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Brief Lives

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Roger Caldwell rediscovers the bookish revolutionist.

It is a common fault to read philosophers out of their historical context: we tend to try to make them address our needs without understanding theirs. This is not least the case with Karl Marx. When capitalism seemed to totter in the crash of 2008, and in the subsequent period of great financial uncertainty, many reached for their long-discarded copies of Marx. But how much light should we expect a nineteenth-century writer on earlier stages of capitalism to throw on a complex credit bubble in the twenty-first? The capitalist system of which Marx writes in Das Kapital (1867), it can be argued, is not only very different to our own, but was already different from the one existing at the time of the book’s publication. Marx predominantly describes capitalism in its earliest, most predatory stages, before the progress subsequently achieved by labour organizations. But the immiseration of the proletariat in England was being reversed for a while, and at least something of the prosperity the rich enjoyed in the boom years of the later nineteenth century filtered down to the working class, to such an extent that Marx was to complain that in a country as bourgeois as England even the workers were becoming bourgeois. From the point of view of its ruling classes this was a good thing, in that it helped to keep social unrest at a minimum. For Marx it was a bad thing, in that it tended to defer the revolution.

When Marx speaks of ‘revolution’ we tend anachronistically to think of the Russian Revolution, which was carried out in his name, although Marx was no longer around to see it. But the model of revolutionary practice that he advocated was based on an event that happened before he was born: the French Revolution of 1789. It is that historic event we need to consider when trying to understand Marx’s own perspective: he should be seen less as the prophet of 1917 than as the heir of 1789.

Karl Marx
Portrait of Marx © Darren McAndrew 2014

A Scholarly Background

Marx, although himself ethnically Jewish, has been accused of being anti-Semitic, and there are indeed elements in his writings that today have a questionable ring, from his early essay ‘On the Jewish Question’, to later casual remarks. But this too is to read Marx out of his times, as Jonathan Sperber says in his new biography of Marx, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life. Like many others in his era, Marx thought of the Jews not in racial terms, but in terms of beliefs and practises. In particular, he sees the Jew as the paradigm of the capitalist, so that ‘Judaism’ and ‘commerce’ come to mean virtually the same thing. Of Judaism as such he had little knowledge or interest. Brought up as a Protestant in an assimilated Jewish family in the predominantly Catholic Rhineland, it was intended that he follow his father in the legal profession. At university, although undoubtedly Marx learned a great deal about law, he also embraced a wider and more exciting intellectual world, not least the then inescapable philosophy of Hegel. When he wrote somewhat naïvely to his father about this enthusiasm, his father saw it as idle dilettantism, and trusted that it would pass. It never did.

Marx displayed an intellectual omnivorousness, and was a natural scholar, possessed of what Germans call Sitzfleisch – he was capable of spending days in the library, devouring book after book. This was to be the pattern of his life. He read obsessively, and couldn’t rest until he had explored every nook and cranny of the subject at hand, amassing piles of notes, most of which he never subsequently used. The result was a daunting erudition which, combined with his forceful personality and an acute and frequently acerbic wit, meant that he was renowned as a formidable figure before he had published a word.

This obsessiveness of the eternal student made for a certain expansiveness in his writing: of his major work, Das Kapital, famously only the first volume achieved completion, and even The Communist Manifesto (1848) was (typically) delivered late. Most of his projects failed to reach a conclusion; many manuscripts, some of considerable length, were left unfinished. Indeed, much of the Marx we read nowadays was never published in his lifetime: the publication of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in the years between the World Wars provoked a reassessment, and a controversy, that rumbles on to the present, for these early writings show a ‘humanist’, even ‘proto-existentialist’ Marx, talking in terms of alienation – rather different from the economist Marx of Das Kapital. Thus Louis Althusser was to speak of an ‘epistemological break’ between the humanistic Marx and the proponent of dialectical materialism.

In fact, although there is clearly development in his thought, there is no evidence of any sharp break, and his approach remains in many respects an Hegelian one from beginning to end. Of course, he was not an idealist like Hegel, but avowedly a materialist, which is why he thought Hegel had got things the wrong way round, and why he described Hegel’s thought as “occult”. For Marx it is not the Idea that produces humanity, but humanity that produces the Idea. (He is also happy to follow Feuerbach in finding that it is not God who has created man in his image, but man who has created God in his.) This is hardly the end of the story of Marx’s engagement with Hegel, however, for in his own way, Marx took much from him. It is Hegel who historicizes philosophy: he offers a philosophy in which history is a progressive march from epoch to epoch – towards freedom; and it is Hegel who sees thought progressing by means of contradictions being overcome (this is what ‘dialectic’ means). Towards the end of his life Marx declares in a postscript to Das Kapital that Hegel is not a “dead dog” and that far from reneging on the Hegelian dialectic, he preserves it in a materialist form. Indeed, it is in this dialectical spirit that Marx explores the progressive modes of production that lead to capitalism, and finds within capitalism the inner contradictions that will bring about its demise in turn, thus giving rise to the higher stage of communism. Lenin was to declare that properly to understand Das Kapital required “a thorough study… of the whole of Hegel’s Logic.” This is perhaps to overstate the matter. It suggests that, prior to taking power, the Russian revolutionaries had a good deal of spare time on their hands.

Revolutionary Hopes

Any hopes Marx may have had of an academic career once he had completed his doctoral thesis on Democritus were soon dashed: when the reactionary Friedrich Wilhelm IV acceded to the Prussian throne in 1840, all university positions were closed to the Young Hegelians, who became a sort of lost generation. Like others, Marx turned to political journalism. Once the virulence of his views had made him a marked man in Germany, there followed a not-too-onerous exile in Paris, in the course of which he met the young Friedrich Engels, who was subsequently to be his collaborator, supporter, and, in the end, his principal source of finance, for, once the revolutionary hopes of 1848 had expired, and his phase as political insurrectionary was behind him, Engels returned to England to work in the family firm. There is a certain irony that these two most fervent enemies of capitalism themselves subsisted on profits derived from the exploitation of workers in the cotton mills of Manchester.

The Communist Manifesto was written in a period of increasing political turmoil. In 1848 two successive years of crop failure had brought on a general economic crisis: in France a republic was (again) proclaimed, and insurrections spread across Europe. In his incendiary work Marx predicted the victory of the proletariat and the imminent end of nations and nationalism. As Sperber notes, the revolutionary model was that of the French Revolution, and in particular the Reign of Terror. But for all its subsequent fame the Manifesto made little impact at the time.

1848 was also the year that Marx, returning to the Rhineland, became a political activist in the fullest sense, seeking to foment an uprising against the Prussian autocracy. For this he was subsequently to stand trial, and although acquitted by a sympathetic anti-Prussian Cologne jury, he was expelled from Germany as an undesirable alien. He left with Engels for London, into what was to become permanent English exile.

Meanwhile the economies of Europe were beginning to recover, and, particularly in England, the long period of increasing prosperity that was to characterize so much of the Victorian age set in. All the uprisings in Europe fizzled out or were firmly put down, and prospects for world revolution, far from being imminent, receded into the distant future. Signs were discerned from time to time – crises that looked as if they might develop into something bigger – but their hopes were not to be met in their lifetimes. Indeed, we are still waiting. There have been many revolutions, but not yet the one that brings the death-knell of global capitalism and the expropriation of the expropriators. Marx had entertained the prospect, late in life, of a Russian Revolution becoming the signal to spark a proletarian revolution in the West. Having taken power in Russia in the wake of the chaos caused by the First World War, Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks waited for other nations to catch fire. They failed to do so. Thus the communist project could not be completed. The result was a stand-off – socialism in one country – while in the rest of the world capitalism continued as before.

Upwardly Mobile Marx

The London in which Marx found exile was, then as now, an expensive place to live. His early years there were ones of desperate poverty. Ensconced in a one-room Soho flat with his aristocratic wife Jenny von Westphalen and a growing family, he scarcely helped matters by fathering a son with the family servant. Although Engels gallantly claimed paternity, thereby helping to save the Marxs’ marriage, the fact that the baby was dark like Marx and not fair like Engels can have done little to allay suspicious minds. In fact the marriage survived, although two of his children did not. At this low point in Marx’s life his political influence too was diminished: the Communist League in London had dwindled to a dozen or so people meeting on Wednesday evenings at the Rose and Crown in Soho.

Gradually however, family and political circumstances improved. Marx exchanged destitution in Soho for a more or less genteel poverty in Kentish Town, then relative comfort in Hampstead (both richer suburbs of London), the rise aided by Marx’s earnings from journalism as well as generous help from Engels. This political journalism includes such masterpieces as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), which manages to turn political defeat into potential success by seeing the failed revolution of 1851 as the precursor to a successful one. Not all of his journalism is of this high standard. Like anyone, Marx had his idées fixes, one of these being his conviction that the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was a Russian spy. This idea was ignored in the otherwise comprehensive Soviet edition of his writings.

By the time of the 1871 uprising in Paris and the brief rule of the Commune there, it was clear that Marx, by now the author of Das Kapital, was seen as a force to contend with. As head of the International Working Men’s Association (whose English members at least were primarily trade unionists rather than revolutionaries) his nefarious influence was widely seen as behind the events in France, the press describing him as “the head of a vast conspiracy.” Marx rightly denied this, but he didn’t despise the publicity it gave him. His essay on the uprising, ‘The Civil War in France’, optimistically saw the Paris Commune as the forerunner of a future communist society.

His later years, although marked by illness, were at least free of financial worries. His way of life – playing with his daughters on Hampstead Heath, enjoying a game of chess, regularly reading Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists – was very bourgeois, in some ways more staid than that of Engels. If Marx wrote about the proletariat, Engels also slept with it: he had liaisons with the Burns sisters, employees at his father’s cotton mill. Marx by contrast was very much the Victorian family man; but outside the family all his friendships were political ones, right to the end of his life. When he died in 1883, Engels gave the graveside address: summing up his friend’s career, he insisted that “Marx was before all else a revolutionist.”


The great task of Marx’s English years was undoubtedly the writing of Das Kapital, the first volume of which finally appeared in 1867. (Subsequent volumes, edited from his voluminous notes, only appeared after his death.) The work gradually spread Marx’s fame as a theorist round Europe: amazingly, it passed the Tsarist censorship – it was deemed too academic to be politically dangerous – and a Russian translation appeared as early as 1872, closely followed by French and English ones.

Sperber scotches the myth that the work was to be dedicated to Darwin. Certainly Marx had praised The Origin of Species (1859), although for him its argument was “developed in a crude English way”, but the analogies between biological and political progress scarcely withstand much scrutiny. In Darwinism proper (if not in the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer), insofar as we can speak of ‘progress’, it is as a blind, mechanistic process. By contrast, although men are made by history in that they cannot choose the circumstances in which they are born, as conscious, striving beings they are also capable of changing the future. True, Marx speaks in the Preface of “tendencies with iron necessity towards inevitable results”, but the word ‘tendencies’ needs to be taken seriously. Capitalism may be doomed in the end, but the passage to communism can be eased if people take action to “shorten and lessen the birth-pangs.”

Sperber reminds us that Das Kapital is a work of its time – in some respects, partly due to its long genesis, behind its time. For example, Marx takes over from economist predecessors such as Adam Smith the notion of the falling rate of profit, although he is nowhere able to show that such a tendency exists, not least because, in the buoyant economy of the middle to late Victorian period, rates of profit were manifestly rising. Modern economics dismisses Marx’s cherished labour theory of value – the idea that the value of a commodity is determined by the labour-time required for its production. Supply and demand, not labour-time, is now seen as the prime determinant of value. Looked at in this way, Das Kapital might seem the last gasp of a now-extinct tradition of political economy. But this is not how we see it: whatever its faults, Das Kapital is a multi-faceted work, and philosophers, social historians, and political theorists continue to mine it for its wealth of ideas.

The picture of capitalism that Marx gives us is a compelling one, not least because he captures for the first time what we might think of as its permanent and essential features. That is, we see in Das Kapital capitalism’s boundlessly dynamic and innovative nature, transgressing national boundaries in its global reach; its relentless pursuit of profit, wherever profit can be found, regardless of the consequences to people or environment; and its reduction of human interests to financial ones. We might be tempted to write off this picture of capitalism as one pertinent to its earlier phases but not to its more benign, later variants. But how benign can capitalism ever be? How benign is it now? It is not, after all, as if sweat-shops, child labour, and appalling factory conditions have disappeared from the face of the earth: they are just in different places. Capitalists in the West, and in south-east Asia, have not hesitated to outsource work to where they can find cheap labour and unregulated conditions. Exploitation is scarcely a thing of the past: the low prices we pay for many of our goods are precisely the result of it.

The crash of 2008 was scarcely unprecedented, except in terms of its scale, and its cause in the ingenious financial instruments devised by bankers in the short-term interest of earning million-dollar bonuses. Marx may have known nothing of credit default swaps, but he was fully aware of the difference between productive capital and what he called ‘fictitious capital’, and that financial markets could swell out of all proportion to the ‘real’ economy to produce credit bubbles. History is full of them.

The crises of capitalism have been many. One of them may yet prove fatal, but it is not advisable to bet on it. Marx may still be able to shed light on our capitalist past and present, but our communist future remains shrouded in darkness.

© Roger Caldwell 2014

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His latest collection of poetry, Waiting for World 93, is published by Shoestring Press.

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