Re-reading Capital is for me a rare experience. I feel as though I am once again spending my time as I was meant to do, not devoting it to the uncontrollable vagaries of the political world. Those of you who have not read the book would, I think, be surprised by it, particularly if you have been following the rather arid and scholastic debates about matters Marxian that I have had from time to time with readers of this blog. I am now working my way through the enormously long Chapter XV [in the English version], "Machinery and Modern Industry." I venture to say there is not another major work of economic theory anything like Capital [and though I am an "autodidact" in Economics, to use Paul Samuelson's unfortunate description of Marx, I have read the major economic works of Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Marshall, Schumpeter, Keynes, Morishima, Sraffa, Robinson, Pasinetti, Garegnani, and a host of others, as well as Samuelson's iconic textbook.]
To be sure, there are the famous passages, most of them early in the book, on the fetishism of commodities and the mystifications of the market, but in sheer length, these are dwarfed by the extended, detailed, terrifying, albeit dryly scholarly, descriptions of the life experiences of workers in mills and factories, culled from English, French, German, Italian, and Dutch sources, not to mention the quotations from classical Greek and Latin texts . By the time he came to publish the first volume of Capital, Marx had spent almost twenty years of back-breaking research in the British Museum and elsewhere, reading, and seemingly remembering, everything he could lay his hands on that dealt in precise concrete detail with the making of glass, cotton fabric, woolen fabric, needles, pottery, and all the other commodities that dominated the early stages first of systematic organized manufacture [i.e., literally hand-making] and then of the introduction of machinery into factories. And all of it, hundreds upon hundreds of pages, informed by a clear, elaborate theoretical analysis of the structure of capitalism. In trying to find texts with which to compare Capital, I find myself thinking of the historiographical work of Leon Litwack, W. E. B. DuBois, Jacqueline Jones, and the other outstanding historians of American slavery.
Since I also plan, in my up-coming course, to explain in precise detail the formal mathematical reconstruction of classical and Marxian political economy and to devote time as well to a literary analysis of Capital, there is no way that I can even begin to call attention to the scores upon scores of passages in the later chapters of the book that call for commentary. I shall have to rely on the students to spend the necessary time plowing through those pages even though it will be perfectly possible to get a good grade in the course without doing so. But then, all I can do is offer them the most exciting course they have ever taken. The rest is up to them.