It’s 1849 and Karl Marx is living in London, having fled Prussia and been expelled from France following the 1848 revolutions. Poverty stricken, he is trying to complete his manuscript Capital, A critique of Political Economy while cramped in two rooms with his wife Jenny, housekeeper Helene Demuth, three children plus a fourth on the way. Marx, active in the Communist League, defends his revolutionary ideas to workers against anarchist detractors and conspiracy theorists. These circumstances, in conjunction with increasingly painful carbuncles, are an endless source of frustration for Marx and of humour for the author.
An entertaining work of historical fiction, Marx Returns is written by Jason Barker, director of the 2011 documentary Marx Reloaded.
It begins with Marx observing the “vast floating sewer” of factories that line the Thames shore. The “proletarian army” that streams out of them to join the 5 November Guy Fawkes Night celebrations are a different entity to their “cap doffing” feudal ancestors.
They surge across Westminster Bridge, lay siege to the Palace of Westminster and join Chartists rioting in Trafalgar Square.
The book includes numerous quotes from Marx and Engels’ Collected Works to describe the political, economic and social conditions in which Marx developed his theory of capitalism during the 30 years it took him to complete Capital.
From the relative social calm of the 1850s to the struggle for Irish Independence, Franco-Prussian war and Paris Commune of the 1870s. Marx did not simply observe these events but actively sought to use his writings to explain their significance and further the building of revolutionary organisation.
Barker uses two techniques, with varying effect, through which his fictional Marx develops his analysis of the capitalist mode of production.
Firstly, increasingly complex mathematical calculations to “plot” capitalism and secondly, a recurring metaphor of a moving train with “peaks and troughs…random fluctuations and swerves”.
While initially interesting I thought he spent too long on them and didn’t include enough about the content of Capital.
He also uses several dream sequences in which Marx, exhausted by his theoretical endeavours and the harsh practicalities of life, attempts to subconsciously resolve these questions. Later in the book this becomes a poignant way for him to grieve for his estranged father and the death of his sons Guido and Edgar.
Marx was clear on the progressive nature of early capitalism, compared to feudalism. However the radical experiment of the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871 provided a much better example of his ideas of proletarian dictatorship and direct democracy in stark contrast to the warmongering, imperialist bourgeoisie and its rapacious pursuit of profit.
The relevance of Marx’s ideas to the Communards is evident with the then Paris Police Commissioner citing “the notorious Karl Marx, the German exile presently residing in London as orchestrating much of the current lawlessness.”
As Marx’s friend and fellow revolutionary Friedrich Engels said following the publication of Capital Volume I: “You’ve produced a theory of history that is progressive in every sense of the word. You’ve invented a science capable of seeing into the future”.
This is the enduring legacy of Marx’s ideas.