Karl Marx was an economist, an historian, a philosopher. He was a serious academic in additition to being a revolutionary propagandist and leader. Marx revolutionized virtually all the fields he wrote in. Before Marx, history had been dominated by the idealism of Hegel or by a naive conception which considered history to be about the actions of kings, diplomats and generals. Even today, Marx's theory of history poses a strong challenge to neo-Weberian and purely empiricist approaches. Some serious political scientists still adhere to an almost pure classical Marxism. I, for one, think that Marx's theory ultimately fails, but it is impossible to deny its power. I also think that progress has been made in the theoretical understanding of history since Marx's time - progress that would be virtually unimaginable without Marx.
The Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is the classic exposition of Marx's theory of history. It is the only text in which Marx talks about the base-superstructure divide which is at the core of his theory. It is interesting how much has been made of this little passage, since the general theory is contained in one of several paragraphs describing Marx's studies of political economy. The doctrine of this paragraph is at the heart of all Marxist conceptions of history. It is interesting that nothing is said here about class struggle, whereas the Communist Manifesto begins by declaring "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles." One question the reader might like to ask is how compatible is the Preface to the Critique with the Communist Manifesto. The Preface is usually taken more seriously, since the Manifesto is considered a propaganda document, which it is. But class struggle is important in Marx's theory. For a contemporary attempt at a solution of this question, see G.A. Cohen's book.
For further elaboration of Marx's theory, see the German Ideology, the Communist Manifesto and Capital. For a contemporary account and defence of Marx's theory I would recommend G.A. Cohen: Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. A good basic introduction to Marx's thinking - though extremely sympathetic to Marx - is Alex Callinicos's the Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. For a more balanced account, see Jon Elster's Introduction to Karl Marx. Marx's theory is the underlying premise of the empirical works by Marxist historians such as Edward Thompson, Perry Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm. For Thompson, see the Making of the English Working Class, for Anderson see English Questions and Arguments Within English Marxism, and for Hobsbawm his four part history of the modern world, the Age of Revolution, the Age of Capital, the Age of Imperialism and the Age of Extremes. For the classic critique of Marx see Max Weber and especially his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which argues for the crucial role of ideas and ideologies in history and maintains that one cannot decide the question of ultimate primacy in history a priori. For an interesting and powerful contemporary alternative to Marx's reductionism, see Michael Mann's Sources of Social Power.
Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
by Karl Marx
translated by N. I. Stone
Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1913
I consider the system of bourgeois economy in the following order: Capital, landed property, wage labor; state, foreign trade, world market. Under the first three heads I examine the conditions of the economic existence of the three great classes, which make up modern bourgeois society; the connection of the three remaining heads if self evident. The first part of the first book, treating of capital, consists of the following chapters: 1. Commodity; 2. Money, or simple circulation; 3. Capital in general. The first two chapters form the contents of the present work. The entire material lies before me in the form of monographs, written at long intervals not for publication, but for the purpose of clearing up those questions to myself, and their systematic elaboration on the plan outlined above will pend upon circumstances.
I omit a general introduction which I had prepared, as on second thought any anticipation of results that are still to be proven, seemed to me objectionable, and the reader who wishes to follow me at all, must make up his mind to pass from the special to the general. On the other hand, some remarks as to the course of my own politico-economic studies may be in place here.
The subject of my professional studies was jurisprudence, which I pursued, however, in connection with and as secondary to the studies of philosophy and history. In 1842-43, as editor of the "Rheinische Zeitung," I found myself embarrassed at first when I had to take part in discussions concerning so-called material interests. The proceedings of the Rhine Diet in connection with forest thefts and the extreme subdivision of landed property; the official controversy about the condition of the Mosel peasants into which Herr von Schaper, at that time president of the Rhine Province, entered with the "Rheinische Zeitung;" finally, the debates on free trade and protection, gave me the first impulse to take up the study of economic questions. At the same time a weak, quasi-philosophic echo of French socialism and communism made itself heard in the "Rheinische Zeitung" in those days when the good intentions "to go ahead" greatly outweighed knowledge of facts. I declared myself against such botching, but had to admit at once in a controversy with the "Allgemeine Augsburger Zeitung" that my previous studies did not allow me to hazard an independent judgement as to the merits of the French schools. When therefore, the publishers of the "Rheinische Zeitung" conceived the illusion that by a less aggressive policy the paper could be saved from the death sentence pronounced upon it, I was glad to grasp that opportunity to retire to my study room from public life.
