History. On Sept. 11, Karl Marx's work will turn 150. The writing of the book, begun in 1862, was devastated by the economic poverty of the author and his precarious health.

The difficult genesis of ‘Das Kapital’

Perhaps the most influential work of all time, which has helped to shape the world over the last 150 years, had a long and difficult gestation. Marx began to write Das Kapital only a few years after starting his studies of political economy. Even though he had criticized private property and the alienated labor of capitalist society since 1844, it was only after the financial panic of 1857, which began in the United States and then spread to Europe, when he felt obliged to set aside his endless research and start drawing up what he called his “Economy.”

With the rise of the crisis, Marx anticipated the birth of a new season of social upheavals and felt that the most urgent thing to do was to provide the proletariat with the critique of the capitalist production model, as a prerequisite for overcoming it. So, the Grundrisse were created: eight massive notebooks in which, among other things, he examined the pre-capitalist economic formations and described some characteristics of communist society, underlining the importance of freedom and the development of the individual.

The revolutionary movement, which he believed would arise because of the crisis, remained an illusion, and Marx did not publish his manuscripts. He was aware of how far he was from mastering the subjects he faced. The only part that went to the printer’s, after a profound re-write of the “Chapter on Money,” was ”A Critique of Political Economy,” a text that came out in 1859 that was reviewed by only one person: Fredrick Engels.

Marx planned to divide his work into six books. They would have been devoted to capital, ownership of property, wage labor, the state, foreign trade and world market. However, when in 1862, as a result of the American civil war, the New York Tribune fired its European correspondents. Marx — who had worked for the American newspaper for over a decade — and his family returned to live in terrible poverty, as they had suffered during the early years of their London exile. He had only Engels’ help, to whom he wrote: “Every day, my wife tells me that she would like to be in the grave with the girls, and, in truth, I cannot blame her because the humiliations and the pains we are suffering are really indescribable.”

His condition was so desperate that, in the darkest weeks, there was no food for their daughters and no paper to write on. He also sought employment in an English railroad office. However, he was not hired because of his bad handwriting. Therefore, in order to cope with their poverty, Marx’s work continued to suffer great delays.

Nonetheless, at this time, in a long manuscript titled Theories of Surplus Value, he carried out a very thorough criticism of the way in which all major economists had misunderstood the surplus value as profit or income. For Marx, it was the specific form through which exploitation in capitalism manifests itself.

Workers spend part of their day working for the capitalist free of cost. The latter tries to generate surplus value by means of surplus labor: “It is no longer enough for the worker to produce in general; he must produce surplus value.” That is, he must serve the self-revaluation of capital. Stealing even a few minutes from meal breaks or rest time of each worker means moving a huge amount of wealth into the pockets of the owners. Intellectual development, the fulfillment of social tasks, and public holidays are just “pure and simple frills” for the capital. “Après moi le déluge!” was the motto of the capitalists according to Marx — even in view of the ecological question (taken into account by him as few other authors of his time could) — even though they hypocritically opposed regulations on factories in the name of “full freedom of labor.” Reducing work schedules, coupled with an increase in the value of labor force, was therefore the first ground on which the class struggle was fought.

In 1862, Marx chose the title for his book: Capital. He believed he could immediately start drafting the final version, but on top of the already serious financial vicissitudes, some very serious health problems were added. Indeed, the disease that his wife Jenny described as “the terrible illness” appeared, which Marx had to fight for many years of his life. He was afflicted by the carbuncle, a horrible infection that manifested itself with the onset of a series of skin abscesses and extensive, debilitating carbuncle in several parts of the body. Due to a deep ulcer, followed by the appearance of a large anthrax honeycomb, Marx underwent surgery and “remained for a long time at risk of his life.” His family was on the edge of the abyss, more than ever.

The Moor (this was his nickname), however, recovered and, until December 1865, realized the true design of what would become his magnum opus. In addition, since the fall of 1864, he attended the meetings of the International Workers’ Association, for which he had written all the major political documents during eight very intense years. He studied by day in the library, to keep up with the new discoveries, and carried on writing his manuscript overnight: This was the disastrous routine that Marx took until he’d exhausted all of his energy and his body grew weary.

Though he had downsized his initial project from six to three volumes, Marx did not want to abandon the intention of publishing them all together. In fact, he wrote to Engels: “I cannot decide to deliver anything before everything is in front of me. Whatever defects they may have, this is the value of my books: They constitute an artistic work, achievable only by my system of not giving them to the printers until I have them completed in front of me.”

Marx’s dilemma — “clean up a part of the manuscript and deliver it to the editor or finish writing everything first” — was solved by events. Marx was struck by another attack of carbuncle, the most virulent of all, and his life was in danger. The doctors told him that the causes of his relapse were overwork and the constant sleepless nights at work: “The disease came from the head.” Because of this, Marx decided to focus only on the First Book, the one related to the “Capital Production Process.”

However, the carbuncle continued to torment him, and for weeks, Marx was not even able to sit. He even attempted a surgery on himself. He got a sharp razor and told Engels that he had “taken out that damn thing himself.” This time, the completion of the work was not procrastinated because of “theory,” but for “physical and bourgeois reasons.”

When, in April 1867, the manuscript was finally completed, Marx asked his friend in Manchester — who had been helping him for a decade — to send him money to redeem “the clothes and watch deposited at the pawn shop.” Marx had survived without them. He could not leave for Germany, where he was expected to hand the manuscript over to the printer. The draft corrections lasted all summer, and when Engels pointed out to Marx that the exposure of the form of value was too abstract and “he resented the persecution of the carbuncles,” he replied: “I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my abscesses until the day of its death.”

Das Kapital was marketed on Sept. 11, 1867. A century and a half later, it is among the most translated, sold and discussed books in the history of humanity. For those who want to understand what capitalism really is, and for the workers who strive for a “superior form of society whose fundamental principle is the full and free development of each individual,” Das Kapital is today, more than ever, a simply essential reading.


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