Sunday, 19 August 2007

Book Review: Das Kapital - A Biography

I've got mixed feelings about Karl Marx.

I know him as the alleged father of an ideology that has resulted in more deaths in history than those rendered in the name of religion - a grisly toll which continues to rise today.

I also know him as a denouncer of religion and, together with Freud and Darwin, one of the gods academia chose to replace anything that looked remotely like God.

I've come up against this dogmatic reverence for Marx in, of all places, a book on creative writing. It wasn't so much Marx that annoyed me, it was more the insidious way the author had used Marx, Freud, Foucalt et al to politicise the creative process - a process which I believe to be one of the most creative forces on earth.

So there's potentially a lot to dislike about Marx, judging by his self-proclaimed followers. But there are always two sides to the story; that's why I read Karl Marx's Das Kapital - A Biography.

Karl Marx's Das Kapital (Ten Books That Changed the World S.)

I also read it because it's part of the Books that Shook the World series, books that offer an accessible “way in” to some of the world's most influential ideas. So far I've read about Plato's Republic, The Q'uran, Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man" and Darwin's Origin of Species. They've not only been excellent history lessons; they've also offered fascinating insights into how ideas take hold and spread.

Das Kapital: A Biography comprises three long chapters, gestation, birth and afterlife. It's far from comprehensive, but perfect for a reader like me who is vaguely familiar with economic issues (though not formally educated in economics) and also relatively up-to-speed with history.

Francis Wheen, the author, paints a picture of a brilliant man driven by his search for underlying truth, but also easily distracted by petty rivalries, and terrible with deadlines (as many great writers seem to be - much to my relief!). What's really interesting is that Marx saw Das Kapital as much as a literary work as a political or economic treatise. In fact this is the book's overall point of view, drawing on quotes from the minority of scholars who recognised this aspect of Marx's intentions.

The first two chapters tell the story of the book's conception and birth, including the muted response when it was published in 1867. The biggest problem was, people couldn't figure out what the hell it was about. This touches on some important issues for any writer - Marx's collaborator Engels tried to persuade him to break down (or break up?) the information into more manageable chunks to reach a wider audience, but,

“'How could you leave the outward structure of the book in its present form!' Engels asked despairingly after seeing the final proofs. 'The fourth chapter is almost 200 pages long and only has four sub-sections...Furthermore, the train of thought is constantly interrupted by illustrations, and the point to be illustrated is never summarised after the illustration, so that one is forever plunging straight from the illustration of one point into the exposition of another point. It is dreadfully tiring, and confusing too.'”

Usability again!

The final chapter then looks at Marx's legacy, as carried forth by George Bernard Shaw, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, modern academics ... and then it gets really interesting. While Wheen notes that failure of communism in the Soviet Union, and that fact that most ostensibly Marxist countries in the 20th century weren't industrialised nations (the kind Marx said were the only kind ready for a communist revolution), there is a note of hope at the end that really has me thinking. Wheen quotes a number of fairly pro-capitalist authors who reassess Marx's work, going back to what he really said, rather than what others have derived from his “gothic novel” that was Das Kapital.

The book ends - and I hope I'm not spoiling it for anyone - with a theme of revisitation:

“Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, Marx may only now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century.”

Certainly makes me want to learn more - about Marx, about other economists (my next book to read is Little Book of Big Ideas: Economics) and about emerging models of the way business works - models that more closely match the reality we live in.

No comments: