A Capital investment

Even if reports of renewed interest in Karl Marx’s great work are exaggerated, it remains well worth the effort of reading today.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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When I became the editor of a new magazine called Living Marxism 20 years ago, it was not a fashionable thing to do. Many thought us mad to launch such a journal, published by the Revolutionary Communist Party, at a time when even the leaders of the Soviet Union and the old Western Communist Parties agreed that Marxism was dead and buried.

Within a couple of years the Soviet Union had collapsed. We at Living Marxism had never supported the bureaucratic dictatorship of the Stalinist regime, and were not sorry to see it go. But these events had a devastating impact on the left internationally. The old Communist Party of Great Britain went the same way as the Soviet system it had long supported. Its journal, Marxism Today, departed with a front page depicting Karl Marx with egg all over his famous, bearded face. The message was that Marx, and those who had believed in him, had been wrong all along.

Fast forward to today’s capitalist crisis and we find columnists, academics, British archbishops and European finance ministers asking whether maybe Marx had a point after all. There are reports of a renewed interest in Marxism, and of increased sales of Capital, Marx’s classic work, especially in his native Germany, where film director Alexander Kluge is apparently planning to make a ‘blockbuster’ movie out of Das Kapital (good luck with that…). Whether this is any more than a media bubble remains to be seen. The complete collapse of the left over the past two decades makes it unlikely that there would be any mass turn to Marx. Even the reported modest upswing in book sales hardly means people are queuing up to get their hands on a copy of Capital (just as well in Britain, as you would be hard pressed to find one on a bookshop shelf).

It would be good if it was true. Reading Marx is a worthwhile exercise at any time for those who want to understand the history and development of the world in which we live and the ideas that shape it. The trouble is that Marx always tends to be interpreted according to the mood of the moment. Reviewing Francis Wheen’s ‘biography’ of Das Kapital a couple of years ago on spiked, Michael Fitzpatrick noted that ‘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… 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.’ (1) We might add that today, those (mis-)quoting Marx tend to do so only to support their miserabilist view of progress and the future. In each case, people have tried to impose their own prejudices on Marx rather than look for any deeper insights.

So if we are inspired to read Capital by the current bewildering turn of events, how might we approach it and what might we expect? In some ways the honest answer might be ‘Don’t try this at home’ – at least not on your own. Back in the day I read Capital in a reading group, a sort of early prototype of a book club, but a Bolshevik one. We made an intensive study of each volume, analysing and arguing over the important early chapters line by line. Unfortunately such Capital reading groups are not generally available at the local library today, so we will have to do the best we can. But my point is that Capital is not a book to be taken lightly. There are other works by Marx (and classics by Lenin and Trotsky) that can certainly be read, absorbed and enjoyed on public transport. Capital is not one of them, unless you simply want to impress some good-looking commuter with your quirky erudition. It is a hard and serious read, the equivalent of, say, Darwin’s The Origin of Species as a ground-breaking scientific work. (Indeed Marx greatly admired The Origin of Species, and expressed the hope that his own theory of historical materialism would do for the study of history what Darwin’s theory of evolution had done for biology.)

If we make the effort to crack Capital, however, the rewards are worthwhile. So long as we begin by recognising what it is not. Capital is not a bible or catechism to be repeated by rote down the ages, nor is it a Nostradamus-style soothsayer’s prophecy of some ‘inevitable’ collapse of capitalism, or indeed of anything else. It is not a stirring call to hang the last politician with the guts of the last economist, nor a moral treatise about driving the money-lenders and investment bankers out of the temple. In essence it is simply a relentless and brilliant presentation of the results of Marx’s lifetime’s work.

Today attention is understandably focused on Marx’s theory of capitalist crisis, which explains how the drive for profitability comes into conflict with the forces of production. For those daunted by the prospect of reading all 2,500 pages of three volumes, Marx does make it slightly easier to unravel the mysteries of Capital by revealing the secret in the first chapter rather than the last. Basically it was the dual character of the capitalist commodity, as both use value and exchange value, what done it. That chapter is by far the most difficult, but it provides the key to all that follows, right up to the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall – otherwise known as the theory of crisis – outlined in Chapter 13 of Volume III.

But this unique book is about something far more, and far more interesting, than economics alone. Marx examines capital as a ‘social relation’, the way that all of human society and its work is organised in this stage of history. He reveals how the market and the ‘fetishism of commodities’ mean that objects, and especially the money form, come to dominate peoples’ lives – not because of the greed of individual bankers or what the Archbishop of Canterbury calls ‘idolatory’, but because of the objective way that capitalism works. Thus things can only be changed by the fundamental reorganisation of society.

Reviewing the ruins of the world economy today, that conclusion might still seem hard to argue with. In other ways, however, the reader of Capital will inevitably be struck by how outdated it appears, not only in the nineteenth-century statistics it uses and the world of work that it describes, but in the arguments that it engages. To take one important example: Marx’s point against the bourgeois economists was that the tendency towards crisis limits the capacity of capitalism consistently to promote the growth and progress that society needs. By contrast, today ‘progress’ itself is something of a dirty word and we are confronted with the reactionary ‘anti-capitalist’ argument that claims the crisis is evidence of ‘too much’ economic growth.

For all that, Capital remains invaluable because it is underpinned by a method of approaching a problem that can help us, in a way that nothing else can, to make sense of a changing modern world. As a Victorian gentleman might say, it’s dialectical, my dear Engels. The historical materialism that Marx employs is above all about understanding problems and phenomena in their specific historical context rather than applying timeless truths. If Marx were alive today, he would surely be the first to refute any notion of using a 140-year-old study as a simple blueprint for understanding the present. But he could also rest assured that his mind-expanding method of historical analysis has stood the test of time.

What we can take from reading Capital today is an understanding of history and capitalist development, and a strictly non-religious belief in the future. It reminds us of the importance of Marx’s own favourite motto – ‘Question Everything’ – because things are rarely as they appear in the mystified world of the market. And it can remind us, too, of the importance of criticism. Capital is, after all, subtitled ‘A critique of political economy’. It was through taking apart others’ theories and misunderstandings that Marx developed his own insights. It is not necessary to have a fully-fledged alternative in order to ask the big questions about the status quo. The problem today is that there is not even a coherent capitalist worldview to critique. But that should not stop us from trying.

And despite my earlier warnings about it being hard work, the other thing we can take from reading Capital is a lot of enjoyment. Anybody who says that Germans have no sense of humour can never have read the rich satire and farce of Marx’s great work, which have even survived translation.

I recall my delight almost 30 years ago at discovering passages such as Marx’s description of how the relation of fair exchange between employer and employee in the market place is transformed into one of exploitation in the workplace: ‘On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities… we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as the capitalist: the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but – a hiding.’

Well, ‘I laughed out loud’ – maybe if they stick that review on Capital’s dusty old dustjacket, they could sell more to those confused commuters.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. He is speaking in the session Radicalism then and now: the legacy of 1968 at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

The state won’t be the saviour of the economy, by Frank Furedi

I don’t predict a riot, by Mick hume

This Marxist isn’t laughing, by Brendan O’Neill

Against austerity, by Brendan O’Neill

There Is (still) No Alternative, by Mick Hume

Congress bales out, by Brendan O’Neill

Scapegoating the spivs, by Tim Black

It’s the politics, stupid, by Phil Mullan

Lehman Brothers: when confidence runs out, by Rob Lyons

Five myths about the Wall Street crisis, by Daniel Ben-Ami

Read more at spiked issue: Financial Crisis.

(1) Capital: ‘There’s nothing remotely like it’, by Michael Fitzpatrick, 22 August 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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