AT THE END of Black Bolt #1, first-time comics writer Saladin Ahmed announces four questions that will animate forthcoming issues: “Who is a criminal? What happens when we put people in cages? How do you tell your story? What does it mean to be a parent?”
These questions frame the first volume of the series, which has now been collected in the trade paperback Black Bolt Vol. 1: Hard Time. The pleasure of Hard Time becomes watching how Ahmed, along with artist Christian Ward, approaches these questions in the context of another that, Ahmed notes, remains the superhero genre’s most important: “What happens when extremely powerful beings hit each other with very large objects and zap each other with energy beams?” As this suggests, the series delivers its answers in a markedly undidactic fashion. But its pursuit of them ultimately points to a wider phenomenon currently taking place at Marvel: the interrogation of superheroes’ previously unexamined privileges. In Ahmed’s Black Bolt, as in Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther, such questions turn on the unique class and social prerogatives of a superhero monarch.
Black Bolt has another thing in common with Black Panther: both debuted in Fantastic Four, around the midpoint of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary run. Black Bolt is king of the Inhumans, a race of superbeings created through genetic experiments performed upon primitive Homo sapiens by the militaristic, alien Kree. After the Kree abandoned their test subjects, an Inhuman society sprung up and flourished in their hidden city of Attilan, concealed from humanity until discovered by Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four.
Inhuman society is hierarchical, a monarchy in which caste positions are decided by the powers that manifest after subjects’ ritualistic exposure to the vaporous Terrigen Mists. Stories featuring the Inhumans, beginning with their early appearances in Fantastic Four, have focused on the society’s royal family, particularly Black Bolt (or Blackagar Boltagon); his queen Medusa; and his treacherous brother, Maximus the Mad. The “shaggy God” aspects of the Inhumans — not to mention their far-out character designs and zany powers — bear the strong influence of Kirby, directly anticipating the Fourth World franchise he would both write and draw for DC in the early 1970s and the Eternals series he would launch upon his return to Marvel.
If the Inhumans were long minor players in Marvel’s shared universe and continuity, more recently they have featured in a steady stream of limited and ongoing series, and they have been integral to several crossover events. These included 2013’s Infinity and its 2013–’14 sequel Inhumanity, in which the detonation of a Terrigen Bomb spread the mists across the globe, producing scores of new Inhumans such as the popular new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan. The new prominence of the Inhumans in Marvel’s titles has reflected a parallel decline in appearances by the X-Men — likewise mutated outcasts who lend themselves to a variety of social allegories — in a way that reportedly reflects legal fights over film licensing. (Until very recently, 20th Century Fox has held the rights to the X-Men while Marvel Studios owns the Inhumans.) And, indeed, the Inhumans have factored prominently into Marvel Studios’s multimedia strategy: the creation of new Inhumans via exposure to Terrigen became a prominent subplot on the ABC television series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Marvel’s Inhumans, which initially had been announced as a movie, debuted as a series in 2017.
Ahmed’s Black Bolt, then, springs from these two interlocked narrative and extraliterary developments: Marvel’s positioning of the Inhumans as cornerstones of their line-wide continuity, and the company’s push, via live-action adaptations, for broader public recognition of the franchise. Unfortunately the Inhumans television series debuted to some of the first truly bad reviews for the franchise since its 2008 launch in the first Iron Man movie. But the coup of hiring Ahmed, an acclaimed writer of prose SF and fantasy, to helm Black Bolt no doubt helped to introduce the character to those who may not previously have heard of him.
Ward complements Ahmed’s accessible script with lush, arresting art that, for superhero aficionados, evokes a Kirbyesque blend of mythic, cosmic grandeur mixed with psychedelic weirdness. That said, although Ward’s figures are expressive and dynamic, they tend to be static and posed, lacking the kinetic energy and movement that was Kirby’s signature.
Jack Kirby and John Verpoorten, cover of “Fantastic Four” Vol. 1 #99 (June 1970)
Christian Ward, cover of “Black Bolt” #2 (June 2017)
As for the narrative, Black Bolt springs from 2017’s Royals, in which the evil Inhuman prince Maximus disguises himself as Black Bolt and vice versa, so that when Maximus is exiled to an interdimensional prison, Black Bolt in fact serves his time. Hard Time follows the imprisoned monarch as he and a small group of fellow inmates attempt an escape from their mysterious torturer, the Jailer. The series’s questions about criminality and the effects of captivity emerge from the plot’s role reversal, as well as the alliance that develops between Black Bolt and other prisoners as they suffer together, ponder freedom’s meaning, and learn more about each other and their vicious captor.
Ahmed also employs his premise to circumvent a specific narrative obstacle for a series starring Black Bolt. The Inhuman king’s superpower is a voice that can shatter mountains: if he speaks, he destroys. In this first arc of his series, at least, Ahmed sidesteps the challenges of a mute protagonist by giving the interdimensional prison for superbeings that is Hard Time’s setting an energy field that disables its inmates’ powers. Thus spake Black Bolt.
While Ahmed’s device lends new depths to the character and serves as the vehicle for the series’s meditation on power, rehabilitation, and responsibility, it also — one might argue counterproductively — humanizes the king of the Inhumans. Throughout his over-half-a-century career, Black Bolt’s refusal to speak, unless there is need for his voice’s devastating power, has had a distancing effect that resonates with his monarchical status. Ahmed’s implied answer to his question, “How do you tell your story?” in this respect seems to rely on traditional humanistic ideas about a voice narrating the self. In this way, the series misses an opportunity to explore post- or “inhuman” countersubjectivities.
Nevertheless, Black Bolt’s newfound ability to speak, gained at the expense of his defining superpower, yields interesting character developments. The moment at the end of the first issue in which Black Bolt realizes he no longer has his powers is suitably dramatic, though in its immediate aftermath the character seems relatively unfazed. Ahmed avoids any extended consideration of the effects Black Bolt’s speech acquisition has upon his psyche or sense of self. Indeed, in some ways he seems unchanged by this seismic event. Or perhaps Ahmed’s handling of it is a mark of his subtlety: Black Bolt speaks sparingly, and when he does talk, it is often to ask a question. Along similar lines, Ahmed recalls an older style of comics storytelling by using captions for third-person narration, rather than — as is now commonplace — first-person monologue. Black Bolt, in other words, breaks the mold of superhero comics in that it is invested in what voices other than that of its protagonist have to say and how they say it. Black Bolt is a superhero who listens.
A case in point is what might be Hard Time’s most compelling sequence, an extended flashback narrated to Black Bolt by Carl “Crusher” Creel, a.k.a. the Absorbing Man. Creel’s narrative retells his origin, recasting a fairly one-dimensional, cartoonish, C-list villain as a flawed if thoughtful and disadvantaged striver, a victim of an uncaring family, an unjust world, and, most potently, the cruel manipulations and mistreatments of other superhumans — villains and heroes alike. The sequence ends with Black Bolt and the Absorbing Man identifying with each other’s experiences, in particular their similar poor relationship decisions and public misfortunes. Such collapsing of distance between hero and villain serves as a principal motif of Hard Time.
Indeed, throughout Hard Time, Ahmed toys with the paradox that Black Bolt and his fellow inmates both do and do not deserve punishment. More than one inmate recognizes that they have hurt others and made moral miscalculations. When Black Bolt first meets the ragtag group, the (very) minor villain Metal Master admits, “A lifetime ago, I was a conqueror. More than once I tried to take Earth, wasted years of my life plotting against your homeworld.” However, the Jailer’s punishments are cruel and unusual to a cosmic degree: in addition to confinement, the shadowy figure sadistically, habitually tortures and then kills his inmates, only to resurrect them and then put them through miseries again. The Jailer seems to derive pleasure from such punishments, for despite his repeated demands that his prisoners confess — “Name your crimes! Repent your crimes!” — such confessions never get them any closer to freedom. Absorbing Man notes, “I told him everything I did. Everything. Every pissant little job I could remember. Still the torture. ‘Repent!’ He wants us to feel like dirt.” In this way, Hard Time seems to offer an allegorical critique of a prison-industrial complex that dismisses rehabilitation, along with its accompanying “law and order” culture that sees inmates as objects fit only for degradation.
Yet, to be sure, any commentary Black Bolt might pose on the carceral state remains somewhat vexed. For one thing, the series seems to depict the effect the Jailer’s tortures have on his inmates as ennobling. The story arc even concludes with the Absorbing Man heroically sacrificing himself, enacting one of the genre’s enduring tropes. One might thus conclude that an answer to Ahmed’s query “What happens when we put people in cages?” is that it elevates them.
That said, Ahmed counterbalances the suggestion that excessive punishments bring out inmates’ better angels via the countertheme of complicity, which ultimately underlies Ahmed’s study of Black Bolt’s character. Black Bolt, as ruler of the society that built the space prison, is more than a little culpable for its existence. And the narrative twist that propels the series — Maximus’s body swap with Black Bolt — carries with it the irony that Black Bolt in effect has sentenced himself to the prison. Moreover, the Jailer is eventually revealed to have been a young Inhuman who was himself imprisoned before taking over the facility. Once more, we see the villain as victim. Hard Time’s interdimensional prison thus stands as a symbol of Black Bolt’s oversights and moral lapses, one with far-reaching consequences since, as he learns from his allies, the prison has been co-opted by intergalactic courts and tribunals. Created by and for Inhuman society, it has become a galaxy-wide tool of ruling powers interested in farming out their carceral requirements.
Following the Absorbing Man’s sacrifice and the defeat of the Jailer, Hard Time ends on a note of redemption. When Black Bolt first decides to align himself with his fellow prisoners, early in the series, he nonetheless distinguishes himself from his new comrades: “But I do not belong here. I am not a criminal! […] I have hurt people. Too many people. And I have killed. But I have never been a murderer.” Such fine distinctions effectively disappear by the end of Hard Time. The closing captions declare, “Black Bolt has been a king. He has been a killer and a prisoner. He knows he has much to answer for.” Here, again, the series’s penological commentary becomes tricky, for if on one hand Black Bolt feels guilty for sentencing anyone, even his villainous brother, to such an inhuman(e) institution, on the other hand the trials he himself endures there provide him with moral clarity. If the Jailer’s endless tortures do not lead to freedom, they nonetheless do lead to redemption of a sort.
