Marx deflated

Issue: 152

Alex Callinicos

A review of Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (Penguin, 2016), £35

In 1972 the Cambridge historian Gareth Stedman Jones wrote a foreword to the English edition of Werner Blumenberg’s useful biography of Karl Marx. Here he criticised Blumenberg’s “Social Democratic interpretation”, complaining that for Blumenberg “Marx’s importance today stems not from his creation of a new revolutionary theory, but the grandeur of his humanism and the wealth of insights scattered throughout his works”.1

Yet, nearly 45 years later, Stedman Jones, in his own massive and already highly praised biography of Marx, argues that “Karl” (as he rather shy-makingly insists on calling Marx) was at his most politically effective when he forged a “new social-democratic language in the mid-1860s” through his role in the First International, and supposedly distanced himself from his revolutionary communist youth.2 Whereas in 1972 Stedman Jones criticised Blumenberg for accusing Marx of mythologising the Paris Commune of 1871, now he agrees that The Civil War in France was “in part an imaginary projection” and regrets the political isolation from British progressive opinion to which his defence of the Commune condemned Marx.3

These differences are easy enough to explain. In 1972 Stedman Jones was a revolutionary Marxist and one of the more intellectually interesting members of the editorial committee of New Left Review (NLR). But in the 1980s he broke with NLR and embraced poststructuralism. He made a splash in 1983 with a book, Languages of Class, that argued that class was not an objective social relation but a construct of the discourses prevailing in particular social and political movements.4 Stedman Jones repeats this conception of class in Karl Marx, perhaps not realising that the idea that class is just talk must seem quaint to a generation for whom the Occupy slogan of the 1 percent vs the 99 percent captures the stark economic inequalities forged in the neoliberal era.

Happily Stedman Jones now spares us the fancy philosophy used to justify poststructuralist reductions of everything to discourse. His approach in Karl Marx is indistinguishable from the so-called “Cambridge school” in the history of political thought inspired by the work of scholars such as Quentin Skinner and John Dunn, who treat theoretical texts as (in Stedman Jones’s own words) “the interventions of an author within particular political and philosophical contexts that the historian must carefully reconstruct”.5 He is himself a distinguished intellectual historian, and he makes a thorough and competent job of showing the contexts—the relatively liberal Rhineland, the counter-revolutionary Prussian regime of the 1830s and 1840s and the break up of Hegel’s philosophy—in which Marx’s own ideas germinated. We get good, detailed accounts of, for example, Paris in the lead-up to 1848, the revolutions of that year and the developments in the British working class movement and in European radical politics that made the First International possible.

There is, however, something a bit lifeless about the book. Maybe because of his past Stedman Jones has conflicted feelings about Marx, despite his insistence on getting on first name terms with him. He assiduously cites Marx’s immediate relations’ complaints about his lack of family feeling and, without any substantiation, accuses him of getting deported from France in 1845 thanks to his own “arrogance or incompetence”.6 Elsewhere he suggests Marx suffered in the late 1850s from “mood changes ranging from real euphoria through uncontrolled paranoia to fantasies of revenge”.7 More seriously, Stedman Jones cites Marx’s 1844 essay “On the Jewish Question” as an example of “socialist anti-Semitism”, ignoring the extensive (and by no means uncritical) discussions of this text by Hal Draper and David Leopold.8 Stedman Jones demonstrates considerable sympathy for Marx’s target in “On the Jewish Question”, the left Hegelian philosopher Bruno Bauer, but somehow omits to mention the latter’s subsequent evolution into a virulent anti-Semite.

I would recommend anyone looking for an up to date academic biography of Marx to try Jonathan Sperber’s 2013 book instead. Although Sperber is much weaker theoretically than Stedman Jones, he doesn’t suffer from the latter’s mixed feelings about Marx. Moreover, as a historian of 19th century German radicalism he is very good on Marx’s German context and also gets him as a person, warts and all, much better than Stedman Jones does.9

Stedman Jones’s book is more ambitious than Sperber’s, as its subtitle indicates. He argues that the real Marx has got lost behind the mythical figure of the founder of a science of history allegedly constructed by Friedrich Engels and the Second International after his death in 1883. (Stedman Jones is not a fan of Engels and indeed suggests, without any evidence, that Marx and his family concealed disagreements between the two because of their financial dependence on him.) There is nothing especially original about this idea, which has been expressed in different ways by Marxist and non-Marxist scholars for many decades. How interesting the divergence is between the official “Marxism”10 fabricated after Marx’s death and his own thought depends on the content one finds in the latter.

It is here that Stedman Jones claims the distinctiveness of his book lies, in correcting the posthumous “inflation in Marx’s reputation”.11 The real Marx’s lifework, the critique of political economy culminating in the three volumes of Capital, was of course incomplete, with only Volume I appearing in his lifetime. Stedman Jones argues that Marx in his last years abandoned the project out of a sense of intellectual impasse. He claims the much-awaited publication of Volume III by Engels shortly before his death in 1895 was greeted with disappointment because the book offered no proof that capitalism would inevitably break down economically. As for Marx himself, Stedman Jones contends that in his last years his main interest was in anthropological and historical studies of communal social forms, whose survivals—notably the peasant mir in Tsarist Russia—could provide the basis for a transition to socialism that bypassed capitalism. But these speculations were ignored even by Marx’s own followers in Russia. This is how Stedman Jones finishes the book. He avoids any discussion of the contemporary relevance of Marx’s critique of capitalism, presumably to underline the gap between what he regards as the illusory political hopes placed in Marx and the intellectual failure of his actual project.

But if Stedman Jones seeks to offer an original intellectual biography, his treatment of Marx’s critique of political economy does not meet the standards of contemporary scholarship. This has developed considerably in recent decades thanks to the much greater availability of his notes and drafts through the giant Marx-Engels Completed Works (MEGA). Stedman Jones largely ignores this research. Marx’s critique developed first through periods of intensive study of political economy in Paris and Brussels in the mid-1840s and in London in the early 1850s, and then through a succession of manuscripts written mainly, though not exclusively, between 1857 and 1867. Stedman Jones focuses on the first of these manuscripts, the Grundrisse (1857-8), and devotes little attention to two subsequent ones, the vast and in many ways crucial 1861-63 Manuscript, and the 1864-65 Manuscript from which Engels edited Capital, Volume III. This is a critical mistake because it means he fails to grasp the intensive process of conceptual refinement, reformulation and development that takes place across successive manuscripts.12

Thus Stedman Jones makes a great song and dance over the fact that Marx in the mid-1840s read the French translation of the first (1817) edition of David Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation and therefore failed in his Paris writings to address the doubts Ricardo expressed about the labour theory of value in the third edition (1821). In fact, the problem—the apparent contradiction between the labour theory of value and the existence of a general rate of profit—was already posed by Ricardo in the first edition.13 In any case this would not have interested Marx when he first read Ricardo, because in his Paris writings he rejected the labour theory of value. But the problem is central to the 1861-63 Manuscript, as Enrique Dussel shows in his superb commentary.14 It is here that, while seeking to overcome Ricardo’s theory of rent, Marx formulates his solution to the problem, showing how the (labour) values of commodities are transformed into prices of production that govern the fluctuations of market prices (for more detail, see Michael Roberts’s article elsewhere in this issue). But Stedman Jones ignores both this manuscript and Dussel’s work on Capital and its drafts, merely repeating the old saw that there is a contradiction between Volume I and Volume III.

Stedman Jones argues Marx abandoned his critique of political economy because “he had not been able to sustain his original depiction of capital as an organism whose continuous and unstoppable spiral of growth from inconspicuous beginnings in antiquity to global supremacy would soon encounter world-wide collapse”.15 But nowhere in Marx’s writings of the critical period 1857-67 does he claim that capitalism is heading towards economic breakdown. His initial six-book plan of the Critique of Political Economy culminated in a volume on “World Market and Crises”—crises are not the same as collapse. Marx actually wrote: “Permanent crises do not exist”.16 His fullest discussion, in Capital, Volume III (dismissed in a sentence by Stedman Jones), portrays a spiral movement in which the tendency of the rate of profit to fall interacts with financial busts and economic slumps thanks to which capital is destroyed and exploitation increased sufficiently to allow the engine of accumulation to resume. Marx’s discussion of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall concludes in the original manuscript with the sentence, cut by Engels: “Hence crises”. The “vicious circle” of boom and bust will continue as long as capitalism exists.17

One of Stedman Jones’s oddest suggestions is that Marx supposedly abandoned his economic studies after the publication of Capital, Volume I, in 1867 because he was unable to address the development of capitalism as a global system. Recent research (naturally ignored by Stedman Jones) has shown that from the 1840s onwards Marx analysed bourgeois society as a transnational nexus of relationships.18 One of his main preoccupations in the 1870s was to ensure that Capital was not simply a study of Victorian Britain. In the French edition of Volume I he included more material on colonialism and the world market. He also sought to extend the analysis of crises and financial markets to cover developments in the United States, which Marx was quick to recognise as a new centre of global capitalism.

Marx’s interest in the Russian commune was connected in that he also sought to deepen his analysis of rent and landed property in Volume III by studying American and Russian agriculture. It was the unending pursuit of these studies, amid the distractions of politics and illness, combined with Marx’s perfectionism, what he called in a letter to Ferdinand Lassalle of 28 April 1862 “that quirk I have of finding fault with anything I have written and not looked at for a month, so that I have to revise it completely”, that explains why he left Capital unfinished.19 But closer acquaintance with Marx’s drafts leaves one with a strong sense of the grandeur and the contemporaneity of his project.

This doesn’t mean he was always right. He argues that the overthrow of capitalism will occur, not through economic breakdown, but by the political action of the working class, stimulated by the cumulative effects of economic crises and class polarisation. What is genuinely problematic here is that he sees this movement developing “with the inexorability of a natural process”.20 Stedman Jones doesn’t pay much attention to this, perhaps because it doesn’t fit his portrayal of a Marx ignored and misrepresented by the Second International: the inevitability of socialist revolution was an idea eagerly embraced by theorists such as Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov.

But it was an idea that, under the inspiration of the Russian Revolution and of the experience of the Bolsheviks, much more creative figures such as Georg Lukács and Antonio Gramsci rejected in the 1920s. This generation of revolutionary Marxists were encouraged by Lenin to return to Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune and the vision they offered of socialist revolution as an active process of self-emancipation directed at the destruction of the capitalist state. The Stedman Jones of 1972 also shared this vision. Maybe the unsuccessful efforts of the Stedman Jones of 2016 to cut Marx down to size reveal him at war with this past self.

Alex Callinicos is Professor of European Studies at King’s College London and editor of International Socialism


1 Blumenberg, 1972, ppviii, x.

2 Stedman Jones, 2016, p466.

3 Stedman Jones, 2016, p502.

4 Stedman Jones is one of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s main targets in her critique of the intellectual retreat from Marxism—Wood, 1986.

5 Stedman Jones, 2016, pxv.

6 Stedman Jones, 2016, p165.

7 Stedman Jones, 2016, p405.

8 Stedman Jones, 2016, p626-627, note 74.

9 Sperber, 2013.

10 Or “Marxisms”—for example, German Social Democracy’s version is different from the Stalinist variant.

11 Stedman Jones, 2016, p3.

12 See Callinicos, 2014.

13 Oddly Stedman Jones’s relatively scant citations of secondary literature seem to come mainly from the works of his colleagues published by Cambridge University Press. But he ignores one great piece of Cambridge scholarship, Piero Sraffa’s edition of Ricardo’s Works and Correspondence (1951-2), which shows why Ricardo never abandoned the labour theory of value.

14 Dussel, 2001. See also Callinicos, 2014, chapters 2 and 3.

15 Stedman Jones, 2016, p430.

16 Marx and Engels, 1975-2005, volume 32, p128n*.

17 Marx, 2016, pp375, 364. For more discussion of Marx’s theory of crises, see Callinicos, 2014, chapter 6.

18 Pradella, 2014.

19 Marx and Engels, 1975-2005, volume 41, p357.

20 Marx, 1976, p929.


Blumenberg, Werner, 1972 [1962], Karl Marx: An Illustrated Biography (NLB).

Callinicos, Alex, 2014, Deciphering Capital: Marx’s Capital and Its Destiny (Bookmarks).

Dussel, Enrique, 2001, Towards an Unknown Marx: A Commentary on The Manuscript of 1861-63 (Routledge).

Marx, Karl, 1976, Capital, Volume I (Penguin).

Marx, Karl, 2016, The Economic Manuscript of 1864-1865: Capital Book Three: Forms of the Process as a Whole (Brill).

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1975-2005, Collected Works, 50 vols (Progress).

Pradella, Lucia, 2014, Globalisation and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx’s Writings (Routledge).

Sperber, Jonathan, 2013, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (Liveright).

Stedman Jones, Gareth, 2016, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (Penguin).

Wood, Ellen Meiksins, 1986, The Retreat from Class: The New “True” Socialism (Verso).