Review: Who the hell is… Karl Marx?

Brian Parkin finds a new introduction to Marx and Marxism combines theory with a vision of a world free of exploitation and oppression.

Marx, Engels and Marx’s daughters Jenny (1844–1883), Eleanor (1855–1898), and Laura (1845–1911). Unknown author, from Wikipedia

Manus McGrogan, Who the hell is… Karl Marx? (London: Bowden & Brazil Ltd, 2020). 125 pp. £9.99


It is commonplace in times of economic crisis and global upheaval for Karl Marx to be disinterred, in order to be either blamed for what is going wrong, or often – with friends and foes alike – to be referred to in search of an explanation of events. Hence during the financial crash of 2008-9 Marx was often quoted favourably in such publications as the Financial Times and The Economist, while on the left a whole host of born-again radicals didn’t hesitate to offer their ‘Marxist’ interpretations of the crisis. One such commentator was Thomas Picketty, who in his magnum opus Capital in the Twenty-First Century, presented a collage of geopolitics, demography and econometrics to reveal, horror-of-horrors, that economic and social inequality had continued to grow during the neoliberal phase of late capitalism!

With the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth in 2013, in an outpouring of crocodile tears from scholars determined to deny the revolutionary content of his life’s work, Marx was often appropriated and defanged in an attempt to portray the working class as both unworthy and incapable of being an agency of revolutionary change. Of course there are many honourable exceptions – not least Sven-Eric Liedman’s mighty biography A World to Win (London: Verso, 2018) in which the contributions of Marx’s lifetime collaborator Friedrich Engels are given due recognition.

A more comprehensive list of Marx biographies can be found at the end of this review but, by and large, they are lengthy to the extent that they may deter new readers rather than encourage them from entering the fascinating world of Marx’s writings. So this short introduction, covering the life and works of Karl Marx in a mere 125 pages, is to be welcome. In Who the hell is… Karl Marx? Manus McGrogan sets out Marx’s life story, beginning with the phase in which Marx (and Engels) first acquainted themselves with the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy of the dialectic.

Hegel’s dialectic identified the progress of human society as emerging from the contradictions (termed thesis and antithesis) contained within ideas. This point of intellectual transition is set against the background of Marx’s personal transition: firstly, his romance with Jenny von Westphalen, and secondly, his rejection of his father’s wishes that he continued with a law degree at the University of Berlin.

In the opening section of the book the key milestones of Marx’s intellectual development and its increasing fusion with the politics of revolution is explained by way of Marx’s brief stay in Paris, where he meets the young Engels and with whom he develops Hegel’s philosophy. Shorn of mysticism and idealism, they developed it into what we now know as historical materialism.

Ideas and Revolution

So, from the late 1830’s onwards, Marx is flung headlong into a ferment of radical philosophical and political debate, which takes an increasingly revolutionary tone. And here it is good to see McGrogan, in the section entitled Influences on Marx’s Thinking, set out the chain of thought – from Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and Engels’s The Condition of the English Working Class, The German Ideology of 1845 to the Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848 – which cemented the conviction in the minds of Marx and Engels that the proletariat or working class, uniquely, has the potential complete the historical journey to a classless society.

During the period of Marx’s life of 1818-83 there were a succession of momentous historical events, as capitalism brought about changes in how production was organised – culminating in the factory system – as well as the end of the absolute monarchies of the old order. Marx and Engels observed a wave of revolutions across Europe in which the bourgeoisie led the incipient working class, but ensured the outcomes were conducive to their immediate self-interests. As such, in the Parisian revolution of 1831 and the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848, the bourgeois exploited the rage and energy of the masses, while not being prepared to see the fundamental rights to private property overturned. Hence:

Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product. (The Communist Manifesto, 1848.)

And here, as McGrogan (quoting Marx) neatly summarises:

In dialectical terms, capitalism would thus be negated by its opposite, labour, to make way for a more advanced society, socialism: a society run by the direct producers for human need. This for Marx, would result in the disappearance of class distinctions and ultimately the abolition of class society.

In the following section, entitled History as the Story of Class Warfare, McGrogan establishes that Marx (and Engels) regarded class struggle as the engine of history, and argued that the struggles of the working class offer the possibility of achieving socialism. And he stresses that in Marxism as a distinctive body of thought we see a fusion of disciplines: Marx’s contributions as philosopher, economist, journalist, historian and revolutionist, distinguish Marxism as both a coherent, unified and systematic body of theory, and a call to action.

Capitalism and Crisis

In this fourth section we find a brief account of how capitalism as a ‘mode of production’ emerged out of previous modes to become, by as early as 1848, a global system of unrivalled energy and economic prowess. The ruling bourgeoisie, having established its dominance through the universality of wage labour, enjoys hitherto unimaginable economic and social power.

Yet capitalism is prone to crises of the most destructive force. Cycles of boom and bust are intrinsic to it, as capitalism produces goods irrespective of whether a market for them exists. McGrogan, in a few pages, uses key references from Marx to show how as capitalists compete for profits, production techniques are revolutionized, shifting investment away from ‘variable capital’ – workers’ wages – towards ‘constant capital’ – machinery, plant, buildings and resources – which leads ultimately to a decline in the rate of profit.

The tendency to crisis has inevitable political and social consequences; and it is here where McGrogan illustrates that connection with reference to a history of depressions, financial crashes, colonial exploitation and war. Today capitalism’s fragility is all too apparent: the high level of market integration and interdependency means that crisis can spread virus-like throughout the world economy.

Ideas and Ideology

Throughout this little book the author is at pains to avoid the trap of many vulgar Marxists, who although paying lip-service to its liberatory and revolution potential, reduce the works of Marx – and to some degree, Engels – to a dry economic schema. So it is refreshing to find that Who the hell is… also takes into account how capitalism, despite its crises and inherent class conflict, is able to reproduce itself via the means of ideological ‘persuasion’. McGrogan highlights the importance of Marx’s ‘base and superstructure’ concept, illustrated by the two classic quotes:

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. (Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859.)


Men make their own history, but they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, 1852.)

The material reality of the division of labour required by capitalism, combined with the dominant ideas used to justify that division, comprise an enveloping ideology that gives capitalism a key support. Just as men and women cannot live by bread alone, neither can capitalism persist solely by control at the point of production and the force of the state.

In Who the hell is… Karl Marx? Manus McGrogan has produced a useful pocket-sized introduction to the fundamentals of Marx and Marxism. The layout and subject order is well conceived and executed. There is on pages 24-25 a very useful timeline of the life of Karl Marx which is accompanied with a parallel chronology of historical events which would have influenced the development of his thought.

Although I have no hesitation in commending this little book, I would quibble about McGrogan’s continued reference to capitalism as a ‘system’ rather than a ‘mode of production’ as Marx described it. Another key area of Marxist thought, the question of the state, receives scant attention. Perhaps this is because it was Engels, in his The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State who stripped away the mysticism and ornament regarding the state as a neutral force sitting above the classes. Engels thus revealed the state, above all else, as a tool for the enforcement of ruling class privilege and power and the perpetuation of its rule.

But this book’s enduring strength is best summed up in its conclusion which shows that capitalism, despite the many superficial changes it has undergone, remains the same ‘system’ of exploitation, oppression and alienated labour. In identifying the proletariat as the grave diggers of capitalism, from whose free labour – in conjunction with the resources of nature – a new world might be constructed, we have cause for hope.

Who the hell is… Karl Marx? is a worthy pocket companion to Alex Callinicos’s The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (1983) and provides a comprehensive introduction for those wanting to explore ideas that still have the power to change the world for the better.



Other Marx biographies not mentioned in the text:

Rius, Marx for Beginners (London: Writers & Readers, 1976) [plus many subsequent editions]

David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (London: Macmillan, 1973)

Francis Wheen, Karl Marx:  A Life  (London: Fourth Estate, 1999)

Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York: Liveright, 2013)

Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2016)

Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1972)

Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)


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