Marx at 200; Capital at 150

Against the Current, No. 194, May/June 2018

Nancy Holmstrom

KARL MARX IS having a comeback today. Two hundred years after his birth and a decade beyond the 2008 financial panic, there’s growing awareness of capitalism’s propensity to crises and ecological problems, and the fact that global inequality has increased to an obscene degree.

That this is happening 150 years after the publication of Das Capital, Marx’s magnum opus, shows the importance of understanding his work. Rather than being outdated, it is even more relevant today than when it was published.

Capital is first and foremost an unsurpassed explanation of the very specific nature and development of the system of capitalist production. Relatively new in Marx’s day, this system has become so ubiquitous that its particularities are often obscure to those who live within it, as a fish might be unaware of the nature of water.

Some mainstream economists even say that “capitalism” just means an economic system that has actually existed throughout history. By equating capitalism with any society that had a market, it is thereby naturalized, seen as an expression of the natural human tendency to exchange, to buy and to sell. Capitalism, as a specific system with a very particular nature, thus disappears.

But Marx’s masterwork shows in detail the inner workings and tendencies of a very distinct kind of economy, radically different from those that existed before, which emerged in a particular historical period for particular kinds of causes. Its prescience makes it easy to see the essential similarities between his world and ours, as globalization has remade the world in its own image — as Marx said it would.

Capital’s analysis of this peculiar economic system provides us with the means to understand how this happened and why, as well as to understand both previous economies, and ones that followed capitalism.

The key concept is the idea of a mode of production that Marx develops in Capital (although the idea is present in earlier work as well). More than a concept, it is the essential methodological tool for understanding history, different societies and the potentials and limits for change within those social formations.

Implicit also in Capital, I would argue, is a moral critique of capitalism and all other class societies, and by implication, a vision of what he often referred to as a “higher form of society.”(1)

According to Marx exploitation was essential to all class societies, indeed defining of class society, both in general and of each particular form. Given that Capital is devoted to an understanding of capitalism, he devoted this work to elucidating the form that exploitation takes in this system, the extraction of surplus value. He makes clear in this passage from Volume I:

“The essential difference between the various economic forms of society, between for instance a society based on slave labor and one based on wage labor, lies only in the mode in which this surplus labor is in each case extracted from the actual producer, the laborer.” (Capital, Volume 1, New York: 1967, 217)

Or, from Volume III:

“The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labor is pumped out of direct producers determines the relations of rulers and ruled.” (Volume 3, 791)

Notice these words: extracted from and pumped out of.

From these formulations I infer that in Marx’s view:

1) a particular form of coercion and surplus extraction are connected in all class societies; in fact they are constitutive of the relations of production that define a given mode of production;

2) this is a fundamental explanatory feature of all class societies;

3) changes in forms of exploitation are critical for understanding historical change.

Exploitation Under and Beyond Capitalism

Exploitation occurs when producers lack control of their means of subsistence, and hence in order to survive are forced, directly or indirectly, to work for others who appropriate their labor’s product.

In slavery and in feudalism, both the force and the extraction of surplus are clear. In capitalism, neither the force nor the surplus are apparent: Legally speaking, workers are free to work for different employers or for none, and employers pay them a wage for their labor.

Workers, Marx says, “agree, i.e. are compelled by social conditions” (their lack of means of production/subsistence), to work for others who own/control these resources and who then reap the product of their labor. His account of primitive accumulation explains how this came about, resting, he says, on force and establishing the conditions which then force the producers to work for the owners. (Volume 1, 714)

The mode of production analysis helps us to see that exploitation also existed in post-capitalist societies. The fundamental question is always: who controls the means of production?

In Soviet-style “bureaucratic collectivist” systems (so-called because the party-bureaucracy “owns” the means of production collectively via its control of the state), it was the bureaucracy that controlled the means of production and subsistence, leaving the producers no choice but to work for them — and that controlled the surplus for their needs and purposes.

Each mode of production, as Marx understood it, has certain kinds of structures and tendencies, a certain nature if you will. To continue the quote given earlier, “it is always the direct relationship of the owners… to the producers… which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it… the corresponding form of the state.” (Volume 3, 791)

In capitalism, a competitive market system, each capitalist firm must try to maximize its own profit, in order to beat the other capitalist and get a larger share of the market. So each firm is compelled to grow, to expand, to revolutionize the forces of production in order to produce more while lowering their costs.

Whatever the variations and changes within capitalism — and there are many, as capitalism is a highly dynamic system — this is a constant. Other systems, pre- and post-capitalist, do not have this built-in imperative, this “motor” of growth. Indeed slavery and feudalism were marked by stasis and crises of underproduction, capitalism by crises of overproduction.

Gender, Race and Capital

This concept of a mode of production is important for several debates, starting with what changes are and are not possible within capitalism.

Consider gender relations: in developed capitalist countries, women have become more independent from men and more equal both legally and economically than ever before. Nevertheless, as Trump has helped to highlight they still are subject to sexual predation, their reproductive rights are insecure, and they still do the bulk of caring labor, whether free or for low pay.

Low-paid care work, being wage work, fits the account of exploitation in Capital, while the work they do for free does not. Marxist Feminists have developed an enriched account of social reproduction, which tries to supplement the account in Capital, showing the crucial importance of this unpaid and undervalued work, both in human terms and for capitalism, as it produces labor power on a daily and generational basis.(2)

The extraordinary improvements in gender relations within capitalism raise the question of whether women and men could ever be totally equal in a capitalist society. Liberals think so, contending that “it’s just about removing the remaining influences of patriarchy.”

Some Marxists also seem to imply this is possible by their contention that, unlike class oppression, sex and race oppression are not essential to capitalism. But while they are not logically essential (that is, we can imagine a gender and race-neutral version of capitalism), it does not follow that they are incidental.

Indeed, as Marxist feminists including myself have argued, they are very likely historically, pragmatically necessary. Consider what women have and have not achieved. What they’ve achieved are basic democratic rights, which do not threaten profits and indeed may augment them.

Care work in the United States is still largely a private responsibility, because supporting care as the public good it is would seriously cut into profits. In other countries with more social supports, the advent of global neoliberalism has meant drastic cutbacks in these benefits, as such supports put them at a competitive disadvantage to countries without them, like the United States and China.

Consider also, the racialization of this type of work, which is largely done by immigrants and women of color; this allows its under-valuation to be obscured or rationalized as natural and appropriate for “those kinds of women.”

Thus capitalism’s inherent nature puts constraints on gender and race equality. Today individual women and minorities have moved to the top ranks of society. At the same time however, class differences among women and among oppressed racial groups (e.g. African Americans) have actually increased.

Movements that could reduce sex and race oppression for the majority of people must be based on working class struggles, integrating the different dimensions of oppression.

Imperatives of Growth

Another and probably most important example of capital’s limits to change is the multiple ecological crises facing the planet. Its imperative to grow is simply incompatible with a sustainable environment. As the Southern regions of the United States struggle to recover from hurricanes of unprecedented strength and in the West from devastating forest fires, Americans can no longer imagine that global warming is only a problem for faraway places.

Those environmentalists who advocate a simpler no-growth economy are 100% correct — but unless they also recognize that this is impossible within capitalism, they are another variety of climate change deniers.

The concept of a mode of production is important for debates as to how to understand various societies transitioning to capitalism, some from “traditional” feudal modes of production (e.g. India) — and others coming from so-called socialist or communist modes of production. People on the left disagree as to whether capitalism, as Marx understood it, is applicable to both these kinds of societies.

Vivek Chibber,(3) using the mode of production analysis, distinguishes those features that are essential to capitalism and those that are not. Marxism does not contend that capitalist development will be uniform all over the world. Rather, it claims that certain features of capitalism are universal.

Capital’s economic needs — the most essential being profit maximization — are the defining ones. They are present in India and in fact might be abetted by the very traditional social hierarchies and oppression that “post-colonialist” writers deem to be incompatible with capitalism. Even in the West, as Chibber points out, liberal political forms did not come automatically with capitalism but had to be fought for over many centuries.

The systems that existed in the Soviet Union and China after their revolutions pose other questions. People calling themselves Marxists have disagreed from the very beginning as to how to characterize them. The mode of production analysis helps us to approach these debates.

In the Soviet Union and China under Stalin and Mao, their push for development and growth was not the same as capitalism. Unless the bureaucracy for its own reasons decided to develop something, it did not happen; there was no automatic motor that drove growth as there is in a market system. Growth stemmed from political more than economic needs.

Today these systems have changed radically. I will focus on China, the most complex and interesting of the two, relying here on the work of Richard Smith who identifies China today as a hybrid tripartite mode of production — part state-owned, part foreign-invested private-state joint venture export sector, part domestic capitalist.(4)

The foreign-invested sector of the economy, which accounts for about a third of industrial output, produces most exports and has created enormous growth (20% in this sector) helping to push China’s overall GDP to more than 10% per annum for twenty years up to 2011. (The development of this capitalist sector was similar in crucial ways to the development of capitalism in Europe.)(5)

But the other sector, of state-owned enterprises which produce half of China’s industrial output and includes the commanding heights of the economy, runs on very different imperatives.

Many of the state-owned enterprises are justly called dinosaurs because they would have gone extinct in a fully capitalist economy. But the government, nominally “communist,” cannot afford to let millions of people be unemployed. So the government keeps its zombie companies going producing steel and aluminum it can’t sell, building things like ghost cities, an airliner that costs more to produce than it would to import, etc.

This combination of market-driven growth in the largest economy in the world and the lack of even the minimal political democratic checks typical of capitalism is driving China toward what Smith has called an ecological apocalypse.

New Society — or Catastrophe

Finally, the mode of production analysis also gives us the key conditions for socialism, a “higher form of society.” As Marx conceived it, this is a society where the means of production are under collective democratic control, so the conditions for exploitation do not exist.

As expressed in this famous quote from Capital III: “the producers rationally regulate their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control… with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to and worthy of their human nature.” (Volume 3, op. cit., 820)Beyond that is the true realm of freedom, he says concluding, “the shortening of the work day is its basic prerequisite.”

Such a society would allow for more time with our families and friends, for all kinds of labor that are not profitable under capitalism, be it caring labor to enhance the health and welfare of human beings and of the Earth, artistic, and other kinds of creative work — and more time simply for leisure.

Socialism is thus inherently feminist and eco-socialist. But Marx’s vision of collective “rational regulation” of production is only possible on a global level, as the level of production has to be sufficient for everyone in the world to have a decent standard of living. Global systems of democratic governance will be required.

Today it is ever more clear that in Rosa Luxemburg’s words, humanity’s choice is between socialism and barbarism.


  1. Though this might seem obvious to most readers, it was an object of intense debate in the 1980s. See Norman Geras “The Controversy about Marx and Justice,” in Literature of Revolution (London: 1986) for an excellent summary.
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  2. In particular, Lise Vogel Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, republished version with Introduction by Susan Ferguson and David McNally (New York 2013); Johanna Brenner Women and the Politics of Class (New York: 2000).
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  3. Vivek Chibber, Post-Colonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (London: 2013).
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  4. Richard Smith, “China’s Communist Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse,”
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  5. “The Necessity of Gangster Capitalism: Primitive Accumulation in Russia and China,” Nancy Holmstrom and Richard Smith, Monthly Review, February 2000.
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May-June 2018, ATC 194