Chris Harman


Capital gains

(February 1995)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.183, February 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Collected Works, Vol.34
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
Lawrence and Wishart £40

This is the fifth volume of the manuscripts and notes Marx wrote on economics in the years 1861-64, immediately before embarking on the final draft of Capital. Some of the content has been published previously as Theories of Surplus Value, the planned fourth volume of Capital that Marx himself never had time to put together. It is not easy reading, consisting as it does of a massive number of quotes from the classics of bourgeois economics together with Marx’s comments on them – fascinating if you are already studying the history of economics but not for newcomers, who would be best advised first to read Rubin’s History of Economic Thought.

The rest of the content of these volumes is made up of the various drafts written by Marx as he collected material and worked out his ideas for Capital. Some passages appear in a scarcely altered form in its three volumes – presumably because Marx considered them the clearest and most accessible renderings of this argument. But most have never appeared in print before.

It is invaluable to have them at last, because by reading how Marx formulated and reformulated particular arguments several times in slightly different ways we can see where some people have misinterpreted the passages which finally appear in Capital.

In this volume you can find passages where Marx counters decisively the alleged refutation of his theory about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall which was taken up and used by Steedman and Okishio more than a century later. They argue that the tendency cannot hold because no capitalist will introduce a new technique that cuts his profits. Marx pointed out that the first capitalist to introduce the technique will raise his profits at the expense of other capitalists in the same line of business, but that when they follow suit all of their profits will fall to a lower level than previously.

Again, in dealing at length with the difference between what is productive and what is unproductive labour for capitalism, Marx enables us to clear away many misconceptions that still bedevil discussion on the subject.

And the volume should dispel, once and for all, one of the most prevalent myths of the late 1960s and early 1970s – the claim that a ‘mature Marx’ abandoned the notion of human alienation to be found in his early writings. These myths were used to try to save the idea that Stalinist states, in which working people certainly did not control their own future, were somehow the inheritors of Marx’s life’s work.

But in this volume he uses formulations, remarkably similar to those of his early writings, which make it clear capitalism is about human alienation and socialism overcoming that alienation to establish a genuinely human society.

With the appearance of these volumes there can no longer be any doubting the continuity of his basic approach from the mid-1840s right through to his death.

The only people who really stand in the tradition of Marx are those who fight for the self-emancipation of the working class, not those who are nostalgic for dead tyrannies that still ruled a third of the world until five years ago.

Those tyrannies used to publish Marx’s works in order to disguise their own anti-socialist social relations. It is an irony of history that one result of their publication is that today we can have access to what Marx himself really thought about human liberation.

Last updated on 21 December 2009