Deconstructing “Capital”:

New Insights from Marx’s Economic Manuscripts in “MEGA”



Michael Heinrich


Historical Materialism Annual Conference 2006 “New Directions in Marxian Theory”

Dec. 8-10, London


Abstract: MEGA, the critical edition of the works of Marx and Engels (120 volumes when it will be finished) provided and will provide manuscripts, which question the “traditional view” of “Capital” as a nearly complete and coherent work of Marx. Edited and reworked by Engels, the three volumes mix different drafts. The drafts themselves show a number of unfinished research processes, which are covered by Engels attempt to provide a “readable” book. Furthermore the drafts include a number of ambivalences. No simple “reading” and no simple “application” of “Capital” is possible. The different drafts have to be recognized as different layers of an ongoing and unfinished research process.


When in 1867 Marx published book I of “Capital” he announced in the preface four books, three theoretical ones and a fourth book, which should present the history of economic thinking. But during his lifetime Marx could only publish a (reworked) second edition of book I (1872) and a (further reworked) French translation of book I (1872-75). After Marx’s death (1883) Engels published out of manuscripts book II (1885) and book III (1894) of “Capital”. Furthermore Engels edited a third (1883) and fourth (1890) edition of book I, in which he included parts (but not all) of the changes Marx had made for the French translation. From 1905 to 1910 Karl Kautsky published “Theories of Surplus Value”, which were seen as the fourth book of “Capital”. More than forty years after book I had appeared the whole work seemed to be published completely.

In the ‘traditional view’  “Capital”, especially the first three books, seemed to be a nearly complete and coherent work, which was used to analyse capitalism, which was attacked by critics of Marx and defended by Marxists. In the Soviet Union in 1939-41 “Grundrisse” were published for the first time, in 1953 they appeared in GDR. But only since the 1960ies “Grundrisse” were discussed broadly. They were seen as an important supplement of “Capital”, dealing with topics, which were omitted or only dealt very short there and also giving some methodological hints for a better understanding of “Capital”. Especially the notion “capital in general” made an enormous career. Neglecting the fact that this notion cannot be found in the three volumes of “Capital” it was widely used to interpret “Capital” since the late 1960ies.

In 1975 the first volume of MEGA appeared. MEGA is the critical and complete edition of works, manuscripts, letters and excerpts of Marx and Engels. It is divided in four departments: I. Works without “Capital”, II. “Capital” and preparatory manuscripts, III. Letters IV. Excerpts and Notes. Until now 61 volumes have been published. When MEGA will be finished the total number will be around 120 volumes. Every volume consists of two books, a book with texts and book with the scientific apparatus. Already published texts appear in MEGA in a much better form, but also a big number of texts are published in MEGA for the first time. Especially the manuscripts Engels used for composing book II and III of “Capital” (and also such manuscripts he didn’t use) appeared or will appear in MEGA. Also important: the many excerpts, which Marx wrote and extensively used when writing manuscripts.

Regarding “Capital”, MEGA destroyed the ‘traditional view’ of “Capital” as nearly complete and coherent work in several respects:

- “Theories of Surplus Value” are not book IV of “Capital”, for this book not even a draft or a plan exists.

- All three ‘theoretical’ books of “Capital” are shaped by Engels, who combined manuscripts, which were taken out of different drafts, written at different times; furthermore Engels altered considerably the original manuscripts of Marx (even book I is shaped to a certain degree by Engels, by mixing the German and the French edition, partly but not completely following the hints of Marx). When I stress these changes, it is not my aim to blame Engels, he did the best, what he could do with his means. But for studying the work of Marx in a scientific way, we have to go back to the original manuscripts of Marx.

- We cannot simply speak of “Capital”, we have to distinguish several drafts of “Capital” and we have to follow precisely the changes of these drafts, if we want to use them. In these different drafts we can find important changes in certain topics like the theory of value, value form and money or crisis theory, but also we can find considerable alterations in the general framework of ordering and presenting categories.

