Reviewed by Ben Trott
Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography
Francis Wheen (read by Simon Vance)
CD (Audio Book)
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.’