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Marx’s method of political economy

by Filipe Duarte on February 5, 2019

Marx’s method of political economy offers a critique of the political economy of capitalism in relation to its historical, social and material foundations, and this contributes to understanding and explaining the nature and functioning of capitalism, as well as the root causes of social and economic inequalities and its different forms of (re)production in industrialised capitalist societies, as Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho explain.

The discussion of Marx’s method traces back to his early writings of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which comprises the initial breakthrough in the field of political economy from 1843 to the composition of Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, written between 1857 and 1858. Grundrisse is an introductory draft of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy and a preparatory work for Capital. According to Marcello Musto, it contributes to understanding Marx’s thought as a whole and Capital in particular. Musto further explains that, in Grundrisse, Marx aimed to clarify the guiding principles for theorising the problem and contradictions of capitalism. In this regard, Derek Sayer (1979) considers that Marx’s analysis is a method of enquiry that analyses the intrinsic relations of capitalism.

Marx was influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach. In his early career, Marx identified himself with the group of Young Hegelians (who were more radical) rather than with in the Old Hegelians (considered more reactionary), but the influence of Feuerbach’s materialism led Marx to move away from the Young Hegelians who believed that human intellectual development still had far to advance. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, philosophy was dominated by Hegel and his followers. Fine and Saad-Filho explain that Hegelians “were idealists, believing that theoretical concepts can legitimately be developed more or less independently of material reality.” The Hegelians also believed that “intellectual progress explains the advance of government, culture and the other forms of social life”. In contrast, Feuerbach believed that human need determines consciousness. For him, in general humans seek God or religion, to satisfy an emotional need. For that reason, Marx extended Feuerbach’s materialist philosophy beyond religion to all the other areas of society. Feuerbach’s materialist analysis is ahistorical and non-dialectical, while Marx believed that human consciousness can only be understood in relation to historical, social and material circumstances. Thus, Fine and Saad-Filho argue that the relationship between dialectics and history became the cornerstone of Marx’s method. For Marx, consciousness is first and foremost determined by material conditions that develop dialectically throughout human history. In Marxist terms, dialectics is a method that translates a way of thinking about reality. It consists in going beyond reality to understand and analyse the social whole through a materialist analysis.

Therefore, it is important to explore the discussion on historical materialism and dialectical materialism made by Nicos Poulantzas because it sheds light on an understanding and distinction between interpretations of both Marxist philosophy and method. Poulantzas explains that historical materialism is the science of history. It studies the different modes of production and social formation, their structure, constitution and functioning, and the forms of transition from one social formation to another through an historical perspective. Its object is the concept of history. While dialectical materialism is defined as a Marxist philosophy, it has its own particular object of production and that is the structure and functioning of the process of thought. The object of dialectical materialism is the theory of the history of scientific production.

Thus, as Marx showed in Grundrisse and in Capital, historical materialism maintains a general theory for defining the concepts of mode of production, of social formation, of real appropriation and property, of combination, ideology, politics, conjuncture and transition. These concepts contribute to defining the object through a historical perspective. This means that the object of historical materialism is the study of different structures and practices – the economy, politics, and ideology. As Poulantzas explains, the combination of these different structures and practices constitutes the mode of production and the social formation.

Therefore, in Grundrisse, Marx defines the historical criteria and the material production of society as the starting point of his method of analysis. But how? Where do we begin? Marcello Musto (2008) explains that in Grundrisse, Marx “addressed the major methodological issue: how to reproduce reality in thought. How to construct an abstract categorical model capable of comprehending and representing society?” Marx sought to question and challenge the founders of political economy, William Petty and Pierre de Boisguilbert, by questioning their method of starting their analysis off with the entire population. For Musto (2008), Marx believed that to initiate an analysis with the entire population gives an overly generic image of the whole as it is incapable of demonstrating the divisions into classes (bourgeoisie, landowners and proletariat) because class can only be determined through its foundations: capital, land ownership and wage labour. For this reason, Musto considers that such an empirical approach would dissolve the analysis of the state “into abstract determinations such as division of labour, money or value”. In fact, this procedure was employed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo in economics and by Hegel in philosophy. For example, the abstract categories in economics arose from simple relations, such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value, to the level of the state, and exchange between nations and the world market. For Musto, Marx’s “abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought”. Moreover, in Marx’s account, Musto argues that, with the right categories, it is possible “to retrace the journey until one finally arrives at population again, only this time not as the chaotic conception of the whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations”.

Fine and Saad-Filho consider that “the best known example of the application of Marx’s method can be found in his critical examination of capitalism in Capital”. Fine and Saad-Filho assert that Marx’s approach has five important broad features: (1) Social phenomena exist, and can be understood, only in their historical context. For Marx, societies are organised by different modes of production and structured by different class relations. Thus, class analysis offers a clear insight into the internal structure, the mechanisms of power and contradictions of a capitalist society; (2) Theory loses its validity if pushed beyond its historical and social limits which means that concepts and theories are always constructed to address a particular society and historical moment; (3) Marx’s analysis is structured by the relations between theory and history. For him, the historical analysis belongs within the method of the study, which contributes to understanding the past and present, but cannot be used to predict the future; (4) Dialectical materialism informs and defines the key concepts, structures, relationships and levels of analysis required to explain the concrete or complex outcomes. Marx uses dialectical materialism in Capital to understand and determine the essential features of capitalism and their contradictions, to explain the structure and dynamics of this mode of production, and to locate the potential sources of historical change; (5) Marx’s method is focused on historical change. For Marx, there is an interdependent and mutual relationship between the structures of production, the social relations and historical change. These influences are always determined by the mode of social organisation. Fine and Saad-Filho explain that “these relations exist independently of individual choice, even though they have been established in the course of the historical development of society”. Therefore, these social relations of production are determined by class relations within a particular mode of production, such as in a capitalist society.

Thus, Marx’s method of political economy is thus particularly useful as a scientific and rigorous method of analysis that provides an analytical template to understand how social systems works.

Filipe Duarte
Filipe Duarte completed a PhD in Social Work at Carleton University (Canada). His thesis, entitled "The Politics of Austerity and Social Citizenship Rights: A Case Study of the Impact of the 2008 Financial Crisis on the Welfare State in Portugal", provides a detailed account of the austerity measures on welfare cash benefits adopted in Portugal between 2010 and 2014. Filipe is also a researcher and activist within the radical/structural social work tradition.

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