Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 15, 2016

Who is Gareth Stedman Jones and why is he saying such stupid things about Marx?

Filed under: Academia,liberalism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Gareth Stedman Jones

Gareth Stedman Jones is a 73-year-old professor of history at the University of London who was educated at St. Paul’s and Oxford. This, plus a brief infatuation with Marxism in the 1960s, was just the ticket for landing a seat on the editorial board of New Left Review where many editors and contributors over the years share the same kind of background.

In a 2012 interview, Jones described his eventual breach with the far left, especially its Trotskyist component, as a result of being put off by the idea of a “revolutionary Europe”. Instead he realized that unlike his erstwhile comrades, he really was a “crypto-Fabian”.

For most people who have a youthful fling with radical politics, this is something easy enough to put behind them. I am acquainted, for example, with a man who was my YSA organizer in NY in 1968. He dropped out of the movement about 5 years later, moved out to California, and started a very profitable company that sold and installed industrial carpeting in office buildings. When I visited his ranch about 15 years ago, the last thing he was interested in was politics. He much preferred to drink cognac, smoke cigars and talk about the horses he was breeding.

In my view, that man does a lot less harm than Gareth Stedman Jones who has carved out a very successful career at elite British universities, including Cambridge, teaching young people all about working class history and what’s wrong with Marxism. On his webpage at the U. of London, he names his PhD students including one Kate Connelly, whose dissertation is on “Marx, Engels and the Urban Poor”. As is commonly understood, dissertation students make sure to hold views in sync with their adviser so we can assume that she will disorient her future students in the same way Jones disoriented her.

One of the most ironic contradictions of Marxism is that some of its most diehard critics speak in the name of Marxism. With the intellectual clout they might gain from serving on the NLR editorial board and having written a rafter of books with titles like “Outcast London”, a 1971 Verso book that was an exercise in E.P. Thompson “history from below”, people such as Gareth Stedman Jones can speak out of both sides of his mouth. He is for the working class in a charitable Dickensian fashion but against it becoming the ruling class.

In his latest exercise in undermining Marx while praising him, Jones just came out with a 768-page book titled “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion” that has been reviewed in the Guardian and the Financial Times. Writing for the Guardian, Oliver Bullough states that “Stedman Jones eventually comes to the conclusion that the pioneers of 20th-century socialism would have found Marx’s true dreams incomprehensible, since they were formed in a pre-1848 world that would have had little if any relevance to them.”

In a nutshell, Jones argues that the 20th and 21st century Marxist understanding of socialism is influenced much more by Engels than Marx. Bullough explains: “Stedman Jones argues that much of what we now think of as Marxism – and, thus, much of what went on to inspire socialist and communist parties – was the creation of Engels, who codified Marx’s theories after his death, thus making them palatable for people unable or unwilling to wade through his dense texts.”

The idea that Engels was somehow to blame for the bastardization of Marxism and even partially responsible for the Stalinist travesties of “dialectical materialism” is part of the arsenal of people like Gareth Stedman Jones, even though there is little basis for this.

Mark Mazower, a Columbia University professor, wrote the FT review titled “The value of Karl Marx’s 19th century thinking in today’s world”. As I have noted in the past, the FT has published a number of articles, especially during the depth of the 2008 financial crisis, arguing for the relevance of Karl Marx even if his call for the abolition of capitalism was all wet.

Relying on Mazower’s reading of Jones, we are expected to believe that Marx neglected to deal with the problem of state power:

At the same time he continued his voluminous reading, in particular of Ludwig Feuerbach, a critic of Hegel and the thinker who did most to point Marx towards the idea of man as an alienated being who thrived best as part of a larger collective. It was this conception that allowed Marx to imagine the future as one great human society, and to relegate to an entirely unimportant position the state itself, which had been so potent in Hegel’s thought. One consequence of this downplaying of the state was that Marx developed his entire critique of capitalism with almost no reference to the role of the state: the upshot was that after 1917, when his Russian followers found themselves running the government of a very large country, they had a free hand to invent a role for the bureaucracy and ended up creating a polity in which the state played a greater role than ever before or since.

