September 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Das Kapital (Capital: Critique of Political Economy).
On 14 September 1867, the iconic German philosopher, economic theorist, and historian, Karl Marx, published this seminal text, which, of many other things, is a description of how the capitalist system works, and how, as he claims claims, it is self-destructive. Till this day, Marx’s theorisations provide a steady framework to understand the dominant capitalist mode of production.
This book enjoys an iconic stature among readers. Many consider it as Marx’s opus. Since the publication of Kapital, Volume I, the book has been translated in almost all the major languages in the world. It went on to leave a deep impact on future communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin, who was himself a Marxist, and on systems of governance in major world powers like the Soviet Union.
Themes and Influences
Kapital primarily touches upon, notably at great length, pivotal functional elements in the capitalist mode of production, like commodity, exchange, division of labour, wages, and the process of capital accumulation.
In the book, Marx criticizes the capitalist system by arguing that an economic system based on private profit is inherently unstable. He also pointed out that the motivating force of capitalism is the ‘exploitation of labour’, and questioned the concentration of ownership of the means of production in a few hands that essentially led to class divide, and further to class struggles.
Many labour movements across Europe and other parts of the world were deeply influenced by Marxist ideas, which were elaborated in Kapital. Not only labour movements, but politics of trade unions, formation of communist parties, and communist movements were often ideologically driven by Marxist ideals.
The Russian Revolution of 1917, exactly 100 years ago, was highly driven by communist ideology. This led to the formation of the Soviet Union, a primarily an ideology-driven state under the direct ambit of the Marxist-Leninist strand of communism, a contextualised version of Marxian thought sythesised by Lenin.
Marx’s writings have impressed people across the spectrum, including scholars, academicians, politicians, writers, novelists, journalists and people in cinema. Charlie Chaplin’s movie Modern Times (1936) was an outright critique of the capitalist system during the industrial revolution in Europe.
One of the key reasons why Marx and his works left such a deep impact on the masses is, Marx scientifically argued how a section of people was getting richer at the expense of a much larger, poorer, population. In simple language, this means that someone is getting richer because many are getting poorer at the same time. Marx establishes a direct correlation between the two.
British Historian Gareth Stedman Jones in his essay titled, ‘In Retrospect: Das Kapital’, for the scientific journal, Nature, wrote that “the book’s impact on economics, politics and current affairs has been formidable, and aspects of Marx’s thinking have permeated areas of scientific research as disparate as robotics and evolutionary theory. Industrial revolutions, as Marx realised, relegate workers to the status of machine minders, and open the way to production that does not depend on human labour”.
Marx and his ideology provided a ray of hope to the labour class who were arguably treated worse than animals in many countries. In nineteenth century Europe, when Marx wrote Kapital, the conditions for the working class were abysmal. They had no fixed working hours; conditions in factories were extremely hazardous; employers could set the wages as low as they wanted for the workers; and living conditions were extremely poor.
The impact of Marx’s writing can be assessed by the fact that even the most capitalist countries in Europe eventually started providing a good working atmosphere, fixed wages, and fixed working hours to their workers. What is more intriguing, though, is that Marx also argued that in the future, states would start providing better conditions to the working classes in order to dissuade them away from socialist ideals, and thus, bring a genuine structural change in the society.
This is exactly what we see today. Most capitalist countries around the world, including India, have a concept of ‘welfare state’ where the working class is provided with basic necessities in order to persuade the society at large that they no longer require Marxist ideals or politics for the fulfillment of their basic necessities. This is quite evident today as communist political parties are fast losing their ground in most of the states in India, not able to explain their political relevance to the public.
Das Kapital, though written over one and a half century ago, is a timeless text and a classic in its own right. Fascinating, at the very least, is the fact that sales of the book shot up dramatically across the world during the financial crisis of 2008. Clearly, even today, whenever the economy is in crisis, a large section of the politically, socially, and economically concerned turn to this historic text.
Martand Jha is a Junior Research Fellow at the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Views expressed here are the author’s own, and do not represent any editorial line.