Michael Heinrich’s newly translated introduction to Capital is lucid and succinct in outlining Marx’s revolutionary economics

Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (Monthly Review Press 2012, translation of 2004 German text), 240pp.

Economics has a reputation as a difficult, not to say daunting, subject. On the face of it this should be a paradox, since economic activity, in one way or another, is something that everyone engages in almost every day. Yet there is an observable chasm between individual ‘economic’ experience and the discourse of economists, beyond any merely academic obfuscation. That gap alone may dismay, but the ‘dismal science’, as it was known from early on, provokes many to turn away perhaps not least because it always seems to offer unpleasant conclusions to almost everyone, not least the working class.

The answer to this problem is certainly not to attempt a ‘common sense’ economics, as that almost invariably produces know-nothing conclusions, such as the assumption that the state’s finances should work like that of a household. It is simply true that the impact of individual economic activity can produce results not intended or recognisable to the actors concerned. In this sense the whole really is more than the sum of its parts, and the individual is not an atom but a social being. Moreover capitalism in particular produces results and tendencies that are notably perverse; overproduction of goods leading to depression and scarcity, for example. Capitalism as a system appears to supersede the wills of even its most powerful actors, such that it would seem that our lives are ruled by apparently ‘natural’ laws of what is in fact only a historically specific state of affairs. For an endeavour that is quintessentially materialist in nature, economics has a decidedly mystical or metaphysical appearance for the intimidated lay observer.

Despite sharing the forbidding aura of difficulty with other economic texts, Marx’s Capital is precisely the book that promises to liberate us from the oppressive weight of capitalist economic logic. As political economy, it renders natural laws of economics into historical and social dynamics, potentially therefore subject to human control. Capital remains, by far and away, the most important examination of both bourgeois economics and the capitalist system itself that has ever been attempted (it might be noted that it is probably the most important unfinished work of modern literature). Marx’s task was to reveal what lies hidden underneath the appearances of capitalism. Classical bourgeois economists attempted to explore the nature of capitalism through what were, to their lights, common-sense starting points, such as the rational, acquisitive individual. However, it turned out that behind apparently obvious and concrete phenomena such as profit and price lurked rather more mysterious issues to do with value, such as the contradictions between its forms as ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’.

Modern economics has not solved the problems thrown up by classical economists, but largely by-passed them. While at least classical economists did try to start with what they assumed were irreducible premises, such as the rational individual, much modern economics makes assumptions that are well outside any common-sense formulations. The recurring tendency to claim in each sustained boom that a new crisis is impossible this time, despite all the evidence to the contrary, might be considered a case in point. The alternative, however, is not to turn away in trepidation at a difficult and dismal subject, but to explore the hidden realities of our lives in capitalism, and to discover the real relationships and contradictions that both ordinary ‘common-sense’ and bourgeois economics would hide from us.

There are an increasing number of helpful introductions to Capital to make it more accessible for those reluctant to jump in feet first. The German Marxist Michael Heinrich wrote this introduction in 2004, and it is very welcome that it is now available in English. One aspect of Capital that could well seem daunting is the number of terms with quite precise meanings, such as the various concepts of value, their distinction from price, or surplus value, which is not quite the same thing as profit, or even further, the various specific forms of capital. An understanding of these is not in fact difficult to acquire and Heinrich’s short book is a crisp and clear introduction to all the relevant concepts, and the very exact ways in which Marx uses them. In fact a very large number of supposedly definitive refutations of Marx’s theories in Capital rest on misunderstandings of his analytical apparatus.

Neo-classical economists typically translate Marx’s language and methodology into their own terms, not noticing the important differences and distinctions, and are thereby able to ‘disprove’ Marx’s labour theory of value, for example. Heinrich is particularly useful here in offering some neat rebuttals of the standard objections. A common-sense ploy notes the inflated prices of some commodities, such as a work of art, whose exchange value is clearly not strongly related to the labour expended in its creation (pp.42-3). However these kinds of commodities are overwhelmingly the exception, and even underline how ‘most economic products are not unique, but rather mass-produced goods’, and there the ‘socially necessary labour-time’ expended in production creates value (p.43). It is not the individual labour that goes into a particular commodity which creates its value. The socially-average amount of labour that is required for commodities of that type determines value, and lies behind a commodity’s ultimate price.

