Capital on CD-Rom, Cat Optional

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Joel R. Finkel

Karl Marx’s Multimedia Capital, v.1. Cominsane Press, 1998. Distributed by Monthly Review Press, 1-800-670-9499. $20.

COMPUTERS ARE VERY useful tools. When it comes to creating documents, they are unsurpassed. Even the most devoted Luddite’s resistance melts away when the DELETE-key is discovered. Spelling checkers close the deal, and dictionaries are becoming as archaic as typewriters.

Computers do have their weak points, however, particularly when it comes time to read documents so carefully prepared by someone else. It’s damn hard to curl up with the cat and a glass of Scotch and read a computerized document. And even the cleverest of computer gurus find it impossible to underline, highlight, and jot down notes and rubrics onto such a document.

Many of us who spend a great deal of our waking hours staring into a computer screen understand well the reason we seem to visit the eye doctor more often than others. Many a forest has been converted into pulp in order to ease the eyes and allow readers to annotate their volumes.

It was, therefore, with no little skepticism that I opened up the jewel-case containing Cominsane Press’s 1998 multimedia edition of Volume I of Karl Marx’s Capital, and carefully slam-dunked it into my computer’s CD-ROM drive. Developed for use on computers running Windows version 3.1 or greater, it easily installed the required programs on my hard drive, keeping most of voluminous work on the CD itself.

Starting up the program for the first time, I was given quite a start. A splash screen appeared that featured a reproduction of Diego Rivera’s 1928 famous work “Distribution of Arms” (there’s Frida Kahlo passing out the arms)—a nice touch. But then the speakers began to blare out “The Internationale” in Chinese (Guozi Shudian, Beijing, China, distributes this rendition)—as if Marx would have recognized China’s brand of Stalinism as having anything to do with his vision of workers’ power!

I wondered why an English-language edition of Marx’s famous work should not contain an English-language version of this famous anthem.

I nonetheless pushed ahead, with the goal of discovering what utility this multimedia volume might have; surely the multipart (i.e. the music) had me searching for the button labeled “Quit Music,” which I quickly pressed.

But there were other buttons to push: one for the prefaces, and one each for the eight (8) parts of the volume. Included are various prefaces and afterwords, written by Marx and Engels, for the numerous translated editions. A menu of these is presented when the prefaces button is clicked. Clicking on any of these items brings up a second, scrollable window that contains the full text.

Similarly, clicking on any of the parts buttons brings up a list of chapters, and selecting any of these brings up the full text in the scrollable window.

“Okay,” I thought, “now I can curl up with my computer and read Capital. How terribly useful!” Suddenly, a new tune began to blare out of my speakers. Fortunately, I had already discovered the “Quit Music” button.

I reached for my copy of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman,” which he wrote in Dresden a few years before being forced to flee as one of the leaders of the uprising there, put it in my CD player, and began to investigate the SEARCH functions.

I can, after all, always curl up with a printed and bound copy of Capital, or any one of the myriad commentaries on it, or the Cliff Notes (no sectarian pun intended) for that matter, and read in comfort.

It was in the SEARCH function that I finally discovered the utility of this computerized edition. While not terribly sophisticated, it does allow one to search for topics with specific words or phrases. Picking “primitive accumulation” as a test subject, I opened the search window and typed in “primitive near accumulation.”

A window popped open, containing a list of all chapters in which the word “primitive” appeared within eight (8) words of “accumulation.” Clicking on any of these brought up the text, with the specified words highlighted. Interestingly, I discovered that the text’s footnotes are presented as little red asterisks; clicking on them brings up the footnote—a nice feature.

Having thus discovered what Marx had to say on the topic of primitive accumulation, I tried another search: “surplus value and cost,” but this gave me too many results. I refined the search by placing quotes around “surplus value” to force the program to search for the phrase “surplus value” and the word “cost,” and was pleased to be presented with a valuable list of related topics.

This ability to search the full text is a powerful feature, and one to which computers are well suited. Another nice touch is that one can add annotations and define bookmarks for any section of the text.

Annotations appear in the full text window as small green paper clips, and clicking on them brings up the notes you have added to that section. Bookmarks make it easy to return to a specific location in the text. These annotations and bookmarks are saved, so that weeks later you can return to your studies.

There are certainly more powerful search algorithms out there that can be applied to text, but the simple ones provided in this program are fine, as long as one does not search for small, common words, like “is.” Annotations and bookmarks are likewise helpful.

While this edition is not terribly well-suited for a first reading, scholars who are searching for specific topics will find it useful. But the drawbacks—inherent in all computerized document presentations—remain: the inability to skim rapidly for topics, annotations and highlighting, not to mention that the cat tries to curl up on the keyboard.

ATC 78, January-February 1999