Historical materialism and the repudiation of subjectivism

Date: May 4, 2020
Author: Paul Cockshott

This is not a new post but a corrected transcript of a talk given by me, as one of the Worker’s Party of Scotland representatives to the Open Polemic Conference about 25 years ago. Open Polemic was a journal that was formed in the wake of the Soviet collapse by anti-revisionist communists in the UK. Its eventual outcome was the CPGB(ML).

I am reposting it now because it relates to the debate that has ensued on Facebook after I posted against the baneful influence of Hegelianism. It draws on concepts from the Marxist legal theorist Pashukanis which are also relevant to the postings  here and here I made last year critiquing the Althusserian theory of the subject.

The text was lifted from the version online here including the images and captions which are not my own.

Original text here:

I am an engineer, so I was naturally pleased when the leading materialist philosopher of today, Daniel Dennet came out in defence of the significance of the engineering viewpoint to philosophy in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

Comrade Dennett continues the hirsute defence of materialism

In what follows I will present some observations on the materialism of Marx, from an engineer’s viewpoint – the materialism of a Watt, Shannon and Turing.

The leitmotif of these observations is an antagonism to subjectivism and the idealist concept of the subject and of the will, both of which have, I believe, no place in the materialist world-view.

Those familiar with the current state of penetration of idealism into ‘Marxism’, will doubtless be able to identify the schools against whom I am arguing.

Is value the ‘subject’ of Capital?

In Capital, the idea of the circuits of money and of capital play an important roles. In both c-m-c and m-c-m’, value in a sense plays the role of subject. It is tempting to see the whole of the argument in Capital as an investigation into the self development of capital/subject. My grasp of Hegel is not sure enough for me to say if this view of things is actually Hegelian, but whether or not this is the case, it does suffer from drawbacks. One of them is philosophical, the other is historical.

If we see capital as a subject, then the real material subjects of the system of production are not adequately represented, or, if represented at all, appear just as instantiations of the ideal subject.

By the real material subjects I mean abstract legal personalities or subjects of right. Under capitalist systems of law, some of these legal subjects correspond to human bodies, others to bodies corporate. It is these juridical subjects that buy and sell commodities and reproduce themselves in the process. In this reproduction process they are reproduced both as proprietors, and as physical processes (human metabolisms, active oil refineries, … ).

From the standpoint of the self development of capital/subject, material subjects, firms, are thought of as ‘capitals’, instantiations of CAPITAL. This way of looking at things is an idealist inversion.

The second problem is that the notion of capital as a subject is tied up with the idea of capital as self expanding value. This is what the formula m-c-m’ is all about. Where gold is money, the formula is realistic. But even as it was written this was historically obsolete. Commercial transactions were not carried out using gold. Capitalist trade is a balancing of accounts, either, in Marx’s day, through the circulation of bills of exchange or through the clearance of cheques.

If commerce occurs through cheque clearance, then there is no longer a circuit of value through the forms m-c-m’. An account with a bank, unlike a hoard, has no value. It is instead a record of entitlement to value. I think, therefore, that the use of the circuit m-c-m’ by Marx must be seen as a paedagogic device, presenting what goes on in a simple to understand but nevertheless anachronistic form.

When one is steeped in an old literature, one’s mind become inhabited by dead social relations. Christians today think in categories like Christ the Lord, Christ the Redeemer, which are concepts of a slave society — and which arise, therefore, from practices such as the institution of manumission by a powerful aristocrat. Such practices are without direct equivalence to the modern world but the conceptual categories linger on. We Marxists have our thoughts about money shaped by a presentation, intuitive to workers in Victoria’s day, to whom money was gold, without correlates in a world of debit cards.

If we focus instead on material subjects and their conditions of reproduction, then money appears clearly in the form in which Smith presents it: the power to command the labour of others. A bank balance is power over labour. It is necessary to focus not on the self evolution of sums of value but on how juridical subjects, firms, reproduce their despotism over labour.

Is capital the ‘subject’ of Capital?

Is Marx’s Capital about the self development of the subject ‘capital’, or is it about capitalism? My immediate bias is to say it is about capitalism, since to say that capital was the object of investigation might imply a Hegelian presumption that from the concept of capital all the concrete features of capitalism could be deduced — something which I feel to be mistaken.

The Daddy of subjectivist Marxism

Then the issue arises of whether there is one or many laws of motion of modern society, which is clearly related to the above.

My first thought is that one requires several laws to have motion and dynamics — in mechanics one assumes several conservation laws plus the force laws. This would then reinforce the objection to a Hegelian deduction of the development of capitalism from a concept of capital. Then it struck me that work in cellular automata theory has demonstrated that one can derive highly complex laws of motion from a single evolution function of a cell and its neighbours. In fact as Margulis has shown, one can, given a universe of this type, set up a configuration that is Turing machine equivalent.

This indicates that it is not philosophically absurd that one law may be a sufficient foundation for the motion of a very complex system. But although this law may be a foundation for the motion of the whole system, there are other preconditions before you get something of Turing equivalent complexity: e.g. a set of boundary conditions. These initial configurations are guaranteed a certain stability by the underlying cellular evolution law, but in their turn impose other constraints on the future evolution of the system and these constraints become higher level laws.

Thus the simple law may allow a multiplicity of different configurations to evolve and some of these different configurations would have their own, higher level laws of motion — which would not necessarily all be equivalent.

Did Marx ever clearly state the economic law of motion of modern society?

I think that we have to say no, not as a single clearly defined law. Can we say, then, that the law of value is this foundational law? We have the problem that he never stated this explicitly as a law either, i.e. in the sense of Hooke’s law or the laws of thermodynamics. I think, however, one can reconstruct the concept of law that he had beneath the texts on value.

At the level of explanation in Volume 1 the law would state that ‘In the exchange of commodities, abstract socially necessary labour time is conserved.’

Although he does not state this explicitly, I think that it is clearly a logical presupposition of much of his argument. I agree that he does not establish the correctness of this law, but that does not mean that it may not both be a valid law empirically, and one whose assumption allows one to model or simulate the important features of capitalism. There is now a growing body of evidence that the law actually applies, but it would be true to say that we do not know why it applies.

But one could, using the same law of value, hypothesise other systems than capitalism. If we made the auxiliary hypothesis that there was a tendency for the value of labour power to be equal to the value created by labour, then you would not get capitalism but some other social system, perhaps a system of workers’ co-operatives.

The assumption that the value of labour power is systematically below the value creating power of labour is, it seems to me, a boundary condition that is specifically reproduced by capitalism. In this sense, although the law of value is the underlying law of motion of modern society, it is abstractly the law of motion of more than one possible sort of modern society. This incidentally raises the question of what we mean by abstraction.

Abstraction and abstract labour

Is it only in the process of exchange that labour become abstract? There is a confusion here between the role of abstraction in science and the partial way in which the abstract categories discovered by science become apparent to quotidian perception.

Science must always seek the general behind the concrete, the abstract behind the particular. Thus in the development of thermodynamics one has the formation of the abstract concept of heat, which is distinguished from the forms in which it becomes apparent as warmth, temperature or thermal radiation. To measure heat one needs to co-ordinate several distinct observations and data. If you want to measure the number of calories released by by burning 10 grams of sugar under a bombe calorimeter, one must know the starting temperature of the calorimeter, the volume of water it contains, the final temperature, the specific heat of water, etc.

Prior to the development of a coherent theory of heat, and data on the specific heat of water one might come up with regularities like ‘other things being equal, the rise in temperature was proportional to the sugar burnt’, but this is not a measure of abstract heat.

The similarity to exchange is clear, a capitalist can observe that, other things being equal, his turnover is roughly proportional to the number of workers in his employment, but this proportionality does not yet give him a measure of abstract necessary labour time. The fact that such proportionalities exist is an indication that there is an underlying material cause for them, just as the proportionality between temperature rise and fuel burned indicates a similar abstract cause.

A scientific measurement of abstract labour needs the analogue of adjustments for different specific heats and calorimeter volumes, the fact that in a given factory the techniques of production are worse than average, will indicate that the measure of actual expended labour has to be corrected to arrive at a measure of abstract labour.

The existence of objective material causes underlying the phenomenal forms to which they give rise is one of the basic postulates of philosophical materialism. That these causes not only exist but are discoverable and measurable is a further necessary postulate for scientific materialism. This, it seems to me is one of the fundamental distinctions between Marxism and Hayekism, and more generally between materialism and empiricism. For Hayek, the worth of things is in principle unknowable outside of market exchange. Thus the Marxist programme of a communist society in which economic calculation transcends the market, is hopelessly utopian, scientism, the engineering fallacy etc.

I think, therefore, that it is a fundamental philosophical error and one which, moreover can be exploited by our enemies, to say that it is only through market exchanges that abstract labour can be measured. This may be the only form in which it becomes apparent to the practical concerns of bourgeois society, but that does not exhaust the matter.

One must distinguish the scientific abstraction, abstract labour as the expression on a polymorphous human potential, from the empirical abstraction performed by the market.

An analogous polymorphous potential, one regularly used in industry is the computing machine cycle. One costs algorithms in terms of the number of machine cycles they cost. A computer is a universal machine, its computation power can be expressed in a vast variety of concrete forms, so there are different sequences of machine cycles with different concrete effects. But when one uses machine cycles as a metric of algorithmic costs, one abstracts from what these cycles are – adds, subtracts, moves etc, and reduces them to the abstract measure of an almost infinitely plastic potential. The abstraction over labour is analogous.

We cannot use wages to measure abstract labour, although for certain purposes they may be a useful statistical surrogate where other data are lacking. If we measure wages we are measuring the price of labour power not the amount of abstract labour time necessary to manufacture a use value.

To measure the latter, it has obviously to be done in natural units of time, which as such, already abstracts from the concrete form of the labour. As such its study starts with Babbage in his Economy of Machinery, proceeds with Taylor in the machine shop of the Midvale Steel Company and his successors like Charles Bedaux, whose unit of abstract labour the B was defined as ‘ A “B” is a fraction of a minuit of work plus a fraction of a minuit of rest, always aggregating to unity, but varying in proportion according to the nature of the strain’.

There is nothing impossible in principle about such measurement, indeed, the science of systematic exploitation had depended on it for years. But within the capitalist social order such computations are restricted to the factory, the comparative statistics necessary for a social calculus of labour time do not exist. But this is not to say that they could never be produced under some future social order.

James Watt, and the concept of Labour Power

At about the same time as one Adam Smith was professor of Moral Philosophy here, and was setting out a coherent formulation of the labour theory of value, Dr Black of the department of Natural Philosophy along with a technician, one James Watt, were laying the foundations for a proper understanding of heat and temperature. These two exercises have more in common than might be imagined. Reflection upon it, brings out how concepts from engineering science, from the practice of material production, parallel and become the foundation for materialist political economy.

One might, if one were a bourgeois economist, argue that values cannot be measured independently of market prices just as temperature can not be measured independently of the height of mercury on a thermometer. I think that this is basically a fair comparison. But if we rest our analysis at this level, whether in political economy or in natural philosophy, we have a pre-Smithian political economy and a pre-Watt understanding of heat.

What Smith did, drawing on others, was to show that behind relative prices there was an underlying objective cause — the labour required to produce things: ‘’The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil or trouble of acquiring it.” We will leave out for the moment that one can also measure the temperature of a body by analysing its black body radiation spectrum, and concentrate on the analogy between temperature and price. This was a great scientific advance since it related the immediately visible phenomenon — price measured in money — to something behind the scenes: labour time.

Both of the entities involved in the causal theory are independently observable and measurable. This contrasts with the notions of ‘utility’ in vulgar economics which are not objectively observable, but have to be deduced from the observed prices.

The parallel advance by Black and Watt, was the introduction of the notion of heat as something independent of temperature. A necessary component of this theory was the notions of specific and latent heats. Thus, by experiment, they were able to establish that the change in temperature of a body was proportional to the heat input divided by the specific heat of the substance concerned. This again related the observed measurement — temperature to something behind the scenes — heat.

Like labour, heat was independently measurable, for instance in terms of the amount of coal burned. Later, with Carnot, the equation between heat and work is made. Not only does this make the analogy with value and labour even closer in terms of the then existing conceptual framework, but it opens up the way for more accurate objective measures of heat energy. By use of a dissipative calorimeter, Carnot could show that the work of a given weight falling a known distance would produce a definite rise in temperature of water. This then gives a fixed and external measure of heat energy.

Let me construct table of analogy between terms in the two domains of Moral and Natural Philosophy, with a subject matter befiting the Scottish Enlightenment.

Moral PhilosophyNatural Philosophy
1. Price in gold guineas of whiskyTemperature on an alcohol thermometer of whisky
2. Specific labour content of goldSpecific heat of whisky
3. Value of whiskyHeat content of the whisky
4. Labour required to distill whisky measured in hoursThermal energy of hot whisky measured in foot pounds or horse-power seconds
5. Ability to work or labouring power of distillery workersAbility to work or horse-power of the distillery engine (raising barrels?)

Thus the two schools of philosophy reduce the phenomena they are concerned with to indirect manifestations of work done, Smith taking human labour as his standard, Watt taking the labour of horses.

However, in compiling this table I have shown 5 rows. Smith and Watt would probably only have recognised 3 (Smith 1,2,4) Watt (1,2,3). If, however, we take Smith enhanced by Marx and Watt by Carnot, we get the 5 rows. Now the interesting thing about rows 3, 4, and 5 is that in each case they are different ways of considering the same thing. One may measure heat in calories, but it is the same thing as energy in terms of joules, Watt, ergs, foot-pounds, horsepower hours etc. Similarly value is the same thing as labour time.

But value is not price, nor is heat temperature. To obtain a price from a value we need the intervention of gold with its own specific labour/value content per ounce. To obtain a temperature from the heat one needs the specific heat of the substance being heated.

The polemical status of Labour Power

I am using labour in the sense of labour hours, which, to use Watt’s terminology is Work Done (horse-power hours). I think that it is pretty clear that the concept of labour-power could not have been formulated until the genius of Watt had made the concept of horse-power or power in general part of the universal inheritance of the industrial age.

My chief concern is to defend the scientific superiority of the labour theory of value vis-à-vis bourgeois subjectivist ones. What makes the labour theory scientific and the others unscientific is that there is no way that one can determine whether prices do exchange in proportion to marginal utility, since utility has no independent measure.

Labour time, by contrast, is susceptible to measurement. Its measurement, just like that of temperature, presupposed a definite technology. Measurement of temperature depended on the invention of the thermometer, measurement of labour time depended upon the invention, with Galileo, of the pendulum escapement mechanism. In using a clock to determine the time taken to perform a task, one must of course average one’s measures over a large number of runs and a large number of individuals to obtain the average necessary time taken.

If labour-power is ability to perform work, then its dimension must be work-performable/per hour. Clearly if the working day is lengthened with the daily wage being the same, the wage rate per hour has declined. Whether the value of labour power has similarly declined or has remained the same is indeterminate, since we have no means of measuring the value of labour power other than the price paid for it.

I would thus argue that the concept ‘value of labour power’ has no scientific explanatory power and its presence in Capital must be understood as deriving from Marx’s intention to perform a critique of political economy using its own categories. He thus assumes the exchange of equivalents, and assumes that workers, like other sellers get a fair price for their commodity. This necessitates that a value be imputed to labour power.

Ironic answers to a Marxist idealist

I was recently asked, what objective force led me to write a particular polemic against subjectivism. Was it not an expression of my will and thus a living reproof to my anti-subjectivist world-view? That such questions could be raised, and raised by a Marxist, indicates a retreat towards idealism.

Force is an important concept. As a mechanical process, a depression of keys, my writing certainly involved forces exerted by muscle on bone. But the concept of force is quite limited, it relates to the ability to impart motion, to overcome mechanical inertia. Its compass does not extend to explaining the creation of a complex information structure like an article.

Here we need to explain how this particular sequence of characters was generated. This page is so astronomically improbable, its probability of arising by chance being of the order of 1 in 10 raised to the power of 4000, that its particularity demands explanation. Force, the mere overcoming of momentum, can not explain such order. So what is left?

“The will and its creativity”, suggests the humanist.

But is this really an explanation?

I would suggest that it is not an explanation but a place-holder, a linguistic token demanded by a set of possible sentences. This may seem a little obscure, but to illustrate the sort of thing that I am refering to, consider the sentences:

”It is raining.”

”Paul is writing.”

What is the it that rains? There is obviously no real it that does the raining, but English grammar demands a subject for the sentence, structurally equivalent to the Paul who writes. The it is a placeholder demanded by the sentence form. We gain no understanding of the weather pattern that led to the rain by using it, but it is impermissible for us to say simply ”Is raining”.

The question ”what led me to write”, demands an answer of the form ”x led me to write”, with some linguistic subject x. Grammar allows the substitution of a proper name for x, as in ”William led me to write”, or \my Will led me to write”. Instead the abstract noun ‘will’ can be used: ”my will led me to write”.

The word ‘will’ is then a placeholding subject, analogous to the it responsible for the bad weather this last week. The ‘will’ is philosophically more sophisticated, than ‘it’, being one of the conventional tokens that idealist philosophy uses to translate a non-terminal symbol of a grammar into a constituent category of reality. The ‘will’ is the symbolic grammatical subject in philosophical garb, the linguistic subject becomes The Subject.

An explanation of what is causing rain to fall, would go something along the lines of ”an updraft of warm moist air is causing condensation as pressure falls, and this precipitates as rain”. Here, instead of a placemarker, we have a description, albeit abstract, of a physical process. One can give a highly abstract description of my writing in terms of my brain being a probabalistic state machine that undergoes state transitions whose probability amplitudes are functions of it current state and its current input symbols, and whose output symbols are a lagged function of current state. For my article the relevant input symbol would have been the argument that I was replying to, and my current state would be the cartesian product of the states of my individual neurones.

It may be objected that this hopelessly abstract, as abstract almost, as talking about will. But there is an important difference. The approach of treating the brain as an automaton has engendered a productive research program. One can, as Chomsky did in the 1950s ask what class of automaton is required to recognise languages with different classes of grammars, and show that some features of natural language imply automata that are at least Turing equivalent. One can begin to look at how it is that things like visual perception can occur, as neurophysiology has done over the last 30 years, etc. In contrast, ‘will’ will take us nowhere. It closes of discussion.

This is an edited version of a talk given at an ‘Open Polemic’ conference back in the distant 1990s.