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.
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