Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marx

Richard Smith, Triangular 1970–1


Commentary on Michael Heinrich's book

An editorially successful book is now available in Portuguese that presents itself as a proudly analytical introduction to Karl Marx's most important work, which other scholars say is a rational, immanent and dialectical presentation of the capitalist mode of production. Its about Introduction to Capital, by Michael Heinrich, which was published in Germany in 2004 and was translated into English in the same year. Unlike the editions in these two languages, the original preferred to mention the subtitle of the work, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie: eine Einführung. This is what he already indicates that it becomes an internal criticism of the object and of the understandings that remain external to the object, that is, to the system of the capital relationship.

Michael Heinrich's book has a broad scope: if its core deals with the three volumes of The capital, he begins by explaining what capitalism is and ends by saying what should be understood by communism. Commodity fetishism and the State are included in the explanation. Even if the beginning reader does not yet know what the automatic subject is, he or she is informed that he or she lives in a class society made up largely of salaried workers and capitalists who exploit them. This is how the first chapter introduces the critique of the economic structures of modern society through a short history of the modes of production, the formation of the workers' movement and the participation of Marx and Engels in this movement.

In this book, chapter 2 is crucial: there, this student of Marx's work explains what should be understood by the object of the critique of political economy. In other words, he seeks to show what the method used in The capital. Is this work – he himself asks – a theory (logically rigorous conception) or a history (a concatenated organization of facts over time) of capitalism? It is stated that this is a theory, but it still leaves the question of what species it is. The topic seems very relevant to you, but not to be properly clarified, as it will be left in suspense after some considerations.

The main objective of this chapter is to contradict Friedrich Engels' thesis according to which the method of criticizing political economy would not be historical, but logical, since “this is, in reality, nothing other than the historical method stripped solely of its historical and of disturbing casualties” (Engels, 2008, p. 282-283). Michael Heinrich does not carefully examine – he judges – Engels' way of expressing himself and, as a result, states that it is not “an analysis of the fundamental characteristics of the history of capitalism”, but rather a “theoretical-abstract presentation of its way of functioning” (Heinrich, 2024, p. 41). So, just like that, it stops being fair to Marx's companion.

When Engels says that the “only method indicated was the logical one” – one thinks – he is not referring to the abstract and deductive method, to theory in the traditional sense as it will be said later, but to the categorical understanding of what drives this mode of production. in the course of history – an understanding that has to be taken as logical because it embraces the determined negations and, thus, the contradictions that these negations imply. This is why Michael Heinrich leaves in obscurity the fact that, for Engels, the method employed by Marx was derived from the method of Hegel's philosophy of history:

Marx was and is the only one who could dedicate himself to the work of removing from Hegelian logic the core that contains Hegel's true discoveries in this field, and of reconstituting the dialectical method stripped of its idealistic form, in simple transparency as the only exact form of development of thinking. The fact that Marx developed the method of criticizing political economy is, in our view, something that is almost as important as the fundamental materialist conception. (Engels, 2008, p. 282).

And the reason for this procedure is explicit and somewhat prosaic: at the end of this chapter, Michael Heinrich declares that his introduction will not clarify this issue, because, as he argues, dialectics, in the history of Marxism, appears only as a “ supertrump” that can “explain absolutely everything”, as “empty rhetoric” or even as a “discursive weapon” that the fighting party forces raise and launch against each other with the aim of overturning the opposing positions.

In the best of cases, it would have presented itself, in Friedrich Engels' lyrics in the Anti-Duhring, as the “science of the universal laws of movement and evolution of nature, human society and thought” (Heinrich, 2024, p. 49) – that is, according to him, as a worldview that is both trivial and very pretentious .

At the very least, it is possible to say that this strategy is dangerous even if it is based on Marx's own decision to leave the clarification of this point for a future that is always postponed. Therefore, a large part of the misunderstandings of this philosopher's work arise precisely from the misunderstandings of what the dialectic that comes from Hegel is. From the outset, it would be necessary to say that it is not to be confused with dialectics in the ancient sense in which it appears as a synonym for rhetoric or in the common sense in which it appears as a character of the interaction process, in particular, through words, that is , of discursive processes. In any case, it will be in chapter 3, entitled “value, work and money”, that the consequences of this option appear.

