Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Zachary Samalin reviews Greatness and Illusion

Gareth Stedman Jones. Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016. 768 pp.

Review by Zachary Samalin

“The Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth,” Gareth Stedman Jones writes at the close of his exhaustively researched biography Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (p. 595). This statement can be taken as the premise underlying Stedman Jones’s account of Karl Marx’s role in the political, economic and philosophical upheavals of the nineteenth century. Against a detailed backdrop of the turbulent history of this era, Greatness and Illusion presents an even-handed and vivid portrait of Marx in his various familial, personal, professional, and intellectual relationships. It is likely to become the definitive biography of Marx, appealing to scholars of both Marxism and of the period, as well as to a general readership interested in the history of radical politics in the decades between the Napoleonic Wars and the Paris Commune. And as with any in-depth account of a thinker as significant, as contested, and as well-scrutinized as Marx, it is likely to frustrate as many readers as it is likely to please.

The book aspires to supplant what Stedman Jones sees as the received account of Marx as the austere patriarch of twentieth-century economic determinism, an account he argues was constructed posthumously, first by Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky and then by later generations of Marxists seeking to ground the dogma of modern communism in the authority of its nineteenth-century progenitor. “My aim in this book is like that of a restorer,” Stedman Jones writes early on, “to remove the later retouching and alteration contained in a seemingly familiar painting, and to restore it to its original state” (p. xv). The unvarnished Marx he reveals, we are told, is incompatible with the scientism of Marxism as promulgated by Engels. Marx is shown not as an infallible prophet of the collapse of the capitalist world system, but rather as a restless, splenetic procrastinator, hounded in his later years by the unfinished manuscripts of the second and third volumes of Capital, with their unresolved questions about the falling rate of profit and the legitimacy of the value theory; beset by a host of medical complaints and family crises, including the birth of a disavowed son, Freddy, by his housekeeper Helene “Lenchen” Demuth; and perennially disappointed by socialist contemporaries willing to seek political compromise with the state. The portrait that emerges is both compelling and difficult: far-reaching visions of human emancipation rest uneasily beside Marx’s unapologetic anti-Semitism (in a letter to Engels which Stedman Jones cites, for example, we see Marx deriding the German socialist leader Ferdinand Lassalle as a “Jewish nigger”), just as Marx’s deep philosophical sympathies with the proletariat do not seem to have helped him to overcome his snobbery and class prejudice towards the actual working people he came to know in so-called “philistine” England.

At times Stedman Jones overstates his case against Marx’s legacy. In the first place, attentive readers of Engels are likely to find Stedman Jones’s treatment of his late works lacking, especially with regards to the idiosyncratic ways Engels diverged from both the positivism and the mechanistic determinism which held sway in the intellectual culture of his day. Indeed, as Leszek Kołakowski has observed, Engels “regarded the general formula of universal determinism as completely sterile from the scientific point of view”; the dialectical theory of nature Engels attempted to put forth, which served as the basis for his endeavor to develop a scientific understanding of the laws of society, ran counter in significant ways to the mechanistic, Laplacean view of the universe which Stedman Jones at times nonetheless wants to attribute to him.[1] This want of nuance in Stedman Jones’s treatment of Engels in turn detracts from his overarching thesis that Engels is to be implicated in the posthumous invention of a reductive Marxism only incidentally related to Marx’s work. Moreover, while it is surely true that some strains of Marxist theory in the twentieth century have been guilty of routinized, unimaginative forms of economic determinism—and while it is certainly the case that this deterministic outlook was also mobilized as part of the ideological justification for totalitarian politics—Marx’s legacy is itself no more reducible to that form of determinism than his own ideas are. Yet the reader of Greatness and Illusion is given only the most limited sense of how the ideas and innovations Marx introduced into the modern world were subsequently taken up and developed in important and generative ways over the century and a half since the publication of Capital. This relative lack of attention to the overwhelming influence Marx’s ideas had on the formation of modern intellectual culture stands out, not only in contrast to the rich biographical detail of Stedman Jones’s narrative, but also against his meticulous account of Marx’s emergence from the German philosophy of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Indeed, we get a sharper picture of the failure of Marx’s ideas to cohere than we do of their afterlives. Thus Stedman Jones polemically asserts that Marx “did not succeed in producing an immanent critique of political economy as a whole,” nor did he “succeed in establishing a logically compelling connection between the advance of capitalist production and the immiseration of producers.” Stedman Jones presents these propositions about these great failures as though their validity were self-evident from his biographical research, but they are not; they need to be worked out through the debates over the enduring relevance of Marx’s ideas that continue to take place today in nearly all areas of the humanities and social sciences. In the absence of any significant account of the lasting impact of Marx’s work, we are merely told that his only real achievement was to “connect critical analysis of the current capitalist economy with its longer term historical roots”: “through his determination to trace the progress of the capitalist economy as a whole. . . . he became one of the principal—if unwitting—founders of a new and important area of historical enquiry, the systematic study of social and economic history” (p. 430). A social historian himself, Stedman Jones seems to present Marx as having made important contributions only to his home discipline of social history.

