Das Kapital

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Economics

Das Kapital (IPA [das kapiˈtaːl]) (Capital, in the English translation) is an extensive treatise on political economy written in German by Karl Marx and edited in part by Friedrich Engels. The book is a critical analysis of capitalism and its practical economic application and also, in part, a critique of other related theories. Its first volume was published in 1867.


The central driving force of capitalism, according to Marx, was in the exploitation and alienation of labour. The ultimate source of the new profits and value-added was that employers paid workers the market value of their labour-capacity, but the value of the commodities workers produced exceeded that market value. Employers were entitled to appropriate the new output value because of their ownership of the productive capital assets. By producing output as capital for the employers, the workers constantly reproduced the condition of capitalism by their labour.

However, though Marx is very concerned with the social aspects of commerce, his book is not an ethical treatise, but an attempt to explain the objective "laws of motion" of the capitalist system as a whole, its origins and future. He aims to reveal the causes and dynamics of the accumulation of capital, the growth of wage labour, the transformation of the workplace, the concentration of capital, competition, the banking and credit system, the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, land-rents and many other things.

Marx viewed the commodity as the "cell-form" or building unit of capitalist society — it is an object useful to somebody else, but with a trading value for the owner. Because commercial transactions implied no particular morality beyond that required to settle transactions, the growth of markets caused the economic sphere and the moral-legal sphere to become separated in society: subjective moral value becomes separated from objective economic value. Political economy, which was originally thought of as a "moral science" concerned with the just distribution of wealth, or as a "political arithmetick" for tax collection, gave way to the separate disciplines of economic science, law and ethics.

Marx believed the political economists could study the scientific laws of capitalism in an "objective" way, because the expansion of markets had in reality objectified most economic relations: the cash nexus stripped away all previous religious and political illusions (only to replace them, however, with another kind of illusion -- commodity fetishism). Marx also says that he viewed "the economic formation of society as a process of natural history". The growth of commerce happened as a process which no individuals could control or direct, creating an enormously complex web of social interconnections globally. Thus a "society" was formed "economically" before people actually began to consciously master the enormous productive capacity and interconnections they had created, in order to put it collectively to the best use.

Marx’s analysis in Capital, then, focuses primarily on the structural contradictions, rather than the class antagonisms, that characterize capitalist society -- the “contradictory movement [gegensätzliche Bewegung] [that] has its origin in the twofold character of labour,” rather than in the struggle between labor and capital, or rather between the owning and the working classes. These contradictions, moreover, operate (as Marx describes using a phrase borrowed from Hegel) “behind the backs” of both the capitalists and workers, that is, as a result of their activities, and yet irreducible to their conscious awareness either as individuals or as classes. As such, Capital, does not propose a theory of revolution (led by the working class and its representatives) but rather a theory of crises as the condition for a potential revolution, or what Marx refers to in the Communist Manifesto as a potential “weapon,” “forged” by the owners of capital, “turned against the bourgeoisie itself” by the working class. Such crises, according to Marx, are rooted in the contradictory character of the commodity, the most fundamental social form of capitalist society. In capitalism, improvements in technology and rising levels of productivity increase the amount of material wealth (or use values) in society while simultaneously diminishing the economic value of this wealth, thereby lowering the rate of profit – a tendency that leads to the peculiar situation, characteristic of crises in capitalism, of “poverty in the midst of plenty,” or more precisely, crises of overproduction in the midst of underconsumption.


Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867, but he died before he could finish the second and third ones which he had already drafted; these were edited by his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels and published in 1885 and 1894. As can be seen in the original title pages of the final two volumes, Engels listed Marx as the author.


Das Kapital in Yiddish
Das Kapital in Yiddish

Marx bases his work on that of the classical economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and even Benjamin Franklin. However, he reworks these authors' ideas, so his book is a synthesis that does not follow the lead of any one thinker. It also reflects the dialectical methodology applied by G.W.F. Hegel in his books The Science of Logic and The Phenomenology of Mind, and the influence of French socialists such as Charles Fourier, Comte de Saint-Simon, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Marx said himself that his aim was "to bring a science [i.e. political economy] by criticism to the point where it can be dialectically represented", and in this way to "reveal the law of motion of modern society". By showing how capitalist development was the precursor of a new, socialist mode of production, he aimed to provide a scientific foundation for the modern labour movement. In preparation for his book, he studied the economic literature available in his time for a period of twelve years, mainly in the British Museum in London.

Aristotle, and Greek philosophy in general, was another important (although often neglected) influence on Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Marx’s education at Bonn centered on Greek and Roman poets and philosophers. The dissertation he completed at the university was a comparison of the philosophy of nature in the works of Democritus and Epicurus. A number of scholars, moreover, have argued that the basic architecture of Capital – including the categories of use and exchange value, as well as the “ syllogisms” for simple and expanded circulation (M-C-M and M-C-M’) – was derived from the Politics (Aristotle) and the Nicomachean Ethics. Moreover, Marx’s description of machinery under capitalist relations of production as “self-acting automata” is a direct reference to Aristotle’s speculations on inanimate instruments capable of following commands as the condition for the abolition of slavery.

Volume I

Volume II

Volume III

Volume IV

A so-called Volume IV is claimed by some, apparently constituted from fragmentary notes that were written prior to the publication of Das Kapital (full text linked below).

Online editions

  • Capital, Volume I: The Process of Production of Capital
  • Capital, Volume I 1906 edition, downloadable text and pdf from Google Books
  • Capital, Volume II: The Process of Circulation of Capital
  • Capital, Volume III: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole
  • "Capital, Volume IV": Theories of Surplus Value

Retrieved from " http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Kapital"
The 2008 Wikipedia for Schools is sponsored by SOS Children , and consists of a hand selection from the English Wikipedia articles with only minor deletions (see www.wikipedia.org for details of authors and sources). The articles are available under the GNU Free Documentation License. See also our Disclaimer.