Karl Marx’s research method in Capital has been equivocated by not only his predecessors, but also by Marx himself. The equivocation primarily arises from the absence of Marx’s own writing of the research method he employed in Capital. Marx did not expatiate upon his research method because Capital was written for the newly born industrial working class, which was not particularly constituted of erudite philosophers. The absence of lucid articulation of his research method, or means of inquiry, has led many Marxists to misunderstand some theories in Capital and engendered the lure of dogmatism. Not to mention the equivocation has been the target of opprobrium among anti-Marxists (Kim, 1993). Hence, the task of clarifying Marx’s research method and writing it in colloquial terms has become a matter of urgency.

One may raise a valid question on why clarifying what Marx himself did not even talk about matters in the current era, when the idea of communism seems to live only in the quixotic discourse of philosophers. One may even aver that Marx is not relevant anymore because every socialist state has collapsed and is collapsing, making this article just an echo of a contrite ghost, which was once called the specter of communism. Such question and objection are rational responses in the current society where no other alternative political-economic system is deemed possible except the liberal-capitalist one. However, when one actually sees through the illusory characteristic of free-market system and the ordered law of capital, they will come to the realization that the core nature of capital is chaos, violence imposed on the working class, and the establishment of oppressive class relations between the working class and the capitalist class. To acquire an insight of how the capitalist state functions, one must have a way of assessing social phenomena in capitalist society in its totality, which Marx did throughout Capital. Hence, not only will the clarification of Marx’s means of inquiry benefit Marxist readers, but also readers who generally would want to acquire a proper way of analyzing the current state of capitalist system.

The clarification of Marx’s research method in Capital is the main goal of this article. The first section will be devoted to defining what Marx’s means of inquiry is. To assist reader’s understanding, a comparison between the means of inquiry of Marx and that of Hegel will be stated. Accordingly, the second section will explain how Marx’s research method works. The last section will employ Max’s means of inquiry to correctly understand one of his central theories: the labor theory of value.

Dialectical materialism

Marx’s means of inquiry in Capital is dialectical materialism. So, what is dialectical materialism? Prior to understanding such a spacious, philosophical framework it is essential to break down the term and assess the historical and philosophical context of each word.

The dialectic utilized by Marx originates in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s writings, a German Philosopher who was a proponent of German Idealism. Hegelian dialectics viewed the world in a constant change and motion; accordingly, everything is in the continued process of becoming and ceasing to be (Lim, 2010). The process of coming into being and exiting to become something else is conditioned by interrelations and interactions between things. Specifically, Hegelian dialectics considered that all things are made up of contradictory sides (or aspects), whose tension or conflict is the driving force of change and eventually transforms or dissolves them (Britannica, 2014). Another attribute that made Hegelian Dialectics a distinctive philosophy in contrast to other preceding philosophers, which Marx christened himself for, was that it did not formulate an abstraction in isolation. An abstraction in Hegelian dialectics was an abstraction of totality, considering the interrelations, interactions, changes and motion of the object of abstraction.

Marx who was a Young Hegelian in his early years procured the core concepts of the Hegelian dialectic, that is, all things are innate with contradiction and contradiction is the essence of all change (Lim, 2010). He acquired this notion along with the skill of formulating an abstraction within its totality (Alfredo, 2002). This skill plays a very important role in Capital, which will be discussed later. Since Marx was a Young Hegelian there are many commonalities between Marx’s means of inquiry and Hegel’s; however, Marx tried to differentiate his method from Hegel’s by means of criticism. For Marx, Hegel’s understanding of dialectics is upside-down, for Hegel thought that a development and change was an expression of the world spirit (Lim, 2010). Marx thought it is not the word spirit or Idea that initiates a change, but the material conditions of society which mold human consciousness to be active and revolutionary. A critical difference between Marx’s means of inquiry, dialectical materialism, and Hegel’s, dialectical idealism, originates from their philosophical difference of approaching to reality: materialism vs. idealism.

Marx championed the notion of materialism. Materialism is a philosophical approach to reality, according to which the material world exists independent of mind or spirit (Britannica, 2014). However, this does not elicit that Marx denied the reality of mental process. He viewed a concept or an idea as a product and reflections of material conditions (Lim, 2014). This is a very different philosophical notion compared to Hegel’s. Hegel’s view of the world was that reality is the outcome of an evolving system of concepts, or movements towards the ‘Absolute Idea’ (Ben, 1989). Hence, Hegelian dialectics avers that the progress of the evolving system of concepts explains the progress of human history. Marx was very critical towards such a notion. He speculated that there is no definitive factor that induces the conceptual apparatus in a thinker’s head to be in complete accordance with the reality; hence, the evolving apparatus of concepts cannot explain advancement in human history (Ben Fine, 1989). Marx thought the idea of an evolving system of concepts was not sufficient to explain the advancement in human history.

To answer for this insufficiency, Marx developed his own dialectical method: dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism is a philosophical approach to reality that explains the essence of an ever changing phenomena of the world through a historical analysis (Lim, 2010). This analysis captures the tendencies, counter-tendencies, and contingencies of existing social phenomena and divulges their contradiction (Alfredo, 2002). Marx’s means of inquiry exhibits this philosophical notion in three distinctive ways in Capital. First, his analysis is limited by historical context. Second, in relation to the first, theory of any kind loses its validity when it reaches beyond its historical and social boundary. Hence, even the labor theory of value, which has been idolized by some Marxists and deemed suitable to explain every value relations of all kinds of society, loses its validity when it is used to explain the economic relations of tributary society, for example. Marx’s labor theory of value is only applicable to capitalist social formations. Third, Marx’s analysis is internally structured by the relationship between theory and history; his analysis reflects the historical reality of the phenomena under analysis (Alfredo, 2002).

So far has been a brief delineation of dialectical materialism. The term dialectical materialism was analyzed by its definition. A comparison was also made between dialectical materialism and dialectical idealism to show the unique attribute that Marx developed from Hegel’s philosophical notion. The potency of Marx’s means of inquiry, however, does not originate from its definition. As the word “tiger” does not hold any physical strength in the word itself but in reality, so does dialectical materialism. What makes Marx’s research method potent is its explanation of the relations and contradiction of seemingly haphazard social phenomena in capitalist social formations. Accordingly, the way in which Marx formulated his theory is what gives muscles to dialectical materialism; and this way an abstraction is made for social phenomena within their totality: the real abstraction.

Real abstraction

Abstraction, in a general sense, can be understood as a cognitive process of isolating a common feature or relationship observed in a number of things, or the product of such a process (Kim, 2014). However, the nature of the word “abstraction” drastically changed as G.W.F. Hegel employed it in Science of Logic. Abstraction in the perspective of Hegel was not something separated from concrete reality, but the most general of reality. In contrast to a concept, which represents for total unity in meanings, abstraction meant a limiting conditions of totality, or one aspect of concrete unity (Hegel Dictionary, 2014).

Marx acquired this way of abstraction and ameliorated it in Capital

The importance of real abstraction stems from that it divulges the essence of social phenomena, which is not only a logical category of formulating the concepts of particulars in thinker’s head, but also the actual source from which the particulars spring (Ben Fine, 1989). Real abstraction based upon the premise of understanding the particular through its material conditions reveals the concrete universal which includes the essence of phenomena. Accordingly, once the essence of phenomena is discerned and revealed, the haphazardness of social phenomena falls into a logical, concise category of thinker’s head. Then a real, concrete, and overarching analysis can be formulated.

One thing to note here is that any analysis formulated by the use of real abstraction is in the realm of dialectical materialism. Meaning analysis based on dialectical materialism is conditioned by historicity and logicality. This condition imposed on dialectical materialism is the corner stone of understanding the theory Marx formulated in Capital. Ignoring this condition engenders a myopic understanding of Capital.

Labor theory of value

Marx’s means of inquiry is based upon the real abstraction of the concrete universal to which social phenomena belong; accordingly, this abstraction divulges the essence of haphazard social phenomena and provides a logical category to understand society in its totality. In simpler words, dialectical materialism is a means of inquiry which starts from the most general relation in society to the real abstraction circumscribed by historicity and logicality, that which then can be used to analyze various phenomena existing in society.

