150th Anniversary of Capital: Reading Francis Wheen’s Biography of Capital (Part I)

wheen-capitalAlthough I had read the three volumes of Capital, three parts of Theories of Surplus-Value, and Grundrisse over the course of my PhD research, all of them merit rereading and I ought to read Marx’s other works. Hence, given that 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Capital, Volume 1 (first published in 1867), I decided to commemorate it by reading a work of Marx I hadn’t read – Wage-Labour and Capital – and a short biography of Capital by Francis Wheen (2006). I shall present my commentary in two parts as it is too lengthy for one post. Part I is a commentary on Wheen 2006, and part II is on Wage-Labour and Capital.

Despite writing about Steuart, Smith, Ricardo, Sismondi, Malthus, Keynes, Sraffa, Krishna Bharadwaj and many others in several posts, I have dealt with Marx’s ideas exclusively only in one: ‘Is Marx (Ir)relevant?’. In the next year, I hope to write more on Marx’s economics. 

Wheen’s biography of Capital is just about 125 pages. Marx’s Das Capital: A Biography is a three chaptered book dealing with the gestation, birth, and afterlife of Das Capital.

Marx, the studious worker 

According to Wheen, ‘Marx’s character was a curious hybrid of ferocious self-confidence and anguished self-doubt’ (p. 3).  It was ‘only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature’ that Marx turned to the study of political economy (p. 7). At the age of seventeen, Marx precociously wrote in a schoolboy essay: “Our relations in society have to some extent already begun to be established before we are in a position to determine them” (p. 8). [Wheen’s excerpts from Marx which I quote are in “double quotes” and those by Wheen are in ‘single quotes’.]

The reader gets to appreciate Marx’s style of studying from Wheen’s scattered references across the book. Marx had the habit of noting down extracts from all the books he read while at the university. And he read widely. As Wheen writes, ‘This is the same eclectic, omnivorous and often tangential style of research which gave Das Capital its extraordinary breadth of reference’ (pp. 10-11). His use of dialectic is influenced by his early study of Hegel’s (1770–1831) ‘pursuit of contradictions’. He had taken the idea that ‘people create the constitution’ from Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), the German philosopher; Feuerbach had argued that ‘thought arises from being, and not being from thought’ (p. 13). Therefore, humans have to assert themselves as subjects and not as mere objects of capitalism. And to thoroughly engage with the land question, Marx thought it ‘essential to study Russian land-owning relationships from primary sources’ (p. 37). Marx’s data sources included ‘newspapers, parliamentary commissions, factory inspectors and copies of Hansard’ (p. 51); Hansard contains ‘edited verbatim report of proceedings of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords’. Marx’s data on child labourers were taken from English match factory records. [On the importance of using a wider set of data, see English for Economists: Sowvendra’s ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’.]

Already well versed in German Philosophy and French politics, Marx set out to educate himself in British economics. As he went along, he kept taking copious notes. These notes, which formed the early rough draft of Das Capital, are commonly known as the Paris manuscripts, published as Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (available for under Rs. 200 from Aakar Books and freely available at Marxists.org).

Marx worked extremely hard. He spent most of 1850-1 in the British Museum reading past issues of The Economist and books on economics. He sat in the Museum’s reading room from 9 AM to 7 PM. In the winter of 1857-8, he used to sit in his study until about 4 AM. When he realised that his ‘rudimentary arithmetic’ would prove inadequate in his economic studies, he undertook a ‘quick revision course in algebra’ (p. 27). Marx felt that his study of algebra was necessary “for the benefit of the public”. His ‘nocturnal scribblings’, as Wheen describes them, running to more than 800 pages were published in German in 1953 entitled Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie (popularly known today as simply Grundrisse). And the notes he took in 1862 and 1863 filled more than 1500 pages (p. 32); this was posthumously published as Theories of Surplus-value.

Marx’s intellectual corpus in political economy 

Here is a succinct timeline of Marx’s key works in political economy. At the same time, this is also a timeline of how Marx’s thinking evolved to culminate in Capital.

1844: Paris Manuscripts/Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 {notes; posthumously published}

1847: Wage-Labour and Capital {lectures; published as a set of articles in 1849}

1848: Communist Manifesto (political pamphlet; with Engels)

1857-8: Grundrisse {notes; posthumously published}

1859: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy {Marx’s first book}

1862-3: Theories of Surplus-Value {notes; posthumously published}

1865: Value, Price and Profit {speech; posthumously published}

1867: Capital, vol. 1 {Marx’s second book} (second edition in 1873)

The first manuscript in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 begins with the following sentences: “Wages are determined by the fierce struggle between capitalist and worker. The capitalist inevitable wins. The capitalist can live longer without the worker than the worker can without him” (p. 14). This struggle is also found in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In capitalism, Marx writes that, productivity rises by transforming the worker’s “lifetime into working time, and … [by dragging] his wife and child beneath the juggernaut of capital” (p. 15).

Marx’s ‘first small book’ is A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. It was first published in 1859 (in German). [I took the phrase “the first small book” from Maurice Dobb’s introduction to the 1979 English translation brought out by Progress Publishers.] Marx had earlier intended to call Das Capital ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Volume II’ (p. 33). It was Engels who compiled, edited, and published volumes II and III of Capital in 1885 and 1905 respectively; see Regina Roth’s work which argues that these interventions were often significant. The Theories of Surplus-Value, sometimes called volume IV of Capital, was published by Karl Kautsky in 1905.

 Capital: key ideas

In capitalism, commodity carries a specific meaning. Even today, a commodity, at the first sight, appears to be a ‘trivial thing’ (p. 42). Fetishism is the ‘belief that commodities have some mystical intrinsic value’ (p. 43). Instead, the value of commodities, for Marx, owes to the value labour provides. The wages of the workers are determined by subsistence wages, a social and cultural variable unlike in neoclassical (more accurately, marginalist) economics where it is determined by the marginal product of labour (and is a labour clearing wage, that is, there is full employment of labour). Subsistence wages includes ‘education and training’ (p. 49). As Wheen writes, ‘Marx has no illusions about the supposedly sacred symmetry of the law of supply and demand’ (p. 55) which is central to marginalist economics. Indeed, as Wheen notes, ‘The only difference from previous epochs is the guile with which the robbery is concealed from the victims’ (p. 50).

The relation between technological progress and better living standards or higher wages is not as straightforward as in the marginalist growth models of Solow and Romer. In contrast to these models, Marx concludes that greater the productivity, greater is the labour unemployment (p. 56). Thus, Marx writes, “It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse” (p. 57). For Marx, poverty “is about the crushing of the human spirit” (p. 58). In an article published in the New York Review of Books, Jeff Madrick observes: “people of all racial and ethnic groups are losing confidence in the core American principle that hard work is a means to upward mobility.” And as Wheen notes, ‘The average British employee now puts in 80,224 hours over his or her working life, as against 69,000 hours in 1981. … many people have no time for anything beyond labour and sleep’ (p. 59). The effects of technological progress or rising productivity has been very uneven.

What causes crises in capitalism? According to Marx, “The last cause of all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses” relative to private investment (p. 61). This key idea resurfaced with vigour in the twentieth century in the seminal works of Michal Kalecki and John Maynard Keynes.

Capital’s afterlife 

In the Preface to Capital, Marx writes, “I assume, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself” (pp. 82-3). Undoubtedly, since its first publication, Capital has enabled many individuals to know the capitalist order better. George Bernard Shaw articulates this view clearly: ‘Das Kapital achieved the greatest feat of which a book is capable – that of changing the minds of the people who read it’ (p. 90). However, the initial reception to its publication was ‘muted’. Wheen thinks that it was ‘sheer incomprehension’ and not ‘political enmity’ which explains the ‘muted reaction’ to the publication of Capital.

As Sir John MacDonnell wrote in the Fortnightly Review (March 1875): ‘People may do him the honour of abusing him; read him they do not! (p. 87). Resorting to an ‘authority’ for support without proper reasoning is always troubling. Wheen notes how during the 1917 Russian revolution, the ‘architects … all cited Marx, and Das Kapital in particular, as the divine authority for the correctness of their views’ (p. 98).

Unfortunately, mainstream economics still views income distribution as a harmonious process. That income distribution is a process characterised by conflict and power relations has been ignored, and perhaps even intentionally supressed. These ideas continue to be studied and researched by ‘heterodox’ economists working in the Classical, Marxian, and Keynesian traditions. And one must not confuse ‘new political economy’ with the political economy found in the works of Smith, Ricardo, and Marx. It is interesting to note that before the 2007 Global Financial Crisis, economists looked down upon ‘political economy’ but after the crisis, the number of mainstream economists who started doing ‘political economy’ rapidly increased.


Marx’s Capital remains one of the most insightful studies on capitalism. With all the strides in technological progress with respect to global value chains, transnational corporations, industry automation, etc., reading Marx’s Capital enables the reader to see the cells of the capitalist order – impoverished workers.

Let me end this post with Marx’s favourite motto (p. 101): ‘de omnibus dubitandum’ (‘everything should be doubted’).


I acknowledge Prasanth Radhakrishnan for his helpful comments.