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We actually read Capital!

by Matthew Ryan on April 7, 2016

“So, what did you do over the summer”? Most students respond to this ubiquitous question with the familiar answers: “caught up with family”, “earned some money” or (perhaps more commonly) “lots of daytime drinking”.   For a small group of political economy students from the University of Sydney, however, they might respond: “I read Marx’s Capital, volume 1”.

Between November, 2015 and March, 2016 a small, dedicated group of students – undergraduate, postgraduate, or between degrees – met weekly to discuss that text which too-few Marxists have actually read: Capital. Meeting largely at the University of Sydney, the group persevered through the entire 682 pages, despite the oppressive heat of a Sydney summer (intensified by the contradiction of capitalism that is climate change).

Running through the weekly discussions were themes including the specificity of capitalism, the continued relevance of this historical text, and questions of Marxist strategy moving forward into the 21st century. Below are some of the thoughts and impressions of just some of these students.

Matthew Ryan – Postgraduate student

It’s quite a broad brief, “say something about your experience reading Capital”. Do I focus on a particular concept, something I never understood but now grasp a little better? Do I talk about the relevance of the text in the twenty-first century? Perhaps I can comment on an ongoing debate within Marxism, and offer my personal resolution through reference to the text? All valid options and it would be easy to write too many words on any of these topics. But instead, I’m going to talk about reading Capital.

David Harvey has taught a class on Capital every year for decades. Well, maybe he’s missed a few on leave and what not, but the point is he has read it many times! I always used to wonder why he read it again each year. Having now read it myself, I can understand why – different groups and different approaches to reading the text all result in a unique, contingent experience of the text. This can be seen even through our own short encounter with the text.

Some people would watch Harvey’s lectures on Capital before each week’s meeting, as well as the chapter. Some would watch the video then read the chapter, while others would do the opposite. Some read companions to Capital in parallel, whilst others supplemented their reading with online resources – glossaries of concepts, and the like. Some people read earnestly, taking notes, and bringing these as discussion points. Others had a more organic reading process, and a discussion style to match. The point is there are a lot of ways to read it. And if I’m honest, my own approach was a mix of almost all of these, resulting in different experiences with different chapters.

A further variable producing different, yet equally stimulating, readings were the backgrounds and interests of those in the group. Some came to the group with a wealth of knowledge of Marx and Marxism, while others (myself included) did not know their absolute from their relative surplus-values. Personal research interests varied from the role of technology in capitalism, to issues relating to profit rate, to colonisation and class formation, through to the historical specificity of capitalism and the agency of class actors in capitalist development. Each brought a different perspective, leading the conversation in suggestive and distinct directions. I’m sure no reading group would have the same experience.

Reading Capital was a wholly social experience – or, I should say, a socially contingent experience – and I’m sure I’ll be telling friends, family, and students about my reading of Capital in the summer of 2015-16 for many years to come.

Rhys Cohen – Tutor and Honours graduate

For me there were two really significant things that I got from the reading group – the first was to do with the content of the book and its modern context, and the second was to do with the social experience and practice of the exercise.

First, something that Llewelyn in particular was keen to draw our attention to, was the extent to which our engagement with more contemporary Marxian literature tended to cloud our reading of Capital. I know personally that many times I assumed Marx was making an argument that was much more sensitive, nuanced and, for want of a better word, acceptable for modern theorists than was actually the case.

It took conscious effort to read the book on its own terms and it was confronting to see some of the limitations that Marx is so often criticised for. But in many ways this was heartening because it reaffirmed to me the huge contributions that theorists since Marx have made to the understanding and critique of capitalism, and also the necessity for this project to continue.

Second, as young, Left students I think we had all become very familiar with the standard lamentations of the Left more broadly: how can we stop this constant infighting, factionalism etc. The absurdity of these divisions was something we had all discussed at length in the past. And going into the reading group, although we all respected each other as friends and colleagues, I felt some anxiety as to whether this would remain the case, or if we might find some fundamental rift emerging between us.

And some conflicts did emerge: we argued about determinism, structuralism and agency; the nature of class and intersectionality; technology, morality and communism. At times these arguments got quite heated. But what struck me was our capacity to stick with the project, to work through the arguments. And in the end I felt that not only were many of these divisions revealed to be largely semantic miscommunications, but that we had moved closer to each other’s understandings in a way that felt constructive as opposed to coercive.

Llewellyn Williams-Brooks – Honours student

Returning to the New Left critique of Australian History

It certainly is a strange to read Capital in the context of Australia: a country straddling the contradictions of core and peripheral development within global capitalism. This precariousness, in terms of the world market, has always made Australia something of a strange case in the scheme of things. After all, Australia in the 19th century was producing a third of the British gold-standard’s reserve while it was championing the 8-hour work day and birthing a major union movement and Labor party. There seems something of an uncertainty, perhaps, a contradiction, at the very heart of Australianess. This economic uncertainty was best expressed, in the language of political office, through Paul Keating’s ‘Banana Republic’. Conversely, the nationalist writers were quick to convert this ambiguity into a mythical treatment of egalitarianism, most famously addressed in Ward’s Australian Legend, and necessarily critiqued by McQueen in A New Britannia and Irving and Connell’s Class Structure in Australian History. This was the project of the old and the new left, but this is not our project.

Wakefield is seen to observe, in the final section of Capital, that social relations of production are not reducible to simply a cloned relocation of the economic and political apparatus in Britain.

As Marx comments: “[Wakefield] discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things”. Australian colonialism required the re-establishment of the old relationships within a complex set of new social relations.

This reading substantiates that by understanding the economic relations of capitalism, we have, in the most optimistic reading, only half the picture. We should also observe the necessity of positioning the agency of resistance in the centre of human social history. We must neither fall into the trap of accepting Australia as a ‘peripheral’ banana republic, or a mythical space of elite nationalism. Instead we should understand that resistance in Australia is a fact of our history: Indigenous resistance in the frontier-wars, the militant organising of the great strikes, and the women’s suffrage movement are all evidence of this fact. Marx’s Capital only gets us part of the way, we must take hold of our own social history in order to change it.

Joel Griggs – Honours student

Reading Capital in its entirety is like reading Marx for the first time. For a self-professed Marxist, the experience is both one of vindication and sobriety. On the one hand I feel the hubris that Marx inspired in me from the very outset. On the other, a deep trepidation begging an answer to the question: What if Marx was right?

Incidentally, as an undergraduate embarking upon my honours year, I am repeatedly reminded that Marxism is experiencing a kind of academic renaissance. What is driving this resurgence is anyone’s guess but as my comrades and I wade through the murky waters from commodity fetishism to Marx’s own theory of colonisation I am struck by the powerful clarity of a man whose perspicacity eclipses the moral dilemma evident on every page. Less than two years after a young American Union formally abolished slavery, Marx is alone in revealing a new kind of slavery emerging in the Old World. Waged-labour with its ‘freedom in the double sense’ replaced the stability of the indentured peasant with the precariousness of the proletariat; a class at once pitted against one another and unified in their wretched struggle.

It is this constant dialectical relationship present throughout Capital that exposes the structure and the structural weaknesses of our predicament. While the conditions have undeniably improved, the structural realities of the working class remain largely unchanged today. Likewise, even though the capitalism that so consumed Marx in the nineteenth-century may have traded in its ostentatious top hat for a less-assuming tie, it is nonetheless the same vampiric fiend that dogs every step of our collective existence.

Capital’s strength lies in its piercing internal critique of what defines capitalism. Twenty-first century capitalism is adaptable, mobile, and has a thousand faces. To assign capitalism homogeneity is to lose before we have even begun to unravel its web. The uneven development of capitalism, too, makes it equally difficult to analyse. There must be, however, an underlying logic that serves as a motor for capitalism. To this end, Marx’s unfinished project is no less mistaken today than it was one and a half centuries ago – though like most things in life, questions of right and wrong are seldom black and white. The answer for me lies within the explanatory scope of the theory. For an exploration into the insights of an exceptional dialectician, then, my hubris and trepidation seem entirely fitting. More relevant today than ever, reading Capital has been a wonderful and enlightening experience.

Matthew Ryan
Matthew Ryan is a postgraduate research student in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He was recently awarded the Frank Stilwell Award in Political Economy. He is currently working on the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy, with particular focus on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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