[Book] Understanding Marx’s Capital: A reader’s guide

Introduction: the making of Marx’s Capital

By Rob Sewell

“Karl Marx had it right. At some point, capitalism can destroy itself.” (Nouriel Roubini, Wall Street Journal, 13 August 2011)

Marx once joked that it would have been very “unpractical” if he had died without completing Capital, “at least in manuscript form”. The first volume of Capital was eventually finished after many delays in the autumn of 1867, although the remaining volumes were not published until after his death.

Marx arrived in London in late autumn 1849, beginning what turned out to be a life-long exile. He saw his main responsibility as being to uncover the mysteries of capitalism.

In London, Marx soon went to work in collecting and sifting through the existing material of the classical economists. His notebooks during this period show an intense knowledge of such writers as Adam Smith, J.B. Say, David Ricardo, McCulloch, James Mill, Sismondi, Jeremy Bentham and many others. However, it would take another ten years of arduous work before Marx’s economic ideas would finally appear in print with the publication of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859.

Marx was extremely meticulous. When The Critique was finally published, he explained that it was “the result of conscientious investigation lasting many years”. This could be seen in his preparatory notebooks dealing with 1857-58, which alone made up almost 1,000 pages in print.

English classical economic thought was the most advanced of its time. These ideas in turn had been stimulated by the enormous progress made by British capitalism, the most advanced economy of the age. Marx not only studied the latest trends but also undertook a detailed critique of classical economics, revealing its limitations and contradictions. The classical bourgeois economists, who had made an extremely valuable contribution to the subject, were nevertheless restricted by their bourgeois outlook and prejudices, which regarded capitalism as the pinnacle of human development.

Marx explained that the adherents of classical political economy belonged to a period in which the class struggle was as yet undeveloped. This permitted its thinkers a certain independence and freedom of expression. Marx observed that its last great representative, David Ricardo, consciously made “the antagonism of class interests, of wages and profits, of profits and rent, the starting-point of his investigations.”

Ricardo had in fact based himself on the labour theory of value, which Marx later deepened and developed. However, these promising investigations were cut across by class prejudices. This led Marx to conclude that bourgeois classical economics “had reached the limits beyond which it could not pass.”1 These theories could not uncover the real contradictions of capitalism and therefore entered into crisis. This essential task fell to Marx to resolve.

Even the most far-sighted bourgeois economists, the natural defenders of the capitalist order, could not bring themselves to promote economic theories that would challenge the very basis of bourgeois society. Subsequently, studies based upon the labour theory of value were unceremoniously abandoned in favour of the harmless, but nevertheless useless, marginal utility theory. “Ricardo never concerns himself with the origin of surplus-value,” explained Marx. “Ricardo’s school also merely evaded the problem rather than solving it. In fact, these bourgeois economists instinctively and rightly saw that it was very dangerous to penetrate too deeply into the burning question of the origin of surplus-value.”2

Theory and practice

Marx regarded himself first and foremost as a revolutionary and communist, who was committed to ending the old social order based on private ownership. For him, theory and practice were inseparable.

This stands out sharply from today’s academic “Marxists” who have no connection with revolutionary practice and who busy themselves in their ivory towers writing erudite theses on this or that aspect of Marx. Their approach to economics is completely abstract and mechanical. Without exception, they are devoid of dialectical thinking and adopt a completely one-sided and schematic approach to the most complex of questions. Amongst these are the so-called analytical Marxists, such as G.A. Cohen, John Roemer and Robert Brenner, who reject dialectics. David Harvey, whilst generally recognising the importance of dialectics, is rather agnostic. “I am not in principle arguing that the analytical Marxists are wrong, that those who turn Marx into a positivist model-builder are deluded,” he says. “Maybe they are right.”3

In fact, these “Marxists” are completely wrong. Marx’s dialectical method is essential in understanding Marx’s writings. To deny this is to deny their very essence. Lenin answered such views a long time ago when he stressed that without a thorough understanding of dialectics, including a study of Hegel’s Logic, it was not possible to understand Marx’s Capital. “Consequently, half a century later”, Lenin explained, “none of the Marxists understood Marx!!”4 As we know, this is even truer today.

It is no accident that in Capital Marx paid tribute to Hegel as an intellectual giant and mentor. In his afterword to the second German edition of Capital Marx explained: “The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion…[These days he is treated like a ‘dead dog’]…I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”5

Marx’s interest in political economy centred on the belief that the socialist revolution was linked to the crisis of capitalism. This idea became an essential aspect of Marx’s conception of historical materialism, which regarded the economic basis of society as the foundation upon which the political superstructure of laws, political parties, official morality, and so on, were erected. This relationship was not, however, a simple linear relationship, but a complex dialectical one.