The first work undertaken for the solution of the question that troubled me, was a critical revision of Hegel's "Philosophy of Law"; the introduction to that work appeared in the "Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher," published in Paris in 1844. I was led by my studies to the conclusion that legal relations as well as forms of state could neither be understood by themselves, nor explained by the so-called general progress of the human mind, but that they are rooted in the material conditions of life, which are summed up by Hegel after the fashion of the English and French of the eighteenth century under the name "civic society;" the anatomy of that civic society is to be sought in political economy. The study of the latter which I had taken up in Paris, I continued at Brussels whither I emigrated on account of and order of expulsion issued by Mr. Guizot. The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, continued to serve as the leading thread in my studies, may be briefly summed up as follows: In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society - the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the legal, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or - what is but a legal expression for the same thing - with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic - in short ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must rather be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order ever dissappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society. Therefore, humanity always takes up only such problems as it can solve, since, looking at the matter more closely we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation. In broad outline we can designate the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeois methods of production as so many epochs in the process of the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production - antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from conditions surrounding the life of individuals in society; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation constitutes, therefore, the closing chapter of the prehistoric stage of human society.
Frederick Engels, with whom I was continually corresponding and exchanging ideas since the appearance of his ingenious critical essay on economic categories (in the "Deutsch-Franzosiche Jahrbucher"), came by a different road to the same conclusions as myself (see his "Condition of the Working Class in England"). When he, too, settled in Brussels in the spring of 1845, we decided to work out together the contrast between our new view and the idealism of the German philosophy, in fact to settle our accounts with our former philosophic conscience. The plan was carried out in the form of a criticism of the post-Hegelian philosophy. The manuscript in two solid octavo volumes had long reached the publisher in Westphalia, when we received information that conditions had so changed as not to allow of its publication. We abandoned the manuscript to the stinging criticistm of the mice the more readily since we had accomplished our main purpose - the clearing up of the question to ourselves. Of the scattered writings on various subjects in which we presented our views to the public at the time, I recall only the "Manifesto of the Communist Party" written by Engels and myself, and the "Discourse on Free Trade" written by myself. The leading points of our theory were first presented scientifically, though in a polemic form, in my "Misere de la Philosophie, etc." directed against Proudhon and published in 1847. An essay on "Wage Labor," written by me in German, and in which I put together my lectures on the subject delivered before the German Workmen's Club at Brussels, was prevented from leaving the hands of the printer by the February revolution and my expulsion from Belgium which followed it as a consequence.
The publication of the "Neue Rheinische Zeitung" in 1848 and 1849, and the events which took place later on, interrupted my economic studies which I could not resume before 1850 in London. The enormous material on the history of political economy which is accumulated in the British Museum; the favorable view which London offers for the observation of bourgeois society; finally, the new stage of development upon which the latter seemed to have entered with the discovery of gold in California and Australia, led me to the decision to resume my studies from the very beginning and work up critically the new material. These studies partly led to what might seem side questions, over which I nevertheless had to stop for longer or shorter periods of time. Especially was the time at my disposal cut down by the imperative necessity of working for a living. My work as a contributor on the leading Anglo-American newspaper, the "New York Tribune," at which I have now been engaged for eight years, has caused very great interruption in my studies, since I engage in newspaper work properly only occasionally. Yet articles on important economic event in England and on the continent have formed so large a part of my contributions that I have been obliged to make myself familiar with practical details which lie outside the proper sphere of political economy.
This account of the course of my studies in political economy is simply to prove that my views, whatever one may think of them, and no matter how little they agree with the interested prejudices of the ruling classes, are the result of many years of conscientious research. At the entrance to science, however, the same requirement must be put as at the entrance to hell:
Qui si convien lasciare ogni sospetto
Ogni vilta convien che qui sia morta.
London, January 1859.