Eldred/Roth: Guide to Marx's Capital (1978)


Marx's Capital and Marxism today

After a period of stimulated activity in Marxist theory, triggered off by the movement towards de-Stalinisation of the fifties, which reached its height towards the end of the sixties along with the Student Movement, May '68 in France, the anti-Vietnam War Movement, marxist theory is again entering a period in which many parts of Marxism are coming under attack. Paris, which serves as some kind of barometer of fashionability in the intellectual world, has already moved into full gear against the Althusserian marxism, which was the delight of left-wing intellectuals the world over during the sixties and the early part of the seventies. Again, Marxism is being pronounced dead or at least inadequate to the tasks of understanding the modern world and is being shunned by those who are concerned with areas that are not encompassed by orthodox marxism.

The response of German Marxist intellectuals in the de-Stalinisation era has been somewhat different from the French. With the bitter historical experience of a failed revolution, Fascism and the taking over of East Germany by a party bureaucracy, West German intellectuals have been much more radical in their reappraisal of Marx's theory and have turned to systematically re-evaluating the roots of marxism - Capital. Stimulated by the work of Hans Georg Backhaus (1965), Hans-Jürgen Krahl (1965), Helmut Reichelt (1970), Alfred Schmidt (1962, 1969) and the publication of Roman Rosdolsky's book (1968)[1] together with the political conjuncture of the 'students movement' - a reconstruction of Capital has been worked on, under the banner of value-form analysis (Wertformanalyse). The long term aim of this work has been to continue the project begun by Marx with Capital, with a theory of the bourgeois state, as Marx had initially planned. Capital has been treated as a raw material to be worked over in the attempt to give an adequate account of capitalist economy. Following Marx, this comes down to an analysis of the forms and movement of objectified social labour – value-form analysis.

An analysis of capitalist economy, however, is only part of the task of coming to grips with bourgeois society. The realm of state, which is envisaged as the object of the subsequent theory based on Capital, is used in a broad and narrow sense. In its broad sense, state is the realm of bourgeois life outside economic activity. In its narrow sense, state is the sphere of bourgeois society which secures the maintenance of the bourgeois form of life. Hence the state is functional in securing both the conditions of reproduction of the economic and the preservation of the individualised form of life of the members of society. The former function is realised not only in the forms of legality and ethics but also by direct intervention by the state in the economy. The latter function is largely that of realising and preserving the rights of individual freedom and equality that have been historically established during the rise of bourgeois society. The claims of current-day social movements are claims in terms of bourgeois rights and have their force by virtue of the material palpability of bourgeois rights in our institutions and everyday language. Of course, saying that the state is functional in securing the reproduction of bourgeois life does not preclude it becoming dysfunctional nor does it mean that contradictions do not arise between the state and its citizens or between the economy and bourgeois rights.

The aim of current German theoretical work is to gain a systematic understanding of bourgeois society as a functioning but contradictory totality and to achieve this many formulations and areas of orthodox marxism must be brought into question and discarded. The blind spot of orthodox marxism with respect to the specific oppression of women, in particular, raises difficult questions of the interrelationship between forms of bourgeois subjectivity and forms of bourgeois rights. At this stage of a relatively young research programme, important advances have been made in the reconstruction of Capital, while the questions posed by state-analysis remain wide open.

Because of the felt lack of existing marxist theory, a current intellectual tendency has been to either reject marxism entirely or to admit only its claims to an economic analysis, while at the same time rejecting that marxism in any shape has relevance for the tasks of understanding other spheres of bourgeois life. We think that there is a three-fold error in these rejections. Firstly, neither the economic forms of life of bourgeois society nor a theoretical understanding of them can be ignored by any attempt to come to grips with social contradictions either theoretically or politically. No one can deny that production under the conditions of capital is a major part of our society which pervades every sphere of life in multifarious ways. The reproduction of the economic is a conditio sine qua non of the survival of our form of life and whole institutions are devoted to securing this reproduction. Secondly, a clear understanding of the method that Marx used in Capital for presenting a theory of the mode of production has important lessons for the attempt to understand systematically other spheres. In a following section we give our ideas on a dialectical reading of Capital and in so doing we hope that the relevance of these methodological considerations to critical social theory will be recognised and debated. We do not claim that our views on dialectical theory as it applies to reading Capital are transferable directly to theory of state but we do argue that dialectical thinking has enormous relevance for avoiding dogmatic and superficial disconnected theorising.

Thirdly, theorising that starts from one aspect of society in an attempt to deal with particluar lacunae in existing marxist theory is in danger of either overgeneralising itself to give a total view of society or of remaining a disconnected, abstract analysis of the part which cannot be linked with the whole. Bourgeois society is a total, functioning organism that enmeshes all individuals in a system of universal institutions and practices. The critical understanding as well as the practical critique of bourgeois society demands a regard for the systematic interlocking of the spheres of bourgeois life and an overcoming of the pluralism of bourgeois theories, in which individual theories stand unrelated side by side.

Reading Capital as a Politicising Activity

Even though there has been widespread interest in marxist theory the special significance of Marx's Capital amongst the enormously wide gamut of marxist fields of study has tended to be overlooked. Marxist intellectuals have unwittingly reproduced bourgeois pluralism within marxism itself by not paying enough attention to the relation between Marx's main work and the rest of marxist theory. Compounded with this there has been a disregard for the relation between the capital-analysis and radical politics. Radical movements have not progressed much beyond Lenin's view of revolutionary theory having to be brought to the revolutionary movement from outside by means of the party. Our view is strongly opposed to Lenin's in that we agree with Marx's statement:

"Theory will be realised in a people only in so far as it is the realisation of their needs."[2]

The Critique of Political Economy only becomes a practical critique of capitalist economy when large numbers of people use the theoretical critique as a guide for doing away with capitalist economy. For this, the theory has to have a presentation and a presence in everyday life which relates the categories of the analysis practically to the lives of people seeking a way beyond capitalism. This cannot be done by a party which does not clearly understand the dialectical nature of Capital, which prescribes the forms of political activity on the basis of a marxist canon and which regards the masses as incapable of or disinterested in a theoretical critique of everyday life.

Our view is that Capital can become a material force by being read in groups of radicals that take the trouble to follow through Marx's argument and see how far it goes to explain the chaos of everyday conceptions of economic life, a chaos which cannot possibly be given any coherent order by thinking that starts from given obviousnesses. A Capital-reading group is engaged in a dialectic (in the sense of argument) with the text of Capital and in this dialectic, problems with understanding the argument will be resolved, objections to the argument formulated, experiences in struggles connected to parts of the text, mistakes fixed up and Marx's presentation simplified, historical illustrations in Capital replaced with illustrations from the present and beliefs and views that are a hindrance to understanding capitalist economy disposed of.

People are only drawn into a Capital-reading group when Capital is in the cultural environment and when their world-view is sufficiently shaken to provoke interest in a radical theoretical critique of existing circumstances. We think that the process of talking through Capital in a group with comrades engenders a critical view of capitalist economy which is sure of its foundations. Hence it is able to argue systematically with everyday knowledge and is not easily led by dogmatic forms of thinking and politics. Just as Capital is no monologue that pronounces the truth about the capitalist mode of production, reading this book cannot replace active participation in a dialectic but only give pointers on a dialectical reading and discuss central objections that have arisen in our own reading and talking about Capital.

Dialectical Reading of Capital

In this section we give an outline of a view of the materialist dialectic as the analytical method that Marx used in constructing Capital. The term 'materialist dialectic' has been thrown around very loosely by marxists who want to specify the unique nature of not only Marx's theoretical undertaking but also of 'marxist analyses' generally. What this generally boils down to is talk about contradictions and unities of opposites which either remains at a very mundane general level or merely repeats Hegelian formulations. For us, the dialectic is closely associated with the cultural practice of coming to understand the nature of capitalist society and therefore is linked to our ideas on Capital reading groups. Marx's distinction between the process of inquiry and process of presentation is relevant here. The process of inquiry is the stage of trying to find a successful presentation of the argument and leads into innumerable areas of research and failed attempts. The presentation, however, is written for an audience and is only viable as long as it finds a place in an intellectual culture. The process of presentation is the attempt to work through the argument, raising and resolving objections along the way. With these remarks on dialectic as a process of argument, we turn to the nature of dialectical theory.[3]

