A Review of “Marx’s Capital: An Introductory Reader” | by Prabhat Patnaik et al

by Oct 15, 2011All Articles

pb_img-284There is a tremendous renewal of interest in Marxism throughout the globe today, especially for the explanation of the economic crisis that has hit capitalism recently. It was quite natural that the only well-organised segment of India’s left intellectuals committed to theoretical endeavours in political economy sensed the need to popularise Marx’s Capital. Much to the discomfort of the radical/revolutionary left, the fact is that though this segment is broadly organised around the official, parliamentary Left, which is in a deep crisis of confidence today, its research and theorisations have more or less informed the practice and understanding of the whole of the Left that matters in India. This small book of roughly 135 pages, in my view, shows how much the mainstream Indian Left owes to Marx’s Capital.

This introductory reader claims to provide “some basic formulations” on Capital that are “stated explicitly”, but it is not just a “preliminary explication of concepts”, rather it “has endeavoured to go into matters of advanced theory”. It contains seven essays – the first two are foundational, the next four essays “graduate from basic concepts to theoretical discussion and debates”, and the last essay is advanced. What is the function of an introductory reader for a theoretical work, if not to expose the readers to the basic conceptual structure or framework that characterises it? Of course, it need not shy away from taking strong positions on what the author(s) of the ‘reader’ think to be the deficiencies or inconsistencies in the structure. But we do expect them to present the basic formulations underlying the structure honestly and explicitly, giving us a glimpse of the rigorous conceptual edifice that these formulations imply.

The first essay by Venkatesh Athreya is rather motivational. Athreya narrates his personal experience with Capital – it changed his life. Being an engineer “with an inclination to analytical argumentation”, he was quick to figure out that Marx’s arguments in Capital are logical. As he read more, he found something else – “Capital read like poetry”. Then he enumerates what he found in Capital as “an engineering graduate trained in mathematical economics”. In fact, Athreya considers reading Capital to be “immensely, immeasurably, rewarding”. He goes on to tell us how people from diverse walks of life and interests can enjoy Capital in their own manner – those “who enjoy a historical account” should read the part on Primitive Accumulation, “Militants of the working class movement may find Parts III, IV and V… more immediately interesting than the rather abstract opening chapters”, “engineers and technologists will find absolutely fascinating Marx’s treatment in Chapters XII, XIII and XIV”, even environmentalists can see how “Marx anticipates some of the contemporary ecological concerns”. “Capital is thus not a daunting read”, but “a delightful read” and “eminently readable”.

In this jungle of adjectives and hyperboles, if one insists on locating a central insight (besides that Capital is “a great read”), I think it would be the author’s ‘something-for-everybody’ approach. Athreya explicitly propagates an eclectic reading of Capital when he states:

“There is no particular order in which the book has to be read, and each reader should decide, based on his or her prior preparation and inclination the sequence of reading.”

Apparently, this statement is harmless as the purpose is to motivate readers to take Capital in their hands. However, any serious Marxist knows the relative theoretical and practical consequences and implications of various orders in which Capital is read. These orders, in fact, reorder the conceptual framework inherent in Capital, leading to diverse schools within Marxism, and intra-Marxist debates. This is not a plea for any single reading of the text, as who can deny the fact that diverse ways of approaching the text can unearth various conceptual possibilities therein. But this relativism must not become an apologia for denying Marx his own original and consistent way of developing arguments and framework, his own way of approaching im-mediate reality through conceptualisations placed at various levels of abstraction. These levels cannot be reduced to a catalogue of concepts which you can pick, choose and use anywhere.    

