It is an almost impossible task to write an original review about Het Kapitaal by Karl H. Marx. For, every reader, and certainly your reviewer, is from the start affected with a load of prior knowledge and biases. This work has been analyzed in-depth by so many scientists, that everything has been said. Besides, it can not be ignored, that for milliards of people Het Kapitaal has been an almost religious book, and still is. The emotions and feelings, which the work has evoked everywhere in the world, can not leave the present-day reader untouched. Any criticism may feel in advance as profanation. At least your reviewer can still consult the knowledge of modern economics, which offers some counterbalance against the impressive authority of Marx.
Merely the first volume of Das Kapital has been translated in the Dutch language. That happened for the first time in 1910, by the socialists Frank van der Goes and Maurits Triebels (in the series Wereldbibliotheek by the Society for Good and Cheap Reading). More than half a century later a new translation appeared from Isaac Lipschitz (The first edition dates from 1967), and the present review is based on this. The second and third volumes of Das Kapital never appeared in the Dutch language. On the one hand this is regrettable, but on the other hand Marx himself did not publish those two volumes either. In 1867 the first volume appeared, and later until his death in 1883 he did not succeed in completing the work, despite fierce attempts. That fact raises doubts about the contents of the volumes two and three, and especially so because their contents has been criticized.
The reader must realize, that halfway the nineteenth century economics was still in its infancy. More then now it was interwoven with other social sciences, such as political science, sociology, and history. Overall, Marx follows the then common paradigm of classical economics, which was founded mainly by the well-known English theoreticians Adam Smith and David Ricardo. However, Marx is undeniably also influenced by the Historical School, which precisely in Germany lashes out at classical economics. The typical German way of thinking is apparent from the importance, which Marx attaches to social and historical analyses. Besides, during his early years Marx has a vivid interest in political philosophy, and that also affects Het Kapitaal1.
For a good understanding of the work, the reader must take into account all these factors. Unmistakably, large parts of Het Kapitaal have become obsolete or irrelevant. When during the last quarter of the nineteenth century the theory of marginal utility emerged, Marx did not succeed in adapting and integrating this innovation in his own ideas. Besides, in the mean time Het Kapitaal had become a means for propaganda of the social-democratic movement, which hindered the scientific development of the theory of Marx, both within the movement and outside of it. This petrification lasts until our times, because the works of Marx are still eagerly used for the political struggle. The adherents of Marx never came beyond repeating and pondering over the paradigm of their idol. Marx as a scientist deserves better, albeit that he has actively furthered and provoked the mixing with politics by his own actions.
After all these warnings, now the contents of the first volume of Het Kapitaal can be dissected. The core of the theory of Marx is the labour theory of value. She states, that all product prices are equal to the quantity of labour time, that is needed to generate the product (of course apart from the transformation factor from time to money). Although it seems that Smith and especially Ricardo have played with this idea before, Marx is the first person to formulate her clearly, and elaborate the details. Thus he succeeds in explaining the economic process of exchange. Following the then practice, Marx presents his theory as a hypothesis, without attempting to prove her with statistical data. It is precisely this approach, which is the stumbling-block of the Historical School. Marx builds his theory of money on the theory of exchange. Money itself is simply also a commodity, and usually rare metals (gold, silver) are chosen.
It is the hallmark of capitalism, that literally on all markets commodities are sold. Thus the production factors capital and labour also have the character of commodities. When an entrepreneur borrows capital, or hires labour, then the compensation must be sufficient to reproduce that commodity. This is the only way to guarantee the continuity of the production process. The compensation must be paid from the realization (sales) of the end product on the market. Since the product value is created thanks to the expended quantity of labour, it seems impossible to pay the interest of capital and the profit of the entrepreneur. In capitalism this financial space is yet created, namely by not compensating a part of the supplied quantity of labour. The workers toil a part of their time without pay, and during that interval generate the surplus value, which allows to pay the entrepreneur and his credit suppliers.
At the time the labour theory of value had direct political consequences. The length of the working days was absurd, with a duration of twelve hours or more. Now the surplus theory suggests, that the entrepreneurs impose such long days in order to increase their own profits. It could be less. Marx even calls this exploitation, and gives many examples of the social abuses in the then industries. Incidentally, the modern reader is not informed, whether these are excesses, or the common norm. It is interesting that Marx connects a historical analysis to this so-called exploitation, following the Historical School. Since the end of the fifteenth century the farm lands of the agricultural population have been expropriated by the rulers. The farmers lose their source of income, and henceforth are forced to sell their labour force to the ruling class of land owners and manufacturers. The excess of workers leads to low wages and bad labour conditions2.
At the start of the nineteenth century the true economic growth must yet begin. That explains why Marx pays much attention to the simple (stagnant) reproduction. However, soon an impetuous growth begins, considering the then notions. The driving force behind this growth is the rise of the labour productivity, which becomes possible due to the mechanization of the production. The equipment is actually a stock of capital goods, because money capital is required to buy it. Therefore Marx uses the term accumulation of capital for the expansion of the mechanical production. The word use of Marx is outdated, and nowadays the term investments is preferred. Marx points out, that the most innovative entrepreneurs can produce in the cheapest manner, and therefore can push their competitors from the market. In short, all entrepreneurs who want to survive, must continue with expanding their equipment. Costs precede profits.
In itself, the theory of Marx deserves appreciation. She sketches a clear picture of the economic growth, and therefore has a dynamic character. This is an advantage in comparison with the neoclassical theory, which for many decades could describe merely static systems. Besides, Marx stresses that the investments are essential for growth. Entrepreneurs can reduce their production costs by producing with ever more and larger machines. However, the positiveness of his argument has the disadvantage, that the uninformed reader may believe that it is the ultimate truth. Now that is a mistake. For, Marx merely makes an abstraction of reality, and thus constructs a fictitious world. It is true that many historical and social facts are presented, but they are not a statistical confirmation. It is quite conceivable, that Marx emphasizes the excesses, and in this way distorts reality. It is essential to always be aware of this, and to ponder over the text. Is it sound?3.
Ten years ago your reviewer read Het Kapitaal volume 1, from the beginning until the end. Was it worth the effort? Well, those who want to acquire a true economic insight, will not become much wiser from Het Kapitaal. Its value is mainly the historical meaning of the work. To be honest, this was also the reason to buy it, somewhere in 1985, together with Don Quichot and The baron of Münchhausen. According to the present standards it is written in a bad style. The repetitions and digressions are almost endless, and give the impression, that Marx takes his readers for idiots. Moreover, these repetitions sometimes lead to conflicting definitions, and to vagueness and obsurities. Due to this miserable style, the present adherents of Marx can polemize with contradicting citations - and even seem to clearly enjoy this. Nonetheless, and in conclusion, those who have time to spend and want to read, can make a worse choice than the first volume of Het Kapitaal.