Reading Capital with David Harvey

Listening to David Harvey’s lectures on Capital Vol 1 not only gave me a feeling that I was re- reading Capital but also provided a refreshing enthusiasm that I had experienced when first reading the tome. Though the first three chapters are considered to be somewhat intimidating, these three chapters are also the most interesting ones. As Harvery points out, Marx follows different literary techniques in different parts of the book, and the first three are marked not only by philosophical flamboyance but also literary flourishes with copious references to Shakespeare , Schiller and Balzac (the latter, like Harvey, I read much after reading Capital).

If someone were to read Capital, I would now, with the benefit of hindsight recommend that one read it along with Shakespeare, Balzac and Hegel- not necessarily in that order. Again, as Harvery points out, it might be a better idea if one reads some works by Hegel before getting on to Capital– if only because it makes reading Marx much simpler. Similarly, for anyone reading the Communist Manifesto, I’d recommend reading it along with Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education and maybe even Lajos Zilahy’s Hungarian novel set in a similar period- A Century in Scarlet.

In 1867, around the time that Das Capital was published, Marx had urged his friend Engels to read Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece– the story of a painter who devotes 10 years to paint a picture that would be the complete representation of reality- but when the picture is opened for viewing, the viewers discover nothing but a “blizzard of random forms and colours piled one upon another in confusion”. Marx saw in this tragic attempt, his own relentless pursuit of perfection. Francis Wheen has written about the literary aspects of Das Capital in his book Das Capital: Biography of a Book (see also his article in the Guardian The Poetry of Dialectics)

If the first lecture is full of enthusiasm and literary, the second one is is more conceptual and definitely needs more preparation on part of the students else it might be like Quixote running headlong into the windmills!I ventured into it , nevertheless, without reading any chapters at all and while some aspects were very appealing, much of it went over my head- a feeling I had experienced when I read it first. At that time there were two of us studying together- both first timers and lacking any guidance, but it helped to discuss and clarify. What I still liked very much in Prof Harvey’s second lecture is the diagram that he drew and his insightful comment that Marx not only extends the logic horizontally along the diagram but also vertically, adding layers to each concept. I had not looked at it this way and it provides a new dimension altogether to read the first three chapters which are the most conceptual before Marx switches to more a empirical style in later chapters. If Marx’s analysis of capitalism is like an onion, he begins with the core (commodity) and adds the layers to it. His The Critique of Political Economy and Grundrisse can be considered as starting with the finished onion and then peeling off the layers and where Marx begins with the social structure (the infamous base- superstructure) of capitalist society. These, however, Marx only considered to be the preparation for Capital, where he takes as his starting point the simplest tangible manifestation of capitalism- the commodity.

In the third lecture, the use of contemporary examples brings a lot more clarity to the concepts, especially the key one where Marx superbly illustrates how the C-M-C becomes transmuted into M-C-M, thereby unmasking the so- called “hidden hand”of the market.”

An alternative is, as in the case of Capital itself, to start with the fourth chapter/lecture. As Harvey comments at the end of the third lecture- you don’t have to understand the first three chapters fully before going on to the rest of the work.

Needless to say, a very big thank you to Prof Harvey for the lectures. After long time, the internet has made me realize once again how powerful a medium it can be.

01 Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey (about 300 MB; 1 hour and 50 minutes long)

The page numbers Professor Harvey refers to are valid for both the Penguin Classics and Vintage Books editions of Capital. Each lecture is about 2 hours in duration. As you probably know, the complete text of the English version of Das Capital is available at various places, including at the marxists archives.

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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

8 thoughts on “Reading Capital with David Harvey”

  1. Great post Bhupinder. Like I said in the previous comment I have only seen the first lecture as I want to re-read Capital along with the lectures…However…I HAD FORGOTTEN HOW HUGE THE BOOK WAS!! I was looking at it today and was like, “Holy shit. I read this?”

    But, no problemo mi amigo, voy a leer el libro (I will read the book). Can’t wait as I too feel an excitement about the book I haven’t felt in years. Plus, like Harvey, after reading Balzac and some of Shakespeare’s works and Hegel I was like, “Ah! I’ve read this before!” which made me rethink Capital.

  2. i had never paid attention to the literary aspect of Das Kapital. thanks for pointing this out. david harvey is certainly a very incisive thinker on modern capitalism. the core analysis of the logic of capitalism presented by marx remains as valid as it was when it was first written. possibly we should all reread the first three chapters to strengthen our convictions regarding the pitfalls of capitalism.

  3. Jack: Buena suerte, amigo!
    Rahul: Francis Wheen’s article linked in the post is a good one to start about the literary aspects of Das Capital

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