Book Review: Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion
by Gareth Stedman Jones
The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2016
Thirty-five years ago, the gaspingly impenetrable critic Northrop Frye wrote:
Marx thought of Communism as a natural evolution out of capitalism: when capitalism had reached a certain stage of deadlock through its inherent contradictions, a guided revolutionary movement could shift the control of production from a few exploiters to the workers. This evolutionary development did not occur.
In a more just world, that funereal final line would have buried any chance that Karl Marx would inspire two centuries of big fat biographies, since the to the victor most usually goes the biographical spoils. We don’t read inviting David McCullough tomes on the third or fourth men to embark on powered air flight; Charles Darwin lives vastly outnumber those of the poor schmuck he beat to publication about the theory of evolution. And with the exception of Isaac Newton, none of the leading proponents of alchemy have been heard about in quite some time.
Not so Karl Marx. His labyrinthine books have been endlessly reprinted, and the story of his life – from his birth in 1818 to his fractious university days and fledgling attempts at writing, from his various awkward love affairs, his move to the teeming intellectual world of Paris, his friendship with Friedrich Engels, his marriage and his years in Brussels and Cologne, his continued writing and eventual residence in England, and the writing of Das Kapital, the immense (and, it must be said, immensely readable) masterwork of his creative life – that old familiar story has been told dozens or hundreds of times, with the life undergirding the monumental theory and the monumental theory continuing to justify the biographies, all of it happening in a tight circle of mutual support.
It can make for some grueling reading, even when the books are written by some of our finest historians. It was only a few years ago, for instance, that Jonathan Sperber wrote a 700-page biography of the man, and that only a few years after a 500-page life by Francis Wheen, and so on back to David McLellan’s 1974 500-page book and well beyond, biographies popping up in many languages in virtually every season. The drift of these books has been twofold: they’ve tended to get longer over time, and they’ve tended claim with increasing emphasis that they’re paying more attention to Marx the man and, by implication, less attention to Marxism.
The latest of these is a great 700-page brick of a thing from the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, written by historian Gareth Stedman Jones, who promises, as so many biographers have before him, to give us the human Marx, the flesh-and-blood Marx:
The aim of this book is to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings, before all the posthumous elaborations of his character and achievements were constructed. Karl, as we shall henceforth call him, was born into a world just recovering from the French Revolution, the Napoleonic government of the Rhineland, the half-fulfilled but quickly retracted emancipation of the Jews, and the stifling atmosphere of Prussian absolutism.
The perils of such an approach announce themselves immediately, starting with that business of nomenclature. It may be Stedman Jones’ well-intentioned plan to humanize Marx by constantly calling him Karl, but it never quite works. Even as a young man, Marx looked like Yahweh’s bad-tempered older brother, the kind of person whose wife would refer to him as Herr Marx, the kind of man whose first recorded word might have been “pwowetewiat.” Throughout the book, Marx is forever pronouncing (as usual in a Marx biography, the reader steadily accumulates an enormous amount of sympathy for Engels), forever grousing, forever lamenting both the state of the world and the state of his health, forever brooding in ways that might just barely be permissible for a Marx but that would only provoke an “Oh lighten up” for somebody named Karl.
But most of the rhetorical gambles Stedman Jones takes in his big book, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion pay off. He knows the enormous weight of reputational trappings mantling Marx’s life and times, and he does a consistently successful job keeping that weight off his subject. “Marx was promoted as a philosopher who had accomplished as much in the human sciences as Darwin in the natural sciences,” he quite rightly recounts, and he tries throughout his book to balance the legendary with the quotidian. He writes quite well about the development of Marx’s intellectual circle and outlook, but he also regularly reminds us of the little human details of the man. We get the sweeping sociological concepts, but we also get the fact that when their little baby was born in London on 5 November, Karl and his wife jokingly called him “Little Fawkes” – “in honor of the great conspirator.”
Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion is ultimately, amazingly, a bright and readable biography, despite its glowering subject and its shall we say problematic philosophical currents. It’s an undertaking of a reading experience, but Stedman Jones is such good, energetic company that it reads throughout as though the book were about a happy person.