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

Prologue: The Making of an Icon, 1883-1920

Karl Marx first became known to the wider world as the notorious revolutionary, who on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association had defended the Paris Commune in 1871. As a result of this notoriety, growing attention was paid to his work as a theorist of socialism or communism. The publication of Capital in 1867, first in German and subsequently in Russian, French, Italian and English, made Marx the most prominent socialist theorist of his time, and created groups of followers across Europe and North America. Knowledge of his teachings was spread in particular by his closest friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, who claimed that thanks to Marx’s work socialism was no longer a mere ‘utopia’. It was a ‘science’. Capital announced the approaching collapse of the current mode of production and its replacement by the socialist or communist society of the future.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and a host of other attempted revolutions in Central Europe in the aftermath of the First World War were all attributed to Marx’s teachings. These in turn were followed in the interwar period by the growth of Soviet-style communist parties, who after the Second World War, found themselves favourably placed to take control of states throughout much of Eastern Europe. In Asia, indigenous movements of national liberation, formed in resistance to imperialism and colonialism, carried out communist revolutions in China and Vietnam, also in the name of ‘Marxism’. By the 1960s, movements inspired by communism or revolutionary socialism had also spread across Latin America and succeeded in Cuba. In South Africa, communism helped inspire the first sustained resistance to Apartheid, and movements to end white colonial rule throughout the rest of Africa.

In the aftermath of 1917 and the global spread of Soviet-style communism, Marx was celebrated as communism’s epic founder and lawgiver in an increasingly monumental mythology. He was venerated as the founder of the science of history – ‘historical materialism’ – and together with his friend Engels as the architect of the scientific philosophy to accompany it – ‘dialectical materialism’. In Communist countries, huge statues were erected in countless public squares, while the dissemination of popular editions of his works outstripped that of the Bible. This is the familiar story of twentieth-century communism and the development of the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, it has been identified with the emergence of ‘totalitarian’ states, in which the promulgation of an officially prescribed form of ‘Marxism’ was accompanied by purges, show trials, and a vigilant control of all means of communication.

More surprising is the fact that the mythology surrounding Marx had not been invented by the Soviet regime. It had already begun to be constructed at the time of Marx’s death in 1883 and developed fully in the thirty years following. The invention of what came to be called ‘Marxism’ was initially in large part the creation of Engels in his books and pamphlets, beginning with Anti-Dühring in 1878. It was elaborated by the leaders of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, particularly, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein and Franz Mehring. The German Social Democratic Party in the years before 1914 was the largest socialist party in the world and exercised a preponderant influence upon the development of socialism elsewhere. Partly out of conviction, but mainly in order to buttress the authority of the Party, its leaders found it opportune to protect and to advance Marx’s reputation as the revolutionary founder of a science of history. In Russia, ‘Marxism’ both as a philosophy and as a political movement was forcefully promoted in the 1880s and 1890s by Georgi Plekhanov and subsequently by Lenin. Elsewhere, in countries ranging from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Spain and Italy, ‘Marxism’ offered a powerful alternative to nationalism, republicanism or anarchism. Even in countries, such as Britain and France, where the strength of an indigenous radicalism or socialism was much more deeply rooted, Marx’s Capital drew support from small groupings and from prominent intellectuals.

The Social Democratic leaders in Germany were well aware of the vulnerability of their image of Marx and his theory. They were the appointed guardians of the Marx–Engels papers, and they discussed among themselves how to cope with the sometimes embarrassing gap between image and reality. They believed that an admission of Marx’s failings, whether political or personal, might undermine the support of ordinary Party members, many of whom were sustained by the idea that the approaching demise of capitalism had been proved definitively in a book written by a great philosopher. It was also essential not to provide the imperial government of Wilhelmine Germany an opportunity to attack the credentials of the Social Democratic Party by discrediting the work of its founding thinker. Much of the standard picture of the personal character, political judgement and theoretical achievements of Marx was founded upon the need to protect this legacy.

