Marx on value

Ted Winslow winslow at
Tue Sep 1 07:39:06 PDT 1998

Jim Devine wrote:

>I would say that Marx rejected the original idealist/materialist dichotomy.
>Rather than history being a process of matter in motion (as crude
>materialism has it), it's conscious and acting people that make history
>(though obviously not exactly as they please) and are made by history. His
>work always hearkened back to the real, empirical, world -- of people
>acting and thinking and the societal structures they make and that make
>them as people -- whenever he could. I also read him as saying that in the
>end, it's practice, not theory that counts more. Actions speak louder than
>But this does not mean that he _rejected_ aesthetic or ethical philosophy.
>Rather, those were clearly not his emphases. He spent the bulk of his life
>doing political economy, after all. I think that his materialist
>perspective (emphasis on people and society) pushed him to that emphasis.

I agree with most of this but I don't think aesthetics and ethics can be separated from the study of political economy and of the "real, empirical, world" in the way it seems to suggest.

I understand Marx's focus on political economy to be based on the view, derived from his materialism, that the development of the human mind takes place within the process of production. This is because the basis of knowledge is experience, "sensuous consciousness," and, on Marx's materialist ontological premises, sensuous consciousness is "practice."

Human historical development is the internally related development of knowledge and practice. The development of knowledge, as expressed by the development of forces of production, alters practice; this altered practice, in turn, makes possible further development of knowledge which further alters practice and so on. (The key role assigned to class relations can also be explained in these terms.)

So understanding the development of the process of production is key to understanding the development of mind; and understanding the development of mind is key to understanding human history.

The development of knowledge includes the development of knowledge of aesthetic and ethical values. This knowledge is necessary to effective action, i.e. to action effective at realizing value in this ultimate sense. To explain the laws of motion of capitalism you need to explain how capitalism facilitates the development of this and other knowledge by subjects who can then, on the basis of this knowledge, transform capitalism in a progressive way. According to Marx, in capitalism wage workers are the subjects whose practice enables them to develop in this way.

Here is a passage from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in which Marx has the "self-changing" of communist artisans - understood as the autonomous development of their knowledge of ethical value - result from the "change of circumstances" - the change of their "sensuous existence" - produced by "revolutionary practice." It illustrates his claim that "the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."

"When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need - the need for society - and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies." Collected Works, vol. 3, p. 313

On the preceding page, the same point, this time in relation to the development of knowledge of nature, is more explicitly illustrated:

"The extent to which the solution of theoretical riddles is the task of practice and effected through practice, the extent to which true practice is the condition of a real and positive theory, is shown, for example, in fetishism. The sensuous consciousness of the fetish-worshipper is different from that of the Greek, because his sensuous existence is different. The abstract enmity between sense and spirit is necessary so long as the human feeling for nature, the human sense of nature, and therefore also the natural sense of man, are not yet produced by man's own labour." p. 312

Ted Winslow

Ted Winslow E-MAIL: WINSLOW at YORKU.CA Division of Social Science VOICE: (416) 736-5054 York University FAX: (416) 736-5615 4700 Keele St. North York, Ont. CANADA M3J 1P3

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