‘An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital’ reviewed by Chris O’Kane

An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital

Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012. 240pp., $15.95 pb
ISBN 9781583672884

Reviewed by Chris O’Kane

About the reviewer

Chris O’Kane (theresonlyonechrisokane@gmail.com) is an Associate at the Institute for the …


Michael Heinrich is a leading exponent of what is known as the New German Reading of Marx which interprets the theory of value that Marx presents in Capital as a socially specific theory of impersonal social domination. He is a collaborator on the MEGA edition of Marx and Engel’s complete works and has published several philological studies of Capital. He has also authored a major theoretical work on Marx’s theory of value, The Science of Value, which is forthcoming in the Historical Materialism book series. Heinrich advocates a monetary interpretation of Marx’s theory of value in both these types of work. A few of Heinrich’s shorter pieces on specialist topics, such as ‘Engels’ Edition of the Third Volume of Capital and Marx’s Original Manuscript’ and ‘Capital in general and the structure of Marx’s Capital. New Insights from Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63’, have been translated. An Introduction to all Three Volumes of Capital is his first full-length work to appear in English.

Heinrich’s theoretical orientation and his textual methodology distinguish his introduction to Capital itself from others. To my knowledge it is the only introduction that discusses important issues of philology and translation that are vital to understanding Capital. It is also the only introduction to Capital that espouses Marx’s theory of value as a monetary theory of value. In the following review I focus on the latter and refrain from discussing many of the points where Heinrich utilizes the former.

Heinrich’s interpretation of the monetary theory of value underlies the focus and structure of An Introduction. In the first place, Heinrich uses what he calls the monetary theory of value to distinguish his interpretation of Marx from what he terms ‘traditional’ interpretations of Marx. In the second place his exposition of Capital focuses on demonstrating how the monetary theory of value unfolds across all three volumes of Capital. Heinrich also provides his own theoretical analysis which complements his interpretation of Marx by: a) pointing out the contemporary relevance of Marx’s critique of political economy and b) supplementing Marx’s theory by accounting for social phenomena, such as the state, that are not covered in Capital.

This orientation is laid out in two preliminary chapters where Heinrich situates his interpretation of Capital in relation to ‘Traditional Marxism.’ Heinrich’s discussion of ‘worldview Marxism’ is of particular importance to this distinction. The term ‘worldview Marxism,’ is used to designate the economist, determinist and teleological belief-system of thenineteenth and early twentieth century workers movement. For Heinrich ‘worldview Marxism’ ignored the critical aspect of Marx’s critique of political economy in favour of an orientation that played an ‘identity-constituting role’ (25) establishing the position of the working class and explaining ‘all problems in the simplest way imaginable.’ (25). In Heinrich’s view today’s widespread conceptions about Marx and Marxism are based on these tenets of ‘worldview Marxism.’ (26)

The interpretation of Capital that Heinrich puts forward contrasts with this traditional interpretation. His conception of capitalism as a historically specific and systematic form of impersonal domination informs Heinrich’s discussion of the object of Marx’s critique of political economy. In contrast to the historically pervasive logico-historical reading of Capital which holds that Capital describes the historical development of empirical reality, Heinrich stresses that Capital consists in a theoretical examination of the ‘essential determinates’ (31) of the capitalist mode of production in its ‘ideal average.’ (31) In opposition to those who treat Marx as a political economist, Heinrich stresses that Capital is a critique of political economy. For Heinrich Capital does not criticize the conclusions of political economists but the way the very discipline of political economy analyzes capitalism. Thus, rather than providing an alternative political economy, Heinrich argues that Marx’s critique of political economy aims to demonstrate two things: the perverse manner in which capitalism is socially constituted and reproduced at enormous social and human costs and the absurd theoretical standpoint of the discipline of political economy. Finally, Heinrich forcefully differentiates himself from dialectical characterizations of Marx. By contending that Marx only uses dialectics in the methodological presentation of Capital – in which ‘individual categories are unfolded from one another’ (37)- Heinrich distinguishes himself from Engels, Hegelian-Marxist and systematic dialectic interpretations of Capital. This position also leads Heinrich to argue that is only in volume three that Marx’s ‘ideal’ depiction of capitalism approaches concrete reality.

