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Das Kapital at 150

Is Marx still worth reading?

München, 09/14/2017

What can we learn from Marx’s most celebrated work? We asked LMU researchers in diverse disciplines for their views on the contemporary relevance of Karl Marx’s classic analysis of capitalism.

Foto: picture alliance / Romain Fellens

The first volume of Marx’s Das Kapital appeared 150 years ago this year. It is regarded as one of the most significant books of all the books published during the 19th century, and is listed on UNESCO’s World Documentary Heritage list, “Memory of the World”. But how relevant is it to our contemporary concerns? Does its analysis of capitalism still hold up? We put these questions to LMU professors in diverse disciplines.

lessenich_stephan260Still indispensable – after 150 years

Stephan Lessenich, Professor of Sociology with a focus on Social Developments and Structures:

“For sociologists Das Kapital and its author Karl Marx both retain their status as undisputed classics – and that holds for German sociologists as well, in spite of the fact that academic Marxism is now virtually nonexistent here. The elevated status in sociology of both the book and its author may result from the fact that sociologists know them from detailed study, not from hearsay i.e., in the popular versions promulgated by dreadful simplifiers. Anyone who wishes to understand the dynamics and the contradictions of our contemporary society has to read Marx and Das Kapital. Marx laid bare, in an inimitable fashion, what binds society together and what threatens to bring it crashing down – the logic of capitalism, which creates scarcely imaginable levels of commercial value at the expense of basic social values. Marx does not moralize, he analyzes. He does not condemn the capitalist. Instead, he dissects the structural constraints inherent in the dominance of capital. His book is not an apocalyptic account of the last days of capitalism. It describes the action of forces that regularly plunge the system into crisis while at the same time enabling it to embark on a new cycle of development. Marx unsparingly demonstrates who profits from capitalism – and who pays the price. Obviously, we can still benefit from these insights today, not just academically but also politically. There are not too many sociological publications of which that can be said, more so after a century and a half! There can be no doubt: Das Kapital is a modern classic.”

geyer_260_2_webContinues to inspire critical debates

Martin H. Geyer, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History:

Das Kapital is one of those unreadable and unread books that interest me as a historian because it opens one of those debates that is crucial for an understanding of the 20th century and for the world we now live in. Karl Marx continues to inspire critical debates on exploitation, inequality and class structures, on the consumer society, globalization and social mobility. He succeeded like no other author in instigating critical thinking about the revolutionary dynamics of modern industrial capitalism, which was already transforming the whole fabric of society in his day, destroying the established economic and social order and its values. With an eye to his contemporary acolytes in France, he denied that he himself was a ‘Marxist’. Nevertheless, the adoption and adaptation of his ideas became the driving force behind the development of models ranging from social forms of capitalism to murderous utopias. Among the latter was, of course, Maoism in China, and its more recent metamorphosis into a model of authoritarian capitalism will no doubt occupy us for at least as long as the current transformations of the allegedly imperturbable structures of our own society.“

sunde_uwe260Remains relevant

Uwe Sunde, Professor of Population Economics at the Faculty of Economics:

“Most mainstream economists have their problems with Marx, in particular with respect to certain aspects of his methodology, his use of evidence and his approach to the work of his predecessors. In this area, much – if not most – of what he had to say is now viewed as obsolete or disproven. As a result, his work actually has less of an impact on contemporary economics than on other disciplines, such as philosophy, history, social and political science.

In a wider sense, however, Das Kapital remains influential and continues to play – at least indirectly – a role in debates over economic issues. Indeed it now plays a more prominent part than it did in the recent past. This is clearly reflected, for instance, in the title of Thomas Piketty‘s book on inequality, Capital in the 21st Century, but many of the issues taken up in Das Kapital have again become the focus of intensive discussion today. These include questions such as the nature of the links between economic growth and inequality, and the connection between inequality and political instability. For a long time the prediction that the modern capitalist system would collapse, as a consequence of growing inequality between wage-earners and the possessors of capital, was dismissed as unrealistic. In the meantime, however, some of the arguments advanced in its support – such as the notion that economic growth itself would bring about the demise of the capitalist model – have begun to sound astoundingly prescient.

Moreover, the close conceptual links between factors such as technological change, economic development, and the legal and institutional protections of private property rights set up by constitutional states and other political regimes – which are also treated in Das Kapital – have received a great deal more attention from researchers in economics since the turn of the century. Of course, methodologically speaking, current discussions of these issues differ clearly from Marx’s own approach, but the issues themselves remain as relevant as ever.”