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A Dyspeptic Interpretation of Karl Marx

(February 1930)

First Published: R.G. (Reg. Groves), Book Reviews, Labour Monthly, February 1930, pp.125-127.
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Karl Marx
By Otto Rühle
Allen & Unwin, 1929. 12s. 6d.

In Britain, works on Marx and Marxism are few and far between; even for the standard works of Marx the British student is mainly dependent upon the mangled American editions. Because of this and because of the general backwardness of scientific theory in Britain any new book on Marx and his work is likely to be valued, however poor its quality. This makes it necessary to review critically the latest addition to books on Marx.

It can be said in favour of Rühle’s book that it brings before the English reader quotations from the correspondence and works of Marx that are either not available or difficult to obtain in English. The extracts from the letters of Marx and Engels, from articles and from some of the works of Marx are of great interest and for this reason the book has some interest for the student of Marxism.

But the manner and methods of Rühle are poor in the extreme; he gives no evidence of understanding the period during which Marx and Engels developed and matured; he fails to present an analysis of the Labour movement of the time and he does not attempt to relate the genius of Marx to the period in which he lived. His picture of Marx is a picture of an irritable intellectual with many vices, jealous, and one who imposed himself upon the working-class movement of the time, fought for the leadership of the movement and then withdrew into obscurity out of spite, after having almost broken the working-class movement.

Rühle fails to see, and in failing condemns himself and his book, the development of Marx as part of the development of the Labour movement of the period; that Marx is only great and enduring because Marx embodied in his teachings the spirit of the new class that was finally to end the rule of capitalism and bring in Socialism; that Marx developing with the rising working-class movement drew from the experiences of the movement in its different phases an outline of its future struggles and the tactics necessary for the march forward to success.

A book by a Marxist on Marx and his work would have been invaluable as an outline of the teachings of Marx and the relation of Marx to the contemporary working class. It could have shown the rise and development of the early working-class movement and as part of this the development and maturing of Marx and Engels. It could have been a guide to the work of these two in their task of showing the basis of society, the relation of the class struggle to the development of society, the role of the working class in modern society and the immediate tactics of that class in its struggles. Instead, Rühle sees the development of Marx as apart from his time and the struggles of his time. His is a bourgeois conception of history; the materialist conception of history is foreign to his outlook; Marx’s rise and development is explained as being due to his “sense of inferiority” which “increased his urge towards compensatory achievement.”

This fundamental weakness is further revealed in his treatment of the relations of Marx with other sections of the working-class movement. As an example of this we can take the section dealing with Lassalle and Marx. According to Rühle the differences between Marx and Lassalle were due to the personal weaknesses of Marx.

Our minds tend to react with sympathy towards those from whom we expect advancement and profit and with antipathy towards those from whom we expect danger and loss …. It is fairly obvious that Marx regarded Lassalle as a dangerous rival … that was why his letters to Lassalle were sparse and so cold. (Page 229)

In dealing with the reception accorded by Marx to Lassalle’s book Heraclitus, Rühle explains Marx’s contempt for the work by the fact that “Marx had to pay excess postage to the amount of two shillings” which “ensured a bad reception for the book.” (p.230) To those familiar with the real political differences between Marx and Lassalle, this treatment of the question is more than ridiculous; it is a sheer distortion of the facts. Professor Riazanov’s articles in the Labour Monthly (May and June 1929) showed Lassalle’s policy as a policy of repudiation of the Communist League and previous German revolutionary movements and as a policy of alliance with Bismarck and the Prussian State. The danger of this policy to the rising working-class movement was seen clearly by Marx and opposed and fought by Marx, precisely for this reason. Rühle’s account of this episode and of others in which Marx differed from individuals and groups is contemptible.

In this and in many other examples that could be cited, as well as in his general treatment of the period and the working-class movement, Rühle demonstrates his failure to grasp the fundamentals of Marxism. The book is a typical product of the German revisionist school and cannot be recommended. Professor Riazanov’s smaller work Marx and Engels is of far greater value to the student of Marxism and beside it this book stands as a cheap and shoddy work on a subject never understood by the author.

On many occasions one has regretted the high price of books on revolutionary theory—but there are times when one is grateful that the price of a book prevents its too wide circulation.


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