Review Article

Introduction to Marx’s ‘Capital’

Anirban Biswas

The recent global meltdown and continuing crises in the advanced capitalist countries have made it clear to the less conscious sections of the working people and the intelligentsia, except some diehard dogmatists and persons, with vested interests, that capitalism is by no means the terminus of history. This realization has led to a revival of interest in Marxism and Marx's magnum opus, Capital. It may be added that new questions concerning post-revolutionary societies have also come up, and the model of Paris Commune is again being studied. Similarly, the thoughts of revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg have also begun to attract attention.

The revival of interest in Marxism has led to a surge in the sales of Capital.But it should be admitted that studying Capital in a comprehensive manner is not an easy task, and a good introduction, i.e. a reader's guide, keeping in view the modus operandi of modern capitalism and trying to assimilate the divergent thought processes about the study of Marxism, is urgently necessary. In this sense, the *book by Michael Henrich, which, after its first appearance in German, went through nine editions in Germany before its publication in English in 2012, serves a useful purpose. Although meant as a primer, it should serve as a guide to the reading of Capital. Of course, much useful writings appeared earlier, notably those of Maurice Dobb and Paul Sweezy that were helpful in understanding the text of Capital. Yet the treatment in this book of Marxian principles of political economy is somewhat subtler, possibly because the author has been able to look at and study the recent developments in the capitalist world. It belongs to the genre that is called the new reading of Marx.

In the first chapter, the author clearly notes the two fundamental characteristics of capitalism that distinguish it from precapitalist societies, namely formal freedom of labour and the valorization of capital, as against personal satisfaction of wants, as the immediate goal of production. The author pertinently observes that the 'formal freedom' was not only freedom to sell labour power, but also freedom from every source of income.

The author is firmly of the opinion (with which this reviewer is in agreement) that Capital is first and foremost a theoretical work and not a historical work, because it analyzes the working of a fully developed capitalism. Yet he points out that Marx's analysis is not 'a historical in the sense that contemporary economics to a large extent is'. This is a correct statement. Marx's categories are specific to capitalism, while those of modern economics can be applied to precapitalist formations as well.

The chapter on 'Value, Labour and Money' (Chapter 3) is logically elegant and insightful. A particularly noteworthy and perceptive observation runs like this: "The difference between services and physical objects consists of a distinction of the material content; the question as to whether they are commodities pertains to their social form, and that depends upon whether objects and services are exchanged. And with that, we have sorted the matter of the frequently stated argument that with the 'transition from an industrial to a service economy' or in the left-wing variant of Hardt and Negri—the transition from 'material' to 'immaterial' production—Marx's value theory has become outmoded." (P-14)

The chapter on "Value, Labour and Money" is well written and the author displays a nuanced understanding of the subject. One interesting point, highlighted by the author and useful for a proper reading of Capital, is that although Marx at one time speaks of abstract labour as "an expenditure of human labour power, in the physiological sense", in other passages, he argues forcefully that it is through exchange that the abstraction underlying abstract labour is consummated.

Regarding the rise of money, the author correctly points out that value is a specific social relationship and that the money form is ultimately distinguished from the general form of value that the equivalent form coalesces 'by social custom' with the specific form of a particular commodity. Every commodity owner wants to treat his commodity as a general equivalent, and hence no individual commodity is a general equivalent. But the owners of commodities must relate their commodities to a general equivalent. This social act gives birth to real 'money'. Here one finds that value does not exist within individual objects, but only in acts of exchange involving objects, and an adequate form of this value exist only with the money form. Calling Marx's value theory a monetary value theory, the author correctly characterizes the labour theory of value of classical political economy and the marginal utility of neoclassical economics as pre-monetary theories of value. But he goes on to make a comment that seemingly needs a closer scrutiny. "The usual 'Marxist' value theory that alleges that value is already completely determined by 'socially necessary labour time' is also a pre-monetary value theory." (P-64)

Money is the independent form of value in the process of its self-valorization, which is why it is the starting point and terminal point of the process M-C-M.

The author's elucidation of the concept of 'free' labourers is fascinating enough. The labourers must be free proprietors of their labour power, which they can sell and secondly, they have to be free of substantive property, because only in that case they should sell their labour power. In an interesting paragraph (pp94-95), the author points out one interesting difference between the commodities in general and the commodity of labour power, not addressed by Marx. "The value of the means of production used to produce a normal commodity forms part of its value, as well as the new value added by the labour that creates the finished product from these means of production. This is not the case with the commodity labour power; its value is determined solely by the value of the means of subsistence that have to be purchasesd on the market. Reproductive labour carried out in the households (housework, childrear-ing), primarily by women, does not form a part of the value of labour power." The author points out that if a well-organized working class, through struggles, can substantially raise their wages, they can free themselves, at least partially, from the compulsion to sell their labour power. But the restriction of the value of labour power to the costs of reproduction is a functional necessity of capitalism. Here comes the question of the 'reserve army of labour'. It is also interesting that the author draws the attention of the reader to the absurdity of the notion of 'value of labour'.

