The value of Karl Marx’s 19th century thinking in today’s world
By Mark Mazower – August 5, 2016
One of the most remarkable scholarly undertakings of the past century, the publication of the collected works of Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels, started in the British Library before the first world war, when an émigré Russian Marxist scholar called David Riazanov began collecting some of Marx’s journalistic articles.
But the project really got off the ground in 1920s Moscow in the Marx-Engels Institute that Riazanov founded, and, after a long interval, was resurrected in the 1970s by the East German and Soviet authorities. After 1989, it continued with funding from the government of the newly reunified Germany and is still ongoing: when it is finished, the full edition is likely to consist of more than a hundred volumes, including not only the authors’ own writings and correspondence but letters to them, jottings and other miscellanea. It will dwarf the numerous other sets of their works, including the collected works in English, which runs to a mere 50 volumes or so.
By a striking coincidence, therefore, the demise of communism across Europe has taken place in the very era when the sources on Marx’s life have proliferated. The result has been a gold-mine for historians and biographers and thus something of a golden age for students of Marx’s life. The current choice of biographies available in English includes an impressively lively account by journalist Francis Wheen, and a superbly detailed study from historian Jonathan Sperber.
To these we can now add Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion. Its author, the distinguished British historian Gareth Stedman Jones, says his aim is a simple one — “to put Marx back in his 19th-century surroundings” — and there is obviously much to be said for trying to strip away the myths from the man and his thought. Marx himself was aware that he was becoming an — ism. “If anything is certain,” he noted near the end of his life, “it is that I myself am not a Marxist.”