Francis Wheen’s “biography” of Karl Marx’s Capital is amusing and provocative, fascinating and at times infuriating. It covers a lot of ground for a book of only 130 pages.
Wheen’s central theme is that Capital should be read not merely as an economic treatise but as a great work of Victorian gothic with Marx as a “poet of the dialectic”. This idea appears to have originated in some insights developed by the Marxist philosopher Marshall Berman who argued that Marx should be considered as one of the great tortured giants of the 19th century.
Capital, Wheen argues, is more than prose: it is a great literary collage, juxtaposing quotations from myth and legend with others from government and newspaper reports in a style that prefigured modernism.
In the first chapter Wheen examines the origins of Capital in Marx’s early experiences. Marx turned his back on a career in academia because, he argued, “who would want to have to talk always with intellectual skunks, with people who study only for the purpose of finding new dead ends in every corner of the world?” Instead he put his talents to use as a journalist, and then as a political activist.
Wheen traces the influence of philosophers such as Georg Hegel, and economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo on Marx, as well as less well documented sources of inspiration.
One of these is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, in which the monster turns on his creator. Marx uses this to explain how the products of human labour become alienated from their producers.
Wheen draws a sympathetic picture of Marx, struggling against poverty and personal loss, and constant political distractions and self-inflicted delays, to produce his great masterpiece, or as he referred to it, the “economic shit”.
The second chapter focuses on the ideas put forward in Capital itself. Wheen does outline key aspects of Marx’s ideas, such as the labour theory of value, but much is only vaguely sketched and too readily dismissed. Other ideas, however, are effectively defended from contemporary criticism. Wheen’s descriptions of Marx’s writing on, for example, the length of the working day, present a very different picture from the stereotype of dry, impenetrable economic formulae.
This section of Capital presents a series of gothic horror stories, peppered with images of rapacious vampires which suck the blood of living labour, and machines which are “mechanical monsters”. The conditions in England’s match factories owe more to Dante’s Inferno than to self-proclaimed Victorian modernity. Other passages from Capital drew directly on that other great critic of Victorian society Charles Dickens.
The third chapter of Wheen’s book charts the response to Capital on publication, which was muted, to say the least. Wheen then sweeps briskly through the ups and downs of Marxism in the 20th century. He wrongly insists on shackling Lenin to Stalin but rightly argues that the collapse of Stalinism has opened up a new space for the real Marxist tradition to re-emerge, arguing that Marx “could yet become the most influential thinker of the 21st century”.
There are aspects of Wheen’s book which many revolutionary socialists will profoundly disagree with, yet overall it could well achieve his stated aim of persuading readers to take a fresh look at Capital.
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