Reading CAPITAL

— Charlie Post

An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital
By Michael Heinrich
(translated by Alexander Locascio)
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012, 240 pages, $15.95 paper.

THE GLOBAL REDISCOVERY of Marx’s economic writings in the past five years should come as no surprise. The financial meltdown that heralded the beginning of a new global slump in capital accumulation struck a fatal blow to the neoliberal fantasy of continuous economic growth without bothersome business cycles or long-term recessions. After several decades of condescending dismissal by academics, media commentators and politicians on both the left and right, we have seen a “return of Marx” since 2007, as many search for an explanation of the new global capitalist crisis.

While most mainstream commentary on Marx acknowledges his prescience about capitalist instability while dismissing the substance of his analysis, a growing number of anti-capitalist radicals have attempted to grapple with Marx’s actual theory of capitalist accumulation — in particular the three volumes of Capital.

Reading Capital is a daunting task. The most recent English translation(1) weighs in at over 2800 pages (including indexes and bibliographies), and the second and third volumes include a variety of mathematical formulae that many find intimidating.

For most, the process of studying Capital is facilitated with the use of a clear and succinct introduction to the three volumes. Over the years, many introductions to Capital have been produced. Unfortunately, most of these introductions — the most recent being David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital(2) — discuss only the first volume. In this respect, and many others, the recent English translation of Michael Heinrich’s An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital is a welcome addition — concisely explicating the entire work.

Clearly, no reading or introduction to Capital is “innocent” — standing outside and above the debates that have raged over the text since the initial publication of the first volume in 1867. Heinrich’s work stands in the tradition of the West German “new reading of Marx” (neue Marxlekture). Influenced by the “state-derivationist” debates of the 1970s, the “new reading” rests on two fundamental contentions.(3)

First, they reject the “worldview Marx­ism,” the notion shared by most theorists of both the Second and Third Internationals that historical materialism is “a comprehensive explanation of the world offering an orientation and answers to all questions.” (24) Rather than a teleology which views historical development as the working out of trans-historical processes — the spread of markets or the development of the productive forces — Heinrich and his co-thinkers argue that Marx’s work, in particular Capital, is a theory and a critique.

On one hand, Marx explains the laws of motion of particular forms of social labor (modes of production), while viewing the transition from one form to another as historically contingent outcome of class conflict.(4)

On the other, Marx provides a critique (transcendence) of existing theories of history and capitalism, and a materialist explanation for the fetishized appearance of relations among people (capitalists and wage-workers) as relationships between things (commodities, money, profits, interest, rent, etc.) As Henry Grossman argued in 1941, Marx’s goal was:

“…not to eliminate the mystifying factor and substitute another category for it, but rather to explain the necessary connection between the two and hence what is deceptive in the phenomena of value. Because capitalist reality is a dual reality, possessing both a mystifying and non-mystifying side, which are bound together in a concrete unity, any theory which reflects this reality must likewise be a unity of opposites.”(5)

Marx’s Unfinished Work

The second assertion of the “new reading of Marx” is that Capital remains a fundamentally unfinished work. Marx abandoned his original plan of 1859 for six volumes taking up capital, landed property, wage-labor, the state, foreign trade and the world market for the three (or four) extant volumes on the production of capital, circulation of capital and the structure of the process as a whole (and the history of economic theory — Theories of Surplus-Value).

For Heinrich and many in his tradition, Capital is a fragmented, inconsistent and flawed work whose basic categories — in particular the theory of value — cannot be used for the purpose of empirical, quantitative analysis.(6)

Heinrich’s rejection of “worldview Marxism” produces some of the most insightful elements of An Introduction to the Three Volumes. His discussion of Value, Labor, Money in Chapter 3 is among the most lucid and accessible discussions of what I have always found to be the most impenetrable parts of Capital — Part I of the first volume on Commodities and Money.

Put off by the Hegelian language of this section — with the exception of the discussion of commodity fetishism — I was open to arguments by the French philosopher Althusser that this section had little or no scientific value or relationship to the rest of Marx’s argument in Capital.

Heinrich effectively elucidates Marx’s argument and demonstrates its centrality. The “dual character” of the commodity — as both a concrete use-value and as abstract exchange-value — and the resulting commodity fetishism, where relations between laboring individuals appear as relationships between commodity-things, is actually fundamental to the entirety of Marx’s analysis.

