Marx’s Das Kapital

By FRANCIS WHEEN

Karl Marx’s most recent biographer here proposes a radical idea: that we should consider Marx’s massive Das Kapital as a great work of modernist literature. Not, in other words, as a piece of revolutionary agitprop, which, after all, well describes the short Communist Manifesto, a polemic that no longer haunts much of the world. Marx’s masterpiece instead reads like a grand parody of the classic economic and political thinkers. And his style reflects the wealth of literary influences he absorbed in his studies at the British Museum: gothic novels, Victorian melodrama, black farce, Greek tragedy, and satirical utopias. Marx the polymath relies on a wealth of quotation and the writers he knew by heart: Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, and Balzac. His historical and economic research also combine to produce a work that Wheen rightly considers sui generis, a literary collage in the modernist grain, to be sure, but a work of social consequence as well. Its very length, though, has contributed much to its misreading — the prominent recent French Marxist Louis Althusser admitted that he never got beyond a few chapters! Wheen, for his part, expertly defines the key concepts: the labor theory of value, the nature of commodities, and dialectical materialism. And he defends Marx against the nonsense and horror perpetrated in his name. It’s a tall order in the post?Cold War world, but Wheen makes his case with clarity and wit. In Wheen’s view, Marx’s testament to the dynamism and resilience of bourgeois capitalism is more meaningful now than ever in the current global economy. This is the perfect introduction — an exhortation, really — to a work we ignore at our peril. -

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