'Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion' shows a man ahead of our time

As ordinary people have more and more power taken away by neoliberalism and globalisation, there’s no time like the present for a fresh biography revisiting what Karl Marx actually stood for, writes TP O’Mahony.
'Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion' shows a man ahead of our time

AT A TIME when capitalism is facing a new crisis, and we are all living with the repercussions of how deeply unstable and socially damaging it is, a new biography of the man who saw clearer than anybody else in history its contradictions and inherent injustices could hardly be more timely.

The insights, analyses and warnings that Karl Marx bequeathed to us have arguably never been more relevant; that is why interest in Marx and Marxism has revived, and why it is more important than ever to distinguish between Marxism and the shocking perversions and aberrations of Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism, and their appalling consequences, which were constructed in his name.

Gareth Stedman Jones has set out to make that distinction in his splendid new biography, and has succeeded admirably.

As he himself says at the end of the book, “the Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth”.

The author, who is Professor of the History of Ideas (what a grand title!) at the University of London, contends that central to the emergence of totalitarian states was the “promulgation of an officially prescribed form of ‘Marxism’ which was accompanied by purges, show trials, and a vigilant control of all means of communication”.

His main thesis is that this prescribed form of ‘Marxism’ had very little to do with the man who gave us The Communist Manifesto.

Typical of the gross misrepresentation of Marx and distortion of Marxism was a feature in the Daily Mail in July 2005 headed “Marx the Monster”.

This was a day after Marx was announced as the Thinker of the Millennium, ahead of Einstein, Newton, Darwin and Thomas Aquinas in a BBC Radio 4 poll.

Marx, of course, had said that the purpose of philosophy was not to understand the world, but to change it.

In 1998, in the introduction to a new edition of the Manifesto to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of the 23-page pamphlet, the historian Eric Hobsbawm described it as “almost certainly by far the most influential single piece of political writing since the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”.

He added that by “good luck it hit the streets only a week or two before the outbreak of the revolutions of 1848”. The Manifesto, with its famous rallying cry “Working men of all countries, unite!”, was essentially a blueprint for revolutionary class struggle.

As a force for change, its influence has been surpassed only by the Bible. The small pamphlet ran to just 23 pages — but they were 23 pages that shook the world.

In his overall writings, there can be detected a foreshadowing of what would come to be known as “liberation theology”, where, against the background of enormous disparities in wealth between social classes, Latin American theologians sought to apply the critique and insights of Marx in their quest for a more just society.

As the author of this new biography shows, Marx was one of the few, perhaps the first since Martin Luther, whose life and work constituted a crucial turning-point in human thought and endeavour.

In the final analysis, Marx was a humanist who was deeply concerned about the plight of mankind, and thought he had the answer in the classless society he envisaged emerging in the future.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, Martin Seymour-Smith tells us this of the Polish-born author: “He certainly shared Marx’s view that men and women should not be treated like merchandise”.

If one were to seek a one-sentence encapsulation of the motivating philosophy behind The Communist Manifesto, one would be hard-pressed to improve on the above.

Pope John XXIII used the same motivating philosophy in penning one of the greatest social encyclicals ever written, Mater et Magistra, in 1961. Little wonder that this was criticised by that great mouthpiece of

capitalism, the Wall Street Journal, for its “Marxist undertones”. The Irish novelist, John Banville, very pertinently emphasised in a 2003 essay that “Communism was founded on a great humanitarian document which championed the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised”.

Friedrich Engels was Marx’s close friend and long-time collaborator; theirs was a remarkable friendship, leading one historian to describe them as “arguably history’s most famous couple”. It was Engels who helped to co-author the Manifesto, but he always recognised Marx as his intellectual superior. He wrote: “Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented ... Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than the rest of us”.

Nevertheless, Stedman Jones holds him responsible for promulgating an aberrant interpretation of Marx’s great work Capital (1867), especially through an 1878 polemic known as The Anti-Dühring, this at a time when ill-health had made an invalid of Marx himself.

“The evidence suggests that, in poor health and with diminished energy, Karl was prepared to allow Engels to act for him.” The result, the author contends, was a serious distortion of Marx’s theses.

Back in 1970, during a weekend in London, I set off on a snowy Sunday morning with an Irish priest on a pilgrimage. As most of the great metropolis slumbered, we made our way to Highgate Cemetery, to visit the grave of a man who was both an atheist and an icon.

Having fled his native Germany — he was born in Trier in the Rhineland of Jewish parents in 1818 — Marx had eventually settled in London. And he had once famously declared that religion was the opiate of the poor.

By this he understood, as Professor Russell McCutcheon of the University of Alabama, “religion to be a pacifier that both deadened oppressed people’s sense of pain and alienation while, simultaneously, preventing them from doing something about their lot in life, since ultimate responsibility was thought to reside with a being who existed outside of history”.

James Connolly, among others, saw religion playing this kind of role in Ireland.

In his recently-published book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Paul Mason argues that capitalism has been taken over by neoliberalism — “an ideology and a set of policies that recognise no limits to the commodification of the world”. This Marx warned against, and the results today are glaring inequalities.

Globalisation obliterated the power of unions and workers to resist, because if they did, capital — and jobs — could easily move elsewhere. Even sovereign states must treat multinationals with kid gloves.

What better example of this than the present controversy in this country over the ruling by the European Commission which directed Apple to pay €13 billion in back taxes to the Irish State. Were Marx looking on, he would surely say, ‘I warned you, boys!’

In an earlier biography, Francis Wheen summarises Marx’s stature as follows: “Not since Jesus Christ has an obscure pauper inspired such global devotion”.

When Marx died in London on March 14, 1883, Engels wrote to a comrade in America to tell him the sad news: “Mankind is shorter by a head,” he wrote, “and by the most remarkable head of our time”.

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion

Gareth Stedman Jones

Allen Lane, £35

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