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“No mere cheerleader for Marx” (How to Read Marx’s Capital reviewed in ‘Socialism and Democracy’)

How to Read Marx’s Capital: Commentary and Explanations on the Beginning Chapters
By Michael Heinrich
Trans. Alexander Locascio
406 pp. / $28.00 / 978-1-58367-894-7

Reviewed by Clint Jones

There are numerous books that claim to provide people with help in tackling Marx’s Capital. Considered Marx’s seminal work, volume 1 of Capital presents as a daunting book running more than a thousand pages with an almost equal number of footnotes. Many first-time readers are to be forgiven for assuming the book will be difficult to get through. However, many people find Marx’s work approachable and easy to read, but this doesn’t mean it is always easy to grasp the concepts. Books purporting to help with the task of cultivating an understanding of Marx’s work typically fall into one of two types. The first homes in on the big ideas and over-arching concepts, ones that are likely to become the talking points readers take away from the text. These manage, with varying degrees of success, to help readers develop a better, though often limited, understanding of Marx. Examples include David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital and Allen Wood’s Karl Marx. The second consists of supposed reading guides that are actually interpretations of Marx’s work but do little to help a reader better understand Marx. Often, these present a particular way of understanding Marx; those familiar with Lenin, Kautsky, or Althusser recognize this kind of approach. Examples of each type abound. Michael Heinrich’s How to Read Marx’s Capital is unique in that it falls into neither category.

Heinrich’s text is designed to be utilized by both new and experienced readers of Marx’s work and both stand to gain something from taking the time to work through Heinrich’s guided reading. As Heinrich plainly states, his work “is meant for individuals or groups without any special prior knowledge, who wish to read Capital intensively and accurately on their own” (16). These two claims – “intensively” and “accurately” – are not hyperbole on Heinrich’s part. Having read Capital through more than once, I was impressed with how often Heinrich was able to illuminate both Marx’s main ideas as well as subtle minor details and help me better understand what was at stake in Marx’s writing. More importantly, Heinrich is careful to individual claims made by Marx; he does this expertly. However, he also plainly states that his text should not be read in isolation from Capital under any circumstances because “much of it would be incomprehensible since it presupposes reading the text” (30). To enable readers to pace themselves, Heinrich includes a suggested 17-week reading schedule and encourages individuals to read with a small group. The schedule is very helpful; indeed, I tried to tackle the readings in a shorter amount of time, having read Capital previously, but found the task to be burdensome and often overwhelming.

Heinrich’s careful reading often requires him to spend several pages working through the meaning of a particular word; a close reading of Marx at such a detailed level of examination can prove exhausting. For instance, at the very beginning of Heinrich’s text – once you get past his ruminations on the preface and table of contents – he spends a considerable amount of time focused on the second word of Capital – “wealth.” Heinrich focuses on this word because most commentators, both contemporaries of Marx and modern theorists, make the mistake of assuming they know what this word means in the context of volume 1 of Capital, specifically, and Marxist thought, generally. Heinrich skillfully demonstrates that this is not the case over the course of four pages examining the first paragraph of Capital. Heinrich comes back to this concept regularly as he moves through the first chapter of Capital analyzing the vital concepts of commodity, use- value, and exchange-value. Situating commodities in the context of wealth, Heinrich claims, “Marx is not dealing with the commodity as something universal, existing in various modes of production, but rather as the elementary form of wealth where ‘the capitalist mode of production prevails’” (50). The result of this analysis is that use- values are determined by Marx to be conditioned by their physical properties, not to depend on the amount of labor used to produce them, are not quantitative, and are always realized in the faster or slower rate of consumption (52).

According to Heinrich, exchange values are the overall result of exchange mediated by money bearing in mind that a commodity can have many different exchange-values and they will differ with place and time (54). The insight provided by Heinrich’s careful reading of Marx on this point is that Marx is dealing with commodities as an abstraction prior to his later treatment of commodities as a product of capitalist processes which does not show up until chapter 4 and where many commentators focus their attention. Heinrich is attempting to demonstrate that Marx is carefully deconstructing the concept processes. By approaching the concept of commodity in this way Heinrich demonstrates that Marx intends for his readers to separate the material content of a commodity from its social form. The material content of a commodity determines its use value in any given place and time (i.e. wheat) while the social form is conditioned in capitalism through the mediation of money (i.e. the cost of wheat). Marx, as Heinrich doggedly points out, avoids the use of “price” at this point in Capital because Marx is still treating the commodity as an abstraction. The critical insight here is that in its abstract state a commodity is constructed using what is empirically given and takes on a commodity form (54). This is a point Lenin misunderstands and more contemporary Leninists have also failed to correct.

