An Introduction to Karl Marx

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But when the connection between price and value is rendered as indirect as it is in the final theory, the intuitive motivation of the theory drains away. Any commodity can be picked to play a similar role. Consequently with equal justification one could set out a corn theory of value, arguing that corn has the unique power of creating more value than it costs. Formally this would be identical to the labour theory of value. Nevertheless, the claims that somehow labour is responsible for the creation of value, and that profit is the consequence of exploitation, remain intuitively powerful, even if they are difficult to establish in detail.

However, even if the labour theory of value is considered discredited, there are elements of his theory that remain of worth. Both provide a salutary corrective to aspects of orthodox economic theory. Marx did not set out his theory of history in great detail. Accordingly, it has to be constructed from a variety of texts, both those where he attempts to apply a theoretical analysis to past and future historical events, and those of a more purely theoretical nature. However, The German Ideology , co-written with Engels in , is a vital early source in which Marx first sets out the basics of the outlook of historical materialism.

Cohen, who builds on the interpretation of the early Russian Marxist Plekhanov.

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However, some scholars believe that the interpretation that we shall focus on is faulty precisely for its lack of attention to the dialectic. Hence it does not follow that Marx himself thought that the concept of class struggle was relatively unimportant. Furthermore, when A Critique of Political Economy was replaced by Capital , Marx made no attempt to keep the Preface in print, and its content is reproduced just as a very much abridged footnote in Capital. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels contrast their new materialist method with the idealism that had characterised previous German thought.

The satisfaction of needs engenders new needs of both a material and social kind, and forms of society arise corresponding to the state of development of human productive forces.


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This is the thesis that the productive forces tend to develop, in the sense of becoming more powerful, over time. This states not that they always do develop, but that there is a tendency for them to do so. The productive forces are the means of production, together with productively applicable knowledge: technology, in other words. The next thesis is the primacy thesis, which has two aspects.

The first states that the nature of the economic structure is explained by the level of development of the productive forces, and the second that the nature of the superstructure — the political and legal institutions of society— is explained by the nature of the economic structure. Indeed many activities may well combine aspects of both the superstructure and ideology: a religion is constituted by both institutions and a set of beliefs.

Revolution and epoch change is understood as the consequence of an economic structure no longer being able to continue to develop the forces of production. In outline, then, the theory has a pleasing simplicity and power. It seems plausible that human productive power develops over time, and plausible too that economic structures exist for as long as they develop the productive forces, but will be replaced when they are no longer capable of doing this. Yet severe problems emerge when we attempt to put more flesh on these bones.

The antipathy is well summed up with the closing words of H. One difficulty taken particularly seriously by Cohen is an alleged inconsistency between the explanatory primacy of the forces of production, and certain claims made elsewhere by Marx which appear to give the economic structure primacy in explaining the development of the productive forces. Cohen accepts that, on the surface at least, this generates a contradiction.

Both the economic structure and the development of the productive forces seem to have explanatory priority over each other. The essential move is cheerfully to admit that the economic structure does indeed develop the productive forces, but to add that this, according to the theory, is precisely why we have capitalism when we do. That is, if capitalism failed to develop the productive forces it would disappear. And, indeed, this fits beautifully with historical materialism.

Essentially fettering is what happens when the economic structure becomes dysfunctional. Now it is apparent that this renders historical materialism consistent. Yet there is a question as to whether it is at too high a price. For we must ask whether functional explanation is a coherent methodological device.


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  • The problem is that we can ask what it is that makes it the case that an economic structure will only persist for as long as it develops the productive forces. Jon Elster has pressed this criticism against Cohen very hard. If we were to argue that there is an agent guiding history who has the purpose that the productive forces should be developed as much as possible then it would make sense that such an agent would intervene in history to carry out this purpose by selecting the economic structures which do the best job.

    However, it is clear that Marx makes no such metaphysical assumptions. Cohen is well aware of this difficulty, but defends the use of functional explanation by comparing its use in historical materialism with its use in evolutionary biology. In contemporary biology it is commonplace to explain the existence of the stripes of a tiger, or the hollow bones of a bird, by pointing to the function of these features.

    Here we have apparent purposes which are not the purposes of anyone. The obvious counter, however, is that in evolutionary biology we can provide a causal story to underpin these functional explanations; a story involving chance variation and survival of the fittest. Therefore these functional explanations are sustained by a complex causal feedback loop in which dysfunctional elements tend to be filtered out in competition with better functioning elements.

