Alexander Miller, Capital & Class

Review of The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography

This erudite yet highly readable study covers the period from January 1881 to Marx’s death on 14 March 1883. As Musto notes, previous biographers have ‘devoted . . . few pages to his activity after the winding up of the International Working Men’s Association, in 1872’ (p. 5). This tendency to neglect his final years includes authors of classic biographies sympathetic to Marx, such as Franz Mehring (1918), Boris Nicolaevsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen (1936), and David McLellan (1973), and also more recent and less sympathetic biographies by the likes of Gareth Stedman-Jones (2016). Musto’s aim is thus to fill a gap in the literature, making use of the new materials that have become available since the resumed publication in 1998 of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtaugabe (MEGA2). Musto notes that the demise of Marxism-Leninism makes it possible ‘to read a Marx very unlike the dogmatic, economistic, and Eurocentric theorist who was paraded around for so long’ (p. 4), and he argues that a study of Marx’s last writings can contribute to the emergence of such readings. Far from dimming, Marx’s relentlessly probing and questioning intellect burns all the more brightly as his health – ruined by decades of poverty and overwork – starts to give out. It is a great virtue of Musto’s book that the story of Marx’s theoretical work in his last years is intertwined with a vivid and intimate account of his struggle against bodily frailty and impending death. There are four modestly proportioned but substantive chapters. Chapter 1, ‘New Research Horizons’, provides an atmospheric portait of Marx in his study in Maitland Park Road in North London, toiling ‘at a modest desk no larger than three feet by two’ with his ‘painstakingly rigorous and intransigiently critical [method]’ (p. 11). Musto isn’t exaggerating when he writes that ‘The whole world was contained in his room as he sat there at his desk’ (p. 48): having taught himself Russian, a considerable section of his library consists of texts in the Cyrillic alphabet, such as Maksim Kovalevsky’s 1879 Communal Landownership: The Causes, Course and Consequences of its Decline, a study of which allows Marx to reflect on landownership in countries under foreign rule and how possession rights were regulated in Latin America by the Spanish, in India by the British, and in Algeria by the French. Anthroplogy, ancient societies, organic chemistry, physics, physiology, geology, and differential calculus are only some of the subjects studied, as well as Australia, the United States, and the British colonial occupation of Ireland, all in addition to his ongoing work in political economy and socialist politics. Chapter 2, ‘Controversy Over the Development of Capitalism in Russia’, displays just how far Marx was from being a dogmatist who attempted to shoehorn historical events into a pre-ordained a priori schema. In 1881, Marx received a letter from Vera Zasulich, a Russian activist (who had flown to Geneva, having attempted to assassinate the chief of police in St. Petersburg), asking whether Marx believed it possible that the rural commune (obshchina) was capable of developing in a socialist direction without first perishing and being usurped by capitalism. Based on the schema feudalism-capitalism-socialism, many ‘Marxists’ of the day would answer ‘No’. Musto outlines how Marx himself wrestled with the question for almost 3 weeks, producing 4 drafts of an answer to Zasulich, emphasizing that claims of the historical inevitability of the passage from feudalism to capitalism were ‘expressly restricted . . . to the countries of Western Europe’ (p. 65). In the period of transition from feudalism to capitalism in England, capitalist relations of production were not in existence anywhere else in Europe. This is not the situation of the Russian obshchina in the late 19th century. Marx thus reaches the answer he gave in the 1882 Preface to the Second Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto: ‘If the Russian Revolution becomes a signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, the present common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development’ (quoted on p. 71). More important than the answer reached was the fact that Marx at this late stage worked it out afresh based on the empirical research and historical analysis at his disposal: he was a social scientist with a remarkably open theoretical cast of mind, not a quasi-religious prophet dispensing ‘teachings’. Chapter 3, `The Travails of “Old Nick”’, details how the theories developed in Capital Volume I began to spread throughout Europe in the 1870s and early 1880s, together with the various obstacles (personal and otherwise) that prevented him completing Volumes II and III. Despite the death of his wife, Jenny, in December 1881 – he was so frail from pleurisy and bronchitis himself that his doctor ordered him not to attend the funeral – Marx resumed his historical studies, constructing `an annotated year-by-year timeline of world events from the first century BC on’ (p.99), and hoping to correct what he now took to be the `completely inadequate . . . schema of linear progression’ through the various modes of production outlined in his (now famous) “Preface” to the 1859 A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. His timeline reached 1648 before ill-health again intervened. Unwilling to burden his youngest daughter Eleanor with the task of accompanying him, on his doctor’s advice he set out alone in February 1882 for Algiers, crossing France by train to Marseilles to take a steamship that reached the North African port after a 34 hour crossing through stormy weather. The final chapter, ‘The Moor’s Last Journey’, is the highlight of the book. Other biographies devote at most a few sentences to Marx’s only trip outside Europe, whereas Musto reconstructs from Marx’s correspondence the 72days he spent unsuccessfully seeking relief from ill-health in Algiers. The death of Marx’s eldest daughter Jenny in January 1883 (at the age of 39) is the cruellest blow, followed shortly afterwards by Marx’s own demise. Despite the heartbreaking tale, Musto ends the chapter on an inspirational note of which Marx himself would surely have approved, speaking of the message ‘that radiates incessantly from the whole of his work: organize the struggle to end the bourgeois mode of production and to achieve the emancipation of the workers of the world from the domination of capital’ (p. 125). Making very good use of Marx’s extensive late notebooks, Musto’s important volume constitutes an excellent addition to the literature: it will provide insight and inspiration to all students of Marx and his work.

Published in:

Capital & Class

Date Published

25 June, 2023


Alexander Miller