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Some Difficulties In Reading Marx

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"Let us take the process of circulation in a form under which it presents itself as a simple and direct exchange of commodities. This is always the case when two owners of commodities buy from each other, and on the settling day the amounts mutually owing are equal and cancel each other. The money in this case is money of account and serves to express the value of the commodities by their prices, but is not, itself, in the shape of hard cash, confronted with them. So far as regards use-values, it is clear that both parties may gain some advantage. Both part with goods that, as use-values, are of no service to them, and receive others that they can make use of. And there may also be a further gain. A, who sells wine and buys corn, possibly produces more wine, with given labour-time, than

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"Let us take the process of circulation in a form under which it presents itself as a simple and direct exchange of commodities. This is always the case when two owners of commodities buy from each other, and on the settling day the amounts mutually owing are equal and cancel each other. The money in this case is money of account and serves to express the value of the commodities by their prices, but is not, itself, in the shape of hard cash, confronted with them. So far as regards use-values, it is clear that both parties may gain some advantage. Both part with goods that, as use-values, are of no service to them, and receive others that they can make use of. And there may also be a further gain. A, who sells wine and buys corn, possibly produces more wine, with given labour-time, than farmer B could, and B on the other hand, more corn than wine-grower A could. A, therefore, may get, for the same exchange-value, more corn, and B more wine, than each would respectively get without any exchange by producing his own corn and wine. With reference, therefore, to use-value, there is good ground for saying that 'exchange is a transaction by which both sides gain.'" -- Karl Marx, Capital, Chapter 5: Contradictions in the General Formula of Capital.

The sheer volume of his work makes Karl Marx difficult to read. Here I concentrate on the three volumes of Capital. In the Progress Publishers edition, they consist of 867 pages, 551 pages, and 948 pages, respectively. Is there a one-semester class in which students are expected to read all of that? If I were a scholar, I suppose I would be required to learn German. I suppose one ought to also look at the secondary and tertiary literature, maybe from one's home country. (The fact that I can assume such literature exists, wherever you are coming from, attests to Marx's importance.)

Another difficulty is in understanding why Marx chose his order of exposition. The introduction to the Grundrisse is an important text on method here, although I gather Marx came to think of the order in the main text of the Grundrisse as backwards. As I understand it, Marx works from higher levels of abstraction to lower levels, with the concrete being overdetermined, in some sense. These levels are supposed to be real abstractions. Reality is not generated out of thought, as in Hegel. One might respond to the first objection here by saying that the distinction between fixed and circulating capital is a volume 2 issue and can be ignored in volume 1. The overall arc is to consider production in volume 1, circulation combined rather mechanically with production in volume 2, and then the unity of production and circulation in volume 3. The decomposition of surplus value into profits, interest on monetary loans, rent, wages for non-productive workers (such as clerks hired by banks or lawyers) cannot be fully explained until volume 3. And Marx never even gets to taxes and the state. But, according to Lenin, I do not understand Capital since I have never read Hegel's Logic, as one might expect of one who has read some of Bertrand Russell.

Capital is an immanent critique, and it is not always easy to be sure of Marx's attitude to what he is writing about. I think that Marx does not expect prices of production to be proportional to labor values, for example. He says as much in a footnote at the end of chapter 5 in volume 1. It does not help the reader that he does not explain this as fully as he ever will until towards the start of volume 3, more than a thousand pages later. The distinction between labor values and exchange values seems to be of no matter in much of the middle of volume 2, where he explains how the wear and tear of long-lived machinery, the value of ancillaries such as fuel to keep machinery running and to light a factory, and raw materials that actually appear changed in the product all contribute to a commodity's value.

I think a major difficulty some have is that a Marx is developing a systems view or structural approach, in some sense. I find many bourgeois commentators seem to object to the labor theory of value based on the feelings of those engaged in a single transaction or on a supposed analysis of a single market. This standpoint seems besides the point to me. When, in volume 1, Marx talks about the capitalist, he is treating the capitalist as "capital personified", and so on.

I think a major point of Marx is why so many have necessary illusions about capitalism. So many perceive human social powers as relationships inherent in objects, such as money capital goods, or land, or inherent in institutions such as markets. This confusion and fetishism by apologists, at a superstructural level, has a role in keeping capitalism going. Marx tries to explain such illusions created by markets.

An issue I have is with readings of Marx as presenting a scientific, positivistic theory of prices and distribution. Even if not fully in the spirit of Marx, I find empirical work with input-output tables of interest, though.

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