Marx’s text altered the course of history; even today, it finds readers. As Wheen (The Irresistible Con: The Bizarre Life of a Fraudulent Genius, 2005, etc.) notes, quoting a Wall Street banker, “There is a Nobel Prize out there for an economist who resurrects Marx and puts it into a coherent theory.”
Marx thought of himself as an artist, commenting, “Whatever shortcomings they may have, the advantage of my writings is that they are an artistic whole.” Perhaps, but Das Kapital was two decades in the making and unfinished at the time of Marx’s death, since Marx couldn’t bear to close a tangent. Thus he took time out, for instance, to learn Russian because he felt it “essential to study Russian land-owning relationships from primary sources.” It has been said that Marx was right about everything except communism. Wheen takes issue with those thinkers, such as the economist Paul Samuelson, who dismisses Marx entirely because the impoverishment of the proletariat didn’t work out quite as he said it would. Marx, Wheen argues, was in fact talking of the underclass, the “permanently unemployed, the sick, the ragged,” who turn out to be—well, impoverished. In spite of the “dialectical dalliances” of the master, Wheen notes that Marx’s notion that the wages of the worker will always decline relative to capital holds up nicely. Marx, who seems to have been rather proud of the obscurity and impenetrability of his text, was surprised to see that the first volume of Capital quickly sold through its print run in, of all places, Russia, while the French could never quite get a translation to Marx’s satisfaction and the Germans ignored him. For that matter, no English edition was available in his lifetime, which he attributed to the “peculiar gift of stolid blockheadedness” that was the English national character.
A welcome, brief study of the making of a not so necessarily massive tome.