Scaling the wall: what to do if you get stuck while reading Marx’s Capital

Scaling the wall: what to do if you get stuck while reading Marx’s Capital

Lots of people who start Karl Marx's Capital get stuck somewhere in the early chapters of volume 1. In this post, I make some suggestions about how to get unstuck and read the whole book.

In 1998 I started trying to read Karl Marx’s Capital, volume 1. I failed. I tried again, and failed. I tried again, and failed. This happened repeatedly over the next four or five years. I would get fifty or so pages in, get confused or bored, and give up. The first few chapters were like a wall in front of the rest of the book that I just couldn’t climb. Eventually I concluded I was too stupid for that book. I’ve known a lot of people with similar experiences.

If you’re stuck somewhere in reading volume 1, I have a few suggestions for things to try in order to get unstuck, and actually finish the book. These are based on my initial experiences trying and failing to read volume 1, my eventual experiences trying and succeeding at reading volume 1, and my later experiences facilitating study groups on volume 1. The main thing I’m going to suggest is that you read the book out of order. I’ll get to that in a moment. Before I do, I want to talk about two things: additional reading or reading guides, and what to do if you get confused.

A lot of people who have read volume 1 have a lot of opinions about what you should read along with volume 1 or before volume 1. Depending on who you ask, you’ll be told that you should definitely, or definitely not, read Hegel, Lukacs, Althusser, Marx’s manuscripts from 1844, Marx’s manuscripts from 1857… the list goes on. In my opinion, the most important thing to read, if you really want to read volume 1 of Capital, is volume 1 of Capital. The longer the list of stuff you read while also reading volume 1, the longer it will take you to actually read volume 1. That said if you do decide to read something else alongside the book, only read one or two things. The best test for readings alongside Capital is whether or not it helps you actually to continue reading Capital. If you’re reading something else about Capital and it’s slowing you down or making you more confused, drop that for now. Finish it after you finish Capital.

If you get confused while reading Capital, one option is to consult another reading, but like I said, the more you read at the same time as Capital, the longer it will take to finish Capital. You can and should of course discuss with people you know who are reading Capital or who have already read it. You could also try reading the confusing parts faster but reading them twice. The first time, don’t really read so much as look at all the words. Then go back over it. Or… don’t. Just move on, if you want to. It’s okay to move on without fully understanding everything, and it’s okay to skip some parts. Obviously, it’s best to read everything and understand it. But if that’s not happening, it’s worse to quit reading the book than it is to move on to the next section while still unclear or to skip to the next section. You can always go back over the more confusing parts or the parts you skipped after you’ve read the rest of the book. They will be easier to go back through after you’ve read more of the book. It’s better to reach the end and have a few parts that you go back over than it is to not reach the end at all.

Setting all that aside, I want to make a suggestion about the order in which you read volume 1. Again, this is for people who get stuck somewhere in the beginning. If you haven’t tried to read the book before, start with chapter 1 and see what happens. If you got stuck somewhere before chapter 7, I suggest that you skip the beginning. You may read this and think “wait, don’t I need some of the ideas in the beginning in order to understand the rest?” Yes, you do, but you can get enough of those key concepts for now by reading some short excerpts from Marx’s Value, Price, and Profit. I’ve attached a file to this blog post, which contains those excerpts and a copy of this blog post. These are a resource to help you finish the book. I think they’re enough to get you started with reading volume 1. I know I said you should be careful about reading other works at the same time as Capital, if you want to actually finish Capital, but these excerpts are pretty short. They're about 13 pages long. They’re from a speech Marx gave at a meeting of the First International. Since they were meant to be spoken out loud, they’re relatively readable. The ideas in this speech cover the gist of the early parts of volume 1 of Capital. By the time Marx gave this speech in 1865 he had worked out much of the analysis in volume 1.

After you read these excerpts from Value, Price and Profit, you’ll have an overview of Marx’s analysis of where capitalist profits come from and some basic terms and concepts. After that you should be more prepared to read volume 1 of Capital. There are a few different sensible starting points. You could try to read volume 1 of Capital from the beginning to the end. The first three chapters focus on Marx’s analysis of commodities. You could also try skipping ahead to chapter 4, where Marx starts his investigation of where capitalist profits come from. Or you could try skipping to chapter 7, where Marx begins his analysis of capitalist production and labor under capitalists. Alternatively, you could read the chapters by how readable they are. Marx himself recommended that his friend Gertrud Kugelmann could start with chapter 10, on the length of the working day (incidentally, chapter 10 is currently my favorite chapter), then read chapters 13 through 15, followed by the final part of Capital, part 8, on the origins of capitalism. Marx recommended these as the most readable sections of the book. You could read those then try starting back at the beginning.

When I finally got unstuck and managed to read all of volume 1, I started with Marx’s account of the origins of capitalism. The chapters on this focus on the awful violence involved in the creation of capitalism. They’re very powerfully written. I remember reading these chapters on the bus home from work and gasping out loud at the brutality that Marx describes. Reading those made me understand that not all of the book was as hard to read and understand as the first three chapters. Reading these later chapters gave me the push to finally climb over the wall of the first three chapters. If you want to start there, I included some excerpts from this after the excerpts from Value, Price, and Profit. I included all of chapter 26 (it’s about four pages) and about a page or so from chapter 27, which I hope makes you want to read the rest.

If you read this way, the excerpts from Value, Price, and Profit, and then the chapters on the origins of capitalism, again there are a few sensible options for where to read next. You could go back to chapter 1, Marx’s account of the commodity, and read to the end. Or go back to Marx’s investigation of the origins of capitalist profits, in chapter 4, and read to the end, then read chapters 1-3 last. Or go back to Marx’s investigation of labor under capitalism, in chapter 7, and read to the end and read chapters 1-6 last. All of these approaches work for some people.

If you want my advice, I suggest you turn to chapter 7 after reading chapters 26 through 28. You’ll have enough background to get through, because of the excerpts from Value, Price, and Profit. Read from chapter 7 to the end, then read chapters 1-6 last. The main reason I suggest this is that I think this is easier, faster, and most likely to get you to read the whole book. Second, I think this is the fastest way to get to the heart of Marx’s concerns in volume 1. At the beginning of volume 2 of Capital, Marx describes three stages that each capital repeatedly goes through: “First stage: The capitalist appears as a buyer on the commodity- and the labour-market; his money is transformed into commodities (…) Second Stage: Productive consumption of the purchased commodities by the capitalist. He acts as a capitalist producer of commodities; his capital passes through the process of production. The result is a commodity of more value than that of the elements entering into its production. Third Stage: The capitalist returns to the market as a seller; his commodities are turned into money”

Marx says that volume 1 of Capital focuses above all on this second stage, the production process under capitalism. Most of Marx’s analysis of production is in chapters 7 through 25, so reading those will give you a thorough grasp of how Marx understood capitalist production. After reading these chapters and the rest of the ending (chapters 29-33), you will be able to read the first six chapters without much difficulty. These six chapters deal with stage 1 and stage 3 of the movements of capital. (Actually Marx says that his fully worked out analysis of those stages is in the other volumes of Capital but that’s something for another day.)

I should also say, if you do anything other than read volume 1 from the beginning to the end in order, it’s likely that someone will tell you you’re doing it all wrong. A lot of readers of Marx love to tell other readers of Marx that they’re doing it all wrong. These people also tend to get hung up on which parts of Capital are the most important parts. I’ve read volume 1 five or six times, and I’ve read some parts of it ten or twelve times or more. I’ve gotten different things from different parts of the book at different times, depending on what else I’m reading and thinking about and involved in, and what’s going on in the world. Volume 1 of Capital is a long book with 33 chapters. Some of those chapters are over 100 pages long. There’s a ton of ideas and analyses in that book, ideas and analyses you can use for a great many purposes. I think it’s worth talking about which parts of the book are important for different reasons (for instance, in my opinion, chapter 10 and part 8 both have insights on the role of the state in creating and maintaining capitalism and in shaping the forms that class struggle takes). But people who argue with you about which parts are the most important parts before you’ve read the whole book are being unfair, because they've read the book and you haven't. Finish the book, however you need to do so, and then you can participate in those arguments as an equal.

Personally, I don’t think there’s a single best way for everyone to read Capital. Whatever helps you to actually read the whole book is the best way to read it. If someone doesn't understand that, they’re probably not someone who is going to be much help to you in actually finishing the book. They’re probably gatekeepers who are concerned that you will think thoughts other than their thoughts while you read volume 1. This is an all too common tendency among readers of Marx. (One way to deal with people like this is to take your copy of Capital, point out how far along you are in the book, and then hit them in the face with it.) I think people like this are part of why other people get stuck in their attempts to reading volume 1. All of that is another story though, so I’ll leave off.

The excerpts from Value, Price, and Profit and from chapters 26 and 27 are in the attached file. Altogether they’re about 17 pages, which isn’t too long compared to volume 1 of Capital. I hope you get unstuck and finish reading volume 1. If you try anything I suggested here, please me know how it goes. If you find some other way to read volume 1, please let me know. And once you’ve read it, let’s talk about it.

After I wrote this, some friends and comrades commented that it's really best to read Marx with other people. That's totally right. Set up or join a discussion group if at all possible. There's a discussion thread on this here - that I'm really enjoying on ideas for things to try and to avoid in a Capital reading group.

Scaling the Wall.pdf136.77 KB

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Dec 12 2013 07:33


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Dec 11 2013 09:50

Great blog!

I got stuck a couple of times in the first 3 chapters then left it for years, as I assumed all the later chapters would be as hard going as the first three. Finally powered through and then realised after the third one the rest is a breeze, and as you say much of it very enjoyable, especially around chapter 26 about the origins of capitalism.

(Although I will admit I did end up skipping some of the chapter on machines… 8 I think, which is extremely long and I didn't find particularly useful)

Dec 11 2013 12:41

A close reading of "Value, Price and Profit" will help immensely. I did that with an old SLP comrade and the scales fell from my eyes. The first chapter of CAPITAL V.I is the hardest. You have to remember that Marx is taking you from the universal to the particular. In other words, the commodity is the universal, it's everywhere capitalism.

Dec 11 2013 17:55

I know it's full of heresies but Heinrich's book helped me a lot. Before I read it though, I read most of volume 1, doing what you and Cleaver suggest, starting with the parts on Primitive Accumulation and then going back to the beginning.

Great article!

Dec 11 2013 21:01


Dec 12 2013 21:11

A technique I have for reading difficult stuff is to make notes as I read. It takes a while, but does really help you work out what's being said. I used this approach with the early bits of Capital and was pleased I did. I think Marx started his explanation where he did for a reason. But of course other approaches will be better for other people, and I'm sure you can become extremely knowledgeable about Marxian critique of political economy etc. without ever reading capital, or even Marx, at all. Though you would miss out on all the vampire references, which are so now!

Dec 15 2013 10:32

Thanks for this provocation to reflect on how we might read Capital. I appreciate the purpose and encouragement in this article.

I think that reading Capital in a group is invaluable. Although, like others here, it took me several attempts to read Capital under my own steam, having since acted as an initiator of several Capital reading groups I can say that there have been very high first-try-first-full-reading-rates. Clearly the nature of the reading group will vary depending on composition and on the approach or style of the guide.

In my own case, I try to emphasise - for exposition and comprehension purposes - that Marx is primarily doing two things in Capital. First he's attempting to unravel what confronts us as a mystery. It is a mystery story, and there can be something exciting and rewarding in encouraging readers to act as a detectives. Later, when we've got through much of Capital, I like to introduce the alternative notion that Capital is reminiscent much more so of a classic tragedy, Shakespearean or ancient Greek. If we read Capital as a book(s) on economics we'll be bored to death, but if we read it as story on the human condition then would be readers are much more likely to stay the course.
Second I briefly suggest that he's attempting to unravel that mystery which untold others have also tried to do and failed or only caught glimpses of the explanation. I do not suggest that he has the answers nor, definitely not, that Marxist sympathisers should read it from some (misplaced) sense of duty. In this respect I emphasise Capital's sub-title : it is a critique of political economy, and say that Marx was simultaneously involved in a double task i.e, investigating the mystery with new methods and concepts and showing how the old familiar concepts and storylines were necessarily diversionary and dead-ends.

In groups of a core of between half a dozen and a dozen people, with a few irregulars, we've met weekly for an hour or two and everyone has volunteered to lead the discussion on a chapter, parts of a chapter, or several chapters, for the following week. We emphasise that this is a collective piece of detective work. Sometimes people have said that they could make neither head nor tail of a chapter that they were going to lead discussion; in which case we've all pitched in trying to work things out. Someone who doesn't grasp Marx on first, second or Nth reading is no fool. It is a work that keeps giving, keeps surprising.

Both for individual and reading group reading of Capital I think it important not to be too heavily governed by Marx's own chapter breaks. Capital is very uneven in its conceptual, theoretical and historical density. Some chapters, for example in Part I on the commodity, exchange and money, are heavy going conceptually and which, in my view should be taken in smaller segments; whilst, say, some of the chapters in Part IV on surplus value or in Part VI on wages are richer in historical detail and report. It is not that they're less important but that it requires less mental labour, I'd suggest, to appreciate their function in the whole story than, say Part I. Thus I'd spend, for example, six weeks on Part 1, and perhaps only two weeks on Part VI.

When I've acted as initial guide - a 'veteran' only has to act as initial guide or initiator at the beginning because, in my experience, once people get confidence to try, to err, to revise, and so on, the reading group gains a self-sustaining dynamic - I've encouraged people not to read secondary commentaries (even one's that I think are very good (for different reasons) such as Harvey's or Mandel's). If one is to drag Capital out from under the dead weight of thousands of secondary commentaries and ideological strictures to see what Marx was up to then this is, I think, vital. By contrast I do encourage Capital readers to also treat Marx as a ideosyncratic human being who wrote Capital in definite material and mental circumstances. And to this end I recommend Francis Wheen's biography of Marx, from the late 1990s.

I'd be happy to share my notes on organising a reading group and how I've found dividing Capital to make an 'easier' reading.

Dec 15 2013 13:52

I wanted to add a further consideration when reading Capital : The whole thing, including further volumes, is essentially his elaboration of the emergence and workings of historical capitalism. There are few comparable texts widely known in modern literature, including economic literature. Capital is not an extended piece of journalism; it is not a textbook; it is not a guide manual; and it is not a policy piece or 'guide for princes'. It differs markedly from most of his other writings and is, I think, to be primarily understood as him 'working it out loud' or 'showing his workings on paper'. The workings are the key distinctiveness that demands that Marx append the sub-title "... a critique ..."

Dec 15 2013 18:36

Thanks all. MorphouBey, I agree, it's best to read the book in a group. Your comments made me think it'd be cool to write something recommending to people starting a Capital reading group some things to avoid and things they might try. I posted in the forums about this - - maybe we we can get other peopple to chime in too.

I like the idea of reading Capital as a mystery. I've thought of it as a series of puzzles, some of which aren't really solvable on the terms Marx first poses them. Like how do markets produces value? It's really hard to figure that out... and it turns out, they don't. As Marx soon reveals. When I was first trying to read the book part of the trouble I had was I would think everything must always make sense immediately, without realizing Marx was later going to say "here's a way to understand that which is better than the way I initially posed it."

Jan 16 2014 12:10

Anyone got any tips for what to do if you get stuck reading volume 2? Basically I have stalled with it relatively early on, mostly out of boredom…

Aug 23 2014 10:20

Great post, Nate. Here's to hoping lots of people heed your advice.

Personally, I would leave introductions of any kind aside. Simply because they all present an implicit interpretation of Capital that may or may not be what's actually in the key text. Heinrich is one example, or Harvey. Or Engels and the logical-historical school. Such issues of interpretation, I think, are best tackled when you have already read Capital.

That aside, I agree with Nate that intros that actually make you read the book are the best you could get, even with all their potential faults.

I had certain difficulties with the book as well, setting it aside at least two times until I just decided I'm going to tank through it. And I'm glad I did, it's a book you NEED to read more than once to understand what's going on. So on my second reading, more and more fell into place. By now, chapter 1 of the first German edition is my favorite part of the whole book.