Cafiero and Marx: "Capital" in a Nutshell?

Review: Compendium of Karl Marx’s Capital by Carlo Cafiero. Published by the Anarchist Communist Group (ACG).

We welcome the ACG’s printing of this brief 100 page summary of Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital written by Carlo Cafiero partly while he was in prison in 1877 and 1878 and partly after his release in 1879. It was intended to simplify Marx’s work and make it available to a wider readership. It is divided into 10 sections, broadly following the divisions of Marx in Volume 1, and a conclusion. The main aim is to explain exploitation of the working class under capitalist production relations and the accumulation of capital but in doing this it has to deal with commodities, value and currency. It also deals with primary accumulation and includes long quotations from Capital Volume 1 showing the brutality of the process of the formation of the proletariat. Cafiero explains he is writing it for three categories of readers: first, for workers with some education; second, for defectors from the bourgeoisie who have embraced the cause of labour, namely people like himself; and thirdly, for young people in schools.

Cafiero himself, as carefully explained in the ACG introduction, despite coming from a wealthy background, had a tragic and short life. He was initially a Marxist, impressed Marx and Engels and became the agent of the General Council of the First International tasked with building the international in Italy. However, in Naples he encountered Bakunin who convinced him of anarchism. Despite this he remained convinced by Marx’s economic analyses and, after reading the French translation of Capital Volume 1 in prison, he decided to produce the Compendium which the ACG have now printed in English for the first time, approximately 150 years after it was written.

We welcome any attempt to get Marx’s works more widely read and understood. In this Cafiero’s style is lively and interesting, but we have two significant criticisms of the present publication. The first is the translation. The ACG have used the version on by Paul Perrone. Whilst Perrone proudly dedicates the translation to Cafiero himself we think he has given him poor service. The inaccurate phraseology often makes it difficult to make out what is meant, and the translation does not appear to have been checked. More significantly, there are several places where the English says the direct opposite of the Italian. We give two examples of this:

On page 21(1) we read:

He’s a perfectly honest and religious member of the bourgeoisie for whom it may look good to defraud the worker’s wage.

It should read:

He is a perfectly honest and even religious member of the bourgeoisie and he would be careful not to defraud the worker’s wages.

On page 58, a more serious mistake occurs. Here we read:

Therefore the salary cannot represent the price of labour power.

It should read:

Therefore the wage can only represent the price of labour power.

The section which follows makes clear that this is what Cafiero intended to write, but this sort of error hardly makes the understanding of Marx easier!

These mistakes and poor translation sometimes make the text confusing. What partially saves it is that Perrone simply uses the Moore/Aveling English edition of Capital to translate the long direct quotations Cafiero makes from Capital.

The second criticism is the example Cafiero gives of relative surplus value in which the distinction between the value of labour power and the value produced by labour power is confused. Marx makes this distinction clear at length in Chapter 19 of Capital Volume 1. Cafiero’s example on page 33 is a bit of a muddle.

In the first part of his example a worker is paid £3 for 12 hours of labour, uses up £1.5 of means of production, and produces 6 items which have a total value of £7.5. However we read:

the value of 12 hours of labour power come to £6

But the value of 12 hours of labour power is clearly £3 as Cafiero recognises in the rest of the example. What should be said is that the value produced by 12 hours of labour power is £6, and £3 represent the worker’s wages and £3 represent surplus value. The worker works 6 hours to produce their wages, £3, and 6 hours unpaid to produce the surplus value, £3, which goes to the capitalist.

The distinction between labour power and the value produced by labour power is, of course, the key theoretical advance Marx makes over classical economy. Labour power is itself a commodity which has the ability to produce more value than its own exchange value. This needs to be carefully explained. Unfortunately Cafiero’s examples are not clear. This is not helped by the figure for the value of the commodity produced by the increase in production on page 33, which is incorrect. It should be 75p not 62.5p.

However we do not wish to simply find faults in this production. Cafiero’s effort to simplify and popularise Marx’s work is laudable as is the ACG’s printing of the work in English. We do recommend, however, that the translation is corrected and checked and that the examples are tidied up on the version on the internet.

ACG and Marx

In the introduction the ACG, even while admitting that Capital is a “superb” work, appear slightly apologetic to be publishing anything by Marx. They explain this by saying it is possible to agree with Marx’s economic work while rejecting those authoritarian tendencies produced by the counter-revolution which include Trotskyism and Marxism-Leninism of all stripes. In this we would agree. Marx’s vision was a stateless, classless, borderless society made up of “freely associated producers”. The “Marxist” tendencies they cite above all see little difference between state capitalism and communism and are therefore alienated from that vision. They are in short the product of the counter-revolution that does not recognise that the Russian Revolution was defeated long before the death of Lenin. However, Marx bears no responsibility for an event 40 years after his death. Capital is not simply an economic work. To describe it as a “superb contribution to our revolutionary understanding” necessarily entails agreement with the historical and philosophical foundations of the work. Cafiero clearly accepts Marx’s description of primitive accumulation and the formation of the proletariat, which he quotes at length. This is an acceptance of historical materialism as the basis of historical change and class conflict as the motor force of this. As mentioned above, Cafiero includes lengthy quotations from Capital regarding the formation of the proletariat which are dependent on the theory of historical materialism.

The situation the working class will be faced with after the overthrow of capitalist society is also dependent on the developed understanding of capitalist society which we find in Capital Volume 1. By describing Marx’s work as superb, the ACG should logically take seriously his prescriptions for communist society, which spring from his analysis. We refer, of course, to a period of transition during which the working class (and only the working class) holds power through its “dictatorship”, as outlined in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme. As the threat from the world capitalist class recedes and transitional society advances towards full communism the need for the any state-like body gets less until it becomes the organisation of things rather than the organisation of men and women.

Marx’s description of the condition of the working class as capital accumulation takes place, which Cafiero quotes in section 9 of the work, shows how the system physically brutalises and undermines the intellectual capacities of the proletariat.

The law, finally, that always equilibrates the relative surplus population, or industrial reserve army, to the extent and energy of accumulation, this law rivets the labourer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.


It is now over a century and a half since these words were written yet the question of how the working class can free itself from wage slavery is still the central global question today. Marx concluded that an international political organisation needed to be formed for this. Its function would be to assist in the development of the workers’ understanding of their position and the need for communism, and to provide a programme and guidance in achieving communism. The First International was the practical outcome of Marx and Engels’ efforts to begin this work. The collapse of the International is something we don’t intend to go into in this review. However, we maintain the need for an international political organisation remains just as important today as when Cafiero and Marx were alive for exactly the reasons given above. In the ACG’s aims and principles published at the end of the document we note that they aim to build a global revolutionary anarchist movement. Perhaps the publication of Cafiero’s Compendium will lead to a reassessment of at least some anarchists’ previous condemnation of Marxism?



(1) The page numbers are for the printed book version. The ACG online version is slightly different and the page numbers are generally the page after the book version.

Thursday, September 17, 2020