Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dickens, Balzac and Das Kapital

Das Kapital

I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Books approach to education—fascinated, but not convinced. At one point does it become useful to study primary sources without the benefit and context provided by secondary sources? I’m afraid I sometimes fall into the category of the young man in the film, Barcelona, who tells a friend that he prefers literary criticism to the work it dissects. Sometimes, you're not equipped for the unmediated experience of reading 1000 pages of esoteric language. For this reason, I am not greatly troubled by my unfamiliarity with the Russian language or indeed with a few of the classics of Marxist literature, in German or any other language. However, I suffer an occasional pang of conscience, most particularly about Karl Marx’s masterpiece, Volume I of Das Kapital.

Karl Marx

Like others perhaps, I’ve wrestled with the meaning of the Russian Revolution and Communism in general with very little direct contact with Marx’s work, with the exception of that short and easily digestible pamphlet, the Communist Manifesto, and, only recently, the Eighteenth Brumiare of Louis Bonaparte. I remember a high school friend who put me to shame by referring to her own reading of Das Kapital as well as Adam Smith’s the Wealth of Nations. Yet 20 years later, Das Kapital continues to intimidate me.

Reading Room

Two months ago, I pulled a copy of the book from the shelves of a used bookstore, but put it back, convinced that I’d never be able to get through it. Do I seem unusual? Francis Wheen, who wrote a book called Marx’s Das Kapital in the “Books that changed the world” series, doesn’t think so. Apparently, many other people have avoided the book, including politicians (Harold Wilson said the footnotes on page one turned him off) and even committed Marxists. Wheen believes that they are making a big mistake.

Marx House

According to Wheen, Das Kapital is a work of literature or at least quasi-literature. It’s filled with erudition but it’s also filled with brilliant prose and real aesthetic power. It’s a satire, comedy, farce, Gothic novel, and tragedy all rolled into one. The bourgeoisie and capitalism in general, are alternately portrayed as extraordinarily vigorous protagonists (a la Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air) and monstrously destructive and depraved villains. Das Kapital is, Wheen continues, a sprawling treatise on modern economics, but it’s also a creative and multilayered and open-ended encounter with modernity as embodied in capitalism.

Although Wheen demonstrates that the book didn’t make a large splash upon publication, people did, as we know from the course of Russian history, fall in love it. Das Kapital has as much in common with a work by Tolstoy or Dickens or Balzac or Melville as it does with Ricardo or Adam Smith. The art, I suspect, was more important than the dismal science. If revolutionaries were going to overthrow the old order, they needed something worthy enough to put in its place, and communism as described in Das Kapital fits the bill.

Stalin At Work

Notwithstanding its critics, which Wheen attempts to refute without necessarily endorsing Marx’s analyses, the book is subtle and its dialectics complex (or slippery?) enough to elude any easy categorization. Like great literature, Wheen says that Das Kapital is rich and difficult and all-encompassing, and therefore the book seldom makes predictions about capitalism that can be easily dismissed or proven wrong. All in all, Wheen thinks the book is worth reading, both because it’s a work of art, and because it remains the best critique of the current economic system ever written.

Marx's Grave


  1. So... Are you going to go back to that used-book store and pick it up?

  2. Heck no. And come to think of it, my fear of the primary sources may explain why you took the senior year Spanish reading course and I took the alternative Spanish speaking course...

  3. Sorry about that. I meant to write more than perhaps. I've never blogged before . . . apparently I struggle with the technology.

    Perhaps the reason that you remain "fascinated by the Great Books approach to education—fascinated, but not convinced" can be explained by our friend Tolstoy. In Anna Karenina, at some swanky shindig thrown by Oblonsky, the guests get into a debate over what the nature of education should be. One character says, "It is now recognized that a true education can ONLY be a purely classical one" (p. 386).

    The footnote to this comment in the Penguin edition says this: "In 1871 the Russian minister of national education, Count D.A. Tolstoy, proposed establishing two sorts of schools, so-called "real" high schools and classical gymnasiums. The distinction was intended to limit the teaching of natural science, which was seen as a source of dangerous materialistic and athiestic notions. It was hoped that classical studies would cure young people of revolutionary ideas" (p. 829).

    Perhaps the Great Books approach keeps you from being the revolutionary that you secretly yearn to be.

  4. Re: Great Books - I loved the scene in "The Squid and the Whale" where the aspiring intellectual teenaged boy and his would-be girlfriend are discussing 'The Trial' and he describes it as "Kafka-esque." His girlfriend looks at him strangely and say, "Well, of course it is..."