‘Karl Marx’ reviewed by Terrell Carver

Karl Marx

Allen Lane, London, 2016. 768pp., £35 hb
ISBN 9780713999044

Reviewed by Terrell Carver

About the reviewer

Terrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, UK. He is co-general …


This is a masterly instance of intellectual biography, sure to be the standard work on the subject in any language. The author’s stature as a pre-eminent historian of nineteenth-century politics and history makes this a unique volume, and uniquely informative and useful. Stedman Jones is the only biographer or commentator who successfully explicates Marx’s intense engagements with the political milieux of his time, taking in ‘the scene’ from the late 1830s onwards up to Marx’s death in 1883, and then Engels’s ‘postscript’ years to 1895.

One of the great strengths of the volume is that Stedman Jones does not operate through familiar academic (and anachronistic) distinctions between fields or disciplines of philosophy/politics/economics – and then throw in some ‘human touches’ as many others do, particularly the ‘humanizing’ popular biographies of late (Karl Marx, by the journalist Francis Wheen, and The Frock-coated Communist [i.e. Engels], by Tristram Hunt, the historian and MP).

Notably Stedman Jones operates with a clear distinction between the layers of ‘reception’ that have created various frameworks and numerous ‘Marxes’ since Karl’s death. He steers clear of any unwarranted conflation of Engels with Marx, and therefore of hackneyed terms from Marxist primers. The Marx-Engels archive – leaving aside the vast expanse of related personal and political archive materials and academic commentaries and extrapolations – is huge just in itself, and readers will want a judicious selection. This is what Stedman Jones has done in chapters and narrative sections that never go on for too long. As a contextual study, aiming ‘to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings’ (5), this book is far more successful than Jonathan Sperber’s similarly-sized Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (Norton, 2013).

Leaving aside the question as to what is meant by Sperber’s ‘a nineteenth-century life’ (could Marx have had any other kind? didn’t everybody back then have one? is this tag-line any more than a tautology?), I see the difference between the two biographies – and Stedman Jones’s superiority in the genre – in terms of clarity in prose, and consistency of purpose. Unlike Stedman Jones, Sperber is easily side-tracked on to any number of characters who aren’t Marx. And he doesn’t deal at all well with the ideas, philosophical and otherwise, that Marx was engaged with, and which still resonate with us as insights and set us intriguing puzzles in historical studies, political economy and numerous other disciplines.

There is an upside with Sperber, though: we find out things we didn’t know before, even if they are about Marx’s father’s life and times, about the von Westphalens’ lives in Trier, and about the ’48-ers’ lives and loves. And there is a downside to Stedman Jones: we don’t find out anything particularly interesting or insightful that hasn’t already been read from the record into a scholarly study.

Following this line of thought, I am puzzled why Stedman Jones didn’t work a bit to distinguish his biography from Sperber’s, or conversely to draw more on Sperber’s very recent – if rather minor – contextual researches. Stedman Jones cites only Sperber’s opinion on the ‘paternity-of-Freddy-Demuth-question’, on which point Sperber was – in my opinion – very flabby and not worth citing. Sperber’s book was published in 2013, and in fact Stedman Jones draws on works published later than that in 2014 (my own two-volume study – with Daniel Blank – concerning the ‘factitious’ editing of a German Ideology volume of 1932, for instance).

The revolutionary ideas with which Marx was engaged – primarily Young Hegelian philosophical notions and politico-economic accounts of human society – have been recounted many times since the days of Marx and Engels themselves, so much of the biographical and substantive material in Stedman Jones’s work is familiar, since most of it derives from the usual historical resources. What distinguishes this volume, though, is the lengthy and wholly necessary contextual detail that Stedman Jones provides for the various personal and political episodes through which biographies of Marx generally proceed. Stedman Jones really digs into the broader historical record in a way that others haven’t.

Other accounts focus on Marx’s writings, plus anecdotes from correspondence and memoirs, and don’t do as much to fill the reader in on what made it possible for Marx to say and do what he did, and how others at the time were not so different (which would have to be the case, otherwise what he said and did would make no sense). To make Marx’s projects intelligible to us Stedman Jones marshals a wide array of historical sources into vivid narratives that cover decades-long European political struggles. He deals with the various ‘high level’ figures involved – prime ministers, tsars, emperors and the like – with whom Marx was of course not merely familiar but about whose activities he was deeply concerned. And Stedman Jones does vivid and focused biographical work on the ‘lower level’ day-to-day figures with whom Marx was personally associated and involved, one way or another.

