In The Nation Benjamin Kunkel, who is becoming one of my favorite writers—his book Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis is must reading for anyone interested in contemporary Marxists like Fredric Jameson or David Harvey—has an excellent review of the new Karl Marx biography by Gareth Stedman-Jones. The whole review is well worth reading, but the opening paragraph is simply the best:
The many biographies of Karl Marx bring out a basic paradox in Marxism. Biographies are typically narratives of the lives of important figures who loom large against the backdrop of history. Yet Marxism, or “the materialist conception of history,” as the young Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels called it, warned from the start against reading the past as the affair of solitary individuals rather than antagonistic classes. In particular, they argued that abstract ideas grew out of material circumstances instead of the other way around—and yet what secular ideology or political tradition emphasizes the special contribution of a lone thinker more than Marxism?
I love the way Kunkel frames this irony. And yet it is a problem for me since I’m writing a history of “Karl Marx in America” and, as I have written here before, I think the best way to tell the story of Marx in America is to examine the topic through the lens of a number of biographical snapshots that will include an eclectic and diverse mix of intellectuals and political actors ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois to Angela Davis to Ronald Reagan.
Why is this a problem? I don’t have a so-called “vulgar” Marxist approach to history in the sense that I don’t necessarily think material conditions—the economy—are the starting and ending place of all historical inquiry or that everything else, including ideas, is mere epiphenomena. I would argue Marx did not have such an approach either. His most famous and influential sentence to imply a theory of history, from his remarkable 1852 essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, is more nuance than vulgar: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Nuance, and nearly unimpeachable I might add!
As far as I can tell most intellectual historians shy away from calling themselves Marxists in their approach to history (this is not a reflection on the political leanings of my colleagues) perhaps because we live in the world of ideas and thus tend to think ideas matter, or as James Livingston puts it in his co-optation and reversal of William Carlos Williams: no things but in ideas. In short, most intellectual historians work from the pragmatic tradition in which neither ideas nor material presupposes the other. And yet this tradition, like the Marxist tradition, does not necessarily lend itself to biography either. As Dan Wickberg challeneged me when I posted here at the blog about my decision to write the story of Marx in America through the lens of biographical snapshot: “why not look at, say, periodicals and other publications, or schools of thought, or coteries of intellectuals, or publication history, or the relationship between forms of Anglo-American radicalism and German philosophy, etc., rather than biographical snapshots?” Dan also teased me about the fact that biography has often been criticized as a particularly bourgeois form of writing!
I don’t pretend to have a sophisticated theoretical rationale for biography—yet. I am confident that my form of biography will focus on a larger political context for how individuals came to ideas rather than, say, psychology, which is a common approach taken by biographers that often amounts to exciting reading yet unconvincing historical analysis.
Stedman-Jones wrote his biography of Marx in order to constrain Marx to the past, as someone produced by his particular nineteenth century conditions rather than as someone for whom we should look to as an authority. This was also the motivation of Jonathan Sperber, another recent Marx biographer. But Kunkel criticizes this approach, and does so in a way that might open up a rationale for Marxist (or pragmatist) biography:
If… we are still drawn to the story of Marx’s life, it’s for reasons other than his authority. Amid trying and precarious circumstances, he combined philosophical penetration, literary and journalistic gifts, and revolutionary commitment to a singular degree. And yet the enormous dimensions of his undertaking meant that he could achieve hardly a fraction of what he attempted; in all that he did, he bequeathed tasks to later generations. In this sense, precisely the fullness of his life—as writer, thinker, and politician—ensured its incompleteness and makes it the inheritance of his successors. In the English-speaking world, the nearest contemporary analog might be the writer, artist, revolutionary (and pioneering British Marxist) William Morris, who also left behind a lasting body of writing and the image of a transformed society. The historian E.P. Thompson wrote a superb biography of Morris the last sentence of which makes an even better epitaph for Marx: “He is one of those men whom history will never overtake.”