Vol. XLIII No. 16 April 21, 2019
Das Kapital, An Immortal Work of Everlasting Relevance - 2

Venkatesh Athreya


CAPITAL can be read in different sequences depending on the reader’s interest and inclination. Readers who enjoy a historical account may begin with the last part of the first volume of Capital that deals with the process of ‘primary’ or ‘primitive’ accumulation of capital. This part, in eight crisp chapters of vivid prose, explains how the capitalist mode of production emerged and how the main classes of this mode of production emerged on the historical stage in the country of birth of modern capitalism, namely England of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Particularly striking is the chapter on the historical tendency of the capitalist mode of production which contains the following brilliant description of the logical end of this mode:

…..as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. (Capital, Volume I, pp 762-763). Brilliant and in some ways evocative of contemporary capitalism as this description is,  the actual development of capitalist social formations – as opposed to the immanent tendency of the theoretical construct of the ‘capitalist mode of production’ – has been somewhat different. An important part of the explanation for this difference rests, of course, with the rise of imperialism as an integral part of the evolution of capitalism.

The tenth chapter entitled ‘The Working Day’ will be especially relevant for militants in the third world countries such as India where the length of the working day still varies greatly across industries and sectors, and is generally unconscionably long. This chapter covers a vast ground of concrete history with a constant focus on the basic class question at hand, namely the struggle between the insatiable appetite of capital for surplus value and the gradually emerging resistance of the working class to gross exploitation. Here is the core idea of this chapter in Marx’s own words:

The establishment of a normal working-day is the result of centuries of struggle between capitalist and labourer. The history of this struggle shows two opposed tendencies…While the modern Factory Acts compulsorily shortened the working-day, the earlier statutes tried to lengthen it by compulsion…..It takes centuries ere the “free” labourer, thanks to the development of capitalistic production agrees, i.e., is compelled by social conditions, to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity for work, for the price of the necessaries of life, his birthright for a mess of pottage. (Capital, Volume I, pp. 270-271)

As he brings the chapter on the working day to a close, Marx reminds us of the crucial transformation that occurs once the worker has entered into an employment contract with the capitalist and entered the work premises, and its implications for the working class:

It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the production process other than he entered. In the market, he stood as the owner of the commodity “labour power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent”, that the time for which he is free to sell his labour power is the time for which he is forced to sell it…the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day…( Capital, Volume I, pp.301-302)

Engineers, technologists and working people in modern industry will find absolutely fascinating Marx’s treatment in the first volume of Capital, of cooperation, of division of labour and manufacture, and of machinery and modern industry. But Marx does something far more remarkable. He never loses sight of the larger context within which the technical discussion has to be placed so that it can be correctly understood. That context is one of social and historical transformation, and of the contradictory effects of scientific and technological advance under the capitalist mode of production, especially the deleterious impact of mechanisation on the worker under capitalism. In an overall positive summing up of the historical role of modern industry, Marx makes the following important observations:

Modern industry never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within the society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of workpeople from one branch of production to another. But if modern industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer, on the other hand, in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularisations. We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous, We have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity. This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.

(Capital, Volume I, pp. 486-488)