— Arindam Sen
Liberation joins the international celebration of 150 years of Karl Marx’s Magnum Opus at a time when the dominant discourse around possible ways and means for reversing the recently reported distinct decline in Indian economy and for overcoming the stubborn stagnation and threats of deflation in advanced economies, for all its grandiloquence, are proving to be absolutely hollow and ineffectual. The best minds and large sections of popular masses everywhere — including even Brexit Britain and Trump-in America — are looking for a life beyond capitalism. In this context, the seminal work that scientifically demonstrated the transient nature of capitalism and also how it creates the objective as well as subjective conditions necessary for a transition to socialism, assumes extraordinary importance.
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August 16, 1867,
2 o’clock at night
“Have just finished correcting the last sheet (49th) of the book. … So this volume is finished. It was thanks to you alone that this became possible. Without your self-sacrifice for me I could never possibly have done the enormous work for the three volumes. I embrace you, full of thanks!
Enclosed two sheets of clean proofs.
The £ 15 received with best thanks.
Greetings, my dear, beloved friend!
A month later on 14 September, Volume I of Das Kapital (first German edition) rolled out of the press, to be followed by Volumes II and III in 1885 and 1894 respectively. The publication signified nothing short of a silent revolution on the theoretical plane, and the world would never be the same again.
Product of a Lifetime of Research
The “critique of (bourgeois) political economy” occupied the best part of Marx’s lifelong research and was made available to us in titles like Economic And Philosophical Manuscripts Of 1844, Contribution To A Critique Of Political Economy, Grundrisse (Foundations Of The Critique Of Political Economy), Theories Of Surplus Value (originally conceived as Volume IV of Capital) and of course, Das Kapital: A Critique Of Political Economy. Among the sparkling gems certainly the brightest – the Koh-i-Noor is Capital. It is the most authentic exposition of the Marxian economic theory meticulously crafted over more than three decades.
Initially greeted with a “conspiracy of silence” by the German bourgeoisie, Vol. I soon became the most discussed and debated work, calling for a second edition in four years. The Russian edition — the first translation of Capital into any foreign language — came out on March 27, 1872 in an edition of 3,000 copies, a fairly large one for those days. The tsarist censor allowed the publication in the belief that “few people in Russia would read, let alone understand it”. However, by the end of the year almost the whole edition was sold out. The French edition, containing a number of changes and additions, came out between 1872 and 1875 in separate parts, while the English edition was published in 1886.
In 1867 itself, Marx started giving final shape to the rest of the manuscripts which were to make up the other volumes of Capital. First and foremost, he made a deeper study of agrarian relations and of new economic developments in different countries. He collected almost all relevant material from friends in countries like the US, Russia, Belgium, France and Germany (as for literature available in English, the British Museum Library in London fulfilled most of his needs) and took extensive notes – naturally by hand and without an aide.
The high standards in theoretical work Marx set for himself stands out in bold relief from his letters to comrades. On October 7, 1868, he wrote to Nikolai Danielson, then a revolutionary Narodnik, saying that he was unable to prepare Vol. II for press “until certain official studies begun in France, the United States and England last year (and 1866), are completed or published”. Engels had very good reason to speak highly of the “unparalleled conscientiousness and strict self-criticism with which he [Marx] endeavoured to elaborate his great economic discoveries to the point of utmost completion before he published them”, adding, “This self-criticism rarely permitted him to adapt his presentation of the subject, in content as well as in form, to his ever widening horizon, the result of incessant study.” (Preface to the First Edition of Vol. II).
At the end of 1869, Marx began to learn Russian. A year later (incidentally, Lenin was born in 1870) he wrote to Siegfried Meyer: “The result was worth the effort that a man of my age must make to master a language differing so greatly from the classical, Germanic, and Romance language groups. The intellectual movement now taking place in Russia testifies to the fact that fermentation is going on deep below the surface. Minds are always connected by invisible threads with the body of the people.” (Emphasis added). The revolutionary intuition of the genius would prove prophetic. In 1880 Marx observed with satisfaction that Capital was being read and praised more highly in Russia than anywhere else. Later, as we know, the proletariat in that country would be the first in the world to successfully apply the lessons of Capital in practice.
Almost submerged though in the critique of political economy, “Marx was, above all, a revolutionary”, as Engels famously stated at his friend’s graveside. Naturally he always had other political tasks on hand. On November 24, 1871, he wrote to Cesar De Paepe, a leader of the Belgian working-class movement, “I often wonder whether the time has not come for me to withdraw from the General Council. As the Association grows, I have to put in ever more time and, after all, Capital must be completed sooner or later.” Indeed, the work on Capital and leadership of the IWA (1864-73 – the peak period of engagement with Capital) were two entirely different fields of activism. And yet Marx — who was no longer young, frequently ill and almost always tormented by perennial penury and everyday worries – took care of both with tremendous energy.
Did Marx show a lax attitude about completing the project? The very opposite is true. But he was not prepared to make compromises when it came to scientific accuracy and consistency. For this reason, and also because of various ailments caused mainly by overwork, he had to slow down a bit since the 1870s. The following excerpts from his letter to Danielson, dated April 10, 1879, opens up for us a window into his mind and his situation:
“Firstly: I should under no circumstances have published the second volume before the present English industrial crisis had reached its climax. The phenomena are this time singular, in many respects different from what they were in the past….It is therefore necessary to watch the present course of things until their maturity …”
“Secondly: The bulk of materials I have not only from Russia, but from the United States, etc., make it pleasant for me to have a ‘pretext’ of continuing my studies instead of winding them up finally for the public.
“Thirdly: My medical adviser has warned me to shorten considerably my ‘working day’ if I were not desirous to relapse into the state of 1874 and the following years where I got giddy and unable to proceed after a few hours of serious application.”
Thus continued the epic struggle for producing and perfecting the most terrible missile ever aimed at the heads of the bourgeoisie and the landowners, as the author himself once put it. Shortly before his death, Marx asked his daughter Eleanor to pass the whole lot of manuscripts to Engels, who was to “make something” out of them.
Engels immediately set out on this task and devoted the best part of the remaining twelve years of his life to it, often putting off his own theoretical pursuits. It proved to be a truly Herculean task. “Thoughts were jotted down as they developed in the brain of the author. Some parts of the argument would be fully treated, others of equal importance only indicated. Factual material for illustration would be collected, but barely arranged, much less worked out. At conclusions of chapters, in the author‘s anxiety to get to the next, there would often be only a few disjointed sentences to mark the further development here left incomplete. And finally there was the well-known handwriting which the author himself was sometimes unable to decipher.” (Engels’s Preface to the First Edition of Vol. II) He took care to do this “exclusively in the spirit of the author”, modestly declaring that he confined his work wherever possible to the “mere selection of a text from the available variants”. (Ibid) Actually, the work Engels had done was so huge, Lenin later commented that the second and third volumes must be regarded as the work of the two comrades. Even in respect to Vol. I, Marx in his letter of 16 August, 1867 did not at all exaggerate the assistance rendered by Engels, which was never limited to financial help. In point of fact, “the three volumes” (as Marx wrote in that midnight letter) was indeed a joint achievement of the two bosom friends always working together, with abundant help from many other comrades including, of course, members of the Marx family.
Engels spent almost ten years giving Vol. III its final shape. Eventually, Vol. II was published in 1885 and Vol. III in 1894. Next year, Marx’s closest comrade-in-arms breathed his last.
Content, Structure, and Method
“In his Capital”, Lenin points out, “Marx first analyses the simplest, most ordinary and fundamental, most common and everyday relation of bourgeois (commodity) society, a relation encountered billions of times, viz. the exchange of commodities. In this very simple phenomenon (in this “cell” of bourgeois society) analysis reveals all the contradictions (or the germs of all the contradictious) of modern society. The subsequent exposition shows us the development (both growth and movement) of these contradictions and of this society in the summation of its individual parts, from its beginning to its end.” (“On the Question of Dialectics”, Philosophical Notebooks, Collected Works, Moscow, Vol.38).
This exposition brings out the twofold nature of all economic categories — commodity, labour, money, capital and so on — and, proceeding from appearance to essence, shows us how the capitalist system actually functions. In Vol. I, Marx investigates “the process of production of capital” (mark it, he does not say production of commodities but that of capital, which constitutes a relation between buyers and sellers of labour power for the production of commodities — a specific, historically evolved relation which ensures the generation of surplus value, the hallmark of the capitalist mode of production) keeping aside the sphere of circulation of capital. That sphere or process he takes up in Vol. II, and in Vol. III describes “the process of capitalist production as a whole”. The scarlet thread running through the three volumes — which must be studied as a composite whole — remains surplus value, with the first dealing with its generation and accumulation, the second with its realization and the third, with its distribution among different strata/sections of the capitalist class. All through, the author sticks to the historical materialist approach and shows that the rapid development of the capitalist system does not eliminate its inherent contradictions. Rather, it sharpens them, and at the same time creates the conditions necessary for their resolution in a revolutionary way.
