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Mainstream, VOL LV No 21 New Delhi May 13, 2017

Reading Capital Politically

Sunday 14 May 2017, by Arup Kumar Sen

The year 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s celebrated text, Capital, Volume I. In his preface to the first German edition of the text (1867), Marx stated: “England is used as the chief illustration in the development of my theoretical ideas”. He expected that his readers would read the text with an open mind. To put it in his own words: “I presuppose, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself”.

Capital carried diverse and contested meanings even in the Marxist discourses in the 20th century. This reminds us of Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar’s Reading Capital (1968), in which Althusser hailed Marx’s Capital as a “scientific discourse”. In Althusser’s reading, Capital “is a work of pure theory”. The great Marxist historian, E.P. Thompson, crossed swords with Althusser in his famous long essay, The Povertyof Theory (1978). According to Thompson, Capital “remains a study of the logic of capital, not of capitalism, and the social and political dimensions of the history, the wrath, and the understanding of the class struggle arise from a region independent of the closed system of economic logic”. In Thompson’s reading, Marx, in the course of his critique of Political Economy, was “caught in a trap: the trap baited by ‘Political Economy’”.1

The geographical space did not get sufficient theoretical attention in the early writings of Marx. While writing Capital, Marx had a conviction in the universal path of capitalist industrialisation. In his preface to the 1867-edition, he wrote: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”

There was a significant shift in Marx’s thinking in later years. This is evident in the Marx-Vera Zasulich correspondence (1881). It may be mentioned in this connection that Marx criticised the theorist of Russian populism, N.K. Mikhailovsky, for his attempt to transform theoretical formulations in Capital into a “supra-historical theory”.

‘Primitive Accumulation’ is an important theoretical category in Marx’s Capital. He argued in Volume I of the text that ‘primitive accumulation’ precedes capitalist accumulation. Rosa Luxemburg’s argument that ruthless violence is an organic part of penetration of Capital in non-capitalist territories signifies an original contribution to Marxist theory. It enlightens us to understand theoretically the multiple instances of violence unleashed by the state and corporate giants, in their land acquisition drives, in contemporary India, particularly in the regions inhabited by tribal communities.

It is beyond doubt that Capital offers a fundamental theoretical critique of the capitalist mode of production. The best way of paying tribute to Marx in the 21st century is to read Capital as a political text and borrow Marx’s critical insights for formulating our critique of the regime of capital and in our search for alternatives.


  • For Thompson’s arguments, see Michael A. Lebowitz, Beyond Capital:Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, second edition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 22.