„Here, a Light Turns On...“

The potential for politicisation in "Capital" - for both the reader and the author, and the subject of capitalism analysis itself as well.

Christoph Lieber

worked in various forms of property within capitalism, inter alia in a cooperatively managed bookstore. He was a member of the editorial team of the publishing house VSA and is an editor of the magazine Sozialismus. His most published book (together with Joachim Bischoff/Fritz Fiehler/Stephan Krüger) is Vom Kapital lernen. Die Aktualität von Marx’ Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Hamburg 2017 , Hamburg 2017 (Learning from Capital: The Contemporary Relevance of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy)

The political aspect of Karl Marx’s Capital is rooted in the specific character of the ‘critique’ of political economy because the latter contains a potential for politicisation for both the reader and the author, as well as for the object of the analysis of capitalism itself.

The Reader

With regard to the matter of the economy, all members of bourgeois-capitalist society attribute to themselves a certain knowledge or even competence, since they are in fact engaged on a daily basis in the regular hustle and bustle of the economy as participants in the market, wage labourers, or even owners of wealth or business people. In Germany, this competence of economic roles has become a catchphrase in the image of the ‘Swabian housewife’. Reading Capital, by contrast, is a gross affront, in that the critique of economic forms such as the wage, profit, interest or the price of rent or landed property constantly demonstrates that individuals are in fact not masters of their social relations of reproduction, but rather are tied into an economic ‘religion of everyday life’ in which they ‘feel completely at home’ (Marx). At the same time, Marx’s critique does not get stuck at the mere decoding these economic mysticisms, but also demonstrates how they repeatedly arise and how individuals, through their conscious activity, simultaneously reproduce objective relations of dependency behind their own backs. However, by laying bare a connection between economic form determinations, social relationships and forms of consciousness at every level of the capitalist process of reproduction, the critique of political economy also evinces the points of fracture of economic fetishism and possibilities for interventionist thought and conscious activity.

Reading Capital is therefore polarising in the sense that it constantly encourages self-critique and a change of consciousness and thus attempts to redeem something that Marx had already demanded early on in distancing himself from a pedagogical-socialist point of view: ‘The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing (emphasis mine) can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.’ (the Third Thesis on Feuerbach) But this ‘self-changing’ also applies to Marx.

The Author

The research process for Marx’s critique of political economy since the 1850s, which was ultimately integrated in 1867 in the publication of Book I of Capital and available for some time in its entirety with the conclusion of Section II of the MEGA, is a historically unparalleled document of self-critique, revisions and changes in the construction plan. Like a contemporary reader of Capital, Marx was caught up in some illusory characteristics of the capitalist mode of production and had to make multiple attempts to shed them, until he could rationally depict the mysticism of the world of commodities and proclaim: ‘Here at the same time it becomes clear how and why the value relation obtains a separate material existence in the form of money. This is to be developed further.’ (Marx 1973, p 140) The elaborations in Capital are therefore not ‘a matter of logic’, as Wolfgang Fritz Haug thinks in his statement on marx200.org when he imputes to Marx a standpoint(-logic) of universality which first makes critique possible; rather, Marx is also forced to follow ‘the logic of the thing itself’ in order to finally, in the critique of the ‘multitude of contradictory moves’ of classical economics, fix the ‘real point of departure’ (MECW 29, p 297) which is ‘crucial to an understanding of political economy’ (Marx 1976, p 132) – the dual character of the labour embodied in commodities.

For Marx in the first volume of Capital, this means making visible the ‘invisible threads of the valorisation process’ in the course of passing through the commodity and money, the production of surplus-value, and the accumulation of capital in all objective forms of production and reproduction. In the history of reading Capital, an exaggerated importance was often attributed to the first chapters on the commodity and money, which does not do justice to Marx’s intention and the actual political dynamite in the first volume because these simple forms of value could belong to the most diverse modes of production. But the conditions of existence of capital ‘are by no means given with the mere circulation of money and commodities. It arises only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence finds the free worker available, on the market, as the seller of his own labour-power. And this one historical precondition comprises a world’s history. Capital therefore, announces from the outset a new epoch in the process of social production.’ (Marx,Capital Volume I, 1976, p 274)

It is such an understanding that first contains political dynamite, as Friedrich Engels attested to his friend. He congratulated Marx ‘on the comprehensive way in which the most complex economic problems are elucidated simply and almost sensuously merely by arranging them suitably and by placing them in the right context. Likewise, in respect of subject-matter, on the quite splendid exposition of the relationship between labour and capital – for the first time here in its full context and complete.’ (MECW 42, p 405) Engels finally expressed himself enthusiastically regarding the analysis of the accumulation process: ‘the theoretical side is quite splendid, as is the exposition of the history of expropriation...the resume on the expropriation of the expropriators is most brilliant and will create quite an effect.’ (ibid p 417) For the co-author of Lire le Capital (Louis Althusser et al 1968), Etienne Balibar, these key passages in the first volume of Capital are even in 2017 ‘still a hot text’, which he recently interpreted in a politically stimulating manner, problematising it in terms of revolutionary theory.

