‘Deciphering Capital’ reviewed by Pete Green

Deciphering Capital

Bookmarks, London, 2014. 336pp., £14.99 pb
ISBN 9781909026681

Reviewed by Pete Green

About the reviewer

Pete Green is an Independent Researcher and UCU Retired Member. …


Deciphering Capital is a significant contribution to debates over Marx’s critique of political economy, and especially those concerning the relationship between Marx’s method and Hegelian philosophy. As its author warns in his introduction, this is neither an introductory text nor a guide to Capital comparable to the Companions recently produced by David Harvey. Callinicos notes that in response to the recent crisis he returned to the PhD thesis on Marx’s method that he wrote back in the 1970s. That thesis forms the basis of this text, although it has obviously been extensively reworked in the light of more recent literature. Anyone unfamiliar with the debates on all this should probably not start here. That said, at its core, the book’s argument is, for this reviewer, both distinctive and persuasive.

The book proceeds via an opening chapter on ‘Composition’, a scholarly discussion of the distinct phases of Marx’s engagement with the political economy of capitalism and in particular of the successive (and unfinished) drafts of what would emerge as the three volumes of Capital and later as the Theories of Surplus-Value. It concludes with a couple of chapters on ‘Crises’ and ‘Today’ which have a much more recent origin, and demand a more extensively critical engagement than can be adequately pursued here, although I will comment on them briefly below.

The core of the book, however, contains two densely argued and lengthy chapters on method, one entitled ‘Ricardo’ and the secondHegel’, indicating the way in which Callinicos characterises Marx’s return to Hegel in the late 1850s as a resource for his critique of the then dominant Ricardian school of British political economy. Marx certainly used Hegel extensively, but this was a process of ‘philosophical cannibalisation’ (129), not an attempt at constructing the whole of the three volumes of Capital according to an Hegelian logic or conceptual schema. The author acknowledges a debt to Jacques Bidet’s (2009) work (translated as Exploring Marx’s Capital with an introduction by Callinicos), although his thesis predates Bidet’s independent explorations. Significantly, both authors share an intellectual formation marked by Althusser’s critique of historicist readings of Capital. Indeed, Callinicos has appended to this book a short conference paper that he delivered on the significance of Althusser’s ‘detour via relations’, as an alternative to the widespread emphasis on intersubjective struggles for recognition in contemporary critical theory.

The importance of this argument for Callinicos is also flagged up in the book’s introduction. There he makes the familiar point that the way in which the economic system functions serves to ‘systematically occlude’ the underlying capitalist relations of production. Less familiar is his insistence that this relationality is a double relation: the relationship of exploitation, between capital and wage-labour and the competitive relationship between capitals themselves through which ‘the imperative to accumulate is transmitted’. This argument then recurs in the discussion of the development of Marx’s argument from his more Hegelianised presentation in the Grundrisse (the manuscript of 1859) to the very different structure of Capital itself. Those who interpret Capital through the lens of the Grundrisse (both Rosdolsky and Moseley receive respectful but critical reference) claim that for Marx, competition only appears at the level of many capitals, and thus not in Volume 1, which is still governed by the concept of capital in general. Callinicos is right to argue that this distinction fails to recognise that competition also plays an ‘explanatory role at a crucial stage in the analysis in Capital, 1’ (140), in the analysis of the compulsion to expand relative surplus-value. In the Grundrisse, competition is located as simply realising the inner nature or essence of capital.

This argument supports the more general proposition, also made by Bidet and Heinrich, that those such as Backhaus, who claim that the volumes of Capital somehow involve a falling away or ‘vulgarisation’ compared to the more philosophically Hegelian earlier work, are mistaken. But the question then remains as to just what is going on in Marx’s non-systematic ‘cannibalisation’ of Hegel at different points in his development.

What is distinctive about the discussion of this highly contentious question in Deciphering Capital is that Callinicos approaches it through an account of Marx’s engagement with the great classical economist David Ricardo. He shows very persuasively that Marx, who in the 1840s had accepted a version of what can be termed radical Ricardianism, begins in the 1850s to recognise the theoretical limitations of Ricardo’s work. Whilst Ricardo is praised by Marx for his capacity for scientific abstraction, he is also criticised for his failure ‘sufficiently to differentiate the abstract from the concrete’ (97) in his labour theory of value. This gave rise to a contradiction (in summary: the contradiction between assuming both the determination of individual commodity values by labour-time and the formation of an equalised general rate of profit), which for later bourgeois economists, would be used to dismiss that dimension of Ricardo’s work. What Ricardo should have done, Marx shows, is to proceed through ‘ a number of intermediary stages’ (quoted 97).

Marx therefore invokes Hegel’s method of rising from the abstract to the concrete (as the combination of many determinations, to quote from the introduction to the Grundrisse) as a means of critiquing the methodological weaknesses of Ricardo and other classical economists. Standard discussions of these questions often proceed at this point to a detailed examination of Marx’s development of more specific (but still abstract) concepts such as the prices of production, which Marx outlines in Volume 3 of Capital, and the notorious transformation problem as posed by many critics. Callinicos evades that issue with a footnoted nod to Fred Moseley and proceeds instead to a discussion of the critical differences between Hegel’s Logic and Marx’s method in Capital. Anyone who has survived an immersion in Hegel’s Logic will have some sympathy with Callinicos’s own difficulties of presentation at the beginning of his Hegel chapter. Nevertheless two important arguments eventually emerge.

Firstly, he invokes Patrick Murray in support of his view that ‘ Marx does not follow Hegel in imagining a presupposition-less science’ (120). Murray refers to premises given by nature but Callinicos elliptically, if correctly, alludes to the historical presuppositions of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production. He notes that there remains in Capital 1 a notion of capital positing its own presuppositions, especially in the passage on ‘the silent compulsion of economic relations’ for those with nothing to sell but their own labour-power, deprived of access to the land and other means of production. However, as Marx (1976, 899-900) says, ‘it is otherwise during the historical genesis of capitalist production’ when the state and direct coercion play a decisive role in primitive accumulation.

Secondly, there is a more complex argument about a ‘fundamental structural difference between Hegel’s Logic and Marx’s Capital‘ (125). The movement in Hegel is one that Callinicos terms ‘internalisation’. The process of externalisation of Being in Hegel is merely a necessary stage en route to the ‘spiritual unity of the concept’, or in the Phenomenology, to the self-consciousness of Absolute Spirit (125). By contrast, the structure of Capital is one of progressive ‘externalisation’. This is a process in which new determinants and new configurations are introduced, which entails that the ‘threads of the inner connection get more and more lost’ (Marx 1992, 967 quoted 126).

Callinicos helps to clarify what’s at stake with an important example of what he terms ‘dosed abstraction’, which ‘involves at each stage the introduction of new content that has not presented [sic] earlier in the process’ (133). In the Grundrisse, Marx attempts to derive capital directly from money in a manner similar to the logical derivations found in Hegel. But in Part 2 of Capital 1 Marx abandons this approach for what Callinicos (here invoking both the Soviet philosopher Ilyenkov and Fredric Jameson) describes as posing a chain of problems, or in Jameson’s words ‘a series of riddles’. However, the dialectical solutions require more than a Hegelian style conceptual derivation. Rather, they demand the introduction of what Ilyenkov terms the ‘empirics’. In this case the problem of how the movement of money can generate more value is resolved by introducing the sale of labour-power as a commodity, which historically required centuries of uneven and violent development, long after the emergence of gold or silver as commodity money.

All this is very well done, and it supports the arguments that Callinicos makes in a later chapter on `Labour’, where he criticises those such as Arthur and Postone who want to conceptualise capital as a totalising and autonomous subject equivalent in some sense to Hegel’s Absolute Idea. I was less impressed by his critical comments on Banaji in the same chapter, which arise from Banaji’s attempt to broaden the scope of the category of wage-labour’. Banaji is right to argue, for example, that slave labour in the plantations of the Caribbean and the southern USA governed by competition in the world market of the 18th and 19th centuries was productive of surplus-value.

This relates tangentially to another disagreement that I have with the account of abstract labour in the preceding chapter on ‘Value’. There is a lot of good sense to be found there, not least with respect to the father of ‘value-form theory’, Isaac Rubin, whom Callinicos rightly defends for retaining the quantitative dimension of abstract labour which his more recent disciples, such as Heinrich, have abandoned. He quite correctly concludes that ‘Marx’s value theory strikes a delicate balance, neither reducing value to embodied labour nor dissolving it into exchange’ (189), although I would question the word ‘delicate’. But unlike Rubin, Callinicos slides from the concept of abstract labour to the concept of ‘socially-necessary labour time’ and back again, as if they were interchangeable. In truth, the concept of ‘abstract labour’ is deployed systematically by Marx in the opening chapters of Capital 1 (and is there inseparable from the production of commodities for exchange and the emergence of money), but makes only a very occasional appearance thereafter.

 By contrast, the operation of the law of value is about the underlying determination of prices by socially necessary labour-time. This is a complex process, subject to many historical obstacles, transformations and uneven development, which Marx barely begins to address in Volume 3. Callinicos gets closer to the mark when, in his final chapter on ‘Today’, he suggests (having resisted this conclusion in the past) that in today’s world of globalising capitals and liberalised financial markets we are seeing a return, in some respects, to the world that Marx wrote about after a long interlude of state capitalist barriers to the free flow of capital. What he might have added is that only in this period have the obstacles to the operation of the law of value globally begun to weaken or dissolve and that this is deeply interconnected with the character of the latest phase of crisis.

This leads me finally to the chapter on ‘Crises’ and his worthy attempt to develop a ‘multi-dimensional’ approach out of Marx’s scattered and often fragmentary comments on capitalist crises in the absence of the volume on the world market and crises which was never written. Callinicos generously acknowledges the comparable efforts of Ernest Mandel, but suggests that Mandel fails ‘to specify the relative causal weight of his different variables’. But Callinicos himself fails to do that except arbitrarily and arguably that requires more respect for the specificities of each historical crisis – as Marx’s own notebooks on the 1867 crisis confirm . Moreover, there is an unacknowledged tension in this chapter between a stress on what was, for Marx, a long-term tendency of the rate of profit to fall subject to counter-tendencies, and the attempt to make such a tendency directly responsible for a cyclical crisis. Callinicos rightly insists that crises must always be located as moments of a cyclical rhythm of capitalist accumulation. Yet the other phases of the cycle (especially recovery and expansionary phases) receive no systematic attention at all, and nor does the issue of long waves of capitalist development or cycles of different temporalities. As Althusser might have observed, these are not innocent omissions. Of course, one should not expect a comprehensive survey of the recent crisis in a book of this character, but given the emphasis on the ‘modernity of Capital’ (187) in the final chapter these are issues which should at the very least have been acknowledged as problems demanding further investigation.

5 December 2014


  • Bidet, Jacques 2009 Exploring Marx's Capital: Philosophical, Economic, and Political Dimensions (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books).
  • Marx, Karl 1976 Capital: Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
  • Marx, Karl 1992 Capital: Critique of Political Economy Vol. 3 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).


  1. This review encourages me to get the book. But the phrase, ‘not innocent omissions,’ left me puzzled as it suggests that Alex had an ulterior or sectarian motive in not further exploring Mandel further on crises or in selectively choosing his own explanations for them. I don’t think this is helpful, when we are trying to build unity on the left. Or am I misinterpreting you? The trouble with debates of this kind, it seems to me is that they leave the capitalists a way to escape responsibility for the disasters they cause, claiming they too are alienated, but from the results of their own handiwork. I recall during my studies of Weimar Germany coming across a statement by Hugo Stinnes, top business magnate at the time, when hyper inflation was the main symptom of Germany’s collapse into recession, ‘that we (banks and government) had to destroy part of capital in order to save the rest of it,’ (owned in the majority by him, I suspect.) Not innocent? Of course. An up to date Marxist fact based study of crises is desperately needed.

  2. The “innocent omissions” deal, I think, not with Mandel, but with the question of the long term tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Is this law of Marx “only” describing cyclical movements, or is there a long term movement towards stagnation (a situation where we are possibly now in)?

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