Few people have had their ideas reinvented as many times as the German intellectual and political activist, Karl Marx. Professor of political theory, Terrell Carver, takes us through the most influential books, in English, about Marx, Marxism and his friend, publicist and financial backer, Friedrich Engels.
Before we start on the books should we be talking about Marx or Marxism?
We need to talk about both. In particular, we need to be talking about Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Marxism. Marxism was a construction — it became an ism. Marx became a figure or a trope within that. Engels was a crucial determinant, in my view, in why and when that happened. This whole trio is particularly interesting because they’ve all been made over several times. We’re looking at classic reception studies here. These are not timeless ideas and timeless people. Marxism postdates Marx. It was invented by Engels, but it has its own history. There is a constant process of disentangling Marx and Engels within their own personal historical contexts, because what we have left of them is largely their writings. There’s a constant process of going through that historical context and seeing how that relates to what became Marxism, which has itself been reinvented several times.
Engels doesn’t always get a byline: more often the books are attributed to Marx.
Well, he does and he doesn’t. He was rather clever at erasing himself. Though if you look at his career as a young man before he met Marx, he was far more famous, and had published far more than Marx. Engels was a recognised, although not exactly well-known, journalist in both English and German before they teamed up in late 1844. Engels’s masterpiece in those years was The Condition of the Working Class in England, a book written in German for a German audience. That came out in 1845. I’ve done a lot of work on Engels and my view is that he rather went downhill after he attached himself to Marx. He adopted this second fiddle/sidekick/political-confrère persona. But in the later 1870s, as Marx is declining, Engels takes it upon himself to present Marx as an important intellectual and political figure and a great thinker, the equal of Hegel, and—as he said in his graveside speech—to Darwin. Engels was a publicity manager for this.
“Marxism postdates Marx.”
They only officially collaborated on three works in their whole careers. Iconically, they occur together as ‘Marx and Engels’. In order to make ‘Marxism’ work, you have to adopt the single persona. The three works they wrote together were The Communist Manifesto — which I think is more Engels than Marx, it’s more like Engels’s journalism. That was published anonymously. They published a kind of flysheet, telegraphic version that they did actually sign. They also collaborated on the manuscripts which have become known, factitiously, as The German Ideology. The title is an editorial fabrication of the 1920s, but there’s no doubt that they were in the same room writing the thing together. Their very first collaboration, though, was a book hardly anyone reads now called, satirically, The Holy Family. It’s a polemical attack on political philosophers of the time. That is by ‘Engels and Marx,’ because Engels was better known. But if you look at the translated and selected editions of their works you’ll find it now listed as by ‘Marx and Engels.’
Why would Engels take the backseat?
He portrayed himself as a junior partner. He was working for the family business until he retired at the age of 49, in 1869. The family business was a multinational, cotton-spinning, commercial outfit based in Germany and Manchester. He had things to do and was kept on by the family, though he wasn’t a very good employee. He was also involved as a political organiser, or would-be political organiser. I think he genuinely worshipped Marx as a great intellect. And it is true that Marx was an intellectual giant and much more interesting than Engels. As publicity manager, Engels provided simplified, popular versions of Marx’s great ideas. In some cases, he advised people to read Engels’s own works of that type rather than Marx’s which were more difficult. In a sense, Engels created Marx as a difficult thinker and someone who was said to be the equal of Hegel and Darwin.
“I’ve done a lot of work on Engels and my view is that he rather went downhill after the attached himself to Marx.”
How politically active were Marx and Engels?
Marx and Engels were dedicated political actors in their time, the 1840s. This wasn’t just about ideas. They got into a lot of trouble and either fled from, or were kicked out of, Germany, Belgium and France. They were participants as newspaper journalists in the revolutions of 1848-9, which were quite widespread and very violent.
In the 1840s, you couldn’t have straightforward politics in non-constitutional regimes. There wasn’t supposed to be any politics, or any public sphere, or any civil society, other than the church. Both grew up in, and had to cope with, situations of authoritarian repression. You weren’t supposed to comment on public life since there wasn’t any: you were meant to go to church and shut up. Even in supposedly more liberal places, like Belgium and France, there was a lot of authoritarianism.
