Big Problem for Marx

Karl Marx: His Life and Thought

by David McLellan
Harper & Row, 498 pp., $12.50

Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy

by Karl Marx, translated with a foreword by Martin Nicolaus
Random House, 893 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Karl Marx
Karl Marx; drawing by David Levine

Karl Marx was a man of revelations. What he saw lurking in the shadows of modern society—the “specter of communism,” class struggle, surplus value—he sought to bring to the light of day. His belief that unveiling these secrets would provide the key to history seems reflected in his interpreters who look to hidden truths as the key to his history. That Marx left important works unfinished and unpublished has made revelation a large element in Marx studies. The now famous Paris manuscripts of 1844 disclosed a previously unknown (but not wholly unsuspected) Marx to a generation that found “alienation” closer to its experience than class struggle. “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice” (so Marx launched The Eighteenth Brumaire), and the drama of finding the real Marx in a hidden manuscript now seems about to repeat itself.

The new center of attention is the Grundrisse, the preliminary draft of his economic theory Marx set down in the dark winter hours of 1857-1858. Unpublished until 1939, and almost totally unknown before its second edition in 1953, Marx’s rough draft has now been lovingly translated into English by Martin Nicolaus. The new version supersedes an earlier volume of English selections by David McLellan, but McLellan himself has now published a full-scale biography of Marx, one purpose of which is to establish the Grundrisse as the keystone of Marx’s thought. Hence it is useful to consider the biography and the translation together.

McLellan offers his book as a “reasonably balanced picture” of Marx’s life, and in many ways it is one. For a book about such a complex and controversial man, it is remarkably fairminded and clam. Sympathetic yet critical, McLellan tells us what he admires about Marx, and what he regrets. His account of Marx’s life is learned, up-to-date, and accurate. Some old myths fall. Marx’s famous essay “On the Jewish Question,” although certainly insulting to his fellow Jews, was actually an argument in favor of extending full civic rights to them. The old claim that Marx had no practical experience of revolution dims as we learn of his real and effective participation in workers’ organizations during 1848. Marx’s economic situation during his years in London was often desperate, but his living standard was always fairly high, thanks to Engels’s more than generous contributions. Marx was a man of contradictions, sympathetic and kind at times, hostile and vituperative at others, passionately devoted to his wife and family, yet almost certainly the father of their lifelong housekeeper’s illegitimate son.

McLellan’s account of all this is clear and reliable, yet his book does not provide a really satisfying account of Marx’s life and thought. No over-all view of Marx the man ties it together. Instead of a conclusion making sense of the whole we get only an “epilogue” presenting contrasting assessments of Marx’s character by his contemporaries.…

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