Marx misread

Issue: 123

Jonathon Collerson

Stephen Shapiro, How to Read Marx’s Capital (Pluto Press, 2008), £12.99

The left has good reason to return to Capital, given the unrest gripping economic wisdom. Images of Nicolas Sarkozy thumbing the pages of Le Capital titillated the Economist and, in a Financial Times op-ed, Harold James wrote, “Marx’s description of ‘the fetishism of commodities’ seems entirely relevant to the complex process of securitisation, in which values seem to be hidden by obscure transactions.” But, he warned, “the implication of Marx’s renewed popularity is that capitalism is now universally accepted as being fundamentally broken”.

In How to Read Marx’s Capital, Stephen Shapiro gives a near chapter by chapter reading of the first volume of Capital. But the act of paraphrasing imbues the text with a definite interpretation and Shapiro’s version of Marx’s theory of value undermines his otherwise adequate reading of topics such as the working day, the division of labour and primitive accumulation.

Marx argues that the value of a commodity is the amount of labour time required to produce it with the socially valid technique and skill. Exchange-value is the real quantity of one commodity that exchanges for another, the form in which value appears when commodities enter the market. But Shapiro writes, when Marx “uses the word ‘value’ he really means exchange-value”. This does strange things to Marx’s argument. Marx writes, “The progress of the investigation will lead us back to exchange_value as the necessary mode of expression, or form of appearance, of value.” For Shapiro this reads, “Exchange-value is the form of appearance of exchange-value.”

Shapiro argues that the distinction Marx draws in chapter one of Capital is merely between use-value and exchange-value, rather than value and exchange-value. The first pair are what immediately appears to us about a commodity: it is something useful and something paid for. The second pair disclose an essence and its form of appearance. This is important if we want to understand where surplus value and thus profit come from. Marx claims that under capitalism equal values exchange. Labour power is itself a commodity, for which the workers receive an equivalent exchange_value, their wage. It also has a use-value: its ability to both replace this equivalent and create a surplus value beyond it. There is nothing fraudulent (in principle) in the sale and purchase of labour power.

Because Shapiro collapses together value and exchange-value, he cannot explain surplus value. This leads to the claim that “fraud is the origin and sole source of surplus value”—the opposite of what Marx tries to show. This in turn leads Shapiro to attribute the views of early 19th century popular political economy to Marx. The influence of Adam Smith and David Ricardo on these early radical economists led them to the belief that the market was a means to social equality. Marx wrote his critique of political economy to combat this current in the workers’ movement.

However, in Shapiro’s view, Marx establishes that, “once we have moved beyond the very basic, self-sufficient village groups, commodity production is the human condition”. He misquotes Marx as saying commodity production (rather than labour in its most generic sense) is an “eternal natural necessity”. A communist society would thus be “a modern society that produces commodities, but without the supplement of commodity fetishism”, and “if labourers were paid the true value of their work, there would be no price differentials, no surplus value, no capital and no profits”.

These issues create problems in a text aimed at students as a cheap and brief introduction. A further issue is the tight focus on the text of the first volume in isolation from Marx’s account of capitalism’s overall dynamic developed in volumes two and three of Capital. As an introduction to Marx’s critique of capitalism How to Read Marx’s Capital can only be partial. There remains space for an introduction that does cover the whole ground.