Since the means of inquiry Marx used in Capital is conditioned by historical and logical limits, it is crucial to note that Marx’s analysis is limited to capitalist social formations. Disregarding this makes Marx’s theory obsolete and mystifies his analysis. As stated above, Marx’s means of inquiry starts from the most general relation of capitalist social formation, that is, commodity relation. It appears ever more evidently that commodity relation is the most general relation in a capitalist social formation. If one has doubt on this, they may try and go to the market with a chicken and barter it with a box of Oreo. If one still has doubt, they may ask their boss to pay wages in something other than money, like a box full of Oreos. The boss will expose the ridiculousness of the doubt.

From the most general relation of capitalist social formations, Marx derives the abstract form of labor which is the common denominator of all produced commodities (Marx, 1986). Accordingly, he divulges how the abstract form of labor is the essence of capitalist social formations. Marx’s theory of understanding the commodity relation through the abstract form of labor can be fully understood when one understands how Marx derived this theory. The following will be a delineation of his methodology on formulating the labor theory of value.

Marx starts his inquiry in Capital from a commodity. He first analyzes commodities in the perspective of use-value and explain where use-value comes from: commodities’ nature of satisfying human needs. Marx proceeds to explain the exchange-value of commodity; yet, he soon reckons that exchange-value of a commodity does not exist in a commodity itself. Just as gravity is not a molecular part of an object, so is the exchange-value not part of the commodity. The exchange-value of a commodity is the relation commodities entertain in the market (Marx, 1986). Marx then proceeds to ask how this commodity relation can exist and further expatiates upon how a market system facilitates such a relation.

Commodity types are almost uncountable; from a pencil to a rocket engine, most goods produced in capitalist society are commodities. Hence, commodity production is the dominant type of production in a capitalist social formation. In spite of various kinds of commodity, commodities in the market, whatever their use is, can be exchanged with other commodities. But how is this possible? How can different commodities can be exchanged? What can possibly be the commonality between a pencil and a rocket engine which enables an exchange between those two items? Is it correct that those two commodities can be exchanged because they share the commonality of “mass”? That will not hold any truth for the commodity that does not have mass in it, like human service. What facilitates an exchange between different types of commodities is the human labor expended in production. Commodities in the market pompously represents its use-value to buyers and show how much they worth through their price tag. In the market it appears that commodities are solely produced for the purpose of fulfilling buyer’s desire. However, commodities are not summoned by the desire of buyers and just magically appear in the market. A commodity is the product of human labor expended in production. A pencil, a book, a chair, a desk, a house, a bottle of water and countless number of commodities existing in the market are the products of human labor. If labor was not expended in production, none of the products would be present in the market. Hence, the common denominator of all commodities in capitalist social formation is human labor objectified in producing commodities.

Human labor objectified in production enables exchanges between various kinds of commodities. Accordingly, the amount of social labor required to produce a commodity primarily determines its value. Meaning that if pencil industry A produces 8000 pencils per day and requires 1000 hrs of workers labor time to produce that amount of pencil, then the produced pencil has more value than 8000 bottles of water which requires water industry B to expend 500 hrs of workers labor, for example. It is important to note here that it is the social form of human labor that determines the value of a commodity. The concrete form of human labor, the labor of producing pencil and the labor of producing a bottled water, which is essential to produce commodities’ use-value, does not have primacy over the social form of labor. Meaning that the abstract form of human labor, which primarily determines the value of produced commodities, has primacy over concrete labor; for commodity production in capitalist social formations is not based on fulfilling the desire of consumers, but on the valorization of capital through the exploitation of wage laborers. Abstract labor has more importance in capitalist social formation than concrete labor because the commodity relation is not facilitated by the specific nature of labor, but by the abstract from of labor objectified in commodities during production.

