[OPE-L] The poet of dialectics

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Sat Jul 08 2006 - 13:48:35 EDT


The poet of dialectics
Karl Marx's Das Kapital is a ground-breaking work 
of economic analysis. But, argues Francis Wheen, 
it is also an unfinished literary masterpiece 
which, with its multi-layered structure, can be 
read as a Gothic novel, a Victorian melodrama, a 
Greek tragedy or a Swiftian satire
Francis Wheen
Saturday July 8, 2006
In February 1867, shortly before delivering the 
first volume of Das Kapital to the printers, Karl 
Marx urged Friedrich Engels to read The Unknown 
Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac. The story was 
itself a little masterpiece, he said, "full of 
the most delightful irony". We don't know whether 
Engels heeded the advice. If he did, he would 
certainly have spotted the irony but might have 
been surprised that his old friend could take any 
delight in it. The Unknown Masterpiece is the 
tale of Frenhofer, a great painter who spends 10 
years working and reworking a portrait which will 
revolutionise art by providing "the most complete 
representation of reality". When at last his 
fellow artists Poussin and Porbus are allowed to 
inspect the finished canvas, they are horrified 
to see a blizzard of random forms and colours 
piled one upon another in confusion. "Ah!" 
Frenhofer cries, misinterpreting their wide-eyed 
amazement. "You did not anticipate such 
perfection!" But then he overhears Poussin 
telling Porbus that eventually Frenhofer must 
discover the truth - the portrait has been 
overpainted so many times that nothing remains.
"Nothing on my canvas!" exclaimed Frenhofer, 
glancing alternately at the two painters and his 
"What have you done?" said Porbus in an undertone to Poussin.
The old man seized the young man's arm roughly, 
and said to him: "You see nothing there, clown! 
varlet! miscreant! hound! Why, what brought you 
here, then? - My good Porbus," he continued, 
turning to the older painter, "can it be that 
you, you too, are mocking at me? Answer me! I am 
your friend; tell me, have I spoiled my picture?"
Porbus hesitated, he dared not speak; but the 
anxiety depicted on the old man's white face was 
so heart-rending that he pointed to the canvas 
saying: "Look!"
Frenhofer gazed at his picture for a moment and staggered.
"Nothing! Nothing! And I have worked ten years!"
He fell upon a chair and wept.
After banishing the two men from his studio, 
Frenhofer burns all his paintings and kills 
According to Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue, 
Balzac's tale "made a great impression on him 
because it was in part a description of his own 
feelings". Marx had toiled for many years on his 
own unseen masterpiece, and throughout this long 
gestation his customary reply to those who asked 
for a glimpse of the work-in-progress was 
identical to that of Frenhofer: "No, no! I have 
still to put some finishing touches to it. 
Yesterday, towards evening, I thought that it was 
done . . . This morning, by daylight, I realised 
my error."
As early as 1846, when the book was already 
overdue, Marx wrote to his German publisher: "I 
shall not have it published without revising it 
yet again, both as regards matter and style. It 
goes without saying that a writer who works 
continuously cannot, at the end of six months, 
publish word for word what he wrote six months 
earlier." Twelve years later, still no nearer 
completion, he explained that "the thing is 
proceeding very slowly because no sooner does one 
set about finally disposing of subjects to which 
one has devoted years of study than they start 
revealing new aspects and demand to be thought 
out further". An obsessive perfectionist, he was 
forever seeking out new hues for his palette - 
studying mathematics, learning about the movement 
of celestial spheres, teaching himself Russian so 
he could read books on the country's land system.
Or, to quote Frenhofer again: "Alas! I thought 
for a moment that my work was finished; but I 
have certainly gone wrong in some details, and my 
mind will not be at rest until I have cleared 
away my doubts. I have decided to travel, and 
visit Turkey, Greece and Asia in search of 
models, in order to compare my picture with 
Nature in different forms."
