Several days before Karl Marx’s birthday, in September 2021, Michael Heinrich engaged in a conversation with three members of the next generation of readers of Marx.
Together with the hosts of the podcast Reel Abstractions, and Nathan Tankus of the podcast Money on the Left, Monthly Review Press asked:
Q: If you’ve read Capital, why re-read it?
Michael Heinrich’s answer:
A: How did you read it?
A: When did you read it?
A: What (translation) exactly did you read?
And we proceeded to delve into Heinrich’s new book, How to Read Marx’s ‘Capital’: Commentary and Explanations on the Beginning Chapters. Watch below! (Or, find the recording at MR’s newly relaunched YouTube page.)
Michael Heinrich taught economics for many years at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and was managing editor of PROKLA: Journal for Critical Social Science. He has written in depth on Marx’s critique of political economy in his book, The Science of Value. His An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s “Capital” is probably the most popular introduction to Marx’s economic works in Germany. His Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society (Vol. I) is attracting growing praise.
Nathan Tankus is the Research Director of the Modern Money Network and Publisher of Notes on the Crises. A profile in Bloomberg Businessweek made him a sought after speaker and expert on the technical details of monetary policy, central banking and economic policy more broadly.
The co-hosts of Reel Abstractions, Cordelia & Edwad, are two young scholars who go on the air to riff about communism & theory after a day of working what they describe as “pretty grueling retail jobs.”
The central concepts of Marx’s Capital, such as abstract labor, the value-form, or the fetishism of commodities can seem opaque, and the prospect of comprehending Marx’s thought can be truly daunting. Until, that is, we pick up Michael Heinrich’s How to Read Marx’s ‘Capital’: Commentary and Explanations on the Beginning Chapters
Suddenly, such seemingly gnarly chapters as “The Labor Process and the Valorization Process” and “Money or the Circulation of Capital” become refreshingly clear, as Heinrich explains just what we need to keep in mind when reading such a complex text. Deploying multiple appendices referring to other pertinent writings by Marx, Heinrich reveals what is relevant about Capital, and why we need to engage with it today.
From the Introduction:
Marx argues at a very high level of abstraction. Consequently, his presentation is still of interest today and is by no means limited to the nineteenth-century context.
That does not guarantee that Marx’s account is accurate; that has to be tested by reading it. However, one cannot claim that what Marx discusses is outmoded. In a certain sense, Capital is even more suited for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than it was for the nineteenth century… This is because Marx’s analysis assumes that a number of developments had already matured, which were actually just starting to appear in the nineteenth century. Today they are much more pronounced…
Even recognizing that Marx’s analysis is not obsolete, one can still ask if it’s necessary to actually read Capital in the original. Perhaps a summary of its conclusions would suffice? Yet every such summary, with its emphases and exclusions, bears the stamp of its author’s perspective, and one can only assess the original work on the basis of an independent reading….
How to Discuss Capital
Marx always strove to argue as precisely as possible. Discussions about Marx’s texts should also strive to be as precise as they can be. One should regard with suspicion all claims that Capital is “actually” about something not stated explicitly in a specific passage, but which allegedly emerges in view of the overall context….
When Marx explains a concept, how does he justify what he is presenting? Which expressions does Marx use and which does he avoid? What presuppositions does he make? When does the text offer information explicitly (state it directly), and when does it give the material only implicitly (state it indirectly)?
We should also carefully pay attention to the chapter titles and subheadings that Marx selected. Further, for every chapter and subsection, we should ask what constitutes its unity (why this particular information is contained here) and what relation that section has to earlier material. Is the subsequent chapter a further development of preceding material, or does it initiate a new level of argumentation? What is important is not only the content of Marx ’s specific arguments, but also the overall structure of his reasoning….
Various Types of Commentary
There are two fundamentally different ways of commenting upon a text like Capital. Relying upon knowledge of the three volumes of Capital and further works by Marx, a commentator can try to explain what Marx means in any given passage, what hidden references the text contains, and so on. The aim is to reveal things that are not obvious to first-time readers of Capital. For example, Marx uses the word “wealth” in the first sentence of chapter 1 without explaining it. This kind of commentator might clarify what Marx understands by “wealth,” relying on his later arguments. This procedure might help some readers, but it forces them to rely on the commentator. Since they are just beginning the book and aren’t familiar with the reasoning that follows, the readers aren’t able to judge whether the commentator is correct in explaining what Marx means by “wealth.”
In this way, the commentator becomes an authority, and only after reading Capital can they retrospectively evaluate or debate his commentary. The danger is that, until then, one is forced to read Capital through the commentator’s lenses, accepting his approach to the work’s content.
Another type of commentary refers exclusively to the text in question. It carefully analyzes the work, examining what the arguments in a particular passage can and cannot justify, and pointing to what is implicit in the text. The interpretation is based only on the passage under consideration and the already covered sections of the work. For example, if the initial sentence of chapter 1 has the word “wealth” with-out further explanation, then the commentator would indicate that we do not know what Marx means by “wealth” at this point, and we certainly do not yet know if it coincides with our use of the word. So the word “wealth” in the first sentence is a placeholder that has to be filled in during the course of Marx’s later reasoning. When deeper into Marx’s text, the reader can return to this first sentence and the word “wealth.” Such a commentary initially leaves a few problems open. It must constantly point out that until we reach a certain point in the text, some questions cannot be answered. However, this type of commentary has the advantage that readers can check its claims directly against the text; the arguments don’t have to be taken on faith, and the commentator does not become an authority.
My commentary in what follows is basically of the second type. One of my motives is that I want readers to be able to check my arguments. More important, however, is that I take seriously Marx’s claim to present a scientific work. Marx by no means presupposed knowledge of other texts in order to read Capital, and his claim to be “scientific” simply means that he attempts to present his arguments as precisely and transparently as possible. Attentive readers should be able to follow his arguments directly, and if necessary criticize them. Hence, my primary concern here is following Marx’s arguments and what can actually be said faced with each passage of the text (also perhaps what cannot be said). It is not about all the references that might occur to someone familiar with Marx’s work.I could not, however, limit myself entirely to this kind of commentary, for two reasons. First, Marx’s starting point when writing Capital often involved adapting common terminology, certain debates, and economic science that had reached a certain level. He could more or less presuppose such knowledge among his readers. With respect to the literary allusions, Marx could assume they would be understood by educated strata. Since that time much has changed: debates have gone in different directions, terminology has been modified, and today’s readers have different everyday knowledge than their late nineteenth-century counter-parts. For that reason, contemporary readers can benefit from a number of explanations. For example, the term “political economy,” which is part of Capital’s subtitle, was in fact very common in Marx’s time. These days, however, it’s seldom used, and usually with a different meaning than in the nineteenth century. Hence the term needs clarification, but it cannot be done solely with Marx’s text.
The second reason why the work calls for a more extensive commentary—not throughout the entire work, but at certain points—is a certain ambiguity and uncertainty in specific parts of Marx’s text. Commenting on every instance of ambiguity would take us back to the first type of commentary. However, I am concerned with specific ambiguities in Marx’s theory of value. What Marx presents in the initial chapters of Capital is the result of a laborious research process, which constantly led him to develop new presentations and revise earlier ones…
From Chapter 2:
The Process of Exchange: Money-form and Money Fetish
In the three paragraphs remaining in chapter 2 (of Capital), there are a few long footnotes consisting almost entirely of quotations. Marx uses these to substantiate his brief references to various economists’ conceptions of money. Only if one were dealing with these authors in detail would it make sense to discuss these quotations. Instead, Marx’s arguments in the main text are what demand our attention.
In the first of the three paragraphs, Marx notes a fundamental mix- up occurring in many theories of money:
The process of exchange gives to the commodity which it has converted into money not its value but its specific value-form. Confusion between these two attributes has misled some writers into maintaining that the value of gold and silver is imaginary. (184f.)
Marx already pointed out that economists usually mix up value and value-form in footnote 17 on page 141. To understand what Marx is saying in the above quote, we must carefully specify the difference between value and value-form. On the one hand, commodities are values to the extent that, in exchange, an abstraction is made from their properties as use-values, so that they only represent an amount of abstract human labor. Every commodity, whether gold or iron, is an object of value. On the other hand, a commodity has a specific value-form, because other commodities relate to it in a specific way. Gold has the money-form because all other commodities use the material of gold to express their own value. In exchange, iron is just as much an object of value as gold, but the other commodities do not relate to iron as the expression of their value. For that reason, gold has a different value-form than iron.
Since the specific value-form of money results merely from the relationship of commodities to the money-commodity and this relationship can in principle change at any time (if another commodity becomes the money commodity), one can fall prey to the notion—if one does not distinguish between value and value-form—that money’s value is merely “imaginary.”
Marx’s reflections on 184-86, which we have just discussed, assume the existence of a money commodity, in this case gold. If a commodity functions as money, then the value of the money commodity is no more imaginary than the value of other commodities. In such cases, we must indeed endeavor to understand how and by what means that commodity becomes money. The matter is more complicated in the contemporary monetary system, where different countries’ currencies are no longer tied to a money commodity….
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Michael Heinrich taught economics for many years at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and was managing editor of PROKLA: Journal for Critical Social Science.
Alexander Locascio, translator of this book from German to English, has been active in the U.S. labor movement. His other translations include An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century: An Introduction, and Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society. He lives in Berlin with his family.