Critique of political economy or simply the first critique of economy is a form of social critique that rejects the conventional ways of distributing resources. The critique also rejects what its advocates believe are unrealistic axioms, faulty historical assumptions,[1] and taking conventional economic mechanisms as a given[2][3] or as transhistorical (true for all human societies for all time).[4][5] The critique asserts the conventional economy is merely one of many types of historically specific ways to distribute resources, which emerged along with modernity (post-Renaissance Western society).[6][7][8]

Critics of political economy do not necessarily aim to create their own theories regarding how to administer economies.[1][3][9][10] Critics of economy commonly view "the economy" as a bundle of concepts and societal and normative practices, rather than being the result of any self-evident economic laws.[3][11] Hence, they also tend to consider the views which are commonplace within the field of economics as faulty, or simply as pseudoscience.[2][12]

There are multiple critiques of political economy today, but what they have in common is critique of what critics of political economy tend to view as dogma, i.e. claims of the economy as a necessary and transhistorical societal category.[3][13]

John Ruskin

John Ruskin portrayed in his thirties

In the 1860s, John Ruskin published his essay Unto This Last which he came to view as his central work.[14][15][16] The essay was originally written as a series of publications in a magazine, which ended up having to suspend the publications, due to the severe controversy the articles caused.[15] While Ruskin is generally known as an important art critic, his study of the history of art was a component that gave him some insight into the pre-modern societies of the Middle Ages, and their social organisation which he was able to contrast to his contemporary condition.[15][17] Ruskin attempted to mobilize a methodological/scientific critique of new political economy, as it was envisaged by the classical economists.[1][11]

Ruskin viewed the concept of "the economy" as a kind of "collective mental lapse or collective concussion", and he viewed the emphasis on precision in industry as a kind of slavery.[8][18] Due to the fact that Ruskin regarded the political economy of his time as "mad", he said that it interested him as much as "a science of gymnastics which had as its axiom that human beings in fact didn't have skeletons."[11] Ruskin declared that economics rests on positions that are exactly the same. According to Ruskin, these axioms resemble thinking, not that human beings do not have skeletons but rather that they consist entirely of skeletons. Ruskin wrote that he did not oppose the truth value of this theory, he merely wrote that he denied that it could be successfully implemented in the world in the state it was in.[11][15] He took issue with the ideas of "natural laws", "economic man", and the prevailing notion of value and aimed to point out the inconsistencies in the thinking of the economists.[1] He critiqued John Stuart Mill for thinking that "the opinions of the public" was reflected adequately by market prices.[19]

Ruskin coined illth to refer to unproductive wealth. Ruskin is not well known as a political thinker today but when in 1906 a journalist asked the first generation of Labour Party members of Parliament in the United Kingdom which book had most inspired them, Unto This Last emerged as an undisputed chart-topper.

"... the art of becoming 'rich,' in the common sense, is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating much money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbours shall have less. In accurate terms, it is 'the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our own favour.'"

— John Ruskin, Unto This Last


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels regarded much of Ruskin's critique as reactionary. His idealisation of the Middle Ages made them reject him as a "feudal utopian".[15]

Karl Marx

Karl Marx is the author of Das Kapital (Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie) [Capital: A Critique of Political Economy].[20]

In the 21st century, Marx is probably the most famous critic of political economy, with his three-volume magnum opus, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, as one of his most famous books.[21] Marx's companion Engels also engaged in critique of political economy in his 1844 Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, which helped lay down some of the foundation for what Marx was to take further.[22][23][24]

Marx's critique of political economy encompasses the study and exposition of the mode of production and ideology of bourgeois society, and its critique of Realabstraktionen (real abstraction), that is, the fundamental economic, i.e. social categories present within what for Marx is the capitalist mode of production,[25][26] for example abstract labour.[clarification needed][3][27][28] In contrast to the classics of political economy, Marx was concerned with lifting the ideological veil of surface phenomena and exposing the norms, axioms, social relations, institutions, and so on, that reproduced capital.[29]

The central works in Marx's critique of political economy are Grundrisse, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and Das Kapital. Marx's works are often explicitly named – for example: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, or Capital: A Critique of Political Economy.[30][21][13] Marx cited Engels' article Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy several times in Das Kapital. Trotskyists and other Leninists tend to implicitly or explicitly argue that these works constitute and or contain "economical theories", which can be studied independently.[31][32][33] This was also the common understanding of Marx's work on economy that was put forward by Soviet orthodoxy.[34][31] Since this is the case, it remains a matter of controversy whether Marx's critique of political economy is to be understood as a critique of the political economy or, according to the orthodox interpretation another theory of economics.[35][36] The critique of political economy is considered the most important and central project within Marxism which has led to, and continues to lead to a large number of advanced approaches within and outside academic circles.[13][37][38]

Foundational concepts

Marx's critique of the quasi-religious and ahistorical methodology of economists

Marx described the view of contemporaneous economists and theologians on social phenomena as similarly unscientific.[10][46]

"Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this, they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. When the economists say that present-day relations – the relations of bourgeois production – are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature. These relations, therefore, are themselves natural laws independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws that must always govern society. Thus, there has been history, but there is no longer any. There has been history, since there were the institutions of feudalism, and in these institutions of feudalism we find quite different relations of production from those of bourgeois society, which the economists try to pass off as natural and as such, eternal."

— Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy[47]

Marx continued to emphasize the ahistorical thought of the modern economists in the Grundrisse, where he among other endeavors, critiqued the liberal economist Mill.[48] Marx also viewed the viewpoints which implicitly regarded the institutions of modernity as transhistorical as fundamentally deprived of historical understanding.[49][50]

Individuals producing in society, and hence the socially determined production of individuals, is, of course, the point of departure. The solitary and isolated hunter or fisherman, who serves Adam Smith and Ricardo as a starting point, is one of the unimaginative fantasies of eighteenth-century romances a la Robinson Crusoe; and despite the assertions of social historians, these by no means signify simply a reaction against over-refinement and reversion to a misconceived natural life. No more is Rousseau's contract social, which by means of a contract establishes a relationship and connection between subjects that are by nature independent, based on this kind of naturalism. ... The individual in this society of free competition seems to be rid of natural ties, etc., which made him an appurtenance of a particular, limited aggregation of human beings in previous historical epochs. The prophets of the eighteenth century, on whose shoulders Adam Smith and Ricardo were still wholly standing, envisaged this 18th-century individual – a product of the dissolution of feudal society on the one hand and of the new productive forces evolved since the sixteenth century on the other – as an ideal whose existence belonged to the past. They saw this individual not as a historical result, but as the starting point of history; not as something evolving in the course of history, but posited by nature, because for them this individual was in conformity with nature, in keeping with their idea of human nature. This delusion has been characteristic of every new epoch hitherto.

— Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Introduction)
German edition of Das Kapital. It is a famous critique of political economy written by Marx.

According to the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, what Marx understood, and what the economists failed to recognise was that the value-form is not something essential, but merely a part of the capitalist mode of production.[51]

On scientifically adequate research

Marx offered a critique regarding the idea of people being able to conduct scientific research in this domain.[52] He wrote:

"In the domain of Political Economy, free scientific inquiry meets not merely the same enemies as in all other domains. The peculiar nature of the materials it deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean, and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest. The English Established Church, e.g., will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income. Nowadays atheism is culpa levis [a relatively slight sin, c.f. mortal sin], as compared with criticism of existing property relations."

