Illuminating Marx

Submitted by Matthew on 16 April, 2013 - 9:04

Robert Ford is a visual artist based in London. He is currently working producing an illustrated edition of Karl Marx’s Capital. He spoke to Daniel Randall from Solidarity about the project.


Around eighteen months ago, I was attending some Capital reading groups, including one run by Workers’ Liberty. I was also watching David Harvey’s lectures.

It seemed to me that many people, including many people around the Marxist left, didn’t have any engagement with Capital or grasp of its key concepts. So I wanted to undertake an original project that would make people more interested in the book and, hopefully, get them to read it in its original form.

I initially planned to mirror Harvey’s method of focusing on the key concept in each chapter, and do a single illustration for each one. But each chapter has more than one key concept, so just trying to illustrate one was limiting. The number of illustrations has mushroomed.

The project is called Captilicus Religicus Magica; the style I’m going for is a pastiche of medieval illuminated manuscripts. That’s obviously intended to be humorous — there’s a lot of humour in Marx’s writing anyway, and I think a humorous style will help make the project interesting and accessible. There is text within each illustration that emphasises the key concept, and I’ve set myself the task of writing that text in rhyme. There’ll be about 36 illustrations for Volume One of Capital.

I’m in touch with David Harvey about the project, and he’s very supportive. We’ve discussed him writing a foreword, and I’m also in touch with various other Marxist academics to discuss their potential involvement. It’s been difficult to find a publisher, as there are high upfront costs for a project like this. Verso was initially interested, but decided after internal discussions it wasn’t for them.

I’m producing the illustrations in A1 size and framing them as I go. They’re pictures in their own right, so it may be the case that as the project develops it turns into something other than a book — perhaps a travelling exhibition of illustrations, for example.

The themes I’ve chosen to illustrate have developed as I’ve progressed. The key concepts and chapter headings, such as commodities and surplus value, are covered, but less obvious concepts are dealt with too. The idea isn’t to lecture or patronise people but to contextualise some of Marx’s key ideas. Capital can be difficult to read on one’s own; it’s better read as part of a group, and I’m hoping the illustrations can provide some of the same context that discussing the book with other people entails.

I worked in advertising for 30 years. It’s a horrible industry, capital’s champion, but it succeeds in getting people’s attention and making them look at things. We can learn from that.

Ultimately I see this project about getting back to Capital, and back to Marx. Because of a whole series of historical developments, most especially Stalinism, what’s understood as “Marxism” has had a lot of negative baggage piled onto it.

I see my project as a contribution to the attempt to get rid of some of that baggage and take people back to the real ideas of Marx and Marxism.

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