Sven-Eric Liedman's new biography of Marx is the biggest yet, I think, at 756 pages. Published in the 200th anniversary year of Marx's birth, it must be getting good sales.
It is sympathetic to Marx, it records the events of his life reasonably well, and the summaries it gives of some of his writings are usually more or less passable.
Yet overall the book is a disappointment. Liedman, a professor of the History of Ideas at a Swedish university, tries at length to demonstrate that he has a better knowledge of Marx's writings and of commentaries on Marx than other writers. The effect is to clog and confuse the exposition.
Despite its hundreds of extra pages, the book is no more informative, and often less so, than the much-less-pretentious older biography by David McLellan.
The commentaries on Marx which Liedman discusses at length are recent German writings (the "neue Marx-Lektüre") and a recent English-language biography by an American academic historian, Jeffrey Sperber. Why those particularly is unclear.
He frequently mentions the Temporal Single-System Interpretation school of Marxist economists - Andrew Kliman and others - but without giving a clear exposition of the debates about the "Transformation Problem" from which the TSSI school emerged, or, indeed, a really clear exposition of TSSI itself.
Despite Liedman's claim to survey all the literature, he seems not to have read Hal Draper's classic multi-volume study of Marx's politics. Recycling the conventional view that Marx's early essay "On the Jewish Question" was antisemitic, he ignores Draper's critical discussion of that view, and indeed gets the terms of the debate with Bruno Bauer for which Marx wrote that essay wrong.
Bauer did not just propose a secular state. He proposed also that the Jews must secularise, de-Judaise themselves, as a precondition for emancipation. Marx's counter-argument was that Jews could and should gain civil equality in Germany without de-Judaising at all, but that full human emancipation required freeing everyone from the market priorities traditionally ascribed to Jews.
Despite all the long pages about commentaries on Marx, Liedman nowhere discusses the "classics" - Mehring, Riazanov, Rubin - or does more than mention the larger German-language school of "Marx-reading" of Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, etc. Only the tiniest mention of Maximilien Rubel, too.
Liedman's exposition of Capital is cluttered by his commentaries, and gets one central distinction wrong. Liedman describes abstract labour as synonymous with labour-power, and commensurable because labour-power is made commensurable by wages
It is true that fully-developed abstract labour - labour diverse in quality, but commensurable as expenditure of average social labour-time - emerges only in a fully-marketised society, in fact a capitalist society, and in that society abstract labour is measured by expenditure of social average labour-power.
But Liedman should recognise that in Capital Marx develops the concept of abstract labour before the concept of money, and thus before the concept of wages. Marx insists that the comparability of different hours of abstract labour is a distinct question from that of the wages which may be paid for those hours.
Liedman argues that in addition to the "early Marx" and "later Marx" discussed by many writers, there was a "third Marx", defined by Marx's researches on social anthropology and on Russia in his later years. It remains much more plausible that Marx's digressive reading in those later years was determined by his understandable failure, ageing and in poor health, to finish more than fragments of writing.
Liedman's exposition gets way off beam when he discusses Marxism after Marx. His line is that Marx himself developed an open body of thought, investigatory, critical-minded, and all subsequent "Marxists", including Engels, developed closed "systems".
He takes no note of Engels's polemic in Ludwig Feuerbach against the building of closed systems of thought. At a time when even the crusty ex-Stalinist Eric Hobsbawm, in his last book (How to Change the World) had to note that after 1989-91 "Marxism" must mostly be taken to indicate thought informed to one degree or another by Trotsky's legacy, Liedman takes the official ideologies of the old Stalinist states as authentic "orthodox Marxism".
Closed-system "orthodoxies", he argues, were first developed by Plekhanov, Kautsky, and Lenin. In fact Plekhanov was the first major writer in Marx's vein, after Marx, to dispute Marx's views on a central question - perspectives for Russia - and as it happens to win Engels to his criticism.
Kautsky, whatever his failings, never proposed himself as the author of a complete "system", and limited his writings mostly to politics and history, leaving philosophy to Plekhanov and Labriola and more technical issues of economics to Hilferding and Luxemburg. And Lenin? He frequently developed ideas which even his comrades at first saw as violations of settled "system".
The carelessness of Liedman's exposition here is indicated by his statement that Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were the two members of the German Reichstag (parliament) to vote against war credits in 1914. In fact the second member of the Reichstag to vote against war credits was Otto Rühle, in March 1915. Not by chance was Luxemburg outside the Reichstag: no woman was a member until Clara Zetkin in 1920, and in fact no woman had a vote in Reichstag elections, until 1919.
The error wouldn't matter, were it not that it is part of a sweeping claim that all "Marxists", in all variants, failed to gain the understanding of Marx which would have to wait until Professor Liedman happened along.