The Mortal Marx

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 ...

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.1

<i>Communards at the rue de Castiglione, Paris, December 30, 1871</i>. Photograph by Bruno Braquehais

Communards at the rue de Castiglione, Paris, December 30, 1871. Photograph by Bruno Braquehais

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 Illusion is 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.”2

From Trier, Marx went to university in Bonn to become a lawyer like his father. After learning that his son was boozing and partying his way through studies, Heinrich sent the young Karl to the sobriety of Berlin. There, it was philosophy, not law, that gave Marx the means to imagine a world without illusions, to clear the way for a future governed by reason, not religion. Following the Young Hegelians, Marx turned to—some would say against—his own kind. He has been seen as a self-hating Semite and the author of bilious words about his ancestors. But he had a problem on his hands: what to do about particular communities in the rationalizing current of History? Did Jews, like others, have to step to the marche generale? This, it turns out, was a preoccupation that runs like a seam through Marx’s oeuvre. It was the source of some of his most blistering prose; it would also motivate his most profound doubts.

The case of the Jews illustrated the plight of self-estrangement. The bourgeois era put Jews in a spot: political and civic rights were still denied while their financial power, tied to banking and commerce, was on the rise. The dilemma of a people that were publicly excluded while privately ascending was disturbing enough; what rankled Marx was Jews’ profiting as capitalist “hucksters” while obeying old lifeways. It was the worst fusion imaginable, a kind of double alienation: godless reverence of money mixed with godly backwardness.

“On the Jewish Question” (1844) and its awful passages about Jewish backwardness and opportunism would later become a touchstone for Stalin’s crusade against “rootless cosmopolitans.” But often forgotten is how Marx insisted that Jews should not have to renounce their faith as a condition for political emancipation. The question for him was: could pariahs ever be fully emancipated as humans while holding on to their community ways? If at times he answered with unambiguous certainty—no—there was more going on. As feudal enclosures and walled cities gave way to industrial societies, “On the Jewish Question” addressed the fate of people consigned to a partial, and unfair, place in the flow of history. For many, community was the way to handle and resist the risks, not to say ruin, of capitalism.

Marx was always more attentive to this ambiguity than the certainty-seekers would ever admit. His early radical idealism probed different ways of imagining how a “communal nature of man” might emerge from the “interdependence of civil society.” It also strove to avoid basic deterministic ways of thinking. Stedman Jones portrays a Marx yearning to reconcile idealism and materialism, “incorporating nature and mind without assigning primacy to one or the other.” The posthumous campaign to make him the author of a “materialist theory of history” has had to either erase all of this early style or wave it off as immature speculation.

In Stedman Jones’s view, Marx carried these traits forward. Trying to reconcile dichotomies, thinking about freedom as more than deliverance from necessity, insisting that humans were social creatures with a deep need to belong—these became substrata of his thinking. But by 1844 Marx was turning to a new source of viewing the world: political economy. Marx’s concern shifted from consciousness of the mind to human activity.

Fighting Words

Turning to political economy also directed Marx away from a boring academic existence and toward his lifelong career as a journalist. It was as a journalist that the pariah became an exile.

In the short-lived Rheinische Zeitung, Marx and his pals published some scabrous articles about religion and the pietistic hypocrisies of the Russian tsar, who stood in as an icon of fanatical despotism. Under pressure from St. Petersburg, and uneasy about where all this inflammatory talk was going, the Prussian government shut down the paper and drove its last editor, Marx, into exile. He moved to Paris, where he lasted for about a year, until he got driven out again, this time to Brussels. It was there that he would team up with Engels and write the book that would make him the sage of revolution that we now know—The Manifesto of the Communist Party. (It was originally titled, just to remind us of the enduring appeal of spiritual imagery, “communist confession of faith.”)

<i>A manuscript page from what would become </i>The Communist Manifesto (1847). Wikimedia Commons

A manuscript page from what would become The Communist Manifesto (1847). Wikimedia Commons

After that, the Belgians threw him out. Marx went briefly to Cologne, to resume his editorship of another newspaper. That lasted a year, until the Prussian government sent him packing again. He went back to Paris for a few months, only to become a persona non grata there once more, and then finally to England, where he would settle down—though he was always denied citizenship and would live out his years as a stateless denizen, not unlike his parents’ parents. It was in these pinball years that religion ceased to be his obsession, making way for the “bourgeois system.” Industry, factory life, smokestacks, money men, a whole new set of props and a new cast of characters took Marx’s literary stage. For all his curiosity, he developed some striking blind spots. As Stedman Jones makes clear, there was little about the events of the late 1840s and early 1850s that Marx got right. He read the events of 1848 through the prism of 1789 and a fantasy about revolution.

