When it became known that the lectures I give annually on Marx’s Capital, Volume I, were about to go online as a video series, I was approached by Verso and asked whether I would have any interest in preparing a written version. For a variety of reasons, I agreed to the idea.
To begin with, the failing economy and the onset of what threatens to be a serious global crisis, if not depression, have generated an upwelling of interest in Marx’s analysis to see whether it can help us understand the origins of our current predicaments. The problem, however, is that the past thirty years, most particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war, have not been a very favorable or fertile period for Marxian thought, and most certainly not for Marxian revolutionary politics. As a consequence, a whole younger generation has grown up bereft of familiarity with, let alone training in, Marxian political economy. It therefore appeared an opportune moment to produce a guide to Capital that would open the door for this generation to explore for itself what Marx might be about.
The timing for a constructive reevaluation of Marx’s work is opportune in another sense. The fierce oppositions and innumerable schisms within the Marxist movement that bedeviled the 1970s, affecting not only political practices but also theoretical orientations, have faded somewhat, as has the appetite for pure academicism which, on the one hand, helped keep interest in Marx alive in difficult times, but, on the other, did so at the price of arcane and often highly abstract arguments and reflections. My sense is that those who wish to read Marx now are far more interested in practical engagements, which does not mean they are fearful of abstractions but rather that they find academicism boring and irrelevant. There are many students and activists who desperately desire a strong theoretical base to better grasp how everything relates to everything else, so as to situate and contextualize their own particular interests and practical political work. I hope that this presentation of the basics of Marxian theory will help them do that.
In preparing this text, I worked from transcripts prepared by Katharina Bodirsky (to whom many thanks) of the audio recording of the lectures given in the spring of 2007. The video lectures (see davidharvey.org
), organized by Chris Caruso (who also designed the website) and filmed by
the Media College of the University of the Poor in New York and the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia, were given in the fall of 2007. I want to thank Chris and everyone else for all their volunteer work on the project.
There were, however, significant differences between the audio and the video versions. These arose mainly because I always give the lectures in a somewhat extempore way, concentrating on different aspects of the text depending on political and economic events, as well as on my own interests (and even whims) of the moment. Class discussions also frequently redirect attention in unpredictable ways. Unfortunately, space would not allow for inclusion of the discussions, but I have several times incorporated elements from them into the main body of the text when that seemed appropriate. While I worked mainly from the audio version, I incorporated elements from the video materials as well. Of course, the editing of the transcripts had to be fairly draconian, in part for space reasons, but also because the translation from the spoken to the written word always requires significant and in some cases quite drastic modifications. I have also taken the opportunity to clear up some matters not covered in the lectures and to add a few further thoughts here and there. The text I use in the course is the translation by Ben Fowkes first published by Pelican Books and the New Left Review in 1976, republished by Vintage in 1977, and then in a Penguin Classics edition in 1992. The page numbers referred to are from these editions.
My hope is that this “companion”—and I really think of it as a companion on a journey rather than as an introduction or interpretation—will provide a helpful entry to Marx’s political economy for anyone who wants to travel that road. I have tried to keep the presentation at an introductory level without, I hope, oversimplification. Furthermore, I have not considered in any detail the many controversies that swirl around diverse interpretations of the text. At the same time, the reader should understand that what is presented here is not a neutral interpretation, but a reading that I have arrived at over nearly forty years of teaching this text to all manner of people from all sorts of backgrounds (to whom I am indebted, since they have taught me a great deal), while also trying to use Marx’s thought constructively in my own academic research in relation to political action. I do not seek to persuade people to adopt my own distinctive point of view. My ambition is to use my point of view as a gateway for others anxious to construct interpretations that are maximally meaningful and useful to them in the particular circumstances of their lives. If I have only partially succeeded in that, then I will be absolutely delighted.
My aim is to get you to read a book by Karl Marx called Capital
, Volume I, and to read it on Marx’s own terms.1
This may seem a bit ridiculous, since if you haven’t yet read the book you can’t possibly know what Marx’s terms are; but one of his terms, I can assure you, is that you read, and read carefully. Real learning always entails a struggle to understand the unknown. My own readings of Capital
, collected in the present volume, will prove far more enlightening if you have read the pertinent chapters beforehand. It is your own personal encounter with this text that I want to encourage, and by struggling directly with Marx’s text, you can begin to shape your own understanding of his thought.
This poses an immediate difficulty. Everybody has heard of Karl Marx, of terms like “Marxism” and “Marxist,” and there are all kinds of connotations that go with those words. So you are bound to begin with preconceptions and prejudices, favorable or otherwise; but I first have to ask you to try, as best you can, to set aside all those things you think you know about Marx so that you can engage with what he actually has to say.
There are still other obstacles to achieving this sort of direct engagement. We are bound, for example, to approach a text of this kind by way of our particular intellectual formations and experiential histories. For many students these intellectual formations are affected, if not governed, by academic considerations and concerns; there is a natural tendency to read Marx from a particular and exclusionary disciplinary standpoint. Marx himself would never have gotten tenure at a university in any discipline, and to this day most departmental apparatuses are disinclined to accept him as one of their own. So if you are a graduate student and want to read him right, then you’d better forget about what will get you tenure in your field—not in the long run, of course, but at least for the purpose of reading Marx. You have, in short, to struggle mightily to determine what he is saying beyond what you can easily understand by way of your
particular disciplinary apparatus, your own intellectual formation and, even more important, your own experiential history (whether as a labor or community organizer or a capitalist entrepreneur).
One important reason for taking such an open stance toward this reading is that Capital turns out to be an astonishingly rich book. Shakespeare, the Greeks, Faust, Balzac, Shelley, fairy tales, werewolves, vampires and poetry all turn up in its pages alongside innumerable political economists, philosophers, anthropologists, journalists and political theorists. Marx draws on an immense array of sources, and it can be instructive—and fun—to track these down. Some of the references can be elusive, as he often fails to acknowledge them directly; I uncover yet more connections as I continue to teach Capital over the years. When I first started I had not read much Balzac, for example. Later, when reading Balzac’s novels, I found myself often saying, “Ah, that’s where Marx got it from!” He apparently read Balzac comprehensively and had the ambition to write a full study of the Comedie Humaine when he got through with Capital. Reading Capital and Balzac together helps explain why.
So Capital is a rich and multidimensional text. It draws on a vast experiential world as conceptualized in a great diversity of literatures written in many languages at different places and times. I am not saying, I hasten to add, that you will not be able to make sense of Marx unless you get all the references. But what does inspire me, and I hope will inspire you, is the idea that there is an immense array of resources out there that can shed light on why we live life the way we do. In the same way that all of them are grist for Marx’s mill of understanding, so we, too, can make them grist for our own.
You will also find that Capital
is an astonishingly good book, just as a book
. When read as a whole, it is an enormously gratifying literary construction. But we here find more potential barriers to understanding, because many of you will have encountered and read bits of Marx in the course of your education. Maybe you read the Communist Manifesto
in high school. Maybe you went through one of those courses on social theory, spending two weeks on Marx, a couple on Weber, a few on Durkheim, Foucault and a host of other important characters. Maybe you have read excerpts from Capital
or some theoretical exposition of, say, Marx’s political beliefs. But reading excerpts or abstract accounts is entirely different from reading Capital
as a complete text. You start to see the bits and pieces in a radically new light, in the context of a
much grander narrative. It is vital to pay careful attention to the grand narrative and to be prepared to change your understanding of the bits and pieces or the abstract accounts you earlier encountered. Marx would almost certainly want his work to be read as a totality. He would object vociferously to the idea that he could be understood adequately by way of excerpts, no matter how strategically chosen. He would certainly not appreciate just two weeks of consideration in an introductory course on social theory, any more than he would himself have given over a mere two weeks to reading Adam Smith. You will almost certainly arrive at a quite different conception of Marx’s thought from reading Capital
as a whole. But that means you have to read the whole book as a book—and that is what I want to help you to do.
There is a way in which intellectual formations and disciplinary standpoints not only matter but also provide helpful perspectives on Capital. I am, of course, against the sort of exclusionary readings around which students almost invariably organize their understandings, but I have learned over the years that disciplinary perspectives can be instructive. I have taught Capital nearly every year since 1971, sometimes twice or even three times in a single year, to groups of all kinds. One year it was with the whole philosophy department—somewhat Hegelian—of what was then called Morgan State College in Baltimore; another year it was all the graduate students in the English program at Johns Hopkins; another year it was mainly economists who showed up. What came to fascinate me was that each group saw different things in Capital. I found myself learning more and more about the text from working through it with people from different disciplines.
But sometimes I found that learning experience irritating, even painful, because a particular group would not see it my way or would insist on going off onto topics I thought irrelevant. One year I tried to read Capital
with a group from the Romance-languages program at Johns Hopkins. To my intense frustration, we spent almost the whole semester on chapter 1
. I’d keep saying, “Look, we have to move on and get at least as far as the politics of the working day,” and they’d say, “No, no, no, we’ve got to get this right. What is value? What does he mean by money as commodity? What is fetish about?” and so on. They even brought the German edition along just to check the translations. It turned out they were all working in the tradition of somebody I had never heard of,
somebody who I thought must be a political if not intellectual idiot for sparking this kind of approach. That person was Jacques Derrida, who spent time at Hopkins during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reflecting on this experience afterward, I realized this group had taught me the vital importance of paying careful attention to Marx’s language—what he says, how he says it and what, also, he takes for granted—just from going through chapter 1
with a fine-toothed comb.
But don’t worry: I don’t intend to do that in these readings because not only do I want to cover Marx’s discussion of the working day, I am determined to see you through to the end of the volume. My point is simply that different disciplinary perspectives can usefully open up the multiple dimensions of Marx’s thought, precisely because he wrote this text out of such an incredibly diverse and rich tradition of critical thinking. I am indebted to the many individuals and groups with whom I have read this book over these many years, precisely because they have taught me so much about aspects of Marx’s work that I would never have recognized on my own. For me, that education is never-ending.
Now, there are three major intellectual and political traditions that inspire the analysis laid out in Capital, and they are all propelled by Marx’s deep commitment to critical theory, to a critical analysis. When he was relatively young, he wrote a little piece to one of his editorial colleagues, the title of which was “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything That Exists.” Clearly, he was being modest—and I do suggest that you actually go read it, because it is fascinating. He doesn’t say, “Everybody is stupid and I, the great Marx, am going to criticize everybody out of existence.” Instead, he argues that there have been a lot of serious people who have thought about the world hard, and they have seen certain things about the world that have to be respected, no matter how one-sided or warped. The critical method takes what others have said and seen and works on it so as to transform thought—and the world it describes—into something new. For Marx, new knowledge arises out of taking radically different conceptual blocs, rubbing them together and making revolutionary fire. This is in effect what he does in Capital: he brings together divergent intellectual traditions to create a completely new and revolutionary framework for knowledge.
The three grand conceptual frameworks that converge in Capital
are these: first, classical political economy—seventeenth- to mid-nineteenth-century political economy. This is mainly British, though not solely so,
and it runs from William Petty, Locke, Hobbes and Hume to the grand trio of Adam Smith, Malthus and Ricardo, as well as to a host of others, like James Steuart. There was also a French tradition of political economy (Physiocrats like Quesnay and Turgot and later on Sismondi and Say) as well as individual Italians and Americans (like Carey) who provide Marx with additional critical materials. Marx subjected all these people to a deep criticism in the three volumes of notes now called Theories of Surplus Value
. He didn’t have a photocopying machine and he didn’t have the Web, so he laboriously copied out long passages from Smith and then wrote a commentary on them, long passages from Steuart and a commentary on them, and so on. In effect he was practicing what we now call deconstruction, and I learned from Marx how to deconstruct arguments in this way. When he takes on Adam Smith, for example, Marx accepts much of what Smith says but then searches for the gaps or contradictions which, when rectified, radically transform the argument. This kind of argumentation appears throughout Capital
because, as its subtitle indicates, it is shaped around “a critique of political economy.”
The second conceptual building block in Marx’s theorizing is philosophical reflection and inquiry, which for Marx originates with the Greeks. Marx wrote his dissertation on Epicurus, and he was familiar with Greek thought. Aristotle, as you will see, provides a frequent anchor for his arguments. Marx was also thoroughly trained in the way in which Greek thought came into the mainly German philosophical critical tradition—Spinoza, Leibniz and, of course, Hegel, as well as Kant and many others. Marx puts this mainly German critical philosophical tradition into a relationship with the British and French political-economic tradition, though, again, it would be wrong simply to see this in terms of national traditions (Hume was, after all, as much a philosopher—albeit an empiricist—as he was a political economist, and Descartes’ and Rousseau’s influence on Marx was also substantial). But the mainly German critical philosophical tradition weighed heavily on Marx because that was his initial training. And the critical climate generated by what later came to be known as the “young Hegelians” in the 1830s and 1840s influenced him greatly.
The third tradition to which Marx appeals is that of utopian socialism. In Marx’s time, this was primarily French, although it was an Englishman, Thomas More, who is generally credited with originating the modern tradition—though it, too, goes back to the Greeks—and another Englishman, Robert Owen, who not only wrote copious utopian tracts but actually sought
to put many of his ideas into practice in Marx’s lifetime. But in France there was a tremendous burst of utopian thinking in the 1830s and 1840s, inspired largely by the earlier writings of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Babeuf. There were, for example, people like Etienne Cabet, who created a group called the Icarians, which settled in the United States after 1848; Proudhon and the Proudhonists; August Blanqui (who coined the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat”) and many like him who adhered to a Jacobin tradition (such as that of Babeuf); the Saint-Simonian movement; Fourierists like Victor Considerant; and socialist feminists like Flora Tristan. And it was in the 1840s in France that many radicals, for the first time, cared to call themselves communists, even though they had no clear idea of what that might mean. Marx was very familiar with, if not immersed in, this tradition, particularly when in Paris before his expulsion in 1844, and I think that he draws from it more than he willingly acknowledges. Understandably, he wanted to distance himself from the utopianism of the 1830s and 1840s, which he felt accounted in many ways for the failures of the revolution of 1848 in Paris. He didn’t like it when utopians configured some ideal society without any idea of how to get from here to there, an opposition made clear in the Communist Manifesto
. He therefore often proceeds in relation to their ideas by means of negation, particularly with respect to the thought of Fourier and Proudhon.
These are the three main conceptual threads that come together in Marx’s Capital. His aim is to convert the radical political project from what he considered a rather shallow utopian socialism to a scientific communism. But in order to do that, he can’t just contrast the utopians with the political economists. He has to re-create and reconfigure what social-scientific method is all about. Crudely put, this new scientific method is predicated on the interrogation of the primarily British tradition of classical political economy, using the tools of the mainly German tradition of critical philosophy, all applie...