Find the Method

Timothy Shenk

  • Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones
    Penguin, 768 pp, £14.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 14 102480 6

‘Marxism is still very young, almost in its infancy,’ Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1957, more than seventy years after Karl Marx’s death. Sartre had first read Marx three decades earlier when he, too, was still very young. At the time, the author of Capital had seemed a figure of merely historical interest. ‘Here are the conceptions of a German intellectual who lived in London in the middle of the last century,’ Sartre remembered thinking. As the years passed, he came to see Marx as more than a creature of his context. The details of Marx’s life were not what mattered. It was ‘the reality of Marxism’ – workers discovering their collective identity as a proletariat locked in fatal conflict with capitalism – that brought Marx into the 20th century. He was the father of ‘a philosophy that had become the world’.

Loyalty to Marx required confronting the world as it existed, without the comforting delusion that answers to every problem could be found by sifting through the sacred texts time and again. ‘Everything remains to be done,’ Sartre insisted. ‘We must find the method and constitute the science.’ This science would not be advanced by experimenting in laboratories or constructing mathematical models. It would be a historical enterprise, just as it had been for Marx. History was where civilisation’s deepest truths revealed themselves, and identifying them would allow history’s chosen subjects – the proletariat – to seize control of their world. They would be history’s masters, not its victims.

Gareth Stedman Jones came across Sartre’s writings on Marxism when he was about the same age Sartre had been when he first read Marx. A Francophile in his adolescence, Stedman Jones had worked in Paris for Agence France-Presse before starting at Oxford. Back in England, he fell in with the group coalescing around the New Left Review, and by 1965 was on its editorial board under Perry Anderson. While their elders on the left – the generation of E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill – had planted radical politics in the soil of English history, the new cohort had more cosmopolitan ambitions. They looked abroad, especially to the Continent and the likes of Lukács, Gramsci and Althusser, for remedies against what they saw as the tired empiricism and little Englandism of their predecessors. The aim, Stedman Jones explained in 1971, was to develop Marxism as both ‘a revolutionary political ideology’ and ‘an infant science struggling for its autonomy’. The proper subject of that science, he maintained, following Sartre, was history; his first book, published the same year, was Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society.

Today Stedman Jones denies he was ever a true believer, describing his younger self as more a ‘crypto-Fabian’ than a Marxist. Even at his most radical, he was never an economic determinist; and he didn’t believe that Marxists should be satisfied with a history from below that brought previously excluded figures into the standard narratives. He was a systematic thinker who wanted to reconstruct social totalities, not take sides in forgotten battles between the oppressed and their oppressors. He was drawn to the New Left Review crowd because they, like him, recognised that ‘we were witnessing an extraordinary period in the development of the human sciences’ – in anthropology, linguistics and psychoanalysis – that demanded a response from historians. Theoretical sophistication, analytical precision and rigorous quantification could furnish the building blocks for a new historical science.

The predilection for systematic inquiry that attracted Stedman Jones to Marxism ensured that his break with it, when it came, would be just as uncompromising. Whatever revolutionary ideals he may once have harboured were snuffed out as the 1970s dragged on and he grew distant from what he characterised as the ‘furtive mandarin Leninism’ at the New Left Review. He didn’t believe that theories based on the primacy of class and capital could account for the rise of the feminist movement or deal with its concerns, or that Marxism had much to offer environmentalists or human rights activists. The time he spent in Frankfurt during the Baader-Meinhof Group’s attempt to bring guerrilla warfare to Germany convinced him that would-be revolutionaries in Europe could only damage their cause. And scepticism about the radical potential of working-class politics was easily felt in a period bookended by Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher.

In this hostile climate, Marxist historical scholarship experienced what Stedman Jones later called an ‘abrupt and terminal decline’. Reconstructing social totalities increasingly seemed a chimerical enterprise, and his earlier confidence that history could be turned into a science now struck him as naive. Historians had begun to overturn pillars of conventional Marxist history, from François Furet’s revisionist studies of the French Revolution to Stedman Jones’s own work re-examining the relationship between labour and capital in industrialising Britain. Meanwhile, an obsessive attention to discourse and language was sweeping through the humanities, a trend Stedman Jones’s long familiarity with French intellectual life had readied him to accept.

He announced his changed loyalties in a sequel to Outcast London published in 1983 under the title Languages of Class, and prefaced with the observation – unusually self-aware for a historian – that the story the book told was ‘as much that of my own theoretical development as of the history of the working class itself’. Marx had failed to produce a materialist science of history, Stedman Jones now believed, because the task was impossible. Where once he had located his causal analysis in the social realm – a space dominated by class struggle and the dynamics of capital – he now argued that nationalism, the fight for equal rights as citizens, and even the dream of a classless society, were fundamentally political phenomena that could not be treated simply as reactions to capitalism’s advance.

With his break from Marxism complete, Stedman Jones embarked on the second phase of his career. He intended to exhume the origins of socialism in the hope of unveiling, as he later put it, ‘the submerged foundations of so many of the theoretical positions I naively tried to engage in the 1960s and 1970s’. His interpretation would be focused not on the protests of workers or the actions of political parties but on ideas. Intellectual history had always been a part of his work; Outcast London began with a survey of British economic thought from David Ricardo to William Stanley Jevons. Now, Stedman Jones’s commitment to the constitutive power of language propelled him down a path that eventually led to a tamed version of social democracy. In An End to Poverty (2004), he sought to recover a lost critical tradition that reached back beyond Marx to Adam Smith. Some of the most enthusiastic early readers of The Wealth of Nations, he noted, were radicals who saw the work as a powerful indictment of aristocratic privilege. It was only after the French Revolution that the division between laissez-faire and socialism came to define the contours of political debate. Before then, social democracy’s 18th-century precursors had sought to unite commitments to freedom and equality, markets and the general welfare. They pointed the way towards a 21st-century politics that restrained the excesses of capitalism – ‘greed, exploitation and misery’ – while reaping its benefits, uncovering a road that led from Thomas Paine to Tony Blair.

Settling his account with Marxism required a reckoning with Marx himself. As early as 1979, when Stedman Jones still identified as a socialist, he was exhorting his comrades to ‘de-theologise Marx’. Marxists had produced brilliant readings of the major texts, but they were more eager to claim Marx’s justification for their own position than to understand his work. They used Marx as Marx had used his precursors: as a tool for elaborating their analysis, not as a true subject of historical research. The disintegration of the Soviet bloc that began ten years later gave Stedman Jones the historical prompt he needed. Amid the ‘unsorted debris left by the death of Marxism’, he believed it was now possible to look at Marx without the distortions of the Cold War. ‘We continue to learn from Aristotle or Machiavelli without having to become Aristotelians or Machiavellians,’ he wrote. ‘One day, I hope we shall be able to learn again from Marx in the same fashion.’

But Marx could never be a subject of merely academic concern for Stedman Jones. Even if he wished to preside over Marxism’s funeral, the zeal with which he delivered the eulogy demonstrated its continued hold over his emotions. The question of how the ‘strange assemblage of conceptual insight and surreal expectation, of reiteration of radical commonplace and genuine theoretical innovation’ that constituted Marxism became the world’s most powerful ‘organised post-Christian religion’ would not let him go. Marx himself, by supplying a genealogy of socialism that was as powerful as it was deceptive, had done more than anyone to derail this inquiry. A more satisfying answer would have to start at the source of the problem. If Marxism had become a successor to Christianity, Stedman Jones would write a heretic’s life of Christ. Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion is the latest result of this project, and its richest expression. Restoring Marx to his historical context in the 19th century is only the most obvious of Stedman Jones’s ambitions. He has come to bury Marx and ‘Marxism’ under the weight of the past.


Marx was born into a world divided by the French Revolution. Faith in the power of reason had been the birthright of his parents’ generation. In the aftermath of the Revolution’s collapse, such faith seemed a much shakier proposition. In search of an alternative way of understanding history, Marx found Hegel. By the start of the 1840s, still in his twenties, he had become part of a group – the Young Hegelians – that sought to restore the radicalism they believed was embedded in the philosopher’s work. Their discussions of religion were especially controversial. One member of the group, David Strauss, portrayed the Gospels as a collection of myths. Another, Ludwig Feuerbach, depicted God as an invention of men, who projected onto the spiritual realm qualities they already possessed – or yearned to possess. People came to be ruled by their projections, duped into believing God created man, not the reverse. They were, in a word, alienated.

Marx extended Feuerbach’s conception of alienation from the religious sphere to the economic. Factory workers made commodities, but the profits went to capital. Under these conditions, goods seemed to exist outside the control of their makers. This deceptive independence was the foundation of private property, a concept Marx insisted was just as much a product of alienation as faith in an omniscient deity. He joined this account to a vision of history that drew on Hegel. Mankind had the capacity to remake its world: labour was the essence of human existence, the engine that propelled historical development. The challenge was to replace a society that held up homo economicus as its implicit ideal with one that acknowledged Marx’s broader conception of human nature, redeeming work from the degraded status into which it had fallen during the Industrial Revolution.

