Michael Heinrich’s book, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, (Monthly Review Press 2012) is a lucid and refreshing theoretical interpretation of Marxist political economy.
Apparently, it has gone through nine editions in Germany and is used widely in German universities. Heinrich takes inspiration from the “neue Marx Lektüre” (new Marx reading) of Capital. The result is one of best introductions to Capital for the new reader, but also many sophisticated clarifications for those who who’ve already read some Marx.
The book has many virtues, both in terms of clarifying Marx’s meaning and rebutting Marx’s critics. One advantage of Heinrich’s approach is his emphasis on the tentative, unfinished nature of Marx’s grand project. He argues that Marx was undertaking a scientific revolution - not just writing a critique of classical political economy but establishing a new field of science. Marx opened up and entered this new field but was not at every step completely free from the old ideas and concepts. In Capital there is sometimes a mixture, which leads to what Heinrich calls “ambivalences”—notions and arguments that are oscillating between old and new concepts.
Heinrich distinguishes between two different projects in Marx. Originally, he had the six-book plan with the Grundrisse as first draft and the manuscript of 1861–63 as the second draft. However he then developed a new project: the four-book plan of Capital. This had the manuscript of 1863–65 as the first draft of the first three books (the fourth book never was written). A second draft is constituted by the first edition of volume I of Capital (1867), by manuscript 2 of volume II which was written by Marx in 1868–69 and some small manuscripts regarding the beginning of volume III. A third draft is constituted by the “Reworking manuscript” in French (1871/72), the second edition of volume I, the mathematical manuscript on profit-rate and rate of surplus value, and the manuscript for volume II, which were written in the 1870s. These are two distinguishable projects: the first project with two drafts and the second project with three drafts (partly published), but without a final design.
These matters have really only come to light in recent decades with the publication of the MEGA, a gargantuan plan for 120 volumes (only half so far published), which started in 1975. Heinrich puts a strong emphasis on the philological aspects of Marx in order to draw out what Marx actually meant, something obscured both by earlier interpretations (particularly Engels’ rendering of Capital Volume III) as well as some translations into English. However Heinrich avoids treating Marx as a quarry from which to extract quotations, or passing off certain texts as “the” position of Marx. The results are a theoretical intervention that brings to light new interpretations and solutions to previous shibboleths, including the transformation problem, crisis theory and imperialism.
Heinrich (2012: 9) argues that under no circumstances should anyone be satisfied with reading only the first volume of Capital, because what someone “believes to be understood after reading only the first volume is not only incomplete, but in fact distorted”. For example he denies that Marx begins with capital in general or advances “from the abstract to the concrete”, as he suggested in the Grundrisse. The object of the Capital is the capitalist mode of production, not particular capitalist social formations (such as nineteenth century England), or worse, a notional pre-capitalist “simple commodity production”. However Heinrich (2012: 13) warns that “one should not succumb to the illusion that with an analysis of the fundamentals of the capitalist mode of production that everything decisive has already been said about capitalist societies”.
Heinrich (2012: 44-45) argue that for many Marxists and most of Marx’s critics, the core of Marx’s value theory consists of the following ideas: “the commodity is use value and value, value is the objectification of human labour, the magnitude of value depends on the ‘socially necessary labour time’ required for the production of a commodity (the last point is frequently referred to as the ‘law of value’).” But the central value-theoretical insights of Marx are not limited to these simple propositions.
In chapter three, Heinrich reconstructs the panorama of value theory found throughout the three volumes of Capital. With value theory, Marx seeks to uncover a specific social structure that individuals must conform to, regardless of what they think. So value theory doesn’t “prove” that an individual act of exchange is determined by the productively necessary quantity of labour. Rather it should explain the specific social character of commodity-producing labour. Value is not at all a property that an individual thing possesses in and of itself. The substance of value is not inherent to individual commodities, but is bestowed mutually in the act of exchange. Only with the act of exchange does value obtain an objective value form, thus the importance of the “value form analysis” for Marx’s theory of value. Value is “something purely social; it expresses the equal social validity of two completely different acts of labour, and it is therefore a specific social relationship”.
