‘Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Logic: A Reexamination’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

and (eds)
Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Logic: A Reexamination

Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2014. 336pp., €119,00 / $154.00 hb
ISBN 9789004209527

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


A highly significant work of scholarship which provides 12 papers on the comparison between Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Logic, this book offers a broad examination of whether value – and capital seen as self-valorising value – can be understood as an instance of the Hegelian Notion/Concept. In keeping with this, a series of subsidiary questions opens up: if one argues that Marx’s dialectical unfurling of capital has an essentially Hegelian character, what does that mean for the relationship between idealism and materialism more broadly? How can one reconcile this with Marx’s well known comment about extracting the rational kernel and setting dialectic on its feet? What is the rationale for the methodological points of departure in these texts – Hegel’s pure being and Marx’s positing of the commodity form as use and exchange? How can one use the Hegelian dialectic to throw new light on the transformation problem in Capital? For the current reviewer it is difficult to imagine a set of more intriguing questions.

The book opens with ‘Hegel, Marx and the Comprehension of Capitalism’ by the always excellent Tony Smith. Smith suggests that ‘Hegel’s “Absolute” may not be the Grand-Puppet Master that Marx takes it to be’ (25) – for if one examines the fundamentally Hegelian approach, it refers to anyone’s thinking and thought in as much as it is able to ‘cognize the immanent soul of [the] material and … concede to it its right to its own proper life’ (Hegel cited 25) And, asks Smith, isn’t this exactly Marx’s approach when he provides a ‘systematic reconstruction in thought of the essential determinations of capitalism’? (25) Smith’s Hegel, then, is more of a materialist than Marx will allow (especially in his earlier writings). At the same time Smith recognises there are certain problems with simply and uncritically grafting Hegel’s logical categories on to Marx’ unfurling of the commodity dialectic. Smith points out that Marx’ beginning is more mediate and concrete than Hegel’s – whereas pure being is a category bereft of content, the commodity form has the dual and conflicting character of use and exchange embedded in it from the outset. In this respect, argues Smith, the opening of Marx’ magnum opus has more in common with the second section of Hegel’s Logic – the Logic of Essence.

Nevertheless Smith believes that the structure of capital can be said to be ‘isomorphic with the structure of Hegel’s Absolute’ (23), in terms of the universality, particularity and individuality triad – or capital as that which differentiates itself from itself while simultaneously positing its overall identity – constituted by the process of self-valorisation. But Smith qualifies this with what is a telling but provocative caveat – ‘everything functions as if capital were an Absolute Subject … but if the form of sociality were to be replaced, the supposedly absolute powers of capital would absolutely dissipate.’ (34) It seems to me Smith could have further bolstered his case here by linking this insight to his earlier discussion about Hegelian finitude (capital, on one level, must be finite in the Hegelian sense of the word because it can only ever exist delimited by labour). In any event this provides the grist for Smith’s perspicuous theory of capital as pseudo-subject.

The final part of the essay is devoted to a consideration of the one and the many as particularity in Hegel, and whether these categories have any specific bearing on the relation of capital in general to the many particular capitals of production. Smith concludes that they don’t. I feel he is mistaken in this. The final essay in this collection, ‘Dialectics of Labour and Value-Form in Marx’s Capital’ by Mario L. Robles-Baez, offers up a dialectical relation between the one capital as a whole and the many individual units which is very much in the Hegelian mould. Robles-Baez’ essay is precise – it traces the way in which Marx utilizes the Hegelian logic of the One and the Many in the Grundrisse and the third volume of Capital, and how this entails subsuming capital under two levels of abstraction: appearance and essence.

Essence refers to ‘the negative reciprocal reflectedness of many capitals with one another through which they themselves, in as much as they are concretely different from one another, are posited as capitals essentially identical to one another; that is existing values that valorise themselves …This is their identity within their difference.’ (310) Appearance refers to ‘the reciprocal relation of the many capitals among themselves whereby, as capitals that are different in many concrete aspects, they oppose and compete with other in order to obtain their greatest valorisation. This, by contrast, is their difference within their identity.’ (310) Robles-Baez is able to show – through the Hegelian categories of repulsion and attraction, quality and quantity, one and many – that the contradiction between essence and appearance is mediated in a more concrete form, ‘as capital in its existence in-and-for-itself’. (310)

This ‘in and for itself’ is further expressed in the general rate of profit or, as Christopher Arthur puts it, ‘the general rate of profit is the moment where total social capital establishes its unity with itself’. (Cited 311) This is the point at which production prices can now be posited. Because the dialectical interpenetration of the One and the Many has been manifested in the general rate of profit ‘which expresses the positedness of the different industrial capitals as socially identical capitals’ (311) – the monetary form of the commodities produced manifests this rate (at this level of abstraction); these ‘prices of production’, then – which express commodities as capitalised – can now be said to have been determined by capital at a more concrete stage (competition) of value transformation. Robles-Baez’ determination of this is challenging but worthwhile, for it demonstrates the necessity of a Hegelian reading of Capital and the movement from the abstract to the concrete with regards to production prices, and the transformation problem more broadly.

