On 14 September 1867 Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume I, was published in Hamburg. Marx told a friend after he had personally delivered the manuscript to the publisher, “It is without question the most terrible missile that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie”.
Mainstream opinion—expressed for example in recent biographies by Jonathan Sperber and Gareth Stedman-Jones—consistently portrays Capital as stillborn. They portray it as a work that was out-of-date when it was published, and that certainly has nothing to say to us in the 21st century.
This fails to explain why there is a growing interest in Capital today. There have been conferences to mark its 150th anniversary all over the world. I took part in one in Brazil last month, and am involved in another this week sponsored by King’s College London. The success of the YouTube lectures on Capital by another participant, David Harvey, is a sign of the contemporary appetite to understand Marx’s critique of capitalism.
After all, 14 September wasn’t just the day Capital, Volume I, was first published. It was also the 10th anniversary of the run on Northern Rock, when depositors queued outside branches of the bank to get their money back. It was the first run on a British bank since Marx’s day—the collapse of Overend, Gurney & Co in 1866.
The run on Northern Rock was the moment that the global economic and financial crisis became visible to the naked eye. We are still living with the after-effects of this crisis. The confusion reigning in capitalist circles is evident among central banks such as the US Federal Reserve Board and the Bank of England. They hesitate over whether they dare risk raising interest rates above the rock-bottom levels they reached during the crisis.
Capital—not just Volume I but the second and third volumes edited by Frederick Engels after Marx’s death—allows one to cut through this confusion. Volume I in particular is Marx’s masterpiece. He only completed it under constant chivvying from Engels, but struggled, as he told his friend, to make it “an artistic whole”.
In parts—in particular the first chapter, which Engels pushed him to rewrite to make more accessible—Capital is difficult. But with the help of good commentators—not just Harvey, but Joseph Choonara in his excellent Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital—you will find your way through these.
What W H Dawson, an early British critic, wrote—as Eric Hobsbawm points out, in a very different tone from contemporary pro-capitalist commentators—remains true. “However its teaching may be viewed, no one will venture to dispute the masterly ingenuity, the rare acumen, the close argumentation and, let it be added, the incisive polemic which are displayed in the pages” of Capital.
Moreover, Marx didn’t write the book in the comfort of an academic study and a professorial chair. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, when he made his main economic studies, the Marx family struggled, sometimes desperately and despairingly, with poverty.
Moreover, Marx wrote Capital, Volume I, while he was engaged in his most influential political work. Between 1864 and 1872 he was one of the main leaders of the International Working Men’s Association, or First International. He steered the International to supporting the anti-slavery North in the American Civil War, the movement for Irish independence, and the Paris Commune of 1871.
Workers’ struggles are reflected in the book itself. In a letter to Engels Marx explains that, while feeling ill and unable to make “progress with the really theoretical part”, he wrote what is now Chapter 10, “The Working Day”. This is an astonishing and still moving portrayal of Victorian capitalists’ ruthlessly exploitative methods. And also of workers’ collective resistance forcing them back and winning legislative limitations on the working day.
You don’t have to look any further to see why Capital is still a living book. It speaks to our own world, where workers fight McDonald’s and pay limits and gang bosses. As long as capitalism survives, so too will Capital.