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Human Geography
Companion to Marxs Capital: Review
Book Reviews
In his introduction to Te Limits to Capital
(Basil Blackwell, 1982), David Harvey observed the
proposition that those who study Marx are tempted
to write a book about their experience. A Companion
to Marxs Capital can be considered as Harveys most
intimate and extended commentary to-date on the
text claimed as his major theoretical inspiration.
As Harveys writings have signifcantly defned the
identity of Marxism for two generations of human
geographers, A Companion can be usefully treated as
an instructive guide to (how Harvey conceives of )
Marxs masterpiece.
Te stated purpose of A Companion is to enable
a frst-time prospective reader of Marx to come to
Capital on their own terms. Te books structure
(for the most part) approximates the frst volume of
Capital: it shadows each part by part, though not
necessarily all of Marxs chapters or headings. Key
concepts are explained carefully, and Harvey writes,
as ever, accessibly and with some pithy examples. Te
text, as might well be expected, references many of
the (half ) truths surrounding Capital and Marx, and
deals with what have sometimes been quite polemic
charges in a disarming manner. As with many other
published guides, A Companion concentrates on Te
Process of the Production of Capital. Concepts from
later Capital volumes (II, III and those of Teories of
Surplus-Value) are occasionally cited, but otherwise
not given systematic treatment.
Te most obvious value-added of A Companion,
that makes it more than a head-to-toe examination
of Capital, are two new sections written by Harvey,
drawing upon his experience of teaching Marxs
work for many years. Te frst of these is entitled
Introduction, and, besides sketching Harveys
perceived need for the text, summarises (Lenins
idea of ) the three sources of Marxism and (Lenins)
comments on Marxs dialectic. It also includes
Harveys distinction between deeper concepts and
more superfcial concepts, though it does pull up
short of discussing what might make Marxism more
scientifc (or a diferent sort of science) from, e.g.,
the study of Romance languages (p. 6). Te second
original section that is not a direct commentary
on Capital is entitled Refections and Prognoses,
and this draws together some of the themes from A
Companion at the end of the book. Here, Harvey
explicitly seeks to link Capital with his understanding
of the global economic downturn of recent years. In
doing so, he references a number of interpretations
he makes of Capital, both in the preceding pages of
A Companion and, also, signifcantly, in some of his
Book by: David Harvey London: Verso, 2010
Reviewed by: Simon Chilvers Indian Formation Research Society,
New Delhi
Volume 4, Number 2 2011
other works.
In this manner, A Companion can be
considered to be a somewhat (deceptively) wide-
ranging text: it journeys not only through the
magnum opus of Capital Volume I, but relates itself
also to a number of contemporary theoretical and
substantive debates, including on global poverty,
population growth, recession, business competition,
privatisation, and notions of freedom and rights. A
Companion does not attempt to be the last Marxist
word on any of these issues, but instead attempts to
show how many of these concerns can be centrally
related to the problematic of a specifcally capitalist
world. In a similar somewhat understated
manner, Harvey contextualises succinctly a range
of thinkers, including Smith, Ricardo, Malthus,
Darwin, Kropotkin, and Foucault, amongst others.
Several debates in historical materialism are also
referenced, including such (disputed) notions as
base/superstructure, the labour theory of value,
technological determinism, productive versus
unproductive labour, and the relationship between
(over)production and (over)consumption. Te focus
of A Companion, nevertheless, seldom wanders far
from a direct discussion of the ideas within Capital
and few pages are indeed without a (sometimes
lengthy) direct citation.
Essentially, A Companion can be considered
as the combination of Harveys presentation/
interpretation of Marxs original concepts and
Harveys own further elaborations. Te two can
generally be fairly easily distinguished, and Harvey
reiterates often that his views are but personal ones,
and open to debate. Te main difculty, however,
that this reviewer had with A Companion was not so
much with how Marxs concepts were individually
and very well explained by Harvey, but with how
more general ideas throughout the text became
framed and reframed. Whilst a critique appropriate
to the depth and breadth of Harveys interpretations
of Capital and Marx(ism) cannot be adequately
condensed into this review, a few issues can be
perhaps indicated.
One issue that this reviewer picked up on
was that the notion of a/the fetish recurred in A
Companion far more often than in Capital. Harveys
frequent use of the term mixes two propositions
that perhaps ought to be distinct: viz. that the world
is not as it appears and that the reason the world
is not as it appears is owing to capital. Te latter,
of course, cannot always be true for all times and
places, but Harvey does not greatly assist the reader
with distinguishing fetish with representation
(as sometimes in contradistinction to materialist
explanation and/or actual history). Consequently,
statements such as where discussing the wage
relation [t]his immediately poses the problem of
the fetish mask that hides social relations beneath
the ferment of representational politics (p. 240)
are difcult in their own right, but particularly so
when set against the view that, for example, value
is immaterial but objective (p. 33). It seems that,
sometimes, Harvey tries to establish a material
versus non-material divide without indicating
especially clearly the diferent nature (or utility)
of scientifc concepts from the social power of
ideologies. Indeed, he posits, though in not so
many words, that discourses can also be material
forces, as, for example, in discussing the signifcance
of confdence in the capitalist system (p. 333).
Possibly this slippage, that is hard to exactly pin-
down, might be the thin end of a wedge wherein
the (non-Marxist) principle of analytical concepts
being determined by hegemonic social agreement
starts to become unchallenged orthodoxy. In this
fashion, as taken to its ultimate political conclusion,
theorization (and practice) risks becoming as much a
matter of faith as anything else.
A second general issue, at least for this reviewer,
concerns Harveys continuing fascination with Marxs
powerful understanding of primitive accumulation
and his own consideration of accumulation by
dispossession. Te contention made by Harvey is
that it is difcult to avoid the conclusions that (a)
something akin to primitive accumulation is alive
and well within the dynamics of contemporary
capitalism and (b) its continued existence may well
be fundamental to the survival of capitalism (p.
308). Tis claim is, of course, a matter of ongoing
Human Geography
Companion to Marxs Capital: Review
debate in Marxism, though it can be noted that, in
the fnal pages of A Companion, the presentation
of accumulation by dispossession comes across
as clearly related to Harveys much earlier work
in the 1970s and 1980s on the capitalist credit
system. Te main problem, as perhaps with some
of Harveys other recent works, is that a notion
such as accumulation by dispossession does not by
itself help specify the historical-geographical social
relationships that acts of dispossession are embedded
within: accumulation and dispossession is not
always a straightforward question of the expansion
and rule of capital sui generis.
In some ways a number of unfair practical
critiques can perhaps be levelled at A Companion.
Harvey writes that one has to read Capital as a
whole book and that this is what A Companion
will help one with, indeed is for. Yet, as based on this
reviewers personal experiences in higher education,
few working people and students confess to having
the luxury of time (if the inclination!) to do justice to
Capital, and a complimentary text of approximately
340 pages, no matter how rousing, might be seen
by some as too long. On the other hand, as it
could reasonably be argued, A Companion might
be considered in some quarters as insufciently
comprehensive: certain guides to Capital, especially
as produced by activist and Communist Party study
circles, attempt (for better or worse) to relate Marx
to a far wider range of community issues (such as
substance abuse or sexual exploitation, for example).
Similarly, whilst Harvey does certainly refer in
places in the text to university coursework that he
has attempted to relate to Capital, there is otherwise
little attempt to draw the reader into a more active
engagement with Marxism through, for example,
study questions or (potential) projects outside of the
classroom. Te overall feel of A Companion is that it
probably will resonate best with graduate students,
in particular those with a background in liberal
arts subjects and with possibly already some prior
interest in Marxism. Occasional aplomb comments,
such as [t]his sounds like the plot of Balzacs Eugenie
Grandet! (p. 90), or we arrive for the frst time at
the concept of surplus-value, which is, of course,
fundamental to all of Marxs analysis [sic] (p. 88),
do tend to reinforce this impression.
In the last three decades, as Harvey and so many
others regret, Marxism has virtually disappeared from
the academy (to the extent, of course, that it had
much of a presence to begin with, beyond certain
elite research centres). Accessible expositions of the
core concepts of Capital, such as contained within A
Companion, will be necessary to begin the difcult
task of changing this situation and popularising
Marxs revolutionary thought more widely.