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An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital reviewed by Workers' Liberty

An Introduction to Marx's Capital

"An excellent little introduction to Marx's masterpiece … even if you've read lots of Marx, you can still learn a lot by reading this book."

—Doug Henwood, editor, Left Business Observer

Michael Heinrich’s book, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, (Monthly Review Press 2012) is a lucid and refreshing theoretical interpretation of Marxist political economy.

Apparently, it has gone through nine editions in Germany and is used widely in German universities. Heinrich takes inspiration from the “neue Marx Lektüre” (new Marx reading) of Capital. The result is one of best introductions to Capital for the new reader, but also many sophisticated clarifications for those who who’ve already read some Marx.

The book has many virtues, both in terms of clarifying Marx’s meaning and rebutting Marx’s critics. One advantage of Heinrich’s approach is his emphasis on the tentative, unfinished nature of Marx’s grand project. He argues that Marx was undertaking a scientific revolution – not just writing a critique of classical political economy but establishing a new field of science. Marx opened up and entered this new field but was not at every step completely free from the old ideas and concepts. In Capital there is sometimes a mixture, which leads to what Heinrich calls “ambivalences”—notions and arguments that are oscillating between old and new concepts.

Heinrich distinguishes between two different projects in Marx. Originally, he had the six-book plan with the Grundrisse as first draft and the manuscript of 1861–63 as the second draft. However he then developed a new project: the four-book plan of Capital. This had the manuscript of 1863–65 as the first draft of the first three books (the fourth book never was written). A second draft is constituted by the first edition of volume I of Capital (1867), by manuscript 2 of volume II which was written by Marx in 1868–69 and some small manuscripts regarding the beginning of volume III. A third draft is constituted by the “Reworking manuscript” in French (1871/72), the second edition of volume I, the mathematical manuscript on profit-rate and rate of surplus value, and the manuscript for volume II, which were written in the 1870s. These are two distinguishable projects: the first project with two drafts and the second project with three drafts (partly published), but without a final design.

These matters have really only come to light in recent decades with the publication of the MEGA, a gargantuan plan for 120 volumes (only half so far published), which started in 1975. Heinrich puts a strong emphasis on the philological aspects of Marx in order to draw out what Marx actually meant, something obscured both by earlier interpretations (particularly Engels’ rendering of Capital Volume III) as well as some translations into English. However Heinrich avoids treating Marx as a quarry from which to extract quotations, or passing off certain texts as “the” position of Marx. The results are a theoretical intervention that brings to light new interpretations and solutions to previous shibboleths, including the transformation problem, crisis theory and imperialism.

Heinrich (2012: 9) argues that under no circumstances should anyone be satisfied with reading only the first volume of Capital, because what someone “believes to be understood after reading only the first volume is not only incomplete, but in fact distorted”. For example he denies that Marx begins with capital in general or advances “from the abstract to the concrete”, as he suggested in the Grundrisse. The object of the Capital is the capitalist mode of production, not particular capitalist social formations (such as nineteenth century England), or worse, a notional pre-capitalist “simple commodity production”. However Heinrich (2012: 13) warns that “one should not succumb to the illusion that with an analysis of the fundamentals of the capitalist mode of production that everything decisive has already been said about capitalist societies”.

Heinrich (2012: 44-45) argue that for many Marxists and most of Marx’s critics, the core of Marx’s value theory consists of the following ideas: “the commodity is use value and value, value is the objectification of human labour, the magnitude of value depends on the ‘socially necessary labour time’ required for the production of a commodity (the last point is frequently referred to as the ‘law of value’).” But the central value-theoretical insights of Marx are not limited to these simple propositions.

In chapter three, Heinrich reconstructs the panorama of value theory found throughout the three volumes of Capital. With value theory, Marx seeks to uncover a specific social structure that individuals must conform to, regardless of what they think. So value theory doesn’t “prove” that an individual act of exchange is determined by the productively necessary quantity of labour. Rather it should explain the specific social character of commodity-producing labour. Value is not at all a property that an individual thing possesses in and of itself. The substance of value is not inherent to individual commodities, but is bestowed mutually in the act of exchange. Only with the act of exchange does value obtain an objective value form, thus the importance of the “value form analysis” for Marx’s theory of value. Value is “something purely social; it expresses the equal social validity of two completely different acts of labour, and it is therefore a specific social relationship”.

One theoretical insight concerns the role of money in this reconstruction. Money is in no way merely a helpful means of simplifying exchange on the practical level and an appendage of value theory on the theoretical level. Heinrich (2012: 63-4) argues that “Marx’s value theory is rather a monetary theory of value: without the value form, commodities cannot be related to one another as values, and only with the money form does an adequate form of value exist”. Both the labour theory of value of classical political economy and the theory of marginal utility of neoclassical economics are pre-monetary theories of value. The usual “substantialist Marxist” value theory that alleges that value is already completely determined by “socially necessary labour time” is also a pre-monetary value theory. The magnitude of value of a commodity is expressed in its price – and this is the only possibility for the magnitude of value to be expressed.

Heinrich 92012: 69-70) deals with one obvious objection to Marx’s value theory, namely his assumption in Capital that money always has to be linked to a particular commodity. During Marx’s time, gold played the role of this “money commodity”. However at the beginning of the 1970s, the gold standard was formally abolished, as were fixed currency exchange rates. Since then, there is no longer any commodity that functions as a national and international level of a money commodity. Although “Marx could not image a capitalist money system existing without a money commodity”, Heinrich argues that “the existence of such a commodity is in no way a necessary consequence of his analysis of the commodity and money”.

Heinrich argues that for Marx, value is means of understanding fetishised social relations, not price theory. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels still held that with the establishment of capitalism, social relations would become increasingly transparent: domination and exploitation are no longer mystified or disguised, but openly visible. The notion that the exploitation of the working class in capitalism was readily transparent and that only the manipulation of the rulers disguised it – with the help of the press, church, schools, etc. The critique of ideology was understood as an act of exposure: one merely had to uncover the “real interests” behind a notion…

Read the entire review in Workers’ Liberty

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