Lithograph of Karl Marx, 1866. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Originally published in Jacobin on January 31, 2023
Review of Marx’s Literary Style by Ludovico Silva, translated by Paco Brito Núñez (Verso, 2023)
Karl Marx wasn’t merely a great thinker who was also a glorious prose stylist. His brilliance as a writer was inseparable from his greatness as a thinker.
Karl Marx was one of the greatest intellectuals of the nineteenth century. He was also one of its greatest writers. Like Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and the Brontë sisters, Marx looms large among the peaks of nineteenth-century prose.
Ludovico Silva’s newly translated Marx’s Literary Style, originally published as El estilo literario de Marx in 1971, shows indisputably that the two aspects are related. Marx was one of the greatest intellectuals because he was one of the greatest writers.
A Venezuelan Polymath
Translated with gusto by Paco Brito Núñez, to whose initiative anglophone readers owe a debt of gratitude, Marx’s Literary Style is one of those short little books (just 104 pages) that packs a punch far in excess of its diminutive size. It should rank alongside Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, D. A. Miller’s Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style, and Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude as a classic of the genre.
Educated at a private Jesuit college in Caracas, then in Madrid, Paris, and Freiburg, Ludovico Silva (1937–88) was a Venezuelan polymath: poet, essayist, editor, and philosophy teacher. He played an active role in the Latin American cultural front, founding and editing a series of avant-garde journals.
Silva kept his distance from official organizations of the revolutionary left, although as Alberto Toscano informs us in his excellent introduction, he was sympathetic to the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria. In the 1970s, he referred positively to Yugoslav experiments with self-management and to the experience of poder popular in Matanzas, Cuba.
Marxism and Style
Literary style has proved a curiously productive concept for Marxist critics. For Fredric Jameson, style is synonymous with modernism: the invention ex nihilo of so many private languages that are the literary DNA of their creators — from Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein to Martin Heidegger and Ernest Hemingway.
Such is style’s imbrication with modernism that for Jameson it becomes a periodizing category. He equates the era of market capitalism with the narrative drive of realism and claims that when monopoly capitalism became dominant, it restrained the power of narrative, unleashing the affective minutiae captured in the elaborate private idioms of modernist style. The latter in turn eventually gave way under late capitalism to the stylelessness of postmodernism, in which only the blank affect of pastiche is said to survive.
For Terry Eagleton, meanwhile, style is at once political and theological. He sees polemic as a stylistic prerequisite for any revolutionary, transposing the incipient insurgency of the proletariat into the domain of discourse. At the same time, style is a form of linguistic sensuousness: it must figure forth the world but never forget its own materiality, treading a fine line between self-negating objectivity and self-regarding formalism.
Fine style, for Eagleton, is always a compromise between bodily immediacy and conceptual abstraction. In his early work (to which he has latterly returned), he saw this as a Catholic, sacramental prefiguration of the overcoming of alienation.
Finally, for Raymond Williams, who was far more skeptical of the category than Eagleton or Jameson, style was a linguistic mode of social relation. He saw the stylistic struggles of writers like Thomas Hardy, who sought to combine the down-to-earth expressions of ordinary working-class men and women with the most advanced modes of bourgeois articulation, as a literary internalization of the class-divided nature of language in capitalist society in general. Williams saw the battle for good prose as coextensive with the struggle for just social relations, from which style could not be judged in isolation.
Marx himself was acutely aware of the importance of style. In one of his earliest journalistic articles, published in 1842, he railed against a Prussian censorship decree promulgated by Friedrich Wilhelm IV that supposedly would “not prevent serious and modest investigation of the truth.” In saying so, however, the decree limited the very style in which journalists were legally allowed to write.
Marx was contemptuous:
The law permits me to write, only I must write in a style that is not mine! I may show my spiritual countenance, but I must first set it in the prescribed folds! What man of honour will not blush at this presumption. . . ?
Marx equates a writer’s style with her unique physiognomy or inner spiritual being. The state censorship law effectively demanded that writers screw their literary faces into a state-decreed rictus, imposing upon them an alien identity that stifled their own unique modes of expression.
Marx’s response informed his more general early critique of the modern state. He saw the latter as premised upon a split between civil and political society: between “man in his sensuous, immediate existence” (bourgeois) and “man as an allegorical, moral person” (citizen). This split, he argued, was the political form of capitalist alienation.
From Love Poems to Systems
Ludovico Silva is an important contributor to this rich vein of materialist stylistics. It is impossible to read Marx’s Literary Style and not emerge with a very different understanding of the literary to that with which one began.
Style has been seen historically as “the dress of thought” — an aesthetic supplement or superficial “finish” added to the primary meaning communicated. As Silva is at pains to show, however, this common-sense view of style is inadequate to a true grasp of Marx’s work. Marx’s style is a constitutive aspect of his overall project of critique. It is also the means by which he makes the abstractly conceptual sensuously perceptible, and in this sense it has a pedagogical function.
In chapter 1, Silva locates the origins of Marx’s mature literary style in four areas: his early (failed) poetic compositions; his intense aesthetic and linguistic study of the classics (Latin and Greek); his youthful passion for metaphorical idealization; and his early ruthless critique of his own formative attempts at literary writing. Marx came very quickly to see the inadequacy of the abstract Romantic sentimentalism that characterized the early love poems he had written for Jenny von Westphalen, whom he later married. As he put it in a remarkable letter to his father in 1837: “Everything real became hazy and what is hazy has no definite outline.”
The letter testifies to Marx’s breathless conversion from poetry to Hegelian philosophy, but the trajectory beyond Hegel is already prefigured: Marx had come to realize the need for a style that adheres closely to the real and the actual, one that is concentrated and compressed, and enlivened by objective density. This is the style that would characterize Marx’s subsequent published work and is encapsulated in Silva’s paradoxical phrase “concrete spirit.”
Chapter 2 is the longest in the book and sets out the fundamental features of Marx’s style. Silva argues that Marx’s work must be understood as a single “architectonic,” a term he borrows from Immanuel Kant who defines it as “the art of systems” [die Kunst der Systeme]. Architectonics are common to both science and art: science is premised upon systematic knowledge, and for expression to become art it must, on Silva’s reading, be governed by the art of systems.
Silva insists throughout the book on a sharp division in Marx’s oeuvre between those works he prepared carefully for publication, and those endless unfinished manuscripts or notebooks that he never published. While these writings all form part of the architectonic of science (a single project of the critique of political economy), only those works that Marx reworked for publication — most famously, volume 1 of Capital — exemplify the art of system by overlaying the skeletal structure of science with the vital flesh of metaphorical expression.
Silva’s casual invocation of Kantian architectonics raises a thorny issue: to what extent can we say that Marx’s historical materialism inherits preexisting notions of science and systematicity from German idealism? Silva passes over the matter in silence.
Dialectic of Expression and Metaphor
The second feature of Marx’s style is what Silva calls “the expression of the dialectic” or “the dialectic of expression.” He is referring here to Marx’s constant use of chiasmus or syntactical reversals in which terms from the first half of a sentence are inverted in the second: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (The German Ideology), or “The mortgage the peasant has on heavenly possessions guarantees the mortgage the bourgeois has on peasant possessions” (The Class Struggles in France, 1850).
It is a figure that embodies the dialectical movement of reality itself: “The literary secret behind how ‘rounded’ and striking so many of Marx’s sentences are,” writes Silva, “is also the secret behind his dialectical conception of history as class struggle or a struggle of opposites.” Marx’s style is a mimetic reproduction or performance of the real movements of history: “Marx’s language is the theatre of his dialectic.”
The third and most important feature of Marx’s style is his use of metaphor. The book focuses on three of the most influential: the (in)famous base-superstructure metaphor, the notion of “reflection,” and religion as a figure of alienation. Like Aristotle before him, Silva emphasizes the cognitive import of such metaphors, yet also — crucially — insists upon the necessary distinction that must be made between metaphors and theoretical scientific knowledge.
In a series of bravura analyses, he reveals the total inadequacy of the base-superstructure and reflection metaphors as a basis for scientific theory yet still upholds their pedagogical potential. One senses here Silva’s contempt for the dogmatic travesties of Marx’s work in official Communist Party manuals of the time. His argument comes uncannily close to that of Williams’s work Marxism and Literature, published just six years later, which also challenged the base-superstructure and reflection metaphors.
Williams and Silva concur that, if followed to their strictly logical conclusion, these metaphors invite division between an economic base and a celestial realm of ideas precisely where Marx had sought to expose their total interrelation. It is thus unsurprising that Silva chose as one of his epigraphs the phrase “language is practical consciousness” (from The German Ideology), which also formed the basis of Williams’s mature theory of language, literature, and form.
Ironies of History
The rest of the book reveals the subtle connection between polemic, mockery, irony, and alienation that recurs throughout all of Marx’s writing. Wilhelm Liebknecht once wrote of Marx’s style that it reminded him of the etymological roots of the word itself: “The style is here what it — the stylus — originally was in the hands of the Romans — a sharp-pointed steel pencil for writing and for stabbing.”
Marx knew how to write dirty; he was master of the blade at close quarters. Yet Silva also insists, rightly, that Marx’s fiery indignation went hand in hand with irony: “How many have tried to imitate Marx’s style, only to copy the indignation while forgetting the irony!” Just as the “dialectic of expression” was a stylization of the dialectical movement of reality, so irony is the stylistic mode of Marx’s general conception of history. According to Silva:
If Marx is a materialist, it is because he always sought to discover, by going beyond or beneath the ideological appearance of historical events (state, law, religion morality, metaphysics), their underlying material structures. This is why his stylistic ironies always play a key role: that of denunciation, of the illumination of reality.
Yet again, an attribute of Marx’s style is read as a literary formalization of a historical process.
The book ends by pushing this line of argument to its logical conclusion: alienation is one great metaphor. Just as metaphor requires the transfer of one meaning to another, so in capitalist society “we find a strange and all-encompassing transfer from the real meaning of human life towards a distorted meaning.” Rather than being a simple rhetorical figure that can be extracted from the reality it “merely” represents, Silva insists that capitalist alienation itself has a metaphorical structure.
Perhaps the same could be said of individuals, who are dealt with in Capital vol. 1, in Marx’s famous words, “only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the bearers [Träger] of particular class-relations and interests.” When Marx referred to individual capitalists as “capital personified,” he was not suggesting that capitalists act as if they were (allegorical) personifications, but that they are living personifications of capital, thereby collapsing any too neat distinction between literary figure and historical content.
When style becomes a matter of the fundamental movement of history itself, it can no longer be brushed aside as mere literary affectation. Silva makes the point gracefully, with no little force, and admirable concision.
Daniel Hartley is an assistant professor in world literatures at Durham University (UK). He is the author of The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics (Brill, 2017).