By Bruce Wallace. Reproduced from Issue 2 of the journal (available to buy here)
Marxist World is about to publish an abridged edition of Karl Marx’s Capital Volume I for workers interested in Marxism. This is a welcome project but how many readers will just give up after the first chapter? What is it about the first three chapters of Capital that induces a headache? True, some of the language is a bit outdated (arcane) but the argument is logical enough once you get used to the vocabulary. No, the difficulty isn’t in the language but in the revolutionary philosophy that lies behind Marx’s critique that he applies in the opening three chapters and extends throughout his masterpiece. It is the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and without it Marx couldn’t have written Capital. However, it isn’t Hegel’s pure ideas that are applied in Capital but Marx’s critique of them. This short article doesn’t intend to elaborate on the content of Marx’s critique of Hegel as this is highly complex and involved, although it begins with Marx’s earliest writings such as The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in 1843 when Marx was only 25.
In lieu of a longer piece on Marx and Hegel, I have borrowed from Marx’s Capital, Philosophy and Political Economy by Geoffrey Pilling (1980) which, amongst other things, explores the use of Hegel’s philosophical system by Marx in constructing his critique of capitalist production. It is a pretty rare book and deserves a full review but is available freely on the Marxist Internet Archive and deserves close study. Of particular interest is Chapter Four on the ‘Significance of the Opening Chapters of Capital’.
Use-value and exchange-value
What we are presented with in the first three chapters of Capital is a parade of forms. For instance, Marx addresses value in relation to the commodity where he says that the elementary form of value is contained in the simple equation 20 yards of linen = 1 coat and he writes:
The inner opposition contained in the commodity of use-value and value is thus manifested by an external opposition; that is the relationship of two commodities of which the one counts immediately only as use-value, the other immediately as exchange-value, or in which both of the opposite determinants of use-value and exchange-value are apportioned among the commodities in a polar manner (Marx 1867).
What does Marx mean by this? Essentially there are different forms of value inherent in commodities that only find an expression through the process of market exchange. The two forms are use-value and exchange-value (note that for simplicity I refer to there being two forms of value inherent in the commodity i.e. use-value and exchange-value. However, Marx refers to numerous different forms of value, including intrinsic-value, elementary-form of value, equivalent-form of value, relative-form of value, expanded-form of value, general-form of value and universal form of value). These forms are only expressed when commodities meet one another in the market place in the motion of exchange as Marx explains:
The opposition or contrast existing internally in each commodity between use-value and value, is therefore, made evident externally by two commodities, being placed in such relation to each other, that the commodity whose value it is sought to express, figures directly as a mere use-value, while the commodity in which that value is to be expressed, figures directly as mere exchange-value. Hence the elementary form of value of a commodity is the elementary form in which the contrast contained in that commodity between use-value and value, becomes apparent.
The value of the commodity linen is expressed by the bodily form of the commodity coat; the value of one by the use-value of the other…. Thus the linen acquires a value-form different from its physical form (ibid).
We should remember that these value forms are not physical entities as such but depend on relations between people in the form of production and exchange. They are not material in the sense that they can be removed, isolated and dissected like an organism, but they are real.
Marx shows that in the process of exchange one form of value is expressed in another. ‘Use-value becomes the form of its manifestation, the phenomenal form of its opposite, value’ (ibid).
What did Marx mean by the phenomenal form? He does not mean, as is often misunderstood, that this is merely an illusion or a mirage. The coat does take on a phenomenal form of appearance to us as a coat and the reason it appears to us like this is because its manifestation is as a real coat, as a use-value; a coat that can be worn. Its value form is hidden from us beneath the surface sensual appearance of its phenomenal form.
This is one reason why Marx continuously refers to the super-sensible or supernatural to attempt to convey the shape shifting nature of capitalist production. It is difficult to grasp that the capitalist social relation has different forms of manifestation. Some appear in corporeal bodily or phenomenal form like coats and other commodities when beneath the surface lies labour-power, exploitation and value.
The use of the term phenomenal form comes up again and again in Capital and particularly in the opening chapters. If one does not grasp this key idea, it makes understanding the rest of Capital difficult. And here Marx is totally indebted to the work of Hegel and particularly to his Phenomenology of Spirit.
When Marx refers to the phenomenal form of appearance of anything he is referring to its actual real manifestation. Let me take the example of the financial crisis of 2008. Marxists will refer to the capitalist crisis manifesting itself as a crisis beginning in the financial system. Banks did in fact crash along with stock markets. The phenomenal form of appearance of the crisis was initially as a financial one. The financial crisis was all too real but this was not the essence of the crisis, which had much deeper roots in capitalist production itself, hidden from most of us. Hence one will search in vain for explanations of the crisis purely in financial terms because it only deals with the surface appearance of one manifestation of capitalist production.
The two forms of value inherent in commodities represent a contradiction in that use-value and exchange-value are polar opposites. The contradiction is never overcome in the elementary value form. As the commodity is, for Marx, the cell form of capitalist production, then the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value lies at the heart of crisis formation. As we move through higher value forms, such as the money-form, the original contradiction remains unresolved and is, in the Hegelian term, sublated (or in German, Aufhebung, which has the apparently contradictory implications of both preserving and changing). Thus the possibility of a failure to realise the exchange-value through a failure to sell is always present.
With the expansion of capitalist production, commodity exchange is generalised, and so the individual relation between linen and other commodities becomes lost ‘with the whole world of commodities’ in the money form, so Marx emphasises:
It is thus that for the first time that value shows itself in its true light, as a congelation of undifferentiated human labour. For the labour that creates it, now stands expressly revealed as labour that ranks equally with every other sort of human labour, no matter what its form, whether tailoring, ploughing, mining etc (ibid).
Marx begins with the single commodity, rising through higher forms of value, from the semblance of the relations of the elementary value form to their appearance in the higher forms, thus showing that what looked like mere chance is now revealed as a necessity in the expanded form. Or in another sense, moving from the abstract, through many determinations, to the concrete.
Marx. 1867. Capital Volume I, Chapter One. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm
Pilling, G. 1980. Marx’s Capital, Philosophy and Political Economy. https://www.marxists.org/archive/pilling/works/capital/