When Marx was young he wrote a piece called “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything That Exists”.
His approach was that there have been a lot of serious people who have thought hard about the world, & a critical method takes what they have said & seen & works on it to transform it into something new.
He took three grand conceptional frameworks:
- Classical political economy – mainly British: William Petty, Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo & James Stuart. Also French: Quesnay, Turgot, Sismondi & Say. His Theories of Surplus Value is his analysis of their thoughts. It is also why the subtitle of Das Kapital is ‘a critique of political economy’.
- Philosophy – mainly German: Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel & Kant. Also classical Greek such as Aristotle.
- Utopian socialism – mainly French: Saint-Simon, Fourier, Babeuf, Proudhon & Blanqui. Also the Englishmen Thomas More & Robert Owen. His problem with the utopians was they had no idea how to get there. His aim was to convert utopian socialism into scientific socialism.
What is communism?
How can we understand & critique capitalism scientifically in order to chart a path to revolution?
“There is no royal road, & only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”
“The method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development & to track down their inner connection. Only after this work has been done can the real movement be appropriately presented. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter (i.e. capitalism) is now reflected back in the ideas, then it may appear as if we have before us an a priori construction.”
His method of inquiry (the method of descent) , therefore, starts with everything that exists; with reality as it is experienced.
This is then subjected to rigorous criticism in order to discover some simple but powerful concepts that illuminate the way reality works.
Equipped with those fundamental concepts, we can work our way back to the surface (the method of ascent) & discover how deceiving the world of appearance can be.
Das Kapital begins by presenting the foundational concepts, the conclusions he’s already derived.
Therefore, we only fully understand these concepts once we are at the end of the book.
Marx’s starting point is the commodity.
It’s seems at first a somewhat arbitrary place to start, but his method of descent brought him to this concept of the commodity as being fundamental.
Marx never achieved his planned project that he set out as:
- The general, abstract determinants which obtain in more of less all forms of society.
- The categories which make up the inner structure of bourgeois society & on which the fundamental classes rest. Capital, wage labour, landed property. Their interrelation. Town & country. The three great social classes. Exchange between them. Circulation. Credit system (private).
- Concentration of bourgeois society in the form of the state. Viewed in relation to itself. The ‘unproductive’ classes. Taxes. State debt. Public credit. The population. The colonies. Emigration.
- The international relation of production. International division of labour. International exchange. Export & import. Rate of exchange.
- The world market & crises.
Volume I is from the standpoint of production.
Volume II from the standpoint of circulation (exchange relations).
III looks at crisis formation & the distribution of the surplus in the forms of interest, return on finance capital, rent on land, profit on merchant capital & taxes.