How not to do another New Reading of Marx’s Capital Ruthless Criticism

How not to do another New Reading of Marx’s Capital

On An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital by Michael Heinrich

[Translated from GegenStandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 2-08, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

Karl Marx’s Capital can be an opaque work, even if it strives to develop it’s arguments as simply as possible. It’s no accident that there are 150 years of politically inspired misunderstandings by dubious friends and outright enemies of it’s pages which seem to offer enlightenment about the thrust of Marx’s “critique of political economy” and what Capital is saying; that’s why interpretive commentary is so often necessary, especially as contributions to it’s exegesis come on the market which simply no longer deserve to be apologetically called misunderstandings.

The New Reading of Capital after the end of the workersʼ states

A case like this is a recently published book with wide appeal: Das Kapital neu lesen – Beiträge zur radikalen Philosophie [New Readings of Capital: Contributions to Radical Philosophy]. [1] Marx researchers justify their call with a twofold answer to their invented question: “Why should a ‘new’ reading now be possible?” (Hoff, 10)

Supposedly, it should now be possible because the project of the historical-critical Marx-Engels-Collected Works has only been in the proper, Western hands for about 10 years and progressed enough that almost all the drafts and plans for Capital, as well as all versions of the text, are available. Not that the authors have discovered in the many drafts a single new understanding of capitalism that was lost in the final version. They simply change the subject: Instead of using Marx to explain capitalism, they turn their research project into the history of the genesis, text and impact of a book that explains capitalism, and would like to mislead the growing interest in the critique of capitalism that they think exists into their Marx philology. “No longer is the definitive edition the answer to everything, but the genesis of the text and the negotiating of problems have moved to the center of discussion” (ibid.), for example, the “problematic of the object of understanding” and the “question of the relation between categories and reality.” What must be discussed is whether the whole grand theory construction has anything to do with reality at all, and whether the object even exists which it discusses so impressively. Marxologists do not want to understand the thoughts that the founder of their research subject has committed to paper – “The naive reading which simply claims to to read ‘what is really there’ is ... rightfully in disrepute” (Hoff, 13); nor does it want to correct the alleged or real shortcomings of Marx’s critique or continue it. On the contrary: “The idea of finally bringing to an end Marx’s unfinished project ... no longer makes sense on the basis of a consideration of the resulting situation.” (Hoff, 31) Today’s “situation” simply requires transferring the old communist into the heritage and intellectual property of the bourgeois university, inserting him into intellectual history and scientific pluralism so as to celebrate a founder of now classic ideas and formulations – and to modernly problematize his insights. This is a fine task for conferring still more doctorates.

Secondly, the new reading of the classic author is made possible by the progress of history: “After theoretical Stalinism and its debate-stifling state apparatus have historically passed, at last all questions can be posed ... again.” (Hoff, 11) The authors act as if Stalin had personally hindered them in their thinking. After the self-abolition of real socialism, finally, they no longer have to get mixed up “in the temptation to ingratiate themselves with the rulers nor to disassociate from it” when they find Marx interesting. The temptation must have been so overwhelming. Now at least they are free enough not to shed any more tears for the class struggle, which no longer exists, and to bury what they call “labor-movement Marxism” for good. As far as their Marxist philosophy has a political thrust at all, it goes against the defunct Eastern bloc socialism. They accuse it of criticizing only surplus-value and not value, and thus of having missed Marx’s critique, but now they only do the exact opposite themselves: where the old socialists made their critical target the capitalist distribution of wealth and not the purpose and principles of its production (and the distribution determined beforehand by it), here the radical philosophers of today find the “value abstraction” terribly significant and are not interested in the exploitation of wage-labor, indeed the entire economy that Marx criticized. Their crisis diagnosis is located a few levels of abstraction higher and wants to have nothing more to do with social victims and the reasons this might give for a rebellion: they find it bad that “society” as a whole – there is no more talk of classes – is led by a fetishistic “system of blindness” and is locked up in an abstract totality they do not even notice. This theorizing is recognizable and in part openly explained as the reverse of Marx’s intellectual development. While he went from philosophy to the study of economic reality and prepared the way for science, his academic admirers of today go backwards: from the critique of capitalist exploitation, they make a philosophy of alienation.

Michael Heinrich’s introductory book [2] and his Capital commentary [3] are peculiar contributions to this Marxist culture, which he himself more or less expects. On the one hand, he lets Marx get a chance to speak in a lot of detail, tries for “what is really there,” and thereby brings a lot of his critique of political economy to the reader. On the other hand, he also feels constantly compelled to reject Eastern bloc Marxism by explaining the abstract opposite of it as the truth. Especially in those places where he surpasses the seminar paper Marxist way of arguing and feels compelled to methodical considerations with which he would like to make Marx credible with today’s social scientists and post-“labor movement” left, he exhibits a trend we think is wrong.

The wrong direction announces itself in a introductory formulation by which he works out his task:

“That a ruling class faces a ‘ruled’ and ‘exploited’ class may be a surprise for a conservative social studies teacher who only knows ‘citizens,’ not much is stated by it, nevertheless. All societies known to us are class societies ... What matters is how class rule and exploitation function in a society.” (13)

The opposition of “that” and “how” is surprising. That our society is defined by exploitation and class rule, the author considers old hat. How it works, he finds exciting. The that is by no means public knowledge; not only conservative social studies teachers, but almost everyone now takes the freedom and equality of the private subject who may seek his advantage and give nothing without a return in exchange as convincing evidence that exploitation and the domination of one social class over another can’t exist. In capitalism, Heinrich says elsewhere, exploitation is simply not visible like in the days of feudal serfdom or slavery. It must be proven; and the judgment about this society is spoken when it is proven. Its proof corresponds to the explanation of how a one-sided relation of servitude lies in the mutual use of free citizens, hence how free exchange yields a relation of exploitation. Our interest is therefore to show in how it functions, what is functioning, what consequences the ruling economic purposes of money-making brings with it, what other purposes and economic forms follow from it, and what negative effects this has for those affected.

Heinrich by contrast finds it “decisive how exploitation and class rule function in a society” without considering this fact worth proving. He does not want to highlight exploitation as the decisive scandal, but what he considers the amazing functioning of this system. His attention is not so much the absurdity of the economic system and its harmfulness for the great majority, but capitalism as a functioning system. He wants to explain how this system, despite its “destructive potential,” integrates its (human) elements and secures its existence in the world. Criticism of capitalism is for him not the clarification of arguments as to why this system of exploitation deserves to be abolished, but remarks that take the stability of capitalist society as the topic: He is concerned with uncovering mechanisms of unconscious preformation of thought and action by the “system” that ensure that its inhabitants function reliably and don’t arrive at any critical thoughts. “The system” is for him the all-ruling subject of the capitalist world.

Criticism of the system, but no hostility against capitalists

Heinrich speaks of a ruling and a ruled, exploited class; but he barely looks any closer at both classes, they appear quite the same in the regard that primarily interests him: Exploiters and exploited, rulers and ruled are equally ruled, namely as subjects of a “systemic relation of rule”:

“In the next chapters it will become even clearer that capitalism is based on a systemic relation of rule that produces compulsions to which the workers as well as the capitalists are subjected. Hence, a criticism is too limited which aims at the ‘excessive profit striving’ of individual capitalists, but not at the capitalist system as a whole.” (15)

Certainly, a criticism that only demands that individuals moderate their striving for profit when it is carried to excess is inadequate; it is essential to indicate the necessity for the bad experiences of workers in capitalism and to pinpoint the reasons for this necessity in order to properly criticize the eternally disappointed and still never given up false hopes for improvement and the corresponding constructive proposals. However, Heinrich understands this need falsely, as the “hence” in the above quotation suggests: According to him, “the criticism of unbridled profit-striving is too limited,” not because there are no individuals who strive so excessively, but because the capitalists are forced to strive by the system, whether they want to or not. Heinrich polemically poses the logic of the ruling system of exploitation and capital accumulation against the fact that this is the systematic domination of an interest; an interest that the agents of capital in fact have, as they pursue their economic purpose with all determination, and to which they make the wage-laborers subservient. When Heinrich mentions “system” and “necessity” it is always in a tone of warning that one should just not reproach the capitalists: for him they are not what Marx called “character masks,” representatives of the capitalistic money increase in that they strive as private owners of money to increase their property. For Heinrich, they are, like their victims, victims of the system – and in this respect can’t help it. This is a strange critique of capitalism whose first task is not to clarify the socially valid interests in and methods of exploitation, but to warn against hostility towards the exploiters. In a way that can be called very monotonous, when Heinrich covers the fundamental facts of capitalism, he always ends the presentation of the relevant passages from Capital with exculpating negations: what the capitalists do is not individual madness, not malice, nothing reprehensible – everything is forced by the system and correct according to its principles.

– Capital’s drive to accumulation

“The profit of a capitalist enterprise is not primarily intended to allow the capitalists a decent living, but the profit is to be invested again in the future so that more money is made. Not meeting demand, but capital valorisation is the immediate purpose of production.” (14)

Correct: The capitalist is not satisfied with something so modest as covering his quite luxurious needs, but aims directly at the development of his source of wealth and the even greater future profits he wants to make with it. This is the critique of capitalist production: Its purpose is not the workers’ need for consumption, nor that of the entrepreneurs, but the constant growth of their access power to the sources of wealth. All work and all consumption are subject to it. But it is not Heinrich’s purpose to highlight this “madness.” He touches upon this only to immediately warn that one may not regard the purpose that the owners of the means of production pursue is only their purpose:

“That the profit does not primarily serve the consumption of the capitalists, but continual capital valorisation, i.e. the restless movement of always-more-profit, sounds perhaps absurd. But here it is not about an individual madness. The individual capitalists are forced to this movement of restless profit ... by the competition of other capitalists.” (14)

The madness is that of the system; according to the false dichotomy, this has nothing to do with the interests of powerful actors.

– Exploitation

“is ... not meant as a moral category. It’s not the point that something is taken away from the workers that ‘actually’ belongs to them, so that this taking away would be something reprehensible ... On the contrary, Marx emphasized that – according to the laws of commodity exchange – the seller of the commodity labor-power receives exactly the value of his commodity ... ‘Exploitation’ and the existence of unpaid labor do not spring from a violation of the laws of commodity exchange, but from compliance with them. If one wants to abolish exploitation, then this is not possible through a reform of the exchange relations within capitalism, but only through the abolition of capitalism.” (93f)

Yes, it is true: if one wants to abolish capitalist exploitation, one must overthrow the capitalist system. What else? Why one would want to, however, gets a bit lost in this type of discussion. It may well be that nothing that would belong to the workers is taken away from them by the capitalist who appropriates their labor product; the labor product does not belong to them anyway. But is that the same as saying it is nothing “reprehensible” if people work the greater part of their working day for the company and barely at all for themselves? Instead of denying it is reprehensible, wouldn’t it be better to point out what a hardship the “value of the commodity labor-power” is? If Marx points out that wages are regulated by the same law as the prices of all other goods – according to the labor effort necessary for the production of this commodity – then it has already been said that labor-power has no share in the wealth it produces, but is paid to deliver profitable labor to capital and line up again the next day; it is furthermore said that wages are also paid only on the basis of what is indispensable for this to happen. [4] The owners of the commodity labor-power may subjectively think that they work to live, and they are really compelled to offer themselves as wage labor if they want to live. However, in the reason and measure of their payment, the opposite is expressed: they live in order to work for the enrichment of others. Since by purchasing this interesting commodity capitalists acquire disposal over unpaid surplus labor, it doesn’t occur to them to remunerate labor-power with “exactly the value of its commodity”; instead, they organize a constant test of whether they could also perform this service for less money, maybe even work more for worse pay and be forced to line up even more reliably. Instead of giving the wrong impression that the “value of the commodity labor-power” is indeed modest, but nevertheless secures a livelihood on which labor-power can count in capitalism, one would explain how devastating the value determination, this regulating law of prices, works with the commodity labor-power. After all, this commodity does not come with the purpose of being profitably sold in the world, its “production” can’t be scaled back or discontinued by unfavorable market conditions until the supply is low enough and demand again allows a “cost recovering” sales price. An oversupply of money-earning, dependent wage-laborers leads to the permanent and unrestricted decline of the price which is paid for them. In order to be able to charge the value of his commodity – the necessary production costs of the living individual – the owner of the commodity labor-power must band together with his peers, cease work, and through the economic damage which he can threaten or inflict on a company’s profit calculations, extort higher wages from it. The wage-laborer must constantly struggle for the sordid value of his commodity, for elementary consideration of the reproductive necessities of his labor-power; only under conditions of class struggle is there a law of value on this market at all. Therefore, the idea is completely wrong that workers get paid exactly the objective value corresponding to their commodity. Heinrich cites Marx’s denunciation of the cynical justice of commodity exchange with a wrong emphasis: his opposition to “moral criticism” concludes that the agents of capital and their business of exploitation under the given relations of property and exchange is really not anything to criticize: what they pursue is absolutely correct according to the rules of commodity exchange.

– The destruction of the health and lives of the workers

“However, by characterizing the capitalist mode of production’s boundless need for surplus labor, Marx by no means makes a moral reproach of the individual capitalists. Although this need for additional work implies – just because it knows no limit – that capital is reckless towards the health and lives of the workers and consequently accepts destruction of the workers, this is still not an individual moral failure of the individual capitalist, but the consequence of the logic of capitalist commodity production.… The competition with the rest of the capitalists ensures that the individual capitalist extensively uses his right as a buyer to make maximum use of the use value of the commodity he buys.” (101)

Even when it comes to talking about the ruinous consequences of the “logic of capitalist production,” Heinrich apparently sees nothing more important than taking the economic Powers That Be from the line of fire. Everything up to the destruction of the health and lives of the worker is all backed by the system, forced by competition, regarded as an unfree action of the capitalists: basically, they can’t help it!

“All, even those who profit from the work of capitalism, are part of a big clockwork. Capitalism turns out to be an anonymous machine that knows no master mechanic who steers the engine with his will and could be held responsible for the damage done by this machine.” (186)

This is what an abstract negation of “labor-movement Marxism” looks like: because “capitalism” has no subject which “steers” it as such, this system also has no subjects who – with the interest of increasing their private financial wealth – represent the valid purposes of wealth and as private owners command the social means of pursuing them. If the old socialists condemned greed and exploitation as a violation of humanity and an expression of the evil egoism of the capitalists, Heinrich’s rejection remains entirely at the level of the question of moral guilt, and denies it. He fends off wrong reproaches – morally directed against individuals and their “crimes” – not because of their mistakes, but to reject opposition to the capitalists and their economic interests at all. What exactly is wrong with moral reproaches? Insofar as they ascribe the evil to bad character traits, they downplay the situation: exploitation is the principle of this economy and not an individual quirk. Second, moral outrage invokes commonly shared, valid values in the society and sees itself in harmony with the society, with the law on its side. It confirms in an ideal version the very principles (the justice of exchange, the responsibility of the powerful, etc.) whose destructive reality it deplores. Thirdly, its legalistic thinking sees the capitalists not as an opponent of its interest, but as a criminal in the real community, as a violator of law and good customs. Fourth, the imaginary criminalization of exploitation results in the rather idealistic expatriation of the capitalists from the good people, as well their punishment as the abolition of the conditions in which the capitalist’s human rights abuse is economically reasonable. Heinrich meets this moral indictment of rapacious characters with its abstract opposite: he exonerates the capitalists at the same level and refers to a remark by Marx in the introduction to the first volume:

“I do not by any means depict the capitalist and the landlord in rosy colours. But individuals are dealt with here only insofar as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers of particular class-relations and interests. My standpoint, from which the development of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he remains, socially speaking, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.” (Marx, Capital Vol. I, 92) [5]

Marx makes clear that he is interested in explaining the economic roles and not the relation of people to their social positions, so he considers them only insofar as they are personifications of capital and representatives of class interests and do what follows from their purpose of accumulation. Guilt and responsibility are not his subject. He considers only this much: real capitalists act in pursuit of their business in any case as “the capitalist,” i.e. in accordance with the principles of increasing money, which is what he analyzes, whether they distance themselves from it with philanthropy or not. However, Heinrich thematizes exactly the reverse of the relation of the person of the capitalist to the capitalist character mask and places them in a false dichotomy: he raises the highly moral question whether the ruling class wants to do what they do or whether they merely must do it, whether they are guilty or innocent – and comes to his theoretical acquittal: the cogs in the machine can’t do any differently than to play the role forced on them by the system.

However, these gears, like their workers as well, are self-conscious people who may not be adequate to what they do, but are certainly very conscious of what they do. The members of the ruling class know nothing better than to spend their life as a personification of capital. The property entrusted or belonging to them should grow as much as possible. This purpose is not just forced on them from the outside by competition. It is the other way around: because all capitalists use their property to pursue the greatest possible capital valorization, they enter into competition with this purpose of enrichment, thereby forcing on each other the benchmark of success. The driver, if one can apply the formulation, is the capitalist only by the regrettable fact that he is not alone in the world with his desire to exploit. Other capitalists also want to use the widest possible market for their returns – and therefore deny this to him. The constraint of competition to which he is exposed is nothing but the repercussion of his own interest that other capitalists also pursue. One is exactly as “forced” by the other as the other way around. So capitalists make the current state of their means of competition the constraint for each other: because they want to succeed on the market with the results of the exploitation in their factories, they must operate just as productively, profitably and ruthlessly as their equals, with – as Heinrich quotes again and again – “punishment of ruin as a capitalist” [6]. Marx has in mind the use of the necessary means of success which a capitalist owns or must make available to himself when he says that the actors feel the requirements for their goal of enrichment as external compulsions of competition, which cause some to fail. The comic figure of the modest capitalist who is forced by competition to maximize profit against his will (Heinrich, 106f) is not found in Marx. Real capitalists, by the way, not only express every sort of complaint about the hardships of competition, but sometimes real pride, not at all forced on them, of being ahead of their rivals and in control of the market.

Private interest and the purpose of the system thus go together with the competing agents of capital. The other competitors take the blame. The economic interest of factory owners and the power to carry it out define the sad role of the wage-laborers. In the pursuit of their interests against each other, capitalists calculate with their humble servants, deciding over their fates as resources and costs; to cheapen them and drive them to higher levels of exertion is their means of succeeding in the competition. The entrepreneurs already know that much about exploitation. The wage-laborers must thus break their power and do away with their interest if they want something different. Criticism of capitalism is the insight into the irreconcilability of this antagonism; it gives the victims of the mode of production reasons to take up this fight instead of submitting grievances for all eternity from an ostensible common ground about their bad treatment. Heinrich’s system theory, by contrast, teaches them that they sit in the same boat with their exploiters who are just as constrained by the “system.”

Value and abstract labor: Socially generated abstractions –
or: no criticism of the rotten role of value-creating labor

Heinrich appraises value-creating labor just as uncritically as the business of capital accumulation it is subordinated to. Heinrich gives great weight in his introduction to this key part of Capital Volume I – he cites Marx’s dictum on abstract labor that “… this point is crucial to an understanding of political economy … ” (Marx, Capital Vol. I, 132); his understanding is inadequate because he measures the object so completely by the yardstick of his message of systematic imperatives and abstract socialization.

“Many of the shortcuts of traditional, ‘worldview’ Marxisms in particular have been criticized in recent decades. Marx is no longer perceived, as in the traditional perspective, simply as the better economist, but first and foremost as a critic of value-mediated and therefore ‘fetishistic’ socialization. This new reading of Marx’s texts as the criticism of economics is the basis of this introduction.” (10)

Programmatically, he delimits Marx the critic of value from Marx the (better) economist – a quite inappropriate opposition which betrays more about the annotator’s perspective than the original: What interests him in Marx’s criticism is not actually its subject: the capitalist economy – work, production, distribution of wealth as well as the purposes that rule it – but what he reads into it: Capitalism is a false, indirect, reified way of carrying out what in his view any society must perform in order to exist: it establishes “a social relationship between people.”

“The presentation of the specific social form of labor ... constitutes the very essence of Marx’s labor theory of value ... Marx poses the more fundamental question: in which way does a society of private producers create a coherent social context.” (M. Heinrich, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert [The Science of Value], 3rd edition, Münster 2003, 208) “With value theory, Marx wants to uncover a particular social structure which the individuals must follow, no matter what they think of it.” (44)

What Heinrich has to say about value and value-creating labor is for him fulfilled by clarifying the functioning of the “social structure” which the individuals must follow, and goes awry in this way. At first, however, he is correct, and it is not well understood in the history of interpretations of Marx that the “concept of value” and its “substance,” labor, are not to be regarded as hypotheses that still need to be proven – such as the completely wrong proof that commodities are exchanged exactly at their values. Like Marx, Heinrich assumes [7] that the material wealth of society first consists of produced goods that second are produced in capitalism for exchange. Commodity producers create objects that are socially necessary; however, they do not produce for others’ needs in order to satisfy them, but to exploit the dependence of others on their products. Those who offer their products for sale want to see an equivalent value – and indeed as much as possible. In the exchange, it is revealed how much exchange value, how much property one has delivered with his productive effort. Via the competition of seller and buyer, how much demand a manufacturer will find for his product is found out, how much dependence he can exploit; because only in the degree of their dependence do customers recognize the productive efforts of others qualitatively and quantitatively as part of social labor, by giving their own product for it. It is not the labor, the approximate labor-time which the producer has individually spent, that is remunerated in the exchange; rather, in the equivalent that he receives for his commodity, he learns how much socially necessary labor-time he has embodied in his commodity – his actual labor may last longer or shorter. In a society of competing private producers who do not divide the work in an organized way, but in which each seeks to exploit social needs on their own initiative, the necessary connection of the partial labors just asserts itself in such a way that they only relate to each other in the finished product – in the achieved exchange-value – and it is reduced to socially necessary labor. In value, the private producers get ahold of the purpose of their labor: purchasing power, the socially valid power of access to others’ products and others’ services.

With these insights, Heinrich polemicizes against real socialism’s adaptation of Marx, which he accuses of a “substantialist” misunderstanding of value and value-creating labor. These Marxists had found nothing worth criticizing about labor creating value. They considered it a self-evident fact; they were interested in the question whether the worker, the creator of value, receives a fair equivalent for his achievement. They therefore never understood that, first, labor products have value only on the condition and as a result of the competitive struggle of private producers, and that, therefore, second, the average socially necessary labor which is recognized by the purchaser in the act of purchase is not identical, and can not be identical, to the amount of labor actually expended by the producer. But Heinrich ends his justified polemic against these bourgeois-minded Marxists who esteem value as a method for calculating a fairer social output tally in a sterile controversy about whether value is a quality of the individual commodity or only a “phantom objectivity” arising in the exchange ratio with other commodities. However, that’s not the point. Instead, it should be about the content of what value is, not about whether it already appertains in the individual commodity or is only “real” in exchange: obviously, exchange-value – the power of access to a commodity of others – is a power which proves itself and succeeds only in exchange; however, the commodity that is produced for exchange does not acquire that quality by the exchange. On the other hand, this power is not an expression of the labor really spent on the commodity, but its relation to the socially necessary labor as a whole, hence it can prove itself not as a quality of one commodity directly in itself, but only in exchange against another commodity. Heinrich hurls against the “substantialist conception” of value, which equates individual expended labor and value, his own very formulaic position: “The objectified value is not a natural but a purely social characteristic of the commodity.” This abstract bit of information – it is something “purely social” – he considers to be a, even the, crucial lesson about the nature of value and the value character of the product of labor as a commodity. He then also offers the same abstraction as the concept of the labor that creates value, that much attested “crucial point” for all understanding:

“In order to understand what the specific social character of commodity-producing labor is all about, we have to deal with the distinction between ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ labor. In most accounts of Marx’s value theory, this distinction is mentioned briefly, but its full scope is frequently not apprehended.” (45f)

Heinrich intends to grasp it in its full scope when he defines it: the specifically social character of abstract labor is purely social and not natural. Period. No more.

“Abstract human labor is ... introduced as a result of the reduction characterizing the exchange relationship of the various concrete useful labors to labor of the same kind. This reduction is not an act of individual commodity owners, but a social process taking place in the exchange. Abstract human labor as a result of this social reduction process expresses no physiological property of labor, but a purely social status.” (Heinrich II, 102)

Now what is the content of the abstraction? What is labor for exchange reduced to in exchange? Because Heinrich does not understand this, he criticizes Marx: he supposes terminological sloppiness or worse where the author of Capital explains that the labor equated in exchange with other labor, as “abstract labor” is to be determined in contrast to the concrete labor producing useful things: labor is value-forming in one respect, aside from its usefulness and concrete benefit, because in it the various different labors equated in exchange just differ. Apart from their usefulness, however, the labor is reduced to its negative side, to what it costs people: force, exertion, toil; what counts in labor is of all things that which the worker wisely seeks to reduce.

“If we leave aside the determinate quality of productive activity, and therefore the useful character of the labour, what remains is its quality of being an expenditure of human labour-power. Tailoring and weaving, although they are qualitatively different productive activities, are both a productive expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands etc. and in this sense both human labour.... all labour is an expenditure of human labour-power, in the physiological sense …” (Capital Vol. I, 134-137)

With the determination that what socially counts in the labor, if the objectified convenience and utility of labor are abstracted from the useful character of commodities, Heinrich sees Marx backing down from the idea imputed to him about the “purely social character of commodity-producing labor”:

“Indeed, the quality of labor in which Marx fixes its value-forming character, the expenditure of labor-power in the physiological sense, is by no means bound to commodity production. Every labor, whether it is that of a slave or that of Robinson on a deserted island, is always expenditure in the physiological sense (or expenditure of brain, muscle, nerve, hand ...) and, on the other hand, a specifically useful activity. It is problematic that Marx calls up such a transhistorical quality of labor to characterize abstract human labor.” (Heinrich II, 101)

It escapes him that Marx by no means characterizes value-forming labor as a transhistoric quality which always and everywhere applies to labor, but with this identification skewers its specific feature in the capitalist economy, and thereby its misanthropic irrationality. “Expenditure of labor-power in the physiological sense” is an abstract, ancillary aspect in any labor – one must concentrate, exert energy, use strength. In commodity-producing society, this abstract aspect becomes the all-deciding criterion of the social validity of labor, the measure and indicator of the value created by it. Where it is about capitalistic wealth, thus the usefulness is abstracted from in practice, it is never about the performance of concrete labor to produce useful goods as such. Instead, because expenditure of human vitality, thus effort and toil, is synonymous with newly created wealth, an insatiable need prevails in the commodity-producing society for ever more expenditure of labor. The type of wealth measured by value can only grow through a surplus of labor toil, which by producing commodities produces the power of access to other people’s property – and that is what matters; because capitalist wealth consists of this power of disposal, and not the use of the mass of useful products.

“In itself, an increase in the quantity of use-values constitutes an increase in material wealth.… Nevertheless, an increase in the amount of material wealth may correspond to a simultaneous fall in the magnitude of its value. This contradictory movement arises out of the two-fold character of labour. By 'productivity,' of course, we always means the productivity of concrete useful labour; in reality this determines only the degree of effectiveness of productive activity directed towards a given purpose within a given period of time. Useful labour becomes, therefore, a more or less abundant source of products in direct proportion as its productivity rises or falls. As against this, however, variations in productivity have no impact whatever on the labour itself represented in value … For this reason, the same change in productivity, which increases the fruitfulness of labour, and therefore the amount of use-values produced by it, also brings about a reduction n the value of this increased total amount, if it cuts down the total amount of labour-time necessary to produce the use-values.” (Marx, Capital Vol. I, 136-137)

Here the meaning of the opposition between use-value and exchange-value becomes clear: the efficiency of labor makes the society ever richer on the side of use-values; however, capitalism is never content with that, because exchange-value does not increase by saving on time and toil in production, and perhaps is even decreased.

Heinrich sees merely one problem resolved by this explanation, “that the apparent paradox that a growing mass of use-values can express a lower value: because when due to an increase in productive power the increased mass of use-values can be produced in a lower (socially necessary) labor-time than the original mass of use-values.” (Heinrich II, 99)

He does not notice that he has here the real paradox of capitalist wealth by the collar. Because concrete, use-value-creating labor is subordinated to abstract, value-creating labor, because it only depends on the production of new value and use-value is the means for it, the toil never lets up, even if the concrete labor necessary for the existence of the society has long been reduced to an insignificant minimum. The “ravenous hunger” of this society for abstract labor is never satisfied. [8]

Fetish and mystification: How the irrational system gets people of all classes to function by producing a reasonable image of itself

Heinrich conceives the commodity, value, and money as objectively constraining, after-the-fact, abstract socializing “structures” which “the individuals must follow whether they want to or not.” Hence, his criticism of capitalism is very abstract itself, holding these constraints as arising from a social unfreedom. In this spirit, like all recent Marx connoisseurs, he makes a big deal of “fetish” and “mystification,” indeed he elevates them to the really central categories of Marx’s theory. [9]

Let us first look at what Marx means with the metaphor of the fetish character of the commodity, money, and capital, as well as the term “mystification of the real relations” with which he sharpens his insights into the economic forms of the capitalist economy: it is almost on the same field of irrationality as the religious imagination. In this sense, the commodity resembles a fetish because as a produced use-value it has, independent of its physical qualities, still a “metaphysical,” social quality: value, the capacity to exchange for other commodities in certain proportions, hence opening the access to other people’s property. The social relationship of commodity producers to each other exists for them as an objective property and social power of their products.

“Objects of utility become commodities only because they are the products of the labour of private individuals who work independently of each other … Since the producers do not come into social contact until they exchange the products of their labour, the specific social character of their private labours appear only within this exchange. In other words, the labour of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labour of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things.” (Marx, Capital Vol. I, 165-166) “[The magnitudes of value] vary continuously, independently of the will, foreknowledge and actions of their exchangers. Their own movement within society has for them the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them.” (Marx, Capital Vol. I, 167-168)

Like the savages of certain religions who live in fear of their own self-carved talismans and exercise power over others with it, the people in our enlightened age are under the control of their own economic productions. This analogy, explicitly called as such by Marx, adds nothing to his findings, only underlining the absurdity of this kind of economy, which one should not accept as natural:

“It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of man's hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.” (Marx, Capital Vol. I, 166)

The peculiarity of the commodity is certainly striking in the fetish character of money: It is a physically existing economic power which one carries around in one’s pocket. With a few grams of precious metal in Marx’s time, today – no less absurd – with paper notes, free private owners acquire the products and services of others. The power of money is, thirdly, the basis of the capital fetish: a sufficiently large sum of it gives the power to buy the labor-power of others, thus to command over other people’s time and toil and have them work only for the purpose of producing a surplus for the employer above his capital advance. Anyone who owns a suitable property, calls a machine his own, incessantly records its own enlargement. So the capital fetish is really complete when capital appears as money capital, yields interest and grows – without the source of this increase, the use of capital in an exploitative and value-creating process, even having to be obvious. That money in and of itself is already more money, that its size grows over time by itself, is held in this society to be a self-evident fact in no further need of explanation.

At the end of his three volumes, Marx lastly criticized, as an overall mystification of the capitalist economy, the economists’ familiar “trinity formula” of three independent sources of income in capitalism: capital yields interest, landed property ground rent and labor wages. While it is really the power of disposal of the owners which allows the capitalist to wrest surplus-value from his workers, while for the second it is the ownership of land which allows the landlord to pocket a portion of the surplus-value made by the active capitalists, while in fact for these owners it is only their respective ownership that is their means of access to the wealth produced by workers under capitalistic direction, it is implied that capital and land ownership are valid in this society as fair production factors whose (co-)operation is supposed to have produced parts of the value products, but which is really only distributed in the capitalist product. One first accepts it as normal that the means of labor and natural resources also perform “labor” and therefore have a right to “income,” which then of course is consumed not by these production factors but their owners; and just as natural, secondly, that labor does not create the entire labor product, but wage-labor should produce only one part of its labor product as its special value product, while the rest of productive labor is ascribed to capital and land. By misrepresenting the respective names for acquisition in the source of the components of value which are acquired, the conflicts between the social classes are transformed into a complementary relation between representatives of the various material conditions of any production – labor, equipment, and land; what they are able to acquire is regarded as the result of the contribution that their production factor has contributed to the overall product. In the alleged correlation of the three independent sources of income with their return, the true source of capitalist wealth has disappeared, its origin “mystified”; in interest, e.g., a relation to the capitals as a source of money that works by itself, “any mediation disappears, and capital is reduced to its most general formula, but for this reason also it is a form that is absurd and inexplicable in its own terms.” (Marx, Capital Vol. 3, 956)

Although Heinrich cites the passage about the “trinity formula” in which Marx speaks of the completion of the “autonomization and ossification of the different social elements of wealth vis-a-vis one another” and the “bewitched, distorted and upside-down world haunted by Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre, who are at the same time social characters and mere things” (Marx, Capital Vol. 3, 969), he doesn’t take it as showing how absurd this “world” is and how much the contradictoriness of its apparent connections calls for explanation, but the exact opposite: He reads how natural and rational these relations of capitalist production and distribution of wealth must appear to the people living in it. He is interested in fetish and mystification, not in the mistakes and the criticism that Marx wreaks on his subject, rather he ascribes a system-stabilizing power to it. Wherever the two keywords show up, Heinrich uncovers a successful self-deception of the capitalist system which ensures that the bias in the relations themselves deceive people as to their true character. His interest and his explanations apply not to the mistakes and contradictions of bourgeois consciousness that Marx denounces whenever he speaks of fetish, but a necessity for the mistake which should be completely caused by the object of the mistake.

