Why Read Marx’s Capital

To some anarchists and orthodox Marxists it might seem odd for the Anarchist Federation to be coordinating a reading and discussion group on Marx’s Capital, after all Marxism and anarchism have had a fraught history at times and there are still tensions in theory and praxis today. But Marxism isn’t Leninism, and Marx isn’t Marxism. There wasn’t always such a clear distinction, either; as Ben Franks has recently well explained in the 19th century and even into the early twentieth century anarchism and communism were often almost interchangeable terms, while it was common to see socialist groups selling pamphlets by Kropotkin alongside those by Marx. The Anarchist Federation stands in a tradition of anarchist communism, and it’s our belief that while we would never claim one thinker offered the True Path to our liberation, there is much we can learn from Marx’s analysis of the history and dynamics of capitalism.

Marx wrote capital to put a weapon in the hands of the working class, as the Autonomist Marxist Harry Cleaver says in his guide to volume one of Capital “by reading Capital as a political document, workers could study in depth the various ways in which the capitalist class sought to dominate them as well as the methods they themselves used to struggle against that domination.” It is in that spirit of the unification of theory and practice and concrete political analysis that I read Marx’s work.

Bourgeois economics is written broadly for two purposes: firstly to guide individual capitalist investment in order to maximise returns, and secondly to aid policy makers in government (“the  committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”) as they attempt to maintain the stability and overall growth of the system. Whilst it is vital that we understand the workings of the economy on a superficial, bourgeois level, we must also recognise that politically it is not designed for our goals. Our aim should not be to find the policies which will ‘fix’ capitalism’s crises and externalities, but to understand its fundamental workings in order to purposefully deconstruct it.

So while the details of production processes and management have changed dramatically since Marx wrote Capital, the social relations that undergird capitalist society are at heart the same as they were in 19th century England. “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity.” The first sentence of Capital Volume 1 holds true today as it did then. Society is governed by social relations particular to the capitalist mode of production: the commodity, value, wage labour, exchange, the state, and so on. These are forms which bourgeois political economy takes as assumed, natural, omnipresent in all societies; Marx’s examination shows this to be a facade, these forms are specific to capitalism, have understandable consequences, can be altered and indeed must be altered if we wish to move beyond capitalism.

Marx offers us a methodology to understand the political, social and economic makeup of our world. It is a methodology which is materialist and political. We may have disagreements over the specific conclusions we draw, in terms of understanding particular crises or deciding a response, but the framework offers us a more solid foundation on which to make those decisions than we have without it. At a time when so much of the left is retreating in vulgar Keynesianism offering us reformist solutions destined to fail before they even have time to be recuperated by capital, Marx’s analysis is vital to ground a thorough critique on which we can build effective political action.

“Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system!”

Edinburgh Anarchist Federation begins a reading group for volume 1 of Marx’s Capital on Sunday June 30th. For more information email marx (at) edinburghanarchists (dot) noflag (dot) org (dot) uk.