• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Inescapable Marx

The Karl Marx Library

edited by Saul K. Padover
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 7 volumes pp.

The Marx-Engels Reader

edited by Robert C. Tucker
Norton, 2nd edition, 788 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Making of Marx’s Capital

by Roman Rosdolsky, translated by Pete Burgess
Pluto Press, distributed by Humanities Press, 581 pp., $35.00

Karl Marx: His Life and Thought

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

Karl Marx

by David McLellan
Penguin, 110 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Marx’s Fate: The Shape of a Life

by Jerrold Seigel
Princeton University Press, 451 pp., $16.50

Marx’s Theory of History

by William Shaw
Stanford University Press, 202 pp., $12.50

Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today

by Antony Cutler, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst, and Athar Hussain
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2 volumes, 307 pp., $8.25 (paper)

Marxist Perspectives: Vol. I, No. 1, Spring 1978

420 West End Avenue, New York, NY 10024, $15.00 a year

Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Part One: The State and Bureaucracy

by Hal Draper
Monthly Review Press, 2 volumes, 728 pp., $28.50

Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume II: The Politics of Social Classes

by Hal Draper
Monthly Review Press, 800 pp., $20.00

The Marxian Legacy

by Dick Howard
Urizen Books, 340 pp., $6.95 (paper)

We are in the midst of an extraordinary outpouring of literature on, about, into, out of, and by Marx.1 As with all such efflorescences, much of the writing is of small importance and will be of short life, all the more so because the field is being taken over by academics who worry their small points into books and articles of increasingly esoteric significance. Nonetheless, the outpouring attests to more than the academization of Marx. It testifies to the growing fascination that Marx’s thought exerts over our time—a fascination that has survived a hundred debunkings, “disproofs,” and disillusionments to reassert itself as the great intellectual challenge whose measure must be taken by everyone seeking to understand the social condition of mankind.

In this article I would like to describe the general dimensions of this cataract of Marxist writings. But it may help if I first say a word about the fascination exerted by Marx himself.

I have just finished rereading the three main volumes of Capital (there are three subsidiary books that collectively make up a fourth “volume” entitled Theories of Surplus Value); have again made my way, alternately exhilarated and exhausted, through the 983 pages of the less well-known Grundrisse, the unedited “Rough Draft” in which Marx made his first efforts to systematize the ideas that would appear in Capital; glanced back at some of the earlier writings; looked again at a few historical essays dipped into the correspondence and into bits of his journalism. I think I can explain the reason for the magnetism that Marx exerts. It is that Marx had the luck, combined of course with the genius, to be the first to discover a whole mode of inquiry that would forever after belong to him. This was done previously only once, when Plato “discovered” the mode of philosophical inquiry.

To be sure, there had been philosophical explorations before Plato, bold forays by brilliant men, above all the luminous figure of Socrates. But if Plato was not the first to ask philosophical questions, he was the first to systematize the method of posing and considering these questions, so that later thinkers, no matter how great or original, found themselves pursuing a task whose nature was still essentially that articulated by Plato. That is why, in a sense, all of philosophy is a commentary on Plato’s work, even when it goes far beyond Plato or arrives at conclusions that are completely at variance with his own.

So it is with Marx. Here I do not refer to Marx the economist who certainly did not “invent” the discipline already developed to very great heights by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. I refer to Marx the inventor of critical social science, who “critiqued” economics (to use the dreadful neologism that seems to be unbudgeably situated in contemporary Marxist writing). Capital is a book about a social system, not a book about economics. Its subtitle, we often forget, is “A Critique of Political Economy.” Thus if Plato invented “philosophizing,” Marx invented a kind of social “criticizing”—that is, subjecting the social universe to a particular sort of questioning, as Plato subjected the universe of ideas and sense data to his own form of questioning.

Both modes of questioning call themselves “dialectic,” and neither lends itself to a ready-made handbook. That is why the Socratic method is as difficult to explain as the Marxian. But both modes also fill us with an insatiable curiosity—“philosophic” when we read Plato; “social” when we read Marx.2

I do not wish to press the analogy too far, for Plato is par excellence the philosopher of contemplation—we are all familiar with the powerful metaphor of The Cave—whereas Marx is the philosopher of action: “The philosophers have heretofore interpreted the world in various ways; the thing, however, is to change it,” as he wrote in his famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach. The analogy is useful, however, in helping us understand why Marx asserts and reasserts his intellectual thrall. It is certainly not because he is infallible. It is because he is unavoidable, at least for anyone who begins to ask questions, not about society but about the nature of our thinking about society. Sooner or later, all such inquiries bring one to confront Marx’s thought, and then one is compelled to adopt, confute, expand, escape from, or come to terms with the person who has defined the very task of critical social inquiry itself.

