When Frederick Engels once again urged Marx to publish at least the first volume of “Capital”, Marx replied on August 31st 1865 that he could not bring himself to send off anything until it was finished. For him, whatever shortcomings they may have had, the advantage of his writings was that they were an artistic whole and could only be published at once.
Two years later, in 1867, the first volume of “Capital” was published although the project as a whole remained unfinished. Marx believed however that he would be able to complete the two remaining volumes within the following two years. As we know by now this was a miscalculation: Marx died in 1883, without having been able to complete “Capital”. The revision of Volume I for the second edition, his exhausting activity in the International Workingmen’s Association, publications on current political events such as the Paris Commune and finally his worsening physical condition made it impossible for Marx to complete Volume II and III. It was not until 1885 and 1894 respectively that Engels published Volume II and Volume III from Marx’s literary estate. The unfinished character of the manuscripts and their less sophisticated style of writing are visible despite Engels’ efforts. It is no surprise that the first volume of “Capital” dominates its reception even today. When someone says that they have read “Capital”, they usually refer to Volume I, and indeed, this first volume appears to be quite cohesive.
In Volume I Marx starts out by examining commodities and money and then proceeds to the “general formula for capital” M-C-M. He asks himself how the valorization of capital (Kapitalverwertung) is possible when ideal equivalents (i.e. the same values) are being exchanged. Marx explains that it is possible because labour-power (i.e. the ability to work) is sold as a commodity. The value of the commodity labour-power is less than the value that its application can produce. Therefore it is the exploitation of labour-power which delivers surplus value. Volume I is dedicated to the analysis of the capitalist process of production, and its largest part deals with the different possibilities of increasing the production of surplus value as well as with the social fights which take place under these conditions.
Marx shows at the same time how capitalist relations (kapitalistische Verhältnisse) veil themselves. The chapter on commodity fetishism is concerned with the representation (Darstellung) of social relations as objectified (sachliche) qualities of things: the world appears to be governed by material constraints we all have to submit to.
In the part dedicated to the form of the wage (Lohnform), Marx shows that although it is labour-power which is being paid for (so that it can reproduce itself and continue to be available for exploitation), the form (Gestalt) of the wage conveys the impression that it is in fact the work which has been done that is being paid for. It therefore seems as if a just and appropriate wage could abolish exploitation.
The chapter on accumulation then deals with the continuing repetition of the capitalist process of production on a growing scale, which is what economic science calls ‘economic growth’. Contrary to mainstream economics, however, Marx reveals the inevitable consequences of this process: periodically growing unemployment and increasing social polarization between those who appropriate the advantages of the development of society and those who have to bear the weight of this development. Volume I then concludes with an examination of the historical formation of modern capitalism and with a short perspective on the surmounting of that system.
Looking at Volume I as a whole, we are confronted with a rather difficult introduction, several very intriguing main parts and finally a happy end on the horizon. One is inclined to ask, what else (that is of major importance to the system) can there still be to come? Howard Zinn, a left-wing historian from the US who is politically committed in many ways, wrote in the epilogue of his theatre play “Marx in Soho” that although “Capital” is the most important one of Marx’s works, it is unnecessary to read Volume II and III unless one is serving a long prison sentence. But the second and third volumes can be very useful and interesting even outside of prison walls.
The second volume is concerned with the process of circulation of capital. Production and circulation (i.e. the entirety of the exchange-process) do not take place independently of one another. The examination of the process of circulation provides Marx with new definitions, for individual units of capital and for the economic reproduction of the whole of society.
It is only on the basis of his description of the unity of production and circulation in Volume II that Marx is then able to develop “the process of capitalist production as a whole” in Volume III. This confronts us with categories which play an important role in everyday life under capitalism, but which were absent from the first volume, as for instance “profit”, “prices of production”, “profit of enterprise” and “interest”. These categories are often confused with something which they are not: the value of commodities is by no means the centre of fluctuating market prices (Schwankungszentrum der Marktpreise), and surplus value is by no means simply the same as profit or profit of enterprise.
Volume III answers many questions one might have while reading Volume I. It is only in the third volume that Marx deals with the conversion of the different rates of profit into one average rate of profit. It is only in the third volume that he examines interest-bearing capital and following from that the functioning of banks and finance markets. Indeed, it is only in the third volume that we read about the mechanisms which again and again produce economic crises. And in the last section of Volume III Marx finally deals with the “Trinity Formula”, the summary of all fetishisms and mystifications, the analysis of which he had only begun in Volume I with the depiction of commodity fetishism and the form of the wage (Lohnform). These mystifications which naturally spring from capitalist society are the background of the development of a spontaneous everyday consciousness. Marx therefore also called them the “religion of everyday life”. We have to face this phenomenon everyday, whenever we attempt to criticize capitalism.
It is only now that we have obtained a general picture of the capitalist mode of production. Without volumes II and III the first volume does not only remain incomplete, but taken in itself it cannot be totally understood. The three volumes of “Capital” indeed form an ‘artistic whole’, which needs to be perceived as a whole. This is exhausting, it requires time and energy and persistence. But in return we gain an understanding which is fundamental for every form of political practice and we experience an exciting intellectual adventure.