The next essay is Vijay Prashad’s ‘Writing Capital’, which provides us an interesting ‘biography of Marx’s Capital’. It shows how Marx’s personality, even his “coat” morphed into his writings. However, Prashad, otherwise an erudite and very careful writer, makes a crucial factual error about Marx’s own intellectual biography. He finds the difference between labour and labour-power already introduced in Marx’s 1849 work, Wage Labour and Capital. In reality, it was introduced by Engels in its pamphlet edition in 1891. Engels clearly writes in his introduction to the pamphlet:

“…this pamphlet is not as Marx wrote it in 1849, but approximately as Marx would have written it in 1891. Moreover, so many copies of the original text are in circulation, that these will suffice until I can publish it again unaltered in a complete edition of Marx’s works, to appear at some future time. My alterations centre about one point. According to the original reading, the worker sells his labour for wages, which he receives from the capitalist; according to the present text, he sells his labour-power.”(1)

In fact, Marx didn’t make this distinction even in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that was published in 1859.

Let us now move on to the essays that graduate the readers “from basic concepts to theoretical discussion and debates”. It begins with Jayati Ghosh’s “Reading Capital in the Age of Finance”. The essay starts with defining capital. Ghosh touches upon the concept of “commodity fetishism”, where she confuses between the fetish-character of commodity relations and fetishism that ensues from those relations. This conflation feeds the reformist approach of “policy” Marxists who are lost in fighting specific fetishisms of particular juridical and accumulation regimes. She explains primitive accumulation, which she finds to be a continuing reality, but she is unable to locate it in the constitution of capital – in the fact that primitive accumulation is not just the historical presupposition, but also the constitutive presupposition of capital. Therefore, for Ghosh, as others in this introductory reader, primitive accumulation is always seen in terms of socio-geographical expansion of capitalism – capitalism meeting pre-capitalism. This notion of primitive accumulation is unable to explain the bourgeois endeavours to transcend the barriers in the accumulation process from within the critical framework of Marx’s Capital. This forces “economists” like Ghosh to borrow concepts from non-Marxist approaches without considering that these concepts do not have any organic foundation within Marxism, and can, therefore, be contradictory to its fundamentals.

The import of concepts and even methods in order to correct the “deficiencies” of Marx’s approach, without going into the abundance of debates within Marxism that these so-called “deficiencies” have generated is the hallmark of the whole essay. Noting the historical limitation of Marx’s understanding of financial markets, it calls for elaborating on Marx’s limited insights with the help of Kindleberger, Minsky and Kregel, none of whom were ever Marxists. There is no mention of rich debates on Money and Finance (especially after the publication of Suzanne de Brunhoff’s book) that have continuously engaged Marxists since the 1970s. Similarly, Ghosh seems to be unaware of the works of Marxist radicals like Harry Cleaver (who even engaged in the famous Mode-of-Production debate in EPW with Utsa Patnaik and others) and various Marxist-Feminists like Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James among others (most of them were part of the movement for “wages-for-housework” in the West) who greatly enriched the Marxist understanding of reproduction and reproductive labour, basing it on the labour theory of value and reproduction of labour-power.

R Ramakumar’s “Agriculture and Rural Society in Capital” at least concentrates on interpreting what Marx says. As expected, it starts with the concept of primitive accumulation and its relationship with the commodification of labour power. In his endnotes he criticises David Harvey for using primitive accumulation to understand expropriation in later stages of capitalism. This relegation of primitive accumulation to temporal prehistory is just another example of the reduction of Marxist conceptual architecture to an unmediated description of capitalism – an exercise which is rampant throughout the present collection. The author is not aware of the problems of the exclusively historicist reading of primitive accumulation – which is nothing but a Smithian reformulation of the concept which Marx himself criticised in the chapter on primitive accumulation, by comparing its reception in political economy with theological “original sin” – reducing the misfortunes of humanity to a distant mythical past.