For someone who has never read Marx, and who hasn’t the time or the desire to go through the entire opus, where to begin? I have three routes to suggest. The first is to sample Marx by reading the “best passages” culled from the sprawling entirety. There exist numerous such collections of Marx’s work of which I will single out one, Robert C. Tucker’s The Marx-Engels Reader. This thoughtfully chosen assemblage goes on for nearly 800 pages, but it can be taken up and put down without losing the thread. Short introductions help to place the selections in context, and there is a nice balance between too little and too much.

A second route to Marx is to read one work entire. I would choose Capital, Volume I. There are a few difficult parts, especially the first chapter with its dissection of Value; but the difficulties are so subtle that the first-time reader is likely to be unaware of them, and he or she will encounter at the end of chapter I the marvelous section on “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret.” Here is the introduction to the quintessential Marx. If that section does not take, nothing will; and the world of Marx is not for that reader, as the world of Plato’s Cave is not for everyone. Some of the rest of Volume I is boring; much is historical, sometimes horrifying; a great deal is profoundly, absorbingly interesting. After Volume I, there remain Volumes II and III, which Marx left largely uncompleted; then there is the great, untidy Grundrisse (which can be sampled in a very well chosen condensed version edited by David McLellan [Harper Torchbook]), and thereafter one is on the way to the remaining forty-odd volumes.3

Or one can begin with a biography. McLellan has written two biographies, a full-scale Karl Marx: His Life and Thought and a brief Karl Marx for the Modern Masters series edited by Frank Kermode. Both are first rate. We have as well a brand new biography with a marvelous title: Jerrold Seigel’s Marx’s Fate: The Shape of a Life. As a recounting of Marx’s “story,” and an informed, thoughtful, and accessible account of his ideas, Seigel’s book is excellent. But as the title suggests, Seigel has set himself a more ambitious task than a mere retelling of a life. His aim is to provide a psychohistory, with special stress on the influence of Marx’s early environment, and his evolution through Erikson-like “stages” of development.

I must confess that I did not feel enlarged in my comprehension of Marx by virtue of this psychohistorical approach. Seigel naturally pays attention to Marx’s tense relation to his father, to various character traits such as his inability to finish things, his hopeless (and scatalogical) attitude toward money; his anti-Semitism; his famous fathership of an illegitimate son with Helene Demuth, the loyal family maid. A vivid portrait emerges, suggested by the titles of the main parts of Seigel’s book: Becoming Marx; Involvement and Isolation; Economics: Marx’s Fate. But as so often seems the case, the psychohistorian adds little that has escaped the eyes of less self-consciously psychoanalytical observers; and the psychohistorian, despite his heightened sensitivity, has missed some things that others have caught, especially Hal Draper, whose book is discussed later in this essay.

Moreover, there is a possibility for a “psychoanalytic” approach that Seigel has not availed himself of. It is the remarkable homology between the tasks that Marx and Freud set for themselves. Both men were out to penetrate mystifications and façcades—society’s in Marx’s case, those of individuals in Freud’s. Both had a therapeutic aim that involved an inextricable fusion of theory and practice—society could not “cure” itself without struggle any more than a patient could cure a neurosis just by learning about its origins. Both conceived of the buried reality they examined as producing conflict, and as “contradiction-laden.” The homologies suggest that there is indeed a resemblance between the psychoanalytic approach to personality and Marx’s view of society, which may add something to our comprehension of his thought. I doubt however that we will learn much about the meaning of what Marx wrote about from a study of the personal dynamics of his “fate,” however interesting this may be as a case study.

