[OPE-L:3237] Two visions of Marx's "starting point"

From: Gil Skillman (gskillman@mail.wesleyan.edu)
Date: Tue May 16 2000 - 18:45:21 EDT

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I think that there are at least two plausible interpretations of Marx's
intended "starting point" in Vol. I. of _Capital_, that is, the set of
conditions he takes as *given* for the purpose of developing his critique
in V. I and beyond. One interpretation, defended here by Fred and others,
is that Marx _premised_ his analysis, beginning in Ch. 1, on the
abstraction of universal capitalist production, so that all production of
surplus value must be understood, *throughout* his analysis (and certainly
through the portion of that analysis that I'm criticizing), as being
characterized by at least formal subsumption of labor under capital.

This is certainly plausible, but as I'll discuss further below, it has
certain drawbacks, including rendering his core arguments in Part 2 of V. I
either necessarily redundant or necessarily circular, and implying that
Marx couldn't tell the difference between arguments about necessary
conditions and arguments about sufficient conditions (which interpretation,
by the way, indicates a much more damning critique of Marx as economic
theorist than anything I've suggested).

There is, however, another entirely plausible interpretation of what he's
doing through the first two parts of V. I. that is entirely consistent with
Marx's mention of the capitalist mode of production in the first sentence
of V. I and with the passages referred to by Paul Z. This is that, having
immediately served notice that the subject of discussion is the capitalist
mode of production, Marx poses himself the analytical task of demonstrating
that one arrives necessarily at capitalist production once one starts with
the surface facts of (1) systematic commodity exchange that encompasses (2)
the circuit of capital M-C-M'. By this interpretation, these are the only
universal postulates of Marx's analysis; all other conclusions are to be
*derived* from these postulates.

Thus, Chapter 1 indicates how a close analysis of commodity exchange leads
one to labor values, as well as to various representations of value
relationships; Chapter 3 shows how the money form arises from these value
relationships, and consequently the circuit of commodity circulation,
C-M-C; Chapter 4 introduces the circuit of capital M-C-M' as a permutation
of the constituent transactions C-M and M-C, and introduces the
corresponding notion of surplus value; Chapter 5 argues that this
phenomenon of surplus value must be understood on the basis that all
commodities exchange at their respective values, thus establishing a
"contradiction" with the fact that surplus value requires M' > M; and
Chapter 6 reveals the *necessary* (by Marx's argument) resolution of this
contradiction via reference to the dichotomy between the exchange and use
values of the unique commodity, labor power, thus putatively *deriving* the
phenomenon of capitalist production from the postulates named above, rather
than taking it as a given at the start of the analysis.

[Note also that this interpretation does not depend on resolving the
question of whether "capitalist production" is a *definitional* component
of "capitalist mode of production."]

Among the grounds for believing that this is a preferable interpretation of
Marx's "starting point."

1) Nowhere in the critical Chapters 4 or 5 does Marx mention capitalist
production as a *postulate* of the analysis. Neither, by the way, does
Marx indicate the mode of production as a postulate in the first sentence
of V. I.

This is important, because:

2) Marx's attempt in Chapter 4 to characterize the "general formula of
capital" is beside the point if he is assuming a *particular* formula of
capital from the beginning. It's also beside the point if his only purpose
is to establish *sufficient* conditions for the existence of surplus value.

3) Critically, in the last full paragraph of Chapter 4, Marx explicitly
identifies merchant capital and interest capital, *in addition to*
industrial capital, as instances of the general formula (although the
circuit of interest capital presents the general formula "in abridged
form"), rather than saying that he is only considering the latter, by

4) Similarly, in the crucial Ch. 5 passage on the "antediluvian" circuits
of capital, quoted by Fred, Marx doesn't say that he rules them out *by
assumption*; he says that he "left out of consideration" these forms in his
discussion of the general formula of capital, that is, he didn't bother
talking about them, and says that the arguments just given in Ch. 5 justify
this neglect (they don't, of course, at least not validly, but that's a
separate issue).

[An additional problem with this passage, in light of step 3 above, is that
in fact he *doesn't* "entirely leave out of consideration" these forms in
his discussion of the general formula; indeed, he discusses them exactly as
much as he discusses the circuit of industrial capital--
very little, in each case.]

5) The core of Ch. 5 is devoted to demonstrating (invalidly, as it turns
out) that one *must* start with the condition that all commodities exchange
at their respective values in order to explain surplus value. At the
beginning of chapter 6, he then explicitly *derives* as a *necessary
implication* of this condition the result that capitalists must purchase
and extract the surplus value from the commodity labor power--that is,
capitalist production is the necessary basis for resolving the
"contradiction" identified in the general formula. But this exercise is
both circular and ridiculous if it is held that Marx *assumed* capitalist
production all along!


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