Christopher Arthur’s essay, ‘Marx, Hegel and the Value-Form’, provides a type of Hegelian topography of the first chapter of Capital – a detailed examination of the way Hegelian logical categories materialise in and through Marx’ unfurling of the commodity form in that famous first chapter. Though this article demonstrates the very highest theoretical acumen, its author wears his expertise lightly, and he writes in a lucid style which is illuminated by example. So, for instance, when he writes about Hegelian pure quantity and its transition into quantum in the development of exchange value, he elucidates this with a simple example which nevertheless denotes the necessity of the shift: ‘A baker does not sell ‘bread’ but a loaf of such and such a weight. Only thus does sale become determinate’. (273) As a whole the essay is a meticulous unfolding of the Hegelian underpinnings of the first chapter, though naturally these are derived organically and not schematically (Arthur begins with the pure being which is posited in the abstraction of exchange whereby the bodily characteristics of the commodity are lost, but then he moves to the category of ‘quality’).

The movement Arthur traces culminates in the positing of the general form, and again Hegelian logic is paramount (in this case the categories ‘force’ and ‘expression’). Arthur shows how alternative units of value (commodities) lack the ability to ‘to exclude value from being value as essence’ (280); the forms B,C,D all provide alternative ways to express A but no single one of them is able to stand for the unitary essence they all express. However if this is reversed dialectically, so that the B, C, D … ‘solicit a value-expression of A … this allows A to posit itself as their unitary equivalent.’ (281) ‘A’ thus becomes a self-posited substance – ‘instead of positing them as its equivalents it posits itself as theirs’ (282); hence the general form is active value as opposed to something construed as a mere passive measure (Most commentators understand it in terms of the latter). Arthur points out that the general form is not yet money, however, for the particular guise commodity A will take has not yet been determined. Here Arthur contends it is impossible to derive the necessity by which one commodity (gold) is selected above all others – in this there is perhaps the echo of Hegel’s derision toward Krug and his famous pen.

Like Robles-Baez, Fred Moseley, in his perceptive piece ‘The Universal and the Particulars in Logic and Capital’, seeks to show that the how the two levels of abstraction – capital in general and the many capitals manifested in competition – were influenced by Hegel’s Logic, specifically the categories of abstract universality and particularity. He goes on to argue, by referencing the Grundrisse, that credit-capital can be construed as an instance of Hegelian individuality or concrete universality for it ‘can be invested in any industry in the economy, and in that sense is general; but it also belongs to particular individuals and is a real particular form of capital.’ (127) Mosely points out that Marx’ dialectical development of the universal and particular underpins his theory of surplus value – ‘surplus value as such (the total surplus-value of capital as such) at the level of abstraction of capital in general … later … the particular forms and individual parts of surplus-value at the level of abstraction of competition.’ (133) This allows Moseley to show that, in Marx, universality yields particularity in a logical development of the Hegelian type; the error of Ricardo was the failure to meet this demand – for the latter is unable to ‘define surplus value as distinct from its particular forms, profit, rent, interest.’ (Marx cited 134)

Patrick Murray’s useful and comprehensive essay – `The Secret of Capital’s Self-Valorisation “Laid Bare”: How Hegel Helped Marx to Overturn Ricardo’s Theory of Profit’ – expands on Mosley’s outline of the critique of Ricardo, and the manner in which Ricardo postulates dogmatically a general rate of profit without unfolding it from an earlier, more abstract moment, i.e. a theory of value. Similarly, argues Murray, it is the isolation of phenomena at the level of appearance – the level at which one encounters the ‘empirical’ particulars of capital seeking realisation in the realm of exchange – it is the absolutisation of such particulars which sets the possibility for the errors of much classical political economy, but also generates a broader reification (though Murray doesn’t use that term). So, the cost-price of a commodity ‘by lumping constant and variable capital together, erases that essential distinction’ (208); to immediacy, therefore, it appears that the ‘profit to the total capital’ (207) must arise in circulation, and its ultimate basis in labour power is rendered invisible. In the same vein, ‘That capital appears to valorise itself naturally arises out of the way that surplus-value necessarily appears, that is as profit.’ (205) (naturally this aligns with Smith’s conception of capital as pseudo-subject).

Roberto Fineschi’s, ‘On Hegel’s Methodological Legacy in Marx’, is a fine piece, the product of extensive research and examination, for Fineschi has meticulously traced the development of Marx’ analysis from 1857 to the period shortly before the first publication of Capital, Vol 1: from the Grundrisse, to the economic manuscripts of 1861-63 and 1863-65. Themes include Marx’ treatment of capital in general, the manner in which capital ‘posits its own presuppositions’ (another recurrent theme in the essays on offer here), and the appearance for the first time of a dedicated examination of credit and fictitious capital, which allowed the ‘generic “dialectical” outline of the concept of capital (U-P-S)’ (162) which had pervaded the analysis from the beginning to be crystallised in a more concrete and systematic form. Geert Reuten’s essay, `An Outline of the Systematic Dialectical Method’, is a little more of a mixed bag. By no means uninteresting in its considerations, and sometimes philosophically astute, in its emphasis on the need for immanent critique, or its articulation of appearance and essence, for instance; nevertheless Reuten creates considerable confusion with some bizarre diagrams (a graph with axes labelled ‘empirical-phenomena’ and ‘abstract determinations’ respectively, for example, where a violent squiggle is supposed to somehow capture the relationship between the two), and some untenable claims – ‘the systematic order and conceptual progression of SD [Systematic Dialectics] has nothing whatsoever with the historical emergence of institutions and processes’. (249)  

But the weakest piece in the collection is provided by Juan Inigo Carrera and his ‘Dialectics on Its Feet, or the Form of the Consciousness of the Working Class as Historical Subject.’ Ostensibly this resurrects the rather stale caveat which a good few of the essays in this collection have decisively refuted – that Marx’ materialism stands in an irreconcilable opposition to Hegel’s idealism. While Hegel begins from the idealistic abstraction of ‘pure knowledge’, Marx begins from something opposed to this, something called ‘the simplest real concrete’, which, we are told, means ‘confronting’ the commodity ‘not as a category or a concept’(73) – because neither ‘simple’ nor ‘real’ nor ‘concrete’ are concepts, you understand. Such vulgar appreciations are supplemented by a confusion regarding elementary concepts – labour power is said to be ‘transformed into living labour’ (80) for example, though labour power is itself an attribute of living persons; these elemental confusions are then lodged in broader, free-flowing tirades of nonsense expressed in the type of esoteric vernacular designed to make your eyes water. Here, for instance, is Carrera describing Hegel’s Science of Logic: ‘[It] is the social objectification (a text) of the process in which a consciousness, historically determined by its social being, produces itself on the basis of stopping at the appearance of being an abstract self-consciousness, which in its own movement engenders the real.’ (85) ‘Which “Rational Kernel”? Which “Mystical Shell? A Contribution to the Debate on the Connection between Hegel’s Logic and Marx’s Capital’ by Gaston Caligaris and Guido Starosta rather unfortunately chooses to build upon Carrera’s car crash of an essay, but – mercifully – in terms which are for the most part intelligible. The article contains an interesting discussion on the infinite and the finite via Lucio Colletti but remains hampered by Carrera’s thesis – for again we are told that Marx, as opposed to Hegel, begins from a ‘concrete material object’ (107). And yet, if either of the authors went to their local supermarkets and asked to purchase ‘the commodity form’ I suspect the cashier would be more than a little perplexed and they would end up leaving the store empty-handed.

Elsewhere Igor Hanzel provides a consideration of ‘Hegel’s logical-categorical reconstruction of the movement of scientific knowledge from Schein via Wesen to Erscheinung’ (214) and an analysis of how Marx draws on this. No easy task for Hanzel exposes expertly very precise differences between concepts which are often treated as identical; ‘Schein’ and ‘Erscheinung’, for example, are often merged in the broader category of ‘appearance’ while ‘Grund’ in Hegel can allude to both ‘Ground’ and ‘Reason’. Riccardo Bellofiore’s very welcome essay, `Lost in Translation: The Marx-Hegel Connection’, offers a useful overview and comparison of the theorists in this collection, before going on to give a fluid description of the development of value in the context of commodity fetishism, highlighting certain gothic and religious literary aspects in the presentation therein. Finally Mark Meaney’s ‘Capital Breeds: Interest Bearing Capital as Purely Abstract Form’ is an interesting attempt to demonstrate the organic unity of capital in Marx’ exposition, one which once more utilizes the logic of the notion/concept, with interest bearing capital encompassing the Hegelian infinite ‘or capital that relates itself to itself as capital.’ (49)

In summary, Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Logic: A Reexamination is not only an important work which, broadly speaking, evinces the highest standards of scholarship, but is as well a vital one; for it demonstrates quite conclusively that Marxism most truly comes alive in and through the Hegelian connection.

19 July 2014

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