Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion

First posted December 3, 2016

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion

By Gareth Stedman Jones; Reviewed by Jeremy Adelman

While Jenny was dying, Marx wrote a letter to the Russian Group for the Emancipation of Labour in Geneva on the question: was communal property good? Stedman Jones ends Karl Marx with a story about the fate of these pages. Many years after Marx penned them, the first editor of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, the largest collection of the works of Marx and Engels in any language, David Riazanov (who would later perish in Stalin’s purges) was curious: did any of the Russian exiles receive the letter? He went to the survivors, including Plekhanov. They all said no. 

And yet, Riazanov could recall, having passed through Geneva in 1883, that there had been an exchange. There was even talk of a charged confrontation between Plekhanov and Marx, with Marx defending village communal property. The letter disappeared into the voluminous papers of the Russian Menshevik Pavel Axelrod, denied and forgotten, and only turned up in 1923 thanks to Riazanov’s sleuthing. Riazanov was left to wonder about the “extraordinary deficiencies of the mechanisms of our memory.”

Was it just forgetting? As an orthodox, self-described Marxist movement was bolting its fortunes to urban workers and the imminent collapse of capitalism, the airing of Marx’s last thoughts would have been trouble, threatening an already fragile group. Stedman Jones implies that the followers covered up the divide between Marx and Marxists instead of accepting that History could not be so easily mastered. The cover has now been lifted. Separated from the -ism attached to his name, the Marx that Stedman Jones wants us to remember is a man more aware of his limits than most of his followers; for all Marx’s bravura, this portrait admits more room for doubt.

Doubt is not a word that comes to mind when we picture Marx, much less Marxists. Are we being reintroduced to an ambivalent Marx for a skeptical age? Since it has generally been the right, not the left, that has successfully mobilized discontent, the portrait of a doubtful Marx is fitting for a left that must once again find its coordinates. Marx the doubter, the rethinker, the worrier may have more to say in our uncertain global times than does just a voice of conviction from another, forgettable, age.

In the mid-1860s, as an anxious and ailing Karl Marx worked on the 30-page essay that would billow into Das Kapital, his daughter Eleanor – ‘Tussy’ – would play under his desk. With her dolls, kittens, and puppies, Tussy turned the sage’s study into her playroom. Occasionally, Marx would take a break from his “fat book” (as the family friend and patron, Friedrich Engels, called the growing pile of pages) to work on a children’s story to recite to his daughter. It featured an antihero, Hans Röckle, who became Tussy’s favorite character, a dark-eyed, bearded magician devoted to creating marvels in his chaotic toyshop. Years later, Eleanor would recognize Röckle’s struggles as her father’s own and see the child’s tale as a send-up of his unorthodox life. Röckle’s magic was also a parable about making value out of things and accumulating capital out of debt, the fictive version of what Marx was determined to demystify in Das Kapital.

Yet, Karl Marx has come down to us as a systems thinker; as the curtain rose on the age of capital, Marx supposedly sought timeless explanations for capitalism’s ravaging success—and inevitable demise. He lashed the laws of History to the rise and fall of an economic system.

In the end, it was not capitalism, but communism, that toppled. So, with the spread of market forces, the sage of revolution has been downsized. Historians have packed him away into a 19th-century world of wistful romantics—closer to the magician Röckle than to the pseudoscientific Stalin. Francis Wheen, his first biographer after the fall of the Berlin Wall, gave us Marx the adventurer and engagé journalist. Jonathan Sperber went one step further, turning the architect of 20th-century scientific socialism into a starry-eyed rebel, a utopian descendant of French Revolutionaries.

Gareth Stedman Jones’s long-awaited new book continues this trend. Stedman Jones makes Marx a man in his time, forever reading, revising, and yearning to puzzle out his emerging global present. Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusionis a majestically important book about an intellectual struggling to make sense of a rapidly integrating world; it is also a fascinating portrait of that world seen through one mind’s eye. Finally, Karl Marx is a story of failure, specifically the failure to come up with a universal idea of development—one that might equip a revolutionary cause.