Why did Marx recall Balzac's tale at the very 
moment when he was preparing to unveil his 
greatest work to public scrutiny? Did he fear 
that he too might have laboured in vain, that his 
"complete representation of reality" would prove 
unintelligible? He certainly had some such 
apprehensions - Marx's character was a curious 
hybrid of ferocious self-confidence and anguished 
self-doubt - and he tried to forestall criticism 
by warning in the preface that "I assume, of 
course, a reader who is willing to learn 
something new and therefore to think for 
himself." But what ought to strike us most 
forcibly about his identification with the 
creator of the unknown masterpiece is that 
Frenhofer is an artist - not a political 
economist, nor yet a philosopher or historian or 
The most "delightful irony" of all in The Unknown 
Masterpiece, noted by the American writer 
Marshall Berman, is that Balzac's account of the 
picture is a perfect description of a 
20th-century abstract painting - and the fact 
that he couldn't have known this deepens the 
resonance. "The point is that where one age sees 
only chaos and incoherence, a later or more 
modern age may discover meaning and beauty," 
Berman wrote. "Thus the very open-endedness of 
Marx's later work can make contact with our time 
in ways that more 'finished' 19th-century work 
cannot: Das Kapital reaches beyond the well-made 
works of Marx's century into the discontinuous 
modernism of our own."
Like Frenhofer, Marx was a modernist avant la 
lettre. His famous account of dislocation in the 
Communist Manifesto - "all that is solid melts 
into air" - prefigures the hollow men and the 
unreal city depicted by TS Eliot, or Yeats's 
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". By 
the time he wrote Das Kapital, he was pushing out 
beyond conventional prose into radical literary 
collage - juxtaposing voices and quotations from 
mythology and literature, from factory 
inspectors' reports and fairy tales, in the 
manner of Ezra Pound's Cantos or Eliot's The 
Waste Land. Das Kapital is as discordant as 
Schoenberg, as nightmarish as Kafka.
Marx saw himself as a creative artist, a poet of 
dialectic. "Now, regarding my work, I will tell 
you the plain truth about it," he wrote to Engels 
in July 1865. "Whatever shortcomings they may 
have, the advantage of my writings is that they 
are an artistic whole." It was to poets and 
novelists, far more than to philosophers or 
political essayists, that he looked for insights 
into people's material motives and interests: in 
a letter of December 1868 he copied out a passage 
from another work by Balzac, The Village Priest, 
and asked if Engels could confirm the picture 
from his own knowledge of practical economics. 
Had he wished to write a conventional economic 
treatise he would have done so, but his ambition 
was far more audacious. Berman describes the 
author of Das Kapital as "one of the great 
tormented giants of the 19th century - alongside 
Beethoven, Goya, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, 
Nietzsche, Van Gogh - who drive us crazy, as they 
drove themselves, but whose agony generated so 
much of the spiritual capital on which we still 
Yet how many people would think of including Marx 
in a list of great writers and artists? Even in 
our postmodern era, the fractured narrative and 
radical discontinuity of Das Kapital are mistaken 
by many readers for formlessness and 
incomprehensibility. Anyone willing to grapple 
with Beethoven, Goya or Tolstoy should be able to 
"learn something new" from a reading of Das 
Kapital - not least because its subject still 
governs our lives. As Berman asks: how can Das 
Kapital end while capital lives on? It is 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.
Although Das Kapital is usually categorised as a 
work of economics, Marx turned to the study of 
political economy only after many years of 
spadework in philosophy and literature. It is 
these intellectual foundations that underpin the 
project, and it is his personal experience of 
alienation that gives such intensity to the 
analysis of an economic system which estranges 
people from one another and from the world they 
inhabit - a world in which humans are enslaved by 
the monstrous power of capital and commodities.
Marx was an outsider from the moment of his 
birth, on May 5 1818 - a Jewish boy in a 
predominantly Catholic city, Trier, within a 
Prussian state whose official religion was 
evangelical Protestantism. Although the Rhineland 
had been annexed by France during the Napoleonic 
wars, three years before his birth it was 
reincorporated into Imperial Prussia and the Jews 
of Trier became subject to an edict banning them 
from practising in the professions: Karl's 
father, Heinrich Marx, had to convert to 
Lutheranism in order to work as an attorney. His 
father encouraged Karl to read voraciously. The 
boy's other intellectual mentor was Heinrich's 
friend Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, a cultured 
and liberal government official who introduced 
Karl to poetry and music (and to his daughter 
Jenny, the future Mrs Karl Marx). On long walks 
together the Baron would recite passages from 
Homer and Shakespeare, which his young companion 
learned by heart - and later used as the 
essential seasonings in his own writings.
