Prophet and Loss - What Marx means in a world that has made peace with capitalism.

Does Karl Marx still matter? It’s a question most readers of a new biography of Marx would ask—even if they are already steeped in the contentious scholarship about (or the perpetual ideological skirmishes within) the radical left. What relevance can his life and work have in a world where nearly every socialist party long ago made its peace with capitalism, and at a time when his writings are read far more by academics than by the workers he longed to liberate? Even Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a “socialist,” just wants to force the governing and economic elites to treat wage earners and consumers more fairly. He wants a new New Deal, not a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The decline of Marx’s influence does not seem to worry Gareth Stedman Jones. At many points in his new book, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, he even seems to welcome it. That may appear an odd stance for a distinguished left-wing historian of Britain, best known for his studies of the Victorian-era working class; Stedman Jones was, for almost two decades, a member of the editorial board of New Left Review—the most prominent and sophisticated venue for Marxian thought in the English-speaking world. Yet he has come to believe that the “dogmatic assumptions” of many Marxists inhibit “the writing of good history.” His study is thus a prolonged exercise in scraping off the dogma to get at the unvarnished figure, the Marx who died before he could turn into an “ism” both esteemed and reviled.

Stedman Jones maintains that the iconic image of Marx, created soon after his death in 1883, ignores historical context and a good deal that his work got wrong. The “forbidding bearded patriarch and lawgiver, a thinker of merciless consistency with a commanding vision of the future” worshiped by leftists was, in Stedman Jones’s view, a flawed theorist and failed revolutionary socialist, who overlooked the significance of the democratic revolution he was actually living through. What’s more, as a political refugee in working-class London who was rarely healthy, he struggled constantly to keep his children nourished, housed, and well-educated. He was also an arrogant soul who took criticism of his work as something like an act of war. “The aim of this book,” writes Stedman Jones, “is to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings,” shedding “posthumous elaborations of his character and achievements.”

Most of the biography is devoted to a careful, occasionally pedantic evaluation of what is useless in Marx’s work and what remains of value. Stedman Jones provides lengthy examinations of his subject’s battles with other radical thinkers, his painstaking labors on Capital, and his ongoing quest to locate and rev up engines of change, to put an end to the exploitation of man by man and lay the foundation of a classless society. Stedman Jones includes just enough details of Marx’s personal life to justify labeling the book a biography instead of purely a study of his ideas and their consequences. Stedman Jones dutifully quotes the man he calls “Karl” complaining about his chronic liver disease and carbuncles, and continually pleading for financial support from Friedrich Engels, his sometime collaborator and ever-faithful friend.

Marx’s spouse and daughters also make intermittent appearances, revealing a formidable yet tragic family history. During the American Civil War, Karl’s daughter Eleanor, then ten years old, “wrote to Lincoln, appointing herself his political adviser.” Later, she would become a leading Socialist and feminist, who translated Ibsen and Flaubert into English. But Eleanor’s renown did not lift her from despair at the acts of an unfaithful lover. At 43, she committed suicide by poisoning herself. For her part, Marx’s wife, Jenny, wrote reviews for a major German newspaper and organized a group of Londoners who read Shakespeare out loud to one another. Yet three of her children died very young, and like her husband, she was often plagued by protracted ailments. A hidden resentment may have exacerbated her poor health: Jenny probably knew that Karl had fathered a son with their longtime housekeeper. But if she ever spoke of it, that detail has never been recorded.

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