Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion - Gareth Stedman Jones (2016)


The historical and philosophical themes which preoccupied Karl in his last years did not long outlast his death. Neither the scholarship underlying claims for the archaic village community nor the politics which accompanied them survived into the twentieth century.

In the period after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the French showed little sympathy for claims about the Teutonic origins of liberty. Their preference was not for the aristocratic and militarist Franks, but for the industrious Gauls, the ancestors of the ‘Third Estate’. Guizot in his 1823 Essays on the History of France made no reference to the Mark, but dwelt upon the Franks’ aversion to work and their enjoyment of drinking and games.1 Not surprisingly, the course of the Franco-Prussian War sharpened the edge of this hostility, and led to an all-out attack upon the scholarly credentials of Maurer by Fustel de Coulanges in 1889.2

Fustel’s attack was devastating. The Mark theory received no support in the writings of Caesar or Tacitus. Without the slightest justification, Maurer had understood the word ager to mean ager publicus, although the word publicus does not appear in Tacitus’ text. The word Mark in early German law simply meant ‘boundary’ (Latin terminus) and usually referred to private property, especially villas. In fact early German law was based upon the presupposition of private property in land, held by individuals or families, but never by larger groups. The only evidence of periodic redistribution of the land was based upon the blunder of a copyist. The term ‘common’ referred to a customary right of use enjoyed by tenants over land belonging to a lord. There was no evidence that these tenants were once joint owners of the land. Nor was there any evidence of Mark assemblies or Mark courts. Instead, the earliest German law codes suggested a land to a large extent occupied by great estates, and cultivated by slaves or semi-servile tenants.

Evidence on England assembled by Frederic Seebohm, William Ashley and Paul Vinogradoff pointed in the same direction.3 In 1883, Seebohm’s The English Village Community demonstrated the uniform spread of the manorial system across the greater part of England. He argued that the origins of the feudal manor were not to be found in the disintegration of the free Mark community, but in the slave-worked villa of the late Roman Empire. The invading Anglo-Saxons had either already adopted the Roman estate system, or adopted what they found on arrival. Seebohm’s work effectively demolished the existence of the Mark. The economist Alfred Marshall attempted in the 1870s to develop Maine’s picture of the original ‘Aryan’ village and the Teutonic Mark community as the starting points of a philosophy of history to accompany his Economic Principles. It would have depicted the progress from custom-bound community to modern innovation and individual liberty. But after reading Seebohm’s demonstration that village communities ‘were not often “free” and ultimate owners of the land’, he relegated what was left of the historical section to an appendix and dropped all mention of the Mark.4

Other evidence put forward by Fustel de Coulanges undermined the claims of the Mark in Switzerland, Serbia and Scotland.5 Even Karl’s cherished piece of evidence for the survival of communal property arrangements, the Gehöferschaften of Trier and the Hunsrück, were shown to be a later communal arrangement forced upon the people, and seigniorial in origin.6 Finally, the historical credentials of the Russian mir were also effectively dismantled. Chicherin demonstrated that the existence of the mir only dated back to 1592 and was instituted by ‘an act of despotic government’, by a ukase of the Czar Fedor Ivanovitch. As Fustel de Coulanges admitted in 1889, ‘the question is still warmly discussed’, but on the basis of the evidence produced so far, the mir only came into existence with the feudal period and ‘far from being collective ownership, the mir is collective serfdom’.7

The political life of Karl’s new conception proved no less short. He had been less than straightforward in making public his shift in position after the publication of Capital, Volume I. So it was not surprising that most of his followers continued to equate Karl with the modernizing vision of the Communist Manifesto. They were also encouraged to do so by Engels, who had never been enthusiastic about Karl’s latter-day interest in the village community. In 1882, Engels had criticized Maurer’s ‘habit of adducing, indiscriminately and side by side documentary proof and examples from any and every period’.8 In 1894, he similarly questioned the merit of Chernyshevsky for encouraging ‘a faith in the miraculous power of the peasant commune to bring about a social renaissance’. The fact was that the Russian commune had existed for hundreds of years ‘without ever providing the impetus for the development of a higher form of common ownership out of itself; no more so than in the case of the German Mark system, the Celtic Clans, the Indian and other communes with primitive, communistic institutions’.9 Engels was happy to hand over all Karl’s Russian material to his friend Lavrov, and he made no attempt to integrate Karl’s later thoughts into his editing of Volumes II and III of Capital. Nor did he object when, in the 1890s, Plekhanov, Struve and their follower Lenin depicted Russian Marxism as a battle between ‘historical materialism’ and ‘Narodism’, a Romantic belief in the uniqueness of Russia and its peasant commune: therefore, a rerun of earlier battles between Westernizers and Slavophils. This effectively ensured that Karl’s views were forgotten in the one place where the significance of the peasant commune was an immediate political issue.

