Thursday, September 29, 2016

'Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion' - Gareth Stedman Jones

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Stalinism has guttered and died; Maoism is moribund. The remaining tradition of revolutionary Marxism is overwhelmingly Trotskyist, yet few contemporary Marxist activists have read much Marx.

As a member of the International Marxist Group in the 1970s, I, along with my serious-minded comrades read Lenin for theories of the state and the party, and Trotsky for the united front, the theory of Permanent Revolution, and analysis of degenerated and deformed workers’ states. I tried to read 'Capital' but was not much interested in economics (and the book was tedious - Mandel was easier). I dabbled a little with Marx’s thoughts on alienation and philosophy but Lukács was more compelling.

What we thought we knew was that Marx had analysed capitalism not as a set of robust, enduring institutions – the ‘end of history’ – but as exploitative social relationships between people constituted as classes, which could be unmade by different social behaviour, different ‘relations of production’. Capitalism was the latest in a long line of social forms which, by increasing the ‘forces of production’ immeasurably, was opening the way to a truly free society based on abundance. The rest was politics, and on this, Marx’s writings appeared to have little relevance to the modern day.

Everyone has an agenda with Marx. The Second International under Kautsky used him to justify its minimal/maximal programmes of de facto collaboration with the bourgeois state. Lenin and Trotsky used him to demonstrate unavoidable, terminal contradictions within capitalism and the necessity of violent revolution. Bourgeois writers distorted his words while left-liberals saw him as a much-maligned but benign genius, whose far-sighted humanity had been co-opted by extremists.

Gareth Stedman Jones’s response has been a deep, immersive dive into the history, politics and ideas which swirled around the contemporary Marx. For most of the book it seems that Jones – along with the reader - has become an invisible member of that small group of friends, colleagues and acolytes of ‘Karl’ as he lives his life from one month to the next responding to events. Jones appears to have read everything important in those debates and to be intimately acquainted with the detailed history of Western Europe and America during Marx’s lifetime (1818 – 1883).

The picture which emerges is much more realistic than the disengaged, omniscient oracle of legend. Marx starts as a classicist and aspiring poet with some legal training. Always political (the ‘Young Hegelians’), he is not at first interested in economics, much preferring philosophy, the subject of his PhD. In the 1840s he supports himself by radical journalism which was to remain his career through most of his life: it was not lucrative.

‘Capital’ was written in the 1860s, in London. Jones describes the major innovations which Marx introduced – specifically the clear distinctions between use-value and exchange-value, the concept of surplus value and the analysis of generalised commodity production as distinctive of capitalism. Here, the exploitative character of capitalism has been laid bare, while in the tendency of the average rate of profit to fall (through an ever-increasing level of automation - ‘constant capital’) a rationale was proposed for inherent limits of the capitalist mode of production.

It was here, according to Jones, that Marx ran out of steam. Although he had a decade or more of life ahead of him he was unable to resolve a number of theoretical problems. How was the abstract concept of exchange-value translated into prices as seen in the shops and on the stock exchanges? How did capitalism interact with the pre-capitalist world as it expanded across the world - what was the nature of the dynamic and to what extent was 'imperialism' forced by its very nature? How could we understand the distinctive incarnations of the capitalist state?

Whenever Marx was under deadlines to write up his analysis of these issues, promised for the later volumes of ‘Capital’, ill-health seemed to intervene – liver problems, headaches and those famous ‘carbuncles’. Jones suggests this was not an accident.

Marx was not incredibly famous during his lifetime. He was for periods notorious however - demonised by the press as a dangerous agitator in the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871. Meanwhile ‘Capital’ volume one sold well enough (one wonders how much of it was read, however). His real fame came posthumously when his views, as packaged by Engels, became very convenient – in a crude form - as a foundational vision for the influential German Social-Democratic Party (the Erfurt Programme). Things never looked back after that.

Gareth Stedman Jones has written a stellar book here, the scholarship immense. The reader truly feels present in Marx’s life and times. Jones shows how frequently Marx was wrong, tending to impose his ideas as a smothering straightjacket over the complexity and subtlety of political events. Yet he also showed more insight than many of his left-wing colleagues while his thinking was far deeper and more profound. We should also not forget that, in journalistic terms, he was a highly-talented writer.

I have a small quibble: Jones has scrupulously adopted an observational tone, with only small amounts of critical commentary on the more theoretical issues. I would have welcomed a chapter, perhaps at the end, where the author could have summed up what he thought Marx’s fundamental contributions had been - and more specifically, where he though Marx had been intellectually defeated.

Note: while this is an excellent book, it does presuppose the reader is actually interested in the intellectual debates and political disputes of mid-nineteenth century Europe. If you feel underwhelmed, for example, by the issues which so agitated the Young Hegelians, it’s unlikely that you’ll get past the early chapters.

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