— Karl Marx, Das Kapital (Preface to the First German Edition)

On vulgar economists

Marx criticized what he regarded as the false critique of political economy of his contemporaries, sometimes even more forcefully than when he critiqued the classical economists he described as vulgar economists. In Marx's view, the errors of some socialist authors led the workers' movement astray. He rejected Ferdinand Lassalle's iron law of wages, which he regarded as mere phraseology.[53] He also rejected Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's attempts to do what Hegel did for religion, law, and so on for political economy, as well as regarding what is social as subjective, and what was societal as merely subjective abstractions.[54][39]

Interpretations of Marx's critique of political economy

Some scholars view Marx's critique as being a critique of commodity fetishism and the manner in which this concept expresses a criticism of modernity and its modes of socialisation.[55] Other scholars who engage with Marx's critique of political economy affirm the critique might assume a more Kantian sense, which transforms "Marx's work into a foray concerning the imminent antinomies that lie at the heart of capitalism, where politics and economy intertwine in impossible ways."[13]

Contemporary Marxian

Regarding contemporary Marxian critiques of political economy, these are generally accompanied by a rejection of the more naturalistically influenced readings of Marx, as well as other readings later deemed weltanschaaungsmarxismus (worldview Marxism),[34][56][57] that was popularised as late as toward the end of the 20th century.[9][56]

According to some scholars in this field, contemporary critiques of political economy and contemporary German Ökonomiekritik have been at least partly neglected in the anglophone world.[58]


There has been a growing literature on feminist critiques of economics in the 21st century.[59][60][61][62] But feminist critiques of economics can be found as early as the beginning of the 18th century.[63] According to Julie A. Nelson, feminist critiques of economics should start from the premise that "economics, like any science, is socially constructed."[64] These feminists therefore argue economics is a field socially constructed to privilege Western, and heterosexual persons that identify as male.[65][66]

Katrine Marçal - author of Who cooked Adam Smith's dinner (2012)

They generally incorporate feminist theory and frameworks to show how economics communities signal expectations regarding appropriate participants to the exclusion of outsiders. Such criticisms extend to the theories, methodologies and research areas of economics, in order to show that accounts of economic life are deeply influenced by biased histories, social structures, norms, cultural practices, interpersonal interactions, and politics.[65] Feminists often also make a critical distinction that masculine bias in economics is primarily a result of gender, not sex.[64] But feminist critiques of economics, and the economy, can also include other views such as concern with an ever increasing rate of environmental degradation.[67]

Differences between critics of economy and critics of economical issues

One may differentiate between those who engage in critique of political economy, which takes on a more ontological character, where authors criticise the fundamental concepts and social categories which reproduce the economy as an entity.[3][10][11][68][69] While other authors, which the critics of political economy would consider only to deal with the surface phenomena of the economy, have a naturalized understanding of these social processes. Hence the epistemological differences between critics of economy and economists can also at times be very large.[48]

In the eyes of the critics of political economy, the critics of economic issues merely critique certain practices in attempts to implicitly or explicitly rescue the political economy; these authors might for example propose universal basic income or to implement a planned economy.[9][31][68][70]