Engels remained hostile to the Romantic investment in the obshchina. He denied that ancient communal beliefs had much bearing upon modern collective institutions. In 1894, he brought out a new edition of the attack he had made twenty years earlier against the Populist and Bakuninist Petr Tkatchev. Ostensibly the essay was written for ‘all Russians concerned about the economic future of their country’. He pointed out that in Russia ‘the few thousand people’ who were aware of ‘Western capitalist society with all its irreconcilable antagonisms and conflicts’ did not live in the commune, while ‘the fifty million or so, who still live with common ownership of the land … have not the faintest idea of all this … They are at least as alien and unsympathetic to these few thousand as the English proletarians from 1800 to 1840 with regard to the plans which Robert Owen devised for their salvation.’ And, as Engels emphasized, the majority employed in Owen’s New Lanark factory also ‘consisted of people who had been raised on the institutions and customs of a decaying communistic gentile society, the Celtic-Scottish clan … But nowhere’, Engels emphasized, ‘does he [Owen] so much as hint that they showed a greater appreciation of his ideas … It is a historical impossibility’, he concluded, ‘that a lower stage of economic development should solve the enigmas and conflicts which did not arise, and could not arise, until a far higher stage.’10

There were also deeper reasons why Karl’s position in the debate about the village community did not survive into the twentieth century – and indeed was already beginning to look outmoded by the time of his death in 1883. Karl belonged to a generation of writers whose work on the transition from ancient to modern society preceded the impact of Darwin. Maine, Bachofen, Morgan, McLennan and Karl were all born between 1818 and 1827. All were lawyers, for whom the study of early or primitive society was not a branch of natural history, but of legal studies – of which political economy in the nineteenth century was often considered part. The institutions upon which they focused – private property, the state, marriage and the family – were also primarily legal. They were neither travel writers, nor social anthropologists in a later sense, even if Morgan made contact with Iroquois and Maine became part of the Indian Administration. Their sources were mainly classical or biblical. They drew especially upon the Pentateuch, Roman Law and Greek mythology – from the patriarchal despotism of Abraham, through the Ten Commandments and the Twelve Tables, to Prometheus and the misdeeds of the gods of Olympus, or to the Rape of the Sabines and to the Caudine Forks. Fundamental to their concerns was an equation between history, development and progress, whether ‘from status to contract’, from private property to the end of ‘human pre-history’, or from ‘societas’ to ‘civitas. All in their different ways believed that history was a means by which progress could be measured, a progressive movement from lower to higher stages of development, whether of forms of property, modes of production, types of kinship relation or marriage, custom or law. The so-called ‘comparative method’ was employed in different ways to assist the drawing up of these developmental sequences.

The American Lewis Henry Morgan, whom Karl saluted in his last writings for prophesying ‘the revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes’, was a good example of this combination of legal formation and classical inspiration.11 He trained as a lawyer in Rochester, New York, and became fascinated by the practices of the neighbouring Iroquois, whom he represented in several land disputes. Although not a practising Christian, Morgan shared many of the values of the local liberal Calvinist congregation, led by his close friend the Reverend J. S. McIlvaine. While McIlvaine and his congregation welcomed evolution, which they could only understand as the unfolding of a divine plan, they were unable to accept Darwin’s idea of the mutability of species – for many the unacceptable ‘materialist’ core of Darwinism.12

Morgan shared this position and in his study The American Beaver and His Works tried to demonstrate the superiority of Cuvier’s idea of the separate creation of fixed species.13 Species could change in the embryological sense in which tadpoles changed into frogs or in the longer term by fulfilling their potential. Morgan also spent much time classifying marriage, kinship and language groups, in support of the idea that in addition to the Indo-European and Semitic languages there also existed the ‘Turanian’, a group made up of nomadic peoples, stretching from the Finns to the Tamils.14 Like others of his generation, he combined his specialized ethnographic knowledge of American tribes with a historical model built upon classical learning, in his case George Grote’s History of Greece.15 As far back as 1851, Morgan had believed that there was a strong similarity between the political institutions of the Iroquois and those of the tribes of ancient Greece. Indeed, the democratic practices of the Greek gentes and the Iroquois seemed not dissimilar from those associated with the Indo-European Mark. For Morgan, the whole process of the development of ‘a barbarian out of a savage, and a civilized man out of this barbarian’ had been ‘a part of the plan of the Supreme Intelligence’.16

Far-fetched though it may first seem, it is worth pointing to an affinity of position between Morgan’s approach and that of Karl. Karl of course would not have countenanced any notion of ‘the Supreme Intelligence’, but like Morgan he was unhappy about Darwin’s view that ‘progress’ was purely ‘accidental’. Like Morgan also, Karl had a high regard for Cuvier. Cuvier was ‘a great geologist and for a naturalist also an exceptional literary-historical critic’. He warmed to Cuvier’s mocking the ideas of ‘German nature-worshippers’ about the mutability of the species, but reluctantly agreed that in the end the Darwinists were right.17 He may well have pondered, however, what the status of his own theory of history was, if the Darwinists’ conception was correct. But there can be no doubt about his enthusiasm for Morgan’s findings in Ancient Society.

In order to highlight the intellectual gulf between Karl’s generation and that which came to dominate the Marxist socialist movement in the 1880s and 1890s, it is only necessary to cite one of the most prominent members of the Group for the Emancipation of Labour, Georgi Plekhanov, and his best-known work of theory, In Defence of Materialism: The Development of the Monist View of History, published in 1895. According to this study, far from humanizing nature through his activity, man’s capacity for ‘tool making’ was to be regarded as ‘a constant magnitude’, ‘while the surrounding external conditions for the use of this capacity in practice have to be regarded as a constantly varying magnitude’.18 In other words, the crucial variable was not human activity, but the external environment. To summarize his theory: ‘Darwin succeeded in solving the problem of how there originate vegetable and animal species in the struggle for existence. Marx succeeded in solving the problem of how there arise different types of social organisation in the struggle of men for their existence. Logically, the investigation of Marx begins precisely where the investigation of Darwin ends’.19 A generation brought up on evolutionary biology could not inhabit the dreams of a generation brought up upon classical literature, ancient mythology and radical idealist philosophy. Nature was no longer the passive and repetitive ‘inorganic body of man’. It had now become the actively threatening and disruptive agent, forcing man at every new turn to adapt the conditions of the struggle for existence to the ever-changing demands of the external environment. In the new language of twentieth-century socialism, the dreams of those whose thought had been formed in the decade before 1848 had become, to an ever-increasing extent, incomprehensible.

Finally, a suggestive story: in the Marx-Engels Archiv, published in Frankfurt in 1928, the pioneer Marx scholar, and first editor of the Marx–Engels Gesamtausgabe, David Riazanov (later to disappear in the Stalinist purges), reported that going through the papers of Karl’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue in 1911, he came across several drafts, full of insertions and erasures, of a letter written in French by Karl on 8 March 1881.20 This was a response to a letter of 16 February from Vera Zasulich of the exiled Russian Group for the Emancipation of Labour in Geneva.21 In line with the preceding drafts discovered in 1911, the letter Karl finally sent Zasulich on the question of the commune was positive. What impact did it make?

Riazanov wrote round to surviving members of the Group to ask if any reply from Karl had been received. Plekhanov, Zasulich and probably Axelrod all replied in the negative; and yet, as Riazanov himself recalled, he spent time in Geneva in 1883 and heard of this exchange, and even rumours of a personal confrontation between Plekhanov, who was said to have denied communal property, and Karl, who was said to have defended it.22 In 1923, the missing letter from Karl turned up in Axelrod’s papers. But, according to Riazanov, the present editors were unable to elicit ‘the real reasons why this letter of Marx, which dealt with a question so passionately provoking to revolutionary circles, fell into oblivion’. As Riazanov remarked, ‘we saw that Plekhanov, and even the addressee, Zasulich, had likewise thoroughly forgotten this letter. One must recognize that this lapse of memory, particularly given the special interest such a letter would have aroused, is very strange and probably would offer to professional psychologists one of the most interesting examples for the extraordinary deficiencies of the mechanism of our memory.’23

We cannot know why in 1923 the former leaders of the Group for the Emancipation of Labour forgot Karl’s 1881 letter urging them to support the village community rather than follow the supposedly orthodox ‘Marxist’ strategy of building an urban-based workers’ social-democratic movement. But this only reinforces the point that the Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth.