Kant’s Social and Political Philosophy

Immanuel Kant

Kant’s political philosophy is a branch of practical philosophy, one-half of one of the broadest divisions in Kant’s thought between practical and theoretical philosophy. Political philosophy is also to be distinguished within practical philosophy from both empirical elements and from virtue proper. The separation from virtue is treated in the next paragraph. Regarding the empirical elements, it is worth mentioning that practical philosophy, as a set of rules governing free behavior of rational beings, covers all human action in both its pure and applied (empirical, or “impure”) aspects. Pure practical philosophy, the rational elements of practical philosophy in abstraction from anything empirical, is called by Kant “metaphysics of morals” (4:388). Kant so emphasized the priority of the pure aspect of political philosophy that he wrote part of his essay “On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory, but it is of No Use in Practice” in opposition to the view he associates with Hobbes that the politician need not be concerned with abstract right but only with pragmatic governance (8:289–306). Yet Kant also included the more pragmatic, impure, empirical study of human behavior as part of practical philosophy. For ethics in general, Kant called the empirical study of human beings as agents within particular cultures and with particular natural capacities “anthropology”. Some of Kant’s social philosophy fits into this rubric (See section 10).

Political philosophy is not only a branch of Kant’s practical philosophy, it strongly depends upon Kant’s core practical philosophy for its basis. Kant’s practical philosophy and the categorical imperative that governs it were intended to form the ground not only for what is thought today to be ethics proper but also for everything that broadly speaking had to do with deliberative human behavior. He defined practical philosophy as that concerned with “rules of behavior in regard to free choice”, as opposed to theoretical philosophy that concerned “the rule of knowledge” (Kant 27: 243). Practical philosophy provided rules to govern human deliberative action. The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals provided Kant’s main arguments that the categorical imperative is the supreme rule for human deliberative action. In its Preface, he notes that the Groundwork is to be a preparatory book for a future Metaphysics of Morals. Twelve years later he published that Metaphysics of Morals in two parts, the “Doctrine of Right” and the “Doctrine of Virtue”. Both are equally parts of Kant’s practical philosophy, and both thus have the categorical imperative as their highest principle.

The book Metaphysics of Morals has two distinct parts: the “Doctrine of Right” and the “Doctrine of Virtue”. Kant sought to separate political rights and duties from what we might call morals in the narrow sense. He limits right by stating three conditions (6:230) that have to be met for something to be enforceable as right: first, right concerns only actions that have influence on other persons, directly or indirectly, meaning duties to the self are excluded, second right does not concern the wish but only the choice of others, meaning that not mere desires but only decisions which bring about actions are at stake, and third right does not concern the matter of the other’s act but only the form, meaning no particular desires or ends are assumed on the part of the agents. As an example of the latter he considers trade, which for right must have the form of being freely agreed by both parties but can have any matter or purpose the agents want. These criteria appear to be less rigid than Kant ultimately intends, for the term “influence” is vague enough that it might include far-reaching minor effects. They would also include under right actions even those imperfect duties that “influence” others by improving their lot, such as beneficent acts of charity. John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” does not face this problem since it specifies that the influence to be subject to law is always negative. While Kant must include consideration of beneficent action as part of right, he does not conclude that beneficent actions are required by right but only that most are permitted by right and others violate right. His focus on free individual choice entails that any beneficent action that interferes with or usurps the recipient’s free choice is wrong (for example, improving the recipient’s property without permission as opposed to merely donating money to a fund made available to the recipient at the recipient’s discretion). In addition to these three conditions for right, Kant also offers direct contrasts between right and virtue. He thinks both relate to freedom but in different ways: right concerns outer freedom and virtue concerns inner freedom (being master of one’s own passions) (6:406–07). Right concerns acts themselves independent of the motive an agent may have for performing them, virtue concerns the proper motive for dutiful actions (6:218–221). In another formulation (6:380–81) he says that right concerns universality as a formal condition of freedom while virtue concerns a necessary end beyond the mere formality of universality, thus appearing to tie the distinction to the first two formulas of the categorical imperative in the Groundwork. In yet another he says that right concerns narrow duties and virtue wide duties (6:390). In the Feyerabend lectures, Kant notes that right is the subset of morally correct actions that are also coercible (27:1327). These various alternative formulations of the distinction would exclude imperfect duties not because imperfect duties do not “influence” others (they do) but because, as imperfect, they cannot be coerced in particular instances, since imperfect duties always allow for the moderating role of an individual’s inclinations. While these various formulations of the distinction appear to be quite different, they can in general be summarized by saying that right concerns outer action corresponding to perfect duty that affects others regardless of the individual’s internal motivations or goals.

The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles is an object in a Greek legend which is designed to illustrate the perils of being in a position of power. The term is often used in popular culture to talk about an imminent threat or peril, with the idiom “the Sword of Damocles” in reference to such a threat dating back to around 1747, along with the related concept of “hanging by a thread.” The story of Damocles is relatively brief, and as a result many people are familiar with it.

According to legend, Damocles was a courtier in the palace of Dionysius II, a king who ruled Syracuse in the 4th century BCE. Like many courtiers, Damocles constantly flattered the king, in the hopes that he would be given a position of greater power in the court. Apparently, Dionysius tired of the constant flattery, and he asked Damocles if the courtier would like to switch places for a day, to see what it would be like to be a ruler.

Damocles eagerly assented, and spent a day being waited on by the king and other attendants. Towards the end of the day, while seated at dinner, Damocles looked up to see a heavy sword suspended directly over his head, hanging by a hair. In a panic, he asked Dionysius about the meaning of the sword, and the ruler explained that he wanted to show Damocles what it was like to be in a position of power, which might seem privileged from a distance to the casual eye but was actually quite dangerous.

The sword terrified Damocles into fleeing the court, with no more thoughts of power in his head, and the parable about the Sword of Damocles became a symbol for the hidden dangers of power. Timaeus, an Ancient Greek historian, recounted the parable about the Sword of Damocles, and it was picked up by Cicero several centuries later, entering popular culture in Europe. In the 17th century, the concept of the Sword of Damocles appeared in many works by popular authors and artists, making many people in the West familiar with the idea even if they hadn’t read Cicero.

The concept of hanging by a thread as a leader is very poignant. It illustrates the incredible danger which many leaders find themselves in, as they are often beset on all sides both literally and figuratively, making their positions far from enjoyable. The Sword of Damocles is a somber reminder that power comes with many dangers attached.

The Best Political Order According to Plato

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787)

Although large parts of the Republic are devoted to the description of an ideal state ruled by philosophers and its subsequent decline, the chief theme of the dialogue is justice. It is fairly clear that Plato does not introduce his fantastical political innovation, which Socrates describes as a city in speech, a model in heaven, for the purpose of practical implementation (592a-b). The vision of the ideal state is used rather to illustrate the main thesis of the dialogue that justice, understood traditionally as virtue and related to goodness, is the foundation of a good political order, and as such is in everyone’s interest. Justice, if rightly understood, Plato argues, is not to the exclusive advantage of any of the city’s factions, but is concerned with the common good of the whole political community, and is to the advantage of everyone. It provides the city with a sense of unity, and thus, is a basic condition for its health. “Injustice causes civil war, hatred, and fighting, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose” (351d). In order to understand further what justice and political order are for Plato, it is useful to compare his political philosophy with the pre-philosophical insights of Solon, who is referred to in a few dialogues. Biographical information about Plato is fairly scarce. The fact that he was related through his mother to this famous Athenian legislator, statesman and poet, regarded as one of the “Seven Sages,” may be treated as merely incidental. On the other hand, taking into consideration that in Plato’s times education would have been passed on to children informally at home, it seems highly probable that Plato was not only well acquainted with the deeds and ideas of Solon, but that these deeply influenced him.

