The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx

A writeup of notes from "The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx" including major concepts and terms to help understand Marx's theories.

This book was the perfect gentle introduction to Marx without having to read any of his work directly, because that is hard. It provided a great overview, explained key concepts, and clarified a lot of Marx's ideas for me that I had only heard fragments of.

If you'd like a copy, you can snag it at the (affiliate) link below:

This post is a writeup of my notes from the book. It should give a reasonable overview, but it is definitely incomplete - I mostly took notes on the parts I found confusing or new, so to get the full picture you should read the full book!

Note that throughout, any inline quotes with quotation marks are from the book, and any block quotes are from Marx.

Useful Definitions

Term Meaning
social labor "The labor of each individual or group of individuals is social labor in the sense that it contributes to the needs of society."
socially necessary labor time "the labor time required to produce any use value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labor prevalent to that society" (any more than this is waste) The value of commodities is determined by socially necessary labor time, not by actual labor time.
variable capital money used to buy labor power; this expands in value because labor power is the source of value
constant capital money used to buy infrastructure, equipment, materials, and so on; this capital does not expand in value
living labor "the labor of the worker which replaces the value of labor power and at the same time creates surplus value"
dead labor "the labor of the workers who made the means of production in the first place" - labor accumulated in the means of production. As these machines/etc. deteriorate, their dead labor value is gradually transferred to the commodities produced with them.
rate of surplus value the ratio between surplus value and variable capital - if workers need to work 4 hours a day to survive (i.e. "earn their wages"), and the other 4 hours are surplus value, your rate of surplus value is 4:4 or 100%
rate of profit the return on a capitalist's total investment - surplus value divided by variable and constant value together
realization of value a capitalist only obtains the surplus value extracted from workers if they are successful in selling the commodities they produced - thereby, realizing the value of surplus labor is dependent on commodities circulating in the market
organic composition of capital "the ratio of constant capital to variable capital. In other words, it reflects (in value terms) the amount of machinery, raw materials, and so on that are needed to produce a given commodity relative to the labor power needed." This is then a measure of the productivity of labor - higher productivity of labor means each worker can operate more machines and process more raw material, increasing the organic composition of capital.
commodity fetishism "the way the working of the capitalist economy leads people to believe that their social relationships are in some mystical way governed by physical objects - use values and the machinery used to produce them"


Capitalism: What is It?

Marx notes that capitalism creates generalized commodity production, where production begins to rely on the market - "[a] worker in a can opener factory cannot eat can openers" as Callinicos puts it. Producers are simultaneously alienated (the things they produce are transmuted into money, and they really have no idea or influence on where they go, who uses them, or how - they just... go) and interdependent, but only in the sense that all rely on each other purely for exchange.

In other words, the labor of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labor of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and through their mediation, between the producers.

Previously, production was for use - to meet some need, and so the work had an obvious purpose (which was why you were doing it!). Now, you really don't know if someone needs what you're producing until after you've made it and tried to sell it. Critically, "[i]f no one wants to buy these goods, then the labor that produced them was not social labor."

A note to self about a research topic I've been thinking about: capitalism speculatively allocates labor in this way, through a much less direct mechanism than before - this would seem to give rise to complex risk management in order to turn speculation into prediction to the greatest extent possible.

A critical difference is that every society must somehow distribute social labor - if everyone does the same thing, that's not at all helpful. Uniquely, "[c]apitalism has no mechanism through which society can collectively decide how much of its labor will be devoted to particular tasks."

"The first sign that an accumulation of wealth has begun to act as capital is the formula M-C-M' ... in which money (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) which are then resold for a greater sum of money (M'). At first such transactions were made by traders... [b]ut capital proper only really comes into existence when the commodity being bought and sold is labor power".

That is, mercantile capitalism preceded 'capitalism proper' as it were. Later, though, when labor power began to be bought and sold directly instead of exchanging the commodities produced by independent labor, well -

Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks

Organic Composition of Capital

"If some technical improvement in the conditions of production thus cheapens the consumer goods which workers buy with their wages, then the value of labor power has fallen. Less social labor will now be needed to reproduce labor power, and the portion of the working day devoted to necessary labor will fall, leaving more time spent in creating surplus value."

Like every other instrument for increasing the productivity of labor, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities and, by shortening the part of the working day in which the worker works for himself, to lengthen the other part, the part he gives the capitalist for nothing. The machine is a means for producing surplus value.

This is a useful illustration that links organic composition of capital to rate of profit:

Assume two capitalists, A and B. They have the same rate of surplus value - 100% - so they make the same weekly profit of $5k from their weekly payroll of $5k. But B has to invest more in fixed capital.

Capitalist Weekly Payroll Weekly Profit Weekly Investment of Constant Capital Organic Composition of Capital Rate of Profit
A $5000 $5000 $5000 1:1 $5000/$10000 (50%)
B $5000 $5000 $10000 2:1 $5000/$15000 (33%)

B's increased investment in fixed capital due to being in a different industry than A drops their rate of profit! "So the higher the organic composition of capital, the more machinery and raw materials used by each worker, the lower the rate of profit - because only labor power produces surplus value."

Self note: I had some issues with this originally, mainly in that fixing the rate of surplus value seemed wrong when the organic composition would change - essentially that if the organic composition was higher, that implies more productivity per worker, which would seem to drive down your payroll cost for a given fixed output (i.e. if each worker can run more machines, you don't need as many workers). I thiiiiink the resolution there is that the rate of surplus value is external to the industry - the prevailing wage is set not by the capitalist, per se, but by what workers are paid in general, which relies more on cost of living (i.e. the value of labor) which the individual capitalists don't determine.

Ok so here's a tricky bit: clearly B up there would prefer to invest in whatever industry A is in, since it's more profitable. This flow of capital to where it's the most profitable (i.e. the organic composition of capital is lowest) will tend to equalize the rate of profit between industries until they're all roughly at the general rate of profit - all the same.

Let's say A and B are the only two sources of capital in our little economy. So, total surplus value is $10,000 and total social capital is $25,000. The general rate of profit is $10,000:$25,000 or 40%.

Now's the real crazy part: both A and B will end up receiving a 40% return on their capital! Since A and B each extract $5000 from their workers, somehow $1000 is transferred between them. HOW???

Well, when B sees A making all this cash at a whopping 50% rate of profit, B will shift some investment into A's industry. This will lead to an increase in production, which will continue until the supply of goods exceeds demand... at which point the price for goods will fall, industry A will become less profitable, and capital will keep shifting until every industry is leveled out that way. (At the same time, production in B's industry has fallen because of the capital shifted away, so the price of those commodities will rise.)

An interesting note here is that the price changes don't change the value of the commodities - so industry A at that point is selling below value, and B is selling above value. "Equilibrium is reached when the prices of different goods are set at levels which earn every capital the same rate of profit." In the end, Marx says:

the average rate of profit depends on the intensity of exploitation of the sum total of labor by the sum total of capital
The capitalists strive (and this striving is competition) to divide among themselves the quantity of unpaid labor... which they squeeze out of the working class, not according to the surplus labor produced directly by a particular capital, but corresponding firstly to the relative portion of the aggregate capital which a particular capital represents, and secondly according to the amount of surplus labor produced by the aggregate capital.

The end prices of these commodities once the general rate of profit is accounted for (Marx calls them "prices of production") become such that even though the sum of all the prices in an economy are equal to the sum of all the values, any given industry has different prices of production for its commodities than values of those same commodities. For A and B above, A would have a $14,000 price of production, while B would have $21,000 price of production - the sum of variable capital, surplus value, and fixed capital EXCEPT that B gets an "extra" $1000 of surplus value from A due to the general rate of profit.

(This is the "transformation problem" and it's super controversial, I'm told.)

You might say 'but wait don't the value of the commodities represented by variable and fixed capital also have prices of production that you need to account for?' and yeah, you'd be right - "[t]he goods consumed by workers, and the infrastructure, machinery and so on which they use to produce commodities, will themselves have been affected by the formation of a general rate of profit, and will also have had their values transformed into prices of production." (Marx noted this but ignored it because the math gets complex fast when everything is related to everything else like that.) If you only have "one big capital" you can assume that products exchange at their value - the competition between "many capitals" is what causes the price of production to arise.

