Bernard Shaw - 1887

Karl Marx and Das Kapital

Written: 1887
First Published: 1887
Source: National Reformer, August 7th 1887
Transcription: Steve Palmer
Markup:Steve Palmer
Copyleft: Internet Archive( 2009. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons License.

Twenty years ago, when this first instalment of Karl Marx's now famous work was published, arose the claim that Socialism, formerly a dream, had become a science. Thenceforth, Robert Owen, Sr. Simon, and Fourier were to be regarded as well-intentioned Utopists, and Lassalle as one who saved himself by plagiarizing Marx, whose book is revelation. Here is the authentic history of the past, and the sure prophecy of the future, of human society. Here is the first and last exhaustive analysis of the incidents of the ceaseless struggle of man with Nature for wealth, the all-inclusive synthesis of those incidents and consequently the completed science of Political Economy. Here, also, is the one infallible recipe for the Millennium. He that believeth is a true "scientific Socialist"; he that believeth not is a middle-class self-seeker, a bourgeois, an exploiter of labour, and most likely a police spy.

I may take itfor granted by the readers of the National Reformer that no person of reasonable self-respect would have anything to say to any author on these terms. The evident grudge entertained against Marx by many of his shrewdest English critics may be accounted for much more conclusively by their well-founded mistrust of popes, prophets, and messiahs of all denominations, than by a savage hatred of the working class not discernible elsewhere intheir writings, or by a ten pound note from Bismarck. On the other hand, the fact that such outrageous pretensions should be made on behalf of Marx, goes far to prove that he was an extraordinary man; for he himself was as innocent of the excesses of his devotees as an Indian idol of the self-torture of itsworshippers. Nor was there anything in his personal career to kindle the imagination or stir the blood. He was no orator; he fought no duels, rescued no distressed matrons, nor figured in any causes celebres; as a practical conspirator he seems to have been a failure; and there was nothing picturesque about his many years of research among the Blue Books at the British Museum reading-room. The wave of Socialism raised him on its crest, no doubt; but it raised him no higher than colleagues of his whose names are unknown. The charm of his conversation, admitted by those who knew him personally, would not alone account for his reputation, although it is true that his reputation must be measured by itsintensity as much as by its width. Thus we get to the famous Communist manifesto, and its huge amplification, "Das Kapital," as the material of his celebrity. When the last word has been said about the book, no more will be needed about the man.

That last word, however, is still a long way off, since the entire book is not yet published; the volumes now in question being only a fragment, and that, too, a fragment which leaves unexplained a difficulty apparently fatal to the whole Marxian theory. Mr. Frederick Engels not only admits this, but, in his preface to the second book (Hamburg, 1885, not yet translated), challenges those Rodbertian critics who declined to admit that Marx had revealed anything new, to reconcile the contradiction before he could anticipate them by issuing the third book, which is still in manuscript. This, without touching the credit of Marx, places those extreme Marxolaters who have not access to the unpublished manuscript in an acutely ridiculous position. They insist that the acceptance of "scientific Socialism" means nothing more or less than the acceptance of the Marxian synthesis. Yet they confessedly do not know what that synthesis is. They may be justified in their faith that Marx will not fail them in the third book; but in the meantime "scientific Socialism" means cashing a promissory note of Mr. Engels, dated "London, an Marx' Geburtstag, 5 Mai, 1885". The flavour of the situation is heightened by the circumstance that Socialism is not in the least repugnant to the principles of the bourgeois political economy, which affords a perfectly satisfactory and Socialistic solution of the alleged difficulty.

The term "bourgeois" has often provoked well deserved ridicule when used by Socialist members of our bourgeoisie as a question-begging epithet to fling at an opponent of Socialism. They have taken it from Marx; but they have not taken it as they found it. By a "bourgeois economist" Marx means, not necessarily an economist who is wrong as far as he goes, but one who assumes that Capitalism, based on Individualism (or the settlement of a country by the allotment of its natural resources as private property to individuals], is the final and only possible social order. To Marx, capitalism, with its wage-slavery, is only a passing phase of social development, following primitive communism, chattel slavery, and feudal serfdom into the past. He never loses consciousness of this movement; and herein lies one of the secrets of the novelty and fascination of his treatment. He wrote of the nineteenth century as if it were a cloud passing down the wind, changing its shape and fading as it goes; whilst Ricardo the stockbroker, and De Quincey the high Tory, sat comfortably down before it in their office and study chairs, as if it were the great wall of China, safe to last until theDay of Judgment with an occasional coat of whitewash. Further, he writes as one in whom "the notion of human equality has already acquired thefixity of a popular prejudice". From title page to tail piece there is not one moment of ruth, not one passage of apologetics, for the system of privileges upon which we are at present working. He knows that weighty arguments can be brought forward insupport of that system, just as weighty arguments can be brought forward in favour of flogging, duelling, and laws against blasphemy; but he only betrays consciousness of them by his unrelenting scorn for those who believe in their preponderance. In the class which sought to live at the expense of another class, and pretended to benefit it by doing so, he saw only thieves and hypocrites-vermin in the commonwealth, born in the estate of vermin through no fault of their own, but none the less to be unsparingly denounced and exposed with their apologists until such time as their expropriation might become feasible. This unsleeping sense of the transitory character of capitalism, and of the justice of equality, is the characteristic spirit of Marx, the absence of which so disgusts his pupils when they attempt to read the ordinary treatises, in spite of the facts that no economist of any eminence has ever defended things as they are, except from inability to conceive a rational alternative, and that De Quincey was the last economist of first-rate ability who was complacently bourgeois [for a ridiculous reason] in Marx's sense. John Stuart Mill's "Principles" are dislocated by convulsions of suppressed rebellion against the customary Whig-capitalistic application of them. Cairnes's tone was one of mournful remonstrance until 1874, when he broke our against the "unmitigated selfishness" of the "idle rich", and pleaded for co-operation sullenly, as a man who has not much hope of gaining serious attention. And now we have our Professor Sidgwick, sitting on the fence in his inimitablyplacid way, gently eluding the attempts of Free Traders, Protectionists, Socialists, and Individualists, to classify him in their sections, but still, on the whole, and quite impartially, of course, nearer to Marx than to Bastiat. The Positivist economists have at least decided that we have had enough of irresponsible private enterprise, and seem to lean towards a collegiate scheme which combines the weak points of feudalism and collectivism.

