Marx’s method

Together with colleagues at work, we are planning to offer a Master’s level module on ‘Marx’s Theory and Method’ for students studying an MSc in Social Science Research Methods. Having this to plan for over the course of the year is a useful way of focusing my own reading and understanding of Marx’s method, too.

Marx’s method is widely described as scientific, dialectical and historical materialist (Marx discussed his work in these terms, too) and part of the module will be about understanding what these terms actually mean through a reading of the primary texts. For example, on historical materialism, here’s a key quote from The German Ideology (1845).

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself – geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.

This production only makes its appearance with the increase of population. In its turn this presupposes the intercourse [Verkehr] of individuals with one another. The form of this intercourse is again determined by production.

Reading Capital itself is a lesson in Marx’s method, but he was aware of the difficulty of his scientific approach to the critique of political economy, which he described in his notebooks as as ‘the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete’. In the preface to the first German edition of Capital, Marx was confident that his work would be understood:

With the exception of the section of value-form, therefore, this volume cannot stand accused on the score of difficulty. I presuppose, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself.

However, five years later in the preface to the French edition, he acknowledges that his novel methodological approach “has been little understood”, and that the first chapters are “rather arduous” and might render the book inaccessible to the working class, “a consideration which to me outweighs everything else.”

Marx considered his dialectical, historical, materialist method to be rational and scientific and share similar methodological characteristics to that of the natural sciences. In his research, he employed various techniques such as detailed observation, logic, reference to literature, and the use of documentary evidence (e.g. the English ‘Blue Books’) to explicate social ‘laws’ and tendencies. In seeking to explain the concrete nature of our lives, he identified a realm of real abstraction that is often contradistinct to what appears to be real and natural. In doing so, his analysis is systematically and simultaneously abstract and concrete; he acknowledged the material reality of our lives and the world we live in but is sceptical of simple surface appearances and especially commonsensical ideas which we take for granted as trans-historical and natural, such as the idea of ‘labour’.

In a preface to Capital he compares his task to that of the Physicist, Biologist and Chemist, explaining that for the study of society, “the force of abstraction” must take the place of the microscope and chemical reagents.

The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy…

The physicist either observes physical phenomena where they occur in their most typical form and most free from disturbing influence, or, wherever possible, he makes experiments under conditions that assure the occurrence of the phenomenon in its normality. In this work I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode.

In his examination of the capitalist mode of production, he reminds the reader that his approach is to abstract from specific, concrete observations to an “ideal average”, so as to offer an “analysis of capital in its basic structure.” In seeking to reveal the basic structures and ideal averages of society, Marx also makes clear (again, in the prefaces to Capital) that where he might seem to criticise certain types of individual, such as the capitalist and landlord, these are in fact intended to be

personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.

What is clear to me as I read Marx’s work with an eye on his method is the clarity it brings to his theoretical insights and the power it adds to his critique of capitalism. I’m really enjoying the process and hope that our students will too.

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