Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1412 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bidet, Jacques. Exploring Marx’s “Capital”: Philosophical, Economic, and Political Dimensions. Translated by David Fernbach. Boston: Brill, 2007. Examines the theoretical development of Das Kapital, analyzing its various drafts. Argues that both the novelty and endurance of Marx’s ideas can be attributed to his formulation of concepts with inseparable economic and political aspects.
Carver, Terrell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Marx. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. The essays in this volume focus on Marx the philosopher and attempt to draw a distinction between Marxism and Soviet communism.
Gouverneur, Jacques. Contemporary Capitalism and Marxist Economics. Translated by Richard LeFanu. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983. Provides a nonmathematical account of the socioeconomic bases of Marxist theory. The first part focuses on the Marxist concepts of value and surplus value, and the second consists of a Marxist analysis of Western European capitalism.
Hollander, Samuel. The Economics of Karl Marx: Analysis and Application. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. An account and technical assessment of Marx’s economic theories set forth in Das Kapital and his other publications. Focuses on the criticism Marx might have encountered in his time. Chronicles the evolution of Marx’s economic analysis from the 1840’s through 1863.
Kernig, Claus D., ed. Marxism, Communism, and Western Society: A Comparative Encyclopedia. 8 vols. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972. The stated purpose of this comprehensive work was to provide a compatible system of thought to enhance communications between the capitalist West and the then-communist East. Provides a snapshot of Marxist thought at a time when the communist world appeared to be at the height of its power.
Sowell, Thomas. Marxism: Philosophy and Economics. New York: Morrow, 1985. An excellent jargon-free introduction to the foundations of Das Kapital. Ideal for the general reader who has had no prior exposure to Marxism.
Suchting, Wallis A. Marx: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 1983. Places the complicated philosophical and economic questions raised in Das Kapital against the background of the Revolution of 1848, the First International, the uprising of the Paris Commune, and other major historical events.
Wheen, Francis. Marx’s “Das Kapital”: A Biography. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007. Chronicles the twenty years Marx spent writing Das Kapital. Examines the book’s influence on philosophers, writers, and revolutionaries and its impact on twentieth century history.