‘Marx’s Theory of the Genesis of Money: How, Why, and Through What Is a Commodity Money?’ by Samezo Kuruma reviewed by Bo Harvey

Reviewed by Bo Harvey

About the reviewer

Bo Harvey is a writer residing in New York City. He received an MPhil from the Centre for Research …


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


  • Arthur, Christopher J. 2006 Money and Exchange Capital & Class 90 Autumn
  • Hoff, Jan 2017 Marx Worldwide: On the Development of the International Discourse on Marx Since 1965 Chicago: Haymarket Books.
  • Lange, Elena Louise 2014 Failed Abstraction – The Problem of Uno Kozo’s Reading of Marx’s Theory of the Value Form ,” Historical Materialism 22.1
  • Marx, Karl 1976 Capital Vol I London: Penguin.
  • Marx, Karl 1992 Capital Vol II London: Penguin.
  • Marx, Karl 1992 Capital Vol III London: Penguin.
  • Walker, Gavin 2019 Karatani’s Marx Marx: Towards the Center of Possibility London: Verso.


  1. The book review often uses the term ‘commodity owner’, as do both Samezo Kuruma and Kuruma’s translator, Michael Schauerte, in the book under review – over a hundred times.

    As I’ve noted elsewhere (Furner 2018, Marx on Capitalism, pp. 207-8), Marx never used the term ‘Wareneigentümer/commodity owner’ in any piece of writing. The correct translation of the term that Marx uses, ‘Warenbesitzer’, is ‘commodity possessor’. This matters for an explanation of money, in my view, because a possessor has a will in respect of their possession that an owner need not have.

    So, I’m wondering – given the incessant misuse of ‘commodity owner’ in the Haymarket publication and my inability to read Japanese – does the Japanese translation of Das Kapital Band I make the same mistake as the Aveling/Moore and Fowkes and Ehrbar English translations in rendering ‘Warenbesitzer’ as ‘commodity owner/owner of a commodity’; or does it (and/or Kuruma) avoid the mistake, the mistake only coming in with the translation into English of Kuruma’s text?

  2. My reading of CAPITAL led me to the conclusion that Marx begins with abstraction and proceeds to the end pages with more and more historically materialist relevancy to back up the theory he starts with in the first chapter. From theory to the back up of empirical evidence. As he proves again and again M become M’ because labour produces more wealth than the market price of its labour power/time represents. Of course, labour does not own or control what it produces. The best it can do is sell its labour power for the highest price it can get for it and work toward abolishing the wage system in favour of socially owning and democratically managing the wealth it produces.

  3. I think that probably the problem is with the German original, since “Besitzer” can mean both “owner” or “possessor” or “holder” (or, more generally, the person who “has” the good or asset being talked about).

    The ordinary sense of it is, that the commodity is somebody’s property or in a person’s possession (Besitz), and that s/he therefore can trade it.

    It is true, of course, that the person trading the commodity need not be the legal owner of the commodity, only the latter’s “representative” or “agent”. And if (say) the commodity was stolen or plundered, the holder in a legal sense does not “own” it, but “possesses” it, and can trade it on that basis.

    However, for the purpose of analyzing the social form in which value is expressed in commodity trade, it is generally immaterial whether the seller or the buyer has “possession”, or, instead, “ownership” of the commodity, all that is required for the transaction is (1) that the commodity “can” be bought and sold, (2) that the transactors “want” to (or have to) trade the commodity, and (3) that they are “able” to trade it.

    As I’ve noted elsewhere, the possibilities for arranging any type of trade or deal are extremely diverse; the only operative requirement is that the trading partners agree to the terms of the arrangement, however simple or complicated it may be. It follows that, what specific role money or legal considerations have in the given arrangement, can also vary greatly.

    If Marx had needed to detail all the different forms that commercial and official property rights can take, in order to offer a complete analysis of commodity trade, he would probably never finished Capital Vol. 1 at all. But such details are actually not required for the purpose of his analysis, which only concerns the most elementary forms of commodity trade, and the most basic social requirements and social effects of that trade.

