Like the rest of the introduction to the Grundrisse, the third section is both abstract and difficult. Nothing in Capital is as hard to slog through, simply because Marx is presenting here in vague outline what he intends to fill in later. Nevertheless, some of what he says here is intriguing, and it's gotten me thinking about the subject of Marx's so-called "method".
My thesis is that almost none of what Marx says here is important. It's misleading to believe that reading this will prepare you to read Marx's Capital. If Marx felt it was necessary to introduce his readers to his method before presenting to them the arguments of Capital, he would have included a methodological introduction, like many philosophers before him had done, and as many bourgeois economists today, Paul Samuelson included, do. But Marx deliberately did not include an introduction in any of the editions of Capital. The theoretical introduction of the Grundrisse does not make it into the final copy of Capital. Granted, he remarks in the Afterward to the second German edition that he is "inverting" Hegel's dialectic, standing it up on its feet, but there's no systematic exposition of this approach that would put it on the same level of scientific precision as one encounters in the body of the work.
At times Marx makes it appear as though there is a Marxist "methodology" separate from the actual concrete phenomena he analyzes in his work. Engels did much to extend the so-called “dialectical method” from the sphere of political economy and generalize it into a broad account of both nature and society. Lenin was highly influenced by such formalistic accounts, and no one less than Trotsky wrote an essay on the "ABC's of Material Dialectics".
The problem with presenting such a method as a fact accomplished prior to the science itself is that it is susceptible to skepticism. As such, there have been both socialist and bourgeois critics of dialectical method. None other than Eduard Bernstein, Engels's personal secretary, attempted to rescue scientific Marxism from the mysticism of Hegelian dialectics in his 1899 The Preconditions of Socialism (see chapter 2 especially). Since traditional, orthodox Marxists see dialectics as providing the teleological framework through which to understand the inevitable collapse of capitalism and its “supersession” by communism, it's no accident that Bernstein's rejection of dialectics goes hand-in-hand with his embrace of reformism. Socialism will not come about as a result of the inevitable collapse of capitalism, according to Bernstein; rather, socialism will occur under capitalism once the proletariat attains for itself a more just share of surplus. Bernstein adds the Marx stamp of approval to this position at the beginning of his book when he quotes Marx as saying, "Hence the Ten Hours' Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of the principle." The realization of the political “principle” of Marxism is none other than the concrete condition under which the life of the proletariat as a class is made empirically more tolerable through the larger portion of surplus distributed to working individuals. (Bernstein's socialism has been the most influential, far surpassing Lenin’s.) Bourgeois critics usually find nothing but either metaphysics or mathematics in Capital. The metaphysics they dismiss without further adieu, and so they spend the rest of their time pointing out what a buffoon Marx was for having improperly formulated labor as a series of simultaneous equations rather than linear equations, etc. Outside of metaphysics, there is nothing but positivism.
The assumption shared by both socialist and bourgeois critics of Marx's method is that the rejection of dialectical formalism entails empiricism. Reformist socialists like Bernstein, who see in dialectics nothing more than the imminent, messianic coming of communism, are led through their rejection of it to assume that the only scientific socialism worthy of the name must concentrate exclusively on improving the concrete living conditions of the working classes, increasing their share of distribution, and expanding their consumption. But the Bernsteinian approach is similar in essential ways to the approach of bourgeois economists who also reject "metaphysics" in favor of what is observable and measurable. Moreover, bourgeois economists since Adam Smith have long argued that free markets negotiated by owners of private property would yield the fastest possible growth of production. This in turn would enable social peace and a rising standard of living. Nowhere has Smith's prophecy enjoyed more relevance than in the United States, whose working class has reaped the benefits of increased consumption since the 19th century. By concentrating almost exclusively on improving the standard of living of the proletariat, reformist socialists in the tradition of Bernstein have played directly into the hands of the bourgeoisie. They have demanded from capitalism the one thing capitalism has turned out to be very good at providing. (For more on this, see Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, "Exploitaton, Consumption, and the Uniqueness of US Capitalism”, Historical Materialism, volume 11:4 (209-226).)
All of this might lead one to believe that one must either embrace materialist dialectics as the proper method of political economy, or one must embrace the method of bourgeois economics or reformism. But Marx did not understand things this way. He neither begins Capital with a systematic statement of his methodology, nor does he advocate bourgeois economics or reformism. How does Marx proceed, then, and what makes his way of proceeding differ from the method of bourgeois economics generally? If we answer this question, we can figure out what it means that Marx has a "dialectical" way of proceeding, but going the other way will never help us. That is, we can't understand Marx beforehand by figuring out what "dialectics" is and then reading the book. The latter would assume that Marx has a method which he is then going to apply to the object, economics, the way a biologist might have a scientific method which she then applies to a living thing. But as it turns out, Marx questions the relationship between thought and its object that is assumed by this approach. Adopting a thoroughly Marxist perspective will require one not only to see capitalism differently, but also to see the relationship between thought and object überhaupt differently.
To begin, we might consider two ways in which we can "ground" our inquiry: in facts or in abstractions. In the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx refers to the former as "concrete particulars" and the latter as "abstract ideas". In political economy, an example of a concrete particular might be something like division of labor, the price of a commodity, exchange, etc. These are all observable, simple, measurable phenomena. An example of an abstract idea might be population, society, etc. These are things which, if we abstract from the particular things determining them like classes, etc., are very general ideas which we could apply to a vast multiplicity of human organizations.
Two questions arise from this dichotomy: (1) where do we begin, and (2) what is the foundation upon which political economy rests? Do we begin from very simple phenomena like exchange or actual consumption of goods in one place and build up general theories by means of an inductive method, or do we start from general ideas like society and population, things which are common to all societies, and derive possible ways of being social or being economic out of them? That's the question of beginning. But what are the basic laws or categories we're going to produce by means of this method? Will they belong only to particular societies, or can we generalize them to all societies? What can we say about the people who participate in societies? Do they have properties belonging intrinsically to them? Can we base our economics on those properties? In general, what are the basic, most foundational predicates for economics, and what grounds their universality and necessity?
Many believe Marx proceeds in a basically inductive, linear fashion. According to this interpretation, Marx starts with an observable fact (the existence of commodities) and breaks that fact down into its atoms: use-value, exchange-value, and value. He disregards use-value as irrelevant. Exchange-value on its own is incapable of telling us anything about capitalism. This leads him to construct a proper foundation for his analysis of capitalism: the labor theory of value. This is the building block upon which he will construct everything else, the Archimedean point from which we can learn everything we need to know about capitalism. This in turn is founded upon Marx's insight that all history is the history of class struggle. The labor theory of value is true, because it expresses class relations under capitalism. (See David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, Chapter 1.)
The great thing about this interpretation of Marx—aside from the fact that it turns Marx into a convenient popinjay for bourgeois economists and, therefore, for undergraduates—is that it fits in nicely with the way we expect theorists to proceed. Marx begins with a visible phenomenon—the commodity—and analyzes it into its components. He proceeds by means of analysis to discover a secure principle upon which to base the rest of his inquiry, and he uses that foundation to construct a theory of capitalism. Because Marx proceeds in such a straightforward, linear, analytical fashion, it's easy for us to see right away that Marx's foundation, his theory of value, is wrong. He's going to base the rest of his theory on a wrong foundation, so we can stop right here and not bother ourselves with the rest of what he says.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Marx never argues that the commodity, the value theorem, or anything else serves or can serve as the foundation of a critique of political economy. It's true that Marx considers the commodity to be the material embodiment of use-value, exchange-value, and value, and that we have to understand these concepts if we're going to understand anything at all about capitalism. And yet, in order to fully understand these concepts, according to Marx, we already need to know the inner logic of capitalism itself. So what appears at first to be an a priori beginning to the inquiry, or what appears at least to begin with some elemental "givens", is actually no "beginning" at all in the strict sense of the term. Marx begins in medias res, in the middle of things. (See Harvey, ibid.)
What appears as an origin or a given is really a result of a complex process, and it is the job of the critique of political economy to reproduce in thought the complex process that brought about this result. Yet we cannot reconstruct this process simply by looking at the order in which phenomena arise in time. As Marx argues in the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse, although phenomena like money and property appear at the beginning of civilization, their character under capitalism is entirely different. Therefore, no foundation in history, as a mere concatenation of events in the order in which they occurred, is available to us. Furthermore, we cannot reconstruct this process by going back to a more fundamental principle (like some take the labor theory of value to be), because, according to Marx, the only way we can understand anything else going on in capitalism is by means of the inner structure of the commodity. And those atoms themselves which make up the commodity—use-value, exchange-value, and value—cannot be understood except in relation to one another. So we cannot understand what exchange-value is abstracted from use-value and value. We cannot understand value without thinking about it in terms of exchange-value and use-value. We cannot understand use-value except in terms of exchange-value and value. No concept can be understood in isolation, as the foundation of all the others.
So in answer to the question—Does Marx begin from concrete particulars (like actual commodities or particular events in history), or does he begin from abstract ideas (like the labor theory of value or Hegelian metaphysics)?—we reject the premise. The premise is that there is any "given" one can begin from. But it is the very idea of a "given" which Marx rejects. Theoretical insight into capitalism comes about not through the linear construction of a theory on a foundation but rather through the process of thinking the relations that make up the capitalist mode of production.
We must use insights garnered from one standpoint to throw light upon another. Looked at from the perspective of use-value, capitalism will look one way. Then we shift perspectives and look at it from the point of view of value, and it looks another. Then we move to another perspective, keeping in mind what we already saw, and applying it to this perspective. In light of what we see now, we revise what we already saw in order to come to a fuller understanding of what capitalism and its contradictions are.
We don't make our account of capitalism concrete by having the right starting point. The concrete comes about as a result of moving between perspectives and revising our current and previous interpretations in light of what we have already seen and are currently seeing. This is why in the third section of the introduction to the Grundrisse, we come to that which is concrete not at the beginning, but only by breaking down population and building it back up again. Then and only then is population “determinate”. But this is a result of analysis, not a given.
And this is the way people normally go about learning things. It's rare that one perspective on the world turns out to be entirely wrong, and even if it is wrong, we don't simply throw away what we had. Rather, we revise our beliefs on the basis of the shortcomings of our previous view on things, and we come up with a new account of the phenomenon that takes into account and makes up for our previous errors. In the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel called this process of learning "determinate negation". It is the essence of dialectics, and it is something nearly every reasonable person practices on a day-to-day basis.
Although rejecting the “myth of the given” gets us out of the dichotomy of empiricism and mysticism, it is still not enough to bring us to a concrete understanding of Marx’s actual dialectical procedure. This is because one can reject foundationalism but still reject dialectics. Indeed, most forms of pragmatism follow just such a path. Since Marxist praxis is often confused with pragmatism, a closer look at pragmatism will help us see better what is distinctive in dialectics.
Philosophical pragmatism has taken a few forms, but in general it is the view that the truth consists in the agreement qualified scientists reach about some phenomenon or proposition—or—the test of truth is its practical value for the achievement of human ends. Pragmatism differs from positivism in its assertion of the unity of fact and value. We can form no conception of philosophical “Truth” abstracted from human values. There is no cognition that is not relative to the human, practical perspective. Pragmatism follows dialectics in its rejection of foundationalism—we cannot base our theories on “sense particulars” or static universals, because what counts as a particular or a universal is relative to what we value collectively or what “works” best for our purposes. It also follows dialectics in its insistence upon seeing an underlying relation between people where there appears to be a relationship between things. However, it differs from dialectics where it insists that cognition remain at the level of apparent reality, at the level of what we can manipulate or what simply works. Any philosophy that asks us to accept the role of science as the careful recording of facts chooses to leave the world mystified. By subjectivizing the relationship between subject and object, it leaves the question of our historical development aside, and so it becomes the willing instrument of the prevailing system of power.
By contrast, dialectics starts from a recognition of our own partiality rather than a methodological distrust of our means of getting at “Truth”. The partisanship of critical philosophy—Marx’s included—stems from its goal: the reconstruction of society on the basis of non-exploitative relations between persons. Self-directing, self-conscious human beings will be at the center of this society, not objects. And this brings us to the positive core of dialectics: the idea that the perceived world itself is a product of human activity. What we call “nature” is in fact humanized nature.
Therefore, to call Marx's dialectical way of proceeding a "method" is misleading. There really is no positive doctrine here, nothing that is accepted at the beginning as an accomplished fact, and certainly nothing on the order of what Engels referred to as the "unity of opposites" or the "negation of the negation". We can define dialectics negatively as the rejection of a "given". Positively, the core of dialectics consists in the idea that the world of perception is a product of human activity. There is nothing our senses or our intellects are in touch with immediately, tout court. We can adopt foundational or transcendental perspectives provisionally as a means of getting inquiry off the ground, but, as Wittgenstein says, we climb up the ladder only to throw it away when we're done. There is no beginning which in and of itself is not already a result. We start in the middle of things, trying to figure out what is going on around us. We can achieve a scientific perspective on capitalism, but we achieve that orientation as a result of the inquiry, not as something at the beginning.