‘Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society: The Life of Marx and the Development of His Work (Volume I: 1818-1841)’ by Michael Heinrich reviewed by Chris Byron

Reviewed by Chris Byron

About the reviewer

Chris Byron recently defended his dissertation on a new reading of Marx’s theory of exploitation …

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Michael Heinrich opens the first volume of his biography on Marx and the modern society he grew up in by noting that ‘Marx probably would not have wanted a biography, and certainly not one planned for multiple volumes’ (9). Seeing as Marx did not desire a personal biography, and that dozens already exist, Heinrich’s project raises the question: why write this book at all? While this review will diverge from the ubiquitous praise being offered elsewhere and offer some slightly critical commentary, it can confidently be said that Heinrich’s completed biographical series will easily eclipse previous Marx biographies. In fact, it is doubtful that the problems outlined below will reemerge in subsequent volumes.

Heinrich offers three justifications for writing a new Marx biography, noting that unlike other biographies, his ‘is concerned with the historical process in which Karl Marx developed as a person, as a theorist, as a political activist, and as a revolutionary’ (ibid).

The first justification Heinrich offers is that too many Marx biographies are character driven, attempting to distill Marx the man, and what it would be like to spend an evening with him drinking liquor and pontificating about revolution. Heinrich believes this is a foolhardy project, especially given the gaps in documentations that may allow for a more robust picture of Marx’s character.

His second justification is that past biographies do not take into account Marx’s life and thought ‘in equal measure’ (25). That is, other biographies overemphasize either Marx’s life or thought. Heinrich’s claim accurately depicts two other Marx biographies, namely Francis Wheen’s overemphasis on Marx’s character, at the cost of theoretical development, and Sven-Eric Liedman’s overemphasis on theory, although done quite well, at the cost of character. Wheen’s biography, among many others, is routinely criticized throughout Heinrich’s footnotes, and the criticisms consistently register as cogent.

The final justification Heinrich offers is that he intends to properly detail the works and life of Marx by portraying the ‘historical context’ in which Marx lived (29). These three justifications coupled with Heinrich’s introduction make it clear that depicting the ‘birth of Modern society’ is intended to justify a new Marx biography. Detailing modern society allows Heinrich to bridge the gap between Marx’s life and thought. Moreover, since Marx was a theorist of modern society, Heinrich’s detailing the context as an objective narrative component dovetails nicely with Marx’s aim to critically theorize modern society as a new social-phenomenon requiring scrutiny. This opening gambit – to place Marx within the historical context of modern society and its development – is what simultaneously hinders and emboldens Heinrich’s first volume.

The book contains three chapters, each taking up a third of the book. Since archival documentation of Marx’s early life is miniscule, one would think that the first chapter titled ‘Forgotten Youth: 1818-1835’ would be quite short. Instead, it’s just as long as the two subsequent chapters. Three pages of chapter one detail what Heinrich can derive about Marx’s youth (not much), and the remaining pages focus almost exclusively on Marx’s family, their lineage and the surrounding political and religious landscape. Thus, the first third of Heinrich’s Marx biography has nearly nothing to do with Marx, bending the stick, it can be argued, too far in the narrative of modern society. It may be doubted that many academics, scholars and individuals interested in Marx’s life really desire such an extensive summary of Marx’s father, and his familial relations. That said, Heinrich does break new ground in depicting Marx’s relationship to his father. Furthermore, whereas past biographies were too quick to believe Marx’s mother was a dullard, Heinrich notes the evidence that such claims are wanting. Heinrich routinely does a great job of showing how many commonplace claims about Marx are dubious (e.g. that Marx engaged in a pistol duel, was too egotistical for familial concerns, that his Jewish background might engender self-loathing, or that the Westphalens considered the Marx’s beneath their station).

Chapter two details Marx’s life from 1835-1838, when he attended university, and chapter three focuses on Marx’s intellectual developments from 1838-1841, ending with a twenty-page summary of Marx’s doctoral dissertation.

