Say what you want about life-threatening illness, but at least an extended spell of convalescence provides a chance to catch up on some serious reading. It is largely thanks to a summer spent in a sick bed that I got an uninterrupted shot at reading volume one of Marx’s Capital, cover to cover. It almost made a particularly virulent infection seem worthwhile.
I like to think that what I accomplished in those weeks was a real, if modest, achievement. Even though I subsequently petered out half way through volume two, I am reliably informed that I progressed further than the man who leads one of the larger Trot groups in this country.
The thing is, this was long ago. Not only does time inevitably erode the memory of the contents of books devoured in the past, but British capitalism as it is now has been decisively transformed from British capitalism as it was then.
Last year the realisation dawned on me that I badly needed to reread all 1,000 and something pages of the damn thing. Thankfully, the task was made considerably easier by the publication of David Harvey’s A companion to Marx’s Capital, which provides a running commentary chapter by chapter, backed up by video lectures online.
Unfortunately, the idea that Capital is readily accessible to a savvy worker without university-level education, is something of a romantic myth. Marx was a bloke with a PhD in philosophy, and while he wrote well by the standards of mid-Victorian didactic literature, he did not dumb down for a proletarian audience.
Accordingly, Capital is laden with references from ancient Greek and Roman literature to the prevalent ideas of 18th-century political economy. References that were current then are history now, of course. Even in the most recent translation, some of the sentences are undeniably too convoluted for modern tastes.
Taking everything step by step with Harvey’s explanation will make matters as painless as possible. Nevertheless, do not expect an easy time.
But whether you are a younger comrade coming to the book anew, or an old stager revisiting Marx’s seminal work, do put in the graft. You will be amply repaid with a greater insight into the sclerotic character of capitalism 150 years on, and the difficulties it faces if it is to secure compound accumulation in the period ahead. This cannot fail to inspire you; just maybe the masters of the universe are not sitting quite as pretty as they would like to believe.
Like many socialists, my understanding of Marxist economics has largely been based on the exegesis provided by commentators from Sweezy to Mandel and Harman. I could level criticisms at all three, but they deserve credit for digesting the material and offering it up as a commentary on modern developments.
Yet none of them beats the thrill of getting back to the source. What’s more, I was constantly surprised how well passages from the late 1850s describe contemporary globalisation. I was also struck by the clear continuity with the ideas developed by the younger Marx in his early writings, a point that was at one stage heavily contested within academic Marxism.
Sweatshops have switched from Burnley to Beijing, and they are nowadays churning out iPhones rather than textiles. But Marx’s dissection of being at the sharp end of the manufacturing process retains every bit of the bite it must have had when it was fresh off the press.
And undoubtedly, the political health of the Marxist left would be better if more self-professed Marxists took the trouble to discover what Marx actually said.
Ahmadinejad would have rather fewer fans among British socialists if big name theoreticians could recollect a little more of what they should have picked up from Eighteenth Brumaire.
As luck would have it, I am currently in need of minor surgery and I have an operation booked in for May, which will necessitate a week to 10 days off work. Once the anaesthetic wears off, my plan is to recommence volume two. While I am hardly looking forward to being ripped open with a scalpel, I can’t wait for the chance to get stuck into the next instalment.