Marx at his Study

Study Guide for
Karl Marx’s
Critique of Political Economy, a.k.a.


Part I: Commodities and Money

Chapter 1, § 1 - The Two Factors of a Commodity: Use-Value and Value

Terms: Commodity, Goods and Services, Value, Labour Theory of Value, Distribution and Exchange, Notion.

Questions for discussion:
1. Which of the following industries produce commodities: the movies, prostitution, the public education system, the private schools, public transport, the military, “housewives”, domestic servants?
2. Why is a ton of gold worth more than a ton of sugar? And is gold dug from a thousand metres underground worth more than gold found on the ground?
3. Does advertising add value to the products it advertises?

Chapter 1, § 2 - Two-fold Character of Labour Embodied in Commodities

Terms: Exchange-value, Use-value, Utility, Production and Consumption, Quantity and Quality, Abstract and Concrete.

Questions for discussion:
1. What does Marx mean by “human labour in abstract” and “concrete labour”?
2. In what sense can we say that Nature does not produce value, only labour produces value?
3. Water is free (at least in most places!) therefore it has no value. Is this true? and under what circumstances does water become “valuable” and how does this square with what Marx is saying?

Chapter 1, § 3 - The Form of Value or Exchange-Value

Terms: Barter, Form of Value, Form and Content, Commodification, Relative and Absolute, Essence.

Questions for discussion:
1. Why is Marx bothering to take all this time going back to barter in tribal times?
2. What does this chapter say about the prospect of getting away from capitalism by going back to barter and local exchange systems?
3. Why did gold come to be used as money?
4. It is a long time since paper money replaced gold in day-to-day commerce. Why has this happened? Does it make nonsense of Marx’s idea of money as set out in this chapter?
5. What do Marx’s remarks about Aristotle in this chapter tell us about capitalism and Equality? And what does this mean in the context of “globalisation”?

Chapter 1, § 4 - The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret thereof

Terms: Fetishism, Alienation, Atheism, Fetishism, Individualism, Appearance.

Questions for discussion:
1. What does Marx mean by the “fetishism of commodities”?
2. According to Hegel and Derrida, all social production entails “alienation”. Does Marx agree with Derrida and Hegel in this, and if not why not?
3. In what sense is this section crucial to understanding bourgeois ideology and individualism.

Chapter 2: Exchange

Terms: Market, Distribution and Exchange, Money, Individualism, Universal.

Questions for discussion:
1. What does Marx mention as the reason for needing a “universal equivalent” and what does he mean about “the problem and the means of solution arise simultaneously”?
2. If money is a commodity, what its use-value and what is its exchange-value?
3. What does Marx mean by “every commodity is a symbol”?

Chapter 3: Money, or the Circulation of Commodities

Terms: Inflation, Gold Standard, Bretton Woods, Realisation.

Questions for discussion:
1. What circumstances (discussed in ths chapter) may cause a general rise in the price of commodities?
2. What does Marx mean by an object which “may have a price without having value”?
3. What is meant by “socially necessary labour time”? and who determines what is “socially necessary” and how?
4. Marx talks about money as “a material expression” and an “incarnation”. Can you think of other instances of ideas and social relations taking on “a material expression”?

Part II: The Transformation of Money in Capital (Ch 4-6)

Terms: Capital, Labour Power, Means of Production, Profit.

Questions for discussion:
1. Why is value only capital if it continuously metamorphoses M — C— M — C — etc., etc.? Give examples of money which is not capital and commodities which are not capital?
2. What does Marx mean by “ the contradiction in the general formula of capital”?
3. Value circulates and metamorphoses ... M — C— M — C — etc., etc.. Why does Marx say M — C — M is the circuit of capital? and what does C — M — C mean?
4. What does Marx mean by saying that “merchants’ and interest-bearing capital are derivative forms”?
5. What do you make of Marx’s sarcastic comments abour Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, at the close of this part?

Part III: The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value (Ch 7-11)

Terms: Nature, Surplus Value, Absolute Surplus Value, Necessary Labour Time, Constant and Variable Capital, Rate of Surplus Value.

Questions for discussion:
1. Does the capitalist's gardener create value? If so under what circumstances? Is the capitalist's gardener a proletarian? If so under what circumstances?
2. Are humans part of Nature? What is Nature? Is political economy governed by “Laws of Nature”? If not, where do these laws come from?
3. What would be the effect of an improvement in the techniques of production across all branches of the economy on the necessary labour time? Is this effect the same in respect of improvements all parts of the economy?
4. What would be the effect of an intensification of labour (i.e., “speed-up”) right across the economy on the necessary labour time?
5. What would be the effect of an improvement in technology on the proportion of constant capital embodied in a single unit of a commodity, e.g., one loaf of bread, assuming that the cost of the machinery used by workers is just the same and the machinery requires little maintenance?
6. If a capitalist introduces a smart new technique which produces the product with less labour, she can expect to make a better profit. How is this so?
7. How would you go about measuring the rate of surplus-value operating in the economy in your country?

Part IV: Production of Relative Surplus Value (Ch 12-15)

Terms: Casualisation, Division of Labour, Collaboration, Taylorism, Fordism, Toyotism, Mechanisation.

Questions for discussion:
1. What is the significance of the struggle for a shorter working week?
2. How do you explain the growing army of part-time workers today, if the capitalists need to get us working longer and longer hours?
3. What does Marx mean by the “two-fold origin of manufacture”? How does this relate to the way manufacture is developing today?
4. How does a machine add value to a product?
5. What is the significance of the rapid obsolescence of modern computerised equipment?

Part V: The Production of Absolute and of Relative Surplus-Value (Ch 16-18)

Terms: Labour, Working Day, Rate of Profit.

Questions for discussion:
1. How would you understand or explain the difference in wages from one country to another?
2. What is the fundamental difference between the way Marx defines the rate of profit and the way “rate of profit” is understood in economics today?
3. And what factors would lead to “rate of profit” in Marx's terms going up while “rate of profit” in economic terms goes down, and vice versa?

Part VI: Wages (Ch 19-22)

Terms: Wages, Contract Labour, Piece Work.

Questions for discussion:
1. If being a wage-worker (i.e., paid by the hour to work as directed) is not the definition of the proletariat, what is?
2. What, if anything, is the difference between a worker paid a wage by an employer, and a contractor who is paid by the hour for services rendered to the same capitalist?

Part VII: The Accumulation of Capital (Ch 23-25)

Terms: Trickle-down Effect, Wage Labour.

Questions for discussion:
1. What's wrong with the “wages fund” theory?
2. What is “the general law of capitalist accumulation”?
3. What are the pre-conditions for the accumulation of capital? In what way can we say that the accumulation of capital creates its own pre-conditions?

Part VIII: Primitive Accumulation (Ch 26-33)

Terms: Feudal Society, Concentration of Capital.

Questions for discussion:
1. If colonisation was a way out of its crisis for capitalism in Marx's day, has this remained the case?
2. Do you think the concentration of capital has continued uninterrupted up to the present day? What in general do you think has happened to the distribution of wealth?
3. Does socialism need a phase of “primitive accumulation”?

Commentaries on Capital available on MIA.
A three shilling mystery, an investigation into a translation error.
Prefaces and Afterwords to Capital, 1867 - 1890.
Synopsis of Capital by Engels, 1868

Andy Blunden, 2002