Marx saw the key to the development of society in the development of the productive forces: industry, science and technique. As soon as a society proves unable to fulfil this role, it enters into crisis. “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”6

For the first time, socialism was transformed from a utopian idea into a science – a necessary stage in the development of history and society. The agency of change from one social system to another was the class struggle, the victory of a rising proletarian class over the outmoded ruling class.

Exploitation, profit and crisis

In political economy, while bourgeois economists could only see a relationship between things, namely, the exchange of commodities, Marx brilliantly revealed that economics was in fact the relationship between people, and in the final analysis between classes.

In Capital, Marx revealed in depth the secret of exploitation under capitalism, where the working class is forced to sell not its labour but its labour-power in order to survive. This distinction between labour and labour-power is essential in understanding capitalist exploitation.

He revealed that the creation of surplus-value, the driving force of the capitalist mode of production, is derived from the unpaid labour of the working class. The working class is forced to work and produce values not only to cover their wages, but to toil longer to produce surplus-value. The working day is, in effect, divided between necessary labour and surplus labour. The capitalists expropriate this surplus labour.

Raw material and the depreciation of machinery only transfer their value to the new commodities. They do not create new values, which come from the labour of the working class, the sole source of value. Capital is only dead labour: the ‘crystallised’ or ‘congealed’ labour of the past. If the working class received in wages the full value of their labour, then capitalists would not gain any profit.

Marx explained that the value of labour-power (wages) is determined in the same way as the value of all commodities. It is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour contained in them. The value of labour-power is the value of those things that can restore that labour-power: food, shelter and other necessities of life. It also includes an amount that can permit the worker to raise a family and the next generation of wage slaves.

Under these circumstances, workers cannot buy back the full value of what they produce. Capitalism is only able to overcome this contradiction by constantly reinvesting the surplus-value appropriated by the capitalists back into production. Yet this results in an additional contradiction: investment further increases the productive capacity of capitalism, pouring greater and greater amounts of commodities onto the market. Eventually, this leads periodically to, in the words of Marx, “an epidemic of overproduction”, a phenomenon peculiar to capitalism. This is not overproduction of the things that people need, but overproduction in the sense of commodities that cannot be sold profitably. Capitalist production is not based on supplying human need, but in making profits.

“The factory system’s tremendous capacity for expanding with sudden immense leaps” wrote Marx in volume one of Capital, “and its dependence on the world market, necessarily give rise to the following cycle: feverish production, a consequent glut on the market, then a contraction of the market, which causes production to be crippled. The life of industry becomes a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, overproduction, crisis and stagnation.”7

In this present epoch of capitalist decline, however, slumps can have far more devastating effects and, more importantly, the economic recoveries are more feeble and weaker than before. This is the nature of the current crisis, which can be described not as a cyclical crisis, but as an organic crisis. In these times, the booms are shallow and the slumps are sharper and more prolonged. The system cannot any longer develop the productive forces as in the past. Today’s recovery is the weakest in history. It is severely restricted, with precious little capital investment taking place, massive cuts in living standards and endemic unemployment. This represents an epoch of crisis that is preparing revolutionary events on a global scale.

Preparing for revolution

Marx’s writings on political economy, as on other questions, were intended to arm the workers’ movement theoretically for the coming socialist revolution. This was the main reason behind his decision to write Capital and draw out the inherent crises within capitalism.

Marx soldiered on. Drafts followed on from more drafts. Marx’s frustration was clearly evident in his letters. In October 1864, he complained about the delays that prevented him from finishing the first volume of Capital. “I hope I may now complete it finally in a couple of months and deal the bourgeoisie a theoretical blow from which it will never recover.”8 But the project always took longer than anticipated.

Eventually things came together. In April 1867, Marx again repeats the same intention of using the book to launch an ideological hammer blow against the apologists of capitalism. “The first volume [of Capital] comprises the First Book: ‘The Process of Production of Capital’. It is without question the most terrible missile that has yet been hurled at the heads of the bourgeoisie (landowners included).”9

Marx sacrificed everything, including his health and that of his family, in order to complete this work, his missile. While living in utter destitution in Dean Street, Soho, occasionally being forced to pawn his own coat to pay the bills, Marx did everything possible to visit and continue his studies in the Reading Room of the British Museum.

