An Academic's 'Expert' View of Marx's Life and Works

A WORLD TO WIN - MARX'S LIFE AND WORKS by Sven-Eric Liedman, a Swedish professor of the History of Ideas (Verso - New Left Books, 2018): we are told this is a “scholarly guide” (Wall Street Journal), “a clear and scholarly analysis” (Vernon Bogdanor in the JEWISH CHRONICLE), and that it is “meticulously researched”. It is indeed a hefty volume, over 750 pages, including 30 pages of Index and about 90 pages of Notes.

From the fact that Liedman is apparently “a political philosopher” (FINANACIAL TIMES), we can only expect the worst. This is the work of a career academic with endless time at his disposal, access to all the various multi-volume compilations of Marx and Engels’s works, the MEGA, the MEW and the CW, etc, and in addition one able to study all the various cohorts of the commentariat. So for us to criticize such a labour of love seems churlish indeed.

Class Struggle and The Communist Manifesto

Where to start? Looking down the list of chapter headings and sub-headings, and even in the Index, we looked in vain for the phrase “class struggle”: it was missing. Odd since that issue is central to Marx’s understanding of history, his economics and his revolutionary politics. A case of Hamlet without the Prince? In the past Shakespeare’s plays were performed in a censored, Bowdlerized form, nothing crude to shock the gentry. Liedman too has been careful to focus on less controversial matters - on Marx as a philosopher rather than Marx as a revolutionary. Nothing to frighten the horses!

Though Liedman does take note of the statement in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, he avoids developing this important idea. This quotation appears (p514) in a chapter Twin Souls or a Tragic Mistake? where he seeks to show that Engels differed from and even distorted Marx. But in an earlier chapter dealing with the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, while Liedman writes about how that came to be drafted by Marx and how his draft differed from an earlier one by Engels, class struggle does not feature.

We note too that when Liedman writes of the specific proposals at the end of Section 2, he summarises them but then smoothly moves on without comment (p237-8). He cannot be unaware of the words of Marx and Engels, in their joint preface to the German edition of 1872, quoted again in the 1888 preface signed by Engels as he cites the 1872 preface (p232,) and yet we are told Liedman’s “scholarly” book was “meticulously researched”.

But why does this matter? It matters if we are to be able to trust his work as an honest one, rather than a biased, Leftwing, distortion. By 1872, we know that Marx and Engels were well aware that the specific proposals suggested were no longer relevant as historical conditions had changed. In this 1872preface, they warned that they had considered deleting or re-wording this passage: “That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today ... But then, the Manifesto has become a historical document which we have no longer any right to alter.

That warning was repeated by Engels in his 1888 preface. It is also reproduced in the recent facsimile edition of the SPGB’s 1948, centenary, pamphlet, THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS (p57).

Although Marx and Engels had explicitly stated in 1872 that these proposals were no longer relevant, their caveats have been largely disregarded by the Left. Again and again through the 20th century, leftwing parties have advocated nationalisation of the banks, etc, and argued for state ownership, rather than common ownership. They have acted as if Marx and Engels’s final words on the subject are the Ten Points in Section 2 of the 1848 MANIFESTO, as if that joint 1872 preface, quoted by Engels in his 1888 preface, had never existed. It is shamefully dishonest for anyone with full access to Marx and Engels’s works to present the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO in this way, setting aside those repeated clear warnings by Marx and Engels. Since the “scholarly” Liedman has taken this line, it is clear we cannot recommend his “meticulously researched

” book. Looking at these Ten Points with hindsight, with the ruthless tyranny of the Lenin-Stalin-Mao regimes in mind, it is clear that some of those 1848 proposals were downright dangerous, e.g. “centralisation of the means of communication ... in the hands of the State”. Anyone who observed how the totalitarian Soviet state apparatus controlled the press, radio and TV, suppressing all views other than the official party line, and who sees the same policies still being followed even now in China and North Korea etc, cannot fail to wish that Marx and Engels had decided to revise, or better, delete that section of the MANIFESTO. Since it is largely due to this passage that Marxism has been misrepresented and become a demand for nationalisation, i.e. state capitalism, rather than an argument for common ownership, Liedman’s deplorable silence on this matter is significant.

When our party, to mark the centenary of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, published the text of the MANIFESTO with the 1888 preface, including that quotation from the 1872 preface, we also included an assessment of developments in the last 100 years, which concluded:

Looking back over the last hundred years we can see how the working-class movement gradually lost touch with the sound fundamental ideas contained in the Communist Manifesto as the movement expanded, concentrating more and more upon, and exaggerating, the weaknesses instead of the strength of the MANIFESTO. As the movement marched on it degenerated into a few well-informed leaders and a mass of blind followers to whose blind prejudices the former had to pander more and more until they completely lost their own theoretical sincerity” (SPGB, THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, 1848, p 48).

‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’

This 1852 work by Marx, as Liedman rightly notes, is a “masterpiece” and is seen as a classic of world literature. In our own age of populist politicians, we recognize only too well Marx’s sketch of Louis Bonaparte’s peasant supporters:

The Bonaparte dynasty does not represent the revolutionary peasant, but the conservative peasant ... it represents those who, hidebound in their conservatism, are resolute champions of the old order, and who look to the ghost of the Napoleonic Empire to save and to favour themselves and their petty farms. It does not represent the enlightenment of the peasants, but their superstition; not their judgement, but their prejudices; not their future, but their past

Then there was Marx’s unforgettable description of the state bureaucracy:

This executive, with its colossal bureaucratic and military organization, with its widespreading and artificial State machinery (half a million officials backed up by half a million soldiers) - this executive is a sort of dreadful parasitic growth, or a sort of network enwrapping the body and limbs and choking the pores of French society.

” It is here that Liedman tries to grapple with Marx’s ideas about ‘class’ and ‘class struggle’. “It is clear that Marx’s classes are not complete, closed entities as they are in a contemporary statistical overview of various occupational categories” (p 308, our emphasis). Liedman sees ‘class’ naively in terms of “occupational categories”, much like those used by market researchers, pollsters and statisticians who subdivide the working population by occupation, into professional/white-collar (ABC1) and manual workers (C2DE). Such categories are linked to income and status/lifestyle, matching the needs of the advertising/marketing industry. But such ‘categories’ are not as clear as Liedman suggests. For instance, a household defined by the occupation of its Chief Income Earner (CIE) may be in a different category when assessed by the occupation of the Head of Household (HOH). In the first case, the CIE is quite likely to be a woman but, in the HOH case, women and white-collar jobs are under-represented. So the same household can be categorized very differently, according to which criteria are used.

But in a Marxian sense, ‘class’ is defined objectively, by economic relations, in terms of ownership or non-ownership of the means of production and distribution. This objective sense of ‘class’ is fundamental for explaining the basic conflict of economic interests, the ‘class struggle’ between Capital and Labour - between those who buy and those who sell labour power; between those whose incomes come from the unpaid labour derived from the capitalist exploitation of the working class, and those who must sell their labour power, scraping a living by hiring themselves out for wages or salaries. Reluctantly, Liedman finds himself forced to refer to the class struggle, if only by quoting “a French philosopher, Althusser”, one of the commentariat, who argued that “it is not the anatomy of society that occupies Marx, but its conflicts” (p308).

If Marx was interested in class struggle, he was not the first in this field, as he wrote (letter to Weydemeyer, 1852):

No credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society, nor yet the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle of the classes and bourgeois economists the economic structure of the classes.

” Indeed, it is obvious when reading Adam Smith’s book THE WEALTH OF NATIONS, that he too described a class struggle, a real conflict of interests, between capital and labour, as did others.

But the learned Liedman, instead of getting to grips with Marx’s arguments about class struggle, self-indulgently gives his readers a short essay on the semantics of the word “interest”, with a side helping on the problem of the “groups we would call intellectual” (p308).

While Liedman notes Marx’s important distinction between a social revolution and a political one, he does so only to frame these in a philosophical discourse: social revolution = content, political revolution = form. But then he again goes off at a tangent. Rather than analyzing why Marx made this distinction and what a social revolution meant, instead Liedman reflects on what sort of poetry Marx had in mind in saying the revolution “cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future” (p311). From the context Marx was arguing that the future revolution would be innovative, forward-looking - not, like the French Revolution, dressing itself in borrowed Roman robes and rhetoric.

