Inicio > Clásicos del marxismo, Economía marxista > “The Story of a Great Discovery”: Vitaly Vygodsky

“The Story of a Great Discovery”: Vitaly Vygodsky

Written: 1965
First Published: Istorii a odnogo velikogo otkrytii a K Marksa: k sozdanii u “Kapitala”, Moskva, Mysl, 1965
Source: The Story of a Great Discovery – How Karl Marx wrote “Capital“, Verlag Die Wirtschaft , 1973
Translated: Christopher Salt
Transcription/Markup: Steve Palmer
Copyleft: Internet Archive ( 2009 . Creative Commons Non-Commercial license

Instead of an Introduction

How Capital was created

Is it necessary to know the. background to Capital? The main stages. Why is the period from 1850 to 1863 so interesting ? Marx’s creative laboratory.

Like people, books also have their destiny and their biography and we decided to follow the history of Capital in its culminating period from 1850 to 1863. Although none of the volumes of Capital had yet appeared, it was nevertheless in this period that Marx had evolved all the major parts of his theory of economics. The history of Capital is essentially the history of the background of this theory and how it was evolved.

The history of the economic doctrine of Marx is so dramatic and so full of facts that it makes very interesting reading and is not at all just for those specializing in the history of Marxism.

But why should one know the history of Marx’s economic theory anyway? Isn’t it enough to study this theory of economics itself, as set out in the four volumes of Capital? This history must be known since the economic doctrine of Marx can only be correctly understood in its development, in its evolution. Otherwise, it will certainly be understood only in a dogmatic sense, i.e. in a way which is distorted, false and superficial.

Studying the history of Capital provides an opportunity of fixing the periods of time in which Marx wrote the individual volumes of it. It will be found that the manuscript of the fourth volume was completed at the beginning of the 1860’s and that of the third volume halfway through the same decade. The first volume was published in 1867 and the second was prepared for printing by Engels mainly on the basis of manuscripts compiled by Marx in the 1870’s. So Marx wrote Capital from back to front, so to speak, from the fourth volume to the first (although the second volume does not fit in with this scheme of things). It will subsequently be seen that this really was the case and we will try to show the reasons for this. For the start, it may be noted that the knowledge and understanding of this fact which is so important for the history of Capital is also of significance for the thorough study of this work. Marx’s economic theory was developed in a rather tumultuous fashion. Its level of development, its degree. of maturity, changed very greatly not only in the 1840’s, 1850’s and 1860’s but also within the period of each decade. This is also reflected in the terminology used by Marx.

By studying the history of Capital we can follow how Marx elaborated his economic doctrine, how he discovered the laws of the capitalist mode of production, how he overcame the shortcomings of bourgeois political economy and how he revolutionized the science of economics from the standpoint of the working class. Studying the history of Marx’s theory of economics reveals his creative method and takes us into his creative laboratory’. Mastery of Marx’s methodology of scientific research is the key problem if one wishes to acquire Marxist-Leninist theory in a creative way and to apply it correctly in explaining the phenomena of life in the human society of our age.

In the Soviet Union, V. V. Adoratski, V. K. Brushlinski, I. A. Leontyev, A. L. Reul, D. I. Rosenberg and other scholars have devoted and are devoting great attention to the history of evolution of Marx’s theory of economics and have thrown a great deal of light on the subject. In recent years, scholars in the German Democratic Republic have also concerned themselves with the history of Capital.

The history of the evolution of Marx’s economic doctrine is somewhat complicated. This has led to a lot of arguments among investigators since what has to be done here is to classify this history into scientific periods, to break it down into a number of stages in agreement with the level which Marx had reached in each of these stages when elaborating his theory. To illustrate this, the various schemes may be quoted which historians of Marxism from the German Democratic Republic have put forward as a basis for assigning dates to the various periods.[1]

Professor Alfred Lemmnitz divides the development of Marx’s theory of economics into four stages : 1843 to 1848/49, 1850 to 1860, 1861 to 1867 and 1868 to 1883.

A. Benary and H. Graul divide it into three stages: 1843 to 1846, 1847 to 1860 and 1861 to 1883.

Finally, Wolfgang Jahn suggests the following periods: 1842 to 1846, 1847 to 1862, 1863 to 1867 and 1868 to 1895.

It will be noted that there is a considerable variation in the dates suggested and we would like to add that none of the schemes proposed seems to us to be completely acceptable.

In our view, the real criterion which would have to be taken as a basis for dating the various periods in the history of the economic doctrine of Marx is the level which Marx had attained at any given period in the elaboration of his theory, especially the theory of value and the surplus-value theory.

How is it that the historians have come to such divergent conclusions? A special characteristic of Marx’s creative method was that in the field of political economy his work always progressed in two parallel directions : the critique of capitalism, especially the critique of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois theories, and the elaboration of his own theory of economics. In Marx’s economic research, the solving of these two tasks was really a single process. This characteristic of Marx’s method of research is also reflected in the dual title which he gave to his work on economics : Capital. Critique of Political Economy. Marx originally intended to call his work Critique of Political Economy or On the Critique of Political Economy. In the letter of 22nd February 1858 to Lassalle, he characterizes his work in these words : ” The first work in question is critique of the economic categories, or, if you like, the system of bourgeois economy critically presented”.[2] It is both a description of the system and, through the description, a criticism of the system.

In this connection, the argument of A. Benary and H. Graul does not hold water at all since they assert that between 1847 and 1860 Marx exploded the bourgeois theories of political economy and from 1861 to 1883 worked out the Marxist scheme of political economy. Attempts to split up the homogeneous process in which Marx elaborated his theory of economics lead to a distortion of the actual development of Marxism.

If we take the period from 1850 to 1863, we assume that it was precisely in this period that Marx evolved his theories of value, surplus value, average profit and price of production, which supplemented his surplus-value theory. Everything which Marx did before this period, i.e. between 1843 and 1849, in the field of political economy, may be designated as the pre-history of his theory of economics.

First of all, a few words about this pre-history. In the development of the Marxist theory of economics, the 1840’s are an important period. During this.. time, Marx and Engels worked out their dialectical and materialist view of history in such works as the Philosophic-Economic Manuscripts, The Holy Family, The Position of the Working Class in England, The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, Wage-Labour and Capital, Speech on the Question of Free Trade, Manifesto of the Communist Party and others. They extended dialectical materialism to the understanding of human society. From the totality of social relations, they emphasized the material economic relations, the relations of production, which are formed independently of the will and consciousness of people, as the original and determining factors-in contrast to the ideological relations which pass through the human consciousness before they emerge. The relations of production as such are determined by the level of development of the productive forces.

By emphasizing the relations of production and, isolating them from all other social relations, Marx and Engels were enabled to discover the common features in the social development of different countries and to generalize the economic relations which prevailed in these countries in the concept of the economic formation of society. The objective character of the relations of production which are dependent on the level of development of the productive forces enabled the development of the economic formation of society to be considered as an historical process, i.e. strictly in accordance with the natural laws of development. As a consequence of this, the science of society was given a scientific foundation for the very first time.

This was – by and large – the element of genius in the “Idea of Materialism in Sociology” with which Marx and Engels achieved prominence in the first half of the 1840’s.

At this point, mention must he made of the predecessors of Marx and Engels: of Hegel, who attempted to describe the internal development of the history of human society, of the French historians Thierry, Guizot and Mignet, who discussed the English Revolution of the 17th century and the French Revolution of the 18th from the standpoint of the class struggle, and of the English economists Petty, Smith and Ricardo who investigated the economic anatomy of the classes of bourgeois society. All this justified Lenin in characterizing Marxism as the highest level of development of all the really great achievements of the historical, economic and philosophical sciences of Europe.

The materialist conception of society advanced by Marx and Engels was at first only a scientific hypothesis which still had to be proved. “Naturally, for the time being,” wrote Lenin, ” it was only a hypothesis, but one which first created the possibility of a strictly scientific approach to. historical and social problems.”[3]

Without having been fully demonstrated at the time, this hypothesis enabled Marx and Engels as early as the 1840’s to develop a consistent criticism of bourgeois society from the proletarian standpoint, which was totally different from a petty-bourgeois one. Already in the works referred to above, which were produced during the 1840’s, Marx and Engels set out the arguments for their doctrine of class-struggle. They revealed the nature of class antagonisms in capitalist society and demonstrated that socialism is the unavoidable result of the economic laws operative in capitalist society. They showed that capitalism, in the shape of the working class, is its own gravedigger. They also proved that the periodic crises of over-production are the expression of the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism and are inevitable.