It can be suspected these are the two chapters by which readers will be most rewarded, especially chapter three. Yet similar to the first, there remains an overemphasis on modern society and historical context, at the cost of Marx biographizing. Frankly, it isn’t until the final thirty or so pages detailing Marx’s dissertation that Marx’s thought – distinct from his life – was touched upon with unique insight and detail. However, one will learn intimate details about the political, religious and educational landscape of nineteenth century Berlin. Hegel and his colleagues are remarkably detailed both in their thought and political lives. Moreover, the common theorists associated with the young Marx, such as Bruno Bauer, Arnold Ruge and Ludwig Feuerbach, are given excellent early treatment in the volume.

Heinrich’s detailing of Marx’s intellectual surrounding is excellent, although perhaps in this regard a more proper title of the book could have been something like ‘Hegelian Reactions During the Birth of Modern Society: 1818-41’. Heinrich clearly has a researcher’s axe to grind regarding Marx’s intellectual surroundings.

Most Marx scholars associate Marx with the ‘young’ Hegelians and/or ‘left’ Hegelians, believing Marx and his comrades developed a leftward assault against the ‘old’ and more conservative ‘right’ Hegelians. Scholars often perceive this young-left versus old-right paradigm as focused on the political aspects of Hegel’s thought. Heinrich contends otherwise. Although there are plenty of family resemblances among those theorists occupying either the left or rightward Hegelian trend, Heinrich nevertheless shows that there are no clear criteria for determining who belongs where.

Heinrich argues that this old-right versus young-left historical dichotomy is a product of twentieth century scholarship and not an accurate reflection of the actual historical context in which Hegelian battles were being waged both concretely through civil appointments, and in the ethereal air of theory. Moreover, much of the confusion surrounding Hegelian positioning is due to the fact that few scholars realized that religion was politics in nineteenth century Germany. In a society without a stark state-church separation, being publicly secular was a political act that was often met with state persecution. Relatedly, being pious and patriotic often entailed good civil appointments.

Heinrich demonstrates that theology is the primary focus of Marx and his critical colleagues. Their rebukes of modern society focus on religion. Heinrich goes into extensive detail about what Marx was probably reading and researching between 1835-41, concluding that contrary to common wisdom Marx had an early and persistent interest in theology: ‘from the beginning of 1840 until the spring of 1842, Marx had planned at least five publications concerning the philosophy of religion’ (288). The young Marx wrote religiously themed poems and read many theological works. Although ‘Marx’s studies in the philosophy of religion were not reflected in independent publications, they did not remain without effect. In all of Marx’s work, in particular in Capital, there are numerous quotations and allusions to the Bible as well as reference to theological topics’ (ibid). That religious themes percolate throughout Marx’s writing ‘is due to the studies in the philosophy of religion that Marx conducted between 1838-1842’ (ibid).

Many scholars have failed to notice Marx’s intimate knowledge of theology and the degree to which this knowledge is contained in the totality of his mature critical works. Heinrich is a welcome exception. Norman Geras once argued that ‘theological niceties’ were not an actual part of Marx’s theory of fetishization and reification, and that Marx’s references to religion were ‘inexact’ analogies (Geras 1986: 59). Geras’s view was taken up by many other scholars (Sayer 1979: 67; Callinicos 2014: 148; Bhasker 1979: 57). Yet it can be argued upon a close reading that Marx suggests capital to have replaced a former organizational conception of God. Marx argued that the ‘power of Egyptian and Asiatic kings and priests or the Etruscan theocrats in the ancient world has in bourgeoise society passed to capital’ (Marx & Engels 1975: 260). Capital itself is the God of modernity. Generating surplus value is a form of genuflection, and defending capitalist social relations is shoddy apologetics. Marx’s goal was to exorcise the religion of capitalism: ‘The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent and rational form’ (Marx 1990: 173). Heinrich’s biography, with its emphasis on religious critique as political critique, is excellent in fortifying this long-overlooked Marxian point.

Given that Heinrich’s analysis of Marx’s life and thought really picks up where archival documentation of Marx’s life and thought exists, and that subsequent volumes will rely on periods in Marx’s life where such documentation exists in greater detail, any aforementioned grievances about this volume are entirely irradiated in the expectations of future installments. Also, Heinrich has indicated that the future volumes will be longer. The slight feeling of having overpaid for a Marx biography that contained very little Marx biography will expectedly cease hereafter. When Heinrich is finished, these volumes will stand as the quintessential Marx biography. Future volumes will undoubtedly elicit excitement, and this reviewer is elated that Marx’s relationship to religion and theology may finally become a staple of theoretical Marxist discussions.

