07 September 2011

Introduction to the new course: Karl Marx’s Capital, Volumes 2 and 3

Capital Volumes 2 and 3

General Introduction to Karl Marx’s Capital, Volumes 2 and 3

What we are looking for is a way to pass through these works, which appear difficult, and long.

This will not be done by examining every detail, but it will be done in such a way as we can gain an idea of the scope and direction of Marx’s intentions.


Fortunately, Marx’s division of Volume 2 into three Parts, and Volume 3 into seven Parts, will allow a convenient arrangement of the two volumes together into a “Generic Course” of ten parts, like the other eleven courses of the Communist University.

Each Part of the two books is further divided into several Chapters. We will not attempt to tackle each chapter, or to amalgamate chapters. Instead, as a rule, a suitable chapter will be chosen from each part to serve as basis for discussion, while the Introduction will attempt to relate the chosen chapter to the entire Part.

Thus, while we will not have completed an exhaustive reading of the two works, yet we will have a much better idea of their scope, their shape, and their trajectory, and with luck, a good understanding of some of their highlights, or “salient points”.

Those will be deemed suitable chapters for discussion which are short enough, and written in prose rather than relying on formulae. Otherwise, the content of the chapters will dictate.

The Puzzle of Volumes 2 & 3

The major question that arises with Volumes 2 & 3 of “Capital” is whether, as Engels wrote in his Preface to Volume 3, they contain “the most important parts of the entire work”, or whether Volume 1 remains the essential answer to the quest for “the secret of the self-increase of capital” - surplus value.  Marx’s words, also from the beginning of Volume 3, provide a clue:

“The various forms of capital, as evolved in this book, thus approach step by step the form which they assume on the surface of society, in the action of different capitals upon one another, in competition, and in the ordinary consciousness of the agents of production themselves.”

It is becoming a fashion to quote from Volume 3 in particular, in a manner that implies that a good knowledge of Volume 1 is not enough any more, or can be “trumped” by those with knowledge of Volume 3.

But if it is understood that Marx’s purpose was to challenge “economics”, and not to confirm it, and thereby to go beneath “the ordinary consciousness of the agents of production” to the real relations that exist, then Volume 1 must remain the ruling and determinant volume out of the three main volumes (Volume Four is Marx’s summarised reading notes, called “Theories of Surplus Value”).

If this is the case, then the purpose of Volumes 2 & 3 is to return to “the surface of society” so as to look at its surface phenomena in the light of the discoveries of Volume 1. Volumes 2 & 3 are then derivative of Volume 1 and do not supersede or surpass Volume 1’s “Critique of Political Economy”.

If this is the case, then the vogue for Volume 3 is clearly a retreat, and can only pass as a superior knowledge by virtue of the fact that relatively few of the “Marxian school” of today have actually studied Volumes 2 and 3, or in many cases, even Volume 1 of “Capital”.

This is a strong incentive towards covering these works. If it is the case that pseudo-Marxists and “Legal Marxists” are using the extrapolations of the great Volume 1 into the surface of society to re-present Marx as an economist of the surface, like themselves, then Marx needs defending. To construct that defence, it should be necessary to study more closely what is actually contained in Volumes 2 & 3.

To consult a different study guide mainly composed of questions but with some fruitful links, go to the MIA Study Guide for Capital Volume Two, and the MIA Study Guide for Capital Volume Three.