Das Kapital published 150 years ago - Marx's personal copy digitized

Announcement, IISH, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Exactly 150 years ago, on 14 September 1867, the first volume of Karl Marx’s Capital was published. Capital remains one of the most influential books in world history. The International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam possesses a unique first edition, containing Marx’s own handwritten corrections and marginals. This edition has now been fully digitized, and has been made available to the general public through the Institute’s website.

Apart from the most important socialist theoretician, Karl Marx (1818-1883) also was a highly (self-) critical scientist. From the mid-1840s onward he engaged in a serious study of economic theory. In 1857, he started writing the first rough draft of the work that after another decade and several further attempts would result in the first volume of Capital. Even before Capital came off the printing presses of the publisher Meissner in Hamburg, he signaled his dissatisfaction about the way he had presented his arguments in his letters. These doubts were strengthened by the critique of his good friend Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Three weeks before the publication, on 23 August 1867, he complimented Marx with the ‘fabulous’ argumentation behind the book. However, he followed this immediately with the exclamation: ‘But how could you leave the outward arrangement of the book as it is!’ To a French publisher who proposed a translation, Marx wrote already in November 1867 that he would like to change certain passages in the text.

Das Kapital is part of the collection of the IISH in Amsterdam

Marx immediately started preparing his changes for the next edition. The corrections that he made in his own copy of Capital, part of the collection of the IISH in Amsterdam, were one of the first steps in this process. Most of these changes in pencil were later incorporated in the second German edition of 1872. The main changes are located in the tough first chapters, in which Marx introduces important concepts such as ‘commodity’, ‘use value’, ‘exchange value’, and his theory of the role of money in a capitalist economy. Marx continued to rewrite Capital for the French edition that came out in series from 1872-1875 and the third German edition that was published just after his death in 1883. He never managed to finish the second and third volume of Capital. Although the main manuscripts for both volumes had already been prepared in the first half of the 1860s, he continued to postpone publication to allow for further research. Eventually, Friedrich Engels undertook the laborious work of editing and publishing the second (1885) and third (1894) volumes.

The copy of Capital, Volume I containing Marx’s notes came into the possession of the IISH in Amsterdam in the 1930s, via the archives and library of the German social democratic movement. The copy is of particular interest, since it provides a glance into the meticulous work that Marx put into the formulation of his theories. Unfortunately, only few people will be able to actually read these notes. Marx’s handwriting is so impregnable, that only a handful of people in the world today are able to decipher it. A full transcription has been published in the Marx Engels Gesamtausgabe 2, the voluminous scientific edition of the works of Marx and Engels in which the IISH is one of the leading participants.

Available on our website

The copy of Capital that has now been digitized is a unique document for the history of the labour movement and the social sciences. It is part of the large collection of manuscripts of Marx and Engels at the IISH, which owns approximately two thirds of all the papers left by Marx and Engels during their lives. In 2013, together with the only surviving handwritten page of the Communist Manifesto, it was entered on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. In the next year, the original copy will be shown at large exhibitions in the Museum Karl-Marx-Haus in Trier and in the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, on occasion of the bicentennial of Marx’s birth.