The British Library was a veritable gold mine of information and the primary source from which Marx’s ideas on political economy would eventually be forged. From the time of the Copyright Act of 1842, a copy of every book, magazine, pamphlet and journal ever published had to be deposited by law with the British Museum. By the time Marx was using the Reading Room, there were some 600,000 books, covering every subject under the sun, including the latest copies of Hansard, Parliamentary Committee Reports and the invaluable Blue Books. It was from this extensive Library, at seat number 07, that he worked on The Class Struggles in France, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and the preparatory material for Capital.

But illness and poverty took their inevitable toll and exacted an exceptionally high personal price from Marx and his family, who were forced to endure unimaginable deprivation. Once again, his letters reveal the real picture.

“I was at the whole time at death’s door,” Marx explained. “I thus had to make use of every moment when I was capable of work to complete my book, to which I have sacrificed my health, happiness and family.”10 This was a reference to the harsh miseries of Soho life, in which three of his young children perished from consumption and other poverty-related diseases.

“A week ago I reached the pleasant point where I am unable to go out for want of the coats I have pawned, and can no longer eat meat for want of credit,” wrote Marx in a letter to Engels11. When his wife and children were ill, Marx described his plight to Engels: “I could not and cannot call the doctor because I have no money to buy medicine. For the past eight to ten days I have been feeding the family solely on bread and potatoes, but whether I shall be able to get hold of any today is doubtful. Such a diet is not, of course, beneficial in present climatic conditions. I have not written any articles for Dana because I don’t have a penny to go and read the papers…The best and most desirable thing that could happen would be for the landlady to throw me out. Then I would at least be quit of the sum of £22. But such complaisance is hardly to be expected of her. On top of that, debts are still outstanding to the baker, the milkman, the tea chap, the greengrocer, the butcher. How am I to get out of this infernal mess?…I myself am in shit.”12

Toil, poverty and illness

Life was gruelling, especially in exile. Jenny, from an aristocratic family, probably felt the most pain. The complaints about the hardships of daily life are endless, but Marx strove to continue his work. To his credit, Marx rose above the personal misery and every kind of perfidy that afflicted him.

After his exhausting work at the British Museum, Marx would return home to prepare his economic manuscripts. This would usually take him through the night until around 4 o’clock in the morning. He wrote to Engels describing his workload or “shift-work”, as he referred to it. “Hence the shift-system, as the English manufacturing swine have applied it to the same people between 1848 and 1850, has been applied to my own person by myself.”

As early as April 1851, Marx claimed he would finish his work in a “matter of five weeks”, but weeks turned into months and months into years. There was no end to this Herculean task to which he was bound, like Prometheus to the rock. Each time he came within sight of concluding his economic studies, more challenging material would turn up, requiring even more detailed investigation.

His constant efforts were sustained by Engels’ unswerving devotion and generosity, which allowed Marx to survive and eventually carry though this own revolution in political economy, allowing him for the first time to “lay bare the law of motion of modern society”, as he put it in the Preface of Capital. But at what personal cost!

In order to survive, he was forced to scrape a living by writing for the newspapers, mainly the New York Tribune, which he regarded more as a distraction and an irritant. “This continual scribbling for newspapers bores me. It takes up too much of my time, separates things, and means nothing,” he complained13. But he had no alternative, as he desperately needed the money. It was, however, not enough to cover his outgoings. If it were not for Engels’ unstinting support, financial and in other ways, Marx and his family would have perished in the workhouse or in some debtors’ prison.

The oncoming economic crisis was bearing down on Marx, who was struggling with his material. In late 1857, Marx wrote: “The present commercial crisis has impelled me to set to work seriously on my outlines of political economy, and also to prepare something on the present crisis.” He nevertheless complained, “I am forced to fritter away […] my days earning a living. [Only] the nights remain free for real work and that is disrupted by ill-health.”14Again, “I have been overdoing very much my nocturnal labours, accompanied, it is true, by mere lemonade on the one hand, but an immense deal of tobacco on the other,” he wrote to Engels15. Visitors noticed the piles of used matches and ash scattered about the place, a reminder of his nocturnal chain-smoking as he prepared his manuscripts.

“I am not a master of my own time, but rather a servant,” he stated. “Only the night remains free and very frequent attacks and recurrences of a liver complaint again disturb work at night.”16 He often complained to Engels of his bilious attacks, haemorrhoids, carbuncles and dizzy spells, which prevented him from writing or even sitting down, most of which was the result of irregular and poor diet. “I lead the most troubled life that can be imagined,” wrote Marx17. After complaining about the severe liver trouble which virtually incapacitated him, he wrote with a certain irony: “I owe it to the Party that the thing [ Capital] shouldn’t be disfigured by the kind of heavy, wooden style proper to a disordered liver.”18

Despite the recurring illnesses and difficulties, Marx still continued to pursue his studies. This entailed extensive research, criticism and observation of the most recent materials, all of which served to delay the completion of his work. “…the thing is proceeding very slowly because no sooner does one set about finally disposing of subjects to which one has devoted years of study than they start revealing new aspects and demand to be thought out further,” complained Marx19. As can be seen, he left no stone unturned to discover the underlying reality beneath the economic appearances, no matter what the delay.


It was the onset of deep economic crisis in 1857 that forced Marx’s hand and drove him to publish his work on economics. It was a question of publish or be damned. There was no more time to waste. “Taken all in all, the crisis has been burrowing away like the good old mole it is,” noted Marx on 22 February 1858. “The present commercial crisis has impelled me to set to work seriously on my outlines of political economy, and also to prepare something on the present crisis,” wrote Marx to Lassalle. The first fruits of his hard and laborious work was the production of a short book entitled A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859. However, this endeavour, as you might expect, was not without a last minute financial hitch. “The ill-fated manuscript is ready but can’t be sent off as I haven’t a farthing for postage or insurance,” complained the exasperated Marx. He went on half in jest: “I don’t suppose anyone has ever written about ‘money’ when so short of the stuff.”20

Despite these difficulties, the book was eventually published. It constituted the first coherent outline of the Marxist theory of value, a detailed analysis of money, as well as revealing the essence behind the appearance of market relations, namely as relations between people or classes. Interestingly, the book opens with the same beginning as in the first volume of Capital, published almost a decade later: “The wealth of bourgeois society, at first sight, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities, its unit being a single commodity.”21 It was no accident that his investigations would begin here, namely the distinction of use-value and exchange-value. For Marx to unlock the secrets of the commodity was to unlock the essential workings of capitalism, including the nature of capitalist crisis itself. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy was, however, more of a curtain raiser than a fully worked out analysis.

Volume one of Capital would not appear until 1867, in German, eight years after the Critique. It would take many years for the book to appear in the English language. The period between the Critique and the Capital were extremely fruitful, the culmination of Marx’s unstinting studies. These years also included the drafts for the next two volumes of Capital and The Theories of Surplus-value in three volumes, none of which would be published during his lifetime.

Marx worked very closely with Engels in producing Capital, despite the attempt by some to place a wedge between the two men. So close were they that each draft page of Capital, meticulously copied by his daughter Laura, was sent to Engels for his comments and observations before being eventually signed off.

Finally, the first volume of Capital was finished in the early hours of 16 August 1867. “Naturally it gave me pleasure to lick the cub clean after so many birth pangs,” stated Marx. He immediately dashed off a note to Engels: “I have only you to thank for making this possible! Without the sacrifices you made for me, I would have been unable to finish the monstrous labours for the three volumes. I embrace you, full of thanks!”22

In the Preface to volume one of Capital, Marx explains that the book was in fact a continuation of his 1859 work and he apologised for the lengthy delay between their publications. “The long pause between the first part and the continuation is due to an illness of many years’ duration that again and again interrupted my work,” he explained apologetically. The first English edition of Capital did not come out until 1887, 20 years after the German edition, and several years after Marx’s death. This task was completed under the close supervision of his old friend and lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels.

The studies that Marx undertook in 1857 and 1858 were eventually published almost 100 years later in a book entitle Grundrisse, and then only in German. Marx of course never intended that these rough notes and observations be published, but were simply undertaken for personal self-clarification. He made this abundantly clear. “The total material lies before me in the form of monographs,” explained Marx, “which were written at widely separated periods, for self-clarification, not for publication…”23

Nevertheless, the work indicates Marx’s line of thought and how he originally envisaged the final completion of his work. This mass of notes were discovered among his manuscripts after his death and later deciphered, edited, and then published. They contain fascinating insights, which analyse the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, including capitalist crisis. Nevertheless, Marx stressed that these notebooks were only a “fragmentary sketch” and were an “ anticipation of results that are still not proven”.

This process of self-clarification was an essential aspect of Marx’s work. While writing these notes, he dissected the arguments of his opponents line by line. His dialectical method allowed him to see the issues in an all-sided, fully rounded out way, rather than a series of isolated problems. This was the means by which he was able to discover the source of surplus-value. In doing so, Marx had managed to overthrow all previous concepts of profit. He once again acknowledged his debt to Hegel and the dialectical method. “By mere accident … I leafed through Hegel’s Logic again and found much to assist me in the method of analysis,”24 he explained.

