[Marxism] Taking apart Gareth Stedman Jones book on Marx

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 17 08:03:06 MDT 2017

Gareth Stedman Jones. Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Allen Lane, 
London [etc.] 2016. xvii, 750 pp. Ill. Maps. £25.95; $35.00; €31.50.

a review by Lucia Pradella in August 2017 International Review of Social 

The global economic crisis and the subsequent social and political 
turmoil have led to a revival of interest in Marx’s life and ideas. It 
is thus not surprising that, amid a rich literature on Marx’s critique 
of capitalism, new attempts have emerged at reconstructing his life. 
Unlike Francis Wheen’s and Jonathan Sperber’s recent biographies, 1 
Gareth Stedman Jones’s is mainly a work of intellectual history 
distinguished for its use, albeit partial, of the new historical 
critical edition of Marx’s and Engels’s writings (Marx-Engels 
Gesamtausgabe, MEGA-2 2 ). The renowned British historian aims to offer 
an alternative picture to twentieth-century iconography, which “bore 
only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth” 
(p. 595). Given Stedman Jones’s expertise in working-class movements in 
nineteenth-century Britain – where Marx spent the larger part of his 
life – this goal should make the book even more interesting. And, 
indeed, readers are not disappointed; for example, in Stedman Jones’s 
reconstructions of the social background of the First International or 
the development of social democracy in Germany. Against Marx’s 
monumental and pupil-less face scrutinizing us from the cover page, 
Stedman Jones seeks to offer a more mundane and contradictory picture of 
Marx, or, as he insists on calling him, “Karl”. One could argue that the 
twentieth century is marked by many other such attempts, starting with 
David Riazanov’s. But Stedman Jones’s biography is also driven by 
another, albeit implicit, goal: coming to terms with Marx in the light 
of his own intellectual development from Marxism to post-structuralism. 
The outcome of this double game of mirrors is not always convincing.

In the first part of the book, for example, Stedman Jones criticizes 
Marx’s concept of social classes in the light of the idea, which he 
advanced in his 1983 Languages of Class, that class is not “an 
expression of a simple social-economic reality”, but “a form of language 
discursively produced to create identity” (p. 306). Marx’s approach to 
class would merge young Hegelian understandings of the role of labour in 
the transformation of the world and the language of class “originating 
in republican, socialist and even Legitimist opposition to the 
‘bourgeois’ monarchy of Louis Philippe in France” (p. 306). The 
influence of French and British political economy on Marx’s analysis of 
the class struggle is thus largely overlooked. Strikingly, Stedman Jones 
ignores Marx’s reflections in the Kreuznach Notebooks on the influence 
of property relations during the French Revolution, and the importance 
of Marx’s and Engels’s trip to Manchester in 1845. In Manchester, Marx 
met Chartist and trade union leaders, and read in the original the works 
of British political economists, including socialists like Thomas Rowe 
Edmonds, William Thompson, and John Francis Bray, who used Ricardo’s 
value theory to trace the roots of profit in the only apparently free 
transaction between capital and labour (see MEGA-2, section IV, bks. 4 
and 5). These sources contradict Stedman Jones’s argument that the 
Chartists criticized exploitation only as a consequence of political 
exclusion (p. 311), and that, like other members of the propertied 
classes, Marx “failed to listen to the discourse of workers themselves” 
(pp. 311–312). It is simply untrue that in 1850 “Karl arrived in England 
with little knowledge of the English class system beyond what he had 
read in Guizot and Engels” (p. 350).

Stedman Jones’s reconstruction of Marx’s intellectual development in 
London is also partial and often unsatisfactory. He largely ignores the 
content of Marx’s London Notebooks (1850–1853) and the elaboration of 
his critique of political economy in the early 1850s. Although he admits 
that Marx and Engels wrote 487 articles for the New York Tribune – far 
more than for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung – Stedman Jones devotes much 
less attention to Marx’s scientific journalism in London. He thus 
underestimates the changes in Marx’s position at the time. Stedman Jones 
argues, for example, that Marx’s articles on India repeat the same 
vision of international revolution advanced in the Manifesto (pp. 358, 
359). Now, whatever one’s position on Marx’s view in the 1850s of the 
double mission of British colonialism in India, there is a big 
difference between the Manifesto’s vision of international revolution – 
just focused on Europe and ignoring the agency of non-European peoples – 
and Marx’s 1853 analysis of the conditions for the independent social 
upheaval of the Indian people (Marx-Engels Collected Works, MECW, vol. 
12, p. 217). While quoting Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, 3 
moreover, Stedman Jones maintains – without any discussion – that Marx’s 
“thinking was not deeply affected by the Indian mutiny” (p. 359), and 
that his attitude to the “Taiping Rebellion” would be “even more distant 
and poorly informed”, fitting “perfectly his belief in the unchanging 
structures of Oriental Empires”. In order to ground the latter critique, 
Stedman Jones astonishingly quotes only one article written in 1862, 
when the movement was decaying (p. 359), without even mentioning Marx’s 
enthusiastic support for the revolt in the early 1850s. “The next 
uprising of the people of Europe – Marx then argued – […] may depend 
more probably on what is now passing in the Celestial Empire […] than on 
any other political cause that now exists” (Ibid., p. 93). This and 
other textual evidence, including Marx’s studies of world history and 
non-capitalist societies in the London Notebooks, contradict the view 
that before 1868 Marx saw communal forms of landed property as 
“inseparable from despotic rule” (p. 580), focusing only on private 
property (p. 584) and the revolutionary role of the industrial working 
class in the West (pp. 582, 585).

Another blatant omission concerns Stedman Jones’s argument that, in 
1850–1851, Marx “showed no interest in Ricardo’s qualifications” to the 
labour theory of value, and that in the Grundrisse (1857-1858) and later 
works he did not treat the relationship between value and price as a 
“significant challenge to his approach” (pp. 399, 412). In the 1861–1863 
Manuscript Marx provides two main reasons why the Ricardian School 
dissolved: not only Ricardo’s inability to solve the question of surplus 
value (p. 412), but also his failure to integrate the formation of the 
average rate of profit and hence the transformation of value into price 
of production (MECW, vol. 32, p. 361). This is a crucial question that 
Marx addresses at length in the 1861–1863 Manuscript. Even more 
surprisingly, Stedman Jones argues that Marx decided “not to include 
discussion of circulation and expanded reproduction in the published 
volume” of Capital (pp. 422–423), thus determining a fatal “reduction in 
scope of his theory” and leaving unanswered fundamental questions on the 
global reach of capitalism and its relationship to crisis (p. 426). 
Stedman Jones completely ignores Marx’s analysis of simple and extended 
reproduction in Part 7. This is a fundamental mistake because, as I 
argued in my 2015 monograph, 4 it is precisely in those chapters that 
Marx develops his analysis of capital expansionism and global reach. 
Stedman Jones’s acknowledgement that Part 8 on the so-called primitive 
accumulation shows that “capitalist development had been decisively 
assisted by political intervention” and thus its worldwide expansion 
“could be resisted or avoided” (p. 430) contradicts his criticism of 
Marx for supposedly depicting capital as an “impersonal and inevitable 
process, detached from the actions of human agents” (p. 425).

These shortcomings explain the hiatus characterizing Stedman Jones’s 
interpretation of Marx’s theoretical and political positions in the 
1860s and 1870s. In his view, Marx was most effective when he abandoned 
assumptions about the centrality of the party and the concern to push 
the International Working Men’s Association towards a socialist agenda 
(p. 472), “and put his faith in trade unions as the means of the 
formation and consolidation of class identity and activity” (p. 471). In 
the 1860s, Marx would have changed his “conception of revolutionary 
change” (p. 467), focusing not upon “the violent seizure of power 
associated with twentieth-century communism but […] a social-democratic 
process propelled by ‘pressure from without’” (p. 468). But Stedman 
Jones does not provide sufficient evidence for this interpretation, 
which he seems to contradict by quoting an 1868 letter to Ludwig 
Kugelmann in which Marx relates his own activity in the International to 
the broader goals of the “workers’ party” (p. 481). It is also unclear 
how this position could be sustained given the increasing indifference 
on the part of British trade union leaders towards workers’ struggles 
not only in Paris – Stedman Jones criticizes Marx for the political 
isolation in Britain to which his defence of the Commune condemned him – 
but also in the colonies, starting with Ireland. As a rich scholarship 
maintains, rather than expressing, as Stedman Jones claims, the dreams 
of a pre-1848 generation of intellectuals and an escape from his 
economic work, Marx’s late studies of communal social formations 
reflected his continuing attempt at developing his revolutionary 
critique of capitalism as a global system.

The overall conclusion of Stedman Jones’s biography is that Marx’s 
illusion largely overshadows his greatness. More successful in founding 
the new field of social and economic history than in developing a 
compelling critique of capitalism (p. 430), Marx himself deserves to be 
confined within the nineteenth century. And yet, one cannot but wonder 
whether this verdict is grounded in a scholarly analysis of Marx’s 
achievements or in a game of mirrors still largely informed by 
twentieth-century concerns.

1 Francis Wheen , Karl Marx: A Life (London, 1999), and Jonathan 
Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York, 2013).

2 For information on the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA-2) and the 
listings of volumes in these series (Bibliography) see: 
https://socialhistory.org/en/projects/marx-engels-gesamtausgabe; last 
accessed 11 May 2017.

3 Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and 
Non-Western Societies (Chicago, IL, 2010).

4 Lucia Pradella, Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy: 
New Insights from Marx’s Writings (New York, 2015).

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