Biography sheds light on Marx's last years

Karl Marx’s preparedness to allow new facts to broaden his theories prevented him from being a rigid dogmatist, writes Marcello Musto.

The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography
By Marcello Musto
Stanford University Press, 2020. 194 pp, $38.99 pb

Karl Marx died in 1883. In the more than 20 biographies written about him, most depict his final years as spent quietly waiting to die.

Certainly he had enough personal and family health problems to justify retiring into contemplation.

For example, in their authoritative 1933 biography , Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen said that after a bout of illness in 1873, “Marx never regained his old capacity for work”.

Marx, they said, “remained the insatiable reader that he had always been; he continued indefatigably making extracts from what he read, he went on collecting material, but he no longer had the capacity to organise it”.

More recent biographies, such as Mary Gabriel’s or Jonathan Sperber’s , while touching lightly on this period, continue in the same vein.

Kevin Anderson’s successfully interrogates Marx’s late intellectual trajectory, but leaves out the personal story.

Marcello Musto has stepped in to round out the account in this short, four chapter-long intellectual and personal biography. And what a story it is.

Musto presents Marx’s studies, political interventions, correspondence, personal life, diseases, sorrows, and journeys during his last decade. It is true that Marx did not publish much of consequence during this time, but he never stopped investigating social formations and other subjects.

After his death, mountains of notes were left for Frederich Engels and to trawl through. From this material Engels produced the second and third volumes of Capital and the famous segment of the Dialectics of Nature, entitled The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

All these notes have now become public, via the Marx-Engels Collected Works project, known as MEGA2.

Marx read and took notes on a wide range of disciplines such as agricultural chemistry, physiology and physics. When illnesses fogged his mind he turned to mathematical calculus for relief, resulting in his Mathematical Manuscripts.

He also studied anthropology, collected into his Ethnological Notebooks (from which Engels extracted). He researched ancient history, the history of banking and modern history, which are compiled into the Chronological Extracts.

The Extracts, Musto says, are “an annotated year-by-year timeline of world events from the first century BC on, summarising their causes and salient features”.

All the while, he corresponded with workers’ organisations and leaders around the world. Not bad for an aging, infirm revolutionary.

The German edition of Capital sold out in 1881 and the publisher suggested a revised edition, but Marx never got around to providing it. Musto says Marx was preoccupied by his wife Jenny’s final illness, he wanted to see how the 1880’s British industrial struggles would develop and he had started to study the development of US capitalism and it was leading him into new thinking.

It was Marx’s preparedness to allow new facts to broaden his theories that prevented him from being a rigid dogmatist, Musto believes, something that he believes succeeding generations of Marxists have suffered from.

Marx’s flexibility of thought is probably best illustrated in his response to the 1881 letter from Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich, in which she asked him for his opinion on the Russian peasant village communes. She asked if Russian revolutionaries should organise among the peasants or look to the then-minute Russian working class.

Marx took the question very seriously and drafted multiple answers. He taught himself Russian to research Russian statistics and read Russian novels to understand the culture.

In his answer to Zasulich, Marx states that his analysis of capitalism in Western Europe need not apply to Russia. He says of the peasant form of collective property that “the special study I have made of it … has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia.”

Marx drafted a letter to another Russian populist, Nicholai Mikhailovsky, in which he said that “events of striking similarity, taking place in different historical contexts” often lead to totally “disparate results”. This reads like an early formulation of what came to be known as the theory of Combined and Uneven Development, which holds that worldwide events, such as economic depressions or wars, can cause a variety of effects.

Musto gives a detailed account of Marx's journey to Algeria in early 1882, to repair his health and research common land ownership among Arabs.

He was afflicted by weakness that dogged him his whole time there. He did research some social practices, observed the racist behaviour of the colonial police and wrote some witty letters home about how he had cut his beard and hair because of the heat. He slowly made his way home to Britain, but was shocked by the death of his daughter, Jenny, from cancer. Marx died not long after, quietly at home.

Musto’s combination of personal biography and intellectual appraisal makes for inspiring reading. He argues very well that Marx’s ideas cannot be limited to a simplistic formula, but are living and dynamic.

A disappointment is his brief treatment of Marx’s friendship and correspondence with the zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester. Lankester was a socialist who engaged with Marx in what Musto describes as a "prolific intellectual exchange".

But little of this interaction is presented, in fact it occupies less than a page. John Bellamy Foster has examined this relationship in his book .

Bellamy Foster argues that it was vital to the ecological underpinning in Marx’s works. In effect, Marxism should be seen as a philosophy of nature as much as a philosophy of social revolution.

Apart from that one quibble, Musto’s work has much to recommend it. It smashes any attempt to force Marxism into a rigid economic determinism.

Rather, Musto says, Marx looked to “the specificity of historical conditions, the multiple possibilities that the passing of time offered, and the centrality of human intervention in the shaping of reality and the achievement of change”.