MARXISM - Capital - Word by Word

[This draft is circulated for comment, by Humphrey McQueen, 17 July 2014; it has already benefited from our Capital reading group and from Walter Struve’s correction of my Berlitz Deutsch, but I do not know how to make my computer insert umlauts.]

   On once more looking into Marx’s Capital

 Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken

John Keats, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ (1817)


 Everyone can agree that the first fifty pages of Capital are its hardest part, with Marx warning that his

… method of analysis … makes the reading of the first chapters rather arduous … the … public …may be disheartened because they will be unable to move on at once. 

That is a disadvantage I am powerless to overcome, unless it be by forewarning and forearming those readers who zealously seek the truth. There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.[1]

If we do not take the trouble to absorb Marx’s discoveries, we won’t get much right about our enemy: capital. Reading the rest of the three volumes will be a missed opportunity, though never a waste of time. To apprehend Marx’s reasoning requires our total attention. Ten pages are about as much as most of us can expect to absorb in a session. The density matches his subject: capital. One danger is that the opening material is so dense that we either give up, or – perhaps worse - keep reading and suppose that, because our eyes have travelled across every line, we have understood what he is saying. To avoid those misfortunes, we all need all the help we can get.

Ordeal by fire and water cannot be postponed indefinitely.

How to start? First, on which English translation should we rely? The attractions of the 1976 Penguin edition are that it is readily available for less than $40, offers the most scholarly apparatus and alone includes the 150-page Appendix on the ‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’. No translation can be pitch perfect; for instance, on page 160 the Penguin gives Gegensatz (p. 82) as ‘antagonism’ when it would better be as ‘contrast’; on page 274, n. 4, we find ‘universal’ rather than ‘generalised’ for Verallgemeinert (p. 184, n.41); the German for ‘swindle’ in the Penguin’s ‘If we can perform the swindle of converting …’. (p. 221, n.31) is Verschwindlet (p. 138, n. 80) which means ‘to make disappear’, so that Marx is not suggesting financial fraud but rather a magician’s trick;[2] finally, ‘alienated’ is used repeatedly for Verausserung[3] when the sense is merely ‘sold’, not estranged, Entfremdung. The M-M and the M-C-M on page 256 should be M-M’ and M-C-M’. Hence, it is reckless to hang an interpretation or objection on a term or phrase in any English version unless you have checked it against the German. For instance, Produktionserhaltnisse is usually given as the ‘relations’ of production but occasionally as ‘mode’. This next segment will work – word by word - through Marx’s opening sentence.

The 1928 Everyman edition would be the most listenable for a spoken book but has to be hunted down in second-hand copies. My preference is to read the Everyman[4] and use the Penguin as a ‘companion’. The compromise followed here will be to quote from the Everyman and then from the Penguin, and then from the 1958 Moscow edition for which page numbers are included because so many commentaries - notably David Harvey’s The Limits to Capital (1982) – reference it or its repackaging by International Publishers and Lawrence & Wishart. No translation has a subject index which is even halfway satisfactory. The Karl Dietz Verlag has thirty entries for ‘crisis’: the Penguin gives three; the Moscow has no subject index. Compiling one’s own index aids the memory and adds to understanding.[5]

In a ‘Preface’ for a 1969 translation, the Marxist professor of Philosophy, Louis Althusser, advised shop-floor militants to start with Part Two, ‘The Transformation of Money into Capital’, and then proceed through to the end before attempting Part One on ‘Commodity and Money’.[6] That is not bad advice. He also recommended reading all of volume I ‘four or five times in succession’, which is also excellent advice but more available to professors than to process-workers. Nonetheless, re-reading chapter one at least four times inside three months is the minimum effort for coming to grips with Marx’s insights and method. The ‘Prefaces’ and ‘Postface’ by Marx and Engels repay re-reading for every hundred pages of the main text. Alternatively, Australians might begin with the final chapter, partly because it discusses the invasion of this continent, but more because it underlines that class struggle is the prism through which Marx analyses everything.

No matter where you open volume one, Marx’s wit and passion will dispel the libel that he is turgid, unreadable.[7] However, his jokes can depend on an expanse of cultural knowledge. The Chinese translation solves the problem by leaving them out.

The notes that follow are the outcome of my encounters with Volume One on and off for more than fifty years. They are also one by-product of a reading group since late 2013-14. The impetus is the implosion of capital expansion since 2007 which has led me to research the revolution in capital that allowed for the dominance of the capitalist mode of production no earlier than the late 1700s or early 1800s. That is another country.

This commentary begins with thoughts on how to read by oneself, even if in preparation for a group discussion. Above all, proceed as slowly as possible:

Ø  Go over the chapter line by line.

Ø  Read with a pen in hand.

Ø  Take several weeks to get through the first fifty pages.

Ø  Find one or more friends with whom to discuss what you have read.

A science student in our group observed that he finds Marx’s presentation like a chemistry textbook. Each sentence is a line in a formula. If you skip a step you lose track of the proof. Therefore, it is helpful to break some sentences into their clauses, as I shall below. That fracturing means that we lose the flow of Marx’s argument, his dialectical logic. No one can take in everything on the first reading. All will be well if we remember that Marx’s method of presentation is more vital to our understanding of his analysis than is any cluster of his data. Much would be gained and next-to-nothing lost by the insertion of many more paragraph breaks, following Marx’s lead when he re-divided the six chapters of the first edition into twenty-five. (The Penguin and Moscow translations now have thirty-three).

Knowing in advance where Marx is taking us in chapter one is a help. However, it is easy to miss the signpost to ‘money’ at the start of Part One which he calls ‘Commodities and Money’. That heading is on otherwise blank pages in the Everyman and Penguin editions, where the text does not begin until two pages later, although the Part title does run along the top of the Penguin left-hand pages, unlike in the other two.

