The Canon: Capital: Volume 1. By Karl Marx

July 2, 2009

The year was 1975. Studying for a masters degree under the tutelage of Marxist sociologist Tom Bottomore, I began reading Marx's Capital. As I turned page after page with increasing excitement, I saw Marx slowly reveal the special quality of labour power and expose the secret of capitalist exploitation: "the exchange-values of commodities must be capable of being expressed in terms of something common to them all"; "what is common to them all (is that) all are reduced to... human labour in the abstract"; the capitalist is lucky to find "in the market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value".

That special commodity is labour power. The capitalist has two objectives: the production of use-value and the production of surplus value - that is, value greater than the sum of the values used in the production of a commodity. It is labour power that is the source of this surplus, and that is what interests the capitalist.

It is thus, Marx explains, the workers who create value and the capitalists who appropriate that value. After years of agitating in trade unions and the Labour Party (there were, of course, a large number of socialists in the party up to the mid-1970s), I could at last connect socialist practice with Marxist theory. I discovered that capitalism was in essence a system of exploitation.

The momentous class struggles I had witnessed up to that point - the National Seamen's Strike of 1966 and the May Day strike of 1973 - could all be recast in my mind as struggles over surplus value, as could the Labour Party's White Paper of 1969, In Place of Strife.

In the preface to the first English edition of Volume I (1886), Marx's close collaborator, Friedrich Engels, over-optimistically predicted a "permanent and chronic depression in England" and the imminence of the unemployed taking their "fate into their own hands". However, Marxism is a dynamic theory, and, Jean-Paul Sartre declared, a living philosophy. To Sartre's observation, Crystal Bartolovich added, Marxism is not "simply a discourse nor a body of (academic) knowledge" but a living project. That living project continues to flourish around the world, not least in Venezuela, where the United Socialist Party has 6 million members.

One of the beauties of Marxism is that it represents a union of theory and practice - praxis. If The Communist Manifesto is the socialist rallying cry, then Capital is the theoretical expose of capitalism's inherently unjust nature. The importance of reading it now is greater than ever, and its explanatory power remains unsurpassed. Given that Marxists have learnt the dangers of Stalinism, in the current capitalist-induced recession it is time to return to Marx and to consider democratic socialism as a real alternative. Although Marx's ideas have since been developed in numerous ways, the fundamental message of Capital: Volume 1 remains as inspiring as ever.

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