The revolutionary impact of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in the twentieth century belies the fact that Marx was born 200 years ago into a comfortable bourgeois world – like Queen Victoria, he married into the German nobility – and had little experience of the working class. An invitation to Buckingham Palace to discuss matters of common concern, including the woes brought by industry, might have saved the world a lot of trouble. Certainly, Marx would have charmed the Queen, as he did practically everyone else, in private. Only in his intellectual life was he a ruthless revolutionary.
To Marx, workers are outcasts, discriminated against, exploited, deprived of their freedom, debased by forces beyond their control. His rage against capitalist predators is most bitter where the victims are young. In page after devastating page of Kapital, particularly in the chapter on “The Working Day”, he attacks child labour in England: in agriculture, in the millinery, lace, pottery, baking, blacksmithing and wallpaper trades; in dangerous and unhealthy factories, in the foul business of making matches, in the spinning mills, and in steel and iron, among others. Other countries, including Germany, the United States, France and Austria, are no better. Like a biblical prophet scourging those who hurt and exploit the defenceless widow and orphan, Marx condemns factory owners: cannibal-like, they devour the workers.
In his revulsion at the abysmal conditions of the poor, Marx was a man of his age. Das Kapital (the first volume of which was published in 1867) belongs to a literary era that encompasses Oliver Twist and Felix Holt, the Radical, bridging the two reform acts of 1832 and 1867, in which English fiction became a formidable instrument and reflection of unprecedented social, political and educational change. The authority of Kapital is based not on socialist theory but chiefly on British government reports (the “Blue Books” Marx read in the British Museum Reading Room) which called for, and led to, reform. Victorian writers and thinkers, including Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli, helped make a burning public issue of the urban evils brought by the Industrial Revolution; for as agricultural labour declined, the lives of the poor worsened, subject to alternating economic boom and uncertainty. Marx’s outrage at child labour was shared by his contemporaries, including Dickens, Victor Hugo and the young Émile Zola.
English writers and legislators generally shared Marx’s hatred of the Poor Law as an affront to human dignity, but they aimed for change within the existing system. Carlyle warned that if conditions did not improve, violent revolt was inevitable. Dickens’s writings simmer with outrage at the injustices suffered by the poor. Disraeli, in Sybil, attacked the “spirit of rapacious covetousness” in England, the split between “two nations”, the rich and the poor, ignorant of each other, inhabitants of different worlds, bred differently, fed with different food, governed by different laws under the same Queen. George Eliot, who as a child had witnessed one of the many riots by hungry workers whose livelihoods were threatened by industry, wrote in Felix Holt, which came out the year before Kapital, of the “blind outrages of this mad crowd”.
Major works published in the same decade as Das Kapital have a similar view of the poor, as victims of an injustice perpetrated by society. Growing public awareness of poverty as a cause of crime is reflected in a remarkable trio of novels: Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1865). In each of these, the criminality of the poor is symptomatic, not of a moral taint but of social injustice: for they can achieve respectability, if given a chance. Das Kapital, too, can be read as a crime novel: the factory is a crime scene, the victims are the workers; the hunt is on to catch the “criminals”, the capitalist exploiters.
Marx was well aware that England was taking unprecedented political measures to combat pauperism. But he was not interested in reform. In its underlying fanaticism, Das Kapital is unlike the “Condition of England” novels of his contemporaries. By uniting throughout the industrialized world, workers would bring about revolution and an end to mass poverty. Marx fully identifies with the poor, pouring fire and brimstone on the capitalist enemy. He articulates the rage of the poor in a way that no novelist of his time did, with great deceptive intellectual authority, as the revelation – which Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was in fact – of a universal scientific law. The threat to the prevailing order in Das Kapital is palpable.
Marx’s ideology blinded him to realities which Victorian fiction accepts. Novelists shared Marx’s passion for social justice, but their sympathy for the workers also at times extended to factory owners: Dickens, for example, in Hard Times (1854), Elizabeth Gaskell in North and South (1855) Charlotte Brontë in Shirley (1849), Hugo in Les Misérables and Zola in Germinal (1885). Marx stands out in his total refusal of compromise. In Kapital, he never describes a factory owner in a positive light, even though Friedrich Engels, a factory owner, was his best friend and collaborator. There is no embrace of capitalism and labour, as in the climactic scene of Gaskell’s Mary Barton, or softening of harsh, heartless, Fact-driven capitalist enterprise, as in Hard Times. In Marx’s theory, capitalism is an absolute evil. As Lazarus is superior to Dives in the Gospels, humanity, to Marx, is greater than money; capitalist greed shows “contempt of man”. The tenets of the law are therefore inscribed in stone: there is eternal enmity between capitalist exploiters and workers; capitalists are motivated mainly by greed and the exploitative urge; ergo, the workers must take over production and destroy their exploiters before they are worked to death.
