The best brick you’ll ever read: why Wobblies should read “Capital”

A short review by Lou Rinaldi of Capital, which he advocates for Wobblies and the like-minded to read.

Karl Marx’s “Capital” looks like a brick and weighs about the same. And it’s an old brick, from 1867. Seeing it, you might think, “I can’t do this, it’s too long, too boring. Plus, it’s so old, this cannot possibly be relevant.” You’d be wrong. And you’d be wrong to think that “Capital” is too hard for you to comprehend. I think a big problem is that, as working-class people, we doubt ourselves and our ability to be intelligent. After all, we’re told we’re stupid nearly every day by our bosses! You should be assured that although a work like “Capital” may seem like a wall that cannot be scaled, it is possible to get through it. There are even various guides out there to help you along the way that might be worth looking into!

Another reservation you might have is thinking of it as something only for academics. If Marx had intended for his work to be relegated to the universities, he would never have done the work he did. Instead he presents us with a tool: an in-depth study of capitalism, a critique of capitalist ideology, and strategy and vision for a new society. Although parts are undoubtedly difficult to read, there are others that are extremely readable. Don’t let a few tough pages hold you back, read at a pace that is comfortable. Skip parts you have trouble with and come back to them later. But don’t give up on it, it’s a book you’re supposed to read—it’s not just for European professors.

We should give “Capital” a chance, especially as members of a revolutionary union like the IWW. In the past, Wobblies have taken “Capital” and Marx’s writing seriously. So seriously that our Preamble nearly quotes Marx verbatim when it proclaims we ought to replace the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” with the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.” The founding convention of the IWW in 1905 included discussion of Marx and his ideas and after the union was formed, some IWW branches formed reading groups to study “Capital.” The IWW’s political education pamphlet “An Economic Interpretation of the Job” from 1922 was essentially a short synopsis of Marx’s ideas in “Capital.” And from the 1910s to the 1930s the IWW Work People’s College repeatedly offered courses on Marx’s critical understanding of capitalist economics. There is a history within our own organization of taking this book seriously, of studying, and using it as a tool in our work. However, there are many ways to read “Capital.” The way we should think about it is reading it politically, that is, reading it as a weapon in our hands. If we can think of it this way, then it becomes an invaluable tool, a practical book that is important for all revolutionary, class-conscious workers to read.

A Description of Capitalism Like No Other

The breadth of “Capital, Volume 1” is simply unmatched by other works on the economy. Marx was relentless in his research on how the system of capitalism functions. He researched history, economic figures, and philosophic works in order to complete the book. Each chapter in “Capital” is another piece of the puzzle for understanding how the capitalist economy functions.

“Capital” touches on everything that has become part of our everyday lives, things which every working person experiences. Why we work, how we work, how we are exploited: Marx takes these subjective experiences and puts them into a larger view of things, in the perspective of a class and class struggle. An important component of the book is a history of working-class struggle against capital and the system it tries to implement. This makes the book an important weapon for revolutionaries. It helps to know this history, and to know how the capitalist system works overall.

Take chapter 25, for instance, which is about “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.” This chapter describes the effect that creating profit has on working people in terms of wages and employment, but also the lengths that businesses must go in terms of monopolizing an industry. This describes an important element of capitalism: its flexibility and its ability to be dynamic. It has the ability to make wages and standards of living rise, to make them endurable. At the same time, it can increase the levels of exploitation and increase the amount of misery we experience. These fluctuations can create space for militant reform movements, movements like Fight For 15 that seek only to win reforms and keep capital intact while using some radical forms or strategies, to make their demands and even win them as long as the value-form is not challenged, or in other words, so long as the circulation of commodities does not stop.

A Critique of Capitalist Ideology

“Capital” becomes a weapon for revolutionaries in two ways: as a lesson on struggle and on ideology. The subheading of “Capital” is “A Critique of Political Economy.” What does Marx mean by this? His work not only shows us the technical processes that are performed in capitalism, but also the ideological war on the working-class consciousness. Namely, Marx looks to famous early economists, names that many of us will recognize: Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo.

Marx contends that while these thinkers seem to “get” capitalism, they have absolutely no understanding of the real, social processes that occur in the system. Their analysis of capitalism is only a crude interpretation of what is happening in the daily lives of workers. The result is gross dismissals of the horrors of the system, and their so-called “science” thinly veils a true disdain of the poor and exploited. In particularly damning phrases, Marx summarizes and condemns all that capitalism truly stands for, from degrading a worker “to the level of an appendage of a machine” to dragging our partners and children “beneath the wheel of the juggernaut of capital.”

A Strategy and Vision for a New Society

“Capital” is a weapon for workers, not merely a trophy on your bookshelf or an academic thought experiment. Because it chronicles the history of the implementation of capitalism and workers’ resistance to it, we learn something about ourselves when we read it. We can see ourselves in the processes and struggles that Marx describes. This is class consciousness.

The description of the working day, in chapter 10, shows how the day was lengthened and shortened through struggle. This chapter is of enormous relevance to us today as the gains of the old labor movement are torn apart and today, like then, “Capital [is] celebrating its orgies.” Recently in Poland, the eight-hour workday was taken away from the workers, and in the global South the working day remains similar to Marx’s time: 12 or more hours a day. If Poland, whose loss of privileges won through struggle, is an indicator of anything, it may be that this is the direction the West is going. Without a combative movement to fight for something better we will see more places go in the direction that Poland has gone in.

In identifying the features of capitalism, “Capital” gives us some heading. It shows us that our workplaces are battlegrounds of conflict. It shows us that our lived experiences are important and worth fighting for, to improve them, to live in a truly human community. It shows us, conscious revolutionaries, how to examine the economy to choose the best places to strike and advance the struggle, to make gains for our class.

In reading “Capital” it’s important to remember that in the struggles of workers we can see the beginning of the creation of a new society, a classless society. “The only way to understand the system is through conceiving of its destruction,” as the Italian radical publication Quaderni Rossi put it in 1962 (as quoted in Steve Wright’s “Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism”). Or, as Marx once put it, we need to “imagine, for a change, an association of free men (sic), working with the means of production held in common.” As IWW members and members of the working class, this is our struggle. “Capital” describes in detail what we’re fighting against and enriches our fight to achieve a new society.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2014)