Many of the standard objections to Marx’s interpretation of the labour theory of value start with the mistake of reasoning from the particular commodity or the work of an individual labourer. However, value cannot be determined on the basis of an individual commodity produced by a single worker in particular circumstances, but rather from the perspective of the totality of production. Value is at once tangible in its forms of use value and exchange value, but only exists in the totality, in a social sense, not in an individual, empirical sense. This is a whole area which neo-classical economics abandoned fairly soon after Marx was writing; perhaps, as some have observed, not coincidentally. Current economic theory tends to avoid questions of value altogether, using instead the market-orientated ‘marginal utility’ theory.

An important distinction between Marx and bourgeois economics is therefore the difference in standpoint. The latter typically start from the point of view of the individual capitalist, while Marx takes the social perspective. His analysis is thus able to uncover what is happening in capitalist production and exchange behind the capitalist’s back, as it were. One notable conclusion, not very often remarked upon, which is possible to draw from Marx’s analysis here, is that individual capitalists are not in a position to understand capitalism itself. Indeed, explaining the ‘reproduction of an individual capital’ is not possible through taking one concern in isolation, rather the problem must be considered ‘as a moment in the reproduction of the total social capital’ (p.137).

Thus the calculation of value, for example, effectively cannot be made for an individual commodity, and be thus translated into an actual price. Rather the social average of value is the operative level in which the issues become clear; ‘the substance of value, and thus the value-objectivity, is something only obtained by things when they are set into relation with one another in exchange’ (p.53). Part of the length of Capital is due to the meticulous chains of reasoning with which Marx accomplishes his proofs of these kinds of propositions. Heinrich does take the reader through such arguments crisply and with clarity, so the subsequent reading of Capital would probably be smoother as a result.

It is not only bourgeois economists who tend to misinterpret Marx disastrously. A major concern of Heinrich’s introduction is to correct the distortions of Marx due to mechanical and deterministic readings from significant parts of the Marxist tradition itself. It is very easy to take one-sided readings of some of Capital’s analysis and thereby distort the argument. Commodity fetishism, for example, arises because the relationship of producers to each other ‘appears as a relationship between things’. Thus capitalist relations appear as natural rather than social and contingent. This is a mystification of social relations, but in one sense it is also a true statement of conditions in capitalism (p.73). Thus, against the view taken by ‘representatives of traditional Marxism’, the working class does not spontaneously see through the fetishism of commodities, as this is part of concrete experience. Yet neither is the mystification of social production something totally impenetrable (p.79). The point is that the working class has the potential, through its capacity for collective action, to break through the illusions created by capitalist relations.

In general, Heinrich’s arguments against mechanical readings of Marx are well taken, as also is the recurring point that Marx was not engaged in moralistic attacks on capitalism, but in a critique arising from an analysis of the system on its own terms. Reading Heinrich, however, it would be possible to gain the impression that Marx in the course of Capital was not also displaying his outrage at capitalism with at least the same degree of verve as he does in any of his other writings. It is perhaps too much to expect a short introduction to display all the qualities of the three volumes. Nonetheless, at points, Heinrich’s introduction has a defensive quality that seems to emphasise the academic and abstruse nature of Capital over the clarity of its critique. It is entirely correct to point out that there is no automatic or general spontaneous working class reaction against capitalism that leads in a deterministic way to revolution. Nonetheless, while revolution is not inevitable, Heinrich seems to downplay the extent to which the system does produce, as a matter of course, opposition, and the potential for a successful revolutionary transformation.

Part of the reason for the defensive tone may lie in the time and place of the book’s original publication, Germany in 2004, where capitalism may well have seemed particularly successful. Reading it now, in the midst of a world economic crisis, it seems more reasonable to emphasise the tendency of the system to produce crisis, and the possibility that its illusions could be ripped away. There is a general point here, in that simple readings of Marx, particularly of the Communist Manifesto, have led to the notion that Marx predicted the absolute immiseration of the proletariat and that this situation would mechanically cause the revolution. Simple-minded attacks on Marxism have held that since standards of living have risen in the West, Marx has been shown to be wrong, and therefore the working class is not exploited by the system. Against this, Heinrich demonstrates that exploitation, in the sense of the extraction of surplus value from labour, can increase alongside a rise in the standard of living (pp.119-20).

This is important, and it is worth following Heinrich’s proof of this carefully, but the ‘absence of immiseration’ argument has always had other weaknesses. Firstly it never put the prosperity of western economies into international context, so avoiding a whole series of issues about capitalism as an international, and imperialist, system. Secondly, the argument has been increasingly tendentious over the last thirty years as neo-liberal assaults on the post-war settlement have steadily undermined the security of the western working-class standard of living. The mechanical reading of Marx that supposes that capitalism will, in some linear fashion, grind the proletariat until revolution is the only possible outcome, is incorrect. Nonetheless, the latest economic disaster only underlines the tendency of capitalism to produce crisis, and also confirms that in the absence of very serious resistance, the working class will always be made to pay for the stabilisation of the system.

One central contradiction of capitalism is the drive for capitalists to pay their own workers the least possible, while needing other capitalists’ workers to be paid enough to afford their goods. As a result, the system is always precariously balanced at the best of times. While Marxists cannot sit back and wait for the system to collapse of its own accord, the contradictions that Marx exposed in Capital mean that there is always fuel for resistance, and therefore the possibility of radical systemic change. In critiquing mechanistic interpretations of Marx, Heinrich tends to emphasise the tendencies that counteract the potential for revolution, but both sides of the contradiction need to be born in mind. Capital does not predict the inevitable and imminent collapse of capitalism, but it should inspire optimism of the revolutionary will.

The notion of contradiction, that reality does not add up to a neat, harmonious whole, but rather is driven by the crises produced by opposing tendencies, lies at the heart of Marx’s analysis in Capital. It constitutes both an analytical method and a characterisation of the way things are. Sometimes it has been supposed that, by the time of Capital, Marx had abandoned the dialectics of his youth, but in fact his writing here remains profoundly dialectical. This is important for Heinrich’s arguments, as they depend on the recognition that opposing processes are at work in the system, and that an accurate understanding of the dynamics of capitalism requires a grasp of the nature of contradiction. At the simplest level this is illustrated in the point that the proletariat is best placed to see through the fetishism of commodities produced by capitalist relations, and yet also must be subject to the illusions of the system for related reasons. Our social experience is contradictory, and the opposing tendencies that constitute society cannot be resolved through liberal notions of compromise, but ultimately only through one side overcoming the other.

A limitation of Heinrich’s exploration of Capital therefore does lie in his decision not to explore explicitly the nature of Marx’s dialectical method. He raises the issue early on, warning against superficial understandings that ‘everything is dependent upon everything else and is in a state of interaction and that it’s all rather complicated – which is true in most cases, but doesn’t really say anything’ (pp.36-7). This is a fair point, but the brief discussion that follows would do little to illuminate the subject to anyone new to dialectics, and Heinrich does not return to it later on. This is a pity because many of his discussions do illustrate Marx’s dialectical method quite well, and, suitably highlighted, would serve to demystify it for the newcomer. It is quite possible to illustrate Marx’s dialectics very clearly through a discussion of Capital. The first chapter of David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital (Verso 2010) does just this in examining the analysis of the commodity in capitalist relations, and the contradiction at the heart of a commodity between its use value and its exchange value. Anyone wishing an introduction to the dialectic could do worse than start there.

There are an increasing number of introductions to Capital now available (including this one reviewed here in 2010), but the addition of Heinrich’s book is very valuable. It is considerably shorter than Harvey’s magnificent Companion, but gives a serious and careful explanation of Marx’s analysis, and outlines the terms and categories the reader needs to bear in mind. At the far end of the spectrum in terms of length, Mike Wayne’s recent Marx’s Das Kapital for Beginners also does a remarkable job in almost half the pages of Heinrich’s introduction. Inevitably all these books can only serve to be the start of a reader’s engagement with Capital, but each in their different ways has its own qualities, and each might suit a different reader’s requirements. Capital has been argued over by Marxists, with each other almost as much as against anti-Marxists, from the start, and inevitably there are points of difference in interpretation, notably over aspects of the theory of crisis. Heinrich’s book can be criticised, mildly, for its apparent pessimism at the possibility of revolution, but it stands as a remarkably thorough and lucid short introduction.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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