    But he points out that standard causal explanations are equally in need of elaborations. We might, for example, be satisfied with the explanation that the vase broke because it was dropped on the floor, but a great deal of further information is needed to explain why this explanation works. Consequently, Cohen claims that we can be justified in offering a functional explanation even when we are in ignorance of its elaboration. Indeed, even in biology detailed causal elaborations of functional explanations have been available only relatively recently. Darwin outlined a very plausible mechanism, but having no genetic theory was not able to elaborate it into a detailed account.

    Our knowledge remains incomplete to this day. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that birds have hollow bones in order to facilitate flight. Hence one can be justified in offering a functional explanation even in absence of a candidate elaboration: if there is sufficient weight of inductive evidence.

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    At this point the issue, then, divides into a theoretical question and an empirical one. The empirical question is whether or not there is evidence that forms of society exist only for as long as they advance productive power, and are replaced by revolution when they fail.

    Here, one must admit, the empirical record is patchy at best, and there appear to have been long periods of stagnation, even regression, when dysfunctional economic structures were not revolutionised. The theoretical issue is whether a plausible elaborating explanation is available to underpin Marxist functional explanations.

    Here there is something of a dilemma. In the first instance it is tempting to try to mimic the elaboration given in the Darwinian story, and appeal to chance variations and survival of the fittest. Chance variation would be a matter of people trying out new types of economic relations. On this account new economic structures begin through experiment, but thrive and persist through their success in developing the productive forces.

    Within Darwinian theory there is no warrant for long-term predictions, for everything depends on the contingencies of particular situations. A similar heavy element of contingency would be inherited by a form of historical materialism developed by analogy with evolutionary biology. The dilemma, then, is that the best model for developing the theory makes predictions based on the theory unsound, yet the whole point of the theory is predictive. Hence one must either look for an alternative means of producing elaborating explanation, or give up the predictive ambitions of the theory.

    But what is it that drives such development? Human beings have the ingenuity to apply themselves to develop means to address the scarcity they find. This on the face of it seems very reasonable. Yet there are difficulties. As Cohen himself acknowledges, societies do not always do what would be rational for an individual to do.

    Co-ordination problems may stand in our way, and there may be structural barriers. Furthermore, it is relatively rare for those who introduce new technologies to be motivated by the need to address scarcity. Rather, under capitalism, the profit motive is the key. Of course it might be argued that this is the social form that the material need to address scarcity takes under capitalism.

    But still one may raise the question whether the need to address scarcity always has the influence that it appears to have taken on in modern times. Alternatively, it might be thought that a society may put religion or the protection of traditional ways of life ahead of economic needs. Such a criticism chimes with a criticism from the previous section; that the historical record may not, in fact, display the tendency to growth in the productive forces assumed by the theory. It is possible to argue, for example, that Marx did not have a general theory of history, but rather was a social scientist observing and encouraging the transformation of capitalism into communism as a singular event.

    On other views Marx did have a general theory of history but it is far more flexible and less determinate than Cohen insists Miller. The issue of Marx and morality poses a conundrum.

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    Yet the terms of this antipathy and endorsement are far from clear. Despite expectations, Marx never says that capitalism is unjust. Neither does he say that communism would be a just form of society. In fact he takes pains to distance himself from those who engage in a discourse of justice, and makes a conscious attempt to exclude direct moral commentary in his own works. The puzzle is why this should be, given the weight of indirect moral commentary one finds. There are also separate questions concerning his attitude to ideas of justice, and to ideas of morality more broadly concerned.

    This, then, generates four questions: 1 Did Marx think capitalism unjust? These are the questions we shall consider in this section. The initial argument that Marx must have thought that capitalism is unjust is based on the observation that Marx argued that all capitalist profit is ultimately derived from the exploitation of the worker. How could this fail to be unjust? Allen Wood has argued that Marx took this approach because his general theoretical approach excludes any trans-epochal standpoint from which one can comment on the justice of an economic system.

    12. Introduction to Karl Marx

    Even though one can criticize particular behaviour from within an economic structure as unjust and theft under capitalism would be an example it is not possible to criticise capitalism as a whole. That is to say, juridical institutions are part of the superstructure, and ideas of justice are ideological, and the role of both the superstructure and ideology, in the functionalist reading of historical materialism adopted here, is to stabilise the economic structure. Consequently, to state that something is just under capitalism is simply a judgement applied to those elements of the system that will tend to have the effect of advancing capitalism.

    According to Marx, in any society the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class; the core of the theory of ideology. Ziyad Husami, however, argues that Wood is mistaken, ignoring the fact that for Marx ideas undergo a double determination in that the ideas of the non-ruling class may be very different from those of the ruling class. Of course it is the ideas of the ruling class that receive attention and implementation, but this does not mean that other ideas do not exist.

    Husami goes as far as to argue that members of the proletariat under capitalism have an account of justice which matches communism. First, it cannot explain why Marx never described capitalism as unjust, and second, it does not account for the distance Marx wanted to place between his own scientific socialism, and that of the utopian socialists who argued for the injustice of capitalism. Nevertheless, this leaves us with a puzzle. Arguably, the only satisfactory way of understanding this issue is, once more, from G.

    Cohen, who proposes that Marx believed that capitalism was unjust, but did not believe that he believed it was unjust Cohen In other words, Marx, like so many of us, did not have perfect knowledge of his own mind. In his explicit reflections on the justice of capitalism he was able to maintain his official view.

    But in less guarded moments his real view slips out, even if never in explicit language. Such an interpretation is bound to be controversial, but it makes good sense of the texts.

    Whatever one concludes on the question of whether Marx thought capitalism unjust, it is, nevertheless, obvious that Marx thought that capitalism was not the best way for human beings to live. Points made in his early writings remain present throughout his writings, if no longer connected to an explicit theory of alienation. The worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should.

    Does this amount to a moral criticism of capitalism or not? Capitalism impedes human flourishing. Marx, though, once more refrained from making this explicit; he seemed to show no interest in locating his criticism of capitalism in any of the traditions of moral philosophy, or explaining how he was generating a new tradition.

    There may have been two reasons for his caution. The first was that while there were bad things about capitalism, there is, from a world historical point of view, much good about it too. For without capitalism, communism would not be possible. Capitalism is to be transcended, not abolished, and this may be difficult to convey in the terms of moral philosophy. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need to return to the contrast between scientific and utopian socialism.

    The utopians appealed to universal ideas of truth and justice to defend their proposed schemes, and their theory of transition was based on the idea that appealing to moral sensibilities would be the best, perhaps only, way of bringing about the new chosen society. Marx wanted to distance himself from this tradition of utopian thought, and the key point of distinction was to argue that the route to understanding the possibilities of human emancipation lay in the analysis of historical and social forces, not in morality.

    Hence, for Marx, any appeal to morality was theoretically a backward step. Would communism be a just society? Communism is described by Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme , as a society in which each person should contribute according to their ability and receive according to their need. This certainly sounds like a theory of justice, and could be adopted as such. If we start with the idea that the point of ideas of justice is to resolve disputes, then a society without disputes would have no need or place for justice. And, of course, Marx often suggested that communism would be a society of such abundance.

    Marx enrolled in a course of lectures given by Bauer on the prophet Isaiah. The Young Hegelians began moving rapidly toward atheism and also talked vaguely of political action. The Prussian government, fearful of the subversion latent in the Young Hegelians, soon undertook to drive them from the universities.

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    Bauer was dismissed from his post in By the Young Hegelians had become left republicans. Urged by his friends, he submitted a doctoral dissertation to the university at Jena, which was known to be lax in its academic requirements, and received his degree in April His thesis analyzed in a Hegelian fashion the difference between the natural philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus. More distinctively, it sounded a note of Promethean defiance:. Philosophy makes no secret of it. In January Marx began contributing to a newspaper newly founded in Cologne , the Rheinische Zeitung.

    It was the liberal democratic organ of a group of young merchants, bankers, and industrialists; Cologne was the centre of the most industrially advanced section of Prussia. He believed that censorship could have only evil consequences. On October 15, , Marx became editor of the Rheinische Zeitung. As such, he was obliged to write editorials on a variety of social and economic issues, ranging from the housing of the Berlin poor and the theft by peasants of wood from the forests to the new phenomenon of communism.

    He found Hegelian idealism of little use in these matters. At the same time he was becoming estranged from his Hegelian friends for whom shocking the bourgeois was a sufficient mode of social activity. First, however, in June Marx, after an engagement of seven years, married Jenny von Westphalen. Jenny was an attractive, intelligent, and much-admired woman, four years older than Karl; she came of a family of military and administrative distinction.

    Her half-brother later became a highly reactionary Prussian minister of the interior. Her father, a follower of the French socialist Saint-Simon, was fond of Karl, though others in her family opposed the marriage. Four months after their marriage, the young couple moved to Paris, which was then the centre of socialist thought and of the more extreme sects that went under the name of communism.

    There, Marx first became a revolutionary and a communist and began to associate with communist societies of French and German workingmen. Once more, however, the Prussian government intervened against Marx. He was expelled from France and left for Brussels—followed by Engels—in February That year in Belgium he renounced his Prussian nationality. Karl Marx. Article Media. Info Print Print.

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