The Commodity Form in Marx's Capital Vol. 1

“And since it is not real man, nor therefore nature – man being human nature – who as such is made the subject, but only the abstraction of man – self-consciousness –"1

My aim here is to raise some additional points about the commodity form in Marx’s Capital Vol. 1.

In response to the argument that Capital can’t help us much with reaching workers and we should avoid using overly dense theory in our outreach, we say that Capital is a correction of the bourgeois ideology. The workers do have a closer, more intuitive understanding of the mode of production and the social relations in their alienated form, so that is why we need to get into it.

In 1876 Socialism Utopian & Scientific2, Engels argues that, “Hegel has freed history from metaphysics — he made it dialectic; but his conception of history was essentially idealistic.”

And in one of the prefaces to Capital, Marx says that there is no royal road to science. We are not going to find the eternal essences of things here.3

Engels also states in his personal synopsis of Capital, “The circulation of commodities is the starting point of capital.” Commodity production is capital’s historical ground but not its only condition.

How then does the commodity fetishism avoid being a metaphysical and idealist theory applicable to non-material objects? (ch1, ch2 The Poverty of Philosophy - The Metaphysics of Political Economy)

In his early 1843/1844 criticisms of Hegel, Marx argues that, “Hegel’s true interest is not the philosophy of right but logic. The philosophical task is not the embodiment of thought in determinate political realities, but the evaporation of these realities in abstract thought.” So we should apply this evaporation in abstract thought to the commodity form.

He says that, “thinghood cannot be anything but alienated self-consciousness,” which again, should apply to the commodity form in terms of its being a special form of alienated self-consciousness.

He says that, “The object is therefore something … self-annulling … this nullity of the object is precisely the self-confirmation of the non-objectivity, of the abstraction of itself … consciousness itself the nullity of the object exists only as a result of its own self-alienation….” Finally, we should see that the commodity does not embody a positive content in the world but that it is again the self-alienation of consciousness which also gives a positive content to it in terms of the non-objectivity of the abstraction (which entails alienation and not simple thinghood).

In his 1844/1847 manuscripts of that period then he argues that, “Under these economic conditions (of the product of labor being embodied in an object) this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers”, and that to give a definition of property as a determinant relation separate from the commodities in their form as value themselves is an illusion of metaphysics, so that in our familiarity of the objectified labor in the commodity in its form as value, we become alienated, and not closer to a unity in our experience.

In Ch1 of Capital Marx argues that the commodity is a use value, independent of the labour required to appropriate it. He says that the commodity first appears as a “very trivial thing, and easily understood,” but that, “it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties.” When it is a value in use though, it is not mysterious, but commonplace, either for consumption or for putting to use in labor.

Marx says that, “we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world,” and that, “This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”

And that we gain a familiarity with using commodities in their common form, in terms of buying and selling them, long before we begin to undertake a scientific study that would lead to us determining any kind of essence that might reasonable correspond with them - instead of these leading far in advance of the practice of that study.

In Ch 2 & 3 of Capital on the process of exchange and on hoarding of money, Marx argues that to each owner no commodity acts as a universal equivalent, and “the relative value of commodities possesses no general form under which they can be equated as values and have the magnitude of their values compared,” I take this to mean that commodities must be put to market to find their prices.

Each one of the commodity’s relative values could be indexed in advance, but only if it was actually at market like so, and in many but not all of these instances we find that they are. When commodities become hoarded in the form of money, we are given the visible proof that they do not possess essential unchanging values in such a totality.

In Ch7 of Capital, Marx argues that the other side to commodity production is a unity of the overall labour-process and the production of surplus-value, in its form as capitalist commodity production. This means that the commodity does not have a stable history as such but has conditioned several different modes of production.

In his final preface to Poverty of Philosophy in 1885, Engels argues that, “First, continual deviations of the prices of commodities from their values are the necessary condition in and through which the value of the commodities as such can come into existence."4

“Only through the fluctuations of competition, and consequently of commodity prices, does the law of value of commodity production assert itself and the determination of the value of the commodity by the socially necessary labour time become a reality.”

And so, we should see that competition and the flux of prices is not accidental to the commodity (in terms of its prices needing to be corrected by classical economics), but necessary and irremovable, in that they are all fixed by the law of value.

The method of understanding these changes, critique of political economy, will aid us in the higher objective of revolution.

In whatever revolutionary changes that take place, our understanding will continue to be grounded on the basis of real abstractions (that structure planned production for-use).

  1. Marx, Karl. “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General” in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. ↩︎

  2. Engels, Frederick. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. 1876. ↩︎

  3. Marx, Karl. “1872 Preface to the French Edition” in Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I. ↩︎

  4. Engels, Frederick. “Preface to the First German Edition” in The Poverty of Philosophy. 1885. ↩︎