William Clare Roberts, Political Science Quarterly

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

In The Last Years of Karl Marx, Marcello Musto provides an affectionate and careful journey through the final two years of Marx’s life. These years are, as Musto notes (p. 5), frequently neglected in full biographies. Marx prepared almost nothing for publication during these years—only a short (but important) preface to the Russian edition of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. This was due, partly, to illness. He spent almost all of 1882 traveling—to the Isle of Wight, Algeria, and various spas in France and Switzerland—in search of relief from bronchitis and pleurisy. Moreover, these years were dominated by the deaths of his two Jennys: his wife in December of 1881, and his eldest daughter in the first days of 1883.
Despite this, Musto treats these years as intellectually fruitful. Because he was not publishing, reconstructing Marx’s intellectual life entails reporting on his reading notes. These are voluminous, even in these years of illness and grief, and the recitation of their contents can be a bit tedious. Despite Musto’s effort to inject some theoretical interest, the massive “annotated year‐by‐year timeline of world events”—from 91 BCE to the Treaty of Westphalia—that Marx produced late in 1881 (pp. 99–102) seems to have been a way of literally marking time as his wife succumbed to liver cancer.
However, Marx was also regularly corresponding with friends, family members, and activists in the international socialist movement, and his letters are a richer source of insight into theoretical and political questions. The Paris Commune of 1871 had dwarfed all the earlier experiments with communist colonies and cooperative factories. The workers had asserted their right to one of the great cities of Europe and governed it for two months. The destruction of the Commune, however, demonstrated a new that the city was dependent upon the countryside, and that a militant urban proletariat was helpless without the support of a revolutionary peasantry.
Marx, therefore, extended his research “to new areas” (p. 25), oriented above all by the possibility and prospects of social revolution in the countryside. This dovetailed with the development of revolutionary socialism in Russia, and with the question of whether or how the Russian peasant commune might play into this development. The most substantial chapter of Musto’s story treats Marx’s involvement with the Russian revolutionary movement and the questions about Russian social development that occupied populists and socialists.
At the same time, Marx was also involved in the creation and growth of working‐class political parties in France (pp. 44–48, 77–80), England (pp. 82–85), and Germany. (Musto’s book does not devote sustained attention to German Social Democracy. Engels corresponded much more actively than Marx with August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein, and Karl Kautsky, and this explains, even if it does not fully justify, this lacuna.) Musto repeatedly claims that Marx’s work in these years stands in sharp contrast with the “dogmatic, economistic, and Eurocentric” picture of Marx produced by the Marxist parties of the Second and Third Internationals (p. 4). His concluding thoughts on Marx are entitled, “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist” (pp. 118–21). Engels claimed that Marx declared this to his son‐in‐law Paul Lafargue, one of the chief propagators of Marx’s ideas in the French Parti Ouvrier. Musto’s book, however, convinces me that Marx
was very much a Marxist—not because he was actually dogmatic, economistic, and Eurocentric, nor because he actually agreed with the Lafargue and Guesde, but because Marx’s late research and correspondence presaged the debates and questions that would be the center of Marxist thought right up through 1917 and beyond. Even if this was not Musto’s intention, it is a valuable contribution.

Published in:

Political Science Quarterly

Date Published

1 April, 2022


William Clare Roberts