Both of them came to their atheism very early, which made them obvious objects of hate. In a sense, they were close to what we call terrorists nowadays: they weren’t received into polite society; their ideas were regarded as dangerous; they had to live in exile. Britain wasn’t particularly kinder: they just spoke German to each other and nobody cared. The saving grace of these authoritarian regimes was that, from a bureaucratic point of view, they weren’t particularly well organized for throwing people in jail and not letting them out. Marx and Engels were spied on a lot, and a major source of their activities and domestic life in the 1840s and 50s is the Prussian state police archives.
“Their very first collaboration was a book hardly anyone reads now called, satirically, The Holy Family. It’s a polemical attack on the political philosophers of the time. ”
Politics could only be done in a coded way at that time. Philosophy, being an academic and obscure subject, was about the only way you could do it. Hegel was popular because he was ambiguous and he was German. You could get away with this sort of writing because it was in the guise of philosophy. But it was a coded form of politics and a lot of the texts derived from this activity. Later on, in the 1860s and 70s, it became possible, even in Germany and some other places, to publish, within the censorship, works which look more political to us. The International Workingmen’s Association—which they helped to found in the early 1860s—was itself a persecuted and proscribed organisation, and so all these people had to be very careful. Marx himself was extremely dismissive of philosophers as philosophers because they fancied they were doing practical politics. He wanted to cross the line and get into practical politics and worker agitation. But you couldn’t agitate with workers — you got locked up for that, or perhaps beaten up. His newspaper was banned and he was put out of business. A lot of his life he lived on Engels’s generosity from the family business.
I’ve put the five books I’ve chosen in chronological order of publication because this will take you through what writers who’ve generated material in English have come up with about Marxism, Engels, and Marx. I’ll say a little bit about each one in the political context of the writer and how that works out in terms of the kinds of ideas Marxism is supposed to have come up with.
So your first choice of books is Karl Marx (1939) by Isaiah Berlin, which was Berlin’s first book. It’s a short intellectual biography. Berlin was a Russian Jewish émigré and later an eminent historian of ideas at Oxford University.
When Berlin wrote this book, he wasn’t established. The book proposal came from the Home University Library, based in London, which published popular books on various intellectual subjects. A number of people at Oxford turned down the offer to write this — not surprisingly because they didn’t know anything about Marx, and if they knew anything, they didn’t care very much, or were hostile. This is in the 1930s, when there was a lot of communism around, but it was mostly working class. There are intellectual sympathisers, but not many at Oxford, which was very conservative. I don’t think people at Oxford were on any particular campaign or felt threatened by Marxism: Stalinism wasn’t much known about, and people were more worried about fascism in Germany.
“ Marx was a liberal thinker. There’s not as much difference between Marx or indeed Marxism and liberalism as many people think. ”
Berlin, as a writer, is quite secularised in his outlook. He grew up speaking Russian and German. A major point here is that his take on Marx is quite fresh and independent of the generalised Marxism that is around both on the Continent and in Britain. It’s not completely isolated from that, but what strikes me about the book, which was published in 1939, is that it touches base with the conventional, biographical, intellectual, critical approaches to Marxism and the kind of popular Marxism which British Communists and British anti-communists would have recognised, but it doesn’t spend very long there. I think that’s because Berlin didn’t find these ideas very intellectually interesting.
What interested Berlin is Marx as a 48er: that is, a protagonist of, and participant in, the great revolutions of 1848-9, which are an explosion of liberalism allied with nationalism. To be nationalistic, in this period, was to be anti-dynastic and pro-constitutional, and not exclusionary. It’s a happy moment when liberalism and nationalism go together — and we’re all going to be wonderful democratic nations with our ethnic, linguistic, and folk characteristics. This is going on all over central Europe.
What Berlin does is bring a central European perspective. I see him occupying a political-intellectual-cultural axis somewhere between Riga and Vienna. This is now a lost world of central European, restless multiculturalism which is deeply inflected with Germanic culture and the secularised Jewish contributions to that, and lots of different religious and nationalistic contributions along the way — set against dynastic, authoritarian, non-constitutional church-supported regimes, particularly the Roman Catholic church. The revolutions in 1848 may have started in Paris, but they spread to Vienna. Marx and Engels got as far as Vienna during those revolutions. Berlin brings this perspective to Marx, and finds the Marx of the Manifesto, the Marx who was a central European actor, albeit based in London. He sees Marx as a secularized German intellectual. He’s not very interested in Marx’s Jewish origins.
Berlin is famous for his liberalism. Do you think that he is turning Marx into a liberal thinker in this book, taking away the more radical elements in the way he describes him?
Marx was a liberal thinker. There’s not as much difference between Marx or indeed Marxism and liberalism as many people think. This is because if you are against non-constitutional, authoritarian regimes, you are a liberal. That’s what the French Revolution was about, and that’s what the 1848 revolutions were about: they were about bringing constitutionalism and popular sovereignty, and representative and responsible government, to parts of Europe where the rulers and the church were fanatically dedicated to maintaining their own grip. This was only relaxed, rather slowly, in the 1850s and 1860s.
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Marx was wholly in favour of popular sovereignty and representative and responsible government. His angle was to keep pushing on the economic side, and to insist that governments needed to take responsibility for the economic welfare of citizens. Essentially, he was a social democrat. But in order to pursue that kind of agenda, you had to be a radical, terrorist revolutionary and prepared to take up a gun. That’s what this flaring up of revolutions was about. It didn’t really hit Russia until about 1905.
The dividing of Marx from his liberalism is something that is projected onto his ideas, and particularly his politics, much later on. Now, in the course of doing this kind of politics, Marx wanted to push liberals into the economic realm. That’s exactly what social democrats do now, and that’s the argument that various political parties had with George Osborne. It’s not that much different, frankly.
This is jumping forward quite a bit. Berlin made the study of Marx intellectually respectable because he was an Oxford academic and went on to greater things. His book is still in print in its fifth edition. So Marx was noticed in the Anglophone sphere, but mostly in a fairly crude version. The only other book of the time that approaches Berlin’s sophistication in taking Marx seriously as a thinker, and bringing on board the politics to some extent, was Sidney Hook’s. He was a ‘fellow traveller,’ based in New York. He wrote in the American context, as a contemporary of Berlin’s.
McLellan was a student of Berlin’s in Oxford. By that point, which was the early to mid-60s, Marx was quite acceptable as an academic subject. You could go through the history of British university teaching in philosophy and politics and see when and where Marx pops up, but there wouldn’t be much before 1960. By then things had settled down enough to make him respectable.
McLellan set himself up to write a contextual study of the early Marx. It’s interesting from an intellectual and philosophical point of view. He doesn’t have the central European, 48er perspective that Berlin had. He’s been the beneficiary of what happened to Engels and Marxism in the 1930s. In the 1920s, a project was developed between the Bolsheviks and the German Communist Party to collect the Marx archive as well as published works. 1932 is the magic date there, in that the so-called German Ideology, and the so-called Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 were both published. It was difficult to circulate them in the 1930s with people preoccupied with the run-up to World War II, Stalinism, and everything else that was going on. The material doesn’t really start to circulate until the late 1940s, and then largely in French, where it is treated seriously, and the early manuscripts in particular were picked up.
‘Alienation’ caught people’s eye as an obviously philosophical concept, and they ignored the fact that in the so-called German Ideology Marx is very dismissive about it, and actually pretty much drops the term, used in that way, after the 1840s. These people are academic, professional philosophers interested in philosophical concepts — they’re not going to find much philosophy in the writing about the fetishism of commodities (even though it’s there), and they’re certainly not going to find much in the theory of value as it emerges later on —which is actually the end point of what Marx was starting to get to, albeit in what appears to be a philosophical way.
“As publicity manager, Engels provided simplified, popular versions of Marx’s great ideas.”
Essentially, McLellan investigates this as philosophy, in a philosophical way, and isn’t so strong on what’s there on the early reception by Marx and Engels of economic ideas. So you won’t find much about alienation in Engels’s “Outline of a Critique of Political Economy” of 1844, which Marx published, and was one of the pieces that excited Marx most. But Marx had to get in touch with political economy and he did it through Hegelian philosophers. He had a lot of philosophical battles to fight. McLellan’s dissertation was about the young Hegelians and Marx. McLellan developed his own publication industry on this point: he published a book a year for ten years, mining this seam. The next book was Marx Before Marxism. He puts down a marker that there is a Marx there before Marxism, and that you can date Marxism from further down the line. Most of my career has been involved in exploring that, which is why I’ve been so interested in Engels.
