How to Read Marx’s ‘Capital’:
Commentary and Explanations
on the Beginning Chapters
by Michael Heinrich
16$ / 448 pages / 978-1-58367-894-7
Reviewed by Ksenia Arapko
In the preface to the first edition of Capital Volume I, Karl Marx wrote ‘Beginnings are always difficult in all sciences. The understanding of the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will therefore present the greatest difficulty’ (Marx 1990: 89). It is no wonder then that in the face of this difficult beginning, Louis Althusser famously encouraged the first-time reader to put Part I on ‘Commodities and Money’ aside and only return to it after the end of reading the rest of the book. And even then, to do so ‘with infinite caution, knowing that it will always be extremely difficult to understand, even after several readings of the other Parts, without the help of a certain number of deeper explanations’ (Althusser 1977: 85). In the anglophone world, many readers reached for David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s ‘Capital’ for such help. But this companion, its importance notwithstanding, exhibits what Nicola Taylor and Riccardo Bellofiore (2004: 4n4) call the ‘immaturity’ of English-language scholarship on Marx which to this day continues to remain in the dark about primary and secondary literature emerging from the historical-critical edition, the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2).
Since 1975, the complete works of Marx and Engels have gradually been published in the MEGA2. In 2012, the editors of the MEGA2 completed the publication of Marx’s surviving published and unpublished works associated with Marx’s Capital project, totalling 15 volumes (23 sub-volumes). The availability of these surviving texts made evident the unceasing development of Marx’s critique of political economy. Up until the end of his life, Marx’s writings and ideas were continuously revised. This unfinished nature was made especially clear by the numerous editions, manuscripts, drafts, notes, and letters published in the MEGA2 edition. But since volumes containing these writings have not been widely translated, anglophone reception at large remains oblivious to the historical-critical edition and the secondary literature produced in its wake. Meanwhile, researchers all around the world began to pursue a reconstruction of Marx for a renewed and improved appraisal of his life and thought (see Hoff, 2017). How to Read Marx’s Capital is one of Michael Heinrich’s many contributions to this reconstructive project. Taking into account the relevant materials published in the MEGA2, Heinrich’s book provides the most advanced and up to date commentary on Marx and his difficult beginning; the first seven chapters of Capital to be precise.
The use of newly available texts, however, is not the only distinguishing mark of the commentary. Heinrich is a contemporary pioneer of Marx exegesis. While his approach to texts would usually be considered philological or exegetical, he has described his method as ‘double historiography’ (Heinrich 2020), and more recently as ‘materialist’ – a usage of the term that fundamentally questions its habitual use (Heinrich 2022). Put succinctly, since the text and the reader are products of social processes, the task of the interpreter is to decipher both the ‘production process of the text’ and the ‘production process of the reception’. To decipher is then to situate historically our reading as well as Marx’s theoretical production. This method informs Heinrich’s interpretation in How to Read Marx’s ‘Capital’ providing a compelling commentary that complies with the spirit and letter of Marx.
Since, as Heinrich stresses, it is not possible to ever situate oneself outside of a sequence of historical and theoretical events, the historical contingency of our reading must be accounted for, lest it unconsciously determine the coordinates and interests governing our interpretation. To decipher the production process of the reception is in other words to account for this ‘situational historical perspective’ (Heinrich 2019: 338). But if we bring history to bear in the reception of Marx’s text, then so did Marx in producing it. Marx’s own nineteenth century life was, in many respects, completely different from our own. His writings reflect the specific scientific and political debates of his times. Without attentiveness to this historical and intellectual context, the significance of Marx’s intervention, and its contemporary relevance, is obscured. To faithfully understand Marx’s work then requires an adequate grasp of the historical specificity of his motivations. For this we turn to the second part of the double-historiographic or materialist method: deciphering the production process of the text.
As intimated above, Marx continued to revise theoretical concepts and expositions. Capital was no exception to his habit of altering and perfecting. In his lifetime alone, Marx presented different versions of the argument from Grundrisse (1857–58), to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), then the second edition of Capital (1872–73), and even the French translation Le Capital, Livre Premier (1872–75). In each of these texts, major theoretical and textual changes were made. Hence, to faithfully decipher Marx’s ongoing developments in his work, all surviving materials relating to his economic project, made available in section II of the MEGA2, must be consulted. Heinrich excels in this very task. For instance, he brings attention to Marx’s untitled revision manuscript for the second edition of Capital, Ergänzungen und Veränderungen zum ersten Band des Kapitals [Additions and Changes to the First Volume of Capital] written between 1871–72 and first published in 1987 in the MEGA2. The manuscript is seldom mentioned in the anglophone literature, and Heinrich’s discussion of it in the commentary – several passages of which are translated into English for the first time (see Appendix 4) – demonstrates the way in which careful consideration of textual changes in Marx’s writings can shine a light on the evolution and production process of the text.
The revision manuscript contains noteworthy reflections on value theory that are not directly stated in the first or second edition. These reflections support Heinrich’s essential claim that, contrary to the ‘labour theory of value’ of classical political economy which prevailed in Marx’s time, ‘the product of labor, taken on its own, is neither value nor a commodity; its value-objectivity only exists through its relation to other products of labor’ (378). In other words, commodities, besides being physical objects, are also objects of value. Against what Heinrich elsewhere calls a ‘substantialist’ reading (Heinrich 2009), which claims that individual products of labor acquire this value-objectivity in the process of production, before entering into the exchange relationship, Heinrich favours a social-relation based definition of value. That products become commodities and acquire value-objectivity in exchange indicates that the value of a commodity can only be expressed and tangibly exist in an exchange relation between commodities. This social relation in which the value of one commodity is expressed in another is the value-form (103).
Marx’s subtle change in the second edition from gemeinsam (common) to gemeinschaftlich (communal, in community) confirms that commodities do not possess value-substance, equal abstract human labour, individually in their own right, but only share this substance in their social relationship with one another (66, 375). This subtle textual change is explicit in the revision manuscript. English editions, however, translate gemeinschaftlich as ‘common’, covering over this small yet significant revision. This mistranslation is, unfortunately, not an anomaly. The commentary continually corrects and clarifies several translation problems, many of which have given rise to considerable misinterpretations. Heinrich’s close attention to the original German, contrary to many anglophone scholars, is another element of his textual approach that strengthens the accuracy of the interpretation.
Heinrich’s precision does, however, wane at times. For instance, the translation of Produktivkraft as ‘Labour’s productivity or productive power’ (72) is misleading in so far as Marx speaks of labour’s productivity as Produktivität der Arbeit. While these differences may seem trivial, it in fact loses terminological connections that are significant for interpretation (see Reuten 2018 on the mistranslation of Produktivkraft). Nevertheless, the commentary maintains a high standard of translation and textual rigour, and here, many thanks are also owed to the translator of the book, Alexander Locascio, who has equally upheld this standard in his translation both of Heinrich’s work and Marx’s writings. The corrections in the commentary without a doubt anticipate Paul Reitter and Paul North’s forthcoming annotated new translation of Capital, Volume I.
Now to return to the theoretical account. Since for Heinrich, the substance of value is the social reduction of various types of concrete acts of labour in exchange, it follows that abstract labour is not labour expenditure in the physiological sense (despite Marx’s ‘clumsy presentation’ in describing it as such, 89–90), but rather, the capacity to produce value is a social character of labour. Hence, unlike concrete useful labour, value-producing abstract labour is not eternal – as the classical political economists maintained – but a specific social form of labour that exists only within a certain social context: a commodity-producing society (161). As it is a social relation, abstract labour cannot be directly measured by individual labour time. It is measured instead through money. It is for this reason that Heinrich stresses that Marx’s theory of value is a monetary theory of value, since money is not simply an expression of value, but rather ‘the substance of value, abstract labor, cannot appear at all without relating to money’ (216n31). Where hitherto ‘traditional Marxism’ focused only on the connection between value and labour, it was Hans-Georg Backhaus in the 1970s who, says Heinrich (199n25), drew attention to the interrelation between value and money. This later came to be the position of the Neue Marx-Lektüre (New Marx Reading; NML).
However, it must be said here that the characterisation of so-called traditional Marxism for overlooking money, as well as upholding a substantialist interpretation (67n7, 154, 199n25; see also Heinrich 2009), is far from accurate. First, it is unclear who and what constitutes ‘traditional Marxism’, and second, thinkers living in the Soviet Union and the East German Democratic Republic (GDR) who may be typically considered ‘traditional’ presented positions close to Heinrich’s own. As Paula Maria Rauhala (2021) documents, Backhaus himself was inspired by economists of the GDR who in the early 1960s debated the question of the measurement of labour value and attempted to formulate a theory of value with reference to money. In fact, in these debates the dominant position was the one reminiscent of the monetary theory of value of the NML that Heinrich represents. Further, although it is not Heinrich’s intention, his note on Backhaus (199n25) could be interpreted as appraising Backhaus (and by extension the NML) to be the first to formally analyse the connection between value and money. This would of course be false not only in light of the GDR debates, but also the discussions held outside of Germany. Japanese Marxologists, for instance, considered these very questions, with the notable debate between Uno Kōzō and Kuruma Samezō that began in the 1950s, 20 years prior to the NML. Even earlier, in the 1920s, the Soviet thinker Isaak Illich Rubin (1990) articulated similar ideas in his seminal studies on value.
Lastly, by way of situating Marx’s theoretical production biographically and internal to the history of economic thought, Heinrich provides insight into how Marx conceived of his own project. For example, in a letter, Marx explicitly criticises David Ricardo for his failure to grasp the connection between labour and money, and how labour must assume the form of money (368). Marx’s private letters and writings, however, are not the only illuminating sources for understanding the precise ways in which Marx related to his interlocutors, be that scientifically or politically. A fuller comprehension requires knowledge of these interlocutors both from Marx’s often developing perspective and also in their own right. Here again, Heinrich’s double-historiographic or materialist method bears fruit. In offering brief explanations of the various traditions and figures informing Marx’s work, Heinrich constructs a highly sophisticated yet accessible account of Marx’s arguments. But this work of situating, while providing an intelligible commentary, also serves a higher purpose: attesting to the novelty of Marx’s interventions. It becomes evident that part of what fundamentally distinguishes Marx’s critique of political economy from the economic theories preceding him, and even those after, is his theory of the form of value. And this circles us back to where we started, the difficult beginning.
At this point to say that How to Read Marx’s ‘Capital’ is not only for first-time readers may be to state the obvious. It is a commentary that is straightforward in its exposition and indispensable for beginners, yet still challenges those who have already long dedicated themselves to a study of Capital. In his masterful exegesis of the magnum opus and its various versions of the difficult beginning, Heinrich forces one to (re)consider fundamental philological elements such as translation, textual evolution, intellectual biography, and Marx’s broader literary legacy that some may have simply overlooked. But of course, these first seven chapters, as Heinrich rightly notes, do not serve as the end point to understanding Capital, Volume I, nor Marx’s broader critique of political economy. After mastering the beginning chapters, and one is guaranteed to do so with the guidance of the commentary, one must persevere. A more complete apprehension of Marx’s project can only be gained by finishing Capital. Yet, as Heinrich himself has made clear, the three books of capital constitute a coherent whole (32, 395). Hence ‘the first volume is only fully comprehensible in the context of the two volumes that follow’ (22); the whole clarifies the parts. Heinrich thus calls on his readers to take up a herculean labour, grappling with all three books of Capital. Fortunately, for this too Heinrich has provided a less substantive but no less comprehensive guide in his An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital.
You can read the original review at Marx & Philosophy Review of Books