Pilling’s Marx’s ‘Capital’: philosophy, dialectics, political economy

Posted: October 11, 2013 by Admin in Books, capitalist crisis, Capitalist ideology, Commodification, Economics, Marxism, Philosophy and dialectics
Geoff Pilling, 1940-1997

Geoff Pilling, 1940-1997

One of our long-term plans at Redline has been to run reviews of important books dealing with fundamentals of Marxist theory.  The review below looks at Geoff Pilling, Marx’s ‘Capital’: philosophy and political economy, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.  Geoff’s book is out of print apart from an incredibly expensive hardback published as part of Routledge’s Revival series; however, it is also on-line now at the Marxist Internet Archive: http://www.marxists.org/archive/pilling/works/capital/.  The review below was first written in 1981.

by Tony Norfield

Geoff Pilling’s book is a refreshing change from the usual rubbish presented under similar titles.  Its discussion of Marx’s method brings out both the strength of the Marxist approach and the facile character of revisionist criticisms.  Pilling acknowledges his debts to Rosdolsky’s The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Rubin’s Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value.

He gives us a systematic treatment of Marx’s differences with classical political economy, showing how Marx rejected not merely the conclusions of the classical theory but, more importantly, transcended the method which led to those conclusions.  For example, whereas Marx worked out how the law of value governed the various phenomena of the capitalist economy by analysing the way in which the law had to operate in a modified form, David Ricardo, the last and greatest of the classical economists, could only refer to a series of ‘exceptions’ to the law when confronted with reality.  Pilling notes:

“Ricardo’s false understanding of the relationship between value and price for instance  (the transformation of values into prices) arose from the fact that the immediate, day-to-day expressions of bourgeois production relations (in this case prices) were allowed to stand in the way of his presentation of the law of value” (p22).

Pilling goes beyond the standard criticisms of the classical economists – that their understanding was “ahistorical” – to examine the crucial philosophical differences with Marxism.  He deals with the shortcomings of empiricism and the relationship between dialectics and formal logic in an admirably lucid manner.  At the same time he takes to task the modern-day followers of Ricardo and Adam Smith.

In a chapter on the concepts employed by Marx, Pilling brings out how each one – use-value, value, capital and so on – has a definite historical character.  Marx derived these concepts from a thorough inquiry into the mass of data available to him.  After analysing the different forms of development and tracing their ‘inner connection’ Marx was able to grasp the laws of motion of capitalism.  That is why, over a century later, Marx’s theory retains such force.

Pilling does a useful job in explaining the significance of the opening chapters of volume one of Capital which many find so difficult.  But the difficulties do not excuse theorists, like the revisionist Louis Althusser, who consider Marx a Hegelian obscurantist in the chapters on commodities and money.  The elementary concepts Marx discussed there are vital for the later analysis that vulgar commentators fasten upon.  As Pilling puts it, Marx

“”reveals throughout the whole of Capital how the contradiction of the commodity form unfolds, intensifies and dominates every aspect of bourgeois society.  The contradictions of the commodity are never left behind. . .  This basic contradiction (use-value, value) continually reappears in newer and higher forms which grow out of the lower forms as part of an uninterrupted process.  It is through the development of these forms that development in the sphere of the economy takes place” (p137).

Marx could never have gone on to develop the concept of labour-power, and hence capital, without his analysis of the commodity contained in chapter one.  And the use-value/value distinction pervades the rest of Capital, in Marx’s discussion of productivity, the organic composition of capital, social reproduction, etc.  In fact, the very aim of the work, to reveal how the specific social form of organising production – capitalism – determines the development of society, would have been impossible without the first chapter of Capital.

Pilling draws out similar points in a chapter on Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.  This concept characterised the relations between commodity producers – relations that are not expressed directly, as social relations, but only indirectly through the exchange of their products on the market.  Thus social relations between producers are expressed as relations between things: relations determined outside of the control of the producers, but controlled by the law of value.

