Joel Wainwright, Rethinking Marxism. A journal of economics, culture and society

Review of Marx’s “Capital” after 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism,

The sesquicentennial of the publication of Marx’s first volume of Capital generat- ed renewed interest in his masterwork and resulted in the publication of numer- ous reassessments.

Musto’s (2019) edited volume offers a major contribution to this literature. It was born out of a conference with the same title, organized by Musto and hosted at York University in Toronto in May 2017. Drawing thirty speakers from ten countries, the present collection includes essays from roughly half of the conference presenters. The contributors are Kevin Anderson, Étienne Balibar, Himani Bannerji, Pietro Basso, Mauro Buccheri, Silvia Federici, John Bellamy Foster, Alfonso Iacono, Bob Jessop, Marcello Musto, Bertell Ollman, Leo Panitch, Moishe Postone, William Clare Roberts, Kohei Saito, Gary Teeple, and Richard Wolff. Musto deserves our thanks for encouraging these dis- tinguished scholars to contribute chapters and for curating the collection.

As with most edited volumes, the contributions are uneven in quality and top- icality. But most chapters are genuinely excellent, contributing a thematic reading of Capital, typically in the area of the author’s expertise. So, for instance, the chapter by Silvia Federici discusses wage labor and social reproduction in Capital; John Bellamy Foster summarizes Capital’s ecological critique; Moishe Postone draws on value theory to expose the roots of our current crisis; Richard Wolff offers an exposition on the theory of class in Capital; and so on. Herein lies the volume’s chief strength: it provides concise and relatively accessible intro- ductions to many of Capital’s key themes, written by Marxist scholars who have published specialized volumes on these matters.

Paradoxically, this is also the collection’s major limitation. Seven of the chap- ters are largely unoriginal, by my count, insofar as earlier (and more substantial) treatments of the same arguments have been published by the same authors. There is certainly virtue in publishing these chapters in a volume of this sort; they provide readers with a useful compendium of statements on Capital by im- portant scholars. But for those readers who are already familiar with these writers and their interpretations of Capital, these chapters offer little that is new. Rather than dwelling on these, I will offer brief remarks on two of the book’s most novel and interesting chapters.

Chapter 3, the book’s longest, presents Bob Jessop’s study of Marx’s use of the metaphor of the cell in Capital. A masterful exegesis, Jessop shows how analysis of capitalist social formations was deeply marked by Marx’s study of breakthroughs in cell biology during the 1850s. Jessop asks, why did Marx begin Capital with the commodity? This marks a clear shift from his early notebooks—including those that comprise the Grundrisse of 1857—which began the analysis of capital via money. To answer this question, Jessop examines Marx’s preparatory texts and statements on method (those written before and after Capital) to discern the timing and cause of the shift. Jessop shows that Marx’s study of cell theory between 1857 and 1867 led him to generate—consciously or not—a parallel theory concerning capitalism. To summarize briefly (see Jessop 2019, 66–71): just as all bodies are comprised of cells, the social body of capitalist society is consti- tuted from complex arrangements of the value form, of which the elementary form is the commodity. These commodities are both independent entities and also shaped by the whole of capitalist society, which presents itself as an “immense collection of commodities” (Marx [1867] 1976, 125). Just as cells arise from other cells, commodities are produced from other commodities. Cells persist through a lifetime of metabolic exchanges, which can be modified through cellular differentiation and can form organs and organisms; similarly, as the “cell form” (Zellenform) of capitalist society, commodities result from pro- duction and also modify the circumstances of future production. Under capital- ism, the whole social metabolism that defines human existence on Earth comes to be reorganized by the production and circulation of value through the use of the labor-power commodity. I could go on, but Jessop’s philological treatment of cell theory in Capital is both rigorous and critical, emphasizing the need to avoid naturalizing capital. As Jessop (2019, 74–5) notes: “Whereas cells are the uni- versal basis of organic life and operate through known universal chemical, phys- iological, and metabolic processes, the value form of the commodity as the economic cell-form of the capital relation is historically specific and its laws and tendencies are doubly tendential, in the sense that, they exist only to the extent that the contradiction-rife and crisis-prone capital relation is reproduced in and through social practices that are historically contingent and contested.” Marx’s use of cell theory to explain capitalism was methodological and metaphor- ical, not ontological.

In chapter 9, Kohei Saito reexamines the intellectual relationship between Marx and Engels from an ecological perspective. Since Marx never published any books or pamphlets on nature, after his death Marxists turned to Engels’s writings—particularly his Anti-Dühring (Engels [1878] 1987) and his later manu- scripts in Dialectics of Nature (Engels [1873–1882] 1987)—to interpret ecology. This led to a narrow interpretation of Western Marxism that now “cannot develop a Marxist critique of ecology unless it admits its own earlier one-sided interpreta- tion” (Saito 2019, 167). By focusing on Marx’s later scientific notebooks, Saito cla- rifies Marx’s and Engels’s significant differences regarding their interests in science and views of ecology. Saito provides a powerful interpretation of a change Engels made to a sentence about metabolism written by Marx for the third volume of Capital. This edit consequently emphasizes Engels’s conception of metabolic rift (i.e., “the violation of natural laws of life would lead to a fatal con- sequence for human civilization”) at the expense of “Marx’s metabolic theory, which investigates how the law of value dominant in the social metabolism mod- ifies natural metabolism” (173). Saito implies that this editorial shift was partly mo- tivated by Engels’s rejection of Liebig’s conception of metabolism, Marx’s key source for this concept. More fundamentally, Engels’s ontology emphasizes the in- dependence of nature. Thus, he “was not able to fully recognize that Marx’s the- oretical leap” concerned “the interdependent process between social and natural metabolism,” which explains “how the metabolism between humans and nature is modified and reorganized through the formal and real subsumption of labour under capital” (174). By implication, Marx’s conception of the natural history of the economic forms of society—his stated method in Capital’s preface—was not the same as Engels’s.

Notably, both of these chapters address ecological themes. After decades in which no books about capital and nature won the Deutscher Memorial Prize, three recent winners examine this relation: Andreas Malm’s (2016) Fossil Capital, Kohei Saito’s (2017) Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, and John Bellamy Foster’s (2020) The Return of Nature. I do not think this reflects a fad. It rather indicates a renais- sance of original research built upon the foundation of Capital. Indeed, I believe that we will one day find in retrospect that much of the most original work in the Marxist tradition today responds to the planetary ecological crisis. Novel thought requires provocation.

Our planetary crisis, generated through the development of capitalist social re- lations, promises ever-greater disruptions and changes in the human relationship with the Earth. I am reminded of the passage from the conclusion of Marx’s ([1867] 1976, 637–8) chapter on machinery, where he notes that the urbanization of hu- manity both concentrates our social capacities yet also “disturbs the metabolic in- teraction between man and the earth … but by destroying the circumstances surrounding that metabolism, which originated in a merely natural and spontane- ous fashion, [capitalist society] compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race.” To avoid the total destruction of this metabolism, to refashion social existence in a form adequate to social dignity, the analysis provided by Capital remains critical. We are therefore indebted to Musto and this collection of writers for opening new paths through Marx’s text.



Engels, F. (1878) 1987. Anti-Dühring. In vol. 25 of Collected Works, by K. Marx and F. Engels. New York: International Publishers.

Engels, F. (1873–1882) 1987. Dialectics of Nature. In vol. 25 of Collected Works, by K. Marx and Engels. New York: International Publishers.

Foster, J. B. 2020. The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology. New York: Monthly Review.

Jessop, B. 2019. “‘Every Beginning Is Difficult, Holds in All Sciences’: Marx on the Economic Cell Form of Capital and the Analysis of Capitalist Social Formations.” In Marx’s “Capital” After 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, ed. M. Musto, 54–82. New York: Routledge.

Malm, A. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. New York: Verso.

Marx, K. (1867) 1976. Capital. Vol. 1. New York: Penguin.

Musto, M. 2019. Marx’s “Capital” After 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism.

New York: Routledge.

Saito, K. 2017. Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. New York: Monthly Review.

Saito, K. 2019. “Marx and Engels: The Intellectual Relationship Revisited from an Ecological Perspective.” In Marx’s “Capital” After 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism, ed. M. Musto, 167–83. New York: Routledge.

Published in:

Rethinking Marxism. A journal of economics, culture and society

Date Published

22 March, 2021


Joel Wainwright