Marx Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital provided the theoretical basis for a scientific socialist philosophy. Although some elements of Marx’s theory—particularly the labor theory of value and the inevitability of communist revolution—have since been called into question, Das Kapital remains arguably the single best description of capitalism and the single most effective diagnosis of its flaws ever produced.

Summary of Event

In 1867, Karl Marx published the first volume of his most ambitious work, Das Kapital (1867, 1885, 1894; Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1886, 1907, 1909; better known as Das Kapital). The mammoth volume represented the summation of his thinking about capitalism, its effects on society, and its future. This first volume was the only one that Marx himself saw through the press. Volumes 2 and 3 were edited from Marx’s manuscripts by his intellectual partner Friedrich Engels and were published after Marx’s death. A further volume of the philosopher’s manuscripts, edited by the German socialist leader Karl Kautsky, was published early in the next century under a different title. Marx, Karl [p]Marx, Karl;Das Kapital[Kapital] Kapital, Das (Marx) Philosophy;Karl Marx[Marx] Engels, Friedrich Marxism [kw]Marx Publishes Das Kapital (1867) [kw]Publishes Das Kapital, Marx (1867) [kw]Kapital, Marx Publishes Das (1867) [kw]Das Kapital, Marx Publishes (1867) Marx, Karl [p]Marx, Karl;Das Kapital[Kapital] Kapital, Das (Marx) Philosophy;Karl Marx[Marx] Engels, Friedrich Marxism [g]Germany;1867: Marx Publishes Das Kapital[4030] [c]Economics;1867: Marx Publishes Das Kapital[4030] [c]Philosophy;1867: Marx Publishes Das Kapital[4030] Kautsky, Karl

A German philosopher and social theorist, Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Prussia. By the time he was thirty, he had become the prophet of European socialism. In 1848, Marx and Engels published Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei Communist Manifesto, The (Marx and Engels) Engels, Friedrich [p]Engels, Friedrich;The Communist Manifesto[Communist Manifesto] Socialism;Communist Manifesto, The (Marx and Engels) (The Communist Manifesto, 1850), one of the most brilliantly successful political tracts ever written. The ghost of communism, Marx and Engels wrote, was “haunting Europe.” For almost a century and a half afterward, Marx’s prophetic curse on the European bourgeoisie haunted not only Europe but also most of the world. In the meantime, Marx’s doctrines, in one form or another, were embraced by untold numbers of the world’s intelligentsia.

Das Kapital takes the form of a long and often rambling study of capitalist society. Marx based his study on economic history and detailed accounts of the behavior of European entrepreneurs (“capitalists”), their business enterprises, and the laboring classes (“the working class” or “proletariat”), who provided the sweat and muscle allowing European factories to produce an avalanche of goods. In addition, Marx studied profits, rents, the production and sale of commodities, the operation and circulation of money, markets, economic competition, the function of factory labor and its effects on laborers, capitalists’ reaction to labor organizations, and many other topics related to modern industrial capitalist society. In Das Kapital, he dissected each of these topics in minute detail. Marx claimed to have discovered a number of laws that characterized the capitalist system as a whole. Das Kapital was written to lay bare these laws and the consequences of their operation.

While the whole of Marx’s magnum opus defies brief summary, two key themes vital to Marx’s enterprise can be identified. The first is the idea of surplus value. A tone of moral condemnation runs throughout Das Kapital. Much of it derives from Marx’s view that capitalists unjustly appropriate—rob—from workers a significant portion of the value they produce. He based his view on a doctrine essential to Marxism—the labor theory of value. According to this theory, all economic value is derived from labor. Marx did not invent this theory, which was created by John Locke Locke, John in his Two Treatises of Government (1690) and adopted by economists such as Adam Smith.

Economists since Marx have pointed to more sources of economic value than labor alone, but for Marx, capitalism cannot exist without the wanton theft of a portion of the laborer’s work. Since laborers must work to live, capitalists have coercive power over them and use it to exploit them. Capitalists do this by paying labor only as much as is required for basic subsistence—the minimum required to raise a family, reproducing their labor for a new generation. The difference between what labor needs to subsist and the amount it actually produces is what Marx calls surplus value. In capitalism, Marx says, surplus value is taken away (“expropriated”) from workers by capitalists, for whom it represents their profit. The expropriation of surplus value from its producer is, in Marx’s theory, the technical definition of “exploitation.” Moreover, Marx argued that employers are coerced by the inexorable competition of capitalism to squeeze progressively more surplus value from workers, so that exploitation increases as capitalism continues.

To accomplish this increase in surplus value, Marx argued, capitalists take advantage of “the reserve army of the unemployed.” In demanding longer hours or lower wages, capitalists point out to workers the legions of unemployed people who are anxious to replace them and willing to take less for the privilege of doing so. The result is the increasing misery of the working class. The theory of surplus value forms the foundation for Marx’s description of capitalism as morally bankrupt and thus accounts for the moralizing tone of Das Kapital.

