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Suzanne de Brunhoff, Marx on Money

by Joe Collins on July 12, 2016
Past & Present

In the preface to the 1872 French edition of the first volume of Capital, Marx warned those readers who zealously seek the truth that ‘there is no royal road to science and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits’. In 1973, Suzanne de Brunhoff demonstrated her resolve to scale the peaks of Marx’s monetary theory by publishing La Monnaie Chez Marx, published in 1976 in English as Marx on Money. Suzanne de Brunhoff’s passing in 2015 prompted Verso to commission a commemorative reprint of this seminal tome and it gave the Past & Present Reading Group cause for reflection on her important contribution to the discourse of historical materialism.

BrunhoffMarx on Money is deceptively short. At 140 pages in length, the book appears as a concise exegesis of, well, Marx on money. Upon closer reading, de Brunhoff reveals a rich tapestry of insights and points of contention embedded within the elaboration of money across Marx’s mature writings. Our discussions raised discoveries and controversies as what seemed to warrant little more than close attention betrayed inadequacies in approaches to class analysis and illuminated hitherto hazy expositions of modern finance. The short reflection that follows gives a flavour of Marx on Money, issues that arose within the group discussion and the exciting prospect, offered up by Marx through de Brunhoff, of post-capitalist money. Brevity precludes detailed summary but excellent offerings may be found elsewhere.

Marx on Money is an essay comprised of two parts. Part A elaborates Marx’s general theory of money and Part B explores the manifestation of that general phenomenon within the capitalist mode of production. This arrangement, as de Brunhoff notes, may seem odd to those who associate Marx’s method with historical specificity. A general theory of money, devoid of historical context, first appears as anti-Marxist. Marx sought, according to de Brunhoff, to explain the economic existence of money rather than merely its form in a particular place and time. A general theory of money must first be constructed so that a monetary theory of credit in capitalism can emerge. The monetary theory of credit rather than a theory of credit money is the hook upon which this book must be hung. The latter is folly and the former is the only approach capable of transcending wrong thinking and of informing appropriate political practice.

The general theory of money presented by Marx in Capital stands, as de Brunhoff makes irrefragably clear, against the quantity theory of money and is therefore counter to Keynes and other bourgeois economists. Money does not determine the flow of commodities but the reverse is also untrue. Marx’s theory of money sought to understand the inner relation between money and commodities, not to determine fixed causal influence. Duncan Foley makes the point in the preface that Marx’s monetary theory would not really be helpful to those aiming to construct policy. Indeed! The point of understanding the inner logic of the capitalist mode of production is, for Marx, to transcend this stage of human social evolution, not to ensure the capitalist state has more effective control over monetary policy. Foley ends his preface by reminding readers that those involved in political struggle on the side of the working class are weakened by reliance on monetary analysis drawn from Keynes and other bourgeois thinkers; a historical materialist monetary theory is essential.

_t.jpgPolitical struggle on the side of a particular class is an oft-quoted mantra but how clear is the notion of class? If money, as de Brunhoff and Marx suggest, is a social relation, how then are we to characterise the personifications of capital? How does one operationalise such categories in analysis? Perhaps the answer arises in the question. Raewyn Connell remarked in Ruling Class, Ruling Culture that approaches to class analysis could be usefully distinguished as either categorical or generative. Weber categorised people into classes by taking static snapshots and positioning individuals according to certain indicators like income, occupation and education. This type of analysis is familiar to anyone who reads a newspaper. Marx, on the other hand, could muster no more than 5 paragraphs on class in volume 3 of Capital by the time he died because he considered it more important to explain the dynamics of the vast and complex mode of production that generated classes. Class, just as money, is a dynamic social relation. What makes a capitalist becomes what makes capital?

Production of commodities requires money and the system of financing production born of capitalism, the credit system, remains, as de Brunhoff claims, ‘a bastard’. Credit, as Marx makes clear, will be a great lever in the transition from capitalism to a mode of production of associated labour. In post-capitalist society, capitalist credit, or interest-bearing capital, will serve no social function and therefore be meaningless. The production of commodities on a scale beyond bare subsistence, however, requires a monetary system. This means that if and when humanity is able to transcend the capitalist mode of production, some consideration must be given to how production is financed and facilitated through a monetary system. How indeed? This is just one reason Marx on Money is essential reading. Challenged, as we are, in 2016 with the existential threat of climate change, while ructions of the GFC continue to displace their effects across the global economy and as political structures of the past and present deteriorate, often spectacularly, the question of how we move on to generate new societies free of such contradictions is a pressing one.

Suzanne de Brunhoff asked over 40 years ago if we had the right to ‘write’ Capital while pretending to read it. Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of volume 1 of Capital. In this sense, that book has already been written and no one has the right to ‘rewrite’ Capital. Given the challenges we as humanity face, not only do those who seek to transcend this mode of production have the right to continue writing Marx’s revolutionary work, it is our most pressing obligation.

Joe Collins
Joe Collins is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney and completed his PhD at Western Sydney University in 2016. His research offers a historical materialist critique of mineral-rent theory grounded in the historical development of the minerals industry and landed property in Australia.

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