Confining Marx to the Nineteenth Century: On Gareth Stedman Jones

Kohei Saito

Summary: A review of Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (Harvard, 2016), a well-researched biography that utilizes the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). But its dismissive treatment of Marx’s critique of political economy and of his late writings on non-Western and precapitalist societies shows the book’s shortcomings, as Stedman Jones limits Marx’s legacy to the 19th century without discovering its power for today amid the global crisis of capitalism — Editors

Two anniversaries for Marxism are approaching: 2017 will be the 150th anniversary of the publication of Volume I of Capital, and 2018 will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. With increasing academic interest in the Marxian theory due to these anniversary years – of course this revival is also stimulated by the deepening of the current global crisis of capitalism and a corresponding revival of anti-capitalist movements – major American university presses began to publish books on Marx, beginning with Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins from the University of Chicago Press in 2010 and Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right from Yale University Press in 2011. In October 2016 Harvard University Press published a 750-page Marx biography by Gareth Stedman Jones, a British historian who is Director of the Centre for History and Economics, Cambridge, and a former member of the Editorial Board of the New Left Review. Stedman Jones’s book marks a great achievement, which deserves to reach broader audiences to convey Marx’s legacy beyond small circles of leftwing scholars and activists.

One might wonder why yet another biography of Marx is necessary when there already exist a number of scholarly biographies by Franz Mehring, David McLellan, Francis Wheen, and Jonathan Sperber. However, today there still remain “demands for a new Marx-biography” (Anforderungen an eine neue Marx-Biographie), as indicated by the title of Michael Heinrich’s lecture at a conference at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin in June 2013. Heinrich’s claim is correct for various reasons. Prominent among these is the new complete works of Marx and Engels, the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2), which, although still far from completion, publishes a lot of new materials such as manuscripts, notebooks and letters that are vital for reconstructing Marx’s life and thought in a more objective manner. In fact, there are compelling reasons to reexamine the validity of previous Marx biographies and to write a new one based on the MEGA. Stedman Jones’s new biography goes some distance toward fulfilling this need, employing those new materials and often successfully reaching toward a more nuanced description of Marx’s legacy.

The first justification for a new Marx biography lies in today’s political and philological situation, where Marxists and non-Marxists alike can finally examine Marx’s writings free from any attempt to deify him. Stedman Jones stresses that the mythologizing of Marx is not a mere invention of the Soviet party ideology, but “had already begun to be constructed at the time of Marx’s death in 1883 and developed fully in the thirty years following” through the dissemination of Engels’s Anti-Dühring and other works by the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, such as August Bebel and Karl Kautsky. The separation of “Marx” and “Marxism” was not possible in the 20th century, not only because of the political ideology of “actually existing socialism,” but also because there existed various forms of “censorship” of materials with regard to what should be published. As Stedman Jones argues, this censorship actively established the selective view concerning what counts as Marx’s legacy, as clearly seen in the advice of Mehring to Kautsky to be careful in choosing Marx’s personal letters for publication because they often contain insulting and even racist remarks about prominent people. This type of “mythology” is no longer acceptable today, and a demystified description of Marx’s intellectual and personal life is demanded. Thus, Stedman Jones aims at more cautiously distinguishing “Marx” and “Marxism.” Though this is not unique in the tradition of Western Marxism, as seen in writers such as Terrell Carver, Stedman Jones puts forth an original interpretation along these lines, as discussed below.

A second point concerning the necessity for a new biography revolves around the fact that previous ones were mostly written by historians who were not so willing to devote attention to Marx’s critique of political economy, as against his philosophical and political activities. Unfortunately, Stedman Jones’s work is ambivalent in terms of Marx’s political economy. It needs to be stressed that in general Stedman Jones reconstructs the development of Marx’s theory not just through his very profound knowledge of 19th century philosophical and socialist discourse in Germany, France and England, but also since he successfully strengthens it through the MEGA edition and more recent philological researches of MEGA editors such as Jürgen Rojahn and Jürgen Herres. Instead of simply juxtaposing historical facts, Stedman Jones provides a quite useful overview of the intellectual history of the 19th century, which surely helps anyone who wishes to understand the development of Marx’s theory in its historical context.

Nonetheless, when it comes to Capital, Stedman Jones suddenly changes toward a more negative tone, and starts emphasizing “obscure” and “unsuccessful” attempts by Marx, using terms such as “defects,” “fundamental flaws, which he was never able to overcome,” and “confusion” (397-98). Stedman Jones reduces Marx’s value theory to a variant of Ricardo’s political economy. Here, the discussions initiated by the German Neue Marx-Lektüre with regard to the distinctive character of Marx’s critique of political economy are skipped over entirely.[1] Such a reference might not be necessary for Stedman Jones because his general conclusion about Marx’s critique of political economy is quite negative: “But he did not succeed in producing an immanent critique of political economy as a whole…. [H]e did not succeed in establishing a logically compelling connection between the advance of capitalist production and the immiseration of producers” (430).

Stedman Jones’s use of the MEGA becomes a little careless as well. The second section of the MEGA has published all existing economic manuscripts of Capital and its different editions written or published during the lifetimes of Marx and Engels. This section was completed in 2012, and now all eight economic manuscripts for Volume II of Capital are available. They allow us to see Marx’s endeavor to complete it until the last moment of his life. Curiously, in a section on “The Second Volume of Capital” of his Chapter 12, Stedman Jones surprisingly does not analyze the second volume (i.e., what became today’s Volume II and III of Capital) and simply points out that there are eight manuscripts of Volume II of Capital. He apparently does so in order to emphasize the incompleteness of the work. This is rather odd because Stedman Jones in previous chapters looked very carefully into texts by forgotten Young Hegelians and French socialists not available in English. With regard to the second volume, however, Stedman Jones simply states: “From time to time, Karl made attempts to return to the second volume. In July 1878, he started a fair copy, but after seven pages he gave up and never seems to have returned to the task” (540). This passage, which suggests the incompleteness of the second volume, is very questionable. As Teinosuke Otani, a Japanese editor of the MEGA, reveals that Marx kept working on the eighth manuscript, which amounts to more than a hundred printed pages of the MEGA edition, until mid-1881.[2] In the introduction to MEGA II/11, Otani also shows that at a theoretical level it is in the last part of this manuscript that Marx finally succeeded in describing the historical uniqueness of the process of social reproduction in a capitalist society whose circulation is fully mediated by money.[3]

The third and last reason that justifies another Marx biography is the lack of an investigation into the late Marx in previous ones. Certainly, this situation is not without reason. In fact, Marx did not publish much after 1867, and his correspondence with Engels, a prime source of information on his thinking, significantly decreased after the latter moved to London in September 1870. What is available for researchers is a number of notebooks that cover seemingly obscure topics, such as chemistry, geology, world history, and ethnology. Thus, it was often simply assumed that Marx in his late years lost his intellectual capacity and energy, spending time by reading less demanding or even irrelevant books. However, as the MEGA publishes more materials, there are enough reasons to assume that the hypothesis about the “flight from Capital” is not correct. Indeed, there is growing interest in his notebooks in order to reconstruct the meaning of his growing interest in class, race and gender.

In contrast to previous biographies, Stedman Jones spends a decent amount of pages discussing a theoretical “change” in the late Marx, apparently based on Teodor Shanin’s Late Marx and the Russian Road and Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins. However, the difference between Stedman Jones’s approach and the previous literature lies in the fact that he pays attention to the year 1868, when Marx encountered to the work of Georg Ludwig von Maurer, which deals with the history of Markgenossen or Germanic village community. Stedman Jones’s intention to discuss Maurer becomes clear when the concluding part of the book refers to Fustel de Coulanges’s refutation of Maurer’s work in his Origin of Property in Land (1889). According to Stedman Jones, Coulanges successfully repudiated Maurer’s theory, and even before that, he writes it was almost “outmoded by the time of Marx’s death,” as it was not based on empirical research but mainly on “classical or biblical” speculations (592).

As the tide of revolution receded in the 1870s, Marx’s “romanticism,” which, according to Stedman Jones, was stronger when the young Marx dreamt of becoming a poet, revived to some extent. He came to be more interested not only in Teutonic communities, but also in the Russian populist movement in which Nicolay Chernyshevsky took part. When Marx gave up the ethnocentric unilinear conception of history from feudalism, to capitalism, and then to socialism, and found a possible alternative way to socialism based on the “vital power” of the rural communal life of the Russian mir and other non-Western village communities, there is surely a “remarkable change” in Marx’s view (569). But as Stedman Jones argues, Marx’s “romantic” conclusions are no longer acceptable today.

Since such theory soon became “outmoded,” Engels was not really attracted to it either, nor were the noted Marxists of the 20th century. They were instead more interested in establishing the scientific presentation of historical materialism as an “iron law” of history in contrast to such a romantic vision of the late Marx. Marx’s important letters to Vera Zasulich that document his intellectual shift were “forgotten” – or rather suppressed – by Plekhanov, Zasulich and Axelrod. In this sense, as Stedman Jones writes in the conclusion to his book, Marxism was from the very beginning determined to part from the late Marx. Moreover, Marxism in the 20th century is something radically different from “Marx who lived in the nineteenth [century]” (595).

What is important here is Stedman Jones’s claim that Marx’s interest in the village community is a reflection of “a nineteenth-century phantasm” (568). Stedman Jones thus separates Marx from Marxism, but it is not for the sake of saving Marx’s theory from crude economic determinism and of revealing the power of his critique of political economy for analyzing contemporary capitalism characterized by complex entanglements of class, race, gender, and ecological threat. Rather, similarly to another biographer, Jonathan Sperber, Stedman Jones dismisses 20th century Marxism, but at the same time sharply limits Marx to the world of the nineteenth century. As a result, Marx’s words do not have much impact upon today’s world, as his theory of value is full of “defects” and the late “phantasm” about village communes as sources of revolution is already repudiated by subsequent historical research. This overly academic attitude towards Marx, an attitude whose origin can be traced back to Michel Foucault, is tied to a political decision to depoliticize Marx.

This attitude is in sharp contrast with the more political approach to the late Marx taken, for example, in Anderson’s Marx at the Margins. According to Anderson, the enlargement of Marx’s revolutionary vision in his later years still remains important today because it provides us with a methodological foundation to think about the interconnection of class, race and gender in contemporary capitalism. In other words, it is not reducible – as Stedman Jones suggests – to problems with the empirical studies used by Marx. In fact, Marx himself knew that these issues were completely open to further investigation, and this is why he was careful not to integrate them to Capital immediately. Nonetheless, the theoretical direction he was trying to take is quite clear and consistent with his theory as elaborated in the Grundrisse and Capital, despite an important shift in his late years: In contrast to capitalist society, where the producers are fully separated from their objective conditions of production and forced to sell their own labor power as a commodity, many precapitalist and non-Western forms of social production were characterized by the unity of the producers and the means of production.

This insight into the separation of the producers from the means of production as the ultimate characteristic of the capitalist mode of production is a fundamental point elaborated in the section titled “Forms which Precede Capitalist Production” in the Grundrisse. Its description has been often criticized for inadequate historical assumptions about Asian, Roman, and Germanic societies, but once the theoretical points become clear, it is not necessary to abandon Marx’s insight due to some errors in terms of historical facts, as Ellen M. Wood argued: “Marx was indeed seriously wrong in his historical observations, for reasons having less to do with his own shortcomings than with the existing state of historical scholarship at the time of his writing the Grundrisse; but the edifice he constructed on the foundation of this faulty knowledge reveals the power, not the weakness, of historical materialism as he conceived it, which pushed him beyond the limitations of existing scholarship.”[4] This is true of the late Marx as well.

In his clear separation of “Marx” and “Marxism,” Stedman Jones presupposes a binary between a “romantic” and philosophical young Marx and an economically “determinist” Marx of Capital. However, I would argue that there is no return to the early romantic vision in his late years, but rather there is a continuation of his historical materialism, as developed in Grundrisse and Capital. Marx was interested in non-Western societies not because their “prehistoric” reminiscences were expressing age-old “human nature” or “human attributes” (585). Rather, it is because their different ways of organizing production revealed the specificity of capitalism and posed some real problems in the process of capital accumulation.

Marx’s ceaseless learning process is compatible with newer historical developments even in today’s world because capital continues to expand and subsume broader spheres of our lives, repeatedly confronting various limits to the accumulation of capital. In this context, Marx’s critique of political economy simply does not lose its importance in the face of what he did not know. On the contrary, his theory rather proves its strength because it provides us with a theoretical foundation for the critical understanding of changing situations. More works that are coming in the next two big Marx anniversary years will hopefully prove further the living theoretical legacy of Karl Marx.

[1] Cf. Michael Heinrich, Wissenschaft vom Wert (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 1999).

[2] Teinosuke Otani et al. (ed.), Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung II, Band 11 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2008), pp. 1606–1613. Marx’s last draft is found on pp. 698–828.

[3] MEGA II/11, pp. 881–884.

[4] Ellen M. Wood, “Historical materialism in ‘Forms which Precede Capitalist Production’,” in Marcello Musto (ed.), Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 79–92, p. 79.


Kohei Saito, currently a visiting scholar at University of California, Santa Barbara, is a participant in the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) and the author of a forthcoming book on Marx and ecology.


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