One theoretical insight concerns the role of money in this reconstruction. Money is in no way merely a helpful means of simplifying exchange on the practical level and an appendage of value theory on the theoretical level. Heinrich (2012: 63-4) argues that “Marx’s value theory is rather a monetary theory of value: without the value form, commodities cannot be related to one another as values, and only with the money form does an adequate form of value exist”. Both the labour theory of value of classical political economy and the theory of marginal utility of neoclassical economics are pre-monetary theories of value. The usual “substantialist Marxist” value theory that alleges that value is already completely determined by “socially necessary labour time” is also a pre-monetary value theory. The magnitude of value of a commodity is expressed in its price – and this is the only possibility for the magnitude of value to be expressed.
Heinrich 92012: 69-70) deals with one obvious objection to Marx’s value theory, namely his assumption in Capital that money always has to be linked to a particular commodity. During Marx’s time, gold played the role of this “money commodity”. However at the beginning of the 1970s, the gold standard was formally abolished, as were fixed currency exchange rates. Since then, there is no longer any commodity that functions as a national and international level of a money commodity. Although “Marx could not image a capitalist money system existing without a money commodity”, Heinrich argues that “the existence of such a commodity is in no way a necessary consequence of his analysis of the commodity and money”.
Heinrich argues that for Marx, value is means of understanding fetishised social relations, not price theory. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels still held that with the establishment of capitalism, social relations would become increasingly transparent: domination and exploitation are no longer mystified or disguised, but openly visible. The notion that the exploitation of the working class in capitalism was readily transparent and that only the manipulation of the rulers disguised it – with the help of the press, church, schools, etc. The critique of ideology was understood as an act of exposure: one merely had to uncover the “real interests” behind a notion.
In Capital, Marx did not use the term “commodity fetish” to describe how people in capitalism place undue importance upon the consumption of commodities, or that they make a fetish out of particular commodities that serve as status symbols. In contrast to the idea that social relations in capitalism are regarded as transparent, central passages of the work deal with the “mystification” of these social relations. What Marx describes in Capital as fetishism and mystification are “inversions that do not arise from the manipulation of the ruling class, but rather from the structure of bourgeois society and the activity that constantly reproduces this structure”. Marx therefore speaks of the “reification of the relations of production” (Capital 3: 969).
Heinrich (2012: 184-5) argues convincingly that people in bourgeois society therefore live in an “enchanted world”, in which a “personification of things” occurs: the subjects of the social process are not people, but commodity, money and capital. This is not merely a case of “false consciousness”. It is the social practice of capitalist society that constantly enacts a process whereby the “factors of production” take on a life of their own and social cohesion is constituted as an objective necessity that individuals can only escape on pain of ruin. All members of bourgeois society are subordinate to “the fetishism of social relations”. Neither capitalists nor workers have a privileged position that allows them to evade this fetishism. However, this fetishism is “not a completely closed universal context of deception from which there is no escape. Rather, it constitutes a structural background that is always present”.
One audacious digression in the book is the discussion of anti-Semitism as “the personalisation of fetishistic relations”. Heinrich (2012: 189) argues that anti-Semitism in bourgeois society is fundamentally distinct from all other forms of discrimination, prejudice and attribution: “Only in modern anti-Semitism are central constitutive principles of society projected ‘outward’ onto a ‘foreign’ group.” He argues that many anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes, such as the all-powerfulness of Jews, their rootlessness and the “global Jewish conspiracy” are in fact perverse projections of elements of bourgeois society concentrated on (and scapegoating) Jewish people with it. Heinrich is seeking to understand how particularly forms of racist oppression are rooted in capitalist political economy. I don’t think this captures entirely the nature of modern anti-Semitism. However he deserves credit for the insight.
The book contains a fairly orthodox exposition on the nature of exploitation. Capital reveals how exploitation takes place under capitalism, under the veneer of apparent equality. Heinrich (2012: 96-7, 120) argues that the term exploitation is “not meant to allude to especially low wages or especially bad working conditions”. Exploitation refers “solely and exclusively” to the fact that the producer only receives a portion of the newly produced value that he or she creates – regardless of whether wages are high or low or working conditions good or bad. As an effect of the increase in productivity, a rise in the standard of living of the working class has accompanied an increase of the surplus value appropriated by the capitalists. Increased exploitation (meaning that a greater portion of the workday consists of surplus labour) and an increased standard of living for the working class are therefore not mutually exclusive. “Exploitation” and the existence of “unpaid labour” are not the result of an infringement of the laws of commodity exchange, but are rather in compliance with them. If one wishes to abolish exploitation, then this cannot be accomplished through a reform of the relations of exchange within capitalism, but only through the abolition of capitalism.
Armed with this interpretation of Marx’s value theory, Heinrich seeks to clarify important debates within the history of Marxism. The first theoretical gain is the way in which he dissolves the knotty “transformation problem”. In the third volume of Capital, Marx sketched out a simple quantitative method of calculation to arrive from a system of value to a system of production process. This method of calculation, however, has proven to be wrong. The fact that it contains an error was also noted by Marx (Capital 3: 265) but he underestimated the effects of this error. Heinrich (2012: 148) argues that within the framework of the monetary theory of value, there can be no point to any sort of procedure for calculating production prices from values. Rather, the “transformation of values into prices of production” represents a conceptual advancement of the form determination of the commodity. He argues that “the transition from value and surplus value to production price and average profit is not an historical or even a temporal sequence, but rather a transition between different levels of description”.
An even more substantial clarification concerns theories of crisis. The possibility of interruption and therefore crisis as Marx explained in Capital volume 1 is inherent to the mediation of the social circulation of matter through money. But for the mere possibility of crisis to become an actual crisis, a series of further circumstances must come into play. Heinrich (2012: 171) rightly argues that Marx attempted to prove that crises results from the capitalist mode of production itself and that a crisis-free capitalism is impossible. And he is right that “one cannot find a comprehensive theory of crisis in Marxist work, but rather scattered, more-or-less elaborated observations that have been worked up by Marxists into quite distinct theories of crisis”.
Heinrich (2012: 150-3) takes particularly delight in pulling to pieces what is sometimes called the fundamentalist Marxist theory of crisis (held for example by the SWP), that crises result from the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. For Marx, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and capitalist development of the forces of production are two sides of the same coin. If Marx had been able to conclusively prove the connection, then he would have shown that a falling rate of profit belongs to the “essence” of capitalism.
However here lies the fundamental difficulty for every proof of the “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”: a general statement about the degree of increase for the organic composition of capital (c/v) is not possible. In one case, a specific increase in productivity can be achieved through a small quantity of additional constant capital; c/v thus increases only a little bit, which can lead to the rate of profit rising, not falling, as a result of the increasing rate of surplus value. In another case, the same proportional increase in productivity may require a large amount of additional constant capital; c/v thus increases strongly, and the rate of profit eventually declines. He also states that if the number of employees declines beyond a certain critical mass, then at some point the amount of surplus value produced also declines, regardless of how strong the rate of surplus value increases.
In Heinrich’s (2012: 153) view, Marx thought he had sufficiently proven the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall using this consideration. But that was not the case. A declining mass of surplus value only indicates a fall in the rate of profit with certainty when the total capital c + v required for the production of this surplus value has not also fallen, but has at least remained constant. And Marx implicitly assumes this precondition in his example. But this assumption is not unproblematic. For the total capital to remain the same it is not sufficient for the constant capital c to increase, rather it must increase by a certain amount; namely it must increase by the same amount that the variable capital has been reduced. Whether or not this is the profit fall cannot be answered at such a general level: we don’t know whether the productivity increase has been implemented with a lot or a little additional constant capital.
He concludes: “In contrast to Marx, we cannot assume a “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”. This doesn’t mean that the rate of profit can’t fall, which may very well be the case. However, the rate of profit can also rise. A long-lasting tendency for the rate of profit to fall cannot be substantiated at the general level of argumentation by Marx in Capital.” It cannot therefore serve as the basis for explanations of all crises.
Heinrich (2012: 140, 172, 177) also gives short shrift to other Marxian theories of crisis, including those based on a disproportion between different departments in the reproduction schemes, underconsumption theories focused on the lack of consumption demand, and with theories that purport to show the collapse of capitalism. In the history of Marxist debates, the reproduction schemes were “burdened” with too much explanatory power. Though they offer a broad overview of capitalist production and circulation, “they are a long way from being an exact depiction of capitalist reproduction as it exists in empirical reality”. Similarly, “underconsumption” theories of crisis are based upon this constricted power of consumption of the working class. As an explanation for the existence of crises, “the argument of excessively low wages and the resulting “demand gap” is insufficient”. And theories of collapse are “confronted with the fundamental problem that they claim an inevitable developmental tendency that capitalism is so unable to deal with that its further existence necessarily becomes impossible – regardless of whatever happens in the actual course of history”.
Heinrich does not set out a comprehensive alternative explanation for crises; in fact he goes some way to denying this is even possible. He describes (2012: 173-4) “a tendency toward the overproduction of commodities” (overproduction relative to buying power) and the over-accumulation of capital (accumulated capital that either cannot be valorised at all, or only very poorly), which ultimately leads to crisis: “reproduction stagnates, invested capital is devalued or even completely wiped out, the lest profitable production facilities are closed down, the least profitable capitals go bankrupt, workers are laid off and wages decline with the rise in unemployment. Crises are also enormous processes of destruction: social wealth is annihilated”. But crises are not just destructive. Rather, in crises the unity between spheres (such as production and consumption) that belong together but become independent of one another is “violently restored”. New branches emerge, old ones disappear or lose their importance, machines and raw materials that were previously important are no longer so, old enterprises are devalued, new ones emerge without certainty as to whether they will yield profits at the expected level. The only thing certain in this economic turmoil is uncertainty.
However Heinrich (2012: 174-5) concludes that “at the general level of depiction intended by Marx in Capital, nothing further can be said concerning the concrete development of specific crises”. The progression of specific crises is dependent upon the respective concrete circumstances, such as “technical and operational developments, the structure of the credit system, the position of a country on the world market (a priority for capital particularly in times of crisis), the organisation of the working class and its struggles, and the manner of state intervention in the business cycle”.
If Marx’s value theory is a monetary theory of value, then the commodity and value cannot exist and also cannot be conceptualised without reference to money. The same can be said concerning the relationship between capital and credit. Heinrich (2012: 165) argues that within traditional Marxism, a non-monetary theory of value was dominant, as was a conception of credit that reduced it to a mere appendage that was unnecessary for the existence of capital, and unnecessary for the understanding of capital. Therefore one advantage of Heinrich’s approach is that it can be brought to bear more readily on the current crisis, where the financial aspects have been to the fore.
In chapter 11, Heinrich (2012: 200-3) provides important clarity on the relationships between the state and capital. Marx emphasises that “the state and law cannot be grasped by themselves, but must always be examined against the background of economic relations”. However his criticises a trend within some Marxist thinking, which defines the state primarily an instrument in the hands of the ruling class. Heinrich accepts as “indisputable” that particular fractions of capital attempt to use the state as an instrument, and sometimes succeed in doing so. But in political practice “the instrumentalist conception of the state usually leads to the demand for alternative use of the state”, which effectively a reformist perspective.
Heinrich (2012: 203-5) says that a fundamental problem with the “instrumentalist” conception of the state is that it “obscures the qualitative differences between pre-bourgeois and bourgeois social relations and only emphasises the division of social into social classes”. In capitalist society, economic exploitation and political rule diverge. He states that the state “does in fact conduct itself as a neutral instance with regard to its citizens; this neutrality is in no way merely an illusion. Rather it is precisely by means of this neutrality that the state secures the foundations of capitalist relations of domination and exploitation”. The formulation is somewhat misleading. He is not seeking to allow reformism back in, but rather to stress that the appearance of the state as an arbiter “above” classes is real.