We won’t begin to understand ‘money’ until we have worked through the pages leading up to a brief section headed ‘The Money Form’ in the middle of this chapter. (Everyman, pp. 42-43; Penguin, pp. 162-3; Moscow, pp. 69-70) That statement heralds a protracted analysis; for example, chapter three is called ‘Money, or the Circulation of Commodities’. Without the goal of ‘money’ in sight, the material that Marx presents can seem like so many interesting or perplexing by-ways, what he accepts is ‘hair-splitting’.[8]

 If the obstacles are so many and so daunting, why read Capital at all? The minimum position is that Capital remains an essential starting place for the analysis of capitalism. That statement accepts three limits:

-          first, Capital is our starting place. It cannot be our only source and not the final one for two reasons. The first is that, in the years since Marx published, capital, through monopolising, has become ever more like his account and he would have been the first to bring those developments into his portrayal.[9] The second reason is that although he read almost everything that there was to read in several languages, the institutionalisation of scholarship since his death has buried us under an avalanche of details which even he would have not been able to keep up with to enrich his analysis. To ignore either of these founts of information is to repudiate Marx’s method;

-          secondly, Marx subtitles his life’s work a ‘Critique of Political Economy’. A critique should not deliver a catechism making it essential to adopt the mentality of critique when grappling with Marx’s text as well as with the expansion of capital to which he applied it. He was not always a consistent materialist, as shown in the wobble in his distinction between the architect and the bee.[10] (see Appendix I below) Marx admits to ‘slips’ which he had to leave uncorrected in the second German edition because he had to devote the time available to carrying ‘out with greater scientific strictness … the derivation of value by analysis of the equations in which every exchange value is expressed’. Elsewhere, Engels had to correct his comrade’s commercial arithmetic.[11]

-          thirdly, the object of inquiry is capitalism – not slavery or serfdom or feudalism, still less socialism or communism. That narrow compass is spelt out in Marx’s opening sentence where he confines his investigation to ‘societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails’. Nothing is eternal, natural or universal. Marx has nothing to do with the metaphysical or the supra-historical. Reality changes and, therefore, so must the concepts – ‘mental images’ - that one uses to understand both.[12]

Hence, we have no chance of dealing with the issues of today – sustainability, the continuing economic implosion and what is called globalisation - unless we set out from Capital in the spirit of its politically committed critique.

How are we to cope with Marx’s footnotes? Engels considers them a running commentary on the history of economic thought?[13] On a first read, it won’t do much harm to pretend they are not there; a 1993 student edition (edited by C.J. Arthur) did that and also pruned the polyglot quotations. Or, you could read the footnotes through first by pretending the text isn’t there. They also contain many of Marx’s best jokes. As a sampler, try the Everyman page 57, Penguin page 176 and Moscow page 82 – which is profound enough to be the synopsis for a book on the materialist concept of history. 

From here, this commentary moves in two complementary directions. The main set breaks Marx’s text into manageable bites, offering explanations, reflections and suggestions. A supplementary set of Appendices will be for readers who feel confident about delving into how Marx was thinking – imagining – as he wrote and rewrote. They explore: A) how he conceptualises ‘sensuous human activity’ into historical materialism; B) his recurrent references to crises; C) how he brings his ideas and concepts to life as characters in a drama; D) how he interprets the class nature of ideology; E) swindles in contrast to exploitation; F) his examples and imagery from the natural sciences, especially chemistry; G) his imagery from theology and magic; H) what he considers to be a ‘law’ in the human sciences; and I) the architect or bee at the start of chapter 5.

 In keeping with Marx’s opening, the next few pages are the most taxing and call for total attention. Perhaps you should read chapter one at least twice before turning to this close textual reading of its opening sentence: ten pages for twenty words. Re-reading the Prefaces and the Postface to Capital after every hundred pages is salutary. Two extracts are pertinent to the exegesis that follows. In the first, Engels responds to remarks, which, he says

rest on the misunderstanding to the effect that Marx seeks to define where he only explains, and that one can generally look in Marx for fixed, cut-and-dried definitions that are valid for all time. It should go without saying that where things and their mutual relations are conceived not as fixed but rather as changing, their mental images, too, i.e. concepts, are also subject to change and reformulations; that they are not to be encapsulated in rigid definitions, but rather developed in their process of historical or logical formation. It will be clear then, why at the beginning of Volume I, where Marx takes simple commodity production as his historical presupposition, only later, proceeding from this basis, to come on to capital – why he proceeds precisely there from the simple commodity and not from a conceptually and historically secondary form, the commodity as already modified by capitalism.

(Karl Marx, Capital, volume III, Penguin, London, 1981, p. 103; Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966, p. 13-14.)

In presenting the first English translation in 1887, Engels concedes,

There is one difficulty we could not spare the reader: the use of certain terms in a sense different from what they have, not only in common life, but in ordinary political economy. But this was unavoidable. Every new aspect of a science involves a revolution in the technical terms of that science … Political economy has generally been content to take, just as they were, the terms of commercial and industrial life, and to operate with them, entirely failing to see that by so doing, it confined itself within the narrow circle of ideas expressed by those terms…

It is, however, self-evident that a theory which views modern capitalist production as a mere passing stage in the economic history of mankind, must make use of terms different from those habitual to writers who look upon that form of production as imperishable and final.

(Everyman, pp. lxx-lxxi; Penguin, p. 111; Moscow, pp. 4-5.)

 Chapter 1: The Commodity

 We shall see that it is only the first step that is difficult.

Karl Marx, Capital.[14]

 1. THE TWO FACTORS OF A COMMODITY: USE-VALUE AND VALUE (SUBSTANCE OF VALUE, MAGNITUDE OF VALUE) (Everyman, pp. 3-58; Penguin, pp. 125-77; Moscow, pp. 35-83.)

