It is unusual for the publication of a book to signal a new turn in the study of an author.
At best, it usually confines itself to updating the interpretive framework or developing particular areas, without undertaking a comprehensive revision. In short, the prevalent tendency is to work within an established paradigm, rather than take the risk of a truly innovative approach.
This general orientation may be found even more clearly in writings on the thought of Karl Marx. After a veritable ideological orgy in the 1960s and 1970s, when the philosopher’s texts were used to legitimize the most diverse, and sometimes most extravagant, political positions, and after the near-total oblivion following the so-called crisis of Marxism, the few books that have appeared in recent years on the author of Capital have done little more than repeat stereotypical formulas, making no serious attempt to do Marx justice by reading him in the way he deserves – as a great protagonist of theoretical research worthy of belonging to a gallery of outstanding classical thinkers.
In fact, we may speak of a revealing paradox in this connection. Until yesterday, indeed until this very day, the Marx about whom people have again begun to speak is the prophet of communist society, the bitter critic of capitalism, the architect of a philosophy of the proletariat called “historical materialism”: that is, a figure who, if we stick rigorously to what he actually wrote, instead of swallowing the implausible legends that blossomed in the shadow of nineteenth-century ideologies, has nothing in common with the real theoretical identity of the thinker from Trier. Among the numerous examples that underline the real deformations that his work has suffered, it is enough to recall his repeated insistence that he never formulated a “socialist system” and his complete disinclination to “write recipes for the cook-shops of the future”.
The grave and inexcusable delay in “doing justice to Marx” (to paraphrase the title of the work in which Jacques Derrida settled his account with Freud) has today finally been redressed by Marcello Musto’s Karl Marx Biografia intellettuale e politica 1857-1883 (Einaudi, XI-329 pages, Euros 30). The book is structured on the basis of a methodological choice that is both simple and extremely effective: to delineate the theoretical contribution contained in Marx’s writings between 1857 (the year of the Grundrisse) and 1883 (the year of his death) in the context of the main events of his life. In this, the book stands opposed to the still persistent tendency to separate the existential narrative from Marx’s theoretical elaboration.
The result is a masterly work in every sense: in its accuracy of textual documentation, its crystal clarity of exposition, and its originality of interpretive approach. Musto is already the author of other fundamental contributions to the understanding of Marx’s thought – including Ripensare Marx e i marxismi (Carocci, 2011) and L’Ultimo Marx (Donzelli, 2016) – and now we have a book that shakes the torpid world of lifeless Marxological literature and presents the thought of a great classical thinker in all its vibrant topicality.