- as a vast Gothic novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created ("Capital which comes into the world soiled with gore from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore");
- or as a Victorian melodrama; or as a black farce (in debunking the "phantom-like objectivity" of the commodity to expose the difference between heroic appearance and inglorious reality, Marx is using one of the classic methods of comedy, stripping off the gallant knight's armour to reveal a tubby little man in his underpants);
- or as a Greek tragedy ("Like Oedipus, the actors in Marx's recounting of human history are in the grip of an inexorable necessity which unfolds itself no matter what they do," C. Frankel writes in Marx and Contemporary Scientific Thought).
- Or perhaps it is a satirical utopia like the land of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels, where every prospect pleases and only man is vile: in Marx's version of capitalist society, as in Jonathan Swift's equine pseudo-paradise, the false Eden is created by reducing ordinary humans to the status of impotent, alienated Yahoos.
To do justice to the deranged logic of capitalism, Marx's text is saturated with irony - an irony which has yet escaped most scholars for the past 140 years. One exception is the American critic Edmund Wilson, who argued in To The Finland Station: a study in the writing and acting of history (1940) that the value of Marx's abstractions - the dance of commodities, the zany cross-stitch of value - is primarily an ironic one, juxtaposed as they are with grim, well-documented scenes of the misery and filth which capitalist laws create in practice.
Wilson regarded Das Kapital as a parody of classical economics. No one, he thought, had ever had so deadly a psychological insight into the infinite capacity of human nature for remaining oblivious or indifferent to the pains we inflict on others when we have a chance to get something out of them for ourselves. "In dealing with this theme, Karl Marx became one of the great masters of satire. Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and has a good deal in common with him." This an edited extract from Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography, part of a series, Books that Shook the World