Doubters charged that Marx’s supposedly hard-headed philosophy was just another variety of soft-hearted humanism, with a utopian notion of human nature taking the place once held by a Christian God. Stedman Jones believes that Marx never found a satisfying response to this accusation. Instead, he embraced a determinism that denied ideas any independent role in historical change. Communism was no longer just an ideal; it was the destiny mankind was drawn irresistibly towards. As Marx put it in 1845, using a vocabulary of class struggle he had only recently added to his repertoire, ‘the proletariat executes the sentence that private property pronounces on itself by producing the proletariat.’ But that resolution could arrive only because of the extraordinary feats the bourgeoisie had already accomplished – in Stedman Jones’s words, ‘the staggering transformation produced in less than a century by the emergence of a world market and the unleashing of the unparalleled productive powers of modern industry’. This was the worldview – a hodgepodge of British economics, French politics and German philosophy held together less by its internal coherence than by the force of Marx’s will – that would receive its most forceful expression in The Communist Manifesto of 1848.

Stedman Jones admits that Marx gives a groundbreaking assessment of the power of capitalism, but considers him a much less insightful guide to life outside the marketplace. The determinism that allowed Marx to defend himself against charges of covert humanism distorted his analysis, especially when he turned his focus to politics, and the error was compounded by a ‘static and anachronistic’ interpretation of class conflict that didn’t fit the realities of European radicalism. Well into the 1840s, Stedman Jones writes, Marx was ‘simply unfamiliar both with popular politics and with the world outside Germany’.

Time and again, Stedman Jones chides him for misunderstanding the major events of his day and substituting fantasies of impending revolution for serious inquiry. These misjudgments were, he believes, a logical product of Marx’s worldview. According to Stedman Jones, the birth of movements that claimed to represent the working class – such as the Chartists – was at its core a political phenomenon, not an economic one. ‘It was not the activities or strategy of a fictive “bourgeoisie”,’ he writes, scare quotes at the ready, ‘but the attempt around 1830 to construct a political system based upon the political exclusion of wage-earners that created the “struggle” of the “working class” and the “middle class”.’ He chastises Marx for succumbing to the tendency – widely shared among the era’s elite – to portray workers as a seething mass on the brink of insurrection. ‘The ideals and aspirations of the working classes in 1848 were not mysterious,’ he insists. ‘But their speech was discounted. It was ignored or replaced by quite different forms of discourse conjured up by the fervid imagination of writers from the propertied classes.’ Deceived by his conviction that economic structures drove political outcomes, Marx had produced a theory that pretended to explain all of history but had difficulty accounting for any particular event.

Stedman Jones uses one of Marx’s most celebrated works, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, to illustrate the limits of this approach. He concedes that it is a ‘sociologically ingenious account’, but argues that Marx’s fixation on class obscured what was most significant about the younger Bonaparte’s rise. Unlike Marx, Bonaparte had recognised the importance of the democratic spirit coursing through European politics. He embraced universal male suffrage, previously anathema to conservatives, and linked it to a nationalistic agenda that safeguarded institutions threatened by revolutionary tumult – above all the church and the family – while promising to address the concerns of workers. This was a new kind of politics that fused right and left, offering both stability and reform. The term ‘populism’ wasn’t coined until decades later, but Bonaparte had, in effect, invented its conservative variant. The ultimate beneficiaries of 1848 weren’t liberals or socialists, but the novel breed of reactionaries who followed Bonaparte’s example. They were looking to the future, while Marx had his gaze locked on a stylised version of the past.

Marx’s personal qualities hold just as little appeal for Stedman Jones. In 1905, Marx’s first biographer, Franz Mehring, opposed publishing his subject’s full correspondence because he thought it would damage Marx’s reputation. Stedman Jones doesn’t share Mehring’s concern. His index has entries under Marx’s name for ‘racism’, ‘testiness’, ‘shrill voice’ and ‘use of opium’. Even as a child, Stedman Jones writes, Marx possessed ‘a high degree of self-absorption, a belief in his special destiny and a larger than normal sense of entitlement’, and these feelings remained with him throughout his life. His despairing father asked in 1837 whether he would ‘ever be capable of imparting happiness to those immediately around you?’