    What exactly happens to be the real or feigned motivations of the transactors in commodity trade, is irrelevant in the sense that “whatever motivations there are” for the trade, the transactors must objectively enter into a specific social relation in order for the trade to take place at all, even if this social relation is only implicit, and can be expressed only as a relation between traded things. Simultaneously buyers and sellers must cooperate to make a deal, and compete to get the best deal. Simultaneously they praise their own wares and assets, while diminishing those of competitors. Simultaneously they reveal and conceal various interests at stake.

    When he initially analyzes the forms of value emerging in commodity trade, Marx in no way provides an exhaustive description or analysis of “all” trading relations. Such an undertaking is practically almost impossible anyway, since there are so many possible variants.

    When you are building an explanatory theory, then you focus in the first instance on the most essential factors, requirements and relationships involved, because if you cannot understand those, you cannot understand all their different variants either. Marx himself made that point numerous times in his writings on political economy. You disregard for the meantime (abstract from) all sorts of details which are not relevant for the purpose. You can integrate those at a later stage.

    So, in principle it is quite possible to extend and develop Marx’s value-form analysis much further. But few Marxian scholars have got very far with it, probably because either (1) they get lost in hyper-abstract metaphysical disputations, (2) they confuse immediate reality with a theory about its most essential characteristics, or (3) they ignore the value debates in classical political economy to which Marx replied in the first chapters of his book.

    1. Sorry, but the statement that ‘the problem is with the German original’ is plain wrong. It’s wrong that ‘”Besitzer” can mean … “owner”’. A Besitzer is a possessor; owner would be Eigentümer. I would expect Japanese to distinguish these terms, too – but on that (and my original question) I’ll await the input of a scholar of Japanese.

      The rest of the post misses the point, because – in thinking of a possessor as either the agent/representative of an owner, or as having stolen from an owner – it assumes that a concept of possession presupposes a concept of ownership. This need not be the case. Two of Marx’s teachers of jurisprudence, Friedrich von Savigny and Eduward Gans, became embroiled in a dispute over the concept of possession that provides a condition of rights (e.g. interdict) as distinct from the concept of possession that is a consequence of legal property. The post focuses on the latter concept of possession, whereas the attention in Marx’s intellectual context was on the former. A reader of Das Kapital will note that the concept of ‘Warenbesitzer’ (commodity possessor) is introduced before the concept of a private property owner. So, while I don’t disagree that a theory may ‘focus in the first instance on the most essential factors’, to believe this is to have a reason to examine the concept of ‘Warenbesitzer’ (commodity possessor) that Marx uses before using the distinct concept of private property owner, which possession need not conceptually presuppose.

      1. There are German words like Eigentümer, Besitzer, Inhaber etc. which can be synonyms for the same status, but which, in various contexts (business, legal, official, informal, personal etc.) can also have a somewhat different connotation. If you don’t believe me, look up e.g. the Beolingus (https://dict.tu-chemnitz.de/), and you will see that all this is perfectly true.

        If you don’t want to believe what Germans themselves say about their own language, consider that English translators of Marx’s texts, attentive to the technical meaning of terminology, were quite happy to translate Marx’s “Warenbesitzer” as “commodity owner” the last 150 years or so.

        The point is that, for the purpose of Marx’s discussion, all that is relevant is that somebody has a commodity and is able to exchange it, and that this involves the trading parties in a specific social relation, whether they are aware of that or not.

        I fail to see the relevance of the rest of what you say, because (1) Marx’s student experience has no real bearing on what he published more than two decades later on a quite different subject, and (2) the concept of a “commodity owner” or possessor is something quite different from the concept of “private property owner”, although you could obviously say that a commodity owner/possessor could be (and most likely is) a private property owner, or that a private property owner could be a commodity owner.

        The private property does not need to be a commodity, and vice versa the commodity does not need to be private property.

        The exact difference between types of ownership and possession can be very important in commerce and fiscal politics, Marx knew that very well, but generally he used language that was sufficient to convey the point he wanted to make, and to serve the purpose of what he was writing – most certainly in the texts he published himself.

        1. Typing Besitzer into the website you recommend confirms that Eigentümer is generally translated as owner, and Besitzer is generally translated as possessor. The only exception listed is listed as [Ugs.], short for Umgangssprachlich (colloquial). But (contemporary) ‘colloquial’ uses are irrelevant, as you acknowledge when you (wrongly) claim that English translators ‘attentive to the technical meaning of terminology’ are entitled to translate Warenbesitzer as commodity owner.

          You dismiss the potential significance of a concept of possession that your posts overlook on the basis that ‘Marx’s student experience has no real bearing on what he published more than two decades later on a quite different subject’. Yet academics aged 40+ are quite able to recall concepts they encountered as undergraduates, even if they change disciplines. In this case, the concept was subject to a public intellectual controversy; and we know that Marx read the book at the heart of the controversy from a letter to his father. (There is more to say than this, but I’ve already indicated where I say it.)

          I do indeed maintain that Marx’s English translators have made a mistake that it has taken 150 years to correct – though it needn’t have taken this long if they had paid more attention to the use of ‘possesseur(s)’ at e.g. MEGA II.7 p. 46 or 65 in the French edition that Marx oversaw, where Das Kapital has ‘-besitzer’.

          I welcome any light that scholars of Japanese can shed on my original question.

          1. @Furner: you must be looking at a different Beolingus, or else one of us must be blind as a bat out of hell.

            If I look up Besitzer, it tells me that the first and primary meaning is “owner”; Besitzer can refer to Eigentümer {m}; Eigentümerin {f}; Eigner {m} [adm.]; Eignerin {f} [adm.]; Inhaber {m}; Inhaberin {f} [econ.] [jur.] It can also refer to the “proprietor”. If I now look up “owner”, the dictionary provides Eigentümer {m}; Eigentümerin {f}; Eigner {m} [adm.]; Eignerin {f} [adm.]; Inhaber {m}; Inhaberin {f} [econ.] [jur.]; Besitzer {m} [ugs.]; Besitzerin {f} [ugs.]

            So the dictionary shows clearly that the appropriate expression varies according to the context. There are legal, administrative and practical contexts to consider. Marx was also very aware of all that, and so were the translators. In the Moore/Aveling translation of Capital Vol. 1, we can read for example that: “Since every commodity, on becoming money, disappears as a commodity, it is impossible to tell from the money itself, how it got into the hands of its possessor, or what article has been changed into it. Non olet, from whatever source it may come.” The use of “possessor” in this case is used deliberately to state Marx’s point in the clearest way. Possession may be 9/10ths of the law, of course.

            I never claimed at all or believe that “possession” and “ownership” are necessarily and exactly the same thing, and nor did Marx, or the translators. What the appropriate translation is, depends on the context of what is being said. One might argue that the translators erred in preferring one term to another, but that is NOT because “Besitzer” can never mean “owner” (it can, see the Beolingus as said previously), or because “Besitzer” “primarily” means “possessor”, but because of the meaning and context of what is really being said and argued.

            Whether Marx had in mind the academic controversy he observed in his youth when writing about owners or possessors decades later, is something we do not know, and cannot prove. There is no evidence available that can settle that dispute, except that Marx might here or there have struck out “owner” and replaced it with “possessor” in the given context, to make things clearer. You can speculate about all that, but it remains a speculative hunch, an interpretation, it does not signify any scientific proof of the correct use or inappropriate use of a concept.

            Roy’s French edition of Capital Vol. 1 was published in 1872, and the first English edition (by Aveling/Moore) was published in 1886, and so Aveling/Moore very likely referred to the French edition, of which Marx recommended that it should be a source for further translations in other languages.

            If the English translators used “owners” instead of “possessors” as in the French edition, the most obvious explanation is that they considered “owners” preferable in English, and did not think that using the term “possessors” would make any significant difference to what was being claimed. That is, it would not be wrong to use the term “owners” and it would not transgress the intentions of the author.

            It is simply not true conceptually that the “possessor” has a volition which the “owner” does not or cannot have. Possessors and owners can both have wills, or lack them. You may have a radio in your possession which you borrowed from somebody else, but lack the will to turn it on, these things can happen.

            An entrepreneur may own two companies, and use the equity of one company as collateral to take out a loan, which he invests in his other company, in which case the liability is converted into an extra asset. The entrepreneur is liable for the original loan he must pay back, but meanwhile, he has also gained an additional “equity”, which he can use in turn as a collateral for another loan. In which case, the economic meaning (as distinct from the legal definition) of what is really “owned” and “possessed” becomes a bit murky. If the state bails out the entrepreneur when his debt pyramid threatens to collapse because of cashflow problems due to dwindling revenues, then part or all of the costs of the debt are transferred to the taxpayers, who then effectively finance the income of the entrepreneur, as long as it lasts: you can thus make money from debt which ends up indebting other people, legally. So I agree that the distinction between ownership and possession is important.

            Many buyers of scholarly translations tend to think of translation work as essentially imitative “copying” work of a lesser status, it merely converts the exalted thoughts of the author from one language into another.
            Thus, for example, the scientific literature register of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences never mentions the translators, transcreators, editors, correctors, proofreaders etc. who worked on the text to get it to a publishable standard.

            In fact, the translator has to go deeply into the question of what the author actually means conceptually in the given context, so as to obtain the most appropriate translation to communicate the message in another language, and possibly improve it. In that sense, translation is both a science and an art, as well as an internationalist effort. Marx knew this very well too, because he thought that the French edition actually improved on the German original text in some respects, and he thought that the improvements could be transferred to subsequent translations.

            The point I made is, that we ought to be mindful of the question of whether a slight change in wording actually makes a significant difference overall to what is being argued in the given context, or whether it is hairsplitting and reinterpretation. In some cases it may do, and in others it may not. In the case you cite, I don’t believe there is a significant difference in meaning. The will to own and the will to possess could be the same thing, or alternatively might refer to different things. If you know what I mean.

          2. In reply to the post of 16 March 2021, 8.02pm, from Jurriaan Bendien:
            You’re misinterpreting the contemporary bilingual dictionary you recommend. Where you believe the ‘primary meaning’ of Besitzer is indicated, this dictionary is indicating what Besitzer is used to mean when it is used colloquially – hence the [ugs.] – as a synonym for the different word that begins that entry: Eigentümer. The primary meaning of Besitzer (according to this dictionary) is found in the first (and only) entry where Besitzer is the very first word of the entry; namely, in the second grey box. The translation listed there is: possessor.
            Of course, I do not think this dictionary, or any bilingual dictionary, is the best resource (or even the best dictionary) to use when translating Marx. In terms of dictionaries, I prefer historical, fully German language dictionaries, such as the Grimm.
            We disagree on the following matters: that Besitzer primarily means possessor (I say yes); that when Marx uses -besitzer early in Capital Volume I it certainly denotes a possessor (I say yes); that there is evidence through the 1840s and 1850s to indicate that these uses of -besitzer continue to be shaped by a distinction between Besitzer and Eigentümer that Marx first encountered in the late 1830s (I say yes); that the Aveling/Moore translation of Capital is a resource in which scholars should have faith (I say no – it’s full of mistakes); that conceptually, a possessor has a will that an owner need not have (I say yes); and that it makes a difference to a worthwhile substantive project to distinguish between a commodity possessor and a private property owner while avoiding the term commodity owner (I say yes).
            As I have referred to the book where I defend these views with considerable argument, and simple assertions to the contrary are without interest, I see no point engaging with you further, though I welcome the input of a scholar of Japanese on my original question.

          3. @James Furner: I can respond briefly to your claims. First you said that “It’s wrong that ‘Besitzer’ can mean ’owner’. A Besitzer is a possessor; owner would be Eigentümer.”

            I replied, that this claim is false, because Besitzer can alternately mean “owner, possessor, holder or proprietor”, in different contexts. These contexts are very clearly shown in the Beolingus dictionary I referred you to; it is an online reference primarily intended as an aid for scientific Germans working a lot with English information.

            Now you say I read the dictionary wrongly, but this is also false. When you type in “Besitzer”, the Beolingus lists first the German synonyms for that word in the left column, in order of significance, and then lists the correct English translation in the right column. The reason for this layout is, that the meaning of German concepts often varies according to the context, intention, related objects or according to where the emphasis is placed.

            Thus, first of all, Besitzer “in the sense of Eigentümer” translates to “owner” in English, and this is the primary meaning, hence first in the list. Next, you get Besitzer “in the sense of Inhaber” (holder, proprietor etc.) which translates in English most easily to “possessor” (“somebody who has something in his possession, or is its holder”). Subsequently, an additional series of specific variations in the use of the word are listed for particular contexts.

            If I look up “Besitzer” in the DWDS, ( https://www.dwds.de/wb/Besitzer ) it tells me the term means “Jemand der etwa besitzt, im täglichen Leben gewöhnlich gleichbedeutend mit Eigentümer.” That is the PRIMARY meaning.

            You subsequently assert, that Marx’s German text should be interpreted with the aid of the 19th century Deutsche Wörterbuch compiled by the brothers Grimm. Yet you give no proof, that the literal 19th century meanings of “ownership” and “possession” are in any way conceptually different from the 21st century meanings. In fact, there is no significant difference, and there has not been any for centuries. All you can say is, that today we have all sorts of property, assets and possessions which simply did not exist 150 years ago, and that we may also relate to these new things in a different way, creating new nuances of meaning.

            It is a truism that the Moore/Aveling English translation of Capital Vol. 1 contains “errors”. Which specific provable errors did Moore/Aveling make, that altered the meaning of Marx’s use of the concepts of “ownership” and “possession”, in such a way that the original intention was badly misunderstood? You don’t deal with that anywhere.

            If the edition by Moore and Aveling (who knew Marx personally) was so bad, why did Friedrich Engels approve the translation at all, and why was it used for more than a hundred years, by top scholars? The first (1886) English edition of Capital was based on the third (1883) German edition which already incorporated alterations introduced in the French edition.

            You suggest, that because your own book was published, this must indicate that you are accepted by scholars as making “a valid argument”. Yet the fact that you had the book published, itself does not prove that your argument is correct.

            It is easy for a new translation to improve on an old one. But that does not mean, that the old translation should be dismissed. The old translation retains its own importance. Many translation issues were solved by the old edition, possibly in discussion with the author(s). They can be reference points for a new edition, regardless of whether old solutions are actually used again, or whether better alternatives are used. Moreover, a new translation (e.g. the Fowkes edition) may also be imperfect, and contain new faults, which did not occur in the old translation.

      2. I only studied Japanese for one year, but generally Shoji means “possession” and Shoyū refers to “ownership”.

        Yet, in different contexts, each of these terms can signify the other, so that Shoji may alternately refer to “ownership”, and Shoyū can alternately mean “possession”.

        Other meanings of these two terms include ideas such as: “having the dominion over something”, “proprietorship” and “the belongings of somebody”. So actually, the semantic situation in Japanese is not all that different from the German one.

        One part of the linguistic explanation (other than grammatical structures etc.) for this is that possession and ownership are intrinsically *relational* conditions/activities, which can exist in various quantitative and qualitative *gradations* depending on the context.

        For example, the legal *owner* of a capital good may not be the one who has real *command* over it, but whoever commands it, may not be the one who *manages* it, and the managers may not be the ones who actually *use* the capital good.

        The word “Kuruma” (車) means “car” (or “wheels”) ands the first edition of Michael Schauerte’s book shows a series of four pictures of Samezo Kuruma, as a reader, a debater, a thinker and (the last one) the smiling tea drinker with his cup of tea.

        1. For the interested reader on the “Kuruma and possession/ownership issue” raised by James Furner, I’ve just noticed that there exists a wikipedia article on “Japanese possessives” which comments in more detail on relevant meanings, syntax and grammar. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_possessives

          In “Marxism and the Crisis of Development in
          Prewar Japan” (Princeton, 1986), Germaine A. Hoston
          stated that “In the early 1920s, the translation and
          interpretation of major Marxist works accelerated, and Japanese Marxists made the first tentative steps in applying Marxist categories of analysis to Japan.” (p. 42). In 1927-1928, Takabatake Motoyuki published a five-volume Japanese edition of Marx’s Capital.

          Hoston’s book shows how the early Japanese reception of Marx’s theories was often very different from interpretations in the West, but just how much of that was due to the Japanese translations, I do not know. Probably a much bigger influence was simply that in the 1920s the situation of Japanese society was very different from Western Europe.

  4. May I begin by correcting a reference to me. On p. 33 of my The New Dialectic there is no mention of Uno. Indeed he is not cited in the book at all. This is because my preferred reference was his follower Tom Sekine. He had privately published in the early eighties a systematic reading of Uno through Hegel’s logic. This was The Dialectic of Capital: A Study of the Inner Logic of Capitalism. It has just been republished by Brill. (I am writing a review of it.)
    However, it is perfectly true that I engaged with Uno on the questions raised in Harvey’s review of Kuruma. But this was in the journal Capital & Class (‘Money and Exchange’ in Capital & Class 90 Autumn 2006). In that I am especially concerned with Uno’s criticism of Marx’s ‘expanded form of value’. In Marx’s example the commodity considered is ‘20 yards of linen’; it is this whose value is first expressed in ‘one coat’ and subsequently in definite amounts of other commodities, all equivalents of each other as the value of that same 20 yards of linen. By contrast Uno argues that the amounts of linen specified should vary on each occasion because it has to be the value equivalent of the specific amount of each other commodity desired by the linen owner. (Uno, Principles of Political Economy, 1980: 6) But the desires of the linen owner are of no consequence to Marx until he deals with the process of exchange. First he wants to find a way for a definite item, say the ‘20 yards of linen’, to express its value, and he considers various ways to do this. In this context it makes no sense to vary the amounts of linen because these different amounts would have different values. Of course, nothing hangs on choosing ‘20 yards’ as the example. But it is important to notice in this context that ‘linen’ in general cannot have a value; a value expression is necessarily quantitative. Moreover since the purpose is to specify the value of the ‘20 yards of linen’ the amount of the equivalent has nothing to do with satisfying ‘desire’, because that is oriented to use-value.
    So I think Uno was wrong to muddle Marx’s first two chapters. However, I think his ‘reconstruction’ is an interesting one; and the postponement of any reference to ‘labour’, until after the capital form is thematised, is right on the button.

    Chris Arthur

    1. Dr. Arthur-

      Thank you for noting the correct citation. The references must have been confused in my original draft sent to the editors, so for that I apologize. You are of course correct that the comment on Uno is from your article in Capital & Class and the reference has been changed accordingly.

      I would though – if you wouldn’t mind – be curious as to which passage on p. 6 in the Principles of Political Economy you had in mind regarding your point that, “Uno argues that the amounts of linen specified should vary on each occasion because it has to be the value equivalent of the specific amount of each other commodity desired by the linen owner” – unless that is more of a summary of his argument in sections 13 & 14. Admittedly I’ve always been confused by aspects of that section, mostly because – if we grant that Uno is not concerned with interpreting Marx, nor simply reconstructing or recapitulating him (and perhaps this is too much to grant…) – I’m not sure we can fault his own opening for not proceeding according to the methodological choices Marx made in his own order of presentation. I think it definitely is clear though and I agree with you that in Marx’s Capital the specific desire of a commodity owner/possessor is certainly abstracted from in those sections of Vol I.

      In any case, many thanks for the comment. I’ve long been interested in your work and I’m eager to read your review of the Sekine.

      many thanks,

      1. Thank you Bo. My remark was indeed an attempt to summarise sections 12 to 14. However, Marx is politely criticised in notes 1 and 2 to page 6. Note 2 in particular makes my point.

  5. One question is, whether it really makes sense to discuss and analyze the evolution of a “form”, while omitting any statement about what it is actually a “form” of.

    Ordinarily, in dialectical theory, a “form” corresponds to a “content” or substance, and a “form” does not exist without a content which the form expresses in a particular way. Form and content are inseparable in that sense. It seems that prof. Uno effectively argues, that there is first of all a “form”, which undergoes a certain development, and then acquires a “content”.

    Actually, what Marx intended in the context, was probably quite close to Uno’s version of the narrative, because Marx wrote in the Resultate manuscript:

    “The individual commodity viewed as the product, the actual elementary component of capital that has been generated and reproduced, differs then from the individual commodity with which we began, and which we regarded as an autonomous article, as the precondition [Voraussetzung] of capital formation.” – Karl Marx, “Results of the immediate process of production”, in: Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, Penguin 1976, p. 966 (translation corrected).

    Subsequently, Marx noted about the first chapter of Capital Vol. 1:

    “What I proceed from is the simplest social form in which the product of labour presents itself in contemporary society, and this is the “commodity.” This I analyse, initially in the form in which it appears. Here I find that on the one hand in its natural form it is a thing for use, alias a use-value; on the other hand, a bearer of exchange-value, and from this point of view it is itself an “exchange-value.” Further analysis of the latter shows me that exchange-value is merely a “form of appearance,” an independent way of presenting the value contained in the commodity, and then I start on the analysis of the latter… the concrete social form of the product of labour, the “commodity,” is on the one hand, use-value and on the other, “value,” not exchange value, since the mere form of appearance is not its own content.” — Karl Marx, Notes on Adolph Wagner’s “Lehrbuch der politischen Ökonomie, 1879.

    In other words, and contrary to what many Marxist academics have claimed, Marx’s initial discussion of commodity trade in Capital Vol. 1 doesn’t necessarily presuppose that the commodities are “capitalistically produced commodities”. The coat and the linen etc. could in principle have been produced by self-employed artisans. But Marx is not necessarily presupposing “simple commodity production either” (although simple commodity exchange obviously presupposes simple commodity production as precondition – Engels was aware of that).

    What Marx does presuppose, is that commodities are ordinarily products of labour available for exchange, and on that basis he can distinguish between, and clarify, the form, substance and magnitude of the value of commodities (in contrast to Uno, who brings in labour as the substance of value only later, in his “doctrine of production”).

    Uno realized that Marx’s arguments about commodity trade cannot prove that labour is the substance of the value of commodities. But in fact Uno’s own doctrine of production cannot provide such a proof either, at most one might argue, that Uno makes the idea more credible. There exists no logical proof for the substance or essence of economic value, however defined. All we can appeal to is the evidence of experience.

  6. Chris Arthur refers to his Capital and Class article but not to Sekine’s subsequent defence in the same journal of the Uno position in which he indicts Arthur’s excessive Hegelianism. On the specific question of Uno versus Kuruma on introducing the seller’s wants into chapter two of Capital the review by Warner pays insufficient attention to Kuruma’s stress on levels of abstraction and that Marx introduces the historical question in chapter 1 only after having established the necessity of money for a generalised system of commodity exchange in chapter 1. Arthur presumably agrees with Kuruma on that. But what concerns me is that Arthur reiterates his agreement with the Unoists that Marx should not have introduced the category of labour in chapter one. On this to my mind more fundamental issue I object to the approach shared by Arthur and Sekine which misses the whole point of Marx’s derivation of money as a form of value and the material incarnation of social Labour in general. More on that when I review Eleanor Lange’s new book for this site which the editors have agreed.

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