This is made explicit in Hard Time’s closing pages. The climactic victory over the Jailer entails major costs: the death of the Absorbing Man and Black Bolt’s ostensibly permanent losses of both voice and power. Now, he can neither speak nor destroy. But the story ends on an optimistic note, as Black Bolt is reunited with his pet, Lockjaw — a giant Inhuman dog with teleportation abilities — and another prison escapee, Blinky, an extraterrestrial child whose innocence highlights the perversity of the Jailer’s institution. The final caption, overlaid on a full-page image of Black Bolt and his new charges gazing out at space, declares that if he cannot answer for his moral lapses “with words, he will answer with love.”
Black Bolt’s opportunity for redemption thus takes embodied forms, though neither Lockjaw nor the likewise superpowered Blinky fill the typical role of child or creature in need of protection. In this respect the series’s conclusion reinforces, microcosmically, the patriarchal image of a good king who assumes responsibility for his naïve subjects. Indeed, insofar as it features a narrative emphasis on love and a panel composition lending Black Bolt an actual cosmic vision, it also suggestively likens him to the Abrahamic God. But it presents these possibilities as the outcome of his struggle with the irresponsibility that has characterized not only him but the superhero figure in general.
Hard Time thus allegorizes, via Black Bolt’s prolonged reckoning, the cavalier indifference to consequences that is a hallmark of superhero narratives. In this way, the series fits within a current trend at Marvel Comics, in which the formerly unexamined privileges of the company’s stable of characters are being ascertained, pushed back against, and interrogated. Similar questions of accountability have been front and center in the most recent Marvel Studios films, in particular Captain America: Civil War. Within the company’s comics, this self-reflexive trend also accompanies Marvel’s headlines-grabbing changes to marquee characters’ identities: giving a white woman, Jane Foster, the power of Thor; a black man, Sam Wilson, the mantle of Captain America; and a black teenage girl, Riri Williams, a superpowered suit of armor like Iron Man’s. These characters and their stories, in ways implied and explicit, complicate the tacit whiteness and maleness that have accompanied the superhero’s irresponsibility.
Black Bolt, like Coates and Stelfreeze’s Black Panther, joins this trend by presenting a hero with the unparalleled class privileges of a monarch who must, finally, come to terms with the consequences of his unilateral power. If Coates and Stelfreeze’s series shows the King of Wakanda coping with a democratic uprising, Ahmed and Ward’s Black Bolt employs its narrative device of false imprisonment to call the ruler of an undemocratic society to answer for his past decisions. In these terms, although its critique of the carceral system is somewhat uneven, Hard Time nonetheless offers a thoughtful meditation on genre conventions. It is a mediation keyed, moreover, toward broader political and ethical dilemmas of representation that are becoming an increasingly prominent backdrop for superhero narratives.
THE YOUNG KARL MARX (dir. Raoul Peck) opens in a forest. The forest is almost painfully beautiful. Peasants are gathering sticks for firewood — only dead wood from the forest floor, nothing that’s still growing. Suddenly they are attacked by police on horseback. Some are killed. We see their bodies, eyes open.
The scene is historically accurate in at least two senses: landowners in the wine-growing area of Trier, where Karl Marx was born, were just then asserting exclusive ownership over common lands where tradition afforded villagers limited but important rights, like the gathering of firewood. And it was this local issue, rather than any historical -isms or abstractions, that first crystallized the young Marx’s sense that he was living in a place and a time of new and terrible injustice. His analysis of what was happening, the subject of one of his early journalistic pieces, is pronounced, sentence by outraged sentence, in opening voice-over.
It’s a very different introduction to Marx than, say, that of Gareth Stedman Jones in his new biography. Stedman Jones emphasizes, quite properly, the French Revolution, German republicanism (which included much enthusiasm for French ideas) and the Prussian reaction against it, the troubled status of local Jews (which induced Marx’s father to convert to Christianity), and of course the many swirling currents of radical thought in which Marx swam as a student and then, when hopes of an academic career were blocked, as a journalist and revolutionary. But the scene in the forest, with its beauty and its violence, cuts through all that. It makes sense of everything that follows, a sense that feels permanent, unshakable by any subsequent events.
It’s 1843. Radicals of all sorts are shouting at each other in smoky rooms. Communism is one idea they are shouting about. The film is about the taking over, refocusing, and mobilizing of that idea. By the end, it is 1848, revolutions are breaking out, and you are ready to believe that communism is indeed, as described in the famous first line of The Communist Manifesto (just published in January), a specter haunting Europe.
As we saw recently in I Am Not Your Negro (2016) and, a decade and a half earlier, in Lumumba (2000), Raoul Peck likes to make movies about people he admires. He did not argue with Lumumba or Baldwin, and he does not argue with Marx. In each case, what he offers is an appreciative, even loving, synopsis. And if that entails leaving certain things out (like Baldwin’s sexuality), so be it. Here, Peck’s choice of a five-year chunk of Marx’s life means that much of the film will be given over to arguments among the radical groups and positions — arguments won, we are led to believe, by the forceful personality and superior insight of Marx, aided by his faithful friend Engels and faithful wife Jenny. And it means that this will not be a film about the mature Marx, author of Capital, let alone the posthumous Marx — in other words, it will not be about the absorption of Marx into Marxism, the takeover of Marxism by the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, the authority Marxism wielded, or the suffering in which it was implicated. Peck freezes the story in a moment of maximum idealism and hope. In that sense, this film could be described as post-ironic.
The pace is snappy, and each of the scenes is pointed. At the outset, we find ourselves with Marx in the editorial offices of the Rheinische Zeitung, where his article on the suppression of the local wood gatherers has caused a fuss; police assemble in the street below, and the paper’s editors are about to be carted off to jail. In the paddy wagon, Marx is already being offered another editorial job, this time in Paris. We jump to Manchester, where Engels is appalled by his father’s harshness toward his textile workers. The young Engels follows out of the factory a bold, politically sophisticated Irish woman who has just been fired. He tells her Irish friends to call him Fred and falls in love. We jump to Paris, where, despite a crying baby, Marx and Jenny are enjoying playful young love, as politically committed as it is erotically charged.
As a filmmaker, Peck is unafraid of cliches that play to the groundlings. We meet famous people. We notice Courbet, artist of the people, at work on a canvas. We hear Proudhon in the act of declaiming his most famous proposition: that property is theft. We recognize the Russian anarchist Bakunin when, listening to Proudhon’s speech, he cries out, “Vive l’anarchie!” (Marx tells Bakunin that he himself is not an anarchist, but he allows Bakunin to introduce him to Proudhon, thereby acquiring some cultural capital that will be useful to him later in London.) At the end of the wild Parisian evening when Marx and Engels get drunk and become friends, Marx announces that up to now philosophers have interpreted the world, but the point is to change it.
American audiences, who are accustomed to bromance (D. H. Lawrence said it’s our national myth), may be disappointed that the friendship of Marx and Engels does not become an excuse for rough-but-affectionate masculine banter or a “private” subject in its own right that supplements or even undercuts the film’s no-nonsense concern with radical history. We see Marx beating Engels at chess, but Engels takes it well. They admire each other’s writings. The womenfolk — Marx’s aristocratic wife Jenny von Westphalen and Engels’s Irish working-class common-law wife Mary Burns — are brought out of the shadows and shown to have been informed, self-conscious, active contributors to what came to be known as Marxism. (Jenny has one of the film’s best lines: listening to Marx and Engels go on about their disagreements with the Young Hegelians, she suggests, gently sardonic, that their joint essay might be titled “Critique of Critical Criticism.” The men laugh, but it’s not clear they’ve understood. She also notes that they will need to be more than two couples in order to change the world.) Between the men, the allegory is straightforward: what Marx brings to the collaboration is German philosophy, what Engels brings is knowledge of the world’s first industrial working class, which is English (and Irish). Engels seems to know, and not to mind, that his name will not figure in the film’s title. He tells Marx that he needs to read the British political economists, and Marx immediately does. There seem to be no dark places between the two that need exploring.
In general, the film seems almost too well lit. Lurid slums flash up, but quickly disappear. There is no lack of people who are clearly poor, cold, and hungry, yet they remain in the background, good evidence for Marx’s worldview whether he is noticing them or not. (I for one was grateful that I was not force-fed large helpings of Marx’s personal good-heartedness.) In the foreground, camera angles, lighting, and sound design combine to create for the main characters an enviable if uncanny sense of comfort — one hesitates to call it “bourgeois,” but the word does come to mind. Even when the Marx household is clearly not comfortable at all, as it mainly wasn’t, the decor, carefully chosen for period authenticity, makes it look comfortable. The lighting is soft and enticing, even when the subject is the harshness of ordinary lives, a subject the film has an obvious stake in reminding us of. The film itself makes no assaults on our senses to compare with the opening assault of the police on the wood gatherers. The glint and glare, the metals and the plastics, the constant fluorescent buzz and rumble of modern so-called civilization are missing. Even the Engels factory in Manchester looks, as presented, relatively inviting. The fact that people spend a lot of screen time smoking and drinking gives the film a perversely Mad Men–like vibe, as if people knew how to live better back when they didn’t know better. The strange yet overwhelming feeling is that existence in the 19th century, artisanally cobbled together with lots of wood and candles, had a pre-industrial attractiveness, almost like the primeval forest of the opening sequence.
Comfortable is not what one would have expected to feel in a film about the young Marx. Is the film at odds with itself then? Perhaps not. It’s as if you were getting, compressed into the same frame, what the revolution is for (the good life) as well as the misery and injustice that it’s against. The slogan “workers of the world unite” is embodied, obliquely, in the fact that this Franco-German co-production features actors who are fluent in French as well as German, with English thrown in, and indeed sometimes go back and forth between the various languages for no apparent reason except perhaps to show that in a future society, if our side wins, such matters as language and nationality will no longer make people hate each other. The central friendship and the two supporting marriages also function, unavoidably, as images of a social harmony that would make all the political sacrifices worthwhile.
