Busts of Karl Marx for sale in Germany, 2008 ©DPA PICTURE ALLANDE ARCHIVE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Karl Marx: Soho revolutionary

For the current Labour leadership, Karl Marx is the man of the moment, says Howard Davies
September 14, 2016
Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones (Allen Lane, £35)

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.

The lack of analysis of the subsequent impact of Marx’s thought would not be surprising were this a conventional soup to nuts biography. But while Karl (as he is referred to throughout) is born in the first sentence and dies in the last, in the nearly 600 pages that separate those sentences we do not follow his progression and family life in a straightforward way. The romantic stories of the Marx family’s impoverished years in Soho’s Dean Street, which made for lively and at times touching reading in Wheen’s book, are dealt with here in rather cursory fashion. Marx’s close friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels flits in and out of the story, but without ever coming into focus as a character. The same is true of the activist and thinker Ferdinand Lassalle, who helped Marx in London, and of Karl’s immediate family. Stedman Jones is not concerned with his wife Jenny’s personality, or with how she viewed the poor conditions in which they lived and the sacrifices they made in the interests of his work. Indeed even Marx himself never springs into vivid life, though we are given enough documentary material to construct a view of him as a difficult and often cussed man, with a highly developed sense of entitlement, and a rather off-putting line in casual denigration of his “friends” and acquaintances, sometimes couched in racist language that today reads unpleasantly. But all colour is drained away from this portrait. This is Marx in black and white. We learn on p586, for the first time, that his nickname among friends was “Moor.” Why? A reference to Othello? We should be told, but we are not. So while the reader learns the facts of Marx’s life story, and follows him from Germany through Paris and Brussels to the British Museum’s Reading Room, this is not precisely a study of character, yet nor, as we have seen, is it a history of an ideology rather than a man. So what is Stedman Jones’s intention?
"Marx found British pragmatism exasperating. Why could we not realise that the state needed to be pulled down?"
The strongest clue is found at the end of the epilogue, where he argues that “the Marx constructed in the 20th century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the 19th.” Throughout the book, he is at pains to situate the philosopher in the context of his day and not to prejudge the long-term impact of his writings. I sympathise with that aim, but only up to a point. The passages on German politics in the 1840s, and the developments that led Marx to conclude in 1843 that, “I can do nothing more in Germany,” are useful to explain his decision to go into exile and eventually reach these shores. But I question the value of a 10-page digression on the events of the Paris Commune, competently but not originally described, with no reference at all to Marx. And there is little original material in Jones’s account of the Irish Home Rule movement.

Perhaps it is inevitable, in a book whose explicit aim is “to dismantle the standard 20th-century reading of Karl Marx’s theory of revolution” that a sense of historical dynamic is lost. Stedman Jones is determined to caution us against drawing teleological conclusions, which drives him to de-emphasise the connections between Marx and other thinkers, and to downplay the significance of his role in international socialist networks, even though his subject devoted a lot of time to meetings with comrades in smoke-filled rooms. This is a legitimate reading but one which results in a less than exciting narrative.

Nonetheless, there is much here to divert us, especially on Marx’s view of the domestic political scene. Engels’s view of the conditions of the working class in Manchester influenced his dependent a great deal. Engels described the living conditions of workers living in hovels “very like pig stys” near the appropriately named River Irk—“this horrible river.” (I was brought up in North Manchester, and when my mother tired of her restless only son I was sent to play by the black and often foam-covered Irk, which had not greatly improved in the intervening century).

But while Engels found outrage and inspiration in the British working classes, Marx encountered disappointment. He constantly bemoaned the tendency of British radicals to compromise. The English, he believed, “have all the material conditions for the social revolution. What they lack is the spirit of generalisation and revolutionary ardour.” They were also distressingly willing to be bought off with the government’s concessions on suffrage. He found British pragmatism and incrementalism exasperating. Why could we not realise that the whole edifice of the state needed to be pulled down, and that progressive improvements were beside the point? Our leftists were also tiresomely preoccupied by parliamentary democracy, which he regarded as a false prospectus.

Marx might well find current political circumstances more to his liking. He would surely have been a fellow-traveller on the “Leave” battle bus, and would be quite unmoved by a large parliamentary vote of no confidence in the Labour leadership. Indeed in his active political life, he thought the smaller the number engaged in party management, the better. In that sense, McDonnell is right to see Marxism as this year’s intellectual fashion. Marx would have been at home in the vanishing ranks of the shadow cabinet.

And yet there was another side to him, revealed in Engels’s letters. It was not an unalloyed diet of dialectical materialism in the Marx household. Encouraging his friend to come to Paris in 1847, Engels did not hold out the prospect of observing a revolution. An altogether more enticing prospect was dangled before him. “It is absolutely essential that you get out of ennuyante Brussels for once and come to Paris,” he wrote, “and I for my part have a great desire to go carousing with you… If there were no French women, life wouldn’t be worth living.” The promise of nights out with Engels with French cocottes in tow proved irresistible. The 1848 revolution followed, and the rest is history.

Howard Davies is chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland