Historical Notes: Cursing the Carbuncles

  • Share
  • Read Later

Karl Marx labored single-mindedly for 15 years to produce his monumental Das Kapital, and all the while he was in pain. He suffered from an enlarged liver, hemorrhoids, recurrent eye infections, insomnia and boils. But Marx's bitter prophecy that the bourgeoisie would "have cause to remember my carbuncles" hardly applies today. Last week, on the 100th anniversary of the publication in Hamburg of the first, and most important, volume of Das Kapital, the only people who seemed to be in agony over Marx's ideas were his own Communist heirs.

The Chinese and Russians berate each other for straying from the path of true Marxism-Leninism. Hungarian Communist Philosopher Gyorgy Lukacs makes a distinction between the "disfigured Marxism" that is official party doctrine and what he calls "unfalsified Marxism," while the Yugoslav magazine Praxis warns that effective Marxism "must be completely free of party pressure." And Polish Writer Jan Szewczyk muses publicly whether Marxism is "a bolt of Red cloth that anyone may cut in whatever shape pleases him."

Pyramids & Polemics. Das Kapital's sheer size—three volumes and more than 2,000 pages—is almost enough to endow it with a religious aura. The work, says British Historian Isaiah Berlin, "has been blindly worshiped and blindly hated by millions who have not read a line of it, or have read without understanding its obscure and tortuous prose." Since 1917, more than 6,000,000 copies of it have been printed in the Soviet Union. Yet the Albanians, who have been Communists for two dec ades, managed to do without it until last year, when they published the first edition in their language.

One reason why the book may bore Albanians is that so much of it is devoted to British industrialism about the time of Dickens. Das Kapital combines pyramids of abstraction with impassioned polemics more typical of the better known work of Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

In its "scientific" approach, however, Das Kapital pioneered a new form of social history; up to then, no one had really bothered to examine systematically such topics as British factory legislation, the diet of workers in Lancashire or the health risks in British coal mines.

Marx's main purpose was to prove that capitalism matures into a monster and collapses from the ineluctable logic of its own laws, which tend to create monopolies and to oppress an increasingly impoverished working class. He introduced the theory of the surplus value of labor, which held that a commodity's value is determined solely by the labor that goes into it; as Marx saw it, the capitalist pays the worker only a poor part of the real value of his output while skimming off the surplus as unjust profit. In perhaps the most widely touted passage from Das Kapital, he predicted that all this would inevitably lead to Communism: "The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point where they prove incompatible with their capitalist husk. The knell of private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2