McLellan himself was very interested in liberation theology, which was largely Catholic, mostly Latin American and French. Besides being interested in philosophy, he’s very interested in religion and in politics done in and through religion. In terms of communicating the existence of a different Marx to a very large audience, this is a notable achievement. Marx suddenly became much more complex and interesting, and much less formulaic.
Alienation is central here. Could you explain that term?
Alienation is a very complicated and disputed notion. It comes out of the German idealist philosophical tradition. It’s essentially about projection — that is, the thesis or trope derives from the idea that we have various ideas and project them into entities that are not ourselves. The origin of this was, amongst other things, in Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity where he argued that specifically human characteristics of love, forgiveness, and redemption are projected out onto alien entities like gods or spirits. This idea was not wholly invented with them, but it is collected up into an attack on orthodox doctrinal theology, particularly on any kind of theology. It was read as an atheist work and Feuerbach was chased out of universities. He never worked properly after that, for being heterodox.
“ They [Marx and Engels] were close to what we call terrorists nowadays. ”
There are a number of different terms for ‘alienation’ in German and they relate to this idea of projecting human qualities into abstract entities. What Marx did was borrow this and suggest that our human relationships of production, consumption, distribution, exchange—where essentially we make the goods and services of life in a human community for each other to benefit from—are projected into alien entities such as money and the market, which come to have a life of their own and become idols in a literal sense. We bow down and worship them, and think that material objects such as coinage, paper notes, and so on, actually have social relationships with each other in a sort of parallel universe. We let these human creations control us.
There is a thesis here not just about otherness, but about investing material objects with human powers, and then, because of this investment, we let them control us. That, in a short outline, is what alienation is about. Marx develops more refined and specific concepts to do this, and goes off the idea of alienation later because it is vague and unspecific and less connected with the literatures and concepts of political economy that he was actually attacking in detailed terms. That, in my view, is why the term tends to drop out of the later Marx’s writings.
You can see why this concept hooks people. The idea that we become haunted by, and taken over by, things that we project human qualities into is, in essence, a horror story.
Yes. There’s a huge amount of that in Capital. If you go through the metaphors— I’ve made a list of them actually—it’s full of occult references. You have vampires, werewolves, necromancy, table-turning (which is material objects coming to life), metempsychosis, the Whore of Babylon — it goes on and on. I developed this idea in the 1980s and published it in the Times Higher EducationSupplementand elsewhere. The idea is that he didn’t just use these as colourful metaphors. They make the argument that you, as a rational, atheistic, scientifically-minded reader, don’t accept these fairy stories, so why should you accept the idea that the market rules your life when it’s so clearly a human construction? Of course if you believe in werewolves, then you look for them and you’re afraid. Marx transfers that argument, saying that if you’re worried about market relationships and spend your time phoning insurance companies (and things like that) you should see yourself as a victim of this kind of entity, which is ultimately social and something we should be able to control.
You seem to be making a case for alienation as a useful concept, and are quite clear about its meaning.
This is the commodity fetishism version of alienation. Alienation was useful in gathering in religious people and philosophers, and providing an introduction to what became known as ‘the humanistic Marx.’ David McLellan didn’t invent the humanistic Marx, but he popularised it for an Anglophone audience by writing a book every year. They came out as originals in paperback. This was a huge intellectual phenomenon and industry. His Marx looks a lot different from the Marx that emerged in the 1920s, and starting in the 1870s, when he was dressed up as an empirical scientist — not a fuzzy humanistic thinker at all. He was, in that earlier version, a thinker who believed in iron laws of history that were independent of human will. That, in itself, is a construction, largely due to Engels, I think, and his interest in physical science and the scientific determinism and positivism of the 1860s and 70s. That was politically valuable for a lot of people, but it does generate issues about human agency, and the problem that if history is moving by itself, why bother to do anything? It generates very authoritarian interpretations of Marxist scientists who tell you what’s what, and what to believe. Alienation was a breath of fresh air; but you have to realise how stale the air was between 1879 and 1959 to see what a revolution that was.
Your next book, Karl Marx’s Theory of History (1978), is by G.A. Cohen, who is renowned as a brilliant reconstructor of Marx. Is that a fair way to see him?
Yes. I totally hated this book. This is another Oxford phenomenon. There’s a definite connection with Isaiah Berlin, again. Berlin had a lot of respect, undue respect in my view, for British logical positivism — he engaged with a technical kind of philosophy that wasn’t in his tradition. Cohen was part of the Oxford political philosophy milieu, and a protégé of Berlin’s, although his logical positivist philosophical training was alien to what Berlin knew about, and that may have been some of the attraction.
Jerry, as he liked to be known, worked on a project for quite a long time, in the late 1950s and on into the 60s, of subjecting Marx to the tests of logical positivism. He took very selective and quite isolated out-of-context passages of Marx as texts and subjected them to propositional analysis. He asked: are they constructed as propositions that would have truth conditions, and what are these truth conditions? He took them to be propositions about history that could be subject to historical tests, and therefore true or false.
“Much of what Marx was doing has similarities with what we do in political writing today, which also involves a lot of parody and satire. ”
I thought this was entirely misconceived as a way of reading Marx, although you can see it as an intellectual project, if you believe in logical positivism’s tenets. That was not my background, and I thought this was reductionist and arid, as well as decontextualizing. They were never written by Marx to be treated in this way and if you are going to do that sort of thing to these propositions, then, in my view, it would be fairer to everyone if you removed Marx from the picture. If you look at the political contexts within which Marx wrote those texts and made those statements, it was utterly unlike this type of scientific propositional testing. I could never see that there was any historical case that Marx could possibly have meant the writing in this way, though it does, in a sense, follow from Engels’s positivism. If you project Engels’s positivism as Engels himself did, back on Marx, then it begins to look a bit more like Cohen’s project.
My understanding of Cohen’s background was that he grew up in the Communist Party in Canada and would have imbibed a form of Engels-Marxism which would have been positivist and scientific-minded. Biographically that fits together. Cohen took certain sections of Marx’s writings, isolated them, and said he was going to find the ‘theory of history’, presuming there is such a thing, and that again, as a project, goes back to Engels. Engels invented the phrase ‘the materialist interpretation of history’ or ‘materialist conception of history’ in 1859 when he was first popularising Marx to what was supposed to be a mass audience. Very few people read Engels’s book review of Marx, which he planted in the press in 1859, but it can be traced back to August of that year, and that’s where the phrase occurs. Marx talks about an ‘outlook’ or a ‘conception’ but doesn’t really nail it down, ever.
I found Cohen’ exercise de-politicising (unless you think that scientistic Marxism is a workable politics, which I never did), and I felt it was doomed to fail. My view about historical investigation is that it’s interpretative rather than some kind of empirical test as to whether things are true or false or not. Cohen’s approach involved a very elaborate reconstruction surrounded with a very reductionist philosophy and would never work: and that’s the conclusion that he actually came to. I was unsurprised by that.
He calls it ‘a defence’ of a Marxist theory of history — that sounds like a critique.
It ended up that way. I suppose Jerry always thought that he would defend it on the basis of an empirical test. That was always going to fail. It reminds me now of Strauss’s The Life of Jesus — this is going back to the 1830s when David Friedrich Strauss, as a committed Christian, decided to go through the Gospel accounts and find the historical Jesus. Using a philological and historical methodology, he thought he could go through the accounts and sift out the actual facts, and then show that these facts were true, and then we would have a factual basis for Christianity which would be a useful addition to the faith. Famously, Strauss’s projects didn’t work out. The more he got into it the more the Gospels were revealed to be overlapping fictions written in a style that isn’t amenable to historical testing as there’s nothing historical in them independent of themselves and independent of other Biblical writings which they copy. So Strauss went away a very disappointed man, and a pantheist. Lots of people hated his book. But he’d set out to defend something on the basis of scientific, historical, and philological criteria and it failed. Maybe Cohen’s project is a bit like that. Cohen went on to investigate other topics which have a less obvious and less direct relationship to Marx, Marxist texts, and Marxist writing: a more social democratic project investigating the concepts and practices of equality, equalisation and justice within a social democratic framework.
Let’s move on to your next book choice, The Young Karl Marx (2007). This is a book by David Leopold, once again focusing on the early Marx, the Marx who was writing about alienation and the Young Hegelians.
