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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Why did Marx write Capital?


Why did Marx write CAPITAL? It was not easy for him carry out the long hours of research in the British Library, then walk home to write-up pages and pages of notes into a publishable manuscript and then work into the early hours of the morning. He was often ill, he lived a great deal of the time in poverty and he was often dependent upon his friend, Frederick Engels for financial assistance. Here is Marx lamenting his plight to Siegfried Meyer:

I was continually hovering between life and death. So I had to use every moment available for work in order that I could finish the work for which I have sacrificed health, happiness and family…The so-called “practical” men and their wisdom make me laugh. If one wished to be an ox, then one could naturally turn one’s back on the horrors of humanity and only look after one’s own interests. But I would have considered myself really unpractical if I had snuffed it with completing my book, at least in manuscript (Letters on “Capital” by Marx and Engels ed. G. Pilling, p.101 New Park Publications 1983).

So why did Marx write CAPITAL when it cost him his “health, happiness and family”. Marx would much rather have written a volume on the French novelist Honeré de Balzac whom Marx had admired for his literary use of social realism. In fact, according to the economist David Harvey in his book, THE COMPANION TO MARX'S CAPITAL, that is exactly what Marx had planned to do. He was going to write a study of Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine after he had finished Capital but he died just before he got around to writing the manuscript.

What was Marx’s aim in writing CAPITAL? The question can be answered from the following letter he wrote in 1864 to Karl Kiings, a member of the German Workers Association:

I have been ill for the whole year (carbuncles and furuncles) – Without that, my work, Capital, on political economy would have been published already. Now I hope to finish it in a couple of months and to deal a theoretical blow to the bourgeoisie from which they will never recover (p. 93)

So Marx’s objective in writing CAPITAL was wholley political; “…to deal a theoretical blow to the bourgeoisie from which they will never recover

”. And in a letter, written in 1867, to J. P. Becker, one of the organisers of the German International Working Men’s Association, just as CAPITAL was about to be published, Marx said:

It is assuredly the most frightening missile which has ever been launched at the heads of the bourgeoisie (including landowners, (p. 101)

CAPITAL did in fact deal a theoretical blow to the bourgeoisie from which they have never recovered. Economists are now forced to pursue a defective and shallow economic theory, whether it is in the form of economic liberalism, Monetarism, neo-classicism, Austrian economics or Keynesianism. Economists try to ignore Marx but his scientific explanations on how capitalism works breaks through their ideological barrier time and time again.

The writing of CAPITAL was hard graft. The content of CAPITAL Marx likened to excrement. However there were parts of Capital Marx was actually proud of. In a letter he wrote in August 24th 1867, to Engels, he said:

…The best thing about my book is 1. (on this rests the entire comprehension of the facts) the two-fold character of labour, whether it is expressed in use-value or exchange value, which is emphasised right in the first chapter; 2. The treatment of surplus value independent of its special forms of profit, interest, rent etc. (p. 111).

Marx wanted to give the working class a scientific understanding of capitalism as a historical social system with a beginning in class struggle and a potential end in class struggle. And what an end:

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. The integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated (Capital, Volume 1 p.929 Penguin edition, 1990)

CAPITAL was the unity of Marx’s materialist conception of history, labour theory of value and the political concept of the class struggle. The range, depth and breadth of his writings were enormous. He knew Capital was going to be hard going for the reader:

There is no Queen’s Highway in science, and only those who do not fear exhaustion in climbing the steep paths have any chance of reaching the brilliant heights (Marx to Lachâtre, March 18th, 1872)

Science gives knowledge and knowledge gives power over opponents, particularly those engaged in producing and disseminating ruling class ideas. Workers, reading CAPITAL, would soon learn, as they began to climb “the steep paths”, how and why they are exploited as a class, what the anti-social object of exploitation is all about and why capitalism can never be made to run in their interest. The pressing conclusion of Capital’s critique of political economy is socialist revolution by and for the working class. And it should be remembered that Marx did not write Capital as an academic but as a socialist revolutionary.

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