Reviewed by Christian Fuchs
Gareth Stedman Jones’ Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion is an almost 800 page biography of Marx. Stedman Jones tries to bring together an analysis of Marx’s life and works. The book is organised in twelve chapters: Chapter 1 discusses Marx’s family background and the political situation in the Rhineland, where he grew up. Chapter 2 focuses on Marx’s time in school and at university and his engagement to Jenny von Westphalen. Chapter 3 discusses Marx’s time in Berlin, including the influence of Hegel’s works on Marx. Chapter 4 analyses Bruno Bauer’s impact on Marx as well as Marx’s work for the Rheinische Zeitung. Chapter 5 is about Marx’s contributions to the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. Chapter 6 outlines aspects of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, his friendship with Engels, Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England, as well as Marx and Engel’s joint works, The Holy Family and The German Ideology. Chapter 7 gives attention to Marx’s critique of Proudhon and Proudhonists such as Karl Grün. Chapter 8 analyses Marx’s life and works at the time of the 1848 revolutions. The discussion of the making of The Communist Manifesto is spread over chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 9 is about Marx’s early years in London during the 1850s. Chapter 10 engages with The Grundrisse and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Both chapter 10 and 11 deal with the making of Capital. Chapter 11 is also about Marx’s relation to Ferdinand Lassalle, the International Working Men’s Association, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the conflict with Bakunin in the International. Chapter 12 focuses on Capital’s second volume, European socialism in the 1870s and 1880s, Marx’s interests in the 1870s, and his death.
Thus far, there have been mixed reactions to Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion. Mark Mazower (2016) praises the book in the The Financial Times for showing that ‘Marx will remain the outstanding example of how to overcome the fragmentation of modern social thought and think about the world as a whole for the sake of its betterment’. The Guardian in its typical anti-Corbyn manner argues that the book shows that because of ‘his repeated estrangement of potential allies for no apparent reason, Marx would surely have felt at home in today’s Labour party’ (Bullough 2016). In a similar vein, Peter Hain (2016), who served as a minister and Leader of the House of Commons under Tony Blair, writes in the Blairite magazine, Progress, that Stedman Jones’ biography reminds us that at the time of Corbyn, ‘Marxism is now playing a bigger role in British politics than it has for decades – despite the fact that throughout history societies shaped by Marxists so abjectly failed to deliver prosperity, democracy, freedom or equality’. The Economist (2016) argues that the book shows that ‘Marx’s reputation (at least in some quarters) as an unrivalled economist-philosopher is wide of the mark’. The Times writes that Stedman Jones shows that ‘the real Marx was an anxious, sickly, flawed human being, who often reversed himself and never even finished his masterpiece, Das Kapital’ (Sandbrook 2016). Ferdinand Mount (2016) argues in The Times Literary Supplement that Stedman Jones disassembles ‘the doctrine [of Marxism] without dismissing the thinker, cutting the wires that link the two with all the delicacy of a bomb disposal expert’. Liberal philosopher John Gray (2016) concludes that the Stedman Jones shows that the ‘strength of Marx’s thought lies in his analysis of capitalism itself’ and that his ‘visions of a post-capitalist society were illusions’.
These examples show that Stedman Jones, who once was a member of New Left Review’s editorial group, invites right-wingers of all shades to dismiss Marx as well as Marx-inspired politics and theory. On the Left, there is no agreement on how to assess this intellectual biography. Alex Callinicos (2016) writes that Stedman Jones tries ‘to cut Marx down to size’ and that his ‘treatment of Marx’s critique of political economy does not meet the standards of contemporary scholarship’. Terrell Carver (2016) formulates points of criticism, but also argues that the book is a ‘masterly instance of intellectual biography, sure to be the standard work on the subject in any language’.
The book is certainly informative in respect to Marx’s life. Stedman Jones also makes a new theoretical contribution by discussing the role of the village community in Marx’s works in the 1870s (section 11.6). The question of communism and the village community was of particular importance in Marx’s answers to Vera Zasulich’s letter that are relevant for understanding the possibility of the Russian Revolution.