Marx’s doctrine of scientific inevitability in social relations is a fiction in some ways more fantastic than anything dreamed up by the nineteenth-century novelists. But the wild passion that drives this idea is unmistakable. In imagery that recalls the opening diatribe in the Book of Isaiah, Marx describes capitalism as “soiled with mire from top to toe, and oozing blood from every pore”. Marx gives the full weight of literary authority to his condemnation of the evil of money, invoking Sophocles (“the curse of man, none greater!”), Shakespeare (“the common whore of mankind”) and many others – but not his contemporaries, not even Dickens. When Marx seeks to communicate the hell of employment into which the children of the poor were delivered by their starving parents in Victorian England, he, like Gaskell, looks to Dante; and like Gaskell too, the workers in his imagination are enslaved like the Israelites in Egypt: “Just as it was written upon the brow of the chosen people that they were Jehovah’s property, so does the division of labour brand the manufacturing worker as the property of capital”.
Perhaps the novel closest to Marx is Gaskell’s Mary Barton, set in Manchester around 1840 and published in 1848, the year of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, and of revolutions across Europe. It is the spirit of Das Kapital, though, that one scene in Mary Barton encapsulates: John Barton, an unemployed workman and Chartist leader, ravenous with hunger, his son dying at home of scarlet fever, stares at a shop-window display of edible luxuries, as the wife of his former employer emerges laden with purchases and disappears into her carriage: “we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows”. Many details in Mary Barton would fit in Kapital: the comfortable houses, warmth and good food, the luxuries and leisure and superfluities enjoyed by the rich, attended by their servants; the damp fetid cellars of the diseased and starving poor; the police on the side of the rich, and Christianity as “humbug”. In language close to that of Marx, Gaskell describes the rich abandoning the compassion enjoined by the Gospels and using economic “law” to persecute the poor with the relentlessness of the Furies in The Eumenides.
Marx’s emphasis on the alienation of labour in Das Kapital is anticipated by Gaskell. As a minister’s wife in Manchester visiting her parishioners, Gaskell (unlike Marx) had first-hand knowledge of factory labourers, exploited, malnourished, tormented by the exigencies of industrialism, little better than slaves. Their alienation and rage, she writes, were stoked by the feeling that legislators, magistrates, employers, even ministers of religion, were “their oppressors and enemies; and were in league for their prostration and enthralment”. Their desire for revenge follows naturally. Gaskell dispels any illusion that the workers and factory owners are fellow capitalists, sharing the risk: the power is all on one side; market fluctuations make life a lottery for the poor, and when a worker loses his job, he cannot feed his family or pay the rent; the owners risk capital; the workers risk lives. In times of depression, the rich stint on things for show; the poor cut back on essentials such as bread and milk.
It is mainly in the consequences of the workers’ wrath in Mary Barton that the ideological gulf between Gaskell and Marx becomes clear. There is horror, grief and sorrow as John Barton, a good man, is driven by his poverty and his son’s death – for which he holds his employer responsible – to take revenge by murdering his employer’s son. Barton, tormented by guilt, dies in his employer’s arms, “sadly put about to make great riches and great poverty square with Christ’s Gospel”. To Marx, by contrast, religion was an illusion, “the opium of the people”, and there could be no reconciliation; he rejoiced in the wrath of the working class as the revolutionary force needed to exterminate capitalism.
What were the origins of Marx’s passion for justice for the proletariat and his exterminatory fury towards capitalists? How did he come to immerse himself so completely in the world of the proletariat, with which he had little in common, attributing to them a Jehovah-like wrathfulness, and allowing their hoped-for revenge to rule his entire intellectual outlook? Why did he choose to depict life essentially from their point of view, given that his own life when he wrote Das Kapital was (thanks to Engels’s financial support) that of a bourgeois gentleman?
Marx’s motives are complex and hard to identify, for he did not want them to be known. In Isaiah Berlin’s view, Marx projected onto the persecuted, alienated workers his sense of alienation and persecution as a converted Jew. The feeling of being outcast appears in Marx’s early writings, before he turned to economics, when he had literary ambitions. He wrote the following lines as a student in Germany in the late 1830s:
. . . we are chained, shattered, empty, frightened,
Eternally chained to this marble block of Being,
Chained, eternally chained, eternally.
And the worlds drag us with them on their
Howling their songs of death, and we –
We are the apes of a cold God.
