Reading Capital Politically

Cleaver, Harry

Publisher:  AK Press
Year Published:  2000   First Published:  1981
ISBN:  9780292770157
Resource Type:  Book
Cx Number:  CX7263

Harry Cleaver's seminal work on forming a practical, political interpretation of Marx's Capital.


Table of Contents:

Preface to the 2nd Edition
Preface to the Korean Edition
Preface to the Mexican Edition
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: The Commodity-Form
Chapter 3: The Substance and Magnitude of Value
Chapter 4: The Twofold Character of Labor
Chapter 5: The Form of Value
Chapter 6: Conclusion
Bibliography from the 2nd Edition (pdf)
Review Questions for Chapter One, Volume One of Capital


In this book I re-examine Karl Marx's analysis of value through a detailed study of Chapter One of Volume I of Capital. The object of this study is to bring out the political usefulness of the analysis of value by situating the abstract concepts of Chapter One within Marx's overall analysis of the class struggles of capitalist society. I intend to return to what I believe was Marx's original purpose: he wrote Capital to put a weapon in the hands of workers. In it he presented a detailed analysis of the fundamental dynamics of the struggles between the capitalist and the working classes. (1) By reading Capital as a political document, workers could study in depth the various ways in which the capitalist class sought to dominate them as well as the methods they themselves used to struggle against that domination.

During the last half-century, however, not only has Capital very rarely been read in this manner but it also has been largely neglected. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that, despite Capital's world-wide reputation and quasi-religious status in the socialist world, its serious study has been a rare and isolated phenomenon in both East and West. Many have spoken of it, but few have really studied it. When it has been read, more often than not, it has been treated by Marxists of various persuasions as a work of political economy, of economic history, of sociology, or even of philosophy. Thus it has been an object of academic study rather than a political tool. The legacy of this Marxist tradition has served to all but remove the book from the battlefields of the class struggle.

This neglect has recently been replaced by a world-wide revival of the close study of Marx's writings, especially Capital. This revival has seen a proliferation of various Marxist "schools of thought," among both academic and activist groups. Unfortunately, much of this new study is duplicating those past interpretations which have ignored or underestimated the usefulness of Capital as a political tool in the hands of workers. Those who have rediscovered Capital as a weapon and have read it politically have been few and widely scattered. This introduction outlines the various traditional and contemporary approaches to the interpretation of Marx and situates those political readings of Capital among them.


We thus find in this current literature all the fundamental limitations of reading Marx as political economy that have plagued the approach from the beginning. Whether in the case of orthodoxy, revisionism, or neo-Marxism, the field of examination is strictly confined to economics, and Marxism as political economy becomes at best an ideological prop to political positions which are brought in alongside these critiques of capitalism. In each case we can see how the various authors remain locked into a world where concepts designate abstract relations and the source of crisis or imperialism is to be found in the system's mysterious economic "laws of motion" that regulate the behavior of the capitalist class.

What we have here is a reading of Capital that is not only limited to being a passive interpretation, but which also, by restricting itself to the "economic" sphere or "base" effectively, makes of political economy the theory of the capitalist factory and its waged workers alone. (49) This has the effect of excluding the rest of society from the analysis -- not only the state and party politics but also the unemployed, the family, the school, health care, the media, art, and so on. As a result political economists who would try to take these things into account find themselves rummaging through Marx's writings looking for suggestive tidbits of "other" theories. (50) Yet it is precisely in these "other" social spheres that many of the major social conflicts of today are occurring. At the turn of the century, when working-class struggle was located primarily (but not uniquely by any means) in the factory, there was perhaps some excuse for reading Capital as a theoretical model of the capitalist factory. But as a result of the extensive social engineering of the 1920s and 1930s through which capitalist social planners sought to restructure virtually all of society, and as a result of the nature of recent social struggles against such planning, such interpretations today are grossly inadequate. The New Left correctly sensed this and avoided orthodox interpretations. The inadequacy of both orthodox and neo-Marxist theories became abundantly clear in the late 1960s. Both were unequipped to explain the revolts of the unwaged and were forced to appeal to ad hoc solutions. Orthodoxy revived historical materialism and tried to shove peasant revolts into the box of pre-capitalist modes of production. Student revolts were classified as either petty bourgeois or lumpen. Women's revolts were within the framework of some "domestic" mode of production. All were thus set aside as unimportant secondary phenomena because they were not truly working class. This of course set up the Party once again as the mediating interpreter of the real working-class interests and justified the attempt to repress or co-opt these struggles.

Although the neo-Marxism of the New Left made these struggles central to its notion of revolution, it fared little better theoretically. Because it accepted orthodoxy's exclusion of these groups from the working class, all it could offer were vague evocations of "the people's" interests. In as much as either they fell outside the "economic" sphere or their place within it was obscure, these revolts had to be seen as byproducts of the general irrationality of the system. We can thus see that one great weakness of reading Marx as political economy has been to isolate and reduce his analysis to that of the factory. But if this is a weakness which has made both orthodox and neo-Marxism utterly incapable of accounting for the present crisis, it is not the only problem.

Even more important is the one-sidedness of all these analyses, from those of the Second International right up through the contemporary debates on crisis theory. This one-sidedness lies in the limited way in which the working class, however defined, makes an appearance in these models. When it appears on the scene at all, it comes in from the outside and usually as a victim fighting defensive battles. This is why I would label the Marxist or neo-Marxist categories employed in these models "reified." They are "reified" in that instead of being understood as designating social relations between the classes they have been turned into designations of things, things within capital separate from the social relation. In fact the concept of capital itself in these models usually designates not the class relation (that is sometimes thrown in as an afterthought) but rather the means of production, money capital, commodity capital, and labor power, all circulating as mindless entities through the ups and downs of their circuits. Where does the impulse to movement, technological change, or expansion come from in these models? Why, it comes from within capital, of course, usually the blind result of competition among capitalists. When competition breaks down in monopoly capital, Marxists like Baran, Sweezy, and Josef Steindl deduce a necessary tendency to stagnation. In either case the working class is only a spectator to the global waltz of capital's autonomous self-activating development.

This was not Marx's view of the world. Not only did he repeatedly insist that capital was a social relation of classes, but he also explicitly stated that at the level of the class the so-called economic relations were in fact political relations:

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