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The Essential Marx

The Essential Marx

by Karl Marx

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Shortly before he was assassinated in 1940, Leon Trotsky — one of Marx's most devoted converts and a key figure in the Russian Revolution — made this selection from Capital, to which he appended his own lengthy and insightful introduction. Compact and fascinating, this invaluable work not only presents Marx's thoughts in his own words but also


Shortly before he was assassinated in 1940, Leon Trotsky — one of Marx's most devoted converts and a key figure in the Russian Revolution — made this selection from Capital, to which he appended his own lengthy and insightful introduction. Compact and fascinating, this invaluable work not only presents Marx's thoughts in his own words but also places them in the swirling context of the 20th century. A critical analysis of ideas that have influenced millions of lives for well over a century, this book will be an important addition to the libraries of students and instructors of economics, history, government, and Communist thought.

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The Essential Marx

By Karl Marx

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12231-1



KARL MARX was born May 5, 1818, at Trier, Germany, into the family of a Jewish liberal lawyer, converted to Protestantism in 1824. In the autumn of 1843 Marx moved to Paris, where he edited a revolutionary periodical and where he first met Friedrich Engels, to whom he became bound by life-long friendship. In the spring of 1847 Marx and Engels joined the clandestine Communist League. Expelled from Germany and France by the counterrevolution, Marx moved to London, where he lived with his family to the end of his days. Under his leadership the First International was founded at London in 1864. Marx's activities as a scholar were indissolubly connected with the revolutionary struggle. On March 14, 1883, seated in his working chair, Marx fell into eternal slumber. With his passing, as Engels put it, mankind became a head lower. Marx was buried in Highgate cemetery; London.



This book compactly sets forth the fundamentals of Marx's economic teaching in Marx's own words. After all, no one has yet been able to expound the labor theory of value better than Marx himself.

Certain of Marx's argumentations, especially in the first, the most difficult chapter, may seem to the uninitiated reader far too discursory, hair-splitting, or "metaphysical." As a matter of fact, this impression arises in consequence of the want of habit to approach overly habitual phenomena scientifically. The commodity has become such an all-pervasive, customary, and familiar part of our daily existence that we do not even attempt to consider why men relinquish important objects, needed to sustain life, in exchange for tiny discs of gold or silver that are of no earthly use whatever. The matter is not limited to the commodity. One and all of the categories of market economy seem to be accepted without analysis, as self-evident, as if they were the natural basis of human relations. Yet, while the realities of the economic process are human labor, raw materials, tools, machines, division of labor, the necessity to distribute finished products among the participants of the labor process, and the like, such categories as "commodity," "money," "wages," "capital," "profit," "tax," and the like are only semi-mystical reflections in men's heads of the various aspects of a process of economy which they do not understand and which is not under their control. To decipher them, a thoroughgoing scientific analysis is indispensable.

In the United States, where a man who owns a million is referred to as being "worth" a million, market concepts have sunk in deeper than anywhere else. Until quite recently Americans gave very little thought to the nature of economic relations. In the land of the most powerful economic system economic theory continued to be exceedingly barren. Only the present deep-going crisis of, American economy has bluntly confronted public opinion with the fundamental problems of capitalist society. In any event, whoever has not overcome the habit of uncritically accepting the ready-made ideological reflections of economic development, whoever has not reasoned out, in the footsteps of Marx, the essential nature of the commodity as the basic cell of the capitalist organism, will prove to be forever incapable of scientifically comprehending the most important manifestations of our epoch.


Having established science as cognition of the objective recurrences of nature, man has tried stubbornly and persistently to exclude himself from science, reserving for himself special privileges in the shape of alleged intercourse with supersensory forces (religion), or with timeless moral precepts (idealism). Marx deprived man of these odious privileges definitely and forever, looking upon him as a natural link in the evolutionary process of material nature; upon human society as the organization of production and distribution; upon capitalism as a stage in the development of human society.

It was not Marx's aim to discover the "eternal laws" of economy. He denied the existence of such laws. The history of the development of human society is the history of the succession of various systems of economy, each operating in accordance with its own laws. The transition from one system to another was always determined by the growth of the productive forces, i. e., of technique and the organization of labor. Up to a certain point, social changes are quantitative in character and do not alter the foundations of society, i.e., the prevalent forms of property. But a point is reached when the matured productive forces can no longer contain themselves within the old forms of property; then follows a radical change in the social order, accompanied by shocks. The primitive commune was either superseded or supplemented by slavery; slavery was succeeded by serfdom with its feudal superstructure; the commercial development of cities brought Europe in the sixteenth century to the capitalist order, which thereupon passed through several stages. In his Capital Marx does not study economy in general, but capitalist economy, which has its own specific laws. Only in passing does he refer to other economic systems, to elucidate the characteristics of capitalism.