From the materialist conception of history, there also followed the exceptionally important position of economic theory in the system of Marxism as a whole. When the relations of production are the original and determining relations, it is only the investigation of these economic relations and the analysis of the laws of the functioning and development of the economic formation of society which enable the real driving forces of social development to be identified and the tendencies of this development to be indicated.

This is why Marx, once he had formulated the basic theses of the dialectic and materialist concept of history, devoted the whole of his attention to the investigation of the relations of production of the capitalist formation of society.Lenin made the following remarks about this: “Now, however. Marx, who had expressed this hypothesis in the forties, set out to study the factual … material. He took one of the social-economic formations – the system of commodity production – and on the basis of a vast mass of data (which he studied. for not less than twenty-five years) gave a most detailed analysis of the laws governing the functioning of this formation and its development.”[4]

In the explanation of the capitalist formation of society, Marx concentrates on the relations of production but also follows the superstructure phenomena corresponding to these: “Now – since the appearance of Capital – the materialist conception of history is no longer a hypothesis but a scientifically proven proposition …”[5]

Marx’s intensive work in the field of political economy began in July 1850. The study of the “factual material”, as Lenin put it, lasted until the autumn of 1857. Marx studied bourgeois political economy and the history of economic relations and investigated capitalist reality in its actual and specific form. The numerous ‘Notebooks’ give an idea of Marx’s activities during this period.

In the period from October 1857 to May 1858, Marx wrote a manuscript of about 50 printed sheets, the result of seven years of research and the first draft of what was to be Capital. In this manuscript, Marx elaborated the most important aspect of his theory of economics for the first time: the, theory of value and the theory of surplus value.

Engels said that Marx had made two great discoveries: the first vas the materialist conception of history, the second the theory of surplus value. It was precisely while working on the manuscript of 1857/58 that Marx made his second great discovery.

In 1859, Marx published the first results of this research work. This was Part I of his book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy which at first only contained a description of his theory of value.

In 1861, Marx began the preparation of the second volume of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy but soon interrupted this work and started on a great new programme of research work, a critical review of the entire field of bourgeois political economy. The result of this work was the mighty manuscript of 200 printed sheets of 1861/63 which contains the first systematically formulated version of all four volumes of Capital. While working on this manuscript, Marx developed his theory of average profit and of the production process[6], thus putting the finishing touches to his theory of surplus value.

From 1864 to 1865, Marx compiled new versions of the first three volumes of Capital and then began to prepare the first volume for printing.

While working on his theory of economics, Marx also worked out the structure of the future Capital. The elaboration of the structure of Capital, as regards both the complicated nature of the task and its significance, can certainly be ranked with Marx’s great discoveries in the field of economic theory. Marx intended “theoretically to give the bourgeoisie a blow from which it will never recover.”[7] This blow had to be delivered with a perfect weapon, perfect not only in content but also in form. This weapon was Capital.

When studying the history of Capital, we should always bear in mind the apt character-sketch which Frederick Engels gave of his great friend when he said that Marx was not at all a bookworm but first and foremost a revolutionary. This remark will help us to avoid too narrow an approach when following the evolution of Marx’s economic doctrine. His theoretical work was always subordinated to the interests of the working class, to the interests of the proletarian revolution. The thorough economic studies of 1850 to 1857 were just as much directly associated with the defeat of the Revolution of 1848/49 as the preparation ofthe manuscripts of 1857/58 and the elaboration of the surplus-value theory with the expectation of a new revolutionary crisis. But there was no revolution and Marx, who had been working feverishly to finish the basic theses of his theory of economics before “the flood”, before the outbreak of the revolution, once again turned to the detailed investigation of economic problems, regardless of Engels’ persistent requests to publish the theoretical results already obtained, despite the turn of events. It was not until 1867, in the first volume of Capital, that Marx published his theory of surplus-value, i.e. a good ten years after its elaboration! This was an instance of Marx’s conscientiousness in theoretical matters.

The period from 1850 to 1863, which we have taken as the subject of our observations, supplies us with all that we need to learn about Marx’s method of work and his ‘ creative laboratory’. This includes his ‘Notebooks’ and his draft manuscripts, his published works and his extensive correspondence. All these works and documents enable us to follow the development of Marx’s economic ideas in detail and to reproduce his train of thought in full.


[1] A list of the publications by historians of the GDR on this question is given by W. Tuchscheerer: Zur Marx-Engels-Forschung in der DDR auf dem Gebiet der politischen Ökonomie, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Sonderheft “Beiträge zur Marx-Engels-Forschung in der DDR”, 1962.