This distinction from ‘traditional Marxism’ is cashed out in Heinrich’s discussion of the labour theory of value. Heinrich stresses that Marx conceives of value as the unintended outgrowth of historically specific social relations. This has two important consequences for Heinrich’s analysis. In the first place he argues that value is constitutive of a structure that determines individual action, which is reproduced through these actions. (‘these relations impose a certain form of rationality to which all individuals must adhere if they wish to maintain their existence … the activity of individuals also reproduces the presupposed social relations.’ (46) This means that individuals are compelled to act as bearer’s of social relations. Capitalists function as personifications of economic categories with their actions compelled by the imperative of capitalist valorisation. Proletarians are coerced to sell their labour-power in order to survive. Capital, as self-valorising value, is thus an autonomous form of impersonal domination that compels the behaviour of individuals.

In the second place Heinrich argues, contra traditional interpretations, that Marx’s labour theory of value is not interested in proving that value corresponds to labour time. This means that Heinrich holds that Marx does not have a ‘substantialist’ theory of value, in which labour is directly embodied in the labour of products, and conceives of value as the ‘specific social character of commodity-producing labour.’ (47) As a result Marx’s explanation of value unfolds across all three volumes of Capital.

From here Heinrich turns to Capital proper where his exposition of all three volumes provides an account of how the historically specific character of capitalist social labour is constituted and reproduced. Since a detailed account of his exposition of all three volumes of Capital exceeds the limits of a book review, I focus on some of the points that make Heinrich’s excellent introduction distinct.

Due to the importance Heinrich places on money, his exegesis of Part 1 of Volume 1 is thorough. Most will do well to follow Heinrich’s advice that ‘this chapter should be read particularly closely, including by those who think they understand the theory. (11) It is the best introduction to this difficult section of Capital that I have come across. His excellent discussion of money lucidly highlights the central role it plays in Marx’s theory of value. This is outlined in his discussion of value as a real abstraction that consists in abstract labour and is realized in exchange. It also points to Heinrich’s argument that Marx’s theory of value combines production and circulation. Consequently, in Heinrich’s interpretation, money is not ‘an appendage of value … Marx’s value theory is rather a monetary theory of value’ (63). This is due to the fact that a monetary theory of value is necessary for explaining how commodities relate to each other in the act of exchange in which value is realized and how money1) functions to measure value, and 2) serves as the means of circulation of value. Money thus serves to unify production and circulation providing the means of capitalist valorisation. As later chapters point out money also plays an essential role in interest, credit, ‘fictitious capital’ and the periodic development of crises.

Heinrich’s discussion of the oft used and oft misunderstood concept of fetishism is also superb. Heinrich stresses that fetishism is not a form of false consciousness, alienation or a theory about rampant consumption. Instead he points out that Marx’s theory of fetishism is a multi-faceted theory of ‘objective’ (71) social domination in which commodities possess ‘spectral’ and ‘value-objectivity’ (72) constituted by the reification of social relations in which things become personified and function as the bearers of value. Heinrich also points out that this process of fetishism also cultivates the naturalization and hypostatization of capitalist social relations. As Heinrich stresses these multi-faceted elements of the theory of fetishism do not simply consist in commodity fetishism but also apply to money and capital and reach their completion in the Trinity Formula.

Heinrich’s exposition of the chapters on production and circulation manage to convey a large amount of technical data and clearly enumerate the distinctions between the subsets of Marx’s categories in a straightforward manner. He also does a good job of showing how these chapters relate to each other by focusing on the parts of Volume 2 that have to do with the circulation and turnover of capital.

The material on Volume 3 is bound to be controversial. It is here that Heinrich questions three shibboleths of Marxism: the transformation problem, the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and theories of the crisis-induced collapse of capitalism.  

