A New Karl Marx Biography To Set His Record Straight

Photographic portrait of Karl Marx seated with a thumb in his lapel and his hand on his thigh, taken in the mid-1870s. | Photographer unknown.
Picture of Simon Leser
UK Literary Editor
Updated: 3 February 2017
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In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution next year, Culture Trip will be showcasing a number of works tied to the events that led to the creation of the Soviet Union, and its enduring influence. We begin with a look at professor Gareth Stedman Jones’ superb new biography of Karl Marx, Greatness and Illusion, which dispels the myths surrounding him, and presents us with an unembellished view of the ninetheenth century’s most influential political theorist.
Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion
Courtesy of Allen Lane

In a recent issue of the New Statesman, John Bew, Professor in History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London, deplored the state of progressive politics: “There has rarely been less scholarly heft on the left of British politics,” he wrote, “what energy it has seems mostly expended on identity politics or cultural radicalism.” One example in particular underpinned his lament: “There was a time when, for instance, the publication of Gareth Stedman Jones’ new biography of Marx would have been the intellectual event of the year.”

There is, come to think of it, something distinctly Marxist about this reproach. One doesn’t have to look too close to appreciate the intellectual vigor which once marked the Left, with its dialectical obsessions and abstract debates. How often have radical groupuscules — Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, or otherwise (endowed with such evocative names as, say, Militant, Left Fraction, and the Revolutionary Internationalist Contingent) — broken into the most bitter, factional infighting over slight theoretical disagreements? By comparison, liberals and conservatives always seemed a tamer bunch.

As Gareth Stedman Jones’ authoritative new biography makes clear, the environment in which Karl Marx first became politically active was in many ways as intellectually fertile, and fractured, as Marxist movements became in the mid-20th century. As a law student in Berlin during the late 1830s, Marx was at the center of a hotbed of political theorizing, “a city in which the general preoccupation with politics almost made up for lack of a real political life.” The Prussian government had outlawed actual opposition, and political discourse was confined, for all tendencies, to philosophy, theology and historical legal studies. It was in this world of reactionary anti-rationalists, evangelical revivalists, ultramontanists, Kantian radicals and ‘Young’ Hegelians (pretty denominations all) that Marx made his entry into partisan circles, after abandoning the Romantic poetic pretensions of his youth (he had once “sought the dances of the Muses and the music of the Satyrs,” as he put in a letter in 1837).

By the time of the great upheavals of 1848 (the largest wave of political uprising to have ever hit Europe) and the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Karl had effectively managed to outflank and break away from a succession of former allies — from republican nationalists to French socialists — with a combination of petty squabbling and intellectual disagreement. When the revolution finally arrived in Germany in March of that year, his and his follower’s attempts to influence it through the first Communist League and the Cologne Workers’ Association would end with insignificance and failure. Partly (if not mostly), again, the result of internecine struggles, spurred on by their refusal to engage with the movement’s democratic aims:

In contrast to liberal reform programs across Europe, [their] ‘demands’ contained no mention of individual rights, or freedom of speech, of assembly or of the press, and no reference to trial by jury.

Karl (as the author likes to refer to him) is presented with blemishes in full view: a nasty tendency towards anti-semitism (though his parents had been forced to convert from Judaism, Marx seemed to have done his best not to leave any chances of return), a predilection for vindictive power plays during his early radical activities, and several dubious political inclinations. That Stedman Jones manages to chart Marx’s intellectual developments with such detail is nothing short of a remarkable feat. What we get, ultimately, is the biography of a man anchored firmly within the nineteenth century — defined by his time as much as he came to define it.

Yet this does not detract from Marx’s later, groundbreaking London period. Between the years 1864 and 1869, and after spending most of his life on the political fringe, he simultaneously set up and worked in the First International, as well as wrote the first (and only complete) volume of Capital. Its publication in 1867 inaugurated “a debate about the central economic and social landmarks in modern history which has gone on ever since.” As Stedman Jones sums it up:

During this period he made an enduring contribution both to an understanding of the history and anatomy of capitalism, and to the development of the European labor movement. […] These were achievements which transcended the narrow world of exile groups and sectarian politics, and they were recognized beyond his immediate circle.

Greatness and Illusion is particularly sharp at doing away with the gross distortions Marx’s later followers imposed upon his ideas. Though never quite as strict a determinist or as rigid in his views as some would have him, Marx seems to have disagreed in a few important ways with his closest and most influential devotees. If Friedrich Engels was at odds with him on such matters as systemic economic failure and the importance of human nature (Marx wasn’t so enthusiastic about either), it is another who comes out the worst: the Anti-Tsarist Georgi Plekhanov, one of the first revolutionaries to self-identify as a “Marxist,” combined a relentless belief in central authority with an interest in bringing Darwinian concepts to the social sciences. Marx wasn’t so passionate.

In the end, this book serves to remind us that, despite the myths and deformations that affect his legacy (“the Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth”) his great achievements remain: a brilliant critique of the capitalist system, and an understanding of the historical primacy of economics in forming societies. By debunking the myths of one of history’s most influential thinkers, Stedman Jones allows us to appreciate Marx’s intellectual insights in a proper contemporary context. Would that the Left take notice.

Greatness and Illusion
by Gareth Stedman Jones
Allen Lane (UK) | Belknap Press (US)
768pp. | £25.95 | $35

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