Karl Marx wrote his greatest work, Capital, as a refugee in London. But for many years it left little trace on the politics of his adopted homeland.
If Marx was known at all in Britain in his lifetime it was as a radical journalist and socialist activist. One critic described him as “a mischievous, hot-headed and intemperate German”.
By the time of Marx’s death in 1883 a full English translation of the first volume of Capital was still four years away.
A brief obituary in the Times began, “Our Paris correspondent informs us of the death of Dr Karl Marx.” Nobody in the London office had noticed his demise.
Yet today there is, at least in left wing circles, intense interest in Marx and in Capital.
In September King’s College London will host a conference on “Marx’s Capital Today” featuring speakers such as David Harvey.
Harvey’s online talks on Capital have a colossal audience—almost half a million people have watched his opening lecture.
One of the organisers of the conference, Michael Roberts, runs a hugely popular blog, “The Next Recession”, using Marxist theory to analyse contemporary capitalism.
Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell has declared, “I believe there is a lot to learn from reading Capital.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said Marx was a “great economist”.
Capital justifies the hype, and it retains its relevance 150 years after the publication of the first volume. That is because the subject of the book is not British capitalism in the 19th century.
What Marx offers is a general account of the relationships people enter into under capitalism and the way these relations give rise to the system’s laws of motion.
He does so from a specific standpoint—that of the working class as an exploited group and a potentially revolutionary force.
His ambition was for Capital to be “the most terrible missile hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie”.
When the work was serialised by a French publisher Marx wrote, “In this form the book will be more accessible to the working class, a consideration which to me outweighs everything else.”
However, many readers have found the work less accessible than might be hoped. The opening sections, in which Marx offers his version of the “labour theory of value”, are particularly forbidding.
Here Marx argues that what goes on in the workplace is best seen as a “two-fold” process. On the one hand, every labour process involves “concrete labour”—specific types of work producing a particular item or service.
On the other hand, it also involves what Marx calls “abstract labour”—a certain expenditure of human labour in general. All commodities have this abstract labour in common. They can exchange with one another on the market because each represents a certain quantity of abstract labour.
The value of a commodity, Marx argued, reflects the time necessary to produce it using the typical methods of production and instruments of labour at that point in history.
I believe there is a lot to learn from reading CapitalJohn McDonnell, Labour shadow chancellor
Along with the “living labour” that goes into producing a commodity, there will also be “dead labour”.
This is value embodied in raw materials or machinery that workers created in the past. As they are used up in production, their value passes into the finished product.
After setting out his labour theory of value, Marx posed a puzzle.
If all the capitalist producers bring commodities to market and sell them at their value, how can the capitalist class as a whole make a profit?
The answer cannot lie in the “dead labour”. Machinery and raw materials are bought by capitalists at their value, which then passes into the commodities created. The capitalist makes neither a profit nor a loss on this.
The secret instead lies in “living labour”. Under capitalism, labour power—the ability of workers to work—becomes a commodity that is bought and sold.
Labour power creates new value, but how much does it cost the capitalist to hire a worker?
Marx’s answer is, only enough value for the worker to return to work the next day in a state where they can repeat their day’s work—their daily wage.
An extra portion of value beyond the wage—Marx calls it “surplus value”—is pumped out of workers by capitalists.
This exploitation is not a con trick by particular unscrupulous capitalists. If it were, we could just reform away that aspect of capitalism. It is built into the fabric of the system.
“Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks,” wrote Marx.
Marx used the rest of the first volume of Capital to develop a detailed account of the process of production, building his argument up layer by layer.
For instance, in his chapter on the length of the working day Marx offers vivid descriptions of conditions in the early English factories—and of the struggles workers are driven to engage in.
Here Marx’s identification with workers is especially clear. At one point he paraphrases a manifesto of London building workers protesting that their employers risk destroying workers’ capacity to labour in the long term.
Marx knew about the manifesto because he covered the dispute as a radical journalist and supported the 1859-60 builders’ strike.
Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucksKarl Marx
Ultimately the action of workers, along with divisions and arguments within the ruling class, pushed the state to place limits on the working day.
But battles over how long workers are exploited continue—as every trade unionist who has argued over the length of the lunch break knows.
There is another crucial argument in the first volume of Capital.
Marx shows how successive revolutions in the techniques of production create larger workplaces where workers can be drawn together with advanced machinery.
This is still the case today. The value of machinery and equipment operated by workers in Britain in 2017 is greater than ever.
And almost half of workers are in workplaces containing over 100 people, far bigger than the average workplace in Marx’s day.
Once the limits of extending the working day or simply making people work harder are reached, capitalists look for other ways to increase their profits.
The main way they do this is through what Marx called “accumulation”.
This is the process whereby some of the surplus value pumped out of workers is invested in new, more efficient machinery that can create commodities more quickly and cheaply.
Capitalists do not exploit or accumulate out of personal malice. Indeed, they “may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the RSPCA,” as Marx put it.
They do so because if they do not they are driven out of business and cease to be capitalists at all. This is the law of the cut-throat world of capitalist competition.
So any barriers to accumulation must be broken apart in this profit-grabbing frenzy. Not only does the worker lose control, but the system also escapes the control of individual capitalists.
This is why capitalism, as well as being a dynamic, fast?changing system, also harbours vast destructive powers.
For instance, any serious account of the ecological catastrophe unfolding today requires us to grasp the boundless drive to accumulate inherent in capitalism.
There is another sense in which capitalism is destructive.
Capitalism plunges again and again into crises because it is an unplanned, profit?driven system.
The central ideas that can explain crises are contained in volumes two and especially three of Capital, which remained unpublished in Marx’s lifetime.
Here Marx demonstrates how accumulation, by replacing workers with machinery, tends in the long run to choke off profits, ultimately undermining itself.
He also explores the emergence of the financial system and how this amplifies and spreads crises.
The relevance of this should be clear to anyone living in today’s financially-bloated capitalism, which has largely stagnated since 2008.
No less crucial is Marx’s insistence that the capitalists are not simply oppressors.
They are also dependent on the workers that they exploit—and this is the ultimate source of our power to challenge them.
Capital remains the best starting point for our own attempts to analyse capitalism, all the better to overthrow it.
This guide is designed to be read alongside the Penguin edition of Marx’s Capital, £18.99
Both are available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk