Economy and Social Matters in Germany – Panorama

There’s Life in the Old Dog Yet: Karl Marx’s “Capital” Is Profiting from the Crisis

Marx in Chemnitz – aus dem Film „Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike“ von Alexander Kluge; © Suhrkamp VerlagMarx in the city of Chemnitz – from the Film “Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike” by Alexander Kluge; © Suhrkamp VerlagDuring the world financial crisis, Karl Marx’s magnum opus on political economy not only sold in bookshops like hot cakes – it also underwent a cross-media resurrection as a comic book and a radio play, on the stage and in film – something that would have been thought impossible only a few years ago.

After the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the subsequent self-dissolution of the Soviet Union, not only the world-historical victory of capitalism seemed to be sealed: the big socialist thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were also looked upon as finally disposed of. People began chiselling monuments, and no one would have thought that Marx’s main work, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, would ever again become a top seller. Yet no sooner had the so-called American “mortgage bubble” burst in 2007, and economies round the world began in consequence to falter, than doubts stole into the minds of some contemporaries as to whether capitalism was not in fact threatened with collapse because of its own contradictions – just as Marx had predicted in Capital.

Bank failures and the impending bankruptcy of entire countries gave further impetus to such fears and shook people’s confidence in capitalism. And a niche market of the book trade profited from this: Marx’s Capital was suddenly again in demand and became a worldwide bookshop hit. Karl Dietz Publishers even had to announce that its stocks were sold out.

Outstanding: Capital as radio play and on stage

Even before readers that had been unsettled by the oft-cited “excesses of ‘finance capitalism’”, theatre and film makers and comic strip artists as well had discovered their interest in the political economy of Marx and Engel, and their work met with unexpected resonance, not only in the features pages: in Japan a Marx manga even became a bestseller.

Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel succeeded in artistically adapting Marx in their radio play Karl Marx. Capital. Volume One, for which they were awarded the most important German radio drama prize, the Radio Drama Award of The War Blind and Prize for Radio Art. Produced by the Deutschlandfunk and West German Radio, its basis was the Rimini Protokoll (Haug’s and Wetzel’s theatre group) stage version, which was premiered in 2006 at the Düsseldorf Theatre and awarded in 2007 the Mülheim Dramatist Prize.

Capital – “based on the scenario by Karl Marx”

With his film Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike (i.e., News from Ideological Antiquity) (suhrkamp filmedition 2008), suggested by publisher Ulla Berkéwicz, Alexander Kluge took up a lunatic plan envisaged by the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, which had of course never gotten off the ground. In 1927 Eisenstein had decided to film Capital, “based on the scenario by Karl Marx”. He meant to follow the literary method used by James Joyce in Ulysses. “A plan with the smack of a battleship”, as Kluge aptly puts it in the booklet accompanying the three DVDs. And a plan that could be seized upon and “cinemafied” only by the likes of Alexander Kluge, whose films and television work often follow the same dramatic leifmotifs that Eisenstein had in mind for his Marx project and with which he hoped to revolutionise the art of filmmaking: “The ‘film of antiquity’”, Kluge comments in his notes, “shot a plot from several angles”. The modern film that Eisenstein envisioned would “assemble one angle from several plots”.

Kluge approaches Marx’s work and Eisenstein’s plan in concentric circles: for about nine hours he, his guests, interlocutors and monologists (including, among many, many others, the poet and essayist Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, actress Sophie Rois and the actor, musician and entertainer Helge Schneider) seem quite happy to indulge in all kinds of associations. The talk alternates between Marx and Eisenstein or even James Joyce, who would liked to have had Eisenstein film his Ulysses. The guests quote, recite, point out, draw conclusions, imagine, play, interpret and digress – the whole thing being structured and commented on by generously titled, excursively associative film sequences. And somehow it all fits together in the end into a picture that you think you could make of Capital - or better, of the world. In any case, it makes intelligible what Kluge means when he says that, for him, Marx is less interesting as an economist than as a writer.

The boom of Capital during the crisis and its cultural fruits have shown that Marx the artist and writer has more to say to us than the economists, many of whom imagine that they have already left the crisis behind them and apparently want to continue as before. The next crisis seems therefore to be as inevitable as the next Marx revival. It will be able to tie in to what has culturally come out of the crisis this time.

Andreas Vierecke
is head of the munich office of the Südpol-Redaktionsbüro Köster & Vierecke and editor-in-chief of the Zeitschrift für Politik.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2010

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