Ramakumar summarises the various chapters in Capital on primitive accumulation and the agrarian transformation in England. He talks about variations in agrarian transformation from the English path in other geographical locations – about Prussian, American and ‘Asian’ paths. He describes Lenin as an enthusiast of the American path of capitalist development in agriculture – pinning Lenin’s criticism of the Prussian (landlord) path to the single point that “it retained elements of the feudal society”. However, as always, there is a problem in such appropriation of Marx’s and Marxists’ critique of political economy in a prescriptive mode – this sanitises them of their politics. It must be remembered that Lenin’s enthusiasm was not due to the Prussian path being less capitalistic, but because of the epoch of capitalism which Russia was in (i.e., “the epoch preceding the final consolidation of the national path of capitalism”), where the struggle between landlords and the peasantry over the path of agrarian development was very strong and the result of this fight was still open-ended.  The concrete “course of events, the facts and the history of 1905-07”, “the law of June 3, 1907, and by the composition and activity of the Third Duma, and—a detail—by November 20, 1909, and (what is especially important) by the government’s agrarian policy brought the agrarian question to the centre-stage as the “the national question of the final consolidation of bourgeois development in Russia”.  In such an epoch, struggle for the peasant (American) path to agrarian development would strengthen the arms of the working class, by bringing the peasantry under its leadership – by making the workers-peasants alliance possible. Lenin’s perception about the radical potentiality of these alternatives was clearly epochal, i.e., was not settled once for all – “In Germany the support by the workers of the desire of the “muzhik” to get for himself (i.e., for the muzhik) the land of the big landlords—the Junkers—is reactionary.” Lenin explicitly states: “a Marxist must not “vouch” for either of these ways, nor must he bind himself down to one of them only.”(2)

In India, Leninists have generally essentialised the agrarian question, without going into epochal analyses – whether a national path of capitalism has consolidated in India or not (whatever its specific character be that may or may not be akin to the ideal types). Growing impoverishment, inequalities and continuing stagnation in agriculture cannot themselves make the agrarian question “the national question”.

Ramakumar’s discussion of usury and absolute rent is useful but highly skewed when it comes to their pre-capitalist roots. The proper Marxist way of analysing these phenomena would be to show how capitalism exists and expands despite and through them. If financial liberalisation seems to encourage a networking of moneylenders “by providing them with incentives”, rather than their elimination, it evidences the specific epochal character of capitalist accumulation under neo-liberalism that could use the service of moneylenders to intensify accumulation and financialisation. Similarly, if Junker-style landlord capitalism preserves “a number of pre-capitalist elements”, that is not a sign of incompleteness of transition in itself. Nor is the coexistence of subsistence farming with capitalist cultivation and rent that squeezes wages and profits (of tenant farmers) necessarily pre-capitalist. They may define the spatio-temporal specificity of an empirical capitalism.   

Most illuminating is Prasenjit Bose’s piece that makes mincemeat out of Marx’s dialectics and levels of abstraction. He really has constructed three stories. The first story of class exploitation confuses Hindu concepts of Maya and Brahman with the dialectic of appearance and essence, contingency and necessity:

“The starting point of the first story is that the realities of the world are not visible at its surface. More specifically, what is visible as the capitalist world around us is a veneer underneath which lies the actual apparatus that drives the system.”(78)

The second story of accumulation and crisis runs parallel to the first story. This notion of “parallel” rejects the concept of embeddedness and the law of internal dialectics that characterise Marx’s methodology and worldview. The third story is of course a (hi)story of capitalism, in which the “so-called primitive” accumulation is actually dumped to the prehistory of capitalism, but which nevertheless acts as the Newtonian primeval push behind capitalism.

Since there is no conception of mediations, the value theory is better glossed over as some thing unreal, valid only in some ideal free competitive capitalism, essential tendencies are reduced to symptoms – as crisis to a telltale underconsumptionism, surplus value to profits, and the whole conceptual rigour of Capital to another descriptive theory of poverty and income inequality.

