Marxism in the drunk tank

Submitted by martin on 25 December, 2018 - 12:32 Author: Martin Thomas
Drunk tank

Michael Heinrich's "Introduction to the three volumes of Karl Marx's Capital" is also an introduction to the "Neue Marx-Lektüre" (new reading of Marx) school of thought of which Heinrich is part.

It does many things, in both its jobs, well. It is crisply-written. In discussing ideas from Marx, it refers to today's capitalism, without being swamped by today's empirical details.

It gives a clear thumbnail sketch of what volumes 2 and 3 of Capital cover, especially useful since the readers who take Heinrich's advice to read those volumes as well as volume 1 are going to find that they are collections of unfinished notes and essays quite dissimilar from the carefully crafted and rounded volume 1.

It explains why ideas such as "absolute impoverishment of the working class" and "the tendency of the rate of profit to fall" cannot be reckoned as central to Marx's theory, or even true.

It shows that capitalist economic relations are a structure over and above the individual predispositions of capitalists or anyone else. It skewers various forms of short-cut anti-capitalism which, instead of indicting the structures, indict the ill-will of such groups as "the multinationals", "the monopolies", "the financial speculators".

It examines how such short-cut anti-capitalism can generate antisemitism in which capitalist economic relations, or intellectualism, or mobility between countries, are projected outward onto and "blamed on" Jews. It gently debunks inflated talk about "dialectics".

All that is interwoven with a polemic against what Heinrich calls "traditional Marxism" or "world-view Marxism", which generally seems to mean almost everyone who tried to understand Marx, other than maybe Marx himself, until Heinrich and his associates came along.

Heinrich describes himself as a "political scientist and mathematician", although all his writing has been about, and his day-job at HTW Berlin is in, economics. He denies 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... One cannot speak of a privileged [meaning better, more perceptive] position of perception occupied by the working class".

The last sentences of the book tell us that Heinrich favours replacing capitalism by communism, but it is unclear who will do that.

Heinrich also polemicises against the idea that the state is the instrument of the ruling class, bundling in all versions of that idea with the crudest. On that Heinrich was pretty much already answered in advance by Max Shachtman in his polemic against Ernest Erber.

Heinrich's criticism of Lenin on imperialism can be read as ungenerous and sometimes caricatural without lurching into the converse view that Lenin's pamphlet was a universal key for understanding all subsequent imperialism, rather than a polemic for its time: I've written on that myself.

He criticises the notion that economic crisis automatically generates revolution or even clearer class-consciousness: the same criticism was argued by Trotsky,

I will dissect Heinrich's construct of "traditional" Marxism, and then discuss his ideas in particular on the working class in capitalism and on value.

Heinrich sees "traditional" or "world-view" Marxism as being initiated by Engels's Anti-Dühring. Eugen Dühring, who was being sacked from his job at Berlin University thanks to right-wing pressure, had written a whole socialist "philosophical system".

Despite Dühring's antisemitism and crankiness, many leaders of the young German worker-socialist movement were keen to rally round him. Exasperated, Engels eventually wrote a comprehensive critique of Dühring.

The polemic, so Heinrich argues, shaped Engels' exposition into the same "world-view", "key-to-all-sciences" mould as Dühring's. That version of "Marxism" was readily taken up by the German workers' movement, in preference to the more specific "critique of political economy" developed in Capital, because it served an "identity-constituting" role for activists, nourishing German Social Democracy's counter-culture.

In fact the German Social Democracy's counter-culture, its great array of workers' libraries and workers' clubs of many sorts, emerged only later, after the period of illegality for the movement which ran from 1878, the same year as Anti-Dühring was first published as a book, to 1890.

The keenness of some Social Democratic leaders to latch on to Dühring was - on the account of David Riazanov, who researched the matter ( - generated by lack of self-confidence and the consequent yearning for prestigious allies. (It was also short-lived: it had pretty much evaporated, thanks to Dühring's own behaviour, by the time Anti-Dühring was published as a book).

Engels repeatedly derided Dühring's claim to have develop an entire philosophical system. He wrote: "This work cannot in any way aim at presenting another system as an alternative to Herr Dühring's 'system'." He later repeatedly criticised the predilection of over-confident young socialist writers "to confine themselves in their articles to what they have really grasped".

In a parlour-game "confession", Engels wrote, ruefully: "chief characteristic: to know everything by halves"; "motto: take it aisy". (Marx's equivalent - characteristic: "singleness of purpose"; motto: "doubt everything"). It is arguable, I think true, that in the earlier parts of Anti-Dühring Engels was led by the drive to answer Dühring point-by-point into dubious or wrong digressions (see

As it happens, those earlier parts got a cool reception. When they were serialised in the socialists' journal Vorwärts, only by an argument and a compromise were the leaders of the Social Democracy able to block moves simply to cancel the serialisation and reject the rest of Engels' writing.

What became popular in the German, and the world, socialist movement was a short pamphlet extracted by Engels from the later parts of Anti-Dühring, entitled Socialism Utopian and Scientific. Anti-Dühring itself was not translated into Russian until 1904, into English until 1907 (only abridged), and into French until 1911. Capital was much more widely read.

In any case, Marx read the whole text of Anti-Dühring and contributed a chapter to it: if the book represented a conversion of his theory into something entirely different, Marx himself did not notice.

Heinrich makes a lot of Marx's famous remark: "One thing is certain, and that is that I am not a Marxist". Far from being a reproach to Engels, the remark is known to us only by it being quoted by Engels in a letter to Bernstein (November 1882).

At the time no-one positively called themselves "Marxist". The context was that some leaders of the French socialist movement, ex-anarchists moving towards reformism, had coined the word "Marxist" to stigmatise not so much a doctrine as those in the movement with personal connections to Marx, such as Marx's daughter Laura and her husband Paul Lafargue. What Marx meant was: don't make me responsible for everything Paul Lafargue says.

Heinrich goes on to indict Karl Kautsky, the best-known Marxist theorist around 1900 (and Lenin, too, on the basis of off-handedly quoting a rather bombastic passage from an article of Lenin's which was a rehash of something of Kautsky's).

Kautsky is indicted for writing that "Capital is essentially a historical work", but in context Kautsky meant that Capital dealt with historically specific facts rather than universal "philosophical" generalisations.

Heinrich, reasonably enough, makes a lot of Capital's chapter 1, section 4, on commodity fetishism, but without noting that Kautsky himself highlighted that section as "one of the most important", yet "most neglected by... the supporters of the Marxian doctrines".

The element of truth in Heinrich's polemic against "a privileged position of perception occupied by the working class" is that just being individual workers gives us no automatic better insight than anyone else. That was a commonplace in the socialist movement of the early 20th century. The German socialist "counter-culture" was one of workers proud of their efforts to educate themselves, not of workers who thought they automatically knew better because they were workers.

Kautsky summed it up, in a passage famously cited by Lenin: "Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge... Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without, and not something that arose within it spontaneously".

Heinrich pretty much takes Stalinism as the authentic representative of "traditional Marxism". As other Marxist currents he recognises only Korsch, Gramsci, Pannekoek, and the Frankfurt school (and that only in passing, and without conceding that Gramsci, for all his merits otherwise, erred more into Marxism-as-universal-philosophy thinking than Engels or Kautsky or Lenin ever did:

Heinrich criticises the Stalinist states as if they arose from a mistake in would-be Marxist thinking, a shallowly "distribution-centric" critique of capitalism resulting in a "socialism" bringing only "a somewhat egalitarian distribution of income" and "the greatest possible social security" but authoritarian rule. The Stalinist states had a less egalitarian distribution of income, and inflicted greater insecurity on workers, than many ordinary capitalist states: they were shaped by the class needs of their bureaucratic exploiting classes, not by misinterpretations of Marx.

Equating Bolshevism by Stalinism, Heinrich takes all that to have been criticised in advance by Rosa Luxemburg in her unpublished prison notes from 1918 on the Russian revolution.

In fact the sort of pop-philosophy "workerism" which Heinrich identifies as "traditional Marxism" was a scheme used chiefly by Stalinists. Not that the Stalinists went along with whatever workers "spontaneously" said: far from it! The scheme enabled the Stalinists, especially in countries where they had wide working-class support, to present their ideology as an all-answering direct emanation of "true" working-class consciousness, or at least as a product of the "dialectical" thinking emanating from "true" working-class consciousness. Thus they could dismiss all critical Marxist ideas as "petty-bourgeois" or worse.

The result of Heinrich taking Stalinism as the authentic representation of all Marxism since Marx, and reading back Stalinistic ideas into Lenin, Kautsky, Engels, and so on, is that the whole history of the workers' movement appears to him as "one big tragedy".

"The development of leftist parties that once wished to transcend capitalism was one big tragedy. Either they increasingly moved away from their original critique, like the Social Democratic parties... or like most Communist parties they... committ[ed] themselves completely to the defence of an authoritarian and extremely repressive model of socialism... Those parties that held onto a radical critique of capitalism as well as of 'really existing socialism' usually withered into political irrelevance, if they ever managed to escape that state of irrelevance to begin with" (

No wonder, then, that, to a critic who complained that his book presented "capitalism without class struggle", Heinrich replied blandly: what class and what struggle? (, in German).

In Heinrich's construction, all that remains as a vehicle for hope is the assurance that commodity fetishism, the structure of adaptation to capitalist relations which surrounds us all, "affects different individuals with varying strength and can be penetrated on the basis of experience and reflection". Perhaps, over time, enough miscellaneous people will read Heinrich, they will "reflect" enough, and then things can change...

Heinrich is right that Marx argues in Capital that individual workers as well as individual capitalists have adaptation to capitalist relations imprinted on them by those relations themselves, via "commodity fetishism" itself.

For example, in chapter 19, Marx wrote: "In the corvée [feudal forced labour], the labour of the worker for himself, and his compulsory labour for his lord, differ in space and time... In slave labour... all the slave’s labour appears as unpaid labour. In wage labour, on the contrary, even surplus-labour, or unpaid labour, appears as paid... The money-relation conceals the unrequited labour of the wage labourer.

"Hence, we may understand the decisive importance of the transformation of value and price of labour-power into the form of wages, or into the value and price of labour itself. This phenomenal form, which makes the actual relation invisible, and, indeed, shows the direct opposite of that relation, forms the basis of all the juridical notions of both labourer and capitalist, of all the mystifications of the capitalistic mode of production, of all its illusions as to liberty, of all the apologetic shifts of the vulgar economists".

Marx is stressing here that this is a "real" phenomenal form, not a fiction contrived by bourgeois propagandists, which overlays the human relations underpinning wage labour. In the process of capitalist society, that real phenomenal form shapes "the juridical notions" of workers as well as capitalists.

But in chapter 6 Marx has written something else. After showing us that capitalist commodity-exchange generates a realm of "Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham", he writes:

"On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities... we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer.

"The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but - a hiding".

The sphere of circulation is one of the exchange of equivalents, barring individual cases of cheating. But the one of its exchanges which takes out of that sphere into the sphere of production - the exchange of labour-power with capital - is also something different.

As Marx put it in the Grundrisse: "The worker cannot become rich in this exchange, since, in exchange for his labour capacity as a fixed, available magnitude, he surrenders its creative power, like Esau his birthright for a mess of pottage.

"Rather, he necessarily impoverishes himself... because the creative power of his labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him. He divests himself of labour as the force productive of wealth; capital appropriates it, as such...

"The productivity of his labour, his labour in general, in so far as it is not a capacity but a motion, real labour, comes to confront the worker as an alien power; capital, inversely, realises itself through the appropriation of alien labour".

While, structurally, the terms of exchange of other commodities appear as an impersonal matter (barring this or that case of cheating), structurally the exchange between labour-power and capital leads into class struggle over the amount and intensity of labour to be extracted when the capitalists "consume" the labour-power they have bought. Workers become less "timid".

The term "working class" first appears in Capital in chapter 10, on the working day, where Marx shows that the length and intensity of the working day must be set not by exchange-relations in general, but by struggle between the capitalist class and the working class.

In the course of that struggle, workers who come to look at society not just as individual workers, but from the viewpoint of the working-class collective which lives in and struggles over similar working-day norms to theirs, can come to perceive exploitation as structural, not just as a matter of exceptionally low wages, and productive powers as their own and not just (as appears in the market) belonging to capital.

Of course, in periods of low and scattered working-class struggle, that perception will be dim and often swamped. Of course, even in the times of highest struggle, it requires agitation, organisation, and education to build the perception into a social overview. Marx certainly knew that: throughout his whole time living in England, the British working class had little organisation other than craft-minded trade unions, scarcely "liberal-labour" in politics.

But the possibility is there. Despite everything, in most times, in most places, workers tend to be more left-wing and socialist-minded than capitalists and middle-class people. And workers have the basis for the collective organisation and solidarity which can make socialism reality: no other class has, though individuals from other classes can and do play a big part in helping along that organisation.

When he discusses the state, Heinrich is at pains to stress the complexities, the degree to which state operations have autonomy from general capitalist imperatives. But the same is even more true of the working class.

In the 1970s, a version of Marxist thinking almost the inverse of Heinrich's gained currency, in Italy especially. The "operaisti" ("workerists") read Marx by focusing on chapter 15 of Capital, where the term "working-class" is used frequently, and argued that in fact the struggles of the working class drove capitalist development. With some justice in the times of the great workers' struggles of the late 1960s and early 70s, but often with drunken overoptimism, they wrote that: "The alternative exists as a murmuring among the proletariat".

The "post-operaisti" read like someone reeling along to another, but more crestfallen, drinking sessions, with now a scheme into one of overoptimism on behalf of an ill-defined "multitude" ( In Heinrich, there is more a tone of "Marxism in the drunk tank": a distancing from the working class, and now the idea that no class struggle of any kind drives capitalist development, but instead the impersonal relations of capitalism plus all sort of "conflicts within and between classes as well as the relative strength and ability of different groups".

Heinrich's version of value theory perhaps explains why he blurs over the "change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae" which happens with the move from exchange of labour-power with capital to capitalist labour process.

He emphasises that abstract labour, labour as consumption of a quantum of general labour-power rather than as a particular concrete labour-process, is not an immediately-given fact embedded in each individual commodity.

That is true. Abstract labour is the counterpart in the world of labour of money in the world of commodities, and is formed through the domination of society by an pervasive flow of commodity exchange. In his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a sort of first draft of part of Capital, Marx wrote that "universal social labour" (his earlier term for what he later called "abstract labour") was:

"Labour which proves that it is universal social labour only by the supersession of its original character in the exchange process. Universal social labour is consequently not a ready-made prerequisite but an emerging result".

Even more strikingly, in the Grundrisse Marx wrote: "In the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society – in the United States... for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category 'labour', 'labour as such', labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice..."

The idea here is that abstract labour is a real relation in capitalist society, even though it exists only as a "becoming", as an asymptote to which our labour is continuously approximated through the adaptation of labour-processes to exchange processes. It can be measured in hours.

Capitalists work, under market compulsions and necessarily with some effectiveness, to approximate actual labour processes to it. That fact is the basis for all the calculations in Capital volume 1, in which labour in each individual production process in each individual period is taken as having been approximated to "abstract labour" standards by the overall capitalist process.

Heinrich, however, takes the idea that abstract labour is not "ready-made" as indicating that it cannot be measured in hours at all. There is no problem of correlating values with prices (what has been traditionally, I concede confusingly, called the "transformation problem"). "There can be no point of any sort of procedure for calculating prices from values".

In fact - it must follow logically, though Heinrich doesn't say this - the numerical discrepancy between value and price which Marx repeatedly emphasises cannot exist at all. "Value" is simply a back-calculation into the world of labour from the prices we see in the market.

Heinrich also wants to argue that abstract labour is not just a "mental abstraction", something like the "abstract cake" which we would consider if we decided as an exercise of imagination to ignore differences between different sorts of cake, but a "real abstraction", "an abstraction that is carried out in the actual behaviour of humans".

But the actual behaviour of humans happens in hours. And how many hours is of the essence when it comes to wage-labour.

I have written on this in my 1979 article "Time's Carcase".

Click here for another review of Heinrich, by Paul Hampton

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