[OPE-L] Introducing Marx’s Capital

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Apr 26 2007 - 08:08:13 EDT

>Introducing Marx's Capital
>Francis Wheen, Marx's Das Kapital, Atlantic
>Books, 2006. Hardback, 130pp, £9.99.
>Reviewed by Mike Rooke
>WRITTEN IN the clear and succinct style of his
>1999 biography of Karl Marx, this book offers an
>account (a "biography") of the genesis and
>fortunes of Marx's Das Kapital. Issued as part
>of a "Books that shook the world" series that
>includes the likes of Plato, Darwin, Paine, and
>the Bible, the aim was clearly to offer a short
>guide that would provide an introduction for
>students and the general reader. The book
>consists of three parts covering the genesis,
>content and afterlife of Marx's magnum opus. In
>contrast to the many commentaries that present
>it as a work of Economics (or Political
>Economy), Wheen sets out to present Capital as a
>work that extends "beyond conventional prose
>into radical literary collage", incorporating as
>it does allusions and references to the "great"
>works of literature – Classical Greek,
>Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, etc. In other words
>it can be understood as a "gothic" work of art
>depicting capital as a devouring monster of
>human labour (the phrase "capital is dead labour
>which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking
>living labour" adorns the back cover of the
>book). Wheen makes a convincing case in support of this thesis.
>In tracing the gestation of Das Kapital, the
>first volume of which was published in 1867,
>with the second and third volumes appearing only
>after Marx's death in 1883, Wheen begins with
>Marx's 1844 Paris Manuscripts , where (under the
>influence of Engels' 'Critique of Political
>Economy') he engages critically with Political
>Economy for the first time, and the category of
>alienated labour is elaborated. The Paris
>Manuscripts , The Poverty of Philosophy (1847),
>the Theories of Surplus Value (mid-1860s) and
>the Grundrisse (1857-58), were so many staging
>posts in the developing work whose intended
>final product was Das Kapital . It was thus a
>lifelong work in progress, and of course, as
>Wheen describes, incomplete at the time of Marx's death.
>The analysis of the commodity in the opening
>chapters of Volume 1 of Das Kapital, where the
>categories of use value and exchange value,
>useful and abstract labour, the labour theory of
>value, surplus value and commodity fetishism are
>introduced, is given the standard treatment, but
>in Wheen's admirably clear and economical prose
>style. Along the way he disposes of several
>objections traditionally levelled against Marx –
>that his immiseration thesis is disproven by the
>rising standard of living of the working class
>of the "developed" countries, and that the
>majority of workers are no longer exploited.
>Wheen makes it clear that Marx's point was
>always that the more productive labour became,
>the greater the domination of capital (as
>accumulated value) over it. The exploitation of
>labour and the imperatives it gives rise to –
>the pressure to work long hours and the
>intensification of the work effort – remain the
>driving forces behind capitalist industry and a
>source of alienation for its workers. But while
>Wheen takes the view that Das Kapital remains
>relevant because "its subject still governs our
>lives" (the baleful domination of humanity by
>the imperative of production for the sake of
>production), he implicitly rejects Marx's view
>that the capitalist mode of production contains
>within it its own negation, the conviction that
>living labour can become a revolutionary force.
>There is no appreciation of any logic pointing
>beyond the continuing domination of capital.
>Such an appreciation would have required a grasp
>of the centrality of the dialectic to Das
>Kapital. But Wheen's view of Marx's dialectic is
>that it was a useful literary device (borrowed
>from Hegel) that he employed to prevent his
>predictions being dis-proven by the actual
>outcome of events. In other words, for Marx
>"dialectic means never having to admit that one
>was wrong." This is a hopelessly inadequate
>position to take, even if it appears to be
>supported by a cursory remark made by Marx to
>Engels in their personal correspondence.
>While Wheen treats the labour theory of value,
>abstract labour and alienation as important and
>central to Capital, he does not (along with most
>other commentators) appreciate their unity. The
>unity of alienated labour = abstract labour =
>value, can only be understood as a dialectic of
