“While I do not always agree with Harvey’s appraisals of Marx’s arguments, there is no better secondary source to learn what that argument happens to be.”
David Harvey, currently Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York, is famed as one of the most acclaimed scholars in the humanities. At 83, his career has seen a remarkable number of turns. Starting out as a positivist geographer criticizing Kantian conceptions of space, Harvey’s work has come to encompass everything from an analysis of the “condition” of postmodernity to process philosophy and dialectical reasoning. But he is perhaps best known for his extremely lucid and readable interpretations and defenses of Karl Marx, particularly Capital, which Harvey has been teaching for many decades to a variety of bewildered graduate students. These efforts have culminated in a number of expository books, from a new introduction to The Communist Manifesto to Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. But undoubtedly, Harvey’s scholarly masterpiece is A Companion to Marx’s Capital. Based on his lectures, A Companion reflects a lifetime of serious thinking and teaching about Marxism. It is frequently funny, always easy to understand, and interestingly enough often quite critical. With both volumes now released in a single complete edition, the book is a necessary read for anyone with an interest in Marxist theory, whether as a proponent or a critic.
David Harvey on the Marxist Project
“My aim is to get you to read a book by Karl Marx called Capital…and to read it on Marx’s own terms. This may seem a bit ridiculous, since if you haven’t read the book you can’t possibly know what Marx’s terms are: but one of his terms, I can assure you, is that you read, and read carefully. Real learning always entails a struggle to understand the unknown.”
David Harvey, Introduction to A Companion to Marx’s Capital
My own relationship to Marx was always mixed. Having been born right before the end of the Cold War, I grew up in an atmosphere where his name was at best associated with an anachronistic utopian dream that failed, and at worst, with the purposeful slaughter of millions. While I always affiliated with the political left, my own progressivism was initially inspired by more liberal figures like Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls, or critical theorists like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. As time went on, I gradually became intrigued by Marx, who seemed to inspire so many different authors in such rabidly different ways. After a stint working a number of odd and menial jobs after the 2008 Recession, I became inspired to actually go back and read the man himself. This turned out to be a much trickier project than I’d thought. I picked up Volume I of Capital and immediately rolled my eyes over the sheer length. After opening it up I expected to be dragged immediately into a world talking about grand cultural dynamics, contradictions, and dialectics. Instead, Marx opened the book with a lengthy discussion of commodity and why we valued it. This seemed very strange given the epic scope I’d expected. What was worse is that nowhere in Capital, including the later Volumes, did Marx lay out his philosophical and methodological approach. The text just starts and barrels on. This made it extremely difficult to get a grip on what Marx was saying, even though his writing was often crisp and even funny. I wish I’d known about Harvey’s Companion at that point, since it would have made my life immensely easier. Harvey goes through Capital chapter by chapter, outlining the connections between each point and clarifying the seemingly endless array of new terminologies generated by Marx throughout.
Particularly helpful were Harvey’s observations about the method used in Capital. He rightly stresses that we are wrong to interpret Marx as some kind of economic determinist trying to showcase how all social forms are generated according to strict causal laws. While Marx does occasionally write in such a way, Harvey points out that we need to understand him as trying to analyze the thinking of capitalist economists according to their own logic. Marx is trying to show how the scientific pretensions of capitalist economics are both correct under certain circumstances and inadequate when looked at from a deeper perspective. To Harvey, Marx remains fundamentally a dialectician. Marx is aiming to demonstrate that reality does not consist of strict causal laws but is instead constantly changing based on the complex and occasionally contradictory relations established between material objects and forces. This has consequences when we try to understand a phenomenon like money, which Marx understands as operating as a medium to establish equivalence between commodities of different value. It operates to attach a numerical monetary value to both a physical commodity like a car and a service like psychological treatment. In some respects. this helps to formalize and stabilize the operation of the economy, but Marx observes that problems emerge when contradictions come about between the apparent monetary value of a commodity on sale at any given moment and other factors such as the actual effective demand for that commodity.
Also helpful were Harvey’s ruminations about Marx’s dependency on the labor theory of value. He helpfully places this in a historical context, which enables us to understand why Marx might have placed so much weight on a theory that is now widely discredited. Harvey admits that Marx’s emphasis on labor might now seem anachronistic. But Harvey also points out that Marx’s position was hardly odd at the time. Many classical political economists and theorists, from Locke to Ricardo, also believed that labor had some intrinsic relationship to the value of commodities. They, of course, interpreted the nature of this relationship in a very different way than Marx, but the focus on labor was quite ubiquitous. Harvey also observes that Marx’s point is to get us to recognize that the complex process through which commodities are produced constitutes an integral material basis for capitalism—with the actual exchange of goods at the store or online being just a single moment at the culmination of a long process. Adam Smith’s focus on the butcher and the baker selling meat and bread in their stores ignores the immense labor required to till the land, the machines needed for the industrial slaughter of meat and production of grain, and so on. This also means that classical political economists ignore the way that power relations are a necessary element of capitalism. Because capitalists are able to use their capital to purchase labor power, they have the primary control over the productive process and so have immense clout in ensuring the majority of earnings will go back to them. This further allows them to entrench their power through political and legal means.
Later in the book, Harvey takes up the problematic task of analyzing Volume II and part of Volume III of Capital. This is problematic since Marx never lived to complete these volumes, and Harvey concedes that in places they are a “mess.” And indeed, anyone reading the later parts of Capital can readily be frustrated by the way tantalizing but controversial ideas and arguments are gestured to before being dropped, while the text moves onto something else. Harvey does a great job of making sense of these sections. They concern the more monetary dimensions of capitalism, including an extensive analysis of the credit system. Much of this is useful to understanding the Marxist analysis of effective demand under capitalism. There are also interesting passages on Marx’s thinking on communications technology and the way capitalism was bringing the world closer together. These echo Marx and Engels’ trenchant observations about the emergence of globalization in The Communist Manifesto, written decades before Capital:
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image. The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”
I had the great pleasure of briefly meeting David Harvey in the summer of 2015 at Birkbeck University’s critical theory summer school, which, interestingly enough, is also where I met my wife. His lectures on Capital were some of the most interesting I’d ever heard and sparked many late-night debates and discussions at bars around the campus. What surprised me was how, after so many decades, he remained so fascinated by Marx’s book. He treated it like one might an old friend, with warmth and familiarity, but he was always conscious that there was more to learn and gain from it. This disposition is present throughout A Companion to Marx’s Capital, which remains the best book on the subject I know. It is eminently readable, occasionally sharp in its criticisms, but always searching and curious. Most importantly it draws one’s attention to what Marx might still be able to teach us centuries after his death. While I do not always agree with Harvey’s appraisals of Marx’s arguments, there is no better secondary source to learn what that argument happens to be.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf