Book Reviews



A Review of Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones

William Clare Roberts

Department of Political Science, McGill University


Despite the stated aim of this new biography to restore Marx to his original condition, Stedman Jones repeatedly misreads Marx’s arguments. He misidentifies or misconstrues the context relevant for many of Marx’s key texts. In general, Stedman Jones reads Marx through a screen of twentieth-century and contemporary concerns – the politics of recognition and the language of identity – while ignoring historical scholarship that would be awkward for the story he wishes to tell. This review-essay substantiates these criticisms by examining in some detail two major themes of Stedman Jones’s account: (1) Marx’s relation to modern representative democracy, and (2) the role of abstraction in Marx’s critique of political economy.



Karl Marx – Gareth Stedman Jones – representative democracy – political economy – socialism

Gareth Stedman Jones, (2016) Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, London: Allen Lane.


Why does this book exist? As Gareth Stedman Jones admits on the first page of his new biography, Marx’s second century has seen numerous treatments of Marx’s life, from Franz Mehring’s to Mary Gabriel’s and Jonathan Sperber’s.[1] Stedman Jones cites a dozen, give or take. What could justify another 700-page entry in this crowded field?

Stedman Jones must have asked himself this same question. His apology is that previous biographies have offered only ‘descriptive accounts of Marx’s theoretical writings’ (p. xv). By contrast, Stedman Jones sets out to give Marx’s writings their theoretical and political due by treating them ‘as the interventions of an author within particular political and philosophical contexts that the historian must carefully reconstruct’ (p. xv). If Stedman Jones has paid ‘as much attention to Marx’s thought as to his life’, he has also ‘paid as much attention to the utterances and reactions of contemporaries as to Marx’s own words’ (p. xv). The aim, therefore, is to reconstruct the context of Marx’s writings, and to ‘restore’ these writings thereby to their ‘original condition’, stripping away any ‘retouching and alteration’ that has befallen them since Marx’s death.

This is an admirable aim. Innocent, with a whiff of positivism about it, but admirable. Judged according to this stated aspiration, however, Greatness and Illusion is not a success. Despite some bright spots – in particular, the reconstruction of the context and process of writing and publishingCapital – the overwhelming tendency of the book is to misidentify or misconstrue the political and philosophical contexts of Marx’s interventions. The result is a map of Marx’s life that theEconomist can extol – ‘no better guide to Marx’, it declares on the cover of the paperback – but which misleads and confuses the reader truly interested in discovering Marx’s thought, writings, and context.

Despite his stated design, Stedman Jones shows no real concern for figuring out the how and why of Marx’s interventions. He repeatedly misreads Marx’s arguments. He takes Marx’s interlocutors at their word, religiously, even as he claims to know, for instance, when Marx only ‘affected to believe’ something (p. 296). He misidentifies or misconstrues the context relevant for many of Marx’s key texts. In general, Stedman Jones reads Marx through a screen of twentieth-century and contemporary concerns – the politics of recognition and the language of identity – while ignoring historical scholarship that would be awkward for the story he wishes to tell. This may seem a harsh indictment of a book that has been, on the whole, well-received, written by scholar with a long and distinguished career. In what follows, I will substantiate these charges by examining in some detail two major themes of Stedman Jones’s account: (1) Marx’s relation to modern representative democracy, and (2) the role of abstraction in Marx’s critique of political economy. This should make it clear that Stedman Jones’s real project is quite different from his stated one.


  1. Representation and Universal Suffrage

Marx’s first foray into politics, writing for and then editing the Rheinische Zeitung, compels Stedman Jones to characterise, for the first time, Marx’s politics. He wants his readers to know that, even in 1842, Marx was no liberal. What Marx wanted was ‘really an update of the Greek polis’, a pseudo-Hegelian version of ‘the political vision embodied in Rousseau’s conception of the general will’, in which particular interests had no standing. The basis of this interpretation is that Marx’s earliest articles ‘made little or no reference to parliamentary representation, the division of powers, or the rights of individuals’ (p. 112). This is the first sounding of one of Stedman Jones’s great themes, that Marx is hostile to ‘the idea of representation’ (p. 135), ‘the modern representative state’ (p. 307), or ‘representation and the “political state”’ (p. 311), and that this hostility leads him to dismiss ‘universal suffrage’ as a sham and an illusion (pp. 337, 342, 550–1). There are no two ways about it: this interpretation is a fundamental distortion. Nonetheless, it is one of the structuring axes of Stedman Jones’s portrait of Marx, and so we must ask how he came to it and what it means.

Why does Stedman Jones think that it is so telling that Marx’s earliest journalism does not discuss parliamentary representation, the division of powers, or the rights of individuals? Recall that these articles were written in Rhenish Prussia, and that they are especially concerned with censorship. Parliamentary representation did not exist in Prussia, nor did a constitutional separation of powers. Marx could not express sympathy for either without expressing sympathy for a change in the regime, which would have been impossible given the prevailing censorship. The only form of representation that was locally relevant was that of the provincial Assembly of Estates, which represented the people the way a Dalí painting represents a landscape. Thus, when Marx criticises this form of representation, and claims that ‘only what is material, spiritless, unable to rely on itself, imperilled, requires to be represented’,[2] he means ‘to be represented’ in the sense of ‘to be spoken for and about’. Stedman Jones, without reason, interprets this as ‘a larger objection to representation’, understood now in the sense of parliamentary or electoral representation. Likewise, when Marx argues that industries and landed property should not be able to ‘bargain with the state’ as if they were foreign powers, Stedman Jones sees Marx denying the validity of all ‘particular interests’. The upshot is that Stedman Jones is able to read Marx’s advocacy, in these articles, of ‘the people’s self-representation’ as a proposal for direct participatory government rather than reading it for what it explicitly is, a call for representation on the basis of ‘the districts, rural communities, governments, provincial administrations, and military departments’ that actually comprise the Prussian state.[3]

Having established Marx’s antipathy to representation by this ingenious method of finding Rousseauian direct democracy lurking under a proposal to base representation in jurisdictional and governmental units instead of estates, Stedman Jones is able to rely upon this antipathy as an established fact, useful for interpreting Marx’s words – and silences – in other contexts. Thus, while considering Marx’s break from Bruno Bauer in 1843, and the texts that emerged from and consecrated this break (those published in the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher), Stedman Jones condemns Marx’s critique of Hegel’sPhilosophy of Right for producing ‘a rigid and impoverished construct, in which the differences between the Prussian and the American state, for example, became secondary and inessential’ (p. 135). According to this reading, Marx’s valorisation of an undifferentiated ‘social’ character of humanity – his Athenian-Rousseauian impulse – blots out all differences between forms of the state, between ancient and modern life, and between individuals. All of which is supposed to underscore Marx’s distance from ‘the realities of radical politics in nineteenth-century Britain and France’, where, by implication, no one was interested in a ‘dismissal of the idea of representation’ or in ‘the overcoming of the division between civil society and the political state’ (p. 135).

And yet, nowhere in these texts – the draft critique of Hegel, its published ‘Introduction’, ‘On the Jewish Question’, or the published letters to Ruge – does one find any of these elements.[4] The very significant differences between the Prussian state and the American state are an explicit concern of Marx’s essays in the Jahrbücher. Marx’s claim is not that those differences are inessential, but that they are crucially important for any political strategy and must be understood in relation to the rise of bourgeois society. There is no critique of ‘individuality’ in these texts, nor any significant discussion of ancient Greece.

Marx does make one very important claim about representation, however, a claim that Stedman Jones quotes, though without seeing that it wrecks his portrait. In a letter to Ruge, Marx argued for taking up political questions in a specific manner. ‘The critic’, Marx argued,


not only can, but must deal with these political questions (which according to the extreme Socialists are altogether unworthy of attention). In analysing the superiority of the representative system over the social-estate system, the critic in a practical way wins the interest of a large party. By raising the representative system from its political form to the universal form and by bringing out the true significance underlying this system, the critic at the same time compels this party to go beyond its own confines.[5]


In plain language, Marx is arguing for a two-step process of critical engagement with political reformers and socialists. In the first step, he and Ruge should advocate that representative assemblies replace estates assemblies. This question is of broad interest, and will attract partisans. In the second step, Marx and Ruge should make the argument for universal representation, or its extension to the social and economic sphere, which will challenge those partisans of political representation to embrace a demand for representative government in the economy. Marx is clearly outlining a strategy for uniting political reformers with socialists by linking demands for political democracy with demands for cooperative workplaces.

