Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Afterlife of a Monster

Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography (Books That Changed the World)Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography 
by Francis Wheen

"It is deeply fitting that Marx never finished his masterpiece.  The first volume was the only one to appear in his lifetime, and the subsequent volumes were assembled by others after his death, based on notes and drafts found in his study.  Marx's work is as open-ended -- and thus as resilient -- as the capitalist system itself.  He was indeed one of the great tormented giants." (p 6)

Having read Das Kapital in college as part of my studies in Economic History I was intrigued when I came upon this title. What in this very short book could Mr. Wheen say about Karl Marx's massive tome? Surprisingly, he can and does say a lot about the genesis of Marx's work as well as its meaning and, most importantly, its impact. I remember my economic studies as having focused on the economic theories propounded by Marx and having been impressed that he shared with Adam Smith the subsequently debunked "labor theory of value". While this is mentioned in the section discussing Marx's views of "Industrial Capitalism" there is much more in Wheen's short book. There are three sections including "Gestation" and "Birth" where the background and publication of the work are discussed.  But the final chapter, "Afterlife", is of the most interest because it narrates the way Marx's thought has permeated into our culture; a way not unlike the thought of Darwin, Freud, or even Einstein has. In Marx's case many people are unaware of their debt to him and while his economic ideas regarding Socialism have been dismissed by economists his thought still shapes much of the narrative about globalism and the world.
I always thought that Marx was heavily influenced by the thought of the philosopher Hegel. While that is certainly true, the author of this book provides evidence that as an writer and an artist he was also influenced by other writers like Balzac and Mary Shelley. Perhaps that is a better way to think about Marx; as an artist who creates a monster that turns against his master and refuses to be controlled. Unfortunately, the afterlife of the monster he unleashed lives with us still today.

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Brian Joseph said...

I really need to read Das Kapital itself. I would almost feel wrong reading a book like this first. Nevertheless this is a fascinating subject. I am intrigued in exploring the ways that thinkers have influenced the world. Though Marx's influence is a little more obvious then some others, there is no doubt much to explore regarding this issue.

James said...

I agree with you that it is best to read Marx in the original first even though I found his prose style tough slogging, especially when compared with Adam Smith. If you are not interested in tackling the whole of Das Kapital a great alternative is The Marx-Engels Reader ed. by Robert C. Tucker. This volume includes important selections from Kapital with the addition of other key works like the Manifesto, essays on Hegel and Alienation, and other selections. Nonetheless, Wheen's slight volume is a great introduction to Marx's thought.