Studying society for the working class: Marx’s first preface to “Capital”

Jul 25, 2022

"Karl Marx, painted portrait," by thierry ehrmann. Source: Wikimedia.


In the preface to the first edition of volume one of Capital, dated July 25, 1867, Marx introduces the book’s “ultimate aim”: “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society” [1]. Looking back 155 years later, it’s clear the book not only accomplished that aim but continues to do so today.

In a few short pages, Marx introduces the method he used to study and present his research into the dynamics of capitalism, explains the reasons why he focused on England, distinguishes between modes of production and social formations (and by doing so refutes any accusations of his theory of history as progressing linearly through successive stages), identifies the capacities he’s assuming of the reader, affirms he’s interested in critiquing the structures of capital and not the individuals within it, and explains that the main function of the book is to help our class intervene in the constantly changing capitalist system.

Capital’s method and audience

After a brief explanation about the first three chapters and how they differ from his previous work, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx briefly discusses his method and the difficulty it entails: “Every beginning is difficult, holds in all sciences” [2]. The value of science, after all, is to explain why things happen. Scientific analysis begins with something apparent in the world and abstracts from it particularly decisive elements that demonstrate why the phenomenon appears as it does, how and by what principles it functions, what impact it has on the world, etc.

Because Marx is studying society, however, “neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use.” He has to develop another technique for studying the basic forms of capitalism, which he calls “the force of abstraction” [3]. While Marx’s method of abstraction is filled with nuances, it essentially entails breaking down the object of study into discrete elements or categories so we can have a more accurate–and politically powerful–understanding of it.

But beginning with the basic “cell form” of capital–value–is indisputably hard. Marx encourages us to press on, reminding us that, save these opening chapters, the book “cannot stand accused on the score of difficulty.” “I pre-suppose,” he continues, “a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself” [4]. Difficulty is a relative term, so if we’re willing to challenge our preconceived conceptions of the world and use our critical faculties, he’s saying, we won’t find it too difficult. Marx didn’t write Capital to impress the political economists of his day but to arm our class with the theoretical tools necessary to overthrow capitalism, which means that the reader he is pre-supposing is a member of our class, the working class.

England as the “chief ground” for Capital

Not only does Marx not have recourse to scientific technologies, he doesn’t have the ability to isolate capital and place it in a laboratory setting. His task is different from scientist who “makes experiments under conditions that assure the occurrence of its phenomenon in its normality.” Unable to separate capital from the world or his own position, Marx’s task is exceedingly difficult: he’s analyzing something that’s in constant motion and that determines the society in which he lives. This partly explains why, “to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode,” he turns to where capitalism’s “classic ground” was at the time: England. “That is the reason why England is used as the chief illustration in the development of my theoretical ideas,” he explains [5].

Yet there are other reasons for his focus on England. Not only was he living there at the time but, as he wrote in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “the enormous material on the history of political economy which is accumulated in the British museum” and “the favorable view which London offers for the observation of bourgeois society” made it an ideal case study [6].

Finally, the recent class struggles in England forced the state to establish “commissions of inquiry into economic conditions” carried out by people “as competent, as free from partisanship and respect of persons as are the English factory-inspectors, her medical reporters on public health, her commissioners of inquiry into the exploitation of women and children, into housing and food” [7]. The text and concepts of Capital are filled with the damning testimony of such inspectors, and Leonard Horner was one of his favorites.

In the ninth chapter, Marx writes that Horner “rendered undying service to the English working-class. He carried on a life-long contest, not only with the embittered manufacturers, but also with the Cabinet” [8]. Horner used to be a capitalist businessperson himself, and wasn’t opposed to capitalism the way Marx was. He was distraught by the horrors produced by capitalism’s unchecked tendencies, but “was morally committed to the belief that profitability could arise from good working conditions and from educating the masses” [9].

Marx’s admiration of Horner and the factory inspectors, who were mostly civil servants or small capitalists, shows how struggles within the capitalist state can advance the socialist movement, and serves as a good reminder that we should draw on as many different sources in our own research as possible.

