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Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics) Paperback – May 5, 1992
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Text: English, German (translation)
From the Inside Flap
Capital, one of Marx's major and most influential works, was the product of thirty years close study of the capitalist mode of production in England, the most advanced industrial society of his day. This new translation of Volume One, the only volume to be completed and edited by Marx himself, avoids some of the mistakes that have marred earlier versions and seeks to do justice to the literary qualities of the work. The introduction is by Ernest Mandel, author of Late Capitalism, one of the only comprehensive attempts to develop the theoretical legacy of Capital. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
There are two main criticisms of Marx that are very often leveled against Capital and against Marx's thought in general that I think are invalid and I would like to get them out of the way at the beginning of my review.
The first criticism often leveled against Marx is based on the idea that the failure of the various "socialist" states, the various economic difficulties those states faced while they existed, as well as the atrocities that were often committed in Marx's name, constitute irrefutable evidence of the falsity of Marx's main ideas. The point I would make in this regard is that the title of Marx's book is Capital and for good reason. Marx's book is about the functioning and the dynamics of an economy dominated by capital, or the private ownership of the means of production, and the social relations that are inherent to such a system. In other words, Marx's book is about capitalism not about socialism. His analysis of the dynamics of a capitalist society and economy has to be assessed on its own terms and should not be assessed based on the problems faced by, or the relative inefficiencies of, the socialist economies. In my opinion there is much in Marx's analysis of capitalism that is both valid, and often brilliant, and which does not in anyway rely for its validity on the possibility or desirability of a fully planned or state run economy. The fact that such state run economies were prone to serious economic problems, and ultimate failure, does not, therefore, invalidate Marx's analysis of capitalism.
The second major objection that is often raised against Marx is that he underestimated capitalisms ability and inherent tendency to raise everyone's standard of living including that of the laborers. People often argue that Marx's thought is largely a reaction against conditions that were prevalent at the time he was writing and during the early phases of the industrial revolution but were not inherent to capitalism per se. They point out that the standard of living for most laborers is much higher today than it was in Marx's time and that the conditions, therefore, for Marx's negative views of capitalism have largely disappeared. We can ignore, for the time being, the question as to whether these improving conditions are the result of an inherent tendency of capitalism or whether they are the result of direct political action in the form of labor laws, welfare programs, and forms of social security.
But there are a couple of points I would like to make about this criticism. First, I think Marx would disagree in principle with measuring the effects of capitalism purely in terms of the purchasing power of the lower classes. Marx believed that a social system based on the private ownership of the means of production was inherently exploitative and alienating (and it is possible for the rate of exploitation to rise even as real wages increase). The capital-labor relation in Marx's view is a social relation of dominance which is obscured under capitalism and by bourgeois economics which view the capital-labor relation as being based on free exchange in the labor market. It must always be remembered that Marx's book is not simply an economic treatise in the narrow sense, but is equally a book of sociology, and many of the problems that capitalism raises should be considered sociological as opposed to purely economic.
The second point I would make is that Marx believes there is a general tendency in the capitalist mode of production towards crisis and eventual breakdown. This tendency is obscured by certain counter-tendencies but it is still present. Marx does not believe that the periodic crises of capitalism are simply strange anomalies but are inherent within a system that is based on the production and expansion of surplus value, or exchange value, as opposed to use value (for more on this see Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist system by Henryk Grossmann). Neither of these problems are solved simply by increasing the purchasing power of the lower classes.
I do not believe Marx should be immune to criticism. His works and ideas should be picked apart and criticized to exactly the same degree as anyone else's. But these two criticisms are not really criticisms, they are ultimately just excuses for dismissing Marx out of hand, and I do not believe Marx should be dismissed out of hand.
Capital is a difficult book. One cannot hope to fully understand it after a single reading. Part of this has to do with Marx's method. Marx attempts to move from the form that wealth takes in capitalist society (an immense mass of commodities) through the value form and the social relations that lie behind the value form in an effort to analyze the specific nature of capitalist society and its dynamics. The value form, for example, assumes that commodities are produced for exchange so one of the earliest sections in Capital is an analysis of the exchange relationship in which commodities are exchanged for money and then money is again exchanged for commodities (C-M-C) a process that mediates the exchange of use-values for consumption which Marx calls the circulation of commodities. The exchange relationship can also assume another form in which money is exchanged for commodities and then exchanged again for more money (M-C-M') a process that valorizes value (adds surplus value which requires the capital-labor relation) and which Marx calls the circulation of capital.
What is important in this movement is the way that Marx begins from a simple category (the commodity) analyzes its nature (the commodity divides up into use-value and exchange-value) deduces the social relations lying behind this form (exchange value assumes production by socially isolated units which then exchange their products) and is then able to deduce further social relations (the circulation of capital requires the capital-labor relation in order to valorize value). Marx's goal is fundamentally different from that of a modern Neoclassical economist. The modern Neoclassical economist, when analyzing the exchange relationship, is fundamentally interested in figuring out precisely what determines the quantitative exchange ratios between commodities and believes that the answer lies in supply and demand. Marx, on the other hand, is interested in determining the social relations that lie behind the commodity form in the first place and in determining the factors which determine supply and demand themselves and which give rise to the specific dynamic (or laws of motion for lack of a better term) of capitalist society (Marx would not necessarily deny that supply and demand determine exchange ratios but he would go onto ask: what determines supply? and would answer: the productive forces of society or socially necessary labor time (they are inversely related); and then again: what determines the productive forces of society and socially necessary labor time? answer: the competition between capitalists over the distribution of surplus-value which drives them to develop labor saving production techniques in order to undercut their competitors, etc.). Marx is interested in analyzing what he takes to be the deeper forces that underlie the surface phenomena of supply and demand and relative prices. Supply and demand curves as they are ordinarily presented in economics textbooks are point in time measurements which take a number of exogenous factors as given. Marx is less interested in determining what the point in time quantitative exchange ratios between commodities are and more interested in analyzing the movements which give rise to changes in the exogenous factors that are taken as given in supply and demand analysis (the factors which lead to shifts in the supply and demand schedules).
This is no doubt an inadequate sketch of Marx's method and goals in Capital. It is inadequate due to limitations in my own understanding and due to limitations of space. But I believe many criticisms of Marx are based on a failure to understand the distinctiveness of his method and his goals (at least when measured against the methods and goals of modern Neoclassical economics). So it is definitely worthwhile keeping all of this in mind when approaching Marx if your goal is to reach an honest assessment of the value (or lack thereof) of his contribution to economic thought.
I loved reading Chapter 10, On the Working Day. That's where we learn for sure that time is money, and the struggle for limits to the working day are the crux of the class struggle (still going on with hassles over vacation and sick leave, for example). It is the worker's time that gives value to the commodity, and the endless accumulation of commodities is what capitalism is about. I also liked Chapter 15, on Machinery and Large-Scale Industry (in large part because technological history is something that interests me anyhow). And all of Part 8, "So-Called Primitive Accumulation," was fascinating. That is where we see the ultimate contradiction of Capitalism, its dependence on perpetually accumulating more, compounded annually, forever. Such endless growth comes largely from dispossessing others of what they already had, and endless exploitation of the earth's resources, ad infinitum.
David Harvey, who has taught Capital Volume 1 at City University of New York for many years said that he has considered teaching the course backwards, beginning at the end with Part 8 so that the students would have the historical context before going into the technical parts. I think I could also recommend that anyone undertaking Capital to read Part 8 first. It will surprise you what a really good writer Marx was, when he wanted to be.
It takes a lot of guts to launch into a thousand page tome, written 150 years ago on one of the driest, most dismal of all subjects: political economy. It is for that reason that I used the free on-line lecture series by David Harvey from his course on Marx at City University of New York, and used it as my guide as I went through the book. Without such a guide, I probably wouldn't have tackled it but with the guide it is more than worth the effort. Buy the Penguin Classics edition of Capital and download the lectures, one at a time and when you are finished you will be far better educated than you are now!