3 June 2020

References

  • Bhaskar, Roy 1979 The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Human Sciences New York: Routledge.
  • Callinicos, Alex 2014 Deciphering Capital London: Bookmarks.
  • Geras, Norman 1986 Literature of Revolution: Essays on Marxism New York: Verso.
  • Marx, Karl 1990 Capital New York: Penguin.
  • Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels 1975 Collected Works: Volume 30 New York: International Publishers.
  • Sayer, Derek 1979 Marx's Method: Ideology, Science and Critique in Capital Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press.

17 comments

  1. Just a quick note for the author who might be interested to know that Argentinean philosopher Enrique Dussel published “Las Metaforas Teologicas de Marx” in the early 1990s. My understanding is that the book is finally being translated into English.

    1. “Marx’s theological metaphors” in english.
      Being an important book, Dussel’s thesis is that, because he is a liberation theologian, the use of these theological metaphors in mature Marx indicates that he was still a theologian, when in fact, as this review says and perhaps also the Heinrich’s book is rather a use he has of that theology studied when he was young and not so much that Marx continued to be a theologian in Capital.

  2. Hi Chris, I’m the translator of the (English edition of the) book, I appreciate the review.

    I don’t want to speak for Heinrich, but my own view is that the first part of the book, detailing things like the social history of the Mosel region and of Trier in particular, the class and intellectual milieus of the city, the Trier Casino Club, etc. are essential for understanding Marx’s intellectual formation. Too often, Marxists pay lip service to Marx being a thinker situated in his time, but don’t do the necessary work of how broader historical forces are mediated on the ground in concrete manifestations.

    On the latter part of the book, I think a significant aspect of it, perhaps not stated quite so explicitly, is to rescue Hegel from the slander of being a “reactionary” thinker. IIRC, I remember Michael specifically mentioning Andreas Arndt’s “Geschichte und Freiheitsbewusstsein” in this regard.

    Whereas in Anglophone Marxism, too often there is a simplified narrative of Hegel being “the reactionary Prussian state philosopher” that the so-called “Young Hegelians” needed to “radicalize”.

    I also think the attention paid to Eduard Gans as an influence upon Marx was very insightful.

    Anyway, again, good review, enjoyed reading it.

  3. Alex,
    Thank you for your comments!

    Unfortunately I am not in a position to assess the quality of your translation 😉

    I can, however, say with confidence that the book was quite readable, and read as if it the author was a native English speaker. So I think that means you did a very good job…?

    Overall I agree with most of your response post, and the second half, to last third of the book is truly impeccable, and the information regarding the intellectual climate Marx was studying and learning in is of paramount importance. I happen to think the first third of the text leaned too heavily into modern society to the point that I’m presently not seeing how this helps me understand Marx’s thought (unlike the last half of the text). I could be wrong. Hell, I probably am wrong!

    So, when I read the next several volumes, and hopefully review them, I’ll keep your response in mind, and perhaps entirely concede the point in the future. Either way, I’m very excited for these future volumes! Thank you and Michael both for providing us with such excellent, exciting, and (most importantly) fresh scholarship!

    All the best,
    CB

  4. The review gives the impression that this book is a Rolls-Royce account of Marx’s life and thought and its context. This is thoroughly justified. The level of background knowledge and of erudition is stunning. Obviously in dealing with this early part of Marx’s life, there is less call then there will be in later volumes for dealing with theoretical questions, but the account of Hegel and of Marx’s relation to Hegelianism suggests that the biography will deal with theoretical questions extremely well. I am really looking forward to reading the rest of this biography.

  5. Mark,
    I’ve only read the biographies of Marx by Wheen and Liedman, and yes, relative to those bios, Heinrich has produced ‘the rolls-royce’ of Marx bios, but it’s even better than that, really, because it’s not a stupid flashy commodity that appeals to our id, but an actual work of love and solidarity.

    Thank you for your comment Mark!
    All the best,
    CB

  6. The best three biographies of Karl Marx that I read in the past, are all quite old now:

    * David McLellan, Karl Marx, his life and thought 1973 (now in the 4th edition though)
    *Saul K. Padover, Karl Marx: an intimate biography (1978; there is also an abridged edition).
    *Otto Henchman-Helfen and Boris Ivanovich Nicolaevsky, Karl Marx: man and fighter (1933).

    What these books all have in common, is an ability to tell a well-crafted, humane story, in a lively and objective way. The books really communicate, in addition to being pretty reliable.

    *McLellan is great for his clear and factual overview of Marx’s life.
    *Padover is great in portraying Marx as a human being, and the everyday circumstances in which he lived.
    *Helfen & Nicolaevsky show what Marx meant as a revolutionary and internationalist.

    That aside, there have been hundreds of scholars who have contributed to understanding different parts and details of Marx’s life.

    *In the East, the members and associates of the various Institutes of Marxism-Leninism (starting off with David Riazanov’s team in Moscow) dug up a lot of facts about Marx’s life. They published the first Chronik. There are apparently also some noteworthy Japanese biographical studies (but as yet untranslated).
    *In the West, there have been scholars such as the MEGA2 staff, Maximilien Rubel, Hal Draper, Chimen Abramsky, W.O. Henderson, Terrell Carver etc. who researched specific details and episodes in Marx’s (and Engels’s) life.

    Obviously none of the three old biographies I mention are totally adequate now, given new data, new times, new languages and new research. Their foremost merit was, that they did try to honour Marx’s own aims, aspirations, motives and intentions, in an honest and critically sympathetic way.

    Whereas the recent postmodernist biographies by Stedman-Jones, Sperber and Liedman do add something new to what was already known, Marx also becomes a foil for their own personal or intellectual bandwagons, their own political vendetta’s and academic advertising campaigns.

    So the real historical Marx is twisted out of shape again, like a rag doll, to fit with the prejudices, expediencies and predilections of the biographer. It’s easy to imagine Marx rollicking with laughter, after reading this stuff about himself – and pretty angry and silent also, after reading some more.

    Most likely, Heinrich’s biography will be better that those of Stedman-Jones, Sperber and Liedman. Yet, Heinrich also has his own agenda, in writing the biography, and that agenda could distort the real, historical Marx once more (if I was in Heinrich’s position, I would probably write an autobiography instead!).

    So far, an important limitation of most of the biographers is, that they’re academics lacking an advanced competency and experience in the full range of subjects, contexts and activities that Marx was involved with. Heinrich can probably score better there in many areas, not in the least because he is a German academic well-versed in many of the relevant literatures. He says, that he wants to bring together “Marx the theorist, Marx the journalist, and Marx the militant”. Marx’s real life was, of course, more than that. As regards Heinrich’s skills as a storyteller, he still has to convince me.

  7. Sorry, a software glitch. It’s “Otto Maenchen-Helfen”, not “Otto Henchman-Helfen”. Otto (an Austrian scholar) was the original German translator/editor of Nicolaevsky’s text. He worked for the Marx-Engels Institute in 1927-1933 and emigrated to the US in 1938, becoming Professor at UC Berkeley.

    Boris Nicolaevsky (b. 1887) was a Menshevik archivist and historian. Originally, in 1917, he was designated to uncover, inventorize and analyze the Czarist secret police archives, but he was subsequently persecuted by the Cheka himself and imprisoned for a year.

    In 1924-1931 (after going into exile), he became Riazanov’s Berlin representative of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. Subsequently, Nicolaevsky shifted to France, and became IISH representative there, saving important socialist and social-democratic archives from the clutches of the Nazis (though some material was seized by the Nazis anyway, and never recovered). In 1940, Nicolaevsky shifted to New York, where he became director of the American Labor Archives and Research Institute.

    The first English translation of Nicolaevsky’s text (by the husband-and-wife literary team Eric Mosbacher & Gwenda David) was published in 1936, and much later by Allen Lane/Penguin in 1973 (with revisions following the 1970 Gallimard edition), and there were Pelican reprints in 1976 and 1983 (when Western interest in Karl Marx was at its all-time peak).

  8. Since someone asked me, Routledge republished Nicolaevsky’s biography in 2016, so it’s still in print.

    https://www.routledge.com/Karl-Marx-Man-and-Fighter/Nicolaievsky-Maenchen-Helfen/p/book/9781138892576

    There are also some old copies still available from online booksellers. The 1936 edition is rare, and now usually very expensive.

