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Why didn’t Marx finish Capital?

Originally published: Marxist Sociology by Ludo Cuyvers (February 12, 2020 )  | - Posted Feb 24, 2020

The question why Marx’s Capital remained unfinished has occupied many for more than a century.

It is sufficiently known that Marx wrote most of the manuscripts that would become Capital in 1863-1865. After Volume 1 had appeared in 1867, the publication of the other volumes was awaited by his friends and correspondents with impatience. In the years that followed, Marx informed his close friends and correspondents occasionally that “Band 2,” i.e. what we know today as Volume 2 and 3, was on its way. On other occasions he mentioned that he was in the process of integrating new relevant information. Far from surprisingly, they all had high expectations of what was to come.

After Marx’s death, Friedrich Engels discovered, to his dismay, that large parts of the manuscripts were a mere brouillon (rough draft) and not even a first draft. Complaining to August Bebel, Engels wrote: “Quotations from sources in no kind of order, piles of them jumbled together, collected simply with a view to future selection” (Letter from Engels to August Bebel, 30 August 1883).

Since 1870, Engels had moved to London and as an intimate friend, he was a regular visitor of the Marx family, but, to his disbelief and disappointment, he had remained completely in the dark about the unfinished state of the manuscripts. In the preface to the first German edition of Volume 2, he lamented:

The bulk of the material was not finally polished, in point of language, although in substance it was for the greater part fully worked out. The language was that in which Marx used to make his excerpts: careless style full of colloquialisms, often containing coarsely humorous expressions and phrases, interspersed with English and French technical terms or with whole sentences and even pages of English. Thoughts were jotted down in the form in which they developed in the brain of the author. Some parts of the argument would be treated in detail, others of equal importance only indicated. Factual material for illustration would be collected, but barely arranged, much less worked out.

It took Engels only until January 1885, despite having been ill for some time, to have Volume 2 ready for the publisher. However, the interested world had to wait nine more years–until 1894–to see Volume 3.  To some extent, Engels’ dramatically deteriorating eyesight can be held responsible for the years that lapsed between the publication of Volume 2 and 3 but taking into account the state in which Volume 3 has come to us, certainly more is involved.

Why is it that Marx never finished his magnum opus? Some have suggested that recurring health problems withheld him from thoroughly revising and finalizing his manuscripts of the 1860s. We know that he suffered from ulcers, liver problems and insomnia, and during the 1870s went several times on a health spa cure in present-day Slovakia and Germany.

However, based on his output of economic manuscripts, notes, and other writings, it can only be concluded that the period 1860-1866, despite Marx’s poor health situation, had been a time of unusually high productivity. As far as the 1870s are concerned, there can little doubt that Marx could have worked on his manuscripts with full dedication. Of course, recurring painful boils and liver problems have undoubtedly delayed his work. But, given the many other tasks he performed during that decade, how could they have prevented him from finishing it, if on top of his priorities list?

Nevertheless, since the early 1880s it must have become clear, at least to his closest friends, that he was increasingly lacking the energy, after a couple of severe blows in his personal life, to finish the book himself. By then, Marx had requested his daughter Eleanor to ask Engels, his compagnon de route since 1844, to “make something” of the manuscripts.

Other Marx scholars have argued that the unfinishedness of Marx’s manuscripts is rooted in some substantive problems with which he struggled without being able to solve them. In his 2016 Marx biography, Stedman Jones even suggested it was not Marx’s illnesses that delayed and hindered his finishing the manuscripts, but the other way around: Marx’s theoretical problems were at the origin of his illnesses.

Today, almost every problem that has remained unsolved in Capital, has been cited as a reason why the book remained unfinished.  However, it is difficult to see how such issues could have led Marx to reconsider his earlier manuscript, or abandon further attempts to elaborate on their solution, if he found Engels able to “make something” of them?

For instance, against Stedman Jones’s argument that, over the years, Marx was forced to reconsider his former deterministic historical materialism, which was evident from his Preface of Zur Kritik,  it can be argued that while drafting the Grundrisse–before Volume 1 of Capital was published–Marx indicated discomfort with such determinism. And about the so-called transformation problem of labor values or the law of the falling rate of profit, it can be said that although Marx continued to wrestle with both issues, the solutions he outlined, though imperfect, do not provide sufficient reason for these imperfections to be seen as at the basis of the unfinished nature of his manuscripts. As Volume 3 of Capital shows his rate of profit formula is based on labor values and he repeatedly attempted, but unsuccessfully, to find out the impact on the rate of profit of increasing labor productivity.

Among the substantive problems of Capital, a more serious candidate is Marx’s failure to reconcile, based on his schemes of reproduction, expanded reproduction with steady economic expansion. Marx’s mathematical manuscripts show a clear intention to apply and deepen the dialectic materialist method and the study of dialectic development processes using mathematics.

But apart from this intention, there is evidence that at least part of Marx’s notes on calculus and differential equations were related to the problem of how “to determine mathematically the principal laws governing crises”, as he wrote in 1873 in a letter to Engels. However, the algebra of non-negative matrices that he needed to solve it, did not exist yet. In fact, the prospects of an acceptable solution for Marx’s theoretical and mathematical problem of an expanding economy became only sufficiently promising with John von Neumann’s seminal work during the 1930s, and with that of Oskar Lange in the 1950s.

An ultimate culprit for Capital remaining unfinished rather seems to be the combination of such theoretical riddles with Marx’s perfectionism and his insatiable appetite for knowledge.

Marx’s perfectionism and severe self-criticism was commented upon by privileged witnesses, such as Friedrich Engels, Arnold Ruge and Paul Lafargue.  It repeatedly led him to the latest scientific findings in many fields, but it also prevented the finishing of the manuscripts. This is most clearly evidenced by Marx reading frantically about the newest economic and social developments in the major capitalist countries in fields ranging from agriculture to financial panics. Many of these notes were used by Engels while editing the manuscripts, but certainly not all, being often unpublishable.

Ludo Cuyvers is emeritus professor at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and extraordinary professor at North-West University (Potchefstroom Campus), South Africa.

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