A Flagon of Vinegar

7 August 2011


It has been on my mind for quite some time to respond to a comment. As I get very few comments I usually respond to them as quickly as I can, sometimes within hours, but there are times when I have to think about my response because the comment that was left on my post raised so many issues that they could not easily be sorted out in a few paragraphs. In other cases, the comment imposes a kind of burden, and the burden of responding appropriately sometimes leads me to put things off, perhaps for years.

Early in the history of this blog, I wrote a post (Marxism Lite) about Francis Wheen’s book, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. To my great surprise, this post came to the attention of Mr. Wheen, and he posted a comment to my post Historical Causality as follows:

I’m surprised to see that you think my book on Das Kapital “disingenuous”, and that you regard me as an uncritical Marxist sycophant. Can I suggest that you read it again, and that perhaps you should also look at my biography of Marx, published a few years ago by W W Norton? My reason for writing the biography, as I explained in the introduction, was that I wanted to rescue Marx from the idolaters as much as from the kneejerk excoriators. For too long he had been either an icon or a demon, and it seemed to me that the end of the Cold War (which supposedly also marked the moment when one needn’t bother reading him ever again) was a good time to dig him up from under the rubble of the Berlin Wall and assess him as one would any other brilliant but fallible Victorian thinker — neither god nor devil but someone who might still have some useful insights and critical methods. If you read my biography (and re-read the Das Kapital book) I think you’ll find to hard to substantiate your claim that I am uncritical. Even if you stick with that judgment, I do slightly resent the word “disingenuous”. Whether you agree with my assessment of Marx or not, it’s entirely sincere.

It has been on my mind for upwards of two years to respond to this. Now I have a good pretext to return to this, which is Mr. Wheen’s article in Saturday’s Financial Times, The hunting of the snark. This piece in the FT is, of all things, about bad reviews — hatchet jobs. I’m not sure if what I wrote constituted a “hatchet job,” nor whether it even rises to the level of the “pipsqueak” reviewer that Wheen dismisses in his FT piece. In fact, I would say that what I wrote was not a hatchet job, because I never think of anything I write here — whether congratulatory or critical — as being a “review,” though this could well be called a technicality. I did, it is true, say unkind things about Mr. Wheen’s book.

In his comment Mr. Wheen suggested that I return to his book about Das Kapital, suggesting that I had been a sloppy reader. As has become my custom with books that interest me, I spent a lot of time with Wheen’s book on Das Kapital. I listened through it five or six times as a book on CD, then I got the actual book from the library in order to review the most interesting parts, photocopying a few pages so I could mark them up and annotate them. I would be thrilled if someone read me this carefully, and I doubt that many others read this particular book by Wheen with a similar degree of care or attention.

First of all, I was wrong to call Mr. Wheen’s book disingenuous. My apologies on that. I should have chosen my words more carefully. What I should have said was simply that his book is dishonest. And when I say “dishonest” I mean this in a special sense. I do not mean that Mr. Wheen secretly believes one thing in his heart of hearts and said something different in his book for public consumption. What I mean is that the book is intellectually dishonest. The book is intellectually dishonest in its failure to deal squarely with the ways in which Marx’s theses as propounded in Das Kapital have been validated or disconfirmed by subsequent economics and history, and in his estimation of the critical reception (both for and against) of Marx’s ideas given exposition in Das Kapital.

I do not disagree with Mr. Wheen’s comment above that he sought to, “rescue Marx from the idolaters as much as from the kneejerk excoriators,” and I agree that Mr. Wheen has been a careful and critical reader of Marx. Wheen’s book is more balanced than much that has been written, especially (as he implies) during the Cold War, and in this sense Wheen certainly cannot be called an uncritical Marxist sycophant. Nevertheless… While I would not call Wheen uncritical, I would still say that he is not critical in the right way.

How is one to be critical in the right way? Well, one takes the bull by the horns. Nietzsche (as usual) put this in rather more sophisticated terms:

“To be one’s enemy’s equal — this is the first condition of an honorable duel. Where one despises one cannot wage war. When one commands, where one sees something beneath one, one ought not to wage war. My war tactics can be reduced to four principles: First, I attack only things that are triumphant — if necessary I wait until they become triumphant. Secondly, I attack only those things against which I find no allies, against which I stand alone — against which I compromise nobody but myself… Thirdly, I never make personal attacks — I use a personality merely as a magnifying-glass, by means of which I render a general, but elusive and scarcely noticeable evil, more apparent… Fourthly, I attack only those things from which all personal differences are excluded, in which any such thing as a background of disagreeable experiences is lacking.”

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Why I am so Wise”, §7

Of course, this Nietzschean catalog of criticism is not precisely applicable in all situations, and it isn’t precisely applicable to Wheen’s critique of Das Kapital — but if you get the general drift of what Nietzsche is saying, you’ll understand that he takes on his targets at their strongest point, so that the attack, if successful, is total and catastrophic. Anything less than this is criticism of a degree that is less than total, and less than fully intellectually honest.

There never was a better time to write a revisionary history of Marxist thought. With the Cold War behind us by twenty years, we are beginning, as a society, to approach a point at which our understanding of Marx need not be unduly distorted by looming ideological conflict. Marx can now be taken up objectively and criticized objectively — any background of disagreeable experiences is excluded, and in a way that it could not have been excluded at an earlier time in our history. But this is not the book that Wheen wrote on Marx’s Das Kapital. Wheen’s book is not uncritical, and it is not without value, but it does not have the value it might have had if Wheen had taken up Marx’s economic doctrines one by one and subjected them to the objective critique they deserve in the light of 150 years of economic thought that has elapsed since Marx’s time.

I should note that I find nothing at all exceptional, even less spectacular, about Francis Wheen’s intellectual dishonesty. It is, on the contrary, practised by some of the most eminent figures of our time. And it is for this reason that figures like Nietzsche can stand alone, and be confident that they will stand alone if they follow his principles.

Mr. Wheen also suggested that I look at his biography of Marx, Karl Marx: A Life. This I have done. I managed to find a used copy at Powell’s not long after receiving his comment (and for $5.00, presumably marked down due to the water damage, which doesn’t bother me at all). I haven’t read this book through, only skimmed it, but it strikes me as a very different effort than his work on Das Kapital. Wheen’s biography rightly focuses on Marx the man, who has understandably gotten lost among the ideologically inspired adulation and vituperation he has come in for. Wheen’s book on Das Kapital is, appropriately, about the book, its ideas, its reception, and is history, and while it is called “a biography” (presumably mutatis mutandis) it doesn’t stick all that close to the biographical model.

Now, a parallel treatment to Das Kapital the book, following the model of Marx the man, would chronicle the circumstances of its writing, of its printing, distribution, readers, reviewers, commentators… you get the idea. One could write a detailed biography of a book on these principles. While Wheen’s book on Das Kapital did not avoid these details, it did not immerse one in these details either. Of course, the biography of book must needs be distinct from the biography of a man, and having a talent for one does not necessarily mean that one has a talent for the other.

From what I’ve read so far of Wheen’s biography of Marx, I think it rather a good book, but of Wheen’s biography of Das Kapital, I think it could have been a much better book. Interestingly, I find myself somewhat isolated in this opinion: of the reviews on Amazon, Wheen’s biography of Marx has mixed reviews, while his book on Das Kapital has only enthusiastic reviews.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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