Fred Hall

[The Thought of Karl Marx]

(April 1972)

From Reviews, International Socialism (1st series), No.51, April-June 1972, p.31. [1]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The thought of Karl Marx; an introduction
by David McLellan
Papermac, £1.50

Is there a need for yet another collection of excerpts from Marx’s writings? I should have thought not, especially as the present work is described in the preface as ‘merely an introduction and thus necessarily superficial’. In this case, however, first impressions are misleading. For once an author is too modest in his claims. Dr McLellan has produced a most valuable handbook. It is comprehensive clear, thoroughly documented and concise. It will be of service not only to the academic reader, whom the publishers presumably have in mind, but to much wider circles.

The book is arranged in two parts. The first gives a chronological treatment, in eight chapters, covering the years 1837 to 1882. Each chapter is divided into three parts, a list of Marx’s writings in the period, a biographical note summarising Marx’s activities in that period and a bibliography listing the available English versions or translations of the writings and commentaries in English. The second part selects eight topic namely: Alienation, Historical Materialism, Labour, Class, The Party, The State, Revolution, Future Communist Society, and provides on each a selection of excerpts from Marx together with a commentary. The book also contains a chronological table and a select general bibliography with brief descriptive comments, all confined to works in the English language. The excerpts are generally well chosen and include ‘passages from some of the lesser known and untranslated writings of Marx’.

This then, is a hook that is likely to become a standard text and if what follows is critical it is because McLellan’s version of Marx’s thought will become influential, indeed deserves to become influential, and yet it is, in some ways, a misleading version.

‘Grey is all theory’ wrote Marx following Goethe ‘but green, green is the tree of life’. Dr McLellan is clearly a very learned man. So was Marx. But Marx was also a man of action when the opportunity offered itself. Though the facts of his activity are faithfully reproduced in the biographical sections they find little echo in the commentary. For Marx the theoretical work and the revolutionary movement were indissolubly connected, Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’. Very little of the spirit of this aphorism appears in the book.

The much derided Whig historian Macaulay made a point of substance when he wrote that Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire owed a good deal to Gibbon’s experience as an MP ‘though he never made a speech’, and as an amateur soldier ‘though he never saw a campaign’. A musty, academic smell rises from much of McLellan’s commentary. It is a fair commentary, but it is the commentary of someone who is not vitally involved, of someone who stands above the struggle, of someone who, however scrupulous, is alien to the spirit of Marx’s whole life and work. That such a person can produce the best available survey of Marx’s thought, and it is undoubtedly the best available is a condemnation not so much of the author, but rather of the movement

Some day a new Mehring or a new Riazanov will produce a book that will supersede Dr McLellan’s work. Meanwhile we must use the material to hand. Buy this book and study it.



1. Fred Hall was a pseudonym occasionally used by Duncan Hallas.


Last updated on 3.10.2007