Das Kapital And Contemporary Capitalism
Karl Marx

Part III

PART -    I


Following a brief overview of Marx's Magnum Opus (Part I) and an assessment of the relevance/usefulness of its key findings in understanding contemporary capitalism (Part II), in this concluding part we discuss the genesis and transcendence of capital as depicted in Capital in light of the elementary Marxist understanding of societal change in general.

From Manifesto to Capital, one central theme stands out in bold relief: the inherently contradictory and transitory nature of capitalism, with labour playing a historic role in overthrowing the rule of capital. On one hand, capitalism is incomparably more dynamic compared to the previous modes of production in terms of technological innovation and enhancement in the productivity of labour– so much so, that for the first time in history it is now objectively possible to entirely meet the material and cultural needs of all human beings. On the other hand, the fruits of this ginormous advancement are privately appropriated by a handful of capitalists and therefore cannot serve the cause of social welfare, while the increasingly discriminatory wealth explosion goes hand in hand with perpetual dehumanisation of labour, precarious degradation of the environment, and alarming exhaustion of the fertility of soil and all kinds of natural resources including clean water. There is only one way out of this quandary: to bring the means of production under social ownership and management, put in place an equitable system of distribution of income social resources and start building up, on the achievements of the capitalist era, a classless society – "an association in which the development of each is a condition of the development of all". This is what the CM declared.

In Capital, Marx shows us how this is going to happen. Basing himself on the historiography he had already developed, which he called the "guiding thread of my studies" and which we take as our entry point in this part of our discussion, he portrays the emergence (genesis) and the collapse (transcendence) of capital with an array of evidence and force of logic that makes the treatise really ‘unputdownable’ even 150 years after its publication.

Social Transformations: Why, How and When

In his Preface to An Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) Marx gives a brilliantly concise formulation of the dialectical and materialist conception of history, which explains how human society in general changes through evolution and revolution, and also serves as a guide to studying any particular mode of production/social formation.

“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production1 which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces2 . The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. …

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonisms, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individuals; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. [tooltip text="The true history of humans begins in full glory only in socialism — with society at last rid of age-old antagonisms, with people no longer branded and separated by class identities – and viewed from that vantage point, the entire range from slavery to capitalism is but a prehistory of classes and class struggle."]This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of society[/tooltip] 3 to a close.”

Here we have a general outline (variations in specific cases being presumed) of the major stages or "epochs" human society has so far passed through. The main takeaway: society moves forward from one mode of production to another, higher mode when, from being “forms of development of productive forces”, production relations “turn into their fetters” and the room for continued development of the “forces” within that mode, that social order, gets exhausted. Then begins an “epoch” (mark the protractedness implied here) of revolution. Thus it was that bourgeois revolutions in Europe took place when the old feudal production relations (typically characterised by lords and serfs, guild-masers and journeyman artisans) proved too narrow for the further growth of productive forces, such as plant and machinery geared to mass production. And now the same thing happens with bourgeois production relations, which hamper the continued development of productive forces.

The Rise and Fall of Capitalism

The Genesis: Primitive Accumulation

Long before the appearance of capitalism, production for exchange and trade – that is, commodity production – existed and was developing alongside production for direct use in ancient slave society and feudal society. From this developed money and merchant’s capital, the earliest form of capital. Money and commerce acted as a solvent, breaking down the old societies, but the root cause underlying the dissolution of feudalism was the inability of the feudal mode of production to develop the productive forces beyond a point. The preeminence of the capitalist mode of production, however, needed two basic conditions. First, accumulation of wealth in a few hands to serve as initial capital – this was taken care of by commerce, piracy and pillage. Second, working people free to sell their labour power for wages and at the same time ‘free’ from any other means of earning a living. As Marx points out:

"The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realise their labour.” This is ensured by means of “a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage labourers.” This “historical process... appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital...” (Capital, Volume I, Chapter 26).

The separation, however, is not completely achieved in one stroke. Petty production lingers on even under capitalism and the process of separating the labouring people from the means of production has to be continued or "reproduced” again and again: "As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains the separation, but reproduces it on a continually extending scale.” (ibid, emphasis added). In a mature capitalist economy this is achieved mainly through the market mechanism, but occasionally, particularly in periods of crisis/stagnation, barbaric extra-economic coercion is also utilized for overcoming barriers to normal market-mediated capital accumulation. In semi-feudal/backward capitalist countries, where market forces by themselves are not powerful enough to complete the “separation” by overcoming the petty producers’ resistance born of their economic and cultural attachment to their means of production and subsistence (e.g., peasants’ dependence on land, landless villagers’ dependence not only on common pastures, but on various indigenous or alternative occupations related to agriculture, forest dwellers’ dependence on forests), capital aided by the state takes recourse to the cruder methods of primitive accumulation quite often.

“The history of this expropriation,” says Marx, “in different countries, assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods.” (ibid). Among all these, the most important are "those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour market....” (ibid). Even “law itself becomes... the instrument of the theft of the people’s land” (Vol. I, Chapter 27), as we have seen again and again in our country.

Marx also takes note of various other forms/levers of primitive accumulation such as “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in the mines of the aboriginal population”, slave trade, piracy, pillage of colonies by European powers, “the system of public credit, i.e., of national debts” (governments taking loans from members of the public as treasury bonds), the “international credit system ...”, etc. and points out the basic commonality: “... they all employ the power of the state....” (Vol. I, Chapter 31)

Over the 150 years that separates us from Capital, numerous new methods of primitive accumulation have appeared on the horizon, giving birth to a rich Marxist literature on the topic. Among these contributions, special mention must be made of David Harvey's formulation of "accumulation by dispossession" – "the continuation and proliferation" of primitive accumulation in very many forms including commodification of all kinds of land and eviction of peasants. And as the recent Indian experience shows, when primitive accumulation returns in the era of, and as an instrument of, neo-liberal globalization, it does so with a vengeance, with overt and covert involvement of the international agencies of finance capital.

Prognosis: Expropriation of Expropriators

In Chapter 32 of Volume I Marx concludes his analysis of “the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation” (as this chapter is titled) and sort of sums up the results of the whole studywith a profound prognosis showing why the collapse of capitalism is inevitable:

“…… As soon as4 this process of transformation [“the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labour,” which “comprises a series of forcible methods”, i.e., primitive accumulation – A Sen] has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, 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 co-operative 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 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.” (Vol. I, Chapter 32)

Marx goes on to connect the two opposite processes of expropriation, thereby summing up the whole thing in terms of a very important law of dialectics:

“The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisition of the capitalist era: i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.” (ibid)

Class Struggle: The Driving Power of History

The above are probably the most-quoted and also, unfortunately, the most misunderstood/misinterpreted passages from Capital. A good many commentators, failing to grasp the dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in this great work, and even refusing to see the crucial role clearly assigned to “the revolt of the working class”, read into these a vulgar economic determinism, a doctrine of automatic collapse of capitalism propelled by its intrinsic contradictions. But this is going against the grain of Marxism as a philosophy of class struggle. To be sure, Capital is focused on the objective maturing of economic conditions for the downfall of capitalism, but even here Marx does not forget to introduce the subjective factor – the revolt of labour against capital – as the necessary mediating link for actualizing that possibility. After all, why did Marx and Engels work tirelessly for organizing and educating the working class – at home and on an international plane – if not out of the conviction that on this depended the destruction of capitalism? As they wrote in 1879.

“For almost forty years we have stressed the class struggle as the immediate driving power of history, and in particular the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat as the great lever of the modern social revolution … When the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working classes themselves”.5

Epilogue: Lenin's Imperialism and Subsequent Contributions

In Capital and also in his New York Tribune articles Marx discussed imperial/colonial plunder, primarily as a means of primitive accumulation on the part of metropolitan capital, and also its impact on the colonies. Exactly half a century after the publication of Volume I of Capital, was published Lenin's classic work Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. It described a new stage in the evolution of capitalism and in that sense could be read as a sequel to Capital, although Lenin himself never claimed that.

As Lenin points out, before the rise of joint-stock companies and monopolies, capitalism was based on scattered, unplanned production carried on by a growing number of enterprises owned by individuals or partnership firms, the parallel process of centralization notwithstanding. Such was the situation when Capital was written. Since the closing decades of the 19th century the world saw a big leap in concentration and more important, centralisation of capital, which signified a tremendous rise in the degree of socialization of production and labour, but the surplus value or profit generated by that labour continued to be appropriated privately, and that too by fewer (monopolistic) concerns. In other words, by the time Imperialism was written, capitalism had reached its monopoly stage, marked by spectacular but extremely uneven, lopsided growth and pronounced decay (see box).

“Monopolies, oligarchy, the striving for domination and not for freedom, the exploitation of an increasing number of small and weak nations by a handful of the richest or most powerful nations — all these have given rise to those distinctive characteristics of imperialism which compel us to define it as parasitic or decaying capitalism. ... It would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay precludes the rapid growth of capitalism. It does not. In the epoch of imperialism, certain branches of industry, certain strata of bourgeoisie, and certain countries betray ... now one and now another of these tendencies. On the whole, capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before”


What does the term “decaying capitalism” imply? In Imperialism, Lenin says it is “capitalism in transition to socialism: monopoly, which grows out of capitalism, is already dying capitalism, the beginning of its transition to socialism 6 . The tremendous socialization of labour by imperialism (what its apologists — the bourgeois economists — call “interlocking”) produces the same result.”

As for “parasitism”, Lenin talks of “the financial strangulation” of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of “advanced” countries — by “international banker countries” and “usury imperialism” — a trend that would assume more institutionalized shape with the rise of the transnational financial corporations and multilateral institutions like the IMF, World Bank, WTO, Asian Development Bank etc.

Lenin also refers to the still nascent and now predominant – trend of speculation in land, shares, etc. emerging as the most tempting field for making a fast buck:

“... the development of capitalism has arrived at a stage when, although commodity production still ‘reigns’ and continues to be regarded as the basis of economic life, it has in reality been undermined and the bulk of the profits go to the ‘geniuses’ of financial manipulation. At the basis of these manipulations and swindles lies socialised production; but the immense progress of mankind, which achieved this socialisation, goes to benefit ... the speculators.”

This is how, under imperialism, the mismatch between socialised production and private appropriation — the fundamental contradiction of capitalism that finds periodic expression in recurring crises — gets accentuated to an unprecedented level and cry out for an urgent solution. And there is but one solution: to socialise appropriation (distribution), so as to bring it into correspondence with already socialised production. This means sharing the fruits of collective labour collectively and equally, which is possible only by transferring the ownership and management of land, factories, and other means of production to the whole people i.e., by going over to socialism.

In this transition, the subjective role of the proletariat and its party is as crucial as the objective maturing of the fundamental contradiction mentioned earlier. Towards the close of the pamphlet he observes:

“... private economic and private property relations constitute a shell 7 which no longer fits its contents, a shell which must inevitably decay if its removal is artificially delayed, a shell which may remain in a state of decay for a fairly long period (if, at the worst, the cure of the opportunist abscess8 is protracted), but which will inevitably be removed.”

In spite of the accursed ‘Aesopian language’ which Lenin was forced to use in order to get the pamphlet published legally under tsarist censorship, the political message is clear enough: cure the “opportunist abscess” and take the plunge into revolution, for “imperialism is the eve of the social revolution of the proletariat”.

Now to conclude this introduction to the Marxian masterpiece. As we know, Marx himself revised the texts several times before and after1867 in light of new data; Engels also did his bit of updating. Thus, so long as Marx and Engels were alive, Capital was a live, dynamic work faithfully – if not perfectly (Engels tells us that Marx had a plan to revise and update much of Vol. I in the subsequent editions, but long spells of indisposition prevented him from doing that) -- reflecting the fast changing contours of the system it sought to deconstruct. When they were gone, their followers took the seminal work as a most dependable guide and went on updating the “critique of political economy" in the Marxian tradition through investigations, analyses and polemics. The collective international enterprise continues to this day and in it lives on Das Kapital, beckoning the working class and the communist activists all over the world to strengthen and speed up the struggle against capital in all its three forms or "three coordinated and interconnected sides, the theoretical, the political and the practical-economic" as Engels put it 9 .

Come, let us heed the call in earnest – how else can we observe the 150th anniversary?


  • 1The economic relations among people engaged in production (also in distribution, which includes exchange, i.e., buying and selling). The relation between the workers on one hand and the owner(s) on the other is a production relation: one of exploitation and struggle. The relation among workers themselves is also a production relation: one of camaraderie. In a class society production relations thus take the form of class relations. These relations together constitute the economic “structure” (also called base) of society on which rises the legal, political and cultural/ideological “superstructure”. A feudal economy thus gives us the monarchy, a capitalist economy — the parliamentary system.
  • 2Means of production (such as land, machines, production sites and factories, instruments of labour from hammers and ploughs to tractors and computers), production techniques or technology, and labouring people with requisite knowledge and skill (peasants, workers, artisans etc.) The forces and relations of production together constitute the “mode of production” (feudal, bourgeois etc.)
  • 3The true history of humans begins in full glory only in socialism — with society at last rid of age-old antagonisms, with people no longer branded and separated by class identities – and viewed from that vantage point, the entire range from slavery to capitalism is but a prehistory of classes and class struggle.
  • 4This phrase is not to be understood in the usual sense of practical immediacy. It only suggests a transition from one world historic stage of social transformation (marked by the conversion of "scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalistic private property", which "rests on exploitation of the nominally free labour of others, i.e., on wage labour") to another (marked by "the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialised production, into socialised property) – a transition that can take place only over a long period of time.
  • 5Marx and Engels, ‘Circular Letter’ to Bebel and others, September 17-18, 1879 (Selected Correspondence, p 307).
  • 6The transition did indeed begin immediately after the pamphlet was published. Under what circumstances it came to a long pause after a few decades is a matter we cannot take up here.
  • 7“Shell” refers to the bourgeois relations of production, within and against which the rapid socialisation of production — “the content” — is growing.
  • 8The opportunist trend in the international working class/communist movement, best represented by the leadership of the Second International.
  • 9Engels in Prefatory note to The Present War in Germany. Lenin quoted at length from this note in a chapter titled "Engels on the Importance of the Theoretical Struggle" in his What Is to Be Done?

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