First name basis


Gareth Stedman Jones’s big new biography of Karl Marx (Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Allen Lane) properly places Marx’s developing political thinking into the intellectual and historical context of the time, an important thing considering how someone of Marx’s stature tends to be put on a pedestal, towering singly over everyone else, giving the impression of isolated, unique genius. Oddly though, in his attempt to rediscover the authentic man behind the myth, Stedman Jones decides he is on a first-name basis with Marx, addressing him throughout the text as ‘Karl’. The reasoning is that ‘Marx’ is so associated with Marxism, and the popular perception of Marx somewhat removed from the actual individual Marx, that it is necessary to draw attention to the fact. A fair point, but it is perhaps labouring that point to then draw attention by referring to him as Karl when pretty much everyone else in the text is referred to by their last names. Much better to simply remind readers on occasion – and even better show them – that Marx the person is not always the same as the Marx of popular perception. The silliness is reinforced by the fact that the publisher’s jacket blurb continues to refer to Marx as Marx and not Karl. I am reminded of James O’Donnell’s decision to de-capitalise ‘god’ when talking in his biography about Saint Augustine’s ‘god’. It’s a stubborn idiosyncrasy that merely draws attention to the author and the act of writing rather than the subject.


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