To begin with, it should be noted that at no point in this extract is it clear that Marx, in the first three chapters of The capital, deals with the appearance of the capitalist mode of production and what can be understood from it. And this is very important. Therefore, a central characteristic of this author's method consists of making a critical movement that goes from appearance, from the phenomenal sphere, to the essence, that is, to what appearance holds within itself and that does not appear immediately.

If Michael Heinrich remembers that Marx starts with the commodity, his own understanding of this object does not appear to be sufficient. Yes, it explains what it is. By “commodity” – he says – “we understand something that is exchanged, which in addition to its use value also has an exchange value” (Heinrich, 2024, p. 52). Now, classical economists had already taken the commodity as a duality of use value (on the one hand) and exchange value (on the other hand). Marx, however, takes the commodity as a double thing, as a duplicity, that is, as an apparent contradiction, that is, as use-value and denied use-value (not use-value). For, only assuming that the exchange value of the commodity is the negation of its use value and that it is expressed – and can only be expressed – as a quantum of another use value, can one reach the conclusion that the Exchange value is a form of manifestation of something distinct from it, value.

The key moment of this “analysis” consists in discovering that an equality of the type “banana = orange” or even “banana = x of orange” is, as an appearance, absurd and that this equality only makes sense when it is admitted that deals with the apparent form of equality of value.

In fact, it is not possible to take a step towards understanding The capital without taking into account the conceptual dialectic that comes from Hegel. And this topic is really difficult to address, especially in an introduction. Even if it produces restlessness, it is necessary to bear in mind that dialectics cannot be confused with discourses of understanding that work with fixed and, if possible, strictly delimited notions. The notions of dialectics are transformative because they aim to grasp possible transformations. They contain the explicit and the implicit, the act and the potency.

“The essential point” – says Ruy Fausto – is that “there can be no understanding of dialectics, without the movement of what is expressed (posed) and what is not expressed (presupposed)” (Fausto, 1983, p. 19). And that goes even for the first paragraph of The capital.

If Marx says there that “the wealth of societies where the capitalist mode of production reigns appears as an 'enormous collection of merchandise'” he does not do so just to say, as Michael Heinrich expresses, that “commodity is the typical form of wealth ” (Heinrich, 2024, p. 51), but to point out a crucial appearance, since wealth in capitalism – and this will only be shown later – is capital accumulated and in the process of accumulation. In fact, when taking wealth as a commodity, one falls into fetishism, as the social form is confused with the support of that form. And this mode of apprehension, said to be reified, is the quintessential form of objectivity in capitalism.

But it is in understanding the category “value” that Heinrich’s analytical method shows its greatest weakness. And here you need to follow his steps to see how he stumbles.

The being of the species appears as an individual in capitalism – he indicates –, but it is not from the “rationality of this man” that value can be explained, as bourgeois economy does from Adam Smith to León Walras, below and beyond them. To understand it, he considers, “the fundamental thing is not the reflections of individuals, but the social relationships in which they are inserted” (Heinrich, 2024, p. 57).

This is what Marx said – remember well – that society is not the sum of the individuals who inhabit it, but consists above all of the social relationships they have with each other, which even determine a good part of its characteristics. Therefore, even this rationality, even if it is based on instincts (or drives as Freud would say), is also determined – with complex mediations – by this sociability that forms a structure. Human actions, thus determined, reproduce it without knowing it and, in doing so, replace what constrains them.

Value, therefore, is configured as an unconscious result of conscious and even rational actions; behold, men produce value in the capitalist economy, but without knowing that they are doing so. Marx arrived at this result by immanently examining the commodity form and the commodity relationship (simple, unfolded and general).

