Demythologizing Marx

Marx Without Myth: a Chronological Study of His Life and Work
Maximilien Rubel and Margaret Manale
Harper and Row, 1975

Maximilien Rubel (1905-1996) made great contributions to Marx scholarship for several decades by producing carefully edited French-language scholarly editions of Marx’s work to serve as independent counterparts to those produced by the official curators of Marx’s legacy in East Berlin and Moscow. While Rubel’s Pléiade editions have not been translated into English, a sizeable portion of the introductory material he contributed is available to English-speaking readers.

One such text is Marx Without Myth, a biographical study written with Margaret Manale and based on the introduction to the first volume of Rubel’s edition of Marx’s works. [1] Rubel and Manale give the reader a detailed historical context to Marx’s writings, apart from which any understanding of Marx’s work is impossible. While the content of Marx’s critiques of political economy may not be treated as extensively as their importance warrants in this particular historiographic method, the value (no pun intended) of the historical detail is considerable.

What is colloquially referred to as Marxism contains at least four components: 1) the humanist philosophic foundation of the Hegelian dialectic, 2) the critique of political economy, 3) the critique of politics, and 4) the historical-ethnological studies of the late Marx. Rubel and Manale’s text is particularly strong on points three and four. [2] They strongly convey the anti-authoritarian content of Marx’s work in political movements, especially the International Working Men’s Association, culminating in the Paris Commune, the climax of the social struggles in of the nineteenth century in Europe. Marx is criminally ignored as both a practitioner and theorist of organization and the spirit he brought to his participation in working class movements should be studied closely by those interested in rescuing the revolutionary project for the twenty-first century.

Marx’s intense interest in the heritage and prospects of the remnants of archaic communal property in the Europe of his day, particularly Russia, is communicated strongly by Rubel and Manale’s close attention to Marx’s reading extensive lists. Names important here are  Lewis Henry Morgan, Maxime Kovalevsky, Henry Sumner Maine, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and Nikolai Danielson, among others. The unfinished product of Marx’s study along these lines is still available to us in English translation, although edited and published by Lawrence Krader as a transcription (The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx) in 1972.

Marx Without Myth is not without typographical errors (example: an interesting 1867 letter by Marx’s wife Jenny describing the content of Capital, Volume I mistakenly contains the word “slaves” in place of “salves”). Ironically, given the title of Rubel and Manale’s book, the authors repeat the false assertion that Marx wanted to dedicate Capital, Volume II to Charles Darwin (see p. 318). We know now, thanks to Margaret A. Fay, that the letter from Darwin at the source of this myth was addressed to Edward Aveling, who had asked the naturalist for permission to dedicate a book called The Student’s Darwin to him. [3]

While almost thirty years old, Marx Without Myth has not been superseded and still has benefits for readers today.



[1] See Kevin Anderson’s “Maximilien Rubel, 1905-1996, Libertarian Marx Editor.” Capital and Class, Vol. 62, 1997.

[2] For a critique of Rubel’s ambivalence to Hegel and the dialectic, see “Hobsbawn and Rubel on the Marx Centenary, But Where is Marx? by Raya Dunayevskaya, News & Letters, Aug-Sep 1982. Although Dunayevskaya is sharply critical of Rubel here, she did have respect for his editorial project.

[3] See “Did Marx Offer to Dedicate Capital to Darwin? A Reassessment of the Evidence.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol 39, Issue 1, 1978.

3 thoughts on “Demythologizing Marx

  1. This looks like an interesting book but this critique lacks enough substance about it to determine what it addresses. What are some of the key myths about Marx that the book addresses and what does it argue about them?

    • Rubel was chiefly interested in reclaiming Marx from the grasp of the state power theorist-practitioners of the Communist world. It should be recalled that Rubel carried out his scholarly work in France, which had a relatively powerful and strongly Stalinist Communist Party during his lifetime. As Kevin Anderson wrote in his tribute in Capital and Class at the time of Rubel’s death, “In the words of his longtime colleague Louis Janover, this edition [Rubel’s four-volume Oeuvres of Marx] ‘provoked the most violent polemics from the Communist Party and its intellectuals’ because ‘they saw that their monopoly over the editions of Marx’s works was disappearing.'”

      From the introduction to Marx Without Myth:

      Destroyed by silence during his lifetime, Karl Marx has been posthumously victimized by an heroic myth which has harmed his work more than did the consipiracy of silence imposed by his contemporaries. The man who could have boasted of having discovered the law of ideological mystification himself became the target of new efforts at mystification by his own school. While his personality is caricatured in extremes—from lifeless travesty to the awesome image of an intellectual monster—his words are taken to be the sibylline proclamatins of an omniscient oracle and used to mask the deeds and misdeeds of modern social leaders seeking to evade personal responsibility. The doctrines Marx intended as intellectual tools for the working class in it struggle for emancipation have been transformed ito political ideoogy to justify material exploitation and moral slavery.

      • Based on this reply, it appears the book addresses the myths of the cold war climate of the day. It attempts to “humanize” Marx by showing his personal flaws as well as his moral strengths as a political activist. Most importantly, it attempts to address the gross distortions created about Marx that tried to turn him into a god and led to his works being quoted as though they were religious tracts. This was the Marxist Leninist-Stalinist orthodoxy of the period that treated Marx as a reverential dogma to be exploited as a propaganda tool as a way of justifying and perpetuating its authoritarian control and expansion. This book apparently also attempts to address the demonization of Marx done by the propagandists of capitalism and Western Europe in order to advance and perpetuate their political distortions concerning the nature of socialism and the “red menace.” Hopefully I understand what this book deals with in terms of demythologizing Marx. I thank you for your response.

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