Why study Marx? How to study Marx?

Even the unfinished and incomplete Capital is the deepest analysis of capitalism ever done. It is an analysis of the basic structures of each kind of capitalism.

203 years ago, Marx was born. More than 150 years ago, the first volume of his main work, Capital, appeared. Besides a short visit to Algeria at the end of his life (for health reasons), he never left Western Europe and he was not completely free from Eurocentric thoughts. In the 1850s he even wrote some newspaper articles considering British colonialism as the only chance for India to develop.

Why studying Marx today?

Marx was a learning person life-long. He was always ready to question his political and scientific positions in the light of new events and experience. During the 1860s he managed to overcome the influence of Eurocentric ideas.The Indian rebellion of 1857 changed his picture of India deeply.

When we consider Marx’s work on Capital, we can also recognize this enormous capacity of his for continuous learning. In the Capital-manuscripts until mid-1860s neither USA nor Russia, played an important role. As Marx mentioned in the first volume’s preface from 1867, he considered England as the “classical” place of capitalism. However, by late 1860s Marx recognized that economically Russia and the USA became more and more important as well as regards movements opposing capitalism. In the late 1860s Marx learnt Russian in order to read economic studies about Russia. Since the early 1870s he planned to change the manuscript of Capital’s volume three: the section on interest bearing capital and the credit system he felt should be based on the banking system of the USA instead of the British system. In the section on ground rent, he also wanted to consider landed property in Russia.

Marx and Engels at Hague Conference

During the 1870s the scope of his analysis widened again (as we know from his notebooks and his letters. Marx intended to provide a deeper analysis of credit and crisis and furthermore he wanted to pay much more attention to capitalism’s consequences for the “metabolism” between man and nature – this was Marx’s term for what nowadays is called “ecology.” Marx collected a lot of material in his notebooks, but he died before he could incorporate this material in the manuscripts for Capital. When Engels, after Marx’s death, edited Capital’s volume two and three, he could not take all such plans and considerations in notebooks. Engels had to use what he found in the already existing manuscripts.

However, even the unfinished and incomplete Capital is the deepest analysis of capitalism ever done. It is not an analysis of British capitalism. It is not an analysis of competitive capitalism in 19th century. It is an analysis of the basic structures of each kind of capitalism. As Marx claimed at the end of volume three, explaining why he omitted certain concrete issues: Capital doesn’t analyze the cycles of industry or the crises on the world market because it analyses the capitalist mode of production “in its ideal average”. Marx attempted to include in his inquiry, all moments belonging necessarily to capitalism: labor products as commodities, labor-power as a special commodity, capitalist’s appropriation of surplus value as a result of workers’ exploitation, the basic methods to increase surplus-value and their relation to class struggle, the transformation of surplus value into profit and that of profit into average profit, the typical capitalist dynamics of accumulation and crisis.

Capital is the best we have in order to understand capitalism scientifically. We must understand capitalism scientifically, in order to demonstrate that exploitation, rising inequality and ecological destruction are not accidental effects but necessary consequences of capitalism. For fighting against capitalism, a scientific understanding of capitalism is a powerful weapon. However, we have to read Capital, not like believers who accept every sentence even before they read it. In the preface of volume one, Marx wrote: “I welcome every scientific critique,” and this was not an empty phrase. We have to read Capital critically, especially when we take into account the incomplete and unfinished character of Capital.

At least on Marx’s anniversary, we should also remember that Marx paid a high price for writing Capital. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that Capital is the book, “to which I have sacrificed my health, happiness and family” (Marx to Meyer, 30 April, 1867), and this was not an exaggeration. While Marx was writing Capital, most of the time, he and his family were living in misery. Four of their children died. Marx and his beloved wife Jenny became old long before the time. Nevertheless, Marx was convinced that he had to follow his way. In the mentioned letter, he continued: “I laugh at the so-called ‘practical’ men and their wisdom. If one wanted to be an ox, one could, of course, turn one’s back on the sufferings of humanity and look after one’s own hide. But I should really have thought myself unpractical if I had pegged out without finally completing my book, at least in manuscript.”

Michael Heinrich lives in Berlin, Germany.  He is the author of “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital” and of a new Marx-biography, “Karl Marx and the birth of Modern Society”. Michael Heinrich has also travelled to India and conducted classes on Marx’s Capital.


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June 2024


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