The work that, perhaps more than any other, has contributed to changing the world in the last 150 years, had a long and difficult gestation. Marx started writing Capital only many years after he began his study of political economy. Although he had already developed his critique of private property and idea of alienation in 1844, it was the financial crisis of 1857 ~ which began in the United States and spread across Europe ~ that ultimately drove him to put pen to page and begin writing what he initially called his “Economy”.
With the onset of the financial crisis, Marx foresaw the birth of a new stage of social upheaval that he believed could lead to a revolutionary movement capable of transcending capitalism. He believed that the proletariat urgently needed a critique of the capitalist mode of production. From this was born the Grundrisse, eight large volumes in which, amongst other themes, Marx examined the formation of pre-capitalistic economies and elaborated on some important characteristics of his Communist society like the importance of liberty and the intellectual development of the individual.
However, the revolutionary movement that Marx believed would emerge from the financial crisis remained illusory and Marx, now acutely aware of the theoretical shortcomings of his work, did not publish these manuscripts. The only section of the Grundrisse that would go to the press, and only after an extensive revision, was “The Chapter on Money”.
Published in 1859 as A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the text was only reviewed by a single person ~ Engels. Marx’s plan for the rest of the Grundrisse was to divide the manuscripts into six books. He believed that this would allow him to dedicate each volume to a separate subject matter: capital, property ownership, wage labour State, foreign trade and the global market.
When, in 1862, because of the American Civil War, the New York Tribune fired him from his job as their European correspondent, Marx ~ who had worked for the American daily for over a decade ~ and his family were plunged into the same level of destitution that they had experienced during their early years in London.
Marx only had the help of Engels, to whom he wrote, “Every day my wife says she wishes she and the children were safely in their graves, and I really cannot blame her, for the humiliations, torments and alarums that one has to go through in such a situation are indeed indescribable”. His condition was so desperate that, in his worst weeks, he went without food for his children and paper to write on. He applied for work at an English railway office and was denied the job on the basis of his poor handwriting. Consequently, in the face of these indignations, Marx’s work continued to suffer from long delays.
Despite these significant hurdles, Marx conducted a rigorous examination of economic theory during this period. In an extensive manuscript entitled Theories of Surplus Value, he argued that the major economic theorists of the time had erroneously understood surplus value as either profit or income. Marx, conversely, argued that surplus value should be understood as the specific form through which the exploitation of capitalism was made manifest.
This was because the workers gave up a part of their workday freely to the capitalist who then tried to generate surplus value by means of this surplus labour ~ “it is no longer enough for the worker to produce in general, he must now produce the surplus value”. The theft of only a few minutes from lunch or breaks of each worker translated into the shift of an immense mass of riches into the owner’s pockets. Intellectual development, social obligations and holidays were for capital “merely frills”. Factory owners would oppose labour legislation in the name of “freedom to work”.
But for Marx, the motto of a capitalistic mindset towards all aspects of life ~ including the consideration of ecological questions (a topic rarely, if ever, addressed by his contemporaries) ~ was not freedom but Après moi le déluge! (“After us, the flood!”).
He believed that the reduction of the working day, together with the additional surplus of labour, constituted the first terrain upon which the class struggle would be fought. By 1862, Marx had chosen a title for his work: Capital. He thought he was ready to draft the final version but on top of overwhelming financial difficulties, he now also suffered significant health problems.
Nicknamed “the terrible disease”, by his wife Jenny, the remaining years of Marx’s life would be plagued by ill health. He suffered from carbuncles, a hideous infection that manifests itself as abscesses, ulcers and serious debilitating boils all over the body. Because of a deep ulcer, followed by the appearance of a large abscess, Marx underwent an operation and “for quite a time his life was in danger”.
His family was now, more than ever, on the brink of the abyss. Despite these adversities, the ‘Moor’ (his nickname) recovered and, at the end of December 1865, finished the first draft of what would become his magnum opus. Furthermore, in autumn 1864, he enthusiastically participated in the International Working Men’s Association, drafting, during eight intense years, all of its principal political documents. Studying by day in the library in order ensure the merit of his discoveries and working on his manuscript by night, Marx would submit himself to this exhausting daily routine until his body failed him.
By this time, Marx had reduced the size of his initial project from six to three volumes on capital, but he maintained the hope of publishing them together. In fact, he wrote to Engels: “I cannot bring myself to send anything off until I have the whole thing in front of me. Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole, and this can only be achieved through my practice of never having things printed until I have them in front of me in their entirety”.
Marx’s dilemma, to “do a fair copy of part of the manuscript and send it to the publisher, or finish writing the whole thing first”, was fortuitously solved by carbuncles. Marx was taken by yet another attack, this time the most violent he had ever had, and found himself close to death. He later told Engels that it was “a close shave this time”; the doctor told him that the reason for the attack was excessive work, particularly his late night’s work vigils.
After this alarming event, Marx decided to concentrate only on his first book, The Process of Production of Capital. Nevertheless, the carbuncles continued to torment him and for entire weeks, Marx was not well enough to be seated. In this desperate state, he even tried to operate on himself using a well-sharpened razor. He later told Engels that he could “lance ‘the cur’ all by himself ”. Much to Marx’s disappointment, the completion of his work was delayed not by “theoretical considerations” but because of “physical and bourgeois reasons”.
When in April 1867, the manuscript was finally finished and Marx was ready to travel to Germany to have the book published, he asked a friend from Manchester, who had helped him constantly for 20 years, – to send him money so that he could free his “clothes and timepiece from their abode at the pawnbroker’s”. Marx survived with only the essentials without which he could not leave for Germany, where his manuscript would be published. The corrections of the drafts took the remainder of the summer and when Engels observed that the exposition of the idea of “Value-form” was too abstract and had “the marks of the carbuncles rather firmly stamped on it”, Marx responded: “I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day”.
Capital went on sale on 14 September 1867. One century and a half after its publication, it has become one of the most translated, sold and discussed works in the story of humanity. For those who wish to understand capitalism, and also why workers must fight for a “superior form of society whose fundamental principle is the full and free development of each individual”, Marx’s Capital is, now more than ever, an indispensable work.
The writer is Associate Professor of Sociological Theory, Department of Sociology, York University, Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected]. com. The link to his website is www.marcellomusto.org