Review

(My review on goodreads)

This is more than a mere “introduction” to Capital: it is a brief but systematic analysis and critique of Capital, of Marx’s views more generally, and of the later development of “Marxism” (with or without scare-quotes). Overall, Heinrich attempts to rein in later misinterpretations (or later misunderstandings) of Capital, to reveal and explain its original purpose - that of being a critique of political economy, where that is to be understood as a critique of the foundations of the study of political economy as practiced at the time. Of course, Marx did not undertake that critique as a mere intellectual exercise. His goal was revolution, but to undertake a revolution requires a sound understanding of society. The three volumes of Capital were intended to be part of a six volume study that would have moved beyond political economy to an analysis of the state and other “superstructural” aspects. So in that sense, Capital was groundwork for the larger enterprise, a sort of bottom-up analysis.

Heinrich treats the three volumes as a unified whole; an approach that allows resolution of ambiguities that arise from Volume 1 taken in isolation. This is very helpful, especially for someone slogging through Marx’s generally turbid and long-winded prose. Heinrich is not shy about pointing out mistakes in Marx’s work - for example, Marx’s belief that money had always to be backed by a “money commodity” (gold, for example). He also elaborates and brings up to date Marx’s treatment of finance capital. Above all, though, Heinrich provides summaries of the main components of Marx’s concepts and analysis. This, too, is very helpful, since it is easy to get a bit lost when thinking through the question of why the payment of “wages for labor” is an illusion, or why commodities do not sell “at their value.”

He dismisses post-19th century ideas about the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a classless society. Such a view can best be described as wishful thinking, and is not a prediction arising from the analysis in Capital. In this connection he points out a fairly serious error in Marx’s idea that there is a “Law of Falling Rates of Profit”. If there were such a law, it would lend some plausibility to the idea of inevitable collapse, but there is no such law derivable from Marx’s analysis of capitalism and, of course, no empirical or historical evidence suggesting such a law.

Towads the end of the book Heinrich moves on from Capital to ciriticize Lenin’s ideas about “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”. Heinrich has a number of objections to Lenin’s ideas. To begin, he explains that Lenin’s explanation for the rise of imperialism was based on the idea that capitalism was transforming from “competitive capitalism” to “monopoly capitalism” and that monopolists were (thus?) finding it impossible to find sufficient income to valorize and increase their capital. Therefore they were forced to export capital to other countries. And since the monopolists are so economically powerful they are able to get the state to do their bidding by exerting force against those other countries. And by exporting capital and capitalist modes of production to other, less developed, countries, the monopolist imperialist capitalists are able to “appropriate” the resources of those countries. Heinrich objects to all this on several grounds. First, it is by no means the case that there was any such transition from “competitive” to “monopoly” capitalism. In particular sectors, in particular countries, yes. But not as a fundamental development. Second, in Lenin’s conception, the fact of monopoly implied that proces were no longer a function of production prices but were set by the will of the monoplists - a conclusion exactly opposed to the entire argument in Capital. Third, Lenin seems to have treated imperialism with a certain amount of moral distaste, as when he speaks of “appropriation” of resources. But as Heinrich points out, why should that be morally worse than the “appropriation” of surplus value in the capitalist’s own country? Finally, the idea of a “highest” stage of capitalism is misguided: as Marx pointed out repeatedly, capitalism is dynamic and adaptable to new technology, science, and external constraints and conditions. To posit a “highest” stage of capitalism is to simply not understand capitalism.

Heinrich also points out that more recent invocations of Lenin’s ideas about imperialism are even less coherent. For example, we on the Left (and not just those on the Left) often characterize the United States as an imperialist power - the largest and most dangerous, in fact. But by Lenin’s definition the United States cannot be an imperialist power, because it does not export capital, it imports capital. And though Heinrich doesn’t say so, this provides an example of the mechanistic, deterministic basis of (some of) Lenin’s analyses of capitalism and of history- a determinism that he criticized others for whenever he noticed.

Finally, Heinrich gives a subtle nod to those Marxist tendencies that have rejected the idea of “base and superstructure”. He points out that in Capital there is only a single reference to such an idea, and that Marx never advocated for the idea that the economic “base” is the principal or only determinant of the political and social “superstructure” (though Engels did lean in that direction).

In all, this is an essential work of Marxist analysis, and a great remedy to a number of fundamental misconceptions about Capital promulgated by Marxists and anti-Marxists alike.

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Metadata Info

  • Title: An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital
  • Author: Michael Heinrich
  • Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 1583672885
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 5.0 stars