Stedman Jones not only misses this, he declares it unthinkable. He claims repeatedly that Marx’s ‘attempt to ride simultaneously two horses – the democratic and the proletarian-socialist’ – bequeathed to his political writings ‘a certain incoherence’. Dumbfounded, Stedman Jones asks, ‘if democracy did not provide a solution to the social question, then why fight for the attainment of the republic?’ (p. 271). It is not incoherent, however, or even very mysterious, to want something – a democratic republican form of government – not as an end in itself but for the instrumental value that the democratic republic would hold for carrying on the workers’ movement. Of course, Stedman Jones is right that this was not ‘the case made by democrats and republicans’, and he is also right that Marx’s position provoked difficulties with both democratic allies and leaders of the workers’ movement. It is an unrealistic expectation, however, that someone who ‘was fully engaged in the mid-century revolutions, both as a participant and as a critical observer’ (p. 252), would not encounter disagreements with people who were, on other points, allies. However, because Stedman Jones has no sympathy for Marx’s position, he finds the way to understanding it barred and locked. He cannot enter into Marx’s arguments and see them from the inside, and therefore he cannot find any sense in them at all.

Stedman Jones characterises Marx’s position as a ‘reduction of the political to the social’ (p. 243). Stedman Jones’s own position has long been that the ‘social’ does not exist. There are no ‘self-evident economic facts’, Stedman Jones tells us, and class is not ‘the expression of a simple socio-economic reality’, but ‘a form of language discursively produced to create identity’ (p. 306).[6] Therefore, self-proclaimed workers’ movements and organisations emerged, not from ‘the economic advance of modern industrial capitalism’. Rather, they were ‘political effects’ of ‘the unprecedented political mobilization of the population following the American and French Revolutions’. ‘Class consciousness’ was not caused by ‘dehumanization or proletarianization’, but by ‘political exclusion’. Stedman Jones’s complaint, therefore, is that, ‘given his hostility to representation and the “political state”’, Marx could never appreciate ‘these political determinants of working-class action’ (p. 311; compare p. 397). Marx ‘failed to listen to the discourse of the workers themselves’, and even tended ‘to discount what workers actually said’ (p. 312).

The problems with this argument are legion. First, as we have seen, Marx was not at all hostile to representation or to the workers’ desire for inclusion in the political state. He championed Chartism because of, not in spite of, its political aims. Stedman Jones is, therefore, consistently embarrassed by Marx’s support for Chartism, which he alternately ignores, downplays, or groundlessly qualifies. Second, Stedman Jones never once quotes ‘what the workers actually said’. He gives us no reason to believe his characterisation that the mass of workers was concerned solely with political recognition and worker identity, to the exclusion of economic exploitation and the transformation of work relations.

Third, neither does he do much by way of reconstructing the discourses of worker radicalism and grassroots socialism. Mikhail Bakunin’s views and actions get fifteen pages of careful discussion (pp. 513–29), even though Bakunin exercised no theoretical or political influence upon Marx, and was a foil for Marx only after Marx’s beliefs had attained their final form. On the other hand, the ‘popular political economy’ that circulated in Chartist circles gets no discussion at all, and Proudhon – whose works and followers provoked Marx, theoretically and politically, for thirty years – merits two pages of summary and a dozen scattered comments.

Finally, and most importantly, there is a basic disconnect between Stedman Jones’s characterisation of Marx as a reductionist for whom class consciousness is an automatic reflex of industrialisation, and Marx’s entire life of political activity, in which he consistently opposed the apolitical and anti-political tendencies within socialist circles and the workers’ movement. It was Proudhon and Bakunin who resisted any concession to ‘the representative principle’.[7] It was British Owenites who dismissed any effort to reform the constitution as futile in the face of a monetary system that cheated workers to benefit money-owners. It was artisan communists like Wilhelm Weitling who believed that an immediate moral community among poor workers could destroy all traces of the bourgeois political realm. These were Marx’s opponents. In the context of nineteenth-century socialist and workers’ discourse, Marx incessantly promoted the view that workers should organise themselves by, and for the sake of, intervening in politics at the level of the modern representative state. This basic fact disappears in Stedman Jones’s portrait, and its disappearance demonstrates that his effort to restore Marx’s political interventions to their original condition has gone badly awry.[8]

  1. The Critique of Abstraction

His failure to read Marx in relation to the relevant context also undermines Stedman Jones’s reconstruction of Marx’s critique of political economy. The distortions here are less obvious, if only because Stedman Jones’s account fits easily within a fairly standard interpretive tradition. Marx’s critique of political economy, on this reading, is based in a Feuerbachian critique of processes of abstraction, by means of which the human basis of the economic realm is revealed, and alienation is thereby overcome. The only worth of this project, according to Stedman Jones, is that it eventually compels Marx to engage in a concrete social history of the British working class. (In the study as in the forum, Stedman Jones would prefer that Marx live up to the standard set by Stedman Jones himself.)

Taking this Feuerbachian framing for granted relieves Stedman Jones of the burden of figuring out the stakes of Marx’s lifelong theoretical endeavour. If the basis of the domination of capital is that ‘man has made himself the victim of the abstractions which he has created and builds upon these misperceptions’ (p. 199), then it is self-evident that Marx’s critique of political economy is simply an effort to restore to human beings ‘the sense of their own agency in the creation of the situation by which they were confronted’ (p. 424). The truth shall set us free.

While this is the dominant theme of Stedman Jones’s reconstruction of Marx’s research into political economy, he also drops clues that Marx is motivated by something other than the desire to de-alienate his readers. In the Grundrisse, Stedman Jones tells us, Marx’s ‘main target was Proudhon’ (p. 391). Likewise, one of Marx’s ‘main ambitions’ for the 1859Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy was to deliver ‘yet another knock-out blow against his major antagonist of the 1840s, Proudhon’ (p. 406). Why should Marx be so obsessed with Proudhon, and what might this tell us about Marx’s critique of political economy? A major clue is contained in Stedman Jones’s admission that, responding to the appearance of Proudhon’sSystem of Economic Contradictions in 1846, Marx ‘abandoned the Feuerbachian approach’, and ‘began to develop a radical reading of political economy in its own terms’ (p. 230).[9] This reading began to identify the concepts of political economy as ‘only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions, of the social relations of production’, as Marx would put it in the Grundrisse (quoted by Stedman Jones, p. 376). In order to bring out the importance of Proudhon and the confusions of Stedman Jones, we must appreciate this distinction, in Marx’s thought, between abstractions and relations.

When Marx criticises Proudhon for failing to appreciate ‘that economic categories are butabstractions of those real relations, that they are truths only insofar as these relations continue to exist’ (quoted by Stedman Jones, p. 194), he means to attack two separate aspects of Proudhon’s thought. Proudhon took the basic premises of political economy – above all, that the value of a commodity is determined by labour and that exchanges are realised between commodities of equal value – to be normative claims of timeless validity. That is, all of political economy’s empirical research into the effects of exchange upon the division of labour and increasing productivity presupposed, according to Proudhon, a theory of justice. He set himself the task of elucidating and expounding this theory of justice, which was, to his mind, (1) the only admissible curb on the practices of the modern economy, since it was, in fact, (2) the hidden ground of all those practices.

Marx thought this was exactly backwards. The determination of value by labour and the exchange of equivalents are rooted in – not grounding of – the practices of production and exchange, and so cannot function as trans-historical normative standards, precisely because they are the immanent norms of the capitalist mode of production itself. Labour already does determine the value of commodities, and exchangesare of equal values – not in every single case, but on average. These norms cannot furnish the socialist movement with a standard of justice by which to judge the capitalist mode of production; the capitalist mode of production is the very social body that these propositions express abstractly.

This is important for Marx because, compared to Proudhon, the rest of the socialists look like complete ignoramuses regarding political economy. As he yelled at Weitling, ‘Ignorance has never yet helped anybody’ (quoted on p. 215). But ignorance was the rule. Socialists had to study the present world, Marx thought, if they wished to overturn it. They had to understand how it operated before they would be able to transform it. And Marx thought that political economy was the science of how the capitalist mode of production worked. It expressed the social relations of production in a system of theoretical abstractions. But none among the socialists had studied political economy as closely as had Proudhon, and even he had failed to understand it.

