Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, May–June 1952


The Precursors of Marx

Discussion of a Vast Appendix to Capital


From The New International, Vol. XVIII No. 3, May–June 1952, pp. 163–168.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


To a Marxist, Marx’s economic theories are the cornerstone upon which the entire superstructure of Marxism is erected. Those who have accepted certain tenets or conclusions of scientific socialism while ignoring or rejecting Marxian economics have generally ended up by foundering in the morass of revisionism and social patriotism. Consequently, any book that throws light on some of Marx’s fundamental economic concepts provides a welcome addition to Marxian literature.

Terence McCarthy and The Langland Press are to be congratulated for having made available for the first time in English the first part of Marx’s notes that Engels intended to publish as Volume IV of Capital, but which Kautsky properly published in 1904 as a companion volume to Capital under Marx’s manuscript title, Theories of Surplus Value. [1] It is to be hoped that the remaining two parts, dealing with Ricardo and with Malthus and the decay of the Ricardian school, will rapidly appear in English.

It is interesting to note that at the same time that McCarthy has published this volume, the Stalinists have come out with an abridged Theories of Surplus Value, translated from the German by G.A. Bonner and Emile Burns, published by International Publishers. A fragmentary and random spot check indicates that the Stalinist version loses much from a too liberal translation from the German. It also reveals that it is not good policy to abridge Marx; sometimes, to be sure, it is easier to grasp Marx’s meaning from a complete re-write, but rarely from excerpts. The McCarthy translation, moreover, is exceptionally smooth. Whether this happy result was achieved because McCarthy worked from Molitor’s French translation or because he employs a freer translation style while preserving the essential meaning, we cannot say as the French version was not available to us. (McCarthy’s translation, by the way, was checked with the original German text by competent friends.)

Be that as it may, the present volume, especially in its major portion dealing with Adam Smith’s Theory of Productive Labor, reads like Marx at his best. For these 100-odd pages alone, the book is well worth reading by any Marxist or by anyone interested in understanding the essence of Marxian economics. This does not mean that Marx would have published this work in its present form. On the contrary, as Kautsky states in his preface:

I repeat that Marx, writing the manuscript for his own use, had not intended it for publication as it stood. This is proved above all by the form he gave it. It is true that the style is precise and terse, like all the works of Marx; Marx could not write otherwise, even when not addressing himself to others. But he let himself go more than was usual with him. Marx, who put the greatest possible value on style, worked and reworked each of his manuscripts before permitting them to go to press. Far removed from such polish, we find here whole propositions only hinted at and by no means worked out in full. The criticisms he levels at certain authors are so sharp as to recall Aristophanes. Above all, the peculiar and higgledy-piggledy mixture of German, French, and English in which the text is written proves it to be unready for the printer. Marx was equally facile in all three languages. Any of the three might suggest itself to him. Therefore, he habitually availed himself of exactly that one which seemed best to express the spirit of what he was trying to say, or which was suggested to him by whatever quotation he was discussing ...”

We cannot share McCarthy’s view that his choice of title, A History of Economic Theories, is superior to the Marx-Engels-Kautsky title, Theories of Surplus Value. It is rather pretentious. Had Marx been interested in writing a history of economic doctrines or theories, it would have been far more comprehensive and illuminating than the present work. Naturally, since the theory of profit and surplus value is the kernel of any history of bourgeois economic theories, from the Marxist point of view, some of the present material would have been contained in any such project, but it would have been entirely different in character, emphasizing the particular relationship between a given author and the state of capitalist development that prevailed, as well as the role of the individual author and his theory in advancing and justifying the extension of bourgeois power.

Nor does there appear to be any justification for McCarthy’s contention that the present work should have been the first volume of Capital. That any such arrangement would have prevented the “interpreters” of Marx from muddying the waters with their various explanations of what Marx really meant is far-fetched, far-fickled. As McCarthy says in his introduction: “There would still have been disagreement with Marx’s views. The Austrian school would still have come into being and the various marginal utility theories would have been propounded.” To go in the very next sentence from this eminently correct statement to such a phrase as – “But to the extent that the schools of political economy which succeeded Marx are based in part upon opposition to what people who have not read the whole of Marx believe he had to say, the earlier appearance of this work would have dispelled much misunderstanding and disputation.” (Our italics) – reveals a rather dubious comprehension of the dependence of economic theory on the state of the class struggle and the general economic environment. The implication is that bourgeois economists following Marx abandoned the doctrines of the English classical school of Smith and Ricardo not because Marx had succeeded in developing the labor theory of value and surplus value into an instrument that laid bare the inner workings of capitalism, but because they did not fully understand Marx.

