Capital: ‘There’s nothing remotely like it’
Francis Wheen's 'biography' of Capital – part of the Books that Shook the World series – reminds us why Marx's classic is so unique.
Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography, Francis Wheen, London: Atlantic (Books that Shook the World series), 2006.
I first read Capital when I was a student in the mid-Seventies. The onset of recession and an upsurge of trade union militancy after 30 years of postwar boom and political stability provoked a wave of interest in Marxism and the Marxist theory of capitalist crisis.
In his excellent ‘biography’ of Marx’s classic work (to which he gives its original German title), Francis Wheen, following his sympathetic ‘carbuncles and all’ biography of Marx, notes how the popularity of Marx’s Capital has fluctuated according to the cyclical rhythms of the capitalist economy. In periods of slump, in the 1870s and 1880s, and in the interwar years, ‘catastrophist’ interpretations of Marx’s work as a theory of the inevitability of capitalist collapse were in the ascendant. While those of a conservative disposition supported whatever measures seemed necessary to bolster the existing order, many radicals believed that they simply had to wait for capitalist breakdown to usher in a new order of society. By contrast, in periods of boom, in the decades before the First World War and after the Second, ‘harmonist’ theorists argued that events had refuted Marx’s gloomy prognosis. They claimed that the capitalist system had overcome its disintegrative trends through imperialist expansion and state intervention. Many socialists now abandoned the goals of revolution in favour of the pursuit of reforms within the existing system.
In Britain in the Seventies the emergence of inflation and unemployment rapidly exposed the political weakness of the labour movement and had a disorienting impact on the left. While catastrophists greeted every bankruptcy as the harbinger of revolution, harmonists insisted that the welfare state and military expenditure had stabilised the system and bought off the working class, necessitating the quest for a new agency of change. It was at this moment that I fell in with a small group of people who repudiated both these facile arguments and the philistine approach towards theory on which they were based. They recognised that, if we were to acquire a deeper grasp of the dynamics of capitalist society, instead of merely spouting Marxist slogans it was necessary to embark on a deeper study of Marx.
So we read Capital. When I say we read Capital, I mean we read Capital, in a group, out loud, line by line, paragraph by paragraph (at least in the early chapters), discussing and arguing over every page, through volumes one, two and three, even unto ‘Theories of Surplus Value’, sometimes referred to as ‘volume four’. In retrospect, this approach sounds rather like that of students of the Bible, the Talmud or the Koran, but this was not a process of rote-learning, rather one of active collective engagement with the most important attempt to capture the process of capitalist development in theory. I have never read any other book in this way, but, as Wheen observes, Capital is unique, there is ‘nothing remotely like it’: Capital is ‘entirely sui generis’. Numerous academic commentators have observed that reading Capital is not easy, but, as Marx observed, ‘beginnings are always difficult in all sciences’, and Capital above all offers an intensive introduction to Marx’s dialectical method. ‘I assume, of course’, Marx wrote to Engels, ‘a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself.’
In Capital, subtitled ‘a critical analysis of capitalist production’, Marx does not present a theory of capitalist crisis as such, but seeks to capture the process of reproduction of capitalist society in its totality. Capital analyses the dynamics of capitalist production and reveals the limitations of capitalism as a mode of production in its incapacity to develop consistently the productive potential of society and achieve social progress. Marx’s dialectical method aims to depict in a theoretical form the development of a social system which is simultaneously a process of producing the material needs of society and a process for ensuring the profitable expansion of value.
Capital begins, famously, with the commodity, ‘the simplest social form in which the product of labour in capitalist society presents itself’. Marx explores the twofold character of the commodity, as use-value and exchange-value, revealing in an elementary form the contradictory character of capitalist production. This contradictory character deepens with the development of the money form, discussed in the third chapter. The separation of economic processes into two phases – production and exchange – implies ‘the possibility, and no more than the possibility, of crises’. However, ‘the conversion of this mere possibility into reality is the result of a long series of relations’ that are the subject of the rest of the work, as it proceeds from the simplest and most fundamental concepts to more complex and developed categories, ascending from the abstract to the concrete.
For Marx, the distinctive feature of capitalism is the way in which the labour of society is allocated between different branches of production through the exchange of commodities as equivalents, as exchange values. The law of value operates in capitalist society as the only possible, albeit indirect, mechanism through which social labour can be distributed. Hence under capitalism the social character of labour appears as the objective character of the products of labour; social relations between people appear – and can only appear – as relations between things. Just as market relations conceal the operation of the law of value, the money form conceals the social character of labour and the social relations between producers. As a result, human beings are dominated by the products of their own labour, objects are endowed with supernatural qualities and money acquires divine power. Marx emphasises that the objective economic basis of this ‘fetishism of commodities’ meant that it could only be abolished through a fundamental reorganisation of society:
‘[T]he life process of material production does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.’
Marx shows how the process of capital accumulation tends towards falling profitability expressed in periodic crises. However, contrary to the interpretations of many admirers as well as critics, Marx does not advance a mechanistic thesis of collapse or predict the inevitable downfall of capitalism. He recognises that crises are both an expression of declining profitability and a mechanism for restoring it. He identifies a series of counteracting tendencies to the dominant disintegrative dynamic of capitalism. His analysis supports neither fatalists eagerly anticipating the fall of capital nor those who believe that revolutionary will is in itself sufficient to bring the system to an end. The key factor in the fate of capitalism was the role of class struggle, as the subjective bearer of change in the objective conditions given by the tendency towards breakdown.
Reading Capital provided an invaluable methodological training as we engaged in the campaigns of the late Seventies and the Eighties, seeking to give organisational expression to an anti-capitalist outlook. Having gone back to Marx, we were able to move forward to attempt to grasp new developments in capitalist society through discovering the mediating links between appearances and the inner movement of capital, in the process developing the basic elements of an anti-capitalist programme.
By the late Eighties, however, the dialectic of subject and object had swung decisively in favour of capitalist stabilisation. The historic defeat of the working-class movement that emerged in the 1840s, when Marx began work on Capital, became complete, inaugurating an unprecedented period of capitalist hegemony. Now that Capital had apparently lost its subversive potential, it once again became popular, even trendy. In that brief moment of capitalist triumphalism in the early Nineties, Marx was celebrated as the prophet of globalisation and patron of turbo-charged capitalism. Yet before long, Marx’s catastrophist themes were once again in vogue, as gloomy promoters of apocalyptic scenarios endorsed Marx’s warnings of the environmentally destructive and socially corrosive consequences of capitalist enterprise. Yet Marx anticipated the transcendence of the capitalist order through the quest for the higher development of the productive potential of society. He never envisaged an era of decadence in which the capitalist system would curtail its own development in the pursuit of fashionable nostrums such as ‘sustainability’ or ‘environmental protection’.
Francis Wheen provides a useful introduction to Capital, setting this great work in both its historical context and in the context of the life of its author. He writes perceptively on ‘Capital as literature’, noting its elements of the Gothic novel, Victorian melodrama, black farce, Greek tragedy and satirical utopia. He observes that Capital is ‘saturated with irony’, and that its metaphorical style, its ‘abstruse explanations and whimsical tomfoolery’, reflect Marx’s attempt ‘to do justice to the mysterious, topsy-turvy logic of capitalism’. Capital itself offers appearances that are paradoxical, mystifying, contrary to everyday observation. As Marx observed in an earlier pamphlet:
‘It is also a paradox that the earth moves around the sun, and that water consists of two inflammable gases. Scientific truth is always a paradox if judged by everyday experience, which catches only the delusive nature of things.’