Its relevance is undiminished and now readers of Capital can overcome the intellectual challenges with David Harvey’s superb online lectures. So get stuck in, says STEPHEN HALLMARK
HAVING twice failed in attempts to read Das Kapital, it was with trepidation that I dusted off my copy and finally committed to getting past chapter two.
Third time lucky — and this time around getting to grips with the first volume of Karl Marx’s magnum opus has been a revelation.
With all the interest around Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, this seemed the right time to take the daunting plunge into Marx’s world of commodities, exchange and surplus values and to overcome being unnecessarily put off by the book’s size and misconceptions around what it was about.
To force me into finishing Volume I, I had two strategies.
The first tactic was the same I employed when I decided to quit smoking, which was to tell everyone I knew that I was stubbing out the habit so that I would have looked a fool if I’d lit up again. Therefore I told anyone who’d listen that I was about to read the book, believing that would force me to finish it.
The second tactic involved following lectures posted online by professor David Harvey, a man so dedicated to encouraging others to “read Marx in his own terms” that he has put his course on the web for free. This proved to be the key that not only unlocked the 19th-century book to me, but that also opened the door to an inspirational experience.
For the uninitiated, Harvey is professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York. Refreshingly, he practices what he preaches by refusing the temptation to profit from his lectures in favour of trying to enthuse as many as possible with the passion he feels for Marx.
His website www.davidharvey.org contains 13 two-hour lectures on Volume I recorded in 2007. They notched up a million hits in two years, and are accompanied by his book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (2013).
Why get to grips with Das Kapital? Learning from capitalism’s most famous critic was something I’d wanted to do for years. The insane growth in inequality we have witnessed since the 1970s, the threat to the environment that capitalism poses and the economic crisis in 2008 are just three examples why I wanted to develop my understanding of the system. I never wanted to class myself as anti-capitalist. Defining myself as a negative — by being against something rather than for — always struck me as a cop out. But how could I call myself a communist without downing a dose of Capital?
Passages of Das Kapital are daunting — especially at the beginning. What had also created hurdles for me is I hadn’t read books by Ricardo, Smith, Malthus, Petty and Senior, et al — so I lacked an understanding of 19th-century political economy and what Marx was confronting.
That’s why Harvey’s introductory lecture lit the spark. He stresses that many struggle with the first three chapters, and that Marx doesn’t make it easy for the reader by outlining why he is going to discuss the commodity in such meticulous detail. Harvey adds that Marx reveals his argument gradually, so that it’s only really possible to understand it as you near the end. And Harvey’s schoolboy-like enthusiasm for the text is incredibly infectious.
Harvey’s contribution not only buoyed my spirits and fleshed out the historical milieu, he also brings the text bang up to date by applying it to current events, such as Marx scrutinizing labour’s relationship with machinery, or more precisely labour’s relationship with those who owned the machinery, in relation to Manchester’s sprawling cotton mills.
Harvey applies this analysis to the closure of Baltimore’s Bethlehem steel mills: the labour force reduced by 60 per cent from the late 1960s to the early 1990s as production levels remained constant as a result of technological improvement. The question hinges on who benefited from technological improvements, capitalists or labourers.
The answer is that — then and now — factory owners pocketed increased profits rather than used improved technology to ease labour’s burden.
The lectures contain exhilarating moments. I urge anyone wavering about starting the course to watch the eighth lecture, during which Harvey talks for an hour about what Marx identifies as the elements that, when taken collectively, represent the potential drivers of revolutionary change.
olume Is can be read as a historical document packed full of fascinating insights into Victorian society, in particular from the avalanche of evidence provided by factory inspectors. It can be read as a political economics treatise with a stunning global sweep, as an instruction manual for trade unionists wanting to fight their corner or be read as a call to arms.
It is an astonishingly erudite book filled with classical references and with moments of wit as well as stirring prose in among barbed attacks — of which my personal favourite is Marx’s pithy dismissal of capitalism’s apologists as “the modern bag men of free trade.”
This is a critical point. Marx sets out to beat Smith and his contemporaries at their own game, accepting their arguments about the free market but arguing that rather than acting to create an idyllic paradise benefiting all, unfettered capitalism will result in the concentration of capital and rampant inequality.
Most importantly for me, Das Kapital can also be read as a rallying cry to the 99.9 per cent of us who wonder how it has come to pass that a tiny elite has amassed so much wealth at the expense of so many.
It offers an analysis which illustrates how this trajectory has always been embedded at the root of capitalism’s DNA. This is where its relevance lies. It’s not a book telling us that we can tinker with capitalism to create a fairer model, it’s a book that grabs us and tells us to organise and work to foster the seeds of the new society existing within the current order.
Volume I is strikingly relevant for something first published in 1867. Marx demystifies capitalism and reveals it as a system that at its heart rests upon the “free exploitation of man by man,” that “proclaims the making of profit as the ultimate and the sole purpose of mankind” and which “ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake.”
A fascinating section addresses the brutality that paved the way for capitalism’s early growth — what Marx calls primitive accumulation.
Whether it was the suffering, murder and enslavement of indigenous people living in colonies being laid waste by early exploration; the similar fate faced by Scots living in the Highlands or the expropriation of holdings farmed by agricultural labourers in England, capitalism’s birth was contrary to what many would have us believe.
It takes place within a “Herod-like slaughter of the innocents” and capital is born “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Marx adds: “In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short force, play the greatest part... primitive accumulation is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.”
And how apposite is it — as we consider austerity today — that Marx quips: “The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into collective possession of a modern nation is — the national debt.”
Marx continues: “Modern fiscality, whose pivot is formed by taxes on the most necessary means of subsistence (thereby increasing their price), thus contains within itself the germ of automatic progression. Overtaxation is not an incident, but rather a principle… (it is) extolled as the best system for making the wage labourer submissive, frugal, industrious and overburdened with labour.”
Marx dedicated himself to unveiling how capitalism enslaves the working classes, how it affects the many. Marx’s humanism, his desire for a better, fairer and more equal society is the theme which unifies his work.
Challenging, yes — and there are passages that I won’t begin to say I comprehend. Marx’s habit of burying gems in footnotes is also infuriating. It will also disappoint people wanting to learn about what alternative states will look like — this is a critique of capital not a revolutionary blueprint.
But it is a truly remarkable book accompanied by remarkable lectures.During my reading of Volume I, Harvey posted 13 lectures covering Volume II as well as publishing another reader to accompany them. So it looks as if my evenings are filled for some months to come.
21st Century Marxism, July 26-July 27 at various venues around Clerkenwell Green, London. A weekend of discussion, debate, culture and music with guest speakers including Hans Modrow, Attila the Stockbroker and many others. For details and tickets visit www.communist-party.org.uk/events