Karl Marx: Re-reading “Das Kapital”

Statues of Marx and Engel in Berlin
© Getty Images/m-1975

Karl Marx would have celebrated his 200th birthday in 2018. His criticism of capitalism appears even more pertinent today amidst climate crisis, chronical unemployment and global inequality. A reason for Mathias Greffrath to look back and re-read.

Karl Marx – he was, on the one hand, the theorist of history whose theories have today largely gained acceptance. The idea that tools and the mode of production of a society determine its political and social structure, and that human thought is formed by the use of tools and moral positions by interests – insights which Marx and Engels encapsulated in the concept of “historical materialism” – have found their way into many individual sciences, into sociology, educational theory, psychology, the study of religion, law, literary theory, engineering and the cognitive sciences, to name only a few.

It has been different with Kapital, Marx’s most important work. No work of social science has so strongly fuelled intellectual debate in the last 150 years and exercised so powerful an effect on politics. The European workers’ movement, the Bolshevik revolutionaries, the liberation movements of the Third World – all appeal to Marx’s Kapital, which studied not only the fine mechanics of capitalism but also seemed to prophesy its end. But precisely for this reason no other theory has been so obdurately ignored by mainstream economics, especially in the years of the rivalry between global systems.


Today, after the end of the Cold War and in the age of climate crisis, of chronic underemployment, of global inequality, of financial speculation and of weak growth, it has long been not only surviving leftists who talk of the end of capitalism. In economics, word of “” is spreading, and at the world summit of the capitalist elite the sentence “The capitalist system no longer fits into this world” was making the rounds.

In Das Kapital, Marx lays claim to having discovered “the economic law of motion of modern society”. It is, first of all, a law of progress: capital-driven economy, as the sketch in the Communist Manifesto predicts, “has created more massive and colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together”; it has fostered technology and science and created the world market. But the actors in this economy, the capitalists, are driven men: at the risk of bankruptcy, they must develop the productive forces, perpetuate innovation, press out of the workers as much output as possible and exploit the raw materials of the earth as rationally as possible so as to transform them into commodities. Thus capitalism creates the conditions for a world without want and hunger. But under the systemic constraint to maximize surplus value and drive on growth, this mode of production can in the long run “develop only by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker”.


At the end of Kapital, Marx sketches one possible conclusion of this story: the concentration of capital and the dynamics of globalization widen the gap between obscene wealth and miserable poverty to the point of the unbearable; private property shackles the emancipatory possibilities inherent in technology. This then leads to revolutions and the socialization of the productive forces. For decades this political surplus of theory prompted the expectation, especially in the workers’ movement, of the final crisis. But the prognosis attaches no date to the revolutionary outcome of history, if only because Marx’s “critique of political economy” also analyses the opposing forces through which the system of capitalist exploitation can constantly re-stabilizes itself: market expansion, technological innovation, rationalization of the use of materials, exacerbated exploitation, globalization of production and, not least, the use of credit as an incentive for growth.

For over a hundred years the martial-sounding slogan of socialization, or even of a proletarian dictatorship, has driven bourgeois economists into a dogmatic rejection of Marx’s great achievement as a macroeconomist (in the words of Hans-Werner Sinn), especially his contribution to the theory of growth, crises and globalization. The fascination that proceeds from Marx’s theory of capitalism arises, for one thing, from the plenitude of historical material that it spreads out before us. But above all it comes from the comprehensive view of the economic process: while the models of the scientific mainstream essentially reduce the economy to the market process, the Marxian presentation links together the profit mechanism, the development of technology, working conditions, social conflicts and the cultural consequences of the commodity economy into a vast, cogent narrative of capitalist dynamics, down to its possible end.


In the eyes of capital, things and human beings appear in the world only insofar as they are profitable: we still experience this 150 years after the first edition of Kapital in various ways that are highly relevant. Why, then, read Kapital once again, when its prognoses have become so realistic in our time? When the concentration of big industries, the privatization of communication networks, the industrialization of agriculture immediately suggest the need for their political control; when the public assets of the earth must be protected against their capitalist privatization; when the destruction of nature cries for global control – and when such demands are no longer a political taboo? And when an undogmatically understood Marx has little to say about the production of the “realm of freedom” beyond abstract target formulas?

The practical use of the “critique of political economy” consists in this: to survey the ground on which we stand and to criticize the concepts that block our view of reality. “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’” – this, the first sentence of the book, already reveals what “critique” here means: to make tangible the tension between what we (want to) understand by wealth and its capitalist form. Das Kapital lays bare the covert violence initiated by capitalism and the real sources of wealth: actual labour, the cooperation in a society of knowledge and skills grown up over generations. Marx’s system theory shows the crisis and catastrophes into which societies are driven when these sources of wealth are squeezed into the narrow channels of capitalist exploitation. It is anything but fatalistic or mechanistic. In the end, we are confronted by the insight that the constraints to which we are subject are man-made, and can therefore be changed by human beings. And they must be changed if the earth is not to become a desert and humankind an appendage of the profit machine; if societies are not to live under than their possibilities.

The interview was originally published  and was republished with permission from Goethe-Institut.

Author: Mathias Greffrath is a writer and journalist. He writes for "Süddeutsche Zeitung", "taz" and "Die Zeit" among others.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner

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