Das Kapital – 150th Anniversary of a Milestone in Class Struggle

On 14 September 1867 the most famous book by Marx was published for the first time


Article by Almedina Gunić, Revolutionary-Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 14 September 2017, www.thecommunists.net




Das Kapital (Capital) is not only well-known by socialists, it is more or less general knowledge that Karl Marx is its author and that it explains the nature of capitalism. On its 150th anniversary, we take a brief look at the coming into being of probably the most famous book in revolutionary history. First, it is necessary to understand that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not academics sitting in some ivory towers. Both were serious revolutionary militants who were able to contend with various propagandistic, theoretical and practical tasks. Therefore, is also important that we deal with a number of developments in the lives of the two founders of dialectical materialism and scientific socialism.


The first volume of Das Kapital was published on the 14 September 1867 – after more than two decades of intense, but at times interrupted, studies, countless notes and drafts which were continually being revised and often torn up by Karl Marx.


In 1844, a 26-year old Marx openly discussed his ideas on the nature of capitalist economy, more or less for the first time. At this young age, Marx was already banned from pursuing an academic career by the Prussian government which, in 1841, had declared him a left-wing Hegelian. He worked, therefore, first as a journalist and later as the editor-in-chief of the radical opposition paper Rheinische Zeitung which was heavily and repeatedly censured. However, under the intelligent leadership of Marx (beginning from October 1842) the newspaper continued to be published in an increasingly polemical and radical manner against the will of the government. The publication was eventually shut down by the furious Prussian government in April 1843. One year later Marx moved to Paris together with his wife and political comrade-in-arms, Jenny von Westphalen. He started the journal Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher together with the 41-year old Arnold Ruge, a former editor-in-chief of the journal Halleschen Jahrbücher für deutsche Kunst und Wissenschaft which had also been banned.


Ruge was himself a Young Hegelian and collaborated with Ludwig Feuerbach, the Brothers Grimm and other famous philosophers and literary men in the publication of Halleschen Jahrbücher für deutsche Kunst und Wissenschaft. However, very quickly the paths of Marx and Ruge at Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher parted, as the latter became a bourgeois democrat while Marx was developing towards the ideas of communism. Nevertheless, this very short episode opened the door to a life-long comradeship, both politically and personally, between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They began corresponding because of two articles written by Engels for the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher.


1844 - The idea for Das Kapital is born


In September 1892, nine years after the death of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels wrote in a letter to Franz Mehring: “Marx was then a Hegelian and that passage was pure heresy to him. He knew nothing whatever about political economy and could not have had any idea about the meaning of a term like ‘economic form’. Hence the passage in question, even if he had known it, would have gone in one ear and come out the other without leaving a perceptible trace in his memory. But I greatly doubt whether traces of such views could have been found in the works of the romantic historians which Marx read between 1837 and 1842.“ (Marx Engels Collected Works [MECW] Vol. 49, p.550)


It was to a large part the influence of and discussions with Engels which inspired Marx to deal with economic theory and to elaborate a socialist stance on it. Marx had already written some very first ideas in the so-called Pariser Manuskripte in May and June 1844, but more to clarify ideas to himself than to publish. For this reason these notes were never completed by Marx nor have they ever been published in their entirety, as some parts were lost. Marx’s new comradeship with Engels changed his ideas on the meaning of a detailed elaboration of economic theory. This was not the only occasion on which Friedrich Engels inspired Marx to deal with certain issues. Their comradeship and mutual friendship were based on each brilliant man’s inspiring the other to develop to his very best. It is therefore very characteristic that Marx wrote to Engels in July 1864: “As you know, 1. I'm always late off the mark with everything, and 2. I invariably follow in your footsteps.“ (MECW Vol 41, p.546)


It was exactly two decades earlier that Engels ‒ after he met Marx in person and spent time with him in Paris, realizing that they share the same ideas – wrote to Marx in October 1844: “I have not been able to recapture the mood of cheerfulness and goodwill I experienced during the ten days I spent with you. I have not as yet had any real opportunity of doing anything about the establishment we are to establish.“(MECW Vol. 38, p.6)


So, like the serious political person that he was, and most likely in the same cheerful mood as that which Engels enjoyed during their first ten day sojourn together, Karl Marx began to delve into economic theory by reading a huge number of books and publications by the most famous economic theorists of that time. He also studied a countless number of empirical publications on various aspects of bourgeois economy. In the end, Marx’s entire life circled around the economic studies he later published, all in all, in the three volumes of Das Kapital and his Theories of Surplus Value. During the decades of elaborating what would later become known as Marxist Economy, he and with him Engels, suffered in different ways because of this tremendous project. Friedrich Engels had to repeatedly demand and plead with Marx to finalize his studies in a publishable form.


Engels was probably the most patient, but was far from being the only person demanding that Marx finish his study. Wilhelm Liebknecht (to name just one of many), for example, wrote to Marx in September 1864: “Ceterum censeo oeconomiam esse perficiendam.“ [“Furthermore, I consider that the (studies on) economy must be finished“, originally in Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), Dritte Abteilung, Briefwechsel Band 12, Brief 415, Zeile 14-15, p.643, our translation]


Ambitious plans at the beginning


Marx, from his perspective, explained in various ways why his ideas were still not ready to be seen by the public. After many years he became so frustrated that he once wrote: “As soon as peace is restored, I shall devote myself to the fair copy of the beastly book, which I intend to hawk round Germany myself.“ (MECW Vol. 41, p.481)


However, Marx's theoretical achievement implemented over so many years in Das Kapital started rather inauspiciously. Originally, Engels thought (as did Marx himself) that they would eventually publish a sort of lengthy essay on economic theory, sooner rather than later. However, after he began work on the first draft, Marx preferred publishing his study in a more extended form.


At the beginning of 1845, he came to an agreement with the publishing house of Karl Wilhelm Leske to publish two volumes called “Kritik der Politik und Nationalökonomie“ (Critique of Politics and Political Economy), closing the deal with the receipt of an advance payment. This was also the goal very much encouraged by Engels, who wrote to Marx in January 1845: "Do try and finish your political economy book, even if there’s much in it that you yourself are still dissatisfied with, it doesn’t really matter; minds are ripe and we must strike while the iron is hot. (…) We German theoreticians — it may be ludicrous, but it’s a sign of the times and of the dissolution of the German national filth — cannot yet so much as develop our theory, not even having been able as yet to publish the critique of the nonsense. But now it is high time. So try and finish before April, do as I do, set yourself a date by which you will definitely have finished, and make sure it gets into print quickly. If you can’t get it printed in Paris, have it done in Mannheim, Darmstadt or elsewhere. But it must come out soon." (MECW Vol 38, p.17)


Although a contract was signed between the publishing house and Marx, Leske never received any draft from the latter. Instead, Marx wrote him several times promising in various manners to finish a first volume of Kritik der Politik und Nationalökonomie, including his letter to Leske in August 1846: “The revised version of the first volume will be ready for publication at the end of November. The 2nd volume, of a more historical nature, will be able to follow soon after it.“ (MECW Vol. 38, p.51)


Theory needs practice


We needn’t be surprised that the contract between Leske and Marx was soon terminated. Parts of Marx’s notes were later published in the pamphlet Ökonomisch-Philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844 (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). Critics of Marx have joked that, at that point in time, Marx may have been a weak theoretician, as he was finding it so difficult to complete his study in economics. Such conjecture, at any point in the life of Marx after 1844, is complete nonsense. Aside from the huge delay in publishing Das Kapital, both Marx and Engels were very prolific and wrote a number of significant theoretical works from this time forth. Even at the very beginning of their collaboration and their joint development towards scientific socialist ideas, they already wrote a number of important ideological polemics.


After they first met in Paris 1844, Marx arranged for a publishing house to print their first coauthored book only a few weeks later, Die heilige Familie, oder Kritik der kritischen Kritik. Gegen Bruno Bauer & Consorten (The Holy Family). Indeed, this book was published in the spring of 1845 by the publishing house Literarische Anstalt (J. Rütten). They next jointly elaborated Die Deutsche Ideologie (The German Ideology) between1845 and 1846, the main part of which was written by Marx. This manuscript was only partially published during Marx's lifetime, while the entire work was released following his death. In 1845, Marx also wrote his famous Thesen über Feuerbach (Theses on Feuerbach) which were also only published after his death. At this time Marx was writing for the weekly newspaper Vorwärts! bringing a socialist influence to this German radical-democratic paper. For this work he was exiled by the Prussian regime and moved to Brussels at the beginning of 1845.