(a) Dialectical Thinking and Everyday Knowledge

Dialectical thinking cannot be understood without a clear idea of the object of this thinking. Thinking is always about something and the object of dialectical thinking is bourgeois society itself. But bourgeois society does not merely exist as an inarticulate object; it lives and its form of articulation is the everyday language which people use in day-to-day life. Dialectical thinking thinks about this everyday language in a particular way and the starting point and base for Capital is to be found in everyday language itself. But not every articulation of everyday language is relevant to dialectical thinking; dialectical thinking focuses on those articulations which express knowledge about bourgeois society in general, the character of these articulations as knowledge being based on their adequacy to practically living in our society. Dialectical thinking, therefore, has a positive attitude to everyday knowledge even though in the course of the dialectic the character of everyday knowledge is shown to be limited and mystifying.

(b) Systematic Order

Dialectical thinking is very different from ordinary reasoning. The latter, whilst being based on everyday knowledge, focuses on only a small partial constellation of everyday knowledge and does not attempt to link up or resolve the contradictions between various instances of reasoning. This limited character of reasoning amounts to an inability to relate one part to another and thereby grasp the total organism of bourgeois society in thought.

Dialectical thinking, on the other hand, overcomes this limitation (finite-ness) of ordinary reasoning by making the claim of determining the sequence in which the elements of everyday knowledge can be brought into play. This does not mean that dialectical thinking seeks to deny elements of everyday knowledge, but rather it asserts the claim to determine the place where they can be introduced into the argument. The presentation thereby opens itself to being tested by everyday knowledge and in the course of the dialectic the totality of everyday knowledge comes to be asserted. This claim means nothing other than introducing a systematic order into the dialectic between the presentation and everyday knowledge.

How does the presentation achieve the systematic ordering of everyday knowledge in the process of the dialectic? The dialectic can pick up an element of knowledge and temporarily exclude others by means of assumptions of presentation, i.e. assumptions are made at certain points in the presentation which recognise an aspect of bourgeois society under simplifying conditions. For example, at the beginning of Capital, the everyday knowledge that the form that wealth takes in our society is the commodity form is admitted, while at the same time excluding those commodities, such as land, which are not the product of labour. The everyday knowledge excluded at a particular point in the presentation is admitted later on through the relaxation of the assumption of presentation. With regard to the example, the exclusion of land as a commodity from the presentation is relaxed in Part VI of Volume III where ground-rent is systematically taken into account.

(c) Transformation of the Articulation of Elements of Everyday Knowledge

In its natural forms, everyday knowledge has many articulations including a high degree of particularity of articulation and very ideological forms of expression such as belief. The presentation cannot come into relation with everyday knowledge that remains in a highly particular form or which is wrapped thickly in an ideological cocoon. For example, 'I got a new job yesterday' is a highly particular expression of the everyday knowledge that labour-power is a commodity. An example of ideological wrapping is 'Bosses really work hard for their profits' which expresses the knowledge that it appears that capitalists by their own activity create profits for themselves.

The need for dialectical thinking to extract the general element of everyday knowledge from a highly particular expression, related to uniqueness of the individual's situation or the contingency of a moment in the history of bourgeois society, means that the presentation does not and cannot come to grips with every peculiarity in the phenomena of bourgeois society; nor can it capture the particularities of its historical movement. The presentation is relevant to the historical period of the bourgeois epoch and the price it pays for the power to analyse the character of numerous societies in a vast epoch is the lack of fine grain detail in the picture. This restriction on the detail of the analysis is by no means a limitation for a critical social theory which sees the historical task as the overcoming of bourgeois society and whose broad vision therefore does not struggle to coherently systematise the details in themselves. Dialectical thinking does aim to finally achieve the reproduction in thought of a totality, but this totality is that of bourgeois society in general as it exists in the bourgeois epoch. At the present time the capital-analysis represents a reproduction in thought of only a certain sphere of bourgeois society, and even there from the viewpoint of the movement of things rather than the human side.

