A World To Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx

by Sven-Eric Liedman

translated by Jeffrey N. Skinner

Verso, £35

Review by Brian Morton

Karl Marx was no more a “Marxist” than Jesus of Nazareth was a “Christian”, and yet we persist in talking about “Marxism” as if it were a fixed system of values and instructions, and “the Dialectic” as if it were reified, too; in a satirical playlet for Partisan Review, Edmund Wilson revealed it as a pistol in the hand of Joseph Stalin. One reason for the continuing incomprehension and distrust is that we don’t read Marx any more. We really should. He was one of the great prose stylists of the 19th century. For all its occasional lapses into vagueness or lack of clear detail, the Communist Manifesto is one of that era’s great books. There is a tendency to assume that any failings, of style or substance, were to be laid at Friedrich Engels’s feet, in the way that dodgy bits of Shakespeare were always assumed to be the work of a named or unnamed collaborator. The nature and outcome of the collaboration between Marx and Engels is, of course, one of the most important stories told in Sven-Eric Liedman’s hefty – 700-plus pages – new biography, but still more important and still lesser known is the contribution of Marx’s aristocratic wife Jenny von Westphalen to his work.

Needless to say, “the shadow of actually existing socialism” falls over Marx’s reputation, and over much of the biographical work done on him to date. And yet, far worse than the deeds ostensibly done in his name, are the atrocities inflicted on language by many of Marx’s followers, people who use words like “reified” and “objectively”, when they mean no such thing. Despite a lifetime swimming in this sometimes toxic sea, Liedman has surfaced still able to write with all the clarity and percipience of his subject. The original was in Swedish, and while most of the specifically Swedish quotes and sources have been removed from this edition, a quick-eyed reader would sense an unusual emphasis on Scandinavian commentators. The provenance might explain a few peculiarities of translation, but they’re tiny nods in a magnificently concentrated effort.

Almost as little is known about Marx’s childhood and youth as about those of Shakespeare or Jesus of Nazareth, so after dealing with a few misconceptions about the young Karl’s relations with his father, Liedman is able to pick up the story in his student years, and with his first skirmishes with Hegelian philosophy and its guiding principle of “spirit”. This is a “life and works” biography, and while it details the Marxes family life (which included an affair with a family maid), and its movements – from his birthplace Trier, through university in Berlin, to exile in Paris, Brussels and ultimately London – the bulk of the attention falls on his writings. Sometimes, as in an extended discussion of Marx’s and Engels’s extended discussion of ‘Max Stirner’’s The Ego and Its Own, the focus might be too close for most general readers.

I was fortunate enough to encounter Marx when the required reading wasn’t Capital, but the early Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and the astounding Grundrisse. At no time in his life did Marx wield the Dialectic like a pistol. On the contrary, his writing has an almost improvisational freedom, particularly in the early work. It also has a journalist’s gift for polemic. The young Marx stood up stoutly for journalism: “The press is the most general way by which individuals can communicate their intellectual being. It knows no respect for persons, but only respect for intelligence”. The older man was sometimes bogged down in lengthy manuscripts that he failed to see into print. Liedman more than once concedes that Marx could be harsh and excessively personal in his criticisms, but he could also pull off some magnificent rhetorical flourishes that are even more crushing than ad hominem attack. Here’s how he demolishes the unsecured fantasies of the “true socialists”: “They still dream of experimental realisation of their social Utopias, of founding isolated ‘phlanasteres’, of establishing ‘Home Colonies’, of setting up ‘Little Icaria’ – duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem”. That “duodecimo” would have been as cutting to his readers as a front row scowl by Anna Wintour. The parallel isn’t entirely unwarranted. Marx was greatly concerned with style, even bourgeois style, and saw no conflict between it and calling on the proletariat to rise up.

He lived through exciting times, of course. This is his bicentenary year, which means that he was thirty, and already established, when Europe started to smoulder with revolution. The events of 1848 are not very fully covered here, even as they affect Marx, and sometimes the text presupposes a working knowledge of economic history. There, Marx is always ahead of us. Liedman describes him as a “one-man university”, which is one reason why he found it easier to write in shorter, more spontaneous forms and harder to finish large-scale projects like Capital, whose completion fell to Engels.

This is the rub. Liedman does not go as far as some in “locating a border” between Marx and his followers, but he does so in the case of his main collaborator: “what is called Marxism, I argue, should by rights be called Engelsism. Marx did not create a system. As a scholar and author he is more of a Faustian figure, constantly on the way deeper into the endless world of knowledge”. Trier was one of the locations associated with the Faust legend, so that connection sticks as well. The hunger to move forward, absorb more and deeper knowledge, is always there, but the diablerie is not. It is a mistake to connect Marx to, or hold him responsible for, V I Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, Enver Hoxha, Pol Pot or Kim Il-sung. It makes more sense to view him and his vision of humanity from the other direction, as “part of the great humanistic tradition from Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy. In the Paris Manuscripts, “Marx succeeded in formulating a classic, and yet also modern, ideal of humanity in the merciless epoch of early industrialism”. Some of its terminology may now be as old-fashioned and irrelevant as spats, but Marx’s mode of thought applies just as much to the age of artificial intelligence and its lack of human mercy.