To prevent readers from getting lost in the nuance of Marx’s ideas and his own study of them, Heinrich has designed the book to be a visual aid. The blocks of text that are quotations from Marx are in a different font than the text blocks of commentary Heinrich provides. When Heinrich wants to add material that is tangential to his study of Marx, he does so through addenda that are printed in a different font size. These are embedded in the text where they are relevant to situating Marx historically, say, in economic theory, or in the history of ideas where it may be necessary to distinguish what Marx says from what someone, Lenin for instance, claims Marx said. The addenda are different than the footnotes provided which often include interesting additional information or allow Heinrich to interject his own insights without privileging these as if they were part of Marx’s intended exposition.

Heinrich is no mere cheerleader for Marx and he often points out where Marx is imprecise, makes a logical error, or is otherwise incorrect in his presentation of data. Though Heinrich provides these correctives as necessary for an accurate understanding of Marx’s work they also serve to humanize Marx and demonstrate that he was a serious thinker wrestling with these ideas, refining, and developing them over time and, as Heinrich points out, striving to argue as precisely as possible (25). For instance, in the section “People as Personifications of Economic Categories” Heinrich points out that Marx’s language regarding “categories” and “class relations” is confusing and Heinrich provides a more precise rendering of Marx’s meaning as well as a justification for his account (40–41). Again, detailing how Marx’s use of the word “thing” has often led commentators to argue that Marx’s critique cannot be applied to a service industry economy, Heinrich skillfully demonstrates that while Marx’s language does admit such a conclusion the conclusion is, nonetheless, wrong. Though Marx fails to be explicit on this point he does not exclude services from inclusion in the concept of commodities and, as Heinrich indicates, the difference is really one of a material kind (74–75).

It is important to note here that Heinrich has only provided commentary for the first seven chapters of volume 1 of Capital trusting in the quality of his work to prepare a studious reader for completing the journey through Capital without assistance. This, to me, is the biggest limitation of Heinrich’s book. Though I doubt it would be possible to sustain Heinrich’s thorough level of analysis for the entirety of Capital, this book is nevertheless an abbreviated guide at best.

Because Heinrich takes the time to parse out particularly tricky German words, especially those that do not translate well, he provides first-time readers with a service necessary to comprehending Marx, one that is usually only available in limited ways from other commentators or in classroom discussions. Heinrich handles these instances with varying degrees of scrutiny. For example, in a couple of footnotes he points out mistakes in the translation in the Penguin edition (172). In another example, a quick parenthetical note on gegenständlicher Schein that has proven difficult for some economists (185), Heinrich points out that Marx’s own language has contributed to the misunderstanding but the misunderstanding as such has still led theorists to seek a physical cause of value where such a narrow reading is unnecessary. With less brevity, he examines the idea of “framework” versus “apparent framework” over several paragraphs (182) and explains that by deploying this distinction in regard to classical political economy versus vulgar economics Marx distinguishes between the two not on the basis of their intentions, but rather, the objects of their study (183).

Heinrich also compares his use of the Penguin edition of Capital with the academic standard Marx-Engels Collected Works – again demonstrating that the book can be useful to both academics and lay readers. Recognizing that there is little engagement with Marx in academic settings any more, but that this has increased interest in Marx outside “institutional constraints” Heinrich intends his volume to assist those individuals and groups who are coming to Marx without any prior knowledge (16). However, Heinrich also acknowledges that the content of Capital was developed over several editions as well as in other works (such as the Grundrisse) and, therefore, commentary regarding differences, changes in emphasis, and problematic simplifications is necessary and helpful, for both new and advanced readers (16–17). A very clear example of this is the variations that exist between editions and translations of the terminology of Wesen (essence) and wesentlich (essential/essentially) which Marx often uses in a colloquial sense but must be cautiously interpreted based on context (58). Heinrich’s handling of this issue is superb.

Heinrich’s reading guide is the best that I have ever come across for volume 1 of Capital and I am certain it is a necessary edition for any person who takes their study of Marx’s Capital seriously. Heinrich explains that “Capital provides crucial elements of the basic knowledge that is needed to fundamentally change social structures” (22). As such this volume, read in conjunction with Marx’s work, should prove valuable to anyone, inside or outside the academy, who is interested and invested in transforming capitalist social structures into something more beneficial to all.

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How to Read Marx's "Capital": Commentary and Explanations on the Beginning Chapters

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