Did Marx base Capital on Dante’s Inferno?

Issue: 157

Sam Popowich

A review of William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (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 Capitalhis “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.

Roberts begins his work by presenting the evidence for seeing the first volume (and only the first volume) of Capital as modelled, both in terms of structure and content, on Dante’s Inferno. Various letters attest that Marx read the Inferno many times. Other writers, including David McNally, have previously noted the similarity between the structure of the two books. In Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2012), McNally draws a similar connection to Roberts, that Marx is taking his readers on a “journey through hell” (p138), though McNally sees a stronger connection with the Gothic literature of the early 19th century. The problem is that all this evidence doesn’t add up to enough, there is not enough of a similarity between Capital and the Inferno to suggest anything more than a common cultural tradition, a tradition with which Marx identified. Roberts writes, for example, that:

The parallels between the two works are both more mundane and more far-reaching. Yes, they both begin on the surface, and descend beneath this surface. But they also do so in thirty-three chapters, and in four major steps. When Marx went over Capital for the French edition…he made the subsections of two ­chapters—four and twenty-four—into freestanding chapters, increasing thereby the number of chapters from twenty-five to thirty-three. He left no indication of why he felt this change was called for. Perhaps it is coincidence, but Dante’s Commedia is composed of three canticles of thirty-three cantos, plus a prefatory canto to make a round hundred (p26).

This “perhaps” is not particularly encouraging. Indeed, if Marx used the Inferno as a model, would he not have planned for 33 chapters from the beginning, rather than after the fact? Nevertheless, Marx “left no indication of why he felt the change was called for”. This kind of literary theorising is the main weakness of Roberts’s book, and in fact, while each of his chapters analyses a category of moral condemnation common to both Dante and Marx’s precursors, Roberts tends to use these only as a framing device, dropping Dante for more in-depth discussions of the political and economic arguments between the socialists and Marx.

Indeed, the analysis of the moral foundations of the earlier socialists’ thinking, and Marx’s response to them, is the strongest part of this book. In addition to going into plenty of detail on the ideas of the Owenites, Saint-Simonians and Proudhonists, Roberts clearly explains what Marx adopted and—more importantly—what he criticised in their arguments. Roberts also brings in the older, and not necessarily socialist, tradition of republicanism which influenced both pre-Marxist socialists and Marx himself.

The political theory aspect of Roberts’s book is strong and engaging. For example, in discussing the differences between Saint-Simon’s and Proudhon’s view of domination (chapter 3) and exploitation (chapter 4), and Marx’s, Roberts teases out some very telling details. Both domination and exploitation were, for the earlier socialists, personal relations derived primarily from feudal relations. Marx’s insight was precisely in the impersonal nature of domination and exploitation, both through market forces and the social relations that go along with them. It was precisely this structural understanding of capitalist society that set Marx apart from the earlier socialists, and gave focus to his thinking around political economy.

But the strong political discussions are always weakened by a return to literary theory. By insisting that Capital was modelled after the Inferno, Roberts raises some interesting ideas and questions, but this view seems too rigid. It puts a constraint on Capital that goes against the varied readings and interpretations it has supported for the last 150 years. It is difficult to know whether Roberts intends his insistence on the influence of Dante to be concrete or metaphorical. In his conclusion, he states that Marx: “recapitulates Dante’s descent through the moral wrongs of incontinence, force, fraud and treachery, showing at each step that it is capital, as a system of all-around domination, that is responsible for these sins, not the individuals dominated by capital” (p257).

And yet, on the same page, Roberts argues that “as a new Virgil, Marx tries to guide his readers along the internal connections” of the capitalist mode of production. This metaphorical understanding seems to align Marx with Dante as part of a common European culture that the former was part of, and is easier to accept than the stronger view that Marx was rewriting Dante for capitalist society. When Roberts writes that “Marx’s extensive investigation of the capitalist mode of production and accumulation…comprises a rewriting of Dante’s passage through the [eighth circle of hell]”, this is overstating the case considerably. Nevertheless, Marx’s Inferno is a detailed and rewarding investigation of the socialist context for Marx’s thought.

Sam Popowich is a Canadian librarian. His research interests include the intersection of technology, librarianship and Marxism.