Karl Marx’s writings, especially Das Kapital, initiated the worldwide growth of communism as a dynamic political force. Economic imbalance prompted a revolutionary uprising of the proletariat, but its form was immensely influenced by this book. Certainly Marx exposed the roots of the Russian Revolution, which occurred decades after his death.
Many of Marx’s revolutionary ideas had already been expressed in his Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (1848; with Friedrich Engels; The Communist Manifesto, 1850), which he wrote with Friedrich Engels. Das Kapital was, however, more than another call to arms; it was an attempt to base communism on a theory of political economy that was scientifically and dialectically defensible. Whereas the Communist Manifesto is a passionate document, an outline of a political philosophy, and something of a prophecy, Das Kapital is a scholar’s treatise, the product of years of research and reflection, and a work of economic theory that continues to challenge professional economists. This contrast is illuminating, for the communist movement has always been characterized by contrast: the intellectual leads the laborers; the reasoned defense is supplemented by violence and murder; and the scholar’s program comes alive in revolution and the threat of war.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that the history of all societies is a history of class struggles and that the struggle became one between the bourgeois class and the proletariat. They state that because all the injustices of society result from the economic advantage the bourgeoisie have over the proletariat, the proletariat will finally rebel and take over the means of production, forming a classless society and a dictatorship of the proletariat. In Das Kapital, Marx uses a dialectic method that was inspired by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, though it is put to a different use. Marx claimed that his dialectic method was the “direct opposite” of Hegel’s, that with Hegel the dialectic “is standing on its head” and “must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” The method is not mysterious; it involves attending to the conflicting aspects of matters under consideration in order to be able to attain a better idea of the whole. Thus Marx describes his “rational” dialectic as including “in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time, also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up.” He goes on to maintain that his account regarded “every historically developed social form to be in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence.” Marx’s dialectic method led to what became known as dialectical materialism, the theory that history is the record of class struggles and the conflict of economic opposites.
Das Kapital begins with a study of commodities and money. Marx distinguishes between use value and value, the latter being understood in terms of exchange value but involving essentially the amount of labor that goes into the production of the commodity; “that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour-time socially necessary for its...
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