Sunday 22 October 2017

The hijacking of Karl Marx's true vision

Biography: Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion - A Life, Gareth Stedman Jones, Allen Lane, hdbk, 768 pages, €34.99

Shades of difference: Statues of Karl Marx in his hometown of vTrier, Germany
Shades of difference: Statues of Karl Marx in his hometown of vTrier, Germany

Rachel Holmes on a superb intellectual biography that sets the record straight.

How far was Karl Marx's theory responsible for what became "Marxism"? This has been the central inquiry of Gareth Stedman Jones's academic career for almost half a century, since his precocious days as a young editor of New Left Review.

An undisputed expert in 19th-century political thought and economic history, Stedman Jones's editions and introductions are the benchmark of contemporary Marx scholarship in English. Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion - A Life, his fourth book, distils those decades of study into a single opus. It is the story of the invention of "Marxism", spanning three centuries of radical thought. The conclusion: Marx's contribution was substantial, but his work was only one of the sources on which the new doctrine was built.

The 20th century would conflate Marx with the "Marxist" language of revolution, which urged the violent overthrow of capitalism. Stedman Jones reveals that the Marx constructed in the 20th century bears only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who wrote in the 19th.

This biography takes us back to Europe in 1789, with its glimmerings of modern democracy. In a section of absorbing pleasure, Stedman Jones sketches out the thoughts and events that shaped Marx, a dreaming poet, into a student of law, then a journalist, then a philosopher. His period as a lawyer, Stedman Jones argues, was particularly significant: Marx studied jurisprudence and legal formations such as the state, property and marriage. These, and classical inspirations, he argues, were the drivers of Marx's thought.

A decade after her father's death, his daughter Eleanor Marx was harangued by a Communist "correcting her" on what her father really meant by social democracy. After listening with patience to his luridly red exposition, Eleanor responded: "Heaven save Karl Marx from his friends!" Stedman Jones suggests that Marx was not saved, and particularly not from the genial opportunism of his best friend Engels.

In a meticulous reconstruction of the textual history of Capital - which began as "the missing third chapter" of Grundrisse, Marx's first outline of a critique of political economy - we see the impact of Marx's grudging decision, urged by Engels, to publish Capital in volumes rather than one completed exegesis.

Engels mocked Marx's claim that Capital was a "work of art to be", which he could not possibly send off until he had the whole thing in front of him. Unpicking differences between published versions of the first volume in 1867 and an earlier manuscript, Stedman Jones shows how Engels at best flattened, or at worst stamped out, changes in Marx's thinking as he grew older.

From Marx's graveside in 1883, Engels forced an intellectual merger between Marxian theory and Darwinism, airbrushing the differences between the two. "Charles Darwin discovered the law of the development of organic nature upon our planet. Marx is the discoverer of the fundamental law according to which human history moves and develops itself, a law so simple and self-evident that its simple enunciation is almost sufficient to secure assent." Here is the giveaway: Marx, given to elephantine explanation, never thought simple enunciation was adequate for explaining anything.

Stedman Jones argues that Marx's greatest achievement was to connect the critical debate in his day about capitalist economy with its historical roots. Although Marx failed in his original aim to depict capital as an organism whose continuous and unstoppable growth would soon encounter worldwide collapse, he "inaugurated a debate about the central economic and social landmarks in modern history which has gone on ever since".

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion - A Life is an intellectual history of impeccable scholarship. It sets Marx's political thought in its 19th-century context: free trade, globalisation and nationalism. Each line marks years of learning and draws not just on British thought but also on European scholarship and sources in German and French. It will become required reading for anyone interested in understanding the difference between what Marx intended and what has been perpetrated in his name.

For those wanting a more straightforward historical biography or a portrait of contemporary politics, the book will be harder to read. Perhaps a clue lies in the awkward double subtitles: Greatness and Illusion - A Life.

As an intellectual history of the "greatness and illusion", the book is superb. But into this scholarly text we find paragraphs of biography crowbarred in, as if reluctant afterthoughts. Wives and babies appear from thin air only to vanish again.

For Marx's work interpolated with his life, Francis Wheen's brilliant 1999 Karl Marx remains the place to go. But for those more purely interested in Marx's thinking, Stedman Jones's book is a treat. Here is not the family man, but the brain; Marx as "Politiker" and "Denker".

Unlike those behind some recently feted revisionist books about Capital, Stedman Jones really reads his Marx. As populism and division stalk the land, it is time to read all our political philosophy more closely.

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