The poet of dialectics - Francis Wheen

Karl Marx's Das Kapital is a ground-breaking work of economic analysis. But, argues Francis Wheen, it is also an unfinished literary masterpiece which, with its multi-layered structure, can be read as a Gothic novel, a Victorian melodrama, a Greek tragedy or a Swiftian satire

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on February 22, 2016

In February 1867, shortly before delivering the first volume of Das Kapital to the printers, Karl Marx urged Friedrich Engels to read The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac. The story was itself a little masterpiece, he said, "full of the most delightful irony". We don't know whether Engels heeded the advice. If he did, he would certainly have spotted the irony but might have been surprised that his old friend could take any delight in it. The Unknown Masterpiece is the tale of Frenhofer, a great painter who spends 10 years working and reworking a portrait which will revolutionise art by providing "the most complete representation of reality". When at last his fellow artists Poussin and Porbus are allowed to inspect the finished canvas, they are horrified to see a blizzard of random forms and colours piled one upon another in confusion. "Ah!" Frenhofer cries, misinterpreting their wide-eyed amazement. "You did not anticipate such perfection!" But then he overhears Poussin telling Porbus that eventually Frenhofer must discover the truth - the portrait has been overpainted so many times that nothing remains.

"Nothing on my canvas!" exclaimed Frenhofer, glancing alternately at the two painters and his picture.

"What have you done?" said Porbus in an undertone to Poussin.

The old man seized the young man's arm roughly, and said to him: "You see nothing there, clown! varlet! miscreant! hound! Why, what brought you here, then? - My good Porbus," he continued, turning to the older painter, "can it be that you, you too, are mocking at me? Answer me! I am your friend; tell me, have I spoiled my picture?"

Porbus hesitated, he dared not speak; but the anxiety depicted on the old man's white face was so heart-rending that he pointed to the canvas saying: "Look!"

Frenhofer gazed at his picture for a moment and staggered.

"Nothing! Nothing! And I have worked ten years!"

He fell upon a chair and wept.

After banishing the two men from his studio, Frenhofer burns all his paintings and kills himself.

According to Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue, Balzac's tale "made a great impression on him because it was in part a description of his own feelings". Marx had toiled for many years on his own unseen masterpiece, and throughout this long gestation his customary reply to those who asked for a glimpse of the work-in-progress was identical to that of Frenhofer: "No, no! I have still to put some finishing touches to it. Yesterday, towards evening, I thought that it was done . . . This morning, by daylight, I realised my error."

As early as 1846, when the book was already overdue, Marx wrote to his German publisher: "I shall not have it published without revising it yet again, both as regards matter and style. It goes without saying that a writer who works continuously cannot, at the end of six months, publish word for word what he wrote six months earlier." Twelve years later, still no nearer completion, he explained that "the thing is proceeding very slowly because no sooner does one set about finally disposing of subjects to which one has devoted years of study than they start revealing new aspects and demand to be thought out further". An obsessive perfectionist, he was forever seeking out new hues for his palette - studying mathematics, learning about the movement of celestial spheres, teaching himself Russian so he could read books on the country's land system.

Or, to quote Frenhofer again: "Alas! I thought for a moment that my work was finished; but I have certainly gone wrong in some details, and my mind will not be at rest until I have cleared away my doubts. I have decided to travel, and visit Turkey, Greece and Asia in search of models, in order to compare my picture with Nature in different forms."

Why did Marx recall Balzac's tale at the very moment when he was preparing to unveil his greatest work to public scrutiny? Did he fear that he too might have laboured in vain, that his "complete representation of reality" would prove unintelligible? He certainly had some such apprehensions - Marx's character was a curious hybrid of ferocious self-confidence and anguished self-doubt - and he tried to forestall criticism by warning in the preface that "I assume, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself." But what ought to strike us most forcibly about his identification with the creator of the unknown masterpiece is that Frenhofer is an artist - not a political economist, nor yet a philosopher or historian or polemicist.

The most "delightful irony" of all in The Unknown Masterpiece, noted by the American writer Marshall Berman, is that Balzac's account of the picture is a perfect description of a 20th-century abstract painting - and the fact that he couldn't have known this deepens the resonance. "The point is that where one age sees only chaos and incoherence, a later or more modern age may discover meaning and beauty," Berman wrote. "Thus the very open-endedness of Marx's later work can make contact with our time in ways that more 'finished' 19th-century work cannot: Das Kapital reaches beyond the well-made works of Marx's century into the discontinuous modernism of our own."

Like Frenhofer, Marx was a modernist avant la lettre. His famous account of dislocation in the Communist Manifesto - "all that is solid melts into air" - prefigures the hollow men and the unreal city depicted by TS Eliot, or Yeats's "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". By the time he wrote Das Kapital, he was pushing out beyond conventional prose into radical literary collage - juxtaposing voices and quotations from mythology and literature, from factory inspectors' reports and fairy tales, in the manner of Ezra Pound's Cantos or Eliot's The Waste Land. Das Kapital is as discordant as Schoenberg, as nightmarish as Kafka.

Marx saw himself as a creative artist, a poet of dialectic. "Now, regarding my work, I will tell you the plain truth about it," he wrote to Engels in July 1865. "Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole." It was to poets and novelists, far more than to philosophers or political essayists, that he looked for insights into people's material motives and interests: in a letter of December 1868 he copied out a passage from another work by Balzac, The Village Priest, and asked if Engels could confirm the picture from his own knowledge of practical economics. Had he wished to write a conventional economic treatise he would have done so, but his ambition was far more audacious. Berman describes the author of Das Kapital as "one of the great tormented giants of the 19th century - alongside Beethoven, Goya, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Van Gogh - who drive us crazy, as they drove themselves, but whose agony generated so much of the spiritual capital on which we still live".

Yet how many people would think of including Marx in a list of great writers and artists? Even in our postmodern era, the fractured narrative and radical discontinuity of Das Kapital are mistaken by many readers for formlessness and incomprehensibility. Anyone willing to grapple with Beethoven, Goya or Tolstoy should be able to "learn something new" from a reading of Das Kapital - not least because its subject still governs our lives. As Berman asks: how can Das Kapital end while capital lives on? It is fitting that Marx never finished his masterpiece. The first volume was the only one to appear in his lifetime, and the subsequent volumes were assembled by others after his death, based on notes and drafts found in his study. Marx's work is as open-ended - and thus as resilient - as the capitalist system itself.

Although Das Kapital is usually categorised as a work of economics, Marx turned to the study of political economy only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature. It is these intellectual foundations that underpin the project, and it is his personal experience of alienation that gives such intensity to the analysis of an economic system which estranges people from one another and from the world they inhabit - a world in which humans are enslaved by the monstrous power of capital and commodities.

Marx was an outsider from the moment of his birth, on May 5 1818 - a Jewish boy in a predominantly Catholic city, Trier, within a Prussian state whose official religion was evangelical Protestantism. Although the Rhineland had been annexed by France during the Napoleonic wars, three years before his birth it was reincorporated into Imperial Prussia and the Jews of Trier became subject to an edict banning them from practising in the professions: Karl's father, Heinrich Marx, had to convert to Lutheranism in order to work as an attorney. His father encouraged Karl to read voraciously. The boy's other intellectual mentor was Heinrich's friend Baron Ludwig von Westphalen, a cultured and liberal government official who introduced Karl to poetry and music (and to his daughter Jenny, the future Mrs Karl Marx). On long walks together the Baron would recite passages from Homer and Shakespeare, which his young companion learned by heart - and later used as the essential seasonings in his own writings.

In adult life Marx re-enacted those happy hikes with von Westphalen by declaiming scenes from Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe while leading his own family up to Hampstead Heath for Sunday picnics. There was a quotation for every occasion: to flatten a political enemy, enliven a dry text, heighten a joke, authenticate an emotion - or breathe life into an inanimate abstraction, as when capital itself speaks in the voice of Shylock (in volume one of Das Kapital) to justify the exploitation of child labour in factories:

Workmen and factory inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered:

My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,

The penalty and forfeit of my bond.

To prove that money is a radical leveller, Marx quotes a speech from Timon of Athens on money as the "common whore of mankind", followed by another from Sophocles's Antigone ("Money! Money's the curse of man, none greater! / That's what wrecks cities, banishes men from home, / Tempts and deludes the most well-meaning soul, / Pointing out the way to infamy and shame . . ."). Economists with anachronistic models and categories are likened to Don Quixote, who "paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight-errantry was equally compatible with all economic forms of society".

Marx's earliest ambitions were literary. As a law student at the University of Berlin he wrote a book of poetry, a verse drama and even a novel, Scorpion and Felix, influenced by Laurence Sterne's wildly digressive novel Tristram Shandy. After these experiments, he admitted defeat:

Suddenly, as if by a magic touch - oh, the touch was at first a shattering blow - I caught sight of the distant realm of true poetry like a distant fairy palace, and all my creations crumbled into nothing . . . A curtain had fallen, my holy of holies was rent asunder, and new gods had to be installed.

Suffering some kind of breakdown, he was ordered by his doctor to retreat to the countryside for a long rest - whereupon he at last succumbed to the siren voice of GWF Hegel, the recently deceased professor of philosophy at Berlin, whose legacy was the subject of intense dispute among fellow students and lecturers. At university, Marx "adopted the habit of making extracts from all the books I read" - a habit he never lost. A reading list from this period shows the precocious scope of his intellectual explorations. While writing a paper on the philosophy of law he made a detailed study of Winckelmann's History of Art, started to teach himself English and Italian, translated Tacitus's Germania and Aristotle's Rhetoric, read Francis Bacon and "spent a good deal of time on Reimarus, to whose book on the artistic instincts of animals I applied my mind with delight". This is the same eclectic, omnivorous and often tangential style of research which gave Das Kapital its extraordinary breadth of reference.

As a student Marx was infatuated by Tristram Shandy, and 30 years later he found a subject which allowed him to mimic the loose and disjointed style pioneered by Sterne. Like Tristram Shandy, Das Kapital is full of paradoxes and hypotheses, abstruse explanations and whimsical tomfoolery, fractured narratives and curious oddities. How else could he do justice to the mysterious and often topsy-turvy logic of capitalism?

"What does it matter to you what people whisper here?' Virgil asks Dante in Canto 5 of the Purgatorio. "Follow me and let the people talk." Lacking a Virgil to guide him, Marx amends the line in his preface for the first volume of Das Kapital to warn that he will make no concession to the prejudices of others: "Now, as ever, my maxim is that of the great Florentine: Segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti [Go your own way, and let the people talk]." From the outset, then, the book is conceived as a descent towards the nether regions, and even in the midst of complex theoretical abstractions he conveys a vivid sense of place and motion:

Let us, therefore, leave this noisy region of the market, where all that goes on is done in full view of everyone's eyes, where everything seems open and above board. We will follow the owner of the money and the owner of labour-power into the hidden foci of production, crossing the threshold of the portal above which is written, "No admittance except on business". Here we shall discover, not only how capital produces, but also how it is itself produced. We shall at last discover the secret of making surplus value.

The literary antecedents for such a journey are often recalled as he proceeds on his way. Describing English match factories, where half the workers are juveniles (some as young as six) and conditions are so appalling that "only the most miserable part of the working class, half-starved widows and so forth, deliver up their children to it", he writes:

With a working day ranging from 12 to 14 or 15 hours, night labour, irregular meal-times, and meals mostly taken in the workrooms themselves, pestilent with phosphorus, Dante would have found the worst horrors in his Inferno surpassed in this industry.

Other imagined hells provide further embellishment for his picture of empirical reality:

From the motley crowd of workers of all callings, ages and sexes, who throng around us more urgently than did the souls of the slain around Ulysses, on whom we see at a glance the signs of overwork, without referring to the Blue Books under their arms, let us select two more figures, whose striking contrast proves that all men are alike in the face of capital - a milliner and a blacksmith.

This is the cue for a story about Mary Anne Walkley, a 20-year-old who died "from simple overwork" after labouring for more than 26 hours making millinery for the guests at a ball given by the Princess of Wales in 1863. Her employer ("a lady with the pleasant name of Elise", as Marx notes caustically) was dismayed to find that she had died without finishing the bit of finery she was stitching. There is a Dickensian texture to much of Das Kapital, and Marx gives the occasional explicit nod to an author he loved. Here, for example, is how he swats bourgeois apologists who claim that his criticisms of particular applications of technology reveal him as an enemy of social progress who doesn't want machinery to be used at all:

This is exactly the reasoning of Bill Sikes, the celebrated cutthroat. "Gentlemen of the jury, no doubt the throat of this commercial traveller has been cut. But that is not my fault, it is the fault of the knife. Must we, for such a temporary inconvenience, abolish the use of the knife? Only consider! Where would agriculture and trade be without the knife? Is it not as salutary in surgery as it is skilled in anatomy? And a willing assistant at the festive table? If you abolish the knife - you hurl us back into the depths of barbarism."

Bill Sikes makes no such speech in Oliver Twist: this is Marx's satirical extrapolation. "They are my slaves," he would sometimes say, gesturing at the books on his shelves, "and they must serve me as I will." The task of this unpaid workforce was to provide raw materials which could be shaped for his own purposes. "His conversation does not run in one groove, but is as varied as are the volumes upon his library shelves," wrote an interviewer from the Chicago Tribune who visited Marx in 1878. In 1976 SS Prawer wrote a 450-page book devoted to Marx's literary references. The first volume of Das Kapital yielded quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare, Goethe, Milton, Voltaire, Homer, Balzac, Dante, Schiller, Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Xenophon, Defoe, Cervantes, Dryden, Heine, Virgil, Juvenal, Horace, Thomas More, Samuel Butler - as well as allusions to horror tales, English romantic novels, popular ballads, songs and jingles, melodrama and farce, myths and proverbs.

