Marx’s definitions

             Chary though Marx was of definitions, he does define a good many terms. Such terms have usually been italicised where the definition occurs, and a list of them will be found under the caption ‘Definitions’ in the Index. Judge the usefulness of these extracts in light of the passages gathered under ‘Against Definitions’ which follow.

 The left-hand numbers refer to pages in the Everyman edition and those to the right to the Penguin. The quotations are from the former.

 Absolute surplus value,        328           432

I give the name of absolute surplus value to surplus value produced by a prolongation of the working day. [cf Relative surplus value]

Accumulation of Capital,      636           725

The use of surplus value as capital, or the reconversion of surplus value into capital, is termed the accumulation of capital.

Capitalist,                                 138            254

It is as the conscious representative of this movement that the owner of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which money sets out and the point to which it returns. The objective purpose of this circulation, the expansion of value, is his subjective aim; and only in so far as the increasing appropriation of abstract wealth is the sole motive of his operations does he function as a capitalist, or as personified capital endowed with will and consciousness.

Centralisation of Capital,    690ff.               775ff

No snappy statement is available or for its corollary, concentration. Marx connects centralisation with concentration, and both back to accumulation. In broad terms, centralisation is what we now call monopolising, that is, ‘the coming together of already formed capitals’. Centralisation ‘is not simply a concentration of the means of production and command over labour, a concentration identical with accumulation’. Centralisation ‘is the concentration of already formed capitals, the destruction of their individual independence, the expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, the transformation of many small capitals into a few large ones.’

‘Capital aggregates into great masses in one hand because, elsewhere, it is taken out of many hands. Here we have genuine centralisation in contradistinction to accumulation and concentration.’ 

Classical Political Economy,  55n.                       175n.

… when I speak of the ‘classical political economy’, I mean all the political economy since W. Petty which has been devoted to the study of the real interrelations of bourgeois production, in contradistinction to ‘vulgar economy. [for which see below.]

Commodity,                                 3                125

A commodity is primarily an external object, a thing whose qualities enable it, in one way or another, to satisfy human wants.

[This statement is, as Marx admits, ‘incorrect. A commodity is a use-value, (or a useful object) and value. It manifests itself as this twofold thing as soon as its value has a phenomenal form of its own, the form of exchange value, differing from the bodily form, and it never has this form when regarded in isolation, but only when it is brought into a value relation (an exchange relation) with some other commodity, one of a different kind. As long as we recognise this, the foregoing locution does no harm, and serves as a conveniently terse way of phrasing.’ (Everyman, p. 32, and Penguin, p. 152. ]

Composition of Capital,      690ff.              775ff.

We are back with the intricacies of concentration and centralisation, from which there is no escape other than to study the four pages.

Constant Capital,                 205                 317

Consequently, that part of the capital which is transformed into the means of production, that is to say into raw material, accessory substances, and instruments of labour, does not experience any change in magnitude of value during the process of production. For that reason, I speak of it as the constant portion of capital, or, for short, as constant capital.

Cooperation,                        340                  445

When numerous workers labour purposefully side by side and jointly, no matter whether in different or in interconnected processes of production, we speak of this as cooperation.  [see Manufacture]

Fetishistic Character of Commodities, 45                        165

We are concerned only with a definite social relation between human beings, which, in their eyes, has here assumed the semblance of a relation between things … I speak of this as the fetishistic character which attaches to the products of labour as soon as they are produced in the form of commodities.

Labour,                                 169                   283

The use of labour power, is labour. The buyer of labour power consumes it by setting the seller of labour power to work.  [See worker.]

Labour Power,                   154                    270

I use the term labour power or capacity for labour, to denote the aggregate of those bodily and mental capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any kind.

Machinery,                          393ff.                492ff.

All fully developed machinery consists of three essentially distinct parts, the motor machine, the transmitting mechanism, and the mechanised tool or working machine.

Manufacture,                      385                   485

Cooperation based upon the division of labour, or, in other words, manufacture, is, to begin with, a spontaneous growth. As soon as it has attained a certain consistency and extension, it becomes a conscious, purposive, and systematic form of the capitalist method of production.   [see the penultimate paragraph in the ‘Translators’ Preface’, and Cooperation.]

Necessary Labour Time,  213                    325

I therefore term that part of the working day in which such reproduction is effected, necessary labour time; [… continued in next entry ….]

Necessary Labour,            213                    325

…; and I term the labour expanded during this period, necessary labour.

Price,                                      71                               189

The price, or the money form, of commodities is, like their form of value generally, distinct from their palpable and real bodily form, it is, that is to say, only an ideal or imaginary form.

Primary Accumulation,    689                     775

Only in the capitalist form can commodity production become production upon a large scale. A certain amount of accumulation of capital in the hands of individual commodity producers is, therefore, a necessary antecedent to the specifically capitalist method production. We had to assume that such an accumulation had occurred as part of the transition from handicraft production to the capitalist system of industry. We may call it primary accumulation, seeing that it is not the historical result of the specially capitalist method of production, but the historical foundation of that system. [Often mistranslated as ‘primitive’]

Rate of Surplus Value,       212                 324

The relative increase in the value of the variable capital, or the relative magnitude of surplus value, I term the rate of surplus value.

n. The term is coined in accordance with English usage, after the example of the term ‘rate of profit’, ‘rate of interest’, etc.

Relative Surplus Value,     328                  432                

… to the surplus value that is produced by a reduction of the necessary labour time, and by a corresponding change in the relative proportions of the two components of the working day, I give the name of relative surplus value. [cf. Absolute surplus value]

Revenue,                                650n.                        738, n. 21.

The reader will notice that the word revenue is used in a double sense: first, to denote surplus value as the periodically produced fruit of capital; secondly, to denote the part of this fruit which is periodically consumed by the capitalist. Or added to the fund that supplies his private consumption.

Surplus Value,                     136                251-2

This increment or excess over the original value is what I call surplus value. The value originally advanced, therefore, not only remains intact while in circulation, but in the course of circulation undergoes a change in the magnitude of its value, adding to itself a surplus value, or expanding itself. [here is the M-C-M+, for money–commodities-more money.]

Value of Labour Power,    312                   417

… the value of labour power, … meaning the part of the working day necessary for the reproduction or maintenance of labour power.

Variable Capital,                205                    317

[see Constant capital.] On the other hand, the part of capital that is transformed into labour power, undergoes a change of value during the process of production. It reproduces an equivalent for itself, and an excess over and above, a surplus value, which is variable in amount and can be larger or smaller. This portion of the capital, from being a constant magnitude, is incessantly changed into a variable magnitude. I therefore speak of this portion of capital as the variable portion of capital, or, for short, as variable capital.

Vulgar Economists,          54-55n.             174-5, n. 34.

The ’vulgar economists’ are content to elucidate the semblance of the interrelations of bourgeois production; like ruminants, they spend their time in chewing the cud of materials provided in days long past by scientific political economy, seeking thence to extract for bourgeois daily food plausible explanations of the most obvious phenomena; and, for the rest, they are satisfied with systematising in pedantic fashion, and proclaiming as eternal verities, the most trivial and self-complacent notions which the agents of bourgeois production entertain with regard to their own best of all possible worlds.

Worker,                               169                     283

[see labour} The seller of labour power ‘becomes what he was before potentially, labour power in action, a worker.’


Against definitions

 The most formidable hurdle facing all reads o Marx is his ‘peculiar’ use of words. Vilfredo Pareto provides us with the classic statement of this problem when he asserts that Marx’s words are like bats: one can see in them both birds and mice. No more profound observation has ever been offered on our subject. Thinkers through the years have noticed how had it is to pin Marx down to particular meanings, and have generally treated their non-comprehension as a criticism. Yet, without a firm knowledge of what Marx is trying to convey with his terms, one cannot properly grasp any of his theories.[1]

 see the footnote on page 213 for Marx’s comment on the inadequacy of definitions.

Hitherto, in the present work, I have used the term ‘necessary labour time’ to denote the labour time socially necessary for the production of commodities generally. Henceforward I shall use the term also to denote the necessary labour time requisite for the production of the specific commodity about power. The use of technical terms in varying senses is misleading, but there is no science in which it can be completely avoided. Consider, for example, both higher mathematics and lower mathematics.   

Engels responds to remarks, which, he says

rest on the misunderstanding to the effect that Marx seeks to define where he only explains, and that one can generally look in Marx for fixed, cut-and-dried definitions that are valid for all time. It should go without saying that where things and their mutual relations are conceived not as fixed but rather as changing, their mental images, too, i.e. concepts, are also subject to change and reformulations; that they are not to be encapsulated in rigid definitions, but rather developed in their process of historical or logical formation. It will be clear then, why at the beginning of Volume I, where Marx takes simple commodity production as his historical presupposition, only later, proceeding from this basis, to come on to capital – why he proceeds precisely there from the simple commodity and not from a conceptually and historically secondary form, the commodity as already modified by capitalism.

(Karl Marx, Capital, volume III, Penguin, London, 1981, p. 103; Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966, p. 13-14.)

In presenting the first English translation in 1887, Engels concedes,

There is one difficulty we could not spare the reader: the use of certain terms in a sense different from what they have, not only in common life, but in ordinary political economy. But this was unavoidable. Every new aspect of a science involves a revolution in the technical terms of that science … Political economy has generally been content to take, just as they were, the terms of commercial and industrial life, and to operate with them, entirely failing to see that by so doing, it confined itself within the narrow circle of ideas expressed by those terms…

It is, however, self-evident that a theory which views modern capitalist production as a mere passing stage in the economic history of mankind, must make use of terms different from those habitual to writers who look upon that form of production as imperishable and final.

(Everyman, pp. lxx-lxxi; Penguin, p. 111; Moscow, pp. 4-5.)

 and the Translators’ Preface

Though extremely precise, he was not much inclined to define his concepts in set terms. For instance, the present treatise on capitalist production does not contain a formal definition of ‘capital’, though the essence of what Marx has to say involves (as does so much of his terminology) a use of the word which contrasts in many respects with what other economists mean by it – or amplifies what they mean by it. The fact is that the whole book is his definition, though the book is not his  whole definition, since the definition was continued in the posthumous volumes that also under the title of Das Kapital, and in those (really part of Das Kapital) which bear the title of Theorien uber den Mehrwert  …. ‘Theories of Surplus-Value’.

 And 650n. for the dual meaning of ‘revenue’

I retain this twofold usage, for the reason that it harmonises with the customary phraseology of British and French economists. 

Rate of surplus value from rate of profit rate of rent

             Cannot play ducks and drakes after the manner of Humpty-Dumpty 

 ‘There’s a glory for you!’,

‘I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’, Alice said.

‘I meant, “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!” ’

‘But glory doesn’t mean “A nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,‘ Humpty-Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I chose it to mean – neither more nor less’.

‘The question is, ‘ said Humpty-Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

‘You see it is like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word’.

 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1872, chapter 6.


[1] Vilfredo Pareto, les Systemes socialistes, volume ii, Paris, 1902, p. 332, quoted in Bertell Ollman, Alienation, Marx’s conception of man in capitalist society, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1975, p. 3.