Marx’s influences as a social scientist

image: Menzel depicting a proletarian (Adolf von Menzel)

It is customary to hold that the main influences on Marx’s thought fell into three streams: French socialism, English political economy, and Hegelian philosophy. Each strand is evident in his writings, from early to late. Certainly Marx’s ideas about a communist society were developed in relation to a literature and practice of socialism, most strongly developed in France. The dialogue Marx maintained with political economy was explicit, through his critical engagements with Smith, Ricardo, Senior, etc. And Marx’s philosophical education was largely framed within the ideas about history, humanity, and freedom developed by Hegel. (An earlier treatment of Marx’s intellectual development can be found here.)

Marx’s relationship to the nineteenth-century classical political economists is especially important, since it lay the foundation for his economic analysis in Capital. His relationship to political economy is largely one of “critique” — an intellectual stance that probes the hidden assumptions of a philosophical or scientific system. Here is an earlier description of “critique” in Marx’s thinking taken from a 2011 post:

Marx was a critic above all else. His most comfortable intellectual stance was criticism — most of the subtitles of his works involve the word “critique”. He was, of course, a critic of other thinkers –Proudhon, Smith, Bakunin, for example. And here, the key to criticism is the unearthing of indefensible intellectual presuppositions. But even more importantly, he was a critic of the society he observed around him. The key here is to uncover systemic features of a given society that are fundamentally inconsistent with important human values. His earliest social criticism took its aim at the German society he inhabited in the 1830s and 1840s. But it is his critique of modern capitalist society that is the most enduring, and this critique took shape through his observations of the society and economy of Great Britain in the 1850s and 1860s. (link)

What about the supposed relation to Hegel? The prima facie case in favor of the idea of Hegelian influence is apparently a strong one. Marx’s training as a philosophy student took place within the setting of Hegel’s followers, the Young Hegelians. Some of Marx’s early writings are directly responsive to Hegel’s philosophy — for example, his “Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (link). There is an important and apparently favorable account of the Hegelian foundations of Capital in that book. And, of course, the general idea of development through a set of contradictions is a “dialectical” idea. For example, Bertell Ollman argued that Marx’s ontology of internal relations is genuinely dialectical in Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in a Capitalist Society.

The relation is the irreducible minimum for all units in Marx’s conception of social reality. This is really the nub of our difficulty in understanding Marxism, whose subject matter is not simply society but society conceived of “relationally”. Capital, labor, value, commodity, etc., are all grasped as relations, containing in themselves, as integral elements of what they are, those parts with which we tend to see them externally tied. Essentially, a change of focus has occurred from viewing independent factors which are related to viewing the particular way in which they are related in each factor, to grasping this tie as part of the meaning conveyed by its concept. This view does not rule out the existence of a core notion for each factor, but treats this core notion itself as a cluster of relations. (Alienation, chap. 2, sect III)

Nonetheless, I don’t believe that there is anything of substance in the methodology, ontology, or explanatory schema of Capital that is seriously Hegelian. Against Ollman, I maintain that Marx’s conceptions of social relations of production, economic structure, and mode of production can be formulated in a non-dialectical way. A social relation — the wage-labor relation, for example — can be defined in objective terms specifying the powers and obligations that the relation entails. So there is no sense in which the properties of one of the terms is logically intertwined with those of the other. The “dialectical method” and Hegelian philosophy plays no important theoretical role in Marx’s economic theories and analysis — or so I argued in The Scientific Marx:

It is no doubt true that Marx’s mature works contain a certain amount of admittedly Hegelian language and concepts. Marx writes in Capital, “I openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel], and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him” (Capital II, pp. 102-3). And in the same passage he speaks with approval of the dialectical method: “The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” There is thus some fuel for the argument that Capital is not an empirical work but rather a work of materialist philosophy in the Hegelian mode. If these dialectical ideas ran deeply the charge would be compelling. In the following, however, I will argue that Marx is irreconcilably opposed to the use of dialectical logic as a method of inquiry in history or social science. At most the dialectical method represents a highly abstract empirical hypothesis about the nature of social change. I hope therefore to leave the way clear for an interpretation of Marx’s scientific method that is in basic agreement with orthodox empirical social science. When Marx goes to work on his detailed treatment of the empirical data of capitalism, he leaves his Hegelian baggage behind. (TSM, p. 103)

These influences are important, of course. However, we should not imagine that they constituted the full compass of Marx’s thinking. Other influences were also significant. The literature of social discovery and observation — both unofficial and official — was an important influence once Marx began living and working in London. Henry Mayhew, the reforming doctors, and the Parliamentary inquiries into social and health conditions shed a great deal of light on the social question at mid-century. (Here is an earlier post on Marx’s careful study of statistical and public health studies of “working class London” in the 1850s and 1860s; link. It is an interesting question to know whether there was a similar movement of careful empirical study of “social problems” in France or Germany before 1860.) Here is a quick summary from an earlier post on Marx’s use of public health studies:

Marx was very interested in these descriptive investigations — Dr. Simon, Dr. Julian Hunter, Mr. Smith, Dr. Bell, and the inquiries and Acts of Parliament in the 1860s that shed light on the depth of English poverty. The index for Capital includes a section, “Parliamentary Reports and Other Official Publications,” which includes references to over a hundred reports on factories, poverty, nutrition, and health. These range from a Report of Select Committee, London, 1855, on “Adulteration of Bread”, to “Reports of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council on Public Health” (1861-66). And these reports constitute the core of empirical evidence that Marx brings to bear for his economic assertions throughout the work. In fact, we might describe some parts of Capital as a sort of “meta-study” of current investigations of the public health status of England’s cities. (link)

Further, Marx was well read in the history of ancient Greece and Rome, and there are numerous references to classical literature sprinkled throughout his work. More importantly, he had what appears to be a specialist’s knowledge of Roman history by the 1860s, including key works by Gibbon, Niebuhr, Mommsen, Savigny, Coulange, Peter, Ihhe, Nissen, Bury, and Lange. He also made use of August Bockh’s Public Economy of Athens. Similar comments can be made about his knowledge of medieval history (as of the 1860s). This supports the view that Marx’s guiding ideas within the framework of historical materialism had a substantial foundation in concrete knowledge of the social and economic relations of the ancient world. Historical materialism was not a philosophical theory, along the lines of Hegel’s philosophy of history; instead, it was an effort to make sense of the large features of material and institutional life in important stages of European history.

What this brief synopsis suggests is an important dissent from the common view that Marx had only one fundamental idea — the theory of class conflict — and instead supports the view that his writings reflected a broad range of influences, themes, and facts from philosophy, history, political economy, and the emerging field of “social statistics”. Marx was an analytical scholar, not an ideologue. In the end, he was a pluralistic social scientist, open to new historical and empirical evidence throughout his career.

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