I’ve been reading Francis Wheen’s new book Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography, part of a series, “books that shook the world”. An extract was in Saturday’s Guardian
It's entertainingly written as you'd expect - like his biography of Marx - but weak on explaining the ideas of Capital.
Wheen argues that Marx revealed the nature of the beast that is capitalism – understood in terms of instability, alienation and exploitation. Indeed he rightly argues that Marx will remain relevant as long as capitalism exists.
The best section is on the twenty years of preparation for the book. Wheen documents the hardship faced by Marx and his family, noting Marx’s quip that no-one had ever written about money who was so short of the stuff. He discusses the complementary relationship with Engels (Marx with his wealth of knowledge, Engels with his knowledge of wealth) and the vomiting and carbuncles, which forced Marx to finish his book standing up.
However the section on the book itself barely gets to grips with the key ideas in Capital. It is dismissive of the early chapters and offers no defence of the labour theory of value – the core of Marx’s explanation of capitalist exploitation.
Instead Wheen argues that Capital is a great work of literature. His perspective is similar to Edmund Wilson, who also applauded Marx’s irony and satire since Swift, while also disparaging his dialectics. Wheen appears to have written the book as an appeal to artists and writers to (re)consider Marx.
For Marx, his life work was aimed at a different audience - the working class. In fact he tried to work out a political economy of the working class. He wrote Capital because he thought the working class was the agency to overthrow capitalism.
But Wheen dismisses these politics. He scorns Marx for wasting years on polemics. He amalgamates Lenin with Stalin as a tyrant, writing off everything Marxist that came after Marx. This completely destroys whatever literary merits Wheen’s book might have.