Chris Harman


A tour of capitals

(February 1997)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.205, February 1997.
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.35: Capital, Vol.1
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
Lawrence & Wishart £45

This volume brings closer to completion one of the most ambitious and rewarding publishing ventures of the century – the production in a uniform edition of everything that Marx and Engels ever wrote, for the first time enabling English speaking readers to study in depth the development and ramifications of their ideas.

But this particular volume is not the best buy if you simply want to get hold of Capital. It reprints a translation that has long been available, more cheaply, from Lawrence and Wishart, with the one addition of a chapter Marx himself decided not to publish but which is available elsewhere.

The translation was carried out just over a century ago under the personal supervision of Frederick Engels by his friend Samuel Moore, and Edward Aveling, for many years the partner of Marx’s daughter Eleanor. A second translation was made in the 1920s by Eden and Cedar Paul and published by Everyman, but was in no way an improvement on Moore/Aveling. Finally, in the 1970s, Penguin produced yet a third translation, by Ben Foulkes.

Foulkes claimed he produced his translation to update the English in the Moore/Aveling translations and to restore some of ‘the German philosophical terms repeatedly used by Marx’. Foulkes complains Moore and Aveling ‘watered down’ these on the advice of Engels so as to make the work more popular with an English speaking readership.

Unfortunately, Foulkes himself did not improve on the Moore/Aveling edition any more than the Pauls did. Comparing text for text, the Moore/Aveling one flows marginally better. As for Engels’ alleged popularisation, it was Marx himself who amended the first German edition so as to make the work more accessible to workers intent on obtaining a serious scientific understanding. And some of Foulkes’ translations in fact obscure rather than clarify – as when he translates the German verb meaning ‘to expand in value’ by a French word which does not exist in English, ‘valorisation’, rather than the absolute clear expression used by Moore, with Engels’ assistance, ‘the self expansion of value’. The issue is not trivial, since for Marx ‘self expansion of value’ is the motive that leads capital to enter into production, and to translate this as ‘valorisation’ is to mystify the process completely.

What is more, Foulkes’s habit of putting the original German in brackets at various points can simply add to the widespread prejudice that Capital is an intrinsically difficult work to understand – although, in fact, it is much easier to follow than virtually any standard textbook of bourgeois economics.

There are two abbreviated editions of Capital which attempt to make it easier still – an OUP paperback edition by the non-Marxist Marx expert David McLellan and a Student’s Capital from Lawrence and Wishart by the Marxist Chris Arthur. Both prune sections of the Moore/Aveling translation. Arthur also removes the footnotes, while McLellan puts them in an appendix.

Some people argue that any cutting back of Marx’s text is sacrilege and has to be opposed. The omitted passages and footnotes are important to anybody who wants to study the development of Marx’s thought in relation to the 18th and 19th century tradition of ‘classical’ political economy. But they do tend to bog down readers not acquainted with a tradition that is rarely taught today.

Both editors do succeed in making the task of approaching Capital a little easier. But Arthur’s introduction is not for the first timer, since it adopts a philosophic language that many will find difficult to follow, whereas the non-Marxist McLellan does outline quite well what Marx attempted to do.

Welcome the Collected Works edition of Capital as part of a great scholarly enterprise. But shop elsewhere if you want to get hold of the book for the first time.

Last updated on 21 December 2009