Mr. Ruskin prescribes moralized feudalism, but gives no details as to the moralizing process. Among them all, one catches repeated flashes of something like the Marxian spirit, hut never so like as to sustain a close comparison. The remarkable historical sense is wanting; and though the hatred of injustice is strong and uncompromising, the power of perceiving actual cases is so enfeebled by custom that only the most extreme instances are recognized.[1]

There is, perhaps, a feeble reflection of Marx's implacable contempt for the external aspect of capitalistic civilization in the petulant outcry against railways and machine-made goods, which may almost be described [and condemned] as fashionable; but its usual accompaniment is a proposal to escape by "restoring" medievalism on much the same lines as those adopted by the architects who "restore" our cathedrals. There is none of this futile retrogressiveness in Marx. He never condescends to cast a glance of useless longing at the past: his cry to the present is always "Pass by: we are waiting for the future". Nor is the future at all mysterious, uncertain, or dreadful to him. There is not a word of hope or fear, nor appeal to chance or providence, nor vain remonstrance with nature, nor optimism, nor enthusiasm, nor pessimism, nor cynicism, nor any other familiar sign of the giddiness which seizes men when they climb to heights which command a view of the past, present, and future of human society. Marx keeps his head like a God. He has discovered the law of social development, and knows what must come. The thread of history is in his hand. Obviously, such a man, applying himself to the production of a treatise on political economy, would, without necessarily introducing a single economic doctrine new to students of Mill, Cairnes, Marshall, Walker, and Sidgwick, yet make such an impression as these writers, with all their ability and scholarly conscientiousness, have never achieved. Compare Mr. William Morris after Oxford, or Mr. H. M. Hyndman after Cambridge, with the same gentlemen after Marx. In the first stage they are conscious of having been incommoded by a useless dose of "the dismal science". In the second they are crying out with a burning conviction that the old order is one of fraud and murder; that its basis is neither kingcraft nor priestcraft, but the divorce of the labourer from the material without which his labour is barren; and that it is changing and giving place to the new by an inexorable law of development. It is easy to shew that Mill and Cairnes and Sidgwick knew this and said it; but the fact is that the average pupil of Marx never forgets it, whilst the average pupil of Mill and the rest never learns it. But it must immediately be added, as a considerable set-off, that the average Marxite never understands rent, and confuses employers with capitalists and profits with interest in a way which the modest disciples ofGeneral Walker despise. For Marx, in this first book of his, treats of labour without reference to variations of skill between its parts; of raw material without reference to variations of fertility; and of the difference between the product of labour and the price [wage] of labour power, as "surplus value" without reference to its subdivision into rent, interest, and profits. This will explain to any student how it is that those who know nothing of economics except what they have learned from this Marxian fragment, and who innocently believe that it covers the whole subject, are repeatedly betrayed into taking up absurd positions in economic discussions. Also how some economists, too confident in their own skill to do more with any new treatise than dip into it here and there, have supposed that Marx himself was ignorant of the considerations he purposely omitted, and have dismissed him with a contemptuously adverse decision, which they will some day, possibly, be glad to forget.

Whatever may he the ultimate verdict as to Marx, it must he borne in mind that the extraordinary impression he makes does not depend on the soundness of his views, but on their magnificent scope and on his own imperturbable conviction of their validity. It is impossible to be sure that further historical research will confirm his interpretation of the past, or experience verify his anticipations; but whilst capitalism lasts he will still make his mark upon his readers, and, through them, on the world; for whether he was right or wrong, great synthetic philosopher or finder of mare's nests, he believed in his theory of society, and had the power of making others believe in it. You can no more get rid of such a man by a quip or two at his use of the word value, than you can of Mahomet by explaining that the dove which whispered to him really came to pick a pea out of his ear, or of Comte by burlesquing the ritual of the Religion of Humanity.

But it is one thing to give an extraordinary man his due, and quite another to encourage or acquiesce in the setting up of his book as a Holy Scripture. I shall therefore proceed, in a future article, to deal with the apparent mistakes of Marx, which promise to be almost as fruitful of controversy in the near future as the mistakes of Moses. I say apparent mistakes, because Mr. Engels has still the third book to play; and it may prove to be the ace of trumps.


[1] For example, an Irish lady driven into the workhouse by a No-Rent Manifesto, excites a degree of sympathy which it is impossible to arouse on behalf of the numbers of unfortunate working women who, worn out by a lifetime of drudgery, are constantly drifting helplessly into the workhouses in all parts of the kingdom.