 Before the trial of the Knave of Hearts, the King commands the White Rabbit: ‘Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ Were reading Capital so easy. It is more than a paradox to say that its first chapter is its conclusion, which is no mere summary with a few generalisations served up in fashionable jargon. The conclusion is also Marx’s analytical tool so that he might have said of Capital, ‘In my end is my beginning’ as well as agreeing with T.S. Eliot that ‘In my beginning is my end’. (Four Quartets, 1940)

‘The saying that all beginnings are difficult applies to every science’, Marx warns in his ‘Foreword’, singling out the fourteen pages of his ‘analysis of commodities.’[15] ‘Amen’ to that. Since the difficulties are intrinsic to the matter, why did he raise the barrier to entry by putting the outcome of his investigations at the front? What difference to the content would Marx have made had he adopted Althusser’s advice to readers and placed all of Part I at the end? Almost 150 years on, that is a bootless question. Despite Marx’s efforts across fifteen years to make his first edition more approachable, he kept ‘The Commodity’ as the lion in our path, scaring off more readers than it has enticed into the den of inquiry. For the moment, we might pay Marx’s leonine visage the respect of accepting that he had his reasons for keeping the ‘analysis of the commodity’ in its pride of place.

Marx elsewhere writes that the most complete understanding of the tailbone of the ape comes when we can see what that anatomical part has become in our species.[16] Irrespective of the validity of that retrospective method, working back from a more complex form is how he investigated capital. As Engels explained:

Marx takes simple commodity production as his historical presupposition, only later, proceeding from this basis, to come on to capital – why he proceeds precisely there from the simple commodity and not from a conceptually and historically secondary form, the commodity as already modified by capitalism.[17]

Marx could not set out with his discoveries already in his intellectual toolkit. On the contrary, he had to research his way towards them, arguing with himself as much as with previous explorers, settling those accounts in the 1,700 pages of his Theories of Surplus-Value (1861-63).[18] He did not exempt himself from making missteps when he called ‘[t]he value form … simple and elementary’ yet one that ‘the human mind has been vainly trying to fathom … for more than two thousand years’.[19] To suppose that Marx knew where he was headed before he set out is to ascribe god-like powers in opposition to the materialist and dialectical precept that we learn only by doing. (This process is taken up in Appendix I on ‘Architect or Bee’.)

 Marx’s reveled in images from the sciences, sometimes mathematics, but more usually from chemistry. (Appendix F) Let loose in a laboratory, any child can create stinks and bangs. Only by combining the techniques of calibration with accumulated information about atomic and molecular structures did we escape from alchemical fantasies and phlogiston. Mendeleev’s 1869 Periodic Table systematised advances in relative knowledge and allowed him to predict unidentified elements. By the 1850s, political economy was drifting in the opposite direction, away from the scientific bearings mapped by Petty, Quesnay, Smith and Ricardo and into the apologetic shoals of the vulgar economists. Marx held fast to the scientific legacy while fashioning tools to match the unfolding of his subject matter. His tools were neither microscopes nor chemical reagents’ but mental constructs.[20]

When Marx speaks of ‘abstraction’ he is not going airy-fairy, but proceeding from actualities, that is, abstracting the commodity form from bibles, brandy, linen and coats, and social labour from typesetting, distilling, weaving and tailoring. In the pursuit of concrete concepts, Marx underpins his ‘hair-splitting’ with mountains of empirical research which his ‘power of abstraction’ preserved from the poverty of Empiricism. (see Appendix H on laws as patterns and regularities) If science is how we get beyond appearances to the realities of their development, then the presentation of one’s results must invert the order of investigation. Marx and Engels pursued a science of political economy with which to anatomise capitalism for the same reasons as they scorned utopian schemes to dream one’s way into socialism.

 Worter into Words

 We shall now obey the King of Hearts by beginning at the beginning of chapter one only to stop far short of the end, instead taking several pages to dissect the opening sentence:

The wealth of societies in which the capitalist method of production prevails, takes the form of ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, wherein individual commodities are the elementary units. (Everyman, p. 3)

In our desire to find out what Marx has discovered about capital, it is natural for first-time readers not to dwell on this sentence.[21] It is not only the French public who have proved impatient ‘to move on at once’, for a recent German Workbook reports that ‘[t]he first sentence is often overlooked when reading Capital.’[22] Be advised: a secret which Marx will soon reveal about the commodity is also true for this sentence, since it too can appear

… a commonplace sort of thing, one easily understood … however ,,, it is a very queer thing indeed; (Everyman, pp. 43-4)

… extremely obvious, trivial … but it is a very strange thing. (Penguin, p. 163; Moscow, p. 71.)

To approach that strangeness, Marx’s German for the first sentence is followed by two alternative translations from that in the Everyman given above:

Der Reichtum der Gesellshaften, in welchen kapitalisische Produktionsweise herrscht, erscheint als seine ‘ungeheure Warensammlung’, die einselne Ware als seine Elementarform. (Das Kapital, I, Karl Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1962, p. 49)

 The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. (Penguin, p. 125)

 The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, its unit being a single commodity. (Moscow, p. 35)

The differences seem to be minor. The first dozen words are almost identical. Then, in place of ‘takes the form of’, we get ‘appears as’ or ‘presents itself as’; the Everyman has ‘form’ once but also ‘units’, whereas ‘form’ is absent from the Moscow edition; ‘accumulation’ is varied to ‘collection’ for the Penguin. More will be said about these differences below.

Meanwhile, we can compare the first sentence in Capital with the one that opens Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)[23], from which Marx takes the snippet ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’:

The wealth of bourgeois society, at first sight, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities, its unit being a single commodity.[24]

Auf en ersten Blick erscheint der burgerliche Reichtum als seine ungeheure Warensammlung, die einzelne Ware als sein elementarisches Dasein.[25]

 The differences with Capital are more striking than between its three translations. Eight years on, Marx has replaced ‘bourgeois‘ with ‘capitalist’ and introduced ‘mode of production’ alongside ‘society’. In addition, instead of ‘Elementarform’, he had ‘elementarisches Dasein’. Dasein means ‘being’ or ‘existence’, derived from the verb ‘to be’. Marx did not mention ‘form’ in the Contribution.

