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Capital (Das Kapital) | Context


Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution

Capital is primarily concerned with the new industrial society of the 19th century and the new "mode of production" that drove it: capitalism. Beginning in Britain in the late 18th century, industrialization began to take hold in a revolution that would transform politics, economics, and society and give birth to the modern world as it is known today.

The industrial revolution brought many changes. New fuel sources, like coal-powered steam engines, allowed the creation of new transportation methods as well as powering larger machines for use in factories. Factories themselves grew as a result of new theories about the division of labor and the intensified productive activity permitted by new technologies. Some of these technologies, like the spinning jenny (spinning frame with multiple spindles), increased the efficiency and productivity of the production of basic goods by orders of magnitude. Mass production began to lead to the creation of a mass consumer society.

All of this was powered not only by technological innovation but also by a revolution in political economy—the rise of capitalism. The industrial capitalist began to replace the landed lord as the primary agent of economic activity, as liberal ideology began to take hold, promoting free trade, free enterprise, and private property. Marx saw capitalism as a transformation in all of society, because capitalism aimed to transform social relations. Where ties to land, family, and lord had dominated people's experience of the world, in capitalism these relations were to be eroded until all that mattered was the relation between the worker, who needed to sell labor to live, and the employer, who sought his own economic advantage as the highest virtue.

Marx and other radicals, like his patron and collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–95), saw that the growth of industrial capitalism was creating a new class of people—the industrial working class. Marx and his collaborators saw in the suffering of this new class of people the dark side of capitalist modernity. Engels, a factory owner, conducted a study of workers in Manchester, England, and published it as The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845. What Engels found was that the new industrial working classes were living lives of misery and deprivation compared to those their ancestors had experienced. Engels found that disease was widespread, industrial accidents were common, and infant mortality was on the rise. For all the unheard-of wonders and great wealth for a few that industrial capitalism created, it seemed to observers like Marx and Engels that it could only do so by breaking the backs of great masses of human beings.

Marx and the Working-Class Movement

Marx was concerned not only with material deprivation but also with the diminished sense of self-worth suffered by workers. Unlike in a feudal mode of production, where laborers own some of the crops that they produce, Marx saw that in capitalism laborers have no ownership over the things they make or the tools they use. He identified this phenomenon of alienated labor with a loss of dignity and self-worth.

He was an active participant in revolutionary movements throughout his career. These commitments led to his joining the Communist League and eventually to a role in creating the International Working Men's Association, or the First International. Marx saw himself not only as an organizer and radical, however, but also as a philosopher, a student of history, and a writer. Marx thought that political writing should not be confined only to polemics and easily digested calls to action (although he was more than willing to write those, in his newspapers and in his famous pamphlets like "The Communist Manifesto"). Central to Marx's project, however, was the idea that capitalism had to be understood and exposed before it could be overthrown. Furthermore, Marx wanted to make a lasting statement of his own political principles and to prove their validity, in the face of criticism from the followers of other radicals, such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65), Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805–81), and Bakunin (1814–76). This led him to devote as much energy as he was able to his great work, Capital.

Throughout, Capital is concerned with the ways in which capitalism harms the industrial working class that it had created. In Capital Marx shows that the capitalist system works, ultimately, to enrich a few at the detriment of all others. He also demonstrated that workers are cut off from political representation as well as economic fortunes because capitalists concentrate power as well as wealth.

Capital does have a hopeful note for the working class. Marx believed he had identified contradictions within capitalism that would inevitably lead to its destruction and the liberation of the industrial proletariat through communism. The writer was less sure, however, about when and how this would happen.

Marx tried to divide his time between practical action and serious study because he thought both were vital to the success of the working-class movement. He memorably summarized his attitude about the necessary union of practical and intellectual action in his "Theses on Feuerbach" (1845): "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

Capital: An Unfinished Text

Karl Marx died in 1883. Only Volume 1 of Capital was published in Marx's lifetime. Volumes 2 and 3 were compiled, edited, and published in 1885 and 1894, respectively, by Friedrich Engels after Marx's death. Capital should thus be considered an unfinished text. Although Marx had produced sufficient material for Volumes 2 and 3 for Engels to organize and publish them, this material had not been assembled to Marx's satisfaction in his lifetime. One of the reasons for the unfinished state of Marx's work is that Marx continually revised, drafted, and re-drafted his work as he continued to think and research. It is not known what Marx's own final editions would have looked like, had he lived. Engels, himself an accomplished writer and philosopher, published these volumes as a tribute to his friend's work and out of a sense of duty to Marx's ideas and to the cause—communist revolution—in which they both believed.

Because Capital was unfinished in Marx's lifetime and because of the importance of Marx's ideas to communist movements and governments in the 20th century, later thinkers continued to search Marx's notes for his insights into history, economics, and political economy. For this reason Marx's Grundrisse (Outlines), which had been completed by 1857, was published in 1941. The Grundrisse is an 800-page manuscript of notes concerning Marx's inquiries into capital, wage labor, history, and economics. Many of the ideas outlined in the Grundrisse were refined by Marx in his later work.

Capital Today

Capital became a highly influential text for revolutionaries from its publication through the 20th century. After the success of communist revolutions in Russia, China, and elsewhere, Capital became a central text in the official ideology of Marxist regimes. In capitalist countries it failed to gain much traction outside academic and radical circles, however. As the brutality of communist regimes became apparent, and especially after the stagnation and downfall of the Soviet Union, Capital fell further out of fashion. Marx's magnum opus has received a surge in new interest, however, in the years following the financial crisis and recession of 2008. Emboldened by the apparent failure of mainstream economics and policymakers, more economists, politicians, students, and ordinary people have shown an interest in Marx's ideas and the analysis of capitalist political economy they offer.

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