Re: [OPE-L] GLW review of Frances Wheen's _Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography_

From: David Yaffe (david@DANYAF.PLUS.COM)
Date: Fri Oct 27 2006 - 11:15:48 EDT

My review of Frances Wheen's Karl Marx, initially published in FRFI  in 
December 1999 at
can also be found in Links, the Australian left publication linked to Green 
left Weekly at

It show what little understanding of Marx Wheen has. He knows, 
however,  how to cash in on a good thing though.

David Yaffe

At 07:52 27/10/2006 -0400, you wrote:
>Green Left - Review: Revisiting Marx's kapital idea
>       25 October 2006
>       Issue #688
>             REVIEW
>             Revisiting Marx's kapital idea
>             Alex Miller
>             20 October 2006
>             Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography
>             By Frances Wheen
>             Allen & Unwin 2006
>             130 pages $22.95
>             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 Allen &
>Unwin 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
>             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. An 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!
>             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 V.I. Lenin’s 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.
>             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.
>             From: Cultural Dissent, Green Left Weekly issue #688 25
>October 2006.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Tue Oct 31 2006 - 00:00:03 EST