On Reading Das Kapital – Venkatesh Athreya

Why read Capital?

 I shall begin this article on a personal note. ReadingCapital changed my life.

It happened almost, but not quite, by accident. I had completed my bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from a ‘prestigious’ Indian Institute in 1969 and had, to every one’s surprise, chosen to pursue doctoral studies in Economics at a U.S. university. The student movement against the USaggression in Viet Namwas developing powerfully at the university where I had enrolled for my Ph.D. But the courses I had to study as part of my doctoral programme in Economics did not provide any explanation for such important questions as to why the world’s most powerful nation was engaged in a war of aggression against a tiny third world country. It was then that I stumbled upon a study group negotiating Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. You may wonder why this is even worth a mention when the book under reference is a very difficult book on Economics written in the 1850s and 1860s, which many think is obsolete and irrelevant. But I had by this time realized that mainstream Economics offered no credible explanation of the unjust world we lived in, and I was willing to join the study circle. The next six months changed my life entirely.

I read Das Kapital in English, and the first time as part of a study circle of ten persons, most of whom were doctoral students at the university from various social science disciplines. At first, I found I had to read the text very carefully, as each sentence was significant in a different way each time I read it. Slowly, I realized that the manner of Marx’s argument was relentlessly logical, and I began to enjoy the book a great deal, as an engineer with an inclination to analytical argumentation. As I read the book over and over again over the next several semesters of my stay in the university, I began to see something else in Capital. Even in translation, Capital read like poetry! So immense was Marx’s scholarship, apart from his acute grasp of political economy arising from his basic theoretical framework of dialectical and historical materialism, that the pages of Capital, in the middle of abstract argument, would be enlivened by an apt quotation from Shakespeare or Goethe! The other striking aspect of Marx’s style of writing was the sharp sense of humour, with devastating sarcasm marking his references to some bourgeois economists like Nassau Senior and Jeremy Bentham who were apologists for the capitalist system.

What did I, an engineering graduate trained in mathematical economics, learn from Capital? First, I learnt that to understand a society and its dynamics, one needed to look at it in historical perspective. Second, the basic determinants of the dynamics of a society lay in the manner in which the means of production were owned and the relationship between the direct producers and the means of production. Third, the capitalist mode of production in essence is based upon (i) a separation of the direct producers (working people) from the means of production and their transformation into free wage labourers at one pole, (ii) the transformation of the means of production into the private monopoly/property of  a class of capitalists at the other pole, and (iii) the logic of relentless pursuit of profit on private account, with all production taking place on private account for sale in markets with a view to profit. Marx demonstrates that this profit-driven system is necessarily expansionist, both in terms of geography and in terms of the range of activities that can be brought under the drive of profit. To read the discussion on the circuit of capital as well as the last part entitled ‘the modern theory of colonization’ in the first volume of Capital is to understand the inherently globalizing nature of capitalism. After all, if the sole goal is profit, why should the pursuit of it be confined to one part of the world or only one set of activities? If making money is the name of the game, why not make it in any manner possible, be it running a factory or a self financing college or worse! Surely, business ethics is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms! Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production and its inherent logic enables one to understand colonial expansion and what Lenin later called the system of imperialism with its global expansion and colonization and enslavement of people all over the world.

Marx’s analysis in Capital brings out the contradictory nature of capitalism as an economic system. On the one hand, both the competition among capitalists and the struggle between the class of capitalists and the class of workers leads to constant mechanization and automation of production, leading to the rapid development of society’s productive forces. On the other hand, these very processes, which are part of the pursuit of profit, limit the growth of consuming power in society by creating increasing unemployment and limiting wage increases over time, and by dispossessing producers in pre-capitalist sectors/ economies. Periodically, this contradiction between the rapidly growing producing power of capitalist society and the much slower growth of consuming power, results in a demand crisis, with massive amounts of goods and services remaining unsold and large numbers of people thrown into the ranks of the unemployed. Capitalism being an unplanned and anarchic system, sectoral imbalances can also lead to overall economic crisis. Thirdly, in so far as technological progress is also unplanned at the systemic level, the rise in productivity does not always keep pace with the increase in the underlying investments that make the technological progress possible, leading to a tendency for the rate of profit to fall now and then. All these and other factors historically have made the capitalist system prone to large fluctuations in output and employment, causing immense misery to working people. Besides, the competition among capitalists and rivalry among capitalist nation states on a global scale led, in the 20th century, to two global wars resulting in misery for millions of people and massive profits for a handful of large corporations. Currently, the world is in the midst of a global recession, whose predicted recovery is unlikely to make any dent on unemployment until 2011.

The current global crisis of climate change has brought into sharp focus the wasteful ways of the global capitalist system driven by relentless pursuit of profit and the accompanying disregard for the environment and the fate of future generations. It was Marx’s Capital that boldly proclaimed the historically inevitable demise of the capitalist mode of production in the face of the apparently triumphant march of capitalism across the globe that seemed self-evident to defenders of the capitalist system in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century experience showed that vast numbers of people across the world, both in the industrially advanced countries and in the colonized countries, were ready to revolt against the inequities of the capitalist system. The first decade of the present century has once again highlighted the inability of the capitalist system, despite enormous advances in science and technology, to solve the basic problems facing humanity, including the rather modest goals of food, shelter, clothing, education and health for all. Marx’s analysis in Capital, and his prognosis of the system of capitalism promoting the accumulation of wealth at one pole and misery at the other, remains relevant and inspiring.

Is Capital too daunting to read?


Now that I have given my story line away by giving you a very brief outline of what I learnt from reading Capital, let me turn to the popular perception, even among activists on the political Left including those in academia, that Capital is a very difficult, if not impossible book to read. I disagree with this view. It is of course true that Capital demands of its readers a certain level of commitment in the sense that the reader must work his or her way through the often complicated logic of its arguments. But one would expect this of any serious analytical work. The difference, in the case of Capital is, if anything, to its advantage, since reading Capital can be immensely-immeasurably-rewarding.

 Capital presupposes a strong degree of engagement of the reader with its primary concern: analysis of the capitalist mode of production with a view to laying bare its inner dynamic and contradictions, summarized in the term ‘laws of motion of capitalism’. Any such analysis, as historical materialism teaches us, must necessarily develop historically specific analytical concepts and categories relevant to the mode of production being analysed. In doing so, a certain level of abstraction is inevitable. Marx himself puts the matter in the following words:

In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. (Capital, Volume I, p.8)[1]

Marx also makes the point that the proposition that every beginning is difficult ‘holds in all sciences’, while referring to the apparent difficulty in understanding the first three chapters of the first volume of Capital dealing with the concepts of ‘commodity’ and ‘value’. The important thing is not to be intimidated by the opening chapters of the first volume of Capital. There is no particular order in which the book has to be read, and each reader should decide, based on his or her prior preparation and inclination the sequence of reading in terms of chapters.

Readers who enjoy a historical account more readily than abstract analysis may want to begin with the last part of the first volume of Capital that deals with the process of ‘primary’ or ‘primitive’ accumulation of capital. This part, in eight crisp chapters or around seventy pages of vivid prose, explains how the capitalist mode of production emerged and how the main classes of this mode of production emerged on the historical stage in the country of birth of modern capitalism, namelyEngland of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Particularly striking is the chapter on the historical tendency of the capitalist mode of production which contains the following brilliant description of the logical end of this mode:

…..as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialization of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, an with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers,  and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, an under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. (Capital, Volume I, pp 762-763)[2]

Militants of the working class movement may find Parts III, IV and V of Capital (Volume I), which deal with the production of absolute and relative surplus value more immediately interesting than the rather abstract opening chapters. The tenth chapter entitled ‘The Working Day’ will be especially relevant for militants in the third world countries such as India where the length of the working day still varies greatly across industries and sectors, and is generally unconscionably long, including in some very modern, ‘high-tech’ segments. This chapter is a real tour de force, covering a vast ground of concrete history-including legislative history- with a constant focus on the basic class question at hand, namely the struggle between the insatiable appetite of capital for surplus value and the gradually emerging resistance of the working class to gross exploitation.  Here is the core idea of this chapter in Marx’s own words:


The establishment of a normal working-day is the result of centuries of struggle between capitalist and labourer. The history of this struggle shows two opposed tendencies…While the modern Factory Acts compulsorily shortened the working-day, the earlier statutes tried to lengthen it by compulsion…..It takes centuries ere the “free” labourer, thanks to the development of capitalistic production agrees, i.e., is compelled by social conditions, to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity for work, for the price of the necessaries of life, his birthright for a mess of pottage. (Capital, Volume I, pp. 270-271)

As he brings the chapter on the working day to a close, Marx reminds us of the crucial transformation that occurs once the worker has entered into an employment contract with the capitalist and entered the work premises, and its implications for the working class:

It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the production process other than he entered. In the market, he stood as the owner of the commodity “labour power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent”, that the time for which he is free to sell his labour power is the time for which he is forced to sell it…the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves an their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of e legally limited working-day…( Capital, Volume I, pp.301-302)

It is interesting to note that while Marx was writing in the 1860s of the need to limit the working day in the context of Great Britain, our worthy captains of industry in twenty-first century “globalizing” India, demand freedom from all labour legislation and raise the slogan of the need for “flexible labour”, supported in this demand by our imported and home-grown academic worthies serving their interests in an out of government.[3]

