This year marks 155 years since Das Kapital was first published in 1867. It is one of the major works of the 19th-century economist and philosopher Karl Marx (1818–83). It is essentially a description of how the capitalist system works and how, Marx claims, it will destroy itself and become the foundation of international communism.
Marx had already set out his ideas on class struggle – how the workers of the world would seize power from the ruling elites – in the Communist Manifesto which was published in 1848 and written with assistance from his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820-1895).
Das Kapital is an attempt to give these ideas a grounding in verifiable fact and scientific analysis. The product of 30 years of work, and Marx’s study of the condition of workers in English factories at the height of the industrial revolution, it is part history, part economics and part sociology. Written while he was living in London, where he resided until his death in 1883.
In simple terms, Marx argues that an economic system based on private profit is inherently unstable. Workers are exploited by factory owners and don’t own the products of their labour, making them little better than machines.
The factory owners and other capitalists hold all the power because they control the means of production, allowing them to amass vast fortunes while the workers fall deeper into poverty. This is an unsustainable way to organise society and it will eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, Marx argues.
The ideas contained in Das Kapital would go on to inspire revolutions in Russia, China and many other countries around the world in the 20th Century, as ruling elites were overthrown and private property seized on behalf of the workers.
Marxism became a way of interpreting the world – the simple idea at its core that history was a battle between opposing social classes could be applied to everything from the study of literature and film to the education system.
It underwent something of a revival in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash, however, which some saw as a classic example of capitalism in crisis, just as Marx had predicted. In this latter part of 2022, given the current economic climate in some countries such as the UK with the falling pound and the cost of living crisis in many countries, some once again may recall the name Karl Marx and his ‘Das Kapital’.