The figure of Karl Marx is so bound up with what I have studied and reflected on, over the years, that I feel I have become quite well acquainted with him while only occasionally making his life story the direct object of my inquiry.
My experience of Marx is thus not that of a “Marx scholar.” I have not tried to monitor all the biographies of Marx, although to do so would no doubt reveal a lot about the changing fortunes of the Left. I have been alerted to aspects of Marx’s trajectory here and there while being drawn into varied political debates, all of which led me to focus more on what he said (and did) than on the process through which he arrived at his positions. Moreover, when I have turned directly to his writings, it has been primarily in order to apply his perspective – which I grew into in the way that one acquires one’s primary language – to the analysis of some particular issue or historical moment.
But the progression from Marx the person to Marx’s thought and practice as the inspiration of a global movement – the genesis of the approach to history that made Marxism more than just a sect – now claims our attention with ever increasing urgency as the forces of capital that he highlighted escalate their devastating worldwide impact, and it becomes ever more vital to draw people into the struggle for a socialist reorganization of society. What Marcello Musto calls the current “Marx revival” – in which Musto’s own studies and collections have played a leading part – reflects the extreme challenge of a juncture at which capitalist accumulation, if not halted, will push the human species, along with many others, into oblivion.33 A concise recent overview of the physical basis for this projection is Julia Adenay Thomas, “Why the Anthropocene Is Not ‘Climate Change’ – And Why That Matters,” (January 2019), available online at: https://climateandcapitalism.com/2019/01/31/why-the-anthropocene-is-not-climate-change-and-why-that-matters/.View all notes
What can we usefully learn, at this juncture, from Marx’s life? And how can Musto’s biographical study help us? Much of Marx’s story will be well known to readers of New Political Science. In Musto’s rendition, which juxtaposes textual analysis and historical markers with details of the personal hardships that Marx had to overcome, what comes through is the portrait of a man who, in the face of extraordinary obstacles in his daily life, drew strength from “the unshakeable certainty that his existence belonged to the movement for the emancipation of millions of men and women” (p. 116). This is a dramatic way of expressing the point that, for all the rough edges, sufferings, and defeats that have attended the global struggle for socialism, there is a vital force that perseveres; it lies in the capacity, embodied by Marx, to grasp the enormity – both the scope and the horror – of the overarching regime that has to be transcended. In the context of Musto’s treatment, the “other Marx” of his title is clearly the one whose teachings endure despite all the disappointments – and especially the ideological distortions – produced by first-epoch socialism.
Although these ideological distortions were widely debated on the Left even before the collapse of the regimes in question, their origins remain a matter of controversy among Marxists. Musto locates them, in part (following a tradition pioneered by Georg Lukács), in a formulation of Friedrich Engels according to which there exists a “parallelism between history and logic” (p. 104), an observation which, in Musto’s view, was not shared by Marx. Musto might usefully have elucidated this point in the main text. In what sense does the quote from Engels represent more than an incidental difference? Without an explanation of this, we might be thrown into the camp of those who see Engels more sweepingly as the progenitor of a vulgarized Marxism – an interpretation which has tended to discredit the application of Marxist method outside the realm of social relations, narrowly understood (that is, to the exclusion of the natural/ecological infrastructure).44 Marx and Engels shared a unified approach to society and nature. The wider scope that this implies for Marxism is highlighted in Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).View all notes
Musto makes clear that he is not offering a full biography; he states that “a complete intellectual biography of Marx still has to be written” (p. 4). What he presents is three major stages of Marx’s career: Part I of the book focuses on the genesis of Marx’s perspective; Part II, on the circumstances surrounding his writing of the Grundrisse(written in 1857 but not published until 1939) and of Capital Vol. I (1867); and Part III, on Marx’s participation in the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA) (1864–1872).
What I find most useful about Musto’s narrative is the tight link it shows between Marx’s activities and the changing circumstances through which he lived. While the general awareness of such connections is not new,55 For a thorough exposition, see especially August H. Nimtz, Jr., Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000). Hal Draper’s 4-volume work, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1977–1990), is also valuable.View all notes some of the specific juxtapositions that Musto highlights – for example, between the writing of the Grundrisse and the economic crisis of 1857 – are quite striking. More generally, what is remarkable about Marx’s life is the stark contrasts that appear among the various types of activity in which he either chose or was forced to involve himself, often shifting suddenly from one to another (and back) as a consequence of some unforeseeable conjuncture. From our present-day perspective of a society confronting extreme events – for many activists, from a position of economic insecurity – his experience offers a precedent that is at once alarming and hopeful: the hazards of revolutionary engagement offset by the prospect – not always easy to envisage – of eventual epic achievement (which for Marx meant comprehending and conveying to the whole world the historical dynamic of capital).
The most obvious flux and reflux – inherent in Marx’s calling – is between his theoretical labors and his organizational activity. Cutting across this central axis, however, was a wide spectrum of pressures and interests. Among the pressures were, first, the heavy hand of the bourgeois state, expelling him from three countries, and, later, the pain of living on the edge, at once economically and – partly because of this – in terms of both physical ailments and emotional turmoil, including the early deaths of three of his children. Added pressures arising from his work included ill-informed polemics by political adversaries. Musto gives particular attention to Marx’s year-long detour from the writing of Capital to compose Herr Vogt (1860), an often-overlooked work in which Marx, apprehensive of future misunderstandings, deploys against his critic the full battery of his theoretical arguments, seasoned with disdain for Vogt’s clumsiness of expression. The latter concern reflects in part Marx’s lifelong immersion in the classics of Western literature. Another great interest for Marx was the whole varied world of the natural sciences, with particular emphasis on evolutionary biology and agricultural chemistry – topics on which he avidly followed the latest developments, blending them seamlessly into his overall depiction of the scourges of capital.66 See Ian Angus, “Marx and Engels and Darwin,” in his A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism(New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2017), pp. 27–45, and Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2017).View all notes
Although Marx could at certain stages concentrate for months at a time on his theoretical work, there was no period of his life in which he was not on high alert to the openings for revolution. The period of relative quiescence in the 1850s was one in which his main outreach was through journalism, especially the articles on current politics that he – and sometimes also Engels – wrote for the New York Tribune. Both before and after that decade, however, his activism was more direct. Part III of Musto’s book, focusing on the IWMA or First International, reminds us that Marx in his political practice abjured personal projection, working instead outside the spotlight to make sure that the necessary strategic understanding was embraced and articulated by the workers themselves.77 See also Nimtz, Marx and Engels, p. 194.View all notes
The IWMA would ultimately collapse under the weight of sectarian struggles. At its height, however, it expressed in organizational form the class consciousness that Marx had been working to instill. That historical moment, embracing also the publication of Capital Vol. 1 and, only four years later, the Paris Commune (of which Marx’s contemporaneous analysis, The Civil War in France, became the most widely diffused interpretation), brought Marx’s work decisively into the position of global prominence, as revolutionary theory, that it has occupied ever since.
Musto’s book, which also includes a chronology of the publication history of Marx’s major works, as well as reference-information about many of Marx’s comrades, is part of a larger project that, given the current resurgence of mass discontent, should go beyond earlier projects in showing the relevance of Marx’s practice to a new generation of activists.
3 A concise recent overview of the physical basis for this projection is Julia Adenay Thomas, “Why the Anthropocene Is Not ‘Climate Change’ – And Why That Matters,” (January 2019), available online at: https://climateandcapitalism.com/2019/01/31/why-the-anthropocene-is-not-climate-change-and-why-that-matters/.
4 Marx and Engels shared a unified approach to society and nature. The wider scope that this implies for Marxism is highlighted in Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, The Dialectical Biologist (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).
5 For a thorough exposition, see especially August H. Nimtz, Jr., Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000). Hal Draper’s 4-volume work, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1977–1990), is also valuable.
6 See Ian Angus, “Marx and Engels and Darwin,” in his A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2017), pp. 27–45, and Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2017).
7 See also Nimtz, Marx and Engels, p. 194.