In Chapters 4 through 10, Heinrich weaves the contradictions of the “dual character” of the commodity and its resultant fetishism of all social relations under capitalism into a lucid explication of the rest of the three volumes of Capital. His summaries of Marx’s discussions of the capitalist labor-process and the production of surplus-value, and of the accumulation process that gives rise to concentration and centralization of capital and the reproduction of a reserve army of labor, are lucid and succinct.

Heinrich does an equally thorough job summarizing Marx’s complex discussions in Capital Volume II of the circuits of capital and the reproduction schemas, demonstrating how capitalist accumulation creates sufficient demand for both means of production and means of consumption. The presentations of key themes in the third volume — the formation of the average rate of profit, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the development of financial forms (interest, credit and “fictitious capital”), and the resulting fetishism of social relations are also compelling.

His discussions of finance capital, which roots its development in capitalist production (the “real economy”) is a welcome alternative to many “Marxisant” discussions of finance that view credit, interest and “fictitious capital” as autonomous sources of the accumulation of profits under capitalism.

Heinrich’s attempts to extend (or in his view “complete”) Marx’s discussion in Capital to the analysis of the capitalist state, imperialism and the world are also provocative. Drawing on the work of the “state-derivationistists,” he argues that the state is not an institution “external” to capitalism, but a fetishized form of the capital-labor relation.

Because both capital and labor are reproduced through market competition — through the operation of the law of value — there is a formal separation of the political and economic under capitalism. However, the state’s “independence” from the economy — its “neutrality” in regard to the citizenry — is a necessary illusion:

“(I)t is precisely by means of this neutrality that the state secures the foundation of capitalist relations of domination and exploitation. The defense of property implies that those who possess no relevant property beyond their labor-power must sell their labor-power. To be able to appropriate their means of subsistence, they must submit to capital. This makes the capitalist process of production possible and reproduces in turn the class relations that are its preconditions.” (205)

At some points, Heinrich falls into functionalist arguments about the welfare state — seeing the state as intervening to ensure a supply of healthy and educated workers — tending to downplay the role of workers’ struggles historically to compel capital and the state to socialize aspects of the reproduction of labor-power. However, his discussion of the growth of the world-market and imperialism pin-points key weaknesses of Lenin’s discussion,(7) and argues that the development of the world-economy is immanent to capitalist production and accumulation.

Heinrich concludes with a brief discussion of “Communism” in Marx, which clearly did not equate the simple destruction of capitalism (stratification of economy, planning) with a society that has moved beyond commodities, capital and the state.

Are Crises Inevitable?

Unfortunately, the second element of the “new reading of Marx” — the notions that Capital is essentially incomplete and that value categories cannot be used for concrete economic analysis — leads Heinrich to reject a key element of Marx’s analysis.

For Marx, the process of real capitalist competition is fought with the “artillery of fixed capital” — the introduction of new and more complex objects and instruments of production that progressively displace labor in the capitalist production process.

This increasing capitalization of production — the rising organic composition of capital — leads to a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, as living labor-power is the sole source of surplus-values and profits. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall, although mitigated by counter-tendencies, leads inevitably to economic crises.

Heinrich rejects this argument, attempting to logically demonstrate that various counter-tendencies, in particular the cheapening of capital goods, make the fall in the rate of profit only possible, rather than necessary. Heinrich’s rejection of attempts to empirically concretize Marxian value categories leads to a rather confusing account of capitalism’s crisis tendencies, alternately rejecting and embracing elements of theories of disproportionality and under-consumptionism.(8)

While it may be logically possible for counter-tendencies like the cheapening of capital-goods to permanently counteract the falling rate of profit, there is no necessity for that to occur practically. Henryk Grossman addressed this in his notes responding to a review of his The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown (London: Pluto Press, 1992).

“The question arises, how do things develop in reality? Is the pace of these two counter-posed movements, growth in mass and decline in value, equal so that they paralyse each other? Or does the movement of one or the other predominate?

“The question cannot be abstractly, deductively decided and has to be decided through empirical observation.”(9)

Heinrich ignores the rich empirical work of Marxist economists, in particular that of Anwar Shaikh, in translating bourgeois national income accounts data into Marxian value categories.(10) Shaikh and others have demonstrated, quite conclusively in my opinion, that the rising organic composition of capital does in fact result in a long-term tendency for profit rates to fall, in both periods of capitalist expansion and stagnation.

