Thursday, October 5, 2006

Das Kapital (2006)

Book Review from the October 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx's Das Kapital by Francis Wheen. Atlantic Books, 2006.

In a series of "Books That Shook The World" which includes Paine's Rights of Man and Darwin's Origin of Species, Wheen's biography of Das Kapital (to give Capital its original German title) is fairly short at 130 pages including index. Wheen has already had a critical and commercial success with his biography of the man himself, Karl Marx (1999) and this work seems likely to do the same.

Das Kapital was planned to be the first of six volumes, but Marx only saw the first volume through to publication. The second and third volumes, and the volumes entitled Theories of Surplus Value, were all compiled from Marx's notes after his death. Apart from a brief Introduction, Wheen's book is divided into three chapters: gestation, birth and afterlife. There are no notes, bibliography or guide to further reading and although Wheen is mostly content to let Marx speak for himself he does occasionally paraphrase and in one place he is seriously mistaken. Wheen explains that value (socially necessary labour-time) may differ from price and sometimes price may be higher than value, but Wheen adds, "under a socialist system this surplus would be redistributed for the benefit of the workers" (p.33). Marx never argued this and the whole thrust of Das Kapital is that value, price and profit can never work for the benefit of the workers. Marx also, incidentally, never argued for redistribution, preferring instead to judge the success or failure of a social system by its ability to produce for human need. Wheen is rightly critical of commentators who read into Das Kapital things which are not there (e.g. increasing "immiseration" or impoverishment of the proletariat), but that has not stopped him falling into the same trap here.

Controversially, Wheen claims that Das Kapital should be thought of as a work of art and this was Marx's stated intention. Das Kapital is usually depicted as a work of science, but Marx seems to have considered art and science to have similar objectives - that is, to see through surface appearances ("the veils of illusion") to reveal the underlying reality. And yet it was the late Louis Althusser who maintained that there was an "epistemological break" in Marx's writing, with the early artistic or philosophical work being only of marginal interest, whereas the later works such as Das Kapital contained his mature and scientific thinking. But as Wheen points out, in Althusser's posthumous memoir he admitted to being "a trickster and deceiver" and only ever studying "a few passages of Marx." Althusser and his work on Marx was a fraud. But even if Althusser was not a con-man, the distinction between an early and a mature Marx does not withstand serious scrutiny.

The alleged impact of Das Kapital on twentieth century politics is well summarised, including the fall of the Russian empire and China's contradictory claim to be "Marxist-Leninist" (Wheen insists that "'Market-Leninist' would be rather more apt"). The framework for viewing these and other events, argues Wheen, is to be found in Marx's writing on capital.

For as Wheen puts it:
"Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, Marx may only now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century."
Lew Higgins