Sunday, August 21, 2016

A new translation of Marx's "Capital" (1980)

Book Review from the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1976 Penguin published a new translation of Volume I of Marx’s Capital. In his preface the translator, Ben Fowkes, gives two reasons why he feels a new translation was necessary. First, that the English language has changed since the first English edition, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling under the supervision of Engels, was published in 1887. Secondly that, with the increased knowledge of Marx’s ideas since 1887, there is no longer any need to shield the reader from some of the more difficult passages which Marx left out, for instance, in the French edition. These, says Fowkes, can be restored despite their difficulty.

On the first point Fowkes is undoubtedly right. Today, nearly a hundred years later, the Moore-Aveling translation has become, due to changes in English usage, a bit stilted. The reader’s concentration on the particular point Marx is trying to make is made more difficult by having at the same time to transform certain old-fashioned phrases into their modern equivalents. But the ideas expressed by Marx in Capital ought to be available in as readable a form as possible since they provide a clear explanation of how the working class are exploited under capitalism and of how capitalism can only work to their detriment. Every class-conscious worker should have a go at reading Capital and may be pleasantly surprised to find that the economic theory alternates with historical accounts of the past sufferings and struggles of the working class in Britain. And the ideas expressed in Capital are of course also the basis of the economic analyses made in the columns of this journal.

Judged by this standard of making Capital easier to read, Fowkes’ translation by and large succeeds. To give an example of the sort of changes made, we can mention that the words productiveness and labourer have been replaced, in accordance with modern usage, by productivity and worker. In addition. Capital’s subtitle is translated as “A Critique of Political Economy” (instead of as “A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production”), so making it quite clear that Marx was not simply criticising capitalism but also the categories used by economic theory generally.

However, there is one change of Fowkes’ which works in the opposite direction, making understanding more difficult. A key word used by Marx is the verb verwerten and its noun Verwertung. These are everyday German words which mean literally something like “putting to good/profitable/valuable use”. Marx uses them in a special sense, in relation to “value” and “capital”, to mean the use of value or capital in such a way that their size is increased-hence a good or profitable or valuable use. Moore, Aveling and Engels chose to translate Verwertung as “expansion”, “increase” and “augmentation”, so that their English translation speaks of “the expansion of value”, the “self-expansion of capital”, and so on.

Fowkes introduces a new word to translate Marx here: valorisation (and, for the verb, valorise). While not denying that it is sometimes necessary to introduce a new word to refer to a new concept, is it really necessary in this case? Valorisation is not an entirely new word since it does already figure in dictionaries; according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary it means “raise or stabilise the value of (a commodity, etc.) by government action”—hardly what Marx meant! But valorisation, in Fowkes’ sense, is a new word, the working out of whose meaning is only going to make the reading and understanding of Capital more, not less, difficult.

It is also a pity that Penguin did not let Marx speak for himself and considered it necessary to add an 80-page introduction by Ernest Mandel. Certainly, Mandel has a knowledge of some aspects of Marxian economics but, as a Trotskyist, he is quite unqualified to write an introduction to Capital. For instance, he refers to Russia, East Europe, China, North Vietnam, North Korca(!) and Cuba as “societies in which the rule of capital has already been overthrown” (p. 16). Really? Are we supposed to accept, then, that wealth in these countries does not “appear as an immense collection of commodities” as Marx says in the very first line of Capital is the case in “societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails”? Again, Mandel talks of capitalism as being characterised by “production for private profit” (p. 11). So, production for state profit what might be called the self-expansion of state capital—as in Russia, apparently isn’t capitalism! Then, to cap it all, we are told that the working class needs a “revolutionary leadership” (p. 84)—doubtless Mandel and his Trotskyist supporters in the New Left Review who prepared this new translation for Penguin.

If all this is the price we have to pay for not having to buy editions of Capital from state capitalist Russia then it is almost too high.
Adam Buick

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