A second way in which a transformation of articulation comes about is through the progress of the dialectic. The presentation develops certain categories of analysis in the course of the dialectic, and in order for everyday knowledge to continue its dialectic with the presentation, it must transform its articulations into terms that can be understood by the presentation. A special language is used by the presentation to articulate its categories and the progress of the dialectic leads simultaneously to an extension of the categories of the presentation and a delimitation of the way everyday knowledge can express itself to the presentation.

(d) The Development, Aim and Conclusion of the Dialectic

The dialectic develops in a to-and-fro between the presentation and everyday knowledge through which the content of everyday knowledge is systematically taken account of and categories developed. This means that concepts introduced at one stage of the analysis are often altered when new elements are taken into account. For example, the concept 'commodity' which initially means industrial commodities that are the product of labour is extended to cover labour-power in Volume I, Chapter 6.

The aim of the dialectic is to systematically treat the objections raised by everyday knowledge to the latter's satisfaction. The elements of everyday knowledge which are picked up in the early part of the analysis (roughly, Chapters 1-6 of Volume I) are the basis of the essential part of the presentation. 'Essential' here means that the presentation first constructs what it will show to be an essence of capitalist economy (surplus-value production) in the unfolding of the dialectic. The attitude of the presentation to these essential elements is thoroughly positive in that it does not attempt to show that these elements are mystificatory (although they can be mystified in everyday life). On the other hand, the elements picked up in later parts of the presentation, especially Volume III where the surface-forms of bourgeois society are dealt with, are shown to be imaginary or appearances in relation to this essence. This does not mean that these imaginary appearances (e.g. profit, rent, interest) are not real or are mere illusions of consciousness. On the contrary, these appearances are elements of everyday knowledge and are completely adequate to practical life. It is only in relation to the essence that elements become appearances.

The dialectic has successfully reached its conclusion where everyday knowledge has recognised its imaginary character and its origins in essential social relations. At the conclusion, everyday knowledge continues to exist in its 'natural' form, but in relation to the presentation admits its historically specific and inessential character.

For the presentation of Capital, an important qualification pertains as to the completeness of the dialectic. Certain objections from everyday knowledge are not taken into account by the presentation because they relate to the spheres of bourgeois life outside economic life, principally family life and state activity. The ultimate coming to rest of the dialectic is dependent on the eventual successful completion of the critical theory of bourgeois society.

We assume that those interested in entering the dialectic with Capital are interested in a radical critique of the existing state of affairs. Even though the presentation has an objective character residing in everyday knowledge it is unlikely that this objectivity can be demonstrated to someone hostile to critical theory. Not only is such a person unwilling to bother about the long process of the dialectic but, even within the dialectic, the arguments over valid everyday knowledge would be very fierce. Furthermore, the successful completion of the dialectic does not hold a consolation for radicals who are not content to merely have insight into the irrationality of bourgeois society. On the contrary, all signs of upheaval are received not simply as annoying inconveniences and unreason, but as indications of a practical movement that can achieve what theoretical critique cannot.

Structure of the Book

There are several parts to the book:

1) Five papers covering the three volumes of Capital.

2) Remarks on Capital.

3) Appendices.

4) A Systematic Glossary.

5) Index to the Systematic Glossary


1) The Five papers

There are two papers on Capital Volume 1, one on Capital Volume 2 and two on Capital Volume 3. Each paper is quite short and attempts to cover the systematic argument in the corresponding part of the text. Only the barest outline of the steps of the argument are given so that each paper is very dense. We advise that each paper be read several times, both before and after reading Capital and in conjunction with using the Systematic Glossary to clarify certain points in the argument and to lead into particular parts of the Capital text.

The papers give the systematic argument which results in the construction in theory of the forms of existence of social labour and the corresponding consciousness in which bourgeois people live their everyday economic life. By bourgeois people we mean everyone who lives in bourgeois society and not just the capitalists. Since we have been concerned to develop the main argument of Capital the papers do not go into specific questions concerning money, credit and crisis. It is an open question to what extent the passages in Capital which refer to these topics belong to the general theory of Capital or are anticipations of special investigations.

Paper 1 deals with the introductory part of the analysis where the central concept of value is developed along with its modes of expression in exchange-value and in money. With these concepts developed, capital can be conceived as value making more value and the paper ends by posing the puzzle of the origin of surplus-value.

Paper 2 analyses the immediate process of capitalist production and covers the solution of the surplus-value riddle, absolute and relative surplus-value production (including co-operation, division of labour and application of machinery).

Paper 3 covers the whole of Capital Volume 2, treating the topics: the circuits of capital, time of circulation, costs of circulation, division of capital, turnover, fixed and circulating capital and reproduction of social capital.

Paper 4 deals with most of Capital Volume 3, treating the conversion of surplus-value into average profit, (including the analysis of commercial profit) and subsequently the forms of appearance of surplus-value: profit of enterprise, interest and rent. There are also remarks on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

Paper 5 is concerned with material that has been touched on in the last part of Capital Volume 3 and focuses on the surface forms of everyday economic life in capitalist society: the wage forms and the revenue forms of new value. There are some concluding remarks on bourgeois consciousness and class consciousness.

At the end of each paper there are comments on passages in Capital and remarks on what has been left out in the sketch contained in the papers.

2) The Remarks on Capital

Following each paper we offer comments on the corresponding part of Capital, in which we attempt to explain briefly the material in each of the chapters and its relevance to the systematic argument. We have not treated all parts of Capital nor even all aspects of the systematic argument. We maintain that large sections of Capital are devoted to historical illustration that is not integral to the presentation. The place of historical material will be taken by more modern events which the readers engaged in a dialectic will bring into relation with the systematic categories.

3) Appendices

Family in Capital.

Science in Capital.

4) The Systematic Glossary

The text of the papers contain references to the entries in the systematic glossary e.g. (SG 12) coming after 'expanded expression of value' in the text refers the reader to glossary entry twelve on the expanded expression of value. A major aim of the systematic glossary is to make explicit the levels of analysis in the presentation so that it becomes clear which assumptions of presentation are in effect at each point and when they are relaxed. The entries explain the concepts of the text and give reference to the Capital text where the concepts are first defined. Because the concepts are introduced under assumptions of presentation which are relaxed at a later stage of the analysis, sometimes there is more than one entry for the same concept, the concept having moved or expanded at a new level of analysis. The ordering of the entries just as the order in which concepts appear in the text, is quite strict and pains have been taken to explain the concepts in a strict order where only previously defined concepts are used to explicate a given concept. In this context, the cross-references to other entries enable the reader to acquaint themself with all the concepts pertinent at a given level of analysis. In certain entries, where our view on the presentation differs from the presentation in Capital we point these out, explaining our view on the entry itself and referring the reader to Capital for a comparison. For the most part our objections arise from making the assumptions of presentation explicit which throws into relief a step in the analysis that Marx has not made clear.

5) Index to the Systematic Glossary

To enable the reader to look up a specific concept we have provided an alphabetical index of the terms in the systematic glossary that gives the reference to the glossary which besides explaining the term, gives a reference to Capital.



[1] Backhaus, 1969, 'Zur Dialektik der Wertform’, in: Schmidt (1969)

Krahl, 1971, 'Zur Wesenslogik der Marxschen Warenanalyse', in: 'Konstitution und Klassenkampf. Zur historischen Dialektik von bürgerlicher Emanzipation und proletarischer Revolution', Frankfurt, Verlag Neue Kritik

Reichelt, 1970, 'Zur logischen Struktur des Kapitalbegriffs bei Karl Marx', Frankfurt, Europäische Verlagsanstalt and Vienna, Europaverlag

Rosdolsky, 1968, 'Zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Marxschen Kapital. Der Rohentwurf des Kapital 1857-1858', Frankfurt, Europäische Verlagsanstalt, and Vienna, Europaverlag

Schmidt (ed.), 1969, 'Beiträge  zur  marxistischen  Erkenntnistheorie',  Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Verlag

………… 19712 'Der Begriff der Natur in der Lehre von Marx', Frankfurt, Europäische Verlagsanstalt

[2] Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, trans. O'Malley, p 138

[3] We draw on a paper by Ivan Glaser, 'Das Dialektische Denken und Natürliches Bewusstsein', Lorenzen Festschrift, de Gruyter, West Berlin, 1978.