Why read "Capital", 150 years later?

by Matthijs Krul

Out of all his works, the reputation of Karl Marx as theorist of the socialist tradition is undoubtedly based primarily on his magnum opus, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Of course, there are other socialist works that have had considerable influence, from the Communist Manifesto to the journalism of Orwell or fiction writers like Steinbeck and Sinclair. These have done much to inspire the socialist imagination and to help formulate what a socialist politics could, or should, look like. But theory remains essential in its own right, and the crown of all socialist theory is undoubtedly Capital. Even now, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of its first volume in Hamburg, friend and foe alike recognize this work as the most important contribution to socialist thinking about political economy. Socialism is perhaps above all defined by wanting radical change in the way production, distribution, and work are organized in our type of society. Therefore the study of political economy – understanding economic processes and their embedding in the organization of society as a whole – is the cornerstone of socialist thought, and that makes Capital a particularly exciting book.

Or so it should be. But as much praised and reviled as Capital is, few people actually manage to read it. Many socialist activists, out of interest in the old man's works or perhaps out of a sense of duty that one ought to have read the classic work, give the book a try. But their experience can usually be predicted well in advance. Expecting a lively discussion of capitalism, how it works, and what is wrong with it, they encounter instead – a lengthy and impenetrably abstract discussion about value, commodities, and magnitudes, 'helpfully' illustrated by examples about the exchange of linen and coats. After three chapters, if they even make it that far, they understandably assume the whole book is like this and give up, still none the wiser about the workings of contemporary capitalism. It's a shame, and Marx himself is certainly to be blamed for that. But although the first three chapters are difficult, and although the mainstream economists and the newspaper commentators and the talking heads on television will all tell us that it's not worth the effort, because Capital is outdated and unscientific and hopelessly wrong, serious-minded activists should read the book anyway. Every socialist should read at least the first volume if nothing else. And for the following reasons:

  • It is an indispensable guide to political economy. This is of course the most obvious purpose of the book as a scientific work. Marx was very keen that his book should be seen not simply as a polemic against capitalism, but as a serious and sober-minded analysis of how it actually works. This also explains the abstraction of the first three chapters: they are essentially Marx defining his terminology and the way he is going to use his concepts for the rest of the work, just like one might find in a university textbook or a scientific article today. Because of this primary scientific purpose, Capital is not a book about any particular form of capitalism, although Marx of course draws his examples mainly from the Victorian industrialized Britain of his day. In order to understand what the book is about and why it is still important, it is essential to know that it presents a pure theory of capitalism: a description of what Marx called 'the laws of motion of capital' stripped of any historical and geographical particulars, and so applicable to any capitalist society. Including our own. Of course the specific examples of factory work and the like are different now, although much of it is recognizable in the plants in China and other countries where much of the production goes on today. But the laws of motion of capital do not change, and that is why his analysis still matters.

    It would take a book-length discussion in its own right to sum up what that analysis is. The best way to explain it, without substituting for reading the actual book in any way, is to grasp what Marx was trying to do in writing it. Marx wanted to understand capitalist society as a historically specific way of life, a particular way of organizing labour and goods. In that sense capitalism is for him historically unique, but also has its own inner logic that drives it and which, in the midst of all technological change and accumulation of goods and money, keeps that society working according to that particular logic. The purpose of Capital is not just to describe what that logic is, but even more importantly, to explain why it has that particular logic. In other words, he observes capitalism as it appears to us: based on the two major drives of competition and accumulation, showing constant technological changes and increases in labor productivity, an almost complete system of private ownership of all things, a regimented workforce that sells its labor for wages during a given working day (or week, or month), plus of course such everyday things as money, finance, and credit.

    Marx sees these things and describes them, but he goes further than that. He asks why they are the way they are. In that sense, Capital is the answer to a series of questions: why should it be that in this society, the vast majority of people work for someone else for a living? Why is it that not only (almost) all goods and all land, but also our own ability to work is exchanged in markets as private products, and what role does money play in making those markets possible? And if all these goods exchange at the price that they are 'worth', and everyone gets as wages what their work is 'worth', then where does profit come from? Why is it that while technology was relatively stagnant for most of history, under capitalism everything changes all the time, and there are constantly more things being produced in the same amount of time and work? Why does capitalism need there to be economic 'growth', or accumulation, or else it falls apart? Why are there economic crises every so many years? And so on and so forth.

    Although the discussions of 'value' and 'commodities' may appear strange and difficult, it is important to remember that the point of them is to answer these questions, and to show how the answers follow from the way capitalism works at its very core: a system in which accumulation takes place under private ownership of competing owners of means of production, and where everything is produced as commodities for the market by competing individuals who sell their labor-power for a wage. In all the 150 years since its publication, there is no single book that answers all these questions so well, and in such an integrated way, as Capital.
  • It is a great read. Although the first chapters might suggest otherwise, Capital is actually a great read. As soon as Marx is past the most abstract discussion mentioned above, he gets into a very lively narrative description of the various ways in which capitalism appears immediately at the surface, so to speak. First he discusses how money accumulates, how people sell their ability to work for a wage, and how this creates 'the market' in the abstract that is always the subject of economic discussions in the media. Then he describes in great detail, and with many critical comments, the fight over the length and intensity of work-time, the division of labour, the development of modern industry, the different ways in which workers are exploited, and the historical process of robbery, violence, force and extermination that brought capitalism about in the first place. Finally, he points out what all this leads to: endless accumulation that makes capital, and the owners of capital, seem productive, when in fact it is the people working for them that are productive and that make the existence of capital possible even as it exploits them and forces them to compete. In this way, he shows how people unwillingly and unwittingly produce the very system that oppresses them and how that system makes it seem as if it is a force of nature.

    All this is done in a very readable and vigorous way. Marx's writings here are some of the best that 19th century polemical writing could produce: full of snarky comments about the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the capitalists and their ideological defenders, lots of jokes (some obscure, some witty) about the obvious contradictions between capitalist 'freedom' and the way life actually is for working people, and equally scathing comments about the economists of his time who failed – or simply refused - to comprehend exploitation as an essential component of capitalist society, just as they do today. But there are also many literary references that are worth picking up on, from Greek and Roman classical authors to Shakespeare and Don Quixote, as well as famous historical quotations and the writings of liberal ideologues of his own time. But they are not just Marx showing off: they serve a real purpose. For example, he pokes fun at various religious revival movements of his time, from Catholics to the Quakers, in order to show the dangerous ideological effect of seeing capitalism as a natural force, something eternal and unchangeable. Similarly, he invokes Don Quixote in order to criticize the idea that the answer to capitalism's problems is a return to a supposedly better and unproblematic past, or to ways of living that are no longer compatible with modern circumstances.

    Perhaps the most famous part of Capital's narrative is Marx's impressive skill at using the words of the 'bourgeois' writers, commentators, and even governments of his time against them. Much of his detailed and impassioned discussion of the evils that capitalism forces on the working class, in particular in the chapters on the working day and on large-scale industrialization, is based on his close reading of the government reports on the social problems of Victorian society. He contrasts throughout the glorification of capitalism as a system of liberty, individual rights, and prosperity by the commentators of his day with the reality on the ground that is found in government and newspaper reports (as well as information he got from his close friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels). This reality was and is one of poverty, disease, drudgery, hopelessness, and death for working people, and all the while – then as now – being lectured to about your moral failings in the bargain. There are few books which so effectively skewer the typical defenses of capitalism and expose their hypocrisy as this work... unless it is Engels' own classic, The Condition of the Working Class in England.
  • It is a political must. Descriptions of Capital as 'the Bible of the working class' are no doubt based on some exaggeration. But Harry Cleaver, an influential commentator on Capital, was certainly on the mark when he said that one of Marx's purposes in writing it was "to put a weapon in the hands of workers". While Marx's analysis in the book is strictly scientific in substance, he makes no secret of his views on capitalism as a way of life: it is exploitative, it is destructive, and the sooner it is gotten rid of, the better. But it is not just polemical value that makes that important. Without the understanding of capitalism that Capital presents, it is difficult to explain exploitation, it is difficult to understand how a society of individual ownership can lead to unfreedom, and it becomes hard to escape the idea of capitalism as a natural thing, just the way things are. Without understanding the value relations that underpin capitalist accumulation, we do not know where to begin in getting rid of them. Without understanding how money, exchange, and finance work in pure capitalism, we are endlessly liable to come up with 'silver bullet' solutions or cranky reformer policies that are supposed to remove the one bad aspect of capitalism they identify and leave everything else undisturbed. Without the integrated whole of Marx's view of capitalism as a type of society, we cannot understand that it has an inner logic that always and forever will rebel against attempts to regulate and reform it, and in the long run will try to break those restraints – and it usually succeeds. And without Marx's analysis, it is all too easy to blame unemployment, poverty, and economic crisis on other things: strangers in our midst, immigrants, moral failures, insufficient hard work, bad management, or conspiracies.

    Marx also shows in this book where the weak points of capitalism are. The very basis of workers' unions is in the recognition of the way competition works to divide workers in capitalist society, and in the power of the owners of capital over the work-time of the employees during the working day. For this reason, the chapters on the working day, on wage and piece work, and on co-operation are essential for understanding the labour process and resistance against it. Similarly, the indignant analysis of the forced expropriation, murder, and repression of people in pre-capitalist social relations, and the discussions of ongoing legislation and violence against the working class, jointly help to comprehend the class nature of laws, governments, and their enforcers. In our present time, understanding the political significance of finance and credit systems is also indispensable: for this one has to turn to the two other volumes of Capital, in particular volume 3. Finally, if nothing else, Capital is about understanding the way that technology and technological change affect the way society is organized and the division of labour, and the impact this has on every aspect of social life. It is hard to think of a topic more politically relevant as the age of automation, begun in the late 18th century, reaches its final historical stages.
  • It makes you rethink the nature of our society. A last but often overlooked point of Capital is to contextualize capitalist society in a wider historical perspective. Throughout his entire life, even from his earliest beginnings in German romantic thought, Marx's preoccupation was with the idea that the social forces that determine the course of people's lives in our society appear to us as if they were inescapable and unchangeable forces of nature, even though they are simply the product, the aggregate result, of our own actions and relationships. In this way, we are what he called alienated: unable to see that what coerces and cajoles us is simply our own doing reflected back onto us, rather than something coming from 'outside' or 'above'. In the course of his lifetime, Marx and Engels wrote many historical works besides the theoretical ones, and in each of these they tried to show how the societies of the past worked in such a way that the people who lived in them were unable to see that the source of their own oppression and misery was the way they had organized their own social relations. Instead, the existence of slavery or feudalism appeared to people in those days as natural and/or God-given phenomena, just the way things had to be. Without them, you wouldn't have society at all!

    Marx's point in Capital is to show that the same thing is true for our society. We are so used to the phenomena of capitalism, to the way our relations to each other and to the goods that we produce and need for our existence are organized, that we fail to see just how strange they are. Marx's account of how capitalism came to be, how "capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt" as he put it, is not just to show that it is immoral or violent. It is also meant to help the reader understand just how bizarre capitalist society actually is. Why should we survive by spending the vast majority of our lives working for someone else in someone else's office or shopfloor? Why should the way to get the best out of people, and to create the most liveable and fruitful society, be having everyone compete against each other to produce objects (or services) that exchange for the smallest amount of pieces of paper that have a value printed on them? How come a few people own most things, in terms of the amount of work they can be exchanged for in the market, and most people only own their own ability to work? And most importantly, how come that technology that should make our lives easier never seems to make the workload less, or mean we can stop accumulating and competing?

    These are not self-evident ways of organizing a society, to say the least, and if you were to design one from scratch, you'd probably not do it this way. Marx does not point this out in some overly hippyish way, 'you can't, like, own stuff, man'. Rather, he shows that just like every previous society based on class division and exploitation, ours has come about in a particular historical way, and that it took – and still takes – an enormous amount of both ideological and real violence to make it seem natural. Something that has a clearly identifiable origin is not something natural or inevitable: it is something that could be changed, if we wanted it to be. Capitalism is not just a bad type of society, it is also a very weird one. It's our own doing that it continues to exist.

I hope these are some compelling reasons why, 150 years after it first came out, Capital is still worth your time and attention, and worth also the effort of getting through the beginning. Fortunately, nowadays there are also a number of excellent guides and companions to help the reader with the complex, abstract discussions of value theory. Just to name a few, there are David Harvey's series on Capital; Diane Elson's edited collection Value and the Representation of Labour Under Capitalism is a very useful collection of English value-form debates that has recently republished by Verso, Elson’s own essay, the longest in the collection, is particularly important; Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho's Marx's Capital, now in its 6th edition; Saad-Filho's The Value of Marx is also a great and short guide to value theory in particular; Nicole Pepperell’s chapter “Capitalism: Some Disassembly Required” in the Communization and its Discontents collection edited by Benjamin Noys, insists both on the importance of attention to literary features of Marx’s method of presentation, especially his sarcasm, and where emancipatory potential can be found in the analysis; Michael Heinrich's Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital is highly regarded and quite readable; Mary Gabriel’s Love And Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution gives essential information on the context of the writing of Capital, and finally, S.S. Prawer's brilliant Karl Marx and World Literature is a beautiful and moving discussion of Marx's use of literary works and tropes to show that socialism is not just a matter of the mind, but also of the heart.

Photo: Wolfgang Sauber

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