The late historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the literature on Max Weber that the annual volume of new publications was such that not even specialists could keep fully current. This statement could equally apply to the literature on Marx and Marxism which, even without “actually existing socialism” to act as motivator or bête noire, continues to appear in its accustomed profusion.
Even given the fact that capitalism seems able to mutate and to generate crises that neither Marx nor his contemporaries foresaw, one might be tempted to conclude that, at least so far as Marxism is concerned, there is very little new under the sun.
On the contrary, the richness of the intellectual products of Marx and those that followed him is very much in evidence. The publication of works such as William Clare Roberts’s Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital and Gregory Claeys’s Marx and Marxism indicate that there is much yet to be said about both Marx’s work and the political traditions arising from it. Still, one might look at a new biography of Marx running to over 600 pages with rather a jaundiced eye. However that may be, it must be conceded that that book, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx by the Swedish scholar Sven-Eric Liedman, constitutes the new state of the art of Marx biographies.
Merely to compete in this crowded field is itself an achievement. Karl Marx has been the subject of numerous biographies in the nearly 140 years since his death. From Franz Mehring’s Karl Marx. Geschichte seines Lebens (politically committed to the point of hagiography), to Boris Nicolaievsky’s Karl Marx: Man and Fighter (much the same but with access to better source material), to Francis Wheen’s Karl Marx: A Life (chatty and somewhat gossip-laden), to Jerrold Siegel’s Marx’s Fate: The Story of the Life (concerned to the point of obsession with Marx’s inner life), many of the available biographies have suffered from failures in terms of approach.
Up to this point, it could be argued that the best in the field was David McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (1973). Thorough and well-written, McLellan managed a degree of balance that was otherwise a rarity in work on Marx and Marxism. But it was also clear that this was a political scientist writing about Marxism from the outside and, as such, and the author hove closely to the facts, studiously avoiding embroilment in the more controversial aspects of Marx’s theory.
More recent efforts seem determined to historicize Marx in ways that consign his work and his ideas to the past. Gareth Stedman-Jones’s Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (2016) seems determined to accentuate the division between Marx and Engels, arguing that what constitutes Marxism and its outgrowths in modern varieties of socialism relate primarily to the work of the latter. Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life takes this a step further, explicitly situating Marx in his 19th-century context as a way of discounting his supposedly “timeless” quality (and thus his continued theoretical importance).
But it is not by accident that figures in the politically centrist (and right-wing) press began to speak of a revival of Marx’s importance in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and the intermittent crises that have plagued the succeeding decade. Marx’s analysis of capital continues to have relevance to our current circumstances. Of the many virtues of Liedman’s book is that it combines the project of a minutely researched history of Marx’s life with a recognition that the power and complexity of his analyses make it a continuing source of incisive analyses of a mode of capitalism far different than that of which Marx had first-hand experience.
One of the key features underlying the excellence of A World to Win is the continuing expansion of the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). Currently comprising some 65 volumes (and counting), the project has in recent years begun to make available much of the raw draft material left behind by Marx after his death. Thus, for instance, a carefully researched like Liedman is able to see exactly what it was that Engels took up in the project of piecing together the latter two volumes of Kapital and to ascertain what additions he was responsible for. One can also see the places where Marx struggled with, eliminated, and rewrote passages on the way to what became his final project. In the analysis of the work as fragmentary as Marx’s oeuvre, these are crucial advantages.
Liedman’s text is both an account of Marx’s life and of the development of his theory. His discussions of Marx’s early work is thorough without getting lost in the intricacies of his engagement with Hegel. His discussion the concept of alienation in the Paris manuscripts is precise and connects it to an ethical sentiment that, contrary to the views of Althusser and his followers, was an enduring feature of Marx’s outlook throughout all phases of his working life.
It is rare to find an intellectual biography that is able both to engage the work of its subject with the appropriate rigor and to compose a compelling biographical narrative. Liedman manages both. His discussions of the manifold tragedies of Marx’s life, being hounded out of Germany, and then out of Paris (which he had come to feel was his spiritual home), the grinding poverty of his London years, and especially the deaths of his children, and his own health problems, are rendered in the most moving terms. His discussions of Marx’s theoretical works are also thorough and satisfying. Liedman devotes extensive space to analysis of the Grundrisse, the sprawling, multifarious text composed by Marx in the years before he wrote Kapital.
Liedman does a better than average job of introducing readers to the range of controversies over Marx’s work, without getting lost in the vicissitudes of those conflicts, some of which are extremely abstruse. He is, for instance, willing to wade into attempts to solve the transformation problem (this issue of how value relates to prices in Marx’s work) which has vexed Marxist economic theory ever since it was first raised by the Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk in 1896. Leidman concedes that Marx’s attempt to address the problem were unsuccessful, before looking at latter-day attempts to solve the problem in the works of Michael Heinrich and Andrew Kliman. Liedman clearly doesn’t want to lose himself in theoretical thickets, and if he perhaps gives Kliman’s attempt at an answer somewhat short shrift, he does do an excellent job of introducing the main issues and making it clear why they are important.
There are a few things with which one might quibble. Liedman’s discussion of Marx’s views on chemistry takes up rather more space than its theoretical significance merits. But this and other similar issues are relatively minor in comparison with the many virtues of A World to Win. Liedman has managed to write a book that is politically committed without being factional, and in the area of Marx and Marxism, this is a true rarity. Of the many books written about Marx over the years, this one has moved to the front of the class in its extensive use of the most advanced source material available. It is hard to imagine that its quality will be surpassed any time soon.
Photograph courtesy of Ben Kucinski. Published under a Creative Commons license.