Why Read Capital At All? (Where almost all introductions to Capital go wrong)

by Jehu

I have been reading this essay by a writer at Unity and Struggle on chapter 1 of Capital, but I am not sure what his/her intent was. The writer asserts that if you don’t understand Marx’s concept of labor in its philosophical dimensions you cannot grasp his concept of the human being and therefore his notion of freedom and liberation.

The commodity is therefore not a thing, but a social relation. It is the relation between the labor for use and the labor for exchange. For Marx social relations are relations of labor and the commodity is the form of labor in capitalist society. Marx argues that the dual character of the commodity is also, at the same time, the dual character of labor in capitalist society.

However, before we get into the dual character of labor, the commodified form of labor, it is worth taking a step back for a moment and looking at what Marx exactly means by “labor.” This is critical because if you don’t understand his concept of labor in its philosophical dimensions you cannot grasp Marx’s concept of the human being and therefore his notion of freedom and liberation.”

warwick-harveyThe problem with this approach to Capital, as I see it, is not with any of the points the author makes in the essay, but with her/his project itself. Grasping Marx’s concept of the human being, freedom and liberation might be entirely appropriate for a course at a university, but, frankly, Marx’s concept of human beings, freedom and liberation is not the least bit relevant for a worker at Wal-Mart.

Marx wrote Capital as a finished work that can be understood on its own terms and does not require us to trace the formation of his ideas. If he had believed that we needed to understand his notion of human beings, freedom or liberation, it seems to me he had the responsibility to include this stuff in his first chapter. In fact, Marx did not include it in his first chapter except insofar as it concerns the topic he has set before him: the nature of the capitalist mode of production.

For our purposes, it seems to me the question should be why read it? What use does Capital have in trying to make sense about events going on around us? Can it tell us why wages continue to stagnate? Can it tell us why unemployment remains at levels that are historically unprecedented for the post-war period? Can Capital explain why, without apparent warning, the world financial system collapsed only six years ago? Can it explain why Washington seems completely indifferent to the needs of the vast majority of its citizens and only concerned with policies that advance the interest of the very wealthy.

A lot of commentators on Marx’s Capital find the need to trace all of this stuff back to Marx’s philosophical roots. Marx, on the other hand, saw no need whatsoever to show the connection of his ideas to his Hegelian philosophical background, etc. According to Marx, everything we needed to understand about human being, freedom and liberation could be found by examining the commodity. So, naturally, he begins with the commodity.

One good statement David Harvey makes in his introduction to Capital is to bring our attention to how ubiquitous the commodity is,   how insignificant and dull it is. Most of our daily life is spent either producing, consuming or exchanging commodities — but never questioning them. The commodity, however, contains the whole DNA of the capitalist mode of production.

If labor was so important in Marx’s argument, as the writer asserts, why didn’t Marx begin with labor? Simple: because he was only interested in labor insofar as labor entered into the value of the commodity. Marx has no interest in labor in general in Capital — neither in labor as self-activity nor as an expression of the necessary interchange between mankind and nature. The labor he is concerned with is that specific labor which imparts value to the commodity.

This is important because Marx makes several assertions about this particular sort of value producing labor that are often ignored, even altogether dismissed, by most of the people who write popular introductions to Capital.

  • First, we cannot see it directly, but only in the form of the exchange ratio one commodity has with another.
  • Second, this labor is not the labor of any individual, but only of the community of producers as a whole.
  • Third, this particular value producing labor is strictly limited in its duration to the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities.
  • Fourth, the duration of this value producing labor diminishes as the development of the productivity of the labor increases.
  • Fifth, labor cannot produce value unless it also produces a socially useful object that is exchange for another commodity in the market.

These five points are important to grasp, because almost all interpretations of labor theory today violates one or more of them. If you go down the list it is possible to see how one argument or another of some Marxist directly ignores one of the five.

To give just three examples:

1. Is all the labor we do today necessary?


First, there is a lot of talk about the idea of unproductive labor among Marxist academics and great effort spent to nail this category down empirically. This is labor that produces no value or surplus value. As such this sort of labor implies the possibility of a massive reduction in hours of labor with no reduction in the material subsistence of the working class. In direct contradiction to Marx’s argument in capital, the labor theorist, Simon Mohun, seems to think he can identify the sort of labor that produces value and differentiate this labor from labor that does not produce value. In a 2013 paper, Mohun writes:

“Conservation of aggregate value added through the circulation phase of the circuit of capital entails that there is no alteration of aggregate value added in the flows that transform a stock of money capital (M) into a stock of productive capital (C: inputs of labor-power and non-labor means of production), and in the flows that transform a stock of commodity capital (C’: outputs) into a stock of money capital (M’). Hence any laboring activity involved in these “metamorphoses” of capital (M – C and C’ – M’) adds no new value, and is unproductive. Only the wage-labor involved in the transformation of productive capital into commodity capital is productive.”

Thus, Mohun seems to have no problem taking a state issued table of job classifications and deciding for himself where in the labor force value is produced and what particular labor produces no value at all. This directly violates the assumption that value is produced by the whole community of producers, not individuals.

2. Has production on the basis of exchange value collapsed?

Second, many Marxist have been confused about how to treat inconvertible fiat currency after 1971, when the gold standard finally collapsed. Marx predicted capitalism would lead to a breakdown or collapse in production on the basis of exchange value. Is this what occurred in 1971? Some labor theorists, like Fred Moseley, answer, “No.” They argue that the value of commodities can be determined without employing a commodity money — using only inconvertible fiat currency. This argument means the collapse of the gold standard was not the breakdown of production on the basis of exchange value. Says Moseley,

“I argued in Moseley (2005a) that money does not have to be a commodity in Marx’s theory, even in its function of measure of value. The measure of value does not itself have to possess value. Inconvertible paper money (not backed by gold in any way) can also function as the measure of value. In order to function as the measure of value, a particular thing must be accepted by commodity-owners as the general equivalent, i.e. as directly exchangeable with all other commodities.

This clearly violates the assumption that the value of one commodity can only appear in the material form of some definite quantity of another commodity. Moseley seems to have no problem ignoring Marx’s argument that the value of a commodity can only be expressed as exchange value.

3. Is capitalism capable of endless expansion?

Finally, almost all Marxists today assume capitalism can continue on much as it is without collapse unless it is overthrown by the working class. This does not mean these Marxists think there won’t be crises; they just think capitalism will adapt to its crises and need not collapse. An argument along these lines has been made by Michael Heinrich. In his view, and in contradiction to labor theory, abstract value-producing labor has no socially necessary limit:

“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. 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.”

This idea violates the basic assumption that the labor that produces value is subject to strict limits. It also violates the assumption that ‘socially necessary labor time’ is constantly diminished by improvement in the productivity of labor. If both of these assumptions hold, the impact capitalism has on value production, by constantly improving labor productivity, has to end in the complete self-negation of capital. By progressively diminishing the need for labor, capital progressively undermines its own material foundation.

Almost all the stuff I read about capitalism and communism assert that communism is only possible if the working class overthrows capital. There is, in fact, nothing in Marx’s theory to support this claim. If left unchecked, capitalism has to collapse of its own internal contradictions. The reason for this is already introduced in the first chapter of Capital in the form of socially necessary labor time: value producing labor is not an unbounded duration of  labor time, but is limited only to the socially necessary labor time that is required for production of commodities.

In chapter 1 of Capital, Marx asserted the duration of this value producing labor is inversely correlated with the development of the productivity of labor. Yet, if you question some of these academics passing for labor theorists, few if any believe capitalism collapses on its own. David Harvey, for instance, never mentions that Marx’s definition of value as socially necessary labor time implies a limit on the capitalist mode of production, nor does the German labor theorist, Michael Heinrich, nor is it ever mentioned on the site, Kapitalism101 nor in Harry Cleaver’s introduction to Capital,  Reading Capital Politically.

So far as I can tell, the only writers who seem to see some limit to capital are Moishe Postone and Robert Kurz — and even here, this notion is an ambiguous one, where the end of capital may not be synonymous with the emergence of communism, but with the emergence of some not very well defined barbarism.

What is established in the first chapter of Capital is that value producing labor has a material limit that imposes a material limit on the lifespan of the capitalist mode of production. Thus, no matter the outcome of the class struggle, this mode of production is doomed. Our attention, therefore, when reading Capital should be directed at identifying the vulnerabilities inherent in the mode of production and the hidden material (not just political) opportunities in a crisis. Most of all, what practical steps we can fight for to accelerate the demise of the mode of production and the emergence of communism.

We need an introduction to Capital written for activists directly engaged with the capitalists and the fascist state.