‘Karl Marx and World Literature’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

Karl Marx and World Literature

Books, London and New York, 2011. 480pp. £16.99 / $29.95 pb
ISBN 9781844677108

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


Prawer’s book, Karl Marx and World Literature – a reprint of the publication which first appeared in 1976 – represents a significant undertaking. This book endeavours to chart the vast array of literary works which most profoundly influenced Marx, and to show how these were channelled through the prism of his political philosophy as it developed over time.

The difficulty of such a project cannot be overstated. Marx was a polymath; a voracious reader who moved easily and swiftly between philosophy and economics, politics and natural science, while his tastes in fiction and poetry were no less diverse. To try to map such movements across the panorama of his life and to exhibit their necessary but often invisible interconnection makes for a daunting task. Nevertheless it is one Professor Prawer has approached with the tenacity of a bloodhound, aided by his own encyclopaedic knowledge of literature and an indigenous familiarity with the German literary milieu.

The German connection is of particular importance here; one should recall that the classical period of German philosophy also yielded the fullest and richest philosophies of art; but yet its ‘artistic’ component and its ‘rational’ one maintained an often fractious and difficult correspondence. In Kant, for example, the aesthetic judgement offers the only genuine possibility of an encounter with the noumenal and as such manages to transcend the merely ‘rational’ – limited as it is by the finite determinations of the ‘understanding’. In Hegel we encounter something of the reverse; with him art is a sublime though inadequate mode of expression for spirit (or reason); its fuller embodiment is to be attained later in the more concrete and more explicitly rational stage of philosophy.

The tension between ‘rational’ and the ‘artistic’ therefore formed one of the central driving forces of the German epoch and Prawer has the great merit to locate, in microcosm, the same tension already at work in the young Marx. For this Prawer begins with a patient, delicate analysis of the poetry penned by the young man – though thoughtful and earnest, Prawer ultimately deems Marx’s verses unsuccessful, and history has borne him out in this judgement. More interestingly, however, Prawer observes how Marx, when first encountering the Hegelian philosophy, found it to be ‘abhorrent’ and saw in poetry and plays the possibility to transcend what the young man must have then regarded as the mechanical, grinding cogs of ‘reason’ at work within the Hegelian leviathan. This is, of course, the same world view which romanticism opposes to rationalism. And yet, Prawer informs us, it was in some way too late, for Marx finds himself ‘borne towards Hegel’ or in Marx’s own words at the time – ‘this, my favourite child, tenderly nursed by moonlight, bears me like a false Siren into the arms of my enemy.’ (20)

What Prawer notes at this point in the development of the young Marx, is that his turn away from poetry writing, was a result of the eventual predominance of a more conscious ‘rational’ element, a need to supersede romanticism, even its appearance in his own work: in a phrase, his ‘own poetic compositions could not stand up to the critical principles he had evolved while writing them.’(19) It might be noted that Prawer’s analysis of the individual Marx corresponds neatly to the movement that world historic spirit evinces in Hegel; its abstract moment in art eventually yielding before the more concrete moment of philosophy. In Hegel this does not take the form of the annulment of the former by the latter, but rather ‘art’ is both transcended and preserved, in a word, ‘sublated’ within the more concrete stage of philosophy. In his way Prawer is attuned to this for he makes it absolutely clear that Marx’s failure as a poet was in some wise necessary, that his ‘thwarted aspirations… provided the metaphors, or structural analogies, which can clarify problems that lie quite outside the literary domain.’ (29) Throughout his book Prawer shows convincingly that, though his love for literature never waned, Marx consistently took the opportunity to undermine those romanticist literary flourishes which, with their sweet vagaries, sought to veil the brutal mechanics of class exploitation.

The title – ‘Karl Marx and World Literature’ is far from fortuitous – the reference to ‘World literature’ is drawn from ‘The Communist Manifesto’ where Marx writes, ‘National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness becomes more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.’ (145) In a certain sense the trajectory of literature from ‘national’ to ‘world’ mirrors the economic development of capitalism as the bourgeoisie more and more raises society in its own image, or to describe the same thing in the modern refrain – globalisation. Prawer is effective for he does not conceive such change and the Marxist analysis of it in terms of a mechanical unfolding, but rather regards it as a living tendency which is always subverted to some degree by the conditions upon which it acts. Prawer draws attention to an episode in 1866 when several delegates of the First International announced that that ‘all nationalities and even nations were “antiquated prejudices”’ (146). Prawer points out that Marx found such posturing the very height of absurdity, particularly as the delegates (from France) were communicating their thoughts in the French language, a language which had clearly not been informed of its redundancy. In a similar vein Prawer revisits an account of an evening in the pub spent with Marx where the great revolutionist suddenly launched into an impassioned homily in favour of the beauty of German music over what he regarded as the pale, pallid English equivalent.

However, despite the breadth of research and the nuance, there are certain weaknesses in Prawer’s book. In chapter 11, for example, Prawer provides an admirable account of the problem which bedevils many Marxist accounts of literature. Prawer, summarising Marx’s own thoughts in the Grundrisse, argues that the conditions required to create the Homeric epic – the low level of technology and the corresponding level of scientific theory, have all but disappeared in the modern age. Endowing a god with a thunderbolt would make no sense to the modern understanding which has itself extensively penetrated the clouds and the mystery of lightening thereby, or as Prawer describes it – ‘once gunpowder and shot have been invented, one cannot introduce a hero like Achilles into the modern world; the Iliad represents an oral form threatened by the invention of the hand-press and even more by that of machine-printing’. (283) From a simple, mechanical ‘base/superstructure’ interpretation of Marxism, Prawer argues, one cannot understand how the Homeric epic still retains the ability to touch us; how, given that its ‘base’ has long since dissipated, nevertheless those myths are able to perfume out across time and enrapture us with their vapours. Prawer uses Marx’s own famous metaphor to deal with the paradox:

Were we to write mythological epics today, Marx argues, we would resemble men who have returned to the ways of their childhood. But though it would be wrong for grown men to regress in this way, it would be no less wrong to cease taking delight in the naivety of the child; for such naivety includes a degree of truth inevitably sacrificed amid the adaptations necessary to maturity. (284)

The problem with Prawer’s analysis of Marx here is at once apparent – ‘the degree of truth’ is inevitably ‘sacrificed’ in order to achieve ‘maturity’; or to say the same in philosophical language – the truth of the old epoch is ‘negated’ by the new. Thus when Prawer comes to explain how Marx drew his metaphor, Prawer concludes that ‘Marx is here reviving arguments Schiller had used in his famous essay … but he is also speaking out of his own experience. His love of children, his patience with them, his understanding of their ways, are attested to by many competent observers’ (285). Though these things are surely true, they are also superficial; they do not yield the secret of the organic nature of the metaphor that Marx has here employed. Marx himself never furthered his metaphor even though it seems he was frustrated by the paradox, but nevertheless what nestles behind his allusion is neither his love for Schiller nor children but the rather the more clinical and Hegelian concept of ‘sublation’. For this alone; articulates the means by which the past is not simply ‘sacrificed’ or ‘negated’ but is simultaneously preserved; that the Greek epic, in the very moment it is turned to dust, nevertheless provides the soil, the conditions, from which the new epoch draws life. Is not the truth of ‘sublation’ encompassed in that one glorious word – renaissance?

Prawer exhibits similar flaws when, somewhat earlier in his book, he approaches Marx’s first tentative formulations of the concept of ‘reification.’ Prawer is inclined to follow Ian Birchall who suggests that the earliest awakening of this concept in Marx ‘came to him first in the form of images … the hero of Ouilanem’ (18). Again there is truth in this but only superficially so, for it has to be remembered that it was Marx’s acquaintance with the notion of ‘objectification’ which he encounters first in Hegel, even if Marx was strongly antagonistic to Hegel at the time, that provided the sense that allowed Marx to feel out loosely those concepts in literature and poetry which would later be developed and realised in the more coherently formed notions of ‘reification’ or ‘alienation’. Such a misappreciation on Prawer’s part is not the end of the world; in some way one can feel sympathetic to Prawer’s shortcoming here, if, for nothing else, because Prawer so successfully transmits the loving emphasis Marx placed on literature as a means of elucidating, often well in advance, though in a mystified form, the template of contradiction which was stamped on nineteenth century society more generally.

Prawer’s incisive descriptions and connections of Marx’s reading of Shakespeare stand out. It is not unknown that Marx had a fondness for Shakespeare; and yet part of the beauty of this book, written in the 1970s, shows in detail just how Marx registered in Shakespeare an intuitive, mystified understanding of the nature of the society which was coming into being at the time of his writing, and which Marx would later relate to the nineteenth century providing a more forensic diagnosis – Timon of Athens would describe gold as making ‘Wrong, right; base, noble; old young; coward, Valiant’ – and so Prawer draws attention to a similar passage in Marx only one which springs from his scientific methodology – ‘I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful woman … I am a wicked, dishonest, unscrupulous, dull-witted man, but money is honoured and so is its possesor’. (77) There is not a causal connection between the two, as Prawer is sometimes liable to suggest, but rather it is the culmination of classical German philosophy applied to British political economy by Marx, which allows him to perceive, and quite correctly so, those elements in literature which anticipate the true nature of a society underwritten by the commodity form.

But Prawer also gives us an account of the man behind the theory. Scattered across this dense work are numerous personal gems; it is hard not to be intrigued and amused by the image Prawer solicits from Marx’s daughter’s letters, which shows how Marx let his enthusiasm and love for literature get the better of him; reciting scenes from Shakespeare and Goethe he would become far too enthused, baldly bellowing them out to the suppressed embarrassment of his family. This reminded me of a Beatles fan who loves their music so much that he’d be unable to restrain himself from giving the occasional, awful Karaoke performance. And Prawer also examines the love letters which Marx sent to his wife; these are both playful and moving, and, as always, full to the brim with literary and historical allusions.

This is a very good book which provides a vital service to any student of Marxism and Art in general – literature specifically. It has a strong understanding of the contradiction, the dialecticity, implicit in Marx’s work and the relationship between the historical and the cultural is to a large extent enunciated faultlessly. However it also provides a biography of the man himself, viewed through the prism of his literary tastes. A very good book then – and one I am certain its subject would have approved of.

28 September 2011

One comment

  1. This is on the whole an interesting review of Prawer’s very useful 34-year-old book. There are some points I might argue with, but I’ll save that for another time.

    I have a complaint about the Verso reprint. Somewhere I saw it advertised as a new edition, which it is not, and I bought a copy, even though I have easy access to my university library’s copy (I seem to be the only one using it). Had I known it was just a reprint, I’d not have ordered it; and the Verso paperback is not high quality or very durable. I suspect I could have found a fine old hardbound copy from Abe books, or a similar site.
    Forgive me this quibble, but in this case perhaps the review should have included a note on the material history of this book, and the need for and quality of the reprint. Rich D.

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