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What is the Marxist conception of political economy ?

Early in the 1840s, embarrassed by his ignorance on economic issues, Marx shifted his attention from jurisprudence to material interests. Marx says: “I was led by my studies to the conclusion that legal relations as well as forms of state could neither be understood by themselves, nor explained by the so-called general progress of the human mind, but that they are rooted in the material conditions of life.”

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In 1845 and 1846, Marx related his conception of the state to the productive base of society through various stages of history. He says: “this conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of history, starting out from the material production of life itself…and to show in its action as state, to explain all the different theoretical products… religion, philosophy, ethics etc. and trace their origins and growth from that basis.”

According to this, the base or economic structure of society becomes the real foundation on which people enter into essential relations over which they exercise little control. In contrast, the legal and political superstructure is a reflection of that base. Only, political economy can restore the connection between an analysis of the economic base and exposition of its political and ideological super-structures.

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As you might have read in earlier units that traditionally, comparative politics looked at the government and the state but in the late 1950s American political scientists discarded the concept of the state. Easton, Almond and others thought that the concept of the state was limited by legal and institutional meanings. The neutral concept of ‘system’ diverted attention from class society, from the relationship of different classes to the means of production and productive forces.

Today the use of system usually pertains to a nation and comparative politics tends toward country based configurative studies. Similarly, international politics is dealt with the systems approach or the conventional historic, behavioural, geopolitical, balance of power or equilibrium approaches. They emphasize political aspects, overlooking economic considerations. When international politics takes up questions of imperialism and dependency, perspectives on political economy can be applied.

There is another problem. The developed, industrial nations of the west and underdeveloped, predominantly agrarian societies of the third world, are studies in contrast and as separate systems divided into the metropoles and the satellites i.e. the centre and the periphery. No attempt is made to integrate and synthesize the study of these so-called dichotomous entities.

Marxist approach to political economy makes the following points:

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1. It has advocated that political inquiry is holistically and historically oriented rather than limited to segments and current affairs. It should seek synthesis in the search for an understanding of social problems and issues.

2. The study of politics should be combined with economics. Distinctions between politics and economics and also between comparative and international politics in political science lead to a distortion of reality and confusion. The dichotomy between the centre and the periphery also leads to theoretical difficulties. The dialectical method will help in an integrated and dynamic analysis of politics.

3. We find contrasting methodologies in the study of political economy. They may be identified as orthodox and radical methodologies, which generate sharply different questions and explanations. A distinction between Marxist and non-Marxist criteria should be made to perceive the differences between these approaches. Marxism in this context should be seen as a methodology rather than an ideology.

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