The second key element of the work is Marx’s theory of the economic crises of capitalist societies. He argues that these crises (cycles of boom, followed by bust or depression) are endemic to capitalism. Marx describes the spectacle, during economic depressions, of unemployed workers deprived of the necessities of life, while factory machines that could remedy this deprivation are left idle. This is but one of a series of contradictions found within capitalist society that define for Marx that society’s fundamental irrationality, even as entrepreneurs seek to apply reason to every aspect of economic activity.

“Contradiction” is a key term for Marx, who believes that, far from mounting an external critique of capitalism, he is merely furnishing an objective description of the ways in which capitalism resists itself. Borrowing from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Marx sees the internal self-contradictions of a society as the driving force of history. While he believes that capitalism is unjust, it is not that injustice that will bring about the downfall of capitalist society in Marx’s view. Rather, it is the fact that capitalism, containing as it does contradictions between the means of production and the relations of production, is inefficient. As it grows, the society’s inefficiency increases—eventually, it is this inefficiency arising from contradictions inherent in its structure that will bring about its downfall.

Thus, in Das Kapital, Marx argues that the economic laws to which the owners of the means of production are coerced into submitting decree that the crises of capitalism must grow increasingly worse. In Marx’s vision of the future, economic downturns become more cataclysmic, the sufferings of the working class likewise increase, and the irrationality of capitalism grows clearer to the world at large. The theory of the inevitable crises of capitalism points to the resolution of its contradictions through the advent of socialism, provoked by catastrophic suffering into which even fallen members of the bourgeoisie are swept up.

In The Communist Manifesto, Socialism;Communist Manifesto, The (Marx and Engels) Engels, Friedrich [p]Engels, Friedrich;The Communist Manifesto[Communist Manifesto] Communist Manifesto, The (Marx and Engels) Marx and Engels had written, famously, “All history is the history of class struggle.” In Das Kapital, Marx analyzed the socioeconomic processes that he believed explained how and why class struggle was unfolding in contemporary society. Foreseeing the end of class struggle in a new postcapitalist society, Marx established his own version of “the end of history,” related to but divergent from that of Hegel, from whom he inherited the model. Marx believed that socialism would overcome the increasingly apparent irrationalism of capitalism. History would end when socialism itself evolved into full-fledged communism, which would fulfill humanity’s age-old quest for abundance and social peace.

Significance

The significance of Das Kapital to the subsequent history of Marxism—and therefore of the twentieth century—can scarcely be exaggerated. In the eyes of Marx’s followers, the book provided the empirical evidence that Marxism required to be a scientific system of knowledge and not merely one more political ideology. Das Kapital set out to take its place in the pantheon of great writings on economics, among works by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and others.

The fact that few persons could completely traverse the vast forests of words that flowed from Marx’s prolific pen into Das Kapital was hardly to the point. With the work’s publication, believers in Marxism had found their bible, which proved to their satisfaction that Marx was a scientist and not just a visionary and prophet. What he showed for these audiences was that socialism was an inevitable feature of the fast-approaching future. With the triumph of the Bolsheviks Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 and the rise of communist parties in western Europe both before and after World War II, the significance of Das Kapital, whose pages buttressed the faith of Marxists both in Europe and beyond, was enormous.

In Das Kapital, readers found that capitalist societies would find themselves in increasingly serious cyclical crises and that these societies were powerless to prevent a complete social and economic breakdown, which would set the stage for socialism and the eventual development of communist society. Communism would be characterized by material abundance (achieved through what Marx argued was the necessary intermediate stage of capitalism) and, since it abolished the division of labor, the absence of class struggle.

Well before the end of the twentieth century, however, the major governments that had embraced the label of “communism” were found to be abject failures. The only two major countries to claim to embrace communist doctrines, Russia and China, ultimately rejected those doctrines. The arguments of Das Kapital relating to communism thus seemed to be refuted. It has often been said since, however, that historians will never agree as to whether true communism failed or was simply never attempted. The greatest excesses of capitalism described by Marx, meanwhile, have been meliorated by welfare state benefits. Nevertheless, Das Kapital remains as a mighty indictment of the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization and the suffering they have caused. Equally, however, it stands as monument to the human tendency to intellectual hubris and the propensity to grasp at the hallow salvation offered by false prophets.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brewer, Anthony. A Guide to Marx’s “Capital.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1884. A clear and careful examination of Das Kapital that is useful for students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eastman, Max. Introduction to“Capital,” “The Communist Manifesto,” and Other Writings by Karl Marx. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 1959. Written in 1932, Eastman’s introduction provides a succinct, nontechnical introduction to Marx’s argument.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foley, Duncan. Understanding Capital: Marx’s Economic Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A step-by-step exploration of the subject matter of Das Kapital, written to guide students through subject matter somewhat opaque in Marx’s presentation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsden, Richard. The Nature of Capital: Marx After Foucault. London: Routledge, 1999. An examination of Marx and his Das Kapital in the light of the new historicist thought of Michel Foucault, whose notion of “discourse” was meant directly to contest Marx’s notion of “ideology.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rockmore, Tom. Marx After Marxism: The Philosophy of Karl Marx. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Seeks to interpret Marx’s philosophy from an apolitical perspective, without the ideology that dominated many previous analyses. Focuses on Marx’s relationship with Hegel.

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