Karl Marx’s Masterwork on Capital Explained
Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” or just “Capital” explains the nature of capitalism. From the purposes of commodities and money, to how they function in society as capital, to how this relates to wage labor, “Capital” is a detailed work on the philosophy, history, and mechanics of economics.
Marx, More than Just a Socalist
The thing to note here, and which should be stressed, is that Marx’s arguably most famous Das Kapital has pretty much zero to do with Communism outside of helping on to better understand why workers would organize into a political party in response to capitalism.
And this makes sense, as Marx wasn’t “a Communist” as much as a philosopher, economist, and historian who co-wrote a short socialist text called “the Communist Manifesto” (a “Manifesto” for the already existing Communist party).
I’m not saying a theme of socialism didn’t run through all Marx’s works, or that it isn’t winking at you in the subtext of Das Kapital, I am just saying that his works are about a lot more than just socialism (and are rarely about Communism at all).
If you step away from Marx as a boogeyman, and step away from Marx a purely political being, you are left with Marx the historian and Marx the economist.
Here we are mostly dealing with Marx the historian and economist, and even the most staunch lover capitalist and free markets should be able to appreciate that Marx.
READ IN FULL: Karl Marx Capital A Critique of Political Economy Volume I Book One: The Process of Production of Capital, Book II: The Process of Circulation of Capital, and Book III: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole.
FACT: Marx only wrote and published Das Kapital Book I. He did have other books AKA volumes planned and notes were written, however books II and III were never completed in his lifetime. His partner Engels completed books II and III from his Marx’s notes after his death. There was also a Book IV planned that would have included theories on surplus-value. All the books are relevant, but my main focus below is on Volume I (since it was published during Marx’s lifetime and contains almost all the themes covered in the other books).
A Quick Overview of Das Kapital
Normally I like to spend days fully explaining or annotating a text, but my own quest for Das Kapital (that is, money) leaves me with little time to put may labor power into writing a book review on Marx. Thus, because producing this commodity creates very little money, and since capitalism demands me to be a good capitalist, I’m going to give you the super quick version.
Here is what you need to know (in a few places below I expand beyond what is said in this text and just give you the condensed version of Marx’s total philosophy where it relates to what he says here):
- This is a book on the philosophy and history of economics. Essentially Marx is looking at the naturally occurring system of trade and how it relates to the evolution of the modern capitalist economy.
- This book teaches you most of what you need to know about the philosophy of economics (for example the difference between things with use-value and exchange-value and their roles in trade AKA exchange). Not some strange commie version of economics, but literally it will teach you most of what you need to know about economics – period -.
- At the core of an economy is 1. commodities (things of intrinsic use-value) and, 2. money (a thing with exchange-value only).
- Beyond just “money” is capital. Capital is a term generally used broadly to describe all things of value that have the ends of producing more money. So if commodities are traded for money, and money for commodities, for the purpose of creating excess money (i.e. profit), then everything in that pipeline can be considered capital (see the quote below).
- The point of capitalism is to produce excess capital (to produce surplus-value to turn surplus-value into profit).
- Producing excess capital requires efficiency.
- Ways to produce surplus-value include include owning the means of production and exploiting workers. In a simple equation where M -> C -> M (money creates capital creates money), we could for example say money buys labor, materials, and land, and then this is used to create even more money, which results in profits. And thus if we bring the cost of our Commodities down, we create more excess profits… and thus if we exploit labor, we increase profits… and also in doing this, we have turned workers into a type of capital whose purpose is to produce excess capital.
- When a laborer spends their time working for money by producing for someone else, instead of working to do something more substantive and producing for themselves, and when they are awarded only a share of the money they produce in the form of wages, it leads to a sort of alienation felt by the worker.
- Essentially capitalism in its hunt for excess capital naturally creates a dreary existential condition for workers.
- The last part of book I then walks one through the historical evolution of the history of the accumulation of capital through different historical stages of humankind. In short, it is a history about how the capitalist class uses land ownership and resource ownership to exploit workers, suppress wages, and colonize.
- Books II and III mostly just offer details on what is in Book I. In offering details they can get rather complicated and hard to easily summarize. I wills say this though, as the title’s imply, Book II is mostly about the circulation of money and Book III is mostly about profits and capital accumulation (including a chapter on rent).
The simplest form of the circulation of commodities is C-M-C, the transformation of commodities into money, and the change of the money back again into commodities; or selling in order to buy. But alongside of this form we find another specifically different form: M-C-M, the transformation of money into commodities, and the change of commodities back again into money; or buying in order to sell. Money that circulates in the latter manner is thereby transformed into, becomes capital, and is already potentially capital.
Why Marx’s Masterwork is Worth a Read (Especially Book I)
This one text as a whole, but especially the first Book, basically covers the foundation for most of Marx and Engels’ works and themes (check out their themes here)… but unlike other texts really never suggests what you are supposed to do with the information.
So, yes, Marx does indeed take us on the typical Marx journey. He gives us a lesson in history, philosophy, and economics, and does this to show us how the natural evolution of trading things leads to capitalism, which naturally leads to the oppression and alienation of workers and the state of modern (at the time at least) society.
The thing is, nowhere in this in this text does Marx then go onto say “and this is bad, therefore a workers’ revolution is in order.” Instead he just lays out a historic problem, explains why it occurs, and let’s the reader figure out what to do with that information.
One could easily just read the first chapter and learn about the nature of money and its role in the exchange of commodities, and how capitalism naturally arises from this. or, one could read on and find out some potential sticking points of capitalism’s hunt for excess value.
However you decide to approach it, my basic point here is that this text is really just a rather simple to grasp 8 chapters of the first book worth at least a quick skim (and to some extent a less quick read of two – three other Books worth checking out too).
If for no other reason, you should read this book just so you actually know what you are talking about someone brings up Marx. That will of course, 9 times out of 10, make you the only person in the room who knows what they are talking about when someone brings up Marx 😉