The Industrial Reserve Army

As productivity grows, fewer workers are needed for the same output, so the capitalist can fire a few. The general outcome of this is the creation of an "industrial reserve army" of the unemployed. This provides a pool of workers that can be quickly used in any new production, and also helps suppress wages.

The general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army.

Capitalism leads to a steady rise in productivity, and thus a steady fall in the value of commodities - including labor power. So while prices of consumer goods may fall, making workers relatively better off, the underlying value of their labor power is falling, leaving them worse off in absolute terms.

So, overall, the value of labor power will fall as commodities (in general) grow cheaper. This increases the rate of surplus value (increases the intensity of exploitation), which increases the rate of profit.

BUT this goes both ways - if productivity of labor goes up (rather than intensity of exploitation), then the organic composition of capital will rise, reducing the rate of profit.

Additionally, since the value of commodities is (mostly) always falling, the means of production themselves lose value over time. Some argue that the changing value of the means of production will counteract the rise in the organic composition of capital, but the issue is that the capitalist cares about return on their original investment - not what they would have had to invest today. This makes it even harder for capitalists to make a profit, since any new competitors are able to make use of cheaper means of production rather than the older, more expensive ones.

(Another way of thinking of this - as productivity grows, if you keep the same number of workers, they'll be able to make more goods, which will require you to invest more fixed capital in raw material and machinery. At the same time, the price of the goods you produce has fallen due to the fact that you're making more, keeping your income roughly the same even though you're now producing more goods. In total, you're having to invest more in fixed capital to produce more goods... but at roughly the same total income on a now-larger investment.)

In total, this growing productivity leads to an overall consistent fall in the rate of profit. Capitalists try to counteract this fall through increasing the intensity of exploitation, but that can only go so far there are only so many hours in the day, and workers must be paid at least enough to survive so they can keep working, and have children who can work in the future (this is "the reproduction of labor power" - the ability to not only work today, but to work tomorrow, and to ensure that there will be someone to work ten years from now). The rise in productivity, in the end, causes an ever-growing organic composition of capital, which reduces profits.


The falling rate of profit is a problem for capitalists, as you'd expect. "It is indeed mainly through crises that the value of constant capital is brought in line, not with 'the labor time it cost originally,' but with 'the labor time with which it can be reproduced.'"

Uniquely, capitalist crises are those of overproduction - not relative to need for goods, but relative to whether those goods can be sold at a profit. The rate of profit has become too low - something must be done!

The effect of crises is to destroy capital by forcing companies who are unable to sell their goods at a profit out of business. The destruction can be literal - machinery or excess goods being thrown away or left to rust and rot - but it also takes the form of a sudden, aggressive drop in the value of the means of production. Economic crises force the means of production to be valued at what they would cost to reproduce now, rather than their labor cost at the time they were purchased. This reduces the organic composition of capital, and thus the rate of profit rises. (Modern finance refers to this process - among others - as mark-to-market.)

This is only possible through destruction, however - capital invested in outdated machinery is destroyed (along with the machinery), and production is curtailed. Businesses which are less efficient are driven to bankruptcy, while those that are stronger can buy means of production at bargain prices and have more leverage over their workers - which allows them to increase the rate of exploitation. The end effect of this is the increasing centralization of capital, inevitably increasing the size of individual capitals.

Marx actually was kind of a fan of what he called "the great civilizing influence of capital":

[Capital] drives beyond national barriers and prejudices... as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of human needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive to all this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces

Buuuut on the other hand, the fact that capitalism requires regular crises to function is not great:

The violent destruction of capital, not by relations external to it, but rather as a condition of its self-preservation, is the most striking form in which it is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production

Marx thinks capitalism is effectively 'a good start' but that the forces of production it unleashed are at the same time hindered by it:

To assert, as sentimental opponents of Ricardo's did, that production as such is not the object, is to forget that production for its own sake means nothing but the development of human productive forces, in other words the development of the richness of human nature as an end in itself


"The most basic proposition of Marxism is that capitalism creates the material and social conditions of communism. The abolition of classes is possible only where capitalist relations of production have lifted the productivity of labor to a level where scarcity can be abolished."

