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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - How to Read Capital

Reading Capital

How many workers have read Marx’s CAPITAL from cover to cover? Is CAPITAL the 19th century equivalent of Professor Hawking’s BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, to be bought from a bookshop and then left on the shelf unread? Is CAPITAL one of those books analogous to a swimming pool, where you put your toe in the water at the shallow end but never dive in from the deep end for fear of drowning?

Regrettably, Marx gave no instructions on how to read CAPITAL. There is no manual to help us. We are on our own.

Marx did, however write to his friend Ludwig Kugelmann, three months after the publication of CAPITAL, giving suggestions to Kugelmann’ s wife on how to access easier sections of CAPITAL if she was finding the first chapters too difficult. Marx wrote:

Please be so kind as to tell your good wife that the chapters on the “Working Day”, “Cooperation, Division of Labour and Machinery”, and finally on “Primitive Accumulation” are the most immediately readable.’19 ‘Cooperation, Division of Labour and Machinery’ actually refers to material that was divided into three chapters in the later editions which are nearly always the ones read today: (13) ‘Cooperation’; (14) ‘Division of Labour and Manufacture’; and (15) ‘Machinery and Modern Industry (Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, 30 November 1867’, in MECW, Vol. 42, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1987, p. 490

Although CAPITAL is a ground breaking critique of capitalism and of class exploitation it can also be read in other ways. Francis Wheen author of MARX'S DAS CAPITAL: A BIOGRAPHY (2006) suggested:

…as an unfinished literary masterpiece which, with its multi-layered structure, (it) can be read as a Gothic novel, a Victorian melodrama, a Greek tragedy or a Swiftian satire (GUARDIAN 8th July 2006)

In just reading the footnotes provides someone with an easy way of approaching CAPITAL. There is even “MARX'S 'DAS CAPITAL' FOR BEGINNERS” by Michael Wayne with illustrations by Sungyoon Chaia (2012) which depicts chapters of CAPITAL in a cartoon style. If read alongside CAPITAL itself, the illustrated book offers an accessible path through Marx’s critique of political economy and the key questions he asked; what is the commodity? Where does wealth come from? What is value and surplus value? What happens to work and to the labourer under capitalism? How are workers exploited and why do economic crises occur?

Another useful book for an understanding of CAPITAL is POLYLUXMARX edited by V Brushi, A Muzzupappa, S Nuss, S. Stecklener and S stutzle (Monthly Press 2012). In the book, Capital is presented as a series of Power- Point presentations each with detailed illustrations of Marx’s ideas and a space on each page to make copious notes.

CAPITAL can also be read as part of contemporary artistic experience. At the 2015 Venice Art Biennale, art collector billionaires arriving by luxury yachts were greeted by performers reading Marx’s CAPITAL set as an Oratorio composed by Isaac Julian. Imagine having to read CAPITAL every day for six months! What the über rich thought of having quotations from Capital read out to them as they sipped their expensive champagne we were never told. One or two probably said: “Did you say ‘Commodity Fetishism’? Damn, I left my World War One gas mask at the hotel”.

And a recent Turner prize winner, Duncan Campbell, used fragments of CAPITAL in his film, ‘It for Others’, where, at one point in the film, Michael Clark’s dance company interprets the equations from Marx’s CAPITAL as contemporary dance. The use of the equation, M-C…P…C’-M’ as a break-dance chorography to explain the process of exploitation is an amazing leap of the imagination!

Unfortunately, artists like philosophers can only interpret the world in various ways, but never change it, unless becoming socialists and joining a growing socialist movement. A revolutionary eruption from Venice and London did not take place. Nor did the earth move when an anonymous dub reggae group recorded and issued an album in 1978 celebtating CAPITAL, with each track named after a key Marxian concept such as ‘surplus value”. However, it was great background music to listen to when reading books by Hugo, Dumas, Baudelaire and Balzac.

Reading Capital Politically

CAPITAL preferably should be read politically. And a political reading of CAPITAL cannot be detached from revolutionary socialism and the historical agency that is to establish socialism - the world’s working class. CAPITAL was written for a political purpose and primarily, it should be read that way.

Nevertheless, there should be no embarasment in admitting that on a first reading (yes, there will be others) some of Marx’s writings are complex and difficult to understand. It might be easier to skip the difficult passages and press on. Making notes of unfamiliar words or expressions also helps. There is secondary literature that can help too, although you are then dependent upon someone else doing the thinking for you.

Take, as an example, William Morris and how he read CAPITAL. In his pamphlet, How I became a Socialist, written in 1894, he recalled just how difficult certain parts of Capital were for him:

I put some conscience into trying to learn the economical side of Socialism, and even tackled Marx, though I must confess that, whereas I thoroughly enjoyed the historical part of Capital, I suffered agonies of confusion of the brain over reading the pure economics of that great work. Anyhow, I read what I could, and will hope that some information stuck to me from my reading; but more, I must think, from continuous conversation with such friends as Bax and Hyndman and Scheu,

Marx was well aware that CAPITAL would prove difficult to grasp on a first reading. Morris read and re-read CAPITAL. At a recent exhibition “Anarchy and Beauty” held at the Portrait Gallery in London, Morris’s own gold-tooled, hand-bound copy of CAPITAL (In French of course) was on display. His copy showed that he had read CAPITAL on many occasions and his copy had to be rebound because the original book had fallen into sheets of detached pages. Today Morris would have access to an on-line publication of CAPITAL written in any language he wanted to read it in. Although, Is CAPITAL available in ancient Norse?

Marx had a particular readership in mind. Marx wrote CAPITAL for the working class not for the benefit of old Harrovians, academics, literary salons, art collectors and the horror film industry. And reading Marx as a socialist revolutionary is a very good position to start from.

Marx also used rich and complex metaphors to make us look at something anew. The metaphorical image of the baby bursting out of its mother’s stomach at the end of the chapter thirty-two, (the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation immediately), brings to mind the scene from the film Alien where the once gestating alien baby finally bursts out of the actor, John hurt’s stomach. Socialism, a social system of free and voluntary labour, is indeed as alien as you can get when contrasted with the anti-social and degrading exploitation of the wages system. And the image of the knell tolling for the death of capitalism and the arrival of socialism is pure Gothic.

Reading Capital alone or with others?

Another problem with reading CAPITAL is the difficult and unfamiliar terms used by Marx, particularly in the first three chapters of the book. Just as an example, on the first page of the first chapter, Marx presents the reader with the unfamiliar words “use-value”, “value”, “substance of value”, and “magnitude of value”. And who is there to ask when you are stuck by some of the more difficult passages in CAPITAL? It is fine to think for yourself. However, thinking for yourself also brings with it some problems particularly if the text still cannot be understood. CAPITAL reading groups is a good place to start, that is, if any CAPITAL reading groups can be found.

In the 1970’s there were several student CAPITAL reading groups. Some of these reading groups were very scary and were linked back to even scarier political parties. At the time, these CAPITAL reading groups were lampooned by satirical programmes like Not the None O’clock News. In one sketch from the series entitled “The Marxists”, four students, in a sparse garret somewhere in London and surrounded by primed Molotov Cocktails, attempt to read the first paragraph from the first chapter of CAPITAL without much success. The leader of the group begins to read the opening lines but it proves to be too difficult for the would-be “revolutionaries” to understand, so the leader of the group tells the others to give up reading CAPITAL and instead go out and “kill someone”. Such was left wing student politics in the 1970’s. Do not follow leaders; you do not know where they are going to lead you

Another alternative is to get help. Reading CAPITAL with someone else helps in tackling difficult concepts, words and passages in the text. Shortly after CAPITAL was written, secondary literature began to be written to help make reading CAPITAL easier. Under the signature of Samuel Moore, Engels wrote a review of CAPITAL in the Fortnightly Review in June 1868. There has also been Edward Aveling’s THE STUDENTS'MARX: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF KARL MARX'S CAPITAL (1892), Karl Kautsky’s book THE ECONOMIC DOCTRINES OF MARX (1887), Ben Fine’s MARX'S CAPITAL (1990) and J.L. Arthur’s MARX'S CAPITAL: A STUDENT EDITION (1993). There are other primers, although reading secondary literature is no substitute for reading the original.

There are some helpful on-line readings of CAPITAL. There is the series of lectures (now collated as a book) given by David Harvey. Harvey, though, not only holds an underconsumptionist view of crises - which is definitely not Marx’s view. He is also dismissive of Marx’s theory of the rate of profit to fall as a contributing factor in economic crises. Another academic, Professor Andrew Kliman, also gave a recent on-line course on reading CAPITAL chapter by chapter which had the benefit of audience participation and notice boards.

Our own recommendation would be to read or listen to anything written on Marx’s CAPITAL and his economics by our late comrade, E. Hardy. In particular, there is his 1970 lecture “Marxian Economics: the first four chapters of Capital” in which he discusses the commodity, the process of exchange, money, and the general formula of capital. In the lecture, Hardy gives a lucid and clear exposition of the most difficult parts of CAPITAL; and, in particular, how to explain CAPITAL to an audience who may have just started reading the book. A copy of the lecture can be obtained by contacting Socialist Studies

A great many of Hardy’s other lectures can be found on our website including two lectures on youtube

Throughout 2017 we will be posting on our website articles on themes found in CAPITAL which has a bearing on the class struggle in the 21st century particularly the radio and TV programmes, books, newspaper articles and internet blogs which will announce Marx was “wrong” on everything and the last thing we should be doing is reading CAPITAL. There will also be a Summer School in June 2017 on Marx’s CAPITAL and why it is a socialist classic.

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