These lines might well reflect the psychology of a baptized German Jew in the early nineteenth century, when emancipation opened unimagined possibilities for European Jews, yet anti-Semitism persisted. Some – including Marx – were influenced by the conventional anti-Semitism to which they were exposed daily. Marx introduced into his writings the age-old association of Judaism with capitalism: Jews who wanted real emancipation, that is emancipation from Jewish capitalism, he wrote in “On the Jewish Question” immediately after his marriage in 1843, should abandon Judaism. Judaism was a social illness, a cancer which would be cured only by the rise of a socialist state.
The slur against Judaism survives in Das Kapital amid mountainous statistics on child labour in England, in which the culprits are Christian factory owners. Marx quotes from The Merchant of Venice, when the archetypal Jewish capitalist demands his pound of flesh:
But capital made answer [as Shylock does in court]: “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond.”. . . The factory owners claimed, and secured the delight, not only of making children of 8 toil without a break from 2 to 8.30 p.m., but also of making them go without food during this period. “. . . Ay, his breast; So says the bond.”
The largest concentration of Jews in Marx’s lifetime was in Eastern Europe, mostly in the Russian Pale of Settlement. They were not capitalist Shylocks exploiting the workers, but a persecuted, impoverished proletariat. For this reason many were eventually drawn to Zionism, for the nationalist solution it offered to anti-Semitism, or to socialism, which offered an international way out for Jews and baptized Jews who, like Marx himself, were converts to the “true” faith.
Many early Zionists learned from Marx not only a socialist ideology but also the notion that Marxism was a counterweight to anti-Semitism. In Palestine, most halutzim (pioneers) in the early years of the British Mandate were Russian Jews who often knew Russian literature better than the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. Their ideology, which found expression in the kibbutz, the collective farm, came less from Jewish texts than from revolutionary works such as Das Kapital. The relationship between proletarian Zionists and the Soviet Union was, according to the historian Anita Shapira, “a drama of unrequited love”. Ben Gurion declared in 1928: ‘The Russian Revolution is the force that fructified our work during the Second Aliyah and during the Third”. For decades after their arrival in Israel, many socialist Zionists saw the Soviet Union – the first country in history to ban anti-Semitism – as their second homeland, “the source of their moral and revolutionary legitimacy”; and as a model for building a just society based on Jewish labour in accordance with the precepts of the Second or Third International. Their favourite anthem was “The International” and Joseph Stalin was “the Sun of the Nations” (Shemesh ha-Amim). Many could not accept that a state built on Marxist principles could be anti-Semitic, and they played down or ignored news of the banning of Zionism and of Hebrew and Yiddish in the Soviet Union. There was even a time, in the mid-1920s, when Palestinian Zionists, disgusted with capitalistic British rule and the “bourgeois” aliyah from Poland, returned to Russia: most of them vanished in the purges.
Marx died long before his theories were put to the test and found wanting. In his age, an identification with the proletariat could be seen in its secular universalism as a rejection, not just of Judaism, but of all religion. The writer to whom Marx was probably closest, Heinrich Heine, followed a social and emotional trajectory similar to that of Marx, as a Jew who converted to gain his “entrance ticket” to European Kultur, then found his way blocked because he was still regarded as a Jew. In a single poem of Heine, “The Silesian Weavers” (1840), which Marx knew well, is distilled the spirit and argument of Das Kapital, with its empathy for the suffering working class and its threefold curse against a useless God, the heartless “king of the rich”, and Germany herself, false, corrupt and shamed: “Altdeutschen, wir weben dein Leichentuch” (Old Germany, we are weaving your shroud).
Yet, as the career of Disraeli showed, anti-Semitic discrimination could be overcome or bypassed; and frustration, self-hate and revolutionary wrath were not inevitable among converted Jews. Though Disraeli and Marx evidently shared the notion that Christianity is the sublime form of Judaism, Disraeli, in his passionate pride in his Jewish origins – including his Zionist sympathies, his conviction of Jewish aristocratic superiority, his British patriotism – was the diametric opposite of Marx.
Marx’s tormented, vengeful vision of outcast man owed much to the spirit of his age, the widespread shock at the harm done by industrial capitalism to the working class, and the literary and legislative spirit of reform in Victorian England. The force of Das Kapital in its depiction of an alienated class comes partly from Marx’s own sense of alienation – from his past, from the religion into which he was born and that to which he was converted, from the society in which he lived, even from the literary world around him, with which he had much in common but which, in his lifetime, never acknowledged him. His struggle for social justice, admirable though it was in itself, was driven by personal conflict and torment, for he sought to detach prophetic fervour and moral ideology from Judaism and, at times even adopting the stance of an anti-Semite, to infuse socialism with this fervid morality. In his universalist vision, Marx in Das Kapital embodied many of the conflicts, hopes and delusions of emancipated European Jewry as their traditional world collapsed after 1789. Yet his rage against injustice and inequality transcends his age and continues, for good or bad, in much of the world, to alarm and to inspire political action.
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