Did they really read Marx?

Over the weekend I attended an excellent new book panel on Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: a 19th Century Life organized by the Labor History Seminar at the Newberry Library here in Chicago.  The general thrust of Sperber’s book is to remove Marx from the role of icon, guide, or precursor to the crimes or triumphs of 20th century communist regimes.  Marx was not a prophetic thinker, Sperber argues. Rather he was mired in historically specific battles over politics and ideology in Central Europe, and backward looking intellectually.

There were some pointed criticisms of the book, especially from Bruce Levine (U. of Illinois) and Susan Pearson (Northwestern), along with general praise and comment on the achievement of grappling with such a complex subject.  Pearson calmly skewered Sperber for relegating the role Jenny Marx and the Marx’s housekeeper Helene Demuth to a chapter on the “private Marx” when in fact it appears they were key to the social reproduction of the fetishized and very public commodity “Karl Marx,” to paraphrase from memory.

Another interesting line of discussion concerned why and how Marx became such a singular figure for socialist movements when relatively little of his writing was known outside of Germany in his lifetime, and when his economic writing was so notoriously difficult to understand.  Sperber’s answer was that Marxism should in fact be termed “Engels-ism” because it was the work of Marx’s literary executor Friedrich Engels that made Marx famous on the left.

Less commented upon was the vernacular radicalism that developed alongside Marx’s writing and reputation, and was much more influential at least into the 1930s.  In this regard, there is a fascinating passage from Floyd Dell’s “Books and Writers” column (The Progressive Woman (September 1912), p. 11).  It suggests a time when Marx was not quite so hegemonic.

“Das Kapital” is sometimes spoken of as “the Socialist’s Bible.”  It is not, for two reasons.  The first is that, even Socialists do not read it.  In this they are not without justification, for the book is, in its strictly economic parts, to any ordinary human being, unreadable.  Why any one except a mathematician should bother about those amazing equations of Marx’s I do not see, nor do I see why any one should imagine that in explicating the Socialist “theory of value” these equations have any more than a suggestive validity.  Value, like everything else, is too complex to be reduced to an equation, and there is as much truth in the soap-box phrase, “Labor is the source of all value,” as in the maddening mathematics of Marx.  The fact is, the Socialist movement is not based soley on Marxian economics, and though Marxian economics may fall, yet the Socialist movement goes on.  There is good history and good historical philosophy in the volume which make it well worth reading.  But we Socialists (as I said) do not read it.

It was Walt Whitman, Dell suggested, who had written the Socialist Bible in his “Leaves of Grass.”  Commenting on his own youthful participation in Marxist study groups, Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian of 20th century labor and capitalism, recalled his struggle to understand Marx’s “labor theory of value” and ultimate conclusion that it just didn’t make sense economically.  But morally and ethically it made a lot of sense.  Sperber’s book argues that Marx just couldn’t make the shift to positivism in the late 19th century–maybe he shouldn’t have tried?

The idea of vernacular radicalism put me in mind of the frequent question in my own research:  did early 20th century rank-and-file radicals really read any Marx?  And if they read it, could they possibly understand the complexity of Marx’s economic writing, which is famously tough reading for professional intellectuals to this day.  The question, I think is actually part of a broader skepticism about the reading practices of ordinary people–then and today.  Sure they could read, but did they really read?  Or did they just pass their eyes over the text without really getting the point.  Did they–and do they–get it?

Dell was an exceptional working-class intellectual by any measure.  But his educational background wasn’t that far off the norm for working class activists.  The son of a butcher and a teacher, he grew up on Illinois and Iowa, and left school after 2 years of high school.  He told the American Labor Who’s Who (1925) that the “most important part of [my] education [was] gained in [a] Socialist local and [the] pubic library.”  There is, in fact, evidence in diaries, letters, and publications that more-or-less ordinary working people did read and understand high brow literature and social science.  Some would fall into the category of “extraordinary ordinary people”–rank and file workers who were, I’m quite sure, smarter and better read than many professional intellectuals then or now.  In any case, it’s also worth exploring the opposite side of the question:  the non-reading of books, and whether this non-reading has any positive significance.  In other words, what impact did books and text have on those who didn’t read them very thoroughly but who circulated in a public sphere suffused with conversations about books and text?  That will have to wait for another day.

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