In sum, Capital demonstrates with scientific precision and in minute detail what the Communist Manifesto (CM) had proclaimed nearly twenty years before: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and disturbance distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” In the process “an epidemic of over-production” occurs, “the conditions of bourgeois society” prove to be “too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them” and the time comes for this order to be overthrown by its grave-diggers – the modern proletariat.
But why is Marx’s magnum opus, unlike the CM which is a great page-turner, such a difficult read? Actually the difficulty lies not in the language, which is as attractive, penetrating and powerful as in any other Marxian text. It lies in the method of presentation: Marx’s distinctive dialectical method which is based on Hegelian dialectics “stripped of its mystical form” and “turned right side up again”, i.e., placed on a solid materialist foundation. This method is one of “ascending from the abstract to the concrete” (Grundrisse, Introduction, “The Method of Political Economy”) – which Marx considered to be the only scientific way to explore and lay bare a complex, multi-layered concrete reality like a capitalist society. But this is something which most of us, being uninitiated or scantly initiated in dialectics, find rather hard to follow. Marx himself acknowledged the difficulty (see box) but insisted that it could not be helped, because only by scientifically piercing through the “outward appearances of economic relations”, which are “understandable to the popular mind”, could one discover the hidden truth. “All science,” he asserted, “would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.” (Capital, Vol. Ill, Chapter 48.)
Any serious reader of Capital, anyone really interested in understanding capitalism’s basic laws of motion hidden under contradictory surface phenomena, must be prepared for this “fatiguing climb”. And once the ‘summit’ is gained, the hard labour will certainly turn out to be more rewarding than expected. For Capital is much, much more than an economic work, providing as it does key insights into the other component parts of Marxism: materialist dialectics and scientific socialism.
Can Capital Explain the Trends and Features of Contemporary Capitalism?
Does Marx’s analysis of the basic features and fundamental contradictions of capitalism hold good today?
In examining the current relevance (or lack of it) of an old classic, the conventional method is to test its basic propositions on the touchstone of present-day reality. But a more straightforward and reliable method, at least in the present context, would be to take up the most crucial or distinctive features of capitalist economy in our era and see how far the laws of motion of capitalist society enumerated by Marx help explain them. Before we proceed to do that in Part II of the present article, a couple of caveats should be in order.
First, when we talk of this or that economic law, we must remember this: “… under capitalist production, the general law acts as the prevailing tendency only in a very complicated and approximate manner, as a never ascertainable average of ceaseless fluctuations”. The absolute “realisation of a law, that is, its realisation in each concrete case,” is “checked, retarded, and weakened, by counteracting circumstances”. (Vol. III, Chapter 9; emphasis ours).
Second, quite apart from the obvious need to substantially expand our understanding of capitalism in light of developments that occurred during the past 150 years, it is especially necessary to keep in mind the fact that Marx never completed his mega project. His literary executor, consistent with the highest standards of proletarian morality and also out of limitless reverence for his departed friend, refused to take the liberty to put his own words in the author’s mouth.4 So there are several gaps and silences in Volumes II and III, and the incompleteness of the work stands out with a tinge of sadness when Vol. III ends abruptly, followed by Engels’s insertion in parenthesis: “Here the manuscript breaks off.” For this special reason also, we cannot take everything in Capital as the last word in Marxian economic theory; there is much in it that is not definitive but indicative, i.e., in the nature of a pathfinder, a guide to independent exploration in the spirit of Marx.
[To be continued.]
1. The International Working Men’s Association or IWA
2. Bourgeois society is ‘commodity society’ (where commodity production predominates) in the sense that unlike in earlier epochs, nearly everything – from food and cloth to fighter bombers and life-saving drugs, including even human labour power –becomes a commodity under the capitalist mode of production.
3. In many places the CM anticipates Capital, and very succinctly at that, so it might be a good idea for beginners to read the little masterpiece before taking up the Magnum Opus. Marx’s Preface to An Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy would also help matters.
4. “It has been said”, wrote Engels explaining his position,“that I should have converted the material available to me into a systematically written book … in other words, sacrifice the authenticity of the text to the reader’s convenience. But … I lacked all justification for such a revision, a man like Marx has the right to be heard himself, to pass on his scientific discoveries to posterity in the full genuineness of his own presentation. Moreover, I had no desire thus to infringe – as it must seem to me – upon the legacy of so pre-eminent a man; it would have meant to me a breach of faith.” (Vol III, Supplement by Frederick Engels, Introduction)