For the current Labour leadership, Karl Marx is the man of the moment, says Howard Daviesby Howard Davies / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Karl Marx has, of late, assumed greater prominence in British public life. After decades when politicians on the left and right were far more likely to quote Groucho than Karl, we have it on no less an authority than John McDonnell, the current Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, that: “Marxism has come back into favour because people have gone back to his analysis of just the basics of how the system works.” This comment was widely interpreted as a warning to Blairites that they would soon be sent to the countryside for forcible re-education, but its true target may have been the Great Leader himself. Jeremy Corbyn admitted to Andrew Marr that he hadn’t read as much Marx as he should have done—a shameful admission in the Labour Party of today.
So a new biography of Marx may be well timed. A book that fillets and prepares Das Kapital for ordinary human consumption could fly off the shelves in Wallasey and Pontypridd, where ideological deselection struggles may shortly be under way. One of the last major biographies of the great man published here was written by the journalist and writer Francis Wheen in 1999. But while his book was readable, entertaining and at times even funny, he does not pack the intellectual punch of Gareth Stedman Jones, a professor of the history of ideas at Queen Mary, University of London, with a lengthy academic publication record on Marx and Marxism behind him. Comrade Wheen is also, shall we say, a touch unsound. Though a committed Republican, he has not always toed the party line.
But anyone looking for the McDonnell view of Marx’s relevance to today’s politics may be disappointed in Stedman Jones. In his own short and unsuccessful Labour leadership campaign, in 2007, McDonnell argued that, “There’s not a single political or economic debate that’s gone on over the last century and a half without some reference to Marx!” One could not easily draw that conclusion from Stedman Jones’s dispassionate book, which situates his subject firmly in his 19th-century context and somewhat underplays the radical significance of his philosophy. Indeed in a lengthy interview a few years ago, he put his sceptical cards on the table. Asked to summarise his view of Marxism, Stedman Jones said: “I think what he was trying to do was to construct a theory about the viability of communism, and in that he failed.” This rather flat conclusion is not quite the one that emerges from this lengthy and scholarly biography. It ends rather abruptly with our hero’s death on 14th March 1883, with only the briefest epilogue summarising the early reception of his ideas in Europe and the United States. The political history of Marxist-Leninism is left aside.