The essence of the constitutional reform which Solon made in 593 B.C.E., over one hundred and fifty years before Plato’s birth, when he became the Athenian leader, was the restoration of righteous order, eunomia. In the early part of the sixth century Athens was disturbed by a great tension between two parties: the poor and the rich, and stood at the brink of a fierce civil war. On the one hand, because of an economic crisis, many poorer Athenians were hopelessly falling into debt, and since their loans were often secured by their own persons, thousands of them were put into serfdom. On the other hand, lured by easy profits from loans, the rich stood firmly in defense of private property and their ancient privileges. The partisan strife, which seemed inevitable, would make Athens even more weak economically and defenseless before external enemies. Appointed as a mediator in this conflict, Solon enacted laws prohibiting loans on the security of the person. He lowered the rate of interest, ordered the cancellation of all debts, and gave freedom to serfs. He acted so moderately and impartially that he became unpopular with both parties. The rich felt hurt by the reform. The poor, unable to hold excess in check, demanded a complete redistribution of landed property and the dividing of it into equal shares. Nevertheless, despite these criticisms from both sides, Solon succeeded in gaining social peace. Further, by implementing new constitutional laws, he set up a “mighty shield against both parties and did not allow either to win an unjust victory” (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution). He introduced a system of checks and balances which would not favor any side, but took into consideration legitimate interests of all social groups. In his position, he could easily have become the tyrant over the city, but he did not seek power for himself. After he completed his reform, he left Athens in order to see whether it would stand the test of time, and returned to his country only ten years later. Even though in 561 Pisistratus seized power and became the first in a succession of Athenian tyrants, and in 461 the democratic leader Ephialtes abolished the checks upon popular sovereignty, Solon’s reform provided the ancient Greeks with a model of both political leadership and order based on impartiality and fairness. Justice for Solon is not an arithmetical equality: giving equal shares to all alike irrespective of merit, which represents the democratic concept of distributive justice, but it is equity or fairness based on difference: giving shares proportionate to the merit of those who receive them. The same ideas of political order, leadership, and justice can be found in Plato’s dialogues.

For Plato, like for Solon, the starting point for the inquiry about the best political order is the fact of social diversity and conflicting interests, which involve the danger of civil strife. The political community consists of different parts or social classes, such as the noble, the rich, and the poor, each representing different values, interests, and claims to rule. This gives rise to the controversy of who should rule the community, and what is the best political system. In both the Republic and the Laws, Plato asserts not only that factionalism and civil war are the greatest dangers to the city, more dangerous even than war against external enemies, but also that peace obtained by the victory of one part and the destruction of its rivals is not to be preferred to social peace obtained through the friendship and cooperation of all the city’s parts (Republic 462a-b, Laws 628a-b). Peace for Plato is, unlike for Marxists and other radical thinkers, not a status quo notion, related to the interest of the privileged group, but a value that most people usually desire. He does not stand for war and the victory of one class, but for peace in social diversity. “The best is neither war nor faction – they are things we should pray to be spared from – but peace and mutual good will” (628c). Building on the pre-philosophical insights of Solon and his concept of balancing conflicting interests, in both the Republic and the Laws, Plato offers two different solutions to the same problem of social peace based on the equilibrium and harmonious union of different social classes. If in the Republic it is the main function of the political leadership of philosopher-rulers to make the civil strife cease, in the Laws this mediating function is taken over by laws. The best political order for Plato is that which promotes social peace in the environment of cooperation and friendship among different social groups, each benefiting from and each adding to the common good. The best form of government, which he advances in the Republic, is a philosophical aristocracy or monarchy, but that which he proposes in his last dialogue the Laws is a traditional polity: the mixed or composite constitution that reconciles different partisan interests and includes aristocratic, oligarchic, and democratic elements.

Plato and Politics


Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.E.) developed such distinct areas of philosophy as epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. His deep influence on Western philosophy is asserted in the famous remark of Alfred North Whitehead: “the safest characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” He was also the prototypical political philosopher whose ideas had a profound impact on subsequent political theory. His greatest impact was Aristotle, but he influenced Western political thought in many ways. The Academy, the school he founded in 385 B.C.E., became the model for other schools of higher learning and later for European universities.The philosophy of Plato is marked by the usage of dialectic, a method of discussion involving ever more profound insights into the nature of reality, and by cognitive optimism, a belief in the capacity of the human mind to attain the truth and to use this truth for the rational and virtuous ordering of human affairs. Plato believes that conflicting interests of different parts of society can be harmonized. The best, rational and righteous, political order, which he proposes, leads to a harmonious unity of society and allows each of its parts to flourish, but not at the expense of others. The theoretical design and practical implementation of such order, he argues, are impossible without virtue.

From Politics to Philosophy

Plato was born in Athens in c. 427 B.C.E. Until his mid-twenties, Athens was involved in a long and disastrous military conflict with Sparta, known as the Peloponnesian War. Coming from a distinguished family – on his father’s side descending from Codrus, one of the early kings of Athens, and on his mother’s side from Solon, the prominent reformer of the Athenian constitution – he was naturally destined to take an active role in political life. But this never happened. Although cherishing the hope of assuming a significant place in his political community, he found himself continually thwarted. As he relates in his autobiographical Seventh Letter, he could not identify himself with any of the contending political parties or the succession of corrupt regimes, each of which brought Athens to further decline (324b-326a). He was a pupil of Socrates, whom he considered the most just man of his time, and who, although did not leave any writings behind, exerted a large influence on philosophy. It was Socrates who, in Cicero’s words, “called down philosophy from the skies.” The pre-Socratic philosophers were mostly interested in cosmology and ontology; Socrates’ concerns, in contrast, were almost exclusively moral and political issues. In 399 when a democratic court voted by a large majority of its five hundred and one jurors for Socrates’ execution on an unjust charge of impiety, Plato came to the conclusion that all existing governments were bad and almost beyond redemption. “The human race will have no respite from evils until those who are really philosophers acquire political power or until, through some divine dispensation, those who rule and have political authority in the cities become real philosophers” (326a-326b).

It was perhaps because of this opinion that he retreated to his Academy and to Sicily for implementing his ideas. He visited Syracuse first in 387, then in 367, and again in 362-361, with the general purpose to moderate the Sicilian tyrants with philosophical education and to establish a model political rule. But this adventure with practical politics ended in failure, and Plato went back to Athens. His Academy, which provided a base for succeeding generations of Platonic philosophers until its final closure in C.E. 529, became the most famous teaching institution of the Hellenistic world. Mathematics, rhetoric, astronomy, dialectics, and other subjects, all seen as necessary for the education of philosophers and statesmen, were studied there. Some of Plato’s pupils later became leaders, mentors, and constitutional advisers in Greek city-states. His most renowned pupil was Aristotle. Plato died in c. 347 B.C.E. During his lifetime, Athens turned away from her military and imperial ambitions and became the intellectual center of Greece. She gave host to all the four major Greek philosophical schools founded in the course of the fourth century: Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and the Epicurean and Stoic schools.

Political Philosophy 

Although the Republic, the Statesman, the Laws and a few shorter dialogues are considered to be the only strictly political dialogues of Plato, it can be argued that political philosophy was the area of his greatest concern. In the English-speaking world, under the influence of twentieth century analytic philosophy, the main task of political philosophy today is still often seen as conceptual analysis: the clarification of political concepts. To understand what this means, it may be useful to think of concepts as the uses of words. When we use general words, such as “table,” “chair,” “pen,” or political terms, such as “state,” “power,” “democracy,” or “freedom,” by applying them to different things, we understand them in a certain way, and hence assign to them certain meanings. Conceptual analysis then is a mental clearance, the clarification of a concept in its meaning. As such it has a long tradition and is first introduced in Platonic dialogues. Although the results are mostly inconclusive, in “early” dialogues especially, Socrates tries to define and clarify various concepts. However, in contrast to what it is for some analytic philosophers, for Plato conceptual analysis is not an end to itself, but a preliminary step. The next step is critical evaluation of beliefs, deciding which one of the incompatible ideas is correct and which one is wrong. For Plato, making decisions about the right political order are, along with the choice between peace and war, the most important choices one can make in politics. Such decisions cannot be left solely to public opinion, he believes, which in many cases does not have enough foresight and gets its lessons only post factum from disasters recorded in history. In his political philosophy, the clarification of concepts is thus a preliminary step in evaluating beliefs, and right beliefs in turn lead to an answer to the question of the best political order. The movement from conceptual analysis, through evaluation of beliefs, to the best political order can clearly be seen in the structure of Plato’s Republic.