In adult life Marx re-enacted those happy hikes 
with von Westphalen by declaiming scenes from 
Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe while leading his 
own family up to Hampstead Heath for Sunday 
picnics. There was a quotation for every 
occasion: to flatten a political enemy, enliven a 
dry text, heighten a joke, authenticate an 
emotion - or breathe life into an inanimate 
abstraction, as when capital itself speaks in the 
voice of Shylock (in volume one of Das Kapital) 
to justify the exploitation of child labour in 
Workmen and factory inspectors protested on 
hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered:
My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond.
To prove that money is a radical leveller, Marx 
quotes a speech from Timon of Athens on money as 
the "common whore of mankind", followed by 
another from Sophocles's Antigone ("Money! 
Money's the curse of man, none greater! / That's 
what wrecks cities, banishes men from home, / 
Tempts and deludes the most well-meaning soul, / 
Pointing out the way to infamy and shame . . ."). 
Economists with anachronistic models and 
categories are likened to Don Quixote, who "paid 
the penalty for wrongly imagining that 
knight-errantry was equally compatible with all 
economic forms of society".
Marx's earliest ambitions were literary. As a law 
student at the University of Berlin he wrote a 
book of poetry, a verse drama and even a novel, 
Scorpion and Felix, influenced by Laurence 
Sterne's wildly digressive novel Tristram Shandy. 
After these experiments, he admitted defeat:
Suddenly, as if by a magic touch - oh, the touch 
was at first a shattering blow - I caught sight 
of the distant realm of true poetry like a 
distant fairy palace, and all my creations 
crumbled into nothing . . . A curtain had fallen, 
my holy of holies was rent asunder, and new gods 
had to be installed.
Suffering some kind of breakdown, he was ordered 
by his doctor to retreat to the countryside for a 
long rest - whereupon he at last succumbed to the 
siren voice of GWF Hegel, the recently deceased 
professor of philosophy at Berlin, whose legacy 
was the subject of intense dispute among fellow 
students and lecturers. At university, Marx 
"adopted the habit of making extracts from all 
the books I read" - a habit he never lost. A 
reading list from this period shows the 
precocious scope of his intellectual 
explorations. While writing a paper on the 
philosophy of law he made a detailed study of 
Winckelmann's History of Art, started to teach 
himself English and Italian, translated Tacitus's 
Germania and Aristotle's Rhetoric, read Francis 
Bacon and "spent a good deal of time on Reimarus, 
to whose book on the artistic instincts of 
animals I applied my mind with delight". This is 
the same eclectic, omnivorous and often 
tangential style of research which gave Das 
Kapital its extraordinary breadth of reference.
As a student Marx was infatuated by Tristram 
Shandy, and 30 years later he found a subject 
which allowed him to mimic the loose and 
disjointed style pioneered by Sterne. Like 
Tristram Shandy, Das Kapital is full of paradoxes 
and hypotheses, abstruse explanations and 
whimsical tomfoolery, fractured narratives and 
curious oddities. How else could he do justice to 
the mysterious and often topsy-turvy logic of 
"What does it matter to you what people whisper 
here?' Virgil asks Dante in Canto 5 of the 
Purgatorio. "Follow me and let the people talk." 
Lacking a Virgil to guide him, Marx amends the 
line in his preface for the first volume of Das 
Kapital to warn that he will make no concession 
to the prejudices of others: "Now, as ever, my 
maxim is that of the great Florentine: Segui il 
tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti [Go your own 
way, and let the people talk]." From the outset, 
then, the book is conceived as a descent towards 
the nether regions, and even in the midst of 
complex theoretical abstractions he conveys a 
vivid sense of place and motion:
Let us, therefore, leave this noisy region of the 
market, where all that goes on is done in full 
view of everyone's eyes, where everything seems 
open and above board. We will follow the owner of 
the money and the owner of labour-power into the 
hidden foci of production, crossing the threshold 
of the portal above which is written, "No 
admittance except on business". Here we shall 
discover, not only how capital produces, but also 
how it is itself produced. We shall at last 
discover the secret of making surplus value.
The literary antecedents for such a journey are 
often recalled as he proceeds on his way. 
Describing English match factories, where half 
the workers are juveniles (some as young as six) 
and conditions are so appalling that "only the 
most miserable part of the working class, 
half-starved widows and so forth, deliver up 
their children to it", he writes:
With a working day ranging from 12 to 14 or 15 
hours, night labour, irregular meal-times, and 
meals mostly taken in the workrooms themselves, 
pestilent with phosphorus, Dante would have found 
the worst horrors in his Inferno surpassed in 
this industry.
Other imagined hells provide further 
embellishment for his picture of empirical 
From the motley crowd of workers of all callings, 
ages and sexes, who throng around us more 
urgently than did the souls of the slain around 
Ulysses, on whom we see at a glance the signs of 
overwork, without referring to the Blue Books 
under their arms, let us select two more figures, 
whose striking contrast proves that all men are 
alike in the face of capital - a milliner and a 
This is the cue for a story about Mary Anne 
Walkley, a 20-year-old who died "from simple 
overwork" after labouring for more than 26 hours 
making millinery for the guests at a ball given 
by the Princess of Wales in 1863. Her employer 
("a lady with the pleasant name of Elise", as 
Marx notes caustically) was dismayed to find that 
she had died without finishing the bit of finery 
she was stitching. There is a Dickensian texture 
to much of Das Kapital, and Marx gives the 
occasional explicit nod to an author he loved. 
Here, for example, is how he swats bourgeois 
apologists who claim that his criticisms of 
particular applications of technology reveal him 
as an enemy of social progress who doesn't want 
machinery to be used at all:
This is exactly the reasoning of Bill Sikes, the 
celebrated cutthroat. "Gentlemen of the jury, no 
doubt the throat of this commercial traveller has 
been cut. But that is not my fault, it is the 
fault of the knife. Must we, for such a temporary 
inconvenience, abolish the use of the knife? Only 
consider! Where would agriculture and trade be 
without the knife? Is it not as salutary in 
surgery as it is skilled in anatomy? And a 
willing assistant at the festive table? If you 
abolish the knife - you hurl us back into the 
depths of barbarism."
Bill Sikes makes no such speech in Oliver Twist: 
this is Marx's satirical extrapolation. "They are 
my slaves," he would sometimes say, gesturing at 
the books on his shelves, "and they must serve me 
as I will." The task of this unpaid workforce was 
to provide raw materials which could be shaped 
for his own purposes. "His conversation does not 
run in one groove, but is as varied as are the 
volumes upon his library shelves," wrote an 
interviewer from the Chicago Tribune who visited 
Marx in 1878. In 1976 SS Prawer wrote a 450-page 
book devoted to Marx's literary references. The 
first volume of Das Kapital yielded quotations 
from the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe, Milton, 
Voltaire, Homer, Balzac, Dante, Schiller, 
Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Xenophon, Defoe, 
Cervantes, Dryden, Heine, Virgil, Juvenal, 
Horace, Thomas More, Samuel Butler - as well as 
allusions to horror tales, English romantic 
novels, popular ballads, songs and jingles, 
melodrama and farce, myths and proverbs.
What of Das Kapital's own literary status? Marx 
knew it could not be won second-hand, by the mere 
display of other men's flowers. In volume one he 
scorns those economists who "conceal under a 
parade of literary-historical erudition, or by an 
admixture of extraneous material, their feeling 
of scientific impotence and the eerie 
consciousness of having to teach others what they 
themselves felt to be a truly strange subject". A 
fear that he could himself have committed this 
offence may explain the anguished admission, in 
the afterword to its second edition, that "no one 
can feel the literary shortcomings of Das Kapital 
more strongly than I". Even so, it is surprising 
that so few people have even considered the book 
as literature. Das Kapital has spawned countless 
texts analysing Marx's labour theory of value or 
his law of the declining rate of profit, but only 
a handful of critics have given serious attention 
to Marx's own declared ambition - in several 
letters to Engels - to produce a work of art.
One deterrent, perhaps, is that the multilayered 
structure of Das Kapital evades easy 
categorisation. The book can be read as a vast 
Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and 
consumed by the monster they created ("Capital 
which comes into the world soiled with gore from 
top to toe and oozing blood from every pore"); or 
as a Victorian melodrama; or as a black farce (in 
debunking the "phantom-like objectivity" of the 
commodity to expose the difference between heroic 
appearance and inglorious reality, Marx is using 
one of the classic methods of comedy, stripping 
off the gallant knight's armour to reveal a tubby 
little man in his underpants); or as a Greek 
tragedy ("Like Oedipus, the actors in Marx's 
recounting of human history are in the grip of an 
inexorable necessity which unfolds itself no 
matter what they do," C. Frankel writes in Marx 
and Contemporary Scientific Thought). Or perhaps 
it is a satirical utopia like the land of the 
Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels, where every 
prospect pleases and only man is vile: in Marx's 
version of capitalist society, as in Jonathan 
Swift's equine pseudo-paradise, the false Eden is 
created by reducing ordinary humans to the status 
of impotent, alienated Yahoos.
To do justice to the deranged logic of 
capitalism, Marx's text is saturated with irony - 
an irony which has yet escaped most scholars for 
the past 140 years. One exception is the American 
critic Edmund Wilson, who argued in To The 
Finland Station: a study in the writing and 
acting of history (1940) that the value of Marx's 
abstractions - the dance of commodities, the zany 
cross-stitch of value - is primarily an ironic 
one, juxtaposed as they are with grim, 
well-documented scenes of the misery and filth 
which capitalist laws create in practice. Wilson 
regarded Das Kapital as a parody of classical 
economics. No one, he thought, had ever had so 
deadly a psychological insight into the infinite 
capacity of human nature for remaining oblivious 
or indifferent to the pains we inflict on others 
when we have a chance to get something out of 
them for ourselves. "In dealing with this theme, 
Karl Marx became one of the great masters of 
satire. Marx is certainly the greatest ironist 
since Swift, and has a good deal in common with 
What, then, is the connection between Marx's 
ironic literary discourse and his "metaphysical" 
account of bourgeois society? Had he wished to 
produce a straightforward text of classical 
economics he could have done so - and in fact he 
did. Two lectures delivered in June 1865, later 
published as Value, Price and Profit, give a 
concise and lucid précis of his theories about 
commodities and labour:
A man who produces an article for his own 
immediate use, to consume it himself, creates a 
product but not a commodity . . . A commodity has 
a value, because it is a crystallization of 
social labour . . . Price, taken by itself, is 
nothing but the monetary expression of value . . 
. What the working man sells is not directly his 
labour, but his labouring power, the temporary 
disposal of which he makes over to the capitalist 
. . .
And so on.
Whatever its merits as an economic analysis, this 
can be understood by any intelligent child: no 
elaborate metaphors or metaphysics, no puzzling 
digressions or philosophical excursions, no 
literary flourishes. So why is Das Kapital, which 
covers the same ground, so utterly different in 
style? Did Marx suddenly lose the gift of plain 
speaking? Manifestly not: at the time he gave 
these lectures he was also completing the first 
volume of Das Kapital. A clue can be found in one 
of the very few analogies he permitted himself in 
Value, Price and Profit, when explaining his 
belief that profits arise from selling 
commodities at their "real" value and not, as one 
might suppose, from adding a surcharge. "This 
seems paradox and contrary to everyday 
observation," he writes. "It is also paradox that 
the earth moves round the sun, and that water 
consists of two highly inflammable gases. 
Scientific truth is always paradox, if judged by 
everyday experience, which catches only the 
delusive nature of things."
The function of metaphor is to make us look at 
something anew by transferring its qualities to 
something else, turning the familiar into the 
alien or vice versa. Ludovico Silva, a Mexican 
critic of Marx, has drawn on the etymological 
meaning of "metaphor" as a transfer to argue that 
capitalism itself is a metaphor, an alienating 
process which displaces life from subject to 
object, from use-value to exchange-value, from 
the human to the monstrous. In this reading, the 
literary style Marx adopted in Das Kapital is not 
a colourful veneer applied to an otherwise 
forbidding slab of economic exposition, like jam 
on thick toast; it is the only appropriate 
language in which to express "the delusive nature 
of things", an ontological enterprise which 
cannot be confined within the borders and 
conventions of an existing genre such as 
political economy, anthropological science or 
history. In short, Das Kapital is entirely sui 
generis. There has been nothing remotely like it 
before or since - which is probably why it has 
been so consistently neglected or misconstrued. 
Marx was indeed one of the great tormented giants.
·This an edited extract from Marx's Das Kapital: 
A Biography, part of a series, Books that Shook 
the World, published this month by Atlantic and 
to be serialised in Review in coming weeks. Next: 
Christopher Hitchens on Paine's Rights of Man
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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