Speaking Volumes: Karl Marx's Capital

August 1, 1997

On Karl Marx's Capital.

I would love to be able to report that my most formative moment was reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex or Carole Pateman's The Sexual Contract. The truth is, however, that it was Karl Marx's Capital that most influenced my intellectual and political development, for it was this that provided me with a framework for understanding the modern world.

Keynes once remarked that he had never found the requisite ten minutes to read Capital. Well, it took me all of a year. I read Capital (or what we arrogantly called "volume one") in one of the many Capital reading groups that sprung up courtesy of Althusserianism in the early 1970s. This was my first experience of a reading group and the first time I had approached any book with real diligence and care.

What remains with me is Marx's analysis of commodity fetishism: the way social relations between men (ever men, for Marx) come to assume the fantastical form of a relationship between things. Marx is rarely cited as one of the great humanists, but his strategy was always to expose the power relationships between people that lie behind what we have been persuaded to accept as laws of nature or laws of the economy, and in the process to conjure up the possibility of more direct forms of social cooperation in which we could simply get on with producing what we need.

He wrote, of course, in the certainty that he was analysing a doomed social system. This confidence came out in his scorn for the bourgeoisie, but it also allowed him an almost sardonic pleasure in what he sometimes described as the "great beauties" of capitalist production. Reading him under the influence of a similar certainty, I could delight in the very cleverness of capitalism: that contrast, for example, between the realm of exchange, where workers freely and fairly sell their labour-power, and the realm of production, where those same workers are exposed to every trick by employers determined to exploit their labour. I am not sure Marx's depiction of the struggles over the length of the working day or the way machines were deployed to turn workers into their living appendage made me any the more furious with capitalism. On the contrary, perhaps, it taught me to respect one's enemy and recognise the internal strengths of what I otherwise opposed.

In retrospect, I can see that much of what I derived from Marx could have come from other sources: the notion that things are not as they seem; that what we had conceived of as acts of the individual will may be structured by forces we barely comprehend; that actions have unanticipated consequences and often contradictory effects. Meanwhile, I continue to struggle with his legacy. It is a long time since I bothered with what now seems to me the hopeless task of marrying Marxism to feminism; it is a long time, too, since I believed that capitalism was on its way out. But I still see the monstrous juggernaut Marx depicted, compelled towards ceaseless accumulation, never stopping to inquire about its effects on human relationships or whether its products really enhance our daily life.

Anne Phillips is professor of politics, London Guildhall University.

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