Karl Marx’s Literary Style Was an Essential Part of His Genius / by Daniel Hartley

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).

Lenin’s ‘The State and Revolution’ / by Louise O’Shea

If they do me in, I ask you to publish my notebook: Marxism on the State (it got left behind in Stockholm). It’s bound in a blue cover… There are a number of remarks and notes… I believe it to be important.

So wrote Lenin with characteristic modesty in July 1917. He was referring to what later became known as The State and Revolution, one of the most important contributions to Marxist thought of the last century.

The short pamphlet was written in response to the turmoil that engulfed the socialist movement following the outbreak of World War One. Many socialist organisations that had previously professed to be revolutionary, and aligned themselves to the ostensibly Marxist Second International grouping, succumbed to the nationalist hysteria sweeping Europe at the time.

The slow drift towards accommodation to capitalism resulted in 1914 in open support for their national governments and bourgeoisies. Where they held seats in Parliament, such as in Germany, socialist MPs voted to support the bloodshed and mass murder of workers. This abandonment of principles on the part of professed socialists horrified Lenin, along with other genuine Marxists.

The State and Revolution represented his attempt to reassert the Marxist attitude to the state in order to show why the capitalist state needed to be destroyed—not tamed—and replaced with workers’ power. Such a restatement was important not simply to discredit the so-called socialists of the Second International, but also as a guide to action for the millions of workers across Europe whose struggles against war and the accompanying deprivation were beginning to rock the foundations of European capitalism.

As Lenin wrote in the preface to the first edition:

The unprecedented horrors and miseries of the protracted war are making the people’s position unbearable and increasing their anger. The world proletarian revolution is clearly maturing. The question of its relation to the state is acquiring practical importance.

The starting point for his argument was the class nature of the capitalist state. Drawing on the writings of Marx and Engels, Lenin demolishes the idea that the state is a neutral body standing above social classes. Instead, he argues that the state exists as a means for one class to maintain its dominance over another. Far from being able to legislate away the conflict between workers and bosses under capitalism, “the state is a product and manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable… The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression by one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between the classes.” The arbitration system, courts and prisons, insofar as they legitimise wage labour and enshrine the property rights of the rich, are all examples of this today.

Coercion is also central to the power of the capitalist state. As Lenin puts it:

What does this power [of the state] mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc. at their command… A standing army and police are the chief instruments of the state power.

Given the capitalist state exists to enforce the interests and property rights of the capitalist class, it cannot be taken over by representatives of the working class and used to introduce socialism as the reformists of the Second International ultimately argued. It must instead be destroyed and dismantled in order that the power of the capitalist class be neutralised, and the capitalists prevented from reasserting their dominance following a successful workers’ revolution.

For this to happen, workers must become the dominant class in society. As Lenin described: “The overthrow of the bourgeoisie can be achieved only by the proletariat becoming the ruling class, capable of crushing the inevitable and desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie, and of organising all the working and exploited people for the new economic system.

“The proletariat needs state power, a centralized organisation of force, an organisation of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population—the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, the semi-proletarians—in the work of organising a socialist economy.” So it is not enough to simply abolish the capitalist state, it must be replaced with organisations that embody and defend workers’ control of society.

But such a state would have little in common with all previously existing states which have enshrined minority rule. The Paris Commune of 1871 provided the first example of what workers’ power might ultimately look like. A keen observer of the Commune, Marx described how:

The first decree of the Commune… was the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people… The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of Paris, responsible and revocable at any time. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class… The police, which until then had been the instrument of the government, was at once stripped of its political attributes and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable instrument of the Commune… From the members of the Commune downwards, public service had to be done at workmen’s wages. The privileges and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the dignitaries themselves.

The significance of the Commune and its contrast with the capitalist state for Lenin could not be overstated:

The Commune [has] replaced the smashed state machine ‘only’ by fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact, this ‘only’ signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different type.

Lenin also argued that a workers’ state differs from previous forms in its transitory nature. Societies in which the ruling class relies on the day-to-day exploitation and oppression of the majority require a permanent state structure to ensure social stability and compliance.

Once in control, the working class does not have to oppress any other social class in order to run society effectively and provide for people’s needs. Without class divisions, there is no need for a state. In the long run therefore, a genuine socialist society would be one without the need for an oppressive state structure.

The main function of a workers’ state then is to ensure the defeat of the capitalist class, and to prevent it being able to regroup or rearm to destroy the revolution and workers’ power.

As Lenin explained:

The organ of suppression, however, is here the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage slavery. And since the majority of people itself suppresses its oppressors, a ‘special force’ of suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away.

For the organisations of the Second International, that had integrated themselves into the capitalist state and ruling structures in a way that did not incline them towards its smashing, Lenin’s arguments were somewhat unwelcome. The State and Revolution was decried as Blanquist and anarchist amongst the mainstream of the socialist movement.

By contrast, among left-wing critics of the orthodox socialist movement of the time, including some anarchists, The State and Revolution was a revelation. Syndicalist Alfred Rosmer recalled its reception in France:

for revolutionaries situated outside the mainstream of orthodox Marxism, for the syndicalists and anarchists, this… was a pleasant revelation. They had never heard such language from the Marxists they knew. They read and re-read this interpretation of Marx, which was quite unfamiliar to them.

The all-too-common characterisation of Lenin as an authoritarian by anarchists today is thus both ironic and woefully inaccurate. Again and again throughout his political life, including in The State and Revolution, Lenin stressed the conscious activity of workers as crucial to the struggle to create a new and better world. In 1906, he wrote of his eagerness to see the working class “smash all the instruments for oppressing the people, seize power, and take what was regarded as belonging to all kinds of robbers of the people—in short, when the intellect and reason of millions of downtrodden people awaken not only to read books, but for action, vital human action, to make history.”

The revolution Lenin lived through and led shortly after completing The State and Revolution is a testament to this. John Reed, and American journalist who was in Russia during the revolution described how “for the first time, millions of ordinary workers and peasants found themselves able to participate in the major decisions that affected their lives. Control of the factories was taken over by the workers, land was seized by the poor peasants, the embryo of an entirely new form of society was created.”

The official structures of workers power reflected this: “At least twice a year delegates are elected from all over Russia to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets… This body, consisting of about two thousand delegates, meets in the capital in the form of a great soviet, and settles upon the essentials of national policy.” According to Reed, “no political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented.”

The contrast between the participatory democracy of the most advanced form of workers’ power ever seen and the oppressive nature of the capitalist state could not be greater. It makes a mockery of those who reject state power as authoritarian regardless of which class is in control.

More than one hundred years after it was written, The State and Revolution remains the clearest exposition of the role of the state and the need for the masses to destroy it in order to bring about a society without class divisions of any sort.

Originally published: RedFlag on April 18, 2022

MR Online, April 25, 2022, https://mronline.org/