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October 14, 2012


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Hi Jodi,

If you want a more lucid introduction to value-form theory I highly recommend Michael Heinrich's Introduction to Capital. http://monthlyreview.org/press/books/pb2884/ Unlike the Endnotes piece, Heinrich, refrains from using Hegelian, Value-form and communisation jargon which can be hard to follow. Heinrich's exposition of Marx's theory of value is particularly concise and extremely lucid.



value-form theory, or as its German variant is called, "the New Reading of Marx", isn't a political current or school of philosophy. It's a research direction in Marx philology.

The Endnotes piece, while not bad in some respects, is problematic because it's written from the perspective of some left-communists in Britain who see some affinities between value-form theory and the particular brand of post-Bordigist communism they sympathize with.

But value-form theory isn't a unified set of political positions, or a normative approach to evaluate contemporary political questions. It's a branch of academic Marx philology, the aim of which is to reconstruct as rigorously and painstakingly as possible the categories of Marx's critique of political economy, not only on the basis of the published canonical texts of traditional Marxism (what Michael Heinrich calls "worldview Marxism"), but also on the various unpublished manuscripts which have only seen the light of day in Germany as part of the MEGA edition.

Since the aim is merely to acquire as clear and rigorous an understanding of Marx's economic writings as possible, no programmatic "political" conclusions can be derived from it, which is mainly the shortcoming of the Endnotes piece, which seems to suggest that value-form theory necessarily implies the particular sort of post-Bordigist "communization" they adhere to. In fact, there is in interest in the value-form form approach ranging from the post-operaist Open Marxism school all the way to the relatively traditional Trotskyists of the British SWP.

I'd agree with theresonlyonechrisokane that the Heinrich introduction to Capital, in addition to being the best introduction to Capital there is, also gives a good taste of what the value-form approach entails. But it doesn't really have much to do with the sort of questions you raise. Reproaching it for not doing so is like accusing particle physics of not having a theory of Thomas Pynchon's novels.

Jodi Dean

Thanks for the links and the thoughts. Earlier I skimmed this piece by Heinrich:


I didn't get a sense from that piece that the discussion of the value form is irrelevant to politics, but maybe I'm wrong? In a way, it would be a relief if it's not relevant--then I wouldn't have to read it all!

From the Endnotes piece, though, as well as from the book Communisation and its Discontents, it seems to me that it is relevant--it has a lot to do with how one understands capitalism and political possibilities under capitalist conditions.

Warenform: would you say that the criticisms I make don't apply to the Endnotes article either?


I think the intent in that _Invaders from Marx_ piece is to draw a distinction between "Marxism" as a comprehensive worldview inherited from the Second and Third Internationals, and Marx's own writings as a very fragmented, discontinuous, but nonetheless insightful and relevant body of work. I suppose it's relevant to political questions inasmuch as people's politics are filtered through the interpretative matrix of traditional (or even heterodox) "Marxism."

Also, not trying to beef with you but I find this a startling admission:

"n a way, it would be a relief if it's not relevant--then I wouldn't have to read it all!"

This amounts to saying that you're not interested in Marx's critique of political economy! I think _Capital_ and its preparatory works and precursor manuscripts is still the best thing Marx ever did, certainly the most relevant, so it's odd to encounter Marxists who want to excise this aspect of his work.

As for your criticisms, inasmuch as the Endnotes folks are pushing a particular perspective, I think your criticisms are fair enough, though to be honest I'm not very familiar with the French milieu they refer to (Theorie Communiste and the like). I find the "communization" milieu as a whole a bit too teleological and fatalistic for my taste, and while it's encouraging that many of them are getting into value-form theory, I'd prefer to make a clear distinction between "communization" and "value-form theory", despite the facts that advocates of the former claim to discover some affinities in the latter.

Guy Sinqual

The other commenters are right that communization theory and value-form theory are two distinct projects, and the prospect of their merger is a complex and difficult one. They can't be considered identical.

The Heinrich book is indeed the best introduction to Marx in English. It's a fantastic book. But it does not seem to me a very good introduction to value-form theory and the debates and problems from which it arises. Though that perspective -- with both its benefits and drawbacks -- is implicit in Heinrich's treatments, it remains implicit, and someone with no exposure to it is unlikely to intuit where Heinrich departs from standard treatments of Marx. For an English language text, I'd recommend Postone (rather than Chris Arthur). Though he's not a value-form theorist proper, he draws upon that tradition, and arrives at all of the central points.

The political consequences of value-form theory are as follows: by defining what value is, it likewise defines the basis of capitalism. This clarifies what it would mean to destroy capitalism, and sheds a rather uncharitable light on both once-upon-a-time actually existing socialism and the various theories of capitalism that formed the basis for it (cf. Postone's treatment of orthodox Marxism). In other words, value-form theory changes our understanding of what it would mean to uproot capitalism by focusing on the value-form itself rather than the bourgeois class rule which accompanies it. It is on this basis that Endnotes attempts a synthesis of communization theory and value-form theory, but for a number of reasons, it's a highly tendentious synthesis.

Jodi Dean

Warenform --no, saying I don't have to read it all has nothing to do with Marx's discussion of political economy. It has to do with all these other folks' debates and discussions.

Guy -- thanks for that; it affirms my previous impression.


For what its worth I recommended the Heinrich because: (1) it is short and concise so I thought Jodi would be able to fit it in the busy work schedule she outlines and (2) it provides an excellent and concise definitions of concepts such as real abstraction and Marx's development of the value-form that are central to the value-form interpretation of Marx, which Endnotes etc draw on without really defining and discussing. I also think that Heinrich makes it clear where he is differentiating his interpretation from traditional interpretations of Marx.

If you want something shorter than Postone that covers many of the debates within value-form theory there are a few overview essays in Re-reading Marx: New Perspectives after the Critical Edition such as 'Dialectic of the commodity and its exposition: the German debate in the 1970s - a personal survey' by Roberto Fineschi and 'Reconstuction or deconstruction? Methodological controversies about value and capital, and new insights from the critical edition by​ Michael Heinrich.' Although these cover the scholarly debates not the political ones.

As for the political consequence of value-form theory I guess I would put myself somewhere between Guy and D. Ware's points by saying that whilst Guy points that value-form theory entails a certain view of what capitalism is and how to destroy it the question of this will occurs is theorized from a number of theoretical perspectives from communization, to Open Marxism, to drawing on the Rose Luxembourg.

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