A review of Gareth Stedman Jones, “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion”

By Allan Patience

Compared to Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx is perhaps the most misused and abused of this trinity of early and most original of social and political theorists of modernity. All three were profoundly disturbed by the emerging trajectories of capitalism. All three were deeply pessimistic about its future (in Weber’s case to the point of abject despair). But of the three it is Marx’s voluminous writings that have been the most crudely plagiarised, reductively misinterpreted and ideologically distorted by thousands, if not millions, of self-proclaimed followers of bad faith on the one hand and critics of a similar character on the other. So much so in fact that the plagiarists, reductionists and ideologues have continuously and comprehensively white-anted the enormous moral and political philosophy project that Marx struggled throughout his life to bring together into a coherent opus. The tragedy, of course, is that he never succeeded in completing his project.

The political and intellectual distorters of his work provided copious ammunition for Marx’s enemies to deploy in attacking the entirety of his thinking. Here one thinks especially of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Che, Fidel, and others of this ugly ilk. And of course we have myriad communist parties around the globe, past and present, which have laid diverse and mostly spurious claims to a Marxist legacy. Their ravaging of Marx’s work was aided and abetted by self-proclaimed would-be “true” Marxists like Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas and postmodern or “neo-Marxists” like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who all crudely misused Marx to advance their own narcissistic and malevolent agendas.

These recondite figures provided deadly ammunition for Marx’s enemies – and for sure those enemies are legion. These include the usual suspects in the Western media. Acting as a kind of Cold War Greek chorus, Western writers such as Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell in the United States, Karl Popper in the UK, and Raymond Aron in France who all tilted wildly at the various totalitarian windmills they called Marxism in order to reject it absolutely. Their ideological successes – despite the palpable falsity of their interpretations of Marx – far out-weighed their intellectual failings. This is despite the immensely more scholarly approaches to Marx taken by great intellectuals like E. P. Thompson, Ralph Miliband and Leszek Kolakowski. However these honourable figures were drowned out by the cacophony of anti-Marxism that swamped the West’s political culture during the Cold War, closing down so many alternative ways of seeing and understanding a world that right now is in gravest danger of heading to hell in a hand basket.

Marx was alarmed by the capitalism he saw coming into being in Western Europe and America. He railed against the inhumane conditions workers were being subjected to by their regimentation in factories, by their long working hours and shocking conditions, the horror of child labour (which was a form of slavery), and the venality of their paymasters. He was scathing in his critiques of the selfishness and cruelty of factory bosses and their owners and shareholders. He was appalled by the ideological false-consciousness – the lies (“post-truths”) – purveyed by the media as it collaborated unconscionably with the owners of capital and their banker backers. And he identified the deep psycho-emotional (or spiritual) malaise that was setting class against class, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group, and so on. This he labelled as “alienation.” His analysis has never been surpassed in its deep knowledge of how things really are in what Weber described as modernity’s “iron cage of rationality.”

The grimmest fact of the twenty-first century is that the capitalism Marx prophesied has well and truly arrived across the globe. As Thomas Picketty has shown, the divide between the owners of capital and the non-owners has widened to an historical extreme. It has advanced from its post-war relatively retrained form of welfare capitalism through predatory capitalism to its present form of neo-liberal parasitic capitalism. It has produced the Global Financial Crisis and populist revolts in all the Western so-called democracies delivering toxic victories to the campaigners for Brexit and Donald Trump while plunging the Eurozone into crisis. And the economic catastrophe of 2007/8 is undoubtedly a relatively mild forerunner to further and bigger global financial crises.
karl-marx-gareth-steadman-jonesCriticise him all you like for what you think is his materialism, his historicism, or his economic determinism. Accuse him of laying the foundations of Stalinism. Attack him for being a fermentor of bloody revolution as much as you like. But this all completely misses the point. As Gareth Stedman Jones has so scrupulously documented in this major work, trying to pin any of these labels on Marx is a cynical exercise in scholarly duplicity and political deceit. As he notes at the outset, his aim “is to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings, before all of [the] posthumous elaborations of his character and achievements were constructed.” The intellectual biography that he unveils portrays an extremely complex and often vulnerable man, an intellectual outsider, a man of unfathomable physical and mental passions actively seeking to make sense of the extraordinarily complex times in which he was living, responding to those times by drawing on a host of philosophical, literary and other super-structural realities that ebbed and flowed and occasionally erupted in flashes of amazing clarity in his mighty imagination.

The Marx that Stedman Jones has revealed to us set himself a many-dimensioned challenge that no ordinary mortal could hope to surmount. That Marx almost did surmount it marks him out as perhaps the greatest giant ever in understanding capitalism’s imminent dénouement. Dwarves have swarmed across his shoulders ever since but none has ever seen what Marx saw with such apprehensive clarity and moral outrage. And what he saw was a capitalism whose endgame was inevitable. His prophesies – in a rabbinical tradition going way back in the Old Testament and before – are today being fulfilled as neo-liberalism’s parasitic capitalism wreaks its terrible destruction across the globe. It is time to return to Marx – to find a deeper, richer understanding of what he was analysing and predicting, free of the hyperbole and bad faith that he has been met with for far too long.

Stedman Jones has opened the great door that will enable us to return to Marx, to fully grasp the often Hegelian, frequently poetic, and profoundly philosophical moralising that remains at the very core of Marx’s immense project. This book is compelling reading and must become a major reference for anyone concerned about reviving hope in achieving a civilized and decent world – a new social democracy – in which we will all, how and whenever we wish, be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening and criticize at night, “without,” in the words of The German Ideology, ever becoming a hunter, a fisherman, a cattle breeder or critic.”

Gareth Stedman Jones (2016), Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press) ISBN: 9780674971615. Pp. i-750.


Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

1 thought on “A review of Gareth Stedman Jones, “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion”

  1. Michael Hamel-Green says:

    This is a really engaging and politically contextualised review of what is obviously a very important reassessment of Marx. I have just, belatedly, finished Piketty’s analysis of the alarming trends in global capitalism and the extraordinary levels of inequality that have been developing since 1980, and this review has certainly given me every incentive to follow up with Gareth Jones’ book. Thank you, Allan, for such an eloquent and persuasive review on the significance of this new look at Marx.


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