Vol. XLII No. 51 December 23, 2018

The Writing of ‘Capital’-23

MARX’S study of political economy began long before his arrival in England. In 1842, when his political activity as a Correspondent and then Editor of Rheinische Zeitung began, he was immediately confronted with questions of political economy. In 1843 he reached the conclusion that “the anatomy of civil society is to be sought in political economy.”

But while the foundations of Marxist philosophy and scientific Socialism were laid in Marx’s and Engels’ works of the latter half of the 1840s, an economic theory of the working class was elaborated in a later period, in 1857-63; it was further developed and received its classical form in Marx’s principal work, Capital.


At the end of the 1840s, Marx embarked upon a study of the structure of capitalist production. He elaborated the first principles of the theory of surplus value and worked out the methodological basis for future economic research.

Leaving continental Europe in August 1849, Marx hoped to continue his studies in England though he had thought that a new revolutionary upsurge might soon begin and interrupt his theoretical work. However, the next 15 to 20 years was a period of relatively “calm” development of the working class movement, and that period was marked by the appearance of Capital.

In London Marx found a vantage point from which to conduct a systematic and thorough study of capitalism. London was the industrial and commercial centre of the world. Marx began a systematic study of English political economy and its history. Its classics had reached the summit of bourgeois economy thought, and English political economy itself became one of the theoretical sources of Marxism.

In addition to economic literature, Marx read widely in other sciences. Hoping that a new revolutionary tide would follow the 1857 crisis, Marx tried to complete as soon as possible his work on an economic theory of the working class which would serve it as a powerful new theoretical weapon.


From August 1857 to May 1858 Marx set down his ideas on political economy in a manuscript form, which became the first version of Capital. Examining the economic “cell” of capitalism, the commodity, he evolved a scientific theory of the double character of the labour concealed in the commodity, the theory of surplus value and money, and described the dialectical mechanism of the movement of the capitalist system. His economic research enabled him to prove the historical inevitability of the replacement of capitalism, through Socialist revolution, by a Socialist and the Communist society.

In the period from August to November 1858, Marx used the 1857-58 manuscript for writing one of his most brilliant works, A Critique of Political Economy, the first part of which was published in 1859. Marx hoped to complete the second part shortly, but he soon decided that he had to continue his theoretical investigations, which would require many months of research in the British Museum and a study of new publications.

Marx’s work-room was always simple, at times even poorly furnished. Bookshelves and cupboards hid all the walls. They were filled with books, piles of newspapers, manuscripts. Two tables were also usually covered with papers, books and journals. Scattered over the tables were tobacco pouches, matches, cigars, paperweights and other objects. Against the advice of his doctors, Marx was an inveterate smoker. Since he could only by the cheapest tobacco grades for decades, this too had an adverse effect on his health. Capital, he joked, “will not even bring me the cost of the cigars I smoked while writing it”.

Marx said of his books: “They are my slaves and must serve my will.” He marked everything of importance in them, so that with his trained memory he could at any time find any desired page. He wrote comments, question marks, explanation points in the margins, depending on his reactions to what the author had to say. He drafted synopses of all important books that he read, mostly in notebooks.


While Marx was working on Capital in the late 1850s and early 1860s, his family was going through a terrible period of financial hardships. July 1865 saw Marx, as he wrote to Engels, “living entirely on the pawnshop.” A few months later he wrote: “If I had enough money…for my family, and if my book were finished, I wouldn’t care in the least if I were today or tomorrow cast into the carrion pit as a corpse. That, however, is not yet possible.” Seeing that the situation was hopeless, he decided to apply for a job in the office of railway company, but was not taken on because of his illegible handwriting. It was only Engels’ constant selfless help that saved Marx’s genius from destruction and enabled him to continue his work.

Living in utter poverty¸ and having to spend considerable time earning a scanty pittance, Marx nevertheless worked with a stamina and intensity which amazed his contemporaries. “He knew no fatigue.” Whilhelm Liebknecht wrote in his reminiscences, “Even when he was on the point of breaking down he should no signs of flagging strength… Capital cost Marx forty years’ work, and work such as Marx alone was capable of.”

Marx worked, as he put it, “in shift”, reading in the British Museum in the day-time and working at home at night. His infinite scrupulousness and conscientiousness, the ever more complex problems that kept arising in the course of research compelled him time and again to postpone completion of the book. For instance, new questions cropped up when he began writing the sections on the production of surplus value, machinery and the division of labour. In order to be able so show the connections between social relations and material production more effectively, Marx delayed the drafting of the chapter and took part in an experimental course on technology at the Institute of Geology. Then, enriched by new concepts, he expanded this section of the manuscript.

But even then he never lost his optimism, intending, in 1851, to complete his economic work “within five weeks”, and eight years later, “within six weeks.” Meanwhile, the range of his scientific interests and the problems of political economy on which he laboured was constantly widening. He made a profound study of history, geology, technology, agro-chemistry, and devoted much time to mathematics.          


From August 1861 to July 1863, he produced a manuscript of about 200 printed sheets. It was the second version of Capital. The material was more systematised than in the first version, but it, too, was a draft. It contained all volumes of Capital and contained a historico-critical analysis of bourgeois political economy, Theories of Surplus-value.

In August 1863, as soon as he had finished his Herculean task, Marx again set about rewriting the manuscript and preparing it for the press. This resulted in a new (new third) Capital.    

In January 1866 Marx began, at long last, to prepare Volume one of Capital for the printers. In other words, to rewrite the text and edit it from the point of view of style. Even after nine years of painstaking work, which included writing three draft versions, the amount of work to be done was colossal. From the gigantic manuscript completed       by the end of 1865, Marx was to extract Volume one.

Soon¸ however, he fell ill again. “The doctors are quite right”, he admitted to Engels. The chief cause of this relapse is excessive night-time work. But I cannot inform these gentlemen—and then that would be quite useless—about the reasons that compels this extravagance on my part­­…what was most unpleasant to me was the necessity to interrupt the work, which, since January 1, when my liver had stopped aching had been going on very well.”                        

FIRST EDITION OF ‘CAPITAL’                    

Marx wanted to take the manuscript himself to his Hamburg publisher, Meisser, who instead of the author’s royalty, had agreed to pay Marx¸ after covering the printing cost, half of the sum he would receive for the book. But Marx’s clothing and his watch were at the pawnbroker’s. Engels helped out again and sent money so that Marx could redeem the articles necessary for the journey and pay the fare. Marx left London on April 10, 1867.

While waiting for the delivery of page proofs, Marx spent several happy weeks at the home of his friend Ludwig Kugelmann. There he could take a detached view of his many years of work on Capital, to see the “precipitous steepness of the “path of science” that had led him to great economic discoveries.

After returning to England Marx stayed a few days with Engels in Manchester when they discussed some additions to the appendix of the book. Barely three months after his return from the Continent, in the night of August 15-16, at 2 a.m. Marx could send the happy news to Engels: “Just finished correcting the last proof sheet of the book….so—this volume is finished… It was thanks to you alone that this became possible. Without your self-sacrifice for me, I could never possibly have done the enormous work for the  three volumes. I embrace you, full of thanks!”

On September 14, 1867, the first volume of Capital appeared in Hamburg in an edition of 1000 copies. The second and third volumes of Capital were prepared for the press by Engels from Marx’s drafts and after notes and appeared after Marx’s death.