Understanding Capital Volume II, John Fox, 1985


Volume II, it is safe to say, is the least read of the three main volumes of Marx's Capital. This relative neglect is unfortunate, because many issues of concern to contemporary Marxists -- the distinction between productive and unproductive labor, the causes of economic crises, the conceptualization of fixed capital, the treatment of social reproduction -- are addressed in Volume II of Capital. Furthermore, a full appreciation of some of the material in Volume III depends upon concepts treated by Marx in the second volume.

In Volume II of Capital, Marx shifts his focus from the sphere of production of commodities to the sphere of circulation. A consideration of market relations is present, of course, in Volume I, but primary attention is paid there to capitalist production. It is largely assumed, for example, that capitalists can find requisite means of production in the market and can locate buyers for their products. Circulation is crucial to the expansion of capital, for it is only through sale of commodities that produced surplus-value is realized in the form of profit. By raising the issue of economic crisis at a number of points in the text, Marx underscores the problematic nature of the articulation of capitalist production and exchange.

The first part of Volume II traces the transformations that capital undergoes -- the circuit that it describes -- as the capitalist exchanges money for labor-power and material means of production, as these elements of productive capital combine to form a product, and as the commodity-product is exchanged on the market for money. The second part of Volume II, on the turnover of capital, treats the circuit of capital as it unfolds over time; here Marx develops the distinction between fixed capital and circulating capital.

Parts I and II of the second volume are written primarily from the point of view of an individual capitalist. Part III deals systematically with circulation and reproduction from a social perspective, examining the market-mediated relations among different capitals as well as the relationship between production and consumption. In the final chapter of Volume II, Marx demonstrates the theoretical basis for extended reproduction on an economy-wide scale.

Volume II of Capital is at once simpler and more difficult to read than Volume I: simpler, because the reader approaches the second volume with an understanding of the basic categories and relations developed by Marx in Volume I and with an appreciation of Marx's method of analysis and exposition; more difficult, because Volume II is an unfinished work. I use the term "unfinished" advisedly, for as Engels writes in the preface (p. 1): "The bulk of the material was not finally polished,in point of language, although in substance it was for the greater part fully worked out." The reader is probably aware that Engels painstakingly pieced together Volume II from a number of partial drafts of the book left by Marx upon his death. The main line of argument is clear, however, and the details are largely present as well, despite some repetition, certain obscure or tedious passages, a few errors, and some infelicities of style and presentation.

This reader's guide to Volume II of Capital continues the work of an earlier book on Volume I (J. Fox and W. Johnston, Understanding Capital: A Guide to Volume I, Progress Books, 1978). Like its predecessor, the present book contains chapter summaries, a glossary of key theoretical terms, and a set of questions on the text. Both books originated in courses on Capital taught under the auspices of the Toronto Marxist Institute.

Though this guide could be read independently of Capital, its essential purpose is to assist the student of Volume II through a reading of that difficult text. The chapter summaries seek primarily to abstract the main line of argument in the text. At certain points -- for instance in connection with the discussion of productive and unproductive labor in Chapter 6 -- reference is made to material elsewhere in Capital that is directly relevant to the topic at hand. At other points -- most notably in Chapter 21, where Marx treats extended reproduction -- Marx's presentation is recast in algebraic terms without altering the meaning of the material. Although the non-mathematically inclined reader will find these passages demanding, Marx's development of technical material through the use of numerical examples often becomes exceedingly difficult to follow. The more abstract algebraic presentation reveals the basic principles underlying the numerical examples. Furthermore, formalization is clearly in the spirit of Marx's work, and, indeed, parts of his presentation make use of algebra. Where appropriate, I have employed diagrams and tables in an effort to clarify the text.

The Marxist Institute course on Volume II of Capital divides the text into nine weekly readings. The schedule of readings is reproduced following this introduction. Each week, the class gathers for about two hours of discussion focused by the questions listed at the end of this book.

Several individuals have assisted me in preparing the reading guide to. Volume II. Bill Carroll made the useful suggestion that I attempt to diagram some of the processes described in the text; he, Bill Johnston, Larry Lyons, Peter Meiksins, Roxanna Ng, Anne Preyde, and Bob Russell provided me with valuable comments on a draft of the book. In writing the questions for Volume II,
I made reference to an earlier question set prepared by Larry Lyons.

Capital Volume II Readings

1.    Chapter 1
2.    Chapters 2-4
3.    Chapters 5, 6
4.    Chapters 7-11
5.    Chapters 12-14, 15 (read pp. 287-289 first, scan rest of chapter)
6.    Chapters 16, 17
7.    Chapters 18, 19
8.    Chapter 20
9.    Chapter 21

Page references in this guide are to the 1956 Progress Publishers (Moscow) edition of Volume II of Capital. (References to the same passage in the Penguin/Random House edition are thus: [p. 123], though the actual text may, of course, be different. - SP)