When the falling rate of profit leads to stagnation in the mass of profit — the total surplus-value produced — capitalist accumulation slows and long periods of economic stagnation begin.

Despite these shortcomings, Heinrich’s Introduction to the Three Volumes is an excellent companion for anyone beginning the process of exploring Marx’s Capital. Its clarity, rigor and commitments to value theory and the critique of fetishized capitalist social relations make this vastly superior to most other companion volumes to Capital.

Notes

  1. Capital, I (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1976), translated by Ben Fowkes; Capital, II (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1978), translated by David Fernbach; Capital, III (Harmondworth, UK: Penguine Books, 1981), translated by David Fernbach.
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  2. (London: Verso Books, 2010). Harvey’s video series on Capital has moved onto Volume II [http://davidharvey.org/reading-capital/.
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  3. The key texts in the “state-derivationist” debate were collected in J. Holloway and S. Picciotto (eds.), State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (London: Edward Arnold, 1978). A useful historical account of the debate is E. Altaver and J. Hoffman, “The West German State Derivationist Debate: The Relation Between Economy and Politics as a Problem of Marxist State Theory,” Social Text, 24 (1990), 134-155.
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  4. In this respect, the “new reading of Marx” is quite similar to that of the “political Marxists,” in particular Ellen Meiksins-Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and the later writing of Daniel Ben-Said, Marx for Our Times: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique (London: Verso Books, 2002).
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  5. “Marx, Classical Political Economy and the Problem of Dynamics,” as cited in R. Kuhn, Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 188.
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  6. Kuhn, “Introduction to Grossman’s ‘The Change of Marx’s Original Plan for Capital,” 11-13, Unpublished typescript, 2012. For arguments that Capital was essentially complete, see H. Grossman, “The Change of Marx’s Original Plan for Capital,” (originally published in German in 1929, translation by G. McCormack, edited and annotated by R. Kuhn, 2012; submitted to Historical Materialism); R. Rosdolsky, The Making of Marx’s Capital (London: Pluto Press, 1980), Chapter 2.
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  7. In my opinion, all the features that Lenin identifies as defining the imperialist “stage” of capitalism — monopolies, fusion of banks and industry, colonization and exports of capital from the global north to south — are subject to empirical challenge. See M. Kidron, “Imperialism – Highest Stage but One,” International Socialism Journal, 9/First Series (Summer 1962) [http://www.marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1962/xx/imperial.htm].
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  8. For a very basic discussion of various crisis theories, see my “Exploring the Roots of the Crisis” Against the Current, 141 (July-August 2009) [http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/2261]. For a more rigorous account, see A. Shaikh, “An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories,” in Economics Education Project (eds.), U.S. Capitalism in Crisis (New York: Union of Radical Political Economy, 1978), 219-241 [https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BxvNb6ewL7kOYXBISHBTLUZvekU/edit?pli=1].
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  9. “Notes on Helen Bauer’s Review” (1930) [http://www.marxists.org/archive/grossman/1929/breakdown/hbauer.htm].
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  10. See all of the Shaikh’s publication at https://sites.google.com/a/newschool.edu/anwar-shaikh/publications; and in particular, A. Shaikh and E. A. Tonak, Measuring the Wealth of Nations: The Political Economy of National Accounts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
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May/June 2013, ATC 164

SNLT is embodied in commodities, not just an abstraction

Heinrich doesn't get the point that socially necessary labour time (snlt) is embodied in ALL commodities, including the individual worker's skills being sold to an employer. Thus, he does not take into account the fact that an electrical engineer's skills sell for a higher price than a worker who has no skills and only a high school education because the engineer's skills have more socially necessary labour time embodied them than the unskilled high school graduate does. This error leads to many, many errors in his introduction to CAPITAL.

"The owner of labour-power is mortal. If then his appearance in the market is to be continuous, and the continuous conversion of money into capital assumes this, the seller of labour-power must perpetuate himself, “in the way that every living individual perpetuates himself, by procreation.” [8] The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear and death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the labourer’s substitutes, i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market. [9]

"In order to modify the human organism, so that it may acquire skill and handiness in a given branch of industry, and become labour-power of a special kind, a special education or training is requisite, and this, on its part, costs an equivalent in commodities of a greater or less amount. This amount varies according to the more or less complicated character of the labour-power. The expenses of this education (excessively small in the case of ordinary labour-power), enter pro tanto into the total value spent in its production."

"The value of labour-power resolves itself into the value of a definite quantity of the means of subsistence. It therefore varies with the value of these means or with the quantity of labour requisite for their production. Karl Marx http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/...

Heinrich claims Marx intends the first chapter of the first volume of CAPITAL as purely theoretical and can't be placed in historical context. Wrong. SNLT can be seen in traded commodities during earlier modes of production and exchange C-M-C. Generalised commodity production under the rule of Capital M-C-M' is generalised wage labour and this combined with money obscures the source of value in the modern age.

Much I like in Heinrich's general take on Marx, he often irritates me. For instance, he faults Engels as having a lack of understanding of Marx which led to faults of Marxism. He's just plain wrong about this as Marx would have had discussions with Engels over the supposed theoretical shortcomings in Engels' work, prior to Marx's death. Heinrich, like so many Marxists after the death of Engels, tries to replace Engels as the better interpreter of Marx with himself.

Heinrich is also wrong about socially necessary labour time not being materially embedded in commodities. The finished commodity is the crytallisation of applied snlt.

"In general, the greater the productiveness of labour, the less is the labour time required for the production of an article, the less is the amount of labour crystallised in that article, and the less is its value; and vice versâ, the less the productiveness of labour, the greater is the labour time required for the production of an article, and the greater is its value. The value of a commodity, therefore, varies directly as the quantity, and inversely as the productiveness, of the labour incorporated in it." http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/..

NML and Empirical Research

Just want to quickly address what Charlie said about the relationship between NML and empirical analysis. 1) I don't think it's quite accurate to imply that NML holds that no empirical analysis can be done on the basis of Marx's categories. Ingo Stützle is about to publish a work on austerity and European integration that I'm hoping will turn out to be the standard reference (haven't read it yet, but knowing Ingo's work I can't imagine it won't be enlightening). And Charlie is right to point out the affinities between NML and Political Marxism. In fact, the two schools of thought are sort of united in the work of a thinker like Heide Gerstenberger, who points to the necessity of conducting historical research to complement the anaylsis of abstract forms and 2) specifically concerning the category of value, it's Heinrich's contention that value is not an empirical category. The value-form analysis that Marx conducts in Chapter One is precisely to work out the necessity of money as an independent manifestation of value. Value as a social relationship can only be quantified by means of money. This is also at the root of Heinrich's dismissal of the transformation "problem": the notion of transforming value into prices is a meaningless question, because the two categories exist at completely different levels of Marx's presentation. I think this points out an essential difference between Postone and Heinrich: in Postone's work, money isn't really explicitly theorized, and Postone seems to reduce "abstract labor" merely to the ability to quantify the duration of certain tasks by means of clock time. But as Heinrich points out, even if you have a clock, you still aren't quantifying abstract labor, but merely various acts of concrete labor. It is only the existence of goods as commodities produced for exchange that endows them with the status of objects of value and hence as receptacles of abstract labor.

A Note on the Review by Charlie Post

I haven't read Heinrich, but it is clear that Das Kapital is not a historical exposition of capitalism. There is no question about teleological views of `historical development' in any of the volumes. Basically, it is a theoretical critique of capitalist production in its totality. Central to the theory is the dialectical method. Without a dialectical grasp it is not possible to understand all the twofold realities of single wholes, much less `reflect the reality as a `unity of opposites'[Grossman]. Fundamentally the logic obtained is dialectical, dynamic, in time, engaged in self-interrogation and not formal or static or empiricist, historicist, etc. Some `logical' categories are historical results, emerging from the historical process, like the individual[ity]. But the main category, universality is a part or underlying the historical process, e.g., the universal moment of the labour-process is trans/omni-historical. When talking about `stages' Marx has geological encrustations on the earth in mind. The work is a superb example illustrating a real historical longue duree. And Hegel is quintessential to Marx for developing the categorical structure but time-dependent, for his critique. One last observation: `socially necessary labour time' is not empirical but an ideated average. Capitalist production depends on many such averages, irrespective of theories. Yet these averages are real and embedded. Capitalist production is anarchistic to the core. And there are many `ideals'/averages in its service.

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