Once More on Contradiction

Reid Kane

May 10, 2022

Was Marx’s dialectical method ambiguous and therefore difficult to understand, as Matt McManus claimed in his recent article [Karl Marx on Contradictions]? Marx didn’t think so.

In his 1873 Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, Volume 1, Marx lamented, “That the method employed in Das Kapital has been little understood is shown by the various conceptions, contradictory one to another, that have been formed of it.” But Marx attributes these misunderstandings not to the obscurity of his work, but to the vulgarity of certain prominent readers, specifically the “learned and unlearned spokesmen of the German [and French] bourgeoisie” who “tried at first to kill Das Kapital by silence,” but soon “found that these tactics no longer fitted in with the conditions of the time,” and instead “under the pretence of criticizing my book [wrote] prescriptions ‘for the tranquillization of the bourgeois mind.’”

Marx reflected that “the great capacity for theory, which used to be considered a hereditary German possession, had almost completely disappeared amongst the so-called educated classes in Germany.” Even before this disappearance, political economy, which had emerged in England and France, was a “foreign science” in Germany, in relation to which German professors “remained schoolboys,” due to the comparative lack of “modern economic conditions.” In their hands, "the theoretical expression of a foreign reality was turned. . . into a collection of dogmas, interpreted by them in terms of the petty trading world around them, and therefore misinterpreted.” Yet, after 1848, even as “capitalist production developed rapidly in Germany,” it became altogether impossible for these conditions to be “really and impartially investigated within the bounds of the bourgeois horizon.”

The original emergence of political economy in England and France “belongs to a period in which the class struggle was as yet undeveloped,” when bourgeois social relations could be analyzed on their own terms, not yet facing a crisis that threatened the possibility of their perpetuation. This classical period of political economy came to an end once such a crisis began to mount. As “its last great representative, Ricardo. . . consciously [made] the antagonism of class interests. . . the starting point of his investigations.” With this crisis, “the science of bourgeois economy had reached the limits beyond which it could not pass.” There subsequently opened a brief period “from 1820 to 1830. . . notable in England for scientific activity in the domain of Political Economy”—namely, the critique of “bourgeois” political economy by the “Ricardian socialists.” Like Ricardo, they registered the growing antagonism between the newly emerging classes born along with “modern industry” (“itself. . . only just emerging from the age of childhood”)—industrial “proletarians,” workers bound for life to be “propertyless,” unable to employ themselves, hence bound to seek employment as wage laborers, and “capitalists,” who owned the means of industrial production (“capital”) and thus of employment for wage laborers.

Yet this incipient class struggle was at the time “forced into the background” by the still incomplete struggle of “the popular masses, led by the bourgeoisie” against the lingering power of the feudal aristocracy. Hence, the socialist critique of bourgeois political economy, and of the social relations reflected therein, remained “unprejudiced,” concerned with mitigating the developing crisis through the reconciliation of the diverging classes. This period came to an end with the 1830 “July Revolution” in France and the 1832 Reform Act in Britain, through which “the bourgeoisie had conquered political power.” Subsequently, the class struggle of the proletariat obtained independent expression, no longer yoked to bourgeois political leadership. It “took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms.”

From then on, “bourgeois political economy” ceased to be scientific and became “vulgar,” tainted by “the evil intent of apologetic,” no longer concerned with the truth of its claims but with whether they were “useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not.” This was further compounded after the Revolution of 1848, during which the French proletariat broke with the bourgeois-revolutionary provisional government it had helped raise to power. It did so in order to defend its independent class interests, only to be violently suppressed by that government, leading to a wave of demoralization and retreat throughout Europe and the ultimate victory of the counterrevolution across the continent. The “sophists and sycophants of the ruling classes” were subsequently opposed by “men who still claimed some scientific standing,” and sought harmony between capital and “the claims, no longer to be ignored, of the proletariat.” Yet, for Marx, political economists of the latter stripe, e