Life of a Revolutionary

Karl Marx: His Life and Thought.
by David McClellan.
Harper & Row. 498 pp. $12.50.

Karl Marx had a very hard life. Born in 1818, he spent virtually his entire political existence in exile from his native Germany. Two of his children died in infancy, one in childhood, and a fourth shortly before Marx's own death in 1883. For many of his most intellectually productive years he was beseiged by creditors and afflicted by a variety of illnesses, the most painful being a near-fatal carbuncular disease that caused him immense suffering during his last twenty years.

Except for a brief period of notoriety after the publication of his Address on the Paris Commune, he lived and worked in relative ob-

Undoubtedly he would have disagreed with Emerson's dictum that “there is properly no history; only biography”—for him, of course, there was only history. But in Marx's own case biography can be a useful means of clarification, enabling us to look at his life and thought directly, without reference to the brutal actions undertaken in his name after 1917. McClellan's biography is important, to begin with, as a dispassionate, comprehensive, and rigorously objective portrait of Marx as he was seen by his contemporaries. It is also the first major biography since Mehring's classic study appeared over fifty years ago—a work which, as McClellan observes, is “slightly hagiographical” and also out of date.

McClellan's book, for example, contains valuable analyses of two works which did not become generally available until after the Mehring biography was published—the 1844 Paris Manuscripts (1932) and the Grundrisse, which first appeared in German in 1939. The first of these was the starting-point for Marx's analysis of alienated labor, while the second McClellan considers to be the link between the early “humanistic” Marx and the fully matured author of Capital. Written in six months during the winter of 1857-58, the Grundrisse may well be Marx's most important work, the product of fifteen years of research which he called “the best period of my life.” It contains the outline of a projected six-volume work on economics—only one of which was ever completed—as well as illuminating digressions on the individual and society, among other subjects, and remarkably prescient passages on automation and leisure time. Since Marx in both these works speaks in rather utopian terms of the development of a “universal,” unalienated individual under communism, they have stimulated a wealth of psychological exegesis among Marxian scholars. What they demonstrate in McClellan's view is that for Marx “economics and ethics were inextricably linked.”

Marx's intellect has never been in question. Even as a young man in his twenties he overwhelmed people with his intellectual power. “His speech was brief, convincing, and compelling in its logic,” Frederick Lessner wrote. No less celebrated than his intellect was his acerbity. To those who saw him from a distance, especially if they were on the opposite side of a political dispute, he appeared both imperious and morose. The American Carl Schurz, for example, wrote that Marx did not accord “the honor of even condescending consideration” to any view that differed from his own. And other sources too corroborate Marx's talent for brilliant (and often delightfully witty) invective. Yet McClellan also shows a gentler side to Marx, quite different from his public personality. To his family and close friends, according to this account, he was warm, open, without vanity, and “truthfulness incarnate,” as Wilhelm Liebknecht put it. To his daughter Eleanor he was “the cheeriest and gayest soul that ever breathed.” As the “human” side of Marx begins increasingly to emerge, the reader begins to share McClellan's obvious affection for his subject.


In general, McClellan remains the detached observer of his subject, except when he intervenes to refute what in his view represents a clear misreading of Marx. Thus, he disposes very cogently of two of the more prevalent—and contradictory—misreadings of Marx: that his philosophy is a secular religion, with the proletariat “discovered” via revelation and assigned the purpose of collective salvation; and that he was an economic determinist. As McClellan demonstrates, Marx was above all a humanist. “The criticism of religion,” he wrote, “ends with the doctrine that man is for himself the highest being. . . .” Far from removing man from the center of reality, historical materialism aided his self-realization by exposing the root of his fantasies, whether religious or ideological. It was Engels, not Marx, who started the process of transforming Marxism from a mode of critical thought into an ideology, a system of laws of society similar to Darwin's laws of nature. McClellan is not the first writer to point this out of course, but his discussion of the Grundrisse, where the problem of alienation is central, should leave no doubts about Marx's humanism.

McClellan also argues that the tendency to view Marx's long-term predictions as having been “disproved” is to misunderstand his economic theory. That theory should not be taken as a scientific treatise, but rather as an analysis of the dynamic of capitalism. As such, it is “to be judged by the insights it gives into the workings of the capitalist system,” not by the accuracy of predictions that “are only based on his abstract ‘model’ of capitalist society, a model capable of almost infinite variation in given circumstances [which] like all models . . . must be assessed by its fruitfulness.” The subsequent emergence within the capitalist framework of such variations as mass trade-union movements and mixed-welfare economies in the West may seem to have made the original model obsolete, yet capitalism has hardly lost its capacity, described by Marx in the Manifesto, to “revolutionize the instruments of production” or to expand “over the whole surface of the globe.” Marx was “wrong,” in other words, in the sense that capitalism has not collapsed, but it does not therefore follow that his description of how it works has become irrelevant.


If McClellan is always stimulating when discussing Marx's theoretical work, his treatment of the latter's political activities is less satisfying. Marx was a democratic socialist who opposed illusory shortcuts to socialism, but at several points in his political life he departed from the general line of his thought. One such departure occurred after the unsuccessful revolution of 1848 when Marx advovocated “revolutionary terrorism” and subsequently in 1850 formed a brief alliance with the Jacobin Blanqui. A second took place when he wrote his brilliant polemic in defense of the Paris Commune, even though he had correctly predicted before the event that an uprising would be “a desperate folly” which would set back the revolutionary cause “another twenty years,” and admitted many years later that the Commune “was not socialist, nor could it have been.” Finally, there was the complete reversal of Marx's stance toward the Russian populists. In 1870 he had written contemptuously of “the schoolboy nihilism which is today fashionable among the Russian students.” But after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, he praised the terrorists as “brave people with no melodramatic poses, straightforward, realistic, and heroic.” This new political attitude toward Russian populism was accompanied by a theoretical revision, as Marx acknowledged the possibility that in Russia the capitalist phase could be by-passed, with the communal farm constituting the basis for socialism.

McClellan recounts these changes in Marx's thinking rather matter-of-factly, commenting only that his attitude on the Russian question was “fatefully ambivalent.” But why did Marx change his attitude toward the populists? Was it out of despair at the prospects of revolution in the West? Or did he mean to lend support to the one group that might weaken Russia, the bulwark of reaction in Europe? These and other questions about Marx's alliance with Blanqui and his uncritical backing of the Commune deserve attention not just because Marx's own revisions have been used by subsequent “Marxists” to justify Jacobinism and terror, but also because they bring out a central element of Marx's personality: he was, after all, a revolutionary who wanted to be in the thick of the fight. (Marx was pleased that his Address on the Paris Commune had made him “the most abused and threatened man in London. That really does me good,” he wrote, “after the tedious twenty-year idyll in my den.”) He fully understood the danger of ultra-leftism and would not give an inch in his struggle with Bakunin. But the failure of that socialist revolution to which he had devoted his life and work led even Marx, if only for brief periods, to accommodate his theories to existing revolutionary possibilities.

When Marx ended his brief flirtation with “street-fighting socialism” in 1850, he chastised his former allies for putting forward “Will . . . as the chief factor in revolution, instead of real relationships.” This conflict within Marxism remains real and ongoing. In the West small sects have had a monopoly on revolutionary “will,” while the “real relationships” have given rise to the reconstructive politics of social democracy. Yet one reason for the enduring value of Marxism is that its own central principles are the best defense against the Leninist error of attempting to impose socialism by force. One such principle is that no new social order can emerge before “the material conditions of [its] existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.” It was on this basis that the orthodox Marxist Plekhanov predicted in 1884 that revolution through terror in backward Russia would lead “to a political deformity after the image of the Chinese and Peruvian Empire, a renewed Czarist despotism with a Communist lining.”

A second principle, anathema to all revolutionary “vanguards,” is that “The emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves.” He who prefers to make the revolution in the name of the working classes may not be satisfied with the course they have chosen, but so be it. They continue to push ahead in their own way and at their own pace. Certainly Marx, unlike some of his “followers,” would have been the last to deny them their right to the choice.

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