The great philosopher and economist didn’t sign up for a creative writing course,when writing the most incisive analysis of the logic of capital, but his prose remains compelling today, as it was, 174 years ago.
Suffice it to say that Karl Marx has to be one of the most polarizing figures in the history of mankind; There are those, who will take umbrage at the mere mention of the towering intellectual, pointing the finger of blame at him for all of the carnage that took place, in the twentieth century — in Chairman Mao’s China and in Stalin’s Russia and there will be millions across the world, lining up to defend their man, absolving him of any responsibility for genocidal fascism and totalitarian communism.
The raison d’etre of this short article, is to take a bit of time to dissect and appreciate the prose of communist manifesto and to a much lesser degree, Das Kapital.
There can be no question that Marx was wrong a few areas, not least on the internationalism of the working classes — this notion was painfully eviscerated in the trenches of Flanders, Dardanelles and elsewhere in western Europe during both wars, when working men of different nationalities, happily slaughtered each other.
But he and his lifelong supporter, friend and benefactor — Friedrich Engels, were absolutely spot on the dynamism of capitalism: the voracious, unrelenting and world-transforming search for profit, which was couched in urgent, passionate and sometimes, inebriating language, in the communist manifesto, which was published in 1847, when Marx was 29 and Engels, 27.
In assuming the role of spokesman for the European communist movement, they came out with a killer prose at the beginning:
A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism
And at the end, their call to action (CTA) which is undoubtedly, one of the most quoted and iconic phrases of all time, they said:
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains, they have a world to win
What must be fully appreciated here is that this book was authored in the 19th century, when industrial capitalism was still in its very early days — long before the hedge fund managers, currency speculators, tech giants, Big pharma and the oil giants, ever came into existence.
Marx was extraordinarily prescient, in his critique of the capitalist class — stating:
The bourgeoisie, had destroyed the traditional ties of the past and ‘left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment’. It had ‘converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid laborers’. The workman, had become an appendage of the machine.
Also informative was the fact that he was as effusive in praise of capitalism as he was in excoriating it, here’s another master class, in creative writing:
The bourgeoisie, had accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all the earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life, and his relations with his kind.
For a man, who didn’t necessarily travel the world, observing the capitalist class, Marx uses his penetrative intelligence, in providing an international dimension to the pursuit of increased market share. According to him, the bourgeoisie went everywhere and sought to establish connections everywhere:
In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians’ intense hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on the pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e. to become bourgeois themselves. In one world, it creates a world after its image.
In Das Kapital, Marx draws inspiration from an incredibly wide number of literary sources; Dante’s inferno, King James version of the bible, Swift’s Gulliver’s travels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to serve up an absolute classic.
In writing about the fetishism of commodity, he states:
A commodity is a mysterious thing, whose qualities are perceptible and imperceptible to the human senses. These commodities are rich in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties
The nations which are still dazzled by the sensuous glitter of precious metals, and are, therefore, still fetish-worshippers of metal money, are not yet fully developed money-nations. [Note the] contrast of France and England. The extent to which the solution of theoretical riddles is the task of practice, and is effected through practice, the extent to which true practice is the condition of a real and positive theory, is shown, for example, in fetishism. The sensuous consciousness of the fetish-worshipper is different from that of the Greek, because his sensuous existence is different. The abstract enmity between sense and spirit is necessary so long as the human feeling for nature, the human sense of nature, and, therefore, also the natural sense of man, are not yet produced by man’s own labour.
His creative writing skill was responsible for the Russian revolution, Mao’s victory in 1949, Fidel Castro, M-19 in Colombia, the Angolan winning against the American backed forces in the late 1980s.
We owe Karl Marx a profound debt of gratitude for conjuring up the words and narrative in understanding and seeing capitalism for what it truly is — a destructive system, which forever puts profits, ahead of people and everything else.
Thanks very much for reading.
- Mammon’s Kingdom by David Marquand
- Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty.
- Das Kapital by Karl Marx