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Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Gareth Stedman Jones. A Democratic Socialist Review.

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Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Gareth Stedman Jones. Allen Lane 2016.

In the Prologue to Karl Marx Greatness and Illusion Stedman Jones announces, the “aim of this book is to put Marx back in his nineteenth century surroundings. (Page 5) For many reviewers, this recalled the last major account of Marx’s life, Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013). Sperber begins by declaring Marx to be a “figure of a past historical epoch, one increasingly distant from our own age…” (1)

When Greatness and Illusion appeared last summer there was little agreement about the merits of Stedman Jones’ efforts, with those sympathetic to Marx finding a variety of flaws in its 750 pages. Their reactions are not unexpected. The biography, from the portrait of the young Karl “would-be poet, dramatist or philosopher” to its survey of the continents of 19th century ideas, its survey of the merits of Marx’s critique of political economy,  and lengthy historical chronicles, is never in too much of a hurry to point out Marx’s misapprehensions. Rather than dwell on what would turn out to be a lengthy list (for reviews see the link below), perhaps the most significant aspect of Stedman Jones’ study is the links he draws between Marx’s ideology and political practice, focusing on whether he was, or was not, out of kilter with his own time. (2)

Sperber had argued that throughout his life Marx remained wedded to a “replay” of the 1789 Revolutions in central and Eastern Europe, initially through “Jacobin” republican governments, which would result in a “social revolution (which) would lead from capitalism to communism and replace the rule of the bourgeoisie with that of the proletariat.”(3).

First International.

By contrast Stedman Jones argues that while strongly marked by the legacy of the French Revolution, refracted through Young Hegelian radicalism, and the search for “social emancipation” greater than political liberty, Marx’s greatest achievement lay in his contribution to a non-revolutionary body, the First International (1864, formal dissolution, 1876). The International Working Men’s Association marked the most significant stage in the radical and working class movement’s turn from the Jacobin tradition. It set demands for political freedom, ‘internationalist republicanism” on an intelligible socialist footing, “the political economy of labour”, and linked the left to the trade union movement.

In Marx’s Inaugural Address to the body, he conceptualised “the emancipation of working classes as a global project and articulate a transnational community of workers’ interests” From a lifetime of hostility most forms of radical politics other than his own he had now been able to master “a language with which politically aware working men at the time could identity” (Page 465) “It was in the formulation of this new social-democratic language that Karl made his greatest contribution to the International…”(Page 466) He did not just advocate that the working classes “conquer political power” and emancipate itself. His “assumption was that the process the process of a transition from the capitalist mode of production towards the society of associated producers had already begin.” (Page 467)

Those looking for an endorsement of Marx’s politics will not find much else to feed on. Stedman Jones’ devotes many pages to a much less glowing tributes to the classical texts of ‘political Marxism’, from the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1847-8), the Class Struggles in France: 1848 – 1850 (1850), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) and The Civil War in France (1871). Crucial “moments”, the 1848 Revolutions, Louis Bonaparte’s Coup d’état in 1851, the 1871 Paris Commune, that is historical points in which Marx grappled with the problems of class, the state, revolution and socialism in historical flesh and bones, are extensively covered, with a running commentary on the failings of Marx’s analysis and his wishful thinking.

Class Struggle.

Karl’s notion of “class struggle” has been treated, he declares, as a “dramatisation of self-evident economic facts of industrialisation”. Yet, historians have come to grasp that “class is no longer…the expression of a simple social-economic reality, but as a form of language discursively produced to create identity.” (Page 306) Marx combined a “teleological account of the place of labour in the world”, derived from Young Hegelian thinking with, the French republican, socialist and even Legitimist terms of “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” used in opposition to the “bourgeois” Monarchy of Louis Philippe. Culminating in the 1848 Revolution and the creation of the Second French Republic the organised “proletarians”, Blanquist and other republican revolutionaries, were like the British Chartists driven by the flames of labour’s destiny and opposition to private property, to confront the contradiction of capitalism, and the political rule of the bourgeoisie.

Such a template led Marx, Stedman Jones asserts, to ignore the ideological and political context of the French uprising. Marx’s emphasis on class struggle missed the key element of the rule of the Monarchy. For Stedman Jones it was the shutting out of the masses from the system of political power under the ‘censitaire’ constitution, a franchise that covered a tiny minority of the population.

