Marx’s Editor: Production (Part I)

The “Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy” is the opening to Marx’s lengthy unfinished manuscript, the “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” or the Grundrisse. It was written around 1857, then abandoned by Marx, to be first published posthumously in Germany around 1939. Towards the end of his life, Marx supposedly viewed his more popular published works with a “skepticism bordering on rejection,” while viewing his Grundrisse “with a tone of achievement and sense of accomplishment.”

There are three parts to the Introduction: (1) production, (2) the relation of production to distribution, exchange and consumption and (3) the method of political economy (economics). Below is a summary of the first half of the first part of the Introduction where I pretend to be Marx’s (sometimes heavy-handed) editor.

The two big ideas in the first half of his section on “production” are that (1) the isolated hunter-fisher of Smith and Ricardo is not primitive or natural but a creation of the highly developed bourgeois society of the 18th century and (2) production is most usefully discussed historically as opposed to as a general economic term. He makes a couple of really cool analogies between production and language and sets out the only two basic principles of production that exist outside history: mankind and nature. BOOM.

In the first paragraph, Marx waxes polemical against the naturally independent isolated individual hunter or fisher of Smith and Ricardo. This individual is not found in some return to our natural primitive history! He is rather the result of history not its starting point. This natural individual who is free from the bonds of nature is actually the child of “the dissolution of feudal society and new forces of production developing since the 16th century” (i.e., bourgeois society). I reproduce below a particularly compelling analogy in Marx’s own words:

Production by isolated individuals outside of society – something which might happen as an exception to a civilized man who by accident got into the wilderness and already dynamically possessed within himself the forces of society – is as great an absurdity as the idea of the development of language without individuals living together and talking to one another.

In the second paragraph, Marx continues to expound on why this “natural man” of Smith and Ricardo is wrongly regarded by them as natural. If he was natural then we would find him in primitive history, but we do not. Let us look in history for this independent isolated individual man, and we do not find him. Instead we find a social individual. We find an individual who both depends on and makes up a social union. We find an individual dependent on and part of a family, then a clan, then a community.

The “natural man” of Smith and Ricardo can only exist in the 18th century when social unions have become so evolved as to appear completely separate and apart from the individual, as “outward necessities.” These highly evolved social unions no longer seem like an end in themselves, like a family or a clan or a community seems like an end in itself. We do not view our family as existing in order to provide us a means to achieve our own ends. We view our family as existing because family is a natural and beneficial organization for all its members. A family itself, a clan itself, a community itself is a goal.

When society has developed beyond these forms, only then can the “natural man” of Smith and Ricardo emerge. Marx is saying that the isolated independent individual can only become prevalent at a highly evolved point in the development of social unions where the individual feels that he is no longer a part of the social union and this frees him up to use the union(s) as a means to his own ends without it seeming like a perversion.

In the third paragraph, Marx arrives at his chosen topic – production. According to Marx, the concept of “production in general” is too abstract to be useful because production can only be seen through the lens of a stage of social development, i.e., historically. After all, production is accomplished by social individuals not by the independent hunter/fisher natural man. It would be appropriate to trace the historical process of production or to talk about a specific type of production, for example of modern capitalistic production (the subject proper of this work), but not to talk about production in general.

He does not deny that production has general features, but he says that the general features of production constitute something very complex whose constituent elements have different destinations [which he does not fully treat in the Introduction]. He uses, again, the analogy of language. Languages have commonalities among them, but knowing Spanish and having no previous knowledge of Italian, I could not spontaneously understand and speak Italian based on its commonalities with Spanish. These two languages have many commonalities, but I still probably would only be able to capture about 25 percent of an Italian conversation on any subject spontaneously (and I am good with languages).

In Marx’s view, there are only two commonalities in production in general: (1) the subject of production (mankind) and (2) the object of production (nature).

He goes on to his critique that modern economists try to prove the eternal nature and harmony of existing social conditions as opposed to truly trying to find commonalities in production. According to the capitalist economists, commonalities of production include an instrument of production and accumulated labor. He makes comments on these that are a bit hard to follow if the Introduction is taken in and of itself (it is a draft, after all). The gist of it seems to be these can be deconstructed (my word) since, e.g., capital can also be an instrument of production, but capital cannot be a naturally occurring universal phenomenon without ignoring the properties that turn an instrument of production and stored up labor into capital. He then references (Henry Charles) Carey, chief economic advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, saying that to a man like Carey the “entire history of production appears . . . as a malicious perversion on the parts of government.” Okay. I think what he is saying is that other economists are so simple minded as to believe that production is purely a product of government policy, which would not line up with Marx’s view of production as something more akin to language and the job of an economist more like that of a linguist. In any case, you just cannot get more basic and unassailable than mankind and nature as commonalities for production.

The fourth paragraph is almost a footnote to the above section and has very few words. He adds hastily that not only is “production in general” a useless concept, but there is no “general production.” Production is always a special branch or an aggregate – agriculture, stock raising, manufacturing. Lastly, production is not only special it can also only be seen as a whole; as a “political body” or “social personality” engaged on an aggregate of branches of production.

This post was inspired by one of my favorite bloggers Great Books of the Western World. The featured image is Mikhail Nesterov’s “The Philosophers: Portrait of Sergei Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky” (1917). The original can be found at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The work of Nesterov (1862-1942) is in the public domain.

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