Anyone who reads Marx soon becomes aware that there are “many Marxes.” Indeed, one of the less important controversies within the world of Marxologists during the 1950s and 1960s was whether we could discover a caesura in Marx’s thought—the “early Marx” distinguishable by his stress on problems of humanity and its abuse; the later Marx concerned with “laws of motion” of capitalism in which considerations of humanity were left aside. The controversy reminds me of the one that used to exercise the world of Adam Smith scholars: whether there was a “problem” in the presumed disjunction between the ideas of the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and those in The Wealth of Nations, the first supposedly a celebration of morality, the second indifferent to it. Like the Smith problem, the early-versus-late Marx controversy has largely subsided, with a consensus that there is only one Marx, who was indeed interested in different aspects of the social mystery at different periods of his life and who accordingly stressed different elements in the social world, but whose earlier “humanistic” concerns, although less highlighted, can be traced clearly enough, even through the technical pages of Capital.

Nevertheless there are “many Marxes.” By this I mean that Marx is capable of a wide range of interpretations, all leaning heavily on what Hal Draper calls “quotation-mongering,” and each perfectly consistent within itself. Thus we have the Marx who sees history as a determinist process—the bête noire of Sir Karl Popper and Sidney Hook—and the Marx who leaves everything to the revolutionary will of the proletariat; the Marx who foresees the end of capitalism as fairly imminent and the Marx who postpones that day until capitalism has run its full course of global expansion and played out its last card of technical virtuosity; the Marx who leans on Hegel and the Marx who stands Hegel on his head; the Marx for whom society has an economic “base” and a sociopolitical “superstructure,” and the Marx who saw society as an inextricable web of relations in which ideology (superstructure) plays as definitive a role as technology (base).

Which is the real Marx? I suspect that there is no real Marx. Indeed, given the wide variety and internal contradictoriness of studies that call themselves (perfectly correctly, I think) “Marxist,” one is forced to ask whether there is even a definable set of questions or methods that unmistakably carry Marx’s intentions.

  1. 1

    It is hard to believe, but a considerable amount of Marx’s writing is still unpublished. This is now being remedied in part by the appearance of a fifty-one-volume work that has begun to appear in English under the imprints of Lawrence & Wishart (London) and International Publishers (New York). Recently announced is a 100-volume edition that is being prepared by scholars in Moscow and East Berlin to appear in the year 2000; a few volumes have already appeared. Presumably this will finally clear the decks.

    Meanwhile, there is an excellent and long overdue new edition of Capital available from Vintage Books. Although it is glued rather than bound, which is a step in the wrong direction, the new edition benefits from a fluent and scrupulous translation, and a most helpful editing by Ben Fowkes, as well as from a lucid introduction by Ernest Mandel. So far only Volume I has appeared. It includes a technical appendix on “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” heretofore unavailable in English.

    Finally, Saul Padover has translated and collected much material, old and new, in seven volumes of a Karl Marx Library. The volumes, each introduced with a brief essay, cover such interesting rubrics as Revolution, America and the Civil War, Religion, Freedom of the Press, the First International, Education and Women, and History and People. Padover, a well-known American historian and biographer of Jefferson, is also producing a biography of Marx as the concluding volume of the series.

  2. 2

    Freud is perhaps a third such magisterial figure in organizing and stimulating our intellectual lives. I cannot think of another.

  3. 3

    In the course of reading Marx, a student will sooner or later make the acquaintance of a remarkable scholar, Roman Rosdolsky. Rosdolsky’s magnum opus The Making of Marx’s Capital is now available, and will enlighten anyone who works his or her way through Capital and the Rough Draft (as Rosdolsky calls the Grundrisse). It is difficult to describe Rosdolsky’s work. It is as if he had gone through Marx, making three-by-five cards of all the useful portions of the text, and had then grouped those cards under a succession of topics (“The Functions of Money,” “Exchange Between Capital and Labor-Power,” “The Problem of Skilled Labor,” etc.), explaining each of these concepts with patience and clarity and documenting the “authenticity” of his explanations by citing the relevant quotations from the enormous text.

    Rosdolsky’s is the single best exegesis on Marx’s Capital that I have ever read, a vade mecum comparable to Stuart Gilbert’s guide to Ulysses. It begins with a discussion of how Capital was organized and reorganized, and proceeds through all its vexing questions until it reaches modern criticisms such as those offered by Joan Robinson. The tone is firm, completely undogmatic, and wonderfully lucid. Every serious student of Marx will benefit from it.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print