Marx argues that the proletariat, a class which is created by capitalism when it groups workers together in cooperative working environments (e.g. factories), is also the only class which can end capitalism and abolish classes.

The reason that only the proletariat can do this is because they are exploited, and because they are organized (by capital, no less). The lumpenproletariat, which Marx calls the "stagnant element," "vagabonds, criminals, prostitutes," "the demoralised, the ragged, and those unable to work," are not the revolutionary class because they aren't subject to capitalist discipline and as a result are more likely to be used by reactionaries who can take advantage of their misery. "Similarly, the unemployed are always fertile recruiting grounds for fascist movements because they are no longer subject to the pressure of capitalist exploitation which leads workers to band together against the boss."

Peasants, meanwhile, are also unlikely to start the revolution because they aren't organized. Spread around the countryside on their own small properties, more-or-less self-sufficient, they don't have the solidarity required, even though they are exploited. The peasants are critical to the success of the revolution, but lack the organization to lead it.

So, the proletariat it is. The problem is that the proletariat largely accepts capitalism as the way things are. "[Marx's] answer was that workers become aware of their interests as a class through the class struggle itself. Through their daily battles with capital in the process of production workers acquire the consciousness, confidence and organization necessary if they are to play a revolutionary role."

The communist party then is not its own party - as Marx says:

The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties.

They have no interests seperate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.

The communists are distinguished from other working class parties by this only: (1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries they point out and bring to the front all the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. (2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all the others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement

In all, "the task of the communists is to act as a stimulus to the self-education of the working class." Since workers learn as part of struggling against capital, the revolutionary party must aid in that struggle and use it it to help workers educate themselves. (And also be willing to practice the art of insurrection once the workers have begun the revolution.)

There's a brief dictatorship of the proletariat, which is meant to be a transitional period during and shortly after the revolution. It's hard to predict how this would go, obviously, but the intent is for it to carry out:

the appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class and, therefore, the abolition of wage labor, of capital and of their mutual relations

Marx sees this stage of society as very much in transition, with people still very used to capitalist relations. He vaguely sketches a plan of "paying" people in labor certificates according to how much work they have done, which entitles them to draw from the common supply. As the planned economy grew more stable, this would slowly cease as abundance allowed work to be enjoyable and wealth to be plentiful.


As the dictatorship of the proletariat accomplished its goals of (among other things) increasing labor productivity and thus shortening the working day, it would slowly wither away. Post-scarcity conditions would mean there would be no repression required to run society, which means the state would really have no purpose.

The growth in productivity is key:

"Socialist democracy in some respects would mirror the democracy of ancient Athens. Slave labor permitted the citizens of Athens to devote the bulk of their time to public affairs - to discussion in the marketplace, to decision making in the sovereign assembly of all citizens, and to involvement in administration (most public offices were undertaken by ordinary citizens by rotation). With communism, on the other hand, thanks to the enormous development of the productive forces in the past two and a half millennia, citizens would enjoy their free time thanks to the work, not of wretched slaves, but of inanimate machines produced by human ingenuity."

This free time means inevitable disagreements can be settled by debate and majority vote. No "special body of armed men" required.

All of this stems from not needing to separate 'working to survive' from 'working because it's interesting.' Working so you don't starve is hardly freedom at all - but working for its own sake, such that your work is an end in itself, is true flourishing.

The realm of freedom actually begins only where labor which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production... Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it beings that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true end of freedom, which can blossom forth only with this real of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite

As Engels puts it: "it is humanity's leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom"


(All opinions/recommendations from Callinicos.)

To read Marx without starting at Capital, which is intimidating:

  • Communist Manifesto
  • Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (from Engels)

The materialist conception of history is stated in the 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

Wages, Price and Profit is the best intro to the labor theory of value; Wage Labor and Capital is also good.

Introductions to Marx: