150 years of Capital

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‘It is without question the most terrible missile that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie.’ – Marx

‘As long as there have been capitalists and workers on earth, no book has appeared which is of as much importance for the workers.’ – Engels

 ‘Marx caught

                                the pilferers

                                                                of surplus-value

                                                                                                with their pelf

red-handed’ – Vladimir Mayakovsky

‘This is the source, here we learnt everything together, in fits and starts, searching what is still barely intuition’ – Che Guevara

‘When I read Marx’s Capital, I understood my plays.’ – Bertolt Brecht

‘It is hard to conceive of any more devastating attack against social democracy in all its aspects than Capital.’ – Sergei Eisenstein

‘The greatest work on political economy of our age.’ – Lenin


14 September 2017 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Marx’s life's work, Capital. The truths of this titanic work have been ‘refuted’, over and over, a million times, by a gaggle of bourgeois professors since its birth, yet its conclusions continue to be confirmed, decade after decade, by crisis-ridden capitalism. Why is Capital so important to the revolutionary socialist movement? Capital is a ‘Critique of Political Economy’, according to Marx’s subtitle. Why are we talking about ‘Political Economy’ at all? Why should we be criticising it? What has it got to do with the practical work of fighting for socialism?

Political economy of the working class

Back in 1848, when Marx and Engels were cutting their revolutionary teeth, Europe was burning with revolution. Across the European continent the middle class, the bourgeoisie, was rising against the constraints of feudalism. The working class rose with them. Marx was in Germany, editing a revolutionary newspaper called the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, while Engels was learning infantry tactics and drilling, arms in hand with other German revolutionaries. The 1848 revolutions failed; the bourgeoisie, scared of the power and potential of the rising working class, compromised with the feudalists and reaction set in. As Marx describes it ‘all party organisations and party journals of the working classes were, on the Continent, crushed by the iron hand of force, the most advanced sons of labour fled in despair to the Transatlantic Republic, and the short-lived dreams of emancipation vanished before an epoch of industrial fever, moral marasme, and political reaction.’[1]

Marx was banned in Belgium, expelled successively from Germany and then France, ending up in London. Convinced that the movement had been crushed for the time being, Marx settled down in the British Museum to investigate political economy, which he had been studying since the early 1840s. ‘I have got far enough’, he confidently wrote to Engels in April 1851, ‘to finish the whole economic crap in five weeks. And, when that is finished, I will write out the "economy" at home and launch myself into another science’.[2] As we now know, ‘the whole economic crap’ took him considerably longer – Capital was published in 1867 – and in fact, he never finished it himself. Meanwhile, the working class movement in Britain made some unspectacular but important gains in the Factory Acts, which limited the length of the working day, and instituted other protections. When, in 1864, the revival of the working class movement in continental Europe and the strength of the British trade unions combined to found the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), the ‘First International’, Marx described the Ten Hours’ Bill as ‘the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class’.[3]

What is this ‘political economy of the working class’? Marx contrasted ‘the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class.’[4] In other words, the blind workings of the law of value versus the planned economy, of capitalism versus socialism.

But it is more than that: the political economy of the working class has a number of facets. One facet is a policy of reforms, such as the restriction of hours, health and safety legislation, the right to a job, unemployment and welfare insurance, the right to organise and to strike, whose promotion expands the power of the working class, and, to a certain extent, asserts ‘social production controlled by social foresight’, as Marx put it, within the capitalist economy.

Another facet is its scientific character. Marx did for political economy what Copernicus did for astronomy. The sun appears to circle the earth: in the morning it appears in the East, rises, moving overhead and then disappears in the West. Contrary to appearances, Copernicus asserted the direct opposite: that the Sun does not circle the Earth, but that the Earth circles the Sun. Marx did the same for the capitalist economy – insisting, against appearances, that its inner workings were driving it towards crisis. ‘The vulgar economist’, Marx’s abbreviated term for the political economists of the middle class, ‘has not the faintest idea that the actual everyday exchange relations can not be directly identical with the magnitudes of value … the vulgar economist thinks he has made a great discovery when, as against the revelation of the inner interconnection, he proudly claims that in appearance things look different. In fact, he boasts that he holds fast to appearance, and takes it for the ultimate. Why then have any science at all?’ Marx rhetorically asked his friend Kugelmann in his famous letter of 11 July 1868. [5]