But the real gems are Bose’s conception of “imperialist exploitation” and “labour reserves”. His Leninism makes Lenin stand on his head – the objects of imperialist exploitation have yet “to graduate from their present stage of imperialist exploitation to the stage of capitalist exploitation”. So much for “imperialism, the highest/latest stage of capitalism”. Further, imperialist exploitation creates labour reserves, which consist of people poorer than those in the US. They are “the unemployed, underemployed, informal wage workers and self-employed petty producers in the urban areas along with the peasants and landless agricultural workers in the rural areas”. Their presence keeps wages to the subsistence level. Also, the “category of ‘reserve labour’ is conceptually different from the ‘reserve army of labour’ in Capital, which basically implies the unemployed under capitalism.” Hence, the unemployed under capitalism is different from the unemployed under imperialism. In Bose’s extended framework, “a person can belong to ‘reserve labour’ even when she is informally employed”. All these characteristics of this novel conception are not available in Marx’s framework of reserve (floating, latent and stagnant)! Thence follow all sorts of novelties, for example the following:

“The diffusion of capitalist development in the poor countries has not led to a universalization of capitalist exploitation. It has rather created enclaves of capitalist exploitation, esconced within the overall landscape of imperialist exploitation.” (94)

This universalisation is not taking place because capitalism “ultimately remains a crisis-ridden system incapable of continued expanded reproduction. Periodic crises, which inevitably recur under capitalism, destroy capital and constrain its productive forces. This makes it systemically incapable of absorbing the ‘reserve labour’ by providing it with gainful employment.” (95)

This is indeed a novel conception of capitalist expansion, which obviously Marx didn’t have – capitalism expands only when everybody is provided “gainful employment”.

Prasenjit Bose has another (the fourth!) story about Capital to narrate – the political story. He has his own definition of the Marxist conception of revolution – “a revolution by the workers against monopoly capital.” In Capital, he finds, Marx envisaging a ‘pure’ proletarian revolution and that too in advanced countries, which obviously didn’t occur. What is possible is “a democratic revolution based on worker-peasant alliance against imperialism and monopoly capital” (characteristically the leadership of the working class is missing). In fact, now the classes comprising ‘reserve labour’ have come to the centre stage of political and revolutionary mobilisation – peasantry, rural labourers and “the unemployed, underemployed, informal wage workers and self-employed petty producers in urban areas”.

“It is on the bedrock of this revolutionary alliance between workers and ‘reserve labour’, against imperialism and the domestic ruling classes that the next tide of revolutionary transformations in this century has to be based.”(102) 

T Jayaraman does well to bring out the contradictory implications of technological development and the historicity of technology, despite inheriting the overall ideological baggage that unites this priceless collection of essays. However, at no point does he demonstrate the ability to go beyond the linear conceptualisation of techno-development. Technology seems well and fine – harmless, the problem is under whose political command it is placed and who monopolises scientific and technical knowledge. There is no attempt to understand the constitution of technology itself as an arena of class struggle – how the direction of technological development too is class-determined.

Prabhat Patnaik’s contribution can definitely be called advanced, not just in comparison to other texts in this reader, but also at the level of arguments – it is a typical, yet distinctively neat ‘underconsumptionist’ presentation of the dark world of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism brings capitalism almost to a dead-end (and perhaps to an explosion too) – with real wages collapsing even in advanced economies, which are thus increasingly facing severe problems of realisation, with labour reserves bulging throughout the globe. Backward economies could escape the realisation problem (perhaps, for the time being) because of the relaxing of the export regime, yet workers there too should expect only precariousness as labour reserves could not be absorbed even by the opportunities created by capital immigration. As the rich in these economies have been emulating the lifestyles of the western rich, technology that is being used is more and more labour productive. Hence, even in these backward economies there is no depletion of reserves and increase in wages. Thus, at the aggregate level it seems accumulation is increasingly reaching its limits.

Patnaik builds his arguments from Marx’s observation that wage fluctuations are linked to variations in the size of the reserve army of labour. However, he improves upon it by inserting the notion of the “threshold level” of the labour reserve – real wages can be impacted upon only if the size of the reserve is brought below this level, while above that level, real wages will be stuck at the subsistence level and any productivity increase will fill the capitalists’ pockets. Prior to neoliberalism, real wages were increasing in the advanced economies because of the absence of any linkage between the real wages in these economies and the labour reserves in backward economies. But neoliberalism destroyed this segmentation.  

Without going into a detailed discussion of the problems of underconsumptionism, we can enumerate a few of them that problematise the empirical basis of Patnaik’s arguments. Firstly, there is an overstatement of the significance of real wages in the constitution of effective demand. Even if we count the workers’ share in the national income, real wages are just one part of this share. There are other elements of the “variable capital”, but accounting them would imply not just empirical, but conceptual dislocation of underconsumptionism – workers’ compensation (viewed as variable capital) is part of capitalist investment which is not expended upon the output of their current activities, but of previous activities.(3) Secondly, even in the US (which has been the centre of the recent crisis) long-run productive investment has been growing faster than personal consumption (the fact which underconsumptionists consider impossible), so why should there be the problem of realization, as any demand gap could easily be taken care of by the former (4)?

However, much more interesting are the unique political implications of Patnaik’s analysis that he himself derives in his paper. Since globalisation or neoliberal integration of national economies has led to a generalisation of poverty, the only way through is by delinking the national economy from the global. He is among those few intellectuals claiming to uphold the legacy of Marxism and communism, who vocalise anti-internationalism in such a clear manner, as in this article. Prabhat Patnaik finds no place for the utopia of internationally coordinated struggles in his scheme of future. But he has enough utopian conviction to see the possibility of delinking the local economy from the global economy. He thinks that only this will improve the conditions of workers in any country – as workers cannot wait for a new World State. But why should they wait at all – even for a state that will realise the autarkic utopia? The Marxist plea for proletarian internationalism was not an apologia for the statist planning for social welfare (national or international), but a movemental vision based on the objective understanding of class struggle within capitalism leading the Marxists to envision the possibility of an eventual withering away of the state. Even at the height of the nationalist moments in their struggles, Marxist revolutionaries have tried to locate themselves in the international working class movement.

Despite objections to Patnaik’s analysis from Capital’s standpoint, one cannot deny its coherence and its being part of the legacy of a dominant stream within what has come to be known as Marxism. However, in an introductory reader for Capital, one at least expects him to provide an insight that relates the story to the analytical intricacies (and problems) in Capital – why is the production-for-consumption’s sake approach superior to Marx’s production-for-production’s sake approach in explaining capitalism? How is Marx’s understanding, that effective demand originates entirely with the capitalist class (as workers’ compensations too are investments, M-LP) defective? What are the problems of other explanations of crisis that find support in Capital (at least more than underconsumptionism)?

Such omissions are rampant throughout this reader. They demonstrate a refusal to engage with the logical structure of Capital and its theoretical-practical implications. Most importantly, there is a complete absence of any discussion of the labour theory of value, which is not just the foundation of the conceptual architecture in Capital, but is also what connects the concepts located at various levels of this architecture with one another and without which these concepts would be reduced to mere nomenclatures. In this reader, the concepts that Marx developed in Capital are used only for typological purposes, to name and describe apparent phenomena.  

However, this introduction does show that Marxism is not “a set of religious beliefs or dogmas that claim to contain every truth about the world within its texts” – it has enough space for intellectual creativity. But religion has another aspect too – the dogmas or texts need not be followed; however they must be sworn upon, after which you can say or do whatever you like. This is what much of this volume has reduced Marxism to.


(1) Frederick Engels, “Introduction to Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital”, 1891.

(2) VI Lenin, “Letter to Skvortsov-Stepanov”, December 16 1909.

(3) Anwar Shaikh, “An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories” in U.S. Capitalism in Crisis, U.R.P.E., New York, 1978.

(4) Andrew Kliman, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Underconsumptionist Statistics”, With Sober Senses, 2010.

Review by Pratyush Chandra

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