“It was not the activities or strategy of a fictive ‘bourgeoisie’ but the attempt around 1830 to construct a political system based upon the political exclusion of wage-earners that created the ‘struggle’ of the ‘working class and the ‘middle class”. “ (Page 311) It was “political exclusion” caused by the ‘censitaire’ (a high payment level for electoral rights), that was the key issue. Stedman Jones asserts that Marx’s “hostility to representation and the ‘political state’” left him in a “poor position to understand the political determinants of working class action.”(P 311)

How did Marx portray working class activity? In his writings on the 1848 Revolutions Marx asserted that the “working class”, in his republican and ‘communist’ associations, was a potential lever for “overturning the world” through actions outside the system. Louis Blanc and those with influence within the French working class had called for “association” linked hand in hand with “universal suffrage”. These dissolved in the face of more ambitious goals. The “proletariat rallies ever more around revolutionary socialism around communism”, for a “class dictatorship of the proletariat”. He criticised attempts to introduce change through a representative republican democratic state, “the peculiar character of social democracy”, “a means of softening the antagonisms between the two extremes of capital and wage labour and transforming it into harmony, of superseding them both (page 176) This nevertheless stands with his 1852 enthusiasm for the Chartist demand for universal suffrage, which would mean the political supremacy of the working class.” (4)

From these brief passages one can see that Marx, may have been hostile to the mechanisms of representation on offer in the Second Republic. But he spent a great deal of time trying to demonstrate how through their institutional weight they might not only divert the ‘revolution’ but also be a practical dead-end (the episode of the National Workshops amongst others). Marx was already considering as the remarks on Chartism indicate, that the “republic” with universal suffrage, could be a key element in the working class “battle for democracy”. Finally if Marx was dismissive of “social democracy”, in this context, it was patent that efforts of ‘party’ had failed to achieve more than fleeting legislative palliatives. As for the importance of the “religious democracy”, a political force which Stedman Jones is more than justified in rescuing from condescension, it is unclear if their belief in “la Cause Sainte” and “Dieu et humanité” helped the fight against “modern slavery”.

Stedman Jones has every right to try to ‘correct’ Marx.  Marx’s claim that Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup d’état, was supported by  the “lumpen proletariat’  – a category which he shows is vacuous – and his description of the peasantry as ‘sack of potatoes’ unable to represent itself (in fact the one major rebellion against him was rural – Page 339) to give a wider social base the  1851 coup d’état, are important, though not exactly novel, contributions to how we understand the period. But we probably do not need the constant presence of  Stedman Jones as Eugène Sue’s Rudolph in Les Mystères de Paris, to save Marx from his theoretical shortcomings.

Languages of Class.

To some of his most hostile critics Stedman Jones stands convicted of deeper faults. His appears to operate with a watered-down version of the apparently “post-structuralist” slant in his Languages of Class. (1983). That is, critics allege, writing about class as “talk”. This would be unfair. A key essay in the book unravelled the distinctive ‘radical’ political approach to the State, “The self-identity of radicalism was not at of any specific group, but of the ‘people;’ or the ‘nation’ against the monopolisers of political representation and power and hence financial or economic power” “In radical terms, in 1832, the ‘people’ became the ‘working classes’.” This remains an important account of British radicals’ distinct concept of “class” and the “people” and the way in which writers and activists in and around the Chartist movement claimed to pinpoint political causes of ‘exploitation’ outside of the relations of production. It does not, nevertheless, demonstrate that “class” can be detached from economic conditions, beginning with the occupations of the Chartists. (5)

In Greatness and Illusion Stedman Jones concentrates on the conflicts over “political exclusion”, with a much less coherent account of the ‘figure’ through which French radicals and the ‘working class’ perceived the Second Republic. The reason is simple: there is no easy comparison between the competing but relatively unified doctrines of an body like the Chartists and broader British radicalism or early socialism, and the multitude of disparate forces swept up into active life in France from 1848 to 1851. The Republic unleashed a multitude of different politics of the excluded, but Marx was not alone in underlining its class character.

