Paula Rauhala, Socialism and Democracy

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

The “late Marx” has recently received increasing attention in research literature.

Marcello Musto reproaches the existing biographies for portraying Marx as a person whose energies had been drained by the 1870s and who was no longer fit for writing during his last years.
The present book challenges this view. Musto draws on Marx’s published and unpublished manuscripts, notes, and letters from 1881–1883, presenting a vital sequel to his earlier work, Another Marx: Early Manuscripts to the International (Bloomsbury, 2018).
Musto insists on the relevance of Marx’s biography to his intellectual development. As in Another Marx, Musto intertwines his account of Marx’s intellectual work with the story of his life, which in this later period revolves around his declining health.
It was not only his extensive readings that shaped Marx as a thinker. Most importantly, Marx learned, in correspondence with activists, from the struggles of working-class movements in various countries. The emphasis on political praxis, and its influence on Marx’s thought is a recurring theme for Musto.
Musto seeks to correct the balance between the young and the old Marx. While Marx’s last years have often been neglected, some scholars have put an “excessive weight” on “Marx’s early writings” (131) – Marx between the years 1818 and 1844 “when he published only two journal articles and had just initiated the study of political economy” (132). Musto shows that even if it is true that Marx did not publish during his last years, he read and took notes on a wide range of disciplines such as agricultural chemistry, physiology, physics, and mathematics, resulting in his Mathematical Manuscripts. He also studied anthropology – and left behind his important Ethnological Notebooks. Finally, he read ancient history, the history of banking, and world history, compiling his Chronological Extracts, “an annotated year-by-year timeline of world events from the first century BC on, summarizing their causes and salient features” (99).
In addition to the fury of taking notes that Maximilien Rubel has called Marx’s “literary bulimia” which, “yielded nearly 3,000 pages of microscopic writing” during his last ten years, Marx acquainted himself with “‘tons’ of statistical material” (132), learned the Russian language, travelled, and very importantly, corresponded with the workers’ organizations of various countries. All this he accomplished while being seriously ill himself and having terminally ill family members around him.
Musto emphasizes that Marx in the 1880s not only continued his studies but also expanded their scope – most importantly to encompass the past and present of such countries as the United States, Russia, Egypt, and Algeria.
The first chapter of The Last Years, “New Research Horizons,” discusses, in addition to Marx’s important anthropological studies, the 101-point questionnaire that he prepared in 1880 for the Federation of Socialist Workers of France, to be published in La Revue socialiste and “distributed in 25,000 copies ‘all over France’” (46). In his introduction to the questionnaire, Marx expressed his conviction that the workers “alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer, and that only they, not saviours sent by Providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills to which they are a prey” (MECW 24: 636). As in Another Marx, Musto emphasizes that Marx was not only a critic of political economy; he learned from concrete political struggles.
Chapter 2, “Controversy over the Development of Capitalism in Russia,” discusses the famous question that Vera Zasulich (1849–1919) addressed to Marx: should the Russian revolutionaries focus on developing the traditional village commune, the obshchina, or should they concentrate their energies on organizing the – at the time small – industrial proletariat in the cities? Like other scholars before him, Musto shows how seriously Marx took this question. If Marx had had a general historico-philosophical theory of the development of societies – as often assumed – why would he have devoted so much time to studying the economic and social conditions in Russia? The answer is that “Russia seemed more likely to produce a revolution than Britain, …where the workers’ movement, enjoying better living conditions partly based on colonial exploitation, had grown weaker and undergone the negative conditioning of trade union reformism” (49).
Musto underlines Marx’s observation in a draft letter to another Russian populist, Nicholai Mikhailovsky (1842–1904), that “events of striking similarity, taking place in different historical contexts” often lead to totally “disparate results” (MEW 19: 112). As the unfinished manuscripts and study notes published recently in MEGA2 show, Marx “oriented himself to empirical research and historical analysis. In contrast to what many previous interpreters have maintained, these new materials definitively refute the idea that he was mainly driven by a new philosophy of history, or that he had obsessive recourse to the dialectical method” (151).
Moreover, Musto reminds us that although Marx named “[s]team, electricity, and the self-acting mule” as “revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens Barbès, Raspail and Blanqui,” he believed that the development of any society was dependent not solely on economic and technical progress, but also on the organizational talent of political groups (MECW 14: 655). As in his other writings (and especially in those dealing with Marx’s activities in the International Workingmen’s Association), Musto highlights how skilled a political organizer Marx was. He was “troubled” by what he called “ultra-revolutionary turns of phrase” which he regarded as “hot air. MECW 14: 655” In 1881, Marx wrote to his daughter Jenny, “Shouting and doing are irreconcilable opposites” (MECW 46: 83).
Musto argues that Marx’s correspondence with the Russian populists helped to widen the scope of his internationalism from the European context to the global scale. The attention Marx paid to non-European societies during his last years led him to a “more pronounced multilinear conception” of political and economic development (76).
The third chapter, “The Travails of ‘Old Nick’,” deals with the early dissemination of Capital in Europe and Marx’s struggle with the initially unsatisfactory translation of Capital into French. Musto asks “why could Marx not complete Capital” and hints that as Marx “deepened his knowledge of economic developments in Russia and the United States” (87), completing the second and the third volumes became even more complicated. In other words, Marx became more and more interested in “the forms in which the capitalist mode of production developed in different contexts and periods” (88).
The fourth and final chapter, “The Moor’s Last Journey,” tells the story of Marx’s visit to Algeria, where, “because of the sun,” he got rid of his “prophet’s beard” and had himself “photographed before offering up” his “hair on the altar of an Algerian barber” (MECW 46: 249). The story of Marx’s stay in Algiers is the story of the beginning of the final deterioration of his health.
Musto’s book presents an overview of Marx’s studies, debates, correspondence, affectionate relationships, diseases, sorrows, and journeys during the last years of his life. Pages cataloguing Marx’s readings are very useful and informative but can be tedious to read because many topics are not discussed substantially but merely mentioned. Such pages are, however, followed by stories of Marx’s family life, correspondence regarding politics, and Marx’s personal relations with his comrades. This rhythm of the prose leads the reader through the pages of this book, which is packed with detailed information as the number and the length of the endnotes indicates.
Readers wishing to deepen their understanding of particular themes of this book may refer to Musto’s original sources in MEGA2, MEW, or MECW – if not the papers in the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam, or the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) in Moscow, or the secondary literature found in Musto’s bibliography, consisting of sources in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

Published in:

Socialism and Democracy

Date Published

21 February, 2021


Paula Rauhala