What of Das Kapital's own literary status? Marx knew it could not be won second-hand, by the mere display of other men's flowers. In volume one he scorns those economists who "conceal under a parade of literary-historical erudition, or by an admixture of extraneous material, their feeling of scientific impotence and the eerie consciousness of having to teach others what they themselves felt to be a truly strange subject". A fear that he could himself have committed this offence may explain the anguished admission, in the afterword to its second edition, that "no one can feel the literary shortcomings of Das Kapital more strongly than I". Even so, it is surprising that so few people have even considered the book as literature. Das Kapital has spawned countless texts analysing Marx's labour theory of value or his law of the declining rate of profit, but only a handful of critics have given serious attention to Marx's own declared ambition - in several letters to Engels - to produce a work of art.

One deterrent, perhaps, is that the multilayered structure of Das Kapital evades easy categorisation. The book can be read as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created ("Capital which comes into the world soiled with gore from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore"); or as a Victorian melodrama; or as a black farce (in debunking the "phantom-like objectivity" of the commodity to expose the difference between heroic appearance and inglorious reality, Marx is using one of the classic methods of comedy, stripping off the gallant knight's armour to reveal a tubby little man in his underpants); or as a Greek tragedy ("Like Oedipus, the actors in Marx's recounting of human history are in the grip of an inexorable necessity which unfolds itself no matter what they do," C. Frankel writes in Marx and Contemporary Scientific Thought). Or perhaps it is a satirical utopia like the land of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels, where every prospect pleases and only man is vile: in Marx's version of capitalist society, as in Jonathan Swift's equine pseudo-paradise, the false Eden is created by reducing ordinary humans to the status of impotent, alienated Yahoos.

To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx's text is saturated with irony - an irony which has yet escaped most scholars for the past 140 years. One exception is the American critic Edmund Wilson, who argued in To The Finland Station: a study in the writing and acting of history (1940) that the value of Marx's abstractions - the dance of commodities, the zany cross-stitch of value - is primarily an ironic one, juxtaposed as they are with grim, well-documented scenes of the misery and filth which capitalist laws create in practice. Wilson regarded Das Kapital as a parody of classical economics. No one, he thought, had ever had so deadly a psychological insight into the infinite capacity of human nature for remaining oblivious or indifferent to the pains we inflict on others when we have a chance to get something out of them for ourselves. "In dealing with this theme, Karl Marx became one of the great masters of satire. Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and has a good deal in common with him."

What, then, is the connection between Marx's ironic literary discourse and his "metaphysical" account of bourgeois society? Had he wished to produce a straightforward text of classical economics he could have done so - and in fact he did. Two lectures delivered in June 1865, later published as Value, Price and Profit, give a concise and lucid précis of his theories about commodities and labour:

A man who produces an article for his own immediate use, to consume it himself, creates a product but not a commodity . . . A commodity has a value, because it is a crystallization of social labour . . . Price, taken by itself, is nothing but the monetary expression of value . . . What the working man sells is not directly his labour, but his labouring power, the temporary disposal of which he makes over to the capitalist . . .

And so on.

Whatever its merits as an economic analysis, this can be understood by any intelligent child: no elaborate metaphors or metaphysics, no puzzling digressions or philosophical excursions, no literary flourishes. So why is Das Kapital, which covers the same ground, so utterly different in style? Did Marx suddenly lose the gift of plain speaking? Manifestly not: at the time he gave these lectures he was also completing the first volume of Das Kapital. A clue can be found in one of the very few analogies he permitted himself in Value, Price and Profit, when explaining his belief that profits arise from selling commodities at their "real" value and not, as one might suppose, from adding a surcharge. "This seems paradox and contrary to everyday observation," he writes. "It is also paradox that the earth moves round the sun, and that water consists of two highly inflammable gases. Scientific truth is always paradox, if judged by everyday experience, which catches only the delusive nature of things."

The function of metaphor is to make us look at something anew by transferring its qualities to something else, turning the familiar into the alien or vice versa. Ludovico Silva, a Venezuelan critic of Marx, has drawn on the etymological meaning of "metaphor" as a transfer to argue that capitalism itself is a metaphor, an alienating process which displaces life from subject to object, from use-value to exchange-value, from the human to the monstrous. In this reading, the literary style Marx adopted in Das Kapital is not a colourful veneer applied to an otherwise forbidding slab of economic exposition, like jam on thick toast; it is the only appropriate language in which to express "the delusive nature of things", an ontological enterprise which cannot be confined within the borders and conventions of an existing genre such as political economy, anthropological science or history. In short, Das Kapital is entirely sui generis. There has been nothing remotely like it before or since - which is probably why it has been so consistently neglected or misconstrued. Marx was indeed one of the great tormented giants.