Das Kapital: The book for communism

It is impossible to completely understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx! 
Lenin (1914)  [2]

Let us start out by asking a few questions. [3]

In his Imperialism. The Highest Stage of Capitalism, as early as the “Preface”, Lenin puts forth the following idea: “Imperialism is the eve of the social revolution of the proletariat.”[4] Why is that so? Lenin elaborates on this at various points in the book by stating that “monopoly”, the concept that most clearly gives us the crux of imperialism, is a harbinger of the transition from capitalism to socialism:

Imperialism emerged as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general. But capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development, when certain of its fundamental characteristics began to change into their opposites, when the features of the epoch of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system had taken shape and revealed themselves in all spheres. Economically, the main thing in this process is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly.[5]

As may be seen, Lenin is here talking about the “the features of the epoch of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system” What are these features? In which work or works of the voluminous literature of Marxism have they been expounded?

Another question. Trotsky begins the last paragraph of the first section of the text that is usually called the “Transitional Programme”, penned by him in 1938 for the foundation of the Fourth International, with the following passage:

All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rottened. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.[6]

How does he know? How is it that he talks so confidently about the “ripening” of the conditions for socialist revolution so confidently? What are the “objective preconditions” of proletarian revolution? Why is civilisation under the threat of destruction unless socialist revolution materialises? Trotsky must have some criteria at hand in order to make these bold assertions. There must be conceptual bases of the ripening of capitalism for transition to socialism or the objective conditions of proletarian revolution. Trotsky has obviously reached the conclusion that socialism’s time has come by looking at the world he is living in on the basis of criteria drawn from these concepts. Where in the vast literature of Marxism, in which works, can we find these conceptual bases and these criteria? Let us not forget that for this revolutionary, towering over the rest along with Lenin in the 20th century, a framework, a set of criteria that will serve as the grounds for claiming that the time of revolution has arrived will be more vital than anything.

The main thesis that we will defend in this article is the following: the source for the main characteristics and criteria that both Lenin and Trotsky evoke with respect to the transition from capitalism to socialism is Marx’s Capital. Last year was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Volume One of Marx’s chef d’oeuvre. This year is the bicentenary of his birth. We aim to establish that this product of Marx’s life work is not a work of economics alone, but at the same time a political book through and through and, furthermore, that it is not a book on capitalism but even more a work on socialism or communism.

Let us then turn to Capital.

“The economic law of motion of modern society”

In the introductory text that was placed at the beginning of Volume One, published in September 1867, now known as “Preface to the First German Edition”, Marx enunciated the following concise idea: “…it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society…”[7] Those who are familiar with the debate on Capital will immediately remark that the relevant literature ordinarily takes up the “laws of motion of capital”, that is, in the plural. In fact, Marx himself also talks of the “laws of capitalist production” elsewhere in the very same preface.[8] These are taken up in different parts and sections of Capital, never named the “first law” or “second law” etc., but, nonetheless, it can comfortably be said that Capital really explains the laws of motion of capitalist production. From the “general law of capitalist accumulation” (as capital accumulates at one pole, misery accumulates at the other)[9] to the formation of the reserve army of labour,[10] from the concentration and centralisation of capital[11] to the tendential fall of the rate of profit, explained in Volume Three,[12] these and many other laws are exposed in the pages of Capital, sometimes explicitly called laws, at others without being called that. Why is it then that Marx is talking about a single law precisely while establishing the ultimate aim of his work?

We come across some clue that points to an answer to this question in the text that was published under the title “Afterword to the Second German Edition”. In the initial stages of this Afterword, Marx comments as follows on the science of political economy that has preceded himself:

In so far as Political Economy remains within that horizon, in so far, i.e., as the capitalist regime is looked upon as the absolutely final form of social production, instead of as a passing historical phase of its evolution, Political Economy can remain a science only so long as the struggle is latent or manifests itself only in isolated and sporadic phenomena.[13]

We know that Marx’s own critique of political economy need not fear class struggle, for it “can only represent the class whose vocation in history is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the abolition of all classes: the proletariat.”[14]

The clue here is the following: Marx distinguishes his own critique from political economy fundamentally on two grounds. On the one hand, political economy is bourgeois, while the Marxist critique bases itself on the proletariat, represents that class. On the other hand, precisely for that reason, political economy regards “the capitalist regime… as the absolutely final form of social production” and Marx’s critique does the opposite.

How does it do this? We find the clue to this question in the same “Afterword”, in what an unnamed Russian author wrote about Marx’s work:

The one thing which is of moment to Marx, is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of moment to him, which governs these phenomena… Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e. of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions to a different one… Consequently, Marx only troubles himself about one thing: to show, by rigid scientific investigation, the necessity of successive determinate orders of social conditions… For this it is quite enough, if he proves, at the same time, both the necessity of the present order of things, and the necessity of another order into which the first must inevitably pass over…[15]

The Russian author constantly returns to the same point: what he sees as the most important aspect of Marx’s approach is the necessity of one social order giving way to another. He says this a full three times. He even goes so far as to say that Marx “only troubles himself” with this. Could it be perhaps that the Russian author has in mind the transition from feudalism to capitalism? If we read on somewhat, we see that something totally different is at stake: “The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in the disclosing of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development, death of a given social organism and its replacement by another and higher one.”[16]

Hence, according to our author, Capital studies the genesis, the existence and the development of a social organism. That feudalism is discussed in Capital only with reference to the past and in the discussion of the historical genesis of capitalism (most saliently in the process of primitive accumulation) or, in other words, only at the stage of its passing away is clear. Its genesis (i.e. its emergence from the bosom of slave society) or its existence and development are almost never discussed, except for some momentary references. The social organism of which our author is talking is, then, capitalism. Hence, according to our author, Marx studies in Capital the passing away of capitalism and its replacement by a higher social organism (communism).

But, may exclaim the reader, this may be the opinion only of the Russian author. Does that necessarily mean that Marx agrees with him? After having quoted a much lengthier passage from the author in question, Marx adds: “Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and [as far as concerns my own application of it] generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectic method?”[17]

We think that the matter is crystal clear: what is more important than all others for Marx, his “only trouble”, is the passing away of one social order, i.e. capitalism, and its replacement by another of higher order, i.e. communism. This is the law in the singular. “The economic law of motion of capital”, that law standing alone, is the production of communism by capitalism.

“The transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common”

How, then, does capitalism produce communism? The answer to this question, for those who wish to see it, is explained through a dialectic that is contained and embedded in the entire corpus of Volume One of Capital. In effect, Volume One ends with a chapter that raises this whole explanation to a crescendo: “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”. Why Volume One? Because as we have explained at length elsewhere,[18] the essence of the production and reproduction of the capital-wage labour relation in capitalist society is treated in isolation from intervening factors in this volume. The second volume is concerned with the circulation process of the whole relationship between capital and wage-labour, whose process of reproduction has already been explained in the first volume, and the third volume delves into the transformation into superficial forms of appearance and the division of the surplus-value among capitals. Thus, it is perfectly appropriate, in the framework of the dialectical movement of the argument, that the historical law of motion of the capitalist mode of production should be deduced from the capital-wage labour relation, itself the essence of the capital relationship, at the end of Volume One.

The chapter “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation” lays before our eyes, in a concise manner in a mere three pages, the path of development of modern history in the form of a necessary movement on the basis of an extremely densely knit text. Up until this moment, Marx has taken up the process of capital accumulation in all its scope and depth and then, in the last six chapters that lead up to this chapter, what he calls “primitive accumulation”, i.e. the process that has resulted in the separation of the direct producers, that is to say, of peasant farmers, of artisans and still others, from the land and other means of production, thereby themselves becoming proletarians, the whole process preparing the fundamental relationship of the capitalist mode of production. We are now ready for a synthesis.

In the chapter on the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”, Marx first explains how capital destroys completely the historical unity between the direct producer and the means of production, how this subsequently sets off the dynamics of a new mode of production, how cooperation, the technical division of labour in the workplace and factory production render production a collective process. Within and thanks to this process, with large-scale production creating ever more efficient, productive and profitable results, capitalists, having earlier destroyed the independent existence of the direct producers in the past, now move on to swallow other capitalists that are weaker than them. Now, it is time for capitalists to expropriate capitalists themselves. Let us lend an ear to Marx for the rest:

This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the co-operative form of the labour-process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and with this, the international character of the capitalist regime… [B]ut with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers,and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The exporpriators are expropriated.[19]

What is explained here is how the mode of production based on capital destroys its own bases in accordance with the logic of its own development. Collective, social, large-scale, and internationalised production, on the basis of its own dynamics, is centralising production by eliminating the smaller capitalists with each passing day and socialising labour to such an extent that from its isolation in small-scale units the labour process grows into an integrated state where the worker now comes to be regarded as the “collective worker”. Production decisions are now made on the scale of vast units (i.e. corporations) and hence production is planned on a very large scale and at an international level. This is what Marx calls the socialisation of production and of labour. This socialisation enters into a contradiction with the logic of capital, based as it is on private appropriation and the market. Socialised production requires planning; capitalist property is a barrier in the way of wholesale planning. It is true that the so-called “multinational” companies do conduct planning on a large scale, but each is an island onto itself in a sea of market relations. Planning within corporations co-exists with anarchy that reigns in relations between capitals and within the world economy.

How is this contradiction to be overcome? Capitalism does not produce commodities, techniques of production and large-scale production alone. As a result of its logic that is based on expropriation on an increasing scale, it simultaneously generates an ever-growing class of dispossessed. With each passing day, the small-holder peasant and, partially, the petty merchant and the artisan of cities yield their place to the proletariat. And, as the above-quoted passage explains, gradually the smaller or weaker capitalists themselves become dispossessed of the means of production. The proletariat, this specific product of the capitalist mode of production, distinguishes itself from all the preceding classes of direct producers in history by the fact that it does not enjoy the least share in means of production.[20] The serf or the reaya (the subjects of the oriental ruler), as well as the member of the artisanal corporation, did enjoy a certain level of possession of the land or other means of production. In other words, the interest of these classes had necessarily to be defined to a certain extent in opposition to the other members of the same class. The proletariat, on the other hand, is, by definition, a class that is deprived of and separated completely from the property of means of production. Hence, its interests lie in the direction of the defence not of property but the owners of labour power. That is why it is a universal class. And that is also why the propletariat is the most adequate agency for the abolition of private property, itself the precondition for meeting the need of overcoming the fragmentation created by private property and the straitjacket of the market.

Let us draw the reader’s attention to the fact that, at the beginning of the passage quoted above, Marx underlines the fact that the entire process advances on the basis of “the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself.” Capital has determined the historical development by establishing the laws of the functioning of a society based on capital (“laws” in the plural, that is, “the laws of development of capitalism” that we have earlier seen in the “Preface to the First German Edition”). That is why Marx constantly talks of “necessity”. According to this analysis, then, once established, capitalism necessarily proceeds towards this end-point on the basis of its own laws. In other words, capitalism generates, within its bosom, the forces that will destroy it, in accordance with the laws of its functioning. The effects of these laws may be mitigated, temporarily arrested, even reversed for a certain period. However, as long as capitalism continues to remain capitalism, as long as it develops according to its nature, at a certain stage of its development, it will definitely undermine its own existence.

At the point where we have reached, we have established that the most significant result that flows from the entire scientific edifice of Capital is that capitalism creates the historical conditions of its own demise. Capitalism inevitably prepares the conditions for the emergence of a civilisation that is superior to itself, a civilisation that will henceforth submit to planning the productive forces that humanity has so far developed, that will for this reason do away with private property in the means of production, that will thus eliminate both classes and the state, themselves the products of such private property, from the scene of history, a civilisation called communism that promises to take human society out of its prehistory to begin the true history of humankind.[21]

This, then, is the economic law of motion of modern society. It is very important to know how the laws of motion of capital function under capitalism. The most significant of these laws are the interconnected state of being for humanity in its entirety through the embrace of the whole world by the market as a result of ever-growing commodification, proletarianisation, the constant revolutionising of productive forces by capital, the formation of the collective worker, the internationalisation of capital, and the formation of the world economy, all leading incontrovertibly to the actualisation of communism. For Marx, that single law both synthesizes and forms the vertex of all the rest.

This is the very subject of Capital. That is why it is, as we indicate in the title to this article, the “book for communism”.

 “What else… but the dialectic method?”

If Marx did not leave behind him a “Logic” (with a capital letter), he did leave the logic of Capital, and this ought to be utilised to the full in this question. In Capital, Marx applied to a single science logic, dialectics and the theory of knowledge of materialism [three words are not needed: it is one and the same thing] which has taken everything valuable in Hegel and developed it further. 

Lenin (1915) [22]

At the point where we have arrived, we have grasped why to the nameless Russian author quoted in the “Afterword to the Second German Edition”, when the latter says that Marx “only troubles himself…” about showing the replacement of one social order by another, Marx reacts by writing “the writer pictures… my method in this striking… way”. For this is precisely the central question Marx troubles himself about if not the sole question. But we have not yet explained each and every idea that Marx expresses in response to the Russian author’s opinion. Let us look at that sentence once more: “Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and [as far as concerns my own application of it] generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectic method?”

In order to explain why Marx stresses the dialectic here, in this very context, let us first dwell on the place of dialectics in Capital in a more general way. We ask the reader for license to quote from an earlier writing on one dimension of the matter at hand:

The main category of the dialectic, contradiction, that is to say the idea that an entity involves within itself its opposite, is the red thread that connects the whole book from beginning to end. Capital opens with the analysis of the commodity, which is characterised as the unity of use value and value. This contradiction then assumes different forms suıch as the successive dualities between concrete labour and abstract labour, the commodity and money, production and circulation, the labour process and the valorisation process (or, what is the same thing in a different English translation, the process of the self-expansion of value), between the formal subsumption of labour and its real subsumption etc. It is the tension between and the interpenetration of these pairs that inevitably push the analysis forward at every stage.  [23]

The reason why we have quoted this longish passage is to make it possible for the reader to understand better an idea of Marx’s that we are going to deal with presently. Before we go into that idea, though, let us pose the following question: if the question of which aspect or aspects of Capital regarding the analysis Marx conducts of the capitalist mode of production stand out as most important or characteristically specific were asked, what would the majority of the people who are familiar with the book answer? Probably the most popular answer would be the “unmasking of surplus value”. There could be others alongside this: for instance the revolutionary impact of capitalism on productive forces could be mentioned, as well as commodity fetishism, the reserve army of labour, or the tendential fall of the rate of profit.

Let us see what Marx has to say on this question. The letter we are going to quote right now was written in 1867. While corresponding with Engels after having completed the preparation of the first volume of Capital for publication, Marx has this to say:

The best points in my book are: 1) the two-fold character of labour, according to whether it is expressed in use value or exchange value. (All understanding of the facts depends upon this.) It is emphasised immediately, in the first chapter; 2) the treatment of surplus value independent of its particular forms, as profit, interest, rent etc. This will be seen especially in the second volume. The treatment of the particular forms by classical economy, which always mixes them up with the general form, is a regular hash.[24]

It must be admitted that here Marx takes the question up from the angle of his difference from classical political economy and in quite technical fashion. But we ask all who are familiar with Capital to reply to the following question earnestly: When we posed the question as to the distinguishing aspect, the most important dimension of Capital, would you have thought of the first point that Marx refers to? The second is perfectly understandable because exploitation can only be unmasked on the basis of surplus value. But the first? Those even among experts who would attribute a deeper meaning to the dual nature of labour any other sense than a technical one would probably amount to a handful. And do not forget that  “All understanding of the facts depends upon this.”

Why is it that the dual character of labour is important? Let us ask the question in a more correct manner.  It is not the dual character of labour, it is rather that “… it is emphasised immediately, in the first chapter”. In order to understand the reason, we propose to look once again at the passage we have quoted above from our own writing regarding the place of the dialectical contradiction: “Capital opens with the analysis of the commodity, which is characterised as the unity of use value and value. This contradiction then assumes different forms such as the successive dualities between concrete labour and abstract labour etc. etc.” In other words, if Marx stresses the fact that he analyses the dual character of labour as abstract and concrete labour, the reason is that this character is the basis of the contradiction that fathoms Capital from one end to the other as a guiding principle. All the categories Marx develops will embrace two dimensions, combined but contradictory, one referring to the relationship of humans to nature, the other focussing on the relationship between humans. To sum up, Capital is simply the elaboration of this dialectical mapping. In other words, Capital is dialectic through and through. 

We can now go back to the dialogue between the Russian author and Marx. Why does Marx stress the dialectic in this context? In order to grasp this we have to go back to the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”. After the paragraph that we have quoted above, where he talks about the contradiction between the socialisation of the means of labour and of labour itself, on the one hand, and private property in the means of production, on the other, and which he finishes by stating “the expropriators are expropriated”, Marx continues thus:

The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property, This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of the negation.[25]

Here we have the dialectic in all its splendour! Is it now clear why Marx asks, in regard to the Russian author, “what else.. but the dialectic method?”

“Half a century later, none of the Marxists understood Marx!”

We can now turn to the quotation from Lenin cited at the beginning of this article. In 1914, when the Great War broke out, Lenin, in search of a more robust grasp of the world situation in its entirety, proceeded to read Hegel feverishly, in particular his Logic. It is very clear what he was trying to do: learn the dialectic from its source. It is in the light of this study that Lenin felt the need to put down in a note in his own “philosophical notebooks” (not meant to be published) that “Half a century later [i.e. after the publication of Capital-ss], none of the Marxists understood Marx!”

Now we are at a century and a half. It is difficult to say to what extent Lenin exaggerated with respect to the generations that went before him and his own. That there was a great deal of truth in what he said seems to us to be indubitable. What is the situation in our own day?

This is not the place for an exhaustive survey on this question. It is not an aim of this article to survey the literature on Marx’s Capital in the last 150 years. The aim is really to show, at this juncture, that Capital is not merely a book of economics and, more importantly, it is not solely on capitalism, but equally on communism. But we can perform a symbolic survey.

There is no need to even take a glance at the technical literature on Capital and the “Marxian literature”. This literature is obsessed with the so-called “transformation problem”. It is replete with variants of the argument that this “problem” condemns Marx’s economic system to failure. The least bad among these examine, with the help of simultaneous equations, patently inappropriate for the purpose, how to save Marx’s labour theory of value from its “contradictions”. All this is a futile exercise in trying to attribute respectability to Marx, at the expense of an erasure of the revolutionary import of his labour theory of value. The word “communism” for instance is anathema to these dignified people.

What is the situation among those writers who are regarded as the major experts of Marx’s Capital by the younger generation? We will choose three among the most popular. First, let us look at David Harvey. Out of the very many books he has written in the field of Marx’s economic theory (each of which seems to be repeating, under a different title, what the author has already said in earlier works), we choose the one most relevant to our topic: the Companion he has written to Volume One of Marx’s Capital. In this book, the word “communism” is never mentioned! The word “communist” is present, but only in the title of the inevitable reference to the Communist Manifesto. What is more important for our purposes, though, is what Harvey has to say on the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”. Do not forget that this is a guide of sorts to Capital and hence is supposed to show us the way. In a 350-page book, this chapter is allotted less than a page, most of it devoted to quotations from Capital itself. After quoting what we have so far quoted from that chapter, Harvey comments: “This call to the barricades of revolution is the rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto brought back to bear on the politics of Capital. It is a political and polemical statement that should, surely, provide the culminating chapter to an astonishing work of deep analysis that is animated by a revolutionary spirit.”[26]

Can you feel the lightness in these lines? “This call to the barricades of revolution”, “the rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto brought back”,  “polemical statement”, “revolutionary spirit” etc. After thus having vented his feelings, Harvey then turns to a regurgitation, for the umpteenth time, to misty speculations about his own concept of “accumulation by dispossession” for pages on end, which shows that he is more of a guide onto himself than to Marx! Harvey has understood nothing of the chapter “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”.He therefore has not understood that Capital is a revolutionary book. He has not understood the place of the book in Marx’s overall project. Hence, he has not understood Capital!

Let us turn to Ben Fine, arguably the doyen of the academic version of Marxist economics in Britain. His Marx’s Capital, co-authored with Alfred Saad-Filho and almost in the nature of a guide to Capital,[27] is considerably in advance of Harvey’s Companion. For one thing, the word “communism” appears six or seven times in the book, showing that Fine and his co-author have not “forgotten” to mention the concept. More importantly, the three-page-long last subsection of the penultimate chapter of the book discusses, under the title “socialism”, the social order that is an alternative to capitalism. Here, a bit in passing as it were, there is mention of the socialisation of “life”. However, in a book that aims to show the way to the reader of Capital, that aims to accompany the reader in the difficult experience that constitutes a reading of Marx’s masterpiece, nothing remotely resembling the contradiction that arises between the productive forces and private appropriation of the social product, itself a consequence of the very logic of capital, is taken up in even cursory manner.

We now come to a real doyen of the profession, Paul Sweezy. A classic in the full sense of the term, The Theory of Capitalist Development embodies all the shortcomings of underconsumptionism and of the peculiar brand of Marxism of the Monthly Review school, as well as some strong sides (more comprehensive surveys of the literature on the transformation “problem” and theories of crisis than can be found in any similar source, marred naturally by the fact that the book is now totally dated). However, regarding the question at hand, it is striking that in a book that is close to 400 pages long, Sweezy never once touches questions such as the socialisation of productive forces or the contradiction between productive forces and relations of production. No trace of Lenin’s ideas can be found in the 20-page section of the book that Sweezy, author, together with Paul Baran, of the well-known and oft-quoted book Monopoly Capital, devotes to the concept monopoly. In the “Conclusion” to the book, we come across the following judgment: “Expressed schematically, the fundamental inner contradiction of capitalist production carries in it expansion abroad and contradiction.”[28] We see here how much Sweezy has distanced himself from Marx’s “immanent” contradiction.

In short, Lenin seems to be right after another full century has passed. Not only half a century, but a full 150 years later Marxists insist in not understanding Marx. It would be appropriate to contrast this with Lenin’s own approach to this self-same question. In 1914 (ironically even before he has read Hegel’s Logic!), in an encyclopaedia entry he wrote on Marx’s life and thinking, Lenin recounts “Marx’s Economic Doctrine” in a part that is 10-15 pages long. This section has only two subsections: Value and Surplus Value. But even in this very short section, Lenin has devoted one and a half pages (i.e. ten per cent of the whole section on the economy) to the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”!

Perhaps the picture is not as bleak today as Lenin feared it would be. Of many Marxists who do take the chapter on the “Historical Tendency” seriously, let us cite only one that the younger generation of Marxists reads widely: Ernest Mandel. In his “Introduction” to a new English translation of Volume One of Capital in the 1970s, out of eleven sections, the last is titled “Capital and the destiny of Capitalism” and devoted to the “famous” chapter on the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”.[29]

There are, in our opinion, several manners in which one can test whether Capital has really been grasped adequately by a student. The one that is relevant to us in this article is the most decisive one. If a student who has read Capital cannot then go to the “Table of Contents” of Volume One and trace the building up and unfolding of the contradiction that Marx speaks of in the chapter on the “Historical Tendency…” step by step in the table of contents, then that student has not yet grasped Capital adequately. Return to square one and start all over again!


Yet the propositions that our economists either ignore or cannot grasp form an indissoluble unity with the overall comprehension of the world that lies at the centre of Marx’s entire thinking. Whoever rejects or ignores one has, thereby, turned their back to the other as well. Let us now turn our attention to this aspect.

If what has been so far said about Capital is true, in other words, if the most important discovery of Capital regarding capitalism is that the productive forces created as a result of the development of this mode of production along the lnes of its own laws result at a certain stage the entering of these forces into contradiction with the capitalist relations of production themselves, this, then, is a verification, before all else, of Marx’s materialist conception of history or, what is the same thing, historical materialism in striking fashion. In his “Preface” to the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, written in 1859, Marx explained how his research led him to find the key to historical development in the “material conditions of life” and summarised the general conclusions he thus reached in the following manner:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness… At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the exisiting relations of production… From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.[30]

This is precisely the kind of process analysed in the chapter on the “Historical Tendency…” at the end of Volume One of Capital. The capitalist mode of production, as a result of its tendency to constantly revolutionise the productive forces of society, has brought them to such a level, has so much socialised labour that these forces can no longer be contained by capitalist private property. In other words, either one shares Marx’s materialist conception of history and also takes seriously the thesis of the socialisation of productive forces, as a confirmation and an instance of this thesis when what is at stake is the transition from capitalism to socialism or one refuses them both.

