Introduction to Reading Marx’s Capital, Steve Dobbs. Reproduced from Issue 1 of the journal.

Marx’s Capital is, or should be, the bedrock of the revolutionary socialist movement. In the wake of the self-proclaimed socialist Jeremy Corbyn being elected to lead the Labour Party, copies of Capital are flying off the shelves of left-wing bookshops. Yet it is one of the most difficult books to understand and fully grasp. There are many reasons for this. Capital was originally published nearly 150 years ago. As a result, the language can be quite dated. Marx had a tendency to write very long sentences punctuated with commas rather than full stops. The various translations from German have sometimes obscured the real meaning of certain terms and phrases. More fundamentally, the structure and method employed in presenting Capital was influenced to a large degree by the philosophy of G.W.F Hegel, and specifically in relation to Hegel’s Logic. Words that appear quite innocent enough may have another Hegelian meaning.

Lenin ‘famously’ said in his unpublished notes, ‘Conspectus of Hegel’s Logic’ (from Collected Works 38), that “[i]t is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!”

I would broadly agree with Lenin, although this is not to say that you should put down your copy of the already somewhat daunting book by Marx and instead seek out the 900-page Science of Logic, or even the shorter and more concise version known as Logic, Part One of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences.

In this article I will introduce the method and basic concept of Hegel’s Logic and how they relate to Marx’s method and particularly the first chapter of Capital Volume One. Chapter one is often deemed the hardest part, although is actually the most essential to understand Capital as a whole. This article will neither be a substitute for reading Hegel’s Logic or Marx’s Capital, but it should at least act as a primer for those who are keen to read Capital. It is, of course, possible to read Capital without any prior knowledge of Marx or Hegel; however, the richness and true meaning of the content will almost certainly be lost.

Human Consciousness and Concepts

Hegel’s Logic is a complex work which can be interpreted to explain how human consciousness forms logical conceptions of phenomena i.e. things that we perceive in reality. I’m not going to explain the structure of the Logic, so I’ll provide a simple example that demonstrates what I mean. Imagine a one week old baby. It does not understand the world and how it works. It can only use its five senses to interpret “things” without any real thought process. This is known as “immediate” perception, because the baby’s knowledge of the world is not mediated (i.e. put in context) by anything. As she grows into a child, the baby begins to understand certain relations between things, familiar faces, types of toys, cause and effect etc. The baby begins to formulate concepts of the world, mental images that approximate real life. But since the baby’s knowledge of the world is still growing at a fast pace, her concepts (i.e. how she thought the world operated) become outdated. For example, a baby may have associated the sensation of hunger with crying, to which the mother would respond with breast milk. Yet this time around, the baby does not receive breast milk, but is spoon-fed porridge, which is a new sensation. Porridge has different qualities to breast milk, and so is very different in some respects, whilst similar in others. Her concept of food, and what is not food, begins to develop as she assimilates this new knowledge. Her previous concept of food was shown to be inadequate, so a new ‘higher’ concept is formulated, based on her previous knowledge, to include the new discoveries. Her concept of food continues to develop over many years. Understanding the premise of concepts is important to understanding the structure of Marx’s Capital, which I will come back to later.

Hegel’s Dialectic and Marx’s Critique

Hegel’s Logic was based on his own theological convictions. Hegel believed in a form of teleology, similar to Intelligent Design. He held that concepts already existed in a God-like cosmic force called Spirit, which was inseparably bound up with the universe. Reality exists because Spirit takes form (alienates itself) in the world and progressively unfolds reality and history based on concepts which have been previously defined by the Absolute Idea (God). Since humans are also created by Spirit, our mental process also follows the same development. As we begin to understand the phenomena in the world, we also realise their concepts. Because our world is not simply a chaotic random mess of one thing after another, but is governed by laws (gravity, entropy, evolution etc), our richest concepts are those that explain phenomena on the basis of such laws. Ultimately, a complete understanding of the world through these concepts will lead us to realise and understand God, according to Hegel. His aim was to reconcile philosophy with theology, so we would reach the notion (the whole picture built up through our concepts) of the Absolute Idea.