People who glibly remark that ‘there’s no magic money tree’, can equally cheerfully talk about machines or sums of money ‘making’ a profit, without being thought insane. Going behind appearances Marx showed that it is not some mystical property of things that was responsible for profits, but that they come from the production of surplus-value, the result of unpaid, surplus-labour on the part of the worker exploited by capital. They are the result of a social relationship of exploitation, not a property of things. This was an insight gained by going behind appearances, something Marx stresses over and over in Capital, on page after page, to the point where he wrote a whole section on this critical issue, ‘The Fetishism of Commodities’, which appears at the end of the very first chapter of his monumental work. The entire work is a relentless penetration of appearances, exposure and unfolding of the inner essence, the inner workings of capital. This, too, is the political economy of the working class.

 ‘But the matter has another background’, Marx explained. He was not interested simply in establishing scientific truths in the abstract: the truth was necessary to fight bourgeois politics in the workers’ movement. ‘Once the interconnection is grasped, all theoretical belief in the permanent necessity of existing conditions collapses before their collapse in practice. Here, therefore, it is absolutely in the interest of the ruling class to perpetuate this senseless confusion. And for what other purpose are the sycophantic babblers paid, who have no other scientific trump to play save that in political economy one should not think at all?’[6] Ending senseless confusion in the movement was the reason Marx developed his ‘Critique of Political Economy’.

Even before Capital was published, Marx was using its arguments to support workers’ struggles. In April 1865, John Weston, a member of the General Council of the First International was arguing that the amount of wages paid the worker determined the value of commodities, and that if capitalists increase wages, then they will increase the price of commodities accordingly, leaving the worker no better off. Describing this as ‘Inane’, Marx wrote to Engels, that this was the result of ‘attaching itself only to the most superficial external appearance’.[7]

Citizen Weston drew the logical conclusions of his theory, based on appearances, and asserted that ‘a general rise in the rate of wages would be of no use to the workers’ and that ‘therefore … the trade unions have a harmful effect’. Marx believed that if these ideas were accepted ‘we should be turned into a joke both on account of the trade unions here and of the infection of strikes which now prevails on the Continent’. Accordingly Marx undertook to criticise Weston’s views and expound for the first time in public his own theories, in two lectures to the General Council which were later published as Wages, Price and Profit. Thus, at a critical juncture (there was at the time ‘a general clamour for a rise of wages’[8]) Marx delved into political economy to fight bourgeois politics in the movement (‘The first part was an answer to Weston’s inanities, the second a theoretical dispute’[9]). The next year, 1866, Marx collaborated with the revolutionary tailor, Georg Eccarius on a series of articles criticising the political economy of John Stuart Mill, the bourgeois liberal socialist who was influential amongst the British trade unionists, the right wing of the IWMA.[10] This is another example of the political economy of the working class.

Defenders of capitalism and the ruling class within the movement rely for their politics on ‘common sense’ which denies the reality behind appearances, and confuses social relations with the properties of things. Thus racism is seen, not as the result of social relations under imperialism, but simply as a psychological problem. Women’s oppression becomes a property of gender, not a condition perpetuated by capitalist social relations. The policy of austerity is seen as a choice, as an option, selected thanks to the ill will of capitalists, not a necessity forced on them by the crisis tendencies of capital. If it were the former, it could be reformed away; if the latter, reform of capitalism is impossible and there is no choice but to abolish capitalism entirely.

This is something we have seen over and over in the movement: the ruling class, and its defenders within the working class did not simply give up when Marx demonstrated the flaws in their theory. They would repeat the same falsehoods to the working class in different garb, and redouble their defence of capitalism. It is necessary to assert repeatedly the political economy of the working class against the political economy of the middle class, against vulgar economy. Marx did it in 1865, against Weston’s ideas, against John Stuart Mill, and, at much greater length, in his wholesale assault on capitalism. Already in 1859, he explained how it was directed against petit-bourgeois influence in the movement: ‘In these [first] two chapters, the basis of Proudhonist socialism now fashionable in France … will be run into the ground. Communism must above all dispose of this “false brother”.’[11] Even before the German edition was published, he was keen to get a French translation of Capital published swiftly to combat the influence of petit-bourgeois socialism in the French workers’ movement: ‘I consider it very important to emancipate the French from the false beliefs in which Proudhon … has buried them.’[12] In 1875, Marx criticised the German Social Democrats (‘Social Democrats’ was the name then given to Marxist parties) for numerous concessions to Lassalleanism, another variety of petit-bourgeois socialism, in their unity programme. In his critique of their draft ‘Gotha programme’ (‘a thoroughly objectionable programme that demoralises the Party’[13]), Marx drew upon his critique of political economy to refute its numerous errors.

It is almost as if there were a law: every generation has to do this, it seems – to revisit Capital in order to assert anew the revolutionary truth about capitalism, to develop revolutionary policy and to fight anti-working class trends. In the 1890s, in Russia, Lenin had to confront the Narodniks who argued that capitalism was a foreign importation into Russia, and that socialism should be built natively, based on the peasant commune, and that revolutionaries should ‘go amongst the people’ – the peasantry. Drawing on Capital, Lenin organised a vast amount of empirical data to show how capitalism was already developing in Russia[14] and that therefore revolutionaries should base themselves on the working class and work for a socialist revolution.

In Germany, in 1898, Eduard Bernstein, a prominent member of the Social Democrats (then a Marxist socialist party), argued that ‘anything resembling a simultaneous and total collapse of the present system of production becomes less likely rather than more’.[15] Rosa Luxemburg retorted that ‘if we assume with Bernstein that the development of capitalism is not pushing towards its own downfall, then socialism ceases to be objectively necessary’.[16] Socialism would not be necessary to avoid crises and immiseration, but simply be a subjective choice. The debate raged over these and related issues, especially the question of imperialism, for two decades, with contributions from Karl Kautsky, Otto Bauer and many other prominent Marxists.[17] In 1929, Henryk Grossman, a communist, critiqued the entire debate[18] for its failure to understand and apply Marx’s method from Capital and insisted that capitalism was heading to a breakdown due to overaccumulation. Capitalism had the final say when, later that year, it plunged into the Great Depression.

In the winter of 1915, even as the Scottish working class was engaged in rent strikes and the struggle against labour dilution and conscription, John Maclean, the great Scottish revolutionary, had a regular attendance of almost 500 workers at his weekly class on Marxian economics in Glasgow (textbook – Capital).

In Soviet Russia, beginning in 1924, a debate raged about industrialisation, drawing on categories from Capital. The rate of industrialisation, the relationship to the world economy, policy toward agriculture and the peasantry were the main issues. Evegeny Preobrazhensky, Lev Shanin, Nikolai Bukharin, Vladimir Bazarov, Stanislav Strumilin and others debated the best way forward for the Soviet Economy.[19] This debate ended abruptly, partly due to academic rivalry and partly due to suppression by a bureaucratised Communist Party.

In embattled Cuba, in 1963-65, Che Guevara led the ‘great debate’[20] on questions of political economy relevant to the struggle to build socialism, followed by his critique of the Soviet Manual of Political Economy. Both drew deeply on the categories developed in Capital. This was not an academic debate but related deeply to the planning and management process, technology and other questions.[21]

In 1971 the tendency that became the RCG was born in a controversy inside the ‘International Socialists’ (later renamed the Socialist Workers Party). David Yaffe produced his devastating critique of the IS/SWP, ‘State Expenditure and the Marxian Theory of Crisis’,[22] which destroyed its theory of a so-called ‘Permanent Arms Economy’. That theory was based on the neo-Ricardian critique of Marx, and abandoned Marx’s political economy leading to their adoption of a basically bourgeois Keynesian analysis of capitalism which implied that capitalism could avoid economic crisis.

All these were debates over the ‘Political Economy of the Working Class’, what it is at a given time and place. A political economy of the working class must go behind appearances and develop a theory of the state of capitalism, provide a criticism of the ‘political economy of the middle class’, and criticise and expose versions of this inside the movement in order to develop an independent working class policy.

