Marx’s Capital in the 21st century

On April 14, 2015, in Pittsburgh, Pa., demonstrators march for $15 per hour. Photo: Keith Srakocic / AP Photo
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2005 cover art of Marx for Der Spiegel magazine. Credit: Braldt Bralds

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Volume I of Marx’s Capital, a book with the most profound impact on human society of any political work in history. Marxist economic analysis has inspired the freedom struggles of billions of people.

By the 1990s, however, the profit system was staging a comeback in the USSR and China, thanks to decades of Western hostility from the outside and bureaucratic repression and betrayal from within. Socialism was passé; capitalism was the pinnacle of human development. As the world continued to change rapidly — with computers, robotics, the World Bank, hedge funds — Karl Marx seemed even more anachronistic.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the dustbin of history. The global devastation of the 2008 Great Recession underlined accelerating poverty and inequality. It showed that the capitalist monster may have changed its spots, but it was still vicious and hardwired for explosion. Capital turns out to have everything to say to rebels of the 21st century.

Ruthless criticism of all that exists. The mid-1800s, when Marx developed his economic theories, was a period with many similarities to ours. People were outraged at injustice, destitution, state violence, the lack of civil rights, and heavy taxation due to governmental debt, conditions caused at that time by the rise of industrial capitalism and the oppressive remnants of feudalism.

In 1848, a revolutionary wave surged across Europe. But the outcome was a series of defeats that left workers and radicals beaten down and believing the capitalist rulers were invincible. Striving to understand why the revolts were crushed and what victory would require, Marx began the economic studies that would occupy the rest of his life.

Before Marx, socialist thought was dominated by utopianism. This was the dream of an ideal society which only had to be imagined “to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power,” as Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels wrote. In contrast, Marx and Engels took a scientific approach. Rather than springing from ungrounded wishes and hopes, Marxism analyzes what actually exists in the social and material world.

In his introduction to the first volume of his seminal work, Marx says, “It is the ultimate aim of this work to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society, i.e., capitalist, bourgeois society.” He was embarking on the ultimate “know thy enemy” campaign.

Capital begins with the individual cell of the capitalist organism: the commodity (an object made to be sold). Marx explains step by step the process by which human labor-power adds economic value to commodities above and beyond the owner’s costs. And he shows how this process inherently steals from the worker. If you know in your gut that you are being robbed at work even though you get a paycheck, Marx demonstrates logically why you are absolutely correct.

Marx laid out how capitalist economy would unavoidably suffer periodic crises worsening over time while the general rate of profit would slow. These factors would drive the ruling class to take from workers an ever greater share of the wealth they produce. The environment would be despoiled. Economic inequality and poverty would grow drastically. Small business owners and family farmers would lose their livelihoods.

In short, Marx predicted conditions today, with nearly half of the world’s population living on less than $2.50 a day. His analysis also showed that there is no possibility of bringing into being a kinder, gentler profit system, because every capitalist is subject to a brutal, take-no-prisoners law of competition.

Class consciousness to the rescue. Marx wrote his analysis when the industrial revolution was just setting capitalism on its feet. He foresaw the inevitable globalization of the profit system, and concluded that it was then that its nature would be most fully expressed. With the advent of computerization, instant communication, and an international division of production and distribution, the “free market” became truly a world phenomenon.

From the start, capitalism was set on a trajectory leading to the growth of monopolies, dominance of finance capital (banks, stock markets, etc.), and hyper-concentration of wealth. Case in point: over the last several decades, all the additional wealth created by increased labor productivity has gone into the pockets of the owning class, while the share going to the workers has fallen. Capital is even more a book for our time than for the moment in time it was written, because capitalism has grown into a full-blown system dominating the planet.

Perhaps most of all, this is a book for the 21st century because of how desperately people seeking change in our time need to understand class.

This is a time of anger and revolt, but resistance is fractured. The clannish mentality of identity politics too often prevails, traceable ultimately to the racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” fostered by the ruling class to divide and conquer. But the Black activist fighting police brutality, the Trump supporter frustrated with job conditions in a “right to work” state, the teenager who slings hamburgers by day and is an environmental warrior by night: if they all depend on a paycheck to survive, they share much more than they may know. The beauty of Capital is that by understanding its ideas we can come to understand our common exploitation and the power that we have in fighting back together.

More than ever, those who believe a better world is possible need Marx. Scientific socialism offers a reality-based understanding of how capitalism works and the relationships among the people trapped in its net. This makes it possible to develop an effective plan of attack, including, for example, the need for revolutionary parties.

Capital is not an easy read for current generations. But take heart. Marx was writing for the average educated worker of his time, not the ivory tower elite. The early sections are challenging. Once grasped, however, they lay the foundation for an understanding of everything from the meaning of the fight over the length of the working day to why robots are displacing human employees.

David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital is one of several excellent reading guides to Volume I, the most famous and fundamental of the three-volume series. And Freedom Socialist Party educational retreats have developed a detailed introduction to the Marxist analytical method and a study plan for Volume I; click here to see it.

The best way to tackle Capital is in a group. If you would like help setting up a study circle, get in touch! And, before too many more anniversaries go by, let’s realize the potential of this amazing book as a tool for winning a liberating future.

Send feedback to Susan Williams, doctors’ union organizer and student and teacher of Marxist economics, at

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