To penetrate the 2,000 pages of Marx’s critique, we shall ponder twelve of the words in his opening sentence from the Everyman, followed here by the Penguin and Moscow translations where they differ:

A.      Reichtum,               wealth 

B.      Gesellshaften         societies

C.      kapitalisische         capitalist

D.     -weise                     method / mode  / mode 

E.      Produktions-           production

F.      herrscht                  prevails

G.   erscheint                takes the form of  /  appears as  / presents itself as

H.  ungeheure                         immense  

I.   Waren-                    commodities

J.  - sammlung                        accumulation  /  collection  / accumulation

K.   -form                       units / form / unit  

L.  einselne                  individual   /  individual   /  single 

In short, we shall stop to think about almost every word in the sentence. Of course, we won’t be able to appreciate their full significance until we have worked through much more than this chapter. However, by becoming alert to the likelihood that even everyday words carry meanings beyond the obvious summons us back to ‘the fatiguing climb of steep paths’ that we must undertake if we are to ‘have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.’

      A   Reichtum    wealth

The choice of ’wealth’ is tricky because it might be understood to be the same as ‘capital’. Years later, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx reminded certain German socialists that ‘[l]abour is not the source of all wealth’, after they had forgotten the resources supplied free from nature.[26] Those gifts are useless to humankind with some expenditure of human labour to turn them into use use-values.

    B Gesellshaften    societies

Gesellshaft is not just any kind of society. In English, we use ‘society’ for the whole of social life but also for clubs and societies. German has a comparable distinction along with two words: Gemeinshaft and Gesellshaft. Since the 1880s, their coupling has carried a potent contrast for social thinkers. In 1887, Ferdinand Toennies published Gemeinshaft und Gesellshaft which became a classic text once sociologists seized on the distinction between Gemeinshaft as community and Gesellshaft as association to distinguish traditional, organic connections from those deliberately created. Like three generations of German scholars, Toennies was trying to make sense of the upheavals that overtook Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. His usage came twenty years after Marx wrote Capital, so we cannot read their pairing back into its vocabulary. Nonetheless, Marx sometimes does use each term to convey meanings akin to the spirit of Toennies.

Marx’s choice of Gesellshaften in the first sentence points to his recognition that the kind of society he is dealing with is not natural, eternal and universal. From the early 1840s, Marx recognised that societies, like individuals, were the outcomes of social processes, changing themselves through a mix of co-operation and conflict. He ridiculed the fictions about society being the result of a social contract between pre-formed individuals and he poured scorn on the ‘unimaginative conceits of eighteenth-century Robinsonades’ who conjured economic systems from the isolated figure of Crusoe.[27] If Gesellshaften suggests that capitalism is more like a consciously-formed association than a natural community –Gemeinshaft - it would be wrong to conclude that Marx had imagined capitalism’s coming into existence after a vote by an executive committee of the bourgeoisie. His materialist conception of history accepts that the 150-years of to-ing and froing through which English law got around to permitting joint-stock companies with limited liability borders on Gemeinschaft whereas the decisions of the investors who took advantage of that legal change to set up the likes of Imperial Chemical Industries are indisputably cases of Gesellschaft.

Marx differentiates ‘society’ from ‘mode’ when he says that a mode of production ‘prevails’ in a society. One implication is that the society and the mode are not one and the same. In other words, there must be more to society than its dominant mode of production. That, in turn, means that there will also be more to explain. For a start, how do they interact?[28] Does one drive changes in the other, and if so, are the interchanges reciprocal, and in what ways? The significance of ‘mode’ is about to give us a lot more to puzzle over.

  1. kapitalisische    capitalist

Marx introduces one of the key terms with which he needs to operate. As with the remarks about ‘wealth’ and ‘societies’, bear in mind that he has thought his way through to accounts of capital and of a capitalist. It won’t spoil the ending to let on that capitalists turn out to be the personifications of capital. Should they cease to behave in that way, they cease to be capitalists.[29] Wage-slaves are the embodiment of the labour-power that we must sell to them if we are to survive since we lack productive property. Hence, capitalists and wage-slaves can exist only in an antagonistic unity so that the one is void without the other.

Capital has several manifestations: plant and equipment, vendible commodities, money and labour-power which has been sold (alienated). Marx considers these under the overlapping categories of constant, fixed, fluid and variable.[30] The significance of each form changes with changes within and between systems of production. Marx’s objective is to identify what is unique about capitalism, namely, its need to expand from within.

Unlike vulgar economists and bourgeois historians, Marx does not picture capitalism as a mish-mash of markets, money, profit, industrialisation and growth,[31] tossing whatever takes their fancy into a pot after the manner of the witches in Macbeth:

Surge in trade, divided skill,

Navvy’s spade, exchange of bill,

Engine’s steam, and low piece-rate

Goldsmith’s loan and factory gate

For a mode of powerful trouble.

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

No recipe can explain the revolution in capital. For Marx, capitalism has to be distinguished by its structured dynamics, primarily through the subordination of labour to feed relentless expansion. 

D.   -weise      method  /modemode

As a noun, ‘die Weise’ is ‘way, manner, fashion’.

Among Marxists and Marxologists, ‘mode’ is weighed down with a conceptual burden. In addition to the contrast between society and mode, Marx elsewhere distinguishes ‘mode of production’ from ‘means of production’, ‘forces of production’ and ‘social relations of production’; he also writes about a production process consisting of the interlock of labour- and valorisation processes. Many disputes rage over the relationship of ‘method/mode’ to all the others. Technological determinists claim that changes in the means or forces drive changes in the method/mode and influence the ‘social relations’. Others of that ilk are content to say that changes in the ‘mode’ affect – perhaps effect – changes in the social relations. They all claim that Marx agrees with them.

