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A Critique of Political Economy
(Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen ökonomie )

by Karl Marz
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes


Heinrich Karl Marx was born at Trèves, in Rhenish Prussia, May 5, 1818, and died in London, March 14, 1883. As a journalist and political commentator, Marx is seen as the founder of international socialism and 'Capital' has influenced the labour movement more than any other book.

Abridged: JH

For more works by Karl Marx, see The Index


I.-The Genesis of Capitalist Production

Money and commodities are not capital, any more than are the means of production and of subsistence. They need to be transformed into capital. This transformation can only take place under conditions that separate labourers from all property, and from the means by which they can realise the profits of their labour; that is to say, from the possession of their means of production. The process of this separation clears the way for the capitalist system.

The economic structure of capitalistic society has developed from the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former. The immediate producer, the labourer, could only dispose of his own person after he had ceased to be attached as a serf to the soil. Then, to be able to sell his labour wherever he could find a market, he must further have escaped from the mediæval guilds and their rules and regulations, as from so many fetters on labour. But these new freedmen, on the other hand, only thus made merchandise of their labour after they had been deprived of their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence furnished under the old feudalism. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in history in characters of blood and fire.

The industrial capitalists, the new potentates, had to displace not only the guild-masters of handicrafts, but also the feudal lords, who were in possession of the sources of wealth. But though the conquerors thus triumphed, they have risen by means as opprobrious as those by which, long before, the Roman freedman overcame his patronus. The servitude of the labourer was the starting point of the development which involved the rise of the labourer and the genesis of the capitalist. The form of this servitude was changed by the transformation of feudal exploitation into capitalist exploitation.

The inauguration of the capitalist era dates from the sixteenth century. The process consisted in the tearing of masses of men from their means of subsistence, to be hurled as free proletarians on the labour market. The basis of the whole process is the expropriation of the peasant from the soil. The history of this expropriation, differing in various countries, has the classic form only in England.

The prelude of the revolution which founded the capitalist mode of production was played at the beginning of the sixteenth century by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, "everywhere uselessly filled house and castle." The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars; the new was a child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheepwalks was therefore its cry, and an expropriation of small peasants was initiated which threatened the ruin of the country. Thornton declares that the English working-class was precipitated without any transition from its golden into its iron age.

To the evictions a direct impulse had been given by the rapid increase of the Flemish wool manufacturers and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England. At length such a deterioration ensued in the condition of the common people that Queen Elizabeth, on a journey through the land, exclaimed, "Pauper ubique jacet," and in the forty-third year of her reign the nation was constrained to acknowledge the terrible pauperism that had arisen by the introduction of the poor-rate.

Even in the last decade of the seventeenth century, the yeomanry, or independent peasants, outnumbered the farmers, and they formed the main strength of Cromwell's army. About 1750 the yeomen had vanished, and not long afterwards was lost the common land of the agricultural labourer.

Communal property was an old institution which had lived on under the ægis of feudalism. Under the "glorious revolution" which brought William of Orange to England, the landlord and capitalist appropriators of surplus value inaugurated the new era by thefts of land on a colossal scale. Thus was formed the foundation of the princely domains of the English oligarchy. In the eighteenth century the law itself became the instrument of the theft of the people's land, and the transformation of communal land into private property had for its sequel the parliamentary form of robbery in shape of the Acts for the Enclosure of Commons.

Immense numbers of the agricultural population were by this transformation "set free" as proletarians for the manufacturing industry.

After the foregoing consideration of the forcible creation of a class of outlawed proletarians, converted into wage-labourers, the question remains,-Whence came the capitalists originally? The capitalist farmer developed very gradually, first as a bailiff, somewhat corresponding to the old Roman villicus; then as a métaver, or semi-farmer, dividing stock and product with the landowner; next as the farmer proper, making his own capital increase by employing wage-labourers, and paying part of the profit to the landlord as rent. The agricultural revolution of the sixteenth century enriched the farmer in proportion as it impoverished the mass of the agricultural people. The continuous rise in the price of commodities swelled the money capital of the farmer automatically, and he grew rich at the expense both of landlord and labourer. It is thus not surprising that at the close of the sixteenth century England had a class of capitalist farmers who were wealthy, considering the conditions of the age.

II.-The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist

By degrees the agricultural population was transformed into material elements of variable capital. For the peasants were constrained, now that they had been expropriated and cast adrift, to purchase their value in the form of wages from their new masters, the industrial capitalists. So they were transformed into an element of constant capital.

Consider the case of Westphalian peasants who, in the time of Frederic II., were all spinners of flax, and were forcibly expropriated from the soil they had owned under feudal tenure. Some, however, remained and were converted into day-labourers for large farmers. At the same time arose large flax-spinning and weaving factories in which would work men who had been "set free" from the soil. The flax looks just the same as before, but a new social soul has entered its body, for it now forms a part of the constant capital of the master manufacturer.

The flax which was formerly produced by a number of families, who also spun it in retail fashion after growing it, is now concentrated in the establishment of a single capitalist, who employs others to spin and weave it for him. So the extra labour which formerly realised extra income to many peasant families now brings profit to a few capitalists. The spindles and the looms formerly scattered over the country are now crowded into great labour barracks. The machines and raw material are now transformed from means of independent livelihood for the peasant spinners and weavers into means for mastering them and extracting out of them badly-paid labour.

The genesis of the industrial capitalist did not proceed in such a gradual way as that of the farmer, for it was accelerated by the commercial demands of the new world-market created by the great discoveries of the end of the fifteenth century. The Middle Ages had handed down two distinct forms of capital-the usurer's capital and the merchant's capital. For a time the money capital formed by means of usury and commerce was prevented from conversion into industrial capital, in the country by feudalism, in the towns by the guilds. These hindrances vanished with the disappearance of feudal society and the expropriation and partial eviction of the rural population. The new manufactures were established at seaports, or at inland points beyond the control of the old municipalities and their guilds. Hence, in England arose an embittered struggle of the corporate towns against these new industrial nurseries.

The power of the state, concentrating and organising the force of society, hastened the transition, shortening the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode.

The next development of the capitalist era was the rise of the stock exchange and the great banks. The latter were at first merely associations of private speculators, who, in exchange for privileges bestowed on them, advanced money to help the governments. The Bank of England, founded in 1684, began by lending money to the government at eight per cent. At the same time it was empowered by parliament to coin money out of the same capital, by lending it again to the public in the form of bank-notes.

By degrees the Bank of England became the eternal creditor of the nation, and so arose the national debt, together with an international credit system, which has often concealed one or other of the sources of primitive accumulation of this or that people. One of the main lines of international business is the lending out of enormous amounts of capital by one country to another. Much capital which to-day appears in America without any certificate of birth, was yesterday in England, the capitalised blood of her children.

Terrible cruelty characterised much of the development of industrial capitalism, both on the Continent and in England. The birth of modern industry is heralded by a great slaughter of the innocents. Like the royal navy, the factories were recruited by the press-gang. Cottages and workhouses were ransacked for poor children to recruit the factory staffs, and these were forced to work by turns during the greater part of the night. As Lancashire was thinly populated and great numbers of hands were suddenly wanted, thousands of little hapless creatures, whose nimble little fingers were especially wanted, were sent down to the north from the workhouses of London, Birmingham, and other towns. These apprentices were flogged, tortured, and fettered. The profits of manufacturers were enormous. At length Sir Robert Peel brought in his bill for the protection of children.

With the growth of capitalist production during the manufacturing period the public conscience of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame, and the nations cynically boasted of every infamy that reinforced capitalistic accumulation. Liverpool waxed fat on the slave trade. The child-slavery in the European manufactories needed for its pedestal the slavery, pure and simple, of the negroes imported into America. If money, according to Marie Augier, "comes into the world with a congenital bloodstain on one cheek," capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

III.-Commodities, Exchange and Capital

A commodity is an object, external to ourselves, which by its properties in some way satisfies human wants. The utility of a thing constitutes its use-value. Use-values of commodities form the substance of all wealth, and also become the material repositories of exchange-value. The magnitude of the value of any article is determined by the labour-time socially necessary for its production. So the value of a commodity would remain constant if the labour-time required for its production also remained constant. But the latter varies with every variation in the productiveness of labour.

An article may have use-value, and yet be without value, if its utility is not due to labour, as in the case of air, or virgin soil, or natural meadows. If a thing be useless, so is the labour contained in it, for, as the labour does not count as such, it therefore creates no value. A coat is worth twice as much as ten yards of linen, because the linen contains only half as much labour as the coat. All labour is the expenditure of human labour-power in a special form and with a definite aim, and in this, its character of concrete useful labour, it produces use-values.

Everyone knows, if he knows nothing else, that commodities have a value form common to them all, and presenting a marked contrast with the varied bodily forms of their use-values. I mean their money form.

Every owner of a commodity wishes to part with it in exchange for other commodities, but only those whose use-value satisfies some want of his. To the owner of a commodity, every other commodity is, in regard to his own, a particular equivalent. Consequently his own commodity is the universal equivalent for all others. But, since this applies to every owner, there is, in fact, no commodity acting as a universal equivalent. It was soon seen that a particular commodity would not become the universal equivalent except by a social act. The social action, therefore, has set apart the particular commodity in which all values are represented, and the bodily form of this commodity has become the form of the socially recognised universal equivalent-money.

