Capitalism was inevitable

How Karl Marx became the sharpest critic of capitalism

On May 5th Karl Marx would have been 200 years old. The German philosopher became the sharpest critic of the system of profit maximization when he observed the misery of industrial workers in England

In 1867, London is the restless capital of a new age. The world's first subway crosses the ground, transporting tens of thousands of passengers every day. Steamers plow through the Thames in shuttle traffic, railway viaducts span the streets, hundreds of horse-drawn buses connect distant quarters.

The metropolis has celebrated itself as the center of progress and Great Britain as the “workshop of the world” in two world exhibitions. The Crystal Palace was specially built in Hyde Park for this purpose, a 41 meter high cathedral made of 4,000 tons of iron and 84,000 square meters of glass. Hundreds of gas lamps light up the neighborhood at night.

London is the most modern city on the planet, a model that Paris, Berlin and New York are emulating. More than 3.2 million people crowd in the city and the suburbs.

Karl Marx criticizes capitalism

One of them is a stateless and often destitute emigrant from Prussia: the 49-year-old Karl Marx, former editor-in-chief of the left-liberal “Rheinische Zeitung” in Cologne, political activist and failed revolutionary.

Marx has lived in the British capital for 18 years, which is liberal on economic issues, tolerant of refugees - and stiflingly expensive. The German, one of the leaders of the revolution of 1848 in the Prussian Rhine province and expelled from the government after the uprising was put down, initially has an apartment in the mundane with his family

Moved into the Chelsea district, but was soon unable to pay the rent and had to move to new accommodation on Dean Street in Soho, a poor two-room apartment in the cheap artists' and émigré district.

Time and again he fell behind with the rent, had to get letters written to in pubs, with bakers and butchers, kept afloat with gifts from friends, with bills of exchange and promissory notes that he issued to his creditors. And he has written hundreds of articles as a business correspondent for the “New York Daily Tribune”, “Die Presse” in Vienna and other papers in England, Prussia, Austria and South Africa.

At first, his English was barely enough to have table conversations, and Marx, who lisps, still speaks the foreign language with the strong accent of his native Trier.

The stocky man with the flowing, already gray beard is often out and about in the city, to a political demonstration in Hyde Park, a debate in the lower house, a meeting with German craftsmen in the East End or to a meeting of the refugee committee he co-founded collects for stranded people, of whom he is one himself.

In London, Marx does not see himself at the center of a hopeful awakening, but rather at the center of a destructive force that is about to grasp the entire globe: modern industrial capitalism. An economic system that has resulted in the world becoming a collection of goods, in which every product has, in addition to its practical use, a precisely quantifiable exchange value - including the labor of people.

The workers in the shipyards on the Thames, in the printing works, soap mills and match factories in London, as well as their colleagues in the ironworks and rolling mills on the Ruhr, in the blast furnaces in the USA - industrial capitalism makes them all participants in an endless circulation of values whose drive is the restless pursuit of profit, from which the proletarians, however, do not profit.

Capitalism, according to Marx, is a coercive system that no participant really sees through, from which no entrepreneur, no factory worker can escape, unless on the penalty of bankruptcy. And yet at some point it will collapse under its own burden, the misery, servitude and exploitation that it creates.

Marx is always on the lookout for signs of a crisis that, he believes, must precede the great overthrow, a future revolution. He studies balance of payments, share prices and interest rate developments in the newspapers.

London is also the country's financial center and the seat of the world's most important stock exchange. If the rates fluctuate here or if the Bank of England raises or lowers its interest rates, this has an impact on the entire globe.

Marx keeps going from his new apartment in a three-story row house in north London to the city center, to the library of the British Museum. He spends many days in their reading room, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

There he studies the writings of famous economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill, he analyzes the tax statistics of Great Britain (which shows that high incomes are rising), he goes through the minutes of House of Commons debates - over and over again Parliament's investigation reports on the conditions in the factories.

The German is an unsystematic, easily distracted reader. He often wanders off, getting lost in reading ancient classics, in the natural sciences or in geology.

He reads the "Times", the "Economist", the "Daily Telegraph", as well as French and German newspapers. Comes across reports like the one about a cleaner who has died of exhaustion after almost 27 hours of uninterrupted work in a London factory. Reads from nine-year-old boys who work three twelve-hour shifts in a row in rolling mills or on blast furnaces. From overcrowded poor houses.

He eagerly collects all these finds and enters them with his barely decipherable writing in one of his notebooks, which he always has with him. Because he is looking for material for his great work: a comprehensive, fundamental, devastating critique of capitalism.

The phenomenon that Marx tries to analyze derives its driving force from a slow but profound change. It is a break with the past - the "most profound upheaval in human existence," as one historian will later write.

100 years ago capitalism was still a long way off

Around 1760 there is hardly a guess at all of this, and there are no factory complexes with smoking chimneys in Great Britain either. The textile industry is the most important industry in the country. One of their centers is in Lancashire, a county in north-west England.

There, homeworkers spin raw cotton, which comes in bales from Brazil, the Levant or the Caribbean, into yarn, which weavers then process into strips of fabric in small workshops. Most women get the raw cotton from traveling merchants, to whom they later deliver the finished yarn.

It's a laborious job, everything is done by hand: the spinners run cotton fibers between thumb and forefinger, twist them on a spinning wheel to form a solid thread. They keep the device moving by stepping on a pedal.

The demand for cotton textiles has been increasing in Europe since the late 17th century. Colorfully printed fabrics from India are particularly popular. Because British cotton weavers have high wages, they cannot compete with the cheap, yet high-quality products imported from the subcontinent.

In order to crowd out the competition, the British Parliament is restricting the import of cotton fabrics from India. At the same time, it promotes the export of domestic textiles; the need for yarn is increasing. The merchants from the cities have to travel further and further through the villages of Lancashire in order to collect enough material from the spinners.

The boom in the industry draws thousands from surrounding regions, Ireland and Scotland to the county, where homeworkers produce yarn and fabrics. Children also work, and farmers earn some extra money in their free time.

But the possibilities for improvement are limited. The independent artisans and homeworkers determine their own days, and many prefer a little more free time to a higher income, the men forgive their wages on the weekend and often leave their work on Monday.

Both - the expanding demand for cotton clothing, which cannot be met under the given conditions, as well as the competitive pressure from cheap products from India - are triggering a revolution. A process that is one of the basic elements of industrial capitalism is gaining momentum: the search for technical innovations to increase the productivity of work and at the same time lower wage costs.

Skilled craftsmen and tinkerers try to develop new types of spinning machines. Patent law has existed in the kingdom since 1624: If an invention is successful, high profits are attracted. Around 1764 a weaver builds a rectangular frame to which several rollers are attached: The "Spinning Jenny" is driven by a hand crank and can twist eight strands of fiber into yarn at the same time. Many craftsmen and home workers buy the device and set it up in their homes.

Four years later, the wig maker Richard Arkwright and a watchmaker build a machine that works almost entirely without human intervention. The "Water Frame" is powered by hydropower and is so large that it can no longer be accommodated in a living room.

With the introduction of the early spinning machines, the first small factories for cotton processing emerged - mostly little more than workshops, housed in attics, huts or rented houses.

Now, with the development of more effective and at the same time heavier machines, some entrepreneurs are starting to think bigger. Companies with hundreds of workers arise. They are founded by daredevils who have formed a company with friends or acquaintances, by merchants or factory owners who have come across some money.

Goods are easy to transport in England: the state and private investors have invested heavily in infrastructure since the middle of the 17th century; Canals have been cut, roads and bridges have been built. Unlike in the German states, there are no borders sharing the country, and traders do not have to pay any customs on their way.

Between 1769 and 1800, more than 100 cotton spinning mills were built in Central England. But whoever hires there is usually no longer an independent producer, but a dependent wage worker. In the factory, the people are subject to an alien discipline: They have to work to the rhythm and speed of the rattling spinning machines, which often run six days a week. The factory bell rings at six in the morning in summer and at seven in winter.

In the five-story cotton factory that inventor Richard Arkwright had built in Derbyshire from 1771, a shift lasts 13 hours. The workers are monitored by overseers who urge them on, fines or threatens them to be fired for being late.

The entrepreneurs particularly like to employ women and children, because they work for far lower wages than men. At Arkwright, six-year-old children pick up cotton scraps from the floor or squeeze themselves between the machines to clean them. Elsewhere too, children work long shifts (later women and children will work in mines deep underground, teenagers have to pull coal wagons into the pits).

Hardly anyone is bothered by it. It is not uncommon for children to have to earn money in the fields, on farms, in workshops or in factories. And for some families that is exactly what makes the new factories attractive: they offer work for everyone.

No entrepreneur, no wage worker, suspects that this is just the beginning of an upheaval that will first affect the kingdom and then the whole world. But a Scottish scholar describes some of its elementary mechanisms as early as 1776 - five years after Arkwright founded the first large cotton mill.

Adam Smith on the "Wealth of Nations"

In his “Inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations” the philosopher Adam Smith analyzes the new form of economic activity. His view of change is one of optimism. He sees the human tendency to “relate to one another, to trade and exchange”, as the mainspring of economic development - and in the division of labor in factories the key to increasing productivity and growing prosperity.

Smith clarifies his thesis on the manufacture of a pin. In England's factories, the process is broken down into about 18 different processes, each of which is often carried out by a different worker. While a single craftsman could not even produce 20 copies a day, he had visited a factory in which ten men made 48,000 pins - a 240-fold increase in productivity.

And when a manufacturer increases the efficiency of his company in order to increase his profit - that is, only pursue his own advantage - he is even serving the common good, according to Smith, for example by hiring new workers who were previously unemployed.

"In doing so, he is guided by an invisible hand to serve a purpose that was not his intention," said Smith. If everyone pursues their own interests, the general public is often more served than through consciously unselfish actions.

The factory system expanded rapidly at the end of the 18th century

Even in this early phase, described by Adam Smith, an essential feature of industrial capitalism can be seen: development does not stand still, innovations are incessant. Factory owners are investing their profits in better and better spinning machines to meet growing demand.

In 1779 an inventor constructed an almost fully automatic apparatus that could simultaneously spin fibers onto several hundred spools. The new spinning machine also produces finer, more uniform yarn than can be made by hand. Between 1770 and 1800 alone, cotton consumption increased twelve times its original level.

And a new type of drive source accelerates the dynamics of change: the steam engine patented by James Watt in 1769. From 1785 the first factory owners motorized their spinning mills. Until then, it was mainly water mills that drove the machines. But they were tied to a specific location - but the steam engines can be operated almost anywhere. Factories no longer have to be built in the countryside, near rivers and streams. Cities are now developing into industrial centers.

At the same time, the factory system is affecting more and more people: because work in factories is paid better than in agriculture, the number of factory workers will soon rise to several hundred thousand. Cities grow up, and with them a new class of society: the industrial proletariat.

The residents of the sprawling communities live in mostly miserable conditions. Many families live in an attic or a damp basement. Sometimes five people share a bed. Speculators hurry to pull up houses that stand close together and rob each other of the light. There is no running water in the slums, nor is there a sewer system; Holes in the ground serve as toilets, which are emptied with wheelbarrows from time to time.

Epidemics are spreading in the overcrowded and polluted industrial metropolises. In October 1831, cholera broke out for the first time in north-east England.

Rapid change is taking place

Soon after, in the 1840s, a new cycle of innovation begins - this time in iron and steel production. The manufacture of railroad tracks, locomotives and steel plates for shipbuilding requires large production facilities and far more expensive machines than cotton processing. Blast furnaces, rolling mills and collieries grow into huge businesses: in 1849, 7,000 people were already standing in the scorching heat of furnaces and rolling mills in Great Britain's largest smelting works.

The mines continue to eat their way into the landscape. In coalfields, mine owners drive their tunnels deep into the ground. It is a rapid, breathless change, creative and destructive at the same time. Just as the spinning machines have gradually displaced the home industry, steam shipping has now made towing along the rivers unnecessary. Some plants grow into factory towns with their own residential colonies for the workers.

Because entrepreneurs now have to invest much more in buildings, machines and raw materials, they are even more interested in technical innovations and improvements that increase the profitability of capital.

Technicians and engineers develop processes to melt iron ore into an increasingly pure metal that has been freed from undesirable slag. Rolling machines shape the iron into beams or bars 15 times faster than forging hammers.At the same time, new and larger blast furnaces use less fuel and reduce metal losses, they work more efficiently.

Between 1806 and 1848 alone, the production of pig iron in England almost quadrupled: from around 260,000 to a good two million tons per year. The iron is used for the construction of machines and factories, for bridge girders and ship hulls, for water and gas pipes and above all: for railroad tracks, locomotives and wagons.

The change is now accelerating. In the meantime, industrialization also affects large parts of the European continent and the New World: Belgium, France and Germany, the USA, and finally Japan.

Because the mechanization in English spinning mills and weaving mills is forcing the other states to react. The British factories flood the world markets with unrivaled cheap products. If you can't keep up with the price, you will go under. Modernization becomes a question of survival.