[2] K. Marx, letter to F. Lassalle of 22 February 1858, in: Marx/Engels, Selected Correspondence, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1953. p. 124.

[3] Lenin, What the ‘Friends of the People, Are and How They Fight the Social Democrats, Collected Works, Vol. I, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1961, p. 139.

[4] Ibid. p. 141

[5] Ibid. p. 142.

[6] {Vygodsky, A Book for All Time, Novosti Press, 1967, hereafter BAT, pp4-5, has ‘price of production, and also the theory of ground rent.’ This seems to make much more sense than ‘of the production process’. SP}

[7] K. Marx, letter to C. Klings of 4 October 1864.


How “Capital” was created

Is it necessary to know the background to “Capital”? The main stages. Why is the period from 1850 to 1863 so interesting ? Marx’s creative laboratory.

Standpoint for observing bourgeois society

The theoretical luggage with which Marx arrived in London in August 1849. ” The Poverty of Philosophy” and ” Wage-Labour and Capital” – the nucleus of his economic theory and the point of departure for further research. The theory of value and surplus-value of the classic bourgeois economists and their fundamental shortcomings. Marx’s application of the materialist conception of history to political economy. ‘Why the study of the subject-matter had to begin again “right from the start”.

A Mont Blanc of facts

Marx’s economic studies. Investigation of crises. The Notebooks. “… one is received not-with compliments but with economic categories”. First results of the economic investigations. “Basically, there has been no progress in this science since A. Smith and D. Ricardo”. The presuppositions for revolutionary transformation in political economy. The “Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie”. Critique of •Proudhonism. “Communism must rid itself above all of this ‘false brother'”.

The “economic cell-form” of bourgeois society

Why the “Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy” begins with the “Chapter on Money”. On the track of value. The ‘degradation’ of money by the Proudhonists. The concept of necessary labour. Value and price. The divisibility of a commodity and its two factors. The two-fold character of labour in bourgeois society. In search of the “economic cell-form”. The material content and social form of each and every economic phenomenon.

How “he caught the surplus-value robbers red-handed”

“By the way, things are developing nicely.” From value to surplus-value. The analysis of exchange between labour and capital. Labour-power as a commodity. The mechanism of capitalist exploitation. The theory of surplus-value. What Marx really did discover.

Why the second volume of “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” was not published

A few words about the first volume. The result of fifteen years’ research. “… these parts still contain nothing about capital”. The revolutionizing of science. The manuscript of 1861/63. Work on the second part, January 1862: everything from the beginning again. A new stage in the investigations. The “inner” categories and their metamorphosed forms. The necessity for the completion of the theory of surplus-value. The theory of profit in ” Grundrisse”. The theory of average profit and, of production-price in the manuscript of 1861/63. A statement by Engels.

From value to price of production

Market-value and its law of motion. The “false social value”. The discovery of production-price. Two kinds of competition and the twofold movement of the equalization of prices. The method of scientific abstraction in Marx’s investigations.

The completion of the theory of surplus-value

What did Marx have to prove? Rent as an illustration of the difference between value and price of production. The theory of capitalist monopoly. Monopoly-price and the theory of value. The breaking of monopoly in capitalist agriculture. Examples of scientific abstraction in the theory of rent.

How “Capital” took shape

An artistic whole. Logical and historical aspects. “Theories of Surplus-Value ” – the beginning of the real work on ” Capital “. ” The second part … will appear independently under the title Capital …”. From six to four books. “Confidentially, I indeed began ‘Capital’ in exactly the opposite sequence …”. The theoretical and the historical part of “Capital”.

Marx’s economic theory and the working class

The political economy of the working class. The dissemination of economic theory in the ranks of the working class. “Value, Price and Profit”: from political economy to economic policy. Comparison with the 1840’s: “Wage-Labour and Capital” and “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, “Once the interconnection is grasped”. Justification of the struggle of the workers for higher wages and a shorter working day. Analysis of the value of labour-power. “Down with the wage system!” Scientific critique of Proudhonism.

At the centre of the historic events of his time

Forty years of work on “Capital”. ” I laugh at the so-called ‘practical’ men with their wisdom.” The topicality of “Capital”. “Capital” and present-day capitalism. The prospects of a new economic social formation. Marx’s views of communist political economy.


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