Das Kapital

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Economics

Das Kapital (Capital, in the English translation) is an extensive treatise on political economy written by Karl Marx in German. The book is a critical analysis of capitalism, its economic practices, and the theories which economists made about it.


The central injustice of capitalism, according to Marx, was in the exploitation and alienation of labor, a condition which a later Marxist thinker, Harry Braverman, in his work Labour and Monopoly Capital: the degradation of work in the 20th Century, called "the degradation of labour". The ultimate source of the new profits and value-added was that employers paid workers the market value of their labour-capacity, but the value of the commodities workers produced exceeded that market value. Employers were entitled to appropriate the new output value because of their ownership of the productive capital assets. By producing output as capital for the employers, the workers constantly reproduced the condition of capitalism by their labour.

However, though Marx is very concerned with the social aspects of commerce, his book is not an ethical treatise, but an (unfinished) attempt to explain the objective "laws of motion" of the capitalist system as a whole, its origins and future. He aims to reveal the causes and dynamics of the accumulation of capital, the growth of wage labour, the transformation of the workplace, the concentration of capital, competition, the banking and credit system, the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, land-rents and many other things.

Marx viewed the commodity as the "cell-form" or building unit of capitalist society — it is an object useful to somebody else, but with a trading value for the owner. Because commercial transactions implied no particular morality beyond that required to settle transactions, the growth of markets caused the economic sphere and the moral-legal sphere to become separated in society: subjective moral value becomes separated from objective economic value. Political economy, which was originally thought of as a "moral science" concerned with the just distribution of wealth, or as a "political arithmetick" for tax collection, gave way to the separate disciplines of economic science, law and ethics.

Marx believed the political economists could study the scientific laws of capitalism in an "objective" way, because the expansion of markets had in reality objectified most economic relations: the cash nexus stripped away all previous religious and political illusions (only to replace them, however, with another kind of illusion -- commodity fetishism). Marx also says that he viewed "the economic formation of society as a process of natural history". The growth of commerce happened as a process which no individuals could control or direct, creating an enormously complex web of social interconnections globally. Thus a "society" was formed "economically" before people actually began to consciously master the enormous productive capacity and interconnections they had created, in order to put it collectively to the best use.

Marx’s analysis in Capital, then, focuses primarily on the structural contradictions, rather than the class antagonisms, that characterize capitalist society -- the “contradictory movement [gegensätzliche Bewegung] [that] has its origin in the twofold character of labour,” rather than in the struggle between labor and capital, or rather between the owning and the working classes. These contradictions, moreover, operate (as Marx describes using a phrase borrowed from Hegel) “behind the backs” of the both capitalists and workers, that is, as a result of their activities, and yet irreducible to their conscious awareness either as individuals or as classes. As such, Capital, does not propose a theory of revolution (led by the working class and its representatives) but rather a theory of crises as the condition for a potential revolution, or what Marx refers to in the Communist Manifesto as a potential “weapon,” “forged” by the owners of capital, “turned against the bourgeoisie itself” by the working class. Such crises, according to Marx, are rooted in the contradictory character of the commodity, the most fundamental social form of capitalist society. In capitalism, improvements in technology and rising levels of productivity increase the amount of material wealth (or use values) in society while simultaneously diminishing the Value (economics) of this wealth, thereby lowering the rate of profit – a tendency that leads to the peculiar situation, characteristic of crises in capitalism, of “poverty in the midst of plenty,” or more precisely, crises of overproduction in the midst of underconsumption.


Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867, but he died before he could finish the second and third ones which he had already drafted; these were edited by his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels and published in 1885 and 1894; the fourth volume, called Theories of Surplus-Value, was first edited and published by Karl Kautsky in 1905-1910. Other preparatory manuscripts were published only decades later.


Marx bases his work on that of the classical economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and even Benjamin Franklin. However, he reworks these authors' ideas critically and carefully, so his book is a critical and innovative synthesis that does not follow the lead of any one thinker. It also reflects the dialectical methodology applied by G.W.F. Hegel in his books The Science of Logic and The Phenomenology of Mind, and the influence of French socialists such as Charles Fourier, Comte de Saint-Simon, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Marx said himself that his aim was "to bring a science [i.e. political economy] by criticism to the point where it can be dialectically represented", and in this way to "reveal the law of motion of modern society". By showing how capitalist development was the precursor of a new, socialist mode of production, he aimed to provide a scientific foundation for the modern labour movement. In preparation for his book, he studied the economic literature available in his time for a period of twelve years, mainly in the British Museum in London.

Aristotle, and Greek philosophy in general, was another important (although often neglected) influence on Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Marx’s education at Bonn centered on Greek and Roman poets and philosophers. The dissertation he completed at the university was a comparison of the philosophy of nature in the works of Democritus and Epicurus. A number of scholars, moreover, have argued that basic architecture of Capital – including the categories of use and exchange value, as well as the “ syllogisms” for simple and expanded circulation (M-C-M and M-C-M’) – was derived from the Politics (Aristotle) and the Nicomachean Ethics. Moreover, Marx’s description of machinery under capitalist relations of production as “self-acting automata” is a direct reference to Aristotle’s speculations on inanimate instruments capable of following commands as the condition for the abolition of slavery.

Online editions

  • Capital, Volume I: The Process of Production of Capital
  • Capital, Volume II: The Process of Circulation of Capital
  • Capital, Volume III: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole
  • Capital, Volume IV: Theories of Surplus Value

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