Let us recall merely two statements from Marx to explain his understanding of the relationship of economic theory to the state of the class struggle. The first is from Poverty of Philosophy (pp. 134–135) and reveals his appreciation of the role of the English classicists: “Economists like Adam Smith and Ricardo, who are the historians of this epoch, have no other mission than to demonstrate how wealth is acquired in the relations of bourgeois production, to formulate these relations in categories, in laws, and to demonstrate how far these laws, these categories, are, for the production of wealth, superior to the laws and categories of feudal society. Poverty in their eyes is only the pain which accompanies all childbirth, in nature as well as in industry.”

The second is from Marx’s famous preface to the second edition of Capital (Kerr edition, pp. 17–19):

Since 1848 capitalist production has developed rapidly in Germany, and at the present time (1873) it is in the full bloom of speculation and swindling. But fate is still unpropitious to our professional economists. At the time when they were able to deal with Political Economy in a straightforward fashion, modern economic conditions did not actually exist in Germany. And as soon as these conditions did come into existence, they did so under circumstances that no longer allowed of their being really and impartially investigated within the bounds of the bourgeois horizon. In so far as Political Economy remains within that horizon, in so far, i.e., as the capitalist regime is looked upon as the absolutely final form of social production, instead of as a passing historical phase of its evolution, Political Economy can remain a science only so long as the class-struggle is latent or manifests itself only in isolated and sporadic phenomena.

Let us take England. Its political economy belongs to the period in which the class-struggle was as yet undeveloped. Its last great representative, Ricardo, in the end, consciously makes the antagonism of class-interests, of wages and profits, of profits and rent, the starting-point of his investigations, naively taking this antagonism for a social law of nature. But by this start the science of bourgeois economy had reached the limits beyond which it could not pass ... With the year 1830 came the decisive crisis.

In France and in England the bourgeoisie had conquered political power. Thenceforth, the class-struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested enquirers, there were hired prize-fighters ; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic.

Had McCarthy’s introduction been confined to a technical explanation of his translation, it would have been in better taste and have avoided a number of errors. To refer to the “legendary” Volume IV of Capital, and to Adam Smith as “the overwhelming influence upon the mature Marx,” smacks of sensationalism. The book, however, will be read primarily by serious students of Marx and Marxism. For these will readily understand that the work essentially represents some of Marx’s notes on surplus value and on the theory of productive labor. Some of the passages, particularly the concluding chapter on Notes on the Theory of Productive Labor, are brilliant examples of Marx’s best thought and style.

It is therefore a pity that McCarthy, to whom all of us owe such thanks, is guilty of some loose formulations, especially in relation to productive labor. On the one hand, he states: “Thus, labor was productive under capitalism, regardless of its content, or the form or nature of its product or the service it rendered, if it produced a profit.” A few sentences later he states: “Productive labor under capitalism, according to Marx, was that labor which not merely reproduced its own means of subsistence but produced an excess.” The two statements are not quite the same thing, nor is either fully reflective of Marx’s basic thought – although admittedly it is difficult to summarize Marx’s views on productive labor both because they are complex and the subject itself presents several ambiguities. Nevertheless, productive labor must produce surplus value, not merely profit which is one form of surplus value. Moreover, unpaid surplus labor existed under feudalism and exists under Stalinism. Its existence is merely one aspect of productive labor under capitalism. By itself it does not sufficiently delineate capitalism from other modes of production.

A fuller explanation of productive labor is required, for it lays bare the essence of capitalism. To obtain Marx’s true views on the question, it is necessary to turn to the last chapter in the present volume. States Marx:

That labor alone is productive which produces surplus value, or which serves capital as a means whereby to produce surplus value and, consequently, sets itself up as capital, as capital which employs itself in the production of surplus value.


