Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today (2023)

How useful is Karl Marx—who died a hundred and thirty-three years ago—for understanding our world?Illustration by Roberto De Vicq De Cumptich

On or about February 24, 1848, a twenty-three-page pamphlet was published in London. Modern industry, it proclaimed, had revolutionized the world. It surpassed, in its accomplishments, all the great civilizations of the past—the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman aqueducts, the Gothic cathedrals. Its innovations—the railroad, the steamship, the telegraph—had unleashed fantastic productive forces. In the name of free trade, it had knocked down national boundaries, lowered prices, made the planet interdependent and cosmopolitan. Goods and ideas now circulated everywhere.

Just as important, it swept away all the old hierarchies and mystifications. People no longer believed that ancestry or religion determined their status in life. Everyone was the same as everyone else. For the first time in history, men and women could see, without illusions, where they stood in their relations with others.

The new modes of production, communication, and distribution had also created enormous wealth. But there was a problem. The wealth was not equally distributed. Ten per cent of the population possessed virtually all of the property; the other ninety per cent owned nothing. As cities and towns industrialized, as wealth became more concentrated, and as the rich got richer, the middle class began sinking to the level of the working class.

Soon, in fact, there would be just two types of people in the world: the people who owned property and the people who sold their labor to them. As ideologies disappeared which had once made inequality appear natural and ordained, it was inevitable that workers everywhere would see the system for what it was, and would rise up and overthrow it. The writer who made this prediction was, of course, Karl Marx, and the pamphlet was “The Communist Manifesto.” He is not wrong yet.

Considering his rather glaring relevance to contemporary politics, it’s striking that two important recent books about Marx are committed to returning him to his own century. “Marx was not our contemporary,” Jonathan Sperber insists, in “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life” (Liveright), which came out in 2013; he is “more a figure of the past than a prophet of the present.” And Gareth Stedman Jones explains that the aim of his new book, “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion” (Harvard), is “to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings.”

The mission is worthy. Historicizing—correcting for the tendency to presentize the past—is what scholars do. Sperber, who teaches at the University of Missouri, and Stedman Jones, who teaches at Queen Mary University of London and co-directs the Centre for History and Economics at the University of Cambridge, both bring exceptional learning to the business of rooting Marx in the intellectual and political life of nineteenth-century Europe.

Marx was one of the great infighters of all time, and a lot of his writing was topical and ad hominem—no-holds-barred disputes with thinkers now obscure and intricate interpretations of events largely forgotten. Sperber and Stedman Jones both show that if you read Marx in that context, as a man engaged in endless internecine political and philosophical warfare, then the import of some familiar passages in his writings can shrink a little. The stakes seem more parochial. In the end, their Marx isn’t radically different from the received Marx, but he is more Victorian. Interestingly, given the similarity of their approaches, there is not much overlap.

Still, Marx was also what Michel Foucault called the founder of a discourse. An enormous body of thought is named after him. “I am not a Marxist,” Marx is said to have said, and it’s appropriate to distinguish what he intended from the uses other people made of his writings. But a lot of the significance of the work lies in its downstream effects. However he managed it, and despite the fact that, as Sperber and Stedman Jones demonstrate, he can look, on some level, like just one more nineteenth-century system-builder who was convinced he knew how it was all going to turn out, Marx produced works that retained their intellectual firepower over time. Even today, “The Communist Manifesto” is like a bomb about to go off in your hands.

And, unlike many nineteenth-century critics of industrial capitalism—and there were a lot of them—Marx was a true revolutionary. All of his work was written in the service of the revolution that he predicted in “The Communist Manifesto” and that he was certain would come to pass. After his death, communist revolutions did come to pass—not exactly where or how he imagined they would but, nevertheless, in his name. By the middle of the twentieth century, more than a third of the people in the world were living under regimes that called themselves, and genuinely believed themselves to be, Marxist.

This matters because one of Marx’s key principles was that theory must always be united with practice. That’s the point of the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx was not saying that philosophy is irrelevant; he was saying that philosophical problems arise out of real-life conditions, and they can be solved only by changing those conditions—by remaking the world. And Marx’s ideas were used to remake the world, or a big portion of it. Although no one would hold him responsible, in a juridical sense, for the outcome, on Marx’s own principle the outcome tells us something about the ideas.

In short, you can put Marx back into the nineteenth century, but you can’t keep him there. He wasted a ridiculous amount of his time feuding with rivals and putting out sectarian brush fires, and he did not even come close to completing the work he intended as his magnum opus, “Capital.” But, for better or for worse, it just is not the case that his thought is obsolete. He saw that modern free-market economies, left to their own devices, produce gross inequalities, and he transformed a mode of analysis that goes all the way back to Socrates—turning concepts that we think we understand and take for granted inside out—into a resource for grasping the social and economic conditions of our own lives.

Apart from his loyal and lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels, almost no one would have guessed, in 1883, the year Marx died, at the age of sixty-four, how influential he would become. Eleven people showed up for the funeral. For most of his career, Marx was a star in a tiny constellation of radical exiles and failed revolutionaries (and the censors and police spies who monitored them) but almost unknown outside it. The books he is famous for today were not exactly best-sellers. “The Communist Manifesto” vanished almost as soon as it was published and remained largely out of print for twenty-four years; “Capital” was widely ignored when the first volume came out, in 1867. After four years, it had sold a thousand copies, and it was not translated into English until 1886.

“Don’t make me send in the bad cat.”

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The second and third volumes of “Capital” were published after Marx died, stitched together by Engels from hundreds of pages of scrawled-over drafts. (Marx had spectacularly bad handwriting; Engels was one of the few people outside the family who could decipher it.) The “Theses on Feuerbach,” which Marx wrote in 1845, were not discovered until 1888, when Engels published them, and some of the texts most important for twentieth-century Marxists—the cobbled-together volume known as “The German Ideology,” the so-called Paris manuscripts of 1844, and the book entitled the “Grundrisse” by its Soviet editors—were unknown until after 1920. The unfinished Paris manuscripts, a holy text in the nineteen-sixties, did not appear in English until 1959. Marx seems to have regarded none of that material as publishable.

In Marx’s own lifetime, the work that finally brought him attention outside his circle was a thirty-five-page item called “The Civil War in France,” published in 1871, in which he hailed the short-lived and violently suppressed Paris Commune as “the glorious harbinger of a new”—that is, communist—“society.” It’s not a text that is cited much today.

One reason for Marx’s relative obscurity is that only toward the end of his life did movements to improve conditions for workers begin making gains in Europe and the United States. To the extent that those movements were reformist rather than revolutionary, they were not Marxist (although Marx did, in later years, speculate about the possibility of a peaceful transition to communism). With the growth of the labor movement came excitement about socialist thought and, with that, an interest in Marx.

Still, as Alan Ryan writes in his characteristically lucid and concise introduction to Marx’s political thought, “Karl Marx: Revolutionary and Utopian” (Liveright), if Vladimir Lenin had not arrived in Petrograd in 1917 and taken charge of the Russian Revolution, Marx would probably be known today as “a not very important nineteenth-century philosopher, sociologist, economist, and political theorist.” The Russian Revolution made the world take Marx’s criticism of capitalism seriously. After 1917, communism was no longer a utopian fantasy.

Marx is a warning about what can happen when people defy their parents and get a Ph.D. Marx’s father, a lawyer in the small city of Trier, in western Germany, had tried to steer him into the law, but Marx chose philosophy. He studied at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, where Hegel once taught, and he became involved with a group of intellectuals known as the Young Hegelians. Hegel was cautious about criticizing religion and the Prussian state; the Young Hegelians were not, and, just as Marx was being awarded his degree, in 1841, there was an official crackdown. Marx’s mentor was fired, and the Young Hegelians became academic pariahs. So Marx did what many unemployed Ph.D.s do: he went into journalism.

Apart from a few small book advances, journalism was Marx’s only source of earned income. (There is a story, though Sperber considers it unsubstantiated, that once, in desperation, he applied for a job as a railway clerk and was turned down for bad handwriting.) In the eighteen-forties, Marx edited and contributed to political newspapers in Europe; from 1852 to 1862, he wrote a column for the New York Daily Tribune, the paper with the largest circulation in the world at the time.

When journalistic work dried up, he struggled. He depended frequently on support from Engels and advances on his inheritance. He was sometimes desperate for food; at one point, he couldn’t leave the house because he had pawned his only coat. The claim that the author of “Capital” was financially inept, and that he and his wife wasted what little money came their way on middle-class amenities like music and drawing lessons for the children, became a standard “irony” in Marx biographies. Sperber contests this. Marx had less money to waste than historians have assumed, and he accepted poverty as the price of his politics. He would gladly have lived in a slum himself, but he didn’t want his family to suffer. Three of the Marxes’ children died young and a fourth was stillborn; poverty and substandard living conditions may have been factors.

Marx’s journalism made him into a serial exile. He wrote and published articles offensive to the authorities, and, in 1843, he was kicked out of Cologne, where he was helping run a paper called Rheinische Zeitung. He went to Paris, which had a large German community, and that is where he and Engels became friends. An earlier encounter in Cologne had not gone well, but they met again at the Café de la Régence, in 1844, and ended up spending ten days together talking.

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