Ben Fine & Alfredo Saad-Filho’s book has been described as one of the finest introductions to Marx’s classic critique of political economy. Pluto Press has now produced an updated fifth edition.

drawing of marx

Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, Marx’s Capital (Pluto, Fifth Edition, 2010), xvi, 191pp.

Prepared from lectures given in the early 1970s Ben Fine & Alfredo Saad-Filho’s little book rapidly became indispensable reading for those new to Marx’s thought during that time of renewed militancy and economic turmoil. Reissued several times since, the book has been lauded by the likes of David Harvey as one of the finest introductions to Marx’s classic critique of political economy. Now, in 2010, and with the spectre of Marx looming over the current economic crisis, Pluto Press has given us this updated fifth edition.

As this is primarily an introductory guide to Capital, the book doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of Marx, and so quite naturally begins just where Marx himself did with the nature of the commodity. The authors provide clear introductions to the concepts of use and exchange value while demonstrating how equivalent exchange is rooted in production according to Marx’s elaboration of the labour theory of value. The historical nature of Marx’s analysis is made clear in the explanations of the role of the division of labour and the rise of the capitalist class. The concept of commodity fetishism is explained primarily through a demonstration of how large scale commodity production in capitalism leads to ‘the relations between people becoming the relations between things’. This is the process of reification, and if the philosophical ramifications are not fully explored here, the material foundations of the concepts are made clear.

Throughout the book, the exploitation of the worker is always traced back to capital’s self-expansion and its direct relation to the production of surplus value. From the most basic form of commodity exchange M – C – M’, where M stands for money and M’ is greater than M, it is clear that it is not in the circulation process, but in the production of the commodity itself, that surplus value arises as a product of labour power. Thus surplus value is that part of the value of the commodity that the worker produces, is not paid out in wages, but is taken by the capitalist in the form of profit. From this simple cycle we are introduced to more complex ideas around the circulation of capital in the spheres of exchange and production.

One of the best things about the book is the way in which the authors introduce Marx’s more complex economic ideas, such as the technical and organic compositions of capital, and the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, only after thorough discussion of the underlying presuppositions. The authors acknowledge that the falling rate of profit is controversial in some quarters, and it is useful to see the arguments in these and other areas laid out clearly. Sectarianism is utterly absent in favour of a balance of argumentation that sets out fairly the range of opposing views. Attacks on Marx’s analysis have always most often assumed that he was formulating a mechanistic set of equations laws that could be tested within linear empirical models. Happily, the emphasis here is on Marx’s analysis as illustrative of historical tendencies, interacting with other countervailing processes, over a period historical development. This serves to bring out the enduring strength and relevance of the arguments in Capital.

The main interest for those who know earlier editions of the book will be the new section covering the current financial crisis, the role of neo-liberalism and financialisation. Anyone who has been around the left in the last two years will most likely have had these arguments presented to them on numerous occasions. Nevertheless the clarity of Fine and Saad-Filho’s exposition, and their application of the previous chapters’ theory to our current crisis situation, is seamless and compelling.

In particular they argue that the most important aspect of neo-liberal economics has been the expansion of interest-bearing capital across the economy as a whole. The net effect of this shift has been the accumulation of financial (fictitious) capital at the expense of productive assets. Thus the traditional distinction between Wall Street and Main Street has been collapsed, with industrial and mercantile capital increasingly dependent upon financial operations. The authors also devote time to making the connections between the rise of neo-liberalism and globalisation. In particular they provide a nuanced discussion of the role of the US as both a hegemonic power and a declining economy that has frequently required the help of China and Germany to maintain the value of its currency.

Finally the book asserts the prime role Marxian analysis should have in cutting through the ideological haze generated by neo-liberalism and financialisation. For some, the expansion of the financial markets into previously untouched areas of the economy may suggest that struggle in the workplace no longer holds its central position. Here however the authors emphasise that the all pervasive effects of financialisation will result in a multiplicity of struggles against the equally multiple effects of the crisis. Some may take the form of traditional workplace struggles and trade union activity, and existing political organisation, while others may see working people forming new and unorthodox groupings to tackle the unique set of circumstances with which neo-liberalism presents us.

It might be objected here that robust political organisation as such will be necessary to tie together new forms and locations of struggle if the most is to be made of their potential. In any case, it is certain that Marx’s work in Capital is essential in demonstrating the link between production and society at large, revealing the recurring and ever more destructive contradictions of capitalism, and laying the basis for a positive platform of social mobilisation. To this end Marx’s Capital and this superb introduction are more vital than ever.

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