What is interesting is the methodological angle here. This is part of my view that there is no timeless ‘young Marx.’ I’m interested in methodology, and we’re back to Oxford again. My DPhil is from Oxford too — I knew Berlin, and worked on the third edition of his biography of Marx; I knew McLellan, and I went to Jerry Cohen’s papers in Oxford. David Leopold is currently at Oxford. He’s much younger — he was a student of Cohen’s, but you would never know that from reading his book. Leopold’s is the first biographical/contextual account of Marx in any language that I’m aware of that seriously gets to grips with the political context of this highly philosophised politics of the late 1830s and 1840s. To do that, you have to go back to the 1770s and the origins of liberal ‘thinking’ in Germany and sort that out as a political historian — rather than as a philosopher or someone interested in the history of ideas as such.
“In a very Jane Austen-ish way, he shows that Jenny, who was older than Marx, was perhaps on the shelf, and that the Marxes had more money than people realised.”
This was the first book that really reviewed works like Marx’s “On the Jewish Question,” which was an article published in 1844. It’s still one of his most difficult texts and not about what people think it’s about. Leopold resolves that for me with a thoroughly contextual study, going back decades earlier and sorting out what exactly the Jewish question was. I found that absolutely fascinating. This wasn’t any simple question about anti-Semitism. Going back to the 1770s and possibly earlier, the question was, ‘how do you exist in a society that is pre-constitutional and Christian without being a believing, confessing, doctrinal Christian?’ It is very recent in European history, even in British history, for religious tests of civil status and for full membership in the community to have dropped out. In the Rhineland, where Marx grew up, they lived under Napoleonic rule for a decade. There was quite a lot of Jewish emancipation. When the Confederation of the Rhine was absorbed into the kingdom of Prussia, the Prussians wanted to crack down and get Jews back in the ghetto, out of the universities, out of the professions. Marx’s father became a Lutheran. This sort of activity was going on. The Jewish question was not just a question about Jews, it was a question about religion, belief, and social conformity, and how conformist to conventional culture and religious tests you needed to be to be a member of the community — and, also, what sort of exceptions should be allowed.
So you’re saying that Leopold contextualised Marx’s writing, and thereby revealed who Marx’s targets were, what the arguments were playing against, which may have been implicit in the essay rather than explicit.
That’s right. Being involved with the Jewish question for liberals around Marx meant supporting their inclusion in the professions and supporting some kinds of exceptions, getting rid of extra taxes and whatever else was being used as a restriction. So you could no longer require baptism as a pre-requisite for a social role. It evolved, at that point, into a kind of liberal inclusivity or multiculturalism that we would be familiar with. It just happens that this was focused on Jews. What Marx did was to parody this, and to suggest, in rather a complicated way, that economics matters here and that liberal multiculturalists are not addressing the economic inequalities of society when they argue merely for liberal inclusivity. I think what he’s saying—though not everyone agrees with this interpretation—is that you can flatter yourself for your liberalism in this way and ignore economic issues. You can then fail to realise the way that bad aspects of capitalism are projected onto Jews. Liberals are saying Jews have lots of commercial practices, that’s fine, because that’s historically what they have done; but the anti-Semitism of the time got going because it portrayed Jews as money-lenders and sharp traders and so on. What Marx says is that there is a very interesting politics of capitalism going on here: some people who are liberal or conservative apologists for capitalism are failing to recognise themselves in the kind of activities that they project onto Jews. Anti-Semites claim that Jews are ‘dirty’ in doing these activities. What Marx is saying is that if they’re dirty, you’re dirty, too. “On the Jewish Question” is a very complex parody and hard to read. Leopold gives you a lot of context to help make sense of it.
I’m interested in what you’re saying about methodology here. You’re saying that Cohen was doing the kind of philosophy about thinkers of the past that almost makes them our contemporaries, and takes their words out of context; Leopold, however, is looking at the context, and working out what Marx must have meant in his time. That seems to be close to discovering the ‘real’ Marx. But you were suggesting earlier that there’s no such thing…
There are multiple Marxes and they are all constructions. Leopold didn’t get into a TARDIS and go back to the 1770s or 1840s. He’s making contextual sense out of this work, and resolving various puzzles that we have about Marx. I’m much more interested in this sort of historical account than in Cohen’s reductionism, taking a very limited number of sentences out of a very limited number of texts. For those who are interested in that kind of project, that was what they were interested in, and Marx was that kind of thinker. I think it would have been fairer to say ‘these are philosophical propositions that I have extracted from somebody’ so that others don’t make the mistake of thinking that the historical biographical Marx was really like that. I find Leopold’s approach much more interesting and much more vivid. It also highlights that much of what Marx was doing has similarities with what we do in political writing today, which also involves a lot of parody and satire. Reading Marx in context helps me think about our contemporary political problems much more than reading him out of context. Much more political thinking is like political contextualism than it is like logical positivism.
For me, the sad thing about Leopold’s book is that it stops in 1844, which is when some of Marx’s more exciting ideas get going. The politics becomes more complex and less a matter of isolated writing of manuscripts published for very small numbers of people. When you get to 1845 through to 1848, Marx and Engels are involved in contexts which are physically outside Germany and are more involved with other people who are émigré Germans and exiles, and less involved with things that are only current in Berlin and a few places around there. Essentially, after 1844, they broadened their horizons and got involved with more activists in different places and different kinds of people. I’m not sure if Leopold will go on and look at that period, but I congratulate him on a superb look at Marx up to late 1844, a period when Engels was hardly involved.
The final book that you’ve chosen is Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013) by Jonathan Sperber.
I’m very conflicted about this book. Sperber is a historian of Germany, and particularly of localities, and I think he is outstanding at that. He has done by far the best work on the very early Marx, and the ancestral Marx: there is virtually a biography of Marx’s father and of all his relations written within this book. He does provide insights and turn things around and upside down by providing this background. In the normal run of biography, people race through the basic early facts about Marx’s parents, sometimes including a little bit of a family tree tracing back his early ancestors, some of whom were rabbis in the early 18th century.
On the one hand this is interesting, but on the other hand, it doesn’t prove much, given that he really came to atheism quite early, and was already for Hegelian pantheism. He knew a lot about doctrinal Christianity, but couldn’t care less, and showed a lot of contempt for Jewish studies, Jewishness, and any sort of religious connection. He was interested in anti-Semitic discourse as part of a larger discourse about capitalism, rather than as a multicultural inclusive liberal discourse about how we get on with religions in a society. He thought that religion was just a total drag on the intellect from beginning to end. The sooner people got out from under it the better. If you don’t think people should worship money, you’re not going to think that people should worship God, either. Marx was really clear on that.
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Sperber goes into a great deal of background on Marx’s family. He turns Marx’s engagement to Jenny von Westphalen around, in terms of property relations. Everybody had previously seen this as Marx himself marrying the local beauty who was not Jewish and who had aristocratic connections and was more wealthy. But Sperber turns that upside down. In a very Jane Austen-ish way, he shows that Jenny, who was older than Marx, was perhaps on the shelf, and that the Marxes had more money than people realised, owned vineyards and so on, and so, in some ways, this was a very good deal for her. Sperber did a wonderful job overturning the simple story that Marx married into a wealthy family for the money.
I think he is out of his depth in the philosophical politics and the philosophical ideas as they come up as Marx develops. That isn’t his strength. He is strong on the 48ers with whom Marx was involved — not famous revolutionaries, they only became famous when some of them were persecuted and charged. A few of them were put on trial in Cologne after the revolution. Marx’s only brush with large-scale publicity arose in that era and a tiny bit later in 1870. He was otherwise quite obscure. Sperber is very good at bringing the 1848ers to life, though some of it is a bit gossipy. In terms of activists arguing with each other and trying to intervene in various ways in various situations, what it’s like after they are in exile, I think Sperber is very good. But that, again, is only a small-scale characterisation, looking at people who were neither great political thinkers nor activists, and reconstructing them from the archives, people who would otherwise be footnotes in the normal biographies of Marx. Sperber makes these people interesting. The book is certainly worth reading for this.
As an add-on, I’d like to mention a book that isn’t published yet, but which I’ve read in proof, by Gareth Stedman Jones (Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion) who was at Cambridge and is now at Queen Mary, University of London. We can look forward to that — another major biography of Marx that will be published soon [now published].
I can see that the academic study of Marx and Marxism is important, but why should anyone who is outside of the academic world be interested in this? What’s the real significance of Marxism?
You can’t be an educated person and know anything about world history without knowing something about this famous ideology.
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