During the twentieth century, the philosophy of science developed the idea that there is an unavoidable relation between scientific concepts and the assumptions and values that are an integral component of the society in which the concepts emerge. And according to twentieth century philosophers of science, this relation between science and society applies to both the natural sciences and social sciences (Burtt 1954; Butterfield 1957; Kuhn 1957, 1970; Winch 1958). In the three-volume Theories of Surplus Value (Marx 1969a, 1969b, 1972), Marx anticipated this insight of twentieth century philosophy of science in his analysis of the development of the science of political economy and its relation to economic and social development.
Marx began his analysis with the mercantilists, the first interpreters of the modern world, who wrote during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before the political economists. According to Marx, writing in an epoch in which the gold and silver of Spanish America were the driving force of European economic activity, the mercantilists erroneously believed that the circulation of gold and silver was the source of surplus value. The mercantilists were not able to understand that labor is the source of surplus value, which according to Marx, was the principal insight of subsequent political economy.
The Physiocrats were the founders of political economy and the first to formulate a systematic theory of capitalist production. Writing later than the mercantilists, after the emergence of large-scale capitalist agriculture, they understood that labor is the source of surplus value. However, writing before the emergence of modern industry, they erroneously believed that agricultural labor is the source of surplus value. They were writing, according to Marx, from an agricultural bourgeois perspective.
Adam Smith, writing after the Physiocrats and after the emergence of modern industry, analyzed the economic system from the point of view of the industrial bourgeoisie. He understood, according to Marx, that surplus value originated not only in agricultural labor, but in general social labor. However, writing before the emergence of large-scale industry, Smith was not able to formulate a consistent theoretical system, and he often lapsed into a Physiocratic perspective. Smith, for example, considered government bureaucrats, military officials, artists, doctors, priests, judges, and lawyers to be non-productive parasites, as a consequence of the fact that they were under the control of the feudal aristocracy of the time. When the expanding and deepening bourgeois revolution transformed these professions, they began to serve bourgeois interests, and Smith’s definitions of productive and unproductive labor were criticized and rejected by subsequent political economists.
When large-scale industry emerged, the science of political economy was able to formulate a more consistent theoretical analysis, as was evident in the writings of David Ricardo. Like Smith, Ricardo wrote from the point of view of the industrial bourgeoisie. Ricardo, however, analyzed the period of 1770 to 1815, after the emergence of large scale industry, and he analyzed England, which had the most advanced industry of the epoch. As a result, Ricardo, according to Marx, was able to understand correctly and consistently the distinction between productive and unproductive labor, and he was able to discern the tendency of capitalism to reduce the percentage of the productive population.
However, writing before the emergence of the proletarian movement, Ricardo was not able to understand the importance of the reduction of labor time for the development of a more just and humane society that could be established on a foundation of automated industry and that would be characterized by the reduction of labor time and by versatile labor. Accordingly, Ricardo was opposed to the reduction of labor time. He viewed the expansion of production as desirable, since it increased the accumulation of capital. He was writing from the point of view of the modern industrial bourgeoisie.
Marx, writing after the emergence of the proletarian movement, was able to understand from the proletarian perspective the possibilities established by automated industry. He understood that the economic development of capitalism was establishing the technical foundation for an unprecedented level of production, and that this economic development was, at the same time, forming a revolutionary proletarian class, which could seize the possibilities provided by capitalist economic development to establish a society organized to benefit the great majority of persons on the planet.
We will discuss further in subsequent posts these Marxian concepts concerning automation and the revolutionary role of the proletariat. But to establish a clearer context for this discussion, we first will look at Marx’s understanding of human history as well as his analysis of the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie.
Burtt, Edwin Arthur. 1954. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Garden City: N.Y.: Doubleday, Anchor Books.
Butterfield, H. 1957. The Origins of Modern Science. New York: Macmillan.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1957. The Copernican Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
__________. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., enlarged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Marx, Karl. 1969a. Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. I. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
__________. 1969b. Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. II. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
__________. 1972. Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. III. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
McKelvey, Charles. 1991. Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science. New York: Greenwood Press.
Winch, Peter. 1958. The Idea of Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy. New York: Humanities Press.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marx, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, philosophy of science, Physiocrats, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, classical political economy