“In Capital there is no more talk (like in the Communist Manifesto) about the social relations of capitalism being easy to see through. On the contrary, at key points it is about the ‘mystification’ of these social relations. What Marx in Capital calls fetishism and mystification are distortions which ... arise from the structure of bourgeois society and the actions constantly reproducing this structure.” (180)

Heinrich expresses the meaning of the teachings about the self-produced murkiness of the capitalist system in a wrong way, in that “fetishism” “(must) be about more than only a false consciousness … fetishism (must) also express a real state of affairs.” (71) What does “more” mean here? First, with his borrowing from religion Marx characterized the craziness of the economic “state of affairs”; the criticism of this madness is self-evidently also a critique of the false consciousness of those who participate in it and find it all normal. However, the “more” that Heinrich points to does not at all mean the objective state of affairs, but nothing other than consciousness. But it is presented as inevitable, already independent of the will and consciousness of the actors, forced by the “structure,” and in this distorted sense objectively necessary, a false consciousness that is not at all correctable through criticism and better insight:

“Fetishism (as he earlier understood it) would then be a form of ‘false consciousness,’ which only veils the real relations. If this were so, this false consciousness would also have to disappear with the clarification about the real relations.” (69)

That indeed will be, if a “consciousness” makes a mistake and sees the world incorrectly. For Heinrich, on the contrary, it should be so comprehensively falsely polarized by the object that it theoretically acquires through experience and reflection that it even contains no more errors and mistakes which would beset it. Like others before him, he considers necessary false consciousness to be a power of the objects – and not an act of the mind – and as thinking is dictated by the object, necessary to such an extent that nothing remains false in it any more.

False consciousness is necessary in capitalism but not in an epistemological-theoretical sense, but only in a practical sense. The source of false consciousness is not that the capitalist system drew a picture of itself that can’t be seen through, or hardly can be, but that the wage-workers – just to pick the members of capitalist society who need a critique of their false consciousness – are forced to deal with making a living by economic institutions that are not made for them and thus not suited as a means for them. And also here a distinction still remains: first of all, the person is compelled in practice by the political system and the property relations to refer to the economy and their own role in it as their means of livelihood. He has to worry about these conditions in order to get an income, and must therefore prepare for its requirements in order to meet his needs. This necessity also applies to the critic of capitalism who lives under the regime of capital. But by no means is it therefore inevitable that the market, money and wage-labor must be thought of as one’s means for a livelihood, hence as completely sensible conveniences.

This view arises when one makes a practical necessity which is imposed on one into one’s own concern, adopts the will to cope with the social conditions and tries to wring one’s personal well-being from them, and therefore these conditions then also theoretically will look like useful things and actual means for a livelihood. Anyone who wants to earn or save money, or who is looking for a job in a company, will happily accept advice on how best to achieve that; for explanations about what money and capital are, he has no time. They do not help him cope with the daily grind, but are rather an attack on his willingness to cope with these social conditions. However, wage-earners experience at every turn how little this economy is a means for them. Their false consciousness is therefore not a once and for all finished perspective, but a dogged, never completed struggle to maintain their practical will to cope and constructively process their hardships and frustrations. Their beliefs about that are – actually and rightfully – their entitlement, but that they are never really granted by their employers points out that their beliefs certainly can’t be an objective judgment when the aggrieved complain about the conditions they participate in and suffer. Ideological false consciousness makes then a lot of logical blunders and fosters mistakes that are quite disprovable and can be overcome provided that the person criticized is willing to distance himself from his practical necessity of relying on the capitalistic relations, to the extent that he dares to think about what he takes part in and why he does not get what he believes he is entitled to.

Not interested anyway with all his talk about “structurally”-conditioned mystifications in how contradictory – hence also how class-specifically – views about commodities, money and capital turn out to be in each case, Heinrich gives a peculiar reason for “necessary false consciousness”: the bias for bourgeois society sees its relations falsely and considers them self-evident facts of every production, indeed natural necessities that are only necessities of capitalism; but it can’t possibly be because they make any intellectual mistakes. Or in other words: they make the strange mistake of understanding things in such a way as they really are “on their level of action.” They are not mistaken and act rationally within the given framework.

“The rationality of their actions is always a rationality within the given framework of commodity production. If the intentions of the actors (that is what they ‘know’) is made the starting point of the analysis, then what the individual ‘does not know,’ i.e. of their thinking and acting under the framework, is from the outset hidden from the analysis.” (76)

Where does he get this, that the actors know nothing about the social and political conditions of their economic activity? It is well known that they foster quite strong views about the system – just wrong ones. They handle the living conditions presented to them by calculating, and, besides, treat the economic state of affairs, like the political system that guarantees them, as if both were made for them and their livelihood. That they are not, they get to experience: for the inmates of the system, the intentions and results, and the means and ends of their economic efforts do not add up. There are simply not two rationalities: one “within the given framework of commodity production,” on whose basis they rationally calculate and act and hence see the world as it really looks from their level of action; and next to it a second rationality which Marx strove for whenever he brings up the framework of action which the inmates unconsciously follow.

Heinrich erases the contradiction in “necessary false consciousness” by separating scientific-methodological levels. Within it, the actors do everything right, pursue rational purposes and don’t notice the irrational framework in which they move. From the outside, but also only from the outside, the irrationality would probably reveal itself. But who is already outside? With his two levels, he completely separates social objectivity from individual actions, motives and thoughts. On this basis there is, theoretically at least, no transition from the inverted world of the bias for capitalism to an objective point of view: criticism is given a transcendental character.

With his theory of separate (consciousness-) worlds, Heinrich aims critically at the so-called “ideological-Marxists” who were inspired by the hope in the inevitable progress of the “revolutionary consciousness” of their addressees. Against their expectations that the workers’ class position and experience of exploitation would automatically open their eyes and leave them no other option except revolution, Heinrich now however does not insist that a step is still needed from the perspective forced on them by capitalism (for wages, jobs, the success of the company on which one’s job depends) and the corresponding partisanship for an objective view of the economy and their own role in it, let alone that he has used Capital to write down arguments that would justify and propagate this step. He discusses “fetishistic socialization” as the system’s trick of concealing from its human elements its merely historical, thus changeable, character, i.e. it draws such a reasonable picture of itself that they get completely caught up in the workings of inherent motives and constraints that they can not perceive exploitation and class domination at all. Completely happy with being able to counter the idiotic theory of hope of his faded Marxist opponents, he is not concerned with criticizing false consciousness and promoting a “revolutionary” consciousness to overthrow the conditions, but speaks in a strangely aloof way of such a revolution as a historical accident that may or may not occur:

“[Against hopes in a revolutionary automatism] Capital still provides the elements to understand why revolutionary developments are so rare, why the ‘outrage’ which is mentioned in the quote does not immediately lead to the struggle against capitalism: with the analysis of fetishism, the irrationality of the wage form and the trinity formula, Marx has shown how the capitalist mode of production creates a picture of itself in which social relations are objectified, where capitalist production relations apparently arise from the conditions of production, so that it can then only be about changes within the capitalist system. A revolutionary development can occur, it can’t be ruled out, but it is anything but an inevitable result.” (200f)

“... the working men and women (just like the capitalists) are also inhibited in their spontaneous consciousness in the commodity fetish... There can be no talk of the working class as being in a privileged position of knowledge – admittedly also not of fetishism being impenetrable in principle.” (77)

That’s comforting: seeing through fetishistic socialization is not likely; it is also not at all to be seen how that should fare; but it is not impossible in principle. For this cool message, old Marx did not waste his life in the British Library, that’s for sure. His critique of political economy was not addressed to an academic community which would like to assess the improbability and possibility of revolutionary developments, but a revolutionary labor movement which he wanted to lend a helping hand. He had in mind workers who had to defend themselves because they could not survive under the regime of capital. For a resistance by compelled and determined wage-laborers, they should be so fundamentally clear about the necessity for their predicament under the established property order that they really fight against the causes of their misery and eliminate them. He reproached them and their unions for the inadequacy of their struggle for a wage on which they could live – in view of what the wage is and what it is paid for. He harbored by no means the fancy view that his addressees had a “privileged position of knowledge”; he only meant that they had good reasons to overturn this order – and he acted as practically as he could for the knowledge necessary.

This revolution did not happen; not because the revolutionary workers had been beaten by the fetish, the relations having been found sensible, but first and foremost due to the impact of state force. It has defeated class struggles and suppressed class organizations; on the other hand, authorities slowly learned to do more than a little to steer the movement in a constructive, state-supporting way: To the extent that the working class – taught not least by violence – acknowledges their subordination under state and capital as a precondition for their existence and promises to do their services, thus wants nothing else than to live under the regime of capital and be able to survive, the state power elevates the survival of the working class and its ability to do the services on which business depends into a state objective and takes this into consideration insofar as the primary state objective permits. Under pressure from the state power and lured by sociopolitical offers from Bismarck to Hitler, the labor movement threw Marx’s lessons to the winds and politicized itself, i.e. recognized the success of the capitalist nation as a precondition for their demands, hence the primacy of the nation over their material interests. This neither makes sense nor is it very suitable in terms of the workers’ so-called “system-inherent” interests in wages and free time, but is in fact a grandiose error.

The state – hardly necessary as political rule;
as a “specific way of mediating social interconnections,” (202) quite certainly

Heinrich however sees no mistake there, only the instrumental reason of system-inherent interests. Within the capitalist framework, which they do not call into question, the integrated wage-laborers pursue their interests quite rationally and get, according to Heinrich, more or less what they lay claim to. On the basis of “fetishistic socialization,” he finds it quite logical that not only the beneficiaries of this society, but also the exploited rely on the system and obediently follow the constraints of “systemic domination.”

However, he feels the need to explain to himself and his readers where the system, this “overpowering sociality not to be controlled by individuals,” (73) gets its power, which millions let themselves be controlled by, although they could do otherwise. “The exchanging persons are in their actions indeed free, but as commodity owners they must follow the ‘natural laws of commodities.’” (61) That sounds tautological – and it is. In this tautology, Heinrich finds the explanation he seeks:

“This objective rule, the submission under ‘objective constraints,’ exists however not simply because the objectives in themselves would have certain characteristics which produce this rule, or because the social interaction would constrainingly require this objective mediation, but only because the people relate in a specific way to these objectives – namely as commodities.” (73)

Taken as information about the reason and source of the objective rule, this is circular: Things have power over people, but only because they give them this power. After they have done this once, they must follow this – unless they no longer do, then they no longer have power over them. An entire society with all its work, its poverty and its “destructive potential” – an unnecessary human self-alienation; on the one hand, not at all correctable and on the other hand, quite easy to. However, taken in itself, this information about “objective rule” attests that Heinrich does not understand how much political force is in the “mute compulsions of the relations.” “Relate to these objectives as commodities” – that is not something anyone would be able to do so easily on their own accord or, if he then wanted, could by themselves. This self-relating means, in the end, that the members of society reclaim the elements of the material wealth as their property against each other or respect that as others. It means to recognize that the things of need, although available, are inaccessible to the needy, because they are other people’s property. Only where a state power prescribes the exclusive private disposal over produced and natural riches and forces respect for this exclusion do labor products become commodities, develop the quality of being means of exchange and access to the product and efforts of others, and thereby transform into bearers of “reified power.” Value is nothing other than this quantitatively determined property character of the labor products. The political force, which establishes property, is the basis and guarantor of this economic power, and therefore the source of the much invoked fetish.

Heinrich sees this vice versa: Because fetishistic socialization works and the citizens can be directed by the objective constraints, the political force seems to him only to be constitutive of the historical genesis of the capitalist system, but not of its continuance once it is established. The automatism of the “systemic rule” guarantees it, so that the force of the state plays only a residual and minor role as an insurance policy for the system which is external to the society, and must barely intervene.

“Only then [when primitive accumulation is complete and capitalism is established] is the ‘mute compulsion of economic relations’ sufficient for the ‘rule of the capitalist over the worker,’ so that the coercive power of the state is needed only in exceptional cases.” (210 )

“The relations of rule between the classes growing out of production is in bourgeois society quite different than in all pre-bourgeois societies. Under capitalistic conditions, direct political force is not necessary to maintain economic exploitation: It is sufficient if the state as a power standing above the society guarantees that the members of the society behave as private owners.” (208)

What does “only” and “sufficient” mean here? In capitalism, the state force treads differently than in pre-bourgeois times, but certainly no less. Rather the opposite is true: the state power of earlier epochs never saw as extensive a presence as it does through the rule of law, which reinforces state designations with violence to control the society as far as its remotest corners. Omnipresent and vigilant, the state ensures with its monopoly on violence “that the members of society act as private owners”: That is – “only,” Heinrich thinks – a complete program for rule. The government assigns the propertyless to their role for the propertied and compels them to respect the real property that confronts them as the power of capital. In production, the capitalist commands with the economic power of his property over the workers only because a political power outside of production provides him the power to do so. [10] And that requires, as everybody knows, a whole arsenal of not at all mute rules, regulations and interventions by the public force, the protection of capital, the definition of rights and duties to those dependent on it, the supervision and official care-taking of the resulting collisions and injuries to labor and nature, and not least the permissions and bans on union and political activity.

Again, Heinrich’s tried and tested image of the two separate levels of the capitalistic hustle and bustle: In principle, from the outside, as it were, it is clear to him that the political power assigns its citizens, precisely through their equal treatment as private owners, i.e. by abstraction from their material situation, to their economic class roles. And if he calls the state an “ideal collective capitalist” which “pursues with its policy the interest in an accumulation (of the national capitals) as profitable as possible” (211) and enforces this state interest against all private interests, then Heinrich also knows that this state program is for some a service to their interest in enrichment and accumulation, but forces the others to serve the other’s interest in enrichment. The antagonistic subjection of the people for the growth of national capital assumes a sovereignly acting monopoly on violence which assigns or denies rights to the diverse interests, and they are pruned to useful measure for the success of the national capitalism. Heinrich even speaks like this, in some ways; yet on the “level of action” of the subjects, as seen, so to speak, from inside the system, he may not or barely discover state rule and the use of force; and that of all things by referring the fact that not only the ruling, but even the exploited class put up with being ruled, and he pins his hopes on it. Because he has a functioning monopoly on violence before him, one that has gotten respect so it does not need to assert itself against any other independent force in the society, he no longer detects the presence of force on which the capitalist system is based.


In conclusion, on the last of the 230 pages of his Introduction to the critique of political economy, Heinrich brings himself toward and against a number of reservations to a confession: “There are enough good reasons to abolish capitalism and at least try to replace it with an ‘association of free people.’” This is honorable. The good reasons, however, which he mentions – and it will be the strongest ones which occur to him – show one thing: that he did not need the in-depth commentary on Marx’s Capital for them, and it has given him nothing – “the social devastation which global capitalism causes with crises and unemployment,” “destruction of natural resources,” “always more wars.” “Social devastation” – even this yardstick of criticism-worthiness betrays a worry about the existing social structure which is over and over again threatened by capitalism’s destructiveness – is to be feared, if the accumulation of ever more capital once again no longer works out. The mode of production deserves criticism not for the functioning of its purpose, but for its periodic and temporary crises and the extraordinary hardships which they then impose on society.

What is really devastating and reprehensible is not the use of labor-power as a source of alien wealth, but its non-use: only the misery of the unemployed who are excluded from the privilege of being exploited and are not in demand as a source of wealth provides “good reason to abolish capitalism.” It is not that humans live for capital that is a reason for its abolition, but only that some can not even live by service to capital. It is not the normal course of the capitalist economy, but the large disasters caused by capitalism – from the climate up to war – which threaten to destroy “everything,” which demand a rethinking.

To criticize exploitation is not the same thing as raising the “social question”; the two are worlds apart. Hostility to this system and concern about the success of this society are incompatible. When it comes down to it, Heinrich doesn’t get much from Marx for the criticism of capitalism.


[1] Jan Hoff, Das Kapital neu lesen – Beiträge zur radikalen Philosophie, Münster 2006, cited as: Hoff.

[2] Michael Heinrich, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Eine Einführung, Schmetterling Verlag Stuttgart, 3rd edition. 2005. Published in English as: An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, New York 2012, Alexander Locascio, trans. Page numbers after citations without reference details come from the German edition; as this translation was completed before publication of the English translation, the quotations from Heinrich are by Ruthless Criticism).

[3] Michael Heinrich, Wie das Marxsche Kapital lesen? Stuttgart 2008. This book puts more emphasis on quotations from and textual commentary on the first two chapters of Capital Volume 1 than the Introduction on dissociating from so-called worldview Marxism, but otherwise doesn’t differ in argument and intention from the older Introduction. (Cited as: Heinrich II)

[4] In explaining capitalist reality as the system’s need for self-preservation as opposed to the interest of capital, the style becomes bizarre when Heinrich says why the wage always remains restricted to the equivalent value of the necessities of living: “Within capitalism, the specific value determination of labor-power as a commodity is necessary: if the working men and women did not receive only the value of their necessities of living which they must buy on the market, then in the long term they would no longer be without property and could at least partly free themselves from the purpose of selling their labor-power.” (92) In reality, workers are not stingily paid because otherwise they would be too rich and the system would run out of wage laborers, but because they are only paid at all in order to compile a profit for the company – and for that they are more useful, the less wage costs they lead to.

[5] Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, Penguin ed. Ben Fowkes, trans.

[6] Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 3, Penguin ed. David Fernbach, trans.

[7] He cites the letter from Marx to Kugelmann from July 11, 1868: “The chatter about the need to prove the concept of value arises only from complete ignorance both of the subject under discussion and of the method of science. Every child knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish. And every child knows, too, that the amounts of products corresponding to the differing amounts of needs demand differing and quantitatively determined amounts of society’s aggregate labour. It is self-evident that this necessity of the distribution of social labour in specific proportions is certainly not abolished by the specific form of social production; it can only change its form of manifestation ... And the form in which this proportional distribution of labour asserts itself in a state of society in which the interconnection of social labour expresses itself as the private exchange of the individual products of labour, is precisely the exchange value of these products.”

[8] Already at the abstract level of the commodity and value, hence even before the commodity producer is depicted in Capital the way he usually appears in this economy – that is, divided into an entrepreneur who owns the means of production and uses the labor of others, and a purchased laborer who does the work – Marx criticizes the measure of wealth in this society, which already announces the exploitation of the workers. “For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time. Labour time as the measure of value posits wealth itself as founded on poverty, and disposable time as existing in and because of the antithesis to surplus labour time; or, the positing of an individual’s entire time as labour time, and his degradation therefore to mere worker, subsumption under labour. The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools. (Grundrisse, 708-9) What the reality of labor subordinated to value looks like in detail, hence what it means that the expenditure of “brain, muscle, nerves” creates wealth, Marx deals with in later chapters on the factory. Heinrich also errs here when he says: “Abstract labor can not at all be ‘expended.’ Abstract labor is a relation of validity constituted in exchange.” (49)

[9] On the upgrading which Marx’s keywords “fetish,” “necessary false consciousness” and “character mask” have undergone today, the false interpretations which these upgradings are owed to, the political standpoints from which they arise, GegeStandpunkt commented on more than 10 years ago on the occasion of Robert Kurz and others, to which Heinrich is closer in this regard than he might like. See: “Was sich mit Marx doch alles anstellen lässt,” GegenStandpunkt 4-96, 73-102 (not translated).

[10] No rule simply grows out of production, as the above-quoted notion suggests. Rule is not an effect of the exploitative relations of production, it is rather their lasting prerequisite and general condition of their existence. The idea of “relations of rule growing out of production” poses the thing on its head. It also does not help Heinrich here, as often, to quote Marx. The argument at this point is that the type of rule, the specific forms of rule and methods by which the respective economic forms of exploitation are given: “It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the immediate producers ... in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice, and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of state in each case.” (Marx, Capital Vol. 3, 927)