Regarding different drafts of “Capital” also a certain critic of MEGA must be mentioned. The second department “Capital and preparatory manuscripts” presents all economic manuscripts and published works since 1857. The title of the department already insinuates that since 1857 Marx had the plan to write “Capital”. In the introductions of the volumes of this department, the MEGA editors make this insinuation even stronger, when they speak of “three drafts” of “Capital”:

- First draft: “Grundrisse” (1857/58)

- Second draft „Manuscript 1861-63“ (which includes “Theories of Surplus Value“)

- Third draft “Manuscript 1863-65”

But the assumed continuous development to an aim, which is pretended to exist since 1867, is not supported, when we examine closely Marx’ manuscripts. At least two different projects can be distinguished:

- “Critique of Political Economy” in six books (Capital, Landed Property, Wage Labour; State, Foreign Trade, World Market) with the distinction between “capital in general” and “competition of many capitals” as structural principle for the book on capital

- “Capital” in four books (Production of Capital, Circulation of Capital, Process of Capital in its Totality, History of Theory). Neither the 6-books plan nor ‘capital in general’ is mentioned after 1863. Only some vague hints are given to topics which are outside the scope of consideration and could be the object of special studies. For the reader it is not clear, whether Marx wanted to substitute the 6-books plan (in parts or totally) by “Capital” or whether Marx considered “Capital” only as the first book of the 6-books plan. In my view there are some good reasons to distinguish the conception of “Capital” strictly from the 6-book plan and the conception of ‘capital in general’. Therefore we can speak of two distinguished projects since 1857.

For the first project two drafts exist

- “Grundrisse” 1857/58

- “A Contribution…” 1859 and “Manuscript 1861-63”

For the second project three drafts can be distinguished

- “Manuscript 1863-65”

- “Capital” book I (first edition, 1867), manuscripts 1867-71 for book II and III

- “Capital” book I (second edition 1872), manuscripts for book II and III, excerpts and notes

In sum, we find five drafts belonging to two different projects (for more details see the table below). Drafts belonging to the same project have the general structure in common, but they show differences in many details of ordering and presenting the material, stressing different points etc. Furthermore, when we observe along all five drafts the development of certain topics like

- value, value-form, exchange process

- money and capital

- crisis theory

- banking and finance

we can observe considerable changes in dealing with these issues. Furthermore there are some remarks of Marx, made in letters since 1871, about the necessity of deep reworking his old presentations. For this process also the observations of new developments were important. Especially during the 1870ies Marx was more and more interested in Russia and USA. While 1867 he had written in the preface of book I that England is the “locus classicus” of the capitalist mode of production, it seems, that at the end of the 1870ies Marx considered the USA as the “locus classicus” at least for the capitalist system of banking and credit, and therefore also for concentration and centralisation of capital and capitalist crises. This would have consequences for book III, but also for book I. At the end of 1881, when Marx was informed, that a third edition will be necessary, he intended to propose to the publisher to print only a limited number of copies of book I with minor alterations, because he wants to alter and adjust book I in a more fundamental way (see his letter to Danielson, 13 December 1881).

Reading “Capital” today demands to recognize, that “Capital” is much less coherent and complete than people thought since decades. To obtain first acquaintance with “Capital”, one can use the three volumes, edited by Engels. But for any deeper study it is necessary to go back to Marx’s original manuscripts published in MEGA for the first time (regarding book I, this counts for value form analysis in the first edition, which should be read additionally). But these manuscripts must be seen as parts of different layers in the development of Marx’s analysis. They are centred around distinguished lines of argumentation, shifting the importance and the meaning of certain notions and concepts. A final version doesn’t exist. Marx himself was convinced that a fundamental reworking is necessary. And furthermore one has to take into account, that these manuscripts are not free from structural ambiguities, which result from the specific character of Marx’s project: Marx executed a scientific revolution, a disruption with the theoretical field of classical political economy. But this disruption was not complete, in some respect Marx got stuck to this theoretical field (what is well known from all scientific revolutions, the first disruption was never complete; it would be a very idealistic view to expect such a perfection from Marx).

“Capital” is not a closed box of nearly complete and coherent wisdom about capitalism, it is an open project – open not only in an empirical sense, but also in a categorical sense. And we are invited to take part in this open project.

Further arguments to these topics can be found in:

Michael Heinrich: „Invaders from Marx. On the uses of Marxian Theory and the Difficulties of a Contemporary Reading”, 2006

Michael Heinrich: Die Wissenschaft vom Wert. Die Marxsche Kritik der politischen Oekonomie zwischen wissenschaftlicher Revolution und klassischer Tradition, 4th edition, Muenster: Dampfboot 2006.

Michael Heinrich: “Engels' Edition of the Third Volume of Capital and Marx's Original Manuscript”, in: Science & Society, vol. 60, no. 4, 1996, pp. 452-466.

Michael Heinrich:Capital in general and the structure of Marx's Capital. New insights from Marx's 'Economic Manuscript of 1861-63' ”, in: Capital & Class 38, 1989, pp. 63-79


Marx’s economic manuscripts 1857-81:

Two drafts of “Critique of Political Economy” (6-books plan) and three drafts of “Capital”


Texts (unpublished)

Texts (published by Marx)

General character of texts in period

Value Theory



London notebooks (including “Reflection”)

Excerpts on Political Economy


Preparatory period

Increasing critic of Ricardo’s theory

of value and money




Formation of the first project: 6-book plan

‘Capital in general’ / competition of many capitals as structural principle




First Draft of “Critique of Political Economy



Book of the Crisis of 1857 (Excerpts/notes)




First attempt to realize this project

Grundrisse: Transition from value to money (several attempts); transition from money to capital (first attempt)







Second Draft of “Critique of Political Economy

Original Text of ‘A Contribution…’



Manuscript 1861-63

(including “Theories of Surplus Value”)




A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy



Second attempt to realize this project,

Considerable reworking in many fields



Original text: Transition from money to capital (second attempt)

A Contribution: “general labour”; value form analysis intersects with analysis of exchange process

Theories of Surplus Value: critic of Bailey shows the necessity of reworking value form analysis


                                                                                   Formation of the second project: 4 books of “Capital”

                                                                  Substitution of ‘capital in general’ by individual capital / total social capital as structural principle




First Draft of “Capital” (Manuscript 1863-1865)

- Book I (only “Results of the Immediate Process of Production” left)

- Book II (“manuscript I”)

- Book III (“main manuscript”)


First attempt to realize this

second project,

the most complete executed draft of the three theoretical books of “Capital”






Second Draft of “Capital”


Manuscript II-V for book III

Manuscript II, III and IV for book II


Capital vol. I (first edition) 1867


Second attempt to realize the project,

manuscripts for book II as a direct sequel of the published book I,

Capital I (first edition): Value form analysis in chapter I (“the dialectic is more precise”). “Popularised” value form analysis in appendix








Third Draft of “Capital”

“Reworking manuscript” 1871/72

Manuscripts for book III

Manuscript V, VI, VII, VIII for book II

Excerpts on banking and finance

Materials for further reworking of book I

Notes on Wagner


Capital vol. I (second edition) 1872

Capital vol. I (French) 1872-1875


Third attempt to realize the project,

reworking book I considerably,

increasing interest in USA and Russia, studies of banking and credit;

announcement in letters to rework fundamentally


Reworking manuscript: methodical reflection, reworking value form analysis

Capital I (2nd edition): Popularised value form analysis, extended fetishism analysis; reduction of explicit methodical reflections


Notes on Wagner: methodological reflections



       Engels’ editions of “Capital” (1883-94)


                                           “Capital” vol. 1 (1883: 3 rd edition; 1887: English translation; 1890: 4 th edition): Combining 2 nd German edition (1872)

                                                                        and some changes of French translation (1872-75), both belong to third draft


                                           “Capital” vol. 2:  Using manuscripts II-IV of book II (1867-68) from second draft

                                                                        and manuscripts V-VIII of book II (1877-81) from third draft


                                           “Capital” vol. 3 : Using “main manuscript” for book III (1864/65) from first draft