G.A. Cohen and William H. Shaw from 1978 built a sophisticated technological determinism for the genesis of capitalism after purging Marxism of its muddles with a stiff dose of logical positivism. Championing a no-bullshit Marx, Cohen believes that because ‘[a] mode of production is a way of producing’, it

cannot be identical with an economic structure, for a mode is a way or manner, not a set of relations. The economic structure is not a way of producing, but a framework of power in which producing occurs. Whatever correlations obtain between structure and mode, they are not one.[32]

Shaw also resiles from any equation by recognising the bifurcated meanings that Marx allots to ‘mode’: one is for ‘the restricted technical nature or manner of producing’; the other, as in the opening sentence to Capital, ‘involves the production of commodities, a certain manner of obtaining surplus, labor-time determination of value, a tendency to expand the productive forces, and so on.’[33] If so, then ‘mode’ means ‘all of the above’.

The standard reduction of Marx to technological determinist repeats an aphorism from The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) that ‘the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist’. Seven pages later, Marx returns to this contrast:

Labour is organised, is divided, differently according the instruments it has at its disposal. The hand-mill presupposes a different division of labour from the steam-mill. [34]

Marx was not wrong to connect hand-mills with feudalism and steam-mills with the industrial capitalist but in neither instance was the connection causal. The doyen of Marxist scholars of feudal times, R. H. Hilton, pointed out that barons and Abbotts ‘tried to force their tenants to grind only at the lord’s water-mill and not to use their own hand-mills. The hand-mill became a symbol of resistance to seigniorial exploitation’.[35] For its part, the steam-mill proved a laggard in the emergence of industrial capitalists with only 250,000 hp operating around 1830, and much of that to pump out mines. Machino-facture was powered by water-mills or animals, including humans.

Although not half way through the first sentence of Capital, we are about to double-back to its 1867 ‘Preface’ to see how much more we can discern of Marx’s intentions towards Produktionsweise:

The subject of study in the present work is the capitalist method of production, and the relations of production and exchange appropriate to that method. (Everyman, p. xlviii)

What I have to examine in this work is the capitalist mode of production, and the relations of production and forms of intercourse [Verkehrsverhaltnisse] that correspond to it. (Penguin, p. 90)

In this work I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode. (Moscow, p. 8)

Was ich in diesem Werk zu erforschen habe, ist die kapitalistische Produktionsweise und die ihr entsprechenden Produktions- und Verkehrsverhaltnisse. (p. 12)

If we compare the three English versions of the ‘Foreword’ with the original and then with Capital’s opening sentence, we find several inconsistencies in the translations.

The ‘-weise’ in Marx’s opening sentence is rendered as ‘method’ by the Everyman while the other pair prefer ‘mode’. The lines of divergence widen in the versions of the ‘Foreword’ when we come to ‘-verhaltnisse’ in Produktionverhaltsnisse and Verkehrsverhaltnisse. For Produktionverhaltsnisse, the Everyman and Penguin go with ‘relations of production’ while Moscow uses ‘conditions of production’. When it comes to Verkehrsverhaltnisse, however, the Everyman extends ‘relations of’ to cover ‘exchange’ and the Moscow similarly extends ‘conditions of’. The standout is the Penguin which replaces ‘relations of’ with ‘forms of” and ‘exchange’ with ‘intercourse’, before signaling its uncertainty by inserting ‘(Verkehrsverhaltnisse)’. The choice of ‘intercourse’ throws everything into the ring. One dictionary translation gives Verkehrsverhaltnisse as ‘street traffic’, which is not a bad way of thinking about the multifarious elements in commerce with its need for transport, financing and levels of merchandising. But the loss of ‘exchange’ cuts Marx’s intention off from the cornerstone of his critique, namely, ‘exchange-value’.

One need not reek of Marxology to know that ‘mode’ gained its privileged place in conventional wisdoms thanks to the much worried-over ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. In the disputed paragraph, Produktionsverhaltnisse appears six times and Produktionsweise only twice. On both occasions, the Moscow translation gives ‘-weise’ as ‘mode’ before rendering the final ‘-verhaltnisse’ also as ‘mode’. In the previous five instances, the translator has given ‘-verhaltnisse’ as ‘relations’. One explanation for the inconsistency in the third appearance of ‘mode’ is that ‘bourgeois’ immediately precedes both the second Produktionsweise and the last Produktionverhaltsnisse, three lines below. Why the sight of ‘burgerliche’ should induce that switch I cannot say.

Throughout a two-page paragraph, Marx is free with his application of ‘-verhaltnisse’ to compound nouns such as Lebensverhaltnissen, which Moscow gives as ‘conditions of life’. We have seen that ‘conditions’ is Moscow’s usual preference for Produktionsnisse in the ‘Preface’ to Capital.

Possible sources for the divergent meanings merit attention. Is the problem confined to  the translations? Or do we need – this once – to take a leaf from the book of analytical Marxists and spend time on refining our terms? Let’s limit our difficulties to Produktions-verhaltnisse/-weise and leave the puzzles around Verkehrsverhaltnisse to one side. Let us make a second simplifying assumption and accept -verhaltnisse for relations and -weise for mode. Like dutiful logical positivists, we open a dictionary, never forgetting that dictionaries do not tell us what words mean, but only how they have been used. What do we find when we look up ‘mode’ in the Complete Oxford English Dictionary organised on historical principles? For some reason, ‘mode of production’ is not among the hundreds of examples that the editors have drawn from music, grammar, logic and fashion. The only usages that come close to how Marxists have understood ‘mode of production’ are grouped under ‘4. a. A way or manner in which something is done or takes place; a method of procedure in an activity, business, etc.’

Closing the dictionary, we acknowledge that exegesis has allowed us to spotlight a substantial question, but not answer it: if the ‘mode’ of production is not the same as the ‘relations’ of production, what is it? It is easy enough to distinguish the German for ‘mode of production’ Produktionsweise from the German word for ‘means of production’, Produktionsmittel, and from Produktivekrafte for ‘forces of production’. In the lively processes  of production, can means, forces and methods remain so distinct?

