Misunderstanding Marx from the Beginning: Notes on the Three Peculiarities of the Equivalent Form in Vol. 1 of Capital

(In memory of Cyril Smith, whose translation correction led to a close reading and consideration of this material.)

In the appendix to his essay “Hegel, Economics, and Marx’s Capital” (History, Economic History and the Future of Marxism, Essays in Memory of Tom Kemp), Cyril Smith corrects the typical and oft-repeated mistranslation of the third peculiarity of the equivalent form. However, he makes his own mistake in reading the relation of the three equivalents, which led us to a productive rethinking of this very important section of Chapter 1 of Volume 1 of Capital and some of Marx’s fundamental notions. This is not merely important from the point of view of accuracy, but has theoretical and political implications for understanding Marx’s project, his materialism and our politics.

The Three Peculiarities
Ben Fowkes (Capital, Vol. 1, Vintage, 1978) translates the three peculiarities as follows:

1st peculiarity: "use-value becomes the form of appearance of its opposite, value." p. 148
2nd peculiarity: "concrete labour becomes the form of manifestion of its opposite, abstract human labour." p. 150
3rd peculiarity: "private labour takes the form of its opposite, namely labour in its directly social form." P. 151

Smith corrects the translation of the 3rd peculiarity, which in the German actually does read as follows:

"…private labour becomes the form of its opposite, namely labour in its directly social form." (Das Kapital, 4th German Ed., 1908)

While this seems innocuous, even mere hair-splitting, we will argue that this is far from any such pettiness and indicates the opening to a radically different reading of Marx. The chart below provides a quick means of grasping the relation of the six elements of the three peculiarities to each other.

Traditional reading:
concrete labor........................abstract labor
social labor.............................private labor

Cyril Smith reading:
abstract labor........................concrete labor
private labor..........................social labor

In the traditional reading, the first and second peculiarity are correctly grasped (use-value as the form of appearance of value and concrete labor as the form of appearance of abstract labor), but the third is completely wrong (social labor as the form of appearance of private labor.) As Smith points out, the traditional translation reverses the actual German. In Marx’s text, private labor is the form of appearance of social labor.
The traditional translation treats private labor as the essence of labor under capital, but this would be the position of bourgeois political economy. Marx’s whole work reveals that what appears under capital as merely private, individual activity is in fact social. The whole of Marxist Political Economy, or Marx’s critique of political economy rendered as the ideology of the left-wing of capital, stands upon this foundation, this mystification. In effect, it makes a fetish of private labor. Taken to its conclusion, then, the abolition of capital would mean the abolition of directly social labor, a non sequitir from Marx’s point of view. Yet how often has this been exactly true of orthodox Marxism? Bolshevism and social democracy did not seek to abolish capitalist sociality, but to put it under the control of the state, to socialize it or to make it directly social, to realize capitalist sociality via wage-labor through the abolition of its private appearance. Hence, ‘the revolution’ never involved the abolition of wage-labor, a change which was always put off until the ‘second, higher phase’ of communism. The results were all too clear.i
Cyril Smith accurately grasped the political economic meaning of this mistranslation, but then reversed the relation to the first two peculiarities. Smith said that use-value, concrete labor and the social do not appear. This is not correct. Going through all three peculiarities, the balance is as follows:

concrete labor........................abstract labor
private labor...........................social labor

The problem here is that while Fowkes and the rest of the translators cannot grasp the third peculiarity, starting as they do from the point of view of Marxist Political Economy and the perfection of the integration of labor and capital, Smith misread it from a humanist perspective which saw the social as 'human' and the private, isolated, apparently anti-social as inhuman. This led Smith to adopt a normative treatment of sociality, use-value and concrete labor.
Use-value and concrete-labour become the forms of appearance of value and abstract labour. This reading of it is verified by the long paragraph on p. 166 of the Fowkes translation, where Fowkes also makes the exact same error again! That paragraph does not accord with the traditional reading, but neither with Cyril Smith’s.
Given the structure of the arguments, Marx has in mind not the social as an a-historical ‘in itself’, but the private and the social as two moments of the polarity engendered by their being split into apparently separate moments. This social is the social of capital. This is why directly social labor is not necessarily good either, as slavery and feudalism were directly social under relations of personal dependence. In a later discussion, Cyril Smith made the following point in agreement:

My mistake, in relation to Capital, was more serious than getting the translation wrong. I think that it had a systematic character. When I was writing it, it was part of a mis-reading of the whole of Chapter 1. The impression given was that the categories used by Marx were still partly showing bourgeois society, but partly showing communism.
This was quite wrong. All the categories were bourgeois. For example, use-value is taken as equivalent to goods, and concrete labour is taken as labour, instead of being the bourgeois equivalent.
But this only part of the story. The method of Capital is to bring out the elements of communism within their opposites, to show how the forms of communist life exist through the forms of bourgeois life. But this becomes clear only when we reach the end of the analysis.

We find this supported by the discussion Marx has on p. 166 of the Fowkes trans. in section 4 on Commodity Fetishism. That long paragraph only makes sense if we read the three peculiarities of the equivalent form on pp. 147-151 in our way.
In that paragraph, in the last sentence, concrete labor, as the appearance of abstract labor, gives us (or rather, shows itself to our brains as) Value, and private labor as the form of appearance of social labor gives us Use-Value, therein the three peculiarities are united in his discussion of the dual appearance of the commodity as use-value and value in our brains. So from the 3 peculiarities, we come to this:

Appearance..........Essence.................Contradiction of the commodity
private labor..........social labor.............use-values
concrete labor.......abstract labor.........values

In a recent paper, Paresh Chattopadhyay actually quotes from Marx's manuscripts for Volume 3 about the abolition of private labor under the capital form, which indicates that private labor would have to be the form of appearance and not social labor:

"In fact in his manuscript for Capital vol. 3 composed before Capital vol. 1 Marx himself takes full account of the evolution of capital's ownership form, entirely dictated by the demands of capital accumulation, till a stage is reached where capital remains no longer "private" and becomes "directly social" signifying the "abolition of capital as private property within the limits of the capitalist mode of production itself" (1964a: 452; 1992: 502; emphasis in the manuscript, not in Engels edition)." (Paresh Chattopadhyay, Class Theory and History, pp. 4-5, not yet published)

It seems to further verify our notion of the relation between social and private in the context of class society and the movement of the three peculiarities, and this without our having realized it was there and without having received this paper before the exchange with Cyril Smith.

Implications, Theoretical and Political
The result is that abstract labor, sociality and value do not appear, which has radical implications, as we indicated above, both for the social and for a humanist reading of the 3 peculiarities, denying the social (and by extension, use-value and concrete labor) the position of unalienated or normatively positive status. The existence of a possible distinction between abstract/concrete, social/private or value/use-value already indicates a contradiction, a relation in Hegel's sense, and as such the abolition of capital should be the abolition not of one side, but the negation of the relation and therefore of all terms in the relation.
We therefore have to reckon with different uses of the notion of social within Marx’s work, and this would make sense. All human relations are social relations, some taking a directly social form, but that does not make the relations free. Slavery and feudalism were directly social. Capital introduces a new moment by inverting the social and private relations of production, in which social relations take the form of private relations, that of individuals in the market and individuals as citizens in relation to the state. Capital actually suppresses the sociality of human relations, displacing that sociality doubly onto things (commodities) and onto the state (the illusory community.)
Marx extensively explores the result of the displacement of sociality into the thing, having already begun to conceptually come to terms with it via the concept of alienated labor and later concretized as commodity fetishism. The displacement of sociality into the state is also discussed by Marx, though in a more fragmented fashion. The implications of it have only been fleshed out in the experiences of revolution since the Paris Commune. I think that this discussion of the relation of social and private labor in this small section of Capital illuminates Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune, particularly his referring to the Paris Commune as a semi-state and his more neglected comments that:

“The political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery. The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. With labor emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labor ceases to be a class attribute.” (Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm)

Not only must the working class smash the state, it must assume political power. This is not in the sense of creating its own state. Such a phrasing exactly misses the point in treating the state as merely an apparatus, a thing. Rather, the working class must end that gap opened by capital between the political and the economic, which also means ending the division of private and social labor. The working class does so by the creation of organs of social control which already begin that process. This is the key to Marx’s comment about the Paris commune as a semi-state and the weakness of the anarchist critique of Marx. Marx too sees the abolition of the state as one of the tasks at hand, and one which, contra the Leninists, begins the day of the revolution. The abolition of the state is the beginning of the abolition of the separation of the economic and the political, not merely of some specific institutions. Those institutions must be replaced with other institutions, but of a new type. This is what often confuses people in reading The Civil War in France because Marx appears to simultaneously view the Paris working class as having abolished the state and at the same time as having merely taken over its functions as if creating a new state. It seems clear to me however that the re-instantiation of the state would destroy that unification of the economic and the political which is central to the emancipation of labor, in which “labor ceases to be a class attribute.”
I will merely note in passing that the end of the separation of private and social labor does not result in the submerging of the private, of the individual, back into society, but can only rest on the firm foundation of private labor having been individuated under the capital-labor relation. No doubt, posing capital as progressive in this way will annoy some people, and yet it happens to be that through this specific form of alienated labor that labor finds its own possible individuation. As such, labor under communism involves that moment of mutual recognition which affirms my individual activity and being in the world, while doing to through my existence as a consciously social being (hence, freely associated labor, or as Marx says in the next paragraph to the one cited above:

“Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labor of the many the wealth of the few. It aimed at the expropriation of the expropriators. It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labor, into mere instruments of free and associated labor. But this is communism, "impossible" communism!” (Italics mine.)

Thus the correct grasping of the separation of private and social labor and their relationship within capital not only militates against an economistic reading of Marx, it also opens up to us the meaning of Marx’s whole notion of proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In relation to the former, the proletariat does not have an already positive social contained within itself. The negation of the proletariat, rather than its affirmation, constitutes revolution. This already finds itself posited within the form of the three peculiarities, in which use-value and value, concrete labor and abstract labor, and private labor and social labor, are all moments of the capital-labor relation, not the positing of ‘communist’ use-value/concrete labor/social labor versus ‘capitalist’ value/abstract labor/private labor.
In relation to the latter, the organs of revolutionary struggle exist not as a new “Workers’ State”, but as the political form of power which is simultaneously the end of a separate political sphere, which is the lever by which all the economic foundations of class power will be overturned.
A more detailed historical investigation of this would of course prove fruitful, but even a cursory knowledge of the Russian soviets, the Spanish collectives, the Hungarian workers’ councils, etc. can clearly see this movement to abolish the separation of the political and the economic (to abolish the state and the market) and also simultaneously to begin to overcome the alienated form of labor embodied in social labor existing only in the form of private labor.
This is the link between Capital and the Paris Commune, between the weapon of critique and the critique of weapons.

Chris and Sabrina, 2004
(Even though Sabrina did not write the article, it was the product of our collective effort and many of the most important notes were hers. All defects in the final article are mine.)

2010 Addendum:
I would have to add that following on from my reading of Postone, Marx certainly has a concept of labor as substance of value, but labor for is a social form. Concrete Labor is not to be posed as a transhistorical concept of labor, but the way in which labor as transhistorical “productive activity” is
the form of appearance of abstract labor, which is the actual substance of value. Concrete and abstract, use-value and exchange-value should be taken in this way and thus Labor should be seen as corresponding conceptually to Value, and thus abstract labor is the mode of existence or social form of Labor, just as exchange-value is the mode of existence or social form of Value. Labor in this sense is the ‘substance’ of Value, but as Value is a social form, Labor is the ‘substance’ of a social form, of an abstraction, a relation of ideality, not a ‘material substrate’ in the sense of a physical substrate as is normally meant.

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Aug 18 2010 15:21


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Aug 18 2010 16:23

Chris, I hope all is well for you!

About your piece, I'm not sure I understand this, I get bogged down pretty early on. I skimmed the rest and I think I agree with what I can understand about the politics and concepts here, but I don't at all get the opening point about translation or how that relates to the political and conceptual point.

On the translation stuff, it seems like you're saying there's a common mistranslation and a misunderstanding that follows from it. "Ben Fowkes translates [Marx's phrases as] 'private labour takes the form of its opposite, namely labour in its directly social form.'" Do I get you so far?

If I do, then it seems to me that you say the correct translation ought to be different. " Smith corrects the translation of the 3rd peculiarity, which in the German actually does read as follows:
'private labour becomes the form of its opposite, namely labour in its directly social form.'" Do I have you right there?

If so, then the differnce is between "private labour takes" and "private labour becomes." Do I get you right?

If I do read you right, then it sounds like when you say Fowkes' "translation reverses the actual German" that you are saying "takes" and "becomes" are opposite terms. I totally don't get it. I don't see the reversal you're suggesting.

Aug 19 2010 21:29
Revol wrote:
But yeah, "private labour becomes the form of its opposite, namely labour in its directly social form" makes a lot more sense in the context, which isn't to say I don't think my admittedly convoluted reading "of private labour taking on the form of it's opposite direct social labour" has no value, though if taken too far it can lead to some curiously idealist readings whereby class struggle is relegated from being the engine of history to a wheel propelled by some sort of autonomous capital, a return to a Hegelian Weltgeist but in Marxist terminology.

That's interesting you write that considering that the value-form folks of Neue Marx Lekture and value-critique of Krisis, Exit and PD, who rely on the German edition, do argue that value/capital is an autonomous subject and therefore class struggle is bollocks.

Aug 20 2010 05:44

I was in the middle of writing a post being like "I totally don't understand" and something clicked, maybe I just got, can y'all help me out?

"Private labor takes the form of social labor" would mean "Private labor comes to appear in mystified form, as social labor."

"Private labor becomes the form of social labor" would mean "Private labor is the appearance, in mystified form, of social labor," ie, "Social labor comes to appear in mystified form as private labor."

Is that it?

Revol, I agree, your reading you describe does have value. I'm not sure this is the same, but I always read that passage to be about the domination of individual labors by social labor, along the lines of dead labor over living, and about individual labors being taken up within society. At least as convoluted as your reading, and less interesting.

Off topic, anyone ever read the original first section of v1, before the revision Marx did (I think as part of the French translation), when it was shorter? I think it started out as one chapter then got expanded into three, if my memory's right. It's been translated into English some place, I've never read it.

Aug 20 2010 05:53
Nate wrote:
Off topic, anyone ever read the original first section of v1, before the revision Marx did (I think as part of the French translation), when it was shorter? I think it started out as one chapter then got expanded into three, if my memory's right. It's been translated into English some place, I've never read it.

I just got hold of it (copied the chapter today in fact) and it's right on top of my reading list. You can find it in Value: Studies By Karl Marx, edited and translated by Albert Dragstedt (New Park Publications). It's much shorter: 37 pages, so nearly 100 pages shorter than the current first three chapters.

That book also has the appendix which came with the first German edition (which Marx/ Engels felt was necessary because of the "hegelian" exposition of the original chapter). I am going to scan the first chapter soon, so PM me if you want a copy.

Edit: you can also find the appendix in an issue of capital and class.

Red Marriott
Aug 20 2010 10:39

Khawaga; you could put them in the library if you're scanning them anyway.

Aug 20 2010 14:39

Yeah, I was gonna do that.

Aug 20 2010 18:29

I've uploaded the original chapter 1 + the appendix to the library.


Aug 21 2010 02:27

Does everyone know that the Capital and Class online archive is now open access?

Aug 22 2010 17:04

it's freely available to subscribers!

I've got an archive of issues 1 to 84 if there's anything specific your after

(can't believe the black hand is on the editorial board!)

Aug 22 2010 17:23

once you've paid for that telly you can have it for free

Aug 27 2010 04:44

That's weird. It lets me into the archive without asking for subscription details. I have accessed it before through a university portal so maybe it still thinks I'm the university.

Aug 27 2010 04:46

sorry for misleading you!

Aug 28 2010 05:34

Khawaga, thanks very much for that, I look forward to reading it. Ois, is there an online index? I know there's loads I want out of C&C but can't remember off the top of my head.