A Companion to Marx’s Capital

Reviewed by Matthew

David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (London: Verso, 2010)

For a Marxist, geographer David Harvey has a remarkably entrepreneurial spirit. The Great Recession has revitalized interest in Marxian thinking, with reports that sales of Capital Vol. 1 spiked as economic contraction spread and deepened across the globe. Foreign Policy magazine went so far as to publish a piece by Leo Panitch, a respected Canadian Marxist. So the demand was there.

Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, geared primarily toward first-time readers of Vol. 1, is a useful and perhaps necessary compass for navigating Marx’s immensely rich but sometimes bewildering text. The Companion may likewise provide insights for seasoned readers (of Harvey as well as Marx). In this respect, Harvey has struck an effective balance between the theoretical rigour of Limits to Capital (1982) and his more conversational tone in works such as the The Enigma of Capital (2010) or A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2007). The wide appeal of the Companion reflects Harvey’s intellectual trajectory. Having lectured on Capital for nearly 40 years, he draws a wide audience of students, scholars and activists. A series of these introductory lectures has been posted as a free online audiovisual course (www.davidharvey.org). The Companion is, for the most part, a transcription of these lectures.

It is worth noting that the Companion is merely the beginning of what Harvey calls his “Marx project.” Coordinators of the project are currently set to post similar audiovisual materials for Vols. 2 and 3 of Capital. All 13 of Harvey’s audio lectures on Vol. 1 can be uploaded to MP3 players or burned onto CD for easy listening. Video formats can be downloaded or streamed in real time. So it is little wonder that reading groups of Marx—intellectual pockets of resistance—are sprouting up all over the place. The next series of lectures will likely be translated into several languages.

On a purely functional level, the Companion and its audiovisual counterparts serve as excellent tools for individual readers, reading groups, seminars and lectures about Marx’s magnum opus. One could effectively read Capital with the Companion as a supplement during one intensive academic semester. It should be noted, however, that Harvey’s chapter-divisions do not precisely match those of Capital.

Moving to the content itself, the Companion provides a remarkably clear reading of Capital. The substance is never dull and rarely oversimplified. The goal is twofold: first, to provide students and activists with a “strong theoretical base” from which to launch their “practical engagements”; and second, to have readers “construct interpretations that are maximally meaningful and useful to them in the particular circumstances of their lives.” Harvey facilitates this process by introducing Capital “on Marx’s own terms” (1). That said, he also makes clear that he is presenting his “own distinctive point of view” of the text, and of the world more generally (viii). The Companion therefore is partly a guide, but partly also a piece of analytical work.

As a guide, it conveys the basic principles of Marxian dialectics and the manner in which Capital as a text—and capital as a process—continually expands through its inherent contradictions and interconnections. Harvey proves particularly helpful in navigating this complex process, beginning with the distinction between use value and exchange value and finally arriving – after 344 pages of Capital – at class struggle. Harvey’s acute attention to detail early in the book helps instill in readers a close and critical reading method. Aside from the useful diagrams provided in the Companion, there are frequent explanatory pauses, timely digressions, and insightful contemporary allusions.  One could say that while Marx is painfully digging toward the root of the problem, Harvey is serving as an assistant practitioner, easing an otherwise painful reading effort.

As a piece of analytical work, the Companion is most compelling when Harvey applies classical Marxist theory to contemporary circumstances, as when he cites investment guru George Soros to explain the limitless potential for capital accumulation. Such links help make Capital relevant and understandable to present-day readers. Harvey also relays a sense of intellectual exuberance throughout, which turns a potentially grueling experience into a pleasure for the novice reader. His radicalism is wonderfully provocative. In a period of political and economic uncertainty, it is refreshing to hear the Universal Declaration of Human Rights called “a foundational document for a bourgeois, market-based individualism” (49). Harvey does not shy away from suggesting that readers are “kidding themselves” if they think global warming can be curbed “without actually confronting the question of by whom and how the foundational value structure of our society is being determined” (21). He seeks to challenge the reader’s basic understanding of the world, and he does a good job.

Still there is a danger of blurring the classical text with Harvey’s own unique analysis. This is only problematic insofar as it seems necessary to provide a clear distinction between the two, particularly for introductory readers. For example, Harvey offers a fascinating digression based upon a footnote in Chapter 14 of Capital. The footnote captures Marx’s dialectical method of thinking, but Harvey builds upon the note to develop a fairly unique theoretical apparatus in which various “moments” of the accumulation process interact (193-96). This serves as a central theoretical framework for Harvey’s latest publication, The Enigma of Capital (2010). Based on this framework, Harvey remarks,

Perhaps one of the biggest failures of the conscious attempt to build socialism and communism on the basis of capitalism was the failure to recognize the need to engage politically across all these moments in a way that was sensitive to geographical specificities (196).

Regardless of the validity of this perspective, this compelling theoretical digression adopts elements of Capital and pulls them onto fairly new theoretical and geographical terrain. This is Harvey writing, not Marx, yet it is not uncommon for members of reading groups to oscillate between quoting Harvey and Marx as if they were the same person. This is simply not the case. The real challenge then becomes shaking off Harvey’s reading of Marx, or at least attempting to distinguish between the classical ideas of Marx and the more recent contributions that Harvey provides. Readers should therefore read both Capital and the Companion from a critical perspective, rather than passively accepting Harvey’s reading. This is what Harvey tries to allow for, but responsibility ultimately rests with readers.

Readers may combine the reading of Harvey with the reading of Marx in any number of ways, each with its advantages and drawbacks. Harvey provides a strong foundation for reading Capital—particularly in the crucial opening chapters—but one should not rely too heavily on Harvey’s particular interpretation. Alternatively, one could abandon independent analysis altogether in favour of immediately applying Harvey’s work to practical ends. In light of the Great Recession and its overwhelming social and human fallout, the latter course has its appeal. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

As it stands, the Companion serves as a rich and timely contribution to critical scholarship. Harvey’s radical interpretation of the world will be of great interest for scholars and activists who strive for a fundamentally new society.

Matthew Brett M.A. Political Science Concordia University, Montréal, Québec brett.matthew@yahoo.ca