To clarify any confusion, abstract labor can be simply defined as the labor of wage-laborers expended to produce surplus value (Ben, 1989). Abstract labor is the essence of capitalist social formations, for it facilitates the commodity relation in the market thus the market system itself and allows the capitalists to procure profits from the exploitation of all kind of wage-labor (Alfredo, 2002). One crucial thing to note is that concrete form of labor such as tailoring, weaving, making pencils and etc. does not exist independent of its abstract form. The concrete form of labor is the mode of manifestation of its essence in capitalistic social formation. Essence can only exist through its particular presentation (Hegel, 1997 64). In other words, the essence of capitalistic social formation, abstract labor, only exists through its particular representation, concrete form of labor. Without weaving, tailoring, the labor of making pencils, and etc. there can be no abstract labor. However, abstract labor still holds its primacy over concrete labor, for commodity production in capitalistic social formation is not based on fulfilling the desire of consumers through the use of particular nature of concrete labor, but centered on the creation of surplus value through the exploitation of wage- laborer.

Concrete labor is the transformative action of producing commodities, like producing a pencil from its raw material; whereas abstract labor is the product of social relations in capitalistic social formation which enables capitalists to exploit their employed wage laborers (Ben, 1989). This distinction between concrete labor and abstract labor and the primacy of abstract labor over concrete labor is only specific to capitalist social formations for the following two reason. First, only in capitalistic social formation laborers appear as wage-laborers whose labor is homogenized and synchronized with other laborers hence acquiring the form of abstract labor. Second, production for the creation of surplus-value through the exploitation of laborers who have nothing to sell but their ability to work (or labor power) is only specific to capitalist social formations. Disregarding these social relations which makes a distinction between abstract labor and concrete labor engenders the misunderstanding of labor theory of value.

Labor theory of value can be defined as an analysis of value equal to social labor or labor time (Marx Dictionary, 2014). This definition holds less of significance than how the theory was derived. It is true that labor theory of value defines value as equivalent to socially necessary labor time required to produce a certain amount of commodity; but, such a definition foregoes how this ‘social labor’ comes about and how it determines the value of commodity. Only the understanding of labor theory of value through the commodity relation of capitalist social formations divulges the true meaning of the theory that is, capitalist social formations are based on commodity relations which are characterized by abstract labor, and since commodity production is for the creation of profits through the exploitation of wage-laborers, abstract labor has primacy over concrete form of human labor; ergo, the social form of labor determines the value of produced commodities.

Disregarding the social relations imposed on the labor theory of value and employing it to analyze other types of social formations besides capitalist ones makes the theory obsolete. It is crucial to understand that Marx’s means of inquiry is dialectical materialism which is conditioned by historical and logical limits. Overlooking this does not only cause total misunderstanding of his theory but also engenders the lure of dogmatism.


We have delineated Marx’s means of inquiry in Capital and how he employed such a methodology to formulate labor theory of value. In the first section of this paper, dialectical materialism was defined by analyzing its historical and philosophical background; and a comparison was made between dialectical idealism and dialectical materialism to exhibit their difference and thereby assisting readers in understanding of dialectical materialism. The second section was devoted to explain how dialectical materialism works. The last section was a discussion of how Marx’s labor theory of value should be understood within the conditions of dialectical materialism.

Now it seems obvious that considering the conditions of dialectical materialism is essential prior to understanding any of Marx’s theory. Some may speculate that the conditions of dialectical materialism, historical and logical condition, as the defects of the philosophical notion; because every analysis formulated by dialectical materialism is not universal, but specific to a historically existing society. However, the historical and logical condition is what makes dialectical materialism a powerful tool to unveil the essence of haphazard social phenomena; dialectical materialism gains its validity not from the universal truth that just floats about, but from the actually existing social relation by exposing the contradiction innate within a society. Analysis that is not built upon the most general relation of social formation and the real abstraction circumscribed by logicality and historicity; or simply put, analysis that is not based upon dialectical materialism is neither revolutionary nor useable to correctly comprehend society in its totality. Hence, dialectical materialism must be sought for and be actively used by the working class for it is the only philosophical tool that provides the logical category of understanding the essence of the current social formation within its totality and the means to liberate the working class.

J. Sul


“Abstraction” Encyclopaedia Britannica Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 17 Aug. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1994/abstraction&gt;

“Abstraction”. Hegel Dictionary. 2014. Web. 17 August 2014. <http://terms.naver.com/entry.nhn?docId=1717124&cid=41908&categoryId=41971&gt;

“Dialectical materialism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 17 Aug. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/161209/dialectical-materialism&gt;

Ben Fine.  Marx’s Capital. Basingstoke: Macmilian Education, 1989. Print.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Science of Logics. Korean. Byuck-Ho, 1997. 63 Print

Kim Kyoung Il, Lee Jae Yu Research. Korea: Creation and Critique, 1993. Print.

“Labor Theory of Value.” Marx Dictionary. 2014. Web 17 August 2014 <http://terms.naver.com/entry.nhn?docId=1690791&cid=41908&categoryId=41930>

Lim Seung Soo, Marx’s Philosophy, Korea: Window of Era, 2010. Print.

Karl Marx. Capital. 1 Vol. (London): Penguin, 1986. Print.

Alfredo Saad-Filho. The Value of Marx: Political Economy for Contemporary Capitalism. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Join the conversation! 9 Comments

  1. Really thought provoking work here! I especially enjoyed the dialectical materialism section. Is/Are there any more observations on Das Kapital?
    (I hope my English is understandable. I’m German.)

  2. Took me an hour to read this one, as my English just ain’t good enough. It’s a lovely piece, but would love if you simplified your terminology for the Third World audience.

  3. “Marx’s labor theory of value is only applicable to capitalist social formations.” That’s a very strong assumption which needs further discussion.

    The whole of Marx’s theory is indeed only applicable to capitalist society, but I think Rosa Luxemburg’s view (in Accumulation of Capital) that there are universal aspects in Marx’ labor theory of value is quite convincing. She argues that all of human reproduction can be divided into c+v+s, even though in different social formations these categories take on different forms, e.g. they are only capital and exchange values in capitalist society.

    But all human products can be measured in labor time, and the total social product of a human society can be divided in a part that represents labor time spent for the reproduction of the labor material (c), the sustenance of the labor force (v) and surplus labor time for the sick, the old, the arts and the ruling class in a class society (s).

    Or the other way around, every human society needs for its reproduction (1) material to work with, (2) sustained labor force and (3) labor time for those individuals who can’t or won’t participate in production.

    These categories are of course not absolute universals, but in their high abstraction they account for all of human past and to a certain extent for future society. The latter aspect is of importance because Marx’s theory could help build socialism.

    • Labor has been the basic condition of human survival; and we may dissect the composition of labor as you stated. However, Marx’s labor theory of value is not about humans’ needs to labor to survive, nor was it a delineation of the universal question of labor in abstraction. It was, as I specifically stated, about how ‘social labor’ can be equivalent to ‘value’ in capitalistic social formation. Hence, it is proper to analyze the labor theory of value in the perspective of capitalistic social relation; i.e. how social labor becomes value, how the distinction between abstract labor and concrete labor comes about, and how capitalist class relation appropriates the value produced.

      • I think as long as you can have a large quantity of producers as well as circulation, even in primitive communal societies, you can say that the labor value theory can be applied. There will necessarily be alienation of labor, since commodities, though not necessarily surplus, since the producer cannot supply its basic needs with what he produces. Marx gave an example of a single typical Indian society, where producers inside a single community exchange commodities to supply each one needs, and its destruction against due the invasion of capitalism.

        Also, money may actually exist in such societies, for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shell_money#North_America . What differs capitalism from the other modes of production is the alienation of the means of production, where people actually pay to work and also pay the capitalists to spend money in whatever they wish.

      • The large amount of working population (let’s be specific about this. The “population” here specifically means wage laborers who do not own the means of production, hence the ones who sell their “labor-power” in the market to survive; and by “large amount ” I meant a relative amount of population compared to the one of other social formation. And let us not forget the fact that this “large amount of population” is primarily determined by production relation of capitalistic social formation. Meaning, this large population, which consists of both working and surplus population, is artificially created by capitalistic system) and well established commodity circulation (again, let’s be specific about this. by “commodity circulation” I not only mean the commodities in circulation, but also the commodity relation which facilitates commodity circulation and commodifies labor ability of workers and give them no choice but to sell their labor power to capitalists to survive) cannot be established prior to the formation of capitalistic production relation.

        And I am heavily against your definition of capitalism. What defines capitalistic social formation is the capitalistic mode of production. This mode of production consists of capitalistic production relation and productive force, which the latter gives arise to the former and conditions the latter, i.e. the relation between the means of production and producers gives rise to the production relation of capitalistic social formation and the production relation, which gives rise to class relation, reinforces capitalistic production relation; hence, ultimately, the relation between the means of production and producers, i.e. productive force. Laborers may seem alienated from the means of production, and it may sound true at first, for they do not own the means of production. However, laborer are not alienated by the absence of ownership of the means of production (I frankly do not know what kind of this alienation is. I presume that laborers not owning the means of production is equal to alienation in your mind, which is incorrect). Laborers are alienated by the production relation which reinforce the class relation between labor and capital: laborers are alienated by labor itself in capitalistic social formation.

        And If I were to follow your definition of alienation (laborers not owning the means of production), I can formulate the following position: apprentice did not own the means of production; hence, the social formation which had apprentice-artisan relation, where only artisan had the legal ownership of the means of production, is a capitalistic social formation; ergo, feudalistic society was actually not feudal at all, but all capitalistic (?!). Which we know is incorrect.

  4. Apparently, in your second paragraph, you seem to imply that I gave any definition of capitalism. I didn’t. I was just talking about the validity of labor theory of value. And I gave 2 real examples that as long as there are many producers trading commodities, there will be an exchange value and money, even in a classless society. Thus, since I was not talking about a capitalist society, I merely mentioned alienation of commodity and not of of labor.

    But it is interesting that you mention the apprentice relation. This was one of the signs of emerging of capitalism in the late middle ages, which yielded the formation of guilds of crafts. The manufacturing of commodities already required many tools, whose exchange value already required considerably larger and larger quantity of money, thus fomenting the primitive accumulation at the level of private property. So, an apprentice was alienated from the means of production. Though, this represented a capitalist mode of production in a, it was not intensive enough to change society, since it still required the participation of the master of craft in the production.

    For that to be achieved, it still required that money, in the form of precious metals, could imbue a large quantity of dead labor. So, it required that gold and silver from the Americas was carried to Europe and entered into circulation. So, the few of the master of arts that could elevate the art to a mechanical level, and do not take part in the production, letting all the use of the means of production to laborers.

    When this was achieved, it induced changes in the relationship in the feuds, which slowly began to transform into real states. Corvee, was based on barter between the producers and owners of the land, had to be abolished since it did not allow the conversion of labor into money, or the intensification of monocultures required for the nascent capitalism. So, people expelled from the country went to cities, enriching the early bourgeois.

    • Back to your point.

      I believe you did not prove any validity of the labor theory of value. I believe you try to equivocate it more than anyone ever can. As I stated in the earlier comment for the other commentor, the labor theory of value is not about an explanation of the human’s basic condition of survival (labor), nor was it a delineation of labor in an idealistic abstract. It was about “how” labor takes the form of social labor in capitalistic society; how it takes the form of both concrete and abstract; and how it can be equal to the value that which the capitalist class can appropriate. Disregarding the historical and logical condition of the labor theory of value makes the theory ever more obsolete.

      Also, predominant commodity production based upon the wage labor of workers and the mass circulation of produced commodities cannot exist in any other social formation besides the capitalistic one. For the capital relation, which is the premise of “wage labor” of workers and “predominant commodity production”, cannot exist prior to those. Hence, the combination of the “large amount of working population (do specify what kind of this working population is, if you wish)” and the “circulation of commodities (so as this, what do you think a “commodity” is?) ” which is not mediated by capital relation do not magically bring about capitalistic system.

      Money, labor service, exchange value, and even commodities existed in feudal society, but that does not infer that “capital”, which essentially is a class relation between wage labor and capital, existed in a feudal society. Feudalistic society did have material sprouts for capitalistic social formation, but it did not have the capital relation established. Hence, the labor theory of value, which is conditioned by historical and logical relation of capital, cannot be applied to feudal society or any other society where the relation of capital is not established.

    • my main point is this: large amount of working population+ circulation of commodities =/= capitalistic society, hence labor theory of value (which is limited by capitalistic historical condition) cannot be used for the society just constituted of “large amount of working population” and “circulation of commodities”


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