The first chief function of money is to supply commodities with the material for the expression of their values. It thus serves as a universal measure of value, and only by virtue of this function does gold, the commodity par excellence, become money. But money itself has no price. As the measure of value and the standard of price, money has two distinct functions to perform. It is the measure of value inasmuch as it is the socially recognised incarnation, of human labour; it is the standard of price inasmuch as it is a fixed weight of metal. As the measure of value it serves to convert the values of all the various commodities into prices or imaginary quantities of gold. As the standard of price it measures those quantities of gold.

The word pound was the money-name given to an actual pound weight of silver. When, as a measure of value, gold superseded silver, the word pound became, as a money-name, differentiated from the same word as a weight-name. The prices, or quantities of gold, into which the values of commodities are ideally changed are now expressed in the names of coins, or in the legally valid names of the subdivisions of the gold standard. Hence, instead of saying, "A quarter of wheat is worth an ounce of gold," the English would say, "It is worth £3 17s. 10½d." In this fashion commodities express by their prices how much they are worth, and money serves as money of account whenever it is a question of fixing the value of an article in its money-form. When Anarcharsis was asked for what purpose the Greeks used money, he replied, "For reckoning."

Every labourer in adding new labour also adds new value. In what way? Evidently, only by labouring productively in a particular way: the spinner by his spinning, the weaver by his weaving, the smith by his forging. Each use-value disappears, only to reappear under a new form in some new use-value. By virtue of its general character, as being expenditure of human labour-power in the abstract, spinning adds a new value to the values of cotton and spindle. On the other hand, by virtue of its special character, as being a concrete, useful process, the same labour of spinning both transfers the values of the means of production to the product and preserves them in the product. Hence at one and the same time there is produced a twofold result.

By the simple addition of a certain quantity of labour, new value is added, and by the quality of this added labour the original values of the means of production are preserved in the product. That part of capital which is represented by means of production, by the raw material, auxiliary material, and the instruments of labour, does not, in the process of production, undergo any quantitative alteration of value. I therefore call it the constant part of capital, or, more briefly, constant capital.

On the other hand, that part of capital represented by labour-power does, in the process of production, undergo an alteration of value. It both reproduces the equivalent of its own value, and also produces an excess, a surplus value, which may itself vary. This part of capital is continually being transformed from a constant into a variable magnitude. I therefore call it the variable part of capital, or, shortly, variable capital.

IV.-Accumulation of Capital

The first condition of the accumulation of capital is that the capitalist must have contrived to sell his commodities, and to re-convert the greater portion of the money thus received into capital. Whatever be the proportion of surplus-value which the industrial capitalist retains for himself or yields up to others, he is the one who, in the first instance, appropriates it.

The process of production incessantly converts material wealth into capital, into means of creating more wealth and means of enjoyment for the capitalist. On the other hand, the labourer, on quitting the process, is nothing more than he was when he began it. He is a source of wealth, but has not the slightest means of making wealth his own. The product of the labourer is incessantly converted not only into commodities, but into capital, into means of subsistence that buy the labourer, and into means of production that command the producers.

The capitalist as constantly produces labour-power; in short, he produces the labourer, but as a wage-labourer. This incessant reproduction, this perpetuation of the labourer, is the sine qua non of capitalist production.

From a social point of view, the working-class is just as much an appendage of capital as the ordinary instruments of labour. The appearance of independence is kept up by means of a constant change of employers, and by the legal fiction of a contract. In former times capital legislatively enforced its proprietary rights over the free labourer.

Capitalist production reproduces and perpetuates the condition for exploiting the labourer. The economical bondage of the labourer is both caused and hidden by the periodic sale of himself to changing masters. Capitalist production, under its aspect of a continuous connected process, produces not only commodities, not only surplus value, but it also produces and reproduces the capitalist relation; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer.

Capital pre-supposes wage-labour, and wage-labour pre-supposes capital. One is a necessary condition to the existence of the other. The two mutually call each other into existence. Does an operative in a cotton-factory produce nothing but cotton goods? No, he produces capital. He produces values that give fresh command over his labour, and that, by means of such command, create fresh values.

Every individual capital is a larger or smaller concentration of means of production, with a corresponding command over a larger or smaller labour-army. Every accumulation becomes the means of new accumulation. The growth of social capital is affected by the growth of many individual capitals.

With the accumulation of capital, therefore, the number of capitalists grows to a greater or less extent. Two points characterise this kind of concentration which grows directly out of, or rather is identical with, accumulation. First, the increasing concentration of the social means of production in the hands of individual capitalists is, other things remaining equal, limited by the degree of increase of social wealth. Secondly, the part of social capital domiciled in each particular sphere of production is divided among many capitalists who face one another as independent commodity-producers competing with each other.

Accumulation and the concentration accompanying it are, therefore, not only scattered, but the increase of each functioning capital is thwarted by the formation of new and the subdivision of old capitals. Accumulation, therefore, presents itself on the one hand as increasing concentration of the means of production and of the command over labour; on the other, as repulsion of many individual capitalists one from another.

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