Glossary from How to Read Marx’s Capital - Michael Heinrich

How to Read Capital

Michael Heinrich's glossary to help with the first two chapters of Capital. Taken from Heinrich's book How to Read Marx's Capital: Commentary and Explanations on the Beginning Chapters (2021).

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 27, 2024


In the first two chapters of Capital, we encounter a number of terms that might be new for the reader. Marx created some of these terms, and others he discovered, sometimes giving them new definitions. This glossary cannot explain all these terms; I will only address those that have a close connection to commodities and value, as well as labor. The keywords used to group the terms are not arranged alphabetically. Instead, concepts that belong together come one after another. Explanations are kept rather short, and they presuppose familiarity with the preceding commentary. Italicized terms within an explanation indicate that a term has its own explanation. The page numbers point to especially relevant passages of Capital dealing with the concept in question.


Commodity: A thing (or service) that appears in a dual form: in its natural form, as a physical thing, an object of use, and as an object of value (138). Things and services only become commodities because they are produced by private labor acts—carried out independently from one another—and are exchanged (166). The commodity form of the product of labor is a specific social form existing only in societies based on exchange.

Use-Value: The usefulness of a thing (or a service) makes it a use-value. It is conditioned by the physical properties of a thing, but presupposes that people know how to use these physical properties (125f.).

Exchange Value: The amount of another thing B that one obtains in exchange for A (126). Exchange value is a form of appearance of value (126–28).

Value: The common element of commodities that are exchanged (127); only as values are commodities quantitatively commensurable (141).

Substance of Value: The basis of value. It is a “social substance” that is “common” (or, better translated, “communal”) to all commodities (128). This substance is not merely labor, but rather equal human labor, abstract human labor (129).

Magnitude of Value: The magnitude of value depends upon the quantity of “value-creating labor” contained in a commodity. This quantity is not identical to the individual labor-time that a producer expends; only socially necessary labor-time for producing a commodity counts (129).

Value-Objectivity (Wertgegenständlichkeit): With this term, Marx emphasizes that commodities, besides being physical objects, are also objects of value. However, things only obtain value-objectivity, separate from their objectivity as use-values, through exchange (166). Value appears as an objective property of commodities, although as a purely social property it cannot be grasped by the senses or in a physical way. Marx therefore speaks of a “spectral” or “phantom-like” objectivity (128) and of value as a “supra-natural” (149) property of the thing. He also refers to commodities as “sensuous, extrasensory” (sinnlich übersinnlich) things (163 and 165); in the first case wrongly translated as “a thing which transcends sensuousness” and in the second case as “sensuous things which are at the same time supra-sensible.”

An abstraction, value (Wertabstraktion, wrongly translated as “abstract value”): An abstraction we perform as observers, in which we discover that commodities are objects of value. We have therefore reduced the commodities to their property of being values (141).

Value-Form (Expression of Value, Exchange Value): In the value-form, the value of commodity A acquires an objective expression as a specific quantity of another commodity B. Now the value of commodity A is no longer intangible: it comes forth in the relationship to another commodity, becoming tangible as a specific amount of the other commodity (138f., 141f.).

Value-relation: The relationship of commodities to each other as objects of value.

The Fetish Character of the Commodity (Commodity Fetish): Under the conditions of commodity production, the social characteristics of labor appear as objective characteristics of the products of labor. Marx describes this quid pro quo as commodity fetishism. This fetish character is not a conceit of the imagination or an illusion; it is real, originating from “the peculiar social character of the labour which produces [commodities]” (165). However, it is not easy to see that commodities’ fetish character originates in the peculiar social relations of commodity production: what is valid only under commodity production appears to people caught up in those social relations to be eternally valid. Here, we are dealing with a false semblance: that labor products are necessarily objects of value in every form of society (167).

Exchange-relation: The relation between two commodities that are exchanged, considered in abstraction from commodity owners. The exchange-relation is examined in chapter 1 of Capital.

Exchange Process: The process of exchange carried out by commodity owners. In contrast to the focus of the exchange-relation, the concern here is the commodity owners’ activity. The exchange process is examined in chapter 2 of Capital.


Labor-power: The ability of people to perform labor.

Labor: The process of applying this ability.

Concrete, Useful Labor: The visible, actual labor process, which takes place in a specific, concrete manner and creates something useful. Concrete, useful labor produces use-values (128, 131ff.).

Abstract Human Labor (Equal Human Labor): In exchange, there is an abstraction from the particularity of various types of labor; these various types of labor are reduced to equal human labor or abstract human labor (128). Whereas concrete useful labor that creates use-values exists in all forms of society (133), abstract human labor is a specific social determination of labor that only exists in a specific social context: a society based on exchange (166f.; MECW 29: 277f.).

The Dual Character of the Labor Embodied/Represented in Commodities: The fact that commodity-producing labor is both concrete useful labor and abstract human labor (131ff.).

Individual Labor-Time: The labor-time an individual producer—either an individual person or enterprise—requires to produce a certain product (129).

Socially Necessary Labor-Time: The labor-time necessary to produce a specific use-value under socially normal conditions of production and with the usual level of skill (129). As a supplement to this technical characterization of necessary labor-time, chapter 3 brings demand into the picture: labor-time only counts as socially necessary if it creates a product for which there is social demand (201f.). The individual process of production determines neither what counts as normal conditions of production nor the demand. Both are determined socially in the process of exchange.

Private Labor: Labor carried out independently of other producers, that is, without consultation or coordination. Commodities are products of private labor (132f.). Every producer attempts to estimate market conditions, but it is only in the market that he finds out whether his product is socially accepted and whether his private labor forms part of the total labor of society (165). Under the conditions of commodity production, privately expended concrete useful labor only becomes a component of the total labor of society when it is reduced to equal human labor, or abstract human labor, in exchange.

Total Labor of Society: In generalized commodity production, the total labor of society is made up of the many acts of private labor. However, acts of private labor only become components of the total labor of society if their products are actually exchanged (165).

Labor in Directly/Immediate Social Form: Labor in a direct or immediate social form, with its product requiring no further mediation to become a social product. Under the conditions of commodity production, the only private labor that is directly social is the labor that produces the general equivalent (151). In social relations not based upon commodity production, but rather on relations of personal domination and servitude, labor in its natural form enters directly into the workings of society as a specific concrete, useful labor. Under such relations, labor in its natural form is therefore immediately social labor from the get-go (170).



3 weeks 6 days ago

Submitted by westartfromhere on March 27, 2024

Wage-labour: Labour performed in exchange for a wage; by piece, hourly, daily, weekly, yearly, or in perpetuity, necessitated by the condition of propertylessness of the wage-labourer.

Wage-labourer: One that is forced by the circumstance of being without any other means of subsistence to have to sell one's labour power to the capitalist. Also known as "free labourer" (i.e. not bonded to one person) or proletarian.

See, What are wages? How are they determined?

Bearing in mind these last years of capital gains fomented by the momentary suspension of labour under the guise of The Pandemic and the subsequent annihilation of a great part of the capital, combined with a great destruction of labourers:

We thus see that, even if we keep ourselves within the relation of capital and wage-labour, the interests of capitals and the interests of wage-labour are diametrically opposed to each other.

A rapid growth of capital is synonymous with a rapid growth of profits. Profits can grow rapidly only when the price of labour — the relative [real] wages — decrease just as rapidly.