The state has to continuously and directly intervene to encourage and enable capitalist production. The state, following Engels in Anti-Dühring (MECW 25: 266) thus acts as an “ideal personification of the total national capital” This general interest is not always identical with the particular interests of individual fractions of capital. The essential pre-condition of capitalist accumulation is the existence of waged-labourers, yet there is “a tendency towards the destruction of labour-power is thus intrinsic to capitalism”. The state does not only prevent the destruction of labour-power; in the form of the welfare state, it also guarantees its reproduction insofar as that is not possible solely as a result of the wage compensation negotiated between workers and capitalists.
Heinrich (2012: 207-8) argues that state social welfare measures “originate in the capital accumulation process, regardless of whether these measures are financed by social insurance contributions or taxes”. A portion of total social capital is used, so that the mass of surplus value is reduced. It is frequently the case that state social welfare measures come about as a result of struggles by the labour movement. The welfare state is therefore frequently understood as an “achievement” of the labour movement, a concession to the working class (in order to pacify it). However for Heinrich, “it is not the case that such measures are one-sided benefits for the forces of labour that – as is occasionally asserted – already constitute the first step in transcending capitalism. Rather, they safeguard the existence of workers in a manner consistent with capitalism, namely as wage-labourers”.
The interests that determine the state’s activity are not just sitting around waiting to be implemented, as is assumed by the instrumentalist conception. Rather these interests must first be constituted. Alternative strategies are possible, so that state policies cannot be reduced to the simple implementation of necessities of the capitalist economy. The reference to the economic purpose behind a state measure, popular in Marxist circles, is insufficient as an explanation. In the bourgeois public sphere, a political system counts as democratic when it offers the effective possibility for voting out a government.
Another significant virtue of the book is to highlight the disconnection between Marx’s political economy and later theories of imperialism. Heinrich (2012: 213) argues that in attempting to achieve the highest possible level of valorisation, “capital has a tendency to transcend national borders, both in the purchasing of elements of constant capital (most notably raw materials) as well as in the sale of its finished products”. Marx thus wrote (Capital 3: 205) of the world market that it is “the basis and living atmosphere of the capitalist mode of production”.
Heinrich (2012: 215-16) argues that in Lenin’s theory of imperialism, there are a number of extremely problematic points. First of all, the alleged transition from competitive to monopoly capitalism led Lenin to conclude a change in the capitalist mode of socialisation: it was no longer value, but rather the will of the monopolists that was supposedly dominating the economy the state is reduced to a mere instrument of these monopolists. Finally, the characterisation of imperialism as “parasitic” is problematic. Overall, “what Lenin intended as a continuation of Marx’s analysis ultimately has almost nothing to do with Marx’s critique of political economy”.
Not only theoretically, but also empirically, Lenin’s theory of imperialism stands on shaky ground: “the export of capital supposedly necessitated by imperialist policies did in fact occur, but the greater portion of this capital export went not to colonies and dependent territories but to other developed capitalist countries that also pursued imperialist policies”. That means that the cause of capital export could not solely lie in the absence of profitability in the capitalist centres, since that would mean there couldn’t have been any capital exported to other centres. Further, for the United States – regarded as the most important imperialist power – the import of capital, rather than the export of capital, is the decisive factor.
Heinrich (2012: 216) identifies the slippage between the early uses of imperialism and its subsequent application after Lenin’s time. He states: “If one describes the state assertion of the capitalist general interest at an international level by means of economic, political, or military pressure against other countries as imperialism, then imperialism is no longer a particular stage in the development of capitalism; rather every bourgeois state is imperialist within the limits of possibility, but then the term ‘imperialism’ really doesn’t say very much. At the international level, “a multiplicity of states of widely varying economic, political and military strength and with completely different interests face one another. Between them, there exist disparate constellations of dependence and alliance, as well as antagonisms”. An independent terrain of conflicts for power and influence between states is constituted. Upon this terrain, “the primary concern is the organisation of an international ‘order’ in the trade, currency, legal and military-political sectors”.
Heinrich (2012: 217-18) rightly says that the relations between states are not static; “they exist against a background of a developing capitalism that constantly restructures the technical conditions of the production process, the organisation of enterprises, and the international linkages between them”. The world market is not just a precondition, but the constantly re-created result of the capitalist mode of production. Periodisation like ‘imperialism’ thus applies to a more concrete analysis than Marx’s Capital. However such a periodisation should not be mistaken (as with some Marxist readings) for an inevitable development toward a final end – whether a “highest” stage of capitalism or even a “necessary” transition to socialism or communism.
Heinrich’s book is well worth reading. Alongside Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho’s Marx’s Capital (2003), which also covers the three volumes, it is the best introduction to Marxist political economy. It is comparable to Duncan Foley’s Understanding Capital (1986), such is the clear exposition of basic concepts. However there are at least three concerns which deserve to be aired: with Heinrich’s theoretical stance, his view of method and most importantly, his conception of class.
Heinrich (2012: 26) appears sympathetic to the leftist, Western Marxist stance pioneered by Korsch, Lukacs, Pannekoek and the Frankfurt school. This covers a wide range of thinkers, who veered from ultra-leftism (putschism, theory of the offensive, rejection of transitional demands, united fronts and the workers’ government slogan) to political passivity. Worse, he creates a pastiche of ‘traditional Marxism’ or ‘worldview Marxism’ as a straw opponent within Marxist history. This is an amalgam of Second International social democratic Marxism, Stalinism, and post-Trotsky Trotskyism.
Whilst there certainly are elements of crude economism and historical determinism within these strands, lumping them together actually narrows the importance of debate and disagreement at every stage of Marxist history. Thus on theories of crisis, on the state and on imperialism there are wide differences between the likes of Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky – and differences within their own works. Just as Heinrich finds a mixture of pre-scientific and revolutionary conceptions in Marx, we should apply the same standard to later Marxist debates, including contemporary discussions.
A second concern is with his treatment of dialectics. Heinrich (2012: 36-7) states that “more often than not, the grandiose rhetoric about dialectics is reducible to the simple fact that everything is dependent on everything else and is in a state of interaction and that’s all rather complicated – which is true in most cases, but doesn’t really say anything”. ‘Dialectics’ understood as the general science of development, was often viewed as a sort of Rosetta Stone with which everything could be explained. Instead he argues that dialectics is between understood as a “form of depiction in the critique of political economy”. The structure of the depiction is therefore “not a didactic question for Marx, but has a decisive substantive meaning”.
Heinrich concedes that the precondition of a dialectical portrayal is not the application of a method (a widespread conception in worldview Marxism) but rather the categorical critique. But that means dialectics is not simply a matter of presentation. Categories such as form, essence, necessity and ontology of structured intransitive (as in critical realism) are important philosophical assumptions that underlabour Marxism. The cod-dialectics of Stalinism should rightly be junked; but methodological kernel of Marxist dialectics still have enormous value.
The most substantial criticism of Heinrich’s approach concerns his treatment of classes. Some matters are probably presentational, but others suggest a failure to think through the critique of political economy into the realm of social theory. In a striking metaphor, Heinrich (2012: 185-6) argues that “capitalism turns out to be an anonymous machine, without any foreman who steers the machine or can be made responsible for the destruction wrought by the machine”. If one wishes to put an end to such destruction, it is not sufficient to criticise capitalists. Rather, capitalist structures in their entirety must be abolished. The political conclusion is right. However the idea of a driverless machine takes away a certain edge of naming the enemy – identifying actual capitalists and their backers has the actual agency to be overcome.
Heinrich (2012: 192) is right that in Capital, Marx writes repeatedly of classes, but there is no attempt at a systematic treatment or even a definition. Only at the end of the third volume does Marx begin a discussion on classes, and it is precisely here that the manuscript breaks off after a few sentences. From this arrangement, he says that “a systematic treatment of classes is not the precondition of Marx’s depiction, but rather should come at the end as its result”. One can speak of social classes in two distinct senses. In a “structural sense”, classes are determined by their position in the social process of production. To that extent, someone can belong to a particular social class without necessarily being aware of it. Distinct from this are classes in a “historical sense”. These are social groups that in a particular historical situation understand themselves to be classes as distinct from other classes; the members of the class distinguish themselves by means of a common “class consciousness”. In Capital, Marx uses the concept of class predominantly in the structural sense.
Heinrich (2012: 194) is keen to point out that “class conflict is not the only important social cleavage in capitalist society”. Conflicts concerning gender roles, racial oppression, and the handling of immigration are also of considerable importance for social development. However he states that “traditional Marxism often considered class conflicts to be the only truly important social struggles”. Here Heinrich goes from the self-evidently true proposition that struggles around sex, race and sexuality are not reducible to class, to an assertion about Marxist history that does not hold. Only if one ignores Engels and Bebel on women, Marx on the US civil war, or Lenin on nationalism, or countless other subtle analyses of the relations between different forms of exploitation and oppression, would such a caveat apply.
Heinrich (2012: 196-8) argues that in the history of Marxism, two false conclusions were often made concerning class and class struggle. First, “it was inferred that class consciousness arises sooner or later as a direct result of the situation of the working class”. Second, “it was assumed that this class consciousness must have a more or less ‘revolutionary’ content”. He accepts that “the proletariat experiences a numerical increase as a result of the imposition of the capitalist mode of production and in a certain sense is “unified” and “schooled” by large industry (to the extent that the proletariat has to organise politically and in trade unions to continue to exist as a proletariat)”.
However, “the idea that this inevitably leads to the constitution of a revolutionary class is in no way a consequence of Marx’s analysis”. A revolutionary development can arise; “it is not impossible, but it is anything but inevitable”. Thus “it is anything but certain that a common class position necessarily generates a common consciousness and practice... it can happen, but then again it might not”. Again the problem is that a valuable insight is jumbled with a straw argument that few Marxists today would have any truck with. The caricature does not raise the level of argument around the difficulties for workers developing class consciousness – the earlier discussion of political economy and of ideology (especially fetishism) is a much more useful insight.
The problem with Heinrich’s approach is perhaps most clearly drawn out in his treatment of workers and the labour movement. He states (2012: 78-9) the popular argument of worldview Marxism: “namely that there exists a social subject (the working class), which, on the basis of its particular position in bourgeois society, possesses a special ability to see through social relationships. Many representatives of traditional Marxism expressed the need to “take the standpoint of the working class” in order to understand capitalism. But in doing so, they overlooked the fact that workers (just like capitalists) in their spontaneous consciousness are also subject to the delusions of the commodity fetish. “One cannot therefore speak of a privileged position of perception occupied by the working class – but one also cannot make the claim that fetishism is in principle impenetrable.”
The caricature is a long way from Marxist thinking. The argument about the privileged position of the working class does not primarily relate to the matter of special perception, although in order to break through the mask of fetishism, shared experience of collective struggle is necessary. However the argument relates the material interests of workers, arising from exploitation, that provide good reasons to engage in class struggle; and secondly the power of the working class conferred by its strategic position in the social relations of production, so brilliantly depicted by Marx in Capital and his other works. This is an argument about how the social structure, far from being simply oppressive, also enables workers to break their chains and struggle as strategic agents for their own emancipation.
These criticisms should not detract from the importance of this book. Heinrich (2012: 223-24) argues that there are still many valid reasons to fight for socialism: the social devastation wrought by global capitalism while their exists at the same time a historically unprecedented level of material wealth; the destruction of the natural foundations of life caused by capitalist production, no longer occurring locally but affecting the planet as a whole (clearly visible in climate change); and constant wars that also emanate from or are promoted by “democratic” bourgeois states.
This is real value of Marx’s Capital. It is a foundation stone for the critique of the entire social science of bourgeois society, but it is also the basis for working class self-liberation as a viable and increasingly necessary alternative to the world as it is.