Vol. XLIII No. 14 April 07, 2019

Das Kapital, an Immortal Work of Everlasting Relevance - 1

Venkatesh Athreya

CAPITAL is Marx’s most important work. It is also a work that brings out with the greatest clarity and concreteness the method and standpoint of historical materialism, applying the method systematically to understand the laws of motion of capitalism as a mode of production. There is a great deal that one can learn from reading Capital. First, it teaches us that, to understand a society and its dynamics, one needs to look at it in historical perspective. Second, it shows that the basic determinants of the dynamics of a society lie in the manner in which the means of production are owned and the relationship between the direct producers and the means of production. Third, it teaches us that the capitalist mode of production in essence is based upon (i) a separation of the direct producers (working people) from the means of production and their transformation into free wage labourers at one pole, (ii) the transformation of the means of production into the private monopoly/property of  a class of capitalists at the other pole, and (iii) the logic of relentless pursuit of profit on private account, with all production taking place on private account for sale in markets with a view to profit. Marx demonstrates in Capital that this profit-driven system is necessarily expansionist, both in terms of geography and in terms of the range of activities that can be brought under the drive of profit. To read the discussion on the circuit of capital as well as the last part entitled ‘the modern theory of colonisation’ in the first volume of Capital is to understand the inherently globalising nature of capitalism. After all, if the sole goal is profit, why should the pursuit of it be confined to one part of the world or only one set of activities? If making money is the name of the game, why not make it in any manner possible, be it running a factory or a self financing college or worse! Surely, business ethics is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms! Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production and its inherent logic enables one to understand colonial expansion and what Lenin later called the system of imperialism with its global expansion and colonisation and enslavement of people all over the world.

Marx’s analysis in Capital brings out the contradictory nature of capitalism as an economic system. On the one hand, both the competition among capitalists and the struggle between the class of capitalists and the class of workers leads to constant mechanisation and automation of production, leading to the rapid development of society’s productive forces. On the other hand, these very processes, which are part of the pursuit of profit, limit the growth of consuming power in society by creating increasing unemployment and limiting wage increases over time, and by dispossessing producers in pre-capitalist sectors/economies. Periodically, this contradiction between the rapidly growing producing power of capitalist society and the much slower growth of consuming power, results in a demand crisis, with massive amounts of goods and services remaining unsold and large numbers of people thrown into the ranks of the unemployed. Capitalism being an unplanned and anarchic system, sectoral imbalances can also lead to overall economic crisis. Thirdly, in so far as technological progress is also unplanned at the systemic level, the rise in productivity does not always keep pace with the increase in the underlying investments that make the technological progress possible, leading to a tendency for the rate of profit to fall now and then. All these and other factors historically have made the capitalist system prone to large fluctuations in output and employment, causing immense misery to working people. Besides, the competition among capitalists and rivalry among capitalist nation states on a global scale led, in the 20th century, to two global wars resulting in misery for millions of people and massive profits for a handful of large corporations. Since the global financial and economic crisis that broke out in 2008, global capitalism has been mired in a crisis of very slow growth and high levels of unemployment. The current global crisis of climate change has brought into sharp focus the wasteful ways of the global capitalist system driven by relentless pursuit of profit and the accompanying disregard for the environment and the fate of future generations.

It was Marx’s Capital that boldly proclaimed the historically inevitable demise of the capitalist mode of production in the face of the apparently triumphant march of capitalism across the globe. The twentieth century experience showed that vast numbers of people across the world, both in the industrially advanced countries and in the colonised countries, were ready to revolt against the inequities of the capitalist system. Notwithstanding the setback to the efforts to build socialism in some countries in the last decade of the twentieth century, the triumphalism of capitalist rulers and their ideologues at that turn of events has been quickly dispelled by the current all-round economic, political and social crisis of global capitalism. The first two decades of the present century have again highlighted the inability of the capitalist system, despite enormous advances in science and technology, to solve the basic problems facing humanity, including the rather modest goals of food, shelter, clothing, education and health for all. It is clear that Marx’s analysis in Capital, and his prognosis of the system of capitalism promoting the accumulation of wealth at one pole and misery at the other, remains as relevant and inspiring now as when it first took the world by storm.


Apart from its importance in providing the reader with valuable insights on the nature and dynamics of the capitalist mode of production, insights which have contemporary relevance, the other important feature of Capital is its method of presentation of arguments. Consider, for instance, what is often seen as a difficult part of Capital, namely the first chapter of the first volume which deals with the concept of commodity and develops the category of ‘value’. Far from being difficult, the argument in the chapter is systematic and goes through a series of simple logical steps to arrive at a profound understanding of the nature of a commodity. The first section of the chapter develops the point that a commodity – anything produced on private account with a view to sell in a market and not for own use – has two aspects of importance. First, it must be useful to someone in society or else it cannot be exchanged, which means it ceases to be a commodity in effect. This aspect, which Marx terms the use value property of a commodity, is a function of the natural-physical and chemical-properties of the commodity. However, the whole idea of producing something as a commodity is to sell it. This implies that a commodity must possess exchange value. Marx’s central point here is that, while the commodity is thus perceived as having use value and exchange value, the exchange value is only the external appearance, the form of expression as it were, of something deeper. This deeper aspect is that what makes the most different commodities comparable and commensurable cannot be their natural properties since these differ from commodity to commodity, but it is rather a social property. The obvious commonness of all commodities is that they are all products of the expenditure of human labour in society. This common property that all commodities have, namely that they are all products of society’s labour, is what makes them commensurable, and Marx calls this property ‘value’. Now, starting from this carefully built scaffold, he raises a marvellous structure of logical argument in Capital that enables him to unravel the inner dynamics of the capitalist mode of production.