Karl Marx
Karl Marx; drawing by David Levine

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.

I believe there is, and that all Marxian social inquiry includes four elements that are always present to some degree. One of these elements is a dialectical approach to thought and inquiry itself—an approach that stresses the relational rather than fixed perspective of knowledge and the conflict-producing nature of social processes. A dialectical approach is therefore watchful for the ideological distortions within knowledge and alert to the often hidden tensions within seemingly “static” institutions. A famous example of the tensions revealed by a dialectical perspective is the difference in the meaning of “capital” for a Marxist and a non-Marxist. For a non-Marxist, capital is just a thing (a machine, for example) or a sum of money. For a Marxist, that thing or that sum of money is only the façcade for a social relation of domination: the machine has the mysterious power to compel people to obey “its” rhythms, the money makes people dance to its tune.

A second element of Marxism is a view of history that emphasizes, although not necessarily to the exclusion of all else, the importance of its “materialist” component located in man’s productive activities and relations, and that looks for a struggle between social classes as the main, although not only, motor of historical change. In this materialist view of history the most widely used concept is of a “mode of production,” a term used by Marx to denote the complex of productive and social arrangements by which societies can be distinguished from one another. Crucial to this view is the insistence that the adaptation of classes to changing technologies, and the struggle among classes to divide the product of their labors, are the most important forces making for historical “progress.”

A third element is a view of capitalism that seeks both to unearth its “laws of motion” and to perceive the real political and social changes concealed behind, or giving rise to, or emerging from, these economic movements. And a fourth is a commitment to socialism as a goal of civilization.

To these irreducible constitutive aspects of Marxism should be added, I think, one additional guiding remark. It is that the word “scientific,” which is used constantly by Marx (and less carefully by his followers) to describe his critical approach, is not the usage common to modern-day scientists. In Volume III of Capital Marx says that if appearances were like essences—if surface manifestations were all there was to reality—we would not need science. Science is therefore for him a penetrative task. It is not, however, the penetration of the natural scientist who tries to peer through the essentially random disturbances of nature to discover the workings of eternal laws. It is rather a penetration through a systematic distortion introduced into the social universe by the prescriptions ground into our social spectacles. These are distortions of which we are normally quite unaware. The object of Marx’s scientific task is thus not to discover eternal laws in history (he is generally very guarded in his larger historical pronouncements), but to correct our social vision by discovering the prescription through which we have been looking.

From these elements and this penetrative approach, many Marxisms can be built, frequently at loggerheads with one another, and often dessicated and mechanical. I have recently read, for example, William H. Shaw’s Marx’s Theory of History and John McMurtry’s The Structure of Marx’s World-View. Shaw analyzes Marx’s theory of history in a precise, logical fashion that reduces it finally to a theory of technological determinism—as the apparatus of production changes, so does history. McMurtry defends Marx against the charges of intellectual sloppiness lodged by critics such as Popper, Hook, and others by demonstrating, in the dreadful language that passes for scholarly prose, the internal consistency of his basic concepts.4 I have no doubt that each author more or less achieves what he sets out to do, but I also have no doubt that what he achieves is neither an adequate representation nor a useful “defense” of Marx’s thought. If Marx’s theory of history were only technological determinism, it would have lost its fascination long ago; and if Marx’s basic concepts, such as Human Nature or The State, are shown to be free of inconsistencies, that does not explain their power to arouse insatiable curiosity about the social realities they hold up for investigation.

I have the same reservations about a book that I take much more seriously, Marx’s Capital and Capitalism Today by Antony Cutler, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst, and Athar Hussain. The authors have an aim that is exactly the opposite of that of Shaw and McMurtry. They wish to attack, not defend Marx, by arguing that the basic concepts of Capital—such as value and surplus value, or mode of production—are no longer useful representations of modern capitalism. What interests me about this attack, most of which is conducted at a rather technical level, is that it is really not a rejection of Marxism, but an attempt to reformulate and “modernize” it. Within the ranks of Marxologists there may well be long polemics on the legitimacy or apostasy of their criticisms; Marxism is famous for such controversies, such as the still smoldering argument whether Marx succeeded in his effort to translate the abstract idea of value into the concrete fact of price. But none of these controversies seems to diminish in the slightest the effective power of Marx’s thought, and I suspect that will also be the case with Cutler, Hindess, Hirst, and Hussain. In fact, in taking on Marx’s fundamental concepts as a necessary step in erecting their own arguments for socialism, they have offered the most direct testimony to the point from which I started—namely the impossibility of social inquiry’s escaping from the influence that Marx continues to exert.