Aside from his literary activity, Karl Marx was, like his comrade Friedrich Engels, also a man of practice. He and Engels met with a revolutionary wing of the Chartist Movement in London in the summer of 1845. Half a year later, at the beginning of 1846, they launched an initiative for founding a joint organization for all revolutionary workers in Germany and other countries, calling it Kommunistisches Korrespondenz-Komitee. Both joined the socialist Bund der Gerechten in 1847 and they managed, primarily due to the efforts of Marx, to transform this organization into the Bund der Kommunisten (Communist League), with Marx writing Das Kommunistische Manifest (The Communist Manifesto) which was published in the revolutionary year of 1848. Among Marx’s many activities from this period were the lectures he prepared. His essay Lohnarbeit und Kapital (Wage Labour and Capital) was based on a number of lectures on capitalist economy that Marx delivered to workers in 1847.


Interruptions and delays


The revolutionary year of 1848 and the counterrevolutionary developments of the following years had their impact on the work of Marx and Engels. With the turbulent times, Marx’s further elaboration of economic theory was continually postponed. Furthermore, after his arrest in Brussels and his forced exile from Belgium, Marx moved to Paris at the invitation of the new provisional government of the French Republic. He also participated in the German revolution in March 1848, leading the revolutionary movement in Cologne and founding and serving as editor-in-chief of the daily socialist newpaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In April 1849, before the counter-revolutionary forces succeeded in repressing the uprising of the workers and poor, Lohnarbeit und Kapital was published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. The writing of this series of articles explaining the fundamental method of the capitalist economy was interrupted by the need to focus on propaganda addressing current developments. However, in the end, the series of articles was never resumed as the reactionary Prussian regime returned to power and permanently shut down the publication of the newspaper in May 1849.


The publication of the complete text of Lohnarbeit und Kapital remained unfinished even after Marx’s death, as no previously unpublished notes had survived. Engels edited the later version, published in 1891, consistent with the development that Marx' theory on the capitalist economy had taken in the 1850s: “Marx, in the ’40s, had not yet completed his criticism of political economy. This was not done until toward the end of the fifties. Consequently, such of his writings as were published before the first installment of his Critique of Political Economy was finished, deviate in some points from those written after 1859, and contain expressions and whole sentences which, viewed from the standpoint of his later writings, appear inexact, and even incorrect. Now, it goes without saying that in ordinary editions, intended for the public in general, this earlier standpoint, as a part of the intellectual development of the author, has its place; that the author as well as the public, has an indisputable right to an unaltered reprint of these older writings. In such a case, I would not have dreamed of changing a single word in it. But it is otherwise when the edition is destined almost exclusively for the purpose of propaganda. In such a case, Marx himself would unquestionably have brought the old work, dating from 1849, into harmony with his new point of view, and I feel sure that I am acting in his spirit when I insert in this edition the few changes and additions which are necessary in order to attain this object in all essential point. .“ (MECW Vol 27, p.194)


This brief explanation which Friedrich Engels makes en passant includes a crucial point for our understanding of the very long time that Das Kapital took before it was ready for publication. Karl Marx in the 1840s had not yet developed the theoretical understanding of capitalist economy which Karl Marx in the late 1850s had. The whole process of analyzing the capitalist economy down to its DNA and understanding the dialectical mechanism of it took its time.


Beginning in 1849 Marx was exiled from France and took up residence in London where he lived for the remainder of his life. Aside from numerous, very impressive and important publications like Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) which was published in 1852, Marx elaborated a number of articles on the economy of several European countries, which were published in the New York Daily Tribune starting from 1852. In the period after 1858, he intensified his studies on the capitalist economy and further developed his understanding of it. To Ferdinand Lasalle, who put pressure on Marx to finalize his writings on economy, he wrote in 1858: “1. It is the product of 15 years of research, i.e. the best years of my life. 2. In it an important view of social relations is scientifically expounded for the first time. Hence I owe it to the Party that the thing shouldn't be disfigured by the kind of heavy, wooden style proper to a disordered liver.“ (MECW Vol. 40, p.354)


In 1859, Marx’s work Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Critique of Political Economy) was published, marking a new stage of his studies. However, as the man of practice that he still was, Marx brought the Deutscher Arbeiterbildungsverein in London to support the Polish uprising of January 1863. Last but not least, the First Internationale was found in 1864 in which Marx and Engels fought for a revolutionary communist orientation. Thus, a milestone was set in the history of the revolutionary struggle of the working class.


In addition to the developments mentioned above, far more propaganda, theoretical work and practical tasks were done by Marx in the years before the publication of the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867.


The scientific artist and the creation of a Weltanschauung


True, the major economic study of Marx was not published as originally planned in 1845. It is also true that his publication plans were repeatedly delayed because Marx continued to fool himself into believing that he would finish the work by the next planned due date; this resulted in the postponing of its publication again and again. However, in retrospect, we can understand that this lengthy series of delays is in no way a reflection of some general theoretical weakness on Marx’s part, but was rather due to the enormity of the tasks that both Marx and Engels had set for themselves: developing a whole new movement while taking the communist ideas of the utopian socialists and placing them on firm materialistic grounds.


Both contributed, in their close and rare comradeship, to the founding of an entirely new political movement. Marxism is – as is said in German – not just an idea, but a Weltanschauung, which literary means something like a worldview, but which includes far more than just simply observing the world. It is the result of a systematic and thorough engagement with various ideas and philosophies, culminating in the realization of one’s own view, which is compared with the perception of others in order to elaborate a deep and vivid understanding of the dynamics of the world and the human society. Weltanschauung is something that needs the exchange, the comparison with, and the battle against other ideas.


In this sense Weltanschauung is nothing that you can get as a gift from others or that is passed on to you by pure tradition. It is rather something that you have to earn by your own efforts and which permanently evolves during your lifetime. In the best case scenario, your Weltanschauung gives you the answer to the universal question: “Who Am I and Why Am I Here?“ All the weaknesses in developing Das Kapital, all the problems and nerve wrecking situations are just the price Marx and Engels had to pay in order to sustain the building of a new political movement, to develop a new Weltanschauung and with this the developing of a deeper analysis and understanding of the capitalist economy.


Marx himself became an expert on everything that was published by famous and not so famous bourgeois economics before and during his lifetime. He wrote in 1851 to Engels: “Ça commence à m'ennuyer. Au fond,9 this science has made no progress since A. Smith and D . Ricardo, however much has been done in the way of individual research , often extremely discerning.“ (MECW Vol. 38, p.325)


Today, it is easy to compare the writings on capitalist economy of both authors, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, with the collected works of Marx and Engels. It is very easy to differentiate these authors from one another. The style and rhetoric of Smith and Ricardo are smooth compared to the elaboration in Das Kapital. However, the elaborations of Marx (and Engels) are far more brilliant and capture the true nature of capitalist economy. They are written on the basis of dialectical materialism, the scientific method that allows us to understand the contradictory developments of society. Marx and Engels turned the dialectical idealism of Hegel around and placed it firmly on materialistic grounds. They created a whole new – and until today – revolutionary philosophy.


To laugh about Marx's insecurity, his occasional confusion and his overall struggle in developing a deep understanding of the way the capitalist economy operates based on a fundamental understanding of class society is comparable to laughing at Einstein about his doubts on the cosmological constant or laughing about Michelangelo who believed that he is not skilled enough to do the fresco paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Hence, Marx was both a scientist and an artist, forming the sculpture of a whole new Weltanschauung. Beside him remains Friedrich Engels who, aside from numerous brilliant writings of his own, organized the publication of the second and third volumes of Das Kapital after Marx’s death. He collected what Marx had elaborated and revised it as he always did, even Marx’s lifetime. As a result, thanks to Engel’s enormous efforts, today we are able to read the second and third volumes of Das Kapital. And indeed, we should read them!


What Das Kapital means to us workers


As a Marxist worker, your Weltanschauung saves your every day – every single day. In this thick fog arising from forced production and reproduction that engulfs you as a worker and makes your world so small that you barely see your own hand in front of your face, a Marxist Weltanschauung is like a sword with which you can cut through the thick curtain of fog and help you to see how big and sunny the world can be.


Das Kapital like anything else written by Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, as well as other communist revolutionaries should not be read like some holy, God-given document. It definitely has its shortcomings and, as it explains in extreme detail the dynamics of the early stages of capitalism, it is partly outdated. For this reason it is important to also read further developments of Marxist economy by later revolutionary communists, including the elaborations for today in the RCIT publication The Great Robbery of the South. However, the fundamentals of Marxist economy explained in Das Kapital and various other writings by Marx and Engels are essentially still correct today.


When Marx believed that we, as workers, will understand his analysis of capitalist economy, he was right. We understand it out of the daily experiences we have. We understand it and at the same time shake our heads over the writings of Smith and Ricardo, which make a mockery of us in their explanations of the capitalist economy, to say nothing of all the bourgeois charlatans since them. Maybe it takes time to learn all the terms that are used in political economy. Maybe it takes serious effort and patience to understand such matters. Yet we must remember that It took Marx 22 years to finalize the first volume of Das Kapital, so we don't need to worry that we don't understand every single word with the first, second or third readings of it.


But if there is a class which can understand it, it is us – the working class!