Given the tangle around ‘mode’, it seems rash to stick with the Everyman’s choice of ‘method’. Yet the prospect of having to choose between English terms has re-opened the debate over whether technical change or class struggle is the motive force in the reproduction of human life. The meaning we give to ‘mode of production’ therefore is far from being of concern only to speculative philosophisers content to interpret reality. How to link the instruments of production with class power is part of the hour-by-hour conflicts between capital and wage-labour.

After fifty-five years of sprouting about ‘the capitalist mode of production’ it has been a shock, if not a complete surprise, for me to realise that ‘mode’ can, like any threadbare overcoat, cover a multitude of sins. Cohen is 300 per cent correct to say that because Marx used ‘mode of production’ in various ways, ‘Marxists should not employ it unexplicated in the statement of central theses’,[36] an injunction which these pages seek to serve. We must be no less careful to check translations for their consistency of ‘-weise’ for ‘mode’ and ‘-verhaltnisse’ for ‘relations/conditions’, a test which Cohen has been known to fail.

E. Produktions-   production

Marx does not start with an account of production, although he elsewhere stresses that production is the ground for all life.[37] Instead, he begins from exchange, the process through which a use-value can become a ‘commodity’. That metamorphosis is not the same as the consumption of the use-value. We can buy a use-value and thus make it a commodity before casting it aside without putting it to any use; or we can use it up, giving it some purpose beyond gratifying a whim through its purchase. Either way, the item will cease to be a use-value and thus cannot again become an exchange-value in the form of a commodity until after the processes of nature have reclaimed its material constituents, making them available to be remade into a new use-value which might become a commodity if it is produced under the appropriate conditions/relations.

            A debate rages about which comes first: production or consumption?  This quest is easily solved for Marx who recognised consumption as ‘a phase of production’.[38] That answer does not address itself to whether analysis should begin from production or from consumption. The proponents of starting from consumption are out to avoid the labour theory of value and hence to deny that exploitation occurs through an equal exchange in the subordination of wage-labour to capital. For the moment, it is enough to realise that starting from consumption is not innocent. Marx does not discuss the production of surplus-value for a further 126 pages.

 F.    herrschen  prevails

Prevails’ sounds too soft since Herr is master, and also Lord; dominates is closer, or ‘prevails over’. Hence, I’ve amended the Everyman sentence by putting ‘over’ in place of ‘in’:

The wealth of societies over which the capitalist method of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form.

This variation strengthens a distinction between society and mode, between relations and methods. Is that a valid move, or does it sunder their twofold natures, that dialectical character  ‘of something contained in the commodity but distinguishable from it’?[39]

 G.   erscheint   takes the form of  /  appears  /  presents itself as

‘Appears’ is used twice in the Penguin translation but erscheint is in the original only once. Should erscheint be translated as ‘appears as’? Does ‘appears’ mean ‘seems to be’, or does it mean ‘arrives on the scene’? In English, ‘appears ’ conveys both ‘seems to be’ and ‘turns up as’. This ambiguity might mislead those embarking on a study of Capital. The German means ‘as if it were’, which Everyman puts to as ‘takes the form of’.

Two pages on, Marx puts inverted commas around Erscheinungsform which the Penguin translates as ‘form of appearance’ (p. 125) while the Everyman (p. 5) and the Moscow (p. 37) treat Erscheinungs- in a philosophical context as ‘phenomenon’ and give it as ‘ “phenomenal form”, of something contained in the commodity but distinguishable from it.’ This twofold sense is less explicit in the Penguin which has ‘the “form of appearance”, of a content distinguishable from it.’[40] 

Moreover, ‘appears’ is an odd way for Marx to open since his entire method – like that of all science - is to distinguish appearance from reality. Hence, a translation should emphasise that the way in which the wealth of the world ‘seems to us to be’ is not likely to be how it is. In place of ‘appears’, the passage should convey ‘seems to us’. The opening is again amended to read:

The wealth of societies over which the capitalist method of production prevails presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’; the individual commodity is its elementary form.

Thus far, I have altered ‘in which’ to ‘over which’, and ‘appears’ to ‘presents itself as’.

 H.   ungeheure   immense

As a noun, Das Ungeheure is a monster and, figuratively, an ogre. Marx and his German readers would have been aware of this implicit criticism of a society over which the capitalist mode prevails, an association he spells out when he later refers to ‘capital’ as ‘an animated monster’.[41] The invocation of a mythical creature is the first of a host of images which the materialist Marx will conjure from the realms of enchantment. (see Appendix G)

         I.      Waren-  commodity

Since the concept of ‘commodity’ is what the chapter sets out to explore, the running commentary on Marx’s next fifty pages must wait its turn. One point merits attention in advance. In the second paragraph, Marx tells us that

A commodity is primarily an external object, a thing whose qualities enable it, in one way or another, to satisfy human wants.  (Everyman, p. 3)

The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind. (Penguin, p. 125)

A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort of another. (Moscow, p. 35)

Die Ware ist zunachst ein ausserer Gegenstand, ein Ding, das durch seine Eigenschaften menschliche Bedurfnisse irgendeiner Art befriedigt. (Dietz, p.49[42])

At first glance, this statement looks wrong because it defines the commodity as a use-value with no mention of exchange-value.[43] The sentence therefore needs to be understood as saying that a commodity has to be a use-value before it can become an exchange-value. The phrase ‘first of all’ is not asserting primacy - not ‘above all’ - but a temporal order – ‘before all’. The adverb zunachst derives from zuerst, erst for ‘first.

In addition, we could accuse Marx of slipping in the line of reasoning that he wants us to accept by his choice of ‘commodities’ to represent the constituents of ‘wealth’. It is doubtful whether anyone who is not a professional economist first thinks of ‘wealth’ in terms of ‘commodities’. ‘Commodities’ is not the word to pop into most people’s heads. Most of us would be more likely to start from the words in Marx’s second paragraph where he writes of an ‘external object. A thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind’. An agglomeration of things, or use-values, is how wealth ‘seems’ to most of us at first thought. On that assumption, the opening passage would read:

The wealth of societies over which the capitalist method of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of useful objects: the individual thing being its elementary form.