This limited account of Marx’s contributions to modern thought is a shortcoming of Greatness and Illusion. Nevertheless, the shortcoming points the way towards a set of significant, unresolved questions that are raised by Stedman Jones’s consideration of Marx in his historical context. Stedman Jones’s antipathy towards the economic determinism of some currents in twentieth-century Marxism derives in large part from his own historical understanding of the gulf between Marx’s views and positions and those articulated by the constituents of the various working-class movements of the nineteenth century. In this regard, Greatness and Illusion can be said to recapitulate an argument about nineteenth-century labor politics that Stedman Jones first made in the 1980s in his important book Languages of Class (1983), in particular in the long essay “Rethinking Chartism.”[2] Echoing this earlier work, Stedman Jones observes that, rather than seeking an end to their exploitation under capitalism, working-class movements like Chartism articulated their politics through appeals to the state for enfranchisement, recognition and inclusion (p. 313). For a certain generation of Marxist social historians working in the middle decades of the twentieth century, this divergence in political horizons meant that the Chartists, for example, had failed to achieve an authentic class consciousness. Reacting against this mode of Marxist historiography, Stedman Jones argues instead that measuring the concrete articulations of groups like the Chartists against rigid yet abstract standards of “class” and “class consciousness” amounts to the suppression of the unique political voices and desires of the very class of people whom Marx and, after him, Marxist scholars sought to empower through revolutionary politics.

Thus what Stedman Jones wants to show—though he is not quite explicit about it in the biography—is that this top-down methodological tendency in Marxist historiography was in fact inherited from Marx’s own tendency, shared with the other more radically utopian socialists of his day, to ignore what they derided as the conciliatory political demands made by the working classes themselves. This revisionist narrative is a kind of history from below that nonetheless finds itself at variance with what is felt to be the orthodoxy at the heart of Marxist theory. “At the close of the 1850s,” we read, “a new politics had begun to emerge, in which the radical and socialist ideas of the 1840s reappeared in a more modest and practical form. Ideals of cooperation had been reformulated; trade unionism was expanding and was seeking a more secure legal basis. Liberals and radicals had begun to collaborate in reform-minded suffrage movements. . . . It is perhaps not surprising that . . . the Grundrisse had so little to say about working-class movements. These were developments which Karl did his best to ignore” (p. 397).

Today, we can see this line of argumentation as a forerunner to other recent expressions of methodological dissatisfaction with a Marxist critical theory felt to be incapable of attending with care to the different ways in which individual people and groups build their political worlds through varied forms of language. However, there are important problems arising from this appealing criticism, two of which I will briefly address here. The first has to do with the general relationship between language or meaning and the proposals of nineteenth-century universalism, and was best formulated by Joan Wallach Scott in a critical response to Stedman Jones collected in her Gender and the Politics of History (1999). In a careful reading of Stedman Jones’s essay on Chartism, Scott argues that while he may have rescued Chartist politics from economic reductionism by attending to the specificity of their demands for political inclusion, in doing so he “assumes a kind of one-dimensional quality for ‘language,’” which is in its own right inattentive to “the way meaning is constructed through differentiation.”[3] Scott rightly points out that gender difference was a principle axis in the construction of class identity in early Victorian labor politics, and indeed I would argue that we might see in the Chartist demand for “universal manhood suffrage” a kind of emblem of the more general problem raised by her rejoinder to Stedman Jones. That is, I am suggesting that the question of how to read “universal” alongside “manhood” in the context of the struggle for enfranchisement exemplifies the more general discursive problem of how we are to read texts in terms of what they say (as opposed to what they don’t say), when the things that they do say are neither internally nor even superficially consistent. Even the most inclusionary surfaces of nineteenth-century universalism, including Marxism, are woven out of exclusions—exclusions whose failed resolution continues to organize our contemporary social world in powerful ways. Put in psychosocial terms, we might ask how we are to understand straightforwardly the political and even utopian fantasies of a universalist discourse when it is cut across and yet also sustained by such deep abysses of prejudice and disavowal.

The second problem raised but not resolved by Stedman Jones’ intervention has to do with his assertion that Marx not only disagreed with the inclusionary and state-oriented politics of his contemporaries, but actually ignored or was in some sense incapable of hearing them. Here, Stedman Jones conflates his 1983 critique of a certain strain of Marxist historiography with Marx’s own political-economic vision; for surely there are important historical differences in remaining attached to the state form during, say, the Thatcher era, or during our present moment of political disorganization, and in fighting—in a sense for the first time—to construct a radical democratic attachment to the state, German or British, in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Indeed, one of the great innovations of the Chartists was to envision the English state as a potential source of political empowerment, at a moment when almost none of the socially significant features that a century later would seem essential to the conception of the state yet existed. Likewise, Marx was able to eschew certain kinds of inclusionary politics and to turn his gaze away from the state towards more fundamental transformations in the grammar of nineteenth-century social life—for example, in the structure of the family, in the nature of human creativity and sensory life, in the harnessing of human power—not because he ignored the somehow more authentic political claims of the Chartists, but because the state had not emerged as an intrinsically viable and monopolistic political horizon. It overstates the case dramatically to argue, as Stedman Jones in essence does, that between Marx’s early philosophical skepticism towards the state in “On the Jewish Question” (1843) and his late resistance in the “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875), the European state had developed so substantially as to necessarily preclude the legitimate imagination of a politics beyond its limits.

Today, after half a century during which nearly all the hard-won, core social-economic functions of the liberal-democratic state have been rolled back or are being actively dismantled by capitalist enterprise, the vivid tableau of nineteenth-century political dissensus and uncertainty which Stedman Jones depicts takes on heightened importance. In the rearview mirror of history, the state form, under siege and eroding, recedes; behind it, and before its full consolidation, we see Marx amid the turbulent politics of his era, posing what to my mind are vital and still unresolved challenges to our own age’s sense of the enduring value of the attachment to this political form as a sole horizon for political life. The vitality of Marx’s challenges does not reach forward to the present moment if we only understand his contributions to twentieth- and twenty-first-century social thought in terms of the stubborn determinism that Stedman Jones has in any case rightly shown us was added posthumously, as a kind of veneer, to Marx’s work; but neither does it reach us if we reduce Marx’s political insight to an unheeding inability to listen to the inclusionary political demands of his contemporaries. The most crucial lessons of Greatness and Illusion might therefore be ones with which Stedman Jones would disagree.


[1] Leszek Kołakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, trans. P.S. Falla (New York, 2005), p. 314.

[2] Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1932–1982 (New York, 1983), pp. 90–178.

[3] Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1999), p. 59.