Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: in their shadow

A weapon for the movement

Comrades in London are beginning their collective study of Marx's Capital. Jack Conrad introduces what is still an unequalled work

Lenin called Karl Marx’s Capital “the greatest work of political economy of our age”. However, it strikes me that in Capital we actually have the greatest work of political economy ever written, full stop - I really cannot think of any other work that is comparable to it, from any other “age”.

Marx worked on this project for 40 years - over half his life - and it ought to be said, as with many other projects, it was actually Friedrich Engels who prompted him. Engels wrote a critique of political economy - it was a very modest work, but nevertheless it was a beginning. Previous to that both Marx and Engels had been concentrating on exposing the shortcomings of Young Hegelian philosophising, of Ludwig Feuerbach’s passive materialism, of French utopian socialism, etc. Engels was working for his family concern, as a capitalist, in Manchester, and had become acquainted with not only the Chartist movement, but also bourgeois political economy. After Engels wrote his ‘Outlines of a critique of political economy’ (1843) for the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher, Marx began to immerse himself in the subject - and he critiqued what was a stupendous body of intellectual achievement. Thinkers such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo had managed to put political economy on to a genuinely scientific basis.

What we also need to understand about classical bourgeois political economy, such as Adam Smith’s rightly celebrated The wealth of nations (1776), is that it was as much an advocacy of capitalism as it was an analysis of capitalism. The wealth of nations not only attacked feudal laziness and waste: it militantly recommended the virtues of capitalist progress. However, it did so not in the dismal way found in today’s Adam Smith Institute (eg, there is no alternative). Smith saw capitalism as the road to universal human freedom. What was good for the capitalists was also going to bring enlightenment, wealth and happiness to everyone.

The first public results of Marx’s studies in this field was his 1859 A critique of political economy. You can see from their correspondence that what surprised and bitterly disappointed Marx and Engels at the time was the lack of response. There were no glowing reviews, no shocked outrage in respectable society, no rash of sympathetic study circles formed. Indeed, very few copies were sold. Nevertheless, between 1861 and 1863 Marx completed his Theories of surplus value, of which there are three substantial volumes. It was subsequently called the fourth volume of Capital.

Volume 1 of Capital came out in 1867 and it is worth noting that, unlike A critique of political economy, it did get widely noticed. It was eagerly read and had a real impact: before the Edward Aveling translation into English there were editions not only in German, but in Russian and French too. For example, the founder of the Social Democratic Federation, Henry Hyndman, read it while sailing from America on board an ocean liner. Once he returned to Britain this former Tory declared himself to be a Marxist. In Russia, even before the formation of a working class party, Capital exerted a considerable influence amongst intellectuals.

Marx, of course, died in 1883 and Capital was left incomplete. Towards the end of his life Marx had been concentrating on what were later called the Ethnographic notebooks of Karl Marx. Eg, he busied himself in studying Lewis Henry Morgan and his work on the Iroquois. He also learnt Russian and was particularly interested in the peasant mir and the land question in Russia. Some have argued that this was because Marx had given up on Capital and that he was preparing his own version of Engels’ Origin of the family, private property and the state (which he persuaded Engels to write). Others claim that Marx was formulating a theory on the state. Either way, I think it is highly unlikely that he had simply given up on Capital.


Marx had set himself a vast project and was intending to produce not one, but six books - of which Capital was just one. In the original plan his first book was to cover capital itself; the second landed property; the third wage labour; the fourth the state; the fifth foreign trade; and the sixth the world market. So Marx did not even complete his first book. In fact volumes 2 and 3 of Capital were compiled in some part by Engels, who could almost count as the co-author in the case of the third volume. Theories of surplus value - which, as I have said, is arranged in three volumes - came out between 1905 and 1910, and was edited (badly) by Karl Kautsky. So we have just the first book of Marx’s original plan ... with first Engels and then Kautsky acting as posthumous midwives.

Marx’s project is to analyse the capitalist mode of production: its origins, laws and tendencies. In other words, where it came from and how it functioned. That required a comprehensive analysis of all the existing literature and approaching the system from every angle. Roman Rosdolsky, in his The making of Marx’s Capital, suggests that we have much of this in Capital itself. Eg, he believes that much of the projected book on wage labour has in fact been incorporated into volume 1 of Capital. In part this is true, but, on the other hand, Michael Lebowitz argues - and, I think, persuasively - that Capital bases itself on the point of view of capital itself, and that Marx did not fully develop his theory from the other point of view: the collectivist political economy of wage labour.

Anyway, it is clearly the case that Capital is an unfinished work. Perhaps, if we consider Marx’s original six-book plan, it is unfinishable, not least because capitalism is continually developing, being made and remade. Certainly, given an unfinished Capital - and the extraordinary complexities of the capitalist system - there are numerous arguments amongst Marxists. What does Marx mean when he talks about the declining rate of profit? What about disproportionality and the question of underconsumption? Are these three rival theories of capitalist crisis? This and much more has been argued over fiercely among Marxists.

