David Harvey's Companion to Marx's Capital
In this excerpt from A Companion to Marx's Capital: The Complete Edition, David Harvey discusses Marx's method and urges readers to "hang on like crazy" through the first three, arduous, chapters of Capital, Volume I.
For nearly forty years, David Harvey has written and lectured on Capital, becoming one of the world’s foremost Marx scholars. Based on his recent lectures, this current volume—finally bringing together his guides to volumes I, II and much of III—presents this depth of learning to a broader audience, guiding first-time readers through a fascinating and deeply rewarding text. A Companion to Marx’s Capital offers fresh, original, and sometimes critical interpretations of a book that changed the course of history and, as Harvey intimates, may do so again.
Here we present an excerpt from the Introduction.
Marx’s aim in Capital is to understand how capitalism works by way of a critique of political economy. He knows this is going to be an enormous undertaking. In order to get that project under way, he has to develop a conceptual apparatus that will help him understand all the complexity of capitalism, and in one of his introductions he explains how he plans to go about that. “The method of presentation,” he writes in the postface to the second edition, “must differ in form from that of inquiry”:
The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development and to track down their inner connection. Only after this work has been done can the real movement be appropriately presented. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject-matter [i.e., the capitalist mode of production] is now reflected back in the ideas, then it may appear as if we have before us an a priori construction. (102)
Marx’s method of inquiry starts with everything that exists—with reality as it’s experienced, as well as with all available descriptions of that experience by political economists, philosophers, novelists and the like. He subjects that material to a rigorous criticism in order to discover some simple but powerful concepts that illuminate the way reality works. This is what he calls the method of descent—we proceed from the immediate reality around us, looking ever deeper for the concepts fundamental to that reality. Equipped with those fundamental concepts, we can begin working back to the surface—the method of ascent—and discover how deceiving the world of appearances can be. From this vantage, we are in a position to interpret that world in radically different terms.
In general, Marx starts with the surface appearance to find the deep concepts. In Capital, however, he begins by presenting the foundational concepts, conclusions he’s already derived by employing his method of inquiry. He simply lays out his concepts in the opening chapters, directly and in rapid succession, in a way that indeed makes them look like a priori, even arbitrary, constructions. So, on first read, it is not unusual to wonder: where on earth are all these ideas and concepts coming from? Why is he using them in the way he does? Half the time you have no idea what he is talking about. But as you move on through the book, it becomes clear how these concepts indeed illuminate our world. After a while, concepts like value and fetishism become meaningful.
Yet we only fully understand how these concepts work by the end of the book! Now, that’s an unfamiliar, even peculiar, strategy. We are far more familiar with an approach that builds the argument brick by brick. With Marx, the argument is more onion-like. Maybe this metaphor is an unfortunate one, because, as someone once pointed out to me, when you dissect an onion, it reduces you to tears. Marx starts from the outside of the onion, moving through layers of external reality to reach its center, the conceptual core. Then he grows the argument outward again, coming back to the surface through the various layers of theory. The true power of the argument only becomes clear when, having returned to the realm of experience, we find ourselves equipped with an entirely new framework of knowledge for understanding and interpreting that experience. By then, Marx has also revealed a great deal about what makes capitalism grow in the way it does. In this way, concepts that at first seem abstract and a priori become ever richer and more meaningful; Marx expands the range of his concepts as he goes on. This is different from the brick-by-brick approach, and it is not easy to adapt to. What this means in practice is that you have to hang on like crazy, particularly through the first three chapters, without really knowing what is going on, until you can get a better sense of it all when you get further on in the text. Only then can you begin to see how these concepts are working.
Marx’s starting point is the concept of the commodity. At first blush this seems a somewhat arbitrary if not strange place to start. When thinking of Marx, phrases like the Manifesto’s “all history is the history of class struggle” come to mind. So why doesn’t Capital start with class struggle? In fact it takes about three hundred pages before there’s more than a hint of that, which may frustrate those looking for an immediate guide to action. Why doesn’t Marx start with money? Actually, in his preparatory investigations, he wanted to start there, but after further study he concluded that money needed to be explained rather than assumed. Why doesn’t he start with labor, another concept with which he is deeply associated? Why does he start with the commodity? Interestingly, Marx’s preparatory writings indicate that there was a long period, about twenty or thirty years, during which he struggled with the question of where to begin. The method of descent brought him to the concept of the commodity, but Marx makes no attempt to explain that choice, nor does he bother to argue for its legitimacy. He just starts with the commodity, and that is that.
It’s crucial to understand that he is constructing an argument on the basis of an already determined conclusion. This makes for a cryptic beginning to his whole argument, and the temptation for the reader is to be either so bemused or irritated by the arbitrariness of it all as to give up by chapter 3. So Marx is quite correct to point out that the start of Capital is particularly arduous. My initial task is, therefore, to guide you through the first three chapters, at least; it does get plainer sailing after that.
I have suggested, however, that the conceptual apparatus Marx here constructs is meant to deal not just with the first volume of Capital but with his analysis as a whole. And there are, of course, three volumes of Capital that have come down to us, so if you really want to understand the capitalist mode of production, you have unfortunately to read all three volumes. Volume I is just one perspective. But, even worse, the three volumes of Capital are only about an eighth (if that) of what he had in mind. Here is what he wrote in a preparatory text called the Grundrisse, wherein he sets out various designs for Capital. I have the ambition, he says at one point, to deal with the following:
(1) The general, abstract determinants which obtain in more or less all forms of society . . . (2) The categories which make up the inner structure of bourgeois society and on which the fundamental classes rest. Capital, wage labour, landed property. Their interrelation. Town and country. The three great social classes. Exchange between them. Circulation. Credit system (private). (3) Concentration of bourgeois society in the form of the state. Viewed in relation to itself. The ‘unproductive’ classes. Taxes. State debt. Public credit. The population. The colonies. Emigration. (4) The international relation of production. International division of labour. International exchange. Export and import. Rate of exchange. (5) The world market and crises. (104)
Marx never came near to finishing this project. In fact, he took up few of these topics in any systematic way or in any detail. And many of them—like the credit system and finance, colonial activities, the state, international relations and the world market and crises—are absolutely crucial for our understanding of capitalism. There are hints in his voluminous writings as to how to deal with many of these topics, how best to understand the state, civil society, immigration, currency exchanges and the like. And it is possible, as I tried to show in my own Limits to Capital, to pin some of the fragments he left us with on these topics together in ways that make sense. But it’s important to recognize that the conceptual apparatus presented at the beginning of Capital bears the burden of laying the foundation for this momentous but incomplete project.
Volume I, you will see, explores the capitalist mode of production from the standpoint of production, not of the market, not of global trade, but the standpoint of production alone. Volume II (never completed) takes the perspective of exchange relations, while Volume III (also incomplete) concentrates initially on crisis formation as a product of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, then also takes up issues of distribution of the surplus in the forms of interest, return on finance capital, rent on land, profit on merchant capital, taxes and the like. So there is a lot missing from the analysis of Volume I, but there is certainly enough there to furnish your understanding of how the capitalist mode of production actually works.
This brings us back to Marx’s method. One of the most important things to glean from a careful study of Volume I is how Marx’s method works. I personally think this is just as important as the propositions he derives about how capitalism works, because once you have learned the method and become both practiced in its execution and confident in its power, then you can use it to understand almost anything. This method derives, of course, from dialectics, which is, as he points out in the preface already cited, a method of inquiry “that had not previously been applied to economic subjects” (104). He further discusses this dialectical method in the postface to the second edition. While his ideas derive from Hegel, Marx’s “dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it” (102). Hence derives the notorious claim that Marx inverted Hegel’s dialectics and stood it right side up, on its feet.
