Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones - review by John Gray

John Gray

The Dialectical Man

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion


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In 1981, Leszek Kolakowski began the introduction to the first volume of his magisterial trilogy Main Currents of Marxism with the statement ‘Karl Marx was a German philosopher.’ If we add ‘who lived and worked in the nineteenth century’, this remains the perfect truism on the subject. The grand intellectual construction that later came to be known as Marxism has only a tenuous and oblique connection with Marx’s own efforts to understand and respond to the events of his time. Episodic and disjointed because of his uncertain life as a penurious émigré, Marx’s writings never added up to a unified world-view. Even his largest theoretical claims – those about capitalism made in The Communist Manifesto (1848), co-authored with Engels, for example – were reactions to particular historical circumstances. Reading Marx as the architect of Marxism can only lead to misunderstanding the man and his thought.

This was the message of Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (2013), a methodical demolition of some of the myths surrounding Marx and his thought. An unfamiliar picture emerges from Sperber’s well-documented account. At points in the 1840s Marx’s political views had something in common with those of 20th-century anti-communists. In 1842 he wrote that as a result of the spread of communist ideas ‘our once blossoming commercial cities are no longer flourishing’, while in 1848 he rejected the idea of revolutionary dictatorship by a single class as ‘nonsense’. Partly as a result of the influence of Engels, Marx has often been seen as an admirer of Darwin. But in fact Marx disliked Darwin’s theory of natural selection because it left human progress ‘purely accidental’, preferring the work of the forgotten French ethnographer Pierre Trémaux, who argued that racial differences have ‘a natural basis’ in biology and geology – a common view at the time. Intellectually Marx was a prototypical 19th-century figure, absorbing from French positivist thinkers the idea that traditional religions were fading away and industrialism becoming better organised and ultimately more harmonious. These aspects of his thinking were at odds with others shaped by Hegelian philosophy and German radical humanism. Rather than being an exercise in system-building, Marx’s shifting and at times contradictory theoretical views were closely related to the political struggles in which he was actively involved.

Gareth Stedman Jones shares with Sperber the objective of representing Marx as a 19th-century figure and covers much of the same ground. But the picture of Marx that emerges in Stedman Jones’s rich and deeply researched book is interestingly different. He is blunter than Sperber in discussing Marx’s complicated relationship with his Jewish ancestry. According to Marx, Stedman Jones writes, Judaism ‘despised nature, was uninterested in art or love except for the financial value they might contain, while its interest in law was primarily in its circumvention’. Despite the efforts of his father and brother, Marx ‘unhesitatingly adopted Napoléon’s secular equation between Judaism and usury. Not only did he attack the supposed monotheism of the Jew in the most insulting terms derived from Voltaire as “a polytheism of many needs”, but also went on to attack the Talmud as “the relation of the world of self-interest to the laws governing that world”.’ Marx’s essay on The Jewish Question (1843–4) contains many such ‘catty anti-Semitic jibes’.

The most original section of Stedman Jones’s account has to do with Marx’s view of village communities. Marx is commonly supposed to have thought that villages embodied an archaic form of life that would have no role in shaping socialism, and it is true that this view dominates his writings from the 1840s up to the publication of Capital in 1867. Throughout these years Marx was strongly modernist in his thinking, envisioning socialism as a successor to capitalism that would be based on the aspirations of the emerging industrial working class. From 1868 onwards, though, he began to look to traditional forms of communal agriculture as embodiments of an egalitarian type of community. From this point of view, the Russian mir – the communal ownership and periodic redivision of land in the Russian village community – provided an example of future regeneration by building on survivals from ancient and even primitive societies. One of the inspirations for socialism came not from visions of the future but vestiges of the past.

In the case of Russia, this placed Marx close to thinkers who promoted agrarian populism, such as Alexander Herzen. In a draft of a letter written in 1881, Marx looked to the Russian peasant commune as the germ of a post-capitalist economy: ‘if the revolution comes at the opportune moment, if it concentrates all its forces to allow the rural commune its full scope, the latter will soon develop as an element of regeneration in Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist system.’ Marx’s social-democratic Russian disciples believed socialism would only be possible after a longish period of capitalist development, but the master scornfully repudiated these ‘Russian “Marxists”’ as holding views ‘diametrically opposed’ to his own. As he saw it, a socialist revolution was needed before capitalism destroyed the village commune.

Marx’s views on this and many other matters have little in common with what later came to be understood as ‘Marxism’, but this is not because Marx’s work was traduced. Through his collaboration with Engels, Marx was implicated in the spread of a version of his ideas that differed significantly from his own understanding of them. Financially dependent on his collaborator, it was difficult for him to be open about the areas in which the two disagreed. Marx never endorsed Engels’s efforts to meld socialism with Darwinism, but neither did he ever clearly dissociate himself from them.

What remains of Marx’s thought is his insight into the emergence and consequences of a global market, which Stedman Jones summarises forcefully. Marx, he writes:

was the first to chart the staggering transformation produced in less than a century by the emergence of a world market and the unleashing of the unparalleled productive powers of modern industry. He also delineated the endlessly inchoate, incessantly restless and unfinished character of modern capitalism as a phenomenon. He emphasized its inherent tendency to invent new needs and the means to satisfy them, its subversion of all inherited cultural practices and beliefs, its disregard of all boundaries, whether sacred or secular, its destabilization of every hallowed hierarchy, whether of ruler and ruled, man and woman or parent and child, its turning of everything into an object for sale.

It is a prescient glimpse of our world. But along with many other thinkers of the 19th century (and the 20th), Marx failed to foresee how older forms of life would be reinvigorated even as the world was being transformed. While village life has not been renewed, religion and nationalism have mutated into new and at times strikingly malignant forms. Capitalism may be a revolutionary force, as Marx believed. But for that very reason it cannot help creating powerful forces that resist and sometimes defeat it.

Stedman Jones describes Marx’s view of the village community as ‘a nineteenth century phantasm’, and in this he is surely right. There was no more reason to think a new socialist society would develop from peasant communes than from the industrial working class. Both visions of a post-capitalist society were illusions. The strength of Marx’s thought lies in his analysis of capitalism itself, whose enormous productive and disruptive potential he understood better than most thinkers in his time or ours.

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