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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, insightful book,
When I picked up this book last week, I thought I would get some information on how 'Das Kapital' was written. In fact, I got a lot more.
The book is divided into three main sections: 1. Gestation, 2. Birth, and 3. Afterlife. The first gives you an idea of how Das Kapital developed inside Marx's mind. The second explains how it was finally published. The third explains why it is seeing a second revival, after the collapse of Soviet Union.
The book is full of insights. For instance, how the prose of Das Kapital was affected not only by what Marx's had been reading, but also by his health (his carbuncles). It also uncovers little frauds that he perpetrated along the way, like always telling people that the book is going to be ready shortly, when it actually took more than twenty years.
Another subtle insight is how Marxism (Marxianity?) may have evolved as a religion, and how it may be closely linked to Christianity. Marx, like Jesus Christ, thought of the poor and dis-empowered. In fact, all religious thinkers have thought about the poor and the deprived. And that may explain why Marxians feel threatened by other, competing religious philosophies.
We also understand how neither Lenin, nor Mao, really followed Marx's prescriptions in Das Kapital. Instead they jumped the gun, possibly using Das Kapital as a tool to acquire power. And this may be the reason why both failed miserably in the ultimate. This in fact highlights how Marxists have misused Marx's ideas (with a little help from Marx himself), treating these as mumbo-jumbo and spawned a religious cult, which has little in dialogue or understanding, but only in seeing the prophecy come true, by hook or by crook.
Another insight that I gained was how the Marxists, having failed in gaining control of the economy, have sought refuse in cultural alleys, where they have come to increasingly dominate the discourse and the discussion, mainly by forming intellectual trade unions and boycotting those who do not fall in line. In this they are somewhat like Marx himself, who is shown to be an intellectual tyrant, not letting by any deviation or dissent, without attacking the transgressor with savage force.
Francis Wheen moves deftly back and forth, linking Marx's life and experience with his thesis in the book. He takes us across the broad sweep of reactions to the book, and also points out Marx's own failings as well as disappointments. While he exposes Marx's intellectual flaws, he does this with surprising empathy.
By the time you finish the book, you have a much better understanding of the power of Das Kapital and the fascination it has generated across the world over the last 150 years or so. Wheen also helps us understand how the collapse of Soviet Union may not indicate the failure of Das Kapital, but rather its success. You end the book with a clear feeling that Das Kapital will remain around for a long time to come, and may possibly be even adopted by the West as its own, now that the threat of a belligerent Soviet Russia is gone.
This is a short book (120 pages, with well-spaced text), and can easily be read in 6-7 hours. The Atlantic Books binding (hardcover) is good and offers good value for money, especially as you may want to return again to the book and savor its delightful insights.
Francis Wheen's prose is also crisp and clear. He deals easily with some of the most difficult concepts of Das Kapital, without frightening you to death.
All in all, an excellent buy.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An insightful look at the making of Das Kapital,
Until recently, I had little interest in this book, mainly for the reason Marx had been shoved down my throat for a couple of years at university. By examining Das Kapital as literature in addition to as economics, I was able to perceive the genius in Marx's masterpiece. Of course, I don't plan on going out and joining the Communist Party anytime soon, but certainly it has given me pause to reflect on the merits of the Marxist analysis.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An example of the series at its best,
Wheen has created a book which in terms of structure, content and style is one of the very best in the series. The book is a biography of Das Kapital and while ther is a great deal of biographical content about its author and his times too it is never tangental and always comes back to the central subject matter, the book.
The content is structured into an introduction, gestation, birth and afterlife and it is a structure which I wish other books in the series had employed too, the style is concise and precise, there are citations from the book, a short piece at the beginning recommending what sources to consult if you want to read the book Das Kapital itself.
There is a great index but no bibliography, end notes or foot notes, which can be a nuisance since Wheen does make citations from other intellectuals, supporters and critics, contemporaneous (well, George Soros and Fukuyama) and historical (Schumpeter, Keynes).
Wheen is sympathic and enthusiastic without being biased or engaging in any sort of apologetics, some of his observations are wonderful, commenting that Marx was more inspired by novelists and poets than political economists or philosophers and motivated by a desire to write literature (which in a strange way parallels Orwell's Penguin Great Ideas : Why I Write when he describes wanting to make political writing an art). Wheen also makes some interesting comments upon Marx's own literary heroes, for instance Balzac, a royalist and reactionary, that Marx could appreciate if authors had insights whatever that authors personal prejudices where. It kind of makes sense knowing what I do about Marx's bredth of reading, his willingness to tolerate complete dependency and penury in order to be able spend his time reading, all of which Wheen makes brilliant comment on too.
Interesting highlights of the book include Wheen's observation that the only Marxist thing the USSR ever truly did was collapse under the weight of its own internal economic contradictions and that the greatest contemporary tributes are paid to Marx for his theorising about capitalism rather than socialism. These are from within solidly free marketeer circles for the most part.
Wheen's book is also pretty human and humanising of Marx the theorist, he wasnt a particularly great friend, husband, father, he suffered from seriously ill health and persecution he actively invited most of the time, he's both self-assertive and possessed by self-doubt. It has made me think about reading Wheen's biography of Marx the man and also that none of the left wing hero worship or valourisation of Marx the man, quite apart from the mixed legacies of his theorising, stand up for a moment.
A great read, I recommend it to fans of the series, fans of biography, politics or social theory. Fantastic.
12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clear concise analysis of Marx and 'Das Kapital',
Karl Marx was despised from Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Reagan, but the supply side economics they supported was "invented" by Jude Wanniski who credited 'Das Kapital' as the source of his inspiration.
Supply side economics, based on the theory production rather than demand is the key to prosperity, was a key feature of Reaganomics and is still a favoured by The Wall Street Journal. Likewise, capitalism has no greater fan than Joseph Schumpeter, the economist who coined "creative destruction" and who began his classic 'Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy' with a generous 54-page assessment of Marx's achievements.
It makes this slim but insightful gem of a book in the 'Books that Shook the World' series far superior to the 'Rights of Man' by Christopher Hitchens. After being disappointed by Hitchens, this book persuaded me to buy the rest of the series. Presumably, I'll find some of them delightful and others depressing; that's always the case with good books.
Personally, for a very basic and simple reason, I don't agree with Marx who wrote in 1845 about his desire to change the world. My belief is that human nature hasn't changed much, if at all, in the past 5,000 years despite the best efforts of kings, priests, prophets and thousands of other shamans, shysters and con artists. Instead, I like the idea of those who say, "here is a better way of living, accept it if you will." Contrary to Marx and George Bush, I think it's folly to try to impose ideas by force whether in Iraq, Washington or London.
Second, I agree with the Hegelian concept that truly mature people should accept the reasonableness of the world as they find it. In other words, most people have lived quite comfortably with the status quo for hundreds and often thousands of years; give them the means to change if they want, but don't try to force your 'gifts' superior wisdom, morality and economics on anyone.
The beauty of this book is that it sets out these frameworks, then delves into the agony Marx went through in writing his masterpiece. Marx was proposing a very real and seemingly humane solution to the incredible abuses of his era; an almost identical repeat of what is now taking place in 'Marxist oriented' China.
It reminds me of remark by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, "Genius does what it must, talent does what it can." On that basis Marx was clearly a genius, but one without the talent to write simply, clearly and persuasively. Wheen has the genius to interpret Marx, and the talent to write very well.
Marx obscurely set out his formula for a new society, and this book give any reader an appreciation of that effort and ideas. Having seen Marxism in operation, I "knew" it couldn't work; this books succinctly sums up the reasons why it won't work. It reminds me of a quote from my childhood, slightly paraphrased, by Stephen Leacock, "Marxism won't work except in Heaven, where they don't need it; or in Hell, where they already have it."
In contrast, this book will "work" for anyone. It avoids the sheer incomprehensibility of Das Kapital, and replaces it with clear logic and sensibility.
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Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography (Books That Changed the World) by Francis Wheen (Audio CD - 21 Nov. 2007)
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