An Excerpt from “The Concept of Critique and the Critique of Political Economy: From the 1844 Manuscripts to Capital”

Editor’s Note: The following is an extract from Jacques Ranciere’s contribution to Reading Capital, “The Concept of Critique and the Critique of Political Economy: From the 1844 Manuscripts to Capital.” This excerpt is taken from Chapter 2 of Ranciere’s long piece, entitled “Critique and Science in Capital.” In the newly released Reading Capital: The Complete Edition, available unabridged for the first time from Verso Books, this corresponds to pages 100-112 of the text. 


This exposition proposes to show what problems articulate the reorganization of Marx’s conceptual field, the reorganization which constitutes the transition from the ideological discourse of the Young Marx to Marx’s scientific discourse. Actually, there can be no question of a systematic exposition, which would presuppose that Marxism’s concept of scientificity was fully grasped and could be expounded in a unitary discourse. Hence my method will be to start from different points, different sites, in an attempt to circumscribe the specificity of Marx’s discourse in Capital by a series of approximations.

In general, Marx no longer gives this specificity the name ‘critique’, but rather the name ‘science’. A famous letter to Kugelmann (28 December 1862) ranks Capital among the ‘scientific attempts to revolutionize a science’ (MECW 41, p. 436). This project to revolutionize a constituted scientific domain is something quite different from the project to read into a discourse an implicit sub-discourse, the project which characterized the anthropological critique. However, Marx does also use the term ‘critique’ to designate this new specific project – the subtitle of Capital is ample evidence of this. Thus, in a letter to Lassalle on 22 February 1858, he writes:

The work I am presently concerned with is a Critique of Economic Categories or, if you like, a critical exposé of the system of the bourgeois economy. It is at once an exposé and, by the same token, a critique of the system (MECW 40, p. 270).

In approaching the problems raised by this project to revolutionize a science I shall assume familiarity with a number of points. These are, essentially:

  • The location of what I have called economic reality in the ‘economic structure of society’ as defined by Marx in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), i.e., I shall presuppose familiarity with the concepts of historical materialism;
  • The problematic of the method expounded in the general Introduction of 1857.

The questions I shall attempt to pose are therefore as follows:

If Marx revolutionized a science, founded a new scientific domain, what is the configuration of that domain? How are its objects and the relations between those objects defined? If Marx founded this new science by the critique of economic categories, what is the basis for the essential difference between this new science and classical economics? Further, what in its theory will enable us to understand the economic discourses it refutes, that of classical economics and that of vulgar economics? At the same time, I shall tender another question, as I promised: What becomes of the anthropological problematic of the 1844 Manuscripts in Capital?

This last question can be posed by using a particular interpretation of Marx as a reference, the interpretation developed by Della Volpe’s school. According to this interpretation, to criticize economics in Capital Marx used the critical model he had worked out in the manuscript of 1843 entitled Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (MECW 3, pp. 3–129). In this text, in order to criticize Hegel’s philosophy of Staatsrecht, Marx used the Feuerbachian critical model, the model of the subject/predicate inversion. This model aimed to show that Hegel everywhere turned the autonomized predicate into the true subject.

As a concrete example, Marx takes the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty, he says, is nothing but the spirit of the subjects of the state. It is therefore the predicate of a substantial subject (Marx defines this subject as hypokeimenon, as a substance). In alienation, this predicate, this spirit of the subjects of the state, is separated from its subject. It appears as the essence of the state. This separate existence of the subject and the predicate enables Hegel to make the speculative operation: by a new separation he separates sovereignty from the real state, he makes it into an idea, an autonomous being. This autonomous being has to have a support. This support is provided by the Hegelian Idea, what Marx calls the Mystical Idea. Sovereignty becomes a determination of this Mystical Idea.

Once he has completed this movement of abstraction, Hegel has to make the inverse movement and redescend towards the concrete. The link between the abstract idea and the concrete empirical reality can only be made in a mystical way, by an incarnation. This incarnation allows the abstract determination to exist in the concrete. The Mystical Idea is incarnated in a particular individual, the monarch. The latter then appears for Hegel as the immediate existence of sovereignty.

Let me summarize this movement in the figure below. Marx calls this movement hypostatization. It consists of the separation of a predicate from its subject, its hypostatization into an abstract category which is then incarnated in some empirical existence. Marx also says that we are dealing with an inversion of the empirical into speculation (abstraction and autonomization) and of speculation into the empirical (incarnation). This critical model is thus governed by two oppositional couples: subject/ object and empirical/speculation.

Ranciere Hypstasization

According to Della Volpe, this is the model Marx used to criticize classical political economy in A Contribution and in Capital. Classical political economy separates the economic categories from their subject which is a determinate society, and hypostasizes them into general conditions, eternal laws of production. It then moves from speculation to the empirical by making the determinate, historical, economic categories of the capitalist mode of production into a mere incarnation of general categories which are those of all production.

A particularly clear example of the use of this schema can be found in Marx’s critique of John Stuart Mill in the 1857 Introduction. Thus, in Mill, private property appears as the empirical existence of the abstract category of appropriation. There is no production, says Mill, without the appropriation of nature by man. Hence property is a general condition of all production. This abstract category is then incarnated in a very special type of property, capitalist private property.

Using passages such as this, and the pages from the general Introduction on ‘determinate abstraction’, Della Volpe sums up the critical work carried out by Marx; he opposed classical economics by everywhere substituting determinate (historical) abstraction for indeterminate general abstractions or hypostases.

Such an interpretation seems to neglect one essential problem, that of the theoretical conditions necessary for the model of the 1843 text to be able to work. For this, the two oppositions, subject/object and empirical/ speculation, must be pertinent oppositions within the theoretical field of Capital.

First of all, we must be dealing with a subject. For the model to be able to work, society has to play the part of a subject which humanity played in the anthropological discourse. Two passages in the general Introduction really do speak of society as a subject. But this definition of society as a subject is condemned by Marx elsewhere and, as we shall see, it is incompatible with the concepts he sets to work in Capital. On the other hand, the application of the empirical/speculation model presupposes a certain kind of relation between economic reality and economic discourse. If this relation no longer exists in Capital, this couple ceases to be operational.

It is on the basis of this problematic that I shall seek to define the specificity of the ‘critique of political economy’ constituted by Capital. This will give us an index which enables us to determine whether we really are dealing with a change of theoretical terrain.

(1) The Problem of the Starting-Point and the Critical Question

a) Value and value-form

We know the importance Marx attributed to the problem of the starting-point of a science in the general Introduction of 1857. The fundamental character of this question is confirmed in Capital. Thus when Marx is criticising Smith in Volume Two, for example, he states that the source of his errors and contradictions has to be looked for in his ‘scientific starting-points’. Hence this is the level at which we ought to be able to find the difference between Marx and classical economics.

What defines the scientificity of classical economics for Marx?

Classical economics seeks to reduce the various fixed and mutually alien forms of wealth to their inner unity by means of analysis and to strip away the form (Gestalt) in which they exist independently alongside one another. It seeks to grasp (begreifen) the inner connection (inhere Zusammenhang) in contrast to the multiplicity of outward forms (Erscheinungsformen) (Theories of Surplus-Value, MECW 32, p. 499).

In Capital (Vol. 3, p. 969), Marx uses the word auflösen (dissolve) to designate the work of classical economics. Classical economics dissolves the fixed forms of wealth, an operation which, in the same text, Marx describes as a critical operation. This dissolution is a return to an inner unity, the determination of value by labour time.

Classical political economy is thus constituted as a science by its installation of a difference between the diversity of phenomenal forms and the inner unity of the essence. But it does not reflect the concept of this difference. Look at its application in Ricardo:

Ricardo starts out from the determination of the relative values (or exchangeable values) of commodities by ‘the quantity of labour’ … Their substance is labour. That is why they are ‘values’. Their magnitude varies, according to whether they contain more or less of this substance (Theories of Surplus-Value, MECW 31, p. 389).

Ricardo determines two things: the substance of value which is labour; and the magnitude of value which is measured by labour time. But he neglects a third term: ‘Ricardo does not examine the form – the peculiar characteristic of labour that creates exchange-value or manifests itself in exchange-values – the nature of this labour’ (ibid.).

In the analysis of value which is Ricardo’s scientific starting-point, there is thus an absent term in the first chapter of Capital: ‘The substance of value and the magnitude of value have now been determined. The form of value remains to be analysed’ (Le Capital, t. 1, p. 62; not in the English edition).

This is the work Ricardo never did. He was satisfied with the restored unity. The dissolution (Auflösung) of the fixed forms of wealth he regarded as the solution (Lösung) of the problem of value. Marx’s procedure, on the contrary, as Engels points out in the Preface to Volume Two, is to see in this solution a problem. Marx poses the question we can call the critical question: Why does the content of value take the form of value?

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed (sich darstellt) in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the value of the product (Capital, Vol. 1, pp. 173–4).

The critical question is the problematization of the content-form relationship. For Ricardo, value is labour. It does not matter in what form this substance appears. For Marx, labour is represented in value, it takes on the form of the value of commodities.

Given the equation: x commodities A = y commodities B, Ricardo resolves it simply by saying that the substance of the value of A is equal to the substance of the value of B. Marx shows that this equation is posed in very special terms. One of the terms only features as use-value, the other only as exchange-value or form of value.

Hence we must pose:

Form of value of A = Natural form of B.

B lends its body, its natural form, for the expression of the value of A.

The value must therefore have its form of existence in the natural form of B. Hence we cannot be satisfied with an affirmation of the identity of the content of A and B. We can see this from the critique Marx made of Bailey in the Theories of Surplus-Value. For Bailey, value is merely a relation between two objects, just as distance is a relation between two objects in space. ‘A thing cannot be valuable in itself without reference to another thing … any more than a thing can be distant in itself without reference to another thing’ (cit. Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, MECW 32, p. 329).

Look how Marx refutes this argument:

If a thing is distant from another, the distance is in fact a relation between the one thing and the other; but at the same time, the distance is something different from this relation between the two things. It is a dimension of space, it is some length which may as well express the distance of two other things besides those compared. But this is not all. If we speak of the distance as a relation between two things, we suppose something ‘intrinsic’, some ‘property’ of the things themselves, which enables them to be distant from each other. What is the distance between the syllable A and a table? The question would be nonsensical. In speaking of the distance of two things, we speak of their difference in space. Thus we suppose both of them to be contained in the space, to be points of space. Thus we equalize them as being both existences of space, and only after having them equalized sub specie spatii we distinguish them as different points of space. To belong to space is their unity (ibid., p. 330).

This text seems to me to be open to two readings. At one level, Marx is defending Ricardo against Bailey’s criticism by disengaging the existence of a substance of value. The existence of this substance common to the two terms of the relation means that we are not dealing with a relation of the type A = table. This last relation is an absurd, irrational relation. By disengaging the substance of value, Ricardo avoids irrationality at this level. But since he does not disengage the form of value, he condemns himself to fall in his turn into contradiction and irrationality where more complex and developed forms than the commodity form are concerned.

What Ricardo omits is the critical question, the question of the ‘=’ sign. As we have seen, this sign is problematic in that it relates together two terms which are presented in absolutely heterogeneous forms. On the one hand we have a pure thing, on the other a pure incarnation of value:

A close scrutiny of the expression of the value of commodity A contained in the value-relation of A to B has shown us that within that relation the natural form of commodity A figures only as the aspect of use-value, while the natural form of B figures only as the form of value (Capital, Vol. 1, p. 153).

The identity posed by the ‘=’ sign thus conceals a most radical difference. It is an identity of opposites. ‘The relative form of value and the equivalent form are two inseparable moments, which belong to and mutually condition each other; but, at the same time, they are mutually exclusive or opposed extremes’ (Vol. 1, p. 139–40). This identity of opposites is only possible because one form (the natural form of B) itself becomes the form of manifestation of its opposite value.

Thus, we see, and could have read implicitly at a second level in the passages on Bailey, that commodities are only equal in the very special mechanism of representation (Darstellung). They are neither equal as mere things, nor even as items of the same substance; they are equal in determinate formal conditions imposed by the structure in which this relation is achieved.

We can make this reference to space say a little more than Marx says about it explicitly. The forms in which the things are related with one another by the dimension of value are forms determined by the structure of a certain space. The properties they take on in the equation must be determined by the properties of the space in which the representation, the Darstellung, is achieved. The installation of this space which makes an impossible equation possible is expressed by a certain number of formal operations: representation, expression, adoption of a form, appearance in such and such a form, etc.

Let us consider one of these operations: ‘Value takes on the form of a thing.’ This examination will enable us to make the meaning of the content/form relation clear; it is a matter of the relation between the inner determination and the mode of existence, the phenomenal form (Erscheinungsform) of this determination.

In fact, the expression means that value has its mode of existence, its phenomenal form (or form of manifestation), in the natural form of the equivalent commodity. The paradox is that value is unable either to appear or to exist. In so far as it appears in the natural form of a commodity, it disappears in it as value, and takes the form of a thing.

Value thus has its form of manifestation in the exchange relation only in so far as it is not manifested there. We are dealing with a type of causality quite new in relation to the 1844 Manuscripts. In the Manuscripts the equations which expressed the contradictions (e.g., the erection of the world of things into values = the depreciation of the world of men; or value of labour = value of means of subsistence) all referred to the equation: essence of man = essence foreign to man, i.e., they referred as their cause to the split between the human subject and its essence. The solution of the equation lay in one of its parts. The essence of man separated from the human subject provided the cause of the contradiction and the solution to the equation. The cause was referred to the act of subjectivity separating from itself.

Here, in the equation, or, what amounts to the same thing, the contradiction: x commodities A = y commodities B, the cause is not in the equation. The latter presents a relation between things, a connection between effects determined by the absence of the cause. This cause lies in the identity of useful labour, creative of use-values, and labour creative of exchange-values, of concrete labour and abstract labour. It is well-known that, in a letter to Engels dated 8 January 1868, Marx declared that the discovery of the double nature of labour (concrete labour and abstract labour) is ‘the whole secret of the critical conception’ (MECW 42, p. 514). This distinction is indeed what enables us to problematize the unity of the two determinations. Classical economics took the concept of labour without making the distinction. Hence it could not understand the specific character of the unity: abstract labour/concrete labour, and fell into inextricable difficulties. Having thought the distinction, Marx can think the unity. The latter is the result of a social process. The absent cause to which we are referred is the social relations of production.

Thus the formal operations which characterize the space in which economic objects are related together manifest social processes while concealing them. We are no longer dealing with an anthropological causality referred to the act of a subjectivity, but with a quite new causality which we can call metonymic causality, borrowing this concept from Jacques-Alain Miller, who formulated it in the exposition he devoted to the critique of Georges Politzer. Here we can state it as follows: what determines the connection between the effects (the relations between the commodities) is the cause (the social relations of production) in so far as it is absent. This absent cause is not labour as a subject, it is the identity of abstract labour and concrete labour inasmuch as its generalization expresses the structure of a certain mode of production, the capitalist mode of production.

In other words, the equation: x commodities A = y commodities B is, as we have seen, an impossible equation. What Marx does, and what distinguishes him radically from classical economics, is to theorize the possibility of this impossible equation. Without this theory, classical economics could not conceive the system in which capitalist production is articulated. By not recognizing this absent cause, it failed to recognize the commodity form as ‘the simplest and the most general form’ of a determinate mode of production – the capitalist mode of production. Even if it did recognize the substance labour in the analysis of the commodity, it condemned itself to incomprehension of the more developed forms of the capitalist production process.

In his critique of the starting-point of classical economics, Marx disengages a problem which is that of the mode of manifestation of a certain structure within a space which is not homogeneous with it. We must now make clear the terms of this last problem.

b) The problem of economic objects

Take the commodity-object. Three statements of Marx enable us to define its object character:

1) ‘The products of labour take on the commodity form.’ Here we see that strictly speaking there is not a commodity-object but a commodity-form.

2) The products of labour, when they become values, change into ‘things which transcends sensuousness’ or social things (sinnlich-übersinnlich oder gesellschaftliche Dinge)’ (Vol. 1, pp. 163–4).

3) ‘Commodities possess an objective character as values (Wertgegenständlichkeit) only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labour’ (Vol. 1, p. 138).

The question is to define the Gegenständlichkeit of commodities, i.e., their reality as objects. The latter is a very special reality. The thingness of commodities is a social thingness, their objectivity an objectivity of value. Elsewhere Marx says that they have a phantasmagoric objectivity. This objectivity only exists as the expression of a social unity, human labour.

We can therefore no longer have a subject-object couple like that of the 1844 Manuscripts. In the Manuscripts, the term Gegenstand was given a sensualist meaning, whereas here it is no more than a phantom, the manifestation of a characteristic of the structure. What takes the form of a thing is not labour as the activity of a subject but the social character of labour. And the human labour in question here is not the labour of any constitutive subjectivity. It bears the mark of a determinate social structure:

It is only a historically specific epoch of development which presents (darstellt) the labour expended in the production of a useful thing as an ‘objective’ (gegenständlich) property of that article, i.e., as its value. It is only then that the product of labour becomes transformed into a commodity (Vol. 1, pp. 153–4).

It is therefore a ‘historically determined epoch’, i.e., a determinate mode of production, which achieves the Darstellung of labour in the phantasmagoric objectivity of the commodity.

The status of this Gegenständlichkeit is made even clearer when Marx speaks of an illusion of objectivity (gegenständliche Schein):

The belated scientific discovery that the products of labour, in so far as they are values, are merely the material expressions of the human labour expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development, but by no means banishes the semblance of objectivity possessed by the social characteristics of labour (den gegenständlichen Schein der gesellschaftlichen Charaktere der Arbeit) (Vol. 1, p. 167).

The character of this Gegenständlichkeit is such that it is only recognized for what it is, i.e., as a metonymic manifestation of the structure, in science. In ordinary perception it is taken for a property of the thing as such. The social character of the products of labour appears as a natural property of these products as mere things.

This theory of the sensuous-supersensuous object enables us to mark the difference between the problematic of Capital and that of the 1844 Manuscripts. In the Manuscripts, economic objects were treated in an amphibological fashion because the theory of wealth was overlaid by a Feuerbachian theory of the sensuous. The sensuous character of the objects of labour referred to their human character, to their status as objects of a constitutive subjectivity. Here objects are no longer taken for anything sensuous-human. They are sensuous-supersensuous. This contradiction in the mode of their appearance refers to the type of objectivity to which they belong. Their sensuous-supersensuous character is the form in which they appear as manifestations of social characteristics.

The substitution of the relationship sensuous/supersensuous social, for the relationship human/sensuous, is fundamental for an understanding of what Marx calls the fetishism of commodities.

To show this let us examine the beginning of section 4 from the first chapter entitled ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret’: ‘A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ (Vol. 1, p. 163).

I think it may be instructive to take this last phrase absolutely to the letter. It means that the commodity is theological in the sense the concept of theology has in the anthropology of Feuerbach and the young Marx. Let us follow this guiding thread in the analysis of the commodity:

In the production of the coat, human labour-power, in the shape of tailoring, has in actual fact been expended. Human labour is therefore been accumulated in the coat. From this point of view the coat is a ‘bearer of value’ (Wertträger), although this property never shows through, even when the coat is most threadbare (Vol. 1, p. 143).

The object is no longer transparent. The whole theory relating the sensuous and the object to the human subject collapses. The coat has a quality which it does not get from the act of a subject, a supernatural quality. It is the bearer (Träger) of something which has nothing to do with it.

Here we have come once again upon the concept of the bearer which we located in the diagram of the anthropological critique of speculation, and with it we return to a function which corresponds to the function of incarnation in this same diagram. The empirical thing (the coat) becomes the bearer of the supernatural abstraction value just as the empirical existence of the monarch became the incarnation of the abstract category ‘sovereignty’ in Hegel.

Nevertheless, the coat cannot represent value towards the linen unless value, for the latter, simultaneously assumes the form of a coat. An individual, A, for instance, cannot be ‘your majesty’ to another individual, B, unless majesty in B’s eyes assumes the physical shape of A (Vol. 1, p. 143).

It is not just because it is a question of majesty here and of sovereignty in the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law of 1843 that we can affirm the homology between the structure of the manifestation of value and the structure of incarnation which constituted an element of the general structure of speculation in the 1843 text. Value is incarnated in the empirical existence of the coat, just as majesty is incarnated in the empirical existence of A, and sovereignty is incarnated in the empirical existence of the Hegelian monarch.

Thus we see emerging an identical form to that of 1843. But it has neither the critical function that it had in the anthropological critique of speculation, nor the function which the Della Volpe school want it to play as a critique of the speculative operation performed by classical political economy. The union of the sensuous and the supersensuous here expresses the phenomenal form of value itself, and not its speculative translation. In the 1843 Critique this union was presented as a speculative operation. Hegel transformed the sensuous (the empirical) he found at the starting-point so as to make a supersensuous abstraction from it which he then incarnated in a sensuous existence which served as a body for this abstraction.

This means that the pattern which designated the speculative procedure in the anthropological critique, here designates the process which takes place in the field of reality itself. This concept of reality (Wirklichkeit) must be understood to mean precisely the space in which the determinations of the structure manifest themselves (the space of phantasmagoric objectivity). We must carefully distinguish between this Wirklichkeit, real with respect to perception, and the wirkliche Bewegung (real movement) which constitutes the real with respect to science.

We see that the properties which define the Wirklichkeit, the space of appearance of the determinations of the economic structure, are the properties which defined the operations of speculative philosophy for the young Marx. The commodity is theological, i.e., reality is of itself speculative, it itself presents itself in the form of a mystery.

There is another example of this change in function of the structure of incarnation in the text entitled Die Wertform (the first draft of Chapter 1 of Capital):

This inversion (Verkehrung) by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete, characterizes the expression of value. At the same time, it makes understanding it difficult. If I say: Roman law and German law are both laws, that is obvious. But if I say: Law (das Recht), this abstraction (Abstraktum) realizes itself in Roman law and in German law, in these concrete laws, the interconnection becomes mystical (‘The Value-Form’, Capital and Class, no. 4, spring 1978, p. 140).

The process which characterizes the mode of existence of value here is the one which characterized the speculative Hegelian operation for the young Marx, and which he illustrated in The Holy Family by the dialectic of the abstract fruit realizing itself in concrete pears and almonds.

If reality is speculative, an extremely important consequence follows: every critical reading which claims, along the lines of the letter to Ruge, to speak or read things as they are, is invalidated. The ambitions of the letter to Ruge are refuted in one short sentence which tells us that ‘Value does not carry what it is written on its forehead’ (Es steht daher dem Werte nicht auf der Stirn geschrieben was er ist).

We are no longer concerned with a text calling for a reading which will give its underlying meaning, but with a hieroglyph which has to be deciphered. This deciphering is the work of science. The structure which excludes the possibility of critical reading is the structure which opens the dimension of science. This science, unlike Ricardo, will not be content to pose labour as the substance of value while deriding the commodity fetishism of the Mercantilists who conceived value to be attached to the body of a particular commodity. It will explain fetishism by theorizing the structure which founds the thing-form adopted by the social characteristics of labour.

Our thanks to Colin Beckett and Wes House at Verso Books for allowing the publication of this excerpt. 

This article is part of a dossier entitled “A Struggle Without End”: Althusser’s Interventions.

Author of the article

is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris VIII.