The self-sufficient economy of the primitive peasant family has no need of a "political economy," for it is dominated on the one hand by the forces of nature and on the other by the forces of tradition. The self-contained natural economy of the Greeks or the Romans, founded on slave labor, was ruled by the will of the slave-owner, whose "plan" in turn was directly determined by the laws of nature and routine. The same might also be said about the medieval estate with its peasant serfs. In all these instances economic relations were clear and transparent in their primitive crudity. But the case of contemporary society is altogether different. It destroyed the old self-contained connections and the inherited modes of labor. The new economic relations have linked cities and villages, provinces and nations. Division of labor has encompassed the planet. Having shattered tradition and routine, these bonds have not composed themselves according to some definite plan, but rather apart from human consciousness and foresight. The interdependence of men, groups, classes, nations, which follows from division of labor, is not directed by anyone. People work for each other without knowing each other, without inquiring about one another's needs, in the hope, and even with the assurance, that their relations will somehow regulate themselves. And by and large they do, or rather, were wont to.

It is utterly impossible to seek the causes for the recurrences in capitalist society in the subjective consciousness — in the intentions or plans — of its members. The objective recurrences of capitalism were formulated before science began to think about them seriously. To this day the preponderant majority of men know nothing about the laws that govern capitalist economy. The whole strength of Marx's method was in his approach to economic phenomena, not from the subjective point of view of certain persons, but from the objective point of view of the development of society as a whole, just as an experimental natural scientist approaches a beehive or an ant-hill.

For economic science the decisive significance is what and how people act, not what they themselves think about their actions. At the base of society is not religion and morality, but nature and labor. Marx's method is materialistic, because it proceeds from existence to consciousness, not the other way around. Marx's method is dialectic, because it regards both nature and society as they evolve, and evolution itself as the constant struggle of conflicting forces.


Marx had his predecessors. Classical political economy — Adam Smith, David Ricardo — reached its full bloom before capitalism had grown old, before it began to fear the morrow. Marx paid to both great classicists the perfect tribute of profound gratitude. Nevertheless the basic error of classical economics was its view of capitalism as humanity's normal existence for all time instead of merely as one historical stage in the development of society. Marx began with a criticism of that political economy, exposed its errors, as well as the contradictions of capitalism itself, and demonstrated the inevitability of its collapse.

Science does not reach its goal in the hermetically sealed study of the scholar, but in flesh-and-blood society. All the interests and passions that rend society asunder exert their influence on the development of science — especially of political economy, the science of wealth and poverty. The struggle of workers against capitalists forced the theoreticians of the bourgeoisie to turn their backs upon a scientific analysis of the system of exploitation and to busy themselves with a bare description of economic facts, a study of the economic past and, what is immeasurably worse, a downright falsification of things as they are for the purpose of justifying the capitalist regime. The economic doctrine which is nowadays taught in official institutions of learning and preached in the bourgeois press offers no dearth of important factual material, yet it is utterly incapable of encompassing the economic process as a whole and discovering its laws and perspectives, nor has it any desire to do so. Official political economy is dead.


In contemporary society man's cardinal tie is exchange. Any product of labor that enters into the process of exchange becomes a commodity. Marx began his investigation with the commodity and deduced from that fundamental cell of capitalist society those social relations that have objectively shaped themselves on the basis of exchange, independently of man's will. Only by pursuing this course is it possible to solve the fundamental puzzle — how in capitalist society, in which each man thinks for himself and no one thinks for all, are created the relative proportions of the various branches of economy indispensable to life.

The worker sells his labor power, the farmer takes his produce to the market, the money lender or banker grants loans, the storekeeper offers an assortment of merchandise, the industrialist builds a plant, the speculator buys and sells stocks and bonds — each having his own considerations, his own private plan, his own concern about wages or profit. Nevertheless, out of this chaos of individual strivings and actions emerges a certain economic whole, which, true, is not harmonious, but contradictory, yet does give society the possibility not merely to exist but even to develop. This means that, after all, chaos is not chaos at all, that in some way it is regulated automatically, if not consciously. To understand the mechanism whereby various aspects of economy are brought into a state of relative balance, is to discover the objective laws of capitalism.

