Book Review: Michael Heinrich, “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital”

The first thing to note about the recently much discussed An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital is that it is no such thing. What Michael Heinrich has done in this work is not give an introduction to the book for the new reader, but provide a critical summary of its contents seen from the point of view of the so-called ‘new critique’, also known as the ‘value-form’ analysis of Marxism. This particular analysis focuses, as Heinrich says in the introduction, on a particular interpretation of Marx’s value theory. This is not illegitimate: there are various major interpretations of Marx’s value theory, not least because of its complexity and opacity, and it makes sense for an author to be clear about his or her commitments to a particular one so that the reader knows what is going on. However, throughout the book the structure of the argument is more often than not polemical, explicitly or implicitly, against rival interpretations of Marx – both the attempts to make Marxism into a more general theory than Heinrich finds warranted, which he describes as “worldview Marxism” or “traditional Marxism”, and rival interpretations of Marx’s value theory specifically. While polemicizing, however, he declines to identify any of his opponents or opposing currents by name, making the exercise both fruitless as an effective counterargument – because a newbie would not know what it was a counterargument against – and as a contribution to the debate. Attacking opponents without naming them or explicitly citing their viewpoints is a dishonest strategy, but one sadly common in Marxist polemics, even about such seemingly abstract topics as value theory.(1)

The risk of such an approach is that it either agitates against straw opponents, making the author seem more convincing by arguing against views that his main interlocutors do not really hold, or that it creates any number of false dichotomies: making the author’s viewpoint seem strictly contrasting to those of others, when it is by no means certain that they cannot be compatible or reconciled. Heinrich does both of these to some extent. Now this may also follow somewhat from the generally philological style of argument that pervades the book, and is not a reflection on Heinrich’s ill intent or conscious deception. But it does further take away the purpose of the book as an ‘introduction’, rather suggesting it should be read more as a polemic in the form of a restatement or reinterpretation of Marx’s theories. That is of itself fair enough, and happens plenty; but it would be better to explicitly advertise it as such, certainly in a time when many are newly seeking out radical understandings of economic theory and may encounter this as a guide to Marx’s magnum opus, which it simply is not. Of course, with a work of this type, one can always find any number of expressions and formulations of issues that one would have written differently. Nitpicking such things is not helpful; I will therefore not mention all of the minor points of disagreement or different emphases I would have, but outline a few of the central issues. Continue reading “Book Review: Michael Heinrich, “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital””

Convergence and Divergence: A Reply to Comrade Hamerquist

Since I recently wrote an extended, appreciative review of Zak Cope’s book of Third Worldist Marxism Divided World, Divided Class on this blog, some other radical commentators have provided reviews and replies as well. One of these is Don Hamerquist, who wrote what is in essence a review of my review. It can be found on the blog Sketchy Thoughts. Hamerquist’s commentary was critical of my analysis (on which it focuses more than Cope’s), but in a constructive manner, and has thereby given me occasion to restate and clarify some of the positions I have developed in recent times on this medium and elsewhere. Even though I don’t wholly agree, such focused, intelligent criticism as Hamerquist’s is of great value, and it would be foolish to dismiss it out of personal egocentrism or puffery. Continue reading “Convergence and Divergence: A Reply to Comrade Hamerquist”

On Communism and Markets: A Reply to Seth Ackerman

In his recent essay on Jacobin, Seth Ackerman makes a number of common arguments in favor of some form of market socialism over and against central planning as well as other designs for non-market, non-capitalist economies. The essay contains much that most socialists could agree with. He rightly cites the failure of the neoclassical argument for general equilibrium to apply in real-world situations under the devastating theoretical impact of the Cambridge capital critique and the so-called ‘theory of the second-best’, and the lack of statistical evidence proving the superior efficiency of market capitalist societies over those of the former Soviet bloc. The historical record of capitalism to achieve general efficiency, equity, and democracy is, in short, atrocious, and neoclassical economics always serves first and foremost as apologetics for this system – we probably need not go into this further.

Also understandable is Ackerman’s negative response to models of a post-capitalist economy along the lines of some form of direct democracy, such as Albert and Hahnel’s “Parecon” approach. For Albert and Hahnel, democratic councils would gather data from individuals regarding their preferences, debate these according to socialist and ecological norms, and process them into a planning system, which would regularly update its information according to the same political processes; all this in order to regulate production for human need. Ackerman is justifiably skeptical of the workability of this proposal, as it would require millions of political debates about millions of input-output processes from wildly divergent sources and for wildly divergent ends. If every aspect of the planning system would have to be truly democratic – in the sense of being up for immediate political input ‘from below’ – any system with more than a rudimentary division of labor would quickly come to a shuddering halt.

For Ackerman, this is proof of the validity of the so-called calculation problem, an old argument from liberal critics of Marxism (in particular the Austrian school of economics), alleging that it is a priori impossible for centrally planned economies of any kind to operate: only prices, the argument runs, are accurately able to convey the necessary decentralized and distributed information that makes up the relative exchange value of goods. Therefore, in any system seeking to replace prices (and by implication, profits) with some form of central management, there necessarily follows a shortage of information in the decision-making process in production and exchange, with the familiar results of shortages, gluts, famines, and failures of supply. Continue reading “On Communism and Markets: A Reply to Seth Ackerman”

Why a Theory of Value?

The gentleman from Unlearning Economics asked me recently in response to my rebuttal of Steve Keen’s critique of Marx’s theory of value why indeed there is any need for a value theory at all. It seemed to him labor as the measure of value was simply assumed by Marxists, and even if their explanations of the economy were clearly better than others and they can rebut the critiques of Keen, Bose and others, it is still not clear why there should be such a thing as a ‘labor theory of value’ at all. I find I often run into this problem with many intelligent, critical people who are by no means unwilling to take my Marxisant analysis seriously, but who simply do not get what kind of thing a theory of value is, let alone Marx’s; and then indeed it must seem a strange and unnecessary quasi-metaphysical imposition. Now initially I thought this as well, and before I fully immersed myself in Marxist thought I was quite hostile to the notion of the labor theory of value, or even the need for such a theory at all. And indeed neoclassical economists have spent more than a century trying to refute both Marx’s theory and the need for such a theory at all. However, it is not so much just Marx’s arguments in Capital itself that convinced me, as my wider reading giving me a more historically and anthropologically grounded perspective about production and exchange in history, and I would venture to say the concept of a theory of value can only make sense if put explicitly in this wider context. Continue reading “Why a Theory of Value?”

Some Critical Notes on the Fetishism of the Party, or: Why I am Not a Trotskyist

The proliferation of the micro-party in the West is a subject many times examined, and I would not pretend to say too much that is original about it. Already Hal Draper wrote much on this subject, the libertarian communist tradition has had various critiques, and there has moreover been a very considerable literature of self-examination and party histories among the micro-parties in different countries. The majority of this last literature both concerns and is produced by the Trotskyists, and it is they who have by far the largest proliferation and attach the greatest importance to the multiplicity of such micro-party structures; moreover, in some respects these formations themselves seem to follow from Trotskyist thought more organically than they do from other currents. This is not to say that this phenomenon is wholly unique to Trotskyism, as there have been various Maoist, ‘anti-revisionist’ and other micro-parties as well, often demonstrating the same essential weaknesses.

But it is in Trotskyism that it has the greatest focus of attention, and since the fall of the USSR it is Trotskyism that has numerically and politically the greatest support in most Western countries among the whole spectrum of independent Marxist groupings and associations (therefore not counting Marxists inside social-democratic formations). For this reason, it is particularly important to make a few critical notes about the persistent weaknesses of this political current in its practice, in order to mark out a clear difference of method and viewpoint on my part, as well as to invite some more productive reflection than the usual. Of course, as always with such critiques, whoever fits the shoe should put it on – my aim is not a personal nor a specific attack on this or that organization as such, but to point out what I see as some persistent trends many or most have in common, and which to me appear as unhelpful or even destructive. So what I shall write about Trotskyism in general here may be applied wherever it fits best. Continue reading “Some Critical Notes on the Fetishism of the Party, or: Why I am Not a Trotskyist”