As Marcello Musto announces, we are in the midst of a Marx Revival.
Only now does it become possible seriously to unhook Marx from those who claimed to make a revolution in his name. I am unsure as to how complete this historic uncoupling process is; but there is certainly a Marx Revival going on. Some very good new works on Marx have appeared over the last few years; there is clearly an ongoing process of recovery, discovery, and reappropriation or reconstruction. Another Marx-Early Manuscripts to the International is one its finest achievements. It is presented as a kind of biography, though it is segmented rather than complete or historically exhaustive. It is, I think, primarily a work of philosophical and sociological insight, presented in biographical and historical form.
Musto makes three moves, following three parts of the book or vital moments in Marx’s path. These steps are as follows. We begin with the early work, from youth to Paris. The second step involves the development of the critique of political economy. The third covers political militancy from the First International to Bakunin. All of which is, as you might say, well known. But his book suggests a starting over. And, as I shall suggest below, there is something special in the combination of skills and insights that Musto brings to his task which serves to set this book apart.
To begin, it is as though we hardly know Marx at all, or at least that we only know the iceberg peaks. As Musto reminds, earlier Marxists had very little of the corpus actually available to them. In the English language readers only had the most important manuscripts available to them into the nineteen sixties and seventies. This situation is continually improving. In English we have fifty volumes of the Collected Works. In German, we are still only up to volume 65 of the planned 114 volumes of MEGA 2. We discover that there are not only economic and philosophical manuscripts or ethnological or mathematical notebooks, but also ecological notebooks. Und so weiter… And this is indeed one important image that emerges from Musto’s book. Marx’s work consists of a partial list of actually published works, and a mountain, an immense accumulation of notebooks. For this is how Marx actually worked, how he combined reading, research, and critique and writing. The notebooks were Marx’s laboratory.
How might we read Marx, now, and why? The situation resembles the state of play in Gramsci Studies, where there are clear distinctions between philologists and reconstructionists, or between those who want first to get clear what Gramsci had to say, and those who view his writing as a toolbox whose purpose is to explain and address the present . For the philologists, the first task is to read and understand the Prison Notebooks in all their rich complexity. For the reconstructionists, the task is to seek intellectual orientation from these texts and especially their key themes, hegemony usw., and then turn to the pressing tasks of the day, in a world that sometimes seems light years away from the interwar period of Gramsci.
Musto’s task here is to begin by rereading Marx, text and context, with full attention to both. The result is in a sense uncanny, as it both places Marx, at that distance, and makes him our peer or contemporary, as we struggle with those ongoing tasks of reading, writing, researching and thinking the contemporary for ourselves. Musto does not address the problems of the present directly, but he leaves the door open to this possibility. This is, to my way of thinking, a serious advance on works like Jonathon Sperber’s Karl Marx, which seek to recover Marx by putting him a nineteenth century box.
In the longer conversation that might follow we will need again, also it seems to me, to reassess the paths not followed by the bullyboys of Bolshevism. This will include rethinking so called Western Marxism, the traditions of the Frankfurt School, council communism, Socialisme ou Barbarie, the legacies of East European critical theory and so on . For as Musto reminds, the most powerful ethical legacy of Karl Marx was the enthusiasm for emancipation, or autonomy of self-development based on the cultivation of dependence or community.
So how does this book work? Musto has a fine combination of skills and attributes. He demonstrates sensitive and sophisticated linguistic and philological skills, acute historical sensibilities, and the capacity to hear wideranging philosophical and political economic resonances. He has voice, but he also has a good ear. Marcello Musto understands the deep complexity of his subject, including his appalling medical history and desperate poverty. He combines a fine sense of detail, for example concerning Trier, with a clear sense of the philosophical substance of Marx’s project as it moves from Paris to London via Ireland and the Paris Commune, pointing later to the Russian Road. There are fine reminders of the importance of sarcasm and style in Marx, as in the famous burrowing mole, but also the representation of Herr Vogt as a perfectly detailed skunk. Musto pulls all this together; but he also knows full well that Marx’s brilliance was the result or product of his cultures, and it is plain that he too knows these cultures, as best as one could coming so much later.
A last word: this book is beautifully written and rendered by Patrick Camiller, and a pleasure to read. It is the best book written on Marx since Karl Korsch published Karl Marx in 1938. Eighty years is a long time to wait, but perhaps, like capital itself, the Marx scholarship itself is now also accelerating. More, this is a Marx whose compass is pointed to today, with all the complexity and depth of implication which that involves. This is a great achievement, suggestive of more to come. For understanding, like Marx’s lifework, is bound to remain unfinished.