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

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)

Comments

Chilli Sauce
Apr 10 2014 10:15
lou wrote:
Last year in the Industrial Worker I wrote a review of Fighting For Ourselves

Is it in the libcom library?

Quote:
Fighting for Ourselves
Maybe SelfEd?

As part of a now over year's long project, I've been committed to doing an audio recording of both these books for SF website and probably librivox and libcom. For SelfEd especially - which is pretty damn long - one of the ideas was to get a different person to read each chapter so we have a nice mix of accents and genders and all that good stuff. So, if anyone's interested in making this happen, drop me a PM.

CantDo wrote:
I'd go so far to say that at least another 30%-40% of people would really struggle with a text like capital and would have never attempted a book of that density and would not be familiar with reading long academic economic, political or philosophical texts. The majority of people basically would see a capital reading group and go ''thats not for me''.

...which is why a reading group is ideal.

And, Cantdo, I don't want to make this personal (and, in fact, if you want me to delete this part of the comment, just say it) but I know you've given/arranged talks on anarchism. You know what dude, for the vast majority of the population, they're going to see something like that advertised and say "that's not for me".

And that's okay as the point lou is making is that committed revolutionaries should make the effort to read capital. Not that they should force there non-revolutionary co-workers to or that the IWW should make it required reading for new members, only that committed revolutionaries, of their own accord and preferably in groups, should read capital. That's it.

ocelot
Apr 10 2014 13:24
Chilli Sauce wrote:
And that's okay as the point lou is making is that committed revolutionaries should make the effort to read capital. Not that they should force there non-revolutionary co-workers to or that the IWW should make it required reading for new members, only that committed revolutionaries, of their own accord and preferably in groups, should read capital. That's it.

Sure, there's an implied context of a ladder of engagement style progression. First step is moving co-workers (or neighbours) towards joining the union (or residents assoc. or other mass org) as participating members. Next moving members to activists and then organisers. Next moving organisers to being convinced revolutionaries. Then comes the question of what convinced revolutionaries can do to develop themselves as better revolutionaries - and learning a deeper understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, is very much part of that. Reading Capital is not the only way to do that, or a final "one stop shop" answer to everything. But it's very useful - at the appropriate level of engagement.

ocelot
Apr 10 2014 13:38
RedEd wrote:
In my experience, [reading groups] are still sometimes places people who struggle with texts can have an easier time reading them cos they can usually find some other people in the group who can help them out with a bit they struggled with.

However the opposite can definitely happen where the group becomes a space to show off. I know discussing Marx in discussion groups I've often felt that temptation to use some bit of knowledge on, like, the peculiarities of industrial production in Manchester or whatever to seem all clever. It's a dick move so I try not to, but things like that can be used by academic oriented socialists to control and, in the end, deaden a group.

Sorry this is a derail, but I wanted to write it out so I remember it better. I think the above distinction between supportive or solidaristic space and competitive space is key. From anti-oppression politics we have the concept of "safe space", but that doesn't always consciously recognise the need for such a space to suppress competitive behaviour (sometimes quite the opposite!). I think its useful for us to raise the need to see supportive or cooperative space in terms of the competitive/solidaristic binary as well, not just safe/unsafe. Particularly as regards making allowances for the hierarchisation of class in terms of access to education and prior political literacy. Otherwise "safe spaces" can be made pretty hostile to those working class people who never went to college or haven't a family culture of voracious reading.

lou.rinaldi
Apr 10 2014 20:56
Chilli Sauce wrote:
lou wrote:
Last year in the Industrial Worker I wrote a review of Fighting For Ourselves

Is it in the libcom library?

It is! Actually, was in the IW exactly a year ago. Weird. I will note that I totally did not come up with the lame title for it, I believe Nate Hawthorne is to blame for that. smile http://libcom.org/library/reviews-primer-anarcho-syndicalism-all-read

Nate
Apr 11 2014 03:03
cantdocartwheels wrote:
22% off the UK population are functionally illiterate so would have no chance at reading a chapter of capital a week,. I'd go so far to say that at least another 30%-40% of people would really struggle with a text like capital

100% of people struggle to read a text like capital, and "20% of people have trouble reading" is a weird argument for saying 0% of people should try to read hard books.

That aside, I got a lot out of what RedEd and Ocelot said about supportive vs competitive behavior in lefty environments. Respectfully, one or both of y'all should write that up as a blog post/article.

on this -

ocelot wrote:
making allowances for the hierarchisation of class in terms of access to education and prior political literacy. Otherwise "safe spaces" can be made pretty hostile to those working class people who never went to college or haven't a family culture of voracious reading.

I think that's an important point. My dad and one of my brothers both have a learning disability and they're latino and the combination of the two was that schools made them feel stupid. IMHO they're both really smart, my dad taught himself all kinds of computer shit and he reads books a lot, my brother quit high school and taught himself a bunch of stuff he used to get construction jobs that pay better than anything I've ever worked. I've got more formal education than they do and when I was younger I would sometimes use words I learned in college and things would get tense, either with them feeling stupid or them thinking I was trying to one up. It's not intelligence that's the issue though, it's that they don't speak particular high-status vocabularies. Some of those vocabularies IMHO are basically built mostly or at least partially to play status games. (My wife had a chronic cough for like a month once and went to the doctor and he listened to her breathing and listened to a cough and said "you're having bronchial spasms" and she said "explain that to me" and he said "something in your lung is twitching" and she said "oh, so you're telling me I'm coughing, I knew that actually, maybe you could tell me why it's happening, or what to do about it?" and he was like "wait another month and come back." It's a minor thing but he translated what she told him into expert vocabulary and acted like that meant something. Not to say that's all that medicine does, of course.) I think in trying to do collective self-education it's important to be aware of that kind of thing and try and lessen it's influence. I think Capital reading groups and similar efforts are one of many ways to do some of that. Setting up books like that as inaccessible and something for experts is how those experts get to be experts and play status games, kinda like the old timey church guarding the bible and not translating it out of Latin or whatever.

vicent
Apr 17 2014 02:36

Why not just read Hamburgers vs value?

lou.rinaldi
Apr 24 2014 14:13

Just wanted to share that Black Orchid Collective recently put out a piece called "DIY Study Strategies" that may be of interest to folks.

Anarcho
Jul 18 2015 11:30

I would suggest that before you start on Capital you should make yourself familiar with Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations as well as David Ricard's The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. This will help put Marx's work in context -- otherwise it may not be completely clear what he is getting at.

Also, remember that in volume 1 Marx writes at a high-level of abstraction -- ignoring competition and assuming all industries have the same level of capital investment, for example. Unless that is remembered, it may all get a bit confusing -- as I became when I first tried to read Capital decades ago!

Being me, I should also note that Marx applies the methodology that he attacked Proudhon for using in his System of Economic Contradictions. In 1847 it was a case that Marx thought you had to discuss everything -- and its history! -- at the same time as the use of abstraction and categories meant idealism. By 1857 he finally realised the impossibility of doing this and instead embraced the methodology he had previously mocked Proudhon for using -- and, of course, never admitting he was wrong.

And, of course, his theory of exploitation in Capital is basically Proudhon's as expounded in What is Property? and System of Economic Contradictions. Marx has no real theory of exploitation in The Poverty of Philosophy beyond market exchange equals capitalism and somehow producing commodities results in workers being exploited. So no theory of how exploitation happens in production as a result of wage-labour, unlike Proudhon.

Anyways, getting beyond what I initially wanted to say -- which was read Smith and Ricardo first as this will help you understand Capital better.

Khawaga
Jul 18 2015 15:42

In my opinion that is completely unnecessary. Sure if you want to really understand the critique of political economy that makes sense, but not needed if you just want to understand Marx. Then you pick up a companion instead.

Oh, and Marx does discuss competition briefly in the context of SNLT and the production of relative surplus-value, but does leave the details for vol. 3.

Quote:
Being me, I should also note that Marx applies the methodology that he attacked Proudhon for using in his System of Economic Contradictions. In 1847 it was a case that Marx thought you had to discuss everything -- and its history! -- at the same time as the use of abstraction and categories meant idealism. By 1857 he finally realised the impossibility of doing this and instead embraced the methodology he had previously mocked Proudhon for using -- and, of course, never admitting he was wrong.

Proudhon was a Hegelian?

Pennoid
Jul 18 2015 15:56

Yeah, the first couple chapters are a bit tough to grasp. But, things like Heinrich's intro and Rubin etc. are useful for thinking about abstract labor, value etc.

Nate
Jul 19 2015 22:37
Khawaga wrote:
In my opinion that is completely unnecessary.

Probly more than that, probly counter-productive. You want to read a book, read that book. The longer the list of things you have to do before you have permission to read a book, the less likely you are to actually read the book.

Khawaga
Jul 19 2015 23:35

Good point. And I would add, reading Harvey's companion is also counterproductive.