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To Struggle!: A Review of Marcello Musto’s ‘The Last Years of Karl Marx’

The Last Years of Karl Marx
Mauricio Betancourt is an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia.
Marcello Musto, The Last Years of Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography, translated by Patrick Camiller (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020), 208 pages, $25, paperback.

The Last Years of Karl Marx, the enhanced English translation of Marcello Musto’s engaging book, L’ultimo Marx, 1881–1883 (Donzelli Editore, 2016), has proven a very popular work within Marxian scholarship worldwide. So far, it has been translated into twenty languages, with additional translations on the way for 2024. In fact, Musto’s is perhaps the most translated book on Marx as of late. This success is importantly due to the fact that, of the more than twenty-five books on Marx’s life and/or work, few had really delved into the Moor’s (as he was known by his family and closest comrades) final years on the planet. Musto fills in this gap in a powerful, meticulously researched, and succinct manner, weaving the history of Marx’s intellectual labor with his personal and activist life. To do so, he draws on hundreds of primary (and key secondary) sources, mainly stemming from the Marx/Engels Collected Works. In addition, he utilizes Die Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (The Complete Works of Marx and Engels, also known as MEGA), the Marx-Engels-Werke, and some of Marx’s still unpublished manuscripts, held at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam and the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History in Moscow.

Among other things, Musto’s book challenges many enduring and pervasive myths about “Old Nick” (another nickname Marx’s family gave him during the last years of his life), such as that he was Eurocentric, a determinist, or a dogmatist.1 He also dispels the claim that Marx ceased to do research, write, or be intellectually and politically active toward the end of his life. Instead, Musto shows us an open-minded, humble, shrewd, incisive, sardonic, well-read, astoundingly intelligent, loving, and yet complex, vulnerable, and ailing human being, a polymath enamored with knowledge who was trying to advance the cause of socialism to the best of his abilities and using the best tools at his disposal, while also grieving major personal losses.

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For example, in terms of his late wide-ranging intellectual activity, Musto shows how, in the last five years of his life (1878–83), Marx studied subjects as diverse as anthropology, chemistry, agriculture, physics, mathematics (algebra and calculus), geometry, geology, mineralogy, monogamy, communal land ownership, precapitalist modes of production, non-Western societies, British colonialism in India and Egypt, French colonialism in Algeria, Indigenous societies in Australia, and the unfolding of capitalism in the United States.2 Moreover, he did this all while learning Russian (to better understand Russia’s history and political economy, including the obshchina [rural commune], and authors like Nikolay Chernyshevsky); participating in the Dogberry Club (a biweekly Shakespeare reading group comprised of some family and close friends); advising some French, German, and Russian workers’ movements and meetings, or corresponding with some of their leaders (including Friedrich Wilhelm Fritzsche, Georg Wilhelm Hartmann, Karl Hirsch, and Karl Kautsky); and trying to complete the second volume of Capital. Indeed, nothing human was alien to Marx, and he could justly call himself a “citizen of the world,” convinced that the “law of being” was simple: to struggle. The whole world was contained in his modest but vastly rich library, Musto tells us.

Regarding his alleged dogmatism, Musto illustrates how Marx, unsatisfied with Joseph Roy’s translation, himself rewrote large parts of the French edition of the first volume of Capital (originally in German)—but not without introducing countless additions and modifications. At the same time, the second and third volumes were but drafts in incipient stages that underwent some changes, but Marx did not have enough life left to develop them as he intended.3 Thus, there is no such thing as a definitive version of these works, or of any of Marx’s publications for that matter, which constitute but a fraction of what he wrote, and in turn, a fraction of what he intended to write. These texts were alive, experiencing a permanent process of revision, edition, and enhancement, whereby Marx interrogated his own ideas. As Musto argues: “The critical spirit with which Marx composed his Capital reveals just how distant he was from the dogmatic author that many of his adversaries and self-styled disciples presented to the world” (93). Similarly, distancing himself from the distortions or the potential or actual setting in stone of his ideas, carried out by some authors and movements in his name (especially in France), toward the end of his life, Marx famously said to Paul Lafargue (his son-in-law, married to his second daughter, Laura): “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist [Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste].” In this vein, Musto constantly emphasizes the distinction between Marx’s own evolving ideas and the historical attempts to establish socialism in the twentieth century, especially in the Soviet case.

Relatedly, Musto dedicates a good number of pages to Marx’s treatment of the “Russian question,” including his reply to Nikolay Mikhailovsky’s 1877 article and Vera Zasulich’s famous 1881 letter on whether the Russian obshchina could circumvent capitalist development and transition directly into socialism, to which Marx answered affirmatively. This illustrates how Marx enhanced his theses on the historical inevitability of the transition from feudalism to capitalism (and then to socialism), including the clarification that this line of evolution was restricted to the countries of Western Europe, while other evolutionary paths toward socialism were possible elsewhere.

Musto also shows us very poignant and difficult events of Marx’s final years, such as this one recalled by Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, which took place in 1881, shortly before the death of Jenny von Westphalen, Marx’s wife since 1843: “Our mother lay in the large front room, Moor in the little room behind.… Never shall I forget the morning when he felt strong enough to go into my mother’s room. When they were together they were young again—she a loving girl and he a loving youth, on the threshold of life, not an old man devastated by illness and an old dying woman parting from each other for life” (98).

Importantly, Musto dedicates some pages to the little-known seventy-two days Marx spent in Algiers, Algeria, from February 20 to May 2, 1882, the only time he ever spent outside of Europe. Following the death of his wife, Marx’s doctor at that time (Bryan Donkin, a close friend of E. Ray Lankester) advised him to rest in a warm place to treat his worsening chronic bronchitis. Given Marx was a stateless person without a passport, and following some deliberation with his doctor, Engels, and Lafargue, he headed for Algiers, where he unsuccessfully tried to finish the second volume of Capital. It was also during the end of this trip that Marx’s famous last photograph was taken, which can be seen on the cover of Musto’s book.

Covering other aspects of Marx’s personal life and health, Musto writes about the Marx family dogs, Toddy and Whisky (the name of the third dog is unknown), as well as of Marx’s soft spot for dogs. He describes Marx’s demeanor as a grandfather, of how his doctor forbade him to smoke, his chronic cough, pleurisy, insomnia issues, and rheumatism, as well as his view that one “has to treat one’s physique with as much diplomacy as everything else” (86). Musto also deals with the death (from cancer of the liver) of Marx’s eldest daughter, Jenny, on January 11, 1883, sixty-three days before Marx’s own. Naturally, this pained Marx profoundly, his only temporary and partial relief being a severe headache that distracted him from his emotional distress. As Marx himself put it: “Physical pain is the only ‘stunner’ of mental pain” (123). In fact, these were Marx’s last known written words.

Although Musto mentions Marx’s engagement with ecology and biology during the last phase of his life, he does not emphasize this issue enough relative to other aspects examined in the book (for example, his analysis of the development of capitalism in Russia). Thus, even though he addresses Marx’s involvement with physician Sergei Podolinsky’s analysis of labor and energetics from 1880 to 1882 (as well as Marx and Engels’s extant and missing correspondence on the subject) and Marx’s friendship with evolutionary biologist E. Ray Lankester, he does not delve into these issues. Looking into and interrelating these episodes to the rest of Marx’s thought and activities in this last phase would have enhanced the book.

Marx died on March 14, 1883, very possibly due to the spread of pulmonary tuberculosis. He spent his last two months reading publisher’s catalogs and French novels, mainly by Frédéric Soulié. Musto goes on to briefly refer to Marx’s funeral, and to reflect on his worldwide influence, starting with the fact that, at the time of his death, Marx was not by any means the renowned figure he became in the late nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Musto importantly mentions, too—citing Boris Nicolaevsky and Otto Maenchen-Helfen—that “perhaps one socialist in a thousand has ever read [Marx]…and of a thousand anti-Marxists not even one has read Marx.” Musto’s work, by reviving interest in Marx, is a step toward reversing that.

Notes

  1. Musto does mention that, during his stay in Algiers in 1882, “Marx made a number of interesting observations in his sixteen letters…some of which still display a still partly colonial vision” (108). Yet, at the same time, Musto also argues, Marx’s relentless critique of British and French colonialism, as well as his deep knowledge of non-European societies, both historically and in his time, show a more nuanced and complete description of Marx’s thought in this regard.
  2. At least since 1860, doing mathematics—especially calculus—was perhaps Marx’s main way to distract himself from mental suffering, relax, and “maintain the necessary quietness of mind” (33, 97).
  3. Following a monumental effort spanning several years and compromising his own health in the process, Frederick Engels, Marx’s closest friend and long-time collaborator, prepared and published the second and third volumes of Capital in 1885 and 1894, respectively, utilizing Marx’s notes and drafts for these manuscripts as best as he could.
2024, Volume 75, Number 09 (February 2024)
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