The strain of maintaining bourgeois appearances on a revolutionary’s budget placed an agonising burden on Marx’s household. Freelance writing and the occasional windfall from an inheritance wasn’t enough. ‘Every day my wife says she wishes she and the children were safely in their graves,’ he wrote in 1862, ‘and I really cannot blame her.’ The family fortunes would have collapsed without Engels, whose day job in Manchester at his father’s textile firm made it possible for him to support his friend and intellectual partner. Marx the family man and Engels the businessman: the revolutionaries each had one half of a bourgeois life.

At one point, Marx even contemplated becoming a railway clerk. His application was rejected (poor handwriting), removing one excuse for his postponing work on Capital. But Marx was an expert procrastinator, and through one missed deadline after another he rarely lacked a rationale for diverting his attention from his magnum opus. Sometimes it was a feud with an enemy on the left, sometimes health troubles. Boils were a particular torment. ‘I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day,’ he said to Engels; Stedman Jones notes that their arrival tended to coincide with stressful periods of writing. Marx’s mental wellbeing was just as unreliable. There were stretches in which his judgments were ‘disordered, perhaps even touched by delusion, with mood changes ranging from unreal euphoria through uncontrolled paranoia to fantasies of revenge’.

Capital finally appeared in 1867. Stedman Jones’s judgment is severe. As he sees it, Marx’s economic theory was undercut by his failure to provide a satisfactory explanation for the way prices – including wages – are determined. He couldn’t deliver a convincing explanation as to why profits must decline, or why the bourgeoisie’s rule was doomed to end. Marx believed the age of capital had been made possible by the expropriation of the peasantry but, on his own telling, this wasn’t the result of inviolate economic logics, but the outcome of decisions made by royal officials. Politics, not economics, had given the decisive push. Capital supplied neither a totalising theory of political economy nor an irrefutable demonstration that the chasm separating rich and poor was fated to widen.

What redeems Capital, for Stedman Jones, is its success as a work of history. Most of the book, he notes, is devoted to a careful examination of class relations: ‘A graphic, yet sober-minded analysis of the conflict within the factory, and a horrific picture of the conditions of workers in different industries’. The wealth of the bourgeoisie might not require an impoverished working class, but Marx had shown that the two were thoroughly compatible. Though he could not integrate his narrative of capitalist economic development stretching back centuries with his economic theories, Capital made him, in Stedman Jones’s estimation, ‘one of the principal – if unwitting – founders of a new and important area of historical inquiry, the systematic study of social and economic history’.


Marx had failed at the task he set out for himself, yet within a few years he had become, on his own gleeful self-assessment, ‘the best calumniated and the most menaced man of London’. He owed this turn of events to the failure of his prophecies. Revolution had not arrived, but the reactionary tide that surged after 1848 had ebbed, and trade unions were exerting a new influence on politics. The founding of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864 showed the changing political mood. This was the organisation later remembered as the First International. Marx was its secretary, and one of its most effective representatives. But the International was never as powerful as its supporters hoped or its enemies feared. The Times estimated that it had two and a half million members and millions of pounds in its coffers. Both were wild exaggerations. Near its zenith in 1870, there were 254 members in Britain; a year later, there were 385 in Germany. But publicity gave the International a reputation as a voice for the emboldened labour movement, and helped it spread terms like ‘solidarity’ and ‘strike’ throughout Europe.

From his position in the International, Marx had a privileged view of a critical moment in working-class politics. He entered what Stedman Jones regards as ‘the most fruitful and successful’ period in his life. Frightened elite members saw him as the force behind a wave of unrest sweeping across Europe – a shadowy figure connected with everything from the Paris Commune to the emergence of German socialism. Both Capital and The Communist Manifesto acquired a notoriety they hadn’t enjoyed when first published.

Yet Marx, now in his fities, was no longer the young incendiary of The Communist Manifesto. Rather than hoping for immediate emancipation from the rule of capital, he now believed the transition to socialism could occur gradually. ‘What excited him was not the expectation of an apocalyptic event,’ Stedman Jones writes, but the belief ‘that the process of a transition from the capitalist mode of production towards the society of associated producers had already begun.’ From this perspective, the historical sections of Capital offered a better guide to the future than its theoretical ruminations did. Just as capitalism had emerged over centuries, socialism too might advance in piecemeal fashion. Stedman Jones once argued that he had uncovered a lost social-democratic moment at the close of the 18th century; now he presents a forgotten social-democratic Marx. (This would have come as a surprise to his younger self. ‘It would be absurd to argue that Marx was not a passionate revolutionary to the end of his days,’ he wrote in New Left Review in 1973, ‘and no one has ever done so.’)