It would have been easy enough for Peck to give in to the prevailing ethos and show, instead, the private sacrifices that all public achievement entails. (Granted, that moral seems inescapable these days only for women, not for men.) But Peck is uninterested in using the supposedly truer truths of character or personality to get the drop on abstract ideas, as if the ideas were less essential or authentic than the person who gave rise to them. His version of materialism, like Marx’s, rejects what Hegel and Lukács called a “valet-de-chambre” view of history — the sort of meanspiritedness for which what really counts is not public deeds, but what the great men looked like, warts and all, to the servants who were helping them get dressed. It seems fitting that there is no trace here of Marx’s famous skin lesions, which he disgustedly thought were boils but may have been a far more serious case of hidradenitis suppurativa. It seems defensible that no mention is made of his illegitimate child, whom Engels pretended was his own.
Much of the film has to do with the infighting between Marx and Engels and their allies on the left, the more or less microscopic, more or less utopian groupuscules that dreamed of overturning the established order but spent most of their time arguing angrily with each other. These groups were easy to mock then, and they are much easier to mock now. But Peck doesn’t give in to mockery, perhaps because his subject is, after all, something like a miracle: that out of such unlikely, anxiety-ridden, uncertain lives a movement of great moral generosity was born.
The centering of the soundtrack on German and French, which used to be seen as the two indispensable languages of Europe, might make one think the film itself is European in the narrow sense. I think the opposite is true. A genuinely European film on the subject of Karl Marx would almost certainly have been more ironic. It could hardly have avoided, say, the charge, after Marx’s death, that Engels was responsible for vulgarizing his friend’s thought and making stronger claims for its scientific authority than Marx himself ever made. By taking a large step back, however, Peck could suggest that the most basic point, on which Marx and Engels agreed — the division of the world into have’s and have-not’s — was not wrong. The textile mills of Manchester, where Engels worked so uncomfortably for his industrialist father, are now largely located in the Global South. In a sense, this is a movie of the Global South, though it neither shows nor discusses the Global South. The film suggests that the world has changed since the mid-19th century — and also that it hasn’t. The details are different; the big picture remains the same.
It’s a film that refuses to notice the trees and miss, as the saying goes, the forest.
In a penetrating interview, LARB Radio host Kate Wolf talks with author Francisco Cantu about his new book The Line Becomes a River, an impressionistic chronicle of his five year stint as an agent for the United States Border Patrol, the emotional fallout from the experience, and his reflections on the humanitarian crisis of the US-Mexico border. Cantu also offers his thoughts on the controversy that has surrounded this book, stemming from criticism from immigration rights activists, as well as his critique of Trump’s brutally wrong-headed border wall proposal.
Also, LARB Radio’s Eric Newman drops in to recommend Jeffrey C Stewart’s magisterial 800-page biography The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, which transports you to the milieu of one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most influential thinkers.
THIS MAN NEEDS no introduction. Four letters, 19th-century German socialist (don’t forget the beard). Setting aside the cliches and the hyperbole — be prepared to admit how “relevant,” “right,” “tragic,” and even “comic” he was — Karl Marx at 200 leaves us a pile of unfinished business. Today, to speak of Marx’s “legacy” scarcely does it justice, given that the project to assemble the complete works of Marx and Engels in 114 volumes (the so-called MEGA or Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe) is still underway at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, and not due to be completed until 2025.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to mention Marx was the prelude to a confession. In Specters of Marx, published in 1993, Jacques Derrida acknowledged that “for my generation […] the experience of Marxism, the quasi-paternal figure of Marx, the way it fought in us with other filiations, the reading of texts and the interpretation of a world in which the Marxist inheritance was — and still remains, and so it will remain — absolutely and thoroughly determinate.”
Today it no longer makes sense to speak of a single Marxist inheritance. Marxisms are multiple. This doesn’t mean we should wish to repress or erase a history (since histories too are multiple) of Marxist disasters. Whether or not he would have approved, Marx’s history is part of the history of Marxism(s), which is part of Marxism(s). How could the science of history forget its own? But the short history of the new century would seem to suggest that Marx, having already taken his place among the classics of literature and philosophy, will be more necessary to the future than he was to the past. Absolutely and thoroughly determinate.
I am grateful to the contributors for taking part in this forum, and to Arne De Boever and the Los Angeles Review of Books for providing the space for this debate.
— Jason Barker, editor, Karl Marx Bicentennial Forum
ANNE RAEFF’s Winter Kept Us Warm derives its name from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a portion of which serves as the novel’s epigraph: “Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers.” The quotation alludes to the fateful postwar winter in which the three characters at the center of the story meet. But its echoes stretch further: an underlying sense of menace shadows the novel’s near-constant ballet of forward movement and backward-facing trauma. A blanket of snow is no blanket at all — it does not warm, as a woolen one would, and while it may numb the sting of impending doom, the inevitable comes nonetheless. These characters spend their lives searching for a salve while vacillating between the security of forgetting and the difficult work of confronting trauma. All along, Raeff’s novel wrestles with the problem of how we reckon with the legacy of war — through exhaustive probing and moral detective work, or with the resignation that the most important questions will never have satisfying answers?
I came back to Eliot’s three short lines periodically while reading Winter Kept Us Warm, Raeff’s follow-up to her Flannery O’Connor Prize–winning story collection The Jungle Around Us, which University of Georgia Press published last year. There’s much here that she retreads: global lives conjoined or constrained by upheaval (often war), quiet and observational narrators trying with varying degrees of success to penetrate their own isolation, descriptions of place that demonstrate the author’s love of sensory detail and the geographical particular.
Whereas the characters in her collection are largely tethered together by intangibles — themes, chiefly — in Winter, Raeff writes brilliantly about characters that orbit each other for years on end, evolving and regressing in different corners of the world in ways that parallel their far-flung counterparts (with whom they’re sometimes in love). Ulli, a young German working as a barroom translator; Isaac, a lanky, multilingual American soldier stationed in Berlin; and Leo, his brash, fragile comrade-in-arms with a time-bomb heart condition, make the sort of foils that feel perfectly plausible, ripped from memory. Their shared concern about the future belies a host of differences and points of contention that dictate the strength and tenuousness of their connections: Ulli’s memory of Russian soldiers seizing and raping the women in her neighborhood, Leo’s secret love affair with a prisoner of war named Bidor, Isaac’s unrequited ardor for Ulli, who ultimately weds Leo.
When they first convene by happenstance in the bombed-out German capital, Ulli declining drinks the men offer her before ultimately ceding to curiosity, their fate as a trio feels predestined, but subtly so, the way a first meeting with a lifelong lover can seem so ordinary in retrospect, the tide having risen gradually before we were swept out to sea. So it is with this initial dalliance, which grows into a love triangle and constellation of friends who measure their lives not with coffee spoons but in relation to one another.
Raeff establishes this chosen family incrementally, cementing its importance without sentimentality or flash. Winter Kept Us Warm builds steadily, with much show, little tell. The characters’ actions evince their interiority, and Raeff plants details seamlessly, each particular lending to the impact of the whole: Isaac’s willingness to teach Ulli Russian through the night, Leo’s attempts to avoid the gay bars that lure him like magnets after he’s moved with his new wife to New York, Ulli’s loneliness as she chain-smokes and listens to Billie Holiday records in their Johnstown apartment.
In a novel so concerned with war, migration, and loss, one passage in particular rings false, colored though it is by Isaac’s worldly optimism. As a hopeful spring begins to thaw the cold that drove the trio inside their Berlin apartment, he’s tasked with interrogating Europeans in a displaced-persons camp to determine which were collaborators. When he decides to give a questionable interviewee the benefit of the doubt, and, therefore, his freedom, he discusses the ramifications with Ulli:
“His guilt will follow him whether he is wasting away in prison behind the Iron Curtain or whether he is comfortable in a cozy little house in America,” he said, and she knew this was true.
It’s a rare moment of comforting reassurance in a book that concerns itself chiefly with that which is liminal and gray, the moral limbos that can trap moments in amber. This presumption of conscience, of an eventual reckoning, feels unearned, as platitudinous as the belief that Americans who prize their financial bottom line over the deaths of the uninsured or line up at the border to shoot thirsty, dust-covered refugees on sight have a hidden, empathetic heart. It isn’t shocking that Isaac says this so much as that Ulli — the saddest and weariest of them all — would believe it.
It’s pitiful that a story so much about the perennial, evergreen nature of violence — the passage of time measured by trauma, like rings on a tree — remains so relevant. The world fixates on World War II for its atrocities, for the swiftness with which evil mobilized and metastasized, and it’s comforting to count every single one of the 72 years since its horrors were extinguished. But greed, corruption, prejudice, and bigotry can creep through the dark for years before lunging in ambush. Wouldn’t guilt, if it welled up in someone’s soul, even at a delay, cause them to fight to prevent future massacres? Wouldn’t the guilt of an entire generation (among them Ulli, Leo, and Isaac) provoke loud, vociferous protest at the prospect of the repetition of that bloody history? What good is one bad man’s belated misery if it doesn’t ripple outward? What kind of solace is that?
Raeff’s latest speaks to the present. There’s nothing dated or quaint about the three individuals around which she centers her story, and the lack of period embroidery — no archaic brand names, beauty rituals, or descriptions of old-timey radios — keeps it streamlined. The characters don’t spend 304 pages pontificating about the nature of good and evil, but like anyone living through history they try to make sense of the world, one failure and one victory at a time.
After Isaac joins Ulli in the Morrocan city of Meknes, they speak as lovers weighted by resignation:
“Remember how you used to say that happiness was overrated?”
“That was when I was young and believed that one had to be tortured and miserable in order to do great things,” Isaac said.
“And you don’t think that anymore?”
“Perhaps what I think now is that greatness is overrated.”
Later, in the story’s present, an elderly Ulli lies on Isaac’s bed in the Moroccan hotel she owns and “[shakes] off the memory of a happiness that had once been, for there is nothing more painful than the memory of happiness.”
Happiness, greatness: these are labels ascribed to things that feel much bigger than their component parts, too vast and unwieldy to funnel into a single word. Raeff revisits this theme obsessively, and the reader goes down the same theoretical rabbit holes her traumatized characters navigate. During a section of the book where pain is imminent and Leo struggles more and more to suppress his homosexuality, a lonely man at a Greenwich Village gay bar says to him, “You seemed like a man who wanted to be happy.” When Leo asks whether that’s not true of everyone, the man replies, “I have come to the conclusion that unhappiness is so much easier, and most people, frankly, are lazy and scared.”
This is the book’s central premise, one whose plausibility depends on the day, the weather, or the latest presidential tweet: the fight for happiness is worthwhile, even when it’s exhausting. In this author’s nimble hands, the struggle for love, safety, and meaning feels palpable as the reader watches each character scour various routes toward those ends, only some of which prove fruitful. Raeff’s great achievement is having assembled a cast so recognizably flawed that it’s easy to root empathetically for their contentment, even as she calls the potential for contentment into question by suggesting that inherent morality — human goodness — may be a lie we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night. What would surrender to that disconcerting cynicism look like? Perhaps the cold comfort of a numbing blanket of snow. But even then the thaw will inevitably come, and, despite ourselves, those miniscule tubers of hope will once again break through and reach for the sunlight of a better future, no matter how dismal its chances.
“But time is such a wearisome notion in our modern world, is it not?” said Jenny, savouring the yellow portion of her egg. “The idea of spending a day and a half, or two or three in the company of friends… I think it would be so much nicer if we did away with time altogether and just did as we pleased for as long as we liked. Don’t you?”
— Marx Returns
IN JASON BARKER’S Marx Returns, an imaginative, uplifting, and sometimes disturbing alternative history, Jenny remarks over breakfast that time would be better abolished than maintained. The time of the “modern world” is the time of rent payments, of appointments with doctors and fellow revolutionaries, of train timetables and overdue deadlines for manuscripts. It is the time of the untimely — of deaths too young and altogether too tragic — but also of a revolutionary fervor, intrigue, spying, conspiracy, and dirt of all kinds. It is also a time of games — epic geopolitical battles, but also chess, children’s games, dreams, drunken silliness, and mathematical formulae that don’t quite work. Jenny, on holiday, enjoying herself, wonders idly what a world without time might look like. She has forgotten how long she has spent with her new friend, a lieutenant in the British army, when he reminds her that it has only been a mere day-and-a-half. “Time,” Jenny continues, is “a social problem that stems from the unnatural separation between our public and private lives.” Time is not the playground of our freedoms and capacities, but rather the unnatural arrangement through which one is forced to entertain both a private and a public persona.
Of course this is also a question of class and of respectability — for “Baroness” Jenny von Westphalen, at least — and sliding into poverty with Marx does for her reputation, as he scrapes and begs for more time, a little more money, a little sympathy so he can finish his masterpiece, Capital. But do we anymore entertain this private and public relation to time?
Jenny’s “utopian” desire for an end to time is also the desire for free time, and the exploration of our capacities. This is Marx’s part-satirical point in The German Ideology, where we imagine ourselves hunting, fishing, breeding, criticizing as we wish, and for as long as we like (in Marx Returns, Jenny is the advocate of such German ideology, or “idealism,” while her husband attends to more seemingly “scientific” questions). The equation public = clock-time, wage labor, drudgery, whereas private = family, free time, delight is, though, in itself utopian, archaic. Of course, for the Marx family, they are not at all exempt from constant interruptions to their private life, whether it be as landlords and creditors try to force them to pay up or move out, or Marx and his contemporaries become threatened by arrest.
Our post-industrial relations to time are still very much tied up to class and debt, and we might still fantasize about the abolition of time altogether, whether it be the time, or the interruption of time, announced by the alarm clock, mobile phone, emails at all times of the day and night. Do we relax in our “free time” in the company of friends? Our anxiety seems multiplied by the fact that time is everywhere, and that we seem to have less and less of it, in work or out of it. We perhaps do not even spend time noticing that “all that is solid melts into air,” given that venturing outside is ever more likely to carry with it certain risks! The pollution of Marx’s era depicted in Marx Returns (the “volcanic debris” pumped out of the “toxic delivery rooms of the Upper Lambeth Marsh”) has become less visible in some ways, but no less toxic, as the seas fill up with microbeads and plastic bottles and the air becomes more and more devastating to all-too-human lungs; no amount of German ideology can diminish such material effects. The image of time imagined by Jenny and the future society Marx half-jokes about, half-hints at, is a life lived largely outdoors, though we will need somewhere to play chess, listen to music, and write our criticism, not to mention going to sleep and waking up whenever we want to. Eventually, the husband realizes that,
In the future society Marx was working to achieve one could have it all: the wife and the book. The children, the dog, the pony and the piano … the whole damned affair! The fact that Marx didn’t personally have the book yet was, admittedly, a poor demonstration of his theory. But that didn’t mean his theory had been disproven.
After all, what is freedom? What do we want? What ties us down and keeps us miserable when we are also capable of imagining a different future for everyone? In Marx Returns, Marx’s father suggests that Marx must choose between marrying Jenny (and making money for the family) and writing. In other words, he must spend his time wisely. Marx, in the end arguing with an untimely revenant, states: “You dared me to choose between them and I refused. Compromise was never my strong suit, nor yours.” Marx’s choice not to choose endangers his family’s well-being to a tragic degree, but in this respect he is no different from the many families who continue to lose children to poverty, and who did not have the possibility of choosing their circumstances. He admits as much in his botched apology to Helene following a scandalous bout of sexual intercourse (rape?). But the admission is also a self-conscious and knowing attempt to excuse his own behavior. “I never had a crystal ball,” Marx explains, at least partly in order to absolve himself of responsibility for this wanton act. “I always made decisions in circumstances that were not of my own choosing.”
How much stuff is there in the world? In the world of circulation in the book — of pawn shops and factories and commodities and pints of beer — we are constantly in the world of lack and swapping. But someone always gets rich. Where today is all the wealth that, were it redistributed, however forcibly, would see everyone with as much as they wanted, which in turn would also be what they needed? Such is the question that confronts the eponymous hero of Marx Returns in his ill-fated attempts to balance the books, the equations of use and exchange values, and the “vanishing quantities” of capital. The whole relation between want and need would thus be reconfigured in its turn, as freedom and time would allow us to realize and decide what it was that we valued, because our entire conception of value would also be revalued. Would we still love for a long time? Do we still now? We seem much quicker to cut ties, end friendships, avoid relationships, move on, explicitly or implicitly revealing the reasons why. What ties do we have left? The big Other haunts us in the constant fear of humiliation and shame, but we do not seem loyal to those we might formerly have felt duty toward, even or especially in times of crisis.
If we had more time would we be freer, happier? Would we maintain our friendships and relationships as retirees might retain their gardens, if we get to retire, if we have a garden, if there are either gardens or retirement left for anyone anymore? If we decided against lack, if we acted as though we had all the time in the world, and that we could take stock of all the private property in the world with a view to apportioning it, reorganizing it; if we could make free what has been enclosed, such that we could all have access to the commons and become commoners once again, would we also be able to start to see time as less of a prison cell, an anxious warder, but more of a vast expanse in which social relations were infinite and infinitely possible, infinitely interesting? If we “did as we pleased for as long as we liked,” might we finally be able to do some good?
FOR THE KARL MARX Bicentennial Forum, Jason Barker spoke to Clive Coleman, co-writer with Richard Bean of Young Marx, a play about Marx and his family’s early years in London. The play opened at the Bridge Theatre in London on October 27 and ran until December 31, 2017. It was directed by the Royal National Theatre’s former artistic director Sir Nicholas Hytner, and starred Rory Kinnear in the lead role, Oliver Chris as Engels, and Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife Jenny von Westphalen.
JASON BARKER: Many people will be familiar with your TV credits on The Bill and Spitting Image. How did you come to co-write a play about Karl Marx, which seems like a different proposition entirely?
CLIVE COLEMAN: As a writing partnership Richard [Bean, co-writer] and I go back a long way. We used to write comedy together in the mid-1990s. We wrote a sketch show called Control Group Six for BBC Radio 4, so we’d always been in touch. Richard became a well-known playwright and I went on to work for the BBC as its legal correspondent. We worked together on a play about phone hacking called Great Britain within five days of the verdict in the big criminal phone hacking trial in which Rebekah Brooks was acquitted and Andy Coulson convicted.  We worked on that in 2014 and wanted to do something else. Then Richard was approached initially to write the libretto for an opera about Karl Marx. That didn’t happen for various reasons but through talking to him about it we started reading around Marx — we read a number of biographies — and were just amazed by the fact that in 1850, as a young man, all the things you would never have imagined of this imposing figure — this bust in Highgate Cemetery — actually happened to him. He lived the most extraordinary life. All the incidents in the play actually happened. He did apply for a job on the railway as a clerk, he did have terrible boils on his backside, he fathered a child illegitimately with his housekeeper, and he lived in absolutely penurious circumstances. At one point the Prussian spy who was spying on him reported back to Berlin that Marx hadn’t left his Soho apartment for five days. Why? Because he’d pawned all of his own clothes; he was too poor to leave the house. So there was a ready-made door-slamming farce right there, with bailiffs banging on the door and his beautiful German wife fobbing them off while he hid in the cupboard. There was an amazing collection of ingredients that we thought would make a fantastic play. Initially we thought of it as a pure farce. Then we backtracked slightly because when you’re putting a genius on the stage farce is actually too slight a vehicle … That was basically it. I think we slightly fell in love with the young Marx because he was such an amazing character. Flawed but charismatic, energetic, crackling with intelligence, and the kind of person to whom things happened and who made things happen. So the character we found magnetic and fascinating.
I agree that farce is too slight a vehicle for Marx. But I could have imagined the play as an opera. You focus on a lot of material that lends itself to melodrama.
The producers were keen to have an opera with Freddy Demuth, who was Marx’s illegitimate son, grown up, but we fastened on 1850 as the play’s setting because it was a time when an awful lot was happening. We really wanted to focus on Marx as a young man, the one people don’t really know about. Some of the information has been hidden from the public …
Almost certainly a lot was censored by Marx’s daughters, maybe self-censored.
Yes. People are more comfortable thinking about him as an austere and iconic figure who gave birth to communism then Stalinism, et cetera. No one’s thought about lifting the curtain and looking at the life he was living, all the normal problems, so for us this presented an irresistible opportunity. No one’s written a play about Marx and put it on the English stage, even though he lived in England for the majority of his adult life.
In focusing on the young Marx you’re perhaps contradicting the audience’s expectations, both of the image of the man as well as Marxology. It’s easier to think of Marx as a great thinker when we’re presented with him as this sedentary old sage with a big beard in the way that all the Victorian sages are presented: Darwin, Dickens, et cetera. Did you deliberately set out to smash this image?
