Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Getting beyond the first page of Capital.

1). Reading Capital

One of the funniest sketches of the 1980’s satirical show, IT'S NOT THE NINE O'CLOCK NEWS is one where a group of left wing student revolutionaries are reading CAPITAL in an impoverished garret surrounded by Molotov cocktails. The student leader of the Marx reading group is shown struggling with the first paragraph of the book and by the second paragraph the group had become so bored the leader says to them: “Oh Sod it let’s go and kill someone”. The comedy sketch reflects a comment allegedly made by the late Prime Minister, Harold Wilson that he could not get beyond the first page of CAPITAL. He was not alone.

In Jonathan Rose’s THE INTELLECTUAL LIFE OF THE BRITISH WORKING CLASSES (second edition 2010) a whole chapter entitled Alienation from Marxism (chapter 9 p. 298 -320) is devoted to the encounter by the working class in Britain with Marx and Marxism. There is no mention of The Socialist Party of Great Britain in the text and the “Marxism” he refers to in his book is the anti-working class politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain which caused so much confusion throughout the Twentieth Century.

Rose states that:

the trouble with Marx was Marxists, whom British workers found to be dogmatic, selfish and antiliterary(sic) … [they]… judged Marxism by the Marxists they knew, and concluded, with good reason, that such people were not to make a better world” ( p. 299-210).

This might have been true of the Communist Party, its leaders and membership but then capitalist politics generally has had its surfeit of “dogmatism” and is littered with politicians, past and present, who are only interested in furthering their careers and “feathering their nests”. If literary allusions are not to be found in late 19th and early 20th writings on CAPITAL this was not the case with Marx. Marx, of course, was well read with CAPITAL containing quotations from the Classics, Dante, the poet Guillot de Paris, Shakespeare, Heinrich Clauren, Dryden and Goethe among others".

Professor Rose believes that:

… most workers did have great difficulty reading Marx and the Marxists… the Marxists…glaringly failed to produce literature accessible to the working class”.

He quotes a Walter Hampson, who complained “that when he lent out his DAS KAPITAL, it came back with the latter pages uncut” (p. 305). This has its curious side. Whoever had read Hampson’s copy of DAS KAPITAL would have advanced further than the late Harold Wilson even going beyond the first six chapters of the book which are perhaps the hardest chapters to understand on a first reading of the volume. And why didn’t Hampson cut the remaining pages for his own enlightenment? Hampson’s remark seems doubtful. Historians should be wary of taking personal reminiscences as fact.

The real question is this; why did Professor Rose totally ignore the Socialist Party of Great Britain? THE MONUMENT, by Robert Baltrop, is not hard to find in a trawl through relevant source material and the book is in fact cited in Stuart Macintyre’s PROLETARIAN SCIENCE: MARXISM IN BRITAIN 1917-1933 (1986) contained in the notes at the end of Rose’s own book. There is no excuse for such a glaring omission.

The pamphlets the Socialist Party of Great Britain wrote from its inception gave a clear outline of Marxian economics, the materialist conception of history and the class struggle. Two published pamphlets came from debates and were sold under the headings THE LIBERAL PARTY And THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY. In 1910 the Party published SOCIALISM AND RELIGION and a year later SOCIALISM was issued which set out the economic and historical case for a Socialist revolution with some 20,000 copies being sold (Preface to the 1933 edition). Like the articles appearing in THE SOCIALIST STANDARD these pamphlets were jargon-free and written in an approachable style.

Professor Rose gives plenty of space in his book to the left-wing activist, T. A. Jackson. He states that Jackson was in the Social Democratic Federation and then in the Communist Party but does not say that in between being a member of these two political parties he was a one-time member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain before leaving to join the Independent Labour Party. Rose at least cites Jackson’s unpublished biography THE TRUMPET (that is, the one held in the Marx Memorial Library) and not the official Communist Party sanctioned version which seems to be cited in the index of some poorly researched history doctorates.

Jackson is quoted as saying that he doubted that fifty people in all of Britain had persevered to the end of CAPITAL. He may have been right but most of the readers would have been in the Socialist Party of Great Britain; a Party overlooked by historians either through ignorance or for political Reasons.

Reading Marx: The early Socialist Party of Great Britain.

The first English translation of CAPITAL was edited by Engels and published in 1886 by Swan Sonnenschein & Co with a translation by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. It would have meant SPGB members having access to an English translation of the first volume of CAPITAL. In fact, early Party members would have read THE STUDENT'S MARX by Edward Aveliing which had been printed in 1891 and went through numerous reprints. Aveling’s book is well written although and gives a very good summary of Marx’s ideas in CAPITAL. After 1936 Party members had access to an English translation of the ECONOMIC DOCTRINES OF KARL MARX by Karl Kautsky. Professor Rose appears to be unaware of or disinterested in both these two books and their wide circulation among the working class.

In THE MONUMENT: THE STORY OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN (Pluto 1975), Robert Baltrop gives a list of pamphlets read by founder members: SOCIALISM AND THE WORKER by Sorge; WAGE LABOUR AND CAPITAL by Marx; SOCIALISM AND RADICALISM by Aveling; Liebnecht’s NO COMPROMISE; and THE SOCIALIST REVOLUTION by Kautsky. Others included Morris’s HOW I BECAME A SOCIALIST, JONES'S BOY by Spokeshave, two drink pamphlets by J. Russell Smart, Widdup’s THE MEANING OF SOCIALISM and standard works by Marx and Engels which had been translated in the late 19th century (p. 17). These works would also have included the first volume of CAPITAL.

The SPGB’s reading material was enhanced later by a member of the Party, Adolph Kohn, whose bookshop held books imported in from the US publishing house, Charles H. Kerr and Company including the English translation of CAPITAL VOLUME III (translated in 1909 by E. Untermann). Other books were Lewis Henry Morgan’s ANCIENT SOCIETY; Paul Lafargue’s SOCIAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES and THE RIGHT TO BE LAZY. There were also works by Ernest Untermann such as SCIENCE AND REVOLUTION and THE WORLD'S REVOLUTIONS and A. M. Lewis’s TEN BLIND LEADERS OF THE BLIND (p.42), the latter recently re-published with copies available through Abe bookshop.

CAPITAL, then, was being read by founder members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, most of whom were not formal students studying at university. Most of the members were self-taught. Jack Fitzgerald, for example, had attended classes on Marx given by Edward Aveling and had himself given classes on Marx’s economics in the Social Democratic Federation, the reason given for his expulsion in 1904. In fact Fitzgerald was a committed Socialist and student of Marxian economics, one of Jackson’s “50”. Fitzgerald also gave the SPGB’s Economic and History classes and in one of life’s ironies, apparently lived during 1902 contemporaneously in the same Holford Square, Finsbury as Lenin. The square was bombed during the Second World War and is now Bevin Court a sprawling Grade II listed Council House Estate.

Lenin, at the time, was writing his book “WHAT IS TO BE DONE?” in which he stated that workers could only reach trade union consciousness and setting in motion his erroneous theory of Imperialism (see IMPERIALISM: THE HIGHEST STAGE OF CAPITALISM published in 1916) which blamed workers for living from the super-profits of British capitalism in the form of higher wages and writing them off as the “aristocracy of labour”.

A bust (now lost) of Lenin was erected in 1942 , to cement relationships between Britain and the USSR during the Second World War in Holford Square by the London Borough of Finsbury, then Labour controlled and designed by the Russian architect, Berthold Lubetkin of the Penguin Pool, London Zoo fame. Fitzgerald, a bricklayer by trade, was erased from history but workers like him did as much to advance the study of Marx, the popularisation of CAPITAL and the cause of Socialism as much as Lenin and his supporters in the Communist Party of Great Britain did to retard it.

The ability of Jack Fitzgerald’s debating skill can be read in a report of a debate between Fitzgerald representing the Socialist Party of Great Britain and Mr Samuel Samuels, prospective Conservative candidate for Wandsworth on the subject SOCIALISM VERSUS TARIFF REFORM held on Tuesday, May 21st, 1912 at Tooting Graveney Schools, Tooting. The debate will soon be published on our web site.

What is the problem with reading the first page of Capital?

So, why is there a strong reluctance by the working class to read Marx and engage with his ideas? After all, CAPITAL was written in their interest. It is an important question.

The answer lies, to a great extent, with those political parties and countries which carried out exploitation, genocide, torture, war and violence in Marx’s name. When the failed reform programmes of the Labour Party is also considered, - a Party who until recently described itself as “Socialist” - , the reason why the Socialist movement has become almost a dribble can be given some coherent explanation.

We can begin by asking another question: what is the problem with reading the first page of CAPITAL? The chapter heading “THE COMMODITY” appears, at first, simple to understand. We live in a world of commodities. Nearly everything surrounding us in our homes was once a commodity to be sold in a shop, supermarket and car show room. And of course our mental and physical ability to work is sold daily as a commodity to the capitalist class in exchange for a wage and salary.

Marx showed that the common sense understanding of the commodity is not the case. In the fourth section of the chapter where Marx discusses the fetishism of the commodity he remarks that although at first sight a commodity is obvious once you start to analyse the commodity it turns out to be “… a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (CAPITAL VOLUME 1 Chapter 1 The Commodity p. 163).

The initial difficulty with CAPITAL comes with the heading for the chapter’s first section announced by Marx as; “The two factors of the commodity: use-value and value (substance of value, magnitude of value). The section heading is written in unfamiliar terminology not to be found in ordinary day-to-day language. However this applies to a vast number of scientific words which describe aspects of reality.

The four uncommon words in question; ‘use value’, ‘value’, ‘substance of value’ and ‘magnitude of value’, are not easily explained in one sentence and it takes the best part of chapter 1 of CAPITAL for Marx to explain the meaning of these terms in detail. Like rabbinical theologians endlessly debating different interpretations of the Torah some academics have endlessly turned over the meaning of these terms like so many pebbles on a beach.

Briefly we can explain these terms as follows:

* Use-value – The Use value of a commodity relates to satisfying a need, so bread is bought to eat and a dress is purchased to wear.

* Value – Value is what connects all commodities together so that they can all be exchanged with each other. The value of a commodity is determined by the socially necessary labour time that goes into its production under average conditions of production and with average ability on the part of the worker.

* Substance of value – The substance of value is what Marx called “abstract labour” as opposed to “concrete labour” (what a particular worker does for a living) and allows ratios between traded commodities to be measured such as 100 loaves of bread equals one dress.

* Magnitude of value – The magnitude of a commodity is how much value or socially necessary labour time it contains.

Once these ideas are understood, and they initially require effort and application because of their unfamiliarity, then the rest of the chapter is not too difficult to follow.

These four terms were just headings what about the text itself? The three paragraphs which make up page 1 of CAPITAL are as follows:

The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity”.

Here the student revolutionaries in NOT THE NINE O'CLOCK NEWS stopped reading CAPITAL.

Marx continues:

The commodity is, first of all, an external object; a thing through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind. The nature of these needs, whether they arise, for example, from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference. Nor does it matter here how the thing satisfies man’s need, whether directly as a means of subsistence, i.e. an object of consumption, or indirectly as a means of production”.

And he finishes by saying:

Every useful thing, for example, iron, paper, etc., may be looked at from two points of view of quality and quantity. Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of things is the work of history. So also is the invention of socially recognised standards of measurement for the quantities of these useful objects. The diversity measures for commodities arise in part from the diverse nature of the objects to be measured and in part from convention”.

The guardian of the English language, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH journalist, Simon Heffer, does not like Marx’s “turgid” prose style, yet the problem of translating any author from one language to the next is steeped in linguistic difficulties. Has Heffer, for example, read the first pages of Adam Smith’s THE WEALTH OF NATIONS or Ricardo’s PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY? Not the easiest of reads and not the type of books to add to a summer holiday reading list. The difficulty is the subject matter. It is difficult to make political economy, or as it is now called “economic science”, an exciting read. As Carlyle noted back in the 1840’s, economics really is a “dismal science”.

On the other hand Francis Wheen’s entertaining but flawed book DAS KAPITAL (2004) shows that far from being a dry critique of political economy, CAPITAL can be read at one level like a vast Gothic novel with vampires - dead labour living off living labour - cemeteries, grave diggers, funerals and tolling bells - whose heroes, the working class, are enslaved by the monster they created and sustain: capital. In fact the imagery of the phrase “integument burst asunder” (ch. 32 The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation p. 929) in the penultimate chapter of CAPITAL is like the scene in Alien where the monster bursts out of the stomach of the astronaut played by John Hurt. That really is “Alienation from Marxism”!

Finally we come to the footnotes at the bottom of the page. The footnotes in CAPITAL are important for they not only show Marx’s wide and critical reading of political economy but also demonstrate his sardonic wit, rapier-like polemical skills and dry sense of humour although Marx could have ended CAPITAL with the remark “For you Tommy Capital zie class war ist over.

The first footnote is a reference to a previous discussion by Marx on the subject of commodities in which he states that capitalism appears as an “immense collection of commodities”. The book from which the quotation is taken comes from A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY published in 1859 which contains Marx’s famous Preface setting out his theory of history more popularly known as The Materialist Conception of History.

The second footnote is a quotation from the 17th century economist and wide boy, Nicholas Barbon taken from his book “IN ANSWER TO MR LOCKE'S CONSIDERATIONS IN THE RAISING THE VALUE OF COIN ETC.” written in 1696. Barbon says “Desire implies want; it is the appetite of the mind, and as natural as hunger to the body…The greatest number (of things) have their value from supplying the wants of the mind”.

The third footnote is again a reference to Nicholas Barbon this time in connection with a definition of a commodities “use-value”. Barbon writes:

Things have an intrinsick virtue (this is Barbon’s special term for use value) ‘which in all places have the same virtue; as the loadstone to attract iron’ to which Marx adds “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had led to the discovery of magnetic polarity

If someone has read this article to the end they would in fact have started to read the second page of CAPITAL (at least in the Penguin edition) and gone beyond Harold Wilson’s dismal attempt and become, instead, a reader who is “willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself” (Preface to the First edition of CAPITAL VOLUME 1 p. 90 Penguin Edition 1996).

Coda: As an aid to studying Marx’s CAPITAL there is a very good lecture entitled The First Six Chapters of Capital on our web site,uk. Another gentle entry into CAPITAL is a reading of the pamphlet VALUE, PRICE AND PROFIT written by Marx as a lecture to the International Working Men’s Association in April 1865 which can be accessed on-line at

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: |