He demonstrates that Marx follows through this basic feature of commodity production in his treatment of the more developed relations of capitalism.  As the social power of capital grows, the means of production come to dominate their producers, the working class.  In a crisis the resulting oppression of the working class becomes clear.  Marxism shows that the overthrow of capitalist social relations is a precondition for overcoming the crisis in the interests of the workers.

These are the great strengths of Pilling’s book.  But it does deserve some criticism.  Although its aim is to examine the underlying concepts of Marx’s Capital, the book would have been strengthened by considering the development of Marx’s theory in relation to today’s crisis.*  Pilling himself recognises that Marxists have to go beyond Marx and analyse the development of contemporary capitalism.  But his failure to do this leads to certain theoretical problems.

An example is the question of ‘finance capital’, a concept developed by Hilferding and Lenin to denote the ‘coalescence’ of banking and industrial capital in the imperialist epoch.  Pilling misuses the term, confusing financial (or banking) capital with finance capital (pp95, 185).  The latter refers to the relationship between the two functions of capital, not just one-sidedly to the banks.  Although Lenin emphasised the control of industry by the banks, it is clear that the development of the credit system has led industrial companies also to perform certain banking operations.  This is an important reminder that we need to study capitalist development now to generate the concepts adequate for understanding it.

* Tony is referring here to the crisis conditions that followed the collapse of the long postwar boom.

Further reading: See Karl Korsch’s introduction to the 1932 edition of Capital, here, and Tom O’Lincoln’s 4,000 words on Capital, here.


  1. Ralph says:

    Thanks for posting reference to this review of Geoff Pilling’s “Marx’s Capital: philosophy and political economy”, which led me to begin reading Pilling’s work, online in the MIA library. Based not only on a close reading of Marx but also on the analyses of Rubin and Rosdolsky, this study so far looks to be a real help in understanding Marx’s method.

    All the best,
    Ralph Johansen

  2. PhilF says:

    I read Tony’s review in the late 80s or early 90s and finally got round to reading Geoff P’s book about 1994 or ’95. I found it fascinating. Few people consider the way Marx used dialectics in developing his critique of political economy and in constructing ‘Capital’, yet ‘Capital’ is absolutely permeated with the dialectical method.


    • oshay says:

      From personal experience, I could not of got through ‘Capital’ without first reading Bertell Ollman’s, ‘Dance of the Dialectic’. Dialectics is crucial to both understanding Marxian economics and Marxism in general, without it one mostly falls into either economic determinism or moral arguments against Capitalism. Strangely enough I’ve meet many leftists clutching onto both; moral outrage against Capitalism combined with the belief that the final crisis is just around the corner. Not surprising although they use the language of Marxian economics in their moral outrage, their actual understanding of it is more often then not way off track.

  3. PhilF says:

    I’ve said a few times that in New Zealand there are no people more hostile to Marxism than many ostensible ‘Marxists’. The left in NZ, including much of the far-left, subsists on a diet of moral outrage. When you bring up Marxism to such ‘Marxists’, they get all annoyed and denounce you as ‘sectarian’ or ‘ultraleft’ or ‘intellectual’ or, horror of horrors, ‘too critical’.

    Moral outrage is a good starting point. And you need to maintain a sense of it, for the long haul. But by itself it’s nowhere near enough. People who don’t develop beyond moral outrage often don’t last all that long or, if they do, often they tend to turn into cranks. People need a thorough understanding of the workings of capitalism to keep going over the long haul; moral outrage wears itself out so, if that’s the only, or dominant, motivating factor, the bearers of it get worn out fairly soon. Moral outrage as moral outrage also uses up a lot of energy, usually not very productively either.

    And, of course, what passes for Marxian economics on the far-left in NZ is a source of endless wonder, and sometimes humour. It’s frequently some kind of Keynesianism married to moral outrage and maybe some militant tactics. And, if you question it, the moral outrage gets directed at you pretty quickly, because that’s the only ‘defence’ such people have.

    We desperately need a new left in this country.