Marx’s Capital

May 13, 2020 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

R.G. Williams

This short essay is a study of Marx’s ‘Capital’ — specifically its place in Marx’s thought and Marx’s economics. ‘Capital’, in four volumes, represents the full development of Marx’s critique of political economy.1 ‘Capital’, in four volumes, represents Marx’s life work.2 As a series Marx’s ‘Capital’ forms the basis of many of the ideas of Marxism. In many ways ‘Capital’ remains the best analysis of Capitalism.3 The first volume, published in 1867, with the others following in the years after Marx’s death in 1883, remains a key text in the ideas of Socialist economics and Socialist politics.4 Engels called it ‘the bible of the working-class movement’.5 As a study of Capitalism, and as a critique of Capitalism, ‘Capital’ remains one of the most important books published during the 19th century. Most forms of effective Socialist politics have some basis in Marx’s critique of Capitalism — as found in ‘Capital’. ‘Capital Vol. I’ (1867) remains one of the key texts for understanding the economics, politics, and history of Capitalism, as well as for providing an effective Socialist critique of Capitalism in general. ‘Capital’ is Marx’s greatest masterpiece, and a vital part of his entire intellectual and political legacy — both in his own times and in our times. Indeed, ‘Capital’ remains one of the most important books in human history — alongside ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848).6 The four volumes of ‘Capital’ are key for Marxism — as the basis of the theory, ideas, politics, and economics of Marxism.

‘Capital’ is a great book. The specific power of ‘Capital’ comes from its deep research and its real understanding of Capitalism itself. All of the brilliant aspects of Marx’s thought and Marx’s method can be found in ‘Capital’ — especially his attempt to economically critique the real material reality of Capitalism itself. By reading ‘Capital’ we gain not only an effective critique of Capitalism but also deeper insight into Marx himself — both as a thinker and as a Socialist. ‘Capital’, as a book, in the form of Vol. I., is a masterpiece of human literature. It is full of real human vision and real human emotion. Far from being a dry book, ‘Capital’ is among the best written books of the 19th century. It is full of references to world literature and European literature — from Dante to Shakespeare. It is full of real analysis — analysis which places the real development of Capitalism in plain sight of the reader. It is also full of deep insight into the human condition under Capitalism and the possibilities of human emancipation under Socialism. Marx proved his literary genius with ‘Capital’ — especially in the form of ‘Capital Vol. I’. ‘Capital’ might be dismissed, by some, as a dry and useless book, but for the dedicated reader it remains one of the great books of our times.7

‘Capital’ is a political book. Marx wrote ‘Capital’ over the course of the 1850s and 1860s. The only volume of ‘Capital’ to be published in Marx’s lifetime was ‘Capital Vol. I’ (1867). ‘Capital’ emerged from Marx’s critique of political economy, and his work in the 1840s and 1850s. Specifically ‘Capital’ emerged out of Marx’s earlier work — ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859). ‘Capital’, in its four volumes, needs to be understood as Marx’s overall project to understand Capitalism. Indeed, ‘Capital’ emerged out of a series of research projects and writing projects conducted by Marx in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, to understand the development of Capitalism and the reality of Capitalism. ‘Capital’ was Marx’s project to outline a serious Socialist critique of Capitalism. In achieving the research and writing of ‘Capital’ Marx succeeded in this task, even if he failed to complete the project. Marx conducted the majority of research for ‘Capital’ during his exile in Britain — using the vast research library located at the British Library in London. The first volume took decades to research and write — both due to Marx’s perfectionism and his dedication to the cause of understanding the economic reality of Capitalism as a system. Marx’s own commitment to understanding Capitalism lies at the heart of ‘Capital’ — in all its volumes. The fact that the project to write ‘Capital’ took up the majority of Marx’s life, after the 1850s, is a testament to his political and literary commitment — his commitment to understand the nature of Capitalism.

The real power of ‘Capital’, as a project, is that it shows the real basis of the workings of Capitalism — the Capitalist mode of production. Marx shows, in ‘Capital’, that Capitalism is based on the exploitation of labour — through the extraction of surplus value. Marx shows this, in economic, political, and social terms, in order to provide an effective Socialist critique of Capitalism. Marx’s work, in ‘Capital’, also provides an effective outline of the economic and social reality of Capitalism, as a social system, and why it will, in the end, be replaced by Socialism.

We can, briefly, outline the publication history of the four volumes of ‘Capital’ (1867-1910), and some of the more important editions of ‘Capital’ published after 1867.8 Specifically it is vital to understand that Capital was an unfinished project by Marx. While the first volume was printed during Marx’s lifetime the subsequent volumes had to be edited together, by Engels and Kautsky, long after his death. Even when volumes II, III, and IV, were published they remained incomplete summaries of the work that Marx intended. There were also other volumes of ‘Capital’, which were planned by Marx, but which were never written, attempted, or completed.

‘Capital Vol. I’ (1867) is a critique of political economy. This volume was published by Marx in 1867. It was dedicated, by Marx, to Wilhelm Wolf, a German schoolmaster and revolutionary Communist, who died, in exile, in Switzerland in 1864. The first edition of ‘Capital Vol. I’ was printed in German, as was the second edition. A third German edition was published, by Engels, in 1883. A French edition was published in 1872-1875. An English edition, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, was published in 1887. The first volume of ‘Capital’ deals, effectively, with providing a basic outline of Marx’s own theory of Capitalism — specifically the Capitalist mode of production. This volume also shows the economic argument for why Capitalism will be replaced by Socialism.9

‘Capital Vol. II’ (1885) is a study of the process of circulation of Capital. This volume was edited and published by Engels in 1885. This volume deals, effectively, with the circulation of Capital within the Capitalist mode of production. Volume II is probably the most overlooked volume in ‘Capital’, but it is a vital volume. Volume II provides an effective Marxist outline of the reproduction and circulation of ‘Capital’, within the Capitalist mode of production. Volume II also provides a theory of Capital accumulation — which was taken up by Rosa Luxemburg, and others. Volume II also gives an excellent outline, drawn out from Volume I, about the reality of value and surplus value, under Capitalism.10

‘Capital Vol. III’ (1894) is a study of the process of Capitalist Production as a whole. This volume was edited and published by Engels in 1894. ‘Capital Vol. III’ is vital to the overall development of Marx’s economics — because it is the volume of ‘Capital’ which deals, most directly, with the theory of crisis and the reality of crisis under Capitalism. Indeed, the section on the ‘Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall’, is one of the key sections in Marx’s overall theory of economics and politics. It outlines, clearly, a fundamental part of the tendency of Capitalism to produce crisis. Volume III provides a basic outline of why Capitalism, in the end, will produce its own inevitable collapse.11

‘Capital Vol. IV’ (1905-1910) is made up of the three volumes of Marx’s ‘Theories of Surplus Value’. These were published by Karl Kautsky between 1905 and 1910. This volume contains much of Marx’s commentary on other economists and other writers on economics, such as Ricardo and Smith. As a history of economic thought, Vol. IV is just as useful as an account of the development of classical economics as it is as a critique of Capitalism. Vol. IV of ‘Capital’ is often forgotten, both by Marxists and by general readers of Marx, yet it is a vital part of ‘Capital’ as a whole. The three volumes of ‘Capital Vol. IV’ help to put Marx’s own economic project in historical context — the context of the history of political economy. Marx was always determined to ensure that his work stood in continuity with established economic thought, even if his own work was based on the ruthless critique of existing economics. If we really wish to understand ‘Capital’, as a whole, ‘Capital Vol. IV’ is just as important to read and to understand. By reading Vol. IV the reader gains a major sense of where Marx’s economics emerged from, in the history of economic thought.12

Marx’s economics, and the economic ideas of Marxism, rely heavily on ‘Capital’. ‘Capital’ is the basis of much of the real understanding of Marx’s economics. Yet ‘Capital’ is not the only part of Marx’s economics. It is merely one part of a huge amount of economic work which has been done by Marxism in the past century — both by Marx and by his supporters. The great economists of Marxism, such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Hilferding, Trotsky, Kautsky, Lange, Mandel, Pannekoek, Kliman, Harvey, Wolff, Kondratiev, Okishio, Uno, Roemer, Laibman, Sweezy, Magdoff, Baran, Foster, the Monthly Review School, Resnick, and Kalecki, all contributed to the overall development of the economics of Marxism. ‘Capital’, both as a book and as a critique of Capitalism, is the basis for Marxist economics but it is not the only text of Marxist economics. ‘Capital’ is only the beginning of Marxist economics, and countless Marxist thinkers have contributed to its ideas and its development since its first publication in 1867. Just as Marxism is a constantly evolving struggle to develop the theory and practice of working-class emancipation, Marxist economics are also evolving — constantly engaging with the reality of Capitalism, both as a process and as a system. Marxist economics relies heavily on ‘Capital’, but ‘Capital’ is not some infallible holy book. It is only by engaging with Capitalism, as Marx did, that we might understand how to overcome Capitalism itself, in economic, social, political, and historical terms. Marxist economics will continue to develop — showing us the means to really understand Capitalism and to challenge Capitalism. By developing the economic theory of Marxism, we gain not only a better understanding of Capitalism but the political means to challenge Capitalism itself.13

Reading ‘Capital’, especially ‘Capital Vol. I’, has often been described as difficult.14 Indeed, ‘Capital’ is an intimidating and long book to read — but once the reader fully engages with Marx’s method and Marx’s ideas the overall structure of the book becomes very easy to deal with. Marx even suggested that readers should start with the chapter on the working day — which helps to clarify many of Marx’s terms and Marx’s method. Marx also suggested reading ‘Capital’ over a long period of time with enough time to engage with its argument — such as in short instalments. Indeed, the first French edition of ‘Capital Vol. I’ was published in short instalments, in newspapers, between 1872 and 1875, which allowed French workers to really engage with the book and its argument. ‘Capital’ is long, but it is not difficult or impossible. If the reader really engages with the language and method of Marx, then the overall argument of ‘Capital’ becomes much easier to engage with.15

‘Capital’ is a book which needs to be read. It is certainly one of the great pieces of literature — and it reads like a great piece of literature. Marx’s ability to take difficult economic ideas and outline them into clear economic ideas is clear on every page of ‘Capital’ — especially ‘Capital Vol. I’. ‘Capital’ reads like a novel — like one of the great examples of 19th century literature — but also one which deals with the social and economic reality of Capitalism itself. Marx not only presented a work on the reality of Capitalism he presented a masterpiece of writing, one which is full of references and full of allusions to great ideas and great literature. Marx devoted the best years of his life to producing ‘Capital’ and his genius shines through on almost every page. ‘Capital Vol. I’, works on multiple levels, as a historical account, as an economic account, as a political account, and as an intellectual account of Capitalism. It presents a solid Socialist critique of Capitalism, and a solid Socialist argument for Socialism itself. The historical chapters of Vol. I, in particular, outline one of the most compelling accounts of the historical origins and historical developments of Capitalism. The chapters on accumulation, economic crisis, and the working day, still show the reality of Capitalism as it exists in the modern world. The chapter on the historical tendency of Capitalism, itself, still gives a compelling account of why Capitalism, in the end, will be replaced by Socialism — by a society based on the principle: ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.16 ‘Capital’ is a book which needs to be read and experienced — even by those who firmly reject Marx and his ideas. ‘Capital’ is one of the great masterpieces of world literature. It remains one of the greatest books ever written.17

‘Capital’ is a book about economics and politics — but it is ultimately a book about critically understanding Capitalism itself. Marx wrote ‘Capital’, in all its volumes, for a political purpose — to understand Capitalism and to critique Capitalism so that the working class could eventually overthrow it and replace it with Socialism. This means that ‘Capital’, like most books about economics, is a political book with a political goal. Marx’s emphasis on the exploitative nature of Capitalism was central to his analysis — an analysis designed to help in the political struggle to overcome Capitalism. Indeed, Marx’s greatest achievement, in ‘Capital’, was his analysis of the fundamental nature of Capitalism itself. ‘Capital’ shows, quite clearly, that Capitalism is based on a system of exploitation and oppression. Marx showed that Capitalism, through the extraction of surplus value, exploits the working class — both as individuals and as a class. This class analysis of Capitalism remains crucial — both to understanding Capitalism, as a system, and to understanding the need for Socialism. ‘Capital’ might be a book about economics, but its real power comes from its critique of Capitalism itself. Marx, as the great political economist, understood the fundamental nature of Capitalism — its nature of exploitation and oppression.18 This is the real power of Marx and Marx’s ‘Capital’.19


1. K. Marx, Capital Vol. I, (1867)
2. D. McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, (1973)
3. K. Marx, Capital Vol. I, (1867)
4. K. Marx, Capital Vol. I, (1867)
5. F. Engels, Preface to Capital Vol. I, (1886)
6. K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (1848)
7. K. Marx, Capital Vol. I, (1867)
8. K. Marx, Capital Vol. I, (1867)
9. K. Marx, Capital Vol. I, (1867)
10. K. Marx, Capital Vol. II, (1885)
11. K. Marx, Capital Vol. III, (1894)
12. K. Marx, Capital Vol. IV, (1905-1910)
13. D. Harvey, Limits to Capital, (1982)
14. F. Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital, (2008)
15. D. Harvey, Companion to Marx’s Capital, (2018)
16. K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (1848)
17. D. Harvey, Companion to Marx’s Capital, (2018)
18. D. Harvey, Companion to Marx’s Capital, (2018)
19. D. Harvey, Companion to Marx’s Capital, (2018)



Categorised in:

This post was written by R.G. Williams

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *