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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - What Edition of Capital to read?


What edition of CAPITAL to read? Purists go for the Kerr edition (1909) with a translation by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, supervised by Frederich Engels. The most common and available edition to buy is the Penguin version published in its Classics series (1976 and reprinted 1990). There are also editions of CAPITAL published by the now defunct Progress Publishers (the former Soviet Union printing press) while Abe Books still sells copies published by Modern Library, Everyman’s Library and one by International Publishers. The 1906 revised English translation of volume 1 of CAPITAL by Ernest Untermann available at:

There is also a CD-ROM of the complete works of Marx and Engels which includes all three volumes of Capital along with his preliminary versions and works directly connected with it, particularly the Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58, better known under the editorial heading Grundisse der Kritik der Politischen Okonomie (Vols 28-37). However, this CD-Rom is very expensive to buy; Lawrence and Wishart’s guide price is £1600 although all 50 volumes of the series can be accessed at

CAPITAL can also be read on-line at

The latest Penguin edition of CAPITAL is frowned upon in some quarters for the inadequacy of the translation by Ben Fowkes and its association with the New Left Review. There is also a concern that in the Penguin publication of CAPITAL some of the concepts Marx used in the German edition are a mistranslation or poorly bring across what Marx was trying to say. However, in the past, the same adverse comments have been made about the Moore and Aveling’s translation. Volumes 2 & 3 of the Penguin edition were translated by David Fernbach.

There are also claims made by ‘Marxologists’ that Engels’s supervision of the English translation of CAPITAL misinterpreted Marx’s own intentions. There is an element of dogmatism being played-out here. What these critics appear to be saying is that their reading of CAPITAL and only their reading of CAPITAL is the correct one (see On the Need for a New English Translation of Marx’s Capital by W. F. Haug, Engels was a close friend of Marx and a fellow socialist revolutionary. His credentials for supervising and editing the three volumes of CAPITAL far outweigh those who believe they are the sole heir’s to the correct reading of what Marx wrote. After all, Marx corresponded with Engels over a number of years on many aspects of CAPITAL often asking for advice. These political theologians are like the academics who claim Marx was inconsistent in the transformation of value into prices of production and then set out to “improve” on what Marx wrote to become “more Marx than Marx”. There is even a “Marxian school of economics” where Marx and his labour theory of value is treated like “a dead-dog” along with the suppression of Marx’s critique of political economy and current-day research based upon it.

Lenin takes much of the blame for this intellectual arrogance. Lenin, for example, arrogantly believed that he was the only one to “completely understand Marx’s Capital” because he had read Hegel’s Logic and everyone else (including Engels?) hadn’t (COLLECTED WORKS, Vol. 38, p. 109).

Let the academics waste their time ruminating about textual exegesis and philology. If anything of Marx’s body of work needs saving, then we suggest CAPITAL needs saving from the academics. The truth of the matter is that the only way to escape the problems associated with the translation from one language into another is to read CAPITAL in the original German, but even then the technical vocabulary employed by Marx in German can create difficulties.

In the Penguin edition, for example, the translator gives both the original German word alongside the English translation for some of the more difficult concepts used by Marx. The technical expression ‘the process of creating value’ in the chapter The Labour Process and the Valorization Process (p. 293) is given with its near German equivalent; Wertbilddungsprozess. Try grappling with an understanding of “Wertbilddungsprozess” in the original German! Even for someone fluent in German, Marxian technical vocabulary in the original are still difficult to understand without a lot of effort. For those who want to read the first volume of CAPITAL in the original German then try Marx-Engels Werke (MEW), in pdf form, it is freely downloadable, here:

For an interesting discussion on the various translations of CAPITAL see Kevin Anderson’s article ‘The “Unknown” Marx’s Capital, Volume 1: The French Edition of 1872-5, 100 years later’. Apparently none of the English texts available to read today fully incorporate the text as revised by Marx for the French edition.

So, what to do? There are two choices. The first is to learn German and French in order to read CAPITAL in the original before embarking on a reading of the French translation of 1872-5. Second, just read one of the various English translations available on-line or from a book-seller and then use the time saved more fruitfully for the purpose of political activity. Perhaps someone, some-day will invent a useful down-loadable “app” which will faithfully translate the German version of CAPITAL into the equivalent English.

What path you take all depends on how much time you have at your disposal. A socialist only has a limited life-span in which to become politically active and help to change the world in a revolutionary way! Employment and family life gives little time for political activity as it is.

Nevertheless, if you buy the Penguin edition of CAPITAL then remember one thing: avoid reading Ernest Mandel’s introduction to the Penguin edition of CAPITAL until you have first read the book, so as to be confident enough to critically assess what he says about Marx’s method and presentation and what became known after Marx’s death as “Marxism”.

