Readers of all nations, get to work: Swedish scholar Liedman (Emeritus, History of Ideas/Univ. of Gothenburg) turns in a study worthy of Isaiah Berlin of communism’s most influential theoretician.
According to conventional wisdom, Karl Marx (1818-1883) was right about everything but communism. Yet, as Liedman writes toward the end of this long, overstuffed history, his ideas remain relevant. “It is the Marx of the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, who can attract the people of the twenty-first,” he writes, meaning that despite the deformities introduced to Marxist doctrine by way of the practical—and totalitarian—politics of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, there are still good bones in the house that Marx built. Liedman examines the man and his ideas alike, sometimes finding unpleasant moments in both—for instance, the ugly anti-Semitism and more-than-casual racism of his essay “On the Jewish Question,” which manifested in a dark tradition of anti-Semitism among “various socialist and communist traditions.” Marx was also famously fractious, and in some instances even his closest collaborators found themselves targets of his mouth and pen. Even when he was not aroused to anger, he found constant reason to take up contrary positions, so that within the pages of the Communist Manifesto, one finds both Friedrich Engels’ attack on and Marx’s defense of marriage. Throughout, Liedman notes, Marx remained true to his Hegelian roots, making particular use of the concept of sublation, meaning, perhaps confusingly, that “something was both abolished and raised to a higher level,” whether marriage or private property or, to name a darker instance, the state. Some readers may wish that Marx had gone with his earlier desire to become a poet instead of a philosopher of such matters, but this book makes clear that Marx’s ideas, going on two centuries old, still have meaning in the present.
Outstanding. Not the book for a budding Marxist to start with, but certainly one to turn to for reference and deeper insight.