This rearrangement in no way challenges Marx’s line of argument. Rather, it leads us back one layer into everyday thought before taking the first of many thousands of steps away from such common sense and towards science through his critique of political economy. His task is to carry us past our initial impressions of a pile of useful objects and onto the scientific level of ‘commodities’.

            From this re-ordered version, we can ask what is odd about these ‘things’ when they occur within the capitalist mode? The preliminary answer is that they are commodities. The next question becomes: what is a commodity under those conditions? And that is what the chapter deals with.

 J. -sammlung    collection  /  accumulation

Either is accurate yet the Penguin’s choice of ‘accumulation’ foreshadows Marx’s use of that term for the dynamic of the capitalist system: ‘Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and all the Prophets.’[44]  Hence, ‘collection’ precludes any confusion with the conceptual significance of ‘accumulation’. Now the sentence reads:

The wealth of societies over which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense collection of useful objects: the individual thing being its elementary form.

 K. -form         unit / form

‘Form’ probably occurs more than any other term in this chapter but it does not take the lead until after it is in a sub-heading:

3. THE FORM OF VALUE, OR EXCHANGE-VALUE (Everyman, p. 17; Moscow, p. 47), or 3. THE VALUE-FORM, OR EXCHANGE-VALUE (Penguin, p. 138)

Is there a substantive difference between ‘form of value’ and ‘value-form’? Whether there is or not, it is not helpful of the Penguin to use ‘form’ for both everyday expressions such as ‘takes the form of’ and for a component in Marx’s concept of ‘value-form’.

‘Form’ is another term overladen with philosophical baggage, not all of it from Plato, for whom ‘things’ are, at best, the bad copies we make of Ideal forms.[45]

             l. einzelen      individual  /  single

The choice of individual would be unexceptional were it not that few words carry more baggage in bourgeois culture than ‘individual’, so that it might be sharper to follow the Moscow edition and use ‘single’.

 After so much ‘hair-splitting’, what remains of the Everyman version from which we set sail?:

The wealth of societies in which the capitalist method of production prevails, takes the form of ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, wherein individual commodities are the elementary units.

A sequence of emendations has resulted in:

The wealth of societies over which the capitalist method of production prevails presents itself as ‘an immense collection of useful objects’; the single thing is its elementary unit.

What damage can this reformulation do to Marx’s intention? None at all if the new sentence is installed as a prelude to the point that Marx makes in his subsequent sentences. The only change in substance as opposed to style has been to replace ‘commodities’ with ‘useful objects’. The re-write challenges Marx’s use of ‘therefore’, a tendentious move compounded when the Everyman and the Moscow editions insert ‘must’ in front of ‘therefore’ when that imperative voice is not in the German:

Unsere Untersuchung beginnt daher mit der Analyse der Ware. (p. 49)

Throughout the rest of Part I, Marx takes care to spell out each step in his analysis, so much so that it can seem tedious. His failure to take that degree of trouble here is perhaps because he is as impatient as he feared his readers might be to get to the substance, and also because he had satisfied himself on this point in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, from which he lifted the contested phrase.

 The purpose of the rephrasing is not to go one better than Marx or even to outdo his translators but to encourage us to think more deeply about categories and terms which have been taken for granted. Despite being finished with the opening sentence, we have not seen the last of pursuing words for their meanings, as relentlessly as the cook does the cellar rat in Faust.[46] Indeed, to get closer to ‘The Commodity’, we shall reflect on three terms in Marx’ second paragraph: thing; fancy/imagination; needs/wants.

As we move further into chapter one, the attention we have given to ‘minutiae’ – again, Marx’s term – will help to keep us focused on the ‘tissue’ of both his analysis and of commodity form; we can thereby expect that some of the complexities set out above will be unraveled. That process prepares us for the logic of dialectical reasoning which is the main barrier between our ‘common sense’ way of reading and how Marx’s brain was working as he wrote, rewrote and rewrote his ‘Critique of Political Economy’.

[1] Karl Marx, Capital, I, Penguin, London, 1976, p. 104; not in the Everyman, London, 1957; Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1958, p. 21. The first English translation appeared in 1887, supervised by Engels. It formed the foundation the Soviet edition which is still useful for its Appendices; the German edition used here is Karl Marx, Das Kapital, I, Karl Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1962; the opening sentence is the same as the 1867 original apart from the spelling of Ware as Waare, facsimile, Gerstenberg Verlag, Hildesheim, 1980, p. 3.

[2] schwindlet can mean ‘dizzy’ or ‘giddy’ as well as swindle. The Moscow translation sails around the difficulty: ‘If we start from the notion that all commodities together form ….’ (p. 124, n.). As is so often the case, the Everyman edition puts it best: ‘If we choose to fancy that the world of commodities ….’. (p. 104, n.2) The Penguin does not repeat its mistake but translates verschwindende  (p. 151) as ‘come onto the scene’. (p. 235). For more on Marx’s distinction between swindle and exploitation see Appendix E.

[3] One must  sympathise with any translator faciing Marx’s plays on ‘ausser’. It helps to know that aus- in German is the prefix for ‘out’, so that Auslander is foreigner. Here is an extreme example of Marx’s punning from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: ‘Was fruher Sichausserlichsein, reale Entausserung des Menschen ist nur (nun), zur Tat der Entausserung, zur Verausserung geworden’, (Karl Marx, Fruhe Schriften, I, Cotta-Verlag, Stuggart, 1960, p. 586.) This rolling pun, in which three different words have been rendered as variants on external, has been unstitched as ‘What previously was being external to oneself, actual externalisation of mankind, is (now) only the act of externalising, the process of alienating’, (Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 3, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1975, p. 292.) Elsewhere, Marx combined punning with paradox: ‘Des Lebensausserung seine Lebensentausserung ist’, (Fruhe Schriften, p. 598) which unravels as ‘The manifestation of his life is the alienation of his life’, (M-ECW, v. 3, p. 299).

[4] For criticisms of this translation, and replies see Labour Monthly, July 1929, pp. 446-8, and

[5] Some help comes from ????  Marx Dictionary, Continuum, London, ????; and L Gerard Bekerman, Marx and Engels, A Conceptual Concordance, Blackwell, Oxford, 1983, though its index is even scantier.

[6] Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, and other essays, NLB, London, 1971, pp. 79-80 and 77.

[7] My essay ‘The “Unreadable” Marx’,

[8] Marx, Capital, Everyman, p. xlviii; Penguin, p. 90; Moscow, p. 8.

[9] F. Engels, ‘Preface’, Karl Marx, Capital, III, Penguin, London, 1981, p. 97; Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1959, p. 7.

[10] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, pp. 169-70; Penguin, p. 284; Moscow, p. 178.

[11] Marx, Capital, I, Penguin, p. 94; Moscow, p. 12; F. Engels, ‘Preface’, Karl Marx, Capital, III, Penguin, London, 1981, p. 109; Progress Publishers, 1966, Moscow, p. 20.

[12] Engels, ‘Preface’, Capital, III, Penguin, p. 103; Moscow, pp. 13-14.

[13] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, p. lxiii; Penguin, pp. 108 and 112: Moscow, pp. 5 and 24-5; for example, the notes in the Everyman, pp. 54-6; Penguin pp. 173-5; and Moscow, pp. 80-82.

[14] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, p. 107; Penguin, p. 224; Moscow, p. 127 where it is in French.

[15] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, p. xlvii; Penguin, p. 89; Moscow, p. 7.

[16] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970, p. 211.

[17] Karl Marx, Capital, volume III, Penguin, London, 1981, p. 103; Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966, p. 13-14.

[18] Allen Oakley, Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, Intellectual Sources and Evolution, Volume 2, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1985.

[19] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, p.  xlviii; Penguin, p. 90; Moscow, p. 8.

[20] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, p. xlviii; Penguin, p. 90; Moscow, p. 8.

[21] Trevor Dean contrasts the attention given to openings by literary critics with their neglect among historiographers, ‘How Historians Begin: Openings in Historial Discourse’, History, 2010, pp. 399-417.

[22] Valeria Bruschi et al., Polylux Marx, A ‘Capital’ Workbook in Slides, Volume One, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2013, p. 27.

[23] Marx is pissed off that his first sustained venture against political economy had disappeared without trace. In this chapter, he refers to it nine times, more than any other source. 

[24] Marx, A Contribution etc., p. 27.

[25] Karl lMarx, Zur Kritik der politischen Okonomie, Cotumax, Berlin, 2010, p. 9.

[26] Karl Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Volume Three, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970, p. 13.

[27] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973, p. 83.

[28] In The Great Transformation (Beacon Books, Boston, 1946), Karl Polanyi writes of how markets used to be embedded in societies but, under capitalism, society became embedded in the market.

[29] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, pp. 1 and 60; Penguin, pp. 92 and 179; Moscow, pp. 10 and 85; Dietz, pp. 16 and 100; for the Faustian bargain between accumulation and pleasure, Everyman, p. 653; Penguin, p. 741; Moscow, p. 594; Dietz, p. 620.

[30] See my “Refining capital’,

[31] For a recent trove of such muddle-headedness see Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson (eds), The Cambridge History of Capitalism, volume I, The Rise of Capitalism: from Ancient Origins to 1848, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, and my review article on

[32] G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History, A Defence, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978, p. 79.

[33] William H. Shaw, Marx’s Theory of History, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1978, pp. 31-32.

[34] Karl Marx, ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’, Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 6, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1976, pp. 166 and 183.

[35] Rodney Hilton, ‘Feudalism in Europe: Problems for Historical Materialists’, New Left Review, 147, October 1984, pp. 87-88.

[36] Cohen, p. 79. This is not the place to spell out disagreements with Cohen. Suffice it to say that the state as an instrument of class dictatorship and for war-making is underdeveloped.

[37] Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, pp. 188ff.

 [38] Marx, A Contribution etc., p. 196.

[39] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, p. 5; Penguin, p. 125; Moscow, p. 37.

[40] Drawing on an epistemological critique of Kant and Hegel, Igor Hanzel chastises the Penguin for error and inconsistency in giving ‘Erscheinung’ as both ‘form of appearance’, which is wrong, and ‘form of manifestation’, ‘Mistranslations of “Schein” and “Erscheinung”: The structure of Chapter 1 of Capital, Volume I’, Science & Society, 74 (4), October 2010, pp. 519-23.

[41] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, p. 189; Penguin, p. 302; Moscow, p. 195; ‘ein beseeltes Ungerheuer’, Dietz, p. 208.

[42] Again the wording is the same as in 1867, with Waare for Ware but also irgend einer instead of irgendeiner.

[43] Marx presently admits that the sentence is ‘incorrect. A commodity is a use-value, (or a useful object) and value. It manifests itself as this twofold thing as soon as its value has a phenomenal form of its own, the form of exchange value, differing from the bodily form, and it never has this form when regarded in isolation, but only when it is brought into a value relation (an exchange relation) with some other commodity, one of a different kind. As long as we recognise this, the foregoing locution does no harm, and serves as a conveniently terse way of phrasing.’ (Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, p. 32; Penguin, p. 152; Moscow, p. 60.) For the validity of this excuse see ‘Against definitions’ on his site.

[44] Marx, Capital, I, Everyman, p. 654; Penguin, p. 742; Moscow, p. 595.

[45] Plato, The Republic. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1955, pp. 422ff.

[46] Thomas M. Kemple, Reading Marx Writing, Melodrama, the Market, and the ‘Grundrisse’, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1995, chapter 1.

See also Political Economy