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.

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