From the September 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard
We celebrate the centenary of the publication of Volume 1 of Karl Marx’s "Das Kapital” by these special articles on the book and its Influence.
In September 1867, Otto Meissner of Hamburg published the first edition of the book that was to rank with Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and Morgan’s Ancient Society; Volume One of Capital. What Darwin’s book did for natural science, and Morgan’s for sociology, Marx's Capital did for political economy. In this work Marx was able, by his use of the dialectical method, to solve the riddle of value, which had eluded all previous economists, and so lay the foundation for a scientific understanding of capitalism.
At the end of 1865 the work existed in the form of an enormous manuscript which only Marx could prepare for publication. From January 1866 to March 1867, out of this mass of material, he produced the first volume of Capital, in the form we have it today, a complete work. This was an achievement which displayed a terrific working capacity, as during this period he was troubled by ill-health, including a serious illness in February 1866, and by an accumulation of debts that worried him.
The final work was started in January 1866. Marx writing to Engels in February of that year said. . . “I enjoyed licking the infant clean after so many birth pangs”. No work of this nature has ever been written under more difficult circumstances. On at least two occasions, Marx fixed a time limit for its completion; in 1851 it was five weeks, in 1859 it was six weeks. Always the time limit was ignored, due to his tremendous care and scrupulous regard for facts, from which he would not be shaken, even by the impatient urging of his friend Engels.
The first bundle of manuscript was sent to Meissner in November 1866. In April 1867, Marx personally took the rest of the material to Hamburg, and was able to complete the arrangements for publication.
A letter from Engels to Marx, dated April 1867, portrays the strain Marx underwent during the years of preparation.
I have always thought that the damned book on which you have worked so long was the reason for all your misfortunes, and that you would never be able to overcome them as long as you had not shaken it off. Its incompleteness dragged you down physically, intellectually and financially, and I can well understand that you feel a different fellow now that you have got rid of it
The hope expressed in this letter was only partly fulfilled. Marx was not able to maintain the improvement in his health, nor was his financial position very much better, although he was optimistic when he wrote to Engels on 7 May. . . . "I firmly hope and trust that by the end of the year I shall be a made man, at least in the sense that I hope to be able to reform my financial position”. He did not become a ’made man’ by the end of the year, or at any time.
Marx, on his return to London, corrected the proof sheets and at two o'clock in the morning of the 16 August 1867 wrote to Engels informing him that the last printer’s sheet had just been corrected. “So this volume is now finished”. His tribute to Engels reads . . . “I must thank you alone that it was possible, without your sacrifices for me, I could never possibly have done the enormous amount of work for the three volumes. I embrace you with heartfelt thanks. Greetings, my dearly beloved friend.”
Marx was, during this period, very anxious about his book. Writing to Engels on 2nd November 1867, he said . . . “The fate of my book makes me nervous. I see and hear nothing”. The impatience shown by this quotation was hardly justified. The book had been published barely two months, certainly not long enough to write and publish a proper criticism. Engels and Dr. Kugelman, the latter a friend of Marx, did their best to call attention to the book. Between them they secured the publication of advance notices in a number of journals, and even a reprint of the introduction. In addition, they prepared an advertisement, which was quite sensational for those days — the publication of a biographical article in Die Gartenlaube. But Marx requested them to stop ‘Such nonsense’.
The article which Engels wrote for Die Gartenlaube was eventually published in a Berlin paper, and later, in an abbreviated form, by William Liebknecht in a Social Democratic journal.
Shortly after this, Marx’s work received some excellent criticism; Engels in the Demokratischer Wochenblatt, Schweitzer in the Social Democrat, a review by Joseph Dietzgen. Eugen Dühring, did a review in Meyer’s Encyclopaedia of 1867. Although Marx was not quite satisfied, he declared it ‘quite decent’. However, it was not long before Dühring, did his best to tear the book to pieces.
Probably one of the most curious opinions of the first volume came from a friend of Marx, Freiligrath, who was presented with a copy by the author. Frieligrath wrote to Marx, thanking him and commenting,
I know that many young merchants, and manufacturers in the Rhineland are enthusiastic about the book, and in such circles it will fulfil its real aim, and besides, it will prove an indispensible work of reference for students.
It seems fantastic that anyone should have regarded Capital in such a manner.
Ruge, an anti-socialist who as a young man fought for the Hegelian doctrine, wrote as follows:
It is an epoch-making work and it sheds a brilliant, sometimes dazzling, light on the development, decline, birth pangs and the horribly painful maladies of social periods. The passages on the production of surplus value by unpaid labour, the expropriation of the workers who work for themselves, and the approaching expropriation of the expropriators are classic. Marx’s knowledge is wide and scholarly, and he possesses splendid dialectical talent The book is far above the intellectual horizon of many people, and many newspaper writers, but it will make its way despite the breadth of its plan, or perhaps it will exercise a powerful influence for this reason.
Ludwig Feuerbach reacted in much the same way as Ruge, with the difference that he was less interested in the dialectics of the author, than the fact that the book was "Rich in undeniable facts of the most interesting, but at the same time, most horrible nature”.
In his preface to the second edition, dated 24 January 1873, Marx refers to the reception of the first edition in the following words:
The learned and unlearned spokesmen of the German bourgeoisie tried at first to kill 'Das Kapital' by silence, as they had managed to do with my earlier writings. As soon as they found that these tactics no longer fitted in with the conditions of the times, they wrote under the pretence of criticising my book, prescriptions 'for the tranquilisation of the bourgeois mind’ But they found in the workers' press (see e.g. Joseph Dietzgen’s articles in the Volkstaat) antagonists stronger than themselves, to whom (down to this very day) they owe a reply.
The statement by Ruge, that the book would ‘make its way’ has been proven correct.
During the century since the first appearance of Capital, it has been translated into many, if not all, languages. One of the early translations, in 1872, was Russian.
Permission to publish was given by the Russian censorship authority with the explanation that "although the political opinions of the author are of a very definitely socialist character, the manner of its presentation is certainly not such as to make the book open to all, and in addition, it is written in a strictly scientific fashion, so that in the opinion of the committee it should not be prosecuted”.
The reasoning of the committee of 1872 was as strange then as that of censors today. It was during this period that work commenced on a French edition. The English translation appeared in 1886, three years after the death of Marx.
One of the difficulties which has stood in the way of understanding Capital is one which Marx suggests in his Preface to the First edition, where he says: “I pre-suppose of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore, to think for himself”. Such readers are very rare. Marx was very optimistic when he made the supposition. Another difficulty has been, and still is, that of the alleged Marxists who apparently have never read the main work of Marx, or have never understood what they read, so that all sorts of weird ideas are attributed to Marx, and to Capital. Engels once asked to be spared the Marxists.