What a new biography of Marx call tell us, written after this distance of time?
Here are some rare insights about his life and work.
What we don’t know about Karl Marx so far?
A new biography of Karl Marx. Marx lived 65 years. His impact on the world has been so all parasites on politics, economics and history. Early Marx up to the first 50 all revolution etc. His best decade. We see a mellowed, mam a family mam, why a typical bursaries, e despised all his life.
This is exactly not a book review. It is rather a review of a review! The reviewer is Ferdinand Mount. We don’t know more about the reviewer. This recent biography of Karl Marx that appeared recently in the 100-odd year-old, venerable, Times Literary Supplement (TLS) of London. I have been a regular reader of the TLS since my student days at Oxford. Off and on I am keeping in touch with the TLS, even after my return. In India, I continue to read thanks to the British Council. More developments have taken place, the Internet, the revolution of Apple tools, the iPad and iphone have all made life easy I could read the TLS in the comfort of my home and office. I laid my hand on the latest issue (22 September, 2016) and there I found the book review. The author of the new biography is Gareth Stedman Jones. Also we don’t know more about the author.
But here in the review the other biographers of Marx are given. The names are: Isaiah Berlin(published in 1939 and the reviewer says this biography “still dazzling” and David McLellan (the “most authoritative on the doctrine”, Francis When, even Peter Singer’s Very Short Introduction have all tended to take Marxism as a doctrine which was “reasonably stable and finished”. But here Jones presents a more intimate picture and he calls Marx simply as “Karl” as to show Marx in all his intimate moments, his early years a rather grubby and fighting sout and also inviting much hostility, here the write quotes two persons who first met Marx in Brussels in the mid 1840s when Marx was in his late twenties and another, nearly thirty years later, this time the famed Russian emigre, Mikhail, Bakunin calling Marx “extremely ambitious and vain, quarrelsome, intolerant and absolute etc”.
As readers, may be, of the older generation, not of the present generation, know there have been only a few names that come to mind when we think of Karl Marx. The 1939 biography was the one I ever read as an “undergraduate” at Oxford. Prof.Isaiah Berlin was my professor of political philosophy at Oxford. Berlin was a great professor and a very original thinker Oxford Professor, Sir Isaiah Berlin who was also my professor who taught us as Professor of the Social Sciences. He was an exceptional scholar and I have to write separately about him for there is so much to say about him and his times. And readers of this generation must know that at Oxford they didn’t have at that time any academic discipline called social sciences! They don’t recognise sociology also as a separate discipline.
In fact there was a very large faculty of philosophy and philosophy was at its peak reputation when I went to Oxford. Why, in my time and ironically in my own Oxford college, namely, the largest one, New College, a 14th century college, the best of philosophy brains, including Sir Isaiah Berlin, Prof.Jules Ayer and Anthony Quinton (my own philosophy tutor were all there and in the mid-20th century world philosophy, if we can use such a term, was dominated by these great names only. Others who taught me included Prof.Gilbert Rhyle; a Chair he occupied was more than 500 years old!
Only at Oxford and Cambridge such ancient chairs are still there and they remain as prestigious as any in the world, thought the salaries of these Oxford chairs are nowhere near what they pay for at such American universities like Harvard!
Now, the biography!
At about the same time, Jenny Marx “for whom the phrase “long -suffering wife” might have been invented, lamented their lives, hounded by and police and democrats and the refrain how much happier he would be if he had gone on quietly developed the theory of struggle”.
“Marx in this phase of life was given to ferocity, fight that gave him a life of grinding hardship, repeated disappointment, ever worsening health” etc. “By the end of his life his name was to strike terror in the hearts of bourgeois hearts across Europe and that gave Marx no little satisfaction”.
Yet at his funeral in Highgate Cemetery there were only eleven mourners”. All these facts are widely known. What is unique in this biography is that some features of his life in London, after he was driven out from Berlin, Cologne, Paris and finally he reached London in 1849 where too he first underwent much poverty and misery, first in Soho and finally to Kentish town where the author describes in some detail life in the company of his friend Engels. It emerges from the book that for the first time the Marx family enjoys some comforts and we are touched to know how much Marx welcomed his stay in London. The book has some fine insights, the author combines Marx’s outward contradictions, he was confident that a revolution would ultimately break the backs of the bourgeois but he was also ambivalent about the success of his theories.
He befriended John Bright, the 19th century English radical and he appeared on the platform with him. He cultivated the British trade union leaders and also wrote on the New Year’ Day in 1849 that Revolutionary Rising, World War!”
In London the fortunes turned for the better. Engels and Marx went with their families to Ramsgate beach and there they enjoyed themselves, bar etc. There Marx and Engels saw the mixing of different classes and he realised society could also live in peace and happiness. Marx children, three daughters, enjoyed themselves; they took piano lessons and attended private schools, privileges for a British family. Since 1849 in London, Marx family experienced some material comforts.
It was at this time Marx also thought of his childhood days in Germany and also he thought about rural life in Tsar Russia.”In the last decade of his life, he became absorbed in Russia and other parts of the pre-capitalist world which had hitherto attracted his attention only fleetingly. Russian villages had had long traditions of communal ownership, the Russian Mir embodied collective ownership which is collective selfdom. Instituted by despotic stars.”Right in his own neighbourhood on the ‘Hunsruck’ the old Germanic system, the German Mark, equally unreliable exemplar, survived until the last few years”. His “own pleasant Hill country, between the Moselle and the Rhine, Marx homeland in a deeper sense, a latter-day Eden still unspoilt by the serpent of private property. So too the Russian communal land ownership, of serfs”.
Not the latter day collective land ownerships a corruption of the old ideal. The emancipation of Russian serfs is another milestone.
Marx believed the Russo-Turkish war that broke out in 1877 might lead to Russia losing the war and a Revolution breaking out in Russia. Says the author: Instead of Marx’s hope Russia won the war and the Marxian revolution was delayed by another forty years to 1917.
The book is really thought-provoking for its rare weaving of facts and events that show how until his death in 1883 he lived a bourgeois life, rather than a prophet whose predictions came true.
Also, in the book, we are shown how we can’t blame Lenin and Stalin for what all happened afterwards. Now, in India we have a long history Leftist political tradition and yet Communism never took roots. Though there is this predominant Leftist political tradition, in spite of the hold of Gandhism.
India is a poor country and now, after the breakup of Soviet Russia and the fall of Communism in all ex-Sovieth countries, there is a now new challenge that can’t be tackled in simplistic Marxian ways, whatever these ways may be.
Fredrich Engels lived for another 12 years since Marx passed away. This book shous much of the fixed doctrines of Marx owe as much to Engels as to Marx. Marx started off with Hegels’s some abstract theories and that is how we have some fixed and almost immutable Marxist laws like the inevitability of revolution, the demise of capitalism and the withering away of the state.
Fortunately, none of these theories came true. May be for the better of the humankind.