Marx’s critique of political economy was never a Feuerbachian critique of the process of abstraction, as Stedman Jones understands it. Marx was interested in the abstractions because he was interested in the social relations they expressed theoretically. Because ‘relationships can naturally be expressed only in ideas’, Marx thought it unsurprising that ‘philosophers have seen the peculiarity of modern times in the individuals’ being dominated by ideas’, or ‘abstractions’.[10] Marx was not himself one of these ‘philosophers’.

But Stedman Jones, obsessed with the abstractions, has nothing to say about the social relations that interested Marx. He treats social relations in Marx as if they were merely the form in which ‘self-estrangement’ ‘appeared’ (p. 178). He thinks that Marx’s emphasis upon the social is an attempt to find a realm of immediacy and self-evident facts, and that, therefore, his criticism of political economy and capital must boil down to a criticism of illusion and illusory mediation. Thus, he attributes to Marx the claims that, in the market, ‘humans conceived themselves to be the creatures of economic forces’, and ‘the relations between persons appeared to have been replaced by the relations between things’ (p. 409). Marx, of course, says something rather different. He treats individuals as the creatures of economic forces because individuals are, in fact, dominated by the relations of the market; they conceive themselves, on the other hand, to be free. Relations between them, meanwhile, really are relations among things, since the exchange of commodities has become the social nexus. In Stedman Jones’s presentation, Marx’s every characterisation of social reality becomes a characterisation of appearances and self-conceptions.

These are not the only errors. He identifies the labour theory of value with the claim that ‘labour was the sole source of wealth’, a claim Marx repeatedly and explicitly denies (p. 380). He derives his presentation of Marx’s account of valorisation and exploitation entirely from G.A. Cohen and Anton Menger[11] – long live contextualism! – and therefore attributes to Marx the claim that ‘the value of a commodity was known before it was submitted to exchange’ (p. 400).[12] He claims that ‘the exchange of equivalents’ only existed in a pre-capitalist era of simple commodity production, and that there is ‘an underlying historical logic to the arrangement of Capital’ (pp. 416, 424). In general, the picture that emerges ofCapital is much spottier than that of theGrundrisse. It seems as if Stedman Jones simply skipped over Parts III and VII, since he claims that ‘the division of the working day into periods of necessary and surplus labour’ is ‘simply assumed’, and that there is no discussion of ‘expanded reproduction in the published volume’ (pp. 422–3).[13]

An important thing that Stedman Jones get right is that Marx’s involvement in the International Working Men’s Association in 1864–7 was ‘closely related to the analysis he was currently developing in his book’ (p. 466). He sees this interrelation especially in the picture painted by Marx of an ongoing transition towards socialism, building on changes already occurring ‘in civil society’, and propelled by organised labour acting as ‘pressure from without’ on the state (p. 468). This connection between the IWMA and Capital is not really explored, unfortunately, or broadened beyond the question of the transition to socialism. The actual argument ofCapital is treated as an attempted popularisation of theGrundrisse, rather than as an engagement with the other socialist theories Marx was encountering and arguing against in his work for the IWMA. Thus, Stedman Jones’s sympathy for Marx’s political position in the late 60s, when he formulated a ‘new social-democratic language’ (p. 466), does not extend to Marx’s arguments inCapital. Stedman Jones treats these as incomprehensible and unjustifiable.

  1. The Making of a ‘Case’

Stedman Jones’s antipathy for Marx’s arguments tends to bleed over into antipathy for Marx’s entire person. This is the overwhelming fact of this biography: Stedman Jones does not much like Marx, and he conveys this dislike in a million small choices about what to include and exclude. He indicts Marx the young student of ‘solipsistic self-absorption, belletrist conceit, and apparent lack of real interest in the condition of his family’, only to admit that ‘such at least was the gist of the frequently reiterated complaints of his father’ (p. 58). In other words, he has formed his opinion of Marx’s character entirely on the basis of his father’s complaints, without telling us why we should take his father’s word.

