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Do We Need to Read CAPITAL?

You do not have read CAPITAL to become a socialist. Why, then, do socialists encourage workers to read CAPITAL?

After all, we walk across a bridge and have no need to know the mathematical equations and mechanics necessary to justify our confidence that the bridge will not collapse under our weight. Similarly, we do not need to read CAPITAL to know how workers are exploited; and that the environmental, social and economic problems facing the working class today are all caused by capitalism.

And we do not have to read CAPITAL to want to live in a socialist society of free men and women working socially and co-operatively together to produce goods and services just to meet human need.

There is plenty of easy-to-read socialist literature available to fully understand the case for socialism without having to turn one page of CAPITAL.

One of the better socialist publications is the 1978 QUESTIONS OF THE DAY pamphlet published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which covers topics including capitalism, socialism, dictatorship and democracy, the main capitalist political parties, human nature and trade unionism. No reading of Capital is required beforehand.

And there is the on-going collection of socialist articles to be found on the Socialist Studies web site http://www.socialiststudies.org.uk/.

Reading CAPITAL, then, is not a prerequisite for coming across socialist ideas and becoming an active socialist.

We do not need CAPITAL to tell us that there is world-wide poverty, extreme wealth and privilege, wars, social alienation, second-rate health care, and mean and utilitarian housing. We can see the problems capitalism causes. All workers can.

However, these social and economic problems are not isolated. It is the fundamental error of reformism to believe that they are isolated problems and can be tackled in a piecemeal fashion. Only by achieving a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution can the working class create a social framework in which these social and economic problems can be resolved. To accept this fact is one of the most politically important stages a worker can reach in understanding capitalism and becoming a socialist revolutionary. No knowledge of CAPITAL is first required.

Nevertheless, a great many socialist ideas about capitalism have come from reading and applying CAPITAL to the situation in which socialists find themselves. A coherent and logical socialist case against capitalism has existed since 1904 and is set out in the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES. However, for someone to accept and be prepared to become a member of a socialist party does not require a prior reading of CAPITAL.

Socialist ideas and arguments against capitalism already exist and are readily accessible. There are sufficient socialist ideas and arguments in pamphlets, books and on the internet: arguments against capitalism explaining to workers how and why they are exploited, why the profit system degrades the environment, and why social reforms cannot prevent war, unemployment and poverty.

Propagating socialist ideas does not require the pages of CAPITAL to be turned for workers to organise into trade unions to struggle for more pay and better working conditions or to take part in the struggle to establish socialism.

What if workers do not come into contact with the socialist ideas of the Socialist Party of Great Britain? What if the SPGB did not exist? Can workers still become socialists? Marx said they could.

Marx said that it was the conditions of capitalism that created its own gravediggers – the world’s working class.

Ideas do not come from nowhere. The material conditions and contradictions of capitalism create class consciousness and socialist ideas. Capitalism forces workers to develop both trade union and socialist consciousness. Capitalism forces workers to take political action, to organise together, to learn from past mistakes and to focus on implementing a socialist revolution.

In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx made the following point about the generation of socialist ideas within the minds of the working class:

What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own gravediggers

Marx reinforced this point once again in a footnote to one of the last chapters of CAPITAL: THE HISTORICAL TENDENCY OF CAPITALIST ACCUMULATION (p. 930, Penguin ed. 1990).

Marx’s point is an important one. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, its principles and socialist object all came out of the political class struggle fought over the ownership of the means of production and distribution. The class struggle is going on all the time and is “the motor force of history” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

However Marx expected the working class gravediggers to have at least some understanding of capitalism and know politically where they were going. He expected the development of a socialist movement and the formation of a socialist party by and for the working class. To become capitalism’s gravediggers workers would have to become socialists first.

Do angry workers make good gravediggers?

Marx did not write CAPITAL for academics; he wrote his critique of political economy to assist the working class in their political struggle to abolish capitalism and to establish socialism. To read Capital is to understand capitalism with “sober senses”, not anger.

And there is a lot of anger in the world today. This anger has materialised in support for Jeremy Corbyn, Mr Sanders and social movements in Europe against imposed austerity programmes and high unemployment. None of these protest movement are either anti-capitalist or socialist. They are, in effect, social reform movements whose political programmes are often a mixture of mild nationalisation, calls for social justice, reformism and Keynesianism.

The word “capitalism” used by these groups on their banners, paraded in demonstrations, usually signifies hostility towards finance and banking capital, large multi-national corporations and “neo-liberalism”. What these “anti-capitalist” banners do not signify is the abolition of the wages system, of money, of commodity production and exchange for profit. They are not calling for a social revolution and the replacement of capitalism with socialism.

Not one of these “anti-capitalist” groups exists to establish the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. And of course, operating in these groups there are the leaders and the led.

There are also the equally large reactionary movements behind Trump in the US , Le Pen in France, and other nationalist and fascist groups elsewhere in Europe; notably Austria, Hungary and Holland. By no stretch of the imagination could these groups be considered “anti-capitalist”. Yet they are also supported by millions of angry workers blaming other workers – usually poor immigrants – for their desperate poverty.

Anger does not necessarily lead to socialism. Anger usually leads, on the one hand to protest movements for reforms and on the other, to dictatorship, concentration camps, torture, executions and pogroms against minorities. Anger is often manipulated by political demagogues. Or anger just dissipates into apathy.

Capitalism creates an unpleasant and ugly existence for the working class, so there will always be anger, questioning, and dissent against the profit system. But how do workers focus this anger and revulsion against capitalism into a positive socialist activism?

There is no direct causal connection between anger, dissent or questioning, and becoming a socialist. If that was the case then socialism would have been established a long time ago. So what understanding and knowledge of capitalism did Marx think workers should have to become capitalism’s gravediggers?

Becoming Capitalism’s Gravediggers

Foremost, Marx expected workers to think for themselves; to develop a sense of solidarity and class consciousness; an understanding of how as a class they are exploited by capitalism’s wages system, and divided by nationalism and other divisive ideas and beliefs; and on this basis to organise consciously and politically, without leaders to establish a democratic socialist party. This historical development of the working class through various stages had already been sketched out by Marx in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO as early as 1848 but it is there, too, in the pages of CAPITAL particularly in the last chapter of VOLUME 1 (see THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO p. 67-68 and CAPITAL VOLUME 1 chapter 31).

Where, then, do capitalism’s gravediggers get their ideas from to become socialists? Principally from an engagement with capitalism itself; from the on-going class struggle against the encroachment of capital, from trade union action trying to mitigate the intensity and extent of exploitation and consciously and politically by socialists challenging the private ownership of the means of production and distribution protected by the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the state.

Socialist ideas are generated by the class struggle. And socialist ideas have also been learnt from reading Marx, and by applying and reapplying Marx’s ideas to the real and material situations in which workers confront employers and their politicians. CAPITAL, lest we forget, is a product of the class struggle just as trade unions and the Socialist Party of Great Britain are.

CAPITAL being a product of the class struggle can also help workers against the capitalist class and its political representatives.

This is why Marx wanted workers to read CAPITAL. This is why the Socialist Party of Great Britain encourages workers to read CAPITAL. This is why the SPGB holds meetings on Marxian economics to explain, for example, the first four chapters of CAPITAL, even though they are difficult and repay reading again and again.

This is why socialists urge trade unions to read Marx’s pamphlet, VALUE,PRICE AND PROFIT, a lecture given in May and June 1865 to the First International by Marx as he was finishing-off writing the first volume of CAPITAL. Socialism cannot be presented as a nice idea but has to be forcibly argued for.

Still, this does not mean workers need to read CAPITAL to become socialists. Nevertheless, being acquainted with Marx’s ideas is important and useful particularly when arguing the case for socialism.

Reading Capital Politically

So why read CAPITAL? Why do socialists read CAPITAL when they are already socialists?

Firstly, socialists do not read CAPITAL to warn workers of impending crises and wars. Nor do socialists read CAPITAL because we are “fatalists” or latter-day Cassandras whose predictions of future wars and economic crises are largely ignored by workers.

We read, understand, develop and apply Marx’s CAPITAL to today’s class struggle. And in telling the workers the truth about capitalism, our propaganda becomes productive. As the late Harry Young once said: “the best propaganda for socialists is the truth

”. In CAPITAL, Marx explained how the profits of the capitalist class are derived solely from the unpaid labor of the workers; how this “surplus value” is the key to capitalist competition; how that competition periodically leads to cyclical crises as markets become glutted, production is suspended and “redundant” workers are laid off, until production is again thought profitable.

Consistency, being correct on the fundamental issues facing the working class and pursuing a principled socialist politics - all these help us make our socialist case against capitalism. And accuracy, attention to detail and truth about capitalism are all the hallmarks of CAPITAL. In reading CAPITAL you learn how to argue convincingly against defenders of capitalism, whether it is with fellow workers or with professors of economics – that is, if you are ever unfortunate enough to sit next to one on a long train journey.

Opening the pages of CAPITAL is an act of political engagement and enlightenment. Though, it is said by many to be hard to read and difficult to understand, even so page after page, chapter after chapter will bring new readers a better, clearer understanding of how our lives are distorted by the capitalist system and commodity production. That understanding is in itself worth the effort, and so we would argue it is worthwhile setting aside some time to grasp the realities of this capitalist system.

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