The Object: Economy of Time

What is decisive to this day is that Marx points out the central role of the determination of value by labour-time, in contrast to all economists before him because this combination of theoretical analysis with the social debate that persists to this day concerning a ‘normal employment relationship’ provides an important reference to the periodically reoccurring relevance of Marx’s critique of capitalism and its potential for politicisation: ‘as long as the determination of value by labour-time is itself left “undetermined”, as it is with Ricardo, it does not make people shaky. But as soon as it is brought exactly into connection with the working day and its variations, a very unpleasant new light dawns upon them.’ (MECW 42, p 514)
With this hint at the fundamental conflict over the regulation of wage labour under capitalism, the conflict over the working day and the distribution of the social surplus is placed at the centre of the analysis of capitalism. Behind it is the far-reaching thesis: ‘Actually, no form of society can prevent the labour time at the disposal of society from regulating production in one way or another. But so long as this regulation is not effected through the direct and conscious control of society over its labour time – which is only possible under common ownership – but through the movement of commodity prices’ (ibid p 515) then fundamental social conflicts and a struggle for social emancipation and organising the future according to the principle of solidarity will remain. Marx’s theory was able to retain some influence due to the fundamental conflict over distribution, and this interpretation increasingly causes tempers to flare up again.

In that the structure of valorisation – which constitutes the central category of the first volume, that of surplus value – is dissolved into the underlying temporal regime of necessary and surplus labour, ‘the misery of the social world is made to speak’ (Pierre Bourdieu) via the critique of objectified economic forms: the miserable foundation of capitalism, that necessary labour can only be expended, if and to the extent that, at the same time surplus labour is provided. ‘[capital personified] is fanatically intent on the valorisation of value; consequently he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake. In this way, he spurs the development of society’s productive forces, and the creation of those material conditions of production which alone can form the real basis of a higher form of society, a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle.’ (Marx 1976, p 739) ‘Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs; just as the individual has to distribute his time correctly in order to achieve knowledge in proper proportions or in order to satisfy the various demands on his activity.’ (Marx, Grundrisse, 1973, p 173) Capital’s drive for increased valorisation thus also puts its stamp upon the temporal regime, the relation between necessary and surplus labour time.


With the interrelation between surplus value production, temporal regime, and the development of the forces of production, the chapters on the working day, machinery, and large-scale industry in the first volume of Capital capture central cornerstones in the ‘revolution of the social mode of production’, which, at the same time, uncover the view of dimensions of a total social mode of life, namely its historical formation as well as its social formability. Decoding the forms of surplus value production casts a light upon central problems not only of the first volume of Capital, but also of the entire system: the social control and organisation of the productivity of social labour (cf the data of Marxist value calculations on this in Krüger 2015). Wage labourers always stand at a point of junction between the compulsions of an individual workplace and the framework conditions of society as a whole. In the workplace, it is decided under which conditions of labour and at what level of productivity the social surplus is generated. But the framework conditions of society as a whole provide society the means of acting upon the conditions of life via redistribution, provisioning, subsidisation, etc. This interaction between economy and society also characterises the mode of operation of large-scale industry as presented in the first volume of Capital. Only an economically restricted reading reduces this to capitalist forms of squeezing out surplus value or technological arrangements in the capitalist process of labour and valorisation. With the analysis of social modes of operation, an ‘entire social mechanism’ is in question, which is only accessible as a set of fundamental economic structures, social struggles, and reaction of social superstructures: a ‘conscious and methodical reaction of society against the spontaneously developed forms of its production process.’ (Marx 1976, p. 610)

Reading Capital is not an economically blinkered lesson in ‘economics’, but rather social critique in an emphatic sense. On the back of the thesis that the organised power of wage labour has the possibility of reacting upon and affecting the state and capital, the state and politics are incorporated as fields of the balance of power that can be influenced. Marx is not just concerned with deconstructing homo oeconomicus and its ‘Robinsonades’ of individualist ownership at every turn, but also with strengthening the wage labourer as a citoyen, as a zoon politikon. The powerful notions and ideological fortifications of bourgeois relations of property are thus broken up and turned towards emancipatory ends. With Michel Foucault, one might say that the bourgeois principles of private property, the mentality of ownership, and egoism, as dealt with in the beginning chapters of Capital at the same time present, precisely in their linkage with specific relations of power in the production process of capital, a dispositif of power/knowledge, from which emancipatory glimmers for the political economy of wage labour can be won. And, in this sense, Capital recovers, in a political manner critical of economics, that which Marx and Engels understood as communism right at the beginning of their friendship: ‘it is certainly true that we must first make a cause our own, egoistic cause, before we can do anything to further it – and hence that in this sense, irrespective of any material aspirations, we are communists out of egoism also, and it is out of egoism that we wish to be human beings, not mere (emphasis mine) individuals.’ (Engels to Marx, 1884, MECW 38, p 12) The autobiography of the bourgeois and important Marxist Georg Lukács, who joined the labour movement after the first World War, ends with the knowledge of the narrow-mindedness of bourgeois forms of individuality, which must be repeatedly overcome: ‘subjective tendencies toward the practical realisation of one’s own species nature [Gattungsmässigkeit] (= real unfolding of individuality)...leading life as a struggle of (true!) curiosity and vanity – vanity as main burden; nails people down to particularity (frustration as stagnation at the level of particularity)’.

Three Favourite Texts on the Topic: