Branko Milanovic, Intervention. Journalism as Emancipation

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

The literature on the Third, or Old, Marx, by which I mean the literature that deals with the last 16 years of his life (approximately from the publication of “Capital” in 1867 to his death in 1883) is becoming increasingly frequent and influential. I have already reviewed Kevin Anderson’s excellent “Marx at the Margins”. Marcello Musto’s “Les dernieres annees de Karl Marx” (I read the book in French) or “The last years of Karl Marx” is an important addition. Musto’s original was published in 2016 in Italian, and, as he writes in the preface, has already been translated into twenty languages.
Musto’s main thesis, like in other books on the Third Marx, is that Marx’s last years, far from being barren as the common view holds, have been filled with uninterrupted readings in all areas, from ethnography and anthropology to physics, increasing interest in mathematics (which Marx used mostly as a passe-temps) and, most importantly, political and economic discussions that led him further away from the Eurocentric stadial philosophy of history. It is this last part that is, for obvious reasons, most relevant for us today. It “creates” the third Marx: the first being the one of human condition, of “Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts” and “German Ideology”, the second, and best known, the one of “Capital” and other economic writings, and the third, the Marx of globalization.
Despite what Musto attempts to prove, namely that Marx was intellectually very active until almost the end of his life, the reader remains somewhat unconvinced by the argument. In fact, as the detailed chronological review of the last years (and especially of the last two years) shows Marx suffered a lot due to his bad health, deaths in the family (of his wife in 1881, and then just before his own death of his oldest daughter), continued to read and make copious notes across disciplines, but did not really produce much. His objective of finishing at least volume 2 of “Capital” was unfulfilled. Finishing volume 3 was not even on the horizon.
The last intellectually significant contribution was Marx’s discussion in the seventies, with several Russian authors, of Russia’s transition to socialism. That discussion is not only important because of what happened later but because Marx was, for the first time, faced with the question whether his stadial theory of history and ineluctability of socialism, meant also that very diverse societies had to go through the same stages as Western Europe or not. Marx became quite aware of the problem, and papered it over by writing that his schemata were based on West European experience only. This is the non-dogmatic Marx that Musto privileges in his interpretation.
However, the danger of being non-dogmatic is the following: if one admis a multitude of economic systems, or that similar conditions may lead to very different outcomes, one eventually remains without any distinct socio-economic theory, but with many individual case studies. They can be discussed in great detail one by one, and very reasonably so, but this “segmentation” also rules out the inevitability of the ultimate aim that Marx entertained throughout his life: the emancipation of labor, or in other words, socialization of the means of production. If anything can happen, why are we convinced that emancipation of labor is ineluctable?
Looking at the caution with which Marx approached the Russian question (can land held in common be the basis for communist development? does Russia need to develop capitalism first?), one can easily see how very conscient Marx was of the problem. Insisting on Western European stages of history meant irrelevance of his theory for the rest of the world (including India into which Marx was quite interested), but “diluting” his theory too much meant undermining the historical necessity of the ultimate objective. It is only thus that we can understand Marx’s hesitation on the Russian question, and numerous drafts of his famous reply to Vera Zasulich’s letter.
Musto comes to the conclusion that Marx accepted the Russian populists’ view that the commune can provide the basis for direct transition to communism, and against the view that Russian socialists need do nothing but cheer the advance of capitalism in the hope that, when capitalism is sufficiently advanced, it would lead the country automatically to socialism. In other words, Marx accepted the multiplicity of the paths to socialism, and even the political way of achieving this through insurrection and revolution. The multiplicity of the ways to socialism is therefore ideologically compatible with Blanquism or Leninism: audacious political action that may not be fully supported by the “objective” economic conditions, as a way to force history. Lenin’s and later Mao’s interpretations of Marxism are certainly consistent with this view.
A different interpretation is also possible, but its political implication is “attentisme”, that is reformism and pragmatism that eventually took over German Social-democracy and Eduard Bernstein, whom both Marx and Engels thought to be its most promising leader. The two aspects of Marx that are, in theory, indissoluble: a student of historical processes and a political activist, collide. One has to choose what to do: to be a Fabian or a Leninist.
Choosing the latter, that is, “forcing history” leads to some unpleasant conclusions. Not only can “reasonable” voluntarism be endorsed, but even much more “costly” measures too. If it makes sense to use common ownership of land as in the Russian obshchina to build upon it a much more developed, but collectively owned, system, it does make sense, as Stalin did, to proceed to collectivization. Collectivization can be seen not solely as a means to increase agricultural output through economies of scale but to solve the socio-economic puzzle. Stolypin’s reforms and then, after 1917, the seizure of land belonging to nobility had created a very numerous small-holding peasantry. The obshchina mode of production was spontaneously and naturally transformed into a small-scale and increasingly capitalist mode of production. But if a short-cut to socialism is possible, would not the argument that this multitude of small holdings should be combined into a more general collective ownership, supported by more advanced technology, be valid?
The statement on the feasibility of different ways of transition to socialism thus leads one to the acceptance of revolutionary practice as a “midwife” of new economic formations which in turn allows for ever more voluntaristic, or politically-motivated, moves.
Musto does not seem, in my opinion, to fully realize that what seems, from today’s perspective, open-mindedness and non-dogmatism of Marx, can lead to the outcomes like collectivization that he rightly deplores. This is the dilemma faced even today: if everything (or most) is a matter of political will, then, with skillful leaders, the underlying economic and social conditions become less important, and one enters the realm of arbitrariness. But if everything is decided by the social “fundamentals”, then there is no role for politics, or there is only a role for the politics of the possible which is timid, boring and self-limiting.

Published in:

Intervention. Journalism as Emancipation

Date Published

24 July, 2023


Branko Milanovic