The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter 5 – The Method of Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete in Marx’s Capital

Concrete fullness of Abstraction and Analysis as a Condition of Theoretical Synthesis

We shall now turn to a consideration of the logical structure of Capital, comparing it both with the logic of Ricardian thought and the theoretical views of Marx’s predecessors in the field of logic; this discussion should reveal Marx’s logic in its actual practical application to the analysis of facts, to the analysis of empirical data.

Our task is that of singling out the universal logical elements of Marx’s treatment of economic materials, the logical forms that are applicable, due to their universality, to any other theoretical discipline.

Capital, as is well known, begins with a most thorough and detailed analysis of the category of value, i.e., of the real form of economic relations that is the universal and elementary form of the being of capital. In this analysis, Marx’s field of vision encompasses a single and, as we have already noted, extremely rare, in developed capitalism, factual relation between men – direct exchange of one commodity for another. At this stage of his inquiry into the capitalist system, Marx intentionally leaves out of account any other forms – money or profit or wages. All of these things are as yet believed to be non-existent.

Nevertheless, analysis of this single form of economic relations yields, as its result, a theoretical expression of the objectively universal form of all phenomena and categories of developed capitalism without exception, an expression of a developed concreteness, a theoretical expression of value as such, of the universal form of value.

The elementary type of the existence of value coincides with value in general, and the real actually traceable development of this form of value into other forms constitutes the objective content of the deduction of the categories of Capital. Deduction in this conception, unlike the Ricardian one, loses its formal character: here it directly expresses the real content of some forms of economic interaction from others.

That is precisely the point missing in the systems of Ricardo and of his followers from the bourgeois camp.

The conception of a universal concept underlying the entire system of the categories of science, applied here by Marx, cannot be explained by the specificity of the subject-matter of political economy. It reflects the universal dialectical law of the unfolding of any objective concreteness – natural, socio-historical, or spiritual.

This conception is of great significance for any modern science. To give a concrete theoretical definition of life as the basic category of biology, to answer the question of what is life in general, life as such, one ought to act in the same way as Marx acted with value in general, that is, one should undertake a concrete analysis of the composition and mode of existence of an elementary manifestation of life – the elementary protein body. That is the only way of obtaining a real definition and of revealing the essence of the matter.

Only in this way, and not at all by abstraction of the general features of all phenomena of life without exception, can one attain a really scientific and materialist conception of life, creating the concept of life as such.

The situation is the same in chemistry. The concept of chemical element as such, of chemical element in general, cannot be worked out through abstraction of the general and identical features that helium has in common with uranium or silicon with nitrogen, or the common features of all the elements of the periodic table. The concept of chemical element may be formed by detailed consideration of the simplest element of the system – hydrogen. Hydrogen appears in this case as the elementary structure in the decomposition of which chemical properties of matter disappear in general, whether the analytical decomposition is performed in an actual experiment or only mentally. Hydrogen is therefore a concrete universal element of chemism. The universal necessary laws that emerge and disappear with it, are the simplest laws of the existence of the chemical element in general. As elementary and universal laws they will occur in uranium, gold, silicon, and so on. And any of these wore complex elements may in principle be reduced to hydrogen, which, by the way, happens both in nature and in experiments with nuclear processes.

In other words, what takes place here is the same living mutual transformation of the universal and the particular, of the elementary and the complex which we observed in the categories of capital, where profit emerges as developed value, as a developed elementary form of commodity, to which profit is continually reduced in the real movement of the economic system and therefore in thought reproducing this movement. Here as everywhere else, the concrete universal concept registers a real objective elementary form of the existence of the entire system rather than an empty abstraction.

‘Value in general’ (value as such), ‘life in general’, ‘chemical element’ – all these concepts are fully concrete. This means that the reality reflected in them is the reality objectively existing at present (or at any time in the past), existing by itself as an elementary and further indivisible instance of the given concreteness. That is exactly why it can be singled out as a specific object of consideration and may be studied and obtained by experiment.

If one were to conceive value (just as any other universal category) only as a reflection of abstract universal features existing in all developed particular phenomena without exception, it could not be studied as such, all these developed phenomena strictly ignored. Analysis of the universal would in this case be impossible in any other form except that of formal analysis of the concept. In the sensually given world, there can be no ‘animal in general’ or ‘chemical element as such’ or ‘value’ – as reflections of abstract general features they indeed exist only in the head.

Ricardo had not the slightest inkling that value should he studied concretely in its form, that it might in general be studied as such, in strictest abstraction from profit, rent, interest, capital, and competition. His abstraction of value therefore is, as Marx showed, doubly defective: ‘On the one hand, he (Ricardo) must be reproached for not going far enough, for not carrying his abstraction to completion, for instance, when he analyses the value of the commodity, he at once allows himself to be influenced by consideration of all kinds of concrete conditions. On the other hand one must reproach him for regarding the phenomenal form as immediate and direct proof or exposition of the general laws, and for failing to interpret it. In regard to the first, his abstraction is too incomplete; in regard to the second, it is formal abstraction which in itself is wrong.’ [1]

It is not difficult to formulate Marx’s own view of the universal category assumed by this evaluation. Abstraction must be, first, complete, and second, meaningful rather than formal. Only then will it be correct and objective.

What does that mean, however?

We have shown already that fullness of abstraction assumes that it directly expresses something quite different from abstract universal features inherent in absolutely all particular phenomena to which this universal abstraction refers; rather it expresses the concrete characteristics of the objectively simplest further indivisible element of a system of interaction, a ‘cell’ of the analysed whole.

In the capitalist system of interaction between men in social production of material life, this cell turned out to be a commodity the elementary commodity form of interaction. In biology, this cell is apparently the simplest protein structure, in the physiology of the higher nervous activity, the conditioned reflex. etc.

A this point, the question of ‘the beginning of science’, of the basic universal category underlying the entire system of the concrete categories of science, is closely linked with the question of concreteness of analysis and of the objectively admissible limits of analytical division of the object.

Concrete theoretical analysis means that a thing is divided into internally connected, necessary forms of its existence specific to it rather than into components indifferent to its specific nature.

Marx’s analytical method is diametrically opposed in this respect to the so-called one-sided analytical method, as illustrated by the practice of the classical bourgeois political economy. The one-sided analytical method, inherited by the economists of the 17th and 18th centuries from contemporary mechanistic natural science and the philosophy of empiricism (through Locke), fully corresponds to the conception of objective reality as a kind of aggregate of eternal and immutable constituent elements, identical in any object of nature. According to this conception, cognising a thing means analysing it into these eternal and immutable constituents and then comprehending the mode of their interaction within this thing.

‘Labour’, ‘need’, ‘profit’ in the theory of Smith and Ricardo are in this respect just as striking an example of one-sided analytical abstractions, in which the entire concrete historical definiteness of the object is extinguished, as ‘the particle’ of Cartesian physics, Newton’s ‘atom’ and similar categories of the science of that time. Both Smith and Ricardo endeavoured to understand the capitalist system of interaction as a complex whole whose component parts are eternal realities identical for any stage of the development of mankind: labour, labour implements (capital), needs, surplus product, etc.

This operation of analytical division of the object can always be performed both experimentally and mentally. A living rabbit may be analytically decomposed into chemical elements, into mechanical ‘particles’, etc. But, having thus obtained an aggregate of analytically singled out elements, we shall not be able to perform a reverse operation, even after a most detailed consideration of these elements – we shall never understand why their combination before the analytical dismemberment existed as a live rabbit.

In this case analysis killed and destroyed exactly that which we intended to understand in this way – the living and concrete interaction specific for the given thing. Analysis made synthesis impossible.

Bourgeois classical economics, the theory of Smith and Ricardo, ran into the same difficulty.

Synthesis, a comprehension of the necessary connection between the abstractly considered constituent elements of the object (labour, capital, profit, etc.), proved to be impossible exactly because analysis that singled out these categories was one-sided analysis: it broke up that very concrete historical form of connection of these categories.

The difficulty of the problem of analysis and synthesis was noted already by Aristotle. He saw quite well that one-sided analysis could not by itself solve the problems of cognition. In his Metaphysics he comes to the conclusion that the task of cognition is dual: it is not enough to find out of what parts a thing consists – one must also discover why these constituent parts are interconnected in such a way that their combination constitutes the given concrete thing rather than some other one.

A thing given in contemplation is not difficult to analyse into its constituent elements: the chair is black, made of wood, with four legs, heavy, with a round seat, etc., etc. That is an elementary example of empirical analysis and at the same time an example of empirical synthesis of abstract definitions in a judgement about a thing.

It should be noted that a direct coincidence of analysis and synthesis takes place in this case, too. In the proposition ‘This chair is black’ one can discern both. On the one hand, that is pure synthesis, a combination of two abstractions in a proposition. On the other hand, it is just as pure analysis – a singling out of two different definitions in a sensually given image. Both analysis and synthesis take place simultaneously in an utterance of an elementary proposition (judgment) concerning a thing.

In this example, however, the guarantee and basis of correctness of analysis and synthesis is direct contemplation: in it, the features synthesised in the proposition appear as combined and at the same time distinct. Contemplation itself is the basis and criterion of correctness of the analytic singling out of abstractions linked in the proposition.

It is thus easy to understand the coincidence of analysis and synthesis in a proposition concerning an individual fact, in an utterance expressing the actual state of things. It is much more difficult to understand the relation between analysis and synthesis in a theoretical proposition that has to be based on better grounds than mere indication of the fact that a thing appears in contemplation in a certain aspect rather than some other one.

The proposition ‘All swans are white’ does not present any difficulties for comprehension from the point of view of logic precisely because it does not express the necessity of the connection between the two definitions. The proposition ‘All objects of nature are extensive’ is quite a different matter. A swan may just as well be non-white, whereas the proposition ‘All objects of nature are extensive’ implements a necessary synthesis of two definitions. Unextended objects of nature are non-existent – and contrariwise, there can be no extension that would not be an attribute of an object of nature.

In other words, a theoretical proposition is a linking of abstractions each of which expresses a definiteness without which the thing ceases to be what it is, it ceases to exist as a given thing.

A swan may be painted any colour other than white – it will not cease to be a swan.

But extension cannot be taken away from an object of nature without destroying that object itself.

A theoretical proposition must therefore contain only those abstractions which express the forms of existence of the given object necessarily inherent in it.

What is to guarantee that a proposition connects precisely these abstract definitions?

Empirical contemplation of a thing cannot answer this question. To separate the necessary form of the being of a thing from one that may or may not exist, without impairing the existence of a thing as the given concrete thing (a swan, a body of nature, labour, etc.), one should proceed from contemplation to the sensually practical experiment, to man’s social practice in its entirety.

It is only the practice of social mankind, that is, the totality of historically developing forms of actual interaction of social man with nature, that proves to be both the basis and the verification criterion of theoretical analysis and synthesis.

How does this real problem present itself in the development of political economy?

This can be easily traced by considering the category of labour and the category of value connected with it.

Inasmuch as the value category forms the foundation of the entire theory and the theoretical basis of all other generalisations, the conception of labour as the substance of value determines the theoretical understanding of all other phenomena of the capitalist system.

Is the proposition ‘The substance of value is labour’ true? It is not. This theoretical proposition (judgement) is tantamount in its theoretical significance to the proposition ‘Man is by nature a private proprietor’ – an assertion that being a private proprietor is the same kind of attribute in man’s nature, as extension in a body of nature.

In other terms, a consideration of the empirically given situation reveals abstract characteristics non(,, of which is necessarily contained in the nature of labour and value.

Marx gave a lucid explanation of the whole matter. A historically transient property of labour is here taken for a characteristic expressing its absolute inner nature. By far not all labour creates value, not any historically concrete form of labour, in the same way that it is not man as such that is an owner of private property but a historically concrete man, man within a definite, historically concrete form of social being.

But how is one to distinguish between that which is inherent in a historically definite form of man’s existence, and that which is inherent in man in general?

This can only be done by a detailed analysis of the reality on which a theoretical judgment is passed from the standpoint of the entire practice of mankind. The latter is the only criterion which permits confidently to abstract or analytically reveal a definition that would express the form of being that is the object’s attribute.

Both at the time of Smith and Ricardo and in Marx’s time man’s being as a private proprietor was an empirically universal fact. The ability of labour to create commodities and value rather than merely a product was also an empirically universal fact.

The classic representatives of political economy recorded this empirically universal fact in the proposition ‘The substance of value is labour’ – labour in general, without further theoretical qualifications expressing its concrete historical definiteness within which it creates commodity rather than product, value rather than use-value.

Insofar as the classics of political economy worked out abstract theoretical definitions with the aid of the one-sided analytical method, they were unable to understand why labour appeared now as capital, now as wages, now as rent.

This logical task that was common both to the natural scientists of the 17th and 18th centuries and to Smith and Ricardo is essentially insoluble. The former attempted to understand why and in what way atoms, particles and monads could form in different combinations now a cosmic system, now the body of an animal; the latter endeavoured to comprehend why and in what way labour in general generated now capital, now rent, now wages.

Neither the, former nor the latter could attain a theoretical synthesis – exactly because their analysis was not concrete but rather divided the object into indifferent parts common to any objective sphere or any historical form of production.

Labour in general is an absolutely necessary condition of the emergence and development of rent, capital, wages, and all the other specifically capitalist categories. But it is also a condition of their non-being, their negation and destruction. Labour in general is just as indifferent to the being of capital as to its non-being. It is a universal necessary condition of its emergence, but it is not an internally necessary condition, a condition that i sat the same time a necessary sequence. The form of inner reciprocal action, inner reciprocal conditioning is absent here.

Concerning this defect of one-sided analytical abstractions worked out by the classics of bourgeois science, Marx remarked: ‘It is just as impossible to pass directly from labour to capital as directly from different human races to a banker or from nature to a steam-engine.’ [2]

This is an echo of Feuerbach’s well-known aphorism, ‘You cannot directly deduce even a bureaucrat from nature’; Marx draws the same conclusion from this aspect of the matter, too: all difficulties of theoretical analysis and synthesis are solved in reality on the basis of the category of concrete historical reciprocal action, reciprocal conditioning of phenomena within a definite historically developed whole, within a concrete historical system of interaction.

To put it differently, both analysis/synthesis and deduction/induction cease to be metaphysically polar and therefore helpless logical forms only on the basis of a conscious historical view of the analysed reality, on the basis of the conception of any objective reality as a historically emergent and developed system of interacting phenomena.

This view gave Marx a clear criterion which he, proceeding from the entire rationally comprehended history of the practice of mankind, confidently applied to the solution of the difficulties of theoretical analysis and synthesis and theoretical deduction and induction.

The practice of mankind in its historical entirety was used by Marx as a criterion for distinguishing between empirical synthesis and theoretical synthesis, of analytical abstractions reflecting the universal empirical state of things and theoretical abstractions the interconnection of which reflects the internally necessary connection of phenomena which they express.

In Smith and Ricardo (and even Hegel) purely empirical synthesis is often set up as theoretical one; they continually set up the historically transient form of the phenomenon for its inner structure (for its eternal nature), deducing the justification of the crudest empirical facts from the nature of things, whereas Marx’s method raises the most rigorous logical and philosophical barriers in the way of such movement of thought.

Deduction and induction, analysis and synthesis prove to be powerful logical means of processing empirical facts exactly because they are consciously used in the service of an essentially historical approach to research, being based on the dialectical materialist conception of the object as a historically emergent and developing system of phenomena interacting in a specific way.

For this reason, Marx’s analytical method, the method of ascent from the whole given – in contemplation to the conditions of its possibility, coincides with the method of genetic deduction of theoretical definitions, with logical tracing of the real descent of some phenomena from others (of money from the movement of the commodity market, of capital from the movement of commodity-money circulation in which labour force becomes involved, etc.). This essentially historical view of things and of their theoretical expression enabled Marx to formulate clearly the question of the real substance of the value properties of the labour product, of the universal substance of all the other concrete historical categories of political economy.

It is not labour in general but the concrete historical form of labour that was conceived as the substance of value. In this connection, new light was thrown on theoretical analysis of the form of value: it emerged as the concrete universal category which permits to understand theoretically (to deduce) that real concrete historical necessity with which value is transformed into surplus-value, into capital, wages, rent and all the other developed concrete categories.

In other words, for the first time.. an analysis was given of the starting-point from which one can really develop the entire system of theoretical definitions of the object, the system that logically reflects the necessity of the real genesis of the capitalist formation.

What did concrete analysis of the form of value consist in, that very analysis which David Ricardo failed to conduct? The answer to this question should give us the key to an understanding of the method of ascent from the abstract to the concrete.

Ascent from a universal theoretical definition of the object to an understanding of the entire complexity of its historically developed structure (concreteness) assumes a concrete and comprehensive analysis of the basic universal category of the science. We have seen that insufficient concreteness of Ricardo’s analysis of value determined the failure of his intention to develop the whole system of theoretical definitions, to construct the entire building of science on a single solid foundation., it did not permit him to deduce even the proximate category, money, not to mention all the other categories.

Wherein lies the specific quality of Marx’s analysis of value, which forms the solid foundation of theoretical synthesis of categories, enabling him to proceed in a most rigorous manner from ‘ the consideration of value to the consideration of money, capital, etc.?

Thus formulated, this question compels logic to face the problem of contradiction in the definitions of a thing, a problem which ultimately contains the key to everything else. Contradiction as the unity and coincidence of mutually exclusive theoretical definitions was discovered by Marx to be the solution of the riddle of the concrete and a way to express theoretically the concrete in concepts. We are now passing on to the analysis of this point.

Contents | next section

1. Theories of Surplus-value, II

2. Grundrisse, s. 170