The transformation problem is quickly dismissed. Heinrich points out that it is not a problem for the monetary theory of value. This is because this theory of value interprets price, not as something that value is transformed into, but at a lower level of abstraction in Marx’s depiction of capital at its ideal average. Therefore value does not transform into price because the two exist at two different levels of abstraction in Marx’s presentation. (148-9) As a result value does not transform into price and there is no transformation problem.

Heinrich’s criticism of the law of the tendency of rate of profit to fall is based on what he argues is Marx’s problematic assumption that total capital does not fall along with total surplus value, and Heinrich’s notion that Capital portrays a model of capitalism at its ideal average. Heinrich argues that Marx’s assumption does not account for the fact that constant capital must increase the same amount that variable capital has been reduced in relation to total surplus value. This means that if constant capital does not increase strongly enough to compensate for the reduction of variable capital, then the total capital advanced declines. This creates a declining mass of surplus value and capital making it possible for profit to rise or fall. In conjunction with the importance placed on the idea of ideal average, Heinrich provocatively concludes that ‘a long-lasting tendency for the rate of profit to fall cannot be substantiated at the general level of argumentation by Marx in Capital.’ (153)

Lastly, Heinrich goes against theories of cataclysmic crisis rooted in the tendency of the rate of profit to fall by arguing that crisis is an integral and cyclical facet of capitalism. Such a propensity for crisis is rooted in money where the dissociation of use-value and money as the independent manifestation of value form the structural preconditions for the development of crisis. Heinrich argues that these preconditions are realized in the way that unlimited productive capacities of capitalist production are contradictorily related to limited consumption. This leads to over-production and over-accumulation which sets off crises in which production stagnates, capital is devalorized, capitalists go bankrupt and workers get fired. In Heinrich’s view this dynamic eliminates the contradiction between production and consumption clearing the way for a rise in the rate of profit. In his estimation rather than signalling the cataclysmic and drawn out death pangs of capitalism, crises such as the one we are currently experiencing, are endemic periodic eruptions of capitalist business as usual.

The short chapter on the state is symptomatic of Heinrich’s efforts to supplement Marx’s critique of political economy. He rightly points out the important role the state plays in capitalism. He argues that a theory of the state is necessary to round out Marx’s critique of political economy. As he does elsewhere Heinrich opposes the ‘traditional Marxist’ account, which conceived of the state as the instrumental tool of the ruling class, with a form-determinant analysis influenced by the German state derivation debate of the 1970s. This leads Heinrich to formulate a theory of the historically specific function of the state as a neutral entity that is the guarantor of formally free laws. In this way Heinrich argues the state reinforces the relationship of exploitation and domination, which has its roots in the formal freedom of a working class compelled to sell its labour power.

On the whole Heinrich’s introduction is outstanding. The criticisms I have of it are indicative of how good it is. Although it is an introductory work, it reads like a substantial new theoretical interpretation of Capital. Consequently, a corresponding level of academic engagement and elucidation seems to be missing in Heinrich’s criticisms of ‘worldview Marxism’ or of other popular moralist or humanist interpretations of Capital. Whilst Heinrich’s references to his academic works are intended to address this issue, the fact that they are not available in English, means that they cannot be satisfactorily addressed.

The German context in which the book was written also contributes to elements that seem out of place. This is notably the case with his dig at Robert Kurz and with his comments on anti-Semitism, both of which pertain to specific German debates and may not translate well to the general reader.  

Despite these quibbles, Heinrich provide a concise, clear and exemplary introduction to Capital. Because of its theoretical orientation I would venture to say that is also the most lucid introduction to the monetary theory of value in English. In addition Heinrich’s translator, Alexander Locascio, has done valuable work correcting some important mistranslations in the standard editions of Capital. I can therefore recommend Heinrich’s Introduction to readers of all levels who are interested in Capital. Those who have never read it before can benefit from its wide-ranging introduction to Marx’s mature thought. Those who have read Capital, but avoided the value theory debates, can benefit from its excellent discussion of value. Whilst theorists rooted in Hegelian-Marxism can benefit from the way in which Heinrich shows how section one of Volume 1 relates to all three volumes of Capital. For all these reasons An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Capital is far and away the best introduction to Capital in English.

2 January 2013

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