Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, trans. Alexander Locascio

(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).

Do we need another introduction to Capital? For a time, it seemed that we surely did: apart from numerous prefaces and commentary by Engels and various Party pamphlets, there was little in circulation in English besides Althusser and Balibar’s Reading Capital (1970) and Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically (1979). Both texts were largely written in order to locate Capital in the proper “camp”: in the first case an anti-Hegelian and ‘scientific’ structuralist Marxism, and in the second an action-oriented autonomism. (The latter was also exemplary of an all-too-common tradition among Marxists of only addressing the first volume of Capital—in this case, only the first chapter.) There were a few lesser-known “economic” texts in circulation as well—e.g. those by Duncan Foley or Robert Wolff—but these were little read outside a handful of heterodox economics departments.

The upshot was that English readers, whether inside or outside the university, had remarkably little to help them when it came to reading Capital, and Capital is a notoriously difficult text to ‘get right’. It’s chock full of laws, tendencies, contradictions, and abstractions (and, for students reading it for the first time, a whole lot of linen and coats). Sometimes it presents itself as an historical text; sometimes as a theoretical one. At times Marx is arguing in parallel with his other work (early work, late work, political writings, or historical research); sometimes he flatly contradicts claims made elsewhere. How should students determine which Marx is then ‘correct’? This is a problem, and in place of clarity we have more than a century of misinterpretations, partial interpretations, and misrepresentations of Capital, and thus also of the nature of capitalism, by both Marxists and various schools of anti-Marxist and post-Marxist thought. For Marxist scholars, however, the last decade has turned from famine to feast. From new translations of earlier work (such as that of Jacques Bidet) to guides and introductions that have come out since the financial crisis (e.g. Harvey, Shapiro, and Jameson, to name just a few), we seem to be swimming in a sea of plenty. Some of these are indeed quite rich readings of Marx’s magnum opus. So the question for students is now: “which introduction should I use?” Is there anything that Michael Heinrich can bring to the mix that hasn’t already been offered?

Plenty, it turns out. Heinrich’s Introduction was originally written in German in 2004, and a new Preface to accompany the English edition situates the reader in the context of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Against those who would read Capital as squarely a 19th-century text, a product of its time, he insists that how capitalism functions “is not an abstract, academic question. The answer to this question has an immediate practical relevance for every anticapitalist movement” (8). Interestingly, Heinrich is not concerned with setting himself apart from other guides to Capital (at least not explicitly), but he clearly distinguishes himself from particular traditions of reading the text. First and foremost, he reads Capital against the grain of what he calls “traditional ‘worldview’ Marxism,” which “explained all problems in the simplest way imaginable” (25). This would perhaps see Heinrich closer to the tradition of Western Marxism, but for the latter’s pronounced weakness on questions of political economy (particularly regarding value). What Heinrich has produced, in a very readable translation by Alexander Locascio, is an excellent text that is clearly written, refreshingly free of orthodoxy, and fresh in its interpretations.

Heinrich insists throughout the text that a reading of Capital that does not include volumes 2 and 3 will lead necessarily to misinterpretation: “What we believe to be understood after reading only the first volume is not only incomplete, but in fact distorted” (9). This is one way in which the text stands out from the field of recent offerings (although this perspective is not unique among those who have carefully read all three volumes). That volumes 2 and 3 were not complete texts in the same manner as volume 1 is usually glossed over, and in places it can seem Heinrich delivers less than his title promises: references to the latter two volumes serve primarily to elucidate concepts explained in more detail in the first volume. However, in contrast to most other recent guides to Capital, Heinrich does not proceed with an explanation of each of Marx’s chapters, in a linear fashion, but instead focuses on particular themes that run throughout the work. Each topic is addressed in a holistic way, drawing not only on Capital as a whole but also on the Grundrisse and Theories of Surplus Value, as necessary. As Heinrich reads Capital to be fundamentally about the exchange and circulation of value, and about the fetishism that results from its circulation, it is on these points that most of his attention is focused.

Heinrich defends Marx’s contribution to the labour theory of value, but he finds himself defending it against its supporters as well as its detractors. First, he treats Marx’s concept of value, appropriately, as descriptive rather than prescriptive. (That it needs to be said that Marx’s labour theory of value describes how value is created in capitalism, and is not a measure of how things ought to be valued, is indicative of how popular some misreadings of Capital have become.) More interestingly, Heinrich finds that the most traditional interpretation of Marx’s theory, that value adheres to an individual commodity as the average amount of socially-necessary labour-time required for its production, is too simplistic. This ‘substantialist’ interpretation of value (value is perceived to be a substance of an individual commodity) pervades both Marxist and bourgeois thought, yet it is impossible to maintain when all of Capital is taken into account. “Objectivity as value,” he insists, “is not a tangible aspect of an individual commodity. Only with the act of exchange does value obtain an objective value form” (55). This is surely accurate: the magnitude of value cannot be determined prior to exchange—although this is difficult to fathom when the individual commodity is analyzed in isolation, as it is in the first part of volume 1. Heinrich’s claim is ultimately that Marx’s labour theory of value is a monetary theory of value: “without the value form, commodities cannot be related to one another as values, and only with the money form does an adequate form of value exist” (63-4). It’s a compelling reading, and one with which Heinrich can also sidestep the infamous “Transformation Problem” that plagued Capital’s reception since its first printing. He essentially calls the entire problem a category error: he insists there is no point trying to derive production prices from values, because value and price are “different levels of description” (149), mediated by different forms of exchange. (Heinrich points to his previously published work on the transformation problem, although it unfortunately remains “forthcoming” in English.)

The second theme that runs throughout Heinrich’s Introduction is the attention to fetishism and reification. The most well-known (but perhaps least well-understood) part of Capital may well be a section from volume 1, chapter 1: “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret”; here, as with his discussion of value, Heinrich demonstrates the necessity of reading all three volumes before making sense of commodity fetishism. When commodity production is directly tied to exchange and circulation, it is not just the commodity but capital, and “social relations in bourgeois society” generally, that get fetishized. Thus the litany of mystifications that riddle our world: the appearance of value, profit, and wages, certainly, but also the persistence of grotesque “personalizations” of fetishistic relations, such as anti-Semitism. Heinrich’s “Excursus on Anti-Semitism” toward the end of the book may seem a bit out of place—as he notes, Marx does not deal with anti-Semitism directly—but he aims to highlight that it is “seldom the case that capitalists as a whole are made responsible for particular miseries” (186). In the context of resurgent anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and elsewhere, it is a welcome commentary.

Heinrich does highlight some disagreements with Marx as well, though he takes care to clarify Marx’s position, on Marx’s own terms, before doing so. (The book, after all, is an introduction to Capital, not Heinrich’s critique thereof.) The most significant of these is Marx’s (in)famous ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.’ Heinrich argues that the rate of profit does no such thing (or, at least, whether it does or not can’t be known; there’s a missing step in Marx’s equation that can’t be filled), but also that it doesn’t matter. In Heinrich’s account, Marx’s understanding of crisis doesn’t hinge on this “law” at all. The chapter on crisis is in fact surprisingly (and refreshingly) short, given recent events and the ubiquity of “crisis” talk these last few years. This is surely in part because the German text of the Introduction was written prior to the financial crisis, but it’s also because Heinrich understands crises, as Marx did, to be part of the cycle of capital. He has no patience for catastrophists nor “final crisis” theorists, at least those who claim any legitimacy from Marx’s critique.

Heinrich’s Introduction also dispenses with several other myths and misunderstandings familiar to readers of Capital: e.g., that the working class necessarily occupies a “privileged position of perception” vis-à-vis capital; that there’s anything strange about paper money delinked from gold or silver; or that Marx’s analysis of capital is solely concerned with production. Most of the Left has (thankfully) abandoned such positions, but this too often takes the form of a misplaced critique of Marx’s supposed errors in Capital. Instead, Heinrich finds arguments against each of them grounded in a close reading of Capital itself.

The final sections of the text address not Capital per se, but what is ostensibly left out: a theory of the state, and a theory of communism. Why these should be considered gaps at all is a valid question, and one that Heinrich takes up. (That Marx intended a volume on the state, for example, doesn’t by itself mean one was necessary to make full sense of his argument.) The chapter on communism is short, and will be of interest to those really being introduced to Marx for the first time but contains few surprises for those already familiar with his work. The chapter on the state is more interesting. On the one hand, Heinrich argues that the state cannot be left out of the analysis: its material foundation is “directly connected to the accumulation of capital” (212). That said, Heinrich is no more interested in connecting all the dots than Marx was, although he can’t resist jabs at those placing too much emphasis on any particular theory of the bourgeois state: Engels, for example, who gave us the instrumentalist theory of the state, or Lenin, who offered a theory of imperialism that claimed an origin in Capital but which “ultimately has almost nothing to do with Marx’s critique of political economy” (215). Similarly, Heinrich finds those who root their criticism of the state in proposals for “real”, direct democracy, to be missing the point: that states are historical, contingent, formations that today largely govern based on the consent of a population whose interests appear—the argument here returns to the fetishization of social relations generally—to coincide with the accumulation of capital. That, Heinrich believes, is an understanding grounded in Marx’s critique of political economy; from such a vantage point, other arguments about the “true” nature of the state are simply red herrings.

On the whole, Heinrich’s Introduction is a fresh and engaging read that can take pride of place among the many recent guides to reading Capital. Whether read alongside all three volumes, or even just as a corrective to the interpretation of volume 1, readers will surely find it both comprehensive and compelling.

© 2013 Justin Paulson
Sociology and Political Economy
Carleton University, Ottawa

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