Clearly, the laws which govern the various spheres of capitalist economy — wages, price, land rent, profit, interest, credit, the stock exchange — are numerous and complex. But in the final reckoning they come down to the single law that Marx discovered and explored to the end; that is, the law of labor value, which is indeed the basic regulator of capitalist economy. The essence of that law is simple. Society has at its disposal a certain reserve of living labor power. Applied to nature, that power produces products necessary for the satisfaction of human needs. In consequence of division of labor among independent producers, the products assume the form of commodities. Commodities are exchanged for each other in a given ratio, at first directly, and eventually through the medium of gold or money. The basic property of commodities, which in a certain relationship makes them equal to each other, is the human labor expended upon them — abstract labor, labor in general — the basis and the measure of value. Division of labor among millions of scattered producers does not lead to the disintegration of society, because commodities are exchanged according to the socially necessary labor time expended upon them. By accepting and rejecting commodities, the market, as the arena of exchange, decides whether they do or do not contain within themselves socially necessary labor, thereby determines the ratios of the various kinds of commodities necessary for society, and consequently also the distribution of labor power according to the various trades.

The actual processes of the market are immeasurably more complex than has been here set forth in but a few lines. Thus, oscillating around the value of labor, prices fluctuate above and below their values. The causes of these deviations are fully explained in the third volume of Marx's Capital, which describes "the process of capitalist production considered as a whole." Nevertheless, great as may be the divergences between the prices and the values of commodities in individual instances, the sum of all prices is equal to the sum of all values, for in the final reckoning only the values that have been created by human labor are at the disposal of society, and prices cannot break through this limitation, including even the monopoly prices of trusts; where labor has created no new value, there even Rockefeller can get nothing.


But if commodities are exchanged for each other according to the quantity of labor invested in them, how does inequality come out of equality? Marx solved this puzzle by exposing the peculiar nature of one of the commodities, which lies at the basis of all other commodities: namely, labor power. The owner of means of production, the capitalist, buys labor power. Like all other commodities, it is evaluated according to the quantity of labor invested in it, i.e., of those means of subsistence which are necessary for the survival and the reproduction of the worker. But the consumption of that commodity — labor power — consists of work, i.e., the creation of new values. The quantity of these values is greater than those which the worker himself receives and which he expends for his upkeep. The capitalist buys labor power in order to exploit it. It is this exploitation which is the source of inequality.

That part of the product which goes to cover the worker's own subsistence Marx calls necessary-produce; that part which the worker produces above this, is surplus-produce. Surplus-produce must have been produced by the slave, or the slave-owner would not have kept any slaves. Surplus-produce must have been produced by the serf, or serfdom would have been of no use to the landed gentry. Surplus-produce, only to a considerably greater extent, is likewise produced by the wage worker, or the capitalist would have no need to buy labor power. The class struggle is nothing else than the struggle for surplus-produce. He who owns surplus-produce is master of the situation — owns wealth, owns the state, has the key to the church, to the courts, to the sciences, and to the arts.


Relations amongst capitalists, who exploit the workers, are determined by competition, which for long endures as the mainspring of capitalist progress. Large enterprises enjoy technical, financial, organizational, economic and, last but not least, political advantages over small enterprises. The greater amount of capital, being able to exploit a greater number of workers, inevitably emerges victorious out of a contest. Such is the unalterable basis of the concentration and centralization process of capital.

While stimulating the progressive development of technique, competition gradually consumes, not only the intermediary layers, but itself as well. Over the corpses and semi-corpses of small and middling capitalists emerges an ever-decreasing number of ever more powerful capitalist overlords. Thus, out of honest, democratic, progressive competition grows irrevocably harmful, parasitic, reactionary monopoly. Its sway began to assert itself in the eighties of the past century, assuming definite shape at the turn of the present century. Now the victory of monopoly is openly acknowledged by the most official representatives of bourgeois society. Yet when in the course of his prognosis Marx had first deduced monopoly from the inherent tendencies of capitalism, the bourgeois world had looked upon competition as an eternal law of nature.


Excerpted from The Essential Marx by Karl Marx. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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