BOOK (1867)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am

Das Kapital

by Karl Marx

Amid the humbling of some of the world's most illustrious banks, the unravelling of the global financial system and a long, cold winter looming for countless millions still clinging to the vacuous promises of capitalism, Das Kapital's recent comeback on assorted German best-seller charts is not greatly surprising. It's also selling rather more briskly (in translation) in other credit-crunched parts of the capitalist world, with the grimly inevitable exception of Hong Kong.

This revived interest in one of the most influential books of all time has seen a surge in tourist numbers - over 40,000 thus far this year - to Karl Marx's birthplace in the rather dull German town of Trier. And it was here, in the wine-producing Mosel Valley, that Marx's ideas for Das Kapital first took shape. Incensed in his youth by the abject poverty and apparent powerlessness of Trier's un-unionised vineyard workers, he made the quest for a fairer society his life's work, and this yearning found its fullest expression in Das Kapital.

Marx penned this monumental work in London near the end of his life, in collaboration with his ideological comrade Friedrich Engels. And Das Kapital was the sensational follow-up to the two theorists' Communist Manifesto of 1848.

As a voluminous treatise on politics, economics and society, and a lucid expose of both the self-evident failure and in-built obsolescence of capitalism, Das Kapital makes for thought-provoking reading. But it does demand the reader's concentration, as its reputation for being opaque in places is well-earned.

The first volume of Das Kapital came out in 1867, and the second and third volumes - both tremendously anticipated - were released posthumously in 1885 and 1894. Nevertheless Das Kapital can be considered a single work, and with a clearly identifiable villain - the parasitic employer. It's stirring stuff, despite all the polemics.

Over the decades, it has been noted that Das Kapital is a book which, like Ulysses, Don Quixote, and A Brief History Of Time, tends to be more bought than read. But if you do make the effort to plough through this tome, you'll join a book club that includes - past and present - some of the most brilliant minds of the modern age, as well as some of its most despicable despots. You'll also be rewarded with a remarkably compelling case against market forces. Indeed, today Das Kapital seems more topical than subversive.

If, however, you don't have the patience or inclination to tackle such a hefty work, you'll have an opportunity to see the epic story of Das Kapital on the big screen in the not-too-distant future. Veteran German filmmaker Alexander Kluge has adapted the book for a forthcoming film of the same name. There's a lot of money in old school communism, it seems.