I am reading Capital as part of a reading group led by @edwad, who’s incredibly dedicated to helping people understand Marxian economics and has made a very useful course of reading.
In accordance with a previous version of Edwad’s study guide, I began by reading Wage Labour and Capital (since removed from the syllabus) and then Value, Price and Profit. Notes from those will be migrated to this site later; for now they can be read at capitalmomentum.
Capital: Critique of Political Economy (Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie) was of course originally published in German. There are several translations of Capital available. I will be reading the Penguin translation, translated by Ben Fowkes in 1976. This corrects some mistakes and omissions in early translations. I’ll quote Fowkes himself:
So why is a new translation necessary? Firstly, the English language itself has changed. A translation made in the nineteenth century can hardly survive this change intact. Think only of the pejorative sense the word ‘labourer’ has taken on, making its replacement by ‘worker’ essential.
Secondly, Engels always tried to spare Marx’s readers from grappling with difficult passages. In this, he was following his friend’s example. In the Postface to the French edition, written in 1875, Marx explains that he has revised the French text in order to make it ‘more accessible to the reader’, even though the rendering presented to him by Roy was ‘scrupulously exact’, referring in justification to the French public’s impatience with theoretical discussion.
In 1975, however, after the immense effort of critical investigation into Marxism made in the last few decades, and the publication of hitherto unavailable texts, it is no longer necessary to water down Capital in order to spare the reader (who was, in any case, generally put off by the bulk of the book rather than its difficulty). Hence whole sentences omitted by Engels can be restored, and theoretical difficulties, instead of being swept under the carpet, can be exposed to the daylight, in so far as the English language is capable of this. This comment relates above all to German philosophical terms, used repeatedly by Marx in Capital, as indeed elsewhere. In translating these, I have tried not to prejudge the philosophical questions, the question of Marx’s relation to Hegel and that of the relation between his philosophy and his political economy, but rather to present a text which would permit the reader to fonn his own view.
Thirdly, it is generally agreed that Marx was a master of literary German. A translation which overlooks this will not do justice to his vivid use of the language and the startling and strong images which abound in Capital. In my translation, I have always tried to bear this element in mind. How successfully, the reader must judge.
So tl;dr: Engels cut out a bunch of stuff, Fowkes is putting it back in as well as broadly updating it.
In the Penguin edition, there’s an enormous intro by a Trotskyist called Mandel. We’ll be skipping over this.
First edition preface
Before the first chapter, a number of intros. Marx warns that the first section, on value, will be quite difficult.
The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very simple and slight in content. Nevertheless, the human mind has sought in vain for more than 2,000 years to get to the bottom of it, while on the other hand there has been at least an approximation to a successful analysis of forms which are much richer in content and more complex. Why? Because the complete body is easier to study than its cells.
Moreover, in the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both. But for bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour, or the value-form of the commodity, is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but so similarly does microscopic anatomy.
That’s an awful lot of use of the word ‘form’. Maybe later we’ll have some idea what he’s on about.
Marx has some very good lines in this intro. For example, talking about the remains of feudal relations:
In all other spheres, and just like the rest of Continental Western Europe, we suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, we are oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif!
He says that he mostly examines England because capitalism is more developed there, and because the statistics and inspections are a lot better allowing him to research it more thoroughly.
Let us not deceive ourselves about this. Just as in the eighteenth century the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so in the nineteenth century the American Civil War did the same for the European working class.
A tocsin is a signal sounded by a bell. I’m not exactly sure why Marx sees the American Civil War specifically as the tocsin for the European proletariat, but we’ll find out soon enough I guess.
In the domain of political economy, free scientific inquiry does not merely meet the same enemies as in all other domains. The peculiar nature of the material it deals with summons into the fray on the opposing side the most violent, sordid and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest. The Established Church, for instance, will more readily pardon an attack on thirty-eight of its thirty-nine articles than on one thirty-ninth of its income.
Second edition postface
The postface talks about modifications to the text and reception of the book in Germany, and the history of political economy in England, Germany and other countries. I don’t really have the context to judge many of Marx’s pronouncements.
He declares there hasn’t been a lot of study of political economy in Germany, because the capitalist mode of production was slower to develop there than England or France. They’ve mostly been aping the English and French ideas.
Since 1848, ‘capitalist production has developed rapidly in Germany’ leading to ‘the full bloom of speculation and swindling’. But it was too late for German political economy:
In so far as political economy is bourgeois, i.e. in so far as it views the capitalist order as the absolute and ultimate form of social production, instead of as a historically transient stage of development, it can only remain a science while the class struggle remains latent or manifests itself only in isolated and sporadic phenomena.
Then Marx goes on to survey England’s political economy, starting with Ricardo.
Ricardo, ultimately (and consciously) made the antagonism of class interests, of wages and profits, of profits and rent, the starting-point of his investigations, naïvely taking this antagonism for a social law of nature. But with this contribution the bourgeois science of economics had reached the limits beyond which it could not pass.
I know some orthodox economist dismissed Marx as a ‘minor post-Ricardian’ or something like that. I also know, from edwad, Ricardo had an earlier labour theory of value, distinct from Marx’s theory of value (one of the reasons that ‘the Labour Theory of Value’ (LTV) isn’t a useful term, but we should be specific and refer to Marx’s theory of value).
In any case, after Ricardo, there was fierce argument, though Marx says it’s little known on the continent. He calls this ‘unprejudiced’
although Ricardo’s theory already serves, in exceptional cases, as a weapon with which to attack the bourgeois economic system
He explains this ‘unprejudiced’ polemic by the youth of large-scale industry, and the capital-labour class struggle being ‘forced into the background’ politically by the conflict between the feudal aristocracy/government, and everyone else, ‘led by the bourgeoisie’ and economically by the conflict between ‘industrial capital and landed property’. That makes a certain amount of sense: the capitalists and proletariat are too busy overthrowing feudalism to fight over wages?