 Engineers and technologists will find absolutely fascinating Marx’s treatment in Chapters XII, XIII and XIV, respectively, of cooperation, of division of labour and manufacture, and of machinery and modern industry. Marx treats the reader to a detailed discussion of technical matters as they pertain to industrial production in a manner that is readily comprehensible. This will engage the engineer and the technologist. But Marx does something far more remarkable. He never loses sight of the larger context within which the technical discussion has to be placed so that it can be correctly understood. That context is one of social and historical transformation, and of the contradictory effects of scientific and technological advance under the capitalist mode of production, especially the deleterious impact of mechanization on the worker under capitalism. In an overall positive summing up of the historical role of modern industry, Marx makes the following important observations:

Modern industry never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within the society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of workpeople from one branch of production to another. But if modern industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer, on the other hand, in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularisations. We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous, We have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity. This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.

(Capital, Volume I, pp. 486-488, Accessed at the URL http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch15.htm#S9)

While Marx thus takes a balanced and historically informed view of the role of modern industry, he does not by any means romanticise the actual process of industrial modernization under the aegis of the capitalist mode of production. In an interesting discussion of the relation between modern industry and agriculture, Marx anticipates some of the contemporary ecological concerns. In a typically dialectical assessment of the impact of capitalist industrial modernization on agriculture and the working people in agriculture, here is what Marx has to say:

Capitalist production completely tears asunder the old bond of union which held together agriculture and manufacture in their infancy. But at the same time it creates the material conditions for a higher synthesis in the future, viz., the union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the more perfected forms they have each acquired during their temporary separation. Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer. But while upsetting the naturally grown conditions for the maintenance of that circulation of matter, it imperiously calls for its restoration as a system, as a regulating law of social production, and under a form appropriate to the full development of the human race.(Ibid)


Marx concludes this discussion thus:

Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility… Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth-the soil and the labourer.[4]

Capital as a delightful read


Capital is thus not a daunting read. It is, as we can see from the foregoing extracts from just the first volume of Capital, a source of valuable knowledge and rich insights that enables us to understand some key aspects of capitalism as a mode of production even today, despite the phenomenal changes that have occurred since the first volume of Capital was published way back in 1867. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that the ruling classes have also learnt from the superbly incisive analysis of the capitalist mode of production in Capital. Bourgeois ideologists, including in academia, have long tried to bury Capital by ignoring it. Among mainstream economists, the dominant strategy has been to deny that Marx was a noteworthy economist, but treat him instead as a political propagandist. Forced to reckon with the continuing relevance of Marx in the context of both the real economic crisis of contemporary global capitalism an the crisis of mainstream economic theory in its neoliberal and Keynesian variants, mainstream economists are finding it increasingly difficult to dismiss Marx as either a non-economist or  a minor post-Ricardian.[5]

Apart from its importance in providing the reader with valuable insights on the nature and dynamics of the capitalist mode of production, insights which have contemporary relevance, the other important feature of Capital that I have been struck by is its method of presentation of arguments. Consider, for instance, what is often seen as a difficult part of Capital, namely the first chapter of the first volume which deals with the concept of commodity and develops the category of ‘value’. Far from being difficult, the argument in the chapter is systematic and goes through a series of simple logical steps to arrive at a profound understanding of the nature of a commodity. The first section of the chapter develops the point that a commodity-anything produced on private account with a view to sell in a market and not for own use-has two aspects of importance. First, it must be useful to some one in society or else it cannot be exchanged, which means it ceases to be a commodity in effect. This aspect, which Marx terms the use value property of a commodity, is a function of the natural-physical and chemical-properties of the commodity. However, the whole idea of producing something as a commodity is to sell it. This implies that a commodity must possess exchange value. Marx’s central point here is that, while the commodity is thus perceived as having use value and exchange value, the exchange value is only the external appearance, the form of expression as it were, of something deeper. This deeper aspect is that what makes the most different commodities comparable and commensurable cannot be their natural properties since these differ from commodity to commodity, but it is rather a social property. The obvious commonness of all commodities is that they are all products of the expenditure of human labour in society. This common property that all commodities have, namely that they are all products of society’s labour, is what makes them commensurable, and Marx calls this property ‘value’. Now, starting from this carefully built scaffold, he raises a marvellous structure of logical argument in Capital that enables him to unravel the inner dynamics of the capitalist mode of production.

 A key feature of Marx’s method, which Capital is suffused with, is that of showing the contradictory character of all the phenomena under investigation. We saw this in the earlier quotation from Capital on the historical role of machinery and modern industry. We saw it again in the passage that we quoted on the historical tendency of the capitalist mode of production. The remarkable twenty-fifth chapter in the first volume of Capital on ‘The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation’ is another outstanding example of Marx’s method of argument of starting out with simple categories depicting various aspects of the phenomenon under study, and showing the process of their dynamic evolution through the working  out of their inherent contradictions. It is of course important to emphasize that the contradictions being discussed by Marx are real ones on the ground and not merely contradictions of the theoretical categories used to represent the real world.

