[Marxism] Flawed, Manic, and One of Us

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 18 13:07:44 MDT 2018

(I think I'll pass on this one.)

Jason Barker’s Marx Returns vividly reimagines Marx’s London years, 
dwelling primarily on the personal, political, and financial turmoil 
experienced by the Marx family during the 1850s, what was surely their 
most difficult decade. Although Barker draws on events from Marx’s life, 
the book is decidedly not a biography, which would have placed it in a 
suddenly crowded field, alongside recent contributions by Mary Gabriel 
(Love and Capital, 2011), Jonathan Sperber (Karl Marx: A Nineteenth 
Century Life, 2013), Gareth Stedman-Jones (Karl Marx: Greatness and 
Illusion, 2016), and Sven-Eric Liedman (Karl Marx: A World to Win, 2018).

Instead, as Barker makes clear, Marx Returns is a work of historical 
fiction. The book creatively weaves together real historical events; 
imaginative flights of fancy from Marx’s point of view, meditating on 
the nature of capital, mathematics, and ontology; and an uptempo 
narrative that is at heart a familial drama about the experience of 
exile in the nineteenth century. Together, these elements combine to 
create a whimsical book that tries to put a new spin on Marx’s life for 
those already familiar with it, while at the same time acting as a 
general introduction to its subject matter for those uninitiated, with 
mixed results.

Yet these characters remain largely secondary to the battle inside 
Marx’s own head, which takes center stage in the narrative. Barker’s 
Marx is himself something of a mad scientist. More obsessed with 
calculus than with either political economy or history, he is 
perpetually manic, furiously scrawling sentences and paragraphs almost 
immediately indecipherable to himself, pawning off the family’s 
furniture, the children’s toys, and eventually, the literal shirt off 
his back.

What he is struggling to bring into the world, as he tells another 
character, is “a systematic work that penetrates to the very core of the 
bourgeois society, that grasps the real movement, the development of the 
social forces and relations of production as a finite mode in the 
universal scheme of things.” This work eventually materializes in the 
form of the first volume of Capital, but, as the novel suggests, at 
considerable expense to Marx’s sanity, personal relationships, and 
political goals — especially once it becomes clear that his fellow 
comrades in exile have little patience for the science behind Marx’s 


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