Customer Reviews: A Companion to Marx's Capital
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on April 14, 2010
David Harvey is not just one of the world's foremost social and economic geographers, but is also one of the world's foremost Marx interpreters. "A Companion to Marx's Capital" is the book form of a series of lectures on Capital, Volume 1, that he has annually held with his college students and which has famously been made available publicly in video format (he is currently fundraising for volume 2). Because of this, the book is not just only about Volume 1, but it is also written to be as accessible to a general public as possible. Moreover, it seeks only to explain, not to defend. Sometimes, this does lead to trouble - Harvey does not entirely seem to grasp that to explain the way a certain figure thought about a topic also means you have to show what arguments he himself would have used to defend his perspective, and when Harvey tries to substitute his own arguments for those of Marx, they are often not the more convincing for it. The book is somewhat weak on making the entirety seem convincing for that reason, but that is something easily solved by referring to his excellent other work, "The Limits to Capital" (The Limits to Capital (New and updated edition).

That said, the book is a systematic, clear and engaging explanation of the work, built on a chapter-by-chapter approach. Harvey recommends, especially for the difficult and abstract first chapters, to have a copy of Marx's "Capital", Vol. 1, with you while reading it - the Penguin edition is generally recommended (Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics)). This is justified also because Marx himself, as Harvey shows, builds up his argument from chapter to chapter, both in terms of introducing ever new and more complicated concepts building on the old, and in terms of showing bit by bit what the contradictions in capitalism are and how capitalism unfolds as a result. Marx's approach is thoroughly steeped in a dynamic analysis which sees movement as the result of a clash of contradictions, in the tradition of Hegel in particular. Harvey does a deft job of explaining what this is and how it works out in the course of Marx's book.

There are of course points where one can have disagreements with Harvey's explanations, and I think at a few points this is warranted. He fails entirely to point out the actual analytical benefits of a value theory as opposed to just a price theory in his discussion of the chapter on money. Because the 'labor theory of value' is an absolutely essential and inalienable part of Marxist analysis, this is a serious problem. He does not explain the relation between industrial and financial capital very well in the chapter on capital and labor power (which he does do in his other major work). Finally, he does not give Marx's statements on the relation between 'historical and moral factors' as well as productivity to value and its flows the full attention it deserves, although admittedly that would reach fairly far for what is to be a basic introduction.

Nonetheless, overall the book is an excellent companion to the work of Marx, if one actually uses it in that way. Although I am very familiar with Marx's books, I have found that placing the two side by side and tracing the arguments as Harvey presents them through the chapters indeed allows for clear and easy insight into the difficult and often poorly written material to an extent that has helped me newly understand it too. This is no mean feat, and it will make the task of actually getting down and reading Capital, often seen as an impossible burden, all the lighter and easier to do. For this, the book is much recommended and a great contribution to popularizing Marx & Engels' enduring insights into society. For the deeper theoretical work, there are many others available.
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on April 3, 2011
For more than twenty years David Harvey has taught a profoundly popular course on reading Marx's Capital, Volume I, at the City University of New York. This book is a published version of those lectures and the clearest possible introduction to the subject.

Marx's Capital is one of the classics of world literature, one of the "Great Books of the Western World." It is much discussed but seldom read, even among the ostensibly educated among us. The reason it is seldom read is not because it is particularly difficult, it isn't. It is just too long. 1000 pages of sometimes tedious, sometimes obscure, and often repetitive explication and analysis of the 19th century capitalist mode of production is more than most readers want to know about the subject, and so it remains unread.

It's too bad it isn't read because, as Harvey points out, global capitalism today is far closer to what Marx described than was the 19th century capitalism at the time his book was published in 1867. The events of the last 20 or 30 years have made Marx more relevant than he has ever been and understanding his project is the road to understand global capitalism today. This Companion to Marx's Capital makes the book accessible to anyone with a real interest in the subject.

I was attracted to the book from a review in the London Review of Books (3 Feb 2011), in which Harvey's CNY lecture series was mentioned along with the fact that the lectures are available free, on-line. I ordered the Companion, and a copy of Capital itself and listened to all thirteen of the lectures. I read the Companion along with the lecture series (although I admit I did not read all of the Chapters in Capital, only some of them). I came away from it all with an appreciation for Marx's genius and an understanding as to why Capital is among the hundred or so "Great Books of the Western World" (in the University of Chicago/Encyclopedia Britannica set, among other places). Marx was eminently prescient as to where capitalism was going -- it is now (2011) where he thought it was then (1867)! I recommend the Companion, with or without listening to the lecture series, and with or without reading Capital along with it. It will stand by itself.
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on August 20, 2010
Although well into it, I have not yet finished my study of this wonderful exposition of and commentary on vol. 1 of Marx's CAPITAL, which have indeed motivated me to restudy the three volumes of Marx's great masterpiece. Among the many good things in Harvey's book are his various discussions of dialectic, especially in his chapter 7, "What Technology Reveals". In this chapter Harvey unpacks Marx's footnote 4 in chapter 15 of Cap., v. 1. I can do no better than quote Harvey. Harvey sees the second part of this footnote as constituting an important statement that requires elaboration--and here you will see how helpful Harvey can be in helping us to approach and gain the work of Marx. He cites Marx's statement: "Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations." (It seems that one cannot gloss over anything in Marx: one must pay close attention to everything.) Here is part of Harvey's commentary on this quotation.