The thing that comes across if you read Marx’s letters, particularly those to Engels, is how funny he was; witty, funny, very well read. He would quote Shakespeare at length, he knew poetry, literature. He and Engels would ridicule their opponents, quite cruelly, actually. I’m not sure that this ritualistic side to Marx and this caustic wit ever really left him; I’m not sure he became so different to the way he was previously in terms of his sense of mischief and ribaldry. That bust of him at Highgate Cemetery — somewhat strangely — casts a long shadow. I happen to believe that lurking in the background there’s a real person. One of the things that draws you to him is this incredible intellectual energy he had. Maybe that magnetism is in some respect what makes him into a leader. If there was a room with five hundred people in it and he walked in you’d know he was there. He was someone who drew your attention. That energy was something that everyone found attractive. So in that sense I don’t think there was a deliberate effort to smash the image of him as an older man.
I’d like to come back to the question of farce. Young Marxis a very dynamic play and there’s a lot of outrageous physical comedy, like the fight scene in the British Museum, where Marx meets Charles Darwin (apparently without realizing who he is). But the mood of the play shifts with the death of Marx’s son, at which point it becomes a tragedy; Marx realizes the error of his ways and makes peace with the chaos. In reality, of course, when his son Guido dies in 1850, it turns out to be only the beginning of a long sequence of tragic events. In 1851 his wife Jenny gives birth to a daughter, Franziska, who only survives a year; then Edgar, his eldest son, dies in 1855. And for the next 15 years Marx is still persecuted much as he was before by bailiffs and landlords, and he doesn’t make serious headway on his “economics shit” for years. Even after Das Kapital is published in 1867 he complains to Engels that he’s never been in more dire financial straits and feels like he’s at death’s door. In 1860 he writes a work entitled Herr Vogt, which is this huge exposé of an obscure German activist who, years later in 1870, turns out to be a spy of Napoleon III. By this point Engels is almost tearing his hair out, imploring Marx to finish his book on capital. But he can’t. In this sense one could say that the farce is never-ending. Why did you decide to curtail the farce at the point you did, in 1850 or thereabouts, when in reality it had only just got going?
In any piece of drama or comedy, when you’re dealing with such a full and eventful life, you have to bite off a digestible chunk. But you’re absolutely right, we compressed a lot. The Marxes lost several children, whereas we focused on Fawksey. In fact it was Edgar who lived up until just before he was eight years old, who Marx absolutely adored, and who was a brilliant Artful Dodger–type character. He would stand outside their Soho apartment and fob the debt-collectors off as well. All of that is equally great material but we wanted to get as much of his young life into as short a period as we could. So much happened in 1850; that year draws in all of the incidents that took place around it. You’ve only got two hours on stage. Had it been a box-set TV series we could have expanded it. You mention how he felt as if he was at death’s door. He was frequently ill due to a terrible lifestyle of smoking cigars and drinking far too much but also just getting through the run-of-the-mill everyday things of life. As writers, we had to make a decision about what a reasonable chunk of his life is, and if there were great things that happened outside of that then which ones we should try and work into that space.
I suppose the staging of the play might also have encouraged that compression. Young Marx is performed at the Bridge Theatre in London, a purpose-built brand-new state-of-the-art theater on the Thames at Tower Bridge. You have this fantastic revolving stage that allows the action to change locations in an instant, from Soho to Brussels, and which serves the piece very well. Did knowing you had that machinery at your fingertips influence the way you wrote the play?
It started quite raw. The Marxes lived in two rooms in London’s Soho in what’s now the Quo Vadis restaurant. We knew we wanted to have scenes in the Red Lion, where the Communist League met. We also knew that we wanted the duel scene, which actually took place in Antwerp, and where Konrad Schramm went to fight August Willich on Marx’s behalf. Schramm was grazed by a bullet, everyone thought he was dead, and then he turned up in Soho a few days later. But, actually, the truth is we wrote the play and Mark Thompson, the brilliant set designer, came up with this amazing revolving set. There were still a few scenes that the director cut. But we wanted the London of the time, which was a dirty, grubby Soho, awash with émigrés and revolutionaries from the 1848 revolutions in Europe. So we wanted this Dickensian pea-souper type of London together with this fetid atmosphere of revolutionaries plotting and planning. And also factions splitting. At least one of the communist factions wanted to spark revolution through pure violence. Marx never wanted that and believed things would happen through a historical process. It was all those things together that led to the way in which it was staged.
Whenever I fall into conversations with people about Marx, people always tend to express the same opinion. Armchair enthusiasts, people who haven’t read him much, or at all, usually start by insisting that while they admire Marx and agree wholeheartedly with his ideas in theory, they don’t see how they could possibly work in practice. I’m curious to know whether you’ve had similar conversations with people and whether you share the sentiment. The reason I ask is because that skepticism doesn’t come across in the play at all. Overall it ends up feeling optimistic and dispenses with the lunacy, along with the cliched idea that Marx is a utopian fantasist, irresponsible, nothing but a drunken raver, et cetera.
I’m someone who’s sympathetic to the man and his dilemmas. Marx was a young man married to a beautiful German aristocrat who was four years his senior. He was living in difficult, penurious circumstances, managing a young family and trying to hold a political movement together through the Communist League at a time when it was splitting up. So he had a lot on his plate! But can I answer the question in a slightly different way?
Put it this way. A play about Karl Marx cannot avoid his writings. It would be absurd to try to do that. No one goes to the theater to have two hours of Marx’s theories rammed down their throat. That would not be a particularly entertaining evening. But we wanted to tackle his writings and we thought long and hard about finding ways and the right speeches in order for him to do that. So there’s a scene in the play where they’re making breakfast and Marx has an epiphany, and it’s through making breakfast that he manages to expound upon alienation. Something like alienation is a difficult concept to get across and we wanted to find ways to ground things like that in situations that might have sparked his imagination and enabled him to come up with them. And especially in those domestic situations. But I don’t think we ever took on or made a value judgment about whether these concepts were workable in practice. It was a moment in time. It was 1850. So no one had really put any of this stuff into practice. We were many years away from him actually completing Das Kapital. He’d been working on it for about five years and hadn’t done much, I think. So that wasn’t the focus of the play. I’ve slightly dodged your question there.
I think it’s fair to say that Marx in 1850 is an unusual character. At the time he was experimenting with communism and socialism, which were still fairly minority underground sects. He doesn’t know how things are going to work out, he’s grappling with it all; even though Marx’s “theory” is itself a practical undertaking. He’s not an abstract theorist.
There was one speech we put in the play and which I was very keen to have in. Marx had a great optimism that history would play out in a particular way and in the speech at the Red Lion he says there will be a time when the money’s eaten itself, banks will be bust, there will be no money to pay the police or the army and so we won’t need a revolution; we shall simply walk in and take over. There was also another speech we put in. Although he had this optimism, capitalism has clearly turned out to be hugely elastic and shape-shifting. It hits one crisis then it finds a way, whether through the invention of credit cards or state intervention to prop up banks. So in actual fact it’s proved to be a very powerful foe and perhaps more so than Marx imagined. So in the play he gives another speech when he’s at his nadir and in which he describes capitalism as a seven-headed hydra that can never be beaten. And I wonder whether he ever thought like that. Did he ever consider: What if I’m wrong about this? What if the enemy is more powerful than I thought? I take the view that anyone who believes so much in something must at some point reflect and think: what if the thing is more difficult to beat than I ever imagined?
It’s the Marx bicentennial this year and Marx’s ideas about class struggle and economic exploitation are still live issues. I wonder whether this explains why there have been so few TV or theater dramatizations of Marx’s life. Do you think producers are frightened, not so much of Marx, but of what he represents? Or do you think there’s a more innocent explanation? In passing I’ve heard it said that the Raoul Peck movie The Young Karl Marx has been struggling to secure an English distributor, which may go some way toward explaining why more Marx films don’t get made. Clearly it can’t be for lack of a good story, or one that’s worth telling.
I don’t think there’s a big capitalist conspiracy to blunt any drama about Karl Marx. There have been lots of documentaries and books. I think it’s because people associate him so much with the writings and the history that followed it. And for a lot of people that’s a bit of a turn off.
But it’s still very visual. Your play has a great visual language in terms of the spies and all these archetypes you have in it. It’s interesting that the Marx story should remain so overwhelmingly on the page.
Well, having said that the Young Marx play has been on about a thousand cinema screens on National Theatre Live, so it has been seen in cinemas. There may end up being a film of the play. Who knows? You have these sleeping giants. For years and years, when I was writing sitcom, everyone said you cannot write a sitcom about people being in an office. People are in an office all day and they do not want to come home and sit for another half an hour and watch people in an office. And then Ricky Gervais wrote The Office. Sometimes you have a long period where people think things aren’t doable. Then suddenly times change, attitudes change, and those things become popular. So you never know. This may be a time when people are going to look again at Karl Marx. He certainly deserves a look.
And as a dialectical thinker of contraries he’s perhaps the greatest sleeping giant of them all. One should never say never with Marx.
Well, exactly. Maybe we’ve helped to start something new.
 In 2011, it emerged that The News of the World, a mass circulation UK tabloid Sunday newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, had hired a private investigator to hack into the phone records of Milly Dowler, a young British teenager who went missing in March 2002, and whose body was eventually discovered six months later. In July 2011, it was reported that during the period of Dowler’s disappearance, during which the newspaper supported a public campaign to find her, the private investigator and journalists from the paper listened to voice messages left on her phone, and deleted others in order to free space for new incoming messages. This created the false impression that Dowler was still alive. Following pubic outrage the paper ceased publication in July 2011. In 2013, former editors of The News of the World, including Brooks and Coulson, were prosecuted for their involvement in the related phone-hacking scandal.
THE FOLLOWING IS an abridged excerpt from Jürgen Neffe’s Marx. Der Unvollendete (C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 2017), translated by Shelley Frisch.