Speaking of neglect, it is obvious to me that Jones failed to take into account one of Karl Marx’s most important writings on the state—“The Civil War in France”—that was the basis for Lenin’s “State and Revolution”. I understand that Gareth Stedman Jones has more awards than Heineken beer but if he can’t make the connection between Marx and Lenin on the theory of the workers state, then he has no business teaching about Marx. But then again, the people who hired him for his various august positions saw this inability to make such a connection essential to training the future leaders of bourgeois society who might dismiss Marxism while wisely praising Marx as an important 19th century thinker.

In 2002 Penguin came out with a version of “The Communist Manifesto” with a 185-page introduction by Jones, three times the length of the Manifesto. Among the spurious points made in the introduction is that the manifesto and much of 19th century socialism was a quasi-religion. This, of course, is another key talking point against Marxism that I personally first heard in junior high school back in 1958 or so. It was “the god that failed”, a “secular religion” that replaced heaven with the communist ideal. This is a rather banal interpretation and exactly what you would expect from someone like Gareth Stedman Jones.

In a shrewd review of Jones’s packaging of The Communist Manifesto for the New Left Review, Jacob Stevens wrote:

Stedman Jones’s organizing thesis—that Marxism is another form of religion—is, of course, one of the oldest tropes of Cold War literature, predating even the equation of communism and fascism as two sides of the totalitarian coin. During the thirties, Waldemar Gurian and Eric Voegelin argued that Marxism and Nazism caricatured the fundamental patterns of religious belief, diagnosing the resulting immanentist heresies as by-products of secularization in a decadent world, fuelled by Enlightenment myths of social transformation. After World War Two, Jules Monnerot’s Sociology of Communism (1949) explained that Bolshevism was a ‘religious sect of world conquerors’ that should be viewed as a ‘twentieth-century Islam’. Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) offered a fully fleshed-out analogy with Christianity: the ‘sacred history which Marxism extracts from the penumbra of plain facts’ offers a messianic role for the Party.

For Jones the last important work of Marx was “The German Ideology”. Apparently everything went downhill afterwards. Perhaps Jones might have done less harm if he had simply focused on social history and not written counter-revolutionary drivel. This part of his legacy might have inspired another of his dissertation students to have chosen a topic like “Carnivals in Greater London, 1890-1914: Locality, Leisure and Voluntary Action on the Metropolitan Periphery”, one that thankfully will not carry his adviser’s ideological baggage.

Then again, that might be problematic given Jones’s attempt to purge class from the history of the Chartist movement. Once again doing his best to obfuscate revolutionary history, he claims that it was liberalism rather than socialism that fueled the growth of this movement. Crypto-Fabian indeed.

In 1983, Jones came out with a book titled “Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982” that included a chapter titled “Rethinking Chartism”. It turned language into a fulcrum of analysis rather than class dynamics. The speeches and articles of Chartist leaders that reflected a commitment to traditional values of bourgeois democracy were taken at face value by Jones whose words reflected the baleful influence of post-structuralism:

What both ‘experience’ and ‘consciousness’ conceal – at least as their usage has evolved among historians- is the problematic character of language itself. Both concepts imply that language is a simple medium through which ‘experience’ finds expression- a romantic conception of language in which what is at the beginning inner and particular struggles to outward expression and, having done so, finds itself recognized in the answering experience of others, and hence sees itself to be part of a shared experience. It is in some such way that ‘experience’ can be conceived cumulatively to result in class consciousness. What this approach cannot acknowledge is all the criticism which has been levelled at it since the broader significance of Saussure’s work was understood – the materiality of language itself, the impossibility of simply referring it back to some primal anterior reality, ‘social being’, the impossibility of abstracting experience from the language which structures its articulation. In areas other than history, such criticisms are by now well known and do not need elaboration. But historians – and social historians in particular – have either been unaware or, when aware, extremely resistant to the implications of this approach for their own practice, and this has been so most of all perhaps when it touches such a central topic as class.

So interesting to see how Gareth Stedman Jones is inclined to draw upon intellectual traditions hostile to Marxism in an effort to simultaneously speak for the left while undermining it. If the essay on the Chartists was filled with intellectual hijinks like this, the next chapter “Why is the Labour Party Such a Mess?” was refreshingly straightforward even if the ideas were just as repugnant. It seems that the solution to the Labour Party’s problems in post-Thatcher England was to ditch the “homogeneous proletarian estate whose sectional political interest is encompassed by trade unions.”

In 2004, Jones wrote an op-ed piece for the Guardian titled “Tony Blair needs a big idea. Adam Smith can provide it”. It is a totally ahistorical think piece that abstracts Adam Smith from his contemporary context and urges readers to appreciate that Smith’s “original reputation was that of a progressive whose work provided the foundation of the radical critique of aristocratic monopoly and of the bellicose state that protected it.” He adds, “But an accurate account of this period shows that the pursuit of equality can be conceived in terms quite other than those of socialism.”

What that has to do with the 21st century when capitalism had become so decadent that it was capable of fomenting two world wars is anybody’s guess. It seems that despite his formidable reputation as a historian, Jones’s grasp of history is rather weak. Adam Smith was an enemy of state monopolies like the East India Company. How would that exactly translate into Labour Party policy? In the late 18th century, Britain was on the verge of an industrial revolution that combined with its overseas empire could turn it into the wealthiest nation in the world. Adam Smith was the prophet of that trend. But in 2004 England was deep into deindustrialization that both Labour and Conservative politicians were either enthusiastic about or reconciled to. One supposes that Gareth Stedman Jones lacked the intellectual and political insights to grasp this.

I am sure that none of my readers would waste $35 on his worthless book but for those with a morbid curiosity I would urge you to read an interview with him that is a transcript of a 2005 PBS show called “Heaven On Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism” that was hosted by Ben Wattenberg, an obnoxious neoconservative. As should be obvious from the title of the program, Jones must have jumped at the opportunity to chat with Wattenberg since they agreed that socialism was a kind of religion.

It is a pile of shit from beginning to end but reached the deepest level of shittiness when Wattenberg posed the question: “Did the writings of Lenin change people’s ideas about Socialism?” Jones replies:

Well, it absolutely moves the center of gravity from the idea that socialism is something which is going to come through the development of capitalism at its highest point, something which all socialists have believed before 1914 to the idea that building socialism in the primitive country, ninety-percent of whose population were peasants and so on, the point from which he had to redefine socialism.

Lenin tries to do so by his famous arguments that capitalism is as strong as its weakest link, and pre-revolutionary Russia has presented it as being the weakest link. So really he cuts through this whole argument about whether there are enough workers as a proportion of the population to produce a viable socialist society. Clearly, there weren’t and the Soviets learned to their costs. I mean, the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. And of course it changed the image of socialism ever afterwards to that of being a very top-heavy, authoritarian, ruthless state machine, which was if anything, the opposite of what people would have thought socialism was meant to be in the mid-nineteenth century.

So the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. Very interesting. Speaking of brute force, does Jones have any idea of what kind of brute force was deployed against Russia in 1918 when 21 invading armies sought to destroy the socialist experiment?

About 8 million people lost their lives during the Russian Civil War. Wikipedia also indicates the crushing of the industrial infrastructure:

Estimates say that the war cost the Soviet Russia around 50 billion rubles or $35,000,000,000.00 in today’s price. Production of industrial goods fell to very low level. For example, The Soviet Union was producing only 5 % of the cotton, and only 2 % of the iron ore, compared to the production of 1913. Generally, the production had fallen to 20% of the production of 1913.

The counter-revolutionary war had the intended effect even if “socialism” survived. The loss of Bolshevik cadre led to the rise of Stalinism, and after that the rise of fascism since the working class in Europe lacked the revolutionary leadership that could have blocked the victory of both Hitler and Franco.

As Perry Anderson pointed out in “Considerations on Western Marxism”, it was such terrible defeats that led to a retreat from revolutionary socialism among a class of intellectuals who, anticipating Gareth Stedman Jones, began to criticize Marxism from within the academy. The only thing that will reverse this trend is a new upsurge of the working class that will inevitably be produced by the irrationality of the capitalist system. Even though Gareth Stedman Jones disparages The Communist Manifesto, it is worth quoting on this point:

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.


  1. “Little basis for this” re: Engels as the popularizer of marxism? Both Sven Eric Liedman – who has spent most of his 80 year life researching Marx – and Michael Heinrich hold this view.

    Comment by Hano — August 15, 2016 @ 6:25 pm

  2. Thanks for this. I have a copy of that Penguin edition of the Communist Manifesto and strangely enough I never even bothered to read any of that bloated introductory section by G S Jones. I suppose I instinctively felt that when you have an introduction three times larger than the main text – and especially considering the radical nature of that main text – then you should, to say the least, view the appended material with suspicion.

    Comment by George — August 15, 2016 @ 7:31 pm

  3. Re: Engels. I doubt that Marx would have ever written something like “Dialectics of Nature.” But to blame Engels for Stalinist “diamat” is absurd on its face. He never believed in “proletarian science” or other such halmarks of “Marxism-Leninism.”

    Comment by jschulman — August 15, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

  4. […] via Who is Gareth Stedman Jones and why is he saying such stupid things about Marx? — Louis Proyect: T… […]

    Pingback by Who is Gareth Stedman Jones and why is he saying such stupid things about Marx? — Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist | Art History blog — August 16, 2016 @ 9:52 am

  5. […] Stedman Jones, whose anti-working class prejudices and intellectual simple-mindedness are already well-known, is the latest proof of the ardently reactionary nature of The Economist whose visceral hatred of […]

    Pingback by Reactionary Ignorance – The Economist Gets Marx Wrong, Again – The Red Guard — August 26, 2016 @ 11:16 am

  6. “21 invading armies blah blah blah…”
    Soviet experiment under Lenin didn’t fail because of outside forces (obviously that didn’t help), it failed because of the underlying principles of New Economic Policy (NEP), mainly the collectivization of farms.

    There has been no country more devastated by war than Germany after WWII, yet under Ludwig Erhard’s free-market policies West Germany became one of the richest countries in the world in less than 10 years.

    It’s always amusing to see a socialist make excuses for the umpteenth failure of socialism, and blame everything but socialism. For the religious their religion never fails, it’s always the people who fail the religion.

    Comment by TJ — August 30, 2016 @ 8:24 pm

  7. TJ, you are so profoundly ignorant about the impact of the invasion of the USSR in 1918 that I cannot begin to educate you for lack of time and interest. If you want to make the case for capitalism, you need to reach a higher level of erudition. You might want to start with reading a history of the early Soviet Union by E. H. Carr to start with.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 31, 2016 @ 1:20 am

  8. Just read the introduction to the communist manifesto by Jones. While elsewhere he may use the old trope that Marxism is another form of religion in the intro he accuses Marx and Engels of not giving credit to both religious and secular ideas that they develop in the Manifesto. Specifically the socialistic religious currents. This pretence at cleverness will possibly fool those who wish to be fooled. The Communist Manifesto was written as a tight proganda piece at the outbreak of the 1848 European revolutions and thus deliberately did not elaborate on its intellectual antecedents. These antecedents which Jones well knows are credited all through there combined works and were most likely where he first heard of them.

    As a former Trotskiest he would of been clear that the former USSR was ‘communist’ in name only. The 1917 Russian revolution gave birth to a worker state and government which was tasked with carrying out bourgeois democratic tasks such as ending feudalist property relations in the countryside. The rapid nationalisation of industry was forced on the soviet government due to Capitalist fleeing the country and the Civil War. Before the destruction of the the leaders of revolution by Stalin they clearly understood that the USSR was neither a socialist economy or society but a transitional regime. The then revolutionary government against huge odds was trying to steer a path towards socialism. So when Jones claims in his introduction to the manifesto the exstinction of the communist idea amongst the working class he is only correct when you look past his deliberate falsifications of history and replace his use of communist with Stalinism.

    Jones should feel particularly foolish with his ‘socialism is dead arguments’ considering the mass rise of socialist movements around the globe including the first world. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have been able to articulate genuine reformist socialism without the capitalist ideologues being able to point to USSR and crow ‘this is what socialism actually looks like’. The gangster capitalism that inhabits the former USSR is so bad that surveys after survey report that 60% and over would prefer to return to the past.

    As Greece has shown reformist socialism cannot overcome the incredibly powerful forces of modern global capitalism. Workers will try the reformist road before being forced by necessity to take the revolutionary road. As we are a class that hates war and desires peace, but the capitalist class will drown us in blood before giving up their riches. When and if this time for the revolutionary road comes, the Manifesto, written with words of fire may again speak to millions of workers. Regardless ideologues like Jones should be seen for what they are, ‘useful idiots’ for there bourgeois masters.

    Comment by Simon Millar — November 2, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

  9. […] of the reviews and Gareth Stedman’s biography. For one review that really dislikes the book see: Who is Gareth Stedman Jones and why is he saying such stupid things about Marx? Louis Proyect. (3) Page 558 Sperber. Op cit. (4) Page 123. The Class Struggles in France. Page 176. The Eighteenth […]

    Pingback by Karl Marx. Greatness and Illusion. Gareth Stedman Jones. A Democratic Socialist Review. | Tendance Coatesy — March 1, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

  10. Proyecto’s condescending warning against Stedman Jones’ book on Marx is not really helpful. The fact that Stedman Jones is now situated on the centre right is no scoop to anyone who has followed his trajectory over the years. He looks increasingly like a Fabian socialist and so defends a critical approach to ‘Marxism’ as did Marx himself. He may have interesting things to say all the same.

    As for the overall argument of Stedman Jones, it resurrects some old canards about the Marx-Engels relationship and goes to extreme lengths to underline Marx’s fascination with the Russian peasant communities which – everyone knows – was one of Engels’s allergies.So we play Engels against Marx big deal. But these are, I would argue, not really important.

    What IS important is that Stedman Jones argues that Marx’s Capital is a economics textbook which is entirely modern, and one in which he seeks to escape from his more philosophical past. After that Stedman Jones gets into a confusion about the order in which Marx chose to present his books, wondering why the old man did not present the book on the circulation of capital prior to the rest. In short, his account sounds reminiscent of the silly idea that the rise of commercial capital gave way to the rise of wage labour and capital. But he knows that, in reality, the use of the state (Royal Power) brought about the dispossession of the peasantry in England. For a market socialist, the intrusion of state violence is not something which is easy to put into an apology of the market. But it’s also a problem for the Bolsheviks given the continued existence of the state in Russia post 1917 for it points to the continued sway of commodity production and capital: state capitalism.

    So inevitably, Stedman Jones worries away about the ‘Hegelian’ first chapter of Capital and points out that Marx struggled to make his esoteric message clear.The point, however, is that Marx was underlining the predominant feature of capitalism; that it represents the domination of the form of value – an abstraction – and that capitalism works in terms of the law of value. Capitalism is commodity production implying the existence of wage labour. That Stedman Jones fails to understand the nature of commodity production and its close relationship to the nature of the modern state is something which he shares with many on the left; people who think that you can have fully blown commodity production, wage labour and a ‘workers state’ a capitalism without capital accumulation and exploitation. He wants to read Marx as a contemporary reformist economist; one who points out how the market can create poverty, inequality and boring jobs. In actual fact, if you have read Marx correctly socialism or communism has to be the end of the rule of the law of value, the abolition of commodity production, wage labour and the state.

    No wonder he annoys many on the left. He is scratching where it itches.

    Comment by malcolm mansfield — June 1, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

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