Michael Heinrich, in turn, presents the following question: “since, under the conditions of commodity production, the distribution of private labor is mediated by the [process of formation of] value, what matters is knowing (…) how labor individual becomes a constitutive part of social work” (Heinrich, 2024, p. 58). The question is theoretical and it demands that we explain the relationship between concrete work and the work that Marx called abstract.

If work aimed at producing merchandise as concrete creates use value, as abstract, it “creates” value. An analytical distinction was made and it left a question: what, after all, is abstract work? Heinrich points out, then, that this is not a mental abstraction, but a real abstraction, something that occurs in the social process through people's behavior, without them knowing it.

Through this reasoning, he concludes that the real abstraction necessarily becomes a behavioral abstraction, which he calls “factual” without blushing. Therefore, he immediately infers that this abstraction occurs and can only occur in exchange, because “in exchange, the use value of commodities is abstracted and, consequently, the commodities themselves are equated as values” (Heinrich, 2024, p. 61 ). Therefore, through this “factual abstraction”, the concrete character of the works that produced the goods is abstracted, in such a way that value is formed in the sphere of circulation exclusively.

In this line of thought in which the original dialectical exposition was replaced by a logical-formal deduction, he will reproach Marx himself for having associated abstract work with the expenditure of human labor force, in a physiological sense. He would have been completely wrong because he had thus presented abstract work as a mental abstraction. “Furthermore” – he says – “this formulation suggests that abstract work has an entirely non-social basis – natural so to speak, which provoked 'naturalist' interpretations of this category” (Heinrich, 2024, p. 61).

Now, initially, it is necessary to recognize that Marx, being a materialist thinker, took the expenditure of human strength as an intrinsic and objective determination of all work – a characteristic, in fact, that mental abstraction only captures without constituting it as such.

However, it is not true that abstract work for Marx can be identified with the expenditure of human strength (as, for example, the current criticism of value thinks). This determination is only a necessary condition for real abstraction to occur in the social process. If an enigma is posed in this way, it can only be solved by returning to the original text of The capital. Having presented the value as such, what is implied in it? How is it constituted? To answer this question, obviously implicit in the text, Marx writes as an examiner of the objective thing:

Disregarding the use value of the bodies of commodities, they have only one property left: that of being products of labor. But even the product of work has already been transformed (…). With [the abstraction of] the useful character of the products of labor the useful character of the works represented in them disappears and, therefore, also the different concrete forms of these works, which are no longer distinguished from each other, being all reduced to equal human work, to abstract human labor. (Marx, 2023, p. 98-99).

Interpreting: as all work is an expenditure of human labor power, as this is an objective and generic property of all work, especially that which produces merchandise, the social process of the mercantile economy as a whole, that is, production and circulation, can reduce concrete work to the abstract. And this reduction is not a generalization, even though it depends on a generality: it is nothing more and nothing less than a measurement operation.

Here it must be said that every measurement consists of a reduction operation. In this case, the one who sets the measure is not an individual as a thinking and acting being, but the economic system that binds individuals to itself and makes them work properly. That is why this measure already takes place at the production level – and not just in circulation.

This book reviewed here is considered easy to read. Given the content of its object – which requires arduous study that never seems to end –, this should not be considered a commendable characteristic. Michael Heinrich is a scholar of Marx's work who has a fair international reputation as he develops precious work that aims to keep the work of one of the greatest philosophers of all time alive.

It is unavoidable as a source of critical understanding in the face of capitalism, a social system founded on alienation and which has always denied philosophy, but which has now become suicidal. However, given the argument presented, this reviewer, with embarrassment, does not feel able to recommend Heinrich's book as a good introduction to The capital.

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of From the logic of the critique of political economy (anti-capital fights).

Originally published on pink magazine, No. 9.


Michael Heinrich. Introduction to Capital by Karl Marx. Translation: César Mortari Barreira. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2024, 240 pages. []


Fausto, Ruy. Marx: logic and politics. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1983.

Marx, Carl. Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2008.

Marx, Carl. Capital – Critique of Political Economy. Book I. Trans. Rubens Enderle. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2023,

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