It Isn’t Easy To Be Marx: Recent History in the Nineteenth Century

May 3, 2013, 8:31 am

14939251-karl-marx-image-in-a-cancelled-stampOn the way to the airport, I began one of my travel activities: catching up with the paper publications that accumulate despite my best efforts to keep up.  In this way I discovered John Gray’s review of Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (Liveright, 2013).  It’s a beautifully written essay about what sounds like a must-read summer book. According to Gray, this is a major revision of Marx, of his impact on history, and of the various willful readings and misinterpretations that made Marx’s work such a powerful influence on the twentieth century.

From my perspective, this is particularly timely. If you are a subscriber to Jacobin (which you should be), you will notice that Marxism is undergoing a revival of sorts, as young left intellectuals try to grapple with the turns history is taking and how we might think our way through to activist interventions.  Returning to Marx might also be useful as a way of addressing the modern attraction to anarchism, which is undergoing an even stronger revival among young grassroots activists. Following Gray, Sperber points out that Marx’s hostility to anarchism was far more grounded in his personal rivalry with Mikhail Bakunin and his “ hostility to Bakunin’s authoritarian brand of anarchism. It was such nineteenth-century passions and animosities rather than ideological collisions of the kind that are familiar from the cold war era that shaped Marx’s life in politics.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Politics are personal, and it seems that one of Gray’s main contributions has been to point out, not just that revolutionaries were first inspired by Marx and then deployed him to their own ends (which we knew), but that the outcome has been to separate Marx’s thought from – ahem — the means of production.

Furthermore, Marx’s was frequently interrupted  by life, and Gray points to the difficulty of being an independent scholar. “Though we think of Marx as a theorist ensconced in the library of the British Museum, theorizing was only one of his avocations and rarely his primary activity.” As Gray writes,

Usually Marx’s theoretical pursuits had to be crammed in beside far more time-consuming activities: émigré politics, journalism, the IWMA, evading creditors, and the serious or fatal illnesses that plagued his children and his wife, and, after the onset of his skin disease in 1863, Marx himself. All too often Marx’s theoretical labors were interrupted for months at a time or reserved for odd hours late at night.

The only things missing on the list are grading, office hours and search committees. As a result the full body of Marx’s work —  and even the canonical works — is far more erratic, uncertain and contradictory than is commonly assumed. If his published work points to autocratic states replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, he tended not to view these building blocks of modern Communism as a terribly good idea. “Nonsense!” is the word that attaches itself to this idea when the archive is more thoroughly plumbed. Gray argues that, as a recent historian, Marx borrowed from others (Spencer, Comte, Darwin, Hegel are but a few) as he fished around to interpret the swiftly changing world of his time.  This was hard work, and produced a far less consistent set of ideas than is commonly assumed when we apply “Marxist theory” to a set of texts or body of evidence.

Finally, this seems like a great read for we who are pursuing recent history. As it turns out, Marx was right and wrong — and even in his wrongness produced a set of ideas that centered the study of capitalism itself — as well as the use of theory and philosophy as enduring methodologies — as central to modern historical scholarship.

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