As a philosopher, Liedman has been schooled in semantics, analyzing the meanings of words, but he is less at home discussing Marx’s key ideas and arguments. Consider a few of the inadequate definitions offered in his Index:

Commodity fetishism:”means that commodities seem alive, and people lifeless” (but Commodity is not in the Index, nor is Class!).
Historical materialism: “Marx (and Engels’s) guidelines for how historical studies should be organized”.
Surplus value: “the increase in value that labour achieves”.
Labour power: “according to Marx, what is comparable in different human efforts and can therefore be quantified and paid a wage

Marx’s Economics

So far as these potted definitions go, there’s a lot missing. For instance, Liedman’s definition of surplus value simply does not convey just how this “increase in value” is achieved, or the fact that it amounts to so much unpaid labour, a daily gift by the working class to their employers, allowing their capital to grow. As for value or Marx’s labour theory of value, neither of these appear in that Index. Liedman’s limited understanding of Marx’s groundbreaking explanation of profits and surplus value is shown up by his referring indiscriminately to workers’ sale of their labour and sale of their labour power.( pp 410 and 412).

Consider too his explanation of surplus value: “the value conveyed to the product through the worker only receiving wages for a portion of their labour time” (p420). Sadly this suggests Liedman has simply not studied Marx.

Workers’ wages are in fact payment for the commodity they sell, their labour power, and the price for this is calculated with reference to the cost of living, of food, housing and other necessaries, plus the cost of raising the next generation of wage-slaves, with other increments covering the cost of advanced training and skills.

When at work, as labour power in use becomes labour adding value to the capital (raw materials, components, etc,) and so is embodied in the final commodity, workers work a part of the time to cover the cost of their pay, but cannot go home when that is done. They have been paid for the whole shift, not just the few hours needed to cover their wages.

It looks as if Liedman is suggesting that the workers are cheated where their wages are concerned, a crude over-simplification of Marx’s labour theory of value. Marx’s explanation of how a commodity’s value comes from the socially necessary labour-time involved in its production applies equally to that unique commodity, labour power.

Liedman also treats his readers to this pearl: “it is from the concept of profit that Marx developed his law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (p421)”.He then explains to us that this “law” was not a thesis original to Marx since Adam Smith and others had embraced it. That’s an interesting way of putting it! Marx knew of those earlier arguments about this “law of the falling rate of profit” but he objected that, as there were countervailing forces, so this was more of a tendency, not a law. He also explained how the varying organic composition of capital, with differing rates of exploitation, rates of S/V, rates of profit, costs etc, meant that when confronted by other commodities and related to market prices, commodities can sell above or below the actual costs of production (see CAPITALVOL 3). The pressure is always for those capitals using the most labour-saving methods to out-compete those unable to keep up.

Keen to explain Marx to the reader, Liedman also has this:

Where does this surplus value come from? Marx is in no doubt about the answer: from the labour that the worker performs. The only commodity the worker has to offer is their own labour power, and the capitalist buys this labour power for a certain time and against a certain compensation that will cover the worker’s immediate needs. But the value of the labour the worker performs is greater than the compensation. The worker makes surplus value, Marx said, and this surplus labour provides the surplus value which in the formula is represented by M’, more money” (p413).

Clear and correct, but there are some issues which Liedman glances over. He notes that “The only commodity the worker has to offer is their own labour power”. But he does not tell us why this is the case. To Marx the presence of a property-less class compelled to sell its labour power was the cornerstone of his explanation of commodity production and the capitalist system. And Liedman does not explain how that “compensation” is arrived at or why should the workers agree to such an unfair arrangement.

Nor does Liedman consider why Marx’s labour theory of value was actually groundbreaking. Before Marx, it was taken as axiomatic pace Adam Smith and many others that workers sell their labour in order to live. But such a theory is unable to explain where profits come from. If you added to constant capital (i.e. raw materials, and other inputs and overheads) the labour bought (also part of the capital outlay), the result was a commodity, whose value was simply capital + labour. As nothing extra had been added to increase its value, so the surplus value, hence the profit, would be NIL

By his labour theory of value and explaining surplus value, Marx was able to explain where profits really come from. Unforgivably his shocking theory showed the system to be one of class exploitation, one where the wealth and ever-growing capital of the capitalist class is a measure of the amount of unpaid labour donated by generations of the working class.

Liedman like other commentators (e.g. Ralph Miliband) makes a fuss about the fact that CAPITAL was still unfinished, a work still in progress when Marx died. But the material later published by Engels as the 2nd and 3rd volumes of CAPITAL was material he found in the stacks of notes on which Marx had been working, right to the end of his life.

