Book Review — ‘Marx’s Inferno’: The Political Theory Of Capital



Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital

Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2017. 304pp.

By Seth Ledwith
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books (12/5/17)

This year’s 150th anniversary of the publication of Volume One of Marx’s Capital has created renewed interest in that unrivalled magnum opus of radical political economy. The undimmed relevance of the book has only been enhanced by recent economic and political developments in this decade of the 21st century. 2017 also marks the tenth anniversary of the onset of the great recession that continues to act as a drag-weight on the Western capitalist economies. The transparent failure of bourgeois economists to anticipate or avert the 2007-08 crash has led millions to turn to rejuvenated leftist politicians, such as Corbyn in the UK, Sanders in the US, and Melenchon in France, for radical alternatives.

One of the most stimulating contributions to the renewal of its revolutionary project, 150 years on.

None of the movements built around these personalities have embraced Marxist economic theory in an unambiguous manner; yet the rhetoric of ‘For the many, not the few’ and ‘We Are the 99%’ that figures prominently in their campaign rallies demonstrates that a populist version of the foundational critique of capitalism permeates the grassroots of these and other manifestations of the electoral revival of the left. The defining challenge for Marxists in this milieu is surely to locate means of propagating an understanding of the comprehensive critique of capitalism contained in Marx’s 150-year old text, so that it penetrates the fertile ground that now clearly exists. William Clare Roberts, author of Marx’s Inferno, shares this goal: ‘Marx’s Capital must be recovered as a work of political theory, written in a specific political context, but seeking also to say something of lasting importance about the challenges to – and possibilities for – freedom in the modern world’ (1).

Then and now

Roberts’ invigorating and provocative analysis of Volume One takes as its starting point a reminder that Marx himself confronted the same challenge in his own lifetime. The radical left at the mid-point of the 19th Century was dominated by diverse brands of utopian socialism offered by, among others, Owen, Fourier and Saint-Simon. Also overshadowing the ideas of Marx for a significant period of time was the Proudhonian strategy of turning one’s back on the accelerating impact of mass production and looking to artisanal and small producer models as the route to socialism. Roberts elegantly and innovatively argues that Marx adopted the model of Dante’s journey through Hell in the celebrated Inferno section of his The Divine Comedy as a paradigm for revealing the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production and for demonstrating, contra the aforementioned thinkers, that the capitalist economic system had created a platform for socialism.

According to this account, the exegesis in Capital leads the proletarian reader through the subterranean levels of an economic system that has been misread by Marx’s political rivals on the left. Dante’s classic, Roberts argues, was widely known in contemporary socialist circles and would have made a comprehensible template for Marx’s target audience of educated workers: ‘Casting the proletariat as the pilgrim, he took upon himself the role of Virgil, guiding the revolutionary class through the evils of the modern world in such a way as to reveal capital itself as the guilty party, the sinner trapped in a Hell of its own making, incapable of salvation’ (23).

Roberts provides helpful diagrammatic evidence of the structural parallels between the two works …

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