Karl Marx and World Literature

Karl Marx and World Literature
S S Prawer
Verso Books, 480pp, £16.99

Karl Marx was a voracious reader who wanted to be a Romantic poet. When the family derided his output, he switched to the idea of writing
a Tristram Shandy-type novel, and tried a play. He was creatively ambitious, instinctively measuring himself against Aeschylus, Goethe and Shakespeare. His doctoral thesis on Democritus and Epicurus further enriched his stock of ideas. And he read newspapers. For him, all of these forms of writing were "literature" and in a way all of them were also "philosophy", by his definition, because it was with the power of the word that he was going to change the world.

Marx became original from the moment he turned his attention to the state of present-day society. He joined the liberal Rheinische Zeitung in 1842 and at once took up the cause of "wood thieves" against the local landowners. "With a nebulous notion of your personal excellence, poetically self-enraptured, you offer those who have dealings with you your individual character as a protection against your laws. I must confess that I do not share this novelistic notion of what a forest-owner is." The demise of individualistic, dreamy Romanticism in literature gave Marx his fuel, and the sense that society, too, had moved on to a new stage of realism, which meant justice.

By Marx's standards this early criticism was mild. He had a vicious gift, thanks to his love of great characters onstage, for the ad hominem attack. Knowing he was addressing an educated audience, he used the names of characters, or their authors, to drive home his point. You did not want to be accused of schillerising rather than shakespearising, because that meant you had your head in the clouds. Just literary banter? Not at all. He detested the lack of self-awareness in his rivals. They had no idea "where they were coming from" - a notion that generated the Marxian meaning of ideology.

It is one of the many merits of this 1976 study of Marx as a reader and writer that we can see crucial notions of his emerging early. Alienation, fetishism and a topsy-turvy world that needs setting aright all began as moments Marx encountered in world literature. He conceived of literature, in a Goethean fashion, as Welt­literatur, the repository of universal human imagination. True, for him this was the western imagination - yet something has been lost in the dwindling of the meaning of "world literature" to books that conquer multiple markets.

Literature taught Marx about life. There was scope for him to become carried away by his facility for coining metaphors and then to see them enacted in the industrial towns of his age. I say this faintly, as a criticism Siegbert Prawer doesn't make, but he was also a piercing literary critic who transferred notions of form and content, and a sense that they should harmonise, to an analysis of society. Where the form of an opponent's posturings differed from the content of the man, Marx skewered him.

He knew the classics. His grasp of the shift from the Greek to the Roman world made him think that a similar change in civilisation was about to happen in Europe, and he should encourage it in thundering prose. The text of the 1848 Communist Manifesto is full of rhetorical devices worthy of Cicero. Hegel, however, was his greatest philosophical conquest. Pompous, in love with himself, but above all wrong? I don't think Hegel the dialectical idealist was entirely wrong - but Marx had to prove him so before his own dialectical materialist view could go forward, so he tackled Hegel sentence by sentence, writing the tortuous original in one column and his attempt to parse it in the next.

Both the subject and the author of this book, reprinted 35 years after its first publication, belong to the Enlightenment. They believe in reason and equality - and how good it is to be reminded of that lost world. The book is a classic that situates Marx in the German literary context and restores him as a historical figure. Above all, it is a vivid biography, bringing the man back to life by decoding his prose expertly.

Prawer, who fled Hitler, was for many years professor of German literature at Oxford. He is one of the great German scholars of the 20th century. One must be grateful that he undertook this huge project years ago.

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "The Secret Artist: a Close Reading of Sigmund Freud" (Quartet Books, £12.50)

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy