Friday, 5 October 2012

Book Review: Marx's Das Kapital for Beginners

From LSHG Newsletter #47 (Autumn 2012)

Marx’s Das Kapital for Beginners
by Michael Wayne,
illustrations by Sungyoon Choi
US 2012 Paperback: 144 pp
ISBN 978-1934389591

Those who have been around for a while on the left will remember the Beginners series of books which contained text and cartoons in an effort to introduce the ideas of left-wing thinkers and activists from Marx on to a wider layer of people that might not, at least initially, be prepared to plough their way through weighty tomes of theory. The books were a successful series but in recent times other ways of popularising left-wing ideas have achieved considerable currency. One thinks of David Harvey’s web-based explanations of parts of Capital.
One might argue then that to launch a print-based Marx’s Das Capital for Beginners is a brave thing to do. At least according to the late Labour leader Harold Wilson even getting past the first few pages of Capital is no easy matter. Wilson of course was making a political point. He was an academic economist that knew what Marx was arguing perfectly well but did not agree with it. It suited him
politically to claim that he did not really understand it.
The groups of students who meet to ‘read’ Marx’s Capital still exist and for the more academically minded no doubt perform a useful purpose.  As an historian, I have never felt that tarting at page 1 of Capital and reading through it was likely to achieve enlightenment. Rather dipping in and getting a flavour of Marx’s writing and then taking it from there seems to me to work far better. In addition what is really needed here is some kind of grasp of what Marx was on about in respect of capital and capitalism. Even a basic idea will help the understanding of the text hugely.
Marx’s points are often counterintuitive, seeking to understand how things really work as opposed to how they say they do and that is the key thing to really ‘get’.  Does Marx’s Das Kapital for Beginners help with this process? Well it might. It certainly provides a way in that some may find helpful. It runs through in chapter format some of the key concepts of Capital from the commodity to value and crises. There are quotes from Capital itself and the text, together with the illustrations, tries to get underneath what Marx is saying and make it understandable for the beginner.
So one example looks at the issue of value through the socially necessary labour time required to produce an avocado sandwich. You could argue that it is an updated version of Fred Casey’s attempts to explain the dialectic via the example of a boiling kettle. It may seem a little trivial to the hardcore Marxist but explaining hard to grasp points in terms of everyday things does have a role.
The book is light on the wealth of historical examples that Marx uses in Capital, and focuses on its economic core. Again this can be understood but it is a pity to miss out the history because again that is something that the unfamiliar can grasp and indeed by doing so can start to understand the process by which Marx reached his conclusions.
The book may not work for everyone. Some may prefer to read Capital itself, others to check David Harvey’s summaries and explanations. I’d also suggest that Tressell’s ‘The Great Money Trick’ in
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists remains a great way to grasp some of the core points of Marx’s thinking. That said it is a useful addition to the literature and if it gets more people thinking about Marx’s ideas a valuable one too.

Keith Flett

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