As Alex de Tocqueville famously observed,

One thing was not ridiculous, but really ominous and terrible; and that was the appearance of Paris on my return. I found in the capital a hundred thousand armed workmen formed into regiments, out of work, dying of hunger, but with their minds crammed with vain theories and visionary hopes. I saw society cut into two: those who possessed nothing, united in a common greed; those who possessed something, united in a common terror. There were no bonds, no sympathy between these two great sections; everywhere the idea of an inevitable and immediate struggle seemed at hand. Already the bourgeois and the peuple (for the old nicknames had been resumed) had come to blows, with varying fortunes, at Rouen, Limoges, Paris; not a day passed but the owners of property were attacked or menaced in either their capital or income. (6)

Stedman Jones’ background as an editor and contributor to New Left Review is perhaps another context for the biography.  A taste for lectures on left-wing strategy marked its early years. This can still be heard in Editorial advice on the welcome “knocks” to the “neoliberal order” created by Brexit. One can detect echoes if not of the content but of this style in Greatness and Illusion. By citing Marx’s dislike of the representative state, readers will be excused for thinking that Stedman Jones is offering recommendations on how to improve on his “poor position”. This impression is reinforced in the account of the First International. Marx’s enthusiasm for the Paris Commune, which revived his “critique of Parliamentarism” The description of the self-governing radical democratic Constitutions established by popular rule in Paris (18th of March 1871 to the end of May 1871) was an account of “what might have become”. (Page 502) Marx should have verified his references.

Stedman Jones states that in The Civil War in France (1871) the famous picture of a smoothly running direct democracy gearing up to war was “an imaginary projection of the changes that might accompany a transition towards the rule of associated producers.”(Ibid) Yet Marx, it should be stated here, was so far wrapped in this imaginary portrait that, as Stedman Jones himself mentions he admired and promoted the English translation of  Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s Histoire de la Commune de 1871 (1876)  a book which includes a detailed account of the administrative failings of the Commune. (Page 548)

A particular charge is that, incautiously, Marx underestimated the hostility aroused, not just by the bloody repression of the Communards but also by their own (very limited) violence, amongst British supporters of the International. In short, he had broken with the rule that defined the Association’s alliance: he had begun to preach unfamiliar doctrines. The public scandal created by his words may have pleased Marx and his immediate circle, but began the process which ended in the break up of the International

In The Civil War In France Marx, Greatness and Illusion notes called for “an elected assembly, formed on the basis of democratic and representative principles”. Yet once the proletariat triumphed, “there would be a distribution of general functions assigned as a cooperative factory according to suitability” (Page 528) Stedman Jones’ qualifies this. He points to the need for spaces for differences of opinions and, with a dose of homely doctrine, refers to John Stuart Mill on the importance of individual liberty in a system of “equal ownership” and “combined labour”. As the objective of a proletarian socialist transformation of society, or more simply, democratic socialism, this is a far from a goal that can be consigned to the 19th century.

As others have observed, these thoughts are not developed. Stedman Jones completes his view that Marx spent the last fifteen years of his life trying to produce a theory of modern communism through the “intensive study of ancient, communal and pre-capitalist forms.” Those interested in the Franks, The Gauls, the Germanic Mark, Indo-European cultures, the Slavic Mir and the debate in early Russian Marxism on the place of the village community and its property in the transition to socialism, will find much to reflect on. (7)


(1) Page xii. Karl Marx. A Nineteenth Century Life. Jonathan Sperber. Liveright Publishing. 2013.
(2) Christian Fuchs Karl Marx Greatness and Illusion. Marx and Philosophy Review (September 2016). This provides a very helpful overview of the reviews and Gareth Stedman’s biography. For one review that really dislikes the book see: Who is Gareth Stedman Jones and why is he saying such stupid things about Marx? Louis Proyect.
(3) Page 558 Sperber. Op cit.
(4) Page 123. The Class Struggles in France. Page 176. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page 262. The Chartists. All in Surveys from Exile. Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2. Penguin Books. 1973.
(5) Page 104. Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832–1982.  Cambridge University Press. 1983.
(6) The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville (1896) (Alexis de Tocqueville) A private journal of the Revolution of 1848 published posthumously.
(7) Page 183. Introduction to The Communist Manifesto. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. Gareth Stedman Jones. Penguin. 2002.


Written by Andrew Coates

March 1, 2017 at 2:46 pm

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