Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1412
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 production.”
Money results from the use of some special commodity as a means of exchange to equate different products of labor. Money serves as “a universal measure of value.” According to Marx, it is not money that makes commodities commensurable; rather, it is the fact that commodities are commensurable in terms of human labor that makes money possible as a measure of value. Money begets money through the circulation of commodities: This is Marx’s general formula for capital. Money is the first form in which capital appears, precisely because it is the end product of a circulatory process that begins with the use of money to purchase commodities for sale at higher than the purchase price.
Capital would not be possible without a change of value. If money were used to purchase a commodity sold at the initial price, no profit would be made, no capital made possible. To explain the surplus value that emerges in the process, Marx reminds the reader that the capitalist buys labor power and uses it. The material of production belongs to the capitalists; therefore, the product of the productive process also belongs to them. The product has a use value, but capitalists do not intend to use the product; their interest is in selling it for a price greater than the sum of the costs of its production, including the cost of labor. The realization of surplus value is possible, finally, only by some sort of exploitation of the laborer: The capitalists must manage to make the cost of labor less than the value of labor.
One way of increasing surplus value is by increasing the productiveness of labor without decreasing the workday. The problem that then arises is the problem of keeping the price of commodities up. One solution takes the form of using large numbers of laborers and dividing them for special tasks. Capitalists take advantage of lower prices of commodities by paying labor less and purchasing materials more cheaply. At the same time, through a division of labor, they achieve greater productiveness without a corresponding rise in labor cost. In other words, capitalists hire individuals and put them to work in cooperation with others; they pay for the labor power of those individuals, but they gain the value that comes from using that power cooperatively.
Marx rejects the idea that machinery is introduced to make work easier. He argues that “like every other increase in the productiveness of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means for producing surplus value.” Marx concludes that the possibility of the growth of capital depends on using labor in such a way as to free the capitalist from the need to pay for the use of labor power. He decides that capital is “the command over unpaid labour. All surplus value . . . is in substance the materialisation of unpaid labour.”
Capitalist production, according to Marx, “reproduces and perpetuates the condition for exploiting the labourer. It incessantly forces labourers to sell their labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour-power in order that he may enrich himself.” Accordingly, the division between people described in terms of classes is inevitable in a capitalistic society.
Marx explains the self-destruction of the capitalistic society by arguing that from the exploitation of laborers the capitalists, if they have the economic power, pass to the exploitation of other capitalists and, finally, to their expropriation. “One capitalist always kills many.” When, therefore, the monopolistic tendencies of capitalists begin to hinder the modes of production and the mass exploitation of workers reaches a peak of misery and oppression, an uprising of the proletariat will destroy the capitalist state. “Capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation.” The transformation into the socialized state is much quicker and easier than the transformation of the private property of the workers into capitalist private property, for it is easier for the mass of workers to expropriate the property of a few capitalists than for the capitalists to expropriate the property of the laborers.
Das Kapital has often been criticized as an economic study written in the style of German metaphysics. It is generally regarded, particularly by those who have never read it, as an extremely difficult book, in both content and style. By its nature it is a complex, scholarly work, but it clearly and directly expounds Marx’s ideas, and its theory is lightened by many hypothetical cases with which Marx vividly illustrates his points. In considering the work of other scholars, he is respectful if not acquiescent. Perhaps the primary fault of this momentous work is not that it is too difficult but that it is too simple. To argue that capital is made possible by exploitation of labor may be to ignore the ways in which profit can be realized and labor paid to the satisfaction of both the capitalist and the laborer. Nevertheless, impartial criticism of such a thesis is impossible. Whether a capitalist economic system gives cause for revolution is something that can only be shown by history.