooden bowls or whatever, but two groats [ an ancient British coin], and those two groats will buy you four wooden bowls and so on, you are in business.  Not only that, money is a "universal commodity" -- it exchanges not only for rabbits and bowls but for everything else as well, so it is marvellously convenient if you have a lot of different goods to trade or acquire. 

It is quite understandable for some early economists to notice this connection between the money system and a very advanced and efficient exchange of goods and to suggest some connection between the two. As political economists like to do, they often simply misunderstood this connection: because the economic system was growing and because it had a money system, some thought that one thing caused the other.  This again is a very common mistake in social science where it is known in the trade as spurious correlation, that is, two items that seem to vary together are seen as linked in a cause or relationship.  "Moral entrepreneurs", for example, use that kind of argument all the time --  the growth of violence in the streets is paralleled with growth of the ownership of TV sets, and the inference is drawn that one must cause the other.  Spurious correlation can be thought of as the hallmark of positivist social science

Some political economists developed a theory (mercantilism), which suggested that money was some kind of magic commodity responsible for economic growth, and that the more you circulated money, the more the economy grew.  This led to lots of solemn, theoretical and political debates about money; the value of money; the money supply; how to increase the frequency of circulation of money, including moves to develop free trade; whether money supplies should be based on gold and so on.  This is actually misleading too, says Marx: money itself is not a special commodity; it is not magically connected to economic growth, it is just another medium of exchange.  It doesn’t have any power itself to make wealth or to help the system grow.  Again, you might know that some version of monetarism has appeared in modern political debates [especially in Thatcherism, where policy was based for some years on restricting the money supply as the only way to regulate the economy]. 

There are other reasons for the growth of capitalism.  These other reasons involve the way surplus value is actually extracted.  Marx is a great economist according to Fred Engels’s Speech at his graveside because he solved the problem of economic growth – but before getting to that account Marx settled down to critique and deal with rival theories (primitive accumulation myths, mercantilism and others discussed in Theories of Surplus Value).  The secret of Marx’s method involves going beneath the surface to get at the whole picture of economic growth. The whole picture of work; the whole process of capitalist production.  You have got to uncover the whole system; it is not enough just to stay on the surface and notice that some things are connected  with other things on the surface and somehow build up a theory involving these surface connections. 

The key to this entire reading is the famous chapter on commodity fetishism (chapter 1 section 4, volume 1 of Capital).  Again, this is an important chapter and I have a reading guide online.

Commodity fetishism

The chapter starts by asking what a commodity is.  It is tempting to give kind of a common sense answer -- a commodity seems to be a thing or a product, just a single item like a ball-point pen or a cassette for example.  These products seem to exchange with each other, for example, two pens can be exchanged for £5.00 or whatever in a nice, natural normal way.  There seems to be no confusion, no exploitation and lots of consumer choice.  Now these are the surface features of capitalism and you can see why people think of it as a very fair, open, democratic and equal system.  In Marx's analysis of  what a commodity is, we seem to have a very abstract, philosophical analysis at first, but Marx is going to take on and critique all of those notions. 

We see this best of all with his discussion of labour.  Labour in capitalism is a commodity,  it’s exchanged on a labour market and exchanged for wages.  Everything seems objective, natural and fair.  A contract is freely struck between labourer and employer; a bargain which benefits both sides.  The labourer receives a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.  Labour seems to be exchanged for its market value - its exchange value.  However, labour is, like all other commodities, not simple at all.  All commodities are, in fact, a combination of two qualities -- they have exchange value but they also have a use value.  Both of those qualities are contained in the one apparently simple object like a cassette player or a brief case or whatever. 

Now, why on earth should anybody bother to argue that objects that look simple in unitary in fact are dualist, with two sides to them.  What’s the point?  That apparently abstract analysis takes on a real bite if you think about labour.  Labour has two aspects to it, we argued, an exchange value and it has a use value.  It just so happens that the use value of labour is particularly important, though, and we must examine it very carefully. The use values of other commodities are not really our concern – what you use your ball-point pen for is up to you and the privacy of your own home! When labour is used, it is put to work to create more goods of value, however.  This is the secret and the origin of surplus value:

In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a special commodity in capacity for labour or labour-power  (Capital Vol. 1 ch. 6)

Political economists were never actually able to understand that and always had problems explaining the secret and origin of surplus value - why? - because they saw commodities in far too simple terms.  They applied simple categories to the commodity including labour.  They thought that was science did. They stayed on the surface and never looked at what actually happens when labour was put to work; they didn’t follow a labourer through the whole cycle of his day’s labour.  They never worried about its other aspect - its use value.  Why should they – they didn’t want or see the need  to study weird and personal things like use values.

They made a bad mistake by operating with too simple a set of categories in this case.  Labour is a special commodity in that when it is put to work or consumed, it releases its special value. Again there is a marvellous section in Capital, Vol. 1 where this point is made:

The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the limits of the market or of the sphere of circulation. Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

If you just look at the surface of social relations, it looks like labour exchanges on equal terms when labour is hired for the day.  Two individuals sit around a table and they bargain usually with equal power.  The whole system is equal just for that moment when labour is being taken on - think of it in terms of labour being hired daily, which is how it used to be. After that one moment, everything changes though. As soon as the labourer is hired, he’s taken off and put into a factory and is kept there until he has produced enough goods to pay back his own wage and also to create profit for his employer: his use value is put at the disposal of someone else. 

That is the only way you can get profit in capitalism according to Marx.  If you think of yourself as a small employer (which some of you might be one day) most small employers don’t actually worry about where the profit comes from, they simply know they have to balance the books and leave a small surplus at the end of the day.  So, what you do is buy your raw materials and labour and put the labourers to work until they produce the goods. 

During the course of the day they produce enough goods for you to sell to cover costs; to get your money back.  The trick then is to persuade those labourers to stay longer in your factory until they have produced extra or surplus goods that you can then sell to make extra profit from surplus value.  In the old days, that often meant a struggle and therefore you had to persuade the labourer to work longer hours than he actually needed to, to pay back the costs of his hire.  That is why early forms of class struggle, as Marx explains in Capital, often did take the form of struggles over the length of the working day.  Bosses were trying to persuade labourers that it was natural for them to work ten or twelve hour days.  They weren’t doing this to be particularly mean, it is just they had to do it to make a profit and stay in business. 

These days, the struggle is to make labour more efficient; to make it more productive, to get labourers to work as hard as they possibly can using the most advanced machinery so as to produce enough goods to pay back the costs of the hire of labour and all raw materials and still leave you with a surplus. (In technical terms, there has been a shift from the simple “absolute” extraction of surplus value to a more “relative” form). That is the secret of surplus value -- but you don’t get to that secret unless you actually understand the whole cycle of reproduction and production. 

You certainly don’t get that picture if you just focus on the contract struck between labour and boss when they first meet daily.  That is what happened with political economists; they saw labour as being exchanged in the market like a commodity and again, that’s the way bosses see it. The costs of raw material and the cost of hiring labour are all set down on the left hand side of the books as “costs” just the same as if they were the same. But the thing about labour is it is not like all the other commodities -- it’s got a very special use value.  That use value produces surplus value and that’s where the whole secret of the capitalist system and economic growth or surplus reveals itself. 

You have got to do what looks like an unnecessary philosophical analysis; one that leads you into rather puzzling and unpleasant areas.  The commodity is not a simple thing at all; it is a contradictory or dualist thing in Marx.  It is not until you have done this seemingly pointless and “impractical” exercise that that you have realised a crucial secret.  The exchange value and the use value of labour are not the same; labour is paid according to its exchange value as if it were a commodity but it has a special use value - it is used to create surplus value in the right political and economic circumstances. 

The whole analysis has been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny since. Is labour the only source of surplus value these days? What about machinery? What about making money from electronic business? I am sure adetermined marxist could take the arguments above and fight off these criticisms, but let us just end with the methodological points.  Political economists never understood that process because they wanted to use simple categories, and ones that were in common use, and ones that seemed to be of most “practical” value to the businessmen who were their friends and colleagues. They made the same kind of mistake that fetishists did and that is why this chapter is called the Fetishism of Commodities. 

Marx himself thought that religious fetishists operated through the same kind of mistake; they were inclined to invest sacred, mystical powers in little objects, carved idols or lucky charms and, in fact, those objects didn’t possess magical powers at all – apparently “magical powers” really lie with human beings and their ability to change the world, for Marxism. Commodity fetishists are making a similar infantile mistake.  They are seeing commodities as connected with other commodities and not looking at the real processes that explain those connections – and when it comes to explaining surplus value they tend to see money or “enterprise” as having “magical powers”. 

The notion of commodity fetishism is also used in large chunk of analysis that involves social life beyond economics.  It is a mechanism much used in Marxist accounts of culture and politics too.  Again the argument is the same, but in culture and politics surface appearances have not been properly understood.  The real processes that produce events or objects in those fields are not apparent and therefore they are hard to grasp.  For example, it is common to talk about novels or paintings or other works of art as if they were simply objects invested with some mystical magical powers of their own.  The conditions of production have been omitted from the analysis of artistic objects. In the field of politics the same kind of thing happens - particular policies or institutions which have been developed as a result of a struggle (classically a political contest between classes) become fixed or fetished and it becomes impossible to change or alter them.  They take on a life of their own as if they were things instead of just the expression of political struggles of various kinds.  So, the education system we have at present is to be seen as natural or the most obvious way to educate kids even though periodically it is obvious that it is actually the result of a series of political struggles and process among powerful groups who want to identify education differently (as recent history shows really clearly – see file).

Marx's method -- humanist or structuralist?

In these sorts of ways the idea of commodity fetishism is a key text for humanist readings of Marx.  You can see why the thrusts of the methodological points that I have been making suggest that the full human potential, the whole picture, the full human relationships between people have been omitted.  Commodity fetishism involves an emphasis on the products of human activity and if you want to understand them you have to go back and recapture the human process that produced them in the first place.  A clear boost to this kind of analysis arose from the discovery from all the work on alienation in the “Young Marx”, and these readings play a large part in the rehabilitation in Marxism in the 1960s. 

Perhaps you can see why this particular piece on commodity fetishism arouses some excitement in the ensuing discussion about Marxism, because commodity fetishism, which involves the same kind of mechanisms perhaps as the work on alienation, appears in the mature work of Marx  in Capital itself.  This leads humanists to argue that alienation (or the "alienation problematic") really contains the key to Marxist method and that humanist Marxism is the one that fits the work best ( see Colletti 1975) . There is no "epistemological break" with the early work, no discontinuity - Marx is using alienation as a term in his early work and here we are bang in the middle of the mature work, and commodity fetishism appears to be offering the same kind of argument. 

The main opponents of humanist readings are Althusserians, of course, and this section on commodity fetishism in Capital has lead to some problems for them -- they want to argue that all the stuff on alienation and the need to recover the human process is a juvenile, philosophical Marx and by the time he got to Capital, he largely abandoned it. If you are an Althusserian, that means you have to do something about this chapter in Capital.  You have to play it down; if fact you have to ignore it altogether and that’s more or less what Althusserians suggest that we do ( fine, but this is the mature Marx and it raises the issue about where exactly the famous “epistemological break” with the early “problematics” now is located).  You can see the two readings demonstrated in this reading guide


Colletti, L., (1975) Introduction, in New Left Review (eds.) Marx: Early Writings, London: Penguin Books.
Sayer, D. (1991) Capitalism and Modernity An excursus on Marx and Weber, London: Routledge.

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