See also


  1. ^ a b c d Henderson, Willie (2000). John Ruskin's political economy. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-15946-2. OCLC 48139638. ... Ruskin attempted a methodological/scientific critique of political economy. He fixed on ideas of 'natural laws', 'economic man' and the prevailing notion of 'value' to point out gaps and inconsistencies in the system of classical economics.
  2. ^ a b Murray, Patrick (March 2020). "The Illusion of the Economic: Social Theory without Social Forms". Critical Historical Studies. 7 (1): 19–27. doi:10.1086/708005. ISSN 2326-4462. S2CID 219746578.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Louis, Althusser; Balibar, Etienne (1979). Reading Capital. Verso Editions. p. 158. OCLC 216233458. 'To criticize Political Economy' means to confront it with a new problematic and a new object: i.e., to question the very object of Political Economy
  4. ^ Fareld, Victoria; Kuch, Hannes (2020), From Marx to Hegel and Back, Bloomsbury Academic, p. 142,182, doi:10.5040/, ISBN 978-1-3500-8267-0, S2CID 213805975, retrieved 17 September 2021
  5. ^ Postone 1993, pp. 44, 192–216.
  6. ^ Mortensen. "Ekonomi". Tidskrift för litteraturvetenskap. 3 (4): 9.
  7. ^ Postone, Moishe (1995). Time, labor, and social domination : a reinterpretation of Marx's critical theory. Cambridge University Press. pp. 130, 5. ISBN 0-521-56540-5. OCLC 910250140.
  8. ^ a b Jönsson, Dan (7 February 2019). "John Ruskin: En brittisk 1800-talsaristokrat för vår tid? - OBS". (in Swedish). Sveriges Radio. Archived from the original on 5 March 2020. Retrieved 24 September 2021. Den klassiska nationalekonomin, som den utarbetats av John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith och David Ricardo, betraktade han som en sorts kollektivt hjärnsläpp ... [Transl. Ruskin viewed the classical political economy as it was developed by Mill, Smith, and Ricardo, as a kind of 'collective mental lapse'.]
  9. ^ a b c Ramsay, Anders (21 December 2009). "Marx? Which Marx? Marx's work and its history of reception". Archived from the original on 12 February 2018. Retrieved 16 September 2021.
  10. ^ a b c Ruccio, David (10 December 2020). "Toward a critique of political economy | MR Online". Archived from the original on 15 December 2020. Retrieved 20 September 2021. Marx arrives at conclusions and formulates new terms that run directly counter to those of Smith, Ricardo, and the other classical political economists.
  11. ^ a b c d e Ruskin, John. Unto this Last. pp. 128–129.
  12. ^ Patterson, Orlando; Fosse, Ethan. "Overreliance on the Pseudo-Science of Economics". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 9 February 2015. (OpEd)
  13. ^ a b c d Ruda, Frank; Hamza, Agon (2016). "Introduction: Critique of Political Economy" (PDF). Crisis and Critique. 3 (3): 5–7.
  14. ^ Ruskin, John (1877). Unto This Last, and Other Essays on Political Economy. Sunnyside, Orpington, Kent: George Allen – via Project Gutenberg.
  15. ^ a b c d e Jönsson, Dan (7 February 2019). "John Ruskin: En brittisk 1800-talsaristokrat för vår tid? - OBS". (in Swedish). Sveriges Radio. Retrieved 16 September 2021.
  16. ^ Swann, G M Peter (2001). ""No Wealth But Life": When Does Mercantile Wealth Create Ruskinian Wealth?" (PDF). European Research Studies Journal. IV (3–4): 5–18.
  17. ^ "Ruskin the radical: why the Victorian critic is back with a vengeance". The Guardian. 30 August 2018. Archived from the original on 30 August 2018. Retrieved 12 November 2021.
  18. ^ "From Labor to Value: Marx, Ruskin, and the Critique of Capitalism". Retrieved 12 November 2021.
  19. ^ Henderson, Willie (2000). John Ruskin's political economy. London: Routledge. p. 100. ISBN 0-203-15946-2. OCLC 48139638. Ruskin's criticism of Mill is that he based the science of political economy on 'the opinions of the public' as expressed by market prices, i.e. on 'fuddled' thought induced by contemplating the shadow of value rather than thinking upon, by implication, a true (Platonic) object of cognition.
  20. ^ Marx, Karl (1867–1894). Das Kapital : Kritik der politischen Ökonomie [Capital: A Critique of Political Economy]. Anaconda Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7306-9034-5. OCLC 1141780305.
  21. ^ a b Conttren, V. (2022). "István Mészáros: The Critique of Political Economy". Conttren, V. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/65MXD. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. ^ "Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher" [German-French Yearbooks]. Retrieved 16 September 2021.
  23. ^ Liedman, Sven-Eric. "Engelsismen" (PDF). Fronesis (in Swedish) (28): 134. Engels var också först med att kritiskt bearbeta den nya nationalekonomin; hans "Utkast till en kritik av nationalekonomin" kom ut 1844 och blev en utgångspunkt för Marx egen kritik av den politiska ekonomin [Engels was the first to critically engage the new political economy his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy came out in 1844 and became a starting point for Marx's own critique of the political economy]
  24. ^ Murray, Patrick (March 2020). "The Illusion of the Economic: Social Theory without Social Forms". Critical Historical Studies. 7 (1): 19–27. doi:10.1086/708005. ISSN 2326-4462. S2CID 219746578. "There are no counterparts to Marx's economic concepts in either classical or utility theory." I take this to mean that Marx breaks with economics, where economics is understood to be a generally applicable social science.
  25. ^ "Marx Ekonomikritik". Fronesis (in Swedish) (28). Retrieved 1 September 2021.
  26. ^ Bellofiore, Riccardo (2016). "Marx after Hegel: Capital as Totality and the Centrality of Production" (PDF). Crisis & Critique. 3 (3): 31.
  27. ^ Jung, Henrik (1 January 2019). "Slagen av abstraktioner: Förnuftiga och reala abstraktioner i Marx ekonomikritik". Lychnos: Årsbok för idé- och lärdomshistoria (in Swedish). ISSN 0076-1648. Marx consistently reveals the social abstraction of the substance of value and capital, i.e. abstract labour, as a Realabstraktion dominating individuals in bourgeois society through money and capital.
  28. ^ Fareld, Victoria; Kuch, Hannes (9 January 2020). From Marx to Hegel and back capitalism, critique, and utopia. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 150, 143. ISBN 978-1-350-08268-7. OCLC 1141198381.
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  30. ^ Balibar, Étienne (2007). The philosophy of Marx. London: Verso. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-84467-187-8. OCLC 154707531. The expression 'critique of political economy' figures repeatedly in the title or programme of Marx's main works ... To these we may add a great many unpublished pieces, articles and sections in polemical works.
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  35. ^ "Excerpt from discussion on SPSM listserv on whether Capital can be understood as a "Critique" of Political economy or as "Marxist" political economy, highlighting the view of Juan Inigo".
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  37. ^ "Programme of the French Worker's Party". Retrieved 27 October 2021.
  38. ^ a b Postone 1993.
  39. ^ a b c d Marx, Karl; Nicolaus, Martin (1993). Grundrisse : foundations of the critique of political economy (rough draft). London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review. pp. 296, 239, 264. ISBN 0-14-044575-7. OCLC 31358710.
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  42. ^ Saitō, Kōhei (2017). Karl Marx's ecosocialism: capitalism, nature, and the unfinished critique of political economy. New York. ISBN 978-1-58367-643-1. OCLC 1003193200. Marx's critique of classical political economy as a critique of the fetishistic (that is, ahistorical) understanding of economic categories, which identifies the appearance of capitalist society with the universal and transhistorical economic laws of nature. Marx, in contrast, comprehends those economic categories as "specific social forms" and reveals the underlying social relations that bestow an objective validity of this inverted world where economic things dominate human beings.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  43. ^ Behrens, Diethard (1993). Gesellschaft und Erkenntnis. Freiburg i. Br.: Ça ira. pp. 71–72. ISBN 3-924627-34-7. OCLC 30457885.
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  48. ^ a b Marx. "Grundrisse". Archived from the original on 2 February 2002. The aim is, rather, to present production – see e.g. Mill – as distinct from distribution, etc., as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded. This is the more or less conscious purpose of the whole proceeding. In distribution, by contrast, humanity has allegedly permitted itself to be considerably more arbitrary. Quite apart from this crude tearing-apart of production and distribution and of their real relationship, it must be apparent from the outset that, no matter how different distribution may have been arranged in different stages of social development, it must be possible here also, just as with production, to single out common characteristics, and just as possible to confound or to extinguish all historic differences under general human laws.
  49. ^ Ruccio, David (10 December 2020). "Toward a critique of political economy | MR Online". Archived from the original on 15 December 2020. Retrieved 20 September 2021. Second, Marx's concern is always with social and historical specificity, as against looking for or finding what others would consider being given and universal.
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Further reading


Scholarly articles

Romantic critique of political economy articles


Critique of political economy

On Marx critique of political economy

Neue Marx-Lektüre
Classic works