‘A World to Win: The Life and Thought of Karl Marx’ by Sven-Eric Liedman reviewed by David McLellan

Reviewed by David McLellan

About the reviewer

David McLellan is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory, University of Kent and Fellow of …


This big (756pp) book was originally published in Swedish in 2015 under the more sensible title of “Karl Marx: A Biography”. The author has, he tells us, updated it for the English translation. He has also added a Preface in which he rather defensively answers the question of why we need another large biography after the sweeping 2016 one by Gareth Stedman-Jones(2017). Liedman’s view is, I think, correct though rather harshly expressed: Stedman-Jones is excellent on Marx’s politics but less so on Marx’s achievements as an empirical researcher and thinker, particularly in the last decade of his life. As I shall try to show below, Liedman’s book is the reverse: he is weak on Marx’s politics, but insightful on the later Marx’s researches into political economy in the broadest sense. Thus they tend to complement each other. One great merit of Liedman’s book is its emphasis on how unfinished is Marx’s work – how, from the 1840s until and including his last decade, he was constantly and continuously evolving, modifying, refining his approach to economy and society. All this is excellently conveyed – though why Liedman thinks that such an enterprise was impossible while the Soviet Union was still in existence (as he claims on his first page) is mystifying.

From this perspective, Liedman gives pride of place to the Grundrisse, Capital, and the “late” Marx of the 1870s. His treatment of the General Introduction to the Grundrisse is as thorough and as accurate as the difficult content allows – though he is too kind to Marx on Greek art. The same goes for his chapter on Capital. The exposition is clear and nuanced. Liedman is particularly good on the transformation problem. And it is very useful to have an account of recent German scholarship incorporated into the discussion – work by Heinrich and Kliman being well-covered. Occasionally it is frustrating to find Liedman a bit too “hands-off”: he outlines, for example, Marx’s reasons for thinking that the rate of profit will fall but gives us no indication of what he himself thinks of this or any indication of where one might go to find further discussion.

Another area where Liedman is helpful is his lengthy account of Marx’s researches during the last decade of his life. Basing himself on material recently published in the MEGA, he shows how widely read Marx was in the natural sciences. He even devotes four pages to Marx’s close friend and fellow campaigner the renowned inorganic chemist Carl Schorlemmer. Liedman is also good on the different approaches of Marx and Engels to the natural sciences. It is a pity that he has not managed to include discussion of the material in Marx’s notebooks on the environment as described in the splendid recent study by Saito (2017). Liedman is also dismissive of John Bellamy Foster’s account of Marx’s ecology, though it is not clear quite what his grounds are.

Almost inevitably, there are some mistakes: Marx did not die “at his desk”: he died in an armchair. The French translation of Capital, though much revised in parts by himself, was not “his own”; it was done by Joseph Roy. More importantly, the length and depth of Liedman’s discussion of Marx’s writings is very eclectic. This is, in a way, quite engaging as it clearly reflects his own interests and predilections. But it does sometimes involve an unbalanced account. This is particularly true of Marx’s more political writings. Take, for example, the articles that Marx wrote for the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher. In the first, the laboriously entitled “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, Liedman has quite a bit on religion as the opium of the people (and curiously seems to think that Marx’s remarks come after, rather than before, Britain’s opium wars in China), but almost nothing on the striking proclamation of the emancipatory power of the proletariat with which the article ends. In the second article – “On the Jewish Question” – there is, again, quite a lengthy, rambling discussion of Marx’s alleged anti-semitism but little on the main point of the article – Marx’s incisive criticism of the idea of the rights of man and the citizen as put forward in the US constitution. Again, Liedman devotes more than four pages to a relatively obscure 1844 article by Marx criticising Ruge. As for The German Ideology, he has ten (very good) pages on the wearisomely long section on Stirner but only two or three on the section on Feuerbach which many have thought to be Marx’s best account of his materialist conception of history.

Liedman is equally selective in his treatment of Marx’s political writings from 1848 until 1852. There is virtually nothing on Marx’s major role in the dissolution of the Communist league, nothing at all on Marx’s views on Blanqui and the dictatorship of the proletariat in an otherwise extended discussion of “The Class Struggles in France”, and no clear account, in his dealing with the “Eighteenth Brumaire”, of exactly why Louis Bonaparte had triumphed. Generally missing is an awareness of the social background of leading members of the Communist League and the difficulties that this created for Marx. They were artisans whose professions such as tailors or watchmakers made them unreceptive to Marx’s basic view that capitalist industrialisation – which would make them redundant – was a necessary prelude to socialism.

This same selectivity is also evident in Liedman’s treatment of Marx’s later political writings. He rightly relies a lot on the work of Schieder but devotes less than four pages to “The Civil War in France” with little discussion of the proposed election, revocability, and mandating of delegates in the Commune. In his treatment of the “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, Liedman has only a few lines on what Marx has to say about the lower and higher stages of communism and what this has to say about his attitude to justice and equality. The vast literature to which this has given rise merits a more extended discussion.

Finally, this book has the great merit of accessibility. It has commendably short paragraphs and little of what might be called “jargon”. Liedman avoids any lengthy quotations from Marx and paraphrases a lot. This does mean that it is occasionally difficult to tell whether it is Marx or Liedman who is speaking. I cannot comment on the efficacy of the translation, though sometimes the English does seem to go puzzlingly awry. Unforgiveable is the frequent referencing of well-known English-language books – by Hobsbawm, Cohen and others – in their Swedish language editions. And it would have been useful to have a bibliography. But Liedman’s book has a lot to recommend it. In some ways attractively idiosyncratic, the whole may not be more than the sum of its parts, but many of those parts are genuinely original and enlightening.

26 June 2018


  • Saitō, Kōhei 2017 Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capitalism, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy New York: Monthly Review Press
  • Stedman Jones, Gareth 2017 Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion London: Penguin Books


  1. Thank you Prof. McLellan for your sympathically-critical review – one biographical authority commenting on another! I preferred your biography to Liedman’s, actually.

    In fact, the German Ideology manuscript on Ludwig Feuerbach was written by Engels, and not by Marx, although Marx evidently edited the manuscript (adding bits and crossing out bits – you can see that here in the digital version: https://search.socialhistory.org/Record/ARCH00860 ).

    It is rather therefore implausible, as most Marxists have done, to attribute that text to Marx. Of course, we do not know in what situation the manuscript was written, it may be that Marx and Engels together discussed what they wanted to write, and that Engels functioned more as a ghostwriter for the ideas of the team.

    When I studied the texts in the early 1980s, I concluded that what is nowadays called “historical materialism” by the Marxists was always much more a product of Engels, than of Marx (Marx never used the term “historical materialism”, because that connotes an ideological doctrine or philosophical system, whereas Marx’s “materialistischen Geschichtsauffassung” instead refers to a “perspective” on human history, which served as a guiding thread for research). There are considerable differences between the views of Marx and Engels on the spiritual life of human beings – in general, Engels showed much more hostility to christianity and religion, and wanted to get rid of it.

    As you can see in the IISH manuscripts, two parts of the German Ideology manuscript (on “Saint Max” and “Moses Hess”) were actually co-written by Joseph Weydemeyer.

  2. I thank Jurriaan Bendien for his informed comment on my review. And I bow before his knowledge of the manuscript of the German Ideology. We are all indebted to his research in this area. I accept that the majority of the section on Feuerbach was written (in one sense at least) by Engels. But I also think that this section is what Marx was referring to as the “guiding thread” of his studies in his 1859 Preface to his Critique of Political Economy and thus has his endorsement. And I also feel (and this is an appropriate word here) that a lot of the language is more redolent of Marx’s brilliant rhetorical flourishes than of the more sober prose of Engels. And the reading of the first section of the German Ideology in French when I was student in Paris with no knowledge whatsoever of Marxism struck me so forcibly that I could not but continue to read, and write on, Marx. But that is even more subjective….

  3. Re: ‘German Ideology’ Jurriaan Bendien might like to consult A Political History of the Editions of the ‘German ideology manuscripts’ by Terrell Carver and Daniel Blank (Palgrave, 2014) for a comprehensive discussion of the issues raised above and many more.

