Paul Johnson, The Capital of Karl Marx

His method has been well summarized by the philosopher Karl Jaspers: The style of Marx’s writings is not that of the investigator…he does not quote examples or adduce facts which run counter to his own theory but only those which clearly support or confirm that which he considers the ultimate truth. The whole approach is one of vindication, not investigation, but it is a vindication of something proclaimed as the perfect truth with the conviction not of the scientist but of the believer. In this sense, then, the ‘facts’ are not central to Marx’s work; they are ancillary, buttressing conclusions already reached independently of them.

Capital, the monument around which his life as a scholar revolved, should be seen, then, not as a scientific investigation of the nature of the economic process it purported to describe but as an exercise in moral philosophy, a tract comparable to those of Carlyle or Ruskin. It is a huge and often incoherent sermon, an attack on the industrial process and the principle of ownership by a man who had conceived a powerful but essential irrational hatred for them. Curiously enough, it does not have a central argument which acts as an organizing principle.

Marx originally, in 1857, conceived the work as consisting of six volumes: capital, land, wages and labour, the state, trade and a final volume on the world market and crises. But the methodical self-discipline needed to carry through such a plan proved beyond his power. The only volume he actually produced (which, confusingly, is two volumes) really has no logical pattern; it is a series of individual expositions arranged in arbitrary order. The French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser found its structure so confusing that he thought it ‘imperative’ that readers ignore Part One and begin with Part Two, Chapter Four. But other Marxist exegetes have hotly repudiated this interpretation.

In fact, Althusser’s approach does not help much. Engels’s own synopsis of Capital Volume One merely serves to underline the weakness or rather absence of structure. After Marx died, Engels produced Volume Two from 1500 folio pages of Marx’s notes, a quarter of which he rewrote. The result is 600 dull, messy pages on the circulation of capital, chiefly on the economic theories of the 1860s. Volume Three, on which Engels worked from 1885-93, surveys all aspects of capital not already covered but is no more than a series of notes, including 1000 pages on usury, most of them Marx’s memoranda. The material nearly all dates from the early 1860s, accumulated at the same time as Marx was working on the first volume. There was, in fact, nothing to have prevented Marx from completing the book himself, other than lack of energy and the knowledge that it simply did not cohere.

The second and third volumes are not our concern, as it is most unlikely that Marx would have produced them in this form, or indeed at all, since he had in effect stopped work on them for a decade and a half. Of Volume One, which was his work, only two chapters really matter, Chapter Eight, ‘The Working Day’, and Chapter Twenty-Four, towards the end of the second volume, ‘Primary Accumulation’, which includes the famous Section 7, ‘Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation’. This is not a scientific analysis in any sense but a simple prophecy.

There will be, Marx says, (1) ‘a progressive diminution in the number of the capitalist magnates’; (2) ‘a corresponding increase in the mass of poverty, oppression, enslavement, degeneration and exploitation’; (3) ‘a steady intensification of the wrath of the working class’. These three forces, working together, produce the Hegelian crisis, or the politico-economic version of the poetic catastrophe he had imagined as a teenager: ‘The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point where they prove incompatible with their capitalist husk. This bursts asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.’

This is very exciting and has delighted generations of socialist zealots. But it has no more claim to be a scientific projection than an astrologer’s almanac. Chapter Eight, ‘The Working Day’, does, by contrast, present itself as a factual analysis of the impact of capitalism on the lives of the British proletariat; indeed, it is the only part of Marx’s work which actually deals with the workers, the ostensible subjects of his entire philosophy. It is therefore worth examining for its ‘scientific’ value. Since, as we have already noted, Marx only really looked for facts which fitted his preconceptions, and since this militates against all the principles of scientific method, the chapter has a radical weakness from the start. But did Marx, in addition to a tendentious selection of facts, also misrepresent or falsify them? That we must now consider.

What the chapter seeks to argue, and it is the core of Marx’s moral case, is that capitalism, by its very nature, involves the progressive and increasing exploitation of the workers; thus the more capital employed, the more the workers will be exploited, and it is this great moral evil which produces the final crisis.

In order to justify his thesis scientifically, he has to prove that, (1) bad as conditions in pre-capitalist workshops were, they have become far worse under industrial capitalism; (2) granted the impersonal, implacable nature of capital, exploitation of workers rises to a crescendo in the most highly capitalized industries.