In continental Europe, it is primarily heavy industry that is driving change. From 1840 onwards, the construction of railway lines created a great demand for rails, wheel tires, locomotives and wagons. And the delay in many European countries is spurring manufacturers on to innovations and rationalizations, for example, trying to save fuel in the smelting process in order to be able to undercut the price of the previously cheaper British pig iron.

From 1850 the mainland began to catch up with England. An unprecedented dynamic is setting in in France, Belgium and Germany: the railway network and coal consumption are growing by five to ten percent every year.

The railways, in turn, accelerate and make the transport of goods cheaper. And the railroad creates new competitive pressure: some companies, whose products were previously protected from excessive competition by the long distances, are disappearing from the market.

Surviving companies are forced to rationalize because the steadily growing route network facilitates the expansion of powerful companies that are now competing with them for business without having to add high freight rates to their prices as was previously the case - because rail transport has become so cheaper, that it is becoming less and less important as a cost factor.

Marx and Engels publish their "Communist Party Manifesto"

At the height of this phase of the industrial revolution, towards the end of the 1850s, Karl Marx decided to write a critique of the new economy. The foundations of his worldview have been established for many years: he sees the driving forces of history in struggles between social classes - and in the working class the power that overthrows bourgeois capitalism, abolishes private property and a communist (from Latin communis, "common “) Society is created.

According to Marx, it would be a world beyond commodities, money, profit and exploitation. All means of production would be socialized, the state would be "abolished". There would be no more individual exchange in this world; society as a collective would decide on the distribution of goods to its members.

Marx probably first studied the works of French early socialists such as Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier during a stay in Paris, who at the beginning of the 19th century called for the abolition of private property and the socialization of all property. The German first committed to this ideal around 1844, but he lacks a scientifically founded theory as to how this vision could be derived from the current conditions.

He now wants to create that: with “Capital”, his magnum opus. And so Marx begins a comprehensive self-study of economics - especially in the reading room of the British Museum. He wants to research “the capitalist mode of production and the corresponding production and traffic relations”, he wrote later in the foreword of his treatise.

Where better to do that than in London? There capitalism can be studied like in a magnifying glass. Because: "The industrially developed country only shows the less developed country a picture of its own future." Marx is not concerned with a selective criticism of capitalism, of individual grievances and defects in factories and slums that can be remedied through reforms. On the contrary: he even admires the achievements of the bourgeois entrepreneurs.

“The bourgeoisie”, he and his friend and colleague Friedrich Engels noted in 1848 in the pamphlet “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, “has created more massive and colossal productive forces in its barely 100 years of class rule than all previous generations combined. Subjugation of natural forces, machinery, the application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, reclamation of whole parts of the world, making rivers navigable, whole populations stamped out of the ground - what earlier century suspected that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social work ? "

Nor does Marx accuse the greed of individual entrepreneurs or capitalists. He starts more systematically, wants to fathom the laws of capitalist production. He wants to show that this economic system is not based on chance, but inevitably on exploitation. That this system subjects all those involved - manufacturers and wage workers - under the "silent compulsion of economic conditions" to rules that no one can escape.

Salvation would only be possible in a world beyond capitalism. In a communist world.

According to Marx, exploitation forces the workers into misery

Gradually, Karl Marx unfolds his work around central terms that relate to one another. These expressions are complicated and often difficult to understand. He speaks of "form of goods", "added value" and "exploitation". But combined they result in a theory with the highest explosive power, which soon becomes a dangerous challenge to capitalism.

Shape of goods

Marx begins his work with a 100-page discussion on the subject of “goods and money”. In capitalism, he writes, almost all things and man's labor have become a commodity that is traded on a market with a particular exchange value.

Marx and Engels already described this drastically in the “Communist Manifesto” of 1848: The bourgeoisie had “left no other bond between man and man than bare interest, than callous“ cash payment ”. She drowned the holy shivers of pious enthusiasm, knightly enthusiasm, the stubborn bourgeois melancholy in the ice-cold water of selfish calculation. "

Certainly there were goods before, but in pre-capitalist societies they were the exception; There, peasants ate the fruits of their fields themselves or delivered them to a feudal lord.

In order to be able to connect goods in a capitalist world, money is essential. Because money expresses the exchange value of commodities, and only then enables their circulation (by which Marx means trade). In a simple model, for example, the value of a table can be represented in chicken eggs - but in the real world with countless goods this is impossible: There a carpenter gives the sawmill owner money for wood, produces a piece of furniture from it, which he then sells for money for which he buys eggs at the market.

added value