The extensive research Marx had undertaken in 1857 and 1858 covered seven large notebooks, in which he outlines his thoughts on the suggested content of a future book on economics. Between 1861 and 1863, Marx revised his original drafts, which were again revised and redrafted between 1863 and 1865, before the eventual publication of Capital.

By 1867, Marx had managed to complete the drafts that were to make up the three volumes of Capital as well as the Theories of Surplus-value. This was even more amazing considering that he was so deeply involved in the work of the International Workingmen’s Association, or the First International.

This political work, together with ever newer and deeper studies, continual illness, and finally death, nevertheless prevented him from completing the entire work as he had hoped. Even in his final years Marx was continuing to master his knowledge of political economy. As late as 1879, not long before his death, he was absorbed in analysing the industrial crisis as it was unfolding, especially any unique features that may arise. “The phenomena are this time singular, in many respects different from what they were in the past,” he wrote to Nikolai Danielson, “and this – quite apart from other modifying circumstances – is easily accounted for by the fact that never before the English crisis was preceded by tremendous and now already five years lasting crisis in the United States, South America, Germany, Austria, etc.” He concluded, “It is therefore necessary to watch the present course of things until their maturity before you can ‘consume’ them ‘productively’, I mean ‘theoretically’.”25

After his death, it was left to his close collaborator, Frederick Engels, the only person who could carry out the task satisfactorily, to prepare the publication of the second and third volumes of Capital from the manuscripts that Marx had left behind.

A monument of revolutionary theory

While there was a conspiracy of silence when volume one of Marx’s Capital was published, it nevertheless was to have an impact over the years in the working class movement. The book even managed to get past the Tsarist censors, as it was considered a work so difficult as to have no revolutionary importance. Needless to say, it was eagerly read aloud passage by passage and chapter by chapter at workers’ discussion circles, the cadre schools of Russian Bolshevism. Capital became commonly known on the continent as the ‘Bible’ of the working class and was indispensable in theoretically educating the movement in the nature and contradictions of capitalism. So it remains today. The three volumes of Capital constitute a real monument to Marx, not of marble, but of revolutionary theory.

“You know that I have sacrificed my whole fortune to the revolutionary struggle,” Marx wrote in a letter to his son-in-law Paul Lafargue. “I do not regret it. Quite the contrary. If I had to begin my life over again, I would do the same.”26

The evolution of modern capitalism is a confirmation of the analysis of Marx. The economic slump of 2008 and the crisis in Europe and on a world scale has given birth to a political radicalisation and growing turmoil. It is laying the basis for revolutionary events everywhere.

“The capitalist mode of appropriation, which springs from the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property,” explained Marx at the end of volume one of Capital. “This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of its proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a natural process, its own negation. This is the negation of the negation. It does not re-establish private property, but it does indeed establish individual property on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist era: namely co-operation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself.”27

“The knell of capitalist private property sounds,” concluded Marx. “The expropriators will be expropriated.”


1 Karl Marx, Capital, vol 1, p24, Penguin Classics (1990) edition

2 ibid, p651-652

3 Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, p13

4 Lenin’s Collected Works, vol 38, p180

5 Capital, vol 1, p29

6 Karl Marx, Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

7 Capital, vol 1, p580

8 Marx and Engels Collected Works (MECW), vol 42, p4

9 MECW, vol 42, p358

10 MECW, vol 42, p366

11 Letter to Engels, 27 February 1852, MECW, vol 39, p50

12 Letter to Engels, 8 September 1852, MECW, vol 39, p181-82

13 Letter to Cluss, 15 September 1853, MECW, vol 39, p366

14 Letter to Lassalle, 21 December 1857, MECW, vol 40, p226

15 Letter to Engels, 16 January 1858, MECW, vol 40, p249

16 Letter to Lassalle, 22 February 1858, MECW, vol 40, p268

17 MECW, vol 40, p273

18 Letter to Lassalle, 12 November 1858, MECW, vol 40, p354

19 MECW, vol 40, p270

20 Letter to Engels, 21 January 1859

21 Marx, Critique, p27

22 Letter to Engels, 2am, 16 August 1867, MECW, vol 42, p402

23 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, p361, 1962

24 Letter to Engels, 16 January 1858, MECW, vol 40, p248

25 MECW, vol 45, p354, emphasis in original

26 MECW, vol 42, p308

27 Capital, vol 1, p929

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