One of those realities was the beginnings of mass consumption. Another was the rise of free trade. In an insight that had zero effect on either of them, Engels wrote to Marx from Manchester that “the free traders here are exploiting the prosperity or semi-prosperity to buy the proletariat.”3 Among the even more important shifts, according to Stedman Jones, were the democratization of the state, the rise of electoralism, and the formation of competitive party systems that enlivened political life. While Marx and his followers decried the falsehoods of ballot-casting and treated elections as shambolic ceremonies, they missed completely the significance of the political process and its consequences for the alienated. Marx’s was “a static and anachronistic picture,” Stedman Jones concludes. Marx labored to understand the political and economic forces behind Europe’s upheavals, to the point of misunderstanding them completely.

This had enormous consequences for his leadership in the fledgling Communist movement; Marx never reckoned with the importance of making alliances and coalitions, skills fundamental to democratic politics. The result was some spectacular swinging from optimism and euphoria to desolation and despair, followed by finger-pointing among revolutionary factions.

And yet, Marx was on to something. Being an exiled journalist for a newspaper in another country gave him a perch that few others had or chose to occupy. Marx became a reporter of the world; he poured his sarcasm and his relentless drive to connect disparate events into a regular stream of articles. All the while, information about the world poured into London. In 1851, a submarine cable linked Dover to Calais. The Atlantic got cabled in 1858. Just before then, as the Crimean War raged, the Channel Cable Company laid a cable from the British military headquarters at Balaklava on the Crimean Peninsula to Bulgaria. The frenzy of anti-Russian reporting reached its acme in the pages of the London Illustrated News, only reinforcing Marx’s die-hard Russophobia. Marx lapped all this up, at a moment in which London was not just the hub of finance and trade, but also news and information.

Marx must have known that this was a gold mine. Exploiting it led to some profound insights into global economic integration. For all his political blind spots, the stateless journalist wrote some perceptive essays about the world economy as it was coming into being, the role of finance capital in the fall of the East India Company, the influence of free trade in the Taiping Rebellion. He also recycled some of his notorious biases, especially in his views of the “Hindoostan” peasantry and what he thought was the impending crisis of the Russian aristocracy (in fact, the Russian empire was expanding at a clip that rivaled the United States and struck fear into the heart of Lord Palmerston’s paranoid ministry).

Globalization and “Das Kapital”

As a global interpreter, Marx saw the need for a new kind of political economy, one that could explain not just the rise of industrialism and bourgeois society, but its expansion and growth. It was not just that capitalism (a word coined by Louis Blanc and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and used rarely by Marx himself) was replacing earlier “systems.” It was that it had an unbridled ability to grow and absorb. It went global—which called for a different sort of theory than The Communist Manifesto’s self-assured “stagism,” which predicted that socialism would eclipse capitalism as surely as capitalism eviscerated feudalism. From the Crimean War until early 1868, explaining global growth became Marx’s mission. From that came A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and, eight years later, Das Kapital.

Seen over the long arc of Marx’s lifework, this was a relatively short, furtive, and anxiety-ridden moment. But it had lasting consequences for how Marx would be remembered. In fact, much of what he wrote is now forgotten or consigned to misty debates between insiders about what Marx actually meant. In my collegiate days, many hours were spent poring over Marx’s syntax, searching for clues to the mystery of the real Röckle’s prose. When I arrived at Oxford as a graduate student in the mid-1980s, Gerald Cohen was streamlining Marx’s theory of history as a story about the growth of productive power. Jon Elster made a valiant effort to bring some clarity to our exuberant debates with Making Sense of Marx (1985), with the premise that it could
make basic sense—if we could only purge Marx of his Hegelianisms and replace them with the elegance of methodological individualism. The irony, of course, was that while we debated the cleansing virtues of “analytical Marxism”—aka “no-bullshit Marxism”—real world actors were tearing down the remnants of Bolshevism, which left us puzzled: was there anything left of Marxism but bullshit?

<i>Logo for Gerald Cohen’s “no-bullshit Marxism” group</i>. Via @davidgraeber / Twitter

Logo for Gerald Cohen’s “no-bullshit Marxism” group. Via @davidgraeber / Twitter

But two pieces from this moment of Marx’s life stand out. The first is his preface to the Critique, which begins, as Stedman Jones notes, with one of the most cited passages in the Marxist canon: “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Ever since, Marxists have agonized over the meaning of that choice of cryptic verbs. What does it mean “to condition?” What does “determine” do? Stedman Jones, whose career has illuminated the power of language and rhetoric in class consciousness, finds in this passage a lot of muddled thinking, and thus misguided politics, about collective action and social change.

The second was his “fat book.” But Das Kapital made things even murkier by tangling the reader up in tortuous formulae about how money turns into capital, from C-M-C to M-C-M (with C as code for commodities and for money). Plugging the formulae into big theories of History turned the passage of time into a wind-up toy marching down the capitalist road to some apotheosis.

Ironically, while witnessing the global power of markets and wanting to create a “theory” (or “critique”) of what was going on, Marx was more successful, as Stedman Jones observes, “precisely in the area for which he affected to have least regard.” His worldly writings connected capitalism’s historical roots in the rise of industrial production and the emergence of finance capital to its international spread and globalized resistance. He was better, Stedman Jones argues, at sketching the contours of an economic system’s global history than he was at managing his crystal ball. Marx may well be the first global historian, a finer diagnostician of the past than a prophet of the future.

