Reading Marx’s Capital – Vol 1, Class 1

New year’s resolutions come in strange forms (especially when they are begun before the new year), and one of mine is to expose myself to new texts and ideas. To be brand consistent, and in keeping with my site strapline Reading: everything I’ve already read, should have read and plenty I probably shouldn’t, below is part one of my project to work through Marx’s Capital: Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics S.). Notes from the first lecture below.

Class 1 – Opening Lecture


The background to Capital comes in three conceptual blocks

  • Political Economy (Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Adam Smith, Malthus and Ricardo) – deep readings of these writers in Theories of Surplus Value. Asking the question, what is each argument missing, once we find this, everything is transformed.
  • Classical Philosophy – Taking the German tradition and putting this into a relationship with the political economy. Particularly Hegel and Kant.
  • Utopian Socialist Position – Predominantly French, from the 1830s and 40s (Saint-Simon, Fourier and Babeuf). In the Communist Manifesto he’s concerned it’s a utopian project, there is no clear path to get from where we are now to where they want to go.

Marx’s efforts, then are an attempt to combine English political economy, German classical philosophy with the Utopian influence.

Marx’s method of inquiry is different from his presentation. For inquiry, you start with reality, descriptions of it, then search it for foundational concepts, then come back to the surface and see behind the world of appearance there is another way to interpret what’s going on (similar approach to psychoanalysis).

In Capital, he starts with the concepts. It looks like an a priori concept, it’s not clear where he is getting them from until the book is developed. Starts with commodity (not money or labour or class), an arbitrary starting point. Volume 1 looking at the capital market from the perspective of production.

Dialectical Method

Dialectics, not causation. Things are dialectically related, an inner relationship, not a causative one. Marx very impressed with the fluidity of capitalism. Constantly talking about that movement, which is a dialectical movement.

So what does he mean by dialectics? Everything is defined in terms of process, in motion, contradictory. Value does not exist except in motion. When things stop, value does not exist and things come tumbling down. (47 minutes).

Marx is trying to find a conceptual apparatus to help understand those relationships.


A commodity is an object of utility and repository of value, a thing outside us that satisfies a human want or need.

Commodities come in every shape, size etc, Marx abstracts them and isolates the two components, use value and exchange value. The use value (a commodity must be useful) comes first and always exists. This is also seen as quality.

A commodity is also the material bearer of exchange value. It is a bearer of something, not is something. This is also seen as quantity. Values of commodities seem to have no fixed relationship to each other. An intrinsic value seems something completely different. But everything is in principle exchangeable with everything else (technically this process of exchange could be never ending). So what makes it exchangeable?

  • Merchants stress the qualitative value aspect, that one can be exchanged for another. this is most obvious when seen in terms of money
  • Free trade advocates are more worried about the quantitative element; how much of one commodity can be exchanged for another (ie anything will sell if the price is right).

Use and Exchange Value

Value can only be expressed in relationship to something else, and there are two forms of exchange value, the relative form and the equivalent form. The relationship is binary and arbitrary, but a commodity can only have one aspect at any one time.

  • Relative form – the commodity whose value it is sought to express is the use value of an object. Every product of labour has a use value.
  • Exchange form – the commodity in which the value is sought to be expressed is the exchange value of an object.

(20 metres of linen as the relative form, a coat the equivalent form – 20 metres is equivalent to one coat). The difference between two objects (20 metres of linen transformed into a coat) is labour; but though labour creates value (through a process of making the commodity), it is not value until it is embodied in an object/commodity (as an outcome of the process), and you can’t see that labour in the commodity, though you get a sense of it in the price. So the commodity is the representation of the labour process that went into its creation. (A great aside here about how the metaphor is a living and extendable one – education (which is also a process) and how it can only be tested through capability in making things (essays, etc) which is a proxy/bearer/token of understanding).

Value and Labour

Value is socially necessary labour time.

So, at last, we’ve reached labour. The social character of labour appears objective (and strange) because it’s the relation of producers to labour is a social relation not between themselves, but between commodities, the products of their labour.

But though the products have value, the products of labour are not the result of homogenous labour, they change with productivity, skill, technology.

It must choose another commodity to express its own value, and when this is done, it introduces other variables, so rather than labour, might be called the “current social valuation of labour effort implicated in products”. In this sense, the expression of commodities as values is social.

Value converts products into “social hieroglyphics”.

From Commodity to Value – The First Dialectic

At this stage we have a “simple process”, starting with a commodity, which is broken into a use and exchange value, which combine back together to get us to value. But this is not causal, you can’t talk about only one of these, they work together in relationships.

So that’s my first Marxist dialectic, and with it, lots to think about.

Extra Credit: Language and Turns of Phrase

Marx  (or his translator) uses some great turns of phrase. For example, when talking about the coat as a repository of the value of labour, one translator puts it “In this aspect the coat is a depository of value, but though worn to a thread, it does not let this fact show through.”

The version in my book, below, is less poetic, but probably more truthful to the original. Ah, choices, choices…

From this point of view, the coat is a bearer of value, although this property never shows through, even when the coat is at its most threadbare.
Capital, page 143.


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