Marx’s Work on Volume III After 1865: Why Did Marx Not Finish Volume III?
Scholars and others have often wondered why Marx neglected to finish Volume III of Capital. Volume I was published in 1867 and Marx died in 1883. In that time, he almost finished Volume II, but made very little progress on Volume III. This Appendix summarises my understanding of the main reasons why Marx did not finish Volume III and made so little progress during the last fifteen years of his life.
Marx’s only significant and sustained work on Volume III after 1865 was the Manuscript of 1867–68. At the time, Marx was invigorated by the publication of Volume II which was still going strong. The manuscript is about 400 book pages in length, about three-quarters of which relates to Volume III (and the rest to Volume II). Almost all of the content later found in Volume III addresses Part 1, including four drafts of the volume’s first 10–15 pages (which Marx was clearly dissatisfied with), the relation between the rate of profit and the rate of surplus-value (Engels’s eventual Chapter 3) (about 100 pages), and the effect of capital turnover on the rate of profit ( Engels’s eventual Chapter 4, which was only a title in Marx’s Manuscript of 1864–65 and was written by Engels in his volume) (about 100 pages).
There is also a very interesting and potentially important thirty pages relating to Part 2 of Volume III (i.e. prices of production and the ‘ transformation problem’). These pages drop the oversimplified assumptions found in the Manuscript of 1864–65 and allow for unequal rates of surplus-value across industries, as well as for unequal turnover times across industries, which complicates the analysis considerably. Marx does not get very far in these thirty pages, but this limited work is an indication that he intended to extend his theory of prices of production to incorporate these more realistic assumptions.15
The only other work conducted by Marx on Volume III after 1868 was 125 pages written in 1875, dealing almost entirely with the relation between the rate of profit and the rate of surplus-value ( Engels’s Chapter 3) and consisting mostly of tedious numerical examples without general conclusions (similar to Marx’s thirty-four-page footnote at the beginning of the Manuscript of 1864–65). It appears that Marx was somewhat obsessed with these details. Ultimately, these examples are not particularly necessary to establish Marx’s main point, which is that the rate of profit depends not only on the rate of surplus-value, but also on the composition of capital (as a critique of Ricardo). As Samuel Moore (who helped Engels condense this material into Chapter 3) said, Marx’s simple algebraic equation (p’ = s’(c/v)) shows this dual dependence.
Marx worked more on Volumes I and II than on Volume III in the 1870s, writing a complete draft of Volume II in 1870 and revising it significantly in 1877, including the addition of Chapter 21 on Expanded Reproduction. In the early 1870s, Marx worked quite a bit on the later editions of Volume I—the second German edition and the French edition in 1873–1875. The latter took quite some time, as Marx was unhappy with the translation and reworked large parts of it. These other volumes thus took priority over Volume III, and Marx never really returned to Volume III after 1868.
So why did Marx neglect to work more on Volume III, or at least prepare it for publication? The following is my answer to this question as I understand it.
The main reason for Marx’s lack of progress on Volume III after 1868 seems to have been his declining health. He turned fifty in 1868, and was seldom fully healthy after this point.
He suffered from chronic liver and gall bladder problems and periodic bouts of skin infection (boils, carbuncles) on many parts of his body including his buttocks, which made sitting difficult at times. Moreover, these bouts were sometimes accompanied by severe, debilitating headaches. His health problems were aggravated by his extremely unhealthy lifestyle, often working late into the night, eating poorly, and smoking countless cheap cigars. He spent significant stretches of time in various English and German health spas throughout the 1870s, which sometimes provided temporary relief but no real cure and his doctor ordered him to refrain from working more than four hours a day.
A related reason for his lack of progress on Volume III in the 1870s was probably a degree of sheer mental exhaustion. The 1860s had been a tremendously intense and productive time for Marx: he wrote the Manuscript of 1861–63 (1600 book pages), the Manuscript of 1864–65 (a full draft of all three volumes), the first edition of Volume I, and the Manuscript of 1867–68 (in addition to his organising work for the International Workingman’s Association). He appears to have simply lost some of his mental energy after this period. Although he read extensively on subjects relating to Volume III, particularly Russian agriculture and the developing financial system (especially in the United States), in addition to a wide range of subjects including the sciences (agronomy, geology, physiology) and mathematics (calculus) while taking thousands of pages of notes and excerpts, he seems to have been incapable of sustained and original work. Engels mentioned that there were signs of depression in Marx’s manuscripts, which was probably both an effect and a cause of his lack of progress on Volume III.
Another reason for his lack of progress, often not fully appreciated, is the originality and difficulty of the subject matter of Volume III. Volume III presented a comprehensive and unified theory of all the particular forms of surplus-value: average profit across industries, commercial profit, interest and rent. Such a comprehensive and unified theory had never been done before and has not been since. All of these particular forms still required a fair amount of additional work, depending on how complete Marx wanted the volume to be (presumably fairly complete), such as how far he wanted to incorporate turnover time into the volume (both in the dynamic sense of changes of turnover time and in the static sense of unequal turnover times across industries). Marx’s work on turnover time in the Manuscript of 1867–68 probably helped him realise the complexities involved more clearly, which in turn may have been an obstacle to returning to work on Volume III.
Another, final reason for Marx’s lack of progress was that he worked almost entirely on his own. He appears to have hardly discussed Volume III, even with Engels, following the long 1868 letter discussed above. Marx probably avoided discussing his work on Volume III with Engels because he knew that Engels would put pressure on him to finish the volume.16 Although hard to imagine, Marx apparently went so far as to avoid asking Engels directly to edit Volumes II and III, but instead instructed his daughter Eleanor to tell Engels to ‘make something’ of the manuscripts. Marx did not collaborate with anyone else on any parts of the theory of the particular forms of surplus-value in Volume III. It is unfortunate he neglected to prepare Engels to finish Volume III after his death, as this would have been a good task for Marx in the 1870s, and might have even motivated him to work more on the volume.
As mentioned at the conclusion of the main text, the MEGA editors and Michael Heinrich have argued that Marx encountered difficulties in the Economic Manuscript of 1861–63 in maintaining the logical distinction between capital in general and competition, and abandoned this logical structure thereafter. They also suggest that these difficulties and uncertainties in his basic logical framework was another (and perhaps the primary) reason for Marx’s failure to finish Volume III and his inability to even make progress on the volume after 1868. I disagree. In my view, the basic logical structure of Marx’s theory—the production of surplus-value (capital in general) and the distribution of surplus-value (competition) was settled in Marx’s mind (and, furthermore, is logically sound). The unfinished work to be done on Volume III in the 1870s remained within this basic logical structure, but there was simply too much of it, and Marx must have felt less and less capable of finishing the volume. That task, it seems, has been left to us.