This enormous intellectual attraction of Marx raises one final consideration. When we look at the actual world in the twentieth century, there is no doubt that Marx’s influence has been mainly political and revolutionary, not economic and intellectual. The face of Marx hangs in many millions of simple homes and huts. Yet the literature of Marxism, especially in the West, has little to say about his revolutionary message. Most of that literature is expository and analytic, specializing in diagnoses rather than calls to action. One could, for example, read the attractive new journal Marxist Perspectives, edited by Eugene Genovese, and hardly know that one was reading about a doctrine whose basic purpose was originally meant to be revolutionary. The journal is Marxist in assuming that its readers are familiar with some of the basic vocabulary and general orientation of Marxism, but here is nothing here, as Veblen once said, “to flutter the dovecotes.”

I am not suggesting that there should be something there, for a paralysis of the revolutionary political will is a universal condition of the left in all advanced capitalist countries, save only for the terrorists (if indeed they can be called Marxists at all). The great raw question that faces Marxist scholars or “believers” is what to do, a question that seemed simple enough to Lenin but that seems hopelessly difficult to us, perhaps because of what happened to Leninism.

One of the aspects of this general turning away from the political side of Marx is the prevailing belief, mentioned by more than one author, that Marx really did not have a political “theory” that was remotely comparable to his wonderfully complex economic theory. That is what gives importance to Hal Draper’s two volumes on Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, an extraordinarily stimulating work written in a fresh, open, often amusing style, which comes as a welcome relief after the turgidities of so much Marxist writing. Despite its length and heavy reliance on citation, the easy prose and the intrinsic importance and interest of the subject matter make these volumes pleasanter and even quicker to read than most of the works I have been writing about.

Central to Draper’s purpose is an exposition of Marx’s theory of revolution. This begins with a discussion of the young Marx’s views on democracy (he was an “extreme” democrat), proceeds to a discussion of his evaluation of the capacities and limitations of the proletariat letariat (including that strange subgroup, the lumpen proletariat), dwells on Marx’s analysis of the nature of the bourgeoisie as a governing class, on the complex nature of the state, on the usefulness of intellectuals as revolutionaries (a qualified judgment), and touches on many other topics, large and small. It is a long, involved, engrossing account.

What becomes abundantly clear is that Marx did indeed have many “theoretical” views about politics and revolution and that these views were an integral part of his entire work (and life). As with everything that Marx wrote, his political analyses are often profound, disturbing, and prescient. Yet in one crucial respect I find that his insight is lacking, and I am surprised that Draper, who has so fairly judged Marx’s weaknesses as well as his strengths, has not also noticed it. This is Marx’s failure to ground the central element of political life, power, in the elemental soil of human nature or, if you wish, of the human personality as it develops in different historical epochs. The great gap in Marx’s political thought is not his treatment of political life, which Draper shows to be nuanced and deep, but his treatment of political man, the zoon politikon itself, which I find simplistic and utopian.

There is a telling way of bringing home this lack of a psychological core to Marx’s political thought. It is to question a Marxist about the validity of Lord Acton’s famous dictum: Does all power tend to corrupt and does absolute power tend to corrupt absolutely? The question has no “Marxist” answer. Yet it has a Platonist answer, and a bourgeois answer, and a Freudian answer, and indeed an answer from every organizing mode of thought in human history. The answer is Yes. And the yes does not come from cynicism. It comes from a recognition that thus far in human history authority and subordination, with all their terrible effects on the human character, have existed everywhere—between men and women; between masters and slaves; between warriors and peaceful peoples; between priests and believers; between Chairman Mao and the Party and again between the Party and the common folk; between old and young; between parents and children.

It is this irrepressible reassertion of domination, exercised in the names of sex, religion, military prowess, virtue, birth, intelligence, dialectical foresight, and bureaucratic efficiency, as well as in the name of wealth, that gives force and credence to the terrible sayings that “All power tends to corrupt…” or that “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” This spectacle of domination is not at all the continuing class struggle that Marx saw as the great political theme of history. For the spectacle poses two problems of political life to which Marx paid no heed. One is why power exerts such a temptation for mankind—a question that must be answered at the personal as well as at the social level. The other is why power has adduced such acquiescence, such rationalization, even such welcome, from those over whom it has been exercised. This too must be resolved through the understanding of personality as well as of social class.

Perhaps one day this fatal attraction of power and the equally fatal submission to power will no longer characterize the political life of humankind. But the conditions for achieving a society without harmful domination assuredly go far beyond the simple revolutionary prescriptions of Marx’s political theory. Even if a proletarian revolution is the necessary first step toward ultimate human emancipation, there seems not the slightest hope that such a revolution will abolish the present degree of domination, although it may change its character, and there is indeed reason to fear that it may increase it.

Why is Marx silent before, or blind to, this sobering aspect of political life? I believe the answer lies in his Enlightenment view of the human psyche, rich with potential and free from all vestiges of “original sin”; or, as we might more easily express it, in his pre-Freudian innocence toward the wellsprings of human behavior.

What Marx was reluctant or unable to face is now being confronted, to some degree, by his epigones. In The Marxian Legacy, Dick Howard describes the political ideas of some important modern Marxian thinkers, unfortunately in language so abstruse and abstract that the volume will be of little interest to the general reader. But the message one gets from Howard’s review of Max Horkheimer and Jürgen Habermas, Ernst Bloch and Sartre, of Merleau-Ponty, Claude Lefort, and Cornelius Castoriadis is that the main enemy is no longer capitalism, but bureaucracy or ideology. In the most extreme formulation, that of the Parisian intellectual Castoriadis, the enemy is Marxism itself. Castoriadis writes:

Marxism can from now on serve effectively only as an ideology, in the strong sense of the term: an invocation of fictive entities, pseudorational constructions and abstract principles which, concretely, justify and hide a social-historical practice whose true signification lies elsewhere. That this practice is that of a bureaucracy which imposes its exploitation and totalitarian domination over a third of the world’s population—one must really be a Marxist to ignore it, to consider it as anecdotal, or to rationalize it as accidental.

Castoriadis’s political goals are murky. One gets the impression that he favors worker-controlled enterprises, a return to Marx’s vision in chapter 1 of Capital: “Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labor-power in full self-awareness as one single social labor force.” As to how this is to be accomplished, Castoriadis is silent.

Is there an avenue for Marx-inspired political action that will avoid the cruelties of the revolutions of our time, with all their apparatus of domination, and that will create a socialism of free men in the image of Marx’s vision? That is the great unanswered question of our period in history. Worse, it is also the great unasked question. No one writing in the Marxist tradition has had the courage to inquire whether the liberating ideals projected into socialism—the flowering of individual character, the expression of political and social and sexual freedom, the cultivation of uninhibited intellectual and artistic expression—are not in fact bourgeois ideas that may be incompatible with the material or social requirements of the centrally planned economy, the kibbutz, the collective, the worker-managed state, the Indian reservation, or whatever “socialism” is imagined to be.

That is a task that may prove too much for Marxism to undertake, for it might indicate that Marxism, with its commitment to critical scrutiny of all things, including itself, would not survive the transition into such a future “mode of production.” Or it might indicate that Marxism would survive only as a religion; worse, a theology. The test of Marxism will thus ultimately be its relation to socialism, not capitalism. We will all be dead before that determination is known. But from Marx we can perhaps fashion a motto that will help Marxism in this struggle. In our times, change is upon the world and cannot be stopped or channeled as we wish. The thing now is to understand it.

This Issue

June 29, 1978