Working on Capital in the British Museum, plagued by creditors and carbuncles, Karl Marx complained not only that nobody had ever written so much about money and had so little of it, but that ‘this economic crap’ was keeping him from writing his big book on Balzac. His work is studded with allusions to Homer, Sophocles, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe and scores of other authors, though he was less enthralled by ‘Elizabeth’s arse-kissing poet’ Edmund Spenser, an advocate of state terror in Ireland. One of his most ardent antagonists on the political left, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, acknowledged that few people had read as much and as intelligently. Marx learned Italian from reading Dante and Machiavelli, Spanish from studying Cervantes and Calderón, and Russian from reading Pushkin. He was thus one of the earliest practitioners of Goethe’s concept of world literature, an idea that has produced some of the finest critical writing of our own day. The aesthetic theories of Goethe’s fellow classicist Friedrich Schiller lie behind his vision of communism, a society in which everyone will be free to express the wealth and diversity of their powers.
As a young man Marx wanted to be a poet, not a political theorist, and wrote some floridly Romantic verses to his future wife, Jenny, which the Venezuelan philosopher Ludovico Silva describes in Marx’s Literary Style, first published in Spanish in 1971, as ‘endearingly bad’. Marx later denounced the emotional excesses of Romanticism, which offended his neoclassical taste for measure and symmetry. He also produced a mediocre verse tragedy, an exercise that was almost obligatory for budding literary geniuses of the time, as well as a fragment of fiction deeply indebted to the greatest of English anti-novels, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Later in life he read Aeschylus once a year, loved to declaim poetry to his friends and family in several languages and held a Shakespeare reading group in his London home. He also founded a workers’ circle in Brussels which had regular sessions on music and literature. His daughter Eleanor, perhaps with filial hyperbole, claimed that he knew most of Shakespeare’s plays by heart in English and German. Though his literary tastes were mostly highbrow, he was also deeply interested in German folk tales, chapbooks, popular ballads, legends and rhymes. He contrasted this genuinely popular culture with the pulp fiction industry in England, which in his view corrupted taste and cheapened feeling in the pursuit of profit.
Marx is one of the sources of what we now call cultural studies: the single work of fiction to which he devoted most space was the bestselling sensationalist novel The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue. He was also one of the first exponents of the historical study of literature. He championed what he called ‘the present splendid brotherhood of fiction writers in England’, among them Dickens, Thackeray, Gaskell and the Brontë sisters, claiming that they revealed more social and political truths than all the moralists and politicians put together; but like his collaborator and financial backer Friedrich Engels he was wary of literary works that had political designs on the reader. He used the term ‘literature’ to cover all writing of high quality, yet he scorned those who confused the kind of truth appropriate to poetry and fiction with other modes of knowledge. To demand a philosophical system from poets and novelists struck him as absurd. Truth for a writer was not abstract and invariable but unique and specific.
Marx didn’t want to use literary works for political ends, but to enrich the language of politics with literary terminology. He enlivens an account of Turkish diplomacy with a quotation from Troilus and Cressida, or yokes together Faust and Palmerston in a single sentence. The Communist Manifesto is rife with arresting imagery from the moment of its celebrated opening: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe.’ When he casts an eye over contemporary French politics, not least in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the categories that spring to his mind are comedy, tragedy, farce, bathos, epic, parody, spectacle and so on. If drama is latently political, politics is inescapably theatrical. The two have oratory and rhetoric in common, and Marx, a regular theatregoer, was keenly interested in both forms of public art. There is a similar practice in the Hebrew scriptures, which this secular Jew had thoroughly digested: when his wife and daughter set out to visit an ‘ethical church’, Marx grumbled that they would be better off reading the biblical prophets.
Meticulous about the quality of his prose, Marx once told an impatient publisher that his delay in delivering a manuscript was due to poverty, liver disease and ‘preoccupations of style’. As a master of satire and mockery as well as sober exposition, he writes with verve and bravura, veering from the pugnacious to the lyrical, the compassionate to the irascible. The newspaper he edited in Cologne, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, paid scrupulous attention to the style of the authors it discussed, while Marx himself sometimes treated the political arguments of his opponents in the manner of a literary critic. The German Ideology contains a metrical analysis of the prose of a minor German writer, showing the way its hypnotic rhythms lull the reader into overlooking the emptiness of the arguments. Clumsy syntax and muddled metaphors are symptoms of vapid thought.
If style expresses the soul of an author, dissecting it may seem impertinent, rather like dissecting someone’s appearance. There is an intimacy and elusiveness about style that seems to forbid such meddling. Writers might well prefer to hear that their plots are unconvincing than that their syntax is inelegant. Roland Barthes speaks of literary style as plunging to the depths of the body, which makes it sound as personal as one’s internal organs. Perhaps we need a psychology of style to know the reason a writer is averse to certain sounds and rhythms and attracted to others. How is style shaped by unconscious associations? Why does Shakespeare seem to associate spaniels with melting candy?
Ludovico Silva dismisses the idea that style is too idiosyncratic for public argument. There is, he claims, a striking complicity between Marx’s style and his vision of history. Few devices are more common in his work than irony, paradox, inversion, chiasmus and antithesis. It is as though the ruses and contradictions of history have smuggled themselves into his way of writing. Rather than simply designating these conflicts, Silva argues, Marx’s prose style ‘performs’ them. Silva sees Marx as aiming for the closest possible fusion of word and meaning, so that ideas cease to be abstract and become almost perceptible. This is a suggestive insight, though it needs to be handled with care. Words and meanings aren’t things that can be fused together, or for that matter split apart. Writing can give us a sense of language being rammed up against reality, as in Hamlet’s ‘Nay, but to live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed’, or it can seem to cut loose from the world, as a lot of Shelley does, but these spatial metaphors aren’t to be taken literally. All the same, we are dealing in Marx’s case with what Silva calls a ‘theoretical imagination’, one in which concept and image are hard to distinguish. Some of Marx’s ideas seem to have come to him in the form of images, and the book takes a look at certain fundamental metaphors – ‘superstructure’, for example – which govern his thought. Metaphor here is cognitive rather than ornamental, a tool of discovery rather than a verbal adornment.
Yet the concept of style stretches to more than imagery, and Silva’s book is largely silent about these other aspects: tone, rhythm, pace, pitch, mood, syntax, texture and so on. Instead, it turns its attention to the formal structure of Marx’s texts, though one wouldn’t usually include structure under the heading of style. Marx himself spoke of each of his works as composing an artistic whole, and Silva finds in this integrity a feature common to art and science. ‘What is scientific,’ he writes, ‘is so because it possesses a systematic, architectonic unity in which all its parts correspond to one another and in which none is true without respect to the whole.’ Science is a more dishevelled, hand-to-mouth affair than this suggests, however, and its parts need to do more than correspond with one another in order to be true. Magic and astrology are coherent systems. As for art, Silva is too uncritical of Marx’s own neoclassical concern with unity and cohesion. There are plenty of artworks, not least since 1900, which work through dissonance and fragmentation.
One might relate Marx’s fondness for images to his distrust of abstraction. If he is an Enlightenment rationalist, he is also a Romantic humanist for whom what matters is the concrete and particular. He acknowledges the role of abstract ideas in political theory, but sees them as simple and secondary. It is the concrete that is truly complex. His sense of the tangible and sensuous lies at the root of his materialism, but also of his aesthetic vision. The word ‘aesthetic’ originally refers to perception and sensation, and Marx favours an art that sticks close to the senses. He is thus an admirer of realism, which seems to unite word and thing, and a scourge of language that luxuriates in its own sounds and rhythms, like his own youthful poetry.
Behind this preference lies a politics: working people live close to the ground, while dandies, belletrists and idealist philosophers are the social equivalent of self-indulgence in art. It is no wonder that he returns time and again to Don Quixote, with its clash between the fantasies of the master and the pragmatism of the man. The dreamers have turned language into an autonomous realm, Marx protests in The German Ideology, and the materialist’s task is to lead it back to the actual world, where language is an expression of practical life. There is a hint in these remarks of the later Wittgenstein, who may have been given Marx’s book by his communist friend George Thomson. Prometheus was Marx’s favourite mythological hero, not only because he rebelled against the gods but because he brought fire from heaven to earth, rather as Marx seeks to bring consciousness back to reality. A recurrent target of his critique is chimera, illusion, fantasy, ideology; art can either breed these forms of false consciousness or help to undermine them. Like Freud, Marx recognised that illusion is constitutive of social existence, not just an error of reasoning that can easily be put right. The point for both men wasn’t simply to demolish delusions but to inquire into their material causes and effects.
Poetry that merely revels in its own soundscape is a type of formalism, and so for Marx is the commodity. Its value lies not in its material qualities but in its formal exchange with other such products. Despite their seductive ways, commodities are abstract, fleshless things, and it is the task of socialism to restore to them their material bodies. Yet Marx also sees commodities as fetishes that exert material power over human beings. Their interactions in the marketplace can put men and women out of work or consign them to starvation wages. So the commodity is at once too formal and too material, and in this it resembles a botched work of art. Art is made of material stuff, but it is material shaped into meaningful form. It reveals a unity of form and content that is lacking in the capitalist marketplace. In this sense, Marx’s work belongs to an aesthetic critique of capitalism running from Schiller and John Ruskin to William Morris and Herbert Marcuse.
Unlike most realists, Marx does not see art as precious because it reflects reality. On the contrary, it is most relevant to humanity when it is an end in itself. Art is a critique of instrumental reason. John Milton sold Paradise Lost to a publisher for five pounds, but he produced it ‘for the same reason that a silkworm produces silk. It was an activity wholly natural to him.’ In its free, harmonious expression of human powers, art is a prototype of what it is to live well. It is radical not so much because of what it says as because of what it is. It is an image of non-alienated labour in a world in which men and women fail to recognise themselves in what they create.
The aesthete, then, possesses more of the truth than the political left generally imagines. The point is not to substitute art for life, but to convert life into art. Living like a work of art means fully realising one’s capacities – this is Marx’s ethics. It is also the basis of his politics: socialism is whatever set of institutional arrangements would allow this to happen to the greatest extent. If artistic work is a scandal to the status quo, it is not because it champions the proletariat but because to live abundantly in this way isn’t possible under capitalism. Art prefigures a future in which human energies can exist simply for their own delight. Where art was, there shall humanity be.
Self-realisation, however, must be more than individual, which is the reason Marx adds a crucial rider to this humanist case. You must realise your powers reciprocally, through the equal self-expression of others. Or, as The Communist Manifesto puts it, the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. This is the way he converts an essentially aristocratic ethic into communism. Oscar Wilde would do much the same in his essay ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’, in which layabouts like himself who don’t have to work anticipate a socialist order in which this will be true of everybody. In his belief that the political goal is to get rid of labour rather than make it creative, Wilde is closer to Marx than William Morris is, though Morris was a Marxist and Wilde was not.
There are difficulties with the self-realisation thesis, as there are with any form of ethics. It seems to assume that human powers are positive in themselves, and the only problem is that some of them are being blocked. But the urge to shoot down schoolchildren should be restrained whatever the harm to your creativity. The idea also implies that our various capabilities are in harmony with one another, which is far from true. Like postmodern culture, it errs in seeing diversity as inherently valuable. But why should a life rich in a variety of impulses be more worthwhile than one devoted to a single activity? Emma Raducanu may have led a fuller life if she had played less tennis, but people have good reason to envy her all the same.
Marx never wrote a book on aesthetics. Instead, he put literary works to compelling use, eroding the borders between the artistic, political and economic. In doing so, he held out against the growing division of intellectual labour, just as he lamented the effects of the division of labour in industrial society. In this, as in his ethics, he remained captive to an ideal of wholeness inherited from his classical education, one that no longer has the force it did. It is ironic that this unflagging political agitator, a man who in a Brechtian phrase was forced to change countries more often than his shoes, should have found conflict and contradiction in history but symmetry and integrity in art. Only with the advent of modernism and the avant-garde did the conflicts of history erupt in art. There is, however, a minute detail in one of Marx’s letters that might be read as foretelling this cultural moment. He has heard of an Arabic translator called Dâ-Dâ, he tells Engels, and thinks he might use the name in the title of one of his pamphlets. He didn’t, in fact, leaving the two syllables to be seized on later by others.
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