Chris Harman


Valuable Volumes

(October 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.124, October 1989, pp.26-27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vols 28-30
Lawrence and Wishart, £15 each

MARX FILLED many thousands of pages with rough drafts for Capital in the ten years before the first (and only fully completed) volume of the work was published in 1867.

These manuscripts are fascinating for Marxist scholars. In them Marx develops many of the ideas he was later to expound in Capital, but often at greater length, bringing out aspects that were only hinted at in the published version.

The most recent volumes of the Marx-Engels Collected Works are given over to translations of these manuscripts.

The arguments contained in these volumes are the same as those that were to be published as three chapters of Capital four years later – but more than five times as much space is devoted to them, making it easier to follow the details.

What is more, he uses much of the “philosophical” language about “alienation” and “reification” usually associated with his youthful writings. The draft is thus a useful refutation to those, still influenced by the remnants of the Althusserian school, who claim that the “mature Marx” rejected his earlier emancipatory talk.

Marx begins by posing the central question for any analysis of capitalism – ”How does money become capital?” Only by answering this can we grasp the central dynamic of the system.

Marx analyses the form of capital as “buying in order to sell”. Money is used to buy commodities, and the commodities are then sold to get more money – a change expressed by the formula M-C-M.

This stands in opposition to what immediate producers of goods do when they engage in commodity production. They sell the commodity they produce in order to buy other commodities they need to live on – C-M-C.

In the form M-C-M:

“Value becomes independent in money, hence value emerging from circulation, enters again into circulation, maintains itself and returns to it multiplied ...Value becomes the content and end of itself in circulation ... It is thus not only self preserving but self-valorising [i.e. self-expanding – CH] value...”

“It is the money owner (or the commodity owner, for money is after all only the converted form of the commodity) who makes his money pass through the activity M-C-M.”

“Just as the result of the process is the preservation and increase of value, the self-valorisation of value, what forms the content of the movement appears in him as conscious purpose. To increase the amount of value he possesses appears thus as his sole purpose.

“His purpose is the ever growing appropriation of wealth in its general form, exchange value, and only in so far as it appears as his sole driving motive is he a capitalist ... Never use value, only exchange value must therefore be regarded as his direct purpose.”

Marx’s position thus stands in complete contrast to common sense notions that sees the capitalist simply as someone with a high level of consumption – or as someone who makes profits in order to pocket them. As he put it later in Capital: “Use-values must never be looked on as the real aim of the capitalist, neither must the profit on any single transaction.” This point is very important to the understanding of twentieth century capitalism, with the emergence of monopoly capitals and state capitals which plough much of their profits back into investment.

Those who equate capitalism with the pocketing of profits have to deny that these forms are capitalist – which is what the Austrian socialist Rudolf Hilferding finally claimed in the case of Nazi Germany, what the Labour Party “revisionist” Anthony Crosland claimed in the case of 1950s Britain, and what the “Trotskyist” Ernest Mandel claims in the case of the USSR. Having defined capital as self-expanding value, Marx then looks at what must happen for value to expand in this way.

Individual capitalists can expand the value they own by cheating. This is what the first capitalists existing in precapitalist societies did. Merchants would buy goods cheaply and sell them for more, making a nice profit. Money lenders would insist on being paid back more than they originally lent. Both saw their value expand, that is, turn into merchants’ or usurers’ capital.

However, this did not provide any means of sustained capitalist advance. Those gains could easily be wiped out – by competition from rival merchants raising buying and cutting selling prices, by large debtors defaulting on their loans.

And when the whole of society was organised on a capitalist basis, neither the merchants’ nor the usurers’ methods could explain the ability of value to expand itself. Marx argues:

“The class of capitalists taken as a whole cannot enrich itself as class, it cannot increase its total capital or produce a surplus value, by one capitalist’s gaming what another loses. The class as a whole cannot defraud itself.”

