The backward-looking prophet?

Karl Marx:

A Nineteenth-Century Life

In London, the Marxes were fond of picnicking on Hampstead Heath, where they bought beer and snails to complement the roast veal and fruit their servant Lenchen toted along in her basket. “Trudging back,” Jonathan Sperber informs us, “they sang folksongs” or “declaim[ed] from Shakespeare or Goethe’s Faust.” The advocate of violent revolution was, by nineteenth-century standards, an affectionate father, “determined that [his daughters] grow up to be proper young ladies, learning French and Italian.” He challenged others to duels, fathered the unmarried Lenchen’s son Freddy, and found in the economic crisis of 1857, a letter from his wife Jenny amusingly informs us, an escape from “the long period of gloom and depression in which [he] had been mired.” Suffering a host of maladies, including carbuncles that sometimes grew to the size of his fist, Marx was too ill to attend his wife’s funeral and spent much of his final year seeking a warm, dry climate to cure the tuberculosis that probably did him in, only to be met with unseasonably bad weather wherever he arrived. Freddy notwithstanding, Marx was, Sperber summarizes, “a proper and distinguished” if impecunious “bourgeois gentleman.” He was “patriarchal” and “prudish,” “cultured” and “respectable,” albeit laced with “bohemian work habits,” elements of freethinking, and, of course, the desire to see “all that is solid [melt] into air.”

I begin where I do because, in a recent review in Harper’s, Terry Eagleton faults Sperber for pushing Marx’s “work into the background in order to make room for the life” (an odd charge to level at a biography). I felt rather that, when not sending Lenchen off to the pawnshop or listening to the girls practice their piano, Sperber’s Marx seems to have done little beyond organize and agitate with his pen, talk shop with confederates, feud and scheme, mull and write. Interesting life details of the sort gathered above are too few; the life limned is for long stretches too lifeless. Although Eagleton is correct in observing that we care about Marx because of what he wrote, a biography implicitly promises not only to shed light on the work but also to bring us closer to the man himself quite apart from the words left us. Sperber does a much better job on the first task than on the second. Indeed, he seems to recognize this, suspending his chronological account to insert a late chapter on “the private man.” (He must have also felt a bit as does Eagleton, for two late chapters unpack Marx’s thinking as “theorist” and “economist.”)

If the life proves dull in the telling for those not exceedingly interested in the minutia of nineteenth-century radicalism and economic theory, Sperber does move with admirable thoroughness through the years of that life, carefully charting the evolution of Marx’s thinking through summaries and brief analyses of all the major texts, as well as many minor, often overlooked ones. Along the way, he provides helpful corrections of common misunderstandings: it is not true, for instance, that On the Critique of Political Economy met with little interest upon its publication in 1859, nor is it correct to think, as many do, that The German Ideology ever existed for Marx as “one intellectually consistent enterprise.”

Marx’s texts are here twice contextualized. First, we are shown how his ideas were affected by his constant need for money, years of exile, illness, the distraction of journalistic work-for-pay, and other obstacles to sustained scholarly effort. Second, we are made to appreciate how his political positions and changes of mind often resulted from the exigencies of the moment and the need to speak strategically about ongoing events, to position himself vis-à-vis rivals, and to say as much as he dared while avoiding censorship or worse. Thus, Sperber meticulously details Marx’s responses to one crisis or radical possibility after another, vehemently urging action, deftly reacting, shifting position, laying blame, exposing conspiracies, warning, threatening, consoling, defending, and forever harrying the always annoying Prussians or the Russian czar (his particular bête noir). Unpacked as well is the influence of Hegel, Feuerbach, Darwin and the many internecine squabbles among and between Young Hegelians and True Socialists, German democrats, and disgruntled affiliates of the International Working Men’s Association. Engels’s many contributions to Marx’s thought and career (to say nothing of his welfare) are detailed. Bakunin and the unsavory Bruno Bauer are here, along with foppish but effective Ferdinand Lassalle and treacherous Karl Vogt (who accused Marx of being a spy), Wilhelm Liebknecht and Lajos Kossuth, Gottfried Kinkel and Karl Grün. 

Indeed, the reader may eventually suffer information overload, a possibility helped not at all by the failure of more than a few characters to come alive and Sperber’s prose, which is admirably clear but rarely gripping. Still, as the author or editor of nine previous books on nineteenth-century European history (most of them focused on radical politics and/or Germany), Sperber is well prepared to tell Marx’s complicated story, and he does so confidently and authoritatively. He makes judicious use of new material appearing in the Karl Marx Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe (the MEGA), an in-progress complete edition of the writings and correspondence of Marx and Engels, and the breadth of his research is impressive (One does not casually acquire the knowledge that Marx’s critique of British colonialism was anticipated by Richard Cobden and John Bright.)

Alas, for Sperber, Marx is ultimately “a backward-looking figure,” more product than shaper of his times, “who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future.” His envisioning of revolution “was always modeled on the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution,” and his understanding of capitalism remained tied to “the early years of English industrialization and the political economy stemming from it.” Further, Sperber argues, Marx’s economic theories, at the time he conceived them, were largely orthodox reformulations of David Ricardo, Adam Smith, and other mainstream economists, many of whose ideas Marx appropriated with an eye toward “greater theoretical precision and greater empirical accuracy” and fitted to his theories of “the stages of human history” and belief in the eventual triumph of communism. 

Because Sperber conjures a backward-looking prophet, and because he believes that it was Engels’s interpretations of Marx, rather than Marx’s writing itself, that proved influential to twentieth-century communists and socialists, Sperber’s Marx is, finally, no longer pertinent. That Marx’s ideas are still “shaping the modern world” is a view that “has run its course,” Sperber contends, and he consequently wishes to offer “a new understanding of [Marx] as a figure of a past historical epoch, one increasingly distant from our own.” The story, we are assured as the book begins, remains “fascinating and important,” although that importance is nowhere adumbrated. The closest we come are useful reminders such as that neither Stalin’s USSR nor Mao’s China had much to do with anything Marx himself ever wrote. Judging Marx harmless because (happily?) outdated, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, for all its strengths, seems to have been for its author little more than an erudite exercise in satisfying an apparently academic curiosity. If nothing else, Sperber has shortchanged both Marx and himself.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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