(I’ve had sporadic internet and computer access for a bit here so I’ve written bits of drafts of a few posts over a few days, I’m going to post this stuff all now.)

Among my new years resolutions – finish v2 of Capital, and procrastinate less on my non-negotiable responsibilities. The tension between these two things just struck me… Ah well.

I’ve never particularly cared much for or about claims to Marx’s particular genius. One of the least appealing phrases I can remember is something like “Marx discovered a whole new continent of thought!” As (both) long term readers of this blog will recognize, I’m tremendously invested in Marx personally; I’m not averse to the sort of investment that these declarations express. It just strikes me as a lot more telling than showing. Rather handwaving about the point *that* Marx was and is incredibly important, it seems to me much more worthwhile to simply get down to doing worthwhile things with Marx. (Which is not a promise that I’m going to do so.)

I meant to get much farther in v2 of Capital today during my allotted time. Instead I just re-read Engels’ preface and made some notes and had some thoughts. Among those thoughts, I’m pretty sure I’ve run into folk (and I may have once been one) who have said that Marx discovered the idea of surplus value.

Engels states in the preface of v2 that “Marx (…) disdained to claim that he was the first to discover the _fact_ of surplus-value.” (16.) For Engels, Marx’s great virtue is to have explained surplus value, while others had discovered it. I’m going to come back to this.

“The existence of that part of the value of the products which we now call surplus value had been ascertained long before Marx. It had also been stated with more or less precision what it consisted of, namely, of the product of the labour for which its appropriator had not given any equivalent.” (15.)

“Capitalistic man has been producing surplus value for several hundred years and has gradually arrived at the point of pondering over its origin.” (8.)

Engels notes that there existed an “anti-capitalist literature of England of the [eighteen] twenties and thirties,” which was sadly “totally unknown in Germany, in spite of Marx’s direct references to it even in his Poverty of Philosophy, and his repeated quotations from it, as for instance the pamphlet of 1821, Ravenstone, Hodgskin, etc., in Volume I of Capital.”

The 1821 pamphlet, Engels specifies, is “The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties. A Letter to Lord John Russell,” which Engels and Marx both emphasize was significant in part for the use of the phrase “surplus produce or capital,” which expressed a recognition that the substance of capital is appropriated product of working class labor. Engels refers to this as “the Ricardian theory of value and surplus-value (…) utilised for socialist purposes.” (11.) Engels quotes Marx saying that “This little known pamphlet – published at when ‘the incredible cobbler’ MacCulloch began to be talked about – represents an essential advance over Ricardo. It directly designates surplus-value or ‘profit’ in the language of Ricardo (often also surplus-produce), or interest, as the author of this pamphlet calls it, as surplus-labour, the labour which the labourer performs gratuitously, which he performs in excess of that quantity of labour by which the value of his labour-power is replaced, i.e., an equivalent of his wages is produced. It was no more important to reduce value to labour than to reduce surplus-value, represented by surplus-produce, to surplus labour. This has already been stated by Adam Smith and forms a main factor in Ricardo’s analysis. But they did not say so or fix it anywhere in absolute form.” In this way, despite limits of the pamphlet, the pamphlet’s author still “advances beyond Ricardo by having been the first to reduce all surplus-value to surplus-labour. Furthermore, while calling surplus-labour ‘interest of capital,’ he emphasises at the same time that by this term he means the general form of surplus-labour as distinguished from its special forms: rent, interest on money, and profit of enterprise.” (On my reading “special forms” here means “specific forms”, as distinguished from the general form – that is, particular instances of surplus value vs surplus value in general.) (12.)

