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150 years of Das Kapital

Liam McNulty By Liam McNulty Published on September 7, 2017

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150 years ago this month, Karl Marx published the first volume of his monumental indictment of capitalism, Das Kapital. Numerous conferences have been organised and articles written to mark this anniversary, but why does the book have such enduring appeal?

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First edition title page of Volume I (1867)

It was not always so. The fruit of many years spent labouring in the domed expanse of the British Museum Reading Room, Das Kapital was mainly ignored upon publication, outside of small socialist circles. This was much to the disappointment of the author and his close friend, collaborator and patron, Friedrich Engels. 

Before long however, Marx had returned to political activism. He established the First International, a network of assorted European radicals (including the Irish Fenian movement), though it collapsed amidst the fallout of the Paris Commune in 1871, its members hounded by police agents and demoralised by internal divisions. Yet, by the 1880s, the European socialist movement was experiencing a revival, and interest in Marx’s ideas, including in Das Kapital, increased. The book provided the intellectual grounding and weight for a growing movement to achieve a socialist transformation of society.

The centenary of the French Revolution in 1889 saw the foundation of the Second International, led by the powerful Social Democratic Party of Germany. Millions of workers learned about Marx’s critique of capitalism, if not usually directly from Das Kapital, then from a number of more popular pamphlets, such as Marx’s Wage-Labour and Capital, and Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

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Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, friends and collaborators.

In Britain, too, exposure to Das Kapital in a French translation led the eccentric former Tory Henry Mayers Hyndman to found the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which educated a general of socialist militants in a popularised, if reductionist, version of Marx’s ideas. In time, the poet, designer and revolutionary William Morris, trade union leaders Ben Tillett and Tom Mann, future Labour Party leader George Lansbury, and Irish socialist republican James Connolly all would pass through the ranks of the SDF.

But what did Das Kapital argue, and why did its ideas prove so powerful? At first glance, it seems an unlikely success. Often written in the style of German idealist philosophy (most notably Hegel, whose influence on Marx was great), with figures and equations reminiscent of classical political economy, Das Kapital is not always an easy book to read. But this can all too often be overstated. Its historical sections bristle with vivid imagery, literary references and the passion of a writer whose life project was dedicated to the cause of human emancipation. Stylistically, wrote one critic, the book “can be read as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created”.

Subtitled ‘A Critique of Political Economy’, Das Kapital took as its object the works of the classical economists – Adam Smith, David Ricardo, J. S Mill, to name a few – and subjected them to a rigorous critique. Using their own categories – those of value, price, labour, capital, and rent, for example – the German revolutionary audaciously set out, through his critique, “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.”

Firstly, Marx takes the idea of the labour theory of value (that all value is ultimately produced by human labour), common to Smith and Ricardo, and shows, on this basis, that capitalism was built on the exploitation of the working class through the appropriation of their unpaid labour. Explosively, Marx was seeking to expose “the secret of profit making”, to explain to the working-class the mechanics of its own exploitation, so that it could liberate itself.

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William Thompson's work on the surplus of labour value.

Though this revolutionary idea had existed in the socialist movement before Marx, and indeed a version of it had been expounded by the Cork-born social reformer William Thompson earlier in the century, never had it been elucidated so comprehensively and with such precision.

Workers’ labour-power, their capacity to work, Marx argued, is bought freely on the market by the capitalist i.e. workers are hired by employers. Workers’ labour-power costs a “living wage”, an amount determined by society to be equal to the minimum required for a worker to feed, clothe and reproduce herself, ready to continue working the next day. Yet, despite the ostensible equality of this market exchange, the value of what labour-power produces for the capitalist far exceeds the amount paid to the worker in wages. This difference Marx called “surplus value”, and it is the key to understanding capitalist society as a system of exploitation: workers produce more than they are paid in wages; the capitalist pockets the difference.

If this was not radical enough, Marx broke with the likes of Adam Smith, for whom capitalism was merely the expression of an innate human “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”, by arguing that capitalism was neither natural nor eternal. Rather, it was the product of very definite historical circumstances, and came in to the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”, having conquered previous social systems. It followed, then, that capitalist need not last forever. For Marx, capitalism had an inherent tendency towards crisis. Marx predicted that the dynamics of capitalism’s own development augured the following dramatic end for the system:


[The] centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

Is a book written 150 years ago relevant to us today? Many clearly think so. In 2008, when the economic crisis hit, sales of Das Kapital rocketed (albeit from a small base). German publisher Karl-Dietz reported that in October 2008 it had already sold 1,500 copies that year, a major advance on its average annual sales of 200. "Even bankers and managers are now reading 'Das Kapital' to try to understand what they've been doing to us,” the publisher's director Joern Schuetrumpf explained; “Marx is definitely 'in' right now.” Neither is it a coincidence that French economist Thomas Piketty named his bestselling work of economics ‘Capital’.

One important reason why the book is relevant is that Marx does not offer a “finished” theory of capitalist crisis, but a method of analysing the world. His analysis can, and has been, brought up to date to grapple with the problems of the modern day. This is beacuse Das Kapital was not simply an analysis of the particular capitalist society of Marx’s day, which is now far removed from our own, but a more abstract exposition of capitalism as a system in general. And now, unlike in Marx’s day, that system has become globalised.

Almost a decade on, the world economy is still reeling from the after-effects of the 2008 crash. The capitalists’ chosen solution, austerity, has bred further potential crises of its own, and created a febrile political atmosphere. Young people especially, as demonstrated by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the USA, are turning towards socialist ideas in a way not seen since the late 1960s.

Much of this sentiment, though rightfully and powerfully indignant, is still politically inchoate. We could all do much worse than to turn again, or for the first time, to Das Kapital to sharpen our ideas. 

London-based library worker, interested in modern history, socialism and Ireland.

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