‘Das Kapital: Ein Plädoyer für den Menschen’ reviewed by Sara R Farris

Das Kapital: Ein Plädoyer für den Menschen

Knaur Taschenbuch, München, 2010. 336pp., €13,40 pb
ISBN 9783426783603

Reviewed by Sara R Farris

About the reviewer

Sara R. Farris is Lecturer in Contemporary Social Theory at the University of Amsterdam …


At the end of 2008, the year of the 125th anniversary of Karl Marx’s death, the then bishop of Trier, Reinhard Marx, published a book entitled Das Kapital. Predictably, the singular coincidence of the bishop’s name and the place of his seat, which happened to be the native city of the more famous Karl, contributed significantly to the success of the book. Both in Germany and Italy, where it was released one year later, the book became a media event and has since become a bestseller. A paperback edition appeared in 2010. The anomaly represented by the association of a Catholic official with Marx’s Capital was enough to attract attention and curiosity. Yet, as Aristotle’s definition of homonymy suggests, it is proper of ‘those things’ that ‘are called homonymous’ that ‘the name alone is common, but the account of being corresponding to the name is different’ (Iª, 1-4). Indeed, between the two Marxes the difference could not be greater. As one might suspect, unlike the atheist and communist critique of political economy embraced by the theorist of revolution against capital, the critique of the German bishop is a ‘Christian’ critique. The true novelty of Reinhard Marx’s Capital, however, consists not so much in the arguments he proposes, which are grounded in the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching and are thus not new in themselves; rather, its newness consists in the fact that this book makes explicit and popularises the Catholic intelligentsia’s confrontation with the thought of Karl Marx, something which has often been repeated, particularly in the proclamations of Pope Benedict XVI. From the Instruction on certain aspects of the theology of liberation in 1984, when he was still Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the present name of what once was the Inquisition), until his encyclical letter Spe Salvi Facti Sumus (In hope we were saved) in 2007, Ratzinger continued to make numerous references to the thought of Karl Marx and to Marxism more generally, always in a harshly polemical fashion. Accordingly, Reinhard Marx’s 300 pages, in making explicit allusion to Karl Marx with the choice of the resounding title, can be regarded as the Catholic attempt to ‘settle accounts’ with its antithetical ‘philosophical conscience’.

In an effort to match the analytical depth and encyclopaedic knowledge of Karl Marx, Reinhard Marx not only exhibits a mastery of the classics of political and economic thought but also presents in accessible prose a detailed analysis of the contemporary economic crisis. He charts the growth of unemployment in the Western world as against the growth of poverty and conflict in the Global South. In other words, he exposes the unfulfilled promises of capitalism.

The latter is the central theme of the essays that compose the book as well as the guiding principle that brings Reinhard’s reasoning close to that of Karl Marx. For Reinhard, capitalism ‘has perhaps never been in so much difficulty in the last century. And all of this, just twenty years after its victory against its great historical enemy, i.e., soviet communism’ (26). Accumulated wealth has not been redistributed according to principles of merit and equity but has been concentrated increasingly in the hands of a very few; capitalism has globalised but so, too, have exploitation and inequality. ‘To observe global economic development today,’ writes the bishop in an imaginary dialogue with the atheist of Trier, ‘it seems that you were right; it seems that capital always tries to multiply, that in its constant aspiration it knows no borders, in the most authentic sense of the term. And it seems that you were also right in foreseeing that it would be above all the capitalist who would profit from this development, accumulating evermore capital in his pocket’ (21).

Thus, alongside recognition from financial newspapers the world over, it would seem that Marx’s analysis of crisis as inherent to the economic formation dominated by capital has now also been legitimated by the upper echelons of the Church. Yet, this is not a case of conversion. Confronted with the possibility that ‘history in the end’ will admit ‘that Doctor Marx was right, that capitalism will end up destroying itself’, Reinhard Marx has no doubts: he very much hopes that this will not occur. He cannot in fact see how ‘outside the market economy, it would be possible to provide goods and services for all the great number of people who now live in the world’ (29).

