Exhibited across the Marx literature is a paucity of understanding of what Marx intended to accomplish in his three volume Capital which had been left incomplete at his passing. Marx left abundant cues as to both the ontological object or subject-matter of Capital and the cognitive resources required to objectively expose the truth of what that object is and does. He identifies his object of study in Capital as the capitalist mode of production and its “economic law of motion” (Marx 1977, 92). He further claims his Capital to be the founding work of a new social science that demonstrates laws of motion “working themselves out with an iron necessity” (Marx 1977, 90-1). Yet, in the Postface to the Second Edition of the first volume of Capital published in his lifetime, Marx bemoaned how both “the purely theoretical position” it elaborates (Marx 1977, 99), and the dialectical epistemology it operationalizes (Marx 1977, 102-3), have been woefully misconstrued.
Following Marx’s passing, interfering with appreciation of his brilliance and elucidation of the scientificity of Capital was the impact on intellectual life of the predominating conception of science. Positivism, a species of empiricism, holds a flat ontological view of the world as governed by billiard-ball like causal relations the constant conjunctions or event regularities of which are to be captured by observation and translated into scientific laws. Positivism advocates a methodological monism across all sciences as the business of logically modelling universal or covering laws of the aforementioned constant conjunctions.
Karl Kautsky, the originator of the very notion of “Marxism” as a body of thought with lineage to Marx (Haupt 1982), transmitted positivism to Marxist theory. Notwithstanding Marx’s crisp clarity over the object of Capital, Kautsky maintained Marxism to be a metatheory of historical directionality – historical materialism (HM) – portending a socialist historical outcome. Within Kautsky’s Marxism qua HM, Marx’s Capital was slotted as but a subtheory which purportedly “proved” empirically in the capitalist historical context “that the history of mankind is determined…by an economic development which progresses…obedient to certain underlying laws (Kautsky 1971, 119). When socialist revolution failed to materialize as Kautsky’s rendering of “economic laws” impelling human history foretold, Marxism was purportedly beset by its first “crisis”. Unfortunately, rather than rethinking the very reconstruction of Marxism by Kautsky as a metatheory of historical directionality, prominent Marxian theorists embarked upon an odyssey attempting to redefine the science upon which Marxism qua HM was to be based. This agonizing journey led to the work of Louis Althusser who strongly inveighed against the positivist billiard-ball model of causality and argued, rather, for causality as embedded in structures. While Althusser was correct in turning to the causal power of structure in science, where his work miscarried was in its attribution of human history in toto as that structure from which historical outcomes could be determined, akin to a grand astrological map, from the alignment of its practices (economic, political, ideological). Althusser further doubled down on the subtheory status of Capital. Yet, most problematic was Althusser’s anti-empiricist asseveration over how Capital as a subtheory somehow imparted scientific truth to HM. In his own words: “It has been possible to apply Marx’s theory [of HM] with success because it is ‘true’; it is not true because it has been applied with success” (Althusser 1979, 59). Althusser’s writings ushered in another “crisis of Marxism” cottage industry which prompted the jettisoning across the Marx literature of all pretentions toward scientificity of Marx’s work.
What is very important to grasp here is that Althusser’s claim that the criteria of truth of a science is intra-theoretic or internal to each science actually mirrored international debate within the philosophy of science. There, the idea advanced by positivism that laws of nature could be established by observation came under attack from two directions. One was the “open” nature of the world where there is no guarantee that observed regularities today will repeat tomorrow, so to speak. A second was the fact that observation is never neutral but always laden with preconceived theoretical conceptualizations. By the 1970s, the view that theories were “verified” or “falsified” according to their correspondence with goings on in a mind independent world was being supplanted by perspectives holding that theories gained credence from predominating consensus beliefs, and changed as new “paradigms” emerged in the hands of new scientific communities. Postmodernism, that contends there is no “real”, mind independent world from which soundings can be taken to assess the validity of our thought schemes, there being only those schemes, language games, paradigms, and so forth, extrapolates such irrealism to extremes (Harre 2000, 236-8).
Critical Realism Reclaims Science
Digging philosophy of science out of its irrealist rut was the work of Roy Bhaskar (2008). Bhaskar argued that positivism confounded scientific thinking in six ways debilitating for producing knowledge of the world. First, it exemplified the “epistemic fallacy” which entails belief that in answering the epistemological question of how we know something the ontological question of what there is to be known is simultaneously answered. It is precisely this problematic which impelled the retreat from positivism toward irrealism. Second, positivist basing of scientific laws upon observed event regularities contrived by experiment saddled science with the absurdity that laws of nature were dependent upon human intervention. For Bhaskar, there has to be something to experiment on. These things, or the ontological furniture of the world, constitute deep structures or mechanisms with causally efficacious powers that experiment, then, helps science reveal. Third, it is upon these varied deep, causally efficacious structures that the stratification of science – physics, chemistry, biology, economics – is predicted. Fourth, epistemological and methodological monism of positivism left science with a permanent blind spot as to the specific cognitive resources required to produce knowledge of diverse ontological objects. Fifth, Bhaskar tackles the germ of irrealism by acknowledging how science does begin its labors with existing theories or cognitive resources. But, to the extent it is confronted by phenomena puzzling in terms of both observation and limitation of existing theory, it is driven to explain the deep causal mechanism operating beneath the surface manifestations. Science, then, progresses in this fashion from manifest phenomena to the causal mechanisms that generate them. Sixth, Bhaskar’s critical realism demands a distinction between closed systems such as experiment, where a single mechanism is tested, and open systems of the world in which a mechanism operates alongside others. Therefore the truth of scientific laws is established by their holding when the mechanism they designate works itself out “with an iron necessity” or unimpeded in a closed system. Yet the usefulness of these laws is shown when they contribute to explaining happenings and states of the world in open systems where often multiple mechanisms are at causal play (Collier 1994, 43).
From Marx to Uno and the Laws of Capital
Uno recognized the brilliance of Marx in the defining of his ontological object as capital or the capitalist mode of production. Remember, as cutting-edge economic history affirms, prior to the capitalist era no one ever refers to such a thing as “the economy” because economic life was always found enmeshed with other social practices – culture, religion, politics, and so on – and indistinguishable from them (Polanyi 1957; 1977). Why human economic life appears to “disembed” from the social in the capitalist era, to constitute a separate sphere of society, enabling the systematic study of the economy for the first time in history, is because of the tendency of capital to objectify or reify human social relations, converting them into “relations between things”, which then appear to take on “a life of their own” as famously put by Marx (1977, 165). Marx, therefore, evinces uncanny prescience in prioritizing the unique ontological structure and properties of capital in calling for a new science with dedicated cognitive resources to produce knowledge of this object (Westra 2019).
Why Marx fastened upon dialectical epistemology with its methodological procedure of synthesizing contradictions is because of the fundamental nature of dialectics as a content specific epistemology. That is, given the strictures of dialectical knowledge that the truth is whole and the coincidence of ontology and epistemology, operationalizing the dialectic is only possible with an ontological object that was self-revealing, self-abstracting, self-objectifying and self-reifying. For G. W. F Hegel, who Marx praised as the first to operationalize the dialectic “in a comprehensive and conscious manner” (Marx 1977, 103), the ontological object was God or the Absolute. What enabled Marx to transpose the dialectic to materialism was the fact that, uniquely in the social world, capital operated Absolute-like in objectifying human social relations to wield society for its abstract purpose of value augmentation while reproducing human economic life as a byproduct.
Where Uno proved his acumen was in completing Marx’s project in Capital. Marx had grasped how as capitalist marketization subsumed the economic life of human communities it purged or “purified” them of extra-economic contingencies and staid, interpersonal relations, converting the latter into “relations between things”. Marx was thus methodologically correct to follow in theory the very real or material tendency capital exhibited in history. As stated by Marx (1981, 275): “In theory, we assume the laws of the capitalist mode of production develop in their pure form. In reality, this is only an approximation”. Because Marx believed socialist revolution to be nigh, the task of extrapolating the historical tendencies capitalism demonstrated toward purification of its noncapitalist environment to conclusion in the logical totality of a theory of a purely capitalist society did not seem pressing. For Uno, who experienced the transmutations of capitalism in the imperialist era that effectively halted the historical tendency capital had exhibited of purging economic life of the noneconomic and noncapitalist, consummating Capital as a timeless theory of what capital is and does in its fundamental incarnation was crucial. In his own words (Uno 2020):
Since experimental devices cannot be made for social phenomena, we have to select an approximation of a purely capitalist society, and choose its period and place in which a development toward such a pure society takes place…The scientific and theoretical system of the principles of political economy, which abstracts concepts from the analysis of this concrete society, is nothing other than that which reconstructs capitalist society in a pure form.
Uno’s theorizing pure capitalism is often questioned for eliding class struggle and blunting the revolutionary edge of Marxism. Yet, its reality is the diametrical opposite. While capital as an ontological object does evidence an historical tendency toward self-abstraction and objectifying of human social relations there is no such thing as abstract class struggle which is only found in concrete forms. As well, while the theory of a purely capitalist society constitutes a closed system, the usefulness of the laws of capital it proves the truth of resides in its guiding our studies of capitalist transmutations like those of imperialism and our analyses of modern history as an open system to where precisely crises tendencies lurk which revolutionary agency can exploit. In other words, what would be the usefulness of Marxist dispensations on capitalist crisis if his basic theory was never proven to be true? As elaborated upon elsewhere (Westra 2021), according to Uno, such studies of particular incidents of crisis and responses to them must be carried out at other levels of analysis. Further, given that it is only in the capitalist era that economic life tends to disembed from the social or, in Marx’s words, where a real tendency exists toward the self-sufficiency of the economic base and its separation from the superstructure, the study of material life across human history in toto or HM must necessarily be undertaken in the comparative light of the theorizing of economic life in capitalism. Put differently, the cognitive sequence in Marx’s work runs from the theory of a purely capitalist society and Marxian political economic study of capitalism to HM.
Althusser, L. 1979. Reading Capital. London: Verso.
Bhaskar, R. ( 2008) A Realist Theory of Science (London: Verso).
Collier, A. 1994. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. London: Verso.
Harre, R. 2000. One Thousand Years of Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell.
Haupt, G. 1982. “Marx and Marxism”, in E. Hobsbawm ed. The History of Marxism Volume 1. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Kautsky, K. 1971. The Class Struggle. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
Marx, K. 1977. Capital. Volume I. New York: Vintage Books.
Marx, K. 1978. Capital Volume II. London: Penguin.
Marx, K. 1981. Capital Volume III. London: Penguin.
Polanyi, K. (1957) The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press).
Polanyi, K. (1977) The Livelihood of Man (London: Academic Press).
Uno, K. 2020. Theory of Crisis. Leiden: Brill.
Westra, R. (2019b) “Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism and the Social Science of Marxian Economics”, Review of Radical Political Economics, 51 (3) 365-382.
Westra, R. 2021. Economics, Science and Capitalism. London: Routledge.
Richard Westra is University Professor at the Institute of Political Science, University of Opole, Poland and International Adjunct Professor at the Center for Macau Studies, University of Macau, Macau. He has previously taught at universities in Canada, The Bahamas, UK, South Korea, Thailand and Japan. He is author or editor of 19 books and scores of articles and chapters in peer reviewed outlets. His most recent single authored book is Economics, Science and Capitalism (Routledge 2021) and his latest article on the work of Marxian economist, the late Thomas T. Sekine, “Rescuing Marx from a Ship of Fools”, is forthcoming from Journal of Contemporary Asia. He can be reached at: westrarj [AT] aim.com