Fundamentals of Marxism 1: Marx is Method

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In the first instalment of a new series on the fundamentals of Marxism, David Jamieson provides an introduction to the Marxist method.

Marxism is not an ideology. If you know that you know more on the subject of Marxism than many who profess to be Marxists and more than practically any university professor who makes his career teaching Marxism. Marxism is a methodology. This simple fact makes Marxism unique in the realm of radical political and social thought.

Marx distances himself from ideology, which he presents in ‘The German Ideology’ as a jumbled zeitgeist of notions and assumptions, experiences learned and prejudices received; all of which form, for Marx, the distorted, alienated consciousness which exists in class society.
Most people today asked to define an ideology would tell you not only what one is but also (if unconsciously) why ‘ideology’ is so wrong headed. An ideology is a world view, a more or less internally coherent set of beliefs and normative values which seeks to explain the human world and its operation. It is not scientific and is completely unfit for the task of either comprehending or changing the world. Why?

The ‘Camera Obscura’

Marx’s simple proposition is that human social relations, which he sought to understand the better to promote revolutionary change, cannot be studied using methods drafted in from the ‘physical’ sciences. In particular simple observation, the bedrock of an empirical scientific method, is of little use in understand social relations.

Unequal and unjust societies tend to be produced and reproduced by unequal and unjust human relationships. In order for these relationships to survive their true nature cannot be obvious. In our society today, just as in all previous class societies, relations between social classes and between established power and the oppressed lie about themselves. Karl Marx called this problem the ‘Camera Obscura’. For Marx “…in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura …”, this is an organic process in class society which “…arises just as much from…historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from…physical life-process.”

To observe the world and then to base your views of the world on those observations is not scientific. Those wanting to study the social world need a different set of tools than those studying, say, simple chemical reactions*. They need a different methodology.

Marx’s Method

Marx begins by identifying that by using simple observation only the ‘surface’ image of social relations are detectable. On their own these surface images obscure the reality of the social relation. So a boss exchanging an hourly wage in return for labour might appear as a just contract. It was entered into voluntarily and is now being honoured, both parties have received what they wanted in a win-win situation.

To really understand this relationship Marx advocated arriving first at the ‘essence’ of the social relationship. In the above case this involves some of Marx’s most famous findings. Labour in a capitalist economy is a commodity, a class of persons exist who do not hold productive capital and who therefore are forced to sell their ‘labour power’ – their ability to engage in production, in order to survive. And they must sell their labour too individuals who do own capital – capitalists.

For many on the ‘liberal’ or ‘Social-Democratic’ left, the wage relation is essentially summed up by the first paragraph under the last heading. For many a dogmatic ‘Marxist’ it is summed up by the end of the second paragraph. But Marx neither dismisses mere observation of ‘surface’ nor rests upon the ‘essence’ but continues to develop his methodological analysis.

Marx recognised the surface image as the product of a ‘totality’ of determinant influences. But these determinations do not share a common logic, and their influence upon the totality can obscure its meaning. In order to understand this complex totality it is necessary to reduce the phenomena to its essence so as to identify these determinations in their simplest form. Having moved from the surface to the root essence it is then our job to rebuild the totality using these determinations as our building blocks. Marx called this ‘rising from the abstract to the concrete’ via ‘a number of intermediary stages’.


It is impossible here to give anything but the faintest outline of Marx’s method (it is best learned through Marx’s exposition in Das Kapital). It is only sufficient to present this basic introduction to make a few points about contemporary left-wing politics (and the value of Marx for that politics.) First, non-Marxist radical politics aren’t playing in the same league.

The difference between Marxism and Social Democracy is not a perspective over parliament. The difference between Anarchism and Marxism isn’t an analysis of the state or power. The difference between ‘deep’ Ecologism and Marxism has nothing to do with the dangers of ‘humanism’. The difference is that these are ideologies and Marxism is a science.

Second, tiny grouplets of ‘Marxists’ delimiting themselves from one another on the basis of ‘positions’ concerning this or that crisis theory, this or that tactic and so on, are not performing as Marxists. They are behaving as churches, and they reproduce very much like tiny Presbyterian splinters -defining themselves against one another, and on the basis of often trivial matters of theology or practice.

An ideology may have a gospel – a method cannot. The Marxist Philosopher Georg Luckacs put it most brashly when he asserted that even if ” recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses” Marxism would still stand since “It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method.”

Third, Marxism exists, entirely contrary to its popular image, as the only genuine invitation to intellectual and practical self-emancipation. It calls on its practitioners to analyse and discover the world for themselves. It doesn’t stand at a secular pulpit and demand this or that view of crisis, this or that view of the state, this or that view of sexuality and so on.

Marx’s challenge to us is to understand the world and to change it. His challenge is to do so without a dictum or a road map. For that we need method.

* To be sure, the problem of distinction between surface image and essence exists in all observable phenomena. Marx noted that ‘all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things coincided’. The point here is that this problem is greatly complicated by the nature of human social relations.

In the following parts of the series, David will unpack the dialectic and the theory of historical materialism.

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