Engels goes on, noting that this “pamphlet is but the farthest outpost of an entire literature which in the [eighteen] twenties turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus-value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat, fought the bourgeoisie with its own weapons. The entire communism of Owen, so far as it engages in polemics on economic questions, is based on Ricardo. Apart from him, there are numerous other writers, some of whom Marx quoted as early as 1847 against Proudhon (Misere de la Philosophie, p 49), such as Edmonds, Thompson, Hodgskin, etc., etc, “and four more pages of etceteras.” I select the following at random from among this multitude of writings: An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth, Most Conducive to Human Happiness, by William Thompson.” Engels quotes from this 1822 pamphlet, “The constant effort of what has been called society, has been to deceive and induce, to terrify and compel, the productive labourer to work for the smallest possible portion of the produce of his own labour. (…) This amount of compensation, exacted by capitalists from the productive labourers, under the name of rent or profits, is claimed for the use of land or other articles. . . . For all the physical materials on which, or by means of which, his productive powers can be made available, being in the hands of others with interests opposed to his, and their consent being a necessary preliminary to any exertion on his part, is he not, and must he not always remain, at the mercy of these capitalists for whatever portion of the fruits of his own labour they may think proper to leave at his disposal in compensation for his toils?” (13.)

Engels notes that prior and in addition to anti-capitalist writers, English political economists who were in favor of capitalism also saw matters in basically this same way. “From the determination of the value of commodities by the quantity of labour embodied in them [David Ricardo] derives the distribution, between the labourers and capitalists, of the quantity of value added by labour to the raw materials, and the division of this value into wages and profit (i.e., here surplus value).” (10.)

Prior to Ricardo, Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations wrote that “As soon as stock has accumulated in the hands of particular persons, some of them will naturally employ it in setting to work industrious people, whom they will supply with materials and subsistence, in order to make a profit by the sale of their work, or by what their labour adds to the value of the materials. . . . The value which the workmen add to the materials, therefore, resolves itself in this case into two parts, of which the one pays their wages, the other the profits of their employer upon the whole stock of materials and wages which he advanced.” (9.)

Engels quotes Smith on rent as likewise a form of deduction from the product of the workers’ labor, specifically from that portion initially (or ostensibly? supposedly? fictionally?) allotted to workers. He then quotes Smith writing about agricultural workers, “It seldom happens that the person who tills the ground has the wherewithal to maintain himself till he reaps the harvest. His maintenance is generally advanced to him from the stock of a master, the farmer who employs him, and who would have no interest to employ him, unless he was to share in the produce of his laour, or unless his stock was to be replaced to him with a profit.” Smith points out that this is not limited to agricultural workers — “The production of almost all other labour is liable to the like deduction of profit. In all arts and manufactures the greater part of the workmen stand in need of a master to advance them the materials of their work, and their wages and maintenance till it be completed. He shares in the produce of their labour, or in the value which it adds to the materials upon which it is bestowed; and in this share consists his profits.” (9.)

After these lengthy notes and quotes I’m a bit tired and short on time, I want to now turn for a moment to Engels’ question “what is there new in Marx’s utterances on surplus-value?” (14), which I think is basically the same as the question I was playing around with at the start of this, about the distinctiveness of Marx’s work. As I said, for Engels what makes Marx distinction is not that he declared the fact of surplus value’s being derived from surplus labor. These many quotes show that others had already done this before Marx. Engels points out what he thinks are these prior writers’ limits: “Some – the classical bourgeois economists – investigated at most the proportion in which the product of labour was divided between the labourer and the owner of the means of production. Others – the Socialists – found that this division was unjust and looked for utopian means of abolishing this injustice. They all remained prisoners of the economic categories as they had come down to them.” (15.)

Marx, on the other hand, Engels argues, “took a view directly opposite.” For Marx “it was not simply a matter of stating an economic fact or of pointing out the conflict between this fact and eternal justice and true morality, but of explaining a fact (…) which offered to him who knew how to use it the key to an understanding of all capitalist production. With this fact as his starting point he examined all the economic categories which he found to hand.” (15.) Marx “analysed the transformation of money into capital and demonstrated that this transformation is based on the purchase and sale of labor-power. (…) By establishing the distinction of capital into constant and variable capital he was enabled to trace the real course of the process of the formation of surplus-value (…) he established a distinction inside of capital itself (…) which furnishes the key for the solution of the most complicated economic problems. (…) He analysed surplus value further and found its two forms, absolute and relative surplus-value. And he showed that they played a different, and each time decisive role, in the historical development of capitalist production.” (16.)

Engels uses an extended metaphor from the history of science in the attempt to clarify what he thinks Marx accomplished. Previous scientists, Priestley and Steele had produced or isolated oxygen gas, understood via the idea of a substance called phlogiston. Lavoisier used their discovery to change the field of chemistry, he “place[d] all chemistry, which in its phlogistic form had stood on its head, squarely on its feet.” (15.) Other found oxygen. Lavoisier explained it. Marx was like that for Engels.

I think the metaphor is interesting. For one thing the parallel to the natural sciences (not sure if that was the term used in Engels’ day or not) is striking – Marx’s work is compared to a predictive and experimental science. For another, I’m just guessing here but I would imagine that for at least some people (Engels says that Priestley never got on board with this new fangled post-phlogistic chemistry) the new chemistry was able to do things the old ones couldn’t, that according to some people the new chemistry was able to meet and exceed at least some of the standards of the old chemistry. There’s also the idea, not sure if this is in the metaphor or not, that explaining the fact as opposed to stating the fact has some crucial power.

I’m not sure about any of this. For one thing, I don’t know why we ought to care about Marx as making an advance within the field of economics (by “we” I mean people who want to see capitalism end). For another, I’m not sure that explanation has the power that’s implied here. I’ve not read those 1820s English Ricardian anti-capitalists so I can’t speak to them. I’d like to get to know that time and place and that literature. I’m sort of fine with “stating an economic fact” in order to point out “the conflict between this fact and eternal justice and true morality.” I’d like to have more detailed understanding of economic facts of course, maybe that’s what Engels has in mind. What this is about is what Marx accomplishes that this earlier literature didn’t. I can’t answer that without having read it. And like I said I’m not sure why denouncing surplus value is insufficient.

I think this may be partly a matter of what Marx is for, I’m not totally sure. Personally in my own uses of Marx for a while now I’ve been uninterested in the moments where Marx makes (or offers points of purchase for) transhistorical claims (and I’ve often felt the same way with a lot of the historical but very long term claims). Mostly I’ve been interested and am increasingly interested in Marx as a source of help in understanding and criticizing (or, just not falling for) ideology that favors the capitalist class as well as, relatedly, understanding and criticizing the basic workings of the capitalist system. I’m not sure what the difference for my purposes is between explanations of surplus value vs statements of the fact of surplus value (and the fact that it’s recognized by capitalists, pro-capitalist economists, and policymakers), particularly in terms of ending capitalism. For now I’m an agnostic on all this. And even if we don’t need any of that, so that what Engels calls Marx’s discovery is less important, for me that doesn’t reduce Marx’s standing really, since I’ve been reading Marx as a powerful tool for those purposes I mentioned. If he drew on others for this, and others did it too, so much the better.

Final addendum –

I wrote part of this paragraph in this post then revised it as I was finishing the post on evaluation and association here – http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2010/12/30/happens-when-association-and-evaluation-overlap/

I think it’s relevant to this post too so I’m going to paste it here as well. Another aspect related to all this is about actually existing marxism(s) and the actually existing Marx(es), as a parallel to my post on theoretical vs historical capitalisms. I sort of got into this in my review of Black Flame, http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2010/08/24/does-black-flame-have-to-say-about-marxism/ though I wasn’t as clear on it as I should have been (because I’m not as clear as I wish I was [note to self: this reminds me, I still need to finish reading the article Phebus sent me in the comments to that post, then post comments on it]). I think Marx and marxisms as talked about is often boiled down to what are claimed to be essences, as distinct from the Marx and marxisms that have actually existed, which have been divergent, multiple, internally conflicted, changing over time, etc. I think in dealing with Marx and marxism we’re always selecting and reconstructing, but I think we probly ought to foreground our reconstructive/selective moves – here is what I do with this — rather than claim to be uncovering the real heart of the matter as it actually was.