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 www.revolutionarycommunistgroup.com/frfi/152/152-mar.htm can also be found in Links, the Australian left publication linked to Green left Weekly at www.dsp.org.au/links/back/issue16/Yaffe.html 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 >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. 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.
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