The Poverty of Philosophy/Preface

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The Poverty of Philosophy  (1913)  by Karl Marx, translated by Harry Quelch


The present work was written in the winter of 1846–7, at a time when Marx had just elucidated the principles of his new historical and economic theory.[1] The “Système des Contradictions Economique ou Philosophie de la Misère,” of Proudhon, which had just appeared, gave him the opportunity of developing his principles in opposing them to the ideas of the man who from then was to take a preponderating place among the French Socialists of his epoch. From the moment when both of them at Paris had lengthily discussed economic questions together, often for whole nights at a stretch, their tendency had been to drift further and further apart: Proudhon’s book showed that there was already an impassable gulf between them; to keep silence was no longer possible. Marx demonstrates in this reply the irreparable rupture which had taken place.

The summary of Marx’s judgment of Proudhon is expressed in the article reproduced as an appendix to this work, which first appeared in the Sozialdemokrat of Berlin, Nos. 16, 17 and 18. It was the only article Marx ever wrote for that journal. The efforts of Herr von Schweitzer to drag the paper into governmental and feudal waters constrained us to publicly withdraw from it after a few weeks.

The present work has for Germany a special importance which Marx did not foresee. How could he have known that in attacking Proudhon he at the same time struck a blow at the idol of the Strebars (arrivistes) of to-day, Rodbertus, whose name even he did not know?

This is not the place to deal at length with the relations existing between Marx and Rodbertus; I may soon have the opportunity to do it. Suffice it here to say that when Rodbertus accuses Marx of having “pillaged” him, and of having in his “Capital” profited much by his work, “Zur Erkenntniss,” &c., without making any acknowledgment, he allows himself to be guilty of a calumny which is only to be explained by the natural ill-humor of a misunderstood genius, and his remarkable ignorance of everything occurring outside of Prussia, and notably of Socialist and economic literature. These accusations never, any more than the work we have cited, came under the notice of Marx; of Rodbertus’s work he knew nothing, except the three “Sozialen Briefe” (“Social Letters”), and even these certainly not before 1858 or 1859.

There is much more foundation for Rodbertus’s claim to have in these letters discovered “the constituted value of Proudhon” long before Proudhon. But he is wrong in flattering himself with the belief that he was the first to discover it. In any case, the present work criticises him with Proudhon, and this forces me to dilate somewhat upon his fundamental brochure, “Zur Erkenntniss unserer Staatswirthschaftlichen Zustände” [On the Explanation of our Economical Position], 1842, at least in so far as this work of his, besides the communism of Weitling, which it also contains, however unconsciously anticipates Proudhon.

In so far as modern Socialism, of no matter what tendency otherwise it may be, proceeds from bourgeois political economy, it almost exclusively attaches itself to the theory of value of Ricardo. The two propositions which Ricardo in 1817 put at the head of his “Principles”; First, that the value of each commodity is only and solely determined by the quantity of labor exacted by its production; and, second, that the product of the totality of social labor is shared between the three classes of landlords (rent), capitalists (profit), and laborers (wages)—these two propositions had already in England afforded material for Socialist conclusions. They had been deduced with so much clearness and profundity that this literature, which has now almost disappeared and which Marx had in great part discovered, could not be surpassed until the appearance of “Capital.” We shall return to this another time. When Rodbertus, in 1842, on his side drew certain Socialist conclusions from the principles above stated, that was then certainly an important step for a German to take, but it was only a discovery for Germany. Marx shows how little there is of novelty in a similar application of the theory of Ricardo by Proudhon, who suffered from an equal imagination.

“Whoever is, no matter how little, acquainted, with the movement of political economy in England, cannot but know that nearly all the Socialists of that country have, at different times, proposed the equalitarian (that is to say, Socialist) application of the Ricardian theory.” We might cite to M. Proudhon the “Political Economy” of Hopkins, 1822; William Thompson, “An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth most Conducive to Human Happiness,” 1827; T. R. Edmonds, “Practical Moral and Political Economy,” 1828, &c., &c., and we might add pages of “&c.” We will content ourselves with hearing an English Communist, Bray, in his remarkable work, “Labor’s Wrongs and Labor’s Remedy,” Leeds, 1839, and these quotations from Bray alone settle, for the most part, the claim to priority set up by Rodbertus.

At this time Marx had not entered the reading-room of the British Museum. Beyond the libraries, besides my books and my extracts, which he read during a journey of six weeks which we made together in England in the summer of 1845, he had perused only the books which one could procure at Manchester. The literature of which we have spoken was then not as inaccessible as it may be at the present time. If, in spite of that, it was unknown to Rodbertus, that is entirely due to the fact that he was an exclusive Prussian. He is the veritable founder of specifically Prussian Socialism, and he is at last recognized as such.

However, even in his beloved Prussia, Rodbertus could not remain in absolute ignorance of the work of others. In 1859 there appeared at Berlin the first book of the “Critique de l’Economie Politique,” by Marx. There we find, among the objections raised by the economists against Ricardo, as second objection, p. 40: “If the value in exchange of a product is equal to the labor time which it contains, the value in exchange of a day of labor is equal to its product. Or, indeed, wages must be equal to the product of labor. But it is the contrary which is true.” In a note: “This objection raised against Ricardo from the side of the economists, has been raised again later by the Socialists. The theoretical exactitude of the formula being admitted, the practice is accused of being in contradiction to the theory, and bourgeois society was invited to draw practically the conclusions implied by the theory. Some English Socialists have, at least in this sense, turned the formula of the exchange-value of Ricardo against political economy.” We are referred in this note to the “Misère de la Philosophie” of Marx, which was then in all the libraries.

It was, then, sufficiently easy for Rodbertus to convince himself of the real novelty of his discoveries of 1842. Instead of that he has not ceased to proclaim them, and to believe them to be so incomparable that he has never once been able to suppose that Marx all alone could have drawn from Ricardo the same conclusions as Rodbertus himself had done. That was impossible. Marx had “pillaged” him—him to whom the same Marx had offered every facility for convincing himself that long before either of them these conclusions, at least in the gross form that they still possess with Rodbertus, had already been expressed in England.

The most simple Socialist application of the theory of Ricardo is that which we have given above. In many cases it has led to perceptions on the origin and the nature of surplus-value which have gone far beyond Ricardo. The same may be said with regard to Rodbertus. Not only does he in this order of ideas never present anything which has not already been at least as well said before, but his expositions also possess all the defects of those of his predecessors. He accepts the economic categories of labor, capital, value, in the crude form in which they had been transmitted to him by the economists, under their assumed form, without seeking their content. He thus not only closes to himself all means of developing himself more completely—contrary to Marx who, for the first time, has made something of these propositions so often reproduced during the past sixty-four years—but he takes the road which leads straight to utopia, as we will show.

The above application of the theory of Ricardo, which shows to the workers that the totality of social production, which is their product, belongs to them because they are the only real producers, leads direct to Communism. But it is also, as Marx shows, false in form, economically speaking, because it is simply an application of morality to economy. According to the laws of bourgeois economy, the greater part of the product does not belong to the workers who have created it. If, then, we say, “That is unjust, it ought not to be”; that has nothing whatever to do with economy, we are only stating that this economic fact is in contradiction to our moral sentiment. That is why Marx has never based upon this his Communist conclusions, but rather upon the necessary overthrow, which is developing itself under our eyes every day, of the capitalist system of production. He contents himself with saying that surplus-value consists of unpaid labor; it is a fact, pure and simple. But that which may be false in form from the economic point of view may yet be exact from the point of view of universal history. If the moral sentiment of the mass regards an economic fact—as, formerly, slavery and serfdom—as unjust, that proves that this fact itself is a survival; that other economic facts are established thanks to which the first has become insupportable, intolerable. Behind the formal economic inexactitude may, therefore, be hidden a very real economic content. It would, however, be out of place here to dwell at length on the importance and the history of surplus-value.

