Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Das Kapital: One of the greatest books of all time

Thanks to Mad Jenny’s recent post, "Globe and Mail's 50 Greatest Books" has grabbed my attention. What defines a great book? The Globe and Mail's view is that "a book is not simply a searchable database, and a great book is adjudged a great book over time by virtue of offering things — astonishing ideas, unforgettable characters, imaginative sublimity, glorious prose — that cannot be got elsewhere, and that tell us something new about the human (or other) condition." So far two economists have made the list of the 50 best: Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx's Das Kapital. I covered selected readings from these works when I was at the University of King's College (the latter as part of a special lecture series entitled "The Future of Marxism"). With respect to Smith, his contribution needs no introduction. The G&M article on it is interesting and worth a read. I think it correctly points to Smith's genius and often misunderstood concept of the "invisible hand" - Smith did not think markets alone would solve the all world's problems (more on Smith in a future posting).

What stirred me to blog about this today? Mad Jenny asked why Das Kapital has made G&M 50 greatest books of all time list. Why? Here is my letter to my dear friend:

Dear Mad Jenny,

In response to your question regarding the worthiness of Das Kapital on the G&M top 50 list, I have the following thoughts. Given the terms set-out by the G&M, Das Kapital is easily in the top 50 because, simply put, it offers a unique perspective into the human condition. Das Kapital marks the beginning of a new order in political approach and moral thought about how our economic system affects (if not solely responsible for – according to Marx-) our human condition. Marx believed that it was the capitalist system is responsible for greed, and huge and ever growing inequality in wealth he observed in the world. As you know, this kind of critic can only be found in Marx and it is still contributing today. In addition to his obvious contributions to sociology and modern philosophy, Marx was, in one way, one of the first modern economist. How so? Marx spent many years reading and analyzing government blue books to understand the economy; which is something now thousands of economists do everyday.

In my view, many are quick to point-out that Marx's failures - he did not predict the rise of the middle class and the welfare state - but no one else did either. And, after people cite line and verse from Marx's more famous works (for example, "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need"), they quickly discount his contribution to economics and his influence on our own thoughts about society and morality. In addition, he, next to Hayek and Keynes (both should make the list), had great influence on how societies were run in the 20th century and they were instrumental in shaping world history.

I am not a Marxist, nor do I confess to be an expert on his works. But, Marx's best and only completed work in his life time, Das Kapital, is one of the greatest books of all time because of its analysis of the human condition and its influence on world history.

I know this was somewhat generalized and vague, but I hope you are convinced.

Canadian Economist


MadJenny said...

My Dear Canadian Economist,

Thank you so much for this insightful post! I must clarrify that I was not questioning the inclusion of a book by Marx, but querying how one book of his would have been chosen over another. Being no Marxian scholar myself, and having read only snippets, I just couldn't say why that particular book.
You have made me a Das Kapital convert! Perhaps I shall attempt to read it. As an economics know-nothing, it would likely be good for me. I'm still kicking myself that I didn't take that lecture series. I went to a couple of the lectures and they were super interesting, I bet the tutorials would have been really enlightening.

Thank you for sharing your mad teacher skills with me!

From the proud recipient of her first ever open letter,
Mad Jenny!

Canadian Economist said...

Thank you for your reply. Your comment adds great value to this posting!

Perhaps I could just add that, at least in my limited understanding, I have always regarded Das Kapital as Marx's foundation. His other works use this economic base as launch pad to explain how the economic system drives the human condition. Interestingly, it is not well known - perhaps because it was Engels that influenced the other works to make them more readable. I would recommend having a look at the Marx and Engels Reader availible at the Mississauga Public Library (2 copies in library, 2 available).