Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion

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This biography of Karl Marx represents an enormous undertaking. “My aim in this book is like that of a restorer,” Stedman Jones writes, “to remove the later retouching and its alteration contained in a seemingly familiar painting, and restore it to its original state.”

No one can doubt that Stedman Jones provides not only biographical detail but an in-depth analysis of the events, ideas and debates across Europe that Marx was part of and which he devoted his life to intervening in, commenting on and analysing, alongside his lifelong political companion Friedrich Engels. This was both a period of revolution, the development of capitalist society and the earliest workers’ movements. But the image of being a “restorer” is misleading, because it begs the question of what is being restored and how.

Most people would probably agree that there is no single “Marxism” which can be “revealed” like a painting. There are a whole host of interpretations of Marx’s writings, as well as differing traditions such as that of the Second International, most closely associated with Karl Kautsky; the Stalinist tradition of Marxism which became the orthodoxy of Communist Parties and so called communist countries from the 1930s to the 1950s; Maoism, and so on.

But there is also the revolutionary tradition of Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci who all used Marx’s insights to develop an understanding of the world from the point of view of the self-emancipation of the working class.

Stedman Jones is concerned to rescue Marx from the myth created after his death. However, he is not a revolutionary reading Marx for insights into contemporary society. Nor is he a disinterested academic concerned to explicate what Marx wrote. He has rather come to bury Marx in a welter of analysis of the ideas of his contemporaries, while presenting different interpretations of historical events ranging from the Chartist movement in England to the 1848 revolution in France and the Paris Commune in 1871.

Stedman Jones is entitled to his own analysis of events but as a biographer of Marx, the reader is surely entitled to a clear exposition of what Marx wrote and thought. As is clear from the book, Stedman Jones is hardly lacking the requisite knowledge or erudition.

A particularly distressing aspect is the discussion of Volume One of Capital (which he views as a failed project) in a complicated mixture of Marx’s analysis and his own views of Marx’s shortcomings. He argues, for example, that “Marx made little attempt to address the difficulties attending the theory of socially necessary labour time.” He discounts Volumes Two and Three, in part because they were edited by Engels and only appeared after Marx’s death. In fact many contemporary Marxists use all three volumes as tools for understanding capitalism today, in particular Marx’s development of the theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline in order to analyse the current “secular stagnation” of the system.

Stedman Jones argues that at the end of his life Marx was turning away from his previous views. He gives as an example Marx’s interest in precapitalist formations and his views on the potential to build on the Russian commune on the land. If Russia could avoid the course of capitalist development as it had occurred in Western Europe, this would undermine the perspective of capitalism coming to dominate the globe. Furthermore, Stedman Jones asserts that this view, outlined in a letter from Marx to Vera Zasulich in 1881, was “forgotten” by Russian Marxists, concluding: “But this only reinforces the point that the Marx constructed in the 20th century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the 20th century.”

Stedman Jones omits caveats in the same letter where Marx writes, “the harmful influences assailing it [the Russian commune] on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be assured the normal conditions for spontaneous development”. The letter might have been forgotten but Plekhanov and Lenin did an extensive analysis of the development of capitalism in Russia that showed the commune was most definitely being assailed by “harmful influences” and the focus for revolutionaries needed to shift away from the countryside to the towns and, in Lenin’s case, to the burgeoning working class.

The collapse of the so-called communist societies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union dealt an important blow to the dominance of Stalinist interpretations of Marx. But the idea that Marx’s writings should now be considered only of relevance to an intellectual history of the 19th century is to evince a pessimism about the potentiality of the working class to change society and a (misplaced) faith in parliamentary procedures as the means by which the problems of capitalism can be overcome.

Unfortunately, Stedman Jones has not “restored” Marx to his original thought; he has robbed him of his revolutionary, that is to say “Marxist”, content.