In this intellectual biography, the Italian sociologist and Marxologist Marcello Musto seeks to rehabilitate the theoretical and political output of the last years of Marx’s life. Covering the period from roughly 1879 to his death in 1883, Musto tries to counter a tendency observed both in academic philosophy and in many biographies of Marx, namely to treat his final years after the publication of Capital as more or less uninteresting and a period of intellectual decline, usually skipped over entirely or at least given short shrift. To support this aim, Musto builds on the much greater manuscript knowledge of Marx’s work, thanks to the MEGA2 project, as well as the re-evaluation of the richness of Marx’s late theorizing, as seen in works like e.g. Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins.
In some respects, the book – which consists of four essay-length pieces with a brief introduction by the author – must be considered successful in this regard. The combination of personal biographical material, in-depth theoretical discussion, and political and social context in the book gives a real stimulus to taking the last years of Karl Marx seriously. Some of the material discussed will be quite familiar to people well-versed in ‘high Marxology’: the famous draft letters to Vera Zasulich on the possible persistence of the Russian mir, or the work Marx undertook on revising for translations of Capital volume 1 and the publication of volume 2, or Marx’s engagement with the then highly popular ideas of the American economic reformer Henry George. Musto provides some helpful additional context to Marx’s well-known comments on the work of the political economist Adolf Wagner, whose work was representative of the so-called ‘state socialism’ of the time, a highly conservative form of dirigisme that would eventually play a role in defining some non-Marxist strands of social-democracy.
Even so, there is a lot that was quite new (to me, in any case), either in content or in degree. While scholars probably know that Marx wrote mathematical manuscripts, Musto shows just how thoroughly he engaged with pure maths – especially calculus – as an intellectual hobby, something undertaken for pleasure and mental relaxation as much as for the purposes of supporting his theoretical work. Remarkable to me was learning that Marx engaged on a chronological timeline of world history, with short notes and comments, covering global history from about the time of Caesar onwards. This seems to me something of enormous intellectual interest even though it is apparently still largely unpublished anywhere (the references provided give the IISH source material).
There are also some interesting observations from Marx from his brief stay in Algeria, the only time Marx ever left Europe, something typically only alluded to in biographies because it provided us with the last photograph of the man before his death. (It turns out Marx shaved his beard immediately afterwards! Musto gives us a ‘reconstructed’ version of the photo showing what he might have looked like with less hair – it turns out this is something of a cross between Sigmund Freud and Jules Verne.)
Some of the material is interesting but more tragic in nature. The biographical matter is rather grim reading, a chronicle of Marx’s ever-worsening ill health (Musto suggests he had bronchitis that seems to have worsened into tuberculosis) and the loss of his wife and then one of his daughters. He shows how the impression of a lack of intellectual fertility in this period is rather to be blamed on the dispersed and fragmented nature of his writings and activities, often induced by his bouts of illness, which have given the impression of a lack of systematicity.
But in fact Marx did a great deal, and in some respects was at the height of his abilities. Not just in the revisions of Capital, including preparing the French edition often considered the ‘canonical’ version, but also in working through huge amounts of new material: for the question of Russia, for the anthropology of ancient society, for the development of a political programme for the French communists (of the Guesde faction), for the study of the effect of the railways and the growth of joint stock companies, and for the study of colonialism. Merely the constant interruption of illness and the need to move to warmer climes or keep to his bed forced periods of inactivity on him, and prevented much of this labor from being worked up into published or publishable materials.
In this sense, Musto succeeds quite well in demonstrating that Marx died not a doting old man well past his prime, but really at the prime of his intellectual powers and especially at a time when his theoretical range had if anything markedly widened compared to his early years.
Unfortunately the book also has some less felicitous aspects. In his eagerness to underline how Marx’s thought gained in scope and subtlety as it matured, Musto constantly wants to tell us just how flexible and how undogmatic he was, which ultimately comes to sound so defensive that it achieves rather the opposite. It is an irritating habit of Marxologists, who by nature tend to be fans of the man as well, that they are always so keen to contrast in everything the Marx Who Was Right with the Everyone Else Who Was Wrong. The contrast is inevitably made in an ad hoc fashion against a litany of figures whom such a Marxologist wants to blame for a perceived bad reputation Marxism has: whether it’s the Soviets, or Engels, or the Frankfurt School, or the liberal interpreters does not really matter.
While it’s right of course to point out when later commentators or interpreters have misread Marx or use him poorly, this kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ practice generally does more harm than good for rehabilitating Marx’s reputation, and is annoying for a reader who isn’t looking for a convenient target to shove the ‘blame’ onto (especially poor Engels is often the most convenient straw figure here, and Musto abuses him similarly).
The more Musto cites Marx seemingly just to tell the reader “See! Look how flexible and nondogmatic this is!!”, the less interested one becomes in what Marx was actually saying, since it is (so to speak) damned with vague praise. Here the old novelists’ adage “show, not tell” would have served the author better: whether Marx’s arguments are wise or subtle is a subjective judgment best left to the reader, not imposed by the author, however enthusiastic he is. The fact the individual parts of the book were probably written or published as separate essays also adds a considerable amount of unnecessary repetition and some clunky structure to the overall work, which is all the more a shame given how short it is.
That said, for a solid systematic overview of what Marx – indeed continuously in collaboration with Engels – was up to during the last years of his life, this work is probably as good as it gets, short of consulting the relevant MEGA2 volumes oneself when they are fully published. Musto finely balances the focus on intellectual-theoretical biography with information about Marx’s social and family circle, political acquaintances and antagonists, his travels, and the many different subjects and themes of interest to Marx in his final days. In so doing, he provides a stimulating portrait of genius at work, and makes one all the more lament how the state of medical knowledge in the Victorian era ultimately cut short the fervor of his wide-ranging mind.