‘Karl Marx’s ‘The Critique Of Political Economy’ (1918) by Franz Mehring. Chapter 9 Section 5 from Karl Marx: The Story of His Life. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York. 1935.

Franz Mehring gives the background to one of Marx’s 1859 Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

‘Karl Marx’s ‘The Critique Of Political Economy’ (1918) by Franz Mehring. Chapter 9 Section 5 from Karl Marx: The Story of His Life. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York. 1935.

The plan to write an exhaustive work on political economy, one which would delve into the fundamental principles of the capitalist mode of production, was about fifteen years old before Marx actually began to put it into execution. He had considered the idea even before the March Revolution and his reply to Proudhon was a sort of payment on account. When the struggles of the revolutionary years were past, he immediately took up the idea again and on April 2nd, 1851, he wrote to Engels: “I am now at a point where I have finished with all the drudgery of economics. After that I shall work on my book at home and pitch into some other science in the Museum. It is beginning to bore me. The science of political economy has made no fundamental progress since the days of Adam Smith and David Ricardo although very much has been done since in the way of individual investigation, some of it super-delicate.” Engels was delighted and answered: “I am glad that you are finally through with your political economy. The thing was really lasting too long,” but as a man of experience he added: “So long as there is still a book in front of you which you consider important and which you have not read, you won’t put pen to paper.” Engels was always inclined to believe that apart from all other difficulties, “the chief delay” was always to be found in his friend’s “own scruples.”

These “scruples” were certainly never superticial and Engels never suggested that they were. Instead of finishing off his work in 1851, Marx started all over again, and in his introduction to the first part he explains why: “The tremendous amount of material stored up in the British Museum suitable for a history of political economy, the favourable vantage point which London in particular offers for an examination of bourgeois society, and finally the new stage of development which appeared to have been opened up for bourgeois society by the discovery of the Australian and Californian gold fields.” He also points out that his eight years of work for the New York Tribune had caused continual interruptions in his studies, and he might also have added that this work led him back to some extent into the political struggle, which was always of first class importance for him. And finally, it was the prospect of a resuscitation of the revolutionary working-class movement which caused him to stick to his writing desk and put down in black and white the things which had been occupying his mind ceaselessly for many years.

His correspondence with Engels offers eloquent proof of this, for the discussion of economic problems never ceases and occasionally it develops into regular treatises which one might also describe as “super-delicate.” A few occasional passages show us how the exchange of ideas between the two friends took place. On one occasion Engels writes of his “well-known laziness en fait de theorie,” a laziness against which his better self growled protestingly, but not loudly enough to make him go to the bottom of things, and on another occasion Marx sighs: “If people only knew how little I know about all this business!” This was called forth by the remark of a manufacturer that Marx must have been a manufacturer himself at some time or the other.

If one deducts the humorous exaggeration, what remains indicates that Engels was better acquainted with the inner mechanism of capitalist society than was Marx, whilst the latter with his keen powers of deduction was better able to follow its laws of development. When Marx sketched the plan for the first part of his work to Engels, the latter replied: “Your sketch is really very abstract as I suppose was inevitable in view of its brevity. I had a deal of trouble in finding the dialectical transitions, for all abstract thought has become unfamiliar to me now.” On the other hand, Marx often found it difficult to understand the answers Engels gave him to his questions concerning the way in which manufacturers and merchants reckoned that part of their income which they used for themselves, or concerning depreciation of machinery, or the accounting methods for paid-in operating capital. Marx also complained that in the science of political economy, matters of practical interest and matters of theoretical necessity were far apart.

David Ricardo.

Marx did not really begin to give final form to his work until the years 1857-58 and this can be seen from the fact that the plan changed almost unnoticeably in his hands. In April, 1858, he still intended to deal with “capital in general” in the first part, but although this part grew twice and thrice as long as he had originally planned, it contained nothing about capital, only two chapters on commodities and money. The advantage of this would be that criticism would not be able to limit itself to mere tendentious abuse, thought Marx, but he overlooked the fact that he thereby offered it the effective weapon of remaining silent altogether.

In the introduction he sketches the course of his scientific development, and the famous passage in which he sums up the theory of historical materialism is worthy of quotation here: “My examination [of the Hegelian philosophy of law] brought me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor State forms can be understood in themselves or from the so-called general development of the human intellect. They have their roots in the material conditions of life whose totality Hegel, following the example of the English and French scholars of the eighteenth century, summed up in the term ‘bourgeois society,’ and the anatomy of bourgeois society must be sought in political economy … The general result which I achieved, and which, once achieved, formed the guiding line of my subsequent studies, can be summed up as follows: In social production human beings enter into definite and necessary relations to each other quite independent of their will, productive relations which are in accordance with a definite stage of the development of the material productive forces. The totality of these productive relations forms the economic structure of society, the material basis on which the legal and political superstructure rests, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond.

“The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual process of life in general. It is not the consciousness of human beings which determines their being, but on the contrary, it is their social being which determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing productive relations or with the existing property relations – which is only a legal expression for the same thing – within which they have previously moved. These relations then change from forms of development of the productive forces into fetters on these productive forces, and an epoch of social revolution begins. With this change in the economic basis of society, the whole enormous superstructure also changes more or less rapidly. When observing such changes one must always differentiate between the material changes in the economic conditions of production, which must be registered with scientific accuracy, and the legal, political, religious, artistic and philosophic forms, in short, the ideological forms in which human beings become aware of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one cannot judge the individual by what he thinks of himself, so also one cannot judge such an epoch of change from its own consciousness, but one must rather explain this consciousness from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the conditions of production. No form of society declines before it has developed all the forces of production in accordance with its own stage of development, and new and higher productive relations never take the place of the old before the material conditions for their existence have been developed within the shell of the old society itself. Therefore humanity never sets itself tasks but those it is in a position to perform, for if one examines the matter more closely one will invariably find that a task never presents itself for performance unless the material conditions for such performance are already developed or at least in process of development. Speaking generally, the Asiatic, the classic, the feudal and the modern bourgeois modes of production can be termed progressive epochs of the economic social forms. Bourgeois productive relations represent the final antagonistic form of the process of social production, not antagonistic in the sense of individual antagonism, but an antagonism which develops from the social conditions of life of the individuals. However, the productive forces developing within the framework of bourgeois society create at the same time the material conditions for the liquidation of this antagonism. With this form of society, therefore, the preliminary history of human society ends.”

Adam Smith.

It was in this work, which he entitled A Critique of Political Economy, that Marx took a decisive step beyond the limits of bourgeois political economy as it had been developed in particular by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Bourgeois political economy culminated in the definition of the value of a commodity as the amount of labour-time necessary to produce it, but as it regarded the bourgeois mode of production as the eternal and natural form of social production, it assumed the creation of value to be a natural characteristic of human labour-power, represented by the individual and concrete labour-power of the individual, and on this assumption it involved itself in a series of contradictions which it was unable to solve. Marx, on the other hand, did not regard the bourgeois mode of production as the eternal and natural form of social production, but merely as a definite historical form of social production succeeding a whole series of previous forms. From this standpoint he subjected the value-producing characteristic of labour-power to a thorough examination. He examined what kind of labour-power produces value and why and how, and why value is nothing but embodied labour-power of this kind.

In this way he arrived at the “vital point” on which the understanding of political economy depends: the double character of labour-power in bourgeois society. Individual concrete labour-power creates use-value, whilst undifferentiated social labour-power creates exchange-value. In so far as labour-power creates use-value it is common to all social forms. As a useful activity for the appropriation of natural resources in one form or the other, the use of labour-power is a natural condition of human existence, a condition of the metabolism existing between man and nature quite independent of all social forms. Labour-power requires material on which it can work as the preliminary condition for working, and it is, therefore, not the only source of that which it produces, namely, material wealth. No matter what may be the relation between labour-power and its raw material in the various use-values produced, the use-value always contains a natural substratum.

Exchange-value is different. It contains no natural element, and labour-power is its only source and therefore the only source of all wealth which consists of exchange-value. Considered as an exchange-value, one use-value is worth exactly the same as any other, providing that it is present in the correct proportion. “The exchange-value of a palace can be expressed in terms of a certain number of tins of blacking. On the other hand, the London manufacturers of blacking have expressed the exchange-value of multiplied tins of blacking in palaces.” Because commodities exchange with each other irrespective of their natural conditions of existence and irrespective of the needs they are intended to satisfy, they represent the same unit, despite their varied appearance. They are the results of uniform, undifferentiated labour-power, “and it is as much a matter of indifference to this labour-power whether it appears in the form of gold, iron, wheat or silk as it is to oxygen whether it is present in iron rust, the atmosphere, the juice of the grape or the blood of a human being.” The variety of use-values results from the variety of the labour-power producing them, but labour-power producing exchange-values is indifferent to the particular material of the use-value produced and indifferent to the particular form of the labour-power itself. It is uniform, undifferentiated, abstract general labour, and it differs no longer in kind, but merely in quantity, merely in the various amounts which it incorporates in exchange-values of varying volume. The various quantities of abstract general labour find their measure only in time, which itself is measured by the ordinary, conventional periods of hours, days, weeks, etc. Labour-time is the living existence of labour irrespective of its form, its content or its individuality. As exchange-values, all commodities are nothing but definite quantities of incorporated labour-time. The labour-time incorporated in use-values is, therefore, the substance which makes them into exchange-values and commodities, and at the same time the measure of the particular volume of value contained in them.

This double character is a social form of labour which is peculiar to commodity production. Under primitive communism, a social form which can be found on the threshold of the history of all modern peoples, individual labour was directly embodied in the social organism. In the peonage and the payments in kind which prevailed in the middle ages, the particularity of labour and not its generality formed the social bond. In the rural-patriarchal family in which the women spun and the men weaved for the exclusive use of the family, yarn and linen were social products, and spinning and weaving represented social labour within the limits of the family. The family bond with its natural division of labour gave the product of labour-power its special character. Yarn and linen did not exchange as uniformly valid expressions of the same general labour-time. Only under commodity production does individual labour become social labour in that it takes on the form of its immediate antithesis, the form of abstract generality.

Now a commodity is the direct union of use-value and exchange-value, and at the same time it is a commodity only in relation to other commodities. The real relation of commodities to each other is in the process of exchange. In this process, into which individuals independent of each other enter, the commodity represents at the same time both use-value and exchange-value, particular labour which satisfies particular needs and general labour exchangeable against any other equal volume of general labour. The process of commodity exchange must unfold and liquidate the contradiction resulting from the fact that individual labour-power embodied in a particular commodity must have the direct general character.

As exchange-value each separate commodity becomes a measure of the value of all other commodities. On the other hand, each individual commodity, in which all other commodities measure their value, becomes the adequate existence of exchange-value, and thus exchange-value becomes a special and exclusive commodity which directly embodies the general labour-time of money by the transformation of all other commodities into it. Thus, in one commodity the contradiction which a commodity as such contains is resolved: though a particular use-value, yet to be a general equivalent, and thus to be use-value for all – general use-value. This one commodity is – money.

The exchange-value of commodities crystallizes itself in money as a particular commodity. This money crystallization is a necessary product of the process of exchange, in which varied products of labour-power are actually made uniform with each other and therefore actually turned into commodities. It developed by instinct and along historical lines. Simple exchange, the primitive form of the exchange process, represented the beginning development of use-values into commodities rather than the development of commodities into money. The more exchange-value develops, the more use-values develop into commodities, the more, that is to say, exchange-value develops an independent form and is no longer bound down to the particular use-value, the greater becomes the necessity for the development of money. At first one particular commodity plays the role of money or perhaps a number of commodities of general use-value such as cattle, grain and slaves. From time to time various more or less unsuitable commodities have performed the functions of money. In the end these functions went over to the precious metals because they possessed the necessary material qualities wanted in the particular commodity into which the money-nature of all commodities may be crystallized, in so far as such qualities spring directly from the nature of exchange-value itself, namely, durability of its use-value, its infinite divisibility, the uniform nature of its parts and the uniformity of all specimens of such a commodity.


Amongst the precious metals it was gold which became more and more the exclusive money-commodity. it serves as the measure of values and the measure of prices and as the means of circulation for all other commodities. Thanks to this somersault of the commodity into gold, the particular labour-power embodied in it is retained as abstract general, as social labour. Should the commodity fail to accomplish this trans-substantiation, then it would miss the aim of its existence not only as a commodity, but also as a product, for it is a commodity only because it has no use-value for its owner.

Thus Marx showed, by virtue of its inner value character, how and why the commodity and commodity exchange must necessarily produce the antithesis of commodity versus money. In money, which presents itself as a natural thing with particular characteristics, he recognized a social productive relation and he explained the confused explanations of money given by the modern bourgeois economists, by pointing out that what they thought they had just nailed down as a thing suddenly appeared to them as a social relation, and what they had hardly nailed down as a social relation suddenly mocked at them as a thing.

In the beginning, the flood of light generated by this critical examination dazzled even the friends of the author more than it enlightened them. Liebknecht declared that he had never been so much disappointed by a work before, and Miquel found “very little actually new” in it. Lassalle praised the form in which the work had been cast and placed it without envy above his own Heraclitus, but when Marx found that Lassalle’s “phrases” gave rise to the suspicion that the latter understood very little of economic matters, he was on the right track for once, for it was not long before Lassalle showed that he had not understood the “vital point” of the book, the difference between labour-power producing use-values and labour-power producing exchange-values.

If that was the reception Marx’s work had at the hands of those who might have been expected to understand it, what could be expected of others? In 1885, Engels declared that Marx had put forward the first embracing theory of money and that his theory had been silently adopted, but seven years later the Handwörterbuch der Staatswissenschaften (Encyclopedia of Political Economy), the standard work on bourgeois political economy, published a fifty-column dissertation on money reviving all the old exploded theories, failing even to mention Marx and concluding by declaring the money riddle insoluble.

Indeed, how should a world which had enthroned money as its God aspire to understand it?

Karl Marx: The Story of His Life by Franz Mehring. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Covici Friede Publishers, New York.

Franz Mehring brought all his considerable gifts to bear for this classic 1918 biography of Karl Marx. A major undertaking and labor of love, it is the first substantial biography in any language of Marx. Mehring, through his connections to the Marx family, had access to letters, drafts, and unpublished material unavailable to others. Delayed and hampered by military censorship and World War One, Mehring died just months after it was published and only two weeks after the murder of his comrades Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Considered by many to be the Marx biography by which all others are measured, this work has been translated into over two dozen languages. This is the first English language translation and edition. It deserves to be on the shelf of every student of Marx and Marxism.

Contents: Author’s Preface, Chronology, I) EARLY YEARS, Home and School, Jenny Von Westphalen, II) A PUPIL OF HEGEL, The First Year in Berlin,The Young Hegelians, The Philosophy of Self-Consciousness, The Doctoral Disseration, The Anekdota and the Rheinische Zeitung, The Rhenish Diet, Five Months of Struggle, Ludwig Feuerbach, Marriage and Banishment, III) EXILE IN PARIS, The Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, A Philosophic Perspective, On the Jewish Question, French Civilization, The Vorwärts and the Expulsion of Marx, IV) FRIEDRICH ENGELS, Office and Barracks, English Civilization, The Holy Family, A Fundamental Socialist Work, V) EXILE IN BRUSSELS: The German Ideology, “True Socialism”, Weitling and Proudhon, Historical Materialism, The Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung, The Communist League, Propaganda in Brussels, The Communist Manifesto, VI) REVOLUTION AND COUNTER-REVOLUTION, February and March Days, June Days, The War against Russia, September Days, The Cologne Democracy, Freiligrath and Lassalle, October and November Days, An Act of Perfidy, And Another Cowardly Trick, VII) EXILE IN LONDON, The Neue Rheinische Revue, The Kinkel Affair, The Split in the Communist League, Life in Exile, The Eighteenth Brumaire, The Communist Trial in Cologne, VIII) MARX AND ENGELS, Genius and Society, An Incomparable Alliance, IX) THE CRIMEAN WAR AND THE CRISIS, European Politics, David Urquhart, G. J. Harney and Ernest Jones, Family and Friends, The Crisis of 1857, The Critique of Political Economy, X) DYNASTIC CHANGES, The Italian War, The Dispute with Lassalle, New Struggles in Exile, Interludes, Herr Vogt, Domestic and Personal Affairs, Lassalle’s Agitation XI) THE EARLY YEARS OF THE INTERNATIONAL, The Founding of the International, The Inaugural Address, The Breach with Schweitzer, The First Conference in London, The Austro-Prussian War, The Geneva Congress, XII) DAS KAPITAL, Birth Pangs, The First Volume, The Second and Third Volumes, The Reception of Capital, XIII) THE INTERNATIONAL AT ITS ZENITH, England France and Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, Bakunin’s Agitation, The Alliance of Socialist Democracy, The Basle Congress, Confusion in Geneva, “The Confidential Communication”, The Irish Amnesty and the French Plebiscite, XIV) THE DECLINE OF THE INTERNATIONAL, Sedan, After Sedan, The Civil War in France, The International and the Paris Commune, The Bakuninist Opposition, The Second Conference in London, The Disintegration of the International, The Hague Congress, Valedictory Twinges, XV) THE LAST DECADE, Marx at Home, The German Social Democracy, Anarchism and the War in the Near East, The Dawn of a New Day, Twilight, The Last Year, Bibliography, Index. 608 pages, illustrated.

PDF of 1935 book: https://archive.org/download/karlmarxstorylife/karlmarxstorylife.pdf

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