Capital in context

Issue: 151

Jacques Bidet

A review of Alex Callinicos, Deciphering Capital: Marx’s Capital and its Destiny (Bookmarks, 2014), £14.99

Deciphering Capital by Alex Callinicos is the impressive balance sheet of some 30 years of research. Its starting point is a thesis completed at Oxford in 1978 entitled “The Logic of Capital”, which distanced him at one and the same time from both the surrounding Hegelian Marxism and the empiricism of Ernest Mandel. Since then Callinicos, an intellectual and political militant in the British Trotskyist tradition and editor of International Socialism, has maintained, via numerous works, a constant presence in the confrontations over the interpretation and possible usages of Capital on the different terrains of philosophy, economics, history and politics, his own chosen position being where these diverse forms of knowledge and practice intersect.

His book addresses in turn the classic issues of the development of Capital, the relationship to David Ricardo, and to Hegel, the theory of value, of labour and of crises. The field stretches well beyond the purview of writers generally taken into consideration in debates in France. And the extensive bibliography is always a matter of stringent and precise discussion—which, for the French reader, makes it an invaluable travel guide. The freshness of this book comes from, on the one hand, the political impetus that runs through the apparently technical discussions and, on the other, from a mode of inquiry marked by the influence of Louis Althusser that has become invested in, or been received into, the world of English language Marxisms, and acts as a guiding thread of sorts throughout the book.

The frame the book weaves is a realist-constructivist one. As against the approach taken by Christopher Arthur in The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital, which tends to model its exposition of Marxism on Hegel’s Logic, the book develops the concept of a theoretical construction through additions of new determinations (p137). It therefore rejects the notion of a dialectical development going from money to capital, something that would give the capitalist system a kind of substantialist unity. The dialectic of Capital should be grasped as the unity between the form and the content (p158).

The chapter on value makes it clear that Marx is from the outset engaged in a critique of Samuel Bailey (p165), in other words, that it is opposed to a “subjective” theory, the premise of the marginalist revolution, to which Ricardo offers no adequate reply. If the chapter deviates from Isaak Rubin (p173), for whom abstract labour refers not to the expenditure of labour power through which different forms of labour are equalised, but to their being made equal through exchange, it does so by demonstrating that Marx nevertheless surpasses any substantialist conception of value.

The book is particularly sensitive to the process through which the specific rationality of capitalism manifests itself. Hence the scathing critique of Moishe Postone (p210), but equally the dissatisfaction with approaches such as that of Enrique Dussel, which makes “living labour” the pivot of its dynamic, or that of Toni Negri, rooted in the approximations of the Grundrisse rather than in the maturity of Capital. The theme, dear to David Harvey (pp198-199), of “accumulation by dispossession” is also put into perspective as potentially leading back to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s “property is theft”, against which Marx reacted head on. Light is shed, though, on a whole literature that promotes the “decommodification” of labour power under the welfare state (p232).

These considerations lay the groundwork for the idea that, far from reflecting 19th century society, Capital deciphers a logic that neoliberalism, as it moves from one crisis to another, is now bringing to its climax. This book, therefore, is above all a book on the actuality of Capital. What makes itself heard here, on the terrain of the concept, is a great voice of the international radical left.

Originally published in French in Actuel Marx number 58 (October 2015).

Jacques Bidet is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Paris-Ouest and honorary director of the journal Actuel Marx. His books include Exploring Marx’s Capital (2006), Foucault with Marx (2016), Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism (co-edited with Stathis Kouvelakis, 2007).