Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx, published in 2001, was probably the first one to be published after the collapse of the Soviet Union and ‘existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe. He has now written a ‘biography’ of Marx’s magnum opus Das Kapital. Wheen’s central point is that Capital needs to be seen, above all, as a work of art.
Although Das Kapital is usually categorized as a work of economics, Karl Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations of underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world that they inhabit- a world in which humans are enslaved by the monstrous power of inanimate capital and commodities. (page 7)
Later in the book he re- asserts the same:
…only a handful of critics have given serious attention to Marx’s own declared ambition- in several letters to Engels- to produce a work of art. (page 74)
Divided into three chapters: Birth, Gestation and Afterlife, it examines the literary influences on Capital in the first, gives an exposition of the ideas contained in the work in the second chapter and finally examines the legacy and contemporary influence. The most interesting section, however, is the introduction that has earlier appeared in Guardian.
Wheen’s treatment of Marx is enthusiastic but also bathetic. There is a quote attributed to Marx that casts aspersions on Marx’s use of dialectics:
As Marx knew, however, these dialectical dalliances had an extra use value. After writing an article on Indian mutiny in 1857, suggesting that the British would begin their retreat as soon as the rainy season started, he had confessed to Engels: ‘It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.’ When applied like this, dialectics means never having to admit that one was wrong. (page 64)
Wheen’s over enthusiasm for looking at Das Capital as a ‘work of art’ also results in his trashing of the work as a ‘difficult work’. Particularly in the last chapter ‘Afterlife’, he prefers to quote other writers on this aspect rather than layout anything himself. Besides making the short book read like a collection of quotations, it leaves the reader un- enthused about the ideas on political economy contained in Das Capital. Lenin comes in for direct attack as being dismissive of the central tenets of Capital.
Overall, I found the book disappointing. It gives a a few interesting glimpses to the literary underpinnings to the work- Frankenstein, Tristram Shandy, Faust, but meanders through the economic ideas contained in the work. The large number of unreferenced quotes are jarring. Despite some interesting insights into the literary aspects of Das Capital, I find it hard to recommend this slim volume as an appropriate introduction to Marx’s magnum opus.
A detailed critique of Wheen’s exposition of the ideas in Das Capital has been provided by Gerry Gold.