Soft Shell, Hard Core: On the 150th Anniversary of the Publication of Karl Marx’s Capital, Vol. 1

Isaac Deutscher once told the following story about reading Capital:

I was relieved to hear that Ignacy Daszynski,1 our famous member of parliament, a pioneer of socialism, … admitted that he too found hard a nut. “I have not read it,” he almost boasted, “but Karl Kautsky has read it. I have not read Kautsky either, but Kelles-Krauz, our party theorist, has read him, and he summarized Kautsky’s book. I have not read Kelles-Krauz, either, but … Herman Diamond, our financial expert, has read Kelles-Krauz, and he has told me all about it.”2

Deutscher’s anecdote illustrates the fate of Karl Marx’s most important work, Das Kapital. Since then, the summaries and their contexts of origin have changed, as well as why and who wrote them and what they focus on—but the original still often sits unread on the shelf. But which original actually?

On September 14, 1867, the financial paper of the German book market reported the publication of Das Kapital. Otto Wigand’s Leipzig printer had to put 3.2 tons of lead typesetting into motion in order to print the 1000 copies “ordinarily,” as it was then called, without a binding, wrapped in yellow paper. Whoever wanted to have a “real” book had to first bring it to the bookbinder. The pages were also uncut. The book cost three taler and ten cents. This was the weekly wage of a skilled male worker. Foreign-language quotes and terms were not translated; there was no annotation apparatus that explained anything. For normal wage earners, the book was neither readable nor affordable.

Which “Capital”?

The first edition is not the book familiar to most. In fact, today we read a version of Capital that Marx did not know at all. In April 1867, Marx went to his publisher Otto Meissner in Hamburg. He was afraid that Meissner would drastically cut the text, since it was supposed to be a somewhat thinner book. Meissner had printed in Leipzig so that Marx could not stand next to the printing press and intervene in the production process. So Marx visited his friend Louis Kugelmann in Hanover. There, the first printing sheets arrived. Kugelmann suggested to Marx that he make the beginning much clearer in a new appendix. The beginning was too difficult to understand. Friedrich Engels agreed. Although the book was already in print, Marx wrote an appendix that reworked the “cryptic” beginning. Nevertheless, Engels was not satisfied: “But how could you leave the outward structure of the book in its present form! The fourth chapter is almost 200 pages long … Furthermore, the train of thought is constantly interrupted by illustrations, and the point to be illustrated is never summarized after the illustration, so that one is for ever plunging straight … into the exposition of another point. It is dreadfully tiring, and confusing, too, if one is not all attention.”3

Scarcely one month after the publication of the volume, Marx impatiently turned to Engels: “The time for action has now come. You are better placed to write … about my book than I am.”4 Engels wrote two anonymous reviews, “appropriate for almost any bourgeois paper.”5 The point was to draw attention to Capital. In the last 150 years, little has changed in the review of difficult books.

Sales were sluggish. It was always the political conjuncture that spurred demand for Marx’s main work. With the Paris Commune in 1871, interest in Capital rose. In 1873, a new edition was needed, for which Marx wrote a new beginning, so that the appendix dropped out and the whole volume could be reorganized. In the same year, the first part of the French translation appeared, for which Marx made several changes. In the year of his death, an unchanged third edition came on the market, which was already introduced by Engels and announced that Marx’s changes would be incorporated into the fourth edition. Marx wanted to fundamentally rework Capital, and considered using the USA as his main example instead of England. He was aware that the center of capitalist development had shifted, although he did not come back to this. Engels adopted some, but definitely not all, of the changes for the fourth edition. This is the basis for the most well known German version of Capital, Volume 23 of the blue-bound Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW). It was only after Marx’s death that the second (1885) and third (1894) volume of Capital were published, reworked and edited by Engels. The manuscripts used for them were sometimes thirty years old. The three blue volumes of Capital were thus completely unknown to Marx in that form.

Capital” and Revolution

The fact that the demand for reading Capital always boomed in the course of social revolts, revolutions, and defeats is proved not only by the suppression of the Paris Commune. Even later, around 1918, when the November revolution led to a broader reception in Germany, several new editions of Julian Borchardt’s “popular” summary were soon necessary. Similarly, in 1968, even before the massive revolts, there were new appropriations of Capital, not only in Germany, but also in France and Italy. Since the protests in Seattle (1999) and Genoa (2001), sales figures rose at the Dietz publishing house, which published the blue volumes, and rose again with the recent capitalist crisis since 2008.

Every generation reads Capital anew. Every generation struggles with the reading of the one before. There is thus no end to re-reading. Not only because access to the original manuscripts changes, but also because the historical and political situations to which Capitallends itself or even imposes itself as a reading are always different and specific.

In the Soviet Union, suddenly faced with the task of organizing a planned economy, economists turned to the second volume of Capital in order to smarten up, based on the reproduction process analyzed there. In his studies on History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukács processed his own experiences as a People’s Commissioner in the Hungarian Soviet Republic, anticipating certain questions of Critical Theory. In light of the massive support for the Nazis, the absence of a proletarian revolution, and the defeat of the working class, the Frankfurt School critical theorists wondered why it is not immediately obvious that capitalist relations should be overcome. In France, Louis Althusser defied Communist Party orthodoxy without turning away from Capital and towards the “young Marx,” as was customary at the time. In Italy, Marx and the proletariat had to be wrested away from the powerful Italian Communist Party, from which the operaist tendency emerged. The list goes on and on.

Why still read Capital? The domination of capital organizes itself discursively as the science of political economy. It translates the compulsion of the market into “arguments,” articulating its economic laws. Marx criticized this science as a whole field of knowledge in its terminology and premises, not in individual questions (such as the determination of the “wage level”). Marx formulated the most radical critique of economics. Radical not just in terms of the political conclusions it allows, but in terms of how fundamentally it analyzes the scientific field of the theory of economics and shatters its foundations. Marx showed that capitalism is internally crisis-prone and destructive, corrosive towards man and nature. This is not a reparable construction error of the economy; the error is the economy.

Why still read “Capital”?

In bourgeois economic theory, competition, commodity production, profit seeking, and growth express something like the human essence. They are ahistorical constants, not the results of specifically capitalist relations that have historically emerged and can therefore be overcome. This is exactly what makes Marx’s critique of economics highly topical. Beyond this, he analyzes the destructiveness of capital and the form of class struggles and exploitation, and can show why money “rules the world” in capitalism.

In mainstream economics, money is not even needed to analyze capitalist economies. More intelligent neoclassical economists, like Frank H. Hahn, even admit that their theory has no place for money—a modeling of the economy with a complete lack of contact with reality. John Maynard Keynes, one of the most important critics of neoclassical economics, emphasizes the monetary character of capitalism, but he does not show why of all things capitalism must be a monetary economy. He simply presupposes money instead of explaining why it is necessary.

According to Marx, domination has become independent of human beings in material form (commodity, money, etc.), presenting itself as natural, imper- sonal. This makes emancipation more complicated and the question of how to organize enlightenment more urgent. For Marx knows that a good argument alone causes little political change. Enlightenment must be organized as a political power. Enlightenment must be the self-enlightenment of those who want to free themselves from capitalism—not a party affair. “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves,” says Marx. This also means that the reading of Capital must be seized from the academic ivory tower. The university is a central institution of the bourgeoisie, which no longer rules with the church but with science behind it. It is an institutionalized expression of the separation of manual and intellectual labor. And it is a myth that reading Capital and organizing are mutually exclusive, that over here is only talking, while over there is political practice.

Paul Mattick, a council communist who emigrated to the USA from Germany in 1926, who organized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and, after the world economic crisis of 1929, was active in the budding movement of the unemployed, wrote: “In the unemployed movement, of course the question arose about what to do with people who have nothing to do. So we set up study groups. For this purpose, I wrote a brief guide on how to teach people Capital or preferably how it can be read and discussed with them. For two years, we had regular courses on Marx’s Capital, which were attended by about eighty to a hundred people and were very successful in every respect. …The main thing was the workers themselves—here, that meant the unemployed—who were supposed to learn self-determination and who had to decide for themselves what they wanted to do. We left it to them, we made proposals, but we did not try to push through a political agenda, but simply what the workers wanted. We tried to put ourselves behind them and, at the same time, influence them ideologically, but not through party propaganda, but through Marx’s Capital, to which neither the Socialists nor the Communists could object.”6

Translated from the German by Jacob Blumenfeld. Published here:

  1. Daszynski (1866–1936) was a well-known socialist around the turn of the century and the first Prime Minister of Poland after the restoration in 1918.
  2. Isaac Deutscher, Marxism in our Time, 1973, p. 257
  3. Engels to Marx, 23 Aug, 1867 in: Marx & Engels Collected Works Vol. 42, p. 405-6
  4. Marx to Engels, 10 Oct, 1867 in: Marx & Engels Collected Works Vol. 42, p. 438-9
  5. Engels to Kugelmann, 12 Oct, 1867 in: Marx & Engels Collected Works Vol.42, p. 443
  6. Paul Mattick in conversation with Michael Buckmiller: Die Revolution war für mich ein großes Abenteuer. Münster 2013.