To a certain degree, Stedman Jones tries to defend Marx against the assumption by particular Marxists (and Marx’s critics!) that Capital formulated a breakdown theory of capitalism. He maintains that this is not the case. But he interprets this fact as an inconsistency in Marx’s theory, arguing that the Grundrisse presented a theoretical formulation of capitalism’s inevitable collapse resulting from a falling rate of profit. It is a myth that the Grundrisse formulated an automatic collapse of capitalism. When Marx speaks of the end of capitalism in the Grundrisse, then it is in respect to how a communist society would look like in respect to leisure time, the end of labour, well-rounded individuality, etc. (Fuchs 2016, appendix 2).
Stedman Jones also assumes that Marx’s alleged breakdown theory in the Grundrisse was formulated due to a Hegelian influence and that he gave up this influence in Capital, which would have posed serious theoretical problems. It is yet another myth that there are non-Hegelian works by Marx. Capital is a profoundly dialectical book (Fuchs 2016), which already becomes evident in Volume 1’s first chapter, where Marx explains the dialectic of the commodity’s use-value, value and exchange-value. Applying Hegel’s dialectical logic does in no way have to mean, as Stedman Jones seems to assume, a deterministic concept of history. Marx was always a consistently dialectical thinker, which also means that he has a consistent concept of dialectical determination that excludes the assumption of an automatic functional breakdown. In a way, Stedman Jones tries to advance the Althusserian myth of a peculiar epistemological break in Marx’s work.
Stedman Jones’ argument goes one step further: he says that turning away from Hegel would have posed such theoretical difficulties for Marx that illness and intellectual stagnation would have been the consequence. Stedman Jones argues that Marx theoretically struggled to show the ‘terminal effects’ of the tendency of the profit rate to fall in Capital (537) and that he faced theoretical problems in explaining extended reproduction and circulation (538). These theoretical problems would have made him ill, which would have been a welcome excuse for not continuing the work on Capital: “What was less clear was whether the illness was the cause or effect of his difficulties in completing the book” (419). ‘For it was particularly the anxiety surrounding the attempt to write up his critique of political economy that appeared to bring on his illness’ (434). ‘It seems clear that it was not so much lack of physical exercise, but rather the need to confront theoretical difficulty that brought on headache attacks, insomnia and liver disease’ (537). ‘It cannot be denied that during the last decade of Karl’s life, he spent much of his time in pursuit of one health cure after another. But what this leaves out of account was the nightmare occasioned by Karl’s desire to substantiate a theory which, without the Hegelian props he had employed in the 1850s, was impossible to prove’ (537). Marx’ sicknesses ‘provided protective cover for postponement of the day of reckoning’ (538).
Marx wrote tens of thousands of pages during his lifetime, as evidenced by the 43 volumes of the German Marx-Engels-Werke. It is impertinent to argue that he was a procrastinating writer. Such a claim also downplays Marx’s actual health problems and the poverty and precariousness under which Marx and his family lived, which certainly had negative health impacts. Stedman Jones has not done his historical homework thoroughly enough: There is today evidence that indicates that Marx’s suffered from hidradenitis suppurativa, a very painful long-term skin disease (see Fuchs 2016, 10-11). The exact causes of the disease are still unknown, but it is certain that it does not have psychological causes. Stedman Jones gives an idealist interpretation of the history of how Marx wrote Capital.
That Marx analysed falling profit rates as a dialectic of tendency and countervailing tendencies was not a theoretical problem and not a departure from Hegelian logic, as Stedman Jones implies, but an expression of dialectical logic and the logic of dialectical determination. It is simply not true that ‘Karl’s critique of political economy had resulted in an inconclusive account of capitalist crisis’ (583). Marx’s theory of crisis and his works are not inconsistent.
Stedman Jones’ book is rather strong when it comes to the presentation of Marx’s personal and political life and weak when he interprets Marx’s theoretical works. For example, when he discusses the Grundrisse (chapter 10), there is no mentioning of the ‘Fragment on Machines’, the notion of the general intellect and aspects of the means of communication, although these are passages that are highly relevant today in respect to the role of knowledge work, computer technology and digital media in contemporary capitalism (Fuchs 2016).
