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  • Published in Book Reviews

PolyluxMarx is an innovative and valuable introduction to Marx’s Capital, finds Sean Ledwith, despite a few disagreements in method and theory

PolyluxMarx: An Illustrated Workbook for Studying Marx’s Capital

Valeria Bruschi, Antonella Muzzupappa et. al., PolyluxMarx: An Illustrated Workbook for Studying Marx’s Capital (Monthly Review Press 2014), 136pp.

A revival of interest in Marxist economic theory has been just about the only silver lining to the current black cloud of recession which still envelops much of the global economy. Since the crash of 2008, many people in the heartlands of capitalism have turned to the writings of Karl Marx, the supreme critic of the system, for an explanation of what went wrong. This is unsurprising as the highest echelons of the elite were also stumped by the onset of economic contraction and the return to boom and bust that Gordon Brown, among many others, infamously believed had been   consigned to history.

Addressing Congress in the early days ofthe slow-down, Alan Greenspan, former chief central banker of the US, sheepishly confessed: ‘I have found a flaw... I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.’ On this side of the Atlantic, the Queen hilariously expressed her displeasure at losing £25 million of her ill-gotten gains in the credit crunch by asking a bunch of bourgeois economists: ‘Why did nobody notice it?’

Regrettably for her, it is unlikely the red-faced academics would have recommended a perusal of Capitalbut for anybody else seeking a cogent and coherent analysis of economic crisis, Marx’s magnum opus remains the indispensable starting point. Although the first volume was published in 1867, large chunks of his analysis read as if Marx was a financial journalist commenting on the gyrations of the system today. The befuddled central banker and the monarch should have been directed to the warning in Volume Two that ‘banking and credit … become the most potent means of driving capitalist production beyond its own limits, and one of the most effective vehicles of crises and swindle’.

Likewise, you would not have to go too far to locate an employee today who would identify with Marx’s comment that new workplace systems ‘subject him during the labour-process to a despotism more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working time; and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital…’

Unfortunately for the aspiring reader, Capital is no easy read, as Marx was the first to admit. Spread over three door-stopping volumes (only the first of which was finished by him) and stuffed with reams of statistics, extensive footnotes, obscure literary and political references and intense theorising, the work can initially appear as an insurmountable challenge. As he warned his first readers: ‘There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.'  

More fortuitously for us, part of the revival of interest in Capital this decade has been the publication of numerous insightful guides which can ease the discomfort of this awkward ascent. PolyluxMarx: An Illustrated Workbook for Studying Marx’s Capitalis a worthy addition to this sub-genre. In fact, this volume probably represents the best place for the new reader to begin. Part of the reason is that it arises not just from academic reflection, but also from the experience of its authors in the Rosa- Luxemburg-Stiftung. This is an educational foundation, associated with the Left Party in Germany. The Polylux team have been participants in one of contemporary Europe’s most influential leftist organisations, and this activist mentality manifests itself throughout the work.

Their starting point is an awareness that Capital is, above all, a tool for activists in our time. This organic connection between the authors and the anti-capitalist movement, which has seized the imagination of millions, gives this book an edge over some of its rivals in the market. At the beginning of this century, they observe: ‘it slowly became apparent that the proclaimed end of history might imply endless horror: the gap between rich and poor continued to widen, economic crises spanned the globe, military conflicts increased, and, last but not least, the world of the 21st century was confronted with an economic crisis of a hitherto unimaginable magnitude’ (p.14).

They are keenly aware that the revival of Marxist political economy is operating at two levels. Firstly, the ongoing scholarly debate between illustrious Marxist commentators such as David Harvey, Frederic Jameson and Michael Heinrich concerning the conceptual apparatus of Capital; and secondly, the renewed curiosity in capitalism’s greatest critic by millions of activists around the world sparked by events such as the Occupy movement and the Arab revolutions. The authors’ acknowledgement of the importance of sustaining connectivity between these two developments is one of the most appealing aspects of the book.

Another commendable feature is the deployment of an innovative power-point presentation style which integrates a sequential guide to Marx’s text with relevant quotations and succinct explanations. Each page comprises of one slide which contains an image in the middle of the page and underneath a commentary on the content of the image. Around the central image, there are appropriate boxes for cross-referencing, relevant questions and note-making. The slide on the fetishism of the commodity, for example, contains illustrations of the ‘everyday understanding of the term today’ (in other words, a high-heeled boot!) which are unrelated to Marx’s use of the term; but also more appropriate ones for the Marxist definition, such as mobile phones, which in our society generate an aura which belies the exploitation at the source of their creation (p.58).

A related slide makes the important point that this commodity fetishism does not imply that we reside passively in a hallucinogenic world of commodity-induced torpor, in the style of the Matrix movies. The elevation of commodities such as the mobile phone to quasi-venerated status in our culture reflects the real inversion of the relations of production reproduced daily in capitalism:

‘Because human beings enter into contact with one another by means of commodities, their social relations assume an independent character in the form of commodities, despite the fact that human beings themselves generate these social relations, thus the analogies to the divine figures of religion, which are products of the human mind, but appear to be independent and all powerful’ (p.68).

The book is also based on the premise of a reading group and is therefore designed with an agenda to facilitate discussion and debate in serious but mutually supportive forums. The authors provide useful guidance on how to manage such a forum, with practical tips on issues like integrating experienced and novice readers, highlighting sections of the book which are worth reading aloud and even suggestions for role-play where appropriate! (p.51). There is refreshing emphasis on collaborative learning which makes this an ideal companion for Capital in both formal and informal educational contexts or for socialists as part of an activist network. The authors state: ‘Capital reading groups are not just a place for imparting knowledge but part of a self-organised collective engagement with capitalist society, in which both our intellectual and social skills can be expanded’ (p.10).

Other slides effectively highlight that Marx’s genius in Capital lay not just in devising the most complete dissection of capitalism in his own time, but also his phenomenal ability to foresee many of the challenges it presents us with in this century. An ecological awareness is identifiable in his concern that the rapacious tendencies of the system affect not just humans but also accelerate the ‘destruction of nature’ (p.116). The insidious ability of bosses to devise methods of exploitation  that are coated with a David Brent-style veneer of  inclusivity is alluded to: ‘real subsumption can mean anything from fragmented, monotonous assembly line labour to apparently creative, independent teamwork’ (p.118). The authors also defend Marx from the charge that he ignored the role of the family and was exclusively  concerned with male factory workers: ‘the terms productive and unproductive are not used judgementally by Marx, in the sense of good and bad, necessary and superfluous, or important and unimportant, but rather as analytical categories’ (p.119).

Obviously, there is nothing to stop an individual utilising the book on her own, but the book club format is a useful reminder that, despite its formidable reputation, Capitalis not written on tablets of stone and has unleashed a vast range of interpretations and controversies, even among Marxist economists. The authors do not hide their own theoretical allegiance to the New German Reading, associated with the German economist, Michael Heinrich. The latter has played a major role in facilitating the contemporary revival of Marxist economic theory. He is closely involved with the MEGA-2 project, the ongoing publication of many unseen works by Marx and Engels, a project which is constantly illuminating hitherto unknown aspects of their work. Heinrich has also written his own considerations on Capital, including another highly-rated introduction.

One of the features of Heinrich’s approach is the notion of avoiding what he refers to as ‘worldview Marxism’. He uses this expression to label the dominant paradigm which, he argues, emerged during the era of the Second International at the end of the nineteenth century and lasted up to the fall of the USSR in the 1990s. He contends this was based on a deterministic and teleological misreading of Marx, allied to an excessive reliance on Hegel’s dialectic. To some extent, Heinrich is justified to seek to distance Marxism from the absurdities associated with Stalin’s abuses of the dialectic as a convenient pretext for political expediency. Excising dialectics almost completely from Marxist economic theory, however, means Heinrich constructs an alternative framework with some components downgraded or rejected that are traditionally regarded as essential, such as the labour theory of value and the theory of the falling rate of profit.

To their credit, the Polylux authors flag up the sections in which their explication is unorthodox, such as their interpretation of the former notion: ‘the question often arises as to where exactly value is located and where it originates and becomes manifest: in the production process, or in exchange. The fact that there are various ways of reading that are responsible for differing interpretations of value indicates that the question cannot be easily answered’ (p.37). Frederic Jameson, among others, has argued that revisions such as these deprive the reader of a full understandingof Marx’s method in Capital.

The New German Reading manifests itself here with this apparent reluctance of the authors to refer to dialectics as part of their exposition. There is only one reference to the notion in the whole book. Unfortunately, this detracts slightly from the otherwise admirably clear and concise nature of their presentation. The opening sections explain how Marx commences Capital not with an historical account of the origins of the system in the transition from feudalism, but with a conceptual and notoriously abstract focus on the commodity, as this is the component of the system that surrounds us everyday.

Marx’s reason for starting with this dense exploration of methodology, however, can only be understood with reference to the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete he assimilated from Hegel’s Science of Logic. As the generation of commodity fetishism in the process of circulation draws a veil over the reality of exploitation, Marx argues it is necessary to step back and analyse the system at the level of its essence, not its appearance, in the same way the pioneers of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century had to ignore the evidence of their eyes about the apparent relationship between the Earth and the Sun. Again, this emphasis on distinguishing essence and appearance is derived from Hegel. Marx states in Volume One: ‘a scientific analysis of competition is not possible, before we have a conception of the inner nature of capital, just as the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies are not intelligible to any but him, who is acquainted with their real motions, motions which are not directly perceptible by the senses.’

This reluctance to utilise Hegelian categories is awkward as, alternatively, the Polylux authors refer to the importance for the reader of Capital to ‘conceptually grasp the dimorphism of social relations’, in other words the two-sided nature of many of Marx’s foundational concepts such as use value and exchange value or concrete labour and abstract labour (p.101). The notion of a dialectical understanding could just as easily be inserted here but the authors obviously share Heinrich's aversion to the term. In contrast, David Harvey, in his outstanding commentary on Volume One, outlines a coherent re-affirmation of the centrality of  dialectics to Marxist political economy.

This is not a fatal issue for the sake of an introductory book, however, and it does not undermine the overall excellence of presentation. The book is also a useful corrective to the other view of capitalism which has recently attracted a lot of attention, Thomas Piketty’s best seller Capital in the 21st Century. Pikettyrightly draws our attention to the intensifying polarisation in capitalist economies between rich and poor, but he believes an element of re-adjustment regarding taxation in the sphere of circulation can remedy this and encourage more equitable levels of distributive wealth.

In contrast, Marx would argue it is illusory to think appeals to the good nature of capitalists would make any difference to the nature of exploitation which is, in fact, locked into the system at the deeper level of production. As the Polylux team put it: ‘it is not the greed of managers that caused the financial crisis; rather the greed of managers can be explained by the laws of movement of finance capital’ (p.24). As capitalism continues toimperil humanity with the threat of major war between its rival power-bases, it becomes imperative for socialists to study and debate the dynamics of the system and that means engaging with Marx’s critique in Capital. The Polylux authors are to be commended for stimulating this task. Hopefully they will produce further guides for Volumes Two and Three.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History