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Is Karl Marx's 'Das Kapital' based on faulty reasoning?

Zhang Danhong
September 13, 2017

First published a century and a half ago, Karl Marx's work 'Das Kapital' is still read today. Its German author was the first economist to take on globalization, says Bernd Ziesemer in an interview with DW.

Karl Marx statue in Trier
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Wendt

DW: In 2012, the FAZ published a series of books which were meant to help ordinary readers understand some of the most important economists of the past. And of all people, you as a free-marketeer, took on Karl Marx. How did that happen?

Bernd Ziesemer: There are two reasons. In my youth I was not a market liberal, but a communist, and at that time I read Karl Marx with the ideological glasses of the left. Later I turned into a liberal and conservative, and always wanted to have another look at the books I had read in my youth. And that's what I did. At the time I told the publisher that I am probably one of the few people in Germany who have read the main works of Karl Marx twice.

Read more: Why a Marx monument is still controversial in Germany

In school in China, I learned that workers sell their labor to capitalists and receive a wage for it. The difference between the value that a worker has created and his wage is the surplus value. Capitalists try to keep wages as low as possible in order to maximize this surplus value. But one day this exploitation becomes so intolerable that workers rebel and capitalism is overthrown. Is this a rough outline of "Das Kapital"?

Bernd Ziesemer
Bernd Ziesemer, a market liberal and Karl Marx expertImage: M. Kess

Yes, you could say that, although "Das Kapital" is an incredibly far-reaching work. But the main thesis of "Das Kapital" is, in fact, that workers are exploited, that there is no way out, the only solution being a revolution. When Karl Marx wrote "Das Kapital," he had two aims: he wanted to disprove one of the core points of classical economic theory, and he wanted to create a theoretical foundation for the overthrow of capitalism.

Read more: Raoul Peck premieres his new film on Karl Marx

During his lifetime Marx had been expecting the collapse of capitalism. And he prophesied the victory of communism. Neither happened. What went wrong?

I think his whole theory is based on an error in reasoning. To him, work was the only source of value. But he overlooked the fact that capitalism does not function by exploiting workers, but through continual technical progress. At the core of his theory, he underestimated other sources of wealth, namely innovation, entrepreneurship and technical progress. Interestingly, there are passages in "Das Kapital" or in "The Communist Manifesto" where he talks about the global triumph of capitalism that will lead to the demise of all remnants of time-honored and feudal traditions. I therefore dared to argue that Karl Marx can be considered the first true theorist of globalization.

Karl Marx's "Das Kapital"
Marx wrote his famous book while living in great povertyImage: Imago

Would Karl Marx have been a better economist if he had not seen himself as a practicing revolutionary?

In reality he led three lives. For him the most important of these three lives was that of a revolutionary. He was an economist second, and a philosopher third. He worked on "Das Kapital" for more than 10 years. At some point he realized that he had lost his way and it would not be the big thing he thought it would be. One must not forget that "Das Kapital" was supposed to appear in three volumes, but only the first volume was published during his lifetime. Frederick Engels managed to compile the second volume based on Marx's preparatory work; the third volume is actually only a hodge-podge of incomplete thoughts. In this respect, there is, in fact, no finished economic work by Karl Marx.

Is it true that he did not even have the money for postage in order to send the first part of "Das Kapital" to his publisher?  

Yes, that's right. In letters to Engels he often wrote: The butcher is at the door and wants to be paid, and we don't have a single schilling in the house. And if you do not immediately send me money, then I will be sent to the debtors' prison. Even when he wrote "Das Kapital," he had very little money at his disposal. His economic situation only changed later, when Engels came into his inheritance and could ensure Marx a sort of pension. In the last years of his life, Marx was able to count on this relatively secure income, but before that there were these phases of bitter poverty.

What is capitalism?

He could not have known that 150 years after the publication of his "Kapital" he would still be revered in a distant country. His portrait still hangs in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. How do you assess his role in China?  

I believe that Chinese Marxism developed in large parts without real knowledge of the works of Karl Marx. In the early days of China's Communist Party, Marx did not play much of a role as far as I know. Some of his works were not even translated at this time. My impression is that the reverence of Karl Marx in China is real, but not based on deeply-rooted knowledge of his work.

Should today's economics students read "Das Kapital"? Is Karl Marx still relevant?

You don't have to read Karl Marx to be a good economist. Most of his theories have been made obsolete over time or were wrong from the beginning. But it is still worth reading Karl Marx because it is full of interesting thoughts. I would recommend that any economist or educated person read Marx. I am not sure whether it has to be "Das Kapital," since the first few chapters are very dry and boring. I would instead recommend that people read "The Communist Manifesto." It is very well written and belongs to the core of German literature.

Bernd Ziesemer was the editor-in-chief of the Handelsblatt business daily from 2002 until 2010. Today he is an author and columnist. His book "Karl Marx für jedermann" was published in German in 2012.