Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography

Overview

In this brilliant book, Francis Wheen, the author of the most successful biography of Karl Marx, tells the story of Das Kapital and Marx's twenty-year struggle to complete his unfinished masterpiece. Born in a two-room flat in London's Soho amid political squabbles and personal tragedy, the first volume of Das Kapital was published in 1867 to muted praise. But after Marx's death, the book went on to influence thinkers, writers, and revolutionaries, from George Bernard Shaw to V. I. Lenin, changing the direction ...
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Overview

In this brilliant book, Francis Wheen, the author of the most successful biography of Karl Marx, tells the story of Das Kapital and Marx's twenty-year struggle to complete his unfinished masterpiece. Born in a two-room flat in London's Soho amid political squabbles and personal tragedy, the first volume of Das Kapital was published in 1867 to muted praise. But after Marx's death, the book went on to influence thinkers, writers, and revolutionaries, from George Bernard Shaw to V. I. Lenin, changing the direction of twentieth-century history. Wheen shows that, far from being a dry economic treatise, Das Kapital is like a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved by the monster they created: capitalism. Furthermore, Wheen argues, as long as capitalism endures, Das Kapital demands to be read and understood.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

The latest entry in this series lives up to its "biography" conceit. Wheen concisely recounts the birth, life, and legacy of the most challenging and formidable title in Marx's canon-incomplete at three dense volumes, the latter two posthumously published-with penetrating attention to the evolving Zeitgeists that form the subject. Marx's finest traditional biographer, Wheen gazes longer on his man's personal travails than is absolutely necessary, but his overall wit, sharp prose, and passion are altogether riveting. Wheen sees Kapital's first volume, which came out soon after the U.S. Civil War, an ironic, Dickensian masterpiece. Deftly reconciling the "scientific" Marx, whom most readers find culminating in Kapital, with the revolutionary and more recently celebrated humanistic Marx of earlier writings, Wheen argues for the relevance of Kapital's insights, even to ardent free enterprisers, and skewers the abominations of Leninism while avoiding classical anticommunism. Recommended for all academic and flagship public libraries, along with its siblings in this series, which employs a diverse group of well-lettered gadflies (P.J. O'Rourke), popularizing authorities (Karen Armstrong), and academic experts (Janet Browne) to bring renewed attention to imposing masterpieces.
—Scott H. Silverman

Kirkus Reviews
Marx's text altered the course of history; even today, it finds readers. As Wheen (The Irresistible Con: The Bizarre Life of a Fraudulent Genius, 2005, etc.) notes, quoting a Wall Street banker, "There is a Nobel Prize out there for an economist who resurrects Marx and puts it into a coherent theory."Marx thought of himself as an artist, commenting, "Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole." Perhaps, but Das Kapital was two decades in the making and unfinished at the time of Marx's death, since Marx couldn't bear to close a tangent. Thus he took time out, for instance, to learn Russian because he felt it "essential to study Russian land-owning relationships from primary sources." It has been said that Marx was right about everything except communism. Wheen takes issue with those thinkers, such as the economist Paul Samuelson, who dismisses Marx entirely because the impoverishment of the proletariat didn't work out quite as he said it would. Marx, Wheen argues, was in fact talking of the underclass, the "permanently unemployed, the sick, the ragged," who turn out to be-well, impoverished. In spite of the "dialectical dalliances" of the master, Wheen notes that Marx's notion that the wages of the worker will always decline relative to capital holds up nicely. Marx, who seems to have been rather proud of the obscurity and impenetrability of his text, was surprised to see that the first volume of Capital quickly sold through its print run in, of all places, Russia, while the French could never quite get a translation to Marx's satisfaction and the Germans ignored him. For that matter, no English edition was available in hislifetime, which he attributed to the "peculiar gift of stolid blockheadedness" that was the English national character. A welcome, brief study of the making of a not so necessarily massive tome.
From the Publisher
"[An] exhilarating read, and a healthy corrective to those brought up to think of Marx's work as rigid and doctrinaire." —-The Sunday Telegraph
The Barnes & Noble Review
Francis Wheen, the author of the critically acclaimed Karl Marx: A Life, 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 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. --Thomas De Pietro
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802143945
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/1/2008
  • Series: Books That Changed the World
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 1,277,940
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author


Francis Wheen, an author and journalist, was named Columnist of the Year for his contributions to the Guardian.

Simon Vance has recorded over four hundred audiobooks and has earned over twenty AudioFile Earphones Awards, including for his narration of Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini. He is also the recipient of five coveted Audie Awards, including one for The King's Speech by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, and he was named an AudioFile Best Voice of 2009.

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