Walking through Capital with David Harvey

Submitted by Matthew on 18 January, 2012 - 12:53

David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital may become the most widely-used handbook for studying the great “critique of political economy” which Karl Marx published in 1867.

Harvey’s book has a clear, brisk, and unpretentious style, in contrast to some other guides to Capital thick with lectures on how the author has detected some otherwise-unnoticed complexity in Marx’s argument. It includes frequent, and often useful, comments on contemporary relevance.

It is a write-up from nearly 40 years of almost continuous conduct of study classes and reading groups on Capital; and, in effect, the written version of a popular series of video lectures, based on those 40 years, available online at davidharvey.org.

The book will also attract readers because of Harvey’s fame as the best-known academic Marxist writer of our days (including on current issues, as in his Brief history of neoliberalism). He is, apparently, the world’s most-cited academic geographer and one of the 20 most-cited authors across the whole field of the humanities.

In London, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is using Harvey’s video lectures as a basis for our current study class on Capital.

Harvey’s exposition of most points in Capital is lucid and unpretentious, and he flags up where his interpretation is controversial without plunging readers into fevers of intra-Marxist debate and long supplementary reading lists. And he is emphatic about the main idea:

“Marx holds up a mirror to our reality in Volume 1 in such a way as to create an imperative to act, and he makes it clear that class politics, class struggle, has to centre what we do...

“Over the past quarter century, many of us have lived in a world where we have been told again and again that class is irrelevant... Any serious reading of Capital shows irrefutably that we will get nowhere unless we write ‘Class Struggle’ on our political banners and march to its drumbeat”.

And again: Marx’s “introduction of class struggle marks a radical departure from the tenets of both classical and contemporary economic theory. It radically changes the language in which the economy is depicted and shifts the focus of concern...

“Marx’s value theory... leads directly into this central question [of class struggle]. This is so because value is socially necessary labour-time, which means that time is of the essence within capitalism... Control over time has to be collectively fought over...”

Harvey notes that, paradoxically, in Capital Marx discusses “class struggle” only relatively late on, for the first time in the tenth of the book’s 33 chapters. (In the Communist Manifesto, by contrast, Marx declares straight off, on its first page, that history is the history of class struggles.)

With class struggle as with all other important concepts, in Capital Marx wants to get us to think about things critically and to take nothing for granted. Rather than cataloguing the salient facts of capitalist society straight off, he wants to dig down to its cell-forms, and trace all the connections forwards and backwards. In fact, it is not until chapter 25 that he has fully developed the argument which shows that capitalism must constantly create and recreate a division of society into classes.

As Karl Korsch put it in his introduction to Capital (1932), Marx’s “is a method which leaves nothing out of account, but which refuses to accept things uncritically on the strength of a superficial common-or-garden empiricism soaked in prejudice... The reader of Capital is not given a single moment for the restful contemplation of immediately given realities and connections; everywhere the Marxian mode of presentation points to the immanent unrest in all existing things...”

Capital study groups, as Harvey wryly notes in his introduction, have a chronic tendency to get mired in intricate line-by-line study of chapter 1. Sometimes they become exhausted through that effort before they get on to later chapters. Chapter 3, a lot of it dealing with Marx’s dissection of other economists’ views on money, is also often a hurdle.

But the reader cannot really understand the concepts in chapter 1, or understand what Marx is “getting at”, without pressing on and seeing how those concepts are reworked and reconnected in the course of the analysis. To get stuck on trying to elucidate chapter 1 by sheer force of exegesis is a trap.

Marx himself, in a letter, suggested that students might read chapter 10 first, to “get into” the book, before attempting chapter 1. Korsch suggested starting with chapter 7 and then going back.

Harvey rejects such zig-zagging, and tackles the problem more straightforwardly by pushing through chapter 1 briskly and without fuss, then advising the reader: “Once you get to the end of [the book], it is a good idea to go back to the beginning and read the first chapter again... You should, by now, find it a lot easier to follow. When I went back the first time, I also found it much more interesting and even downright fun to read”.

A steady understanding of class struggle, and of the fight for control of time and of life, as “the focus of concern” should allow the reader to understand that the Stalinist states which called themselves “Marxist” were in fact other systems of exploitation of the working class, and not embodiments, even aberrant ones, of Marx’s ideas.

Harvey, however, is unclear on that point.

In chapter 14 of Capital Marx makes a sarcastic jibe: “It is very characteristic that the enthusiastic apologists of the factory system have nothing more damning to urge against a general organisation of the labour of society, than that it would turn all society into one immense factory.”

The context makes clear that Marx was not positively advocating the conversion of “all society into one immense factory”; in Capital he denounces the mutilating effects of the way capitalism shapes labour more than he denounces the chaotic and inefficient nature of market regulation, and he emphasises the battle for free time.

Yet the passage sets Harvey pondering as if he takes Marx to suggest that planning is sufficient for socialism, so long as it is unlinked from capitalist greed, and commenting censoriously on Lenin’s advocacy, in the early years of the Russian revolution, of adapting the then-most-modern capitalist techniques and management methods for the workers’ state.

The “acute failure”, he says, “in the history of actually existing communisms” (or at least “one of the acute failures”) has been to “take the technologies of a capitalist mode of production” uncritically.

If only. Stalinist Russia, and Mao’s China, were characterised by more primitive technologies and modes of management than the advanced capitalist countries, put into operation on the basis of the autocratic state’s ability to mobilise vast masses of labour under tight political control. Stalin had the White Sea Canal dug by hand; Mao forced millions of people to try to run “backyard steel furnaces”, and shut down higher education entirely for a while.

In the 1980s, one of the factors in the collapse of Stalinism in Europe was its failure to develop computers and microelectronics beyond limited use of clunky equipment produced in East Germany.

Lenin’s argument in the early years of Bolshevik Russia was a different thing again. It was not based on uncritical acceptance of capitalist technology. Lenin knew well that socialism would develop its own technology, inevitably starting from what capitalism had already achieved, but moving in different directions and on different criteria.

Lenin also knew that a “proletarian” technology could not be created at will or by sketchy deduction from general socialist ideals, any more than a “proletarian” art or a “proletarian” military doctrine. Socialist technology requires a socialist society, and socialism cannot be built in a single country, let alone a country as poor and war-ruined as Russia was.

He advocated adapting the then-most-modern capitalist techniques and management methods at the same time as, putting the point as bluntly and angularly as he could, he declared that an efficient “state capitalism” would be a great step forward for the economic life of the poverty-stunted workers’ state. His arguments did not mean equating capitalist technology with socialist, any more than they meant equating capitalism with socialism generally.

Possibly linked to this argument is an odd excursus in Harvey’s Companion where, instead of following Marx’s text unpretentiously as elsewhere, he writes an entire chapter of extrapolation from a tendentious reading of a single short footnote about technology in chapter 15. He develops the argument, expounded more lengthily in his book The Enigma of Capital, about social life being shaped by six or seven “spheres” of activity, and socialist transformation being a slow and diffuse process of pursuing various processes of change in the various “spheres”.

Linked to that, again, is his over-emphasis on the importance for the working class of allies from other classes, which leads him at one point to cite Mao Zedong as an authority on how to form the necessary class alliances.

Other criticism of the Companion could be made, for example on its (not-too-heavy) schematising about “dialectics”. But the conversational style makes it easy to learn from the Companion both by accepting its clear summaries of some of Marx’s points, and by critically rejecting Harvey’s extrapolations on others.

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