a new biography of marx

3efb3c7e-7e54-11e6-9862-c87336845bcfFerdinand Mount at the Times Literary Supplement:

Marx’s crucial premiss is that work constitutes man’s essence: we are truly human only when we are engaged in self-chosen, purposeful activity. But how precisely were menial tasks to be de-alienated under socialism? How indeed were they to be allocated? When asked who would polish the shoes after the revolution, Marx snapped back, “you should”. In any case, that dismissal of man’s “animal function” throws away three-quarters of what makes life worthwhile for most of us – love and family and home. And what precisely is the nature of the harm that alienation does to us? Marx was not alone at the time in his assumption that the backbreaking grind of factory work degraded men to the condition of animals, and this is what you would expect from the central Marxist doctrine that “social being determines consciousness”. Something of the sort is to be seen in Disraeli’s description of Woodgate in Sybil. Yet Stedman Jones points out that Marx had scarcely met any flesh-and-blood workers until he arrived in Paris in 1843. And then he was highly impressed: “the brotherhood of man is no empty phrase but a reality, and the nobility of man shines forth upon us from their toilworn bodies”. Twenty years later, when he attended a trade union meeting chaired by John Bright, he recorded with a note of surprise, “the working men themselves spoke very well indeed without a trace of bourgeois rhetoric”. Nineteenth- century working-class culture was, after all, remarkably rich, as more recent historians such as E. P. Thompson and Jonathan Rose have reminded us. If this is alienation, one is tempted to say, it can’t be all bad.

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