Reviewed by Bo Harvey
Gavin Walker – one of a few scholars bringing Japanese value-form debates to bear in English – has described how, ‘in the twentieth century, it could easily be argued that the most Marxist country on earth was postwar Japan. Not in terms of a form of government of course, but in terms of a formal intellectual culture’ (Walker 2019: xiii). Scarcely a requirement in economics departments today, Marx’s Capital was in many postwar Japanese universities. At the Tokyo University of the 1950s – a kind of post-Imperial feeder school for Japanese bureaucrats – the curriculum included translation of Capital’s three volumes as well as Theories of Surplus Value. This establishment of Marx inside the university system – as well as debates within the Japanese Communist Party – left Japan with a thriving mid-twentieth century Marxian intellectual scene, one which has hardly been received in English. When it has, its reception has been mediated via the figure of Kozo Uno – at whom Samezo Kuruma’s Marx’s Theory of the Genesis of Money is largely directed.
The translation and publication of the book marks an important intellectual-historical addition, illuminating once again for English-language readers the sophistication of a value-form theoretical framework appearing 30 years prior to the Neue-Marx Lekture. A major figure in the history of Japanese Marxism through his affiliation with the Ohara Institute for Social Research in Osaka Suruma engaged in close cooperation with the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow where he helped edit and compile the Japanese-German Lexicon of Marxist Political Economy. It was at this institute where Suruma and Uno participated in monthly readings of Marx. Nowhere to be found in Kolakowski’s definitive compendium Main Currents of Marxism, Jan Hoff has located Kuruma’s discussion of the architectonic of Marx’s critique of political economy within the broader context of its reception in the period immediately previous to WWII, which include Rubin’s elaboration of value theory in the 1920s in the Soviet Union, Henryk Grossman’s treatment of Marx’s critique of political economy, and the theoretical disputes between Hajime Kawakami and Kazuo Fukumoto (Hoff 2017: 220-221).
Marx’s Theory of the Genesis of Money includes Kurmua’s Theory of the Value Form and Theory of the Exchange Process, originally published in 1957, and Part I of his 1979 Theory of Money. The hardcover edition by Brill is a substantially revised version of an English translation self-published in 2008. Theory of the Value Form and Theory of the Exchange Process is itself composed of three essays that appeared separately in the Hosei Economic Review in 1950-1951, with the fourth appearing in 1955 as a transcript of a lecture. The fourth essay (appearing as Part I) offers a systematic account of Kuruma’s own views while the three essays that follow are framed in terms of Kuruma’s disagreement with Uno over the relation of the ‘theory of the value-form’ to the ‘theory of exchange.’ Part II is an interview on different topics where Kuruma expands on his own views and offers responses to challenges to it. Beyond the debate with Uno, large parts of the text function as a particularly granular – and not introductory – commentary on the first four chapters of Capital, Vol I. One comes away grasping the particular intensity with which Kuruma truly battled to grasp its opening sections, but also the extreme sensitivity to value-theoretical concerns internal to mid-twentieth century Japanese Marxist debates.
Kuruma’s basic concern is to grasp the relation between ‘theory of the value form’ and the ‘theory of the exchange’ vis a vis Marx’s theory of money. ‘Both theories seem to revolve around how money is generated, but the manner in which Marx carries out his analysis in each is completely different’ (28). This confusion arises from the way Marx orders the initial chapters of Capital, Vol I. Recall that Part 1 Chapter 1 of Capital is divided into four sections: (1) ‘The Two factors of the Commodity: Use Value and Value (Substance of Value, Magnitude of Value)’, ‘The Twofold Character of the Labor Represented in Commodities’, ‘The Value Form, or Exchange Value’, and ‘The Fetish Character of the Commodity and its Secret’. These four sections are followed by Chapter 2 (‘Exchange Process’) and Chapter Three (‘Money, or the Circulation of Commodities’). ‘Money’ appears in the third section of Chapter 1 on the value form, the fourth section on the fetish character of the commodity, and then in Chapter 2 on the exchange process. Kuruma’s struggle is to articulate the relation between the three mentions of money and then the formal ‘theory of money’ as presented in Chapter 3. For Kuruma, ‘Marx analyzes the how of money in the theory of the value form, and the why in the theory of the fetish character, whereas in the theory of the exchange process he examines the question through what’ (54). So whereas the ‘theory of exchange’ takes into consideration the role played by the commodity owner as a desiring agent, this role is abstracted from in the ‘theory of the value form’. This stance Kuruma takes against Uno, who – according to Kuruma – holds that the value form cannot be understood in abstraction from the desire for the commodity. Marx’s Theory of the Genesis of Money is Kuruma’s defense and full articulation of his position and critique of Uno, the latter of whom was largely dominant within mid twentieth century Japanese debates on the value-form.
As Lange describes it, the question really is on where the mediating function of money between two different commodities takes place. Does it follow from the practical act of exchange, or has it already taken place through the act of abstraction from the specific form of labor that was necessary to produce different use-values? (Lange 2014: 17). The following question therefore serves as a kind of anchor for the entire text: can Marx’s theory of the value-form be understood in abstraction from the want of the commodity owner? That the subject of the structure of capitalistic social form – which is always an ‘abstraction in action’ (Marx 1992: 185) – might be difficult to represent topologically at all is not broached.
Perhaps no two levels of abstraction are as flatly confused by interpreters of Marx’s discourse as the historical and the logical. Anyone familiar with this confusion will wonder what sort of genesis Kuruma has in mind. Appropriately, it is not the historical development of money in any simple sense. ‘Some have mistaken the development of form in the theory of the value form for a historical development’ (174). And yet neither does Kuruma adhere to the ‘logical’ approach either, which sees Capital arranged ‘as a Hegelian self-development of a concept’ (175). Kuruma’s position is in this sense a kind of dual-critique, against the ‘motive force’ he (somewhat gnomically) claims is at work both within the obviously misplaced historical reading (which sees Marx as making a historical argument about the origin of money out of barter), but also the ‘purely logical’ reading depicting the presentation of categories in Capital as proceeding according to a logical unfolding. ‘Instead of looking for a motive force, I think we can be satisfied with what Marx wrote at the end of the analysis of each form regarding the form’s defects and the significance of the shift to the subsequent form’, as he puts it. ‘There is no shortcut around – or beyond – the difficult analysis of the commodity’, he writes. “[W]e have no choice but to grapple with the four theories presented in the first two chapters’ (21). We have, in other words, to grapple with Marx as written. Kuruma takes this stance against the task of reconstruction, with which Uno burdens all future Marxian analysis – holding that properly Marxian analysis had to be conducted at three separated and distinct levels of abstraction: (1) the extraction and reconstruction of the purely logical, (2) a ‘middle theory’ of the stages of world capitalist development, and (3) empirical analysis of capitalism as it occurs in historically specific contexts.
Between abstracting from the desire of the commodity owner and not will likely be interpreted by readers as another version of the distinction between ‘form analysis’ and ‘an analysis of economic action’, or perhaps as another version of social-theoretical debates over appropriate theories of social form and its objective and/or subjective constitution, in particular the relation between structure and agency or the battle between ontological structuralism and ontological individualism. According to the general Marxian critical standpoint, economic theory understood as ‘bourgeois’ begins by falsely an a priori natural rationality of economic actors. This is then contrasted with Marx’s form-oriented approach, where this rationality is unveiled as determined by the dictates of a certain form-determination; namely, the imperatives of value-augmentation, pursuit of profit, etc. Fifty years after Suruma, Chris Arthur will critique of Uno from this standpoint; namely, that we must entirely abstract from owners and their proposals in deriving the forms of value at the level of abstraction of Marx’s first chapter (Arthur 2006: 33). Kuruma here would lie on the properly ‘Marxist’ side, with Uno relegated to recapitulating some bourgeois standpoint.
Following Suruma’s characterization of Uno’s position, it certainly seems questionable whether one should abandon Marx’s strict separation of the analysis of the value-form and the analysis of the actually existing behavior of commodity owners. Heinrich, for example, maintains that the form-analysis and exposition of the exchange process – where the latter takes into account the actions and decisions of commodity owners – are indeed located at two levels of abstraction. At the same time, he is ultimately critical of Marx’s inclusion of the ‘money-form’ into the analysis of the ‘theory of the value-form’ (a revision which only appears first in the popularized appendix to the first edition of 1867), since such a strict separation can no longer be maintained within the context of an altered theoretical context. As Hoff notes, this position should be distinguished from Uno’s approach, in which commodity owners play a systematic role from the beginning; i.e. starting from the simple form of value (Hoff 2017: 219).
The question of where these different levels of abstraction begin and end according to Marx’s order of presentation seems a less interesting question than the difference between two approaches to Capital as a text. While the whole terrain of Kuruma’s book is defined by the correct interpretation of Marx, Uno is very explicit in his aspiration to provide more than an exposition of Marx’s position. For Uno, Marx’s primary value is epistemological and scientific, lying with the unfinished systematic account he produces of the ‘laws’ operating within capitalism, but within capitalism as a closed system. The production of this closed system as a theoretical object – consisting of the systematic interrelation and interconnection of logical categories in Capital as a whole – is Marx’s ‘scientific’ value. Actually existing capitalism, of course, is not a closed system, so no purely capitalist society identical with its logical form has actually existed historically. Understanding capitalism as a differentiated historically actual object however requires grasping capitalism as a purely theoretical one. Uno’s ‘re-write’ of Capital – Principles of Political Economy – is written from precisely this standpoint. It eliminates from it all that pertains to its historical emergence or the supposed determinateness of its historical development.
More specifically, we know that Marx begins with the commodity because it is the most basic ‘value form’ of capital, yet – and this is central to Uno’s argument – the way he introduces labor makes it appear as if this substance of value is revealed in the relationship between two commodities. The fact that a commodity expresses its value in the use value of another commodity demonstrates logically that there is indeed some substance grounding the social commensurability of otherwise materially diverse use values. It is the ‘money form’ – not money as an empirical object – that is the necessary logical expression of this substance. Yet at this early point in the elaboration of the categories, according to Uno, one cannot definitively confirm that it is in fact labor. In other words, the category of labor and its relation to value is – from the standpoint of the unfolding of this purely logical theoretical object – prematurely introduced. For Uno, the introduction of labor is possible only within the introduction to and discussion of ‘industrial capital,’ precisely because the latter is the only form of capital – unlike merchant or interest-bearing – which has the capacity to produce all use values always already as value-objects with total and complete indifference to their function as specific use-values. That is the historically specific aspect of industrial capital that renders other forms ‘antediluvian’ (Marx 1991: 728). Industrial capital has this capacity precisely via its unique capacity for the commodification and subsumption of labor – which appears to it as a commodity ‘labor power’ – where capital subsumes, in other words, the entire ‘metabolic’ relation of human beings to nature (Marx 1976: 283). This premature introduction – from the standpoint of Uno’s purely logical reconstruction – has led to all sorts of interpretive confusion regarding the specificity of industrial capital vis a vis capital’s other forms. Whatever one makes of Uno’s approach, he aspired to be a thoroughly independent theorist, one building on but not simply recapitulating Marx’s own arguments or – perhaps more important – the political and/or phenomenological reasons for why Marx chose to present Capital in the order he did. This, it seems, is an entirely different terrain than Kuruma’s, much of who’s intellectual life revolved a rather heroic attempt at reading and interpreting Marx exactly as written, under the assumption that there might be nothing to reconstruct at all.
Despite the schemas of reproduction in Capital, Vol II and the sections on banking capital and interest-bearing capital in Vol III arguably being the sections of the book with the most contemporary relevance in the midst of the current long ‘recovery’ from the 2008 crisis, what is clear is that engagement with Capital often remains philosophically and economically enthralled with the first few chapters of the book. The obsession in English language literature on Capital – particularly of a left-philosophical variety – with re-reading the opening of Vol I will be so familiar to anyone even vaguely versed in the literature it can be difficult to avoid the topic of pathology. If Marxian or other heterodox economists like to conveniently ignore that Marx’s thought in Capital is precisely a critique of political economy, the more critical-theoretical and philosophically sophisticated and culturally-critical can hardly avoid stumbling before they try to even get out of the gate. This is, of course, partly the nature of the thing. ‘[That] every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences’, Marx warns the reader in the first edition preface, ‘to understand the first chapter, especially the section that contains the analysis of commodities, will, therefore, present the greatest difficulty’ (Marx 1976: 89). Greatest difficulty indeed. However, to steal a bit – the philosophers have only read Vol I; the point is to read all three.
Despite its intellectual-historical value, the translation of Kuruma’s book will certainly do nothing to abate this centrality granted to Vol I, yet what is crucially but often not explicit in the debate between Kuruma and Uno are more contemporary concerns surrounding what sort of text Capital is and from what standpoint it should be read. It is with this question in mind that Kuruma’s Marx’s Theory of the Genesis of Money can be most interestingly read.
12 March 2021
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- 2014 Failed Abstraction – The Problem of Uno Kozo’s Reading of Marx’s Theory of the Value Form ,” Historical Materialism 22.1
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- 1992 Capital Vol III London: Penguin.
- 2019 Karatani’s Marx Marx: Towards the Center of Possibility London: Verso.