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History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000) 381-394
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Marx's Concept of an Economic Law of Motion
John P. Burkett *
Karl Marx's ultimate aim in Capital ( 1965, 10) is "to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society." A reader wondering what to expect from the book may try to recall laws of motion of earlier vintage. The laws that most readily come to mind are those with which Isaac Newton begins his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. 1 Not surprisingly, some commentators have surmised that Marx aspired to do for economics what Newton had done for physics. For instance, Michael Barratt Brown (1972, 127) argues as follows: 2 "In his model of the economic structure Marx seems to be following Newtonian concepts. Two examples may suffice, both taken from Capital, Volume 1. 'In the form of society now under consideration, the behaviour of men in the social process of production is purely atomic' (ch. 2). 'As the heavenly bodies, once thrown into a certain definite motion, always repeat this, so it is with social production . . .' (ch. 25)."
The cited examples do not, in fact, make a strong case that Marx [End Page 381] aspired to follow Newton's lead. With regard to the first example, we should note that Marx's views on atomism were formed in his dissertation on Democritus and Epicurus ( 1975). While Epicurus is mentioned in Capital, Newton is not. Furthermore, in some passages Marx seems to find atomism a misleading or at least shallow point of view. For example, he states that "in competition the immanent laws of capital, of capitalist production, appear as the result of the mechanical impact of capitals on each other; hence inverted and upside down" ( 1991-94, 33:102).
With regard to the second example, Marx is less likely to have been thinking of Newton than of Johann Kepler 3 as interpreted by G. W. F. Hegel, a point borne out by the following passage: "It is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly falling towards another, and as, at the same time, constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion which, while allowing this contradiction to go on, at the same time reconciles it" (Marx  1965, 104). This view is reminiscent of Hegel ( 1970), who viewed Kepler's elliptical planetary orbits as an expression of the dialectics of space and time, rather than of Newton ( 1994), who viewed them as a special case of his inverse square law of gravitation.
There are two other reasons for doubting that Newton's laws of motion were paradigmatic for Marx. First, as Marx noted in a letter to Engels (1858, cited in Nicolaus 1973, 26), his method was influenced by Hegel's Logic ( 1966, 2:86), which dismisses much of Newton's analysis as "empty and tautological talk." In two other letters to Engels, Marx concurred with Hegel's low opinion of Newton. In one he states that "taken as a whole Hegel's polemic amounts to saying that Newton's 'proofs' added nothing to Kepler, who already possessed the 'concept' of movement, which I think is fairly generally accepted now" ( 1987b, 184-85). In the other, Marx ( 1992, 380), following Hegel ( 1970, 58), unfavorably contrasts the "mystical method of Newton and Leibniz" in differential calculus to "Lagrange's strictly algebraic method." 4
Second, while Newton's exposition of physical laws of motion centers on mathematical functions that summarize observational and experimental [End Page 382] data, Marx's exposition of his economic law of motion is almost exclusively literary and qualitative. 5
All in all, the evidence for an "essential difference," as Jindrich Zeleny (1980, 221) puts it, between Marx's and Newton's views on laws of motion is sufficient to justify consideration of alternative interpretations of Capital.
Marx's Usages of Law
Marx's "economic law of motion of modern society" is not a single proposition but, rather, a collection of conceptually linked relationships--most notably the law of...