Who were the classical economists, And what did Marx mean by 'vulgar economy'?


Who were the classical economists, and what did Marx mean by 'vulgar economy'?
VOL. 111 NO. 6


Who were the classical economists? And what did Marx mean by "vulgar economy"?

In a footnote to Capital, Marx wrote:

"Once for all I may here state, that by classical Political Economy, I understand that economy which, since the time of W. Petty, has investigated the real relations of production in bourgeois society in contradistinction to vulgar economy, which deals with appearances only, ruminates without ceasing on the materials long since provided by scientific economy, and there seeks plausible explanations of the most obtrusive phenomena, for bourgeois daily use, but for the rest, confines itself to systematizing in a pedantic way, and proclaiming for everlasting truths, the trite ideas held by the self-complacent bourgeoisie with regard to their own world, to them the best of all possible worlds."

The vulgar economists have, since Marx's time, been engaged much of the time in "disproving Marx." Their productions consist of "scientific conclusions" that are meant to justify profit, the concentration of capital, etc., and that credit the "free enterprise" system for society's progress, real or imagined. They say what the capitalists want most to hear.

The classical economists, on the other hand, tried to explain such phenomena as rent, interest, profit, value, etc. Their investigations were carried on for the same reason that Darwin investigated biological phenomena -- to come to the truth.

Marx described Sir William Petty (1623-1687) as "the founder of modern political economy" and "one of the most gifted and original economic investigators." Among other things, Petty took a first step towards explaining the value of commodities. In Treaties of Taxes and Contributions (London, 1662), he wrote:

"If a man can bring to London an ounce of Silver out of the Earth in Peru, in the same time that he can produce a bushel of Corn, then one is the natural price of the other; now if by reason of new and more easie Mines a man can get two ounces of Silver as easily as formerly he did one, then Corn will be as cheap at ten shillings the bushel, as it was before at five shillings caeteris paribus [all else being equal]."

But Petty, who concentrated his studies on the subject of rents, raised more questions than he was able to answer. Classical economists who built largely on foundations Petty laid were John Locke (1632-1704), Sir James Steuart (1712-1780), Adam Smith (1723-1790) and David Ricardo (1772-1823).

Ricardo, who was a banker as well as an economist, started with the proposition that the value of a commodity is determined by the labor time required to produce it. He was far from being a revolutionary and never grasped the revolutionary implications of this proposition. But he sought a complete reassessment of political economy in the light of this theory. "This is therefore the great historical significance of Ricardo for the science...." (Marx)

No brief account, such as this, can detail the contributions that the individual classical economists made. In the writings of some there is much that is contradictory. But, after Petty supplied a beginning, each benefited from his predecessors -- stood on their shoulders, so to speak -- and brought understanding of political economy to a new point, illumining such subordinate subjects as money, fluctuations of prices, "productive" and "unproductive" labor, commercial crises, etc.

But it remained for Marx to put the capstone on the science. Marx did this in his great masterpiece, Capital, wherein he made a step-by-step critique of the capitalist economic system, carrying the investigation into areas wholly ignored by the economists who preceded him.