on 13 June 2015
Capital is Karl Marx's systematic exposition of the 'capitalist mode of production'. First published in 1867, the book has the dubious distinction of being often cited yet rarely read. That, however, has much to do with its heft, and the present Penguin Classics edition comes in at 1141 pages, although a large chunk of that is down to its scholarly bookends. Ernest Mandel, the renowned Marxist populariser, gives an illuminating yet incredibly partisan Introduction to Capital's revolutionary theories, while the book's Appendix contains Marx's 'Results of the Immediate Process of Production', an excision from Capital rediscovered in the 1930s. Both add to our understanding of Marx's work, and as Mandel has written the Penguin Classics Introductions to Volumes II and III - compiled and released by Friedrich Engels after Marx's death - there is a thankful element of continuity to the whole enterprise, albeit parti pris.
The book itself is commonly viewed as the culmination of Marx's thought, his cast-iron masterpiece. But why is it so little read? Why is it eclipsed by its slim and fiery sibling, the Communist Manifesto? Well, apart from issues of size, a lot of it has to do with the dialectical complexity of Marx's thought, which, in Capital, endlessly unpicks the tangled threads ever present in the generation of surplus-value. Where the Manifesto is quotable and concise, Capital is its ugly opposite - or so it seems. Some view the book as a sprawling and prolix expansion of the Manifesto, or at least of its main points, but it is far more patient and discerning, and less enamoured of its own rhetoric. Yet there are times when Capital cannot help but explode with angry and thunderous prose, its prophesying stance matching anything in Marx and Engels's seminal 1848 pamphlet - it just takes a while to get there.
For those of us who have read around Marx, or the works of his modern progeny (i.e. Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Zizek et al), all the ideas regularly attached to his name are addressed to the nth degree in Capital. As such, we learn about the commodity's use-value and exchange-value, the labour theory of value, the fetishism of the commodity, base/superstructure (in a footnote), the metamorphosis of the commodity (C-M-C), the general formula for capital (M-C-M'), constant capital and variable capital, the rate of surplus-value (s/v), the rate of profit (s/C (where C = c + v)), the industrial reserve army, primitive accumulation, etc, etc. To give even a brief overview of these theories would increase the size of this review tenfold. Rest assured, though, that while the formulae look alarming, Marx's painstaking analyses make them clear, and he gives numerous examples to substantiate his findings. Whether they are persuasive is for each reader to decide, but before they do so, they must patiently reapply Marx's ideas to the contemporary world, turning them this way and that, uncovering their relevance and teasing out their dialectical nuances. It is a revelatory experience, even if you don't wholeheartedly agree with the views being expounded.
The book, then, is a masterly synthesis of philosophy, politics, and economics. It is also a great work of literature. Marx has packed the book with quotes and allusions, their implementation qualifying the unfurling ideas, while his terrifying erudition dances in the footnotes. And, contrary to what most people think, Capital has its memorable sayings. For instance, when discussing commodity fetishism, Marx compares it to religion, as there, too, 'the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race'; capital is described - among many other things - as 'dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour'; and, when addressing primitive accumulation, Marx suggests that it plays 'approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology'. Of course, these are only a handful of pertinent quotes, for the book is absolutely teeming with them, and each reader will find their own.
Despite the prevailing injustices depicted by Marx, the book still carries an air of optimism, which is a surprise. By 1867, the revolutionary fervour that swept Europe in 1848 - the year of the Manifesto - had been pegged back by a period of intense reaction. Marx, however, and this stems from his historical-materialist approach, still held faith in the proletariat, and in the 'inevitable conquest of political power by the working class'. Capitalism was a transient phase in man's history, and sure to be blown away by the rise of the workers, for didn't the bourgeoisie produce their own 'grave-diggers'? But Marx knew the adaptability of capitalism, and the ways in which its perpetual motion escaped the clutches of the working classes, who could only crumble as their nemesis came back bigger and stronger. Even so, Marx paints the working class as a 'class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production': they are a force that has 'become incompatible with their capitalist integument'. And this integument, Marx believes, is soon to 'burst asunder', therefore ringing 'The knell of capitalist private property'. Then, and only then, will the revolution spring forth, its feverish aftermath ensuring that 'The expropriators are expropriated'. So what we have here, on page 929, is a 'negation of the negation'.
This is obviously heady stuff, and miles away from the dry economics that most people feel Capital represents. But the book carries a rather large problem. In his 'Preface to the English Edition', Engels states that 'Capital is often called, on the Continent, 'the Bible of the working class''. Now when this English edition was first published in 1886, education and literacy rates were certainly on the rise among the labouring classes, but were they high enough to match the theoretical density of Marx's dialectical processes? I'm unsure. And so the book fell into the hands of his acolytes, who, as their master's exegetes, used the book to advance their own ends. And those same thinkers have spent years building an impenetrable citadel, forever surrounding themselves with academic texts the working classes (and most non-academic people) cannot understand. They rarely seek to engage with those they wish to emancipate, and waste far too much time driving down theoretical cul-de-sacs. It is an eternal and unforgivable conundrum, and one that further explains the newcomer's reliance on the Communist Manifesto, the book that continues to ensure Marx's popularity.
Capital takes time - in the present reviewer's case, about four months - but it repays the effort. All good philosophy should help you see the world in a different light, if only for a moment. Whether you subscribe to Marx's thought is a personal decision based on numerous different factors and ideological predilections. But he is still here, and he shows no sign of going away. And why should he, especially when the outrageous excesses of capitalism are again on the increase. For Marx, the methods of capitalism 'distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, [and] they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; [and] they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital'. In short, an 'accumulation of misery [is] a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth'.
If you feel this is a fair representation of the current situation, then there will be much for you to feast on here; if not, then the book is worth reading anyway, because it is a profound and humanitarian work. As Terry Eagleton has said elsewhere, Marxism is not a murderous ideology, and it doesn't decree death and destruction on an industrial scale, for 'what perished in the Soviet Union [and it is in its Russian and Chinese manifestations that most people condemn Marxism] was Marxist only in the sense that the Inquisition was Christian'. It is about trying to understand the inequalities and contradictions inherent in capitalism. But mostly, it is about creating an awareness of where the excessive wealth comes from, i.e. the exploitation of the workers, and questioning why it has to be this way. So the inevitable question arises: does it have to be this way? Whether you call for reform or revolt doesn't really matter, for it's the awareness that is of crucial importance. Marx merely wants the reader to open their eyes and see the world anew, to see where money and greed wheedles its way into every transaction, every thought, and every idea. Mostly, though, Marx wants to make us think, and think hard, about the capitalist mode of production.