Alienated Labour and the Critique of Political Economy

  • Simon Clarke


Marx developed his theory of capitalist society through a critique of the theories of classical political economy. However, many features of Marx’s work that are commonly identified as its central themes were already commonplace in political economy. Thus Adam Smith had a thoroughgoing ‘materialist’ conception of history, in which class relations emerge out of the mode of subsistence, the development of these relations is conditioned by the development of the forces of production and the state is introduced to preserve the rights and property of the rich. Ricardo provided a more rigorous analytical foundation for this model and in so doing produced a theory that could easily be interpreted by the Ricardian socialists as a theory not of class harmony, but of class conflict, in which profit derives from the exploitation of the labourer and the development of the forces of production is held back by capital and landed property, just as in feudal society it had been restrained by the political power of landed and mercantile property. Thus Marx relied heavily on Smith and Ricardo in his condemnation of the capitalist system in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and The Poverty of Philosophy. Clearly what sets Marx apart from the political economists is not simply a ‘materialist conception of history’ nor a ‘class conception of society’, for versions of these are already to be found in classical political economy.


Civil Society Political Economy Social Relation Private Property Social Form 
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Copyright information

© Simon Clarke 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Simon Clarke
    • 1
  1. 1.University of WarwickUK

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