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Marx's 'Capital' - Sixth Edition

Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho
Pluto PRess


From History and Method

Throughout his adult life Marx pursued the revolutionary trans­formation of capitalist society, most famously through his writings, but also through agitation and organisation of the working class -for example, between 1864 and 1876 he was one of the leaders of the First International Working Men's Association. In his written works, Marx attempts to uncover the general process of historical change, to apply this understanding to particular types of societies, and to make concrete studies of specific historical situations. This chapter briefly reviews Marx's intellectual development and the main features of his method. The remainder of the book analyses in further detail other aspects of his work, especially those to be found in the three volumes of Capital, his leading work of political economy.

Marx's Philosophy

Karl Marx was born in Germany in 1818 and began an early university career studying law. His interest quickly turned to philosophy, which, at that time, was dominated by Hegel and his disciples. They were idealists, believing that reality is the outcome of an evolving system of concepts, or movement towards the 'Absolute Idea', with a structure of concepts connecting the relatively abstract to the increasingly concrete. The Hegelians believed that intellectual progress explains the advance of government, culture and the other forms of social life. Therefore, the study of consciousness is the key to the understanding of society, and history is a dramatic stage on which institutions and ideas battle for hegemony. In this ever present conflict, each stage of development is an advance on those that have preceded it, but it also absorbs and transforms elements from them; that is, it contains the seeds of its own transformation into a higher stage. This process of change, in which new ideas do not so much defeat the old as resolve conflicts or contradictions within them, Hegel called the dialectic.

Hegel died in 1831. When Marx was still a young man at university, two opposing groups of Hegelians, Young (radical) and Old (reactionary), both claimed to be Hegel's legitimate successors. The Old Hegelians believed that Prussian absolute monarchy, religion and society represented the triumphant achievement of the Idea in its dialectical progress. In contrast, the Young Hegelians, dangerously anti-religious, believed that intellectual development still had far to advance. This set the stage for a battle between the two schools, each side believing a victory heralded the progress of German society. Having observed the absurdity, poverty and degradation of much of German life, Marx identified himself initially with the Young Hegelians.

However, his sympathy for the Young Hegelians was extremely short-lived, largely through the influence of Feuerbach, who was a materialist. This does not mean that Feuerbach was crudely interested in his own welfare - in fact, his dissenting views cost him his academic career. He believed that far from human con­sciousness dominating life and existence, it was human needs that determined consciousness. In The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach mounted a simple but brilliant polemic against religion. Humans needed God because religion satisfied an emotional need. To satisfy this need, humans had projected their best qualities on to a God figure, worshipping what they had imaginatively created in thought to such an extent that God had assumed an independent existence in human consciousness. To regain their humanity, people need to replace the love of God with love for each other.