Interview: 'People are searching for ideas to explain the system'

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Street art in Birmingham. Pic: Elliott Brown/flickr/creative commons

Camilla Royle spoke to Joseph Choonara, author of a new guide to Capital, about the relevance of Marx’s great work to the world today.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Capital volume 1. As you say in your book, the 50th anniversary was the year of the Russian Revolution and the 100th anniversary was right before the events of 1968 such as the civil rights movement and the general strike in France. How relevant is Capital today?

There has been an enormous revival in interest in Capital in recent years. The main factors I would say are, first of all, a gradual re-emergence of critical approaches to capitalism since the 1990s, particularly after the anti-capitalist movement emerged from about 1999 onwards. And secondly, one of the biggest crises that capitalism has ever seen.

Whenever you get a crisis on that scale, the old ideas are called into question and you get this incredible searching around for ideas that can explain the system. It’s a sign of the resilience of Marx’s critique that Capital is one of the points of reference that people keep returning to.

In the universities there was a burgeoning a few years ago, in Germany and to a lesser extent in Britain, of Capital reading groups. And there’s also been a movement of protest in university economics departments, with students demanding to be taught heterodox economics, which is a broad field encompassing Keynesianism but also Marxism.

For someone who hasn’t read Capital before it might seem daunting. How would you recommend they go about it?

I think there are advantages to reading Capital as part of a reading group, because it then becomes a collective enterprise where people can help each other with bits of the text that they struggle with.

One of the interesting things about Capital is that different people find different elements of it challenging or inspiring. The experience that I’ve had running a reading group over the past year is that some people are quite comfortable with the more abstract bits, in the opening chapter for example.

Other people are much more comfortable with the chapters describing life inside a capitalist workplace. Even though Marx was writing 150 years ago, they can see parallels with their own experience.

You can read Capital on your own, as I did the first time. But I must say I had to repeatedly re-read bits of Capital, read other books about Capital and talk to people who knew more about the subject than me. I’m hoping that this book will help others with that process, whether they are reading alone or as part of a group.

There are lots of other guides to Capital; I know lots of people look at David Harvey’s online videos, for example. Why did you want to write another one?

Harvey’s work has been very important in popularising Capital, and I understand entirely why people watch his videos and read his companions to Capital. However important these works are, though, Harvey does not claim a monopoly on the interpretation of Capital. There are a number of issues I have with Harvey’s approach, which I’ve made clear in the text of my book.

I think that his approach tends to flatten the complicated structure of capitalism that Marx depicts in the three volumes of his work into a single layer.

For instance, Harvey has a tendency to see production and circulation and distribution of capital as all operating at the same level of analysis, whereas I tend to see, and I think Marx saw, production as taking priority over circulation and distribution in the analysis of the system as a whole.

Harvey also sees processes such as privatisation as a continuation of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation”, the processes that gave birth to capitalist property, whereas I see these as quite distinctive processes that have to be understood in different ways. So, although Harvey has been an important figure in the renaissance of Capital, it’s reasonable that people should have access to a range of different approaches so they can decide for themselves.

Some people might say that the conditions Marx was describing — the masses of workers drawn into the factories, people working extremely long hours and dying from overwork — no longer exist today. How do you respond to those comments?

There is certainly an element of truth to that. It would be foolish to say the world is exactly as Marx described it in Capital. However, it’s also important to realise that Marx in Capital has a specific project of developing in general terms the laws of motion of capitalist society, rather than describing Victorian capitalism in Britain.

In doing that, Marx draws a lot from the capitalism of his day and uses that to illustrate and carry his argument through the book. But even here, one of the things that strikes me re-reading Capital 150 years later is not so much that everything has changed, but that there remain striking parallels.

The experience of degradation and alienation in the workplace, although it’s not as bad as it was in Victorian Britain, certainly has echoes in contemporary Britain. And in some ways the methods used in traditional capitalist factories have been generalised into spheres of the economy such as the service sector, the public sector and so on.

And if you look at capitalism as a global system, clearly elements of the degradation of the British working class that Marx described are being replicated. You can look at, for instance, the carpet industry in Pakistan where there is extensive use of child labour, or even at factories in China where conditions inside the workplace are so horrible that “suicide nets” are put up to stop people killing themselves by jumping off the roof.

In the book you keep coming back to the point that Marx is trying to explain where profits come from, that it can’t be explained other than by exploitation of workers. Isn’t that the key point to take away from Capital?

In the first volume of Capital it’s an absolutely central question because Marx is trying to set out the way in which capitalism is intrinsically an exploitative system. In that sense, capitalism is the latest in a series of class-divided societies, going back to, say, the ancient slave societies in Greece and Rome or the feudal societies that existed before capitalism in much of Europe.

Marx is saying we have a new form of society which is also exploitative, and furthermore he is critiquing other left wing approaches that saw capitalism as just some kind of swindle. So if you look at the writing of Marx’s left wing rivals, Proudhon, for example, exploitation is treated as if it’s some kind of trick — a common view in the left literature of the time. The logic of that is to conclude that capitalism could potentially be run in a way that isn’t exploitative.

Marx is saying that’s not right. Once you have a system in which a minority of capitalists own the means of production and workers sell their labour-power to those capitalists in order to access the means of production, you have this inherently exploitative process in which value is pumped out of one class and into the hands of a minority ruling class. Marx says that’s bound up with the capitalist system and, if you want to end the exploitation, you ultimately have to overthrow capitalism.

Your own research looks at the nature of work today. You engage in debates around precarity, for example. Are there specific bits of Capital that you have found useful in your own work?

Yes. Actually this is another reason I was surprised rereading Capital. Of course, in terms of precarity things are very different — the level of precarity among the working class was infinitely higher in Marx’s day than it is today. Nonetheless there are some interesting parallels.

The first and most obvious one is that Marx is talking about a system in which capital remains dependent on securing its access to labour-power it can exploit. This is a two-way relation of dependence. Often in the contemporary literature, people talk about how workers are dependent on capital. But they leave out of the equation the extent to which capital depends on workers — and the collective power that workers have is a result of that.

Secondly, there are some more detailed arguments that Marx makes that are interesting. For example, he discusses the implementation of the Factory Acts, which restricted working hours in the factories. They came amid enormous struggles by working class people but also reflected contradictory pressures on capital itself.

On the one hand, the capitalists running the factories wanted to squeeze labour as hard as possible. On the other hand, elements of the ruling class, particularly those connected with the state, did begin to worry about the long-term need of the capitalist system to reproduce itself. In other words, how do you maintain a working class that’s healthy enough to be exploited? This complicated three-way battle between different groups of the ruling class along with the working class led, ultimately, to the implementation of the Factory Acts in the mid-19th century.

Now, one interesting point that Marx makes is that, once you have implemented these laws in the factories, there is pressure on the state to extend these laws into other areas of the economy such as the sweated industries in order to ensure there is a level playing field for the labour market, and to stop the sweated industries getting a competitive advantage over the much more advanced factory system.

You can see some parallels in the way that even quite vicious right wing governments are forced, to some extent, to regulate aspects of the labour market, for instance with the parliamentary inquiry announced last year into irregular forms of employment.

Marx died before he had a chance to complete his work on political economy. The second two volumes of Capital were edited by Engels. Are there aspects that you wish Marx had lived to cover?

Yes. I wish Marx had published the second and third volumes of Capital! It’s a tragedy he didn’t, a tragedy produced partly by the demands of political activity, partly the changes to capitalism that Marx was keen to explore. But to a very large extent it was a result of Marx’s horrible perfectionism and horrible insecurity about publishing any of his works. Engels constantly harassed him to finish the second and third volumes — and indeed the first volume.

Engels, I think, did a very good job of editing and publishing the manuscripts for volumes two and three. But of course Marxists would love to have these volumes as overseen by Marx himself — and this is part of the reason why people today are going back to the manuscripts Marx wrote in 1861-3 and 1864-5.

There are particular controversies. For example, Marx’s account of crisis and the role of what Marx calls the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall have been extremely contentious within Marxist political economy, particularly in the past ten years or so. There is no law that says we have to agree with Marx, but it would certainly be interesting to know exactly what he thought about this.

And you say in your book that Marx doesn’t write much about competition in volume one.

Competition plays a complicated role in Capital. Marx had this initial plan to start with what he calls “capital in general” and then later to deal with what he calls “many capitals” where he would introduce the notion of competition. He breaks with that plan, but the way he reintroduces the notion of competition is slightly pained.

In the first volume, again and again he appeals to the notion of competition as the factor that forces particular capitalists to obey the laws of motion of capitalist society. But then he says, I’m not going to discuss this in full at this point. Nonetheless, I think competition is crucial to understanding Marx’s project and I’ve tried to indicate this in my book.

You say a couple of times in the book that Marx’s Capital needs to be applied creatively today. What do you mean?

Well, Marx is involved in a project of rising from the abstract concepts he develops in the first volume of Capital, especially in the opening chapters, through to the much more concrete concepts that he develops towards the end of the work, particularly in the third volume. In principle, we can continue that process today, and use this method to understand the very different capitalism that exists today.

If you look at the generation of Marxists who followed Frederick Engels, they were forced to confront the emergence of imperialism, as the units of capital got bigger and more intertwined with the state, and capitalism became a system of global competition leading to military conflict between the great powers. A whole generation of Marxists, encompassing Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Lenin, Bukharin, Hilferding, and so on, were forced to grapple with this question. In doing so they started, by and large, with the categories that Marx develops in Capital, but they tried to creatively apply that method of understanding to a world that was changing. In my view, we have to continue that process today.

We still live in a world governed by the social relations of capitalism but it’s a very different world and so we have to be creative in how we apply the theory.

And you write that SWP founder Tony Cliff used Capital in his work.

Yes. Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia is not as widely read as it should be today — partly because the Soviet Union has collapsed and so people don’t feel it’s as important to read it today. But if you go back and look at the original text, Cliff draws heavily on the kind of analysis that Marx develops in Capital.

It’s a great example of someone creatively applying those categories to something that Marx didn’t really foresee, namely Stalinist Russia after about 1928. Again I think it’s a good model for how we should be using Capital today to understand the world around us.

You mentioned at the start that there’s been a revival of interest in Marx since the 1990s. Nowadays we’ve got figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. There is a revival of interest in socialism, so do you see that interest in Marx and Capital continuing?

I hope so. The current radical left has emerged at a time when, ideologically, Marxism is relatively peripheral in a way that it wasn’t earlier in the 20th century. So the great paradox is you get this enormous revival of radicalism in the absence of some of the most effective ideas that can guide and shape that radicalism — the ideas of Marxism informed by the concept of working class self-emancipation.

So I think it’s beholden on the current generation of Marxists to try to make those ideas accessible and make sure they are among the resources that people who are radicalising today can look to in their efforts to understand, and ultimately challenge, capitalism.

A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital by Joseph Choonara is out this month from Bookmarks, £9.99. To order a copy go to