There are ways in which, we’ll find, this is not exactly true. Marx revolutionized the dialectical method; he didn’t simply invert it. “I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago,” he says, referring to his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Plainly, that critique was a foundational moment in which Marx redefined his relationship to the Hegelian dialectic. He objects to the way in which the mystified form of the dialectic as purveyed by Hegel became the fashion in Germany in the 1830s and 1840s, and he set out to reform it so that it could take account of “every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion.” Marx had, therefore, to reconfigure dialectics so that it could grasp the “transient aspect” of a society as well. Dialectics has to, in short, be able to understand and represent processes of motion, change and transformation. Such a dialectical method “does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary” (102–3), precisely because it goes to the heart of what social transformations, both actual and potential, are about.
What Marx is talking about here is his intention to reinvent the dialectical method to take account of the unfolding and dynamic relations between elements within a capitalist system. He intends to do so in such a way as to capture fluidity and motion because he is, as we will see, incredibly impressed with the mutability and dynamics of capitalism. This goes against the reputation that invariably precedes Marx, depicting him as some sort of fixed and immovable structuralist thinker. Capital, however, reveals a Marx who is always talking about movement and the motion—the processes—of, for example, the circulation of capital. So reading Marx on his own terms requires that you grapple with what it is he means by “dialectics.”
The problem here is, however, that Marx never wrote a tract on dialectics, and he never explicated his dialectical method (although there are, as we shall see, plenty of hints here and there). So we have an apparent paradox. To understand Marx’s dialectical method, you have to read Capital, because that is the source for its actual practice; but in order to understand Capital you have to understand Marx’s dialectical method. A careful reading of Capital gradually yields a sense of how his method works, and the more you read, the better you’ll understand Capital as a book.
One of the curious things about our educational system, I would note, is that the better trained you are in a discipline, the less used to dialectical method you’re likely to be. In fact, young children are very dialectical; they see everything in motion, in contradictions and transformations. We have to put an immense effort into training kids out of being good dialecticians. Marx wants to recover the intuitive power of the dialectical method and put it to work in understanding how everything is in process, everything is in motion. He doesn’t simply talk about labor; he talks about the labor process. Capital is not a thing, but rather a process that exists only in motion. When circulation stops, value disappears and the whole system comes tumbling down. Consider what happened in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, in New York City: everything came to a standstill. Planes stopped flying, bridges and roads closed. After about three days, everybody realized that capitalism would collapse if things didn’t get moving again. So suddenly, Mayor Giuliani and President Bush are pleading the public to get out the credit cards and go shopping, go back to Broadway, patronize the restaurants. Bush even appeared in a TV ad for the airline industry encouraging Americans to start flying again.
Capitalism is nothing if it is not on the move. Marx is incredibly appreciative of that, and he sets out to evoke the transformative dynamism of capital. That’s why it is so very strange that he’s oft en depicted as a static thinker who reduces capitalism to a structural configuration. No, what Marx seeks out in Capital is a conceptual apparatus, a deep structure, that explains the way in which motion is actually instantiated within a capitalist mode of production. Consequently, many of his concepts are formulated around relations rather than stand-alone principles; they are about transformative activity.
So getting to know and appreciate the dialectical method of Capital is essential to understanding Marx on his own terms. Quite a lot of people, including some Marxists, would disagree. The so-called analytical Marxists—thinkers like G. A. Cohen, John Roemer and Robert Brenner—dismiss dialectics. They actually like to call themselves “no-bullshit Marxists.” They prefer to convert Marx’s argument into a series of analytical propositions. Others convert his argument into a causal model of the world. There is even a positivist way of representing Marx that allows his theory to be tested against empirical data. In each of these cases, dialectics gets stripped away. Now, I am not in principle arguing that the analytical Marxists are wrong, that those who turn Marx into a positivist model-builder are deluded. Maybe they are right; but I do insist that Marx’s own terms are dialectical, and we are therefore obliged to grapple in the first instance with a dialectical reading of Capital.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]