Capital is not an easy or brief book, but it contains the tools we must use to defeat our enemies within the working class. So, just at the point when our enemies are busy claiming, yet again, that they have refuted Capital, we return to study this remarkable work, and use Marx’s method to forge anew the weapons of struggle for our time.

Steve Palmer


[1] Marx ‘Inaugural Address of the Working Men’s International Association’, Selected Works 2, Moscow, 1969, p15. The ‘Address’ was written in October 1864.

[2] Marx to Engels, 2 April 1851, Letters on Capital, London, 1983, p27.

[3] Marx, Address, p16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Marx to Kugelmann, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1975, pp209-210. Lenin remarked: ‘It is only to be hoped that everyone who begins to study Marx and read Capital will read and re-read this letter when studying the first and most difficult chapters of that book.’ Collected Works 12, p105.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Marx to Engels, 20 May 1865, Selected Correspondence, p175.

[8] Marx, Wages, Price and Profit, Selected Works 2, p31.

[9] Marx to Engels, 24 June 1865, Letters on Capital, p95. Marx placed the highest importance on his work on Capital and ‘skipped working on my reply’ because ‘I thought it more important to continue writing my book, and must therefore rely on improvisation’! Ibid p94. A year later he skipped attending the Geneva Congress of the IWMA because he thought that working on Capital was ‘much more important for the working class than anything I could do personally at any Congress’. Ibid, p99.

[10] See Johann Georg Eccarius, ‘A Working Man's Refutation of Some Points of Political Economy Endorsed and Advocated by John Stuart Mill’, available in the MIA at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/eccarius/1866/xx/mill.htm .

[11] Marx to Weydemeyer, 1 February 1859, Letters on Capital, p65.

[12] Marx to Büchner, 1 May 1867, Letters on Capital, p103

[13] Marx to Bracke, 5 May 1875, Selected Works 3, p11.

[14] Lenin ‘The Development of Capitalism in Russia’, Collected Works, 3, Moscow, 1971. The early volumes of his works are full of articles and pamphlets criticising the political economy of the Narodniks and of the Liberals.

[15] ‘The Theory of Collapse and Colonial Policy’ in H and J M Tudor, Marxism and Social Demoracy: The Revisionist Debate, Cambridge 1988, p167. This book is an excellent selection and translation of contributions from all sides of the debate.

[16] ‘The Method’, ibid, pp250-251. The arguments of the principle protagonists are collected in Eduard Bernstein, The Pre-Conditions of Socialism, Cambridge 1993; Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Reform or Revolution’, in Selected Political Writings, London, 1971, both available in alternative translations at the MIA.

[17]The debate flared up anew on the eve of the First World War, when Luxemburg published her book, Accumulation of Capital, Collected Works 2, London, 2015. See also Richard B Day and Daniel Gaido (eds) Discovering Imperialism, Chicago, 2012, for other contributions.

[18] Available in abbreviated form in Henryk Grossmann, Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System, London, 1992, and at the MIA. A full English translation is in the process of being published as part of Grossman’s Selected Works.

[19] Evegeny Preobrazhensky, New Economics, Oxford, 1965; Nicolas Spulber (ed), Foundations of Soviet Strategy for Economic Growth, Bloomington IN, 1964; Alexander Erlich, The Soviet Industrialization Debate 1924-1928, Cambridge MA, 1960, are the best sources in English for this debate. See also SG Solomon The Soviet Agrarian Debate, Boulder CO, 1977.

[20] Helen Yaffe, ‘Che Guevara and the Great Debate’, Science & Society, vol 76, No 1, January 2012, 11–40 surveys the debate; Bertram Silverman (ed) Man and Socialism in Cuba: The Great Debate, New York, 1971 collects contributions in English translation.

[21] See Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: the Economics of Revolution, London, 2009

[22] Available at the MIA: https://www.marxists.org/subject/economy/authors/yaffed/1971/semtc.pdf. This is reproduced from the original page proofs of the article as typeset for the then theoretical journal of IS – International Socialism. The article, which had already been accepted for the journal, was suddenly yanked when the IS leadership realised that it did not parrot the official line! This article, incidentally, introduced British readers to the arguments of Henryk Grossman and Roman Rosdolsky for the first time, and emphasised Paul Mattick’s contributions to Marxist political economy.