Karl Marx on Eügen Duhring’s Critical History

Anti-Dühring is Engels’ enduring criticism of the mishmash of philosophy, science, and socialism published in Germany by Eugen Dühring (1833-1921) in the middle of the 19th century as an alternative to the thought of Karl Marx. Engels’ book is divided into three parts — philosophy, political science, and socialism. But Engels did not write every chapter in his famous book. Chapter 10, the last of the section on political economy, was written by his friend and life long collaborator Karl Marx. This article discusses Marx’s opinions of Dühring in that chapter, entitled, “From the Critical History.”

It is Dühring’s 1871 work Critical History of Political Economy that Marx intends to critique, beginning with Dühring’s claim that his work in Political Economy “is absolutely without precedent.” Here we will find a definitive treatment of the subject in a scientific manner. The science is, he says, “peculiarly mine.”

Dühring’s first great “discovery” is that Political Science is a modern creation with no medieval or ancient roots. Marx points out, however, that this claim to modernity was already put forth by him in Capital and Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The difference is that Marx begins with the great founders of this science [from William Petty (1623-1687) and Boisguillebert (1646-1714) to Ricardo (1772-1823) and Sismondi (1773-1842)] while Dühring begins with the “wretched abortions” of later bourgeois economists. Marx also has respect for the medieval and classical traditions.

Of course, since Political Science was founded in an attempt to scientifically understand modern CAPITALISM, you will not find it in the classical (slave) world , nor the middle ages (feudal). Capitalist societies are based on commodity production and exchange but there was limited commodity production and exchange in both the classical period and the Middle Ages and what the Ancients and other pre-moderns had to say about it is still worth while; Marx especially defends the economic writings of Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Plato (427-347 BC) from Dühring’s unerudite “criticisms.”

Dühring is also ignorant of the history and development of political economy in the modern period. For example, he takes a minor work [Antonio Serra’s Breve trattato of 1613 as a defining work of Mercantilism — the dominant economic theory of capitalism for its first 250 years of existence, ending around the time of Adam Smith (1723-1790)] while completely ignoring Thomas Mun’s (1571-1641) A Discourse of Trade of 1609 which was “the mercantilist gospel” for the entire Seventeenth Century.

Worse than that is Dühring’s treatment of William Petty, “the founder of modern political economy.” After much hard thinking and many investigations, Petty in 1662 formulated one of the bed rock foundations of political economy as a science (Treatise on Taxes and Contributions). Here, Marx says he “lays it down in a definite and general form that the values of commodities must be measured by equal labour.” Further, in a work of 1672 (Anatomy of Ireland) Petty has overcome “the last vestiges of mercantilist views.”

These are great intellectual feats for the founder of the new science. Marx says about Petty, and this applies to Marx himself in our day, that what is “quite natural in a writer who is laying the foundations of political economy and is necessarily feeling his way, experimenting and struggling with a chaos of ideas which are only just taking shape, may seem strange in a writer who is surveying and summarizing more than a hundred and fifty years of investigation whose results have already passed in part from books into the consciousness of the generality.” That Dühring fails to grasp this and thinks that “there is fair measure of superficiality” in Petty’s thinking, only shows, Marx avers, that Dühring is a “vainglorious and pedantic mediocrity.”

One of Petty’s great successors was the the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who, besides his works on the social contract and the foundations of epistemology, also wrote an important work in the fledgling science of political economy: Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interests and Raising the Value of Money, 1691.

Petty had already compared interest to “rent on money”– i.e. to “rent of land and houses.” His position was that all rent should be unregulated and determined by the market. This, of course, is a reactionary view today but not so in 1691. This was part of the fight against Mercantilism which progressives in those days rightly viewed as a system that held back social and economic progress by using the state to impose import duties and taxes to defend domestic markets and subsidize exports.

Trying to regulate interest rates, i.e., rent on money, Petty felt was “against the law of nature”. Petty, Marx wrote, “declared that legislative regulation of the rate of interest was as stupid as regulation of exports of precious metals [a pillar of Mercantilism] or regulation of exchange rates.” Ideas that are reactionary and unworkable today (just think of the ridiculous economic and philosophical bloviations of Ayn Rand and her followers) in the end stage of capitalism, were forward looking and progressive during it birth pangs.

