From the September 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard
In 1847 Karl Marx wrote The Poverty of Philosophy. It was written in French and was a criticism of Proudhon’s Philosophy of Poverty. Of the Poverty of Philosophy Engels remarks that it was written “when Marx had just elucidated the principles of his new historical and economic theory”. In 1859 Marx wrote his Critique of Political Economy which was the forerunner of Capital. Vol. I of the latter was published in 1867, and was the only volume of Capital that he himself saw through the press.
Thus twenty years of preparation elapsed between his first book on the subject and the publication of Capital. During those twenty years many changes occurred in the world signifying the development of modem capitalism.
Now let us take a brief look at the background of the times in which Marx was writing his book.
It was the birthtime of modern industry, with the industrial capitalists just coming to power. The Bessemer process of making steel was soon to be patented and shortly afterwards the first steel ship was launched. In the factories and on the land hours of labour were long and the exploitation of women and children was widespread. Everywhere the expression of revolutionary opinion, and even radical criticism of existing evils, met with ruthless suppression, and the spokesmen were frequently imprisoned by the governments of the time. Here and there groups of workers exchanged expressions of international brotherhood but, for the most part, workers were too concerned with their own local troubles to have time to worry about the hardships of their fellows abroad.
In 1848 oppressive conditions had led to a wave of revolutions throughout Europe; a mixture that included working class and nationalist revolts. The real basis of the struggles was the movement of the industrial capitalist for elbow room and political power; the other classes were just pawns, sometimes awkward ones, in this struggle. The spark that set the movement alight was a commercial crisis which, starting in England in 1847, upset production and trade. It affected every economic group, each of which hoped to solve its difficulties in the various uprisings. The most troublesome element in these struggles was the working class, the only really energetic class in the movement, which pushed its claims to the front at the beginning and eventually frightened some of the revolutionary fervour out of the other groups.
The outcome of these uprisings was the suppression, for the time being, of incipient working class movements like the Chartists movement in England and similar movements in France and Germany. At the same time, in France, the uprising enabled Napoleon’s nephew, Louis, to get into the seat of power and inaugurate the Third Empire. The latter came to an ignominious end with the defeat of France in the war of 1871. The uprisings also elevated the power of the Prussian state, leading to the unification of Germany, and the nationalist movement in Italy that led to the unification of Italy.
The instabilities and suppressions of the Forties, along with the discoveries of gold in California and Australia, started the emigration of large numbers of people from Europe to America, where they hoped to start a new, less frustrated and more comfortable, life; a hope that often met with defeat. The Irish famine of the late forties, together with abortive nationalist uprisings, drove a large number of Irish abroad, most of them to America.
America at this time was roughly split into two different sections; the industrial North and the agricultural South. The South supplied cotton and other agricultural products to the Northern manufacturers but had the principal influence in political control. Development of the North was hampered by burdens put upon them by Southern enactments. Resentment grew until it finally boiled over in the bitter Civil War that broke out in 1861. Although, on the northern side, it was extolled as a war to end slavery, it was in fact a war waged by the North for control of political power by the industrialists in order to remove obstacles in the way of their expansion. One among the many ways in which the South was obstructing the march of the North was in land hunger. The Southern planters needed to constantly extend their landholdings for their cotton and tobacco plantations, and were coming up against, and trying to swallow, the lands of Northern cattle and sheep farmers.
At the beginning of the Civil War the incipient labour movements were opposed to it, but they eventually gave up their opposition and lined up with the North. The outcome of the war, and the victory of the North, released a rapid movement of expansion in industry, fanning and transport. The West was opened up, working class exploitation on a grand scale began to flourish and, along with this the basis was laid for a growing group of American tycoons to accumulate large fortunes by the most ruthless methods.
In the meantime in Europe the spread of the ideas contained in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, and the growing contact of English and Continental workers, led to discussions which were instrumental in establishing the International Working Mens Association in 1864, in which Marx played a leading part. It had an uneasy existence and collapsed after a few years, partly through the opposition of English trade union leaders and the machinations of the Anarchists, but mainly because the workers were not yet ready to accept the principles laid down by the International. However a movement was growing in Germany and other countries which brought about the establishment of a number of social democratic parties, the flimsy basis of which, in working class understanding, was not finally disclosed until they fell to pieces in the First World War.
During the twenty years Marx worked on Capital, English governments were acquiring territory by war or trickery in various parts of the world, and building up the empire that has since largely disintegrated. In three wars with China it pierced the Chinese wall and opened up ports to European trade. In the second war, 1854-1860, the Chinese were forced to legalise the importation of Opium.
One of the outstanding events of the period was the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species which gave a solid foundation to the theory of evolution. Another was the first successful laying of the Atlantic Cable in 1866.
Two acts passed, one in 1864 and the other in 1868, are indications of the extent of the exploitation of children. In 1864 the employment of child chimney sweeps was forbidden. The children used to be pushed up the chimneys to clear the soot. Like all such acts its implementation was constantly infringed. In 1868 gang labour of children under eight years of age in agriculture was prohibited.
In 1867, the year the first volume of Capital was published, the Court of Queens Bench decided that trade unions were illegal associations acting in restraint of trade!
During the twenty years Marx was engaged in writing his book, the world had undergone upheavals and changes in the course of which some of the remaining relics of Feudalism were swept away, the owners of land and industry grew richer but the working class still remained a subject and exploited class.