This flirtation with social democracy stayed hidden for so long because Marx never fully acknowledged, even to himself, that it had taken place. There was no reformist sequel to the Communist Manifesto, and his political judgments remained shaky. Composing a declaration of principles for the International, he complained about having to avoid his former ‘boldness of language’ in order to ‘frame the thing so that our view should appear in a form that would make it acceptable to the present outlook of the workers’ movement’. According to Stedman Jones, that restraint was precisely what made Marx’s later activism so effective. Against his will, he had been forced to address his audience in a language they could understand.

The International dissolved in the 1870s, taking with it Marx’s best incentive for moderation, but giving him yet another opportunity to complete his great project. Marx had once intended Capital to be the first of several volumes anatomising the origins, metastasis and ultimate demise of capitalism. But despite his frequent assurances that he was preparing a sequel, he launched his last serious effort in 1878: ‘After seven pages he gave up,’ Stedman Jones writes, ‘and never seems to have returned to the task.’ Instead, Marx withdrew into a world before the rise of the bourgeoisie, studying the history of early communes with the hope of illustrating how societies that had not yet undergone the transition to capitalism – Russia was his favourite example – could leap directly to socialism. He died in 1883.

Sifting through Marx’s papers after his death, a stunned Engels realised how much Marx had left undone. The task of forging a coherent Marxism had fallen to him, though in truth he had already been engaged in that project for some time. In 1878, the year Marx gave up on the second volume of Capital, Engels published Anti-Dühring, a polemic against a rival socialist that became the most popular introduction to Marxism for subsequent generations. ‘Capital is the more powerful work,’ the German Marxist Karl Kautsky later explained. ‘But it was only through Anti-Dühring that we learned to understand Capital and read it properly.’

Engels didn’t know it, but he had developed a programme that diverged from Marx’s own. Stedman Jones speculates that Marx’s continued financial dependence on Engels might have led him to conceal the distance between himself and his friend. Engels’s Marx retained his confidence in the revolution until the end; he was socialism’s Darwin, a scientist who had discovered the laws propelling capitalism towards its destruction. Engels stitched together a second and third volume of Capital from the piles of scattered notes Marx had left behind. He was ‘generally a scrupulous or even timid editor’, Stedman Jones writes, but he made one crucial revision to Marx’s texts, replacing a claim that falling profits would leave capital ‘shaken’ with the more decisive ‘collapsed’. It was Engels’s version of Marxism that provided the intellectual basis for the next generation of Marxist theorists; it was Engels’s version too that cast its shadow over the 20th century.

The Marx who remains alive for Stedman Jones in the 21st century is the one who outlined the contours of a globalised capitalism that our wiser era knows can be restrained but never escaped. ‘The left ought to give up,’ he has said, ‘the idea that there’s some other system waiting in the wings instead of capitalism.’ For him, political maturity starts with a rejection of the notion that ‘there’s going to be some end of history where there’s some magical transformative solution and a completely different system takes over.’ Only after shedding this utopian legacy, with its religious origins, can socialists hope to understand the world, or change it.

There has always been something curious about Stedman Jones’s insistence on the religious dimension of socialism. Every political movement has its rituals and hierarchies, and every ideology has its vision of a better tomorrow. Utopianism isn’t restricted to Marxism; it is an essential feature of modern politics. Stedman Jones’s confidence in the triumph of capitalism has a theological tinge of its own. ‘The Marx celebrated from the 1890s and beyond was the theorist of the universality of capitalism and its inevitable global downfall,’ Stedman Jones writes. Decades after his own break with Marxism, he still adheres to the first half of this formula, like a Christian who believes in purgatory but not in heaven. Meanwhile, today’s young leftists are more concerned with the manifest failures of the status quo than with secular salvation.

They are not alone. The title of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon comes from the date in the French Republican calendar on which Napoleon Bonaparte staged the coup that brought him to power. After his own coup more than fifty years later, Louis Napoleon would devise the conservative populism that dominated European politics in the 1850s. In the Gregorian calendar, 18 Brumaire falls on 9 November – the day that, in 2016, most of the world discovered that Americans had voted Donald Trump into the White House. Stedman Jones notes that Engels gave Marx the reference to Hegel that supplied the essay’s famous opening about history occurring first as tragedy then as farce. Like Marx, he doesn’t ask what happens the third time.