Marx does not even attempt to do (1). He writes: ‘As far as concerns the period from the beginning of large-scale industry in England down to the year 1845, I shall only touch on this here and there, referring the reader for fuller details to Friedrich Engels’s Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (Leipzig, 1845).’ Marx adds that subsequent government publications, especially factory inspectors’ reports, have confirmed ‘Engels’s insight into the nature of the capitalist method’ and showed ‘with what an admirable fidelity to detail he depicted the circumstances’. In short, all the first part of Marx’s scientific examination of working conditions under capitalism in the mid-1860s is based upon a single work, Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, published twenty years before. And what scientific value, in turn, can be attached to this single source? Engels was born in 1820, the son of a prosperous cotton manufacturer at Barmen in the Rhineland, and entered the family business in 1837. In 1842 he was sent to the Manchester office of the firm, spending twenty months in England. During that time he visited London, Oldham, Rochdale, Ashton, Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield as well as Manchester. He thus had direct experience of the textile trades but otherwise knew nothing first-hand about English conditions. For instance, he knew nothing about mining and never went down a mine; he knew nothing of the country districts or rural labour. Yet he devotes two entire chapters to ‘The Miners’ and ‘The Proletariat on the Land’.

In 1958 two exact scholars, W.O.Henderson and W.H. Challoner, retranslated and edited Engels’s book and examined his sources and the original text of all his quotations. The effect of their analysis was to destroy the objective historical value of the book almost entirely, and reduce it to what it undoubtedly was: a work of political polemic, a tract, a tirade. Engels wrote to Marx, as he was working on the book: ‘At the bar of world opinion, I charge the English middle classes with mass murder, wholesale robbery and all the other crimes in the calendar.’ That just about sums up the book: it was the case for the prosecution.

A great deal of the book, including all the examination of the pre-capitalist era and the early stages of industrialization, was based not on primary sources but on a few secondary sources of dubious value, especially Peter Gaskell’s The Manufacturing Population of England (1833), a work of Romantic mythology which attempted to show that the eighteenth century had been a golden age for English yeomen and craftsmen. In fact, as the Royal Commission on Children’s Employment of 1842 conclusively demonstrated, working conditions in the small, pre-capitalist workshops and cottages were far worse than in the big new Lancashire cotton mills. Printed primary sources used by Engels were five, ten, twenty, twenty-five or even forty years out of date, though he usually presents them as contemporary. Giving figures for the births of illegitimate babies attributed to night-shifts, he omitted to state that these dated from 1801. He quoted a paper on sanitation in Edinburgh without letting his readers know it was written in 1818. On various occasions he omitted facts and events which invalidated his out-of-date evidence completely.

It is not always clear whether Engels’s misrepresentations are deliberate deception of the reader or self-deception. But sometimes the deceit is clearly intentional. He used evidence of bad conditions unearthed by the Factories Enquiry Commission of 1833 without telling readers that Lord Althorp’s Factory Act of 1833 had been passed, and had long been in operation, precisely to eliminate the conditions the report described. He used the same deception in handling one of his main sources, Dr J.P. Kay’s Physical and Moral Conditions of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (1832), which had helped to produce fundamental reforms in local government sanitation; Engels does not mention them. He misinterpreted the criminal statistics, or ignored them when they did not support his thesis. Indeed he constantly and knowingly suppresses facts that contradict his argument or explain away a particular ‘iniquity’ he is seeking to expose. Careful checking of Engels’s extracts from his secondary sources show these are often truncated, condensed, garbled or twisted, but invariably put in quotation marks as though given verbatim.

Throughout the Henderson and Challoner edition of the book, footnotes catalogue Engels’s distortions and dishonesties. In one section alone, Chapter Seven, ‘The Proletariat’, falsehoods, including errors of fact and transcription. Marx cannot have been unaware of the weaknesses, indeed dishonesties, of Engels’s book since many of them were exposed in detail as early as 1848 by the German economist Bruno Hildebrand, in a publication with which Marx was familiar. Moreover Marx himself compounds Engels’s misrepresentations knowingly by omitting to tell the reader of the enormous improvements brought about by enforcement of the Factory Acts and other remedial legislation since the book was published and which affected precisely the type of conditions he had highlighted. In any case, Marx brought to the use of primary and secondary written sources the same spirit of gross carelessness, tendentious distortion and downright dishonesty which marked Engels’s work. Indeed they were often collaborators in deception, though Marx was the more audacious forger.

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