Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography
Francis Wheen (Allen&Unwin)
One of the astounding things about Marx's Das Kapital is that it ever got written at all.
Expelled from various European countries, Marx and his family ended up in London.
Marx obtained a ticket to the reading room at the British museum but from the moment they arrived in London, Karl and Jenny Marx were confronted with crisis after crisis.
They lived in poverty and squalor. They ended up in a two room apartment, with the entire family sleeping in the small backroom while the front room was used as a study, playroom and kitchen.
Living in such terrible conditions adversely affected the family's health: three of the children died of illness.
Karl Marx's great friend Friedrich Engels sent Marx money on a regular basis and Marx was paid for some journalism work, but it was not enough to keep the creditors banging on the door all hours of the day and night. As Marx grimly joked ' I don't suppose anyone has ever written about 'money' when so short of the stuff.'
In the midst of all this chaos, stress and tragedy Marx was reading and writing in the British Museum from nine in the morning and seven at night - although a Prussian spy reported back to his government that Marx also spent long periods of time doing nothing. But he would then hurl himself into his work, continuing to work in his study until four or five in the morning.
Marx originally conceived Das Kapital as being a six volume work but only one volume was completed and published before his death. As Francis Wheen notes, ' the years of toil and struggle had left him physically and mentally exhausted.'
It didn't help matters that Marx was not only constantly rewriting his work and adding new sections, he was also sidetracked into writing various polemics against his political opponents. Engels was constantly trying to nail his friend down to a final completion date - to no avail.
The first volume was published in 1867. Engels felt that the book needed a serious editing job. He told Marx that it was a mistake not to clarify the theoretical arguments by splitting hem into shorter sections with separate headings. Marx merely tinkered with the proofs much to Engels despair. 'How could you lead the outward structure of the book in its present form!' he asked forlornly. 'The fourth chapter is almost two hundred pages long and has only four sub-sections...'
Certainly Marx hasn't made it easy to understand his work, and crucial material such as the analysis of commodities even Marx admitted was 'difficult' but then went on to add that he assumed 'a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore think for himself.'
Francis Wheen looks at the genesis if Das Kapital in the part one of this short book and then in the second part he prises out some of the main theoretical threads of Marx's opus.
However it is in part three, where he looks at the impact of Das Kapital on our world that Wheen can't hide his political bias.
While he shows that Marx's economic analysis of capitalism is more relevant today than it has ever been and that 'Marx may yet become the most influential thinker of the twentieth first century', at the same time he takes a swipe at the socialist project itself.
Marx gave us the tools to dissect capitalism but it was people who came after him, Lenin and Trotsky in particular, who turned attention to the organisational methods needed to overthrow capitalism.
Although Marx perhaps thought that the working class would spontaneously rise up to overthrow capitalism, it was Lenin and Trotsky who proposed the need for the revolutionary party.
While it can be debated whether the Leninist model is suited to the conditions of western capitalism, Wheen resorts to the anti-Marxist argument that the theories of Lenin simply led to the horrors of Stalinism. But Stalinism was in fact a complete break with classical Marxism. This was something that Trotsky recognised when he established the Fourth International in order keep the Marxist flame alight as the darkness of Stalinism fell over Russia and Eastern Europe.
Wheen agrees with the Marx's econmic analysis of capitalism, but rejects the notion of overthrowing it. In the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx summed up this attitude in one pithy sentence: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the word, in various ways; the point is to change it.'