Monday, November 26, 2007

Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography

Reviewed by Ben Trott

Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography
Francis Wheen (read by Simon Vance)
CD (Audio Book)
Tantor Media

Somewhere along the line, any self-respecting review of an introduction to Marx’s Capital needs to say that there is no replacement for reading the original, in all three volumes. And it is true.

What Marx produced with Capital was a revolutionary critique of classical political economy, or what today is simply called ‘economics’. Marx’s targets were the bourgeois theorists of his day whose project was to mask the historically specific nature of ‘the capitalist mode of production’ (Marx almost never used the term ‘capitalism’). He argued that they naturalised a social set up which was anything but natural, presenting relationships of exploitation as relations amongst equals.

But why read Capital today? Despite its difficulty, its sheer size, the fact that it is 140 years old (there have been one or two developments since!), and the fact that it would appear some of that which Marx foretold – like capitalism’s impending collapse – never seemed to manifest itself, there is still no other single work which has been able to better expose the means by which exploitation takes place within capitalism. And understanding the nature of our own exploitation is a powerful tool in its overcoming.

For those without the time to slog their way through all three volumes, or wanting to find ‘a way in’ before trying to doing so, Francis Wheen’s biography of Das Kapital is a great place to start.

A few years back, Wheen wrote a very well received biography of Karl Marx. In his ‘Forward’ to a recently published collection of Marx’s correspondence for the New York Tribune, he claims that one of the criticisms his book received within academia was its journalistic style. ‘I had no defence against the charge’, he explained, ‘I am a journalist’ (as, incidentally, was Marx for large chunks of his life). It is his training as such which makes both his biography of Marx, as well as that of Das Kapital so readable. He adopts a language and pitches at a level which neither assumes specialist knowledge, nor a lack of hunger to get to grips with some difficult concepts.

In a concise and accessible manner, Wheen explains Capital’s central theoretical innovations, and Marx’s ‘labour theory of value’ in particular. The theory had already been under development by classical political economists like David Ricardo, who had located human labour as the source of all wealth. Marx’s advance, however, was to distinguish between ‘concrete labour’ (which produces ‘use-values’, i.e. products made for their direct usefulness), and ‘abstract labour’ (which is invested in the production of commodities for exchange). The concept of ‘abstract labour’ (which Marx calls ‘a real abstraction’) allowed him to show how the value of a commodity is determined by the labour-time involved in its production – with labour-time measured in homogenous units. So, the fact that a particular tailor may spend a long time making a waste coat, perhaps out of sheer laziness, does not effect its value. Value, rather, is based on the average time involved in production, measured right across society.

Having gone to pains to explain all this, it is somewhat surprising then that a couple of pages later Wheen should point to an alleged weakness in Marx’s argument. He claims that if labour-time is the only determinate of value, it should not follow then that a lock of Elvis’ hair or a Picasso napkin doodle fetch such high prices. Here, Wheen is confusing value and price. Knowing the value of a lock of hair, or a napkin doodle (i.e. the time it takes – on average – to produce it), is precisely what allows us to say whether it’s price is high or low.

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of Wheen’s book, though, is his ability to show how Marx can be read to make sense of contemporary phenomena. In the late 1970s, for example, he explains, there were many discussions about an imminent ‘leisure society’, with innovation leading to the automation of many jobs traditionally performed by human labour running the risk of leaving us all idle. Many have expressed surprise that there has been no actual decrease in the number of hours we work (in fact, the opposite is true). Marx, Wheen explains, would not have been surprised. Innovation under capitalism does not aim towards reducing the total number of hours we work, but ‘socially necessary labour time’. In other words, the proportion of the day taken up producing the value necessary to cover the worker’s wage, with the rest of the time then left available for producing ‘surplus value’ appropriated by capital.

The final section of Wheen’s book goes on to explain both the influence that Marx’s thought has had on history, and the workers’ movement in particular; as well as the extent to which Marxism has distorted much of our perception of that which Marx himself had argued. Famously, commenting on French socialists in the 1870s, Marx said: if they are Marxists, ‘all I know is that I am not’. Everything indicates that, had he been around, he would have certainly said the same about the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. In fact, Wheen argues, ‘the most truly Marxist achievement of the Soviet Union was its collapse’.

With enough distance from this collapse now to realise that with it history has anything but ‘ended’, many of those frustrated with the current state of things are gradually starting to gravitate back towards a serious engagement with Marx’s own texts. ‘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 twenty-first century.’


Jennifer said...

Hi there, do you have an email address? I'd like to ask you a question.


Please email me at

Teli said...

Keep up the good work.

Jay Kie said...

Nice work! You review is great however you can look at my review also from here :


Anonymous said...

[b]educational software site, [url=]office 2003 network copy and paste hangs vista[/url]
[url=][/url] car selling software canada map software
itunes for windows xp [url=]oem software version[/url] Software original
[url=]software for selling[/url] Mac Retail
[url=]software for academic[/url] adobe acrobat 9 pro serial number
you sell software [url=]buy cheap software coupon[/b]

Anonymous said...

[b]windows xp sp3, [url=]android software store[/url]
[url=][/url] educational discount for software download free adobe photoshop cs4
software office originale [url=]composer software academic[/url] free macromedia flash software
[url=]Software Downloadable[/url] retail store design software
[url=]2004 Mac Retail Price[/url] exan academic software
nero 5 a free download version [url=]cheapest place to buy software[/b]

Anonymous said...

[b]software to buy to, [url=]photo software downloads[/url]
[url=]microsoft student software discounts[/url] 2008 oem software buy used adobe software
photoshop for album artwork mac free [url=]buy adobe acrobat software[/url] download adobe photoshop cs4 extended
[url=]macromedia authorware software[/url] free autocad download
[url=]how to install kaspersky[/url] buy software microsoft office
Adobe Macromedia Anti-Virus [url=]software reseller in malaysia[/b]

Anonymous said...

[b]clothing store software, [url=]computer software retail stores[/url]
[url=][/url] 11 Mac StuffIt Deluxe software at a discount
download free acdsee [url=]a oem software[/url] message store software
[url=]Premium Retail Price[/url] software on sale
[url=]music education software[/url] education software canada
buy microsoft photoshop [url=]order software program[/b]

Anonymous said...

Good fill someone in on and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you for your information.

Anonymous said...


When ever I surf on web I come to this website[url=].[/url] is filled with quality info. Do you pay attention towards your health?. In plain english I must warn you that, you are not serious about your health. Recent Scientific Research points that almost 80% of all USA grownups are either chubby or weighty[url=].[/url] Hence if you're one of these people, you're not alone. Its true that we all can't be like Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Megan Fox, and have sexy and perfect six pack abs. Now the question is how you are planning to have quick weight loss? [url=]Quick weight loss[/url] is really not as tough as you think. You need to improve some of you daily habbits to achive weight loss in short span of time.

About me: I am blogger of [url=]Quick weight loss tips[/url]. I am also health trainer who can help you lose weight quickly. If you do not want to go under difficult training program than you may also try [url=]Acai Berry[/url] or [url=]Colon Cleansing[/url] for fast weight loss.

Anonymous said...


Do you guys watch movies in theater or on internet? I use to rent DVD movies from [b][/b]. Recently I discovered that we can watch all new movies on internet on day, they are released. So why should I spend money on renting movies??? So, can you guys please tell me where I can [url=]watch latest movie Animal Kingdom 2010[/url] for free?? I have searched [url=][/url], [url=][/url], [url=][/url] but, Could not find a good working link. If you know any working link please share it with me.


young sex stories said...

and he reached up andplanted a kiss firmly on the teat of her nipple. Bessie took his hand in hers and stared at thedelicacy display.
hot sex stories
adult spanking stories free
gay doctor stories
free hard core porn stories
sex stories women taboo
and he reached up andplanted a kiss firmly on the teat of her nipple. Bessie took his hand in hers and stared at thedelicacy display.