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Capital (Das Kapital) | Main Ideas


The Commodity

A commodity is, in Marx's words, "an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs." Commodities can take many forms but must have some sort of use-value to humans. In a simple economic exchange, one commodity is exchanged for another of equal value. Commodities may have two types of value—exchange-value and use-value. A commodity has no use-value for the person exchanging it, but it does have exchange-value to them. Conversely, that same commodity does have use-value for the person receiving it (otherwise there would be no reason for bartering for it).

The value of a commodity is equal to the value of the labor used to produce that commodity. In the capitalist system labor itself is a commodity. The capitalist purchases the labor of a worker for a certain duration of time, and the laborer in turn produces a commodity. The commodity produced has no use-value for the capitalist, who is interested only in selling it. Therefore, the capitalist is mainly concerned with the exchange-value of what his workers produce.

Marx begins his analysis of capitalism with commodities. This is because the commodity is the most fundamental form of wealth in capitalism. It is only by beginning with an examination of this elemental unit that Marx felt he could unfold his exploration of the capitalist mode of production.

Marx felt that the true source of value—labor power—was hidden in the production of commodities. This led people to believe that commodities themselves, especially money, created value. Marx called this commodity fetishism.


While commodities themselves have a use-value and exchange-value, the capitalist is interested primarily in the creation of surplus-value. A surplus is created when commodities have a value greater than that necessary to sustain human needs. A surplus creates profit. Profit is then injected back into the production of commodities to create ever-greater surpluses.

A surplus might lead to more human needs being filled than before. This is beside the point to capital, which is only ever concerned with the creation of greater profits and, thus, more capital.

For Marx, it was these laws of the capitalist system that produced its greatest iniquities. Capital is blind to human need. It is also blind to human suffering. The horrors of industrialization occurred not primarily because of the inhumanity of bosses but because of the amoral logic of the profit motive. For Marx, the solution lay only in the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and its replacement with a mode of production directed by the fulfillment of human needs: socialism.


Capital is the fundamental instrument of capitalist production. Money is produced by the sale of commodities and is used to purchase commodities. In turn, these commodities are sold at a profit. For Marx, "the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself, for the valorization of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The movement of capital is therefore limitless."

The purpose of capital is to create more capital in the process called capital accumulation. Commodities are only worthwhile to capital insofar as their sale generates a profit. An even purer form of this profit generation exists when loans are made at interest or invested for profit in the stock market.

Modes of Production

The mode of production is the prevailing structure of production in (and of) a society. A mode of production is a combination of means of production and relations of production. Means of production include inputs like technologies, tools, raw materials, and available labor. Relations of production are the factors that determine the position of people in the process of production. Capitalists own factories, tools, and raw materials, and pay laborers while taking the lion's share of profits for themselves.

Thus, a mode of production is both an economic and a social system. The prevailing mode of production defines the shape of a society. Marx is careful to point out that a mode of production is not a set fact, nor a product of "human nature." It is historically contingent. Marx identified capitalism as the latest of several historical modes of production. The capitalist mode had replaced the feudal mode. In the feudal mode, production occurred mostly on the land through farming. The owners of this land, aristocrats, demanded labor and loyalty from the masses of peasants. In return, peasants were (mostly) permitted enough food to survive, and (mostly) granted the protection of their lord. Although Marx's account of feudalism is abstract, it serves to explain how the shape of production and the shape of society informed one another.

Class and Class Struggle

The prevailing mode of production gives rise to social classes within society. A class is a group of people united by their position relative to the process of production. A class has shared interests and behaviors.

In capitalism, the primary classes are owners, called the bourgeoisie, and workers, called the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is defined by its ownership of the means of production and its ability to purchase the labor power of workers. The working class is defined by its lack of control over means of production. To survive, the working class must sell its labor to the bourgeoisie.

The primary relation between the classes is conflict. The interests of the classes are fundamentally and intractably opposed. The bourgeoisie wants more labor from workers and more profit from production. Left to its own devices the bourgeoisie would demand the maximum labor time from workers in exchange for as little pay as possible. On the other hand, workers wish to work less for more pay. Ideally, workers would have a say in the direction of production.

For Marx, class struggle is the primary engine of history. The power of one class in relation to the other defines the shape of society and the form of production. Marx predicted, ultimately, that capitalism would destroy itself. It would do this by intensifying the contradictions within the system sufficiently that the working class would triumph in the class struggle and overthrow capitalism altogether. Only then could the great productive capacity and technical genius of industrial society be made to truly serve human needs.

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