Comprehending Social Relations
An emphasis on the activity and intercourse of individuals as the
real foundation of society remained characteristic of Marx's thought; yet the later economic works modified his earlier individualism by restricting its role in his social theory. Society had never been for Marx a mere sum of individual acts, but rather a "totality" of interacting individuals, facing one another in various relationships. His later economic works focused precisely on that totality and the economic and social relations which defined it. Modern society did not present a series of simply human relations of man to man, but instead an array of historically specific social and economic relations, such as those of capitalist to worker and landlord to tenant. Such relationships among men appeared determinant only from the standpoint of society; no man was a wage laborer as such. Rather, he could be a wage laborer only "within society and because of it" by entering into a social relation with another individual, in this case a capitalist in search of labor. Modern society embodied "social relations based on the antagonism of classes. These relations are, not the relations of individual to individual, but of workman to capitalist, of farmer to landlord, etc. Efface these relations and you have extinguished the whole of society. . . . "
The individual thus faced a previously established set of social relations outside of his particular control. To this extent, persons entering into them remained unfree. "The social relation of individuals to each other, which has made itself into an autonomous power over them, whether it is presented as a power of nature, an accident or anything else you like, is the necessary result of the fact that the starting point is not the free social individual." In consequence, most men were forced to take on constraining social roles. But "just as it is . . . childish to consider these economic bourgeois roles of buyer and seller as eternal social forms of human individuality, so it is on the other hand preposterous to lament in them the extinction of individuality. They are the necessary manifestations of individuality at a certain stage of the social system of production."
The social interaction of individuals had hitherto occurred within an hypostatized framework that remained virtually independent of the persons involved. Men made their own history—"but they do not make it just as they please, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past." If society was the historical product of individual acts, and a reality virtually independent of such acts, the question of method and the approach of social
theory to its object became acute. Narrative history might emphasize the concatenation of particular actions against a backdrop of given circumstance; yet political economy approached the backdrop of given economic circumstance beyond specific individual acts. How?
Through his study of political economy, Marx came to revise his earlier neo-Feuerbachian presentation of the methodology and procedures appropriate to social theory. In the process, Marx, while insisting on the ontological primacy of interacting individuals, disavowed any form of epistemological nominalism. Where Feuerbach and the early Marx had called the tangible and particular the "concrete," the later Marx followed Hegel in viewing concreteness as an attribute of theory, a result of a theory's comprehensiveness.
His polemic against Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy had previously indicated the course of his development. There he had unambiguously presented social relations as the object of economic theory. Economic categories merely expressed these relations; to this end, the categories necessarily ignored particular individuals, just as any specific social relation qua relation represented something more than and different from the individuals involved.
Marx's introduction to the Gundrisse sketched out in more detail his mature approach to social relations. As before, the observable world of individuals producing in society remained the ground of social theory external to theory itself. But concreteness was now presented as the result and accomplishment of thought itself, "a combination of many determinations, therefore the unity of diverse elements." Such theoretical concreteness led to the conceptual "reproduction" of the observable social world "in the course of reasoning"; but for the first time, it constituted this world as an object of knowledge by ordering it conceptually.
Marx set out by criticizing previous political economy. He therefore already had a body of abstract concepts before him as his object. The classical concepts required reformulation because of internal theoretical contradictions, as well as discrepancies between the theory and the economic reality ostensibly depicted. For example, Adam Smith had predicted that the free play of self-interest would generate wealth for all; yet the widespread squalor and poverty endured by the nineteenth-century British worker, documented at great length in Capital , tended to discredit Smith's hypothesis.
The significance of the basic economic concepts lay in their relationship to one another. Fundamental categories like capital remained virtually meaningless without reference to other categories such as labor, value, money, and so on. The increasingly complex articulation of such conceptual relations enabled theory to approximate the real complexity of economic relations, only now comprehended by defined concepts. Capital thus moved from abstract notions such as labor, value, and capital toward a presentation of such phenomena as the state and world market. The whole process could be summarized as a movement from real empirical complexity through conceptual simplicity to a conceptually comprehended complexity, a movement which provided the theoretical tools for grasping the initial complexity in its economic dimensions.
Moreover, Marx now implied that the real abstractness and complexity of a phenomenon like the commodity refuted any strictly nominalist perspective. In the first edition of Capital , Hegel's logic, for all its absurd inversions, was implicitly vindicated as the method appropriate to an absurdly inverted social reality. In a remarkable reversal of his nominalist critique of "the Fruit" in 1845, Marx remarked how, when one commodity, such as gold, functions as a universal equivalent in exchange, "it is as if, above and beyond lions, tigers, hares and all other actual animals which group to form the various kinds, species, subspecies, families, etc., of the animal kingdom, there also existed the animal , the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom. Such an individual, which includes within itself all actually existing species as the same thing, is a universal , like animal , god , etc." Yet Marx still preserved a critical distance from Hegel. That he makes his point sarcastically confirms his continuing commitment to demystify apparently abstract social relations, and, ultimately, to return control of society to the individual agency of the associated producers: after all, for Marx in 1867 as in 1845, it was the individual producers who actually created the social wealth abstractly expressed by money.
Marx also differed from Hegel in his historical understanding of the categories of political economy. For him, the map of universal categories and social relations produced by theory in no way replaced the historical world that the theorist started from. The existence of capital, wrote Marx in one of his later notebooks, "is the result of a protracted process in the economic formation of society."
He emphatically added: "At this point it is determined how the dialectical form of representation is only correct when it knows its limits." The historical world of real individuals standing toward each other in specific relations remained independent of theory insofar as the latter did not actively penetrate and transform the world. Marx thus rebuked Hegel for mistaking "the movement of categories for the real act of production."
History entered into economic theory on two levels. First, the social world comprehended by theory remained an historical one, open to modification through human action: theory did not confront a static structure as its ultimate object. On this level, history always posed the possibility of outstripping theory and rendering its key concepts obsolete. Second, social theory had to interpret itself as an historical creation, situated in a particular epoch.
For Marx, the ability to order economic concepts abstractly was itself an historical result. A developed economic system that viewed objectified labor in general as the meaning of wealth comprised the sine qua non for conceiving labor abstractly, i.e., in general and without further differentiations. "Indifference as to the particular kind of labor implies the existence of a highly developed totality of different species of concrete labor, none of which is any longer the predominant one." The simple concept of labor thus arose in the most complex social order, where the particularity of work could appear indifferent to the individual undertaking it.
A similar historical perspective modified Marx's insistence that social theory be premised on individuals producing in society. The possibility of such a premise itself appeared now as an historical acquisition. Bourgeois society presented both social interrelations and individual independence at a high stage of development; this historical situation legitimated starting from "individuals producing in society, thus the socially determined production of individuals." Despite its historical genesis, such a formula (like the simple concepts of labor, capital, and so forth) had in retrospect universal validity, thanks precisely to its abstract generality. Human production was always "production at a certain stage of social development, or production by social individuals." Insofar as its elements—man on the one side, nature on the other—remained constant throughout history, "production" could be defined as the "appropriation of nature by the individual within and through a definite form of society."
But the aim of economic theory was not the producing individuals as such, qua their particularity. Rather, theory focused on the social relations that "individuals in the process of reproducing their life" entered into, "under definite material conditions." Although such relations derived from human acts, the problem was precisely to grasp these relations in their reified existence as a second nature, above and beyond the intentions of individual capitalists and laborers. Marx had once defined domination as the "appropriation of another's will"; in this sense, Capital sought to unravel the economic forms dominating individual life.
To this end, Marx consistently abstracted from individuals in his economic theory. "Here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests." As the object of theory, the capitalist and laborer were defined strictly by their position within the relations of production; merely as an owner of a factory, the capitalist exercised a definite power over labor, whether he willed it or not. Economic theory construed society as "the sum of connections and relationships in which individuals find themselves"; for theory, "society does not consist of individuals."
Marx had justified such a procedure as early as The German Ideology . "The communists in practice treat the conditions created up to now by production and intercourse as inorganic conditions, without, however . . . believing that these conditions were inorganic for the individuals creating them." In the Grundrisse , Marx amplified this position. Society, approached as a totality of relationships, as a social process, arises, "it is true, from the mutual influence of conscious individuals on one another"; however, this totality appears to the individuals as an alien and natural objectivity, "neither located in their consciousness, nor subsumed under them as a whole."
Thus despite his methodological abstraction from individuals as such, Marx in his later economic theory maintained his youthful imperatives, as well as the (ontological) premise of (conscious) individuals producing in society. While social relations became the primary focus of his theory, he remained cognizant of his original starting point. As the Grundrisse put it, even the "simplest economic category" presupposed a population of real individuals, "producing in specific relations." Any category, like any isolated relation, "can never exist other than as an abstract, one-sided relation within an
already given, concrete, living whole." The "only subjects" of production are "individuals, but individuals in mutual relationships, which they equally reproduce and produce anew."
The point of conceptual abstraction and theoretical concreteness remained the practical dissipation of reined social relations. "Communism differs from all previous movements in that it overturns the basis of all earlier relations of production and intercourse, and for the first time consciously treats all natural premises as the creatures of men, strips them of their natural character and subjugates them to the power of the united individuals." Long after he had abandoned Feuerbach's nominalist methodology, Marx therefore retained the "real individual" as the critical premise—and ultimate promise—of social theory.