In chapter 5, the author elucidates the concepts of constant and variable capital, absolute and relative surplus value, industrial reserve army and immiseration. The history of the last one hundred years has shown that although the rate of unemployment may go down in some periods, the industrial reserve army does not disappear. The reason is that the sole aim of capitalism is valorization of capital, not full employment. The author reminds readers that a misunderstanding of Marx’s version of immiseration has led to the attempt to falsify it. Marx's critique of capitalism cannot certainly be reduced to a question of distribution of income or wealth. Even when workers enjoy a high standard of living, drudgery, ignorance and brutaiization remain.

In chapter 6, the capitalist circulation process and reproduction schemes are explained. The capitalist enters the market with money capital, purchases labour power and means of production (thus transforming them into productive capital), produces a new quantity of commodities (commodity capital) and then transforms it into money capital by selling it in the market. On the expanded reproduction system, the author rightly argues that 'the correct proportions can also only be maintained by coincidence, and disproportions between departments are the rule'.

Chapter 7 contains an interpretation of Marx's theories of profit and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The author here makes an important distinction, often not remembered by exponents of Marxian economics, between surplus value and profit. "Surplus value is the surplus of new value, created by living labour, above the value of labour power; the expenditure of living labour is (under capitalist conditions) the source of surplus value. Profit, on the other hand, is the surplus of the commodity's value above the portion of capital advanced that is used in the commodity's production; here capital appears as the cause of profit." (P-143) What should be noted is the author's observation on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Here he argues, quite reasonably; "A long-lasting tendency for the rate of profit to fall cannot be substantiated at the general level of argumentation by Marx in Capital." (P-153) In his discussion on crisis, the author makes the point that Marx's crisis theory does not require the 'law' of the falling tendency of the rate of profit. His interpretation of Marx's theory of crisis rests on the typically under consumptionist notion of a rise in the quantity of goods produced owing to increasing use of machinery, and a decline in demand, not only in consumption demand, but in investment demand as well. The author does not subscribe to the theories of collapse.

The chapter on State and Capital is immensely insightful. At first the author notes the separation between economic and political rule in bourgeois society, and points out that the 'neutrality of the state' is not merely an illusion, rather the means for the state to secure 'the foundations of capitalist relations of domination and exploitation.' He mentions, however, that this neutrality is a relatively recent historical development, referring to Marx's description of primitive accumulation in England and the state's coercive role. He also argues that there is a tendency inherent in the valorization of capital to destroy the object of exploitation, labour power, and hence the state has to introduce various social welfare measures.

The author mentions the problems associated with the application of Lenin's theory of imperialism to contemporary reality. It is true that the greater portion of capital export from one imperialist country has gone not to colonies or dependent economies, but to other imperialist countries. But the question is whether the issue of capital export should be banished from the theorization of imperialism. There is a consensus that invasion of Iraq by the USA was dictated by the desire to control Iraq's oil resources. How can such a control be secured without export of US capital to Iraq's oil fields?

The final chapter of the book raises important questions regarding the idea of communism. The author points to the paths taken in Russia, Eastern Europe and China and argues that they deviated from Marx's path. In China, there was a fierce struggle inside the ruling Communist Party and Mao Ze dong, as later history showed, was defeated in this battle. The author does not mention this struggle. His quotation from Rosa Luxemburg is, however, pertinent. "Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains an active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to impose proposed resolutions unanimously—at bottom, then, a clique affair".

This reviewer remembers seeing the same passage quoted by Vaskar Nandy, a CPI(M-L) activist and ideologue, in a foreword to the Indian edition of Samir Amin's The Future of Maoism (Rainbow Publishers, 1998). What is positively interesting is that the thoughts of two serious Marxist thinkers are converging; both find it necessary to resurrect Luxemburg's ideas on possible distortions of post-revolutionary societies. On the whole, it is an immensely interesting and thought-provoking work, which deserves to be read by all serious thinkers, not only Marxists. The publishers of the Indian edition should be sincerely thanked for bringing the book into the reach of Indian readers at a moderate price.

*An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital
by Michael Henrich, Indian Edition, Aakar Books, 2013, 240 pages,
Price Rs 295.

Vol. 47, No. 52, July 5 - 11, 2015