A Guide to Marx’s Capital by Kenneth Smith. Anthem Press, 2012.  $29.95.

Smith is up front about the fact that the views about Marx which he advances in this guide are “controversial”. Given that the book is an attempt to combine the presentation of these “controversial” views with a “comprehensive” introduction to all three volumes of Marx’s Capital, we must first evaluate the book’s performance as an introduction, then discuss Smith’s critical arguments in more detail.

The book is organized into four parts. Rather than follow the structure of Capital itself, Smith begins with an explanation of absolute and relative surplus value, the division of labor, machinery and industry, and primitive accumulation. This is intended to introduce the reader to the sections of Capital where Marx discusses capitalism’s historical emergence.

In Part II, Smith explains simple and extended reproduction. Part III discuses capitalism’s development (or as Smith would claim underdevelopment) in relation to Marx’s work on circuits of capital, his treatment of credit and the tendency of the falling rate of profit. Part IV deals with the labor theory of value.

In his introduction Smith discusses the merits of various approaches to reading Capital. However, Smith’s preferred order of treatment seems to be much less geared to providing the reader (even an advanced reader such as a graduate student, professor, or other type of student of Marx) with an introduction to Capital, than to introducing the reader to Smith’s own critique of Marx.

Only the first part comes close to being suitable, because Smith hasn’t brought out his critical hobby horses yet. To produce a “Guide to Marx’s Capital”, Smith would have to have been willing to put these away for a while, but it is clear that he was not. The amount of space devoted to the author’s own (admittedly “controversial”) critiques of Marx, Hilferding, Lenin and Lukács obstructs a clear presentation of the material and prevents the work from being useful as an introduction to Capital.

Many key concepts for understanding Marx’s theory go undiscussed, because it is apparently more important to Smith that the reader knows the flaws of Marx’s theory. In a similar vein, the “Points for Further Discussion”, which Smith provides at the end of each chapter, are hijacked to make his arguments against Marx et al, not used to improve the reader’s understanding of Capital.

This is frustrating because the sections in which Smith focuses on on Marx’s arguments rather than his own are often remarkably clear. This includes the majority of Part I (in particular Smith’s explanation of absolute and relative surplus value) and the first three chapters of Part II, where he explains simple and extended reproduction.

However, aside from a specific interest in these particular aspects of Marx’s theory, there is no reason to consult this book as a general guide or introduction to Capital, especially when superior introductions to all three volumes exist. For instance, Michael Heinrich’s An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital is now available from Monthly Review Press.

Since the book is inappropriate as an introduction to Capital, it is a matter of the quality of Smith’s own critical arguments regarding Marx’s explanation of accumulation and his labor theory of value, the aspects of Capital that undergird Lenin’s theory of imperialism, and Lukács’s theory of reification and class consciousness.

Before moving on to treat these I want to first make a quick remark about the book’s introduction. In a section called “A Note on Marx’s Method” Smith does a good job of pulling together a number of the quotations from Marx and Engels on the dialectical method and providing a basic explication.

While one might wish for a more systematic explanation of Marx’s method along with a few examples from Capital, the main thrust of beginning with the concrete, moving to the abstract, and then back again to the concrete comes through nicely.

There is also the benefit that the close relationship between Hegel’s philosophy and Marx’s method is highlighted. It is strange though, that in the conclusion, when Smith attempts to explain why the commodity is Marx’s starting point, this is not done in terms of this previously referenced method of “scientific presentation” and the manner in which Marx develops his abstractions, but rather in terms of the method of immanent critique. Marx certainly makes use of immanent critique in Capital, but this is not what determines the overall structure of the work.

Smith’s critique of Marx’s account of accumulation revolves around the fact that Smith is convinced there is a hole in Marx’s explanation of why the accumulation that drives extended reproduction occurs. This is because Smith discounts Marx’s explanation of competition as the driving force of accumulation for the following reason:

The answer […] could not be the one that is usually given (i.e. capitalist competition) because that is not a first order explanation: it does not explain why the first capitalist in any particular cycle of reproduction chooses to extend the scale of the process of production themselves, thereby forcing others to follow suit. … There must then be some other, more fundamental, mechanism at work, embedded within the capitalist mode of production itself, that could account for reproduction on an extended scale and reproduction on a progressively extended scale against the natural inclination of capitalists to conserve what they already had (pg. 5), or as he puts it later:

There is no problem explaining the expansion of the capitalist mode of production – either in the form of reproduction on an extended or progressively extending scale – once this process is up and running; capitalist competition will take care of this. But unless one is willing to explain the origins of this process in terms of the will of the capitalist … then it is hard to see how this can be done without abandoning a materialist perspective (pg. 78).

Smith also argues, rather ambitiously, that it was Marx’s inability to resolve this problem that prevented Marx from publishing Vols. 2 and 3 of Capital. Smith argues that in the second half of Vol. 2 Marx attempts (in vain) to find a solution to this problem. Smith suggests a possible answer to this problem is to be found not in Marx’s argument regarding the precipitation of fixed capital in Vol. 2 itself, which he finds flawed on account of the fact that there is no materially compelling reason why one group of capitalists could not simply waste their accumulated capital (pg. 74), but in his own modification of Marx’s argument, which he refers to as a different form of the precipitation of fixed capital (pg. 77). Smith, however, is not committed to this as a solution. Instead he suggests:

But what if there is in fact no materially compelling reason for the accumulation of capital, either on the same scale or on a progressively extending scale? What if capitalists might simply choose to accumulate or not to accumulate as the case may be? If this is the case, then the entire character of the capitalist mode of production as Marx understood this is changed. Instead of developing inexorably towards socialism, as Marx expected it would, it might develop in some other way that was not anticipated by Marx (pg. 78).

This leads us to Smith’s next argument that monopoly capitalism is not a new stage in the development of capitalism, but rather a step backward to a form of mercantilism that is neither capitalist nor socialist. Smith cites the following passage of a letter from Marx to Engels along with Marx’s and Engels’ writings on colonialism to claim that Marx’s primary concern was with how the rest of the world would underdevelop the capitalist world:

The specific task of bourgeois society is the establishment of a world market, at least in outline, and of production based upon this world market. As the world is round, this seems to have been completed by the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan. The difficult question for us is this: on the Continent the revolution is imminent and will immediately assume a socialist character. Is it not bound to be crushed in this little corner, considering that in a far greater territory the movement of bourgeois society is still in the ascendant? (Letter to Engels of 8th of October 1858)

This is then used to argue that the capitalist mode of production was “underdeveloped, by virtue of its trade with the non-capitalist world in much the same way that the rest of the world is usually thought to have been underdeveloped by virtue of its trade with the [capitalist mode of production]” (pg. 107).

It is striking that Smith cites extensively from precisely those passages in Marx’s treatment of credit where Marx presents those developments within capitalism that clearly point forward toward a socialist economy. Yet he somehow manages to conclude from these passages that this new economic development (of the increasing centralization and socialization of capital under monopoly capitalism) is a move backward in economic development toward mercantilism, an “underdevelopment” and one that is not capitalist.

He directs this argument against Lenin’s claim that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. This is all extremely confused and goes directly against the broader conception of Marx and Engels of economic development (as well as historical development more broadly) as an irreversible process.

In Part IV Smith’s critiques begin to suffer from a certain narrowness in his understanding of Marx. For instance his critique of the labor theory of value, in which he defends his own view of a reproducibility theory of value, appears to hinge on a misunderstanding of Marx’s discussion of labor as a “force of nature” in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Smith cites the fact that economists before Marx rigidly opposed nature and labor and then argues that Marx no longer opposed these two categories since he saw labor as a force of nature.

He then uses this to launch an attack on Marx’s argument in Capital, Vol. 1, section 2, that a natural object such as air, virgin soil, or natural meadows can have a use-value, but no value, meaning that these natural objects must be modified by labor before they can come to have value. Smith argues that since Marx regards labor as a force of nature it is illegitimate of Marx to draw a distinction between labor and nature.

Smith does not understand that Marx treats the social and natural world as a differentiated unity. Hence when Marx refers to labor as a “force of nature” this does not mean that there is not an incredibly important distinction to be drawn between human labor, and the rest of nature. Of course Marx and Engels argue that labor emerged as a force in the natural world in the course of biological development, however they also argue that it was the labor process itself that led to the unique development of human beings and to their qualitatively distinct new form of social existence.

Although there is a key distinction between social labor and the natural world (in which it is of course also a natural force) they form in the last analysis one differentiated unity. Using Lenin’s preferred metaphor one might say that there is no Wall of China between nature and labor, but that a strong distinction can and must be drawn between the socialized labor process and the natural world. Marx is simply making use of this key aspect of his thought.

In the final chapter on Lukács’s theory of reification and class consciousness Smith makes two major mistakes. He simply does not understand that Lukács, following Marx, is talking about the way in which the antagonistic social relation between capitalists and workers is masked behind the interaction of commodities.

The false consciousness of which Lukács speaks is a misrecognition of the existing class antagonism, because of a set of economic relationships surrounding commodities, which do not immediately appear to involve such a class antagonism. Quibbling about Lukács’s choice of language should not obscure the fact that he is drawing out a key aspect of Marx’s work on commodity fetishism.

Worse still, in pursuing his critique of Lukács, Smith begins to draw a distinction between “appearance and reality” and attribute this conception to Marx. Both Hegel, as well as Marx following him, would reject such an opposition, because they both consider appearances to be real. The categorical opposition is not between appearance and reality, but between appearance and essence, both of which are objective “forms of existence”, which is what Marx considers ontological categories to be.

This is particularly problematic since Marx’s ontological categories such as essence and appearance are dialectical, meaning that they interpenetrate one another (forming a differentiated unity) and are in fact conceived of as dynamic, historically developing forms of existence. Separating them in this way is a serious distortion of Marx’s thought. This distortion culminates in a very confused chart on pg. 164, which divides various terms between appearance and reality.

All the thinkers that Smith is taking on deserve better. He seems more interested in formulating “controversial” objections than in taking the time to charitably understand the arguments of those he critiques or providing a usable introduction to Capital.

January 27, 2013