Celebrating 150 Years of Karl Marx’s “Capital” in New York City
On September 14, 1867, the Börsenblatt des deutschen Buchhandels informed the public of the publication of “Capital, Volume I: The Process of Production of Capital” by Karl Marx. Exactly 150 years later, on September 14, 2017, the New York office of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung celebrated the anniversary of Marx’s magnum opus. Jointly hosted with the Goethe-Institut New York, the sold-out event featured contributions by distinguished Marxist scholar David Harvey, Professor Emeritus Nancy Holmstrom (Rutgers University), and Ajay Singh Chaudhary of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
If New York City seems a far cry from Karl Marx’s native Germany, the location is more than purely coincidental. While “Das Kapital” was first published in Hamburg by Otto Meissner, it was simultaneously distributed by the Manhattan-based publishing house L.W. Schmidt. Marx had always been a broad thinker, and his political analysis was not confined to the German context. As European correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, Marx wrote on current political issues in the United States, in particular the American Civil War and what was then known as the “slavery crisis.”
The decision to co-host the anniversary event in New York City was therefore “right on point,” as RLS–NYC co-director Albert Scharenberg, who moderated the discussion, put it. 150 years after its initial publication, “Capital” remains “seductive as hell”—not only to David Harvey, one of the world’s leading Marxist scholars, but also to a large NYC crowd. Filled to the last seat, the event took the audience on a journey that was both timely and non-dogmatic: Moving from the historical context of the publication of “Capital” in the mid-19th century to the present, the speakers discussed the relevance of Marx’s work for contemporary political theory and explored how applicable it is to the political struggles of today.
David Harvey set the stage by situating “Capital” within the broader framework of Marx’s political-economic analysis. This contextualization was meant as both a reassessment and a critique of Marx’s work. If Marx was not always right, as Harvey noted, he was certainly always willing to constantly correct himself. In the spirit of Marxism, reading “Capital” today requires us to challenge, and adjust, the work’s foundational concepts to changed geographical and historical circumstances. Ajay Singh Chaudhary proposed that the goal should not be to search for dialectical perfection, but rather to formulate a Marxism that is “more willing to engage with this messy material universe” in which we find ourselves today.
This messiness was also addressed by Nancy Holmstrom, who reminded the audience that while we might see improvements in some spheres of our social world—for example, the fact that women today are more independent from and more equal to men than they have ever been before—we tend to overlook more persistent gender and racial inequalities. If all seems well under the cloak of what Nancy Fraser calls “progressive neoliberalism”—with its advances toward “diversity,” “empowerment,” “non-discrimination,” “emancipation,” and “progress”—capitalism continues to put major constraints on actual liberation. Given how essential sexual and racial exploitation are to the capitalist system, as Marxist (or socialist) feminists we need movements based in working-class struggles that allow us to link issues of racial and gender equality with economic justice.
In addition, if Marx is to be relevant to our political situation today, we need to steer away from any sort of moralistic (and potentially reactionary) critique of capitalism—whether it means demonizing acts of “gluttonous consumerism” or romanticizing anti-capitalist utopian visions. Rather, the contemporary relevance of “Capital” lies in its ability to make us understand the logic of an inherently contradictory system that results in ever-greater levels of inequality, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. What capitalism teaches us is the perfection of market logic: If there is no actual need or desire for commodities, then you have to create that need, stoke that desire.
Instead, “Capital” teaches us that within this contradiction lies the seed of class struggle. Today, certain features of capitalism, such as profit maximization, are no longer limited to the Western world or to industrialized nations, but have become universal features. According to Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the legitimate response to this situation is an unafraid, open reading of Marx’s work that allows for a ruthless critique of the current political state. It also means putting in place the key elements for a socialist society to come—most importantly by handing over control of the means of production to workers and advancing “a strategy of decommodification” of education, healthcare, basic food supplies, housing, and transport.
In this sense, “Capital” is both “a magnificent piece of literature,” as Harvey suggests, and a durable analytical tool. Containing an “essential truth” that still resonates 150 years later, Marx’s critique gets right to the heart of the matter. It exposes that the fundamental nature of capitalism is not a virtuous cycle but rather a spiral constantly threatening to spin out of control. If we want to stop this spiraling effect, we need to develop a concrete vision for an alternative world to come—a world that is socially just as well as economically sustainable.