Marx rejected the supernatural idea of a cosmic Spirit creating reality. He held that our mental concepts derive from the material world and our interaction with it (a philosophy known as materialism), not from preconceived ideas formulated by God (a philosophy known as idealism). Since humans are part of the material world, so are our brains and the thoughts we produce. Therefore Marx rejected the separation of thought and matter, known philosophically as dualism, of which the main proponent was Kant. Hegel also rejected Kant’s dualism, but from the opposite, idealist, standpoint – he believed that matter (the real world) was created by, and part of, Spirit (the idea). To put it in Hegelian terms, Hegel’s subject of history was the Spirit and its object (what it acted against) was human consciousness, whereas Marx’s subject of history was humanity and its object was the material world, nature. The common element is that both Marx and Hegel believed in a subject that reproduced and shaped the conditions of its own existence (‘self-positing’), and that through this process the subject changed itself. Hegel (and Marx) describe this relation between subject and object as a unity (or identity) of opposites. For Marx, this meant that the development of humanity could not be separated from the development of nature. They are a unity that cannot exist without each other. But these two aspects are also opposed to each other because humans use tools to shape and change nature, which in turn reacts back and changes human behaviour. For example, the invention of the wheel completely revolutionised transportation, allowing large numbers of goods and people to travel long distances and reach other, previously isolated, settlements. This would have completely changed the way people and societies relate and communicate with each other.

Opposition, such as between the subject and object mentioned above, is also described as contradiction. This ongoing process of change based on opposition from within a unified whole is the dialectic, and for Marx forms the basis of his philosophy known as historical materialism.

Dialectical Logic and Concepts

A reading of Hegel’s Logic from a materialist perspective, as undertaken by Lenin at the end of 1914, is possible by removing references to the Absolute and turning Hegel “upside down”. By understanding the method of Hegel in this way, we can begin to understand the method of Marx. As Engels said in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, “The dialectic of Hegel was placed upon its head; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet.”

In the context of human logic, Hegel’s dialectic is simply his method of describing how concepts of phenomena are formed. ‘Dialectic’ is a word that is often used, abused and deeply misunderstood. If something is ‘dialectical’, at a basic level it means that it moves or changes over time due to opposing contradictions within itself, such as the subject-object relation discussed in the previous section. Dialectical logic (sometimes known simply as the ‘dialectic’) is a means to develop concepts that reflect the fact that real world phenomena are also dialectical, and that they exist in relation to other phenomena (what Hegel calls “mediated”) as part of a whole. This may sound a little abstract, so I will give an example:

Many journalists talk about ‘the economy’. Perhaps the economy is ‘doing well’. Workers being made redundant will certainly not appreciate how well the economy is doing. Neither will taxi-drivers working 50-hours per week to put food on the table for their families. This is because the term ‘economy’ is a formally abstract concept. It is a term that is used as if it exists separate from reality or society in general.  Hegel would say the concept is “immediate” (not mediated), because the economy is seen as something existing by itself, abstracted from everything else. For example, politicians might talk about the separation of politics from the economy – “Keep politics out of the NHS”, or “Stop government interference in the financial market”, ignoring the fact that the creation of the NHS was a political decision or that the banks would have collapsed without government intervention in 2008.

The Concept of Production in General

In the Grundrisse (the initial draft notes that Marx wrote before Capital), Marx starts his introduction by referring to the universal concept of ‘production in general’, i.e. the common aspects of production of goods across human history. From this he derives the concept of use-value, that production creates useful items. Marx explains the usefulness of this abstract concept:  “Production in general is an abstraction, but a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and thus saves us repetition. Still, this general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations.” (Marx, Grundrisse, ‘Introduction’). But this concept is too abstract to offer a detailed analysis of capitalist production, which is a specific stage of production in human history. Marx recognises this limitation of formal logic and the need to view the phenomenon in its movement, i.e. dialectically: “There are characteristics which all stages of production have in common, and which are established as general ones by the mind; but the so-called general preconditions of all production are nothing more than these abstract moments with which no real historical stage of production can be grasped.” (ibid)

Marx chastises those bourgeois economists who see Capital as an eternal concept, i.e. those who conflate production in general with a particular form of production: “The whole profundity of those modern economists who demonstrate the eternity and harmoniousness of the existing social relations lies in … [their belief that] capital is a general, eternal relation of nature.”  (ibid)

The key to understanding all phenomena is to go beyond how they appear superficially on the surface (in their immediacy) and to take account of the historical development of the different elements (‘determinations’) that are essential (historically necessary) for their existence: “The elements which are not general and common, must be separated out from the determinations valid for production as such, so that in their unity – which arises already from the identity of the subject, humanity, and of the object, nature – their essential difference is not forgotten.” (ibid)

For example, capital always takes the form of money, and so is essential to capitalism. But money existed before the development of capital(ism). Does this mean that money was essential to feudalism? No. The essential features (phenomena) that constitute capital did not suddenly appear under capitalism, but gestated within the wombs of previous modes of production, such as feudalism. The role of money has changed historically, from being simply a universally recognised means of exchange in order to obtain useful goods, or C-M-C (commodity-money-commodity), to a means of employing workers and means of production in order to obtain more money, M-C-M’ (money-commodity-more money). Marx pinpoints the origin of money in the first part of Capital Volume One.

Marx’s Method

Marx lays out his dialectical method very clearly in the Grundrisse under the section ‘The Method of Political Economy’ in the Introduction. First, he criticises the bourgeois method of economic analysis for starting at the level of “real” appearances:

It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole (Marx, Grundrisse, ‘Introduction’)

In other words, the immediate concept of ‘population’, whilst appearing very real, is too abstract to actually analyse. It presupposes we have already determined the other concepts ‘population’ compromises of. It is chaotic and we cannot logically present its essence. At best, we could only make generalisations based on what appears on the surface. Instead, Marx explains:

“.. I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts,  from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations.” (ibid)

Marx’s method is to break down the chaotic appearance of reality into simplified (abstract) building blocks and then rebuild reality on this basis, starting with the most abstract concepts at the base and building up progressively more concrete abstractions until we reach the surface appearance of ‘immediacy’. This is his approach across his three volumes of Capital. Bourgeois economists remain only at the surface appearance of concepts like supply and demand, profit, markets etc.

Marx’s abstractions are not simply ones conjured in his mind devoid of reality, but are concepts formed by boiling down the aspects of the real world. They are abstractions, but concrete abstractions. Marx’s understanding of reality is derived from the empirical data given by immediate reality (he spent 25 years researching for Capital) in combination with his logical process of abstraction in formulating concepts. As long as these concepts truly reflect the essence of the phenomena, they are correct.

“The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception. Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought. … [T]he method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind.” (ibid)

The Structure of Capital

The capitalist mode of production appears as a chaotic whole. It is similar to how Hegel treats the notion of the Absolute Idea in the Logic. Marx applies his dialectical method in order to present capital through a series of scientifically correct concepts and how it actually is, rather than how it appears on the surface. To do this, he structures Capital across three volumes.

The first volume explains one aspect, the process of production of capital value primarily via the universal concept of “capital in general”. The second volume explains another aspect, the process of circulation of capital, also at the same level of abstraction. It is only in the third volume where Marx deals with something closer to “capital as a whole”, the unity of production and circulation, where he introduces the particular concepts of capital, the different forms of capital: industrial capital (profit), bank capital (interest) and landlord capital (rent). As readers of Volume 1 will discover, capital value is only created in production, and so “capital in general” is not simply a generic, formally abstract concept that does not exist in real life and only instantiated in the forms of industrial, bank and landlord capital. Rather, “Capital in general” refers to real capitalist production. Therefore we have to understand the process of value production before other aspects of capitalism are introduced. It is only by appreciating this overall structure of Capital can we understand the true meaning of the first volume.

An Introduction to the Concepts in Chapter One of Capital Volume One

Commodity

Marx starts his analysis with the commodity rather than money. The commodity is the “elementary form” of wealth under capitalism and therefore the basic conceptual building block needed to understand ‘capital in general’, even though the “real” starting point for capitalist production is money (because money is invested to make more money). Since money is also a (particular) commodity, the (universal) concept of the commodity has to be explained first.

The dual nature of a commodity, that it is a use-value (useful object) and appears to have exchange-value (exchangeability with other commodities), is derived from the fact that a commodity is both a result of “production in general” and specifically the capitalist mode of production. It is this dual-nature of the commodity, or “unity of opposites”, that contains the seeds for explaining the essence of the capitalist mode of production, how it came into being and how it will pass.

Abstract Labour

Marx takes the simple, real act of exchange of commodities, where, for example, x amount of boot polish is exchangeable for y amount of silk. Since these commodities are exchangeable, they must share a certain property upon which equal exchange is based. This property cannot be use-value, since boot polish has a completely different use from silk. The common property is that they are both products of human labour. However, the actual concrete labour to create boot polish is qualitatively different from the concrete labour required to produce silk. The common property is thus not concrete labour but abstract labour. This means that during the process of exchange, the two different forms of concrete labour are reduced to the same simple comparable substance, human labour in the abstract. This abstract labour is the concrete basis on which commodities are exchanged, even though a commodity’s exchangeability with other commodities is expressed in exchange-value.

How did Marx derive this concept of abstract labour? Can’t all labour be reduced to “labour in general”? In one sense, yes. Production in general, production of use-values, always requires “labour in general”. But prior to capitalism (i.e. feudalism, ancient slave societies), production of goods was directly for use (e.g. the peasant grew crops for himself and his landlord). Only the excess of these goods became commodities when they were exchanged in the market, and so the number and types of exchanges were limited. But what is most important for Marx is the social relations of production. Under feudalism, the peasants owned their own land and products. Part of this product was given to the landlord in return for ‘protection’. This exploitative social relation of production was quite self-evident. Capitalism developed on the basis of separating the peasants from their land and converting it into private property for the emerging capitalist class. The mass of the property-less proletariat had no choice but to sell their capacity to work (labour-power) to the capitalist in return for money in order to exist. That is, labour-power became a commodity. Every worker’s labour-power became interchangeable. Men, women and children were thrown into work. A capitalist does not care who operates his or her machinery, as long as they can expend labour-power. Workers can move from one workplace to a different factory or line of work, i.e. expend a different form of concrete labour, but to the capitalist it is all reducible to abstract labour, exchangeable for wages. This abstraction is therefore not simply a conjuration of the mind, but is a real abstraction on which the reality of capitalism rests.

Value and Exchange-Value

The crystallisation of abstract labour within a commodity forms the substance of its intrinsic worth, value, and is measured in labour-time. However, it is not the labour-time to produce the individual commodity that determines the individual commodity’s value, but the average or ‘socially necessary’ amount of labour-time employed in the production of the same class of commodities. A commodity is part of the product of society, and so its value is determined within this context, not that of its individual production. Marx explains it like this:

“Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it, the more idle and unskilful the labourer, the more valuable would his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production. The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour-power. The total labour-power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour-power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labour-power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary. The labour-time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time.” (Marx, Capital Volume One, Chapter One)

But it is not possible to directly measure the abstract labour-time expended in production. We can, however, measure exchange-value. The statement that a tin of boot polish exchanges for a tin of boot polish is a tautology and cannot adequately express exchange-value. Exchange-value has to be represented by a different commodity, so that a tin of boot polish can exchange for ten apples, or five bananas, or two ink pens, and so on. Each commodity’s exchange-value can be reflected in terms of every other commodity apart from itself. But all these quantities of different commodities must have something in common –what else is this except for their intrinsic worth, their value? Exchange-value is therefore the indirect form, or the appearance, of value. The exchange-value of a commodity can only be expressed in terms of another use-value. It is also important to note that for the purposes of simplification, Marx assumes that commodities exchange at their values, so within this context value equals exchange-value. The concept that the exchange-value of a commodity is based on its value, the socially necessary labour-time to produce it, is called the Law of Value. Therefore, changes in the productivity of labour ultimately regulate the value and hence exchange-value of commodities.

Money

Early human societies initially exchanged commodities occasionally and accidently. It was only after a particular product of labour exchanged habitually over a long historical period that a universal, social form of value developed. This allowed the value of all other commodities to be reflected in the value of a particular commodity, a universal equivalent. Different societies initially developed their own universal equivalents, from cattle to wolves’ teeth. Historically, the universal equivalent became gold due to its inherent material properties; gold retains its value because it does not rust or decompose, it is easily divisible into multiple pieces and these pieces can be amalgamated. Gold is the universal equivalent par excellence and is the basis of money. Marx refers to it as the money-form of value. Under capitalism, the system of generalised commodity production, all products must have a price, an exchange-value in terms of money, in order to be exchanged. A commodity’s price appears to be an inherent property of the thing itself, rather than deriving from the value created in the social process of production. The commodity’s value is expressed in terms of things (money, other commodities), obscuring the social relations between workers and capitalists.

Conclusion

A superficial reading of the first few chapters of Capital may give the impression that Marx is simply making concepts up in his head, such as the concept of value. Some may say that his analysis is “too abstract” and does not or cannot be applied to modern society. I have shown why this is not the case, and that an appreciation of Marx’s conceptual method of “rising from the abstract to the concrete” is the only way to truly appreciate the richness of Marx’s critique of political economy.

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