>social antagonism that drives forms of value
>(commodity, money) to assert their autonomy from
>labour (the source of value). This dialectic
>thus has a diachronic aspect (it develops over
>time) and proceeds through the struggle of class
>against class. In failing to grasp this
>dialectic orthodox Marxism never understood the
>transformation that was required for the
>abolition of wage labour. For it is only with
>the full development of wage labour that the
>pre-requisites for its supersession emerge: the
>colonisation of all life by value, both
>spatially in the world market, and in the
>homogenisation of capitalist work. Only as a
>dialectic does the development of the wage
>labour-capital relation become intelligible as
>communist critique. The subjectivity denied
>living labour appears as its opposite in the
>objectivity of value (fetishism), but this
>objectivity is in turn the (contradictory)
>foundation for the (reconstitution) of
>subjectivity at a higher level – the conscious
>direction of social labour by the associated
>producers. Without the dialectic understood in
>this way, the society of capital indeed appears
>as the end of history, without a subject that
>can subvert its dominance. Notwithstanding his
>sympathy for Marx, Wheen's position is one of a
>resigned fatalism in the face of capital.
>But why, asks Wheen, did Marx not encapsulate
>his "economic" concepts in a short book the size
>of Value, Price and Profit (1865), rather than
>the thousands of pages of Das Kapital? He quotes
>Ludovico Silva to the effect that "the delusive
>nature of things" necessitated a critique of
>traditional categories and the creation of
>entirely new ones: "In short, Das Kapital is
>entirely sui generis". This invokes Marx's
>comment that if the appearance of things
>coincided unproblematically with their essence
>there would be no need for science. But this
>only returns us to the relation of the dialectic
>and Marx's critique. Das Kapital is a massive
>and at times tortuous working through of
>categories that express the contradictory
>workings of the real – the unity of opposites
>constituted by the value form of social labour.
>It was necessarily difficult, not because Marx
>had a penchant for metaphysical acrobatics, but
>because the object was the inverted,
>"topsy-turvy" world of the commodity form, whose
>mode of appearance is necessarily fetishistic.
>In covering the "afterlife" of Das Kapital,
>Wheen offers the reader a sprinkling of
>interesting observations about the reception of
>the first volume. Only in Russia was there any
>enthusiastic response, and no English edition
>appeared in Marx's lifetime. The publication of
>the second and third volumes was the result of
>editing work by Engels. But the real point is
>that the dialectic of labour that animates and
>structures Das Kapital, was not absorbed by the
>first generation of Marxists after Marx. In this
>way Hyndman, in keeping with most post-Marx
>Marxists, could celebrate the book (and as Wheen
>informs us, plagiarise it), but fail to grasp
>its dialectic. Admittedly readers then did not
>have the benefit of access to Marx's 1844 Paris
>Manuscripts, and so might justifiably have had
>difficulty in detecting the alienation of labour
>that runs below the surface of the entire
>analysis of Das Kapital. This failure however
>had the consequence of leaving that generation
>of Marxists with a limited conception of the
>self-transformation of labour required for its
>abolition. Marx bears some responsibility too –
>in seeking to present a work whose "scientific"
>credentials would disarm the bourgeois critics,
>he left the dialectic of labour more "hidden" than was necessary.
>In the concluding part of the book Wheen takes a
>justifiable swipe at the plundering of Marx by
>the contemporary cultural studies brigade, and
>points out that much of what passes as radical
>critique and research in the academy, is in fact
>recycled Marx. The message is – best to refer to
>the original. For readers exploring Marx for the
>first time, this book will provide a useful
>antidote to the overly scholastic exegeses
>produced by the academic Marx industry. It also
>comes with a degree of Wheen humour that makes
>for an entertaining as well as informative read.
>But it must be treated with caution, lacking as
>it does any appreciation of the dialectic that
>is key to Marx's view of revolution. If it whets
>your appetite, persevere with the opening
>chapters of Das Kapital itself. There is ultimately no substitute.

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