This genuinely contextual approach to the wider historical settings has the effect of making sense of Marx as a political actor, and not just a ‘thinker’. It also has the effect of making Marx a sensible character, albeit within milieux of which Stedman Jones is ultimately very critical, occasionally scornful and often dismissive, as I explain below. Nonetheless these negative judgements by Stedman Jones are rendered quite distinct from the narrative accounts in the biography, which are thorough (within reason) and scholarly in presentation. And only a very large biography – 595 pages from Prologue to Epilogue – could accomplish this task of putting us in the in the ‘times’, not just the ‘life’.

The object of the volume is not to make Marx easy to understand, but rather to understand a particular figure as part of identifiable situations, events and patterns of historical complexity. There is a huge amount of European history recounted in a way that makes accessible reading, and readers will need to be prepared for important excurses within which the subject doesn’t immediately appear. While the structure of the book appears fairly familiar – we get ourselves from one set of landmark ‘works’ (manuscript or published) to another, such that we then get a good sense of the current canon – nonetheless the contextual discussions for me take pride of place and represent Stedman Jones’s distinctive contribution.

Sadly – and rather oddly – Stedman Jones’ Epiologue doesn’t review how Marx’s ambitions and ideas ‘hang together’ over the entire career. Actually Stedman Jones has a view on this, which occurs in his discussion of The Civil War in France where he mentions ‘self-activity’ as a way of making history, and how much Marx wanted to articulate this idea and to be part of such a political movement (505-6). Stedman Jones himself looks at the Paris Commune in this light, and it would be good to revisit some of the rather ‘downbeat’ judgements that he passes on Marx earlier on and throughout in this light.

These rather negative and dismissive judgements seem to me to arise from a view that Marx didn’t see ‘what was coming’ and act accordingly; whereas events such as the Commune happen precisely because various individuals make something happen (generally in defiance of what is said at the time to be possible). It is quite easy for the reader of Stedman Jones’s work to get the impression that Marx was simply ‘thick’ or ‘a bit cracked’ and should have settled down to the (apparently inevitable) ‘victories’ of representative institutions and social democracy. Why make such a fuss?

While Stedman Jones is certainly right to portray Marx’s political activities as unsuccessful in his time, even on his own terms, and indeed increasingly out of line in his later years with developments in how politics was done, it is nonetheless worth capturing alongside that judgement some sense of open-ended excitement at the idea of making history. On notable occasions history as it has been made has been a conjunction of serendipity with determination over the long haul (rather than a succession of victories and successes, and forget the failures – since they didn’t do anything else, obviously).

Overall I see this book as a rather Whiggish one, written from a (supposedly) secure perspective that takes the achievements of social democracy since 1849 somewhat for granted. Stedman Jones seems to see Marx’s anger-driven revolutionism as a youthful affectation that inevitably settles down into a middle-aged – if obsessive – studiousness and well-intentioned internationalist committee work, mostly stand-taking and statement-making in public notices and polite newspapers.

The contextualism related to Marx himself is well done, as I‘ve said, but what I’m missing is the further contextualism that makes the story of how we got to where we have got to in democratic politics a story of struggle, risk, defiance and death. While it is easy to judge various movements and revolutions as ‘failures’ on their own terms, it takes somewhat more vision to see those terms consolidated – to a degree – over succeeding decades.

As Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto a class war is a civil war, ‘more or less veiled’. Stedman Jones is on board with the grievances that led to the uprisings of 1848, but he gets through the net results in a sentence: ‘With manhood suffrage and a representative system established in France after the fall of the Second Empire, and renewed talk of Reform in England, the working classes were progressively re-incorporated back into the political system’ (313). For me this is all a bit quick, disembodied and agent-less.

If one takes it that these things happen – as they seem to here – pretty much by themselves, then one has missed out on a huge amount of violence and conflict over the years. Taking that on board, on the other hand, makes the ’48-ers, among them Marx and Engels, look more in tune with these victories (and numerous further ones, and indeed defences of those gains against constant push-back, putsch and coup). The establishment of representative assemblies at all, even briefly, was a huge victory in 1848, and marked a new political reality that – with struggle – has been pursued ever since.

Marx and Engels personally weren’t that distinguished in the broader picture of 1848-49, nor in the sweeping movements later of inclusion, not least of working-class people but moving on to wider attacks on unwarranted doctrines and patterns of exclusion and discrimination. However, it was through these struggles that many ideas, groups and interests had a progressive effect in numerous more or less democratic, and more or less socialist, political systems. Marx and Engels did their bit, and in various guises played a part, one way or another (doubtless not always as they would have wished).

Stedman Jones’s comment that ‘the political and extra-constitutional significance of the “class struggle”, as it had been invoked by the Manifesto, faded away’ (313) seems to me to be quite false to the historical record of democratization. These were struggles for welfare, if not ‘socialism’, and require not just offense, but defense as we have learned. It is an unfortunate complacency in Stedman Jones’s account which inevitably colours his contextual view – not of the intelligibility of Marx and Engels in their own nineteenth-century setting – but of how we should see and appreciate the significance of their works and activities today.

The Epilogue, where we should be getting some sense of this, is really extraordinary. It seems to be a bit of research and comment that Stedman Jones had in the drawer and tacked on to this book to get some use out of his material. In these ‘sunset’ pages he takes us on a very quick tour of Marx’s researches into what recent authorities were saying about Teutonic social forms in pre-history, communal systems of production up to the present, and anthropological speculations on ‘tribal’ societies. Stedman Jones provides a relentless critique in late nineteenth-century terms of Marx’s note-taking, and presents Marx as not just fading out, but fading into wrong-headed insignificance and muddle.

In this strange Epilogue we get no sense of Marx’s political interest in pursuing these subjects, nor of his scepticisms or at least moments of suspended judgement, which is odd, given that throughout his life Marx had done his thinking through critical engagement, excerpt-quotations and jotted notes. Quite why Stedman Jones had to take a smirk at some notebook material is beyond me. I’d have been happier (or less annoyed, anyway) if the book had ended on p. 588 with a lung haemorrhage.

The subtitle grates, as well. ‘Greatness’ and ‘Illusion’ are bio-pic tropes. I don’t actually see that much ‘greatness’ in Marx, given that he aspired to contribute to – and not glorify himself with – a broadly-based, popular movement for democratic institutions that were not abstractly formal in terms of institutions, but rather practical and effective in terms of economic welfare and life-chances. And I don’t think that the rhetorics of encouragement and activist engagement that we find in Marx are failed predictions of the future, and thus an ‘illusion’. On the contrary, one illusion, held by authoritarians and reactionaries, was that the ‘old regime’ could dispose of democratization altogether, or hold the line against it where they chose. And another, often held by liberals, is that ‘reform’ is necessarily peaceful and bloodlessly won – it isn’t. Marx’s writings record and advocate struggle, and rightly so. They make history into something much more – and much more democratic – than a chronicle of victories and defeats.

24 September 2016


  1. Great review; much appreciated. I agree that it’s important to understand Marx in light of his political work and aims. Simple point, but it’s often given short shrift.

  2. Carver’s review is excellent and greatly appreciated. Sperber’s coverage of Marx’s early journalism and politics is very good; Stedman Jones covering similar political ground has several advantages as indicated by Carver.

    Nonetheless, the same three weaknesses of Sperber’s book plague Stedman Jones. Neither very well understand Marx’s political economy, and both neglect Marx’s philosophy. But the real weakness of both books is that they are overly anxious to demonstrate the limited relevance of Marx for the 21st century. It undermines their efforts. It is not clear to me why a historical biographer has this explicit thrust; present the material and leave it to the reader to make a determination.

    Would a biographer ever title a biography on Plato or Adam Smith as “Greatness and Illusion”? Carver gives us a clear critique of how the sentiment of this strange title enters into the epilogue, but in fact it permeates the entire text. It is not only annoying, but detrimental to what Stedman Jones accomplishes.

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