frontline vol. 2 issue 2.


Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography
By Frances Wheen. Atlantic Books 2006
130 pages. £9.99.


Frances Wheen, who produced an entertaining (if over-hyped) biography of Karl Marx in 1999, returns to Marx with a “biography” of the revolutionary philosopher’s most famous and important single work in a new series from Atlantic called Books That Shook The World.

Wheen gives a readable account of the genesis of Das Kapital, interweaving the tale of Marx’s personal and political life with brief descriptions of Marx’s earlier works in the lead-up to the oft-promised and oft-delayed publication of his magnum opus in 1867.

Unlike most commentators, Wheen conveys a vivid sense of Das Kapital’s vastly under appreciated qualities as a great work of literature, infinitely superior in this regard to the bourgeois political economists whose work Marx trounced on purely scientific grounds: “The book can be read as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created”.

Wheen does a good job of destroying some of the myths that surround the book. For example, he recounts how the British Labour prime minister Harold Wilson claimed never to have read it, giving up because of a page long footnote on page 2. As Wheen points out, a glance at page 2 of the book reveals this to be a wild exaggeration.

Did Marx Get it Wrong?

Another example concerns the familiar claim that Marx’s predictions about the progressive immiseration of the proletariat under capitalism have been refuted by the actual development of capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: “Countless pundits have taken this to mean that capitalism’s swelling prosperity would be achieved by an absolute reduction in the workers’ wages and standard of living, and they have found it easy to mock. Look at the working classes of today, with their cars and microwave ovens: not very immiserated, are they?” Wheen points out that the idea that Marx has been refuted in this way is based on a complete misreading of chapter 25 of Das Kapital: Marx in fact argued only that under capitalism there would be a relative – as opposed to absolute – decline in wages, and Wheen shows that this is in fact “demonstrably true”.

In addition, Wheen makes the excellent point that “immiseration” concerns not just the wages workers’ receive, but how long and how hard they have to work in order to get them. And in fact: “The average British employee now puts in 80,224 hours over his or her working life, as against 69,000 hours in 1981. Far from losing the [capitalist] work ethic, we seem ever more enslaved by it”. Wheen quotes Marx’s uncanny prescience regarding this in a passage in chapter 12: “We may read on one page that the worker owes a debt of gratitude to capital for developing his productivity, because the necessary labour time is thereby shortened, and on the next page that he must prove his gratitude in future for 15 hours instead of 10”. So much for the imminent leisure age predicted in the 1970s by apologists for capitalism!

Marxism and Stalinism

There are parts of the book where Wheen is less convincing. For example, in the chapter on the influence of Das Kapital after Marx’s death, by highly deceptive selective quotation from What Is To Be Done? Wheen portrays Lenin as laying out an abstract blueprint for the future tyrannies of Stalinism. This is an all too familiar trick, and it is a pity that Wheen succumbs to the temptation to play it.

Also, Wheen objects to the labour theory of value (according to which the exchange-value of a commodity is determined by the socially necessary amount of labour time required to produce it): “Why do people sometimes pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for a single diamond ring or pearl necklace? Mightn’t these extraordinary prices also owe something to scarcity value, or perceptions of beauty, or even to simple one-upmanship?” But this is a weak objection. For one thing, there is a difference between the concepts of exchange-value and price. True, Marx and the classical political economists generally held that in the long run, the prices of commodities tend in the direction of their exchange-values. However, this clearly does not imply that the price of each and every commodity sold on the market is equivalent to its exchange-value. Moreover, even waiving this point there is a further problem with Wheen’s objection: as almost any modern philosopher of science will attest, empirical explanatory theories are confirmed or disconfirmed on the basis of their capacity to furnish a whole body of predictions. The holistic nature of theory confirmation means that a theory can issue in an inaccurate prediction yet still be confirmed overall if the theory’s predictions on sufficiently many and sufficiently important other matters are sound. So even if the labour theory of value did yield the wrong prediction about the exchange-value of a diamond ring, it might still be justified in virtue of its capacity to predict the exchange-values of more common commodities or, at a further remove, the long-term qualitative characteristics of the capitalist mode of production.

All That is Solid Melts Into Air

And, indeed, Wheen acknowledges the greatness of Marx’s achievement in just this regard: despite some wildly overoptimistic predictions about the imminence of socialist revolution, Marx pulled off the remarkable feat of accurately portraying the general shape and qualitative character of globalized capitalism in the 21st century from the vantage point of its infancy in one small part of the world in the 19th century. In this respect, no bourgeois economist or social scientist has ever come near to Marx.

Wheen concludes: “Marx’s errors or unfulfilled prophecies about capitalism are eclipsed and transcended by the piercing accuracy with which he revealed the nature of the beast. While all that is solid melts into air, Das Kapital’s vivid portrayal of the forces that govern our lives – and of the instability, alienation, and exploitation they produce – will never lose its resonance, or its power to bring it into focus. 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 20th century”. Readers of Wheen’s stimulating book will leave it with the desire to tackle Marx’s masterpiece for themselves: for this especially, Wheen is to be commended.