This latter quarrel was concealed in France by the antagonism between small-scale, fragmented property and big landownership, but in England it broke out openly after the passing of the Corn Laws.
The Corn Laws seem to be quite important, because Marx mentions them again in the next paragraph. They were, apparently, heavy import tariffs imposed on corn between 1815 and 1846 in order to favour domestic corn production.
In 1830, however, this changed: the feudal aristocracy was gone, and ‘the class struggle took on more and more explicit and threatening forms, both in practice and in theory’. After that, political economy was pursued to cynical ends:
It was thenceforth no longer a question whether this or that theorem was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, in accordance with police regulations or contrary to them. In place of disinterested inquirers there stepped hired prize-fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and evil intent of apologetics.
These included the Anti-Corn Law League, who ‘deluged the world’ with ‘importunate pamphlets’; Marx isn’t entirely negative about them but says they are of historical, not scientific interest, and this ended when Sir Robert Peel (famous for creating one of the first modern police forces) passed free-trade law. All that was left was a ‘shallow syncretism’ of bourgeois political economy with the ‘claims’ of the proletariat, following the ‘Continental revolution of 1848’. John Stuart Mill gets the dubious honour of being the best shallow syncretist.
Marx goes on to talk about reception of the first edition of his book. He’s not particularly impressed by the bourgeois response:
The learned and unlearned spokesmen of the German bourgeoisie tried at first to kill Das Kapital with silence, a technique which had succeeded with my earlier writings. As soon as they found that these tactics no longer fitted the conditions of the time, they wrote prescriptions ‘for tranquillizing the bourgeois mind’, on the pretext of criticizing my book. But they found in the workers’ press – see for example Joseph Dietzgen’s articles in the Volksstaat* – champions stronger than themselves, to whom they still owe a reply even now.2
With many writers I’d be inclined to accuse them of self-importance, but if anyone has earned it, it’s Marx. It’s hard to imagine someone whose writing has influenced the world more.
Marx quotes a variety of contradictory criticisms, about whether his work is metaphysical or analytical, whether it’s too Hegelian, etc. Marx quotes a long part of a review, which praised his ‘realistic’ method but called it too dialectical; Marx says being dialectical is good, actually! All those things you liked were me being really dialectical!
I still have only the vaguest idea what ‘dialectical’ means. Something to do with things changing, and contradictions.
This quote precedes a lot of Marxist rhetoric:
My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the Idea’, is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought.
Here’s another zinger:
But just when I was working at the first volume of Capital, the ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles
tag yourself, I’m the ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones.
Marx says 30 years ago, when everyone was too into Hegel, he criticised Hegel, but now everyone thinks Hegel sucks, Marx deliberately alludes to Hegel in the way he writes his book.
The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.
I believe ‘Hegel standing on its head’ is a Significant Phrase. Or at least, edwad uses an upside down picture of Hegel as an icon.
Rational and un-mystified dialectics, says Marx, are a ‘scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen’ because it implies ‘what exists’ is transient and will be destroyed.
Marx ends this preface (written in 1873) with a dire warning that the ‘general crisis’ will soon be back to ‘drum dialectics even into the heads of the upstarts in charge of the new Holy Prussian-German Empire’. Of course, this did not happen as such. Certainly, World War 1 took place and did for the Holy Prussian-German Empire, and the Russian Revolution put Marxism into everyone’s heads, about 40 years after. But the bourgeoisie seem no more likely to adopt ‘rational’ dialectics (whatever that means, exactly) than they were in 1873.
Marx notes that he made edits to the French edition on the ‘scrupulously exact’ translation, and intended to fold them back into the German version.
Third edition preface
Here Engels steps up. Marx, unfortunately, died in 1883 before he could finish revising Capital.
It was Marx’s original intention to re-write a great part of the text of the first volume, to formulate many theoretical points more exactly, to insert new ones, and to bring historical and statistical materials up to date. But his ailing condition and the urgent need to do the final editing of the second volume* induced him to give up this scheme. Only the most necessary alterations were to be made, only the insertions which the French edition (Le Capital, par Karl Marx, Paris, Lachâtre, 1873†) already contained were to be put in.
Engels is very insistent that he tried to only make the changes that Marx would. He also notes that Marx’s quotations are generally not to indicate agreement, but to show where an idea was first expressed by earlier political economists. In short, RT =/= endorsement.
English edition preface
Interestingly, Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx Aveling, and her husband, had a major role in the original English translation after the first translator couldn’t finish.
Engels writes a (really long) paragraph about the use of terminology, justifying Marx’s use of new terminology. This is, of course, going to be a much bigger jump nowadays, when orthodox economics has moved a long, long way from the time of Marx.
Engels finishes by saying that things are economically very bad in England.
The time is rapidly approaching when a thorough examination of England’s economic position will impose itself as an irresistible national necessity. The working of the industrial system of this country, impossible without a constant and rapid extension of production, and therefore of markets, is coming to a dead stop. Free-trade has exhausted its resources; even Manchester doubts this its quondam economic gospel.2 Foreign industry, rapidly developing, stares English production in the face everywhere, not only in protected, but also in neutral markets, and even on this side of the Channel.
My economic history is not good enough to compare it with what actually happened in the years between 1886 and World War 1.
Fourth edition preface
Engels fixed the quotes. There’s a very long anecdote about an argument Marx had with someone about whether a particular quote was accurate. Honestly, who cares? Apparently some nerds at Cambridge cared very much. Gotta love the old uni 😐
That brings us to the end of the prefaces; now, on to the book proper.