Only this fixed relationship with labor transforms money and commodities into capital; and we designate productive that labor which, because of this relationship to the means of production, which is equivalent to the functional relationship actually existing in the real process of production, transforms money or commodities into capital, that is to say conserves and augments the value of materialized labor through this relation to labor power. The expression ‘productive labor’ is merely an abbreviation which indicates the relationship and the manner in which labor power figures in the process of capitalist production. This distinction between types of labor is extremely important because it gives us the piece form of that labor upon which rests the whole of capitalist production and capital itself. (Our italics.)

Therefore, in the capitalist system of production, productive labor is that labor which produces surplus value for its employer, which transforms the objective conditions of labor into capital and their proprietor into a capitalist, which produces its own product as capital.

It is therefore crystal clear that for labor under capitalism to be productive, labor power must be employed (consumed) to produce surplus value. While profit can be produced in unproductive spheres of the economy (the labor expended in which may be productive of profit or unpaid labor for the individual capitalist if exchanged for capital), surplus values arise only in production. From the point of view of society as a whole, the distinction is important. The aggregate capital of the bourgeoisie cannot be produced and accumulated without the transformation of labor power into surplus value. Nor can the profits of any given section of the capitalist class exist without the prior production of surplus values. Unpaid labor must result in the expansion of the entire capital in order for the labor involved to be judged as truly productive.

This leads Marx to a subsidiary, but important characteristic of productive labor:

In examining the essential character of capitalist production, one may also suppose (because, as happens more and more, it becomes the principal aim, and because only under these circumstances can the productive powers of labor be developed to their highest point) that, in theory or in fact, all the world of commodities, all spheres of material production, of the production of material wealth, are subjected to the capitalist mode of production. This hypothesis expresses the ultimate aim or limit and consequently approaches closer and closer to absolute correctness. All workers engaged in the production of commodities are wage workers, and the means of production are capital for everybody alike. Therefore, it can be said, the characteristic of productive laborers, of laborers producing capital, is that their labor realizes itself in commodities, in material wealth. We have thus found a second subsidiary characteristic of productive labor distinct from its determining characteristic and absolutely independent of the content of the labor (Our italics).

Marx thus endorses one of Adam Smith’s more important contributions: from the point of view of capitalist society as a whole, productive labor must not only produce surplus values in exchange for capital (as against labor power exchanged for revenue), but must also be engaged in the production of commodities – a point which Adam Smith stressed in characterizing the labor of domestic servants, government employees, etc., as unproductive. Some of Marx’s comments on unproductive labor and the attempts of the apologists of the bourgeoisie to refute Smith are priceless.

Illumination is thrown on many other complicated questions of economic theory, notably the reproduction of constant capital and the manner in which constant capital is transformed into value, as well as the origin of surplus value and its division among profit, interest, rent and taxes. The English classicists, the immediate precursors of Marx’s economic theories, came closer to a correct explanation of these basic phenomena of capitalism than did the Physiocrats or the early exponents of a primitive labor theory of value, such as Petty and Locke, but they were immeasurably handicapped by their lack of the concept of labor power. Despite his tremendous superiority over his contemporaries, Adam Smith was further confused by the contradiction between his labor-cost and labor-command theories of value, the former leading in a direct line to Ricardo and Marx, with the latter being developed by Malthus and resulting in the ultimate disintegration of the classical school, thereby paving the way for a variety of bourgeois apologetics based on numerous subjective theories of value.

While Marx clearly planned the history of the theory of surplus value as the last volume of Capital, the entire work is more illuminating as an example of Marx’s method, of how he drew upon the work of his precursors and turned their fundamental thoughts to exposing the laws of motion of capitalism. As such, it constitutes a vast appendix to Capital, one which every genuine Marxist will wish to read and to study.

* * *


1. A History of Economic Theories – From the Physiocrats to Adam Smith, by Karl Marx. Translated from the French by Terence McCarthy, The Langland Press, New York, 1952; 337 pp. $5.00.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 15 December 2018