In general we have the impression that Liedman’s understanding of Marx’s economic analysis is rather superficial, possibly taken at second-hand from some of the commentariat. He is much more at home discussing Hegelian dialectics and especially semantics, e.g. in his comments on interest. Also his interest in semantics dominates in his discussion of industry and psychology (p151), and he really thrills when discussing alienation and the untranslateable German word Aufhebung (pp148 and 237).

While Aufhebung, a Hegelian term, is a problem for even a skilled translator, the word ‘sublation’ used in this volume is not helpful for the reader. Other translators have used supercede, transcend or transform,, terms which cannot convey all the complex and conflicting meanings of the original but do at least help readers to follow the argument. ‘Sublation’ does not.


Largely due to Leninists and Stalinists, the 20th C saw Marxism ‘taught’ as a dogma, and this was especially obvious in the mystifying and incomprehensible jargon of those who spouted about the ‘identity of opposites’, the ‘negation of the negation’, etc. Liedman objects to such dogmatic versions of Marxism, as we do. But in his discussion of dialectics, emphasizing narrow aspects of ‘dialectical laws’ where he argues Engels went wrong, he does not get to grips with the most important idea. Central to understanding Marx is the awareness that everything is in motion and inter-related, so that in studying anything, we are studying a process, something evolving .

The early Greek philosopher, Democritus, wrote that “no man can step into the same river twice”. Although it is still the same river, the water he had first stepped into has since passed downstream. Like the past, it cannot return: that first experience cannot be repeated. Marx had studied Democritus and Epicurus for his thesis and, in all his work, it is obvious that his world-view owed much to the perception that everything is in flux, constantly evolving.

In the SPGB pamphlet, HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, we argued that the word ‘evolution’ was not yet current when Marx was writing most of his works. Engels gave a reasonable definition of what he understood by dialectics: “the science of the universal laws of motion and evolution in nature, human society and thought” (ANTI-DUHRING).

In explaining this, we wrote:

Evolution does not merely signify that there is perpetual change but that the changes are an unfolding and further development of forces within that which is changing ... Everything is part of an unending world process, no section of which can be isolated except in thought. And even when isolating anything in thought, it must still be studied in connection with other things” (HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, SPGB, 1975, pp 41-2).

Another passage in that pamphlet also shows dialectical thinking at work:

[Our] outlook is not just a reflection of economic conditions. Social development is the result of man’s action on circumstances ... man makes his own history but only out of the conditions that are to his hand. It is reciprocal - man and conditions acting upon each other

” (ibid. p14). And Marx’s opening passage in THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE is also relevant:

Men make their own history, but not just as they please. They do not choose the circumstances for themselves, but have to work upon circumstances as they find them, have to fashion the material handed down by the past.”

Liedman and Lenin

While Liedman is aware of the difference between Lenin and Marx on the question of the ‘leading role of the party’, of vanguardism rather than class struggle, he is oddly lacking in information on this, and is really not very interested in where Lenin got this idea from.

The fact is that Lenin was not a genius as his followers claimed. The titles of his key works were taken from other writers: e.g. WHAT IS TO BE DONE? which he took from Chernyshevsky, and THE STATE AND REVOLUTION from Bakunin. In WHAT IS TO BE DONE?, Lenin set out as his theory of a party elite acting as the vanguard of the revolution - a theory argued by another Russian radical, Tkachov. We know that Lenin had read Tkachov in Switzerland and strongly recommended him. But Liedman, this learned academic, a specialist in the History of Ideas, seems never to have investigated where Lenin’s most important and dangerous theory came from. Yet this information is in print, in Franco Venturi’s well-known work on THE ROOTS OF REVOLUTION (1983).

What does Liedman have to say of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’? And of Lenin’s argument that socialism is a phase between capitalism and communism? Not much and nothing of use.

Whatever his criticism of ‘dogmatic’ Marxism, he echoes the Kremlin line when he writes of “actually existing socialism”. He even writes that “raw capitalism and raw communism are still united” in modern China (p612)! When he writes that “the state Marxist traditions collapsed or disappeared into oblivion” (p613), it is clear that, however knowledgeable he may be on the literature about Marx, he is at best misleading, at worst dishonest, as a guide to Marx’s historic and revolutionary work.

So much for our arm-chair academic - clearly you would do far better to study Marx’s works yourself than rely on such an interpreter. No wonder his book was recommended by the FINANCIAL TIMES and the WALL STREET JOURNAL!

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.