The complexity of capitalist societies

In England, as Marx says, the laws of capitalist production were most evident because it was there that, in the mid-19th Century, the system was most developed. And as he’ll show in the last part of volume one, English capital was developed because of, among other things, “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder” as well as “slavery pure and simple” in the U.S. [10]. Despite being the most advanced manifestation of capitalism, however, Marx is clear that British society wasn’t completely defined by the capitalist mode of production. Although conditions in English factories were better than other European countries because of the Factory Acts, British workers

“suffer not only from the development of capitalist production… Alongside of modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead” [11].

This is one of several places where Marx makes clear his understanding of history and social transformation, an understanding that in no way assumes neat and clean breaks between different stages of history, with the latest stage annihilating the previous one. In fact, the first half of the very first sentence of Capital makes the same point but in understated terms: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails…” [12].

It’s helpful to distinguish between modes of production and social formations not only because the distinction is decisive analytically, but more importantly because it accounts for the coexistence of different modes of production in capitalist societies. It further corrects the erroneous view that Marx didn’t account for the relationship between capitalism and slavery by “assigning slave labor to some ‘pre-capitalist’ stage of history” [13]. In his preparatory notebooks for Capital, written before the outbreak of the Civil War, Marx asserted that the U.S. represented “the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society” [14]. This comes shortly after his explicit acknowledgment that “a mode of production corresponding to the slave” had to be created in “the southern part of America” [15].

That Marx expressly highlights how different modes of production exist together and foregrounds that, as large as capital was in England, it wasn’t the only game in town, demonstrates the seriousness with which he studies history. At the same time, he insists that workers in other countries “can and should learn from others” so they might “shorten and lessen the birth-pangs” of transformation [16].

“Follow your road, and let the people say!”

For the last few paragraphs of this opening preface, Marx transitions into a more agitational style of writing. The first point, which crops up throughout the book, is that he refers to individual people “only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests.” He tells us he doesn’t romanticize the capitalist or landlord, but that the study of society can’t hold “the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them” [17]. In other words, the class struggle is a fight not to change individuals but to change the social systems that condition or determine our individual standing in society. As we saw with Horner, however, this doesn’t mean that Marx totally ignores individuals, but that classes–and not persons–have the political agency to transform social relations.

Writing in London 155 years ago today, Marx saw evidence of transformation–even radical transformation–underway. He writes about “a radical change in the existing relations between capital and labour” on the European Continent before citing then-U.S. Vice President Benjamin Wade’s statement “that, after the abolition of slavery, a radical change of the relations of capital and of property in land is next.” Evidence, however, isn’t a guarantee of such change. They are only indications of radical possibilities:

“They do not signify that tomorrow a miracle will happen. They show that, within the ruling-classes themselves, a foreboding is dawning, that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing” [18].

Marx wrote Capital to help working and oppressed peoples determine the direction of change, and he closes the preface with a famous quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Follow your road, and let the people say!” He ends, that is, by reminding us—the readers willing to challenge ourselves with this text—that how we use the weapon that is Capital is up to us.


[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Vol. 1): The Process of Capitalist Production, trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling (New York: International Publishers, 1867/1967), 20. Available here.
[2] Ibid., 18.
[3] Ibid., 19.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. N.I. Stone (New York: Lector House, 1859/2020), x. Available here.
[7] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 20.
[8] Ibid., 216, footnote 17. Available here, footnote 10.
[9] Andy Merrifield, Marx Dead and Alive: Reading Capital in Precarious Times (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020), 46.
[10] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1),  668, 711. See also Pappachen, Summer. (2021). “What is Imperialism? An Introduction.” Liberation School, September 21. Available here.
[11] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 20.
[12] Ibid., 43, emphasis added.
[13] Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983/2000), 4.
[14] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books, 1939/1973), 104. Available here.
[15] Ibid., 98.
[16] Marx, Capital (Vol. 1), 20.
[17] Ibid., 21.
[18] Ibid.

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