A critical reading of the work of Karl Marx now requires us to lay to one side the myths and legends which have obscured his ideas over the past one hundred and twenty years- distortions and misinterpretations to which perhaps no thinker has been more prone. In one sense, this is not difficult, because there is enough of his writing preserved, albeit in translation, for any of us to read Marx in his own words. Most however have been unwilling or unable to do this. The fifty volumes of the Marx-Engels Collected Works are forbidding, and when beginning as one almost inevitably does, with the received wisdom surrounding Marx’s name, there is much to discourage a reader from seriously taking on the task of understanding Marx. The aim of this project is thus to begin to challenge some of those myths in order to clear the way for a fresh reading of Marx that will hopefully be less prone to the distortions, misunderstandings and blatant falsehoods that have so far surrounded Marx. We believe that what Marx had to say remains of considerable relevance to an understanding of problems we face today, but that a reading of Marx now must maintain a critical caution which does not merely reproduce received ideas- positive or negative- about Marx’s work.
The distortion and questionable interpretation of Marx’s work is in many senses a direct result of his great success. His name became synonymous with a vast movement which not only changed, but virtually defined the twentieth century. The leaders of the communist parties needed to prove themselves true disciples of Marx, while anti-communists followed suit by attributing everything they hated to Karl Marx. Interpretation of Marx has thus been driven by a number of historical factors, and any attempts to gain, for example, a “scholarly” understanding have necessarily been secondary. Yet this is not to mourn any supposed loss of the purity of Marx’s thought to the struggles and conflicts in which he has been implicated! It is not simply a case of counterposing a “true” Marx to the Marx that gave his name to the movements of the twentieth century. To set against the distortions we cannot raise up a singular, uncontradictory Marx, abstracted from history and ultimately separable from everything that comes within “Marxism”, yet it remains that there is much in that received wisdom about Marx that is refutable, or at least rendered distinctly questionable, with a little attention to the textual and historical evidence.
There is thus, on the one hand, the generally negative task of demythologising Marx where we need primarily to just look at the evidence carefully. This task is the guiding one of “Marx Myths & Legends”, but on the other hand Marx interpretation must to some extent also involve a battle over facts, and the negative task is inextricable from a more positive interpretive one. In areas where controversies remain, we hope to present a heterodox and critically open account, whilst the project itself will be ongoing, with new texts added gradually to cover more areas of Marx mythology and take account of other areas of debate.
The myths and legends about Marx broadly fall from the start into two camps; on the one hand those myths propagated tendentiously or maliciously by opponents of socialism, and on the other, the myths of those who claimed Marx as their authority. They have been the product of various historical factors, and the question of any responsibility for such myths is a complex one. But it remains of central importance that Marx is fundamentally a contested thinker, bound more than any other to specific interests and conflicts within modernity, and the myths and legends historically reflect this.
Both of the broad “pro” and “anti” camps share thereby a common core of myths, namely those which conflate Karl Marx with the Communist International, and its most prominent leaders, Lenin and Stalin. The ghastly nature of “real existing socialism” and the ideology of those states has often been simplistically identified with Marx by opponents of socialism. The first group of myths which we deal with therefore are those which ascribe to Karl Marx political ideas about workers’ states, state-ownership, centralised planning and suppression of individual freedom. These are dealt with primarily in the section on ‘“Myths Conflating Marx with “State Socialism”’
Another group of myths about Marx that have been propagated by opponents of socialism are ad hominem: they seek to call into question Marx’s ideas by attacking his character. Articles dealing with these myths are grouped under the section on “Myths about Marx’s Character”. According to these legends, Marx was a megalomaniac, a bully, an anti-Semite and a racist, a snob, a womaniser and a sexist, a boring writer and a plagiarist. It is easy to anachronistically impute such charges to individuals of periods prior to contemporary notions of political correctness, but without employing a kind of historical relativism it is valid to question the real intellectual and historical merits of such accusations when their target is often more properly the prejudices and illusions of an entire age than those of an individual. Works such as Hal Draper’s “Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype” can thus be useful in elucidating the real historical context of some of Marx’s remarks and language. Though Marx, as represented by Francis Wheen for example, may not have been a perfect human being, it is fair to say that many commonplace stories about Marx’s character are distinctly questionable.
The contexts of the reception of Marx’s ideas have been very different from that in which they were formed, and this in itself is perhaps the reason for many myths. Marx’s way of thinking was arguably already somewhat alien to the dominant intellectual trends of its time, and the critical spirit on which Marx had been raised as a Young Hegelian was foreign to the majority of his original readers. Consequently, from the moment what he wrote left his pen it was interpreted in the spirit of nineteenth century socialism, and its dialectical, Hegelian aspects were largely misunderstood or just set aside. Thus a third group of myths is also shared by many friends and foes alike: myths conflating Marx with 19th Century socialism and positivism.
His most intelligent interpreters, and those who were to become his principal advocates after his death, were capable of distinguishing between the ideology of the broader socialist movement of the times and the ideas of Karl Marx, even if they did not clearly understand that difference. The fourth and most enduring group of myths about Karl Marx originates from his most illustrious and faithful advocates, Frederick Engels, Georgi Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky, and were perpetuated by the leaders and thinkers of “actually existing socialism”. According to these, Marx was the founder of a coherent philosophical and metaphysical system, and a definite, repeatable methodology. We are talking about the myth of dialectical materialism, or “scientific socialism” — that ideology “cast from a single piece of steel”. Beyond this group we must add further “Myths of Marxism”- myths based on more simplistic interpretations of Marx’s ideas: that Marx was an economic determinist, or for that matter, any kind of determinist or any kind of economist, that Marx declared philosophy to be obsolete, or alternatively, that he was a materialist philosopher.
Lastly we come to a collection of more recently founded myths- some of which have their roots in Marxist tradition, but have become more important in later debates. In this group we place the myth that conflates Marx with Alexandre Kojève and Hegel’s “master-servant dialectic,” the myth that Marx had a theory of ideology as “false consciousness”, and the myth that there is a necessarily disdainful attitude towards the natural world in Marx’s allegedly “promethean” or productivist views. These myths can perhaps be attributed to a filtering of Marx through the intellectual climate of the second half of the twentieth century, in which issues of “recognition”, “ideology critique”, and the critique of the “Enlightenment” dominated.
The categories dealt with so far in this project are intended only provisionally, and do not cover exhaustively every area of Marx mythology. As the project grows we intend to broaden its scope and increasingly cover areas of potential controversy, as well as developing upon what we already have through critical dialogue.
Marx should be read just as you would read anyone else: critically and for yourself, not uncritically or secondhand. Marx Myths & Legends will have succeeded as a project if it at least helps some to begin to study Marx with a strong mistrust for the prejudices, preconceptions and layers of congealed misinterpretation that surround his life and work.
1. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Chapter 6, Lenin 1908