Did Marx base Capital on Dante’s Inferno?



Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital by William Clare Roberts (Princeton University Press, 2017), £27.95

Marx’s Inferno by William Clare Roberts seems unsure what kind of book it is supposed to be. On the one hand, it is a detailed investigation of the pre-Marxist context for some of Karl Marx’s ideas. But on the other hand, it attempts to find, in Dante’s Inferno, a precursor to Capital not only to the way Marx writes about his ideas, but the shape of the ideas themselves. In his introduction, Roberts writes:

My argument takes its orientation from some of the literary aspects of Marx’s book—its use of tropes and metaphors, its allusions and citations. For all that, however, I do not treat Capital as a work of literature. Rather, I treat it as a work of political theory. Its tropes, metaphors, allusions and citations are approached as signs to be interpreted, as the linguistic traces of intuitions that can be fleshed out in theoretical terms (p3).

The connection between these two ways of interpreting Capital, according to Roberts, lies in the fact that the moral categories described in the Inferno (force, fraud, treachery, etc) were in common usage among pre-Marxist socialists like Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. By analysing each of these categories in turn and showing how earlier socialists considered them both politically and economically, Roberts hope to explain how and why these categories—and the metaphors that supported them—appear in Marx’s Capital. Roberts’s focus on Dante’s influence on Marx, rather than on a Marxist reading of Dante, leads him to ignore, for example, Antonio Gramsci’s political reading of Dante.

The significance of Dante as a model lies, for Roberts, in the fact that the structure of Marx’s Capital—his “method of presentation”—has long been an object of investigation. “At least since Lenin first read Hegel’s Logic”, Roberts writes, readers have been trying to understand the structure of Capital by referring back to the structure of Hegel’s Science of Logic (p9). Roberts argues that rather than Hegel, the key to the structure of Capital lies in the structure of Dante’s Inferno. This argument is based not only on the importance of Dante in the European cultural tradition, but on the metaphorical use of Dante’s work in pre-Marxist political thought and discussion. Even here, however, Roberts seems not to be completely convinced of the weight of his own argument: “While it would be foolish to argue that it is Dante, not Hegel, who provides the key to the structure of Marx’s book, Hegel cannot claim our complete attention” (p12).

Roberts’s argument about the importance of Dante’s categorisation of sin to Marx is actually a stronger argument than that in favour of Dante as a structural influence precisely because these were the terms in which pre-Marxist socialists understood the evils of capitalism. These political discussions, and the use of Dante to connect Marx with the Owenites and Proudhon, are interesting, but tend to be weakened by Roberts’s insistence on the structural importance of Dante.

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