Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy


In the preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx gave a classic characterization of the materialist conception of history. He pointed out that in social production, people enter into specific relations of production, relations that do not depend upon their will and that correspond to a particular phase of development of the productive forces. “The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, upon which the legal and political superstructure is erected and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. … It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development of society, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relationships of production or— this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution” (ibid., vol. 13, pp. 6–). Bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production. But at the same time, the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for resolving this antagonism. “The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation” (ibid., p. 8). Looking primarily at capitalism, Marx wrote that “no social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed” (ibid., p. 7).

In a review of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Engels noted that “to the highest degree, revolutionary conclusions not only for theory, but for practice as well,” follow from the materialist conception of history (ibid., p. 491). In this work by Marx, the foundations for the analysis of the capitalist mode of production were laid. Marx regarded the exploration of the commodity cell of capitalism and its further development in the form of money as a prerequisite for the analysis of capital and surplus value, the analysis of the relations of production of capitalism in their entirety.

The analysis of the two aspects of a commodity, use value and value, requires the examination of the dual nature of the labor that creates the commodity. Marx showed that one of the features of labor under the conditions of private property is that the social relations between people present themselves as relationships among things. Value emerges as a relationship among commodity owners, a relationship hidden under a material shell.

In the preface to the first volume of Das Kapital, Marx noted that he had summarized the content of A Contribution to theCritique of Political Economy in the first section of Das Kapital: “many points only hinted at in the earlier book are here worked out more fully, whilst, conversely, points worked out fully there are only touched upon in this volume” (ibid., vol. 23, p. 5). Thus, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx did not yet trace the development of forms of value from simple value to cash value. Generally, he used the same term, “exchange value,” to express both value and exchange value. The analysis of the two extremes of the expression of value—the comparative form of value and equivalent value—is also lacking here. On the other hand, the information contained in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy on the theory of money is more extensive than the corresponding sections of the first volume of Das Kapital. In the former, Marx shows that money is of necessity engendered by circulation itself. In the role that money plays, there begins to function a special commodity whose natural characteristics enable it to serve as an adequate entity of value and to act as the embodiment of social labor in the exchange process among private commodity producers. Gold and silver are used as money and have value not because they fulfill a particular function, but because they are products of labor. Money is the most developed expression of value, the result of the contradiction between concrete and abstract labor and between use value and value that is inherent in a commodity. In this form, private labor appears as social labor.

Having analyzed the various functions of money (as a measure of value, a means of circulation, a means of forming treasuries, a means of payment, and an international measure of value), Marx showed that all of them develop along with the development of the capitalist mode of production. Thus, the function of money as a means of payment expands with the development of bourgeois production, at the expense of its function as a means of purchase (means of circulation); and as the boundaries of domestic circulation are broken through, with the formation of the world market, money increasingly plays the role of an international measure of value, a universal means of exchange. Marx formulated the law that determines the quantity of money essential for normal circulation and established the dependence of a mass of circulating money on commodity prices, on the rates of circulation, and on the sum of reciprocally canceled payments.

In this work, Marx completed the critical analysis of the petit bourgeois, Utopian theories of “workers’ money” developed by J. Gray, J. F. Bray, and other English socialists, as well as by P. J. Proudhon and his followers. Marx showed that the abstract possibility of crisis is contained in the very form of money. For this possibility to become a reality, a transition from simple commodity production to capitalist production is necessary. With this transition, the contradiction between private and social labor that is inherent in the commodity develops into a more developed form—the contradiction between the social nature of production and the private capitalist mode of appropriation. Only under the conditions of the capitalist mode of production does the abstract possibility of crises become a reality. The economic theories of Marx, published in their mature form for the first time in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ideologically armed and rallied the working class in its struggle against the bourgeoisie and against the foundations of the capitalist system.


Leont’ev, L. A. O rahote K. Marksa “K kritike politicheskoi ekonomii” (1859–1959). Moscow, 1959.
Malysh, A. I. Formirovanie marksistskoi politicheskoi ekonomii. Mos-cow, 1966. Pages 331–49.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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