Why Should Anyone Bother Reading Capital: Volume II?

I’m finishing up my read through of Capital: Volume II, and thought I would provide a short list of what valuable insights I think it offers the reader.  David Fernbach, who provided the translation for the popular Penguin Classics edition of the volume, notes that

Volumes 2 and 3 follow much more in the wake of the less purple passages of Volume 1.  Their content is to a far greater extent technical, even dry; and Volume 2, above all, is renowed for the arid deserts between its oases.  From the scientific point of view, this is all quite contingent; but it has caused many a non-specialist to turn back in defeat.

Because Volume II can be such a slog at times, most people choose to skip reading it, and it is certainly fortunate that David Harvey and his students have provided us with a free lecture series to help make things a bit more lively.  There is some talk that he will publish a companion volume summarizing his lectures, as he did for Volume I.

In any case, here is my list of what I thought the “oases” of insight were in Volume II.

-It examines in much greater detail than Volume I the question of “What is capital?” and therefore also the question of “What is capitalism?”  The examination of the various circuits of capital allows Marx to do this.

-By examining the various circuits of capital, Volume II does much more to highlight the contradiction between use value and exchange value that was first introduced in Chapter  1 of Volume I in the discussion of the commodity.  Marx does this by examining the specificity of the various forms of capital, and how the points of their transformation at various stages of circulation provide the possibility for crisis.

-Although it does not examine its functioning in much detail, Volume II also highlights the vital importance of the credit system to the reproduction and expansion of the capitalist system by describing the points in circulation where credit plays an important role.  In doing so it provides some ideas for those who would like to reform or revolutionize that system.

Volume II also reveals the importance of temporality and continuity to capitalist production, particularly in its discussion of turnover times.  This should be of considerable interest to anyone studying the geography or history of capitalism.

-It also shows how “moral depreciation” can create crisis conditions if technology is being revolutionized too quickly.

Volume II describes the contradiction between production and consumption under capitalism.  While Marx only notes this important contradiction in passing, his comments are of considerable interest.

-This volume also contains some of Marx’s clearest descriptions of his ideas about economic planning under socialism.  His ideas here formed the basis for some of the efforts in the USSR at establishing a planned economy.

Volume II (through its reproduction schemas) is also arguably the major point of departure of the macroeconomic analysis of capitalism.  While Keynes claimed to have never read it, he was influenced by economists who drew directly from it, including the famous Michal Kalecki.

If any of these points pique your interest, you may want to head off into the desert of Capital: Volume II and go searching for its oases.

EDIT: While I did not originally mention this, Harvey’s reading of Capital should be taken with a grain of salt. I still recommend his video lectures for lack of a better alternative, but readers would be well advised to heed criticisms such as those found here on Michael Roberts’ blog.



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5 responses to “Why Should Anyone Bother Reading Capital: Volume II?

  1. Cameron

    Regarding David Harvey’s video on Capital volume II. You might want to read this post by Michael Roberts “David Harvey, Marx’s method and the enigma of surplus”

    It might change your mind.


    • I am a regular reader of Roberts’ blog but I hadn’t read that poat before. Thank you for pointing it out. I still maintain that for lack of a better alternative Harvey’s lectures are a good way to keep up the reader’s motivation to finish Volume iI. Of course there are numerous caveats that ought to go with that statement. If Roberts did a video lecture series on Volume II I would be happy to recommend it.

  2. Cameron

    I really do appreciate what you’re trying to do. Marxist political economy is not an easy thing to learn. When I read the first volume for the second time I realized how I had completely missed some very important concepts and I bet if I live long enough to read it again I’ll find more stuff that I had missed and concepts that I had misunderstood. But it’s worth it because I feel empowered.
    Yes it would be nice to have accompanying videos to help along. If you agree with Roberts then it would be useful to provide the link to Roberts’ post when recommending Harvey’s videos.

  3. Kyle and Cameron, I appreciate your insights. Thanks.

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