Sven-Eric Liedman’s study contains some important defence of Marx’s work, but gives way to hesitation, detracting from the coherence of Marx’s method, argues Chris Nineham

Sven-Eric Liedman, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx (Verso 2018), xii, 756pp.


Why method matters

Liedman is admirably clear about his intentions early in this ambitious book:

‘The tools Marx developed for his analysis of society and history are still sharp but lie unused far too often, despite the fact that we live in a period of striking similarity to Marx’s own…I have attempted to explain who Marx was in his time, but why he remains a vital source of inspiration today’ (p.xii).

This is an important project given the relative scarcity of rigorous theoretical and strategic thinking on the left at the moment, and the way in which Marx and Marxism is vilified. Liedman often rises to the task. He celebrates the predictive power of Marx’s economic analysis pointing out that the ‘elementary building blocks’ of Marx’s economics remain essential to understanding ‘stages in the development of capitalism that Marx never got to experience’. Money for example ‘has become even more abstract thanks to computers, but its role in principle is the same’ (p.454). Challenging caricatures from the right and from some who have claimed the mantle of Marxism, he stresses the centrality of the concept of freedom in Marx and the way he roots it in societal change. Marx championed the bourgeois revolutions partly because they raised the ideas of freedom, equality and justice, ‘but he maintained they could not be realized unless it was in a completely different type of society than a capitalist one’ (p.442).

His account of the emergence of Marx’s thought is clear and engaging. Liedman neatly outlines the mixture of philosophical critique, political and economic analysis and personal experience that led to the central insight first expressed in The Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that it was the working class that can carry through the quest for freedom. As Liedman puts it, ‘only the proletariat had nothing of their own to defend except their own humanity. The hope of human liberation therefore lay with the proletariat’ (p.100).

Interrelation of theory and practice

Liedman stresses the significance of the Theses on Feuerbach as the first clear expression of the Marxist method. He quotes Engels describing the Theses as:

‘Hurriedly scribbled down for later elaboration, absolutely not intended for publication, but invaluable as the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook’(p.174).

This stress is important. Marx’s pithy Theses on Feuerbach keep coming back to the central role of practical activity in Marxist method. It is here we find the famous phrase: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it’. Read in the context of the rest of these notes it is obvious that Marx here wasn’t counterposing theory and action but arguing for their interconnection. Theory can only be tested by acting on the world: ‘man must prove the truth…of his thinking in practice’. The resulting understanding of the world will reveal all sorts of ways in which we are shaped and limited by class society. On the other hand, these conditions themselves are largely the result of past human actions. ‘Circumstances are changed by men’ as Marx says. (All quotations in this paragraph are from the Theses on Feuerbach).

For Liedman, this stress on human practice was central to Marx’s understanding of the world. He points out mainstream materialism up to then was an expression of bourgeois reality, ‘the thinking materialist appears as an indifferent observer of a reality that at heart is constant.’ But, as Liedman says, this misses the fact that ‘it is human activity that creates the world around us’ (p.175). This emphasis on human practice allows Liedman to critique fatalistic versions of Marxism and to recognise that Marx stressed interaction between determining structures handed down from the past and constant change driven by human actions.

Marx himself is portrayed as a restless, brilliant and super-productive author and activist, someone optimistic about fundamental change, quick to grasp the significance of ‘the new and the epochal’ rather than ‘a cautious commentator’ (p.578). Against some, like the structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser, who have tried to claim that there was a break between Marx’s early more philosophical and ‘Hegelian’ and later ‘scientific’ work, Liedman often emphasises the continuity that runs through Marx’s practical and theoretical work,‘Capital without Hegel,’ he says, ‘was unthinkable’ (p.443).

Liedman’s hesitations

Despite these strengths, in the end this book doesn’t follow through fully on Liedman’s central insights. For all his enthusiasm, there is an early hint of prevarication on Marx’s relevance for the twenty-first century. Marx, Liedman says, was ‘firmly anchored in the nineteenth century. Its horizons were also his. At the same time, he stands out as a suitable red-hot critic of the twenty-first century’ (p.12). It turns out that Liedman is at least sympathetic with the common view that Marx was strong as an economic critic of capitalism, less so as someone with political or social solutions. ‘It is not with his answers that he maintains his contemporaneity. He lives on as the great critic of capitalism’ (p.627).

Other familiar mainstream reservations about Marx creep into the book at various times. He claims that Marx was ‘conspicuously silent’ on the issue of women’s oppression (p.622), despite pointing out a few hundred pages earlier that in the early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx discussed precisely this issue at some length. Here, in one of a number of such discussions, Marx argued in fact that the ‘relations between the sexes’ were a defining issue for all societies that reflected ‘the entire world of culture and civilisation’(p.148).

At one point Liedman contradicts his general sense of the coherence of Marx’s project with the strange assertion that ‘Karl Marx kept his roles as social researcher and politician strictly separate’ (p.526). At others, he recycles the common argument that Marx and Engels had profoundly different approaches to philosophy despite the fact that they worked and wrote together in the closest intellectual partnership throughout their adult lives (p.514). Liedman is at his most hesitant about Marx’s politics. At one point he asserts ‘the essential thing for Marx was the social revolution’ (p.623), at another he claims that while workers’ liberation was always central for Marx, he had‘no unequivocal answer to the question of the path to such liberation: the ballot box, bloody uprisings, or a combination of both’ (p.627).

These and other reservations and uncertainties in the book work against the sense of a coherent worldview that Liedman seems to be grasping for in Marx and Marxism. Of course, no sensible intellectual biography of Marx would ignore discussion of contradictory comments, omissions and errors in his works and his campaigning. But there is something more fundamental going on here. Liedman seems to be suggesting that lack of closure is actually an important and defining characteristic of Marx’s work. He argues that ‘Marx never arrived at a summation of his work, much less any system’ and that this was a defining difference between him and some of those who came after (p.624). This stress is central in Liedman’s defence of Marx from those who have claimed him as the inspiration for various dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. Marx, he says, ‘followed a thread, which guided him through the labyrinth of society. But the map his followers began sketching out as soon as he died was not his work’ (p.624).

Liedman is absolutely right to suggest that the regime consolidated by Stalin in the Soviet Union in the later 1920s was a travesty of both the spirit and letter of Marx’s outlook. Marx, he says, ‘did not ignore the risk of bloody conflicts, but he had no conception of any grind that people had to go through in order to attain a better society’ (p.625). ‘Grind’ is a rather partial and polite way of describing some of the darker experiences of millions in the former Soviet Union. However, using theoretical ‘openness’ as a way of distancing Marx from the authoritarian systems that used his name gives too much ground to Marx’s contemporary enemies. It suggests a level of tentativeness in Marx that is belied by his frequent theoretical polemics, the general cohesiveness of his work, and his political decisiveness.

The continuity of method

The book’s ending is inspirational, rightly stating that in working for the liberation of the workers, Marx was seeking the liberation of all humanity (p.627). But the finale doesn’t quite dispel the sense of an unresolved tension at the heart of this book. On the one hand, Liedman is clearly attracted by the scope and ambition of Marx’s work, and his aspiration to understand the fundamental drives of capitalist society and to work to overturn it. On the other, his stress on the failure to complete in Marx’s work encourages a piecemeal approach in which different periods, different aspects and arguments are treated separately and in which inconsistencies are foregrounded. This cuts against the grain of Marx’s life project; to create a holistic understanding of how society works.

It is true that Marx didn’t build an intellectual ‘system’. That would imply too radical a separation between ideas and reality. His general approach was ‘historical’, and his approach was meant to be applied flexibly to changing concrete reality. There were also, of course, questions he left unanswered. Nonetheless, Marx consciously developed a theoretical method to understand the history and development of class society and how it can be changed. At times this method comes into view in A World to Win, but at others it becomes blurred in a flurry of uncertainties.

It is true too that Marx never got around to summarising his method neatly as he suggested he might, although both The German Ideology and the Grundrisse provide us with the groundworks. There are also, unsurprisingly in such a great undertaking, occasional inconsistencies. But such differences of emphasis don’t bring into question the broad thrust of Marx’s analysis and the method can be pieced together from his writings and applied to current realities. Indeed, as Liedman regularly points out, today’s world cries out for Marxist analysis.

The method does not involve the imposition of blueprints or preconceived schemes. It does, however, provide a clear outline, based on the examination of history and practice, of how power is wielded in class society and how capitalism can best be challenged. It has important and sometimes precise conclusions for those ‘who want a way out’ of the contemporary world. Among many other things it stresses change from below, the central importance of class struggle, the need to overcome sectional interests amongst working people, the importance of challenging all forms of oppression and, again and again, the need for revolution.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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