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  • Deniz Utlu on Das Kapital, work and revolution


Deniz Utlu on Das Kapital, work and revolution

The author of The Indignants on how understanding Marx helped him understand the meaning of work

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Photo: Maria Abadia

My Marx: We spoke with seven Berliners on what Marx means to them today. Check out the previous profile here.

When I was at school in Hanover in the early 1990s, I remember our teacher writing Karl Marx’s name on the blackboard and asking whether anyone knew who he was. I didn’t know, but one of my classmates replied that Marx was a thinker. “But what is a thinker?” our teacher asked. “Someone who asks questions,” said my classmate, and that really grabbed my attention. I think I was 15 when I first attempted to read Das Kapital, and the ideas in that book have never really left me.

I started to explore the Arbeiterbewegung (worker’s movement) and to apply Marx’s work to my present-day reality. That didn’t really work back then, because the reality of my life was so completely different to the material conditions described in Das Kapital. But I realised how drastically it changed my view of the working world and my understanding of the word “work”. I suddenly had a lot more respect for work – something my anarchistic heart initially rejected – then the actuality of work in and of itself suddenly appeared to me to be both very human and revolutionary at the same time.

You can’t quote Marx in certain circles, because you’re dismissed as too ideological or too left- wing, which is absurd because the entire discipline of sociology is built on his work.

Reading Das Kapital was absolutely pivotal for me. I studied economics at university and when you study economics it’s all ideological. It was worse back then in the 2000s, but even now you are still taught only one economic school of thought, and that’s neoclassical theory, which is generally affirmative of the market economy. You’re never really confronted with Marx, but I was lucky enough to have a professor with whom I could explore Das Kapital at length. It is without question Marx’s most seminal work and it’s absolutely essential to my analytical thinking. What I take from the book is not tied to individual theses, it’s about the fact that Marx sat down and attempted to fully understand the economic system of his time. That desire to understand, to be able to know, informs my perspective on all other things to this day.

One must be critical of Marx’s racism, and let it be said, many other aspects of his work, without question, but in terms of the development of post-colonial theory he was certainly an important precursor. Edward Said, for example, links back to Marx when he discusses questions of representation. “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented,” he wrote. Marx was referring to the peasant farmworkers in the feudal France of his time, and there it’s not about race as we understand it today, but about a specific social group without access to resources, who weren’t represented, whose history was considered irrelevant.

Marx himself was an exile and he hasn’t really been truly rehabilitated to this day. You can’t quote Marx in certain circles, because then you’re dismissed as too ideological or too left-wing, which is absurd because the entire discipline of sociology is built on his work. Meanwhile, in the various areas of cultural studies where Marx is applied, I observe a tendency to favour what I would call, perhaps provocatively, the aesthetically more pleasing works by Marx – without any attention being paid to Das Kapital. That’s where Marx provides the conceptual tools fundamental to any analysis of capitalism and the market economy conditions under which we live. Mainstream and neoclassical economic theory doesn’t offer that, and for that reason his work is absolutely essential.


Deniz Utlu, born in 1983, is the prize- winning author of Die Ungehaltenen (The Indignants) and Gegen Morgen (Towards Tomorrow).