Why would a specialist in Russian and east European history feel the need to read a biography about Karl Marx? First and foremost, presumably, because of the immense influence of Marx's ideas on Russian history. If this is our motivation, Gareth Stedman Jones tells us we are deeply mistaken: Marx had barely any influence at all on the Social Democratic movement prior to World War I, either in Germany, Russia, or anywhere else. The widespread impression to the contrary is the result of efforts by German Social Democrats at the end of the nineteenth century to give themselves a respectable pedigree by constructing a cult of Marx. In reality, their “Marxism” consisted mostly of the scientism of Friedrich Engels’ Anti-Dühring and a desire to imitate Charles Darwin. The canon of Marx's texts created after the Russian revolution of 1917—including the Communist Manifesto—is an ahistorical fake: “It was only in the twentieth century, as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the foundation of the Comintern, that the pronouncements of the Manifesto acquired an actuality which they had never possessed in the previous century” (677). The discussion of the Manifesto in the present biography is short and dismissive of any coherent impact of its “impossibly self-contradictory” and “politically unsustainable” strategy (234–6, 240–1).
The political ideas of Marx's youth as expressed in the Manifesto soon proved irrelevant, although Marx had a hard time realizing this. True, Capital was a genuine accomplishment, although only “in the area for which he affected to have least regard[:] he became one of the principal—if unwitting—founders of a new and important area of historical enquiry” (430). Stedman Jones strengthens his case for Marx's political irrelevance by interpreting his remarks on the Russian commune as a repudiation of his earlier outlook. In the final paragraph of his book, Stedman Jones turns the later discovery of his letter to Vera Zasulich into a parable:
We cannot know why in 1923 the former leaders of the Group for the Emancipation of Labour forgot Karl's 1881 letter urging them to support the village community rather than follow the supposedly orthodox “Marxist” strategy of building an urban-based workers’ social-democratic movement. But this only reinforces the point that the Marx constructed in the twentieth century bore only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth (595).
Stedman Jones also maintains that the cult of Marx created by German Social Democratic leaders painted a falsely heroic picture of him personally, and he clearly sees it as his duty to chip away at this picture. Thus, this biography has much to say about Marx's boils, both physical and moral—for example, the repellent racist comments in his correspondence get much play.
This book is a great disappointment. Its central thesis is misguided: Marx remained loyal to the vision of the Manifesto until the end, and the Manifesto and its ideas had a massive influence on pre-World War I Social Democracy, including the Russians. The author does not make a stimulating argument in support of a provocative thesis, but simply overlooks the relevant facts of the case. The heart of Marx's “self-contradictory” political strategy in the Manifesto was to prepare the working class through “united action and discussion” (from Engels’ 1890 preface to the Communist Manifesto) for its great world-historical task. Among other immense consequences, the imperative of educating and organizing on a national scale meant that a large and growing section of the socialist movement had a vital interest in political freedom (free press, right of assembly, and so on) and therefore in the revolutions against absolutism needed to acquire it. In Karl Kautsky's immensely influential words from 1892, political freedom was “light and air for the proletariat.” Russian Social Democracy took these words to heart, and the 1905 Revolution cannot be understood apart from this commitment.
While Stedman Jones is a distinguished specialist in mid-century English social history, he has, on the evidence of this book, very little knowledge of or feel for the pre-World War I Social Democratic movement in Germany, Russia, or anywhere else. His caricature of German Social Democracy and particularly of Kautsky is decades out of date. Although the narrative of “the late Marx” burning his Eurocentric bridges and leaving his dogmatic and self-deceiving followers behind is increasingly popular lately, it rests on a strawman version of “the early Marx” on the one hand and exaggerated claims about the implications of Marx's investigations into the commune on the other.
The final paragraph quoted above exemplifies the book as a whole. It is factually careless: both Georgi Plekhanov and Zasulich had died earlier and so could not forget anything in 1923 (Stedman Jones himself gives a more accurate account in preceding paragraphs). The argument is opaque: what exactly is “this” and why does it “reinforce” Stedman Jones's point? The text of Marx's letter to Zasulich provides no basis for the claim that Marx urged rejection of “the supposedly orthodox ‘Marxist’ strategy of building an urban-based workers’ social-democratic movement” (595). Finally, the author decided for unexplained reasons to refer to his subject throughout the book exclusively as “Karl,” right up to this final paragraph. At first, I thought this was unpardonably familiar on Gareth's part, but I finally realized that the strange procedure expresses well the biographer's desired tone of hostile condescension.