I begin my daily portion of Capital today on page 668, a little more than one hundred pages from the end of Volume One. My careful reading notes, filled with notations of passages I must call to the attention of my class, now fill almost nineteen pages. Inasmuch as there is more to say about this extraordinary book than even thirty-seven and a half hours of class time will allow, I need to begin the difficult business of deciding what is essential and what can, albeit reluctantly, be set aside.
Happily, I have already identified what seems to me to be the single most important sentence in the entire volume. It appears in the middle of a long paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 307 [in the Aveling and Moore translation] and continues on to page 309. The context is not important, because what Marx says could as easily have been said on every single page of the book. Here is the sentence:
"If this labourer [who is being hired for a year by a capitalist] were in possession of his own means of production, and were satisfied to live as a labourer, he need not work beyond the time necessary for the reproduction of his means of subsistence, say 8 hours a day."
Literally everything in Marx's long, complex, detailed critique of capitalism is contained in this simple sentence. Why must the nineteenth century English worker labor for ten or twelve or fourteen hours? Because, by an historical process that Marx will analyze in the final pages of Volume One, he has been deprived of access to and ownership of the means of production that he requires in order to reproduce his own existence. Why, as the productivity of the workers improves and grows, does the work day not shorten? If only six hours, or four, come to be required to reproduce the worker's means of existence, why must he still labor for eight or ten or twelve hours? Because those means of production, which his labor and that of other workers has created, are owned not by himself and his comrades, but by the capitalist, who in his role as capitalist [not as plant manager -- that is a separate matter] does nothing save own the means of production and "allow" the workers to use them. Whence comes his profit, that grows and grows as the years roll by? From the unpaid labor extracted from the workers.
If this is the sum and substance of Capital, why is the entire academic Economics profession incapable of grasping its truth? The great old American novelist Upton Sinclair had the answer: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."