Locke, whose economic essay, basically followed Petty’s lead, had a great influence in those European countries struggling to go beyond the strictures of the Mercantilists or economic nationalists. Petty, who is, incidentally credited with the invention of the laissez faire school, was also supported by Sir Dudley North (1641-1691) in A Discourse on Trade, 1691, a contemporary of Locke’s, whose work, Marx says “is a classical exposition, driven home with relentless logic, of the doctrine of free trade– both foreign and internal….”

Locke and North deserve credit for furthering Petty’s views and in developing them along new lines. But Dühring sees none of this. For Marx, the period 1691-1752 is crucial for the understanding of the development of political science. In was in this period that the writers influenced by Petty, Locke, North, and others, laid down the foundations for overthrowing Mercantilism. This period is a blank page for Herr Dühring. Dühring passes directly to David Hume (1711-1776) and the physiocrats. Marx has many interesting things to say about Hume as an economist (his philosophy is not mentioned) and why Dühring is so enamored with him.

Hume published his Economic Essays in 1752 and they are, in our current terminology, basically a plagiarized version of the 1734 work of Jacob Vanderlint (died 1740) Money Answers All Things. While Hume almost literally follows Vanderlint, he is, according to Marx, “less profound.” Dühring is unaware of Vanderlint and praises Hume while none the less failing to understand what he says.

Since Dühring doesn’t have a real understanding of Hume, I will just present Marx’s views for the record. Hume’s theory of money is that money is just a TOKEN of value and, ceteris paribus, “commodity prices rise in proportion to the increase in the volume of money in circulation, and fall in proportion to its decrease.” Hume is basically saying that the increase in the amount of gold and silver in circulation, due to the imports from the New World, increases the prices of commodities. He also notes that this takes some time to spread through out the country until it finally trickles down to the working people: in Hume’s words “it must first quicken the diligence of every individual before it increases the price of labour.” So old is Reaganomics.

But Hume is not, according to Marx, addressing the “real scientific question” in this description: i.e., how an increase in money “affects the prices of commodities.” However, Marx does not answer this question here as he really wants to remark on Hume’s theory of INTEREST. Hume says it is the not the money supply but the rate of profit that regulates the amount of interest (here he attacks Locke’s view). Hume’s theory is not original. Just as he got almost all his ideas from Vanderlint on most economic issues, his interest theory is just a rehash, and not as exact, of the work of J. Massie (died 1784) “An Essay on the Governing Causes of the Natural Rate of Interest,” 1750.

Hume, by the way, maintains a low interest rate means a nation is in a “flourishing condition.” Well maybe in his day — but we have low interest rates in the USA and we are hardly “flourishing”, at least with respect to the majority of the population which is made up of working people.

There are other problems with Hume’s ideas, according to Marx. Marx says “he had not the slightest understanding of the function of the precious metals as the measure of value.” This is because he didn’t know what “value” itself meant in terms of capitalist production. For example, he corrects Locke for holding that the precious metals only have “an imaginary value” by saying what they really have is “a fictitious value.” These views are “much inferior” not only to those of Petty but to his contemporaries as well who were writing on these subjects — especially, his friend Adam Smith.

Hume also is blind to the economic world coming into existence all around him. He holds to the outmoded view “that the ‘merchant’ is the mainspring of production.” Despite these limitations, Marx concedes that in his day Hume was still a “respectable” political economist. His criticism is meant to dispel the over wrought praise Hume is given by Dühring. Because, while respectable, Marx adds, “he is anything but an original investigator, an even less an epoch making one.”

Why does Marx think that Dühring likes Hume so much? It is because Dühring identified with Hume. Hume was denounced by the church for some of his views, but not so much as Gibbon was for his, Dühring too fell afoul of the authorities for some of his views. Hume attained a better reputation as a philosopher, and Dühring thinks that will also be his fate (it was not to be.)

Marx can’t resist giving two quotes which many Hume fans would resent. The first is from a popular German world history book by Friedrich Schlosser (1766-1861): “In politics Hume was and always remained conservative and strongly monarchist in his views.” He was also highly racist in his views on Africans. And William Cobbett (1762-1835) calls him “selfish” and a “lying Historian” [Hume wrote a history of England] and implies he was an hypocrite for attacking monks for their fatness, their not having wives or children and begging for their bread while he himself was without “a family or a wife and was a great fat fellow, fed, in considerable part, out of public money, without having merited it by any real public services.”

Well, enough about Hume. Marx next turns his attention to Dühring and the physiocrats, especially the Tableau Economique of Francois Quesnay (1694-1744). Marx says Dühring’s attempt to explain Quesnay’s economic theories (the physiocrats were the first real school of modern economics, not counting the Mercantilists as modern!, and Quesnay was the founder) is completely mixed up and confused and shows, once again, that Dühring doesn’t know what he is talking about. But so that WE can understand what the school was all about, Marx undertakes to explain it for our benefit.

The physiocrats divided society into three classes: the PRODUCTIVE class — i.e., agricultural workers and farmers — all wealth comes from a nation’s agricultural production; the LANDLORDS [landowners, the nobility, the Church] who live off of the surplus produced by the farmers; and the STERILE class [the industrial bourgeoisie, merchants, etc, who live off of the raw materials and surpluses of the productive class. Where’s the proletariat? Sorry, 17th century France was too backward to have noticed this newly developing class.

Quesnay is not describing the actually real existing economy of France– he is constructing a simple MODEL that represents a starting point for understanding the actual economy (just as Marx did in Das Kapital). Marx says Quesday makes three premises to simplify the model: 1) he only looks at circulation between the classes and not within them; 2) he only deals with simple reproduction and constant prices; and 3) he treats all the annual purchases between the classes as a lump sum. Marx also notes that at this time almost all the non-food articles consumed by peasant families in Europe were home made and “treated as supplementary to agriculture.”

Lets start the ball rolling: the Tableau (all figures are based on the value of French money in the 17th century) the total value of the harvest for one year is the starting point. This amount will be the “total reproduction” in France for that year — let us refer to it as 5 economic units [5EU — this was 5 million livres in those days].

Since the farmers are the only productive class they have the entire 5EU to themselves. They produced it by investing 2EU in seeds, etc., so they have a surplus of 3EU. They give 2EU to the landlords as RENT and the landlords then buy food from them in the amount of 1EU for the year so now the farmers have 2EU and the landlords 1EU.

With their 1EU left, the landlords buy the things they need to live on, etc., [other than agricultural goods] from the STERILE class. The farmers also buy from the Sterile class say 1EU but the sterile class has to buy food from the farmers but it does not buy back as much in EUs from the farmers as the farmers gave to it because, instead of a fair trade in equivalents, the sterile class has extracted a profit from the farmers by selling their commodities to them above the cost of production AND above their real value.

By the end of the year it is time to reap another harvest and the cycle continues. I have simplified Marx’s exposition because the physiocrats are now only of historical interest and the main point has been shown– i.e., that for them all wealth is produced by the farmers and is then distributed about society to the other classes.

Having finished with the physiocrats Marx makes two more observations on Dühring’s incompetence. First, Dühring thinks that the physiocratic school ended with Turgot (1727-1781) the originator of the Idea of Progress and controller-general of France, 1774-76, in charge of economic reforms under Louis XVI. But Marx says the school actually ended with Mirabeau (1749-1791) “the leading economic authority in the Constituent Assembly of 1789.”

Second, Dühring barely mentions Sir James Steuart (1712-1780) whose work was between Hume and Adam Smith and who “permanently enriched the domain of political economy” (with An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, 1767). And what he does say about him is wrong.

Marx ends his chapter with the opinion that Dühring’s Critical History is not worth reading, and he is particularly upset that Dühring begins his history with the large landlords of ancient history and doesn’t know anything about “the common ownership of land in the tribal and village communities, which is the real starting-point of all history.”

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.