Algiers, late April 1882. After an unusual period of cold weather with rain streaming down from black skies, a hot desert wind was driving temperatures up to more than 30 degrees Celsius. In his salon somewhere in the play of shadows on the cool back streets, a barber was sharpening his knives. Today they needed to be particularly sharp. An elderly gentleman with a bushy beard and white mane atop a strikingly high forehead had taken a seat in the barber’s chair, and this sedentary giant now looked far larger than when he entered the shop.
The man wished to shed his crowning glory, from his face and his head, probably on the advice of a doctor. He looked sickly, a little bloated, and drained by life. His eyes had lost their sparkle, but they flashed up briefly when he spoke and told jokes, thus providing the only indication of his true age. In a few days he would turn 64.
His overcoat, his demeanor, and his highly precise French identified him as a man from the north, yet with his bronzed complexion and dark brown eyes, he could have been from these parts. He also owed his nickname to the Moorish aspect of his features: his family and his German friend back home, now living in exile in London, called him “Moor.” That was how he signed his letters to his comrade there, and the name his three daughters had known him by since they were children. “Moor,” they said, “Moor is furious, Moor can go.” Not: “The Moor.” At the close of every letter he wrote them, he sent the young women his (always fond) regards, and signed his letters “Old Nick,” which, in English, stood for the devil.
Now the devil was playing his part. The knives were sharpened, white locks of hair were falling to the floor. In the mirror of an Arab beard shearer, Karl Marx saw himself taking leave of his familiar look. Like an actor who has finished performing and is sitting with his mask on, about to remove his makeup, he was bidding farewell to the character who had dictated his image throughout his life. He was destroying his image, his own graven image, molded after Zeus, a mighty bust of whom adorned his study at home. One last solitary act; World Theater without an audience.
One man was always on hand, even if he was not with him at that very moment: Friedrich Engels, his companion in England. As soon as they were separated they wrote letters to each other, and had been doing so for four decades by this point. Correspondence functioned as a substitute for keeping a diary. “A propos,” Marx, a.k.a. “Old Moor,” confessed his outrageous hair-cutting act to “dear Fred” from afar: “because of the sun, I have done away with my prophet’s beard and my crowning glory, but (because my daughters would rather have it this way) I had myself photographed before offering up my hair at the altar of an Algerian barber.”
His clumsy language reveals the decline that was putting a damper on the final year of his life. A few months earlier, when Marx lost his life’s companion, his wife Jenny, who had succumbed to cancer, Engels said, “The Moor has died as well.”
“Offering up my hair”: was this haircut a radical step that anticipated his own death, where the customer doesn’t get away unscathed? Or was it a symbol of liberation and a new beginning, as his relatively young age would still permit?
For the first time he had left the confinement of Europe. His letters and activities reveal his unwavering zeal and curiosity about the world, in accordance with the diverse interests of a man who had been passionate about politics and was now retired. During the final decade of his life he was no longer publishing anything of crucial importance, but he did produce countless memos and letters.
He had his last known photograph taken in Duterte’s photo studio, shortly after his arrival in late February. This picture was intended for his children and for posterity. Gazing into the camera, and beyond it into the darkness of the time that lay ahead, was a marked man who somehow knew that the worst was behind him. He looked a bit lost in reverie, smiling through his suffering. He confessed to his friend, “I’ve still been putting a brave face on an evil game.”
That was how he wished to be remembered and how he will live on in people’s minds: as a wise old man, and the image of an era that would not dawn until a long time after his death. Such was the gradual evolution of his historic role as an immortal who became the resonant container of human hopes for a better world.
In China, which reveres the elderly and hallows its ancestors and still calls itself communist with a keen sense of irony, this portrait remains his most popular likeness.
The beard — which had been one of the best known beards of all time — was now off. Without his aureole, his mighty head seemed small, almost frail, by comparison. By dropping his mask, which also kept his facial expressions so well concealed, Marx was exposing himself and, in a touching way, making himself invisible as well: no one would recognize him, although his likeness would soon appear on millions of posters. Now he could stroll down our streets, clean shaven and short-haired, as his own revenant. Marx without a full beard was like a clown without make-up or the Great Dictator without a mustache: he was a different person.
Someone posted a portrait of the shorn Marx on the internet. It amounted to little more than an amateurish retouching effort. On this portrait, however, the digitally shaved man bears a disconcerting resemblance to the last powerful ruler allied to his teachings, the man responsible for laying to rest the phantom protection of Marx in the Eastern bloc: General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s famous saying — inverted, the way Marx liked it — could easily serve as a motto for the story of his life: life punishes those who come too early.
How might Marx see the world today? How might he see himself and his work, and his work’s place in it? What would his analysis of the ongoing crisis look like, with the world now plunged into unfettered capitalism? Would he feel as though he’d been vindicated, understood — or more likely betrayed and sold down the river?
The man laid to rest at Highgate Cemetery in London barely a year after the final cut at the barbershop in Algiers bore only a faint resemblance to the Olympian father of the gods that posterity would remember. After his appointment at the photographer’s, no more pictures of him would appear. There is no surviving photograph, not even sketches or even any mention of the old man with the bare face.
It is possible that such documentation once existed. If it had, it was probably destroyed by his daughters after his death, like all personally compromising letters, especially those between Marx and his friend, and between Marx and his wife. In light of this situation, how is posterity supposed to get a realistic picture of Marx’s personal life and personality? Generations of biographers have grappled with the question. Most have wound up skirting the issue and presenting whatever was available as the full picture.
If Marx’s trip to the barber, where he got to peer behind his mask, is mentioned in the Marx literature at all, it receives only anecdotal treatment as a whimsical act brought on by some sort of medical issue, most likely a skin problem. Not a thought about what this new look meant for him; whether the loss of self he orchestrated may have shocked or amused him. There is no attempt to explore the inner life of Marx as an individual, which would surely be of great interest. Indeed, Marx would point the finger unerringly at the hypochondriatic aspect of his constant suffering: “My illness always comes from my head.”
In works about Marx, readers generally search in vain for a discussion of the self-perception of this rebel, who could philosophize so inimitably about man’s self-awareness as a “species being.” These works read as though someone was merely playing Marx’s role, as a man cast into the world by history in order to complete his assigned tasks, rather than as a flesh and blood human being with eyes that couldn’t escape his own reflection as a profoundly solitary man. The question arises of whether he was able to feel sorrow in the situations he found himself in, or merely rage.
Marx scholarship doesn’t go far enough in order to answer the question of how he viewed himself, what drove him, and how he became the person he was, particularly as someone who had conjured up a “social revolution,” yet could act so antisocially that his behavior assumed self-destructive proportions. What was the nature of the inferiority complex that must have weighed him down? What sort of self-hatred must have raged within him that it had to find such crass expression in arrogance and affectations of superiority? How much envy must have been involved, how much frustration when witnessing the success of labor leaders and freedom fighters such as Lassalle and Garibaldi winning over people’s hearts? They were hailed, whereas he was only feared.
The last journey Karl Marx undertook was like an odyssey in search of his lost self. His itinerary included Marseille, Algiers, Monte Carlo, Nice, Argenteuil, Paris, Lausanne, and Vevey, before heading back to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. Finally, in January, after relinquishing his final year, he arrived back home in London feeling mortally ill. He then had only three more months to live — or, more accurately: to die.
Back in the summer, he had sent a bitter lament to Engels from Monaco: “A pointless, arid, and also expensive existence!” From a purely medical point of view, that was entirely correct. The actual incentive for taking this grueling trip, which his doctors had persuaded him to endure, was to improve his health, but it didn’t help: neither his skin nor his liver nor his bronchial tubes were in better shape after convalescing in a supposedly more agreeable climate. Although he knew that the end was near, he bravely and confidently reassured his friend in his final lines to him: “Even so, I believe that with patience and pedantic self-control, I’ll soon be back on track. Moor.”
Psychologically, as his letters from afar reveal, his odyssey marked a real leap forward. Someone for whom words meant everything, someone who used words masterfully, and who was ruled by them in turn, slipped off his old skin the better to discover the charms and settings and beautiful absurdities of the world and its people. Shortly after arriving in Algiers, he wrote to Engels: “The wind gave us a concert last night. […] Yesterday in the evening, wonderful moonlight on the bay. I can never stop feasting my eyes on the sea in front of my balcony.”
After his visit to the barber, he wrote to his friend: “Sirocco storms dancing about […] Time to flee Algiers.” Fleeing: The story of his life, whose end ought not to be “fulfilled.” If he had chosen to take stock of his life as he regarded himself in the mirror the result would have been a mixed portrait at best, unlike the prophet who feels reassured in being able to account for the future. How must it have felt to leave behind a buried treasure of earth-shattering writings while perhaps anticipating that the great times still lay ahead, so to speak, in the here and now of the beyond?
Perhaps the journey helped Marx find his way back to the dreams of his youth when he tried his hand — unsuccessfully — at poetry, novels, and plays. He wrote to his youngest daughter, Eleanor, the “dearest little Tussy,” as she was known in the family, from Monte Carlo: “Nature here is splendid, further improved by art — I mean the gardens that appear as if by magic on barren rocks that often slope from steep heights all the way down to the enchantingly blue sea, like the hanging terraces of Babylonian gardens.”
In the first half of the 19th century, whose texts we know, never did he commit such words to paper. It was as if he had had to conceal the true face of a poetic Marx during all that time. Now the floodgates had opened, and he was pouring forth the depictions of landscapes and cities, of nature and its magic, that he had refrained from expressing in the past.
It was as though someone had discovered the sensuality that had been lying dormant within him for so long, like a prisoner of reason. By letting go of himself now — and letting himself go — he was able to give free rein to it, and allow himself to display a level of vulnerability in the thoughts he scribbled down that would have been inconceivable earlier on. What degree of playful curiosity — which had brought him so far as an explorer — might have been at work here?
His journey came to a seemingly conciliatory end. In Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris, the uprooted Marx visited the Longuet family and was reunited with his grandchildren once more. He was especially fond of little Johnny, whom he regarded as his own child — a belated consolation for the loss of his beloved son Edgar. He had never gotten over Edgar’s death at the age of eight. “I have gone through all kinds of bad luck,” he wrote to his friend in Manchester after the burial of little Musch, “but only now do I know the meaning of true unhappiness. I feel broken down.”
His wife had been worn out by a total of seven pregnancies, a reality he appears to have shrugged off. But his male descendant meant more to him — all Pasha and Patriarch — than the three surviving daughters. Death, which was now knocking at his door, had been a constant companion in the lives of the Marx family. Shortly after the return of the forlorn head of the household to the deserted house in London, death dealt him its penultimate blow, before finally coming for him a few weeks later. At the age of 38, “little Jenny” had succumbed to bladder cancer. During his visit she had bravely concealed her suffering from him.
A life as tragedy, but also a complete character study, a life that brought him the final role of a living dead man. He had always been a fighter, fearless and indomitable. But he would not be rising up again from this final defeat. The Moor had breathed his last sigh.
Would the immortal man be able to repeat the performance that his mortal counterpart had pulled off just a few months before, in the salon of an Algerian barber? By turning the barber’s chair into a director’s chair, and from there surmounting his own self — putting the finishing touches on the work of art of his own tormented life — he proved to himself his willpower, and showed providence his true face. From that day forth he handed the stage to the other person he had been, and whose destiny he could no longer shape, or at least to no greater degree than a creator who shapes the world that he has brought into being, along with its laws, and then leaves it to its own devices.
On life’s balance sheet, success and failure are often lined up like credit and debt. Everything that has been attained is assembled to form the set of life’s achievements, regardless of the extent to which good or bad luck played the decisive role, or in spite of the providential circumstances responsible for facilitating an individual’s path. A better measure of the “gross domestic product” of a life story would be the authenticity of the person: being true to oneself and one’s own convictions, and openness to what is new. People who acknowledge their mistakes and are capable of changing themselves and their behavior achieve more than those who dig in their heels in spite of what they know to be true. With this sort of calculation, the result itself is of secondary importance: those who are true to themselves may fail magnificently; those who betray themselves may prevail wretchedly.
Two weeks before he went to the barber, Marx wrote a long letter from Algiers to his daughter Laura Lafargue, his “dearest Cacadou.” It closed with a little parable from the Orient, which he must have picked up somewhere along the way. Its message still applies to our current era:
Our nomadic Arabs […] have memories of having once produced great philosophers, scholars, etc., which, they think, is why Europeans now mock them for their current ignorance. Hence the following little fable, typical of Arab folklore.
A ferryman is ready and waiting, with his small boat, on the tempestuous waters of a river. A philosopher, wishing to get to the other side, climbs aboard. The following dialogue ensues:
Philosopher: Do you know anything of history, ferryman?
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted half your life!
And again The Philosopher: Have you studied mathematics?
Philosopher: Then you’ve wasted more than half your life.
No sooner were these words out of the philosopher’s mouth than the wind capsized the boat, and tossed both the ferryman and the philosopher into the water. Whereupon:
Ferryman shouts: Can you swim?
Ferryman: Then you’ve wasted your whole life.
That will whet your appetite for things Arabic.
With many kisses and love,
MANY PEOPLE have heard of Nietzsche, Plato, and Hegel, but Marx is perhaps unique among philosophers in his ability to inspire fully formed opinions among people who haven’t read him.
The dominant image of Marx that one is confronted with today, in philosophy classrooms, discussions on Reddit forums, and countless editorials, is not simply distorted but inverted. It is possible to argue that the image has the same relationship to Marx’s thought as Bizarro does to Superman, covering the same points in an absolutely inverted way. In place of the exhortation for the workers of the world to rise up and discard their chains, today his opponents allege that Marx wants to wrest away the fruits of the workers’ labor, rewarding the lazy and unproductive with the workers’ hard-earned spoils.
The figure of the worker has shifted from the exploited, from people with nothing to lose but their chains, to those whose hard work needs protecting from the would-be Marxists and socialists in government eager to redistribute wealth. In this respect, Marx is not the one who would end exploitation, returning the value of production to the producers, but is the specter behind every new attempt to exploit and enslave humanity.
The opposite side of class struggle is no less distorted: the capitalist is no longer the parasite living off of the wealth of the workers, but the “job creator”; not only the hardest worker, but the benevolent creator of work. Of course the history of this distortion is a long and complex one, passing through the formation of welfare programs and the corresponding backlash. Thus, it is possible to write a history of this inversion, examining the rhetorics and politics behind such figures as the “welfare queen” and “forgotten man.” What I want to argue, however, is that it is Marx’s own philosophy that makes possible an understanding of this distorted world.
Marx was, after all, very interested in distortions. His writing is riddled with such figures of illusion as the camera obscura and mystics’ table-turning. Very often these distortions take on the shape of inversions; the world is not only skewed but upside down; ideas rather than material forces drive history, and the market appears as the zenith of freedom rather than the nadir of alienation. Moreover, Marx’s central concepts of ideology and fetishism are attempts to understand the distortions of the world; through ideology the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas, so that everyone, irrespective of class position, sees the world through the perspective of the wealthy; while through fetishism the world of things appears to have more value than the workers who create them.
Essentially there are three types of distortion in Marx’s thought, each building on the other to create an increasingly upside-down world.
The first, and trickiest, opens the first volume of Capital. It is the famous discussion of commodity fetishism. Freud’s writings and a century of consumer capitalism have obscured the meaning of this phrase. Marx did not mean, as we might think, a particular libidinal or erotic attachment to commodities, the sort of thing encouraged by the world of advertising. Marx meant something simultaneously more mundane and more fundamental, shaping our very way of looking at the world; namely, that value appears as an attribute of commodities, something they possess along with their physical characteristics, rather than as a product of labor. This is the fetish, whereby social relations appear as a relation between things. Marx argues that this happens because workers work in isolation, only seeing the relation between their different labors in the form of finished commodities.
But another way to understand this is that labor is effaced, obscured, and what we see instead is the commodity. The paradox of capitalist society is that although our days are spent working (or searching for work) it is consumption that dominates our consciousness. Entertainment is not only underwritten by commercials but is itself a series of commercials. It is “consumer confidence,” not workers’ satisfaction, that drives the political agenda. Framed in this way we can see the convergence of the concepts of ideology and fetishism, even though the former was developed in relation to the politics of class conflict and hegemony, and the latter concerns the appearance of the economy.
The centrality of consumption, of the figure of the consumer, is not just a representation of the economy that obscures the world of work, it is also one slanted in favor of the interests of those with the luxury to live as consumers. Marx ends his discussion of the commodity with a cartoon-like image of commodities speaking among themselves; only the fantasies of animation can possibly capture a world where inanimate things have personalized characteristics, and workers are increasingly thing-like, inert objects to be used up.
It is important not to confuse Marx’s point with any moralizing declaration of the value of people versus the value of things. To say that labor is the source of value is not the same as saying that workers are truly valuable and should be treated as such. To be the source of value in a capitalist society is more a curse than a blessing. First, this value, labor power, exists only in relation to its opposite, capital. Workers cannot consume their own labor power: it has no value outside of this relation, which means that workers must necessarily sell it, sell their capacity to work, the effort of their bodies and the faculty of their minds, in order to live. This sale or exchange is fundamentally different from any other market transaction. It has its price on the labor market like all other commodities, but no sooner than it’s sold the capitalist can extract as much value as possible from it. The entire history of labor relations under capitalism, from the division of labor in Smith’s pin factory to Taylor’s scientific management, is an attempt to extract more work, more value, from workers.
Common sense tells us that the harder we work the more money we earn; it’s the American way, after all. But the world we inhabit is closer to a Bizarro World inversion of this: not only is there no direct correlation between increased productivity and increased wages, the two often diverge.
Ordinarily, when something is sold, the seller parts with it and remains indifferent to whatever use it acquires. But this is not true of one’s labor power. Under capitalism one is forced to live as someone else’s commodity. Labor power is a paradoxical commodity: first, in the sense that it produces more value than it costs to employ; and, second, in that it is never actually parted with once sold. One has to live with the labor one sells, living under someone else’s rules, time, and goals. The first of these paradoxes explains exploitation, while the second underlies alienation. As much as labor is the opposite of the commodity, in the sense that the latter obscures the former, it is not outside of capitalism. Labor is thoroughly shaped by its opposite: inversions transform their terms.
The second inversion is perhaps even more immediate, so much so that, like the proverbial fish in water, we cannot see it. It is the relation between value and money. If you were to ask anyone the question Marx poses in the opening pages of Capital — how is it that we are able to treat disparate and diverse things as being equal and interchangeable, deciding to spend 20 dollars on either a tank of gas or a new shirt? — the answer most people would give is: because they cost the same. We do not ask about value, where it comes from, or how it is produced, because money appears as the all-too-obvious solution to why something has value and how much value it possesses. Money is the fetish personified, in that it seems not simply to possess value, as is the case with all other commodities, but itself seems to be the very source of value. As much as paper currency may declare its conventional social status with a barrage of stately iconography on every bill and coin, it still appears as the physical instantiation of value. Even though money appears in Marx’s text as the commodity par excellence, the one that is able to express the value of any other, it is the logical culmination of fetishism.
On some level we all know that money is just a convention, something that possesses value only because we treat it as general currency. But that does not prevent it from simultaneously taking precedence over and being more valuable than all the other commodities. After all, the uses of particular commodities only apply to particular situations: coats are only useful when it is cold, umbrellas when it rains. But money has value that exceeds any particular situation. In money the very abstract idea of value receives its supposed material basis, appearing as a physical bill or coin, and in doing so is able to more effectively obscure the actual material basis of capitalism, namely labor.
This brings us to the third inversion, the inversion that relates not just to value, but to capital itself. Capitalism, it must be remembered, is not just commodities, things for sale on the market, or even the accumulation of money. Both of these preexist capitalism by millennia. Capitalism, or the capitalist mode of production, begins when value produces value, when wealth becomes the basis for the accumulation of wealth. It is this capacity for money to produce money that creates the grand illusion. If one turns from the first volume of Capital, which expounds the theory of commodity fetishism, to the dense and obscure third volume, one finds an odd but provocative formulation: “It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters and at the same time directly as mere things.”
Capital, money, and the earth (land), here appear as the source of all wealth and value. Labor, for its part, is out of the picture. Marx refers to this as a “religion of daily life,” but we can see it as the culmination of the inversions discussed above. Once value appears in the form of commodities and money appears as the source of all value, then the appearance of money begetting money, of capital generating itself, soon follows.
