Karl Marx’s book Capital was published 150 years ago, on 14 September 1867, the fruits of over fifteen years’ study.
Marx was then fairly well-known in the European and US workers’ movements, through his activity in the First International, founded in September 1864. His Communist Manifesto of 1848, which had become a rarity since revolutionary socialist activity receded in the early 1850s, had been republished and translated, and was circulating well.
Capital appeared first in a German edition. There was no “Marxist” group in Germany at the time — in fact, the word “Marxist” was as yet known in no language — but the General German Workers’ Association founded by Ferdinand Lassalle in 1863 had members who respected Marx. Wilhelm Liebknecht, an old comrade of Marx and Engels from the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, had returned to Germany from English exile in 1862. With August Bebel, he would found the Social Democratic Workers’ Party in 1869.
For the first few months, Marx and Engels exchanged exasperated comments about how slow responses to Capital were, and how poorly Liebknecht was publicising it. Bit by bit the pace quickened. The first translation, in Russian, was published in 1868. A French translation, which Marx supervised and amended closely, appeared in 1872. The English translation did not appear until 1887, so early English Marxists like William Morris had to study the French edition. A second German edition, with a sizeable Afterword from Marx, came out in 1873; a third one, soon after Marx’s death in 1883; a fourth one, supervised by Engels, in 1890.
With the growth and spread of working-class socialist parties in all the developed capitalist countries after the foundation of the Second International in 1889, the book was translated and read more and more widely. As early as 1886, Engels called it “the Bible of the working class”. From the West Coast of the USA to the eastern parts of the Tsarist empire, workers (many of whom had been granted by the state only primary-school education) and students gathered in groups to
study and discuss the book, chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence.
Unlike the Christian Bible, Capital was based on critical thinking and on painstaking empirical research. It was packed with such economic statistics as Marx could lay his hands on, and probably more “empirical” than any other general book on economics. Its superiority over other texts in political economy lay not only in that but in its method and approach, and in the fact that it studied capitalist society not as an “economic model” but as an integral whole (economy, society, ideology) and in historical perspective. In the academic and literary world, indeed, Capital has won Marx a place as a reference figure, to be respected if not applauded, in historical studies, sociology, politics, and philosophy. Oddly, in economic studies it has fared less well.
Almost exactly at the time Capital was published, orthodox economics was taking a new turn, developing new mathematical techniques for analysing price movements on the basis of supply and demand, and sidelining the study of the connections between market exchanges and allocations of labour which Marx had continued from Adam Smith and Ricardo.
Engels wrote scornfully in 1888: “The fashionable theory just now here is that of Stanley Jevons, according to which value is determined by utility... and on the other hand by the limit of supply (i.e. the cost of production), which is merely a confused and circuitous way of saying that value is determined by supply and demand”.
In fact developments from the theory of Jevons (and Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Walras, Pareto, and others) gained sway even in some socialist circles before the end of the 19th century. Walras himself was a sort of socialist. They continue to dominate orthodox economics today, despite many critiques from within the orthodoxy which undermine their bases. The idea, inescapable from Marx’s perspective, that wage-labour is exploitative and alienating even if wages are relatively high, has been too hot to handle.
Some elements of Marx’s economic thinking were, however, taken into the mainstream by John Maynard Keynes in 1936. “The great puzzle of effective demand”, wrote Keynes, had “vanished from economic literature” after the early 19th century and “could only live on furtively, below the surface, in the underworld of Karl Marx”.
Keynes seems never to have studied Marx much, and in his half-sneering acknowledgement classified Marx with cranks and mavericks, but in fact a whole strand of “Keynesian” economics is a redevelopment of ideas developed by Marx but ignored by orthodox economics for decades.
Ever since Marx, most Marxist writers have been preoccupied by political, historical, and philosophical questions, and given relatively little time to the economics. From the late 1920s through to the 1970s or 80s, there was a contingent of “Marxist economists” in and around the Communist Parties churning out “Marxist economics”. But this economics-written-to-order tended to discredit Marxism, for example by its tortuous attempts to claim right into the 1960s that working-class living standards in Europe were declining in absolute terms.
Since around 1968, there has been a visible current of thinking within, or on the edges of, academic economic theory which refers to Marx and is free from Stalinist diktat. Many of its writers have been able to sustain dialogue and draw useful material from other heterodox economists, such as left-wing Keynesians, or others who refer to the cryptic work of Piero Sraffa, a comrade of Antonio Gramsci’s who in exile from fascist Italy became a professor at Cambridge University and an influence on both Keynes and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
It has been said, and rightly, that too big a proportion of the work of this newer “Marxist economics” is concerned with “more-Marxist-than-thou” interpretation and exegesis of Marx’s writings. But not all the interpretation and exegesis is dross. And serious work has been done on developing the approach and concepts of Marx to deal with new problems. As new green shoots of left politics sprout on the terrain long barren because so poisoned by the decades of Stalinism, we need to rediscover the urgent drive to study. We need to learn which was so big a part of the workers’ movement in the early days of the influence of Capital. We need to make links which will enable the best of “academic Marxism” to fructify active labour movement politics, and political activism to stimulate the best academic writers.