This makes sense. When neoliberalism parades itself as the only game in town, it is hard to imagine alternatives, never mind an economic utopia. In an age of stripped-down expectations, it is no surprise to find a re-dimensioned Marx.

And yet, if Marx was so wrong about some things, he seemed to get some others right. Since the financial meltdown of 2008 and the runaway success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), there has been, along with increased awareness of the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, a renewed fascination with the man that historians have locked away into a vault of the past. Seething discontent and globalization fatigue pose the question: is it hopeless to imagine a Marx who speaks to us now? If so, which Marx? Stedman Jones offers some clues. But to find them, you have to see Marx as the first to admit the limits of his own creed. In a sense, Marx was the first post-Marxist.

Marx or Engels: If Marx is to speak to us now, it is important to be clear about who he was and was not. For over a century, he has been ventriloquized by some of his followers. No one did more to create the myth of Marx as Homo Sistematicus than Marxists. And no one made Marx into Marxism more than Friedrich Engels.

To immortalize Marx for a scientific breed of socialism, Engels delivered a famous and widely disseminated eulogy at his graveside. On March 17, 1883, as Marx’s coffin was being lowered into a grave in Highgate Cemetery, Engels told the coterie of mourners that “just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.” What is more, Marx had “discovered the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production.” This was the scientific Marx, fascinated by electricity, not poetry.

Dead, Marx got repurposed by Engels, the Russian Georgi Plekhanov, and others for a 20th-century struggle over the soul of the planet. Now, as we look back, a generation after the Cold War commitments for which Marx had been summoned, the origins of his creed look quite different. Drained of heroic clarity, they are more hesitant and ambivalent.

For starters, literature and political economy were not far apart for Karl Marx. He had wooed his wife, Jenny, as an aspiring poet. He taught himself English (thanks to Jenny’s urgings) by reading Shelley and Shakespeare. He would recite by heart long passages from the Elizabethan bard to Tussy. There was a set-piece tragic quality to Marx’s accounts of the failed uprisings of 1848 and his polemic in “The Civil War in France” about the massacre of the Communards. By the time he was writing “The Civil War” with Engels, behind the scenes Marx was in full retreat, literally returning to some of his original obsessions and parting ways with Engels. One might say that Marx had been retreating for decades.

Pariah Within: Marx was quicker to see the failure of his theories than his followers were. The question of whether there could be a general explanation for the world’s advancement dogged Marx from early on, starting with his early ruminations on the Jewish Question. To recover this Marx, Stedman Jones begins with the fitful emancipation of Rhineland Jewry. Born in Trier of converted Jewish parents (his grandfather was the town’s rabbi), Marx went to the local Gymnasium, where he imbibed “the sacred belief in progress and moral ennoblement” and learned the canon of neoclassical and humanist culture of German schooling.

The background is important. Marx’s father, Heinrich, né Herschel Mordechai, a lawyer, had the predicament of all Rhineland Jews emancipated in the wake of the French Revolution but stripped of rights when the region got swept under Protestant-Prussian rule after 1815. Faced with the prospect of losing his civic rights (which included the right to practice law), he became a Lutheran the year before Karl was born in 1818. The shadow of that choice loomed over Marx, though Stedman Jones resists the biographical temptation of reducing everything thereafter to that one, arduous moment. 

The Jewish son, nonetheless, was the heir to involuntary conformity. Though he later called capitalism the greatest homogenizer of them all, he did nurture the possibility there was a way to avoid the human blender of commodification. By the 1870s, one finds an aging Karl wondering whether everyone was doomed to submit. In a letter to the Russian magazine Otetchestvennye Zapitsky, he warned its editors against a misreading of Das Kapital: historical materialism was not some theory “of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself.”.. read more:


see also

Book review: Albert Hirschman – An Original Thinker of Our Time

Michael Rectenwald: Postmodernism, the academic Left and the crisis of capitalism…

Book review: Conceptualizing an Emancipatory Alternative – Istvan Meszaros’ Beyond Capital..

Militarism and the coming wars

Dilip Simeon: Closing the Circle: On Revolution (Frontier, 2012)