Terence Renaud reviews Gareth Stedman-Jones’s new book in H-Net:
[R]ecent, uplifting engagements with Marxism stand in contrast to Gareth Stedman Jones’s new biography of Marx. While it too aims to shatter the “monumental mythology” that has surrounded the German philosopher since the late nineteenth century, the book hardly uplifts the reader. Reading Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion is a deflationary experience. Its author commits himself absolutely to reconstructing Marx’s life and work according to their original, nineteenth-century context. According to him, all later iterations of Marxism overinflated Marx’s legacy. So this is an anti-Marxist biography of Marx, or “Karl,” as the author whimsically calls him. In his wide-ranging and impressive attempt to restore the original Marx, Stedman Jones hopes also to politically neutralize him.
The book is divided into twelve chapters, framed by a prologue and epilogue, and fortified by maps, illustrations, and copious notes. “Tome” might accurately describe a 750-page volume, but this one does not feel too long as far as biographies go. Many of those pages satisfy Stedman Jones’s desire to place Marx and his contemporaries “in a landscape larger than themselves” (p. xv). Every major public figure, and plenty of minor ones too, get their potted histories: no need to consult Wikipedia. The author’s erudition is evident in his descriptions of Rhineland radicalism in the 1830s and ’40s, debates over religion in Berlin, and mass democratic politics across Europe in the mid- to late nineteenth century.
Appropriately enough, the book starts with a chapter about the impact of the French Revolution on the adjacent German lands as well as the post-Napoleonic Restoration that began in 1815. Three years later, Karl Marx was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Trier. He had a normal bourgeois childhood and eventually attended university in Bonn and Berlin. Despite initially studying law at his father’s behest, the young Marx inclined toward poetry and philosophy. Stedman Jones devotes several pages to the love poems that Marx wrote for his fiancée, Jenny von Westphalen. The portrait we get is of a romantic young man who spurned convention, ignored his parents’ wishes, drank too much, and rushed headlong into radical politics.