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Book Review: Capital: Volume One: A Critique of Political Economy (1867) by Karl Marx

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Two years after the American Civil War ended and nearly two decades after revolutions ravaged the European continent, Karl Marx, a secular Jew living in exile in Great Britain, published the first volume of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Two more volumes would follow. The plan involved an outline for six volumes, a monumental undertaking even to someone as prolific as Marx was. Friedrich Engels would go on to edit and compile the second and third volumes in addition to editing future editions of Volume One.

Volume One of Capital can be seen bookending Marx’s fecund writing career. He began his career writing about German philosophers, became involved in politics and worker emancipation, and eventually penned The Communist Manifesto in 1848 with Friedrich Engels. The revolutionary fires were quashed, and Marx ended up in Great Britain.

Capital analyzes the economic system known as capitalism beginning with the commodity, the cellular unit of the structure. One can see the analysis in both biological and architectural terms. From the commodity – the thing one sells to a buyer – to labor to the working day to the factory and finally to mass production, Marx builds an analytical critique of the entire system. The critique is emblematic of Marx’s overall philosophy and the Victorian zeitgeist. Marx’s revolutionary communism represented part of an overall historical continuity in the progress of human relations. He defends capitalism in its removing the shackles of feudalism. It was his hypothesis that the communism would emerge as the next stage of mankind’s economic development. (I use the word “hypothesis,” since Marx’s critique is heavily indebted to economics as a science, in addition to the discipline functioning as a philosophy.)

Volume One builds a foundation for this critique. Marx weaves a tapestry of economic theory, historical evidence, and polemical rhetoric. The early sections are dry and slow going, although he leavens the abstract concepts with real-life examples. The sections on the working day, the factory, and the rise of mass production use historical evidence to forward his assertions. Finally, the last chapters focus on “primitive accumulation” (i.e. the economic relationships prior to capitalism proper) and the genesis of specific social classes. Through this long, methodical analysis, Marx asserts that capitalism extracts surplus labor from the worker.

Marx propitious choice of the United Kingdom helped in the creation of his work. Unlike the United States, the UK has a de jure class system, and it gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. (The situation was very similar in Germany.) Marx always believed the revolution would come to industrialized nations, not feudal regimes like the Russian Empire, China, or Cambodia. Alas, history lacks the systematic, progressive, forward-moving drive that would lead to the New Jerusalem of the classless society. In the nineteenth century, with industrialization, mass production, and innovation giving consumers new products it seemed only natural to believe that once the proletariat seized the means of production everything would be fine.

For anyone who seeks to understand the underlying factors of the Great Recession, Capital explains the history and operations of the capitalist society. Before tackling Capital, especially if one has never read Karl Marx, the shorter works would be a good starting place. The Communist Manifesto is short and explains the communist political program. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and the Civil War in France showcase Marx’s polemical writing style, dissecting France’s descent into authoritarian dictatorship and the corrupt monarchy of Emperor Napoleon III. With American political discourse descending into self-parody, it is highly recommended readers concerned about the global economic situation read both Capital and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. An understanding of current events involves going back to these classic economic texts and drawing personal conclusions not influenced by the apologetics and empty rhetoric parroted by the Left and Right.

Marx asserted capitalism planted the seeds of its own destruction. The situation in Greece and the economic terrorism of Goldman Sachs may prove Marx’s hypothesis correct. The systemic failure created by the idolatry of financial deregulation as the highest good and the seduction of easy credit have pushed the capitalist system over the edge of viable flexibility and into the abyss.

Exchange and the market are pre-existing social creations. (One should not confuse the two with “capitalism” which is a very specific social formation.) They have existed throughout feudalism, mercantilism, and into capitalism. Nevertheless, to repeat a phrase we hear a lot these days, has capitalism become too big to fail? Alternatively, do we simply lack the creativity and innovation to replace it? These are challenging questions we must now ask ourselves because the twin creeds of communism and capitalism have provided no viable solutions.

(Reviewer’s Notes: This review is based on the 1976 version of Capital translated by Ben Fowkes. Ernest Mandel provides wrote a lucid, albeit gushing introduction. Mandel’s introduction offers a great analysis of Marx’s work. Unfortunately, history has proven communism’s viability untenable. The Penguin Classics edition I read also includes an appendix entitled “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” also known as the Resultate. The Resultate functions as an early draft of Capital: Volume One and as a bridge between Volumes One and Two.)

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