Marx’s phrase “the religion of daily life” is quite telling. This illusion is not, as in the case of ideology, generated by some ruling class, propagating its views to the point where they become the ruling ideas. Instead, the illusion is ingrained in everyday practices and institutions.
When we walk into a Walmart we see prices jumping out at us, forgetting that labor, and the particular social relations of labor, are their source. In the store money stands as the tangible embodiment of value, just as our everyday experience of capital is one in which value appears to generate value. The mundane sight of the stock ticker that runs, seemingly with a mind of its own, on the nightly news, presents the accumulation of capital as a magic process. Stock prices go up or down, with little reference to the labor processes or conflicts that make such things possible. To the extent that such things happen at all, strikes and wage hikes are interpreted not from the perspective of the workers and their demands for a better life, but from their effect on the convenience and pocketbooks of consumers.
The past year has been rife with an overarching sense of some inverted world, to use Hegel’s phrase, or a Bizarro World, to cite the comic book version. From the rebranding of capitalists as “job creators” to a US president who went from playing a capitalist on television to becoming the voice of the working class, the world seems to be fundamentally upside down. Reading Marx is a reminder that this inversion is not new; it did not start with the internet and “fake news,” but is integral to the capitalist mode of production itself, which effaces labor and valorizes money.
Marx famously wrote that philosophers have only interpreted the world, when it was high time to change it. But this advice is much more complicated than it seems. In order to change the world we must also see it differently, interpret it, and this interpretation necessarily presupposes a change in our ways of seeing and thinking. One thinks of Occupy Wall Street and the recasting of inequality as a divide between the 99 percent and one percent. In this example it is hard to distinguish between a new way of seeing the world and actually changing it. They emerge together, as do their limitations, limitations that become the basis of new interpretations and new attempts to change the world. This is the vicious circle that we must break: finding the connection between creating different interpretations of the world and actually changing it.
CALL ME A KILLJOY but I am sick to death of hearing about Karl Marx. I am sick of his name, his -isms, his undoubted genius, and his “philosophy.” I am sick of him “having reason,” as the French say, or “being right.” But most of all I am sick of his “relevance.”
As someone whose parents were born and grew up in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and who missed the same fate by the skin of her teeth, I know perfectly well what Marx’s relevance amounts to. Marx gave it a name, even if for him it meant something else than it did for the people of Yugoslavia. I am talking about the oft-quoted and seldom understood “religion of everyday life.”
In post–World War II Yugoslavia, Marx’s “relevance” was to be a member of the ruling communist party. Outside of that supra-religious institution no substantial share in the social wealth was possible. “[T]he life-process of society,” as Marx observes in what turned out to be a weird prediction, “which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.”
The constitution that enshrined this religion in law and etched it in the consciousness of Yugoslavs did not survive the county’s horrific civil war, which lasted from 1991 to 2001, resulting in the deaths of 150,000 and the displacement of 4,000,000 people; in all, more than one sixth of its total population. And yet remarkably its “religion” survived, despite the fact that today it’s the “freely associated men” — or the freemasonic cabals that rule over the remnants of Yugoslavia like buzzards circling a herd of listless cattle — whose mystical veil is in urgent need of being torn to shreds.
Imagine if Marx had been a theater producer. That was surely far more his style. He certainly knew how to flatter egos, as he did when Ferdinand Lassalle asked him to appraise the manuscript of his dud of a play Franz von Sickingen. “I must applaud both composition and action,” Marx lied, “and that’s more than one can say of any other modern German play.” It might have been his true vocation, putting on dramas and musical comedies at London’s Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, the street where the German Workers Educational Society held its meetings, and where its members could partake of recreational activities, from poetry to fencing. I wonder if Marx ever lamented during those irreproachable sessions the fact that all the world’s a stage, and that he was overseeing the wrong one.
I can’t resist citing that hilarious Mel Brooks film The Producers, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, in which a washed-up theater producer’s accountant persuades his client to deliberately stage a Broadway flop in order to avoid a hefty tax bill. When Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden becomes an unexpected and inexplicable hit, Mostel’s livid reaction is worthy of Marx himself (Karl, not Groucho) for its topsy-turvy contrariety: “I was so careful,” bemoans the producer. “I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast — where did I go right?”
Is it too outlandish to speculate that in Marx’s case the critique of political economy had been the stand-in for a juvenile passion? Poetry was Marx’s Thing (das Ding an sich), the Real that a combination of his father’s bitter chastisement and his encounter with Hegel’s “craggy melody” managed to cure him of during his Berlin student days. The prospect of earning a living to provide for his future wife, the Baron von Westphalen’s daughter, no doubt helped to tear the veil of his metaphysical illusions. Like a restless artist, Marx’s lifelong fanaticism might thus be read as a nostalgic yearning for an irreplaceable fetish-object, “the sensibly super-sensible” (sinnlich übersinnlich) as he calls it in Capital. Nothing could ever compete with art, no amount of critical veil-tearing could ever substitute for Marx’s love of lyrical poetry. And so he took the only career path left open to him. He became a producer instead; an impresario in the art of critique.
We are living in a culture that sees tragedy everywhere: that fetishizes it. It’s something of a neurotic obsession. In mid-19th-century England, around 60,000 people, including many children, would die each year of tuberculosis. When Charles Darwin’s daughter Annie died of the disease in 1851 he wrote in his diary: “We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age. […] Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.” Another child, Mary, died in early infancy. But people don’t refer to Darwin’s life as tragic.
High birth rates were normal for Victorian families irrespective of class. Marx’s wife Jenny gave birth to seven children, only three of whom survived to adulthood; the Darwins had 10. There is nothing tragic about this high mortality rate. Indeed, Darwin accounts for it himself in On the Origin of Species, noting that the number of individuals of a given species is governed by natural selection, which determines how each individual’s inherited characteristics aid and abet it in the “struggle for existence.” Only a culture profoundly anesthetised to the causes of human suffering would dare mention tragedy in relation to infant mortality, given that it’s derived from the Greek word for “goat” (tragos), whose blood sacrifice would have been lamented in song at the Theatre of Dionysus in fifth-century Athens. For all their apparent lunacy the producers were clearly carrying on a long tradition.
Although Marx’s favorite poet was the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, his was certainly not a tragic life, at least according to the historical definition of tragedy handed down to us from Aristotle. It was sad. And of course it was defined by struggle. But it was not tragic, since the mere fact of being born, becoming ill, then dying, sooner or later, is a biological fact. In order to be a tragic figure the deaths in question would need to be attributable to an act of hubris on the protagonist’s part. But there is no evidence to suggest Marx committed any such act in the case of any of his four deceased children.
It was arguably Charles Dickens — like Darwin, Marx’s contemporary — who was largely responsible for this perversion of the idea of the tragic or sacrificial death, which he memorialized through his depictions of children and their poor unfortunate souls, to such an extent that the plight of almost any Victorian child is today thought of as “tragic.” But this Dickensian propensity for melodrama is more worthy of a satyr play. As Oscar Wilde put it: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
To be honest, one knows why Marx is so often portrayed as a tragic hero. It is to humanize him, thus attenuating any controversial aspect of his thought. By depicting Marx as a “19th-century life,” to borrow the title of Jonathan Sperber’s wholly unconvincing biography, one relativizes the man and his ideas. One quarantines it, much like the dangerous animals one locks inside cages at the zoo, so much the better to prod and gawp at the exotic creatures, in clear ignorance of the social context that facilitates such saccharine objectification.
Marx is not a tragic specimen, and I for one am not prepared to let him off the hook so easily. To say that his was a 19th-century life is to forget that his name and ideas only entered into common currency in the 20th. If the specter of communism makes any sense today then it’s because the thing itself was barely stirring when Marx and Engels prophesized it in 1848. It would be another hundred years before Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and their supporting cast succeeded in turning one third of the global population red.
But! his devoted fans insist, Marx cannot be blamed for the crimes carried out by the inheritors of his political legacy! Which is like saying that the makers of gunpowder cannot be blamed for its misuse. That is perfectly true — assuming we can agree on what might constitute “misuse.” Gunpowder isn’t intended for washing the dishes. It’s made for the express purpose of blowing things up.
Let us remind ourselves that Marx was the inventor of historical materialism. And this “science of history” advances the following basic principle: “men” make history in unforeseen circumstances. History takes us for a ride. We are all subject to its petulant whims; slave to its organic rhythms (something akin to being battered by a wave and thrown head over heels — you might say one “adapts” to the experience). Those fortunate enough to gain a foothold on the train of history must hang on as best they can. But ultimately the “natural laws of capitalist production” work with “iron necessity toward inevitable results,” meaning woe betide anyone stupid enough to get in the way, for they shall be steamrolled. Like the Slavs who Marx describes as being “incapable of progress and civilization,” and Engels as “residual fragments of peoples” whose “whole existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.” Despite being “destined to perish before long in the revolutionary world storm” the Slavs might at least take heart from knowing that their brute existence served some purpose in the long march toward civilization. But then Marxists have been feeding the same message to the Slavs for the last century and a half.
I have a suggestion to make. Given the un-tragic wrongness of Marx’s thought, why not make a case for the great man’s contemporary irrelevance? After all, is there today anything more incongruous, perverse, and patently absurd than the call by self-styled communist philosophers like Slavoj Žižek for a Marxist-communist renaissance or “idea of communism,” which looks suspiciously like the idealism or “German ideology” that Marx spent his youth meticulously taking to pieces?
Experience shows that there are two sides to every contradiction. And one would be stupendously naïve to think that anti-Marxism hasn’t for some years now been an article of faith as robust as the genuine article. “I am not a Marxist,” Marx was alleged to have told his son-in-law Paul Lafargue, when the latter brought news from Paris of French “Marxists.” But there is no reason to believe him. Marx was no less vain and insecure in respect of his own intellectual legacy than most of his rivals and opponents, which explains why so many of the letters people sent him went missing, no doubt destroyed by their correspondent. It is difficult to believe that Marx would have been indifferent to the propagation of his own mythology, and to claim that he wasn’t a Marxist is about as convincing and self-critical as Groucho Marx’s hilarious assertion that he wouldn’t wish to join any club that would have him as a member.
Not quite an irrelevant legacy, then. But without doubt patently absurd. Whenever I watch The Producers I can’t help thinking of Marx, and like Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom I wonder to myself how he could possibly have gone right.