The cost of this approach was an increasing inflation in Marx’s reputation. Ever more expansive claims were made about the scale and significance of Marx’s achievement, while areas in which his writings or activities had failed to meet these mythical requirements were glossed over or hidden. Marx was promoted as the philosopher who had accomplished as much in the human sciences as Darwin in the natural sciences. This invented parallel reinforced the claim that the Social Democratic Party embodied the science of socialism. Similarly, on the basis of the as yet unpublished Volume III of Capital, it was also maintained that Marx’s theory propounded with certainty the coming downfall of capitalism. Between the 1890s and 1930s, the question of when exactly capitalism would collapse became a topic of prolonged debate. Known as ‘Zusammenbruchstheorie’ (theory of collapse), the idea was that capitalism would come to an end, not so much as the result of workers’ revolt, as because in the absence of new markets to exploit the system would reach a point of terminal breakdown.

As a result of the way in which expectations about the contents of Volume III had been raised, its actual publication in 1894 produced considerable disappointment. It encountered fundamental criticism from the Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk on account of its failure to produce a satisfactory theory of the relation between values and prices.1 More immediately, it also provoked Eduard Bernstein’s attack upon Zusammenbruchstheorie. The theory was based on the supposedly ever more acute polarization between classes and ever greater gulf between wealth and poverty. But empirical material did not support this claim. Bernstein’s attack upon the theory was seen as particularly damaging, since he was one of the literary executors of the Marx–Engels papers. Engels completed the preface to Volume III on 4 October 1894. He died on 5 August 1895. Kautsky, the editor of Die Neue Zeit, the main theoretical journal of the Party, welcomed debate, and published Bernstein’s eight critical articles. But Bebel, the leader of the Party, was alarmed and hoped Bernstein would resign from the Party. Bernstein’s criticisms were debated at successive Party Congresses in 1898 and 1899, but were condemned as ‘revisionism’. Henceforward Bernstein’s view was classified as a heresy to be distinguished from ‘orthodox Marxism’.2

From the beginning, what came to be called ‘Marxism’ had been built upon an unambiguously selective view of what was to count as theory, not only in relation to would-be heretics, but also in relation to Marx himself. The Marx celebrated from the 1890s and beyond was the theorist of the universality of capitalism and its inevitable global downfall.

Social Democratic leaders also had to decide what was to be said about Marx’s personal character. In 1905 Franz Mehring, the first biographer of Marx, wrote to Karl Kautsky that it would be impossible to publish the correspondence between Marx and Engels in uncensored form. Mehring stated that if the correspondence were to appear in full, all the efforts made in the preceding twenty years to preserve Marx’s literary reputation would have been in vain. The correspondence was full of insulting references to prominent Social Democrats. It also contained racist sneers against several figures, like the first Social Democratic leader, Ferdinand Lassalle. So, in 1913, the leader of the Party, August Bebel, together with Bernstein, finally went ahead with a four-volume collection of the letters, censored in the way that Mehring had requested. As Bebel wrote to Kautsky: ‘by the way, I want to tell you – but please keep absolutely quiet about it – that some of the letters were not published, above all, because they were too strong for us. The two old ones had at that time a way of letter-writing, to which I can in no way reconcile myself.’3 The letters were finally published in an uncensored edition by David Riazanov between 1929 and 1931.

What this account reveals is that, by the end of the nineteenth century, there were important differences between Marx himself – who he was, how he behaved, what he believed, what he thought about – and the ways in which he had come to be represented in political discourse. The figure that had emerged was a forbidding bearded patriarch and lawgiver, a thinker of merciless consistency with a commanding vision of the future. This was Marx as the twentieth century was – quite wrongly – to see him. It was a picture brilliantly enunciated by Isaiah Berlin writing in 1939: Marx’s faith in his own synoptic vision was ‘of that boundless, absolute kind which puts an end to all questions and dissolves all difficulties’; ‘his intellectual system was a closed one, everything that entered was made to conform to a pre-established pattern, but it was grounded in observation and experience’.4

The aim of this book is to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings, before all these posthumous elaborations of his character and achievements were constructed. Karl, as we shall henceforth call him, was born into a world just recovering from the French Revolution, the Napoleonic government of the Rhineland, the half-fulfilled but quickly retracted emancipation of the Jews, and the stifling atmosphere of Prussian absolutism. It was also a world in which there were escapes, even if for the most part only in the imagination. There were the beauty of the Greek polis, the inspiration of the poets and playwrights of Weimar, the power of German philosophy, and the wonders of romantic love. But Karl was not just the product of the culture into which he was born. From the beginning, he was determined to impress himself upon the world.