What Happened to the Real Marx?

No wonder Marxists cornered themselves. They sought a theory of revolutions drawn from a work that was born when capitalism was going through one of its growth pains rather than suffering from a death spiral. The habit of confusing transitions with collapses became a stubborn habit; Marxists have made careers out of predicting free falls that never happened.

For this, Marx is partly to blame. In the preface to the Critique, notes Stedman Jones, Marx “appeared to open himself up to a much more determinist view of man than had been evident before.” For starters, there was no politics; matters of state were left for Das Kapital. Then, when he turned to his “fat book,” some of the vital pieces got kicked down the road—to future volumes he would leave to Engels to remake into a version of what the latter thought Marxism should be after Marx.

Marx knew that Das Kapital was unable to realize its explanatory ambition. It was weakest on the matters about which Marx had been agonizing since the late 1830s: group consciousness and community membership. But he kept this to himself. Instead, he receded and let Engels to do more and more of the talking—and publishing. Why? Stedman Jones points to a number of reasons. Tired of his ranting about reactionaries in France and Russia, the editors of the New York Daily Tribune cut him off. This made Marx even more dependent on Engels’s subsidies.

There was also a political problem, which was never Marx’s strong suit. Populists were better at inspiring the masses than communists; nationalism, not internationalism, was gaining ground. Tussy was among the millions who swooned when Garibaldimania swept Britain in 1864. Then, the movement upon which Marx pinned so much hope, the Paris Commune, ended in horrible bloodshed. There were also the bruising duels with another exile, Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian firebrand and Marx’s truest rival for the spiritual leadership of radicalism, whose finger was better placed on the pulse of popular politics. It was Bakunin who warned against the authoritarian strain within the Communist movement.

During the 1870s, Marx wrote a lot but published little. In public, he “was prepared to allow Engels to act for him,” notes Stedman Jones, which only widened the gap between an ambivalent Marx and certainty-seeking Marxists.

Are we being reintroduced to an ambivalent Marx for a skeptical age?

The final chapters of Karl Marx are not only essential readings in global intellectual history. They also reveal just how much Marx was pulling away from class struggle as a “nature-driven necessity” and returning to themes of an earlier age, when he wondered about humans as social creatures seeking recognition and membership. But all this Marx kept to himself. The idea of Marx’s fascination with Darwin and evolutionary thinking, for instance, is a myth peddled by Engels. Marx was “respectful of” Darwin but not “excited by” him, Stedman Jones tells us.

What did excite Marx, by contrast, was news of village life, German primeval Mark (feudal community), Henry Maine’s work on ancient law, and, most surprisingly of all, studies of Russian peasant communities and the Slavic popular spirit as captured by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. For years, Marx had disparaged primitive accumulation and the “idiocy of rural life” (as he was famously translated in The Communist Manifesto—though there is a debate about whether Marx meant isolation, not idiocy) as despotic, explaining in part his disdain for almost anything Russian. Captivated by ethnographies and early world history, and struck by the populist appeals of rural communities fighting to resist capitalist development, Marx filled his notebooks after 1873 with musings about alternative collective responses to globalized capital.

He later tried to erase the tracks of some of the views of capitalism he had offered as the general leading the marche generale. In the first edition of Das Kapital (1867), there is a famous line in the preface: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future!” The exclamation mark leaves little room for doubt about Marx’s original certainty. In the second German edition, of 1873, the exclamation mark is gone. In the French translation of 1875, in Chapter 26, on “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation,” Marx tinkered with the prose to imply that the dispossession of the English peasantry might spread only to some parts of Western Europe. Private letters reveal Marx admitting that people didn’t all have to go through the same sausage maker. The would-be poet forged in a pre-1848 world of classical literature, ancient mythology, and idealism turned to anthropologists, ethnographers, and studies of communitarian outposts to imagine free people resisting the homogenizing machinery of capitalism. In his last and largely forgotten writings, Marx saluted the American anthropologist and student of Iroquois villages, Lewis Henry Morgan, for anticipating “the revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.”

Everyone remembers this line in the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Meant to evoke the ways in which the bourgeoisie was turning all aspects of social life into the commodity form, it is one of the most haloed lines in modern “theory.” What’s often forgotten is the line before it: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”

A quarter century after it was written, Marx must have wished he could take it back. As he grew increasingly ill, and with Jenny’s death in late 1881, whatever faith he had in the marche generale gave way to a fascination with forces he had once denounced: gods, myths, and efforts to humanize nature—quietly forsaking the assumption about inevitable dehumanization.

Remembering Marx

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. icon

  1. Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life (Norton, 2001); Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (Liveright, 2013).
  2. From late November 1877, translated from the French by Donna Torr, in Marx and Engels Correspondence (International Publishers, 1968).
  3. Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (Metropolitan, 2009), p. 185.
Featured image: Trier, c. 1900. Photochrom print. Library of Congress