Karl Marx on Economics

Karl Marx

Capital Volume 1 begins with an analysis of the idea of commodity production. A commodity is defined as a useful external object, produced for exchange on a market. Thus two necessary conditions for commodity production are the existence of a market, in which exchange can take place, and a social division of labour, in which different people produce different products, without which there would be no motivation for exchange. Marx suggests that commodities have both use-value — a use in other words — and an exchange-value — initially to be understood as their price. Use value can easily be understood, so Marx says, but he insists that exchange value is a puzzling phenomenon, and relative exchange values need to be explained. Why does a quantity of one commodity exchange for a given quantity of another commodity? His explanation is in terms of the labour input required to produce the commodity, or rather, the socially necessary labour, which is labour exerted at the average level of intensity and productivity for that branch of activity within the economy. Thus the labour theory of value asserts that the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of socially necessary labour time required to produce it. Marx provides a two stage argument for the labour theory of value. The first stage is to argue that if two objects can be compared in the sense of being put on either side of an equals sign, then there must be a ‘third thing of identical magnitude in both of them’ to which they are both reducible. As commodities can be exchanged against each other, there must, Marx argues, be a third thing that they have in common. This then motivates the second stage, which is a search for the appropriate ‘third thing’, which is labour in Marx’s view, as the only plausible common element. Both steps of the argument are, of course, highly contestable.

Capitalism is distinctive, Marx argues, in that it involves not merely the exchange of commodities, but the advancement of capital, in the form of money, with the purpose of generating profit through the purchase of commodities and their transformation into other commodities which can command a higher price, and thus yield a profit. Marx claims that no previous theorist has been able adequately to explain how capitalism as a whole can make a profit. Marx’s own solution relies on the idea of exploitation of the worker. In setting up conditions of production the capitalist purchases the worker’s labour power — his ability to labour — for the day. The cost of this commodity is determined in the same way as the cost of every other; i.e. in terms of the amount of socially necessary labour power required to produce it. In this case the value of a day’s labour power is the value of the commodities necessary to keep the worker alive for a day. Suppose that such commodities take four hours to produce. Thus the first four hours of the working day is spent on producing value equivalent to the value of the wages the worker will be paid. This is known as necessary labour. Any work the worker does above this is known as surplus labour, producing surplus value for the capitalist. Surplus value, according to Marx, is the source of all profit. In Marx’s analysis labour power is the only commodity which can produce more value than it is worth, and for this reason it is known as variable capital. Other commodities simply pass their value on to the finished commodities, but do not create any extra value. They are known as constant capital. Profit, then, is the result of the labour performed by the worker beyond that necessary to create the value of his or her wages. This is the surplus value theory of profit.

It appears to follow from this analysis that as industry becomes more mechanised, using more constant capital and less variable capital, the rate of profit ought to fall. For as a proportion less capital will be advanced on labour, and only labour can create value. In Capital Volume 3 Marx does indeed make the prediction that the rate of profit will fall over time, and this is one of the factors which leads to the downfall of capitalism. (However, as pointed out by Marx’s able expositor Paul Sweezy in The Theory of Capitalist Development, the analysis is problematic.) A further consequence of this analysis is a difficulty for the theory that Marx did recognise, and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to meet also in Capital Volume 3. It follows from the analysis so far that labour intensive industries ought to have a higher rate of profit than those which use less labour. Not only is this empirically false, it is theoretically unacceptable. Accordingly, Marx argued that in real economic life prices vary in a systematic way from values. Providing the mathematics to explain this is known as the transformation problem, and Marx’s own attempt suffers from technical difficulties. Although there are known techniques for solving this problem now (albeit with unwelcome side consequences), we should recall that the labour theory of value was initially motivated as an intuitively plausible theory of price. But when the connection between price and value is rendered as indirect as it is in the final theory, the intuitive motivation of the theory drains away. But even if the defender of the theory is still not ready to concede defeat, a further objection appears devastating. Marx’s assertion that only labour can create surplus value is unsupported by any argument or analysis, and can be argued to be merely an artifact of the nature of his presentation. Any commodity can be picked to play a similar role. Consequently with equal justification one could set out a corn theory of value, arguing that corn has the unique power of creating more value than it costs. Formally this would be identical to the labour theory of value.

Although Marx’s economic analysis is based on the discredited labour theory of value, there are elements of his theory that remain of worth. The Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, in An Essay on Marxian Economics, picked out two aspects of particular note. First, Marx’s refusal to accept that capitalism involves a harmony of interests between worker and capitalist, replacing this with a class based analysis of the worker’s struggle for better wages and conditions of work, versus the capitalist’s drive for ever greater profits. Second, Marx’s denial that there is any long-run tendency to equilibrium in the market, and his descriptions of mechanisms which underlie the trade-cycle of boom and bust. Both provide a salutary corrective to aspects of orthodox economic theory.



Marx and Engels

Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry based upon a materialist interpretation of historical development, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis of class-relations within society and their application in the analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. In the mid-to-late 19th century, the intellectual development of Marxism was pioneered by two German philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxist analyses and methodologies have influenced multiple political ideologies and social movements throughout history. Marxism encompasses an economic theory, a sociological theory, a philosophical met and a revolutionary view of social change. There is no one definitive Marxist theory; Marxist analysis has been applied to a variety of different subjects and has been modified during the course of its development so that there are multiple Marxist theories.

Marxism is based on a materialist understanding of societal development, taking at its starting point the necessary economic activities required by human society to provide for its material needs. The form of economic organization, or mode of production, is understood to be the basis from which the majority of other social phenomena — including social relations, political and legal systems, morality and ideology — arise (or at the least by which they are greatly influenced). These social relations form the superstructure, for which the economic system forms the base. As the forces of production (most notably technology) improve, existing forms of social organization become inefficient and stifle further progress. These inefficiencies manifest themselves as social contradictions in the form of class struggle.

According to Marxist analysis, class conflict within capitalism arises due to intensifying contradictions between highly-productive mechanized and socialized production performed by the proletariat, and private ownership and private appropriation of the surplus product in the form of surplus value (profit) by a small minority of private owners called the bourgeoisie. As the contradiction becomes apparent to the proletariat, social unrest between the two antagonistic classes intensifies, culminating in a social revolution. The eventual long-term outcome of this revolution would be the establishment of socialism – a socioeconomic system based on cooperative ownership of the means of production, distribution based on one’s contribution, and production organized directly for use. Karl Marx hypothesized that, as the productive forces and technology continued to advance, socialism would eventually give way to a communist stage of social development. Communism would be a classless, stateless, moneyless society based on common ownership and the principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

Marxism has developed into different branches and schools of thought. Different schools place a greater emphasis on certain aspects of Classical Marxism while de-emphasizing or rejecting other aspects of Marxism, sometimes combining Marxist analysis with non-Marxian concepts. Some variants of Marxism primarily focus on one aspect of Marxism as the determining force in social development – such as the mode of production, class, power-relationships or property ownership – while arguing other aspects are less important or current research makes them irrelevant. Despite sharing similar premises, different schools of Marxism might reach contradictory conclusions from each other. For example, different Marxian economists have contradictory explanations of economic crisis and different predictions for the outcome of such crises. Furthermore, different variants of Marxism apply Marxist analysis to study different aspects of society (e.g: mass culture, economic crises, or Feminism).

These theoretical differences have led various socialist and communist parties and political movements to embrace different political strategies for attaining socialism, advocate different programs and policies. One example of this is the division between revolutionary socialists and reformists that emerged in the German Social Democratic Party during the early 20th century.

Marxist understandings of history and of society have been adopted by academics in the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, media studies, political science, theater, history, sociological theory, art history and art theory, cultural studies, education, economics, geography, literary criticism, aesthetics, critical psychology, and philosophy.

Das Kapital by Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (German pronunciation: [das kapiˈtaːl]; Capital: Critique of Political Economy), by Karl Marx, is a critical analysis of capitalism as political economy, meant to reveal the economic laws of the capitalist mode of production, and how it is the precursor of the socialist mode of production.

In Capital: Critique of Political Economy (1867), Karl Marx proposes that the motivating force of capitalism is in the exploitation of labour, whose unpaid work is the ultimate source of profit and surplus value. The employer can claim right to the profits (new output value), because he or she owns the productive capital assets (means of production), which are legally protected by the State through property rights. In producing capital (money) rather than commodities (goods and services), the workers continually reproduce the economic conditions by which they labour. Capital proposes an explanation of the “laws of motion” of the capitalist economic system, from its origins to its future, by describing the dynamics of the accumulation of capital, the growth of wage labour, the transformation of the workplace, the concentration of capital, commercial competition, the banking system, the decline of the profit rate, land-rents, et cetera.

The critique of the political economy of capitalism proposes that:

  • The commodity is the basic “cell-form” (trade unit) of a capitalist society, but capitalism is distinguished from other forms of production based on commodities in that here labour power becomes a commodity like any other. Moreover, because commerce, as a human activity, implied no morality beyond that required to buy and sell goods and services, the growth of the market system made discrete entities of the economic, the moral, and the legal spheres of human activity in society; hence, subjective moral value is separate from objective economic value. Subsequently, political economy — the just distribution of wealth and “political arithmetick” about taxes — became three discrete fields of human activity: Economics, Law, and Ethics, politics and economics divorced.
  • “The economic formation of society [is] a process of natural history”, thus it is possible for a political economist to objectively study the scientific laws of capitalism, given that its expansion of the market system of commerce had objectified human economic relations; the use of money (cash nexus) voided religious and political illusions about its economic value, and replaced them with commodity fetishism, the belief that an object (commodity) has inherent economic value. Because societal economic formation is a historical process, no one person could control or direct it, thereby creating a global complex of social connections among capitalists; thus, the economic formation (individual commerce) of a society precedes the human administration of an economy (organised commerce).
  • The structural contradictions of a capitalist economy, the gegensätzliche Bewegung, describe the contradictory movement originating from the two-fold character of labour; not the class struggle between labour and capital, the wage labourer and the owner of the means of production. These capitalist economy contradictions operate “behind the backs” of the capitalists and the workers, as a result of their activities, and yet remain beyond their perceptions as men and women and as social classes.
  • The economic crises (recession, depression, etc.) that are rooted in the contradictory character of the economic value of the commodity (cell-unit) of a capitalist society, are the conditions that propitiate proletarian revolution; which the Communist Manifesto (1848) collectively identified as a weapon, forged by the capitalists, which the working class “turned against the bourgeoisie, itself”.
  • In a capitalist economy, technological improvement and its consequent increased production augment the amount of material wealth (use value) in society, whilst simultaneously diminishing the economic value of the same wealth, thereby diminishing the rate of profit — a paradox characteristic of economic crisis in a capitalist economy; “poverty in the midst of plenty” consequent to over-production and under-consumption.

After two decades of economic study and preparatory work (especially regarding the theory of surplus value) the first volume appeared in 1867: The production process of capital. After Marx’s death in 1883, Friedrich Engels introduced, from manuscripts and the first volume; Volume II: The circulation process of capital in 1885; and Volume III: The overall process of capitalist production in 1894. These three volumes are collectively known as Das Kapital.