  4. I agree that the two books by Carver & Blank provide an excellent English Marxological guide to the history of The German Ideology manuscripts – lots of useful and relevant details, historical background and references. I make do with the digital versions… the paper editions are quite pricey.

    In the days when Marxism-Leninism was hegemonic, Marxists already had the answer to all of the questions in advance. This applied equally to the Trotskyists, because they had the certified revolutionary programme, and progress was a matter of recruiting people to the revolutionary programme.

    The Maoists were a bit different, because they had the mass line concept, but nevertheless the central committee, correctly applying Marxist-Leninist science, knew the direction that the long march to power should take and determined the party line.

    Marxists felt in step with the march of history, and confidently regarded themselves as being ahead of everybody else.

    Today’s issue is: “if Marx is the answer, what is the question?”. Which is to say, the functionaries and proprietors who own the franchise of “Marx/Engels products” nowadays, are often out of touch with, and distant from, the actual market for their products.

    They are out of touch among other things, because their own lifeworld is a lot different from the lifestyle of the type of people that Marx and Engels were concerned with, they’re in a different class. Somehow the proprietors have to “sell” their old literature to a new readership, and try to interest them in their refurbisched or recycled old Left ideology.

    Every now and then, there will be a new article in a newspaper or a magazine about “whether Marx is still relevant”, but usually the answer is rather vague, trite or banale. The writers don’t really know, and often have no real background in the subject.

    You can see this trend reflected even in Liedman’s book. He is very convinced Marx is still relevant, but it appears to me that he ultimately doesn’t really know why.

    He wants to advertise certain “new” contemporary readings of Marx, but he doesn’t get much beyond endorsements. He emphasizes particular topics, with the hope or expectation they will be relevant to readers.

    In this way, Liedman’s long thread of “fireside chats” about Marx meanders and digresses from one topic to the next – yet what the overall point of it all is, often remains rather unclear.

    With the aid of Google Books Ngram Viewer https://books.google.com/ngrams/ we can trace the quantitative evolution of literary interest in Marx, Marxism etc. with a citation frequency graph. From about 1957 onward, it began to rise in the English-speaking world at an accelerating pace that never stopped, for two decades. It peaked around 1978-1980. After that, it’s been all the way down, to a level similar to the early 1930s.

    But of course it is not similar a matter of quantitative changes, but also of qualitative ones. Marx today has to respond to a qualitatively different environment. Yet only few people are actually researching what that environment is, beyond philosophy or speculation.

    No wonder, then, that the relevancy of Marx has become unclear – quite apart from the content of his thought. It is not just that people aren’t reading Marx so much, but that they don’t know anymore why they should be reading him.

  5. It’s always a pleasure to find new reviews of Liedman’s book so long after it came out! As the translator of the work, I would like to ask Prof. McLellan where he felt the translation went awry, and why.

  6. My comment on the English’s being awry was not intended to impugn the translation. As I wrote (see above), I am not competent to pronounce on its accuracy as I have no Swedish. But there were twenty or so places where the
    idiosyncratic uses of English did raise my eyebrows. One example would be the sentence on page 43: “Karl lived sixty years with his bad lungs, though it was a pulmonary
    illness that ultimately laid him in his grave”. Reading “and” rather than “though” would make better sense. But if you think (as I do) that the task of the translator is not to better the original but to render it faithfully, then the responsibility is the author’s and not the translator’s. I only mentioned this because I did not want the occasional oddities of expression to distract from the many merits of the book.

  7. I have just finished reading this book. It is a marvellous work and I particularly enjoyed reading the chapters dealing with Capital and Grundrisse-as aspect of the book that David McLellan has also praised. I also liked the general approach in viewing Marx’s work not as a finished and complete system. That ‘system’ view of Marx tends to make ‘Marxism’ closed and dogmatic. I also liked the last chapter where Sven-Eric Liedman refers to areas where Marx’s own understanding was not adequate e.g. nationalism, religion, sexual relations and gender. I highly recommend the book to both new readers of Marx and Marx biography as well as to those who are well versed in these areas.

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