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

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Fri Oct 27 2006 - 07:52:43 EDT

Green Left - Review: Revisiting Marx's kapital idea

      25 October 2006
      Issue #688

            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.

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