    Nicolaevsky’s text is also available online https://libcom.org/library/karl-marx-man-fighter-1933-boris-nicolaievsky-otto-maenchen-helfen

  9. If you are interested in the precise, detailed chronology of Marx’s life, there are several useful books already available. These are:

    Karl Marx: Chronik seines Lebens in Einzeldaten. Glashütten im Taunus: Verlag Detlev Auvermann KG, 1971, a reprint from the original 1934 edition. (464 pp.)

    Maximilien Rubel & Margaret Manale, Marx without Myth: a chronological study of his life and work. Oxford: Blackwell, 1975. (368 pp.)

    Maximilien Rubel, Marx: Life and Works (transl. Mary Bottomore). London: The Macmillan press, 1980 (an expanded version of the original French version). (140 pp.)

    Hal Draper (with the assistance of the Center for Socialist History), The Marx-Engels Chronicle: a day-by-day chronology of Marx and Engels’ life and activity. New York: Schocken Books, 1985. (297 pp.)

    Draper’s chronology is probably still the best overall. However, I find myself that each of these works has their own merits and utility. Draper used as his main sources the old and new MEGA editions, the MEW and the MECW, plus the correspondence of Marx and Engels. Most of the MEW volumes provide detailed chronological data for the time interval they cover, plus biographical notes.

    The current limitation of Hal Draper’s work is, that at the time he published it, only a few MEGA2 volumes and not all the MECW volumes were published. Since that time, still more chronological information has been unearthed and published, and more biographies of the Marx family and Engels & his clan were published. So, a new scientific chronology is now feasible, that would both employ, but also update and extend the old ones. It would be a good topic for a phd student to do.

    As with all the Neue Marx-Lektüre, Michael Heinrich is actually recycling a lot of past material (it is not “new”), but also adding to it the perspective of “value-form theory” (which, in my own scientific opinion, has nothing to do with the real historical Marx). He benefits from the post-1989 research published in Germany and around the world.

    The English translation of Heinrich’s first volume is clear and precise. Yet the translator seems to lack a real artful feel for syntax, sentence length and punctuation – preferring literalness to style. This effectively impairs the natural flow of the text within paragraphs, and makes the text somewhat clinical, stilted and stodgy to read through (whether a computer-assisted translation was the basis, I do not know).

    The problem you often strike in Marxology is that the authors want to stunt a bit with Marx, according to their own taste. They project things on Marx, which are not really there. The result is hardly an accurate historical portrayal. An additional problem is, that scholars nowadays often don’t have the time/finance/opportunity anymore to do original research in this field, or to systematically cover all the relevant literature. Nevertheless, the Marxology literature does often produce new facts and new insights, so it’s a question of sifting the wheat from the chaff.

  10. One more thing: when I claim that the “value-form theory” of Michael Heinrich really has nothing to do with Marx’s own argument, I am obviously NOT denying that Marx wrote a whole analysis of the forms of value. Yes! Of course he did! And I am very aware of that!

    I am only saying, that I think myself, that the value-form interpretation made by Michael Heinrich is certainly DIFFERENT from what Marx intended, judging by what Marx actually said himself, and what he committed himself to. I debated with Dr Heinrich himself about that online, in April 2009, but he never gave any substantive reply, at that time.

  11. “As with all the Neue Marx-Lektüre, Michael Heinrich is actually recycling a lot of past material (it is not “new”), but also adding to it the perspective of “value-form theory” (which, in my own scientific opinion, has nothing to do with the real historical Marx). ”

    Hi Jurriaan,

    what aspects of “value-form theory”, in your opinion, are added to the first volume of the biography? The volume in question deals with a period of Marx’s life from before he became a communist, let along any engagement with political economy and the critique thereof. Pretty much the entirety of the volume is concerned with topics that are fairly outside of the purview of “value-form” theory. I admit I haven’t looked closely at it since the final stages of proofreading before publication, so I might be overlooking something, but the stuff about Hegel, Gans, Bauer, the doctoral thesis, etc. don’t really seem to have any direct relationship at all to that topic.

    If anything, I would have thought that the rather sympathetic account of Hegel would have confounded Heinrich’s critics who label him an “Althusserian”; but even then, it’s apples and oranges because none of the issues at this stage of Marx’s life have any immediate bearing on his engagement with and critique of political economy.

  12. Thank you for your pertinent comment, about which I have some things to say. You are quite correct, value-form theory as such did not really make its appearance directly in this volume.

    However, the situation I’m in prevents me from going more precisely into the question right now, I will endeavour to reply with more explanation as soon as I am able to do that.

    Your translation is a real internationalist achievement of which you can be truly proud, and I do not want to simply vent hostility against Dr Heinrich or anything like that, he wrote the book also for people like me, and his literary effort is certainly heroic. His academic writing style is not everyone’s cup of tea, OK. As a translator you made the best of it. My beef is more with the structure of the developing narrative, the writer’s whole approach.

    In this volume, the trumpet has sounded; in the next volumes, the wheels of the chariot get traction, and start spinning. Where will they take the reader?

    You are quite right; I just don’t know that, those volumes are yet to be published. I can only have my hunches about that, going by what I have learnt from some of Dr Heinrich’s previous work.

  13. Jurriaan,

    “In this volume, the trumpet has sounded”

    Except as Alex correctly pointed out, the trumpet hasn’t sounded and writing off the work a priori because you both know it contains value form trumpets (it doesn’t) but also admit you actually don’t know the present and future contents of Heinrich’s biographies, is irrational.

    Heinrich has stated time and time again that this is a work in progress of which he’s making new discoveries all the time.

    Best,
    CB

  14. @Chris Byron – So according to you, I am “irrational”?
    You have already misrepresented my position, before you even understand it (and before I have even stated it, or explained it). If Dr Heinrich is making such exciting “new discoveries”, what are they then? Where is the proof, that they are in any way “new”? That is what I want to know, after more than 40 years experience with this kind of literature. I just got out of hospital and I’m having a rest thank you very much

  15. I think your claim is irrational but i also believe every hominid makes irrational claims, including me, everyday. We are fallible. So no i’m not claiming you’re categorically irrational, only your claim against Heinrich – since it has no foundation in *this* text.

    And for what it’s worth i am not a proponent of the new value form theories out there, if that reading of Marx had reared it’s head in this bio i would have drawn attention to it.

    Regarding this:

    “ If Dr Heinrich is making such exciting “new discoveries”, what are they then? Where is the proof, that they are in any way “new”? ”

    Well many of them were mentioned in my review, and many of them are contained in the book reviewed.

    I don’t know what else you want me say here?

    Best,
    CB

    p.s. Good luck in your recovery comrade, wish you well.

  16. @Chris Byron: In a previous post about your review (when I was talking about older Marx biographies which I liked), I stated:

    “As with all the Neue Marx-Lektüre, Michael Heinrich is actually recycling a lot of past material (it is not “new”), but also adding to it the perspective of “value-form theory” (which, in my own scientific opinion, has nothing to do with the real historical Marx). He benefits from the post-1989 research published in Germany and around the world.”

    The Germanic Neue Marx-Lektüre school traces its intellectual roots to Backhaus, Reichelt, Adorno, Rubin etc. but, historically speaking, it began to develop and take shape as a distinct school, only after the Wende started in 1989/90.

    A similar “post-Wende Marx revival” also occurred in the Anglo-Saxon intellectual world, but with a different range of theorists, such as David Harvey, Paul Mattick, Guglielmo Carchedi, Simon Mohun, Manuel Castells, Erik Wright etc. who were not associated (or tainted) with Marxism-Leninism, Maoism and Trotskyism (and who were generally not associated with value-form theory either, except perhaps Moishe Postone).

    A new global market began to emerge, for an intelligent Marx “minus the nasty bits”, among a generation who neither had much knowledge nor affinity with Marxism-Leninism anymore.

    When I was talking about this, I was emphasizing once again, that there isn’t so much “Neu” in the Neue Marx-Lektüre, and much of it is actually recycled from the past New Left literature.

    Some of the “old dogs” in the field of Marx-studies (whom I have met) know that very well. You can also easily see the recycling occurring in Heinrich’s Vol. 1, because he simply selects, takes over and uses a lot of findings from other historians and Marx-scholars.

    Heinrich is not simply talking only about Marx’s youth and formation, in the first volume. He is also talking about the raison d’étre for his book, and he is moving backwards and forwards in time to make links to antecedents, contexts and later events. He says he is going to do this throughout all the volumes.

    Much more can and has been said, about the era of Marx’s youth, and it was being said, already before Michael Heinrich entered the scene. Not only that, it was said more coherently, comprehensibly and eloquently than Heinrich says it. I don’t think myself that Heinrich is saying much that is really new.

    Nevertheless Heinrich’s attempt to “desacralize” and “demystify” Marx in an original way is scholarly interesting. Marx is still there on a pedestal, but his features are sculpted in a more unassuming and imperfect way. Yep, every new epoch will have its own Marx, most likely.

    When I mentioned Heinrich’s “value-form theory”, I was not specifically referring to the first volume of Heinrich’s biography of Marx, but to Heinrich’s Marx-scholarship in general, which actually goes right back to the 1980s (when we were both graduate students – Heinrich is now 63 years old).

    Alex is quite right that Heinrich doesn’t talk about value-form theory in the first volume… yet that did not actually speak at all to what I said, meant and intended either.

    So… I agreed with Alex, haha. We have something in common, we have both worked as professional translators and editors, composing texts for leftwing academics.

    Yesssss….. it is true, that in the first volume of the biography, Heinrich doesn’t talk about value-form theory. Nevertheless, he makes his Neue Marx-Lektüre approach quite clear – it influences his selection of material, and what he wants to show with it.

    As Althusser famously said (although he did not originate this hermeneutic insight): “there is no such thing as an innocent reading”.

    When we read a text, we operate with certain presuppositions, assumptions, biases or frames which we use to construct the meaning of the text. Any translator knows this, even as s/he strives for objectivity and tries to stand in the author’s shoes.

    The meaning of the text exists ultimately only in the interaction between the text, the reader, and (possibly) the author, within a particular milieu. You cannot get away from that reality, the only thing you can do is self-consciously choose your own vantage point, with a good awareness of your own preferences and biases and the observables.

    This applies also to the construction of Heinrich’s Marx, and he is aware of that. In his selection of evidence, Heinrich generally prefers to include only ideas which he thinks can be proved beyond all doubt. He ventures rather little new interpretation, and carefully sticks with things nobody can really disagree with. That often makes his story rather boring.

    What we don’t get from Heinrich, is a sense of what really “motivated” the young Marx. Apparently Heinrich thinks we could only speculate about that. He doesn’t want to speculate, infer, read into, or extrapolate too much.

    The attraction of the Neue Marx-Lektüre is, that you can liberally explore Marx and Marxist scholarship with Interpretationsfreiheit, without a Marxist-Leninist authority looking over your shoulder who tells you “what to think about Marx” and dotting the i’s on what you want to say. That is surely progressive.

    Admittedly, the Neue Marx-Lektüre also has authorities of its own, certain “sages” in the field of Marxian lore. But they are not so domineering (bear in mind the Frankfurt School themes of “domination” and “liberation”) and the Neue Marx-Lektüre is more liberally eclectic in its methods.

    Working in the tradition of the Neue Marx-Lektüre, if you look at the history of the vast palette of Marxist ideas, and you find an idea you like, then you can press the “save” button. If you encounter a Marxist idea that you don’t like, you simply press the “delete” button. In that way, you construct the kind of Marxism (or “Marxian” theory) that you like, and feel comfortable with. And what’s wrong with that?

    Well… when, for example, Heinrich has to account for the world-historical significance, legacy and impact of Karl Marx, he simply deletes the massive global influence of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the research of the Marx-Engels Institute on Marx’s life and writings.

    When Heinrich is talking e.g. about Marx’s Phd thesis, he has no explanation, for why, of all things, Marx wanted to write on this particular topic in the first place. And so on.

    The danger with the Neue Marx-Lektüre is, that the story becomes a rather ideosyncratic and arbitrary pastiche, despite all the facts and reasons.

    Who knows, one might argue, what people “truly meant” in history? So why not take out of history, just what is relevant to us in the present?

    My own critical appraisal of the Neue Marx-Lektüre goes much further and deeper, but this is not the place to go into all that.

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