The late Professor Mandel comes with a health warning. He has a political axe to grind. When you read his introduction you are reading CAPITAL through the eyes of a seasoned Trotskyist. On page 85 of the introduction he misleads the reader by stating that “capitalism has indeed been overthrown in many countries, Russia and China being the most important”. When Mandel made this unsubstantiated assertion about Russia and China, the reality was altogether different. Russia and China were both capitalist countries with a political dictatorship ruling over the rest of the population. While, today, China has no “socialist characteristics" but bears all the attributes of a capitalist economy discussed by Marx in CAPITAL, particularly commodity production and exchange for profit, money, commodity fetishism, capital accumulation and the exploitation of the working class by state and private employers.

There are even different CAPITAL reading schools. One set of academics, for example, believe traces of the philosopher, G. W. H Hegel can be found in Marx’s CAPITAL while others believe that between the GRUNDISSE and the finalisation of CAPITAL, Marx strained-out all vestiges of Hegel’s thought, leaving a post - Hegelian text free of "metaphysical niceties”.

There are others who exclaim: "there is no Hegel in CAPITAL". Such are the ravings of doctrinal dogmatists. And yes, academic carears have been successfully constructed upon one or the other of these two sectarian readings of CAPITAL. I suppose you have to do something while waiting for the revolution even though it is the intellectual equivalent of masturbation.

Also, it is advisable to avoid books like A GUIDE TO MARX'S CAPITAL by A. Brewer (1984). The book appears to be a collection of brief notes aimed at students but it is not a very good guide, particularly later on when it discusses value and prices of production. Although the book allows someone to quickly grasp the overall structure of CAPITAL there is the uneasy feeling that Brewer does not rate Marx very highly.

In a 1995 article in History of Political Economy, Professor Brewer said that there was nothing of value left in Marx’s economic writings. He went on to say “…in Marx’s own terms…Capital must be counted as a magnificent failure” (quoted in Andrew Kliman, Reclaiming Marx’s Capital, 2008 p. 5). Professor Brewer is just one in a long line of radical students of the 1960’s on their way to comfortable conservatism in middle age and a secure university pension at 65.

Thirteen years later, after a severe economic crisis, not anticipated by the leading economists of the day, Marx was in vogue again, sales of CAPITAL were up and there was renewed interest in what he said about the instability of capitalism. Was there an apology from Professor Brewer? Of course not; just a deafening silence.

Capital and Time

There has to be sufficient time allocated to read CAPITAL. However, it is no bed-time reading.

Book 1 of CAPITAL is under the general heading of The Process of Production of Capital .The volume is divided into eight parts and 33 subsequent chapters. At a reading time of about 3 minutes per page and with 815 pages in the Penguin edition alone, that gives about 2445 minutes to read the book in its entirety. About 40 hours. If, say, 5 hours a day is devoted to reading CAPITAL, then it would take the reader about 8 days to complete the volume from beginning to end.

And that does not take into account of re-reading passages, making copious notes and tracking down the meaning of difficult words and concepts from secondary sources all over the internet. According to one wit, the best place to read CAPITAL in peace and quiet is in a prison cell. And this is precisely what Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners did during their time on Robbins Island, where an English translation of CAPITAL was made available by the prison authorities for inmates to read on the grounds the book was all about money not politics!!!

A reading of the two prefaces and post-prefaces before chapter one of CAPITAL, gives a feel of what is to come. It is going to be a hard journey. There are no Queen Highways to Science, wrote Marx. Be prepared for the intellectual equivalent of getting blisters, corns, and bunions.

Finally, the reader of CAPITAL should pay attention to the footnotes. Many of the footnotes are entertaining comments by Marx against defenders of capitalism, particularly Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham and J. B. Say, all of whom he treats with more verbal brutality than the capitalists themselves (a class Marx referred to in CAPITAL as “the personification of capital”).

However, many of the footnotes are important sign posts. Marx used footnotes to tell the reader when he is making assumptions which he will then drop much later on in the text or in subsequent volumes of CAPITAL.

Economists, like Eugene Bohm Bawerk, fall into the error of not paying attention to the footnotes. In his 1898 book, KARLMARX AND THE CLOSE OF HIS SYSTEM, Bohm-Bawerk came a cropper by erroneously believing that there was a contradiction between the first and third volumes of CAPITAL. No contradiction existed; he just failed to pay attention to the text and footnotes.

In Volume I of CAPITAL, Marx presented an elementary stage of the relationship between value which corresponded to earlier conditions of production, and warned readers several times in footnotes that a fuller treatment of the subject would have to wait until Volume III. This question has been dealt with in an article written by our late Comrade Hardy which can be read at:

In conclusion why read CAPITAL at all? Is it necessary to read CAPITAL for a socialist revolution to take place? What does a socialist gain from reading CAPITAL?

The answer is that socialists are engaged in a constant battle of ideas against a well-resourced adversary. Marx believed CAPITAL would assist the working class in their struggle against the capitalists and their political representatives. He saw CAPITAL as “a missile fired at the heads of the bourgeoisie”. So, yes Capital is a politically useful book to read and one to be taken seriously even though it is a bloody hard road to travel. But at the end of the journey - what a view!

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