‘Vulgar economy . . . everywhere sticks to appearances in opposition to the law which regulates and explains them. In opposition to Spinoza, it believes that “ignorance is a sufficient reason” ’ (I, 307).footnote1 ‘ . . . Vulgar economy feels particularly at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations . . . these relations seem the more self-evident the more their internal relationships are concealed from it’ (III, 797). ‘ . . . The philistine’s and vulgar economist’s way of looking at things stems . . . from the fact that it is only the direct form of manifestation of relations that is reflected in their brains and not their inner connection’ (Marx to Engels, 27/6/1867). ‘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’ (I, 81). ‘It is the great merit of classical economy to have destroyed this false appearance and illusion . . . this personification of things and conversion of production relations into entities, this religion of everyday life . . . nevertheless even the best spokesmen of classical economy remain more or less in the grip of the world of illusion which their criticism had dissolved, as cannot be otherwise from a bourgeois standpoint, and thus they all fall more or less into inconsistencies, half-truths and unsolved contradictions’ (III, 809).

In this manner does Marx, on many occasions, specify the distance separating vulgar economy from classical political economy, and a fortiori from his own critique of the latter, providing us at the same time with a conception of the minimum necessary condition to be satisfied by any work aspiring to scientific status: namely, that it uncovers the reality behind the appearance which conceals it. The intention of this article is to deal with a group of problems (in particular, the problem of fetishism) related to Marx’s formulations of this requirement and to the systematic recurrence of its appropriate terminology—appearance/essence, form/content, illusion/reality, phenomena/hidden substratum, form of manifestation/inner connection, etc. It should, however, be made clear at the outset that scarcely anything is said about the development of Marx’s views on these questions, hence about the relation between the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and Capital; and, about the relationship between Hegel and Marx, nothing at all. Thus the process of Marx’s intellectual formation and development is set to one side, and these problems are considered only as they emerge in Capital itself, at the interior of what is a more or less finished, more or less coherent structure of thought.

If we begin, then, with what I have called the minimum necessary condition of Marx’s science, this methodological requirement to which he assigns an exceptional importance, the first question which arises is as follows: what is its theoretical foundation? What establishes its necessity? At all events, it is hardly an arbitrary construction on Marx’s part. The text of Capital provides us with two kinds of answer. In one, it is revealed as the common requirement of any science.

‘. . . a scientific analysis of competition is not possible before we have a conception of the inner nature of capital, just as the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies are not intelligible to any but him, who is acquainted with their real motions, motions which are not directly perceptible by the senses’ (I, 316).

‘That in their appearance things often represent themselves in inverted form is pretty well known in every science except Political Economy’ (1, 537).

‘. . . all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided’ (III, 797).

In such passages Marx presents the conceptual distinction between appearance and reality as a form of scientificity as such, by notifying us that the method he is applying in political economy is simply a general requirement for arriving at valid knowledge, one which he has taken over from the other sciences where it has long been established. Taken on its own, this answer is not entirely satisfactory. It makes of Marx’s primary methodological injunction—to shatter the obviousness of immediate appearances—an abstract procedural rule which must form part of the equipment of every science, regardless of the content of that science, of the nature of its object of study. Taken on its own, this answer does not yet specify why it is appropriate to extend the methods of astronomy to the subject matter of political economy. For this reason we put it in parenthesis for the moment, though it should be borne in mind since it will be reconsidered at a later stage of the argument.