Review of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (1867/1887)
Karl Marx (writer).
Read in 2024.
I’ve read only the first volume (“The Process of Production of Capital”), in Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling’s 1887 translation to English, which was based on the fourth German edition. Because I’ve not read the complete work, there is no rating with this review.
A theory of political economy based on social relations, along with evidence in favour of that theory, criticism of competing theories, and other observations of the historical, recent and contemporary conditions for life and work. The main geographical subject is “England, a country with fully developed capitalist production”. The main ideological subject is how capital, whether in money, tools or personnel, has taken centre stage in a new economic system. The author’s interest here is not in fossil fuels or the technical details of the Industrial Revolution over the preceding 100 years, but in the precise way that capitalists profit off of other people’s work to multiply their own wealth faster than anyone else’s.
This book is deliberately kaleidoscopic. There is both chaos and a great deal of order to it, so that the act of reading it brings to mind an even wider variety of facts than it actually contains. Though he does not mention his own life, it is easy to imagine the author sitting in the reading room of the British Library, going through literal reams of reports and statistics. Sometimes, he would find a little joy in some stray piece of that reading, as one does in such a project. For example, one footnote to chapter 27 of Capital ends with a parenthetical attribution by the author, and a comment about the source manuscript: “It is full of curiosa.”
Capital itself is now in part mere curiosa. It has endured more than 150 years of challenges and further developments in its subject matter. Its social pathos is still hot, and it is not the project of an armchair speculator. Marx lived in poverty for parts of his life, losing three of his children to starvation in England. The dire scope and bibliography of Capital are driven by passion, primarily a plain and honest compassion for ordinary people in similar situations. However, don’t expect dramatic agitation or narrative. Marx does include bits and pieces of drama and detail, glimpsed for instance in a Professor Nassau W. Senior’s account of the factories of Manchester, but Marx’s compassion is solemn, not sentimental.
Marx is at his best when he’s dunking intellectually on his predecessors among the physiocrats, the classical school and what he calls the “vulgar economists”, those mere hacks and wonks whose motivated reasoning about economics was designed to provide whatever conclusions the powerful wanted to hear. Some familiarity with the classical school, especially David Ricardo and Adam Smith, is recommended before trying to read this book. Marx hews most closely to Ricardo, elaborating on his labour theory of value. He roasts Jean-Baptiste Say, Jeremy Bentham, Wilhelm Roscher, and the conservative abusers of Thomas Malthus, without mercy.
Bentham was only secondarily an economist. He is best known today for his philosophy of law and ethics, while Smith’s reputation as an ethical philosopher has been eclipsed by his writing on economics. All of these men, including Marx, wrote in a long period of transition, from the unquantified economies of the Middle Ages, to the highly quantified and more abstract economies of today. It was common, in the 18th and 19th centuries, to mix economics with ethics, observing and modeling reality from a preconceived understanding of how things ought to be. Marx’s high-level moral perspective was therefore not unique. What he brought to the table was a model that carried exploitation all the way into the mathematics of the political economy, as a form of theft. Smith, Bentham or Malthus could have done the same. The theoretical economists of the 21st century don’t like to try it at all, downplaying the political component of their field in favour of “neutral” goals like growing the gross national income, which is safer for their careers.
Marx’s model was probably right enough at the time, in the sense that it was useful for making a lot of people much happier, but the reason why modern economists tend to avoid this sort of thing altogether is that Marx’s social perspective is only one of many possible social perspectives. Pure mathematics can never prove that use value is more intrinsic to an object than its market price, nor that it is morally wrong to kill children in the noisy dust cloud of a textile mill. Marx, knowing it to be morally wrong, arranged his formulae so as to demonstrate why the industrialists of his own time hired children anyway, and kept their wages down, preventing their growth as people. Marx’s exercise was needful and useful, but the admixture of ethics and pathos into mathematics is a risky business, in a way that colours any modern reading of the book.
Marx died in 1883, still working on the later volumes of Capital. Soon before his death, he wrote a letter to his son-in-law Paul Lafargue and the French Workers’ Party organizer Jules Guesde. Both men claimed to represent “Marxist” principles, so Marx himself accused them of “phrase-mongering”. He said to his friend and sponsor Friedrich Engels, apropos of the letter, “If one thing is certain, it is that I am not a Marxist”. Herein lies the great paradox of Capital. Marx wrote a polemic, then watched as that polemic was received as a rigid new framework, not only ready-made to replace the old, but to be vulgarized like the old, with Marx himself crucified as its figurehead. As I said, for all his compassion, his approach is solemn. It’s based on a loose material empiricism, striving to understand “how capitalist production acts on the brain-functions of capitalists and their retainers”. However, he was far from creating an accurate, deterministic and maintainable model of the world economy, and that’s not just for lack of data. In an 1873 afterword to the second German edition of Capital, he answered one of his critics on the subject of the book’s worryingly unstable epistemological basement. “My dialectic method”, Marx wrote in his defence, “is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite.” That’s a lie. He rejects the mysticism and logical incoherence of Hegel, yet he affirms that the Hegelian dialectic, a “dead dog”, “includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up”. This is why he used some of Hegel’s thinking in Capital: It was an unfashionable and therefore “punk” choice; it aligned with Marx’s ambition to see both what was and what ought to be in its place, as men like Bentham had done; and it aligned also with the relatively crude (“inevitable”) revolutionary determinism of “The Communist Manifesto” (1848). In reality, the result was not utopia. 100 years after the publication of Capital, endless parades were held on Karl-Marx-Allee in East Germany. Beyond the Allee’s pompous high-rises, workers continued to live in fear and squalor. The main difference was that these new workers lived under pictures of the author, alongside those of the communist dictators who appropriated his work.
The economists of the East German satellite state were trained to understand Marx’s labour-based theory of value—and his other models—not as the makeshift tools of a vital critical thinker, but as the truth. Infamously, they had to study Hegel like Christians study the Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE). By this time, Marx’s work was deliberately misunderstood as something akin to early ecological succession theory with its simple progression of “seres”. It had all congealed into political dogma. In the decades of East Germany’s decline and collapse, leftist academics argued hopelessly over the details. Just to name one example from the capitalist West, in the 1980s, G. E. M. de Ste. Croix and Moses Finley bickered—very politely—in articles on the economic history of classical antiquity, over just how to apply the concept of class struggle to literal slavery. They were fine scholars and agreed, as a matter of course, that they had vanishingly few statistics available with which to understand this “mode of production”, but that way, they could focus on their minor ideological differences all the better. Marx’s ideas on fetishism (covered in one chapter of the first volume, greatly expanded from its first edition) and alienation (barely covered at all in the first volume) grew in interpretation almost into a religion of capitalist mind control while late-Soviet economists carved their filigree into endless branches of inapplicable theory. Meanwhile, capitalism celebrated new triumphs.
This book—this kaleidoscope—spans hundreds of years of economic history, both before and—by association—after its writing. It’s what you call a rich tapestry. Actually reading it is an antidote to the many fallacies of its reception, all across the political spectrum from left to right. Personally, I conclude that the author would have hated what the Soviet Union ultimately became—politically, economically, and morally—just as he hated the hypocrisy of the English industrialists who pretended to believe, like Scrooge in a A Christmas Carol (1843), that any and all work is a social and personal good. The book shows how Marx instead steered close to the relevant facts and to the most commonly held moral values, not with the best scientific methods, but with everything he had to give.