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on 5 July 2002
Despite the vast numbers of people who have read (or claim to have read!) this book, there is still no real understanding of what it says. In other reviews, and in the books of many right-wing thinkers, the book is criticised for the laws that Marx claimed to have discovered, such as the ever-decreasing law of profit, the law of decreasing wages (although in actual fact Marx said the wages of workers would fall relative to that of capitalists, which is undeniable) and the labour theory of value. However, the book does not stand or fall on these laws, so whether they are correct or not is, to some degree, irrelevant. Marx wrote a melo-drama, an economic parody (Francis Wheen). He points out the absurdity of the system, using irony (the capitalist, 'mr moneybags') and so on. Yes, Marx was too enthralled by science, but so was every 19th century thinker (incl. Adam Smith who agreed with the labour theory of value). The book is a MUST read, not for the accuracy of its scientific laws necessarily but for its brilliant overview of capitalism and its thundering criticism of it, which is still very relevant today in a world where 2 billion people live on less than $2 per day and where crippling debt make any chance of poorer countries working their way out of poverty impossible.
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on 10 October 2010
This abridgement of Capital is very well written (I prefer it to the Penguin Classics translation) and a helpful introduction, BUT (and it's a significant but!) is missing many important footnotes and sections from the full text. Marx's theoretical framework is all there, as far as I can judge, but many of the important historical references have been edited out. This edition is far slimmer and travel-friendly as a result, but loses some of Marx's colour.

For readers buying a copy of Capital to read alongside David Harvey's "A Companion to Marx's Capital" or his phenomenal free lectures I would strongly recommend that you buy the Penguin (unabridged) edition - or both! This was the only version available in my local bookshop when I started and I was desperate to get going so I bit the bullet, with the result that I've spent several hours reading missing sections on a .pdf version of the full text.

In any format, Capital makes for fascinating and world-view affecting reading. Highly recommended.
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on 5 May 2015
Having read some of the great communist works early last year, here I finally come to the daddy of them all. Or did I?

First up, it has to be noted that this version, the Oxford World Classics range, is an abridgement. Marx originally intended for his magnum opus to be 5 volumes, but he only finished volume 1. Volumes 2 and 3 were substantially complete at the time of his death, finished off and published by Friedrich Engels. The volume being reviewed contains most of volume 1, a tiny bit of volume 2 and some slightly longer extracts from volume 3. I don't normally read abridged versions, but it was not my intention to become a disciple of Marx, but rather to understand his thoughts so that I could have a more informed view of what Marx thought.

Marx begins with a detailed look at the nature of commodities: what are they are how they are valued. He distinguishes between different kinds of values. It's important to keep these in mind throughout, as use-value is a different beast to exchange-value, yet we all too easily think of "value" as though it were one thing represented on a price tag. The example Marx starts with is that of a coat and of linen. A coat may be exchanged for 20 yards of linen. Yet the use-value of a coat is not the same as the use-value of 20 yards of linen, for they are intrinsically different and serve different purposes. So use-values cannot be used for comparison. Instead, we need to then consider exchange-values. So a coat may be exchanged for 20 yards of linen or for a quantity of coal or for any other commodity. But then all we have are a set of relative exchange-values expressed, essentially, in terms of barter. One may choose any one commodity to be the standard by which all others are measured. In the economics of the time Marx lived and wrote, this was gold. And we still refer to the gold standard today. Yet it might be interesting to consider what Marx may have made of something like Bitcoin.

And so we get to the concept of money. We see that money is an intangible thing but which is commonly represented by gold, and which is the means of exchange. There is a slight flaw in Marx's analysis here as he makes a statement that the value of money does not change with time. Yet as almost anyone trained in economics or accounting will be able to tell you, a sum of money does diminish in value over time. Unless you have perfectly steady state economics then the time value of money has to be taken into account.

From here we get to the notion of capital. It is something that is tricky to summarise, as it is best dealt with by example. The kind that Marx uses is by contrasting two different types of transactions. One of these is what he sees as a precapitalist kind of transaction whereby an artisan has a commodity, sells it for money and then uses that money to buy other commodities. In contrast, the capitalist transaction process begins with money which is used to buy a commodity (C) and then gets sold on for a higher value of money (M). In chain form, the contrast is between C-M-C' and M-C-M'. Where C' is a different commodity from C and M' is a different sum of money from M. Yet M and M' are both capital. M is the initial capital and M' is the final capital. Only then, in Marx's analysis M' then becomes the start of the next chain of transactions.

(As an aside, it was interesting to think through more recent economic practices, particularly that of short selling, which gained notoriety during and in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crash. That is very similar to C-M-C' only in this case C=C' and the commodity is sold before it is purchased.)

For those of you who have some basic accountancy training, the concept is readily identifiable as the process of what happens when you roll forward the accounts of a sole trader where their initial sum is generally referred to as capital anyway. So even though Marx is considered a key figure of communism, this is *not* an inherently communistic work. The fact that modern capitalists still use his methodology is indicative that in this respect, at least, his analysis was spot on.

One of the odd features of the book is that at various junctures, Marx tries to posit that there are fundamental contradictions within the capitalist system. But I had to ask myself "what contradictions?" Perhaps it is a consequence of my more modern point of view, but it seemed that the contradictions were only apparent when phrased in the particular way that Marx puts them. In other words, it was flawed questioning and the assumptions that went into those questions that skewed Marx's thinking and creating the illusion of a contradiction when in fact there was none.

One of the key notions that Marx introduces is that of "surplus value". He derives this by looking at the value that a worker imparts to his work. As soon as the value imparted is equal to the value required for the worker to live off, then anything in addition is considered surplus. In other words, if (to use today's prices by way of illustration) a worker is paid £75 per day, then Marx argues that (s)he need only work for as long as it takes him/her to produce £75 worth of goods. If, though (s)he makes this up in 6 hours and the working day is 12 hours, then the employer, the capitalist, gets £150 of value out of the worker, but only spends £75. It is the difference between these two that Marx defines as surplus value.

You may wonder, as I did, whether this was not simply profit. It seems a slightly roundabout way of looking at it. Indeed, it is not until much later on that the admission is finally made that surplus value is the same as profit. Though the example I used above was done so deliberately, as Marx always assumes that rate of surplus of surplus profit is 100%. This assumption is never justified, though his analysis would seem to still work if a different rate were used. It is just unfortunate that his choice of 100% means that some of his numbers are easily confused.

This leads Marx to look at the exploitation of the labourer. His chapter on working conditions makes for sobering reading, as he looks at the extent to which the capitalist system sought to extract out of the worker every last ounce of work in order to generate more and more surplus value (profit). There is even an argument made that work diminishes the lifespan of the worker. Marx is not at this point talking about unhealthy working conditions, but that the mere act of work reduces one's life expectancy. It's an argument I found unconvincing as there are so many other factors to take in to account that a controlled experiment or study to determine shortened life seems unfeasible. So at best it is supposition.

Having looked at how capital gives rise to more capital, the question Marx then asks is "[where did it start from?]" In answering this Marx reverts back to his historical paradigm as espoused in the introduction to The Communist Manifesto. He argues that capital only arose through violence and theft. While I subscribe to the idea that there is no such thing as a neutral view of history, Marx is clearly far from it here. He seems to cherry pick his evidence and ignores a wide variety of other factors. It's not a wholly false view, but it does come across as over-polarised and quite susceptible to critical enquiry.

The rest of the book looks in some detail at various aspects of 19th century industry through the perspective of the above analysis. The focus is inherently industrial which was certainly right for the time that Marx was writing in, though as we are now in a post-industrial age it seems that much of what he observed has now been rendered redundant. Capitalism has moved on and changed in many aspects.

It is for this reason that I would consider much of Das Kapital to be out of date. It served its purpose in a different age, but one has to pick through it to find elements that are applicable to today's world. I would certainly not advocate throwing the whole lot out of the window, as some might be tempted to do, particularly if they continue under the impression that Das Kapital is a programme for a communist economy. Because one of the failings (possibly Marx may have intended this for later volumes) is that while the book is full of critique, he proposes very little positive change. He says "[this is wrong]" but doesn't put forward an alternative. Also the very high focus on the industrial age of manufacture has little bearing on a predominantly service-based economy. He does attempt to address services, but is all too brief and dismissive.
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on 6 September 2008
Much has obviously been said of this work! Humanist-Marxists say it is too mechanistic whilst analytic Marxists try to ignore the Dickensian passages which describe working conditions. In truth this book, in true Marxian style is the 'dialectical' synthesis of basically all that went before. Marx forswears many of the grinding debates with other intellectuals and revolutionaries of the time in favour of a 'capitalism for dummies style'. Your hand is held as you progress from simple 'laws', each of which is taken to the limit of its logic before the next idea is broached.

In fact what is striking is how pertinent this book is even today. Granted things have moved on, and it is no longer 'grim up north' but even a quick consideration makes one realise how our service-industry-fueled economy still holds to most of the same processes as Marx noted all those years ago. Beaudrillard claimed Marx was superseded because consumption has now trumped production, but a read of Capital and a bit of thought soon puts that idea to rest.

It is worth ignoring the suggestions that The German Ideology is a good introduction to Marx, or that Capital is some advanced monolith. It is large, but completely readable; just as readable as Manifesto, only longer. Despite spawning abstruse French theorists, Russian and Chinese revolutions and analysis second only in quantity to the Bible there is nothing to be intimidated about.
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on 19 March 2003
This book has greatly changed the way I look at the world. It is a captivating and thought provoking read. I think what capitalism is, is hard to define, but this book should give the reader a real feel for what it is, and for why this book changed the world. Marx's intellect is razor sharp! I didn't find it an easy read; It required concentration, and I often had to re-read sections. To anyone who is about to read the book I would suggest making notes during the first section where Marx defines a lot of terminology. It's by far the best book I have read.
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on 27 July 2012
This edition of "Capital" contains the original English translation of Volume One - and it is an excellent translation which I prefer to the one in the Penguin edition. (I do not understand why a previous reviewer made a comment about needing to speak French or German to read this edition.) The introduction by David McLellan is also quite good, although I think that McLellan is unfair in claiming that Marx was not concerned enough with issues such as gender inequality and ecology.

To many people Marxism is a dirty word because of its association with the bureaucratic tyranny of the Stalinist regimes of Russia, Eastern Europe, China etc. But these regimes had/have nothing to do with genuine Marxism, as anyone who reads this book will see. The so-called "communist" states were actually state capitalist systems controlled by a ruling class of bureaucrats who betrayed the aims of the 1917 Russian Revolution and turned on its head Marx's aim of a democratic workers' state and classless society.

Marx's humanism and democratic instincts shine out throughout this book. There are marvellous indictments of the alienating, exploitive and undemocratic nature of the capitalist system, as well as some remarkably vivid historical sections. But Marx's main aim in this book is not to set out a blueprint for a future socialist society, it is to lay bare the "law of motion" of the capitalist society we live in.

Marx shows that there are two key features of the capitalist system. Firstly, there is the fact that the capitalists make their profits by exploiting the working class. (The working class today includes ordinary white collar workers as well as manual workers.) As Marx writes, "Capital...vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour..."

Secondly, there is the competition between rival capitalists which drives on the exploitation and which leads to the anarchy of the market system, with its booms, slumps and crises, as we are seeing today.

I particularly like how Marx shows that people are alienated under capitalism, in the sense of their work being turned into soulless degradation, and also in the sense of having lost control of their lives to something they themselves have created - capital. "As, in religion, man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand."

"Capital" is not an easy read, and it is best tackled after reading a modern introduction to Marxism. On Marxist economics, I would recommend either Joseph Choonara's "Unravelling Capitalism" or Chris Harman's "Zombie Capitalism". On Marxism as a whole, Alex Callinicos's "The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx" is a brilliant starting point.
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on 6 September 2013
I wanted to decide for myself whether Marx was a visionary economist, philosopher of the industrial age, or windbag obscurantist. In the end, I was glad that this version was abridged, with intelligent endnotes. I kept turning to the back of the book, counting how many pages were left.