 It is, in retrospect, astonishing that Marx managed to make such a deep and profound structure of argument-and several substructures within the overall structure- so eminently readable. One feature of Capital that contributes to this readability is that every theoretical argument is immediately illustrated from contemporary history-and in many instances with the events and phenomena of earlier historical epochs as well. Marx makes generous but careful and rigorous use of official records and reports and data sources in illustrating and emphasizing his arguments. But he is careful to keep his structures of argument distinct and analytically valid on their own, even as he uses empirical evidence to illustrate, strengthen and illuminate his arguments. His frequent reference to fine works of literature and appropriate quotes from them relieves the reader struggling with dense arguments from time to time. Consider, for instance, the following passage on the capitalist engaged in the accumulation of capital :

To accumulate, is to conquer the world of social wealth, to increase the mass of human beings exploited by him, and thus to extend both the direct and the indirect sway of the capitalist. But original sin is at work everywhere. As capitalist production, accumulation, and wealth, become developed, the capitalist ceases to be the mere incarnation of capital. He has a fellow-feeling for his own Adam, and his education gradually enables him to smile at the rage for asceticism, as a mere prejudice of the old-fashioned miser. While the capitalist of the classical type brands individual consumption as a sin against his function, and as “abstinence” from accumulating, the modernised capitalist is capable of looking upon accumulation as “abstinence” from pleasure.

Marx captures this contradiction between wanting to enjoy the good life and the compulsion to accumulate by quoting from Goethe’s Faust:

“Two souls, alas, do dwell with in his breast;
The one is ever parting from the other.”

Marx then elaborates the argument, bringing out the contradictions involved and showing how they change with the dynamics of capitalism in history:

At the historical dawn of capitalist production, — and every capitalist upstart has personally to go through this historical stage — avarice, and desire to get rich, are the ruling passions. But the progress of capitalist production not only creates a world of delights; it lays open, in speculation and the credit system, a thousand sources of sudden enrichment. When a certain stage of development has been reached, a conventional degree of prodigality, which is also an exhibition of wealth, and consequently a source of credit, becomes a business necessity to the “unfortunate” capitalist. Luxury enters into capital’s expenses of representation. Moreover, the capitalist gets rich, not like the miser, in proportion to his personal labour and restricted consumption, but at the same rate as he squeezes out the labour-power of others, and enforces on the labourer abstinence from all life’s enjoyments. Although, therefore, the prodigality of the capitalist never possesses the bona fide character of the open-handed feudal lord’s prodigality, but, on the contrary, has always lurking behind it the most sordid avarice and the most anxious calculation, yet his expenditure grows with his accumulation, without the one necessarily restricting the other. But along with this growth, there is at the same time developed in his breast, a Faustian conflict between the passion for accumulation, and the desire for enjoyment.

The chapters on primitive accumulation, too, contain many such delightful passages, dripping with irony in their relentless expose of capitalist hypocrisy.

A final word

Go ahead, have a great read! And, by the way, do not forget to read the prefaces and the after-words to the various editions by Marx and by Engels. Hope you enjoy reading all the three volumes of Capital as much as I did-and do! At any rate, start on the first volume as soon as you can lay your hand on it.

[1] All references from Capital are from the edition published by International Publishers, New York in 1967 on the occasion of the 100th year of the first German edition of the classic work.

[2] Brilliant and in some ways evocative of contemporary capitalism as this description is,  the actual development of capitalist social formations- as opposed to the immanent tendency of the theoretical construct of the ‘capitalist mode of production’-has been very different. An important part of the explanation for this difference rests, of course, with the rise of Imperialism as an integral part of the evolution of capitalism. Professor Patnaik’s contribution to this volume explores this issue as a whole in depth.

[3] See, for instance, successive issues, over the last several years, of the Economic Survey, an annual publication of the Ministry of Finance of the Government of India.

[4] A good introduction to Marx’s perspectives and views on issues of ecology and environment can be found in John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (Monthly Review Press,New York, —-)

[5] The reference here is to David Ricardo, who was regarded, along with Adam Smith, as a classical political economist by Marx. Ricardo’s major work is The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. He and Smith, whose classic work, The Wealth of Nations (1776) is often  (and misleadingly) invoked by neoliberals, were the most important economists articulating the views of the emerging class of capitalists during a key phase of Britain’s transition to capitalism between the 1770s an the 1830s. Marx regarded both Smith and Ricardo highly, but also provided the most incisive critique of their views. If you courageously manage to read the three volumes of Capital, you can go on to read Marx’s magnum opus on the history of economic thought, the three-volume Theories of Surplus Value!

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  1. Kudos to Dr.Athreya for his deep insight into the ideas of Karl Marx. Inspires me to read Das Capital.

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