LET'S MAKE KARL DISAPPEAR.
An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital
By Michael Heinrich
(translated by Alexander Locascio)
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012, 240 pages, $15.95 paper.
This book might more properly be titled, AN INTRODUCTION TO MICHAEL HEINRICH'S INTERPRETATION OF WHAT MARX MEANT BY: VALUE, PRICE, PROFIT AND THE SOCIAL RELATION OF CAPITAL. As much I appreciate Heinrich's effort on Marx, all too often, the man irritates me. For instance, right off the bat, he faults Engels as having a lack of understanding of Marx which led to the errors Heinrich perceives amongst the Marxists who would take up the cause of socialism in the 20th century. He's just plain wrong about this, as Marx would have had discussions with Engels over the supposed theoretical shortcomings in Engels' work, prior to his own death. It wasn't like Marx never spoke honestly with Engels about political-economy. It's more the case that Heinrich, like so many graduate student Marxists after the death of Engels, tries to replace Fred as the better interpreter of Marx with Michael. Is he?
For instance on page 15 he writes:
"In precapitalist societies, the exploitation of the dominated class served primarily the consumption of the ruling class: its members led a luxurious life, used appropriated wealth for their own edification or for that of the public (theater performances in ancient Greece, games in ancient Rome) or to wage war. Production directly served the fulfillment of wants: the fulfillment of the (forcibly) restricted needs of the dominated class and the extensive luxury and war needs of the ruling class. Only in exceptional cases was the wealth expropriated by the ruling class used to enlarge the basis of exploitation, such as when consumption was set aside to purchase more slaves, to produce a greater amount of wealth."
What Heinrich neglects to add, to his otherwise cogent observations, is that war itself was a slave generator thus, an expansion of Empire in the ancient world was largely founded on the accumulation of slaves, in short, of wealth producers as well as the wealth they produced.
Yet, there are parts of Heinrich's approach to Marx's critique of Capital which I do like and appreciate--many in fact. For instance, his hard headed approach to capitalism and the question of the morality of the capitalists themselves. On page 16 he writes:
"The fact that earnings do not primarily serve the consumption of the capitalist, but rather the continuous valorizastion of capital, that is, the restless movement of more and more accumulation, might sound absurd. But the issue at hand is not an individual act of insanity. Individual capitalists are forced into this movement of restless profiteering (constant accumulation, expansion of production, the introduction of new technology etc.) by competition with other capitalists: if accumulation is not carried on, if the apparatus of production is not constantly modernized, then one's own enterprise is faced with the threat of being steamrolled by competitors who produce more cheaply or who manufacture better products."
Of course, a similar relation between the accumulation of wealth and the possession of political power by the few in the ruling class over other human beings pertains to pre capitalist societies. More slaves meant more wealth and more slaves and wealth were part and parcel of the expansion of the empires of the ancients. Heinrich doesn't point this out. In his pretty good attempt, he demonstrates that capitalism is not based on moral choices, rather that capitalists are being forced to accumulate wealth as Capital in order to maintain political power over the producers of wealth and over their competitor capitalists in the arena, the marketplace of commodities. But, he fails to get beyond properly labeling this, the victory of abstraction, the victory of exchange-value over human beings, especially the producers of wealth. The problem with Heinrich's approach is that it makes pre capitalist exploitation look substantially different in content when it is actually only different in form. Slaves were commodities too. The product of slave labour time belonged to the slaves' owners. Surplus wealth in one area of class rule was traded for surplus wealth in another. The surplus wealth, whether from the application of labour power or the mere possession of natural resources becomes private property in class dominated society. Trade makes commodities of these use-values of wealth whether theses useful values are slaves, perfume, cattle or gold. The use-value of the commodity is, of course, both necessary and that necessity is perceived by the human subject/buyer i.e. in the eyes of the beholder in the marketplace of commodities.
Heinrich seems to me to continually put labour power i.e. the human producer in the backseat of the drive to accumulate wealth/capital. While he is spot on when he says, "..a critique that takes aim at the 'excessive profit-seeking' of individual capitalists but not at the capitalist system as a whole.." because that is too 'narrow', his outline of the system as a whole fails to give credit where credit is due--to its producers, its wage labourers. After all, without wage labour there can be no Capital. But Heinrich wants his readers to focus on how value becomes 'valorized', not how it is produced: how it becomes an abstraction in his version of exchange-value (essentially price), as opposed to the moral shortcomings of individual capitalists. Fair enough on the critique of liberal moralism, even radical liberal moralism. But in his paragraph describing how the system works, he writes things like:
"By capital we understand (provisionally; we'll get more precise later) a particular sum of value, the goal of which is be 'valorized,' which is to say, generate a surplus." p.16 How does an abstraction generate a surplus? Where does the surplus come from? It comes from the capitalist employing labour for wages, the price of the worker's skills in the labour market. But the price itself is not the living socially necessary labour time, the energy embodied in the finished, marketed good or service. That living labour time is what constitutes its value. The price of a commodity is determined outside the production process by consumer' demand in the market. The price fluctuates around the value of the supply of the produced commodity on the market and value is the socially necessary labour time embodied in those commodified goods and services.
But what does Heinrich say?
"The surplus can be obtained in various ways. In the case of interest-bearing capital, money is lent at interest. The interest thus constitutes the surplus. In the case of merchant capital, the products are purchased cheaply in one place and sold dearly in another place (or at another point in time). The difference between the purchase price and the sale price (minus the relevant transaction costs) constitutes the surplus." p.16
This sort of historical mystification is typical in Heinrich's INTRODUCTION TO THE THREE VOLUMES OF KARL MARX'S CAPITAL. Transaction costs? Like the socially necessary labour time of the sailors, the ship builders and others who use their skills to get the commodity bought, transported and profitably sold in the market?
No. These are near invisible to Heinrich. What he makes visible is the price which is in reality the abstraction. What he makes invisible is the producer who sells a skill to an employer for a wage and who thereby agrees to give up control and ownership of what s/he produces, i.e. the surplus wealth created within the labour time applied by the worker.
I point out these flaws, not because I want to nit-pick my way though Heinrich's book; but to demonstrate that the good professor neither has the grasp of Marx's critique of political-economy that Engels had, nor is he able to come up with a totally reliable application of Marx's theories of surplus value to the 21st century.
Heinrich just doesn't get the point that socially necessary labour time (snlt) is embodied in ALL commodities, including the individual worker's skills, skills which are being sold to an employer for their market price. He does see that commodities are exchanged on the basis of their snlt; but his emphasis on the act of exchange makes him deny the fact that without snlt the good or service would not exist in the first place to be compared for exchange. Thus, he does not take into account the fact that an electrical engineer's skills sell for a higher price than a worker who has no skills and only a high school education because the engineer's skills have more socially necessary labour time embodied them than the unskilled high school graduate does. This error leads to many, many errors in his INTRODUCTION TO MARX'S THREE VOLUMES OF CAPITAL. He seems to confuse the abstraction of price with value, the socially necessary labour time embodied in a commodity, pretty consistently.
"The owner of labour-power is mortal. If then his appearance in the market is to be continuous, and the continuous conversion of money into capital assumes this, the seller of labour-power must perpetuate himself, “in the way that every living individual perpetuates himself, by procreation.”  The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear and death, must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the labourer’s substitutes, i.e., his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity-owners may perpetuate its appearance in the market. 
"In order to modify the human organism, so that it may acquire skill and handiness in a given branch of industry, and become labour-power of a special kind, a special education or training is requisite, and this, on its part, costs an equivalent in commodities of a greater or less amount. This amount varies according to the more or less complicated character of the labour-power. The expenses of this education (excessively small in the case of ordinary labour-power), enter pro tanto into the total value spent in its production."
"The value of labour-power resolves itself into the value of a definite quantity of the means of subsistence. It therefore varies with the value of these means or with the quantity of labour requisite for their production." Karl Marx CAPITAL
Heinrich claims Marx intends the first chapter of the first volume of CAPITAL as purely theoretical and that the analysis of the commodity therein can't be placed in historical context. I think he is wrong. Socially necessary labour time can be seen in traded commodities during earlier, first modes of production and exchange-- C-M-C under class rule. A peasant knows about how much time it takes to produce something he wants to trade for something he is willing to trade from his own work. Generalised commodity production under the rule of Capital M-C-M' is generalised wage labour and this combined with the ubiquitous money commodity obscures, indeed fetishises the source of wealth and the socially necessary labour time embodied within it in the modern age. All of which is why Marx attempts to explain how all this snlt in commodities ends up being represented in the money commodity, even in the fetishised world of generalised commodity production and sale under the rule of Capital:
"The value of a single commodity, the linen, for example, is now expressed in terms of numberless other elements of the world of commodities. Every other commodity now becomes a mirror of the linen’s value. It is thus, that for the first time, this value shows itself in its true light as a congelation of undifferentiated human labour. For the labour that creates it, now stands expressly revealed, as labour that ranks equally with every other sort of human labour, no matter what its form, whether tailoring, ploughing, mining, &c., and no matter, therefore, whether it is realised in coats, corn, iron, or gold. The linen, by virtue of the form of its value, now stands in a social relation, no longer with only one other kind of commodity, but with the whole world of commodities. As a commodity, it is a citizen of that world. At the same time, the interminable series of value equations implies, that as regards the value of a commodity, it is a matter of indifference under what particular form, or kind, of use value it appears." (Emphasis mine)
"The universal equivalent form is a form of value in general. It can, therefore, be assumed by any commodity. On the other hand, if a commodity be found to have assumed the universal equivalent form (form C), this is only because and in so far as it has been excluded from the rest of all other commodities as their equivalent, and that by their own act. And from the moment that this exclusion becomes finally restricted to one particular commodity, from that moment only, the general form of relative value of the world of commodities obtains real consistence and general social validity."
And further on in the same chapter of CAPITAL volume I, Marx writes:
D. The Money-Form
20 yards of linen = 1 coat = 10 lbs of tea = 40 lbs of coffee = 1 quarter of corn = 2 ounces of gold = ½ a ton of iron = x Commodity A = = 2 ounces of gold
In my opinion, Heinrich is just plain wrong about socially necessary labour time not being materially embedded in commodities. The finished commodity is the crystallisation of applied snlt. I think of snlt as energy which is equal to and embodied within the material object or service. E=Matter embodied in the Commodity through Time, if you will.
"In general, the greater the productiveness of labour, the less is the labour time required for the production of an article, the less is the amount of labour crystallised in that article, and the less is its value; and vice versâ, the less the productiveness of labour, the greater is the labour time required for the production of an article, and the greater is its value. The value of a commodity, therefore, varies directly as the quantity, and inversely as the productiveness, of the labour incorporated in it." CAPITAL
Other than that, Heinrich does a pretty good job of explaining many of the intentions and conceptual formations which Karl Marx put forward in his three volumes of CAPITAL. I especially enjoyed reading his critique of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. So many self-described Marxists (NOT ALL) are wedded to interpreting this tendency as an unbending principle of Capital's inevitable self-destruction. Still, even here, his analysis is flawed because of his inability to adequately differentiate between the abstraction of exchange-value in market price and its concrete expression as socially necessary labour time embodied in goods and services at the point of production.
Yet, Heinrich does write with flashing brilliance at times. Here's an example:
"Wages, profits, and rent thus seem to be nothing other than the portions of the product's value that can be traced back to the functioning of wage-labor, capital, and landed property. At the same time, the transformation of the value of labor-power into the 'value of labor' (see section 4.5) is fundamental: precisely because the wage appears to compensate the 'value of labor,' the remaining components of newly added value, profit and rent, must emanate from the remaining two 'factors of production', capital and landed property. Since commodities are not exchanged at their values but rather at prices of production, this semblance cannot be resolved with regard to a single commodity. There does not appear to be any sort of connection between the expended labour on the one hand, and the average profit and rent on the other: profit depends (under normal conditions) upon the size of the capital employed, regardless whether many or few laborers are employed, and rent depends upon which land and how much of it is used." p.184
He follows that paragraph up with this zinger from Marx:
"..the mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the reification of social relations, and the immediate coalescence of the material relations of production with their historical and social specificity: 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
One more aspect of Heinrich's work which I would like to draw your attention to is his problem with reading Engels when it comes to the question of the political State. To Michael Heinrich, the modern bourgeois democratic State is not as much the political expression of class rule as it is an independent entity which mediates the abstractions of capitalism while attempting to control the periodic disruptions which erupt between workers and capitalists and between capitalists in the marketplace. Engels, and Marx for that matter, saw the State as the political expression of class rule through history. In no way did they see the State as being the same governing structure, whether ancient, feudal or the modern bourgeois democratic State. But when one reads Heinrich, one gets the impression that they did, especially Engels.
"Under capitalist social relations, direct political force is not necessary for the maintenance of economic exploitation: it is sufficient for the state as a force standing above society to guarantee that all members of society behave like owners of private property. However, the state must be a discrete, independent force, since it has to compel all members of society to recognize one another as private owners." p.204
Both Marx and Engels realised that capitalist democracy was not the same as the monarchist absolutism of feudalism or slave owning dictatorships of class rule. Why else would they be so keen on promoting the Social Democracy of their day and age? And while the capitalist class would like the State to appear as an independent force, cementing civil society together 'fairly', the reality is, as Marx put it in when he was in his 20s, "The existence of the state is inseparable from the existence of slavery."
Young Marx's observation aside, Heinrich sees the governing structure of capitalist class rule like this: "The state does in fact conduct itself as a neutral instance with regard to its citizens; this neutrality is in no way merely an illusion. Rather it is precisely by means of this neutrality that the state secures the foundations of capitalist relations of domination and exploitation. The defense of property implies that those who possess no relevant property beyond their own labor-power must sell their labor-power." p.205
Neutrality? Must is more like it. Tell it to the workers on the picket line, Professor Heinrich, especially when the police are sent in to defend the scabs crossing said picket line. To be sure, the political expression is more about class mediation than say the absolutism of the old feudal State. But the modern, industrial political State is not neutral; it is profoundly partisan defending the class interests of those who own and control the natural resources and the collective product of labour in either companies or via the State itself. Of course, many workers are under the illusion that government is neutral that is, until they have a run in with the armed bodies of men and women who are hired by the State to defend the property rights of the capitalists. When do the police arrest the capitalists for violating the rights of the workers to the product of their labour?
of the Paris Commune, March 18, 1891
So yes, do read Heinrich's INTRODUCTION TO THE THREE VOLUMES OF KARL MARX'S CAPITAL. But please remember that wealth, no matter which historical era it is produced in, whether it be produced by slaves, peasants or wage-slaves, that commodified product of social labour can be sold or traded for something perceived as being of equal socially necessary labour time and that is what makes a good or service or labour power exchangeable. Keep in mind as you read Heinrich's work, the fact that private ownership of wealth is, in itself, a political power over those who produce it. Socialism means the collective product of labour is owned and controlled by labour itself and the end of class rule and its political State.
In future, the perception of the subject-object relation is what I would have had Heinrich put more focus on: humans and their mental perception of their own and their fellow producers' labour time and what that labour time results in. Engels wasn't wrong with his interpretation of Marx's critique of political-economy. Heinrich just can't read Engels in historical context. Yes, Heinrich is spot on with his observations on the failures of mainstream Social Democrats and Marxist-Leninists to grasp the philosophical depth of Marx's dialectical analysis in CAPITAL. No, Heinrich does not give his readers an adequate explanation of what socialism meant to Marx and Engels, a socialism which could begin with labour vouchers based on socially necessary labour time--to make the relationship between the product and the producer transparent. This proposal is something which Heinrich rejects by associating it with socialist schemes which retain commodity production and exchange (see for example Proudhon).
"In Marx's time, this question was not a merely academic one. Various socialist tendencies, in devising alternatives to capitalism, aspired to a society in which private commodity production would continue to exist, but money would be abolished and replaced by certificates of entitlement to good or slips denoting hours of performed labor." p.57
Yet, contra Heinrich and his constant attempt to decouple socially necessary labour time from value embodied in goods and services, Marx suggests using labour time vouchers under a communist mode of production and exchange more than once:
The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of the first volume of CAPITAL by Karl Marx.
"Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual. Everything produced by him was exclusively the result of his own personal labour, and therefore simply an object of use for himself. The total product of our community is a social product. One portion serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another portion is consumed by the members as means of subsistence. A distribution of this portion amongst them is consequently necessary. The mode of this distribution will vary with the productive organisation of the community, and the degree of historical development attained by the producers. We will assume, but merely for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labour time. Labour time would, in that case, play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the proper proportion between the different kinds of work to be done and the various wants of the community. On the other hand, it also serves as a measure of the portion of the common labour borne by each individual, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution."
"On the basis of socialised production the scale must be ascertained on which those operations — which withdraw labour-power and means of production for a long time without supplying any product as a useful effect in the interim — can be carried on without injuring branches of production which not only withdraw labour-power and means of production continually, or several times a year, but also supply means of subsistence and of production. Under socialised as well as capitalist production, the labourers in branches of business with shorter working periods will as before withdraw products only for a short time without giving any products in return; while branches of business with long working periods continually withdraw products for a longer time before they return anything. This circumstance, then, arises from the material character of the particular labour-process, not from its social form. In the case of socialised production the money-capital is eliminated. Society distributes labour-power and means of production to the different branches of production. The producers may, for all it matters, receive paper vouchers entitling them to withdraw from the social supplies of consumer goods a quantity corresponding to their labour-time. These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate."
CAPITAL Volume II, chapter 18, page 358
Finally, there is no doubt that the credit system will serve as a powerful lever during the transition from the capitalist mode of production to the mode of production of associated labour; but only as one element in connection with other great organic revolutions of the mode of production itself. On the other hand, the illusions concerning the miraculous power of the credit and banking system, in the socialist sense, arise from a complete lack of familiarity with the capitalist mode of production and the credit system as one of its forms. As soon as the means of production cease being transformed into capital (which also includes the abolition of private property in land), credit as such no longer has any meaning. This, incidentally, was even understood by the followers of Saint-Simon. On the other hand, as long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, interest-bearing capital, as one of its forms, also continues to exist and constitutes in fact the basis of its credit system. Only that sensational writer, Proudhon, who wanted to perpetuate commodity-production and abolish money, was capable of dreaming up the monstrous crèdit gratuit, the ostensible realization of the pious wish of the petty-bourgeois estate.
CAPITAL Volume III, chapter 36, page 607
Thus, Marx proposes to demystify the relations which occur with money and generalised commodity production. Marx and Engels hoped that this beginning for socialism would be developed by the producers, democratically organised in free association and as they shed the the scars of class society (e.g. the free-rider syndrome among others), the distribution of the collective produce of society would morph into one based purely what humans needed while gaining maximum sovereignty for the individual to decide what to do with their lives and free-time.