Title: KARL MARX: Greatness and Illusion
Author: Gareth Stedman Jones
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: Rs 1999
Recovering the figure of Karl Marx from the legacy of Marxism, his own encrusted reputation and gruff beard is not an easy task. Gareth Stedman Jones’s deeply researched, fluent, engrossing and authoritative biography of Marx makes two moves to do just that.
First, he situates Marx in the political and intellectual setting of the 19th century, rather than seeing him through the eyes of the 20th. This is Marx, an itinerant, poverty-stricken, egotistical intellectual, with a light leavening of revolutionary ambition, trying to make sense of the political circumstances around him. Second, in some of the most moving parts of the biography, you see him relentlessly and honestly trying to make theoretical sense of the world around him. His works go through numerous drafts. Stedman Jones’s account of the evolution of Capital, in particular, shows a real intellectual at work, trying to reconcile the deductive theory with more inductive historical insights, trying to go through draft after draft, closely wrestling with problems as they arise, particularly in the theory of value. There may be occasional assertions in Marx not warranted by evidence. But the overall portrait you get is not that of an ideologue, but of an intellectual in the sense only the 19th century understood: a polymath figure trying to understand the world and snatching a modicum of intellectual order from it. Marxists may be dogmatic; Marx was anything but.
Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany. Stedman Jones is particularly good on the ways in which the political currents of the time, from the shadow of the Napoleonic project to politics in Prussia, intersect with Marx’s family history. Or the politics of the “Jewish question” and Marx’s own relationship to it, including his flippant use of anti-Semitic tropes. The portrait of the Marx family has enough stuff for a novel: from romance to betrayals, the conflict between generations, the tension between a calling for mankind and responsibilities to one’s kindred. Stedman Jones vividly charts the course of Marx’s life through Paris, Brussels, London and, after the 1860s, in the politics of the workers’ movement, deftly blending personal travails with larger political dramas.
But Stedman Jones’s narrative thread is built on a profound paradox. At one level, understood in the 19th century context, Marx’s career, the author seems to suggest, is something of a failure. These failures are organised along four lines. As a political analyst, there is a deep disjuncture between the social categories Marx deploys and the actual flow of politics. The attempt to read “political struggles as manifestations of social collisions, produced a reading of events that was far too crude.” Marx was unusual in seeing class conflict as a source of hope. But his inattention to the distinction between the political and economic meaning of class led to misjudgements. Stedman Jones’s contribution as a historian in his landmark book, Languages of Class, was to claim that class consciousness is inseparable from the languages produced to create class identity; it is not given. Marx underestimated the role of the discursive creation of class. Marx’s main theoretical project, understanding the nature of value, remained unfulfilled.
Stedman Jones’s discussion of the evolution of thinking on value in Marx is textured and a model of clear articulation. The fact that Capital remained unfinished was in some ways a sign of the intellectual difficulties of the project. Marx’s understanding of revolution and alternatives to capitalism is, at best, improvisatory, rather than rigorous, and again Jones is persuasive in charting Marx’s relationship to the possibilities inherent in different social forms, including an elaborate discussion of Russian peasant communities.
How do these failures square with Marx’s continuing indispensability? We are all Marxists now, in some respects. Even those who vehemently dissociate themselves from him implicitly think in a framework of problems he bequeathed to us. One answer is, of course, the extraordinary fecundity of Marx’s texts; like any great set of works, they exceed their central design. You can think with Marx. He is still the most powerful diagnostician of modernity and the deep existential burdens we bear. As Stedman Jones writes, “Marx was the first to chart the staggering transformation produced in less than a century by the emergence of a world market and the unleashing of the unparalleled productive powers of modern industry. He also delineated the endlessly inchoate, incessantly restless and unfinished character of modern capitalism as a phenomenon. He emphasised its inherent tendency to invent new needs and the means to satisfy them, its subversion of all inherited cultural practices and beliefs, its disregard of all boundaries, whether sacred or secular, its destabilization of every hallowed hierarchy, whether of ruler and ruled, man and woman or parent and child, its turning of everything into an object for sale.”
Stedman Jones’s act of restoring Marx to the 19th century is a great achievement. But perhaps, unwittingly, the desire to restore Marx to his concrete setting makes the nature of his achievement more, not less, elusive. The story of the evolution of Marx’s texts comes a little bit at the expense of understanding its effects. The historian, the theorist, the rhetorician, the romantic and, yes, even the prophet, will not be tied down to his context. For, it is the mark of a great work that for all its faults, it continues to create a new context for itself. Marx still speaks to us like no one else does.