Das Kapital deserves its reputation as the most unreadable of great books. Marx could easily have reduced his main hypotheses to a few simply formulae, but for some reason preferred lengthy explanations. His polemical analysis of current events reads like the best contemporary journalism.. When he describes economic theory, however, he takes unnecessary metaphysical leaps — for example in supposing that capital drives capitalists, rather than the other way around — which undermine the rigor of his analysis. For that reason, I can only recommend this book for its historical interest, though his insights may be relevant to some modern-day societies.

Though he never stepped into a factory, Marx fully understood how unregulated capitalism works. He failed as a prophet because he couldn't quite grasp the evolution of macroeconomies, how the thesis of unregulated capitalism and the antithesis of pure socialism would result in the synthesis of social democracy.
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on 7 February 2011
This edition of "Capital" contains the original English translation of Volume One - and it is an excellent translation which I prefer to the one in the Penguin edition. The introduction by David McLellan is also quite good, although I think that McLellan is unfair in claiming that Marx was not concerned enough with issues such as gender inequality and ecology.

To many people Marxism is a dirty word because of its association with the bureaucratic tyranny of the Stalinist regimes of Russia, Eastern Europe, China etc. But these regimes had/have nothing to do with genuine Marxism, as anyone who reads this book will see. The so-called "communist" states were actually state capitalist systems controlled by a ruling class of bureaucrats who betrayed the aims of the 1917 Russian Revolution and turned on its head Marx's aim of a democratic workers' state and classless society.

Marx's humanism and democratic instincts shine out throughout this book. There are marvellous indictments of the alienating, exploitive and undemocratic nature of the capitalist system, as well as some remarkably vivid historical sections. But Marx's main aim in this book is not to set out a blueprint for a future socialist society, it is to lay bare the "law of motion" of the capitalist society we live in.

Marx shows that there are two key features of the capitalist system. Firstly, there is the fact that the capitalists make their profits by exploiting the working class. (The working class today includes ordinary white collar workers as well as manual workers.) As Marx writes, "Capital...vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour..."

Secondly, there is the competition between rival capitalists which drives on the exploitation and which leads to the anarchy of the market system, with its booms, slumps and crises, as we are seeing today.

I particularly like how Marx shows that people are alienated under capitalism, in the sense of their work being turned into soulless degradation, and also in the sense of having lost control of their lives to something they themselves have created - capital. "As, in religion, man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalist production, he is governed by the products of his own hand."

"Capital" is not an easy read, and it is best tackled after reading a modern introduction to Marxism. On Marxist economics, I would recommend either Joseph Choonara's "Unravelling Capitalism" or Chris Harman's "Zombie Capitalism". On Marxism as a whole, Alex Callinicos's "The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx" is a brilliant starting point.

Phil Webster.
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on 18 June 2001
This piece of work is one of Marx's greatest works, in this book Karl Marx renders the world in a different light . Marx lays the concept of the dialectic on a potent historical foundation, at a time when mass poverty and rapid industrialisation was commonplace. Marx exlains and presents the multifarious bourgeouise injustices that are often accepted and viewed as normal by the proletarian community. Marx also portrays a system of exploitation and alienation that has prevailed under bourgeouise rule, which aims to divide society into frail groups, as oppossed to revolutionary political movements.However, unlike other philosophers, Karl Marx offers a systematic method of emancipation, by reflecting vivid images of violent revolution, proletarian overthrow of the bourgeouise state, temporary "proletarian dictatorship" and finally resulting in the state "withering" away, and a society of classlessness emerging. Marx's writing in this book,as in all his books, is extremely profound. This book should be seen as the main meal and the "Communist Manifesto" should be consumed as the desert, as both books fantastically complement each other. This book is a MUST read for all those who have even the slightest interest in the world of economics or politics.
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on 4 July 2015
Pretty difficult to read, and a lot of content still that can go... but ultimately refreshing and rewarding, as it gives you a very different take on the world with a logic hard to defeat.
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