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Saturday, July 08, 2006

On Marx's Method
In light of the excellent discussion that resulted from my last post, and after reading
Colin Farrelly's interesting paper on historical materialism, I'd like to make some
remarks about Marx's methodology that will, hopefully, render some of the points
that I have already attempted to make a bit clearer. I begin by quoting, in full, the
first paragraph of Farrelly's paper:
"Karl Marx's theory of historical materialism is one of the most prominent accounts
of human history. Yet it is a theory that remains a source of both intrigue and
puzzlement for contemporary political philosophers. The sheer scale of Marx's theory,
ranging as it does from the issues of human production through the workings of the
political economy to class divisions and conflict makes the prospect of a concise,
unified, and systematic presentation of historical materialism unlikely if not
impossible. Once one adds to this the fact that Marx himself is guilty of ambiguity
and that many commentators often invoke vague and obscure Hegelian concepts
(e.g. dialectic) to explain historical materialism, it is not surprising that some
commentators, like H.B. Acton, take the view that Marx's theory is "a philosophical
farrago" (my emphasis).
Farrelly is surely correct that the breadth of Marx's theory of history makes a clear
and concise presentation of it an extremely difficult task. He is also right in saying
that Marx's own work contains much ambiguity, besides being just generally difficult
to understand. To claim, however, that the fact that some commentators invoke the
concept of dialectic makes things worse in terms of advancing understanding of
Marx's work gets things, I think, totally backwards. In order to understand what Marx
thought, one must first understand how Marx thought. And Marx thought dialectically.
This means that any writer on Marx who employs the concept is doing something
right, difficult as it may be to understand dialectics (and surely it is difficult). It also
means that attempts to understand Marx's own work within an entirely analytical
framework are fundamentally misguided. This does not mean that attempts to
reformulate certain of Marx's theories, or explicate certain Marxist concepts within an
analytical framework are not worthwhile; many are. But Marx himself operated within
a very different philosophical framework than we contemporary analytics, and
therefore a basic understanding of Marx's dialectical method is necessary in order to
be able to interpret Marx faithfully.
My aim here, then, is to provide the clearest, simplest, and briefest summary that I
can of some of the important assumptions and methods that define Marx's dialectical
approach to history.
The first important assumption within Marx's methodology is that of internal
relations. The philosophy of internal relations involves a very different metaphysics
than standard analytic views. Particular concepts involve not only what they are
ordinarily taken to refer to, but also the relations that those concepts bear to other
concepts that, on analytic views, are related only externally (that is, contingently).
So, Marx refers to capital as "that kind of property which exploits wage-labor." As
Bertell Ollman explains, "the relation between capital and labor is treated...as a
function of capital itself, and part of the meaning of capital." Marx also says things
like "capital is necessarily at the same time the capitalist...the capitalist is contained
in the concept of capital." Ollman explains that "Marx is offering us a conception of
capital in which the factors we generally think of as externally related to it are viewed
as co-elements in a single structure."

The philosophy of internal relations makes for a complex and pretty implausible
metaphysics; nevertheless it was an essential part of Marx's methodology, and
required him to develop a way to extract concepts from the internal relations that he
posited (which, at the limit, include absolutely everything). This brings us to the
second aspect of Marx's method that tends to bring about confusion: the process of
abstraction.
Just as capital and wage-labor are, on Marx's view, internally related, so are base and
superstructure and pretty much any of the concepts that Marx employed in his
analysis. The seemingly unitary concepts of base and superstructure, then, are in fact
abstractions from the web of internal relations. This does not mean that base and
superstructure are in fact one and the same thing, any more than capital and wagelabor are. Each is a distinct aspect of a relation (Ollman goes so far as to say that
"the relation [rather than the thing or object] is the irreducible minimum for all units
in Marx's conception of social reality") from which it can be abstracted in various
ways, some more illuminating than others.
Abstracting from certain vantage points, in Marx's view, provided a clearer and more
accurate picture of reality, whereas abstracting from others, especially exclusively,
could be rather deceiving and conducive to ideological thinking. So, for example,
examining the economy solely from the vantage point of consumption can make it
appear as though capitalism is an efficient and just system, whereas approaching it
from the vantage point of production highlights the exploitation and alienation that
Marx thought inherent to the system.