The ten chapters that compose Reinhard Marx’s Capital all propose, therefore, the same Leitmotiv: if there is no doubt about the fact that the Catholic church ‘accepts’ in toto the market economy, the point is to moralise it. It is thus necessary for Reinhard Marx, firstly, to favour the strong presence of the state in order for it to be able to implement mechanisms of solidarity and equality, forms of protection of ‘everybody’s interests’ (95). Secondly, the self-determined individual of free initiative that the State must protect is not the homo oeconomicus who ‘aims only at his/her interest’, but the moral individual, respectful of the principles and precepts of the community based upon solidarity’ (157). Finally, ‘insofar as it works and it is not subjected to constraints, the market guarantees equality. Those who offer their goods on the market must confront the competition, and consumers decide democratically who and at what prices provides a good deal’ (158). In such a context, the work of Amartya Sen is said to provide a central theoretical point of reference for contemporary Catholic social teaching. According to Sen, as R. Marx puts it, ‘the degree of justice of a society can be measured according to the effective possibility of its members to lead the life they have chosen to live’ (178). Social justice therefore coincides with the freedom of choice of individuals; a freedom, however, that poverty and unemployment in every corner of the planet render increasingly impracticable. Here, Reinhard Marx does not fail to recognise the potentially empty and abstract character of the concept of freedom which was affirmed by liberalism and the Enlightenment. The empty shell of freedom, if it is genuinely to enable individuals to exercise the faculty of choice and to implement social justice, must therefore be filled with a concrete content. Yet, R. Marx’s ‘concretisation’ of freedom does not consist so much in mundane provisions as in the affirmation of the commitment to realise ‘the truth of the good’ (55). Freedom thus coincides with truth, and the latter in its turn, as Augustine taught, is nothing but God (Truth is GodDeus est Veritas). In thus spelling out the concretisation of freedom according to Catholic social teaching, it becomes clear that freedom of choice assumes a very specific form of concreteness: the freedom to announce the Gospel.

Ultimately, what must be promoted, according to R. Marx, is not an alternative way of organising society, but a ‘third way’: a capitalism with a human – or better, a Christian – face. This is the ‘epochal task’ that Reinhard Marx, in the conclusions of his book, assigns to his Church as its mission. ‘If we can’t accomplish such a task’, he warns in the concluding lines, ‘we will have to come to terms with the spectre of Karl Marx, but for the sake of humanity this should not have to happen. Then Marx would really be able to rest in peace’ (303).

As should be clear from this Catholic reconstruction of Capital, there are above all two aspects that mark the irreconcilability of the social and economic programmes proposed by the two Marxes: on the one hand, the conception of the human being on which they are based; on the other hand, the judgement as to the very possibility of true justice within the paradigm of the capitalist economy. From the point of view of a non-immanent critique, such as the one I am here attempting, it is precisely here that the analysis of the German bishop raises some central problems. Although a polemical and even harsh criticism of Marx is to be expected in the work of an eminent representative of the Catholic Church, Reinhard Marx’s rebuke is not conducted by means of a faithful picture of the opponent’s position but rather by a groundless and distorted illustration of it.

First, Reinhard Marx reproposes the oft asserted but rarely rigorously argued view that, in Marx, society dominates over individuals. After quoting some passages from Marx’s early texts, especially the Paris Manuscripts in which the perspective of Gattungswesen [species being] as the essence which is common to individuals is still central, he argues that ‘in Marx the accent is not placed on the singular individual but on the species, the collective’ (42). Furthermore, Marx’s supposed negation of the individual, its diminution by the collective dimension, leads with iron necessity to the proposal of abolishing private property tout court. However, by attributing to Karl a sort of anthropophagic collectivism, Reinhard profoundly falsifies the older Marx’s words.

For the latter, it is in the apparent community [scheinbare Gemeinschaft] (of which capitalist society is one of the forms) that the individual is crushed by the collective, the class. ‘The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined – as Marx put it in The German Ideology – always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well’ (78). In pages in which the acuteness of the analysis is outdone only by the agility of the polemical verve, Marx parodies the preaching moralism of Saint Max (Stirner) in order to state just how far from his theoretical horizon was the idea of the subordination of the ‘private individual’ to the universal man. On the same basis, that is, by starting from the analysis of the oppressive nature of class society in which the false antitheses between egoism and abnegation are produced and in which individual freedom is a product of the dominion of one class over the other, in the 1848 Manifesto Marx and Engels used contemptuous tones against the falsifications of those who attributed to them the proposal of abolishing individual property.

A second distortion of Marx’s thought can be found in the way Reinhard Marx attributes to him a purely ‘instrumental’ notion of education in a way that would bring him closer to contemporary neoliberal thought. It is a bizarre comment when addressed to a thinker more famous for his critique of specialisation (just recall the famous image from the German Ideology of man as simultaneously fisherman, hunter, and critic) than for a proposal to subject thought/education to labour. It is in fact an assessment that does not reflect in any sense Marx’s position but that, on the contrary, profoundly misrepresents it. For Marx ‘the individual’s subsumption under some particular art, so that he is exclusively a painter, sculptor, etc.’ (MECW 5, p. 394) expressed the limited nature of professional development. Marx’s critique of specialisation as imprisonment of the creativity and ability of the individual within a determined and imposed profession was the result of his more general critique of the capitalist economic formation. The expropriation and privatisation of the means of production and the nature of exploitation in the capitalist regime of labour necessarily inhibit the full realisation of individuality.

A third and final misrepresentation of Marx’s thought can be found in the concluding pages of the text. Marx and Marxism are reproached for supposedly not possessing a universalist, non-partisan, view of solidarity. ‘For Karl Marx and his followers, solidarity was only class solidarity’ (289). For Reinhard Marx, therefore, Marx’s theory is marked by an incurable unilateralism for which the foundation of solidarity lies exclusively in the ‘real or presumed commonality of interests within the working class without any regard for the idea of human dignity’ (ibid.).

Karl Marx certainly did not propose a conception of universal solidarity as abstract empathy and spiritual reconciliation between individuals who are supposed to be equal. This was consistent with his more general view of bourgeois society as one in which the division into classes prevents ab origine the realisation of such a solidarity. At the same time, the partisan solidarity at which Marx aimed – namely, solidarity between the exploited of the world that was the driving force behind the idea of the First International – was the conditio sine qua non for universal solidarity.

For Reinhard Marx, on the other hand, quoting the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, solidarity can and must occur in this world as the acceptance of antagonism, as love for one’s neighbour, including the enemy. But who is the enemy? Here the author provides some examples of the enemies to which Christian love should apply: the authors of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, of the attacks of Gerba and Bali in 2002, of Istanbul in 2003, of Madrid in 2004, London in 2005 and Mumbai in 2006.

In all cases, he cites examples of terrorist attacks that are attributed to Islamic fundamentalist organisations. The fact that all these cases have a common denominator – namely the Islamic affiliation of their perpetrators – does not seem to be a coincidence. On the contrary, Reinhard Marx seems to suggest that the enemy coincides with the non-Christian, or in this case with the Muslim. Here the purportedly universal solidarity of Christianity shows its antinomies. They were already described ‘audaciously, trenchantly, wittily, and with profundity’ – as Karl Marx himself put it – by his contemporary and theoretical adversary, Bruno Bauer. ‘Christian love – as Bauer put it – is universal because it does not recognise any difference between the nations and even proposes to all people the gift of faith. Therefore its fervour too is universal insofar as it excludes everything that contradicts and that is in contrast with faith’ (17). The universalism of Christian love therefore – as Feuerbach also noted in The Essence of Christianity – does not escape the imprint of exclusiveness.

The unilateralism and partisanship of which Reinhard Marx accuses Marxism are, therefore, perhaps better suited to Christianity itself. By grounding the essence of the human in the relation with the Christian God, and by founding universal brotherhood on one faith, the nature of Christian universalism reveals itself to be, in the words of Feuerbach, ‘essentially intolerant’ and ‘partisan’ insofar as it ‘recognises only friends and enemies’ and ‘does not recognise neutrality’ (258).

9 November 2010


  • Aristotle 1928 Categories The Works of Aristotle Vol. I Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Bauer, Bruno 1843 Die Judenfrage (Braunschweig).
  • Feuerbach, Ludwig 2004 The Essence of Christianity (New York: Barnes & Nobles).
  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich 1975 The German Ideology MECW Vol. 5 London: Lawrence & Wishart
  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich 1975 The Communist Manifesto MECW Vol. 6 London: Lawrence & Wishart

One comment

  1. Liberation theology in Latin America made a consistent application of Marxist categories in the lives of oppressed communities and isolated. The Catholic Church, by Cardinal Marx, just want to say a few points that would be “good” in the work of Karl Marx and appropriating them. However, what we see once again is the lack of sincerity of the Catholic intellectual and prevailing idea of segregation between believers and nonbelievers.
    Religion definitely has no solution to social problems and, perhaps, religious.

    Paulo Fernando da Silva
    Unesp – Brasil

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