Not only that. In effect, Capital, in this essentially important dimension, is but the demonstration of the truth, in detail, of a conclusion that Marx and Engels had already reached back in 1848. It is a well-known fact that Marx committed himself to the study of political economy after the storm of the 1848 revolutions had subsided with the purpose of substantiating the claims on class struggle and revolution and of laying bare the real character of modern society from the standpoint of the working class. Now, two decades later, in 1867, a fundamental point that he had put forward in the Communist Manifesto, together with Engels, is being powerfully buttressed by the extremely advanced instruments of the theoretical edifice provided by the critique of political economy. Here is what they had to say in the Communist Manifesto:

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a dcade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions of the existence of the bourgeoisie and its rule.[31]

It is obvious that here we have a summary of the ultimate conclusion of the theoretical edifice that will be exposed throughout the entire architecture of Capital two decades later. Thus, thanks to the intense labour of those two decades, Marx has provided the scientific proof for the thesis he had (together with Engels) put forth earlier. There is yet another harbinger in the Communist Manifesto of that rich theoretical exposition that one finds in the chapter on the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”. Not only does capital generate the productive forces that sap its own basis, but it also produces the class that will bring down the whole social order established by it:

The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their involuntary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry therefore cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.[32]

We see thus that in a certain sense Capital provides the Communist Manifesto with an infrastructure. Let David Harvey pontificate on the “rhetoric” of the Communist Manifesto. What he cannot grasp is that Capital is as revolutionary a text as the Communist Manifesto! The two are in perfect harmony.

Finally, the idea that capitalism generates communism through the socialisation of productive forces is the perfect scientific grounding for the attitude adopted by Marx and Engels very early on vis-a-vis utopian socialism. It is a well-known fact that despite their appreciation of the pioneering role played by the utopian socialists (notably Saint-Simon, Owen and Fourier), Marx and Engels found their effort to reshape the world along the lines of the “ideals” developed in their own minds naïve and unrealistic. The following passage from the German Ideology, published in 1845, presents in the brightest manner possible the difference of scientific socialism with the utopian one: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the now existing premise.”[33]

Capital has confirmed this claim as well. Not only has it shown that communism comes on the horizon of humanity within the real movement of society. It has also proved that the conditions for this movement are the necessary product of the premise (i.e. the capitalist mode of production) that exists in the present.

We can then draw the conclusion: those who do not grasp the vital, repeat vital, significance of what is explained in the chapter on the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation” have simply not understood at all not only Capital, but the whole thinking of Marx and Engels.

Lenin obviously understated his case.

The historic significance of the historical tendency

The subject matter of this article is to substantiate the idea that the most important conclusion of Marx’s Capital from the political and theoretical viewpoints is that capitalism generates communism. In other words, the article has a theoretical scope. We will refrain from doing the following in the context of this article. First, since this proposition has been formulated at the high level of abstraction on which Marx operates in Volume One of Capital, there could have been an additional discussion on how this law manifests itself concretely. We will not go into this aspect of things. In other words, we will not enquire into how the contradiction between the socialisation of the means of production and labour and the private nature of appropriation under capitalism plays itself out in the concrete motion of society.  We are of the opinion that, in Marx’s own approach, the key role here is attributed to economic crises and we have already explained this mechanism in clear terms in an earlier study.[34]

Secondly, we will not look into whether the circumstances that obtain in today’s world verify or refute Marx’s thesis, itself put forward at a high level of abstraction and as a world historical proposition. This we will take up in an article planned for this fall, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of what we have preferred to call the Third Great Depression, when we will draw a balance sheet of the world situation in its economic and political aspects. This type of study requires the assessment of concrete data that lie way beyond the level of theoretical abstraction proper to this article.

In summing up this article, we would like to underline another very important theoretical issue that is very often ignored. With his theoretical proposition that is embodied in the chapter on “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation” but really spread throughout the entire edifice of Capital, Marx anticipates a whole new stage in human history. For the first time since the rise of class society, in other words since the dawn of written history, the material bases of the struggle over interests within and between human societies will be disappearing. Beyond the importance for humanity of the socialisation of productive forces with respect to the transition from capitalism to communism, this proposition implies that collective interest has become the highest mediation that can meet individual interest in the best manner possible.

To explain briefly, from the moment a surplus product saw the light of day, the communal existence of human communities that are widely classified as primitive communal society cedes ground to fissures, tensions, conflicts of interest. In time, the struggle between the propertied classes that live on the surplus labour of others thanks to their control over the means of production, on the one hand, and the class of direct producers that carries out the production of objects that meet the needs of the community in and through nature, but become dependent in their access to the means of production on the former classes, on the other, assumes a character of decisive importance. Thus, the conflicts of interest that arise within human communities take on the form of class struggles, but neither do class struggles consist of this fundamental conflict, nor do conflicts of interest consist solely of class struggle. On the one hand, class struggles also involve intermediate classes and contradictions within the classes themselves. On the other, outside of class struggle, conflicts of interest assume a multitude of forms, from the macro level struggles between empires all the way down to the competition between individuals within the same class.

This tendency reaches its apex in the age of capitalism. The dissolution of all traditional protective buffer mechanisms and all bonds of a communal character as a consequence of the rise of the naked cash nexus turns bourgeois society into a jungle based on “the war of each against all” (Engels). This is why bourgeois ideology and social theory borrow from Darwin’s theory of evolution the worst possible aspect: as in nature, so in society, all will pursue their self-interest and social life is converted into a war theatre where each individual is prone, nay condemned to struggle against all the others. Social life is reduced to the fight for “survival”. No one can or will hold the interest of society or of communities above their own interest. Within the parameters of this thinking, bourgeois individualism becomes the ideological norm. Economists proceed to eulogise competition and attribute to it the consistency of the best possible economic system that humanity can attain, viz. capitalism.

In this context, communism is naturally seen as condemned to failure. Even if successful revolutions should occur, once the ferment and enthusiasm subside, once the idealism of the drive to build a more just society cedes its place to the crass but necessary materialism of everyday existence, everyone will start to pursue self-interest and the egalitarian and just society that was the goal of the revolution will be eroded by the undercurrent of individual interests and finally give way to a society of competition and contest.

Marx’s thesis of the “socialisation of productive forces” creates a deep breach in this entire scheme of things. Marx is the thinker who most clearly held that all aspects of social life are formed under the impact of material interests and the conflicts over these interests, that, however complex the level of mediation, no relationship, institution or idea is formed independently of the conflict of interests and, most importantly, class struggles, that each is conditioned by these material interests. It is unthinkable, therefore, that he should not have considered the objections raised regarding the dissolving impact of individual self-interest.

Let us take one further step: Marx can surely not have believed that an epoch-making leap forward of the kind of socialism, communism, the emergence of a classless society that will surely change the whole course of history and the destiny of humanity can materialise exclusively as a result of revolutionary enthusiasm and the idealism created by the longing for a just society. Indeed this is not the case. The reason why Marx conceived communism as possible and necessary was not his rejection of the fact that individual interest is the main driving force of human behaviour. It is the realisation that for the first time in history, we have entered an epoch in which individual interest can be satisfied better through collective methods than through competition and struggle against the fellow human being.

To put it somewhat differently, communism is not the epoch in which the validity of the materialist view of history has come to an end and the age of idealism has finally set in. It is the epoch when, thanks to the level attained by the productive forces of humanity, the collective satisfaction of material interest changes the deal. That is why the key phrase in the chapter on the “Historical  Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation” really anticipates the accession of humanity to a totally different age: “the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common

Capitalism has created for humanity a level of labour productivity unprecedented in history. Marxists have never denied this; on the contrary, they have been in the forefront of those who stressed this. One need only read the first part of the Communist Manifesto to see this. This means that humanity is faced with the opportunity of creating a life more prosperous, more secure, more fulsome than ever. But at the same time, capitalism rises as a barrier in the way of the realisation of these opportunities for the overwhelming majority of society. According to bourgeois ideology, revolutions that abolish the rule of capitalism find themselves face to face with a contradiction: these revolutions can deliver equality, a secure future and peace to the majority, but because it is capitalism that provides the basis for the development of the productive forces, sooner or later the desire to attain a wealthier society will lead these countries back to capitalism.

Marx’s thesis of the socialisation of productive forces contends that this contradiction has now been eliminated. For the first time in history, the organisation of production and distribution in a collective mode, on the basis of public property and a central plan will provide for each individual more than that can be provided by competition, the market, and private property, in short more than can be provided by a society where each individual pursues their own self-interest. For the instruments of labour, albeit developed originally by capitalism, are henceforth only “usable in common”

One can see that here a bizarre relationship has emerged between the individual and the collective, one that has never been seen before in history. Short of grasping this, it is impossible to understand why communism is the order of the day for the future of humanity. We earlier explained this relationship by employing the concept of mediation: collective interest has become the highest mediation of individual interest.

Communism is usually depicted as a society in which social interest rules exclusively, where everything has become collectivised, where none else than that which is collective has the right to exist. For the bourgeois, this is a criticism, a reproach. Those who side with communism, on the other hand, declare this with pride in the face of bourgeois individualism. Very much rightly so. But the relationship is somewhat more complex in Marx.

Now we go back to Marx’s chapter on the “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”. Marx has already explained that capitalism has generated the socialised type of productive forces that undermine its own basis, that at the same time it has created the proletariat as a formidable force in opposition to its own power, that all this will set off a process that will only come to an end when “the expropriators are expropriated”, and drawn attention to the dialectical nature of the whole process by pointing out that this is the “negation of the negation”. The first negation, it will be remembered, is the destruction of the unity between the direct producer and the means of production. The capitalist is, in effect, now pillaging into destruction even those capitalists who are weaker. The expropriation of the large-scale capitalist himself is the second negation. Now, holding all this in mind, let us continue where we had left off:

It is the negation of the negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era: i.e. on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.[35]

“Individual property”! An astonishing remark surely, if there ever was one. Marx, who has himself defended, as against the anarchists and the mutualisme of Proudhon, the impossibility of the defence of “individual property” in the face of the large-scale production generated by capitalism, now characterises the property form of communism as “individual property”. What irony! One may even suspect a slip of the pen, but successive German editions, the French, English and Russian editions… Is it conceivable that this slip of the pen should not have drawn the attention of either Marx or Engels or others?

The secret of the irony lies in the fact that this particular “individual property” possesses characteristics that are peculiar to it: this is an individual property that rises on the basis of common property in the means of production. We started out from individual small-scale property, went through capitalist private property (the gigantic scale of private property belonging to the minority coupled with the propertylessness of the majority), now we are returning to individual property as a negation of the latter (the negation of the negation), yet this time not as small-scale property, but as individual property based on common property. In this immensely dense text (human history in a mere three pages!), Marx also touches upon a point of vital importance in a brief but key phrase: “based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era”. Hence, there is a return to the individual, but not on the basis of a wholesale negation of capitalism. A return that conserves the “acquisitions” of the capitalist epoch. In other words, both supersession and conservation. Aufhebung. Hegel. Dialectics. Lenin.

This is the expression, in terms of property relations, of our proposition that we have now entered an epoch of history in which, for the first time in history, individual interest is henceforth mediated by collective interest.

[1] Sungur Savran is the chairperson of DIP (Revolutionary Workers’ Party), writer in journals Devrimci Marksizm (Revolutionary Marxism) and its annual English edition Revolutionary Marxism, and newspaper Gerçek (Truth), and one of the founders of RedMed web network

[2] V. I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Book The Science of Logic”, Collected Works, vol. 38, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976, p. 180.

[3] This article was first published in Turkish in Devrimci Marksizm, issue No. 32-33, Fall-Winter 2017.b It has been translated into English by the author himself

[4] This is not the preface to the original Russian edition of the book, but the “Preface to the French and German Editions” written in 1920 and first published in 1921. Collected Works, op. cit., vol. 22, p. 194.

[5] Ibid, p. 265. Emphasis added.

[6] Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, New York: Pathfinder Press, 3rd Ed., 1977, p. 112.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, New York: International Publishers, 1967, p. 10. Emphasis added.

[8] Ibid, p. 8. Emphasis added.

[9] Ibid, Chapter 25, Section 4, pp. 640-47.

[10] Ibid, Chapter 25, this time section 3, pp. 628-640.

[11] Ibid, pp. 625-28.

[12] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III,  Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971, Part III, pp. 211-266.

[13] Capital, vol. I, op.cit., p.14.

[14] Ibid, p. 16.

[15] Ibid, pp. 17-18. Emphasis added.

[16] Ibid, p. 19.

[17] Ibid.

[18] For a brief overall explanation of this proposition, see Sungur Savran, “Das Kapital: The Book of Communism”, Revolutionary Marxism 2018, in particular the section on “The Architecture of Capital”, pp. 260-265.

[19] Capital, vol. I, op. cit., p. 763.

[20] This is certainly not true of the slave. However, there was another kind of unity between the slave and the means of production: the slave himself was a “talking means of production”!

[21] I am abstracting here, for the sake of brevity, from the seminal ideas Marx expressed in his Grundrisse. See, in particular, pp, 409-410, 540, 692-695, among many others, in Karl Marx, Grundrisse. Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

[22] “Plan of Hegel’s Dialectics (Logic)”, Collected Works, vol. 38, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976, p. 317.

[23] “Das Kapital: The Book of Communism”, op. cit., pp. 257-58. Marksist Klasikleri Okuma Kılavuzu, a.g.y., s. 221.

[24] “Marx to Engels in Manchester”, August 24, 1867, Marx Engels Selected Correspondence, Moscow: progress Publishers, Third revised edition, 1975, p. 180. Also: “Correspondance sur le ‘Capital’”, Le Capital, Livre premier, Tome  III, Paris: Editions Sociales, 1971, s. 231.

[25] Capital, vol. I, op. cit., p. 763.

[26] Ibid, p. 301.

[27] Ben Fine/Alfredo Saad-Filho, Marx’s Capital, Turkish translation: Marx’ın Kapital’i, translated by Nail Satlıgan, Expanded second edition, Istanbul: Yordam Kitap, 2011. A clarification is in order: due to the difficulties of the life of a militant, we have no access, at this moment, to the original English text of three sources cited here (Fine & Saad-Filho, Sweezy, and Mandel, see below). The passages that we quote here from these three sources are retranslations from Turkish back into English of the original texts. Done in good faith, these, nonetheless, are not one hundred per cent reliable, as all who are well-versed in the delicate profession of translation will attest to.

[28] Ibid, s. 347.

[29] Ernest Mandel, Marx’ın Kapitali, Istanbul: Yazın Yayıncılık, 2008,  pp. 107-116.

[30] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, New York: International Publishers, 1970, pp. 20-21.

[31] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998, p. 11.

[32] Ibid, p. 24. A.g.y., s. 32.

[33] Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Collected Works, vol. 5, London: Lawrence & Wishart, p. 49.

[34] Sungur Savran, “Capitalist Crisis or the Crisis of Capitalism?” in E. Ahmet Tonak (ed.), Critical Perspectives on the World Bank and the IMF, Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi University Press, 2011.

[35] Capital, vol I, op. cit., p. 763. Emphasis added.

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Presentación en el Foro Internacional “ Marx-XXI, doscientos años del nacimiento de Karl Marx”, del 17 al 19 de mayo, 2018, Universidad Estatal de Moscú “Lomonossov”, Moscú, Rusia En memoria de Christian Rath “el Colo” un gran revolucionario del Partido Obrero de Argentina ¡Hasta la victoria siempre!
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