We can draw other conclusions from Ricardo’s theory of value, and that has been done. The value of commodities is determined by the labor exacted by their production. But it is found that in this wicked world commodities are bought sometimes above, sometimes below, their value, and besides, there is the relation to the variations of competition. As the rate of profit has a tendency to maintain itself at the same level for all capitalists, the price of commodities tends also to sink to the value of labor, through the intermediary of supply and demand. But the rate of profit is calculated upon the total capital employed in an industrial enterprise; on the other hand, in two different branches of industry the annual production may incorporate equal masses of labor, that is to say, present equal values, while, if the wages are at an equal level in these two branches, the capital advanced can be, and often is, doubled or trebled in one or the other branch. Ricardo’s law of value, as Ricardo himself has already discovered, is in contradiction to the law of the equality of the rate of profit. If the products of the two branches are sold at their value, the aggregates of profits cannot be equal; but if the rates of profit are equal, the products of the two branches are not sold at their value everywhere and always. We have then, here, a contradiction, an antagonism between two economic laws. The practical solution operates, according to Ricardo (chap. i., sections 4 and 5) regularly in favor of the rate of profit at the expense of the value.

But Ricardo’s definition of value, in spite of its evil characteristics, has a phase which renders it dear to our good bourgeoisie. That is the side on which it appeals with irresistible force to their sense of justice. Justice and equality of rights, those are the twin pillars upon which the bourgeoisie of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would raise their social edifice above the ruins of injustice, of feudal inequalities and privileges. The determination of the value of commodities by labor and the free exchange which arises according to this measure of value between the possessors of equal rights, such are, as Marx has already shown, the real foundation upon which all the political, juridical and philosophical ideology of the modern bourgeoisie is erected. When one knows that labor is the measure of commodities, the good sentiments of the worthy bourgeoisie must feel deeply wounded by the wickedness of the world, which, indeed, nominally recognises this principle of justice, but which every moment without compunction actually appears to set it on one side. Above all, the “little man,” whose honest labor—even when it is only that of his workmen or of his apprentices—loses every day more and more of its value through the competition of the great industry and of machinery; above all, the small producer must ardently desire a society in which the exchange of products according to their labor-value would be a complete and invariable reality. In other terms, he must ardently desire a society in which a single law of production of commodities reigns fully and exclusively, but in which the conditions which alone render this law effective, that is to say, the other laws of the production of commodities, or better, of capitalist production, were entirely suppressed.

This utopia has struck its roots deep and wide in the thought of the modern middle class—real or ideal. This is demonstrated by the fact that already in 1831 it had been systematically developed by John Gray; that at this period it had been practically tried, theoretically expounded, in England, proclaimed as the most recent truth in 1842 by Rodbertus in Germany, in 1846 by Proudhon in France, and again published by Rodbertus as the solution of the social question, and, so to speak, his social testament in 1871; and in 1884 it receives the adhesion of the sequel evolved under the name of Rodbertus to exploit Prussian State Socialism.

The criticism of this utopia has been made so completely by Marx, as well against Proudhon as against Gray (Cf. appendix 2 of this work), that I need only devote myself here to some remarks on the special form that Rodbertus has adapted to formulate and express it.

As we have said: Rodbertus accepts the traditional economic concepts under the exact form in which they have been transmitted to him by the economists. He does not make the slightest attempt to verify them. Value is for him “the quantitative valuation of one thing relatively to others, this valuation being taken for measure.” This none too rigorous definition gives us at the most an idea of what value appears almost to be, but does not say absolutely what it is. But as it is all that Rodbertus is able to tell us about value, it is comprehensible that he seeks for a measure of value outside of value. After having at random, and without method, twisted use-value and exchange-value about under a hundred aspects with that power of abstraction so infinitely admired by M. Adolphe Wagner, he arrives at this result—that there is no real measure of value, and that it is necessary to be content with a supererogatory measure. Labor may be such measure, but only in the case of an exchange between products of equal quantities of labor; if the case is otherwise in other instances, it is not so unless one has taken means to assure it. Value and labor thus remain without the least real relation to each other, although all the first chapter has been devoted to an endeavor to explain to us how and why the cost of commodities is determined by labor and by nothing but labor.

Labor is yet again taken in the form in which one meets it with the economists. And not even that. Because although there may be something said as to the difference in intensity of labor, it is very generally represented as something which “costs,” that is to say which is a measure of value, whether it be expended or not under the normal conditions of society. Whether the producers employ ten days in the manufacture of products which could be manufactured in one day, or if they employ only one; whether they use the best or the worst implements; whether they apply their labor time to the manufacture of articles socially necessary or in the quantity socially required; whether they make articles for which there is no demand at all or articles for which there is more or less demand—of all that there is no question; labor is labor, the product of equal labor must be exchanged with the product of equal labor. Rodbertus, who in all other cases is always ready, whether it be relevant or not, to place himself at the national point of view and to consider the relations of isolated producers from the height of the observatory of general society, timidly avoids all that here. Simply because from the first line of his book he goes straight to the utopia of the labor-note, and that all analysis of labor as the producer of value only strews his route with difficulties. His instinct was here considerably stronger than his power of abstraction—that cannot be discovered in Rodbertus, it may be said in passing, only by means of the most concrete poverty of ideas.

The journey to utopia is quickly made. “The dispositions” which fix the exchange of commodities according to the value of labor as following an absolute law present no difficulty. All the other utopians of this tendency, from Gray to Proudhon, are at great pains to elaborate social measures. In order to realize this object they at least endeavor to resolve the economic question by economic means, due to the action of the owner of commodities who exchanges them. For Rodbertus it is much more simple. As a good Prussian he calls in the State. A decree of the public power establishes the reform.

Value is thus then happily “constituted,” but not the priority of this constitution which is claimed by Rodbertus. On the contrary, Gray as well as Bray—among many others—have often expressed the same idea; they piously desire measures by which the products will exchange, in spite of all obstacles, always and only at their value in labor. After the State has thus constituted value—at least of a part of the products, as Rodbertus is modest—it issues its labor-notes; in effect, as advances to the industrial capitalists with which the workers are paid; the workers then buy the products with the labor-notes they have received and thus permit the return of the paper money to its original source. It is necessary to learn from Rodbertus himself how admirably that develops.

“For this second condition we must secure the disposition which exacts that the value attested should be really in circulation by giving only to him who actually delivers a product, a note on which should be marked exactly the quantity of labor necessary for the manufacture of the product. He who delivers a product of two days’ labor would receive a note marked ‘two days.’ The second condition would be necessarily fulfilled by the strict observance of this regulation in the issue of the notes. According to our hypothesis, the true value of goods coincides with the quantity of labor expended in their manufacture, and this quantity of labor is measured by the division of time expressed. He who delivers a product to which two days’ labor have been devoted, if he receives a certificate of two days’ labor, has then secured that there should be assigned or certified to him neither more nor less value than he has in fact delivered—and further, as he only who has really put a product in circulation, alone secures such an attestation, it is equally certain that the value inscribed on the note is capable of paying society. Enlarge as much as we will the sphere of the division of labor, if the regulation is properly followed the sum of value disposable must be exactly equal to the sum of value certified, and, as the sum of value certified is exactly the sum assigned, this must necessarily coincide with the value disposable. All the exigencies are satisfied and the liquidation is perfect.” (Pages 166, 167.)

If Rodbertus has up to the present had the misfortune of arriving too late with his discoveries, this time, at least, he has obtained a kind of originality; none of his rivals had dared to give to the foolish utopia of the labor-note this form so naïvely infantile, I might even say so truly Pomeranian. Because that for each note an object of corresponding value is delivered, as no object of value is delivered except against a corresponding note, necessarily the sum of notes is covered by the sum of the objects of value. The calculation is perfectly equal, it is exact to a second of labor time, and there is not a superior employee in the Office of the Public Debt who, however appalled by his own duties, could in this calculation make the slightest error. What more could be desired?

In modern capitalist society each industrial capitalist produces on his own account what he likes, how he likes, and as much as he likes. The quantity socially demanded is for him an unknown magnitude, and he does not know the quality of the objects demanded any more than their quantity. That which to-day cannot be supplied quickly enough may to-morrow be in excess of the demand. Ultimately demand is satisfied in some fashion, ill or well, and generally production is definitely regulated by the objects demanded. How is the reconciliation of this contradiction effected? By competition. And how does that arrive at this solution? Simply by depreciating below their labor value the commodities which are by reason of their quality or quantity useless or unnecessary, in the present state of the demand of society, and in making the producers feel, in this explicit fashion, that they have manufactured articles absolutely useless or unnecessary, or that they have manufactured a superfluity of otherwise useful articles. From that two things follow:

First, the continual deviation of the price of commodities in relation to the value of commodities is the necessary condition by which alone the value of commodities can exist. It is only by the fluctuations of competition, and following that, of the price of commodities, that the law of value realizes itself in the production of commodities and that the determination of value by the labor time socially necessary becomes a reality. That the form of representation of value, price, has, in general, a quite other aspect than the value which it manifests, is a lot which it shares with the greater part of social relations. The king often bears but slight resemblance to the monarchy which he represents. In a society of producers of exchangeable commodities, to wish to determine value by labor time by interdicting competition from establishing this determination of value in the single form by which it can do this—in influencing its price, is to show, at least in this connection, the habitual utopian misunderstanding of economic laws.

In the second place competition, in realizing the law of value of the production of commodities in a society of producers for exchange, establishes by that means and by assured conditions the single order and the single organisation possible for social production. It is only by the depreciation or appreciation of the price of products that the isolated producers of commodities learn to their cost what kind of things society requires, and the quantity it requires of them. But it is precisely this single regulator which the utopianism shared by Rodbertus would suppress. And if we ask what guarantee we have that only the necessary quantity of each commodity would be produced, that we should not be wanting corn and meat while there was an abundance of beet sugar and we were inundated with a too plentiful supply of potato spirit, that we should not be lacking breeches to cover our nakedness while breeches buttons were multiplied by the million—Rodbertus triumphantly shows us his famous account, in which there is set forth an exact certificate for each superfluous pound of sugar, for each cask of spirit not purchased, for each useless breeches button, an account which is “just,” which “satisfies all the conditions and in which the liquidation is exact.” And anyone who does not believe this has only to address himself to “M. X.,” the superior employee of the Office of the Public Debt in Pomerania, who has revised the calculation and has found it just, and who may be regarded as never having been capable of a mistake in his accounts.

And now let us briefly notice the naïveté with which Rodbertus would suppress industrial and commercial crises by means of his utopia. When the production of commodities has reached the limits of the world market it is by a cataclysm of this market, by a commercial crisis, that equilibrium is established between the isolated producers, producing each according to his individual calculation, and the market for which they produce, and of the demand of which, both as to quantity and quality, they are ignorant. If competition is to be prevented from making known to the isolated producers the state of the market by the rise or fall of prices, they would be blinded indeed. To direct the production of commodities in such fashion that the producers could not know the state of the market for which they produce—it is to provide for crises in such a fashion as to raise the envy of Doctor Eisenbart for Rodbertus.

We can understand now why Rodbertus determined the value of commodities by labor, and further admitted different degrees of intensity of labor. If he had enquired why and how labor created value and, in consequence, determined and measured it, he would have arrived at socially necessary labor, necessary for the isolated product, as well in relation to other products of the same kind, as well as in relation to the total quantity socially required. He would have been met with the question: How is the production of isolated producers accommodated to the total social demand? and all his utopia would have become impossible. This time, indeed, he has preferred to abstract, he has made an abstraction of the problem to be solved.

At last we come to the point where Rodbertus offers us something new: the point which distinguishes him from all his numerous comrades of the organisation of exchange by labor-notes. They all acclaim this method of exchange with the object of destroying the exploitation of wage-labor by capital. Each producer must obtain the total labor-value of his product. They are unanimous about this from Gray to Proudhon. Not at all, says Rodbertus, on the contrary. Wage-labor and its exploitation will still exist.

In the first place there is no social state possible in which the laborer could receive for his own consumption the total value of his product. The funds produced must support a number of functions economically unproductive but necessary; and they must consequently maintain the people concerned with these functions. That is true only as regards the present division of labor. In regard to a society where productive labor would be obligatory, a society which is certainly possible, the statement falls to the ground. There still remains the necessity for an accumulated social reserve fund, and then the laborers, that is to say all, would remain in possession and in enjoyment of the total product, but each isolated worker would not enjoy the integral product of his own labor. The support of functions, economically unproductive, by the product of labor has not been neglected by the other labor-note utopians. But they leave the workers to impose this obligation upon themselves, following in this respect the customary democratic method, while Rodbertus, whose whole theory of social reform in 1842 is fashioned according to the Prussian State pattern of that time, refers everything to the judgment of the bureaucracy, which authoritatively determines the share of the worker in the product of his own labor, and graciously abandons that part to him. Then rent and profit must also continue to exist. In fact, the landed proprietors and the industrial capitalists do fulfil certain functions, socially useful, or even necessary, although economically unproductive, and receive in exchange a kind of remuneration, rent and profit—which is a conception scarcely new, even in 1842. Truth to tell, they receive very much too much for the little that they do, and which they do sufficiently ill; but Rodbertus has need of a privileged class, at least for 500 years to come, also the rate of surplus-value, to express myself correctly, that must also exist, but without being capable of being augumented. Rodbertus accepts as the actual aggregate of surplus value, 200 per cent., that is to say, that for a daily labor of twelve hours the worker will not receive a certificate of twelve hours, but one of four hours only, and the value produced in the remaining eight hours must be shared between landlord and capitalist. The labor-notes of Rodbertus lie then, absolutely, but it is necessary to be a Pomeranian feudal proprietor to imagine that there is a working class to whom it would be advantageous to work twelve hours to obtain a labor-note of four hours. If the juggleries of capitalist production were translated in this simple manner, in which it appears as a manifest theft, it would be rendered impossible. Each labor-note given to the worker would be a direct provocation to rebellion, and would fall within the scope of section 110 of the penal code of the German Empire. It is necessary never to have seen any other proletariat than that of a Pomeranian feudal estate, a proletariat of day laborers, almost serfs, in fact, where the baton and the whip reign supreme, and where all the pretty girls of the village belong to the harem of their gracious seigneur, to be able to offer such impertinences to the workers. But our conservatives are our greatest revolutionists.

But if the workers were sufficiently simple to allow themselves to be persuaded that having labored for twelve full hours, they have in reality only labored four hours, they would at least be recompensed by being guaranteed that their proportion of the product of their own labor would never fall below a third. That is, in reality, to play the air of the society of the future on a child’s trumpet. That is really not worth spending another word upon. Consequently all that Rodbertus offers that is new in his utopia of labor-notes is childish and far inferior to the labor of his numerous rivals, whether they have preceded or followed him.

For the epoch in which it appeared Rodbertus’s “Zur Erkenntiss, &c.,” was certainly an important book. To pursue the theory of Ricardo in this direction was a promising beginning. If for him and for Germany alone it was a novelty, his work might in its completion have attained the same height as that of the best among his English predecessors. But it was only a commencement of which the theory could only achieve a real result by ulterior, fundamental, critical work. This development was arrested because from the outset the development of the theory of Ricardo was carried in the other direction, in the direction of utopia. From then it lost the essential of all criticism—independence. Rodbertus worked then with a preconceived end; he became an economist with a settled tendency. Once seized by his utopianism, he is precluded from all possibility of scientific progress. From 1842 until his death he turned in the same circle, reproduced the same ideas, already expressed or indicated in his preceding works, found himself misunderstood, found himself pillaged, when he had nothing of which to be robbed, and at last refused to accept the evidence that at bottom he had discovered nothing which had not already been established long before him.

It is scarcely necessary to remark that in this work the language is not identical with that of “Capital.” In this work Marx still speaks of labor as a commodity, and of its purchase and sale, instead of labor power.

As appendices we have added to this work: 1st, a passage from Marx’s work, “Critique de l’Economie Politique,” Berlin, 1859, with reference to the first labor-notes utopia of John Gray; and 2nd, the discourse of Marx on “Free Trade” delivered in French at Brussels in 1847, which belongs to the same period of the author’s development as the “Misère.”

Friedrich Engels.

London, October 23, 1884.

  1. “La Misère de la Philosophie,” written in French, was published in 1847 in Paris, by A. Franck, 69, Rue Richelieu, and in Brussels by C. G. Vogler, 2, Petite Rue de la Madeline; it was translated into German by E. Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, and published in 1892 by the Social-Democratic Party, together with this preface by Engels.

    Marx’s own copy of the work, which, as well as his other books were given by his two daughters, Laura and Eleanor, to the German Social-Democratic Party, to form the basis of a library for the party, bears some corrections from the hand of the author. They have been reproduced in this edition.—Note by Editor.