5 January 2012

Capital, Volume 1: A Quest for a Secret

Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1, Part 0

First Edition, 1867

A Quest for a Secret

Capital, Volume 1

Next week, the Communist University begins posting a ten-part course on Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1. This will be the first of four ten-week courses to be run through this and its related e-mail channels in 2012. The first Johannesburg Communist University live session is scheduled to take place on 25 January 2012.

The course on Capital, Volume 1 will be followed by three further ten-week courses, on Capital Volumes 2 and 3, on The Classics, and last but not least, our course “No Woman, No Revolution”. This year’s courses therefore amount to a comprehensive run-through of the most fundamental texts of Marxism – all three volumes of Capital, plus the most salient of the other Marxist Classics, plus indispensable material on revolutionary women.

Karl Marx’s “Capital, Volume 1”, published in 1867, is the most outstanding product of a long project that Marx begun in the 1840s, when he was still a young man in his twenties.

Volume 2, edited by Marx’s lifelong comrade and intellectual collaborator Frederick Engels, was published two years after Marx’s death, in 1885. Volume 3 was published in 1894, one year before Engels’ death.

The entire project is a quest for a full explanation of what Marx called, at the end of Chapter 18 of Volume 1: The secret of the self-expansion of capital.”

This secret is what Marx called Surplus-Value, gained by purchasing the commodity Labour-Power at its full value, and then putting it to work and expropriating the entire product of the actual Labour expended. This constantly-repeated process sustains the otherwise unstable thing called Capital, rather as a table-tennis ball may be kept in the air by a fountain of water or of air.

In studying this book, it helps to be able to follow the development of Marx’s quest for “the secret of the self-expansion of capital” consciously.

Karl Marx’s thought did not spring forth fully-elaborated in one moment. Especially in the early years, Marx had to work very hard, and his quest was still work-in-progress when he died. All this is apparent from works produced prior to 1867, as much as from Volume 1 itself, and from the papers he left for Engels to put together for publication, up to the very last page the last chapter of Volume 3, which ends: “[Here the manuscript breaks off.]”.

Reading it as a quest, which it was, makes it more understandable.

The size of Capital, Volume 1

One challenge presented by Volume 1 is its uneven shape and large size. The Communist University’s method, strongly influenced by the work of Paulo Freire, relies on certain simple principles and practices. We discuss original texts. We use extracts from books to create “Short Texts” that can be used as Freirean “codifications”. The point is not to learn the work s if for an examination, but to have a discussion, and thereby to socialise our collective understanding of it.

In the case of “Capital”, this principle of discussion is no less crucial; but the huge size of the project made the search for “Short Texts” difficult. Please note that the source of all our texts for this series on Capital Volume 1 has been Marxists Internet Archive. You can consult that text to fill in any omissions you may find in the material presented.

The shape of Capital, Volume 1

Capital, Volume 1 contains 33 chapters. Most of them are short, but there are five long ones, starting with Chapter 1 (Commodities).  Chapter 3 (Money) is also long, as is Chapter 10 (The Working Day), Chapter 15 (Machinery and Modern Industry), and Chapter 25 (General Law of Capital Accumulation).

The structure of the book is deliberate, not accidental. Commodity is the right point of departure, and together with the subsequent two chapters on Exchange, and Money, it sets the scene for Chapters 4 and 5 which give the outline “General Formula for Capital”.

The remaining 28 chapters are a carefully-paced rolling out of the idea of Surplus-Value, with all its implications, in short, easy, and sometimes repetitive steps. Exceptions are Chapters 10, 15 and 25, which are “books within the book”. Yet these inner books are also part of the quest for “the secret of the self-expansion of capital”.

Consequent design of the CU series on “Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1

The above considerations led to the following decisions (which will be explained further in the introductions to the individual texts):

  • The series begins with Marx’s 1848 study-circle text called “Wage Labour and Capital”, and specifically with Engels’ 1891 Introduction to the first publication of that text, because it explains why Karl Marx worked for so many years on the question of Surplus-Value, a question that had not been fully answered in 1848, by anyone.
  • There are also two other texts showing the development of Marx’s work in the two decades prior to 1867. These help to get an overview of the main work, and should assist the reader/student to get a grasp of Karl Marx’s overall intention. One of these consists of parts from the 1848 “Communist Manifesto”. The other is extracts from Marx’s 1865 talk to workers called “Value, Price and Profit”.

The above three instalments constitute the first part of our ten-part course.

Capital Volume 1 itself is reduced, where necessary, in the following ways:

  • Some text is left out (i.e. “redacted”). This has been done with the third section of Chapter 1, with six of the ten sections in Chapter 15, and with part of Chapter 25.
  • Footnotes are sometimes left out. This is regrettable! The footnotes to “Capital” are a treasury of great worth. For this reason, wherever there is spare space in terms of working to multiples of four pages for printing purposes, footnotes have been retained.

Capital Volume 1 is then re-divided in the following ways:

  • Short Chapters are combined together.
  • Long Chapters are divided.
  • In one situation (Chapters 2 and 3) a chapter is divided and part of it is added to the previous chapter

The above results in a division of Capital Volume 1 into 20 parts, which are than divided in an appropriate way among the remaining 9 parts (weeks) of the course, with one main text in each part and the others given as alternative or additional reading.

So that we end up with a ten-week course – our standard CU course length. After completing Volume 1, we will follow on with a ten-week combined treatment of Capital, Volumes 2 and 3.

By completing this collective, co-operative reading of Marx’s Capital, you will join a relatively small group of people in this world who have actually read it all. You will know by then that it is an enjoyable work and not at all the terrifying thing that may at first appear to be.


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