Since Karl Marx’s death in 1883, his work has profoundly and continuously influenced generations of scholars across the social sciences and humanities, while inspiring political organizations, parties, and revolutions across the globe.
At least 23 states were formerly run by regimes that claimed to be Marxist, and today four states—China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam— continue to claim his mantle.
Of course, such wide-ranging, real-world influence has been met with vigorous—and often hostile—criticism of Marx and his ideas. An influential line of criticism paints Marx as a rigid, dogmatic thinker, whose most important predictions have been proven wrong by history, thus invalidating his broader theories of history and of capitalism. It is not just hostile critics, however, who have distorted Marx’s thought. Many Marxist traditions—orthodox, Stalinist, Maoist, and others—have turned Marx’s flexible theoretical framework and working hypotheses into rigid ideology and doctrine.
The central thesis of Marcello Musto’s Another Marx: Early Manuscripts to the International is that this image of Marx is a gross caricature based on a limited reading of a small portion of the latter’s gargantuan output. In fact, Marx was a highly flexible thinker who eschewed dogmatism, explicitly warned against his writings being considered doctrine, and periodically revised his theories—up until his last days—in light of continuous research and study. Marx explicitly resisted “writing recipes . . . for the cook-shops of the future” (p. 5, from Marx’s “Afterword to the Second German Edition” of Capital, Vol. I). He ensured that the official policy of the International Working Men’s Association was “not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever” (p. 179, from Marx’s “Resolutions of the Geneva Congress”).
To make his case, Musto draws from the entire corpus of Marx’s writings—published and unpublished. In the 1920s there was an attempt within the Soviet Union to publish the complete works of Marx and Engels as the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). This project was abandoned during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. The second attempt (the MEGA-2) began in East Berlin in 1975 and resumed in 1990 by the Internationale Marx-Engels-Stiftung in Amsterdam.
The MEGA has published 55 volumes of a planned total of 114 volumes, including roughly 200 notebooks plus Marx’s extensive correspondence. Musto convincingly argues that these workbooks constitute Marx’s “critical theoretical workshop,” which provides a basis for a reevaluation of his thought (p. 4). Musto presents an intellectual biography of Marx, arguing that although his thought went through many key transformations—his turn from law to philosophy to political economy, his break with Hegel and the left Hegelians, his realization of the importance of the economic factor, his discovery of the proletariat, and hence of class—there was also a remarkable consistency across this evolution.
Take The Paris Manuscripts of 1844. Interpreters such as Louis Althusser argue that these demonstrate an early, humanist Marx, which contrasts with a mature, scientific Marx. By contrast, others have seen in The Paris Manuscripts a Marx whose later ideas are fully foreshadowed, as if the prophet’s ideas came fully formed via some preternatural inspiration. In contrast to both interpretations, Musto shows that The Paris Manuscriptsconsist of a heterogeneous mix of elements that are not closely connected and are “an evident expression of a position in movement” (p. 43).
In 1845 Marx was expelled from Paris to Brussels, where he wrote The Brussels Notebooks and The German Ideology (with Engels), and where he published The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). In 1848 he published The Communist Manifesto (with Engels) and was expelled from Brussels to London, where he wrote The London Notebooks (1850–1853). Over 1857 and 1858 he wrote The Grundrisse—eight notebooks that were the outline of his critique of political economy. Between 1861 and 1863, he filled 23 additional notebooks.
Musto convincingly argues that his unpublished notebooks are key parts of his oeuvre. They demonstrate his intellectual process of devouring every written work relevant to his current subject and painstakingly taking notes with critical commentary. Literally any subject: notebooks XII and XIII of the The London Notebooks are on agrarian chemistry (relevant to his concerns that capitalist production was becoming ecologically unsustainable).
His publications were delayed by a combination of his exhaustive intellectual process, a perfectionist tendency, destitute poverty, and ongoing struggles with ill health. His main income, from his gig as the European correspondent for the New York Tribune (from 1851 to 1862), was scarcely sufficient to support his family. In a letter to a comrade, he lamented that in addition to the “hackwork” (journalism), he has the “quirk” of “finding fault with anything I have written and not looked at for a month, so that I have to revise it completely” (p. 140).
In 1863 Marx began writing what would eventually become the three volumes of Capital. Volume I was published in 1867. In 1869 he decided to learn Russian so he could closely follow events there. In 1871 he prepared a new version of Volume I, modifying the structure of the book and completely rewriting Chapter One. He continued working on the other two volumes until his death in 1883. Volumes II and III were subsequently edited and published from Marx’s notes by Engels.
The last years of Marx’s life were ones of intense political activism. The International Working Men’s Association emerged in 1864 as a heterogeneous collection of reformist British unionists, Proudhonist mutualists from French-speaking countries (who advocated cooperativism but rejected strikes and politics), and communists. Marx took a leading role and, remarkably, united these disparate elements under a common anti-capitalist program. During this period of political organizing, Marx “was stimulated to develop and sometimes revise his ideas, to put old certainties up for discussion and ask himself new questions” (p. 177).
His political struggles profoundly enriched his theoretical understanding. In the International, Marx argued that unions must turn from immediate struggles to wider political organization, that reformist demands were indispensable, and that workers must form a party and engage electoral politics. He convinced the International to adopt socialization of the means of production as a key demand. And although workers must take control of the state, Marx insisted that there could be no blueprint or predetermined plan: the course of the revolution has to be worked out in the movement, and the details and institutions of the socialist system would have to be worked out in the process as well.
Musto’s book is an important contribution to Marxist theory. While it does not substantively advance any particular theory, it provides a sorely needed antidote to the tendency of critics and even many Marxists to seize on a particular writing of Marx—often a single quotation—and use it to discredit Marx’s larger theories. It demonstrates that particular formulations and working hypotheses need to be considered as part of a much larger, evolving body of theory. Marx’s theory provides a framework—asserting the importance of class and class struggle, of the relation between economics and politics, and lying between the material and the ideal—for developing hypotheses and providing an interpretative lens, without being reduced to any particular hypothesis.
Musto kept his authorial voice restrained. This allows for a smooth intellectual biography, but it means a lack of substantive engagement with the ideas—something one could legitimately expect from a book by a sociologist. The book does not have a concluding chapter. Such a chapter could have provided space for Musto to reflect on and provide a critical analysis of where Marx’s theory stood at the end of his life and its relevance for the twenty-first century.