This pattern repeats with alarming frequency. Stedman Jones channels Arnold Ruge’s characterisation of Marx, but admits that, ‘of the occasion of Karl’s breakup with Ruge, only Ruge’s account survives’ (p. 155). He refers to Marx in the run-up to 1848 as a ‘democratic dictator’, driven by an ‘ambition’ – ‘whether avowed or not’ – ‘to eliminate rival visions of socialism’ (p. 212). In an effort to back up this charge, he engages in unsubstantiated and one-sided character assassination. Marx is ‘bad-tempered and unfriendly’ to Wilhelm Weitling (p. 214). His open letter to Hermann Kriege is ‘grotesquely self-important’ (p. 215). The Brussels Correspondence Committee’s letters are ‘intolerant and imperious’ (p. 217). He compares Marx’s style of leadership to Robert Owen’s and Étienne Cabet’s: ‘autocratic’ and ‘based upon the enunciation of doctrine’ (p. 224).

None of the people with whom Marx worked and argued are subjected to this sort of vituperation, or to anything but respectful treatment. Proudhon – and anyone who knows the least thing about Proudhon’s motives and designs will appreciate the humour in this – is said by Stedman Jones to have ‘expressed reasoned disagreement’ with the project of the Correspondence Committee (p. 216). On one page, Andreas Gottschalk leads the Cologne Workers’ Association ‘with a firm hand’. On the next page, Marx plays his editorial role at the Neue Rheinische Zeitung ‘in a dictatorial fashion’ (pp. 262–3). How was Stedman Jones able to differentiate Gottschalk’s firm hand from Marx’s dictatorship?

All of this venom is ostensibly proof that Stedman Jones has moved beyond the iconography of Marx constructed by the first generation of Marxists. ‘Much of the standard picture of the personal character, political judgement and theoretical achievements of Marx’, he claims in the Prologue, ‘was founded upon the need to protect’ the ‘legacy’ of the German Social Democratic Party. ‘Ordinary party members’, he thinks, ‘were sustained by the idea that the approaching demise of capitalism had been proved definitively in a book written by a great philosopher’ (p. 3). The implicit premise of Greatness and Illusion is that putting Marx ‘back in his nineteenth-century surroundings, before all these posthumous elaborations of his character and achievements were constructed’ is identical to demolishing the icon of Marx constructed by the Social Democrats (p. 5).

But this premise is mistaken. It ignores the fact that anti-Marxists have been just as active – and at least as effective – in constructing ‘the standard picture’ of Marx. Stedman Jones, busy scraping away at the icon, pays no attention to the way in which he reproduces the anathema. This anathema is just as boringly derivative and received as the icon. It has been replicated by a thousand anti-Marxists and ex-Marxists of Stedman Jones’ generation. It has been painted in a million lurid colours by every hack street vendor of the New Left. When Stedman Jones writes a line like, ‘Marx did not endow his proletarians with individuality’ (p. 203), he may as well be painting by numbers.

Foucault once contrasted two political functions of biography. On the one hand, there is the older practice – found in ‘the chronicle of kings or the adventures of the great popular bandits’ – which turns ‘real lives into writing’ via ‘a procedure of heroization’. On the other hand, there are ‘the carefully collated’ biographies produced by the modern human sciences, records of the lives ‘of mental patients or delinquents’, which pursue ‘the pinning down of each individual in his own particularity’.[14] Stedman Jones’s biography fits comfortably within this second, disciplinary mode of writing a life. Stedman Jones wants to make a ‘case’ out of Marx. This is why he insists on calling Marx ‘Karl’. He wishes to exercise a form of power over Marx by treating him as one would a child or a patient. But this casefile, constructed in the twenty-first century, bears ‘only an incidental resemblance to the Marx who lived in the nineteenth’ (p. 595).


Foucault, Michel 1995, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, New York: Vintage Books.

Gabriel, Mary 2012, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, Boston: Back Bay.

Hunt, Richard N. 1974, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels, Volume 1, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Hunt, Richard N. 1984, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels, Volume 2, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Leopold, David 2007, The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics, and Human Flourishing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels 1975a, Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 1, New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels 1975b, Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels 1986, Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 28, New York: International Publishers.

Mehring, Franz 1936 [1918], Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, translated by Edward Fitzgerald, London: Allen and Unwin.

Nicolaevsky, B.I. and O. Maenchen-Helfen 1973 [1936], Karl Marx: Man and Fighter, translated by Gwenda David and Eric Mosbacher, London: Allen Lane.

Roberts, William Clare 2017, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of ‘Capital’, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sperber, Jonathan 2013, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, New York: Liveright Publishing Corp.

