In April, 2013, Monthly Review published an essay, Crisis Theory, the Law of the Tendency of the Profit Rate to Fall, and Marx’s Studies in the 1870s, by the labor theorist, Michael Heinrich, asserting that “In Marx’s work, no final presentation of his theory of crisis can be found. Monthly Review praised the essay, stating:
It is now clear that Marx never ceased to develop his thinking on the phenomena of crises in capitalism, and never ceased to discard earlier formulations; for example, at the end of his life he was focused on questions of credit and crisis. Monthly Review rarely presents its readers with discussions of economic theory at a relatively high degree of abstraction; this, however, is such an occasion. We trust that the author’s exemplary clarity will permit ready access to readers with any degree of interest in Marx’s theory; for those who wish to become familiar with the conceptual outline of Marx’s work, we cannot do better than to recommend the author’s An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital
In that essay, Michael Heinrich states:
In the so-called “Fragment on Machines,” one finds an outline of a theory of capitalist collapse. With the increasing application of science and technology in the capitalist production process, “the immediate labour performed by man himself” is no longer important, but rather “the appropriation of his own general productive power,” which leads Marx to a sweeping conclusion: “As soon as labour in its immediate form has ceased to be the great source of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and therefore exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the masses has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few has ceased to be the condition for the development of the general powers of the human head. As a result, production based upon exchange value collapses.”5
These lines have often been quoted, but without regard for how insufficiently secure the categorical foundations of the Grundrisse are. The distinction between concrete and abstract labor, which Marx refers to in Capital as “crucial to an understanding of political economy,” is not at all present in the Grundrisse.6 And in Capital, “labor in the immediate form” is also not the source of wealth. The sources of material wealth are concrete, useful labor and nature. The social substance of wealth or value in capitalism is abstract labor, whereby it does not matter whether this abstract labor can be traced back to labor-power expended in the process of production, or to the transfer of value of used means of production. If abstract labor remains the substance of value, then it is not clear why labor time can no longer be its intrinsic measure, and it’s not clear why “production based on exchange value” should necessarily collapse. When, for example, Hardt and Negri argue that labor is no longer the measure of value, they do not really refer to the value theory of Capital but to the unclear statements of the Grundrisse.7
Marx indirectly addresses this set of problems from the Grundrisse in the first volume of Capital, when dealing with the concept of relative surplus-value: there Marx makes fun of the notion that the determination of value by labor is called into question by the fact that in capitalist production, the point is to reduce the labor time required for the production of an individual commodity—and that was the argument upon which the theory of collapse in the Grundrisse was based.8
In fact, a closer examination of this statement will show Heinrich is engaged in a fundamental revision of Marx’s argument in Capital and the Grundrisse for the express purpose of removing from labor theory both the idea of a final collapse of capitalism based on the inner laws of the mode of production and his law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This is serious piece of academic malpractice and should be condemned.
Let’s walk through how Marx begins his discussion of the capitalist mode of production in Section 1 of Chapter 1 of Capital. Volume 1 and then compare it to Heinrich’s presentation of the same argument.