The neglect of the relevance of Marx’s theory today and the reduction of Marx to a nineteenth century thinker is immanent in both Jonathan Sperber’s (2013) book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life and Stedman Jones’ book. Sperber (2013) argues that attempts ‘to update Marx’ are ‘useless pastimes’, that ‘Marx’s life, his systems of thought, his political strivings and aspirations, belonged primarily to the nineteenth century’ (xviii), and that Marx is ‘a figure of the past’ (xix). In a comparative manner, Stedman Jones defines the aim of Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion as putting ‘Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings’ (5). Both thinkers want to limit Marx to the nineteenth century and to historicise him in a reductive manner.
What a strange concept of history it is that both Sperber and Stedman Jones advance. They see history as contained, fragmented and closed. As a result, they consider nineteenth century society as unrelated to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and do not make any attempt of practicing history not as the study of the past, but as the dialectic of the past, present and potential futures. Marx is for them therefore a thinker whose relevance is limited to the nineteenth century. But given that capitalism is not over and that history tends to repeat itself (although in unpredictable manner with emergent qualities), there are surely many aspects of Marx’s works that are relevant today.
Marx did not set out to write a theory of nineteenth century capitalism, but a critique of capitalism’s social form. It is quite obvious that capitalism and class continue to shape society in the twenty-first century. Capitalism and society develop in a dialectical manner, i.e. as a series of unpredictable sublations that to specific degrees preserve and eliminate economic being and at the same time produce new qualities. The interpretation of Marx should therefore follow the same dialectical development of continuity and discontinuity, theoretical foundations and dialectical applications to particular contexts. Twenty-first century capitalism is neither the same nor radically different from nineteenth century capitalism. Stedman Jones and Sperber’s historicising of Marx does however reduce his analysis to the nineteenth century. They interpret both Marx and society in a non-dialectic manner. We should not leave Marx to the reductionist historians. The point is to show how Marx’s times and writings inform the presence and how in a retroactive manner the presence informs the study of the past.
Stedman Jones’ book is an interesting work in respect to Marx’s life, but should be read cautiously in respect to Marx’s theory. Above all, it is a regrettable development that today there are British historians, who out-of-touch with the tradition of British Marxist historiography, seem to have set themselves the revisionist goal of arguing that Marx’s theory does not matter today and is only relevant for understanding the nineteenth century. Against this trend, it is important to advance critical theory in twenty-first century capitalism based on, inspired by and by dialectically developing Marx.
28 September 2016
- 2016 Review of Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion The Guardian Online August 14, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/14/karl-marx-greatness-and-illusion-review-gareth-stedman-jones
- 2016 Marx Deflated International Socialism Online September 27, 2016 http://isj.org.uk/marx-deflated/">http://isj.org.uk/marx-deflated/
- 2016 Review of Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion Marx & Philosophy Review of Books September 24, 2016 http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2016/2456
- 2016 Reading Marx in the Information Age. A Media and Communication Studies Perspective on “Capital Volume 1” (New York: Routledge).
- 2016 The Dialectical Man Literary Review August 2016 https://literaryreview.co.uk/the-dialectical-man
- 2016 Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion Progress Online September 12, 2016 http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2016/09/12/karl-marx-greatness-and-illusion/
- 2016 The Value of Karl Marx’s 19 Century Thinking in Today’s World Financial Times Online August 5, 2016 https://www.ft.com/content/04afaf98-57d3-11e6-9f70-badea1b336d4
- 2016 Leaving his Marks The Times Literary Supplement September 21, 2016 http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/leaving-his-marks/
- 2016 The Myth of Marx The Sunday Times August 14, 2016.
- 2013 Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York: Liveright).
- 2016 False Consciousness: The Value of Marx in the 21st Century The Economist Online August 27, 2016. http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21705665-value-marx-21st-century-false-consciousness