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Paul O’Flinn

Marx without teeth

(May 1979)

From Socialist Review, No.12, May 1979, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Karl Marx and World Literature
S.S. Prawer.
Oxford University Press, £2.50 paperback.

This is a curious work. It begins by insisting: ‘This is not a book about marxism nor an attempt to construct yet another marxist theory of literature.’ What it turns out to be instead – at least in its worst moments – is an owlish listing of Marx’s references to world literature. Thus, for example, we read of Marx’s journalism in the late 1840s:

“There are quotations from Heine’s Ritter Olaf, Der Tannhäuser, Our Navy (Unsere Marine), Georg Herwegh, Anno 1829, The Changeling (Der Wecchselbalg), Atta Troll, and Kahldorf on the Nobility (Kahldorf über den Adel). Quotations from Burger’s Lenore and from a play by Ferdinand Raimund appear in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in contexts similar to those in which Heine had used them. There are constant references to, and quotations from, the literature of the past: Homer, Virgil, the Bible, the Arabian Nights, Shakespeare, Moliere. Beaumarchais, Goethe, and Schiller; minor works like Arnold Kortum’s eighteenth-century mock-epic The Adventures of Hieronymus Jobs (Die Jobsiade) are not neglected: and we find an allusion to —”

— clunk, as your reviewer passes into a gentle sleep and his forehead thuds down into the Olivetti.

In short, the book is close to being a 446 page footnote. Poor old Karl set out to expropriate the expropriators and here, a century later, the expropriators (in the shape of the Taylor Professor of German Language and Literature at Oxford University) quietly expropriate Marx on behalf of bourgeois scholarship.

The result is a Marx who is castrated, tidied up, given a shave and haircut; warts and carbuncles patched over, he becomes respectable enough, almost the sort of chap you could take to dinner at the club on guest night. And the result is a success: even the club bore, a fierce old reactionary in recent years, welcomes him: ‘A learned, useful and entertaining book’, says the Times Literary Supplement.

Not since Prof. Higgins got to work on Eliza Doolittle has a lump of bold, disreputable life been passed off so cleverly in polite society. Marx, Prof. Prawer solemnly informs us, ‘is too important to be left entirely to the marxists’ so he whisks him off, polishes up his accent and together they make a big hit with the toffs and find warm reviews in the Sunday Times.

But – and it’s a but that saves the book – Marx manages to resist total emasculation and, like Eliza at Ascot, blurts out the brutal truth from time to time to the consternation of the royal enclosure. The problem in the end is that Prof. Prawer is too good and too honest a scholar, so that enough of the real M arx is allowed a look in to make the text worth reading.

For example. Prof. Prawer’s careful disentangling from the confusions of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of Marx’s sense of literature and its importance is precise and articulate and leads to a memorable conclusion:

“Literature reminds us of a health we have lost (Aeschylus’ ‘dwelling of light’); literature diagnoses our corruption (Timon’s ‘common whore of mankind’); and literature will have its part to play in our cure.”

Equally impressive is the stout sense Prof. Prawer talks in his concluding chapter on such vexed questions as Marx’s views of economic determinism, base and superstructure, naturalism, realism and reflection.

So, all in all, an odd book, symptomatic of the best and worst, the strengths, weaknesses and contradictions of bourgeois scholarship as it is driven out of its own sense of Marx’s greatness to try to place him and to come to terms with him.

He is glimpsed at one moment, disturbingly, as a threat to civilisation as we know it and at another, comfortingly, as a sort of latter-day Hebrew prophet, complete with flowing beard and demands for righteousness.

Meanwhile, bourgeois scholarship, not to mention the bourgeoisie, seems more entrenched than ever and, as I write, a Labour prime minister is trying to win an election by frankly offering himself as more conservative than the most Conservative Tory leader for a generation.

At such a time we can perhaps find some inspiration in Prof. Prawer’s quotation from the poetry of the young Marx – even though the mature Marx regarded it with hilarity as ‘purely idealistic’:

“Therefore let us dare all,
Never pause, never rest,
Let us never sink into dull silence.
Into willing nothing and doing nothing.

“Let us not walk, in brooding anxiety.
Under the yoke that weighs us down:
For longing and desire
And action – these remain to us in spite of all.”

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