Stedman Jones, Gareth 1984, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832–1982, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stedman Jones, Gareth 2016, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, London: Allen Lane.



[1] Mehring 1936; Gabriel 2012; Sperber 2013.

[2] Marx and Engels 1975a, p. 306; quoted in Stedman Jones 2016, p. 112.

[3] Marx and Engels 1975a, p. 296. While it is outside the scope of the theme of political representation, we should not pass over in silence Stedman Jones’s suggestion that Marx does not care about ‘the rights of the individual’. The object of Marx’s first articles is a defence of the freedom of the press to publish the debates of the provincial Assembly of Estates. What would this freedom of the press be if it were not a right of individuals? In these articles, Marx calls censorship ‘a permanent attack on the rights of private persons’ (Marx and Engels 1975a, p. 168). And the entire object of these articles is to criticise this attack. A suspicion begins to form: did Stedman Jones actually read these articles?

[4] On the basis of Stedman Jones’s characterisation, a new reader of Marx will be shocked to discover that Marx is a proponent of the political emancipation of the Jews. Stedman Jones seems to have missed this point himself (Stedman Jones 2016, p. 152). Instead, he treats the reader to a two-and-a-half page ‘Note on Marx and Judaism’, which contributes nothing of note to the extant literature, and yet he remains silent about David Leopold’s reconstruction of Marx’s strategy in ‘On the Jewish Question’, the best recent work on the subject (Leopold 2007, Chapter 3).

[5]Marx and Engels 1975b, p. 144; quoted in part in Stedman Jones 2016, pp. 145–6.

[6] The ‘historians’ who ‘have come to understand’ this truth about class are, apparently, Stedman Jones himself, as he is the only authority he cites. The historians, c’est moi! Admittedly, hisLanguages of Class says more clearly and expansively everything he hints at here, but this just reinforces the perception that he is re-litigating the methodological conflicts of the 1970s and ’80s in the guise of restoring Marx (Stedman Jones 1984).

[7] Having spent 400 pages portraying Marx as a hostile critic of representation, Stedman Jones is placed in the awkward situation of reporting Bakunin’s attacks on Marx and Lassalle as ‘advocates of representative democracy’ (Stedman Jones 2016, p. 525). This compels him to retreat somewhat, but he takes, as his fallback position, the Arendtian claim that Marx’s understanding of representation lacked ‘a social and political space in which a plurality not merely of functions, but also of opinions, might be expressed’ (Stedman Jones 2016, p. 528). This fallback position is just as fictitious, and relies upon putting words into Marx’s mouth; see Roberts 2017, pp. 250–4.

[8] Given that Stedman Jones’s estimation of Marx’s politics depends directly on their approximation to the politics of a mild-mannered social democrat, it is conspicuous that Stedman Jones does not take into account the portraits of Marx painted by Mensheviks and social democrats. He cites both Nicolaevsky and Maenchen-Helfen 1973, and Hunt 1974 and 1984, but does not show any signs of having digested their accounts of Marx’s political strategies.

[9] What he gives in the text, Stedman Jones tries to take back in the notes: ‘Shelved and modified, but not abandoned. He continued to consider “the economic” as a distortion of “the human,” and to assume that “abstraction” was the means by which humanity subjected itself to inhuman goals’ (Stedman Jones 2016, p. 644, n. 72).

[10] Marx and Engels 1986, p. 101.

[11] He refers to Menger’s anti-socialist text, which is confused and ignorant in equal measure, as a ‘contemporary’ account, though it was published in 1886 (Stedman Jones 2016, p. 672, n. 82). Menger thought that Marx was entirely derivative of the Owenites, and that he believed the workers had a right to the full product of their labour.

[12] For a recent reconstruction of Marx’s position, see Roberts 2017, Chapter 3.

[13] There are also errors of textual history. The 1867 edition of Capital did not contain eight parts (Stedman Jones 2016, p. 420). Marx did not simply ‘drop’ the appendix on the value-form from later editions (Stedman Jones 2016, p. 421); he reworked Chapter One completely. The French edition ‘began to appear’ in 1872, not ‘in 1875’, when its final instalments were published (Stedman Jones 2016, p. 536).

[14] Foucault 1995, p. 192.