Self-expansion of value can only occur throughout the economy as a whole if something else happens, if the possession of value enables its owners to exploit labour.

“Value, both in the form of money and of the commodity, is an objectified quantity of labour ...

“The sole antithesis to objectified labour is non-objectified ... the one is already embodied in use value, the other, as human activity-in-process, is currently engaged in the process of self objectification, the one is value, the other is value-creating.

“If a given value is exchanged for the value creating activity, if objectified labour is exchanged for living labour, in short if money is exchanged for labour, the possibility seems to be available that by means of this process of exchange the existing value can be preserved or increased ...”

“Value, the objectified labour which exists in the form of money, could only grow by exchange with a commodity whose use value itself consisted in the ability to increase exchange value ... But such use value is only possessed by living labour capacity.

“Value, money, can therefore only be transformed into capital through exchange with living labour capacity.”

This cannot happen unless workers are both able and willing to sell their labour power – able because it does not belong to slave owners, willing because there is no other way they can turn it into the commodities they need for subsistence. Marx argues that for a worker to be a wage labourer:

“The conditions for the realisation of his labour must confront him as alienated conditions, as alien powers, conditions under the sway of an alien will, as alien property. Objectified labour, value as such, confronts him as an entity in its own right, as capital, the vehicle of which is the capitalist – hence it also confronts him as the capitalist.

“This value creating and value enhancing power ... belongs not to the worker but to the capitalist. By incorporating into itself this power, capital comes alive and begins to work ‘as if in its body possessed’. Living labour thus become a means whereby objectified labour is preserved and increased ... All the development of the productive forces of labour is development of the productive forces of capital ...

“Objectified, past labour thereby becomes sovereign of living, present labour.”

This does not occur as a natural fact, but depends on prior historical developments. It presupposes the fall of other social relations of production and the development of productive forces of social labour. It can only occur at a definite historical stage.

The language of these passages is much more abstract and “philosophic” than most of the corresponding passages in Capital. But that also means they provide an insight into how the dynamic of capitalism can continue to exist even when the empirical organisation of capitalist production is very different to that of Marx’s day.

When Russian workers and intellectuals complain that investment takes place without any reference to the needs of the mass of the population, they are talking about investment so that capital can expand itself, that it; capitalist investment.

One sentence from Capital – “capital is a relation not a thing” – is often used to argue that you cannot have capitalism without Western style private property. In fact Marx makes it clear in these passages that the “relation” he is referring to is between self-expanding value and labour:

“Capital and wage labour only express two factors of the same relations. Money cannot become capital without labour capacity as a commodity sold by the worker himself ... On the other hand labour can only appear as wage labour once the specific conditions of its realisation ... confront it as a power in their own right, alien property, value-being-for-itself.”

This passage also shows what nonsense it is to speak, as do most “new class” theorists of the Eastern states, of “the Soviet working class” while denying that the system is capitalism.

You cannot talk about a working class unless you are talking about capitalism. This is no semantic quibble. The working class both grows step by step with capital and finds its aspirations thwarted by the drive of the system itself precisely because it is the object of self-expanding value. The new volumes of the Collected Works are to be welcomed for throwing light on these and many other matters. But there are a couple of difficulties with the translations.

First, the translators use the phase “labour capacity” instead of the more familiar “labour power”. The new version is probably a better rendering of the German, but does create some confusion.

Secondly, and much more importantly, their translation of the German word Verwertung can obscure the reader’s understanding of a vital point about capitalism.

Sam Moore, who did the first English translation of Capital under Engels’ supervision, chose to translate the term as “self-expansion of capital”. But this has not been good enough for some translators over the last 15 years, including those of these volumes.

They have preferred to use the word “valorise”. But this creates confusion as the English word generally means “to put a value or price on some commodity” – i.e. to realise, rather than raise, the value of a commodity. In doing so, they make it more difficult than need be to a grasp what Marx sees as the central dynamic of the system.

Last updated on 7 May 2010