Marx’s fatal labour

Commemorating 200 years of Marx: Raza Naeem on how the world that he fought to change slowly wore down the revolutionary

Marx’s fatal labour
Marx began studying the capitalist economy in 1843. This lasted for 24 years. During this time, he wrote many important books while critiquing philosophy, politics and the capitalist system. He was a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune and also participated in the revolutionary activities of workers, but the outcome of his entire life of effort and research is the book Capital, for which Marx sacrificed his health, happiness, domestic life, in short everything. As Marx himself said about his masterwork: “No one ever wrote so much about money while having so little. Capital will not even pay for the cigars I smoked writing it.” The first volume of Capital was published in German in September 1867 and was soon translated into French, Russian, English and other languages. Though the remaining volumes could not be published in Marx’s lifetime, after his death Engels compiled these manuscripts and published them.

The objective of this book according to Marx was “to explain the economic law of motion of modern society (capitalist system)” but this masterpiece of Marx’s fatal labour is not just an explanation of the capitalist system, but is also a charge-sheet on the reality of the exploitative methods of the capitalist system. Marx says that every person knows that everything in the capitalist system is prepared to be sold in the market. All these things are created from the labour of workers – therefore the value common to them is human labour. The goods that the labourers make in the appointed time are of a far greater value in comparison to the wage which they get in lieu of their labour for work at the market rate – but they do not get paid for this surplus labour and surplus product. For Marx, this surplus value is divided among the capitalist class in the form of the industrialist’s profit, the lender’s interest and the landowner’s rent. Detractors and critics have been busy in rejecting Marx’s claims for a hundred years, but what Marx analysed about the exploitative system of capitalism is the autobiography of many a worker – whose daily experience which cannot be falsified quite so easily.

Marx himself said about his masterwork: "No one ever wrote so much about money while having so little. Capital will not even pay for the cigars I smoked writing it"

When the first volume of Capital was published, Marx was less than fifty years old. He was a strong man of stout body and did not tire even after working 17 to 18 hours daily. But a life of exile, sufferings and misfortunes had aged him prematurely. He could never get two square meals in peace – despite which he never allowed any stigma to be attached to his own principles. His determination to change an inhuman social system and replacing it with socialism never waned. But a body is, after all, a body. It has its limits. As a result, his health began to fail swiftly and he was surrounded by illness. One day he even lost consciousness whilst reading at the British Museum, and such extreme pain arose within his chest that it became difficult for him to breathe.

Meanwhile war started between France and Germany (1870). France was defeated and Emperor Napoleon III was captured. Then the citizens of Paris rose against their failed government and established their own collective government in Paris (March 1871) which is famously known as the Paris Commune. This government was snuffed out by the old order after three months – with great cruelty. Thousands of workers were hanged and exiled. Horrible retributions were unleashed onto the unarmed workers of Paris and Marx felt them deeply. He immediately wrote a book so that the civilized world chould know the actual reality of the French Civil War of 1871, and occupied himself with assisting French refugees.

This chaotic situation had a very adverse effect on his health. His old disease of the bad liver returned and he began to have fits of insomnia and headaches.

He had not quite recovered when Jenny became very ill. The doctors diagnosed it as liver cancer. Marx looked after Jenny day and night, but Jenny’s condition did not improve and she died in December 1881. What with the extinguishing of this flame of love, Marx’s life became dark. This sorrow was still fresh when his older daughter, who had been married in Paris, suddenly died. This accident seized Marx’s remaining power of resistance from him. He developed pleurisy and even his lungs stopped working. At last on March 14, 1883 the revolutionary who was determined to arouse everyone fell asleep for eternity while resting on a chair. He was buried next to Jenny in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

Noted progressive poet Wamiq Jaunpuri wrote his own, little-known poetic tribute to Marx, which is perhaps the best ode to the latter in all of Urdu literature:

Marx’s knowledge and wisdom has no parallel

Who does not benefit from his perception

The result of his wisdom is the nail which opens the knot

The sun of the brightness of conscience and cleverness

What to talk of those who love him

Even his enemies keep his Book as their pillows

His great compilation is a materialist history of the world

Das Kapital or the very essence of life

Upon reading which enslaved nations became prudent

The door of socialist philosophy opened in every heart

How many hells became Paradise with his single Manifesto

He who turned many a desert into a city of roses

Marx has embraced science and Man

He granted the mind a curriculum in the consciousness of life

His discernment, his excessive love of the glance of one acquainted with truth

Which unveiled the face of the poverty of wealth

The one who gave the title of ‘capital’ to the ‘usurper of wage’

His foresight unlimited, his logic unparalleled

He revealed the new sun to us

His every prediction is a veil cast down

No force can become a roadblock for him

When the very mandate of time arrives in the form of revolution

The war-song of the wise, and the shield of the peasant

The workers’ army is a fellow traveler and rider

When the blow of Moses cuts the spell of kingship

The Pharaohs of today will likewise

Gradually become the victim of revolution

The pocket of the capitalist after all is fighting the war

He does not even refrain from atomic weapons

The ungodly civilisation is hopeless for its future

The restlessness of the enemy of humanity is visible

The little devil of Iqbal trembling with fear

Addresses Satan in this manner

The pundit, mullah and priest all stand harmless

But the anger of a Jew is about to fall upon you

For he is like a Moses without manifestation, a Christ without a cross

Not being a prophet, but a book by his side. 

At the time when Marx passed away, his sole possession was the 2-yard piece of land where he was buried. But soon afterwards, one third of the world attempted to put his revolutionary principles into practice. These movements engaged themselves in constructing a new world and a new human – a world in which nobody was a slave to another, nor partook of the labour of someone else; a world where workers ruled and capitalists and landlords were extinct. Today, too, there is hardly a country where thousands, nay millions of Marx’s followers are not engaged in struggling for freedom, peace, democracy and social justice. Engels had been quite right while speaking at Marx’s funeral:

“Marx was above all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being … Fighting was his element.”

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently teaching in Lahore. He is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (Harper Collins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic novel ‘The Weary Generations’. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979