A Paradoxical Form of Value (On the first edition of Capital Chapter 1) - Michael Heinrich

Das Capital Vol 1

In the 3rd Appendix of Michael Heinrich's How to Read Marx’s ‘Capital’ (2021), the first chapter of the first edition of Capital is discussed, noting differences in the presentation of the value-form by Marx. This chapter was also essential to the Neue Marx-Lektüre (German for "New Reading of Marx") of the 1970s.

The full English translation of chapter 1 of the first edition of Capital can be found here.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 21, 2024

A Paradoxical Form of Value

Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) has a very brief presentation of the value-form, and it is not yet separate from the examination of the exchange process. The first detailed treatment of the value-form is found in chapter 1 of the first edition of Capital published in 1867. In that edition it exists in two versions: in chapter 1, and, following the advice of Engels and Kugelmann, in a simplified version in the Appendix. In the Preface to the first edition, Marx said about the presentation of the value-form in chapter 1: “It’s difficult to understand, because the dialectic is much sharper than in the first presentation”—meaning that of the Contribution of 1859. He recommended that the “reader not used to dialectical thinking” skip the corresponding passages in chapter 1 and instead read the Appendix (MEGA II/5:12). Marx did not explain in the Preface what he meant by “dialectic,” but we may assume that in such a general context the term refers to conceptual, scientific reasoning. That the “dialectic is much sharper” means therefore that the scientific reasoning is much more exact and precise than in the Contribution.

The second edition, published in 1872–73, contains only one version of the value-form analysis and it is strongly oriented toward the simplified account in the first edition’s appendix. Marx included the first edition’s Preface in the second edition, but he deleted both the reference to the now-absent Appendix and the sentence quoted above about the “dialectic” being “much sharper.” He evidently assumed that he had achieved greater intelligibility despite the loss of the sharpness in the argument. As I argued above in Appendix 1, none of the three available versions of the value-form analysis can be unambiguously characterized as the best. Both in Marx’s Appendix of Capital’s first edition and in the second edition, there are improvements compared to the earlier version, but both later versions also lose some things along the way.

One of the differences between the first version of the value-form analysis and all later ones is the structure of the concluding part. Later versions end with the “money-form,” but the first version of the value-form analysis has the “general form of value” followed by a paradoxical form of value called “Form IV”; the money-form does not yet show up at all. Here we reproduce, interspersed with comments, the presentation of the Form IV, as well as Marx’s concluding remarks, which are also absent from the later versions. It is a continuous piece of text, and all emphases are by Marx. The text is found in Das Kapital, First Edition [1867], MEGA II/5: 42–43. The English translation’s source is Dragstedt (1976, 32–34).

The illusion [corrected translation: semblance, Schein] as if the equivalent-form of a commodity resulted from its own corporeal nature instead of being a mere reflex of the relationships of other commodities: this illusion [corrected translation: semblance] strengthens itself with the continuing development of the singular Equivalent to the universal, because the contradictory vectors of the value-form no longer develop equally for the commodities which are related to one another, because the universal Equivalent-form separates a commodity off as something totally secluded from all other commodities, and finally because this (the commodity’s form) is actually no longer the product of the relationship of any singular commodity.

This synopsis clarifies what causes the “semblance of the equivalent-form.” In the second edition of Capital, Marx makes reference to the “mysteriousness of the equivalent form” in his analysis of the simple form of value, page 149. It also explains why the semblance “strengthens itself” when we consider the general equivalent and not just a single equivalent. Capital’s second and later editions, like the widespread fourth edition (MEW 23) and its translations, no longer explicitly mention the “strengthening of the semblance.” The later editions do, nevertheless, discuss how the general equivalent form no longer reveals that it’s an “antagonistic form,” having the form of general exchangeability because all other commodities do not have this form (161 and footnote 26). In the later versions, there is no more than a brief mention of this “false semblance” becoming “firmly established” (187), and that reference appears in the presentation of the exchange process.

From our present standpoint the universal Equivalent has not yet by any means ossified, however. What was the way in which linen was metamorphosed into the universal Equivalent, actually? By the fact that it displayed its value, first in one single commodity (form I), then in all other commodities in order in a relative way (form II), and thereby all other commodities reflexively displayed their values in it in a relative way (form III). The simple relative value-expression was the seed out of which the universal Equivalent-form of linen developed. It changes its role within this development. It begins by displaying its amount of value in one other commodity and ends by serving as material for the value-expression of all other commodities. What holds for linen holds for every commodity. In its developed relative value-expression (form II)—which only consists of its many, simple value-expressions—the linen does not yet figure as universal Equivalent. Rather, every other commodity-body forms in this case linen’s Equivalent, is thereby immediately exchangeable with it and is therefore able to change places with it.

When we reversed the expanded form of value of the linen, this led to the general form of value, with the linen now as general equivalent. However, it was by no means necessary to consider the expanded form of value of linen; it could have been any other commodity’s expanded form of value. Marx finds a way to show how, in the linen’s expanded form of value, every other commodity-body could switch places with the linen. He begins to run through the possibilities, resulting in “Form IV.”

So we obtain finally:
Form IV:
20 yards of linen=one coat or=u coffee or=v tea or = x iron or
= y wheat or=etc.
One coat=20 yards of linen or=u coffee or=v tea or=x iron or
= y wheat or=etc.
u coffee=20 yards of linen or=one coat or = v tea or = x iron or=y wheat or = etc.
v tea=etc.

But each of these equations reflexively yields coat, coffee, tea, etc. as universal Equivalent and consequently yields value-expression in coat, coffee, tea, etc. as universal relative value-form of all other commodities. It is only in its opposition to other commodities that a commodity turns into the universal Equivalent-form; but every commodity turns into the universal Equivalent-form in its opposition to all other commodities. If every commodity confronts all other commodities with its own natural form as universal Equivalent-form, the result is that all commodities exclude themselves from the socially valid displaying of their amounts of value.

Form IV offers us numerous expanded forms of value, one for each commodity. Each of these expanded forms of value can be reversed, so that one also obtains many general equivalents. However, that is by no means possible, since there can be only one general equivalent. What this form of value depicts (on the level of form-determinations) is nothing other than what Marx shows in chapter 2 (on the level of action) to be the fundamental problem for commodity owners in the exchange process. For every commodity owner, the value of his commodity is expressed in the multitude of commodities that confront him. He therefore wishes to reverse his commodity’s expanded form of value and use that commodity as the general equivalent. Yet if every commodity owner does this, then no commodity is the general equivalent (180). This original version of the value-form analysis thus includes a derivation of the specific form aspects of commodity owners’ contradictory starting points; in that sense, the presentation is more comprehensive than the later one. By contrast, the money-form is missing. In fact, the money-form is somewhat misplaced in chapter 1, given that this chapter’s level of abstraction is the analysis of form-determinations: the transition from the general form of value to the money-form is not a development based on the value-form’s properties (as in previous transitions). It is the result of “social custom” (162), that is, a result of the activity of commodity owners. However, Marx only begins to treat the activity of commodity owners after the value-form analysis. When, on June 27, 1867, Marx sent Engels an overview of the simplified Appendix’s structure, he made an apologetic comment about including the money form as point IV: “The following on the money-form is simply for the sake of continuity—perhaps barely half a page” (MECW 42: 393).

Obviously, the analysis of the commodity yields all essential determinations of the value-form and the value-form itself in its contradictory vectors, yields the universal relative value-form, the universal Equivalent-form, and finally the never-ending sequence of simple relative value-expressions—which sequence forms at first a transitional phase in the development of the value-form, in order finally to suddenly shift into the specifically relative value-form of the universal Equivalent. But the analysis of the commodity yielded these forms as commodity-forms in general (which thus also apply to each and every commodity) in a contradictory manner, so that if commodity A finds itself to be in one of the contradictory form-determinations, then commodities B, C, etc. adopt the other in opposition to it. What was decisively important, however, was to discover the inner, necessary connection between value-form, value-substance, and value-amount; i.e., expressed conceptually [ideell ausgedrückt], to prove that the value-form arises out of the value-concept [Wertbegriff].

The last sentence makes especially clear what Marx is dealing with in the analysis of the value-form: the interrelation of form, substance, and magnitude of value. He is not presenting an abstract reconstruction of the historical development of the forms of value. Marx expresses conceptually the contemporary and simultaneous interrelation between value-objectivity, as captured in the concept of value, and the value-form. This “conceptual” form of expression is an example of how Marx “coquetted” with Hegel’s terminology, as he mentions in the second edition’s Postface (103). The notion that a form “arises” from its concept stems from a way of thinking that held that “spirit,” which is reflected in concepts, is the actual reality, while the “activity of the concept” is the active, dynamic element. However, in the first edition of Capital, Marx not only “coquetted” with Hegel’s mode of expression, he also criticized Hegel’s autonomization of the concept. In this sense, it is telling what Marx says in relation to linen’s value being expressed in a coat, with the result that the tailoring that produces the coat only counts as human labor as such. In effect, human labor as such can only exist as a specific type of labor that confronts “external material.” Marx throws in a criticism of Hegel here: “It is only the ‘concept’ in Hegel’s sense that manages to objectify itself without external material,” and quotes as proof the following sentence from Hegel’s Encyclopaedia: “The concept, which is only subjective at first, marches ahead in accordance with its own proper activity to objectify itself, without needing any external material or stuff for the purpose” (Dragstedt 1976: 20). Whoever has attentively read the value-form analysis in the first edition’s chapter 1 will not believe that what is “conceptually” expressed there amounts to a relapse into Hegelian conceptual speculation.

In the second edition of Capital, Marx put the rational kernel of this conceptual form of expression into words: “Our analysis has shown that the form of value, that is, the expression of the value of a commodity, arises from the nature of commodity-value” (152). That is, the value-form does not arise from the concept of value, but rather from that which the concept of value expresses scientifically, namely the “nature of commodity-value.”



1 month ago

Submitted by westartfromhere on March 21, 2024

Would it be off the mark to describe Heinrich as an apologist for the bourgeoisie?

...one cannot speak of a "privileged position of perception occupied by the working class" [Heinrich],  nor can one speak of a conscious instrumentalization [?] by capital, making moral criticisms of behaviors of individuals unproductive.

Another thing the good guy Michael tries to teach us: Marx was a self-loathing Jew:

I [Heinrich] will try to show that we can find in Marx – in his letters, for example – anti-Judaistic remarks and stereotypes

darren p

1 month ago

Submitted by darren p on March 21, 2024

Would it be off the mark to describe Heinrich as an apologist for the bourgeoisie?

Yes, it would be!

But none of these quotes are from the article above so why post them here?

You're not discussing anything of merit, just posting more incoherent ramblings...


1 month ago

Submitted by adri on March 21, 2024

Would it be off the mark to describe Heinrich as an apologist for the bourgeoisie?

Wikipedia wrote: ...one cannot speak of a "privileged position of perception occupied by the working class" [Heinrich],  nor can one speak of a conscious instrumentalization [?] by capital, making moral criticisms of behaviors of individuals unproductive.

I'm pretty sure the person who's worked on the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe/MEGA (i.e. the Complete Works of Marx and Engels, a more comprehensive collection of Marx's and Engels' works, all in their original languages) and who has published quite a few critically acclaimed works on Marx and Engels is not an "apologist for the bourgeoisie."

The part of your quote not in quotation marks is also taken from Wikipedia. Heinrich's text, the part of your quote in quotation marks, is from his An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx's Capital. Here's the full quote from Heinrich,

Heinrich wrote: In bourgeois society, people’s spontaneous consciousness succumbs to the fetishism of the commodity and money. The rationality of their behavior is always a sort of rationality within the framework set by commodity production. If the intentions of social actors (that which they “know”) are made the point of departure of analysis (as is the case in neoclassical economics and various sociological theories), then that which individuals “don’t know,” the framework that preconditions their thought and activity, is blanked out of the analysis from the very start. Proceeding from this consideration, not only can we criticize a considerable portion of the foundations of bourgeois economics and sociology but also a 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. In the next few chapters, we’ll see that the capitalist mode of production brings forth other inversions and absurdities to which both workers and capitalists succumb. 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. (78-79)

Heinrich in the above was criticizing "worldview/traditional Marxism," which is the simplistic application and vulgarization of Marx's ideas (as in, for example, Marxism-Leninism) in order to provide "a comprehensive explanation of the world . . . and answers to all questions" (24). He was also pointing out how simply being working class does not make one immune from treating certain aspects of capitalism as natural or transhistorical (e.g. the working class itself). Worldview Marxists have particularly tended to overlook how the working class is an expression of class society and something that, along with the bourgeoisie, should ultimately be done away with. The Soviet Union calling itself a "workers' state," as if that were something positive and didn't instead denote the absence of socialism (never mind the fact that Russia was predominantly a peasant society until around the 1960s), is an excellent illustration of this uncritical celebration of the working class in my view.


1 month ago

Submitted by westartfromhere on March 22, 2024

Holy cow!