Anyhow, I would say that anyone who seriously wants to understand where we are now and where we are going really has to begin with Capital. It is no outdated critique of 19th century capitalism. Rather what we have contained within the cover of Capital are the tools needed to get to grips with 21st century capitalism ... along with why communism should be the expected outcome of a capitalism that is both visibly malfunctioning and ever more unpopular.

Bourgeois commentators generally either seek to naturalise capitalism or celebrate it as the pinnacle of human achievement. Capitalism is therefore seen as being innate, locked into our very genes - that or it brings unprecedented wealth, freedom and happiness. Hence, on the one hand, we are told that it is natural to buy and sell and to be greedy. On the other hand, we are told that, while capitalism might have begun with the slave trade, the enclosure acts, the forcible removal of people from the land and the dark, satanic mills, it has brought democracy, free speech and unparalleled prosperity.

Some defenders of capitalism will grudgingly admit that Marx is relevant because he emphasised that crises were endemic to the system. However, his main conclusion - that the ever deepening contradictions of capitalism can only be positively resolved internationally by working class power and a new, communist mode of production - are, of course, dismissed, discounted or declared to be a failure. True, national socialism ended in failure. But national socialism was always going to end that way ... according to Marx.


Capitalism remains and by definition so does the working class. And it is precisely because of Marx’s method, which is historical, logical and dialectical, that it retains its breadth, power and freshness, and goes far, far beyond the banalities of present-day bourgeois thought when it comes to capitalism and its gravedigger. To get an idea about Marx’s method let us think for a moment about how Marx went about studying capitalism and how he presents his results. Of course, he famously read more or less everything classical political economy had produced. He was perhaps in his days the world’s leading expert on Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, the French physiocrats, etc. He also thoroughly studied the history of capitalism and its origins in feudalism.

However, his method of presentation goes against all notions of common sense. In volume 1 Marx begins not by attempting to give the reader a history of capitalism, nor telling the reader what Adam Smith, etc, got wrong. Interestingly, before giving Capital its final shape Marx can be found writing to Engels telling him that he has been rereading The science of logic and that he was going to present his own argument in Capital in the manner recommended by Hegel. In other words, get rid of all that is unnecessary, all that is surplus, begin with the essential and logically proceed to how contradictions arise and are resolved.

As everyone knows, in Capital Marx takes as his point of departure the commodity in its simplest form, at its absolutely elemental level. From here, from this abstraction, Marx moves things, slowly, painstakingly, unanswerably, forward, step by step, towards the concrete. In order to take the reader with him, Marx often makes the same point over and over again, albeit from a different direction or using a different example. But the logic is as remorseless as it is palpable. We follow the commodity through its ever more complex forms of development and see how every barrier to that development seems to be overcome, as new heights are reached. And what needs emphasising is that we are dealing with not only logic. We are simultaneously gaining an insight into the actual historical movement of capitalism.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the commodity is the key to understanding the whole of capitalism. For example, if you want to understand the present-day crisis, you will find the root of the answer within the first chapter of Capital. Marx explains that a commodity must have use-value - it must be useful to someone or else no-one would want it. But, once we go beyond mere barter, it must be exchangeable for money ... and realise a profit. Here lies the possibility of crisis. If production is solely undertaken for the resulting exchange-value of the commodity, to get more money than was originally laid out, then there will be a withdrawal from production if, for one reason or another, commodities fail to sell. Profit is thus simultaneously a huge stimulant to production and a constantly recurring and damaging brake.

For the movement

Harold Wilson once claimed (boasted?) that he got to page 40 of Capital volume 1 and then given up. Perhaps we can understand this from a Labour prime minister during the heyday of Keynesianism and social democracy. Why would he read it? Indeed, Capital volume 1 can seem very intimidating, given its hundreds of pages, many formulas, conversions of one category to another, absolutes, relatives, general laws, etc. But it should never be forgotten that Marx was not writing for the delight of future Marxist professors. His aim was quite straightforward: Marx wanted to equip the working class movement with a rounded knowledge of the system within which it lives and fights against daily. That is why Capital was written. Therefore, any red professor who looks down their nose at so-called ordinary people and says that they cannot hope to get to grips with and master it is talking absolute nonsense. Capital is a difficult book that takes much effort, but it is perfectly readable. Marx wrote it for the intelligent worker. He wrote it for the emerging movement of the working class, in order to equip it with the demystifying theory it needed if it was going to organise itself into a class to replace capitalism with communism.

Within any extensive body of work you can find mistakes. Go through Capital and one might conclude that perhaps Marx was wrong here or there on this or that question. One can do the same with Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton or any other paradigm-shifting thinker. But only a fool, or a charlatan, would use quibbles to dismiss what is the greatest work of political economy produced by any age. That is surely why most Marxists approach Capital with a certain humility ... and I think that they are quite right to do so.

There have been many books written by Marxists over the last hundred years or so. Some have usefully added to what is an ever-expanding body of theory - eg, Hilferding’s Finance capital - but none can seriously claim to have produced the equal of Capital. We still live in the intellectual shadow of Marx and Capital, just as we still live in the shadow of Newton, Darwin and Einstein.