"Marx here links in one sentence six identifiable conceptual elements. There is, first of all, technology. There is the relation to nature. There is the actual process of production and then, in rather shadowy form, the production and reproduction of daily life. There are social relations and mental conceptions. These elements are plainly not static but in motion, linked through 'processes of production' that guide human evolution. The only element he doesn't explicitly describe in production terms is the relation to nature. Obviously, the relation to nature has been evolving over time. The idea that nature is also something continuously in the course of being produced in part through human action has also been long-standing; in its Marxist version (outlined in chapter 7), it is best represented in my colleague Neil Smith's book UNEVEN DEVELOPMENT, where capitalist processes of production of nature and of space are explicitly theorized.

"How, then, are we to construe the relationships between these six conceptual elements? Though his language is suggestive, Marx leaves the question open, which is unfortunate since it leaves lots of space for all manner of interpretations. Marx is often depicted, by both friends and foes alike, as a technological determinist, who thinks changes in the productive forces dictate the course of human history, including the evolution of social relations, mental conceptions, the relation to nature and the like....

"I do not share this interpretation. I find it inconsistent with Marx's dialectical method (dismissed by analytic philosophers such as Cohen as rubbish). Marx generally eschews causal language (I defy you to find much of it in CAPITAL). In this footnote, he does not say technology 'causes' or 'determines," but that technology 'reveals' or, in another translation, 'discloses' the relation to nature. To be sure, Marx pays a lot of attention to the study of technologies (including organizational forms), but this does not warrant treating them as leading agents in human evolution. What Marx is saying (and plenty of people will disagree with me on this) is that technologies and organizational forms INTERNALIZE a certain relation to nature as well as to mental conceptions and social relations, daily life and labor processes. By virtue of this internalization, the study of technologies and organizational forms is bound to 'reveal' or 'disclose' a great deal about all the other elements. Conversely, all these other elements internalize something of what technology is about. A detailed study of daily life under capitalism will, for example, 'reveal' a great deal about our relation to nature, technologies, social relations, mental conceptions and the labor processes of production. Similarly. the study of our contemporary relation to nature cannot go very far without examining the nature of our social relations, our production systems, our mental conceptions of the world, the technologies deployed and how daily life is conducted. All these elements constitute a totality, and we have to understand how the mutual interactions between them work."

Thus, Harvey. This is a rich book.
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on December 19, 2011
If you're looking for a book that will serve as an excellent companion for your reading of Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics), then this book is what you want. It's a clear, engaging text by an author who is perhaps the greatest living Marxist scholar. It fulfills the role of a companion book almost perfectly.

Capital is a book that people should be reading right now. Whether or not you consider yourself to be a Marxist, it is critical that academics, students, and laymen start to question the basics of the mainstream narrative of global capitalism. Capital may have been written 150 years ago, but its content is frighteningly relevant. On a purely practical level, Harvey's companion will help you overcome some of the seemingly anachronistic areas of Capital, such as the detailed analyses of the history of 19th century class struggle, Marx's account of primitive accumulation at the end of Vol. 1, and Marx's reliance on the standard British industrial factory of his time as a model of capitalist social relations. Throughout the companion, Harvey explains Marx's various reasons for using the pieces of evidence that he did when constructing his arguments, thus also demonstrating that Marx's arguments are still perfectly applicable in the modern world, even if there have been significant historical and economic changes since Marx's time. By doing this, Harvey not only proves the continued relevance of Capital, but also eliminates and illusions of anachronicity from the reader's experience with Capital.

Harvey provides many insightful observations about the operation of the Labor Theory of Value, class conflict, and exploitation in the modern global economy, which helps the reader further understand that Marx's critique is a critique of the capitalism we experience as much as it is a critique of the capitalism of his own era. Part of the Marxian understanding of capitalism is that capital constantly operates according to certain laws and contradictions that are mandated by capitalist social relations. One of the biggest obstacles I personally find when arguing about capitalism with my peers is the perception that the social relations and contradictions that Marx identified only applied to a certain period of capitalist development, not the capitalism in its entirety. Harvey helps readers of Capital realize that this isn't the case at all, and that there are no signs that capitalism is ever going to overcome its own contradictions by itself.

Aside from these more tangible benefits, I also find "Harvey's" Marxism to be a productive perspective to explore Marx's work through. Although Harvey claims that he is trying to help the reader "read Capital on Marx's own terms," it is obviously true that the reader is inevitably receiving Harvey's own Marxism (which Harvey admits to at various points) in the companion. Harvey's interpretation of Capital heavily emphasizes dialectics as an approach to social science. Harvey is skeptical of anybody who sees the totality of social relations as "caused" by some particular factor, and he is critical of people who try to describe Marx's writings through causal language. In turn, Harvey proposes that there are seven different spheres that are inherent to any society, and that the qualities of one sphere depend on the qualities of the others. These sphere include the mode of political organization, the relation to nature, the society's phenomenology of time, culture, and others. The ways in which these spheres interact are not obvious for all to see. Painstaking research and observation is required in order to properly comprehend these relations. Harvey never passes up a chance to show how Marx knew this as well, and as a result, Harvey forges a tight group of arguments in favor for his own interpretations of Marxian social theory and economics.

When I say that Harvey's lens works well for beginning readers of Marx, I make this claim because Marx vis-à-vis Harvey is very much open to input from multiple perspectives. In reading both Capital and this companion, I found myself referring back to German phenomenology, political theory, and the history of colonialism. This is probably because I have a halfway decent background in these subjects. However, Harvey frequently invites the reader to keep historical, anthropological, philosophical, cultural, and economic perspectives in mind when reading Capital, and to grapple with the question of how these different perspectives are inherently interrelated. His open-minded reading of Capital helped bring out my own sense of intellectual curiosity.

As a quick note, Id' also like to say that this companion isn't just for first-time readers of Capital (although that's precisely what I was when reading it!) This companion, as far as I can tell, contains the best collection of arguments in favor of Harvey's own heavily dialectical interpretation of Marx and his criticisms of rival interpretations. Then again, I'm still reading The Limits to Capital (New and updated edition), so I may be wrong here.
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on March 11, 2014
I chose this rating because my admiration on Harvey intellectual authority on Marx's Capital. He skillfully identified the major themes and explore the key points proposing a actual interpretation which open a new field of reflection to understand the present time.
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on December 31, 2012
Engrossing analysis of Marx's Capital. While it takes some real concentration, you get the feeling that you are coming to understand what Marx was driving at. Whether or not one goes on to read the Marx's original work (as David Harvey is trying to get the reader to do) you will have learned something important and relevant to our times.
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on April 24, 2014
It was just that; something to keep you grounded and provide guidance while trying to get through this massive opus. I spent almost a year reading these two side-by-side, a chapter at a time. Harvey's advice about the first three chapters being the hardest is absolutely true, and it does get easier after that. Keep at it.
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on July 9, 2014
If you want to understand the brilliance of Karl Marx beyond The Communist Manifesto, you must understand his theoretical masterpiece Das Kapital ("Capital: A Critique of Political Economy). And David Harvey breaks down Marx's work in spectacular fashion. Capital was first published in the 1860s but Harvey skillfully demonstrates how Marx laid out the necessary conditions, contingent circumstances, the myriad assumptions and inevitable contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. Want to know why employment opportunities are decreasing as the income gap increases? Want to know why WalMart is an inevitable feature of American society in the 21st century? Read Capital. And read Harvey's brilliant explication of Capital to help you better understand the genius of Karl Marx.
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on June 26, 2014
I joined an adult group reading Marx's Capital. Marx's magnum opus is not a book you can read by yourself and fully understand alone. We are taught much about Karl Marx which is flat wrong. I supplemented that group with this book.

David Harvey is an excellent guide to Marx and his Capital. Harvey doesn't write from a polemical or ideological bent. (He gives something to everyone). Harvey is clear, concise and to the point.

Since being freed from the Soviet Gulag in 1991, Karl Marx has gradually ascended into the Classic Western Tradition where he rightfully belongs. You may love capitalism and want to save it, or you may want to reform it, or you might even want to overturn it. Or you may be trying to make your mind up about it. In any case you will want to read Marx's Capital and you will want David Harvey as